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Also by Mike Sheriff
Awake . . . Aware . . . Adrift
After spending a century off-planet in the Kuiper Belt, exo-miner Quatrain Dyer awakens from stasis to an agonizing toothache and an unnerving sense of displacement.
Why is he in his hive’s old recspace? Why is all his gear still here? And why hasn’t the reintegration team from CAGE Dynamics met him? The answers Quatrain discovers will turn his reality inside-out.
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THE ABSCESS PUMMELED Quatrain’s trigeminal nerve with the ferocity of an impulse-hammer. Incendiary pulsations seared his cheekbone and torched his eye socket.
He mashed his face into Cleeleese’s coffee-stained throw pillow. Her milky scent diluted the Kona Roast’s dusky notes, but it didn’t stop him from screaming his throat raw.
For five minutes of consciousness, the pain had annunciated every inflammatory heartbeat. It said little about why he’d awoken on the couch in his hive’s recspace. It said even less about why the ten-by-ten enclosure looked the same as he’d left it a century earlier.
He rocked forward and screamed into the pillow again. The primal yawp converted acoustic energy into a minuscule amount of heat. More importantly, its resonance snaptacked his higher cognition back onto the last stanza of the work-in-progress.
I crossed the rift whilst bearing gifts
To wind up in my hive
My tooth it aches—that’s all it takes
To prove that I’m alive
But am I so? I do not know
To feel is not to be
My dross did last the cent’ry past
To mock and screw with me
Quatrain lowered the pillow. He grunted, mindful to avoid grinding his teeth. The poem fell short of his best work, but that missed the point. He needed the distraction, and any port in a raging nociceptor-storm would do. Pain, however, was the least of his problems.
Something was wrong—as in wrong with a capital Fuck.
The return voyage from KBO 2169 should have taken twenty-two years. He should have awoken from stasis at CAGE Dynamics’s reintegration facility. He should have been met by the company’s medical staff and reorientation team.
The tidy stack of notional should haves collapsed under the weight of the implausible reality surrounding him. He set the pillow aside and scanned the recspace for the tenth time.
The armless couch retained the double-dip depression that once cupped his backside. The TouchTone area rug displayed the same fractal-nightmare pattern that randomly skipchanneled between fecal brown and feral blue. A Gibson MIDI sitar squatted in the corner, the instrument’s bronzed hollow-body draped by his amp-jacket. The rest of his possessions were right where he’d left them. Hence the wrong.
All the gear—including the shorted area rug—should be cryocached at CAGE’s storage facility in Tampa. It had shipped out a month before the launch, ninety-eight years ago. He’d surrendered his lease on the hive the next day and hyperlooped across the country to enter quarantine at the Cape.
Quatrain stood with the intention of pacing. A molten pang skewered his mandible. He swayed as his headspace orbited the agonizing locus. “Jeezzzus!”
He reached for his jaw with the intention of ripping the molar from its septic bed. An alien sensation stayed his trembling hand.
The effervescence spawned deep in his brain. Its tingle bloomed into multi-pronged filaments and caressed his skull. Syrupy sweetness engulfed his tongue, by all the blessed off-planet bastards tasting like—
The delicate voice’s proximity provoked a spine-jarring flinch. His gaze arced to the doorway leading into the kitchen.
A man and a woman stood at its threshold. Both held silver barstools before them like guests bearing hivewarming gifts.
Quatrain recognized the chromium barstools from his erstwhile breakfast nook, but the two people holding them were a mystery. The dissonance between familiar and foreign made it tough to gauge what unsettled him more; the strangers in his hive, or their surreal skin tones.
He balled his hands. Adrenaline primed his muscles. Fight or flee? Flee or fight?
Who was he kidding? He had nowhere to go, and one genteel slap to his inflamed jaw would send him into convulsions. He took the rift less traveled and gaped.
The woman entered the recspace first.
The yellow woman entered the recspace first.
Slight and soundless, her body sported a sleeveless azure onesie, her skin a mustard hue. Not the day-glo mustard favored by Old-Old Oakland’s sketchier sangy vendors; more the spicy-dijon variety popular across the bay—the kind Cleeleese adored. The yellow women set the stool on the rug, ten feet from the couch, and took up a perch like a canary alighting in its cage.
The man loitered in the doorway. His pink skin rivaled the sockeye filets Quatrain had sourced from the ubermarket on 4th Street, four generations ago. The energetic shade masked most of the man’s wrinkles. A carapace of fatigue cemented his age at twice the woman’s. Color him sixty, but use the entire paint wheel. His sleeved onesie scintillated with thousands of rainbow droplets. None settled on a single color for more than a second.
Quatrain’s gaze skittered between the interlopers. They had two arms and two legs apiece, one head each, and zero added appendages. That made them bog-standard hominids, save for their skin.
The woman raised a yellow hand, palm out. “Relax, Mr. Dyer. We’re here to help you.”
Quatrain registered her soothing tone and correct use of his last name. The pink man broke from his torpor and placed the stool next to the woman. He eased his frame onto its seat and scraped together a stingy grin. It further reduced the pair’s threat posture.
Quatrain’s mind and mouth reconnected. “Who are you?”
The woman raked dijon fingers through her hair. “All you need to know is that you’re safe. Please sit, Quentin.”
She knew his given name, too. The one he hadn’t used since he was eight. He sank into the couch’s depression and rubbed his eyes. He’d heard during training that cosmic rays could affect a resident’s rods and cones. Had they cooked his retinas during—
Tingling froth bubblegupped in his head. Honeyed gloop coated his tongue.
The woman’s smile convected treacly warmth. “There’s nothing wrong with your eyes. We look this way because that’s how we look.”
Quatrain smacked his lips and analyzed the tautology for hidden meaning. He found a deep-seated trope instead—one implanted by years of syfy classics.
His heart rate tripjacked. Naked consonants spewed from his mouth. A second helping of brain-froth and tongue-syrup rendered them twice as incoherent.
The woman laughed. “We’re not aliens, Quentin.”
The froth tingled in a different cranial lobe. A sweeter glob of honey glooped.
“Sorry. You prefer Quatrain, don’t you?”
Quatrain blinked. He invested copious pride in his ability to function under pressure. The asset had proven essential to his work with CAGE, earning him a less-enamoring nickname among his colleagues: RiceCooker. The woman’s divinations rendered the asset worthless. His skin shrank as pride fled the hive.
She was inside his head. Reading his mind.[_ _]The tingling in his cranium. The sweetness on his tongue. The sensations were—
“They’re artifacts from the examination,” the woman said. “I apologize for the discomfort.”
“I can taste honey,” he said, seizing the first available sentence. “It’s not . . . discomfortable.”
“That’s a spillover. We’re probing in your brain’s anterior insula.”
His lungs fluttered like . . . canary wings? He curled his tingling fingers and squeezed the fists until his knuckles cracked. “You’ve opened my skull?”
“No, no, no. You’re immersed in a diagnostic emulsion. It’s non-invasive.”
His chest huffed in chaotic spasms. He patted down his scalp, frisking it for incisions. Numbness invaded his hands and forearms. “Where are you probing now?”
The pink man sighed. “He’s having a panic attack. We’re going to lose the signal.”
Quatrain snatched the throw pillow and clutched it to his chest. Rapid exhalations and shallow inhalations purged oxygen from his lungs and tissues. His hearing dimmed. His vision waned.
The woman swiveled on her stool and addressed a bare wall. “Push one grain.”
He chased her gaze. “Who . . . who are you talking to?”
The woman maintained her focus on the wall. “No, just one grain. I don’t want him out for more than an hour.”
Quatrain tried to repeat the question, but an irresistible warmth sheathed his body. He surrendered to its seduction with open, tingling arms.
QUATRAIN OPENED HIS eyes.
The recspace dominated his field of view. Cleeleese’s stained throw pillow rested in his lap. The couch’s pushback landmarked his location in space if not time. On the opposite end of the flickering area rug, the yellow woman and pink man remained on their—on his—silver barstools.
Oh, right. Them.
He shifted focus to the air entering and exiting his nostrils. Most off-planet residents practiced mindfulness meditation. He’d picked up the habit from one of CAGE’s old hands. What else had the geezer recommended?
Oh, right. Take stock.
When in doubt, breathing and taking stock were the two most helpful courses of action in an emergency. They employed no rash measures nor impulsive decisions. As a wise resident once said, no problem’s so bad you can’t make it fucking worse.
He wasn’t dead. Probably[_. _]He gave himself a seventy-five percent chance of being alive somewhere in or near the solar system. If he was wrong, then belaboring the problem made little sense. Next.
He wasn’t being grilled, sautéed, or otherwise vivisected by aliens. At least for now. And they’d said they weren’t aliens, but isn’t that exactly what an unscrupulous pair of aliens would say? Put a pin in that one for now.
The human highlighters on his barstools were likely with CAGE Dynamics—company avatars slipstreamed into his consciousness along with the recspace and its gear. The yellow woman had said he was in a diagnostic emulsion, whatever the hell that meant. Maybe they’d throw in a complimentary pedicure when they finished.
Now for the sixty-four-billion-dollar question. Where on Earth was—
“You’re in a recovery . . .”
More honey-gloop flooded his mouth. It reminded him that his thoughts were ripe for the picking and that he hadn’t eaten in a quarter-century.
“. . . facility,” the woman said after a pregnant pause.
Quatrain squinted. He’d gained the first piece of valuable intelligence since his visitors had appeared. “You had to search my brain for the right word.”
“The lexicon has changed since you left.”
He cued a less-expensive, but no-less-nagging question. A honey-coated counterpunch preempted its delivery.
“It’s a genetic modification.” The woman stroked her dijon arm. “Mostly cosmetic, but people also invoke it for practical purposes. Camouflage, concealment, that sort of thing.”
Quatrain eyed the pink man. He’d selected that color? He chose of his own free will to wander around looking like a bottletube of Pepto-Bis—
“I did, as a matter of fact,” the man said, tone caked with condescension. “It’s one of the more popular hues, thank you.”
Huh. There was no accounting for taste. “Do you have names?”
“This is Lloyd,” the woman said, motioning to the man. “My name’s harder to pronounce.”
“Try me. I’m good with words.”
“You’ll feel a strange sensation.”
Quatrain snorted. He’d felt nothing but since waking up in the recspace. Still, he braced himself for her version of strange.
A more diffuse brain-tingle preceded a peppery aroma. A gale-force sneeze lifted his backside off the couch.
“That’s close,” the woman said, “but there’s less emphasis on the choo.”
Quatrain sniffed. “That’s your name?”
“It’s a decent proxy.”
“How about I call you Honey Mustard instead?”
A sweet mouth-jolt signaled another probing. Honey Mustard chuckled. “That’s fine. Shall we commence the brief?”
“This is a reintegration briefing?” Quatrain surveyed the recspace. “Why are we doing it in a facsimile of my old hive?”
“We thought a familiar environment would present less of a shock to your system.”
“Yeah, that worked.”
“We’ll take it slow from here,” she said. “You can start by telling us what you remember about your mission.”
Quatrain leaned against the couch’s backrest. He wished for the hundredth time he’d sourced a coffee table on which to prop his feet. He realized for the first time he was a hundred years too late to make the purchase. “The target was KBO 2169, a rare xenon-rich object according to spectroscopic analysis. My contract stipulated a ninety-eight-year mission, plus or minus five years. I launched from Cape Musk on May 2, 2180.”
The pink man leaned forward. “Your’s was one of the first missions into the outer reaches of the Kuiper Belt, correct?”
He gazed at Lloyd. Lloyd. If that wasn’t an epic misnomer, he didn’t know what was. Mr. Pink. Now that was a much more suitable appellation. “Out to sixty-seven AUs,” Quatrain said. “Beyond the two-to-five resonance.”
“Why did you choose a long-duration mission?”
“Partly for the money.”
“It must have been hard to leave your family and friends behind.” Honey Mustard’s eyebrows arched. “Didn’t you have a wife or girlfriend? Someone you shared your life with?”
Quatrain chewed his lip. Should he count his time with Cleeleese?
She’d been fond of saying he was never here, even when he was here. For eight months they’d shared a love of sitar music, constellations, and the letter e. They’d parted ways on poetry. Cleeleese viewed the time he spent in his head, toiling over a dead art form, as an affront to her desirability. He’d taken her affront as an excuse to toil harder. The negative-feedback loop had torqued them into opposition, 180-degrees out-of-phase. When she learned he’d signed up for an off-planet mission, there weren’t enough degrees in a circle to measure their misalignment. She moved back to Vancouver-Langley on the Bi-Union long weekend, 2179. Her throw pillow had stayed with him.
“How did you feel when Cleeleese left?” Honey Mustard asked.
“I respected her decision,” Quatrain said. “Hell, I admired her for getting into my head at all. No one else has come as—”
He snorted. He hadn’t mentioned Cleeleese aloud—Honey Mustard had plucked the details from his gray matter. “No one else has come as close until you.”
“Do you miss her?”
He did at one point. More than he cared to admit. A century’s worth of cognitive distance had blunted the pining. “It’s moot,” he said. “She’d be a hundred and twenty-six, if she were still alive.”
Mr. Pink yawned atop his stool. “These true confessions are fascinating, but can we get back to the mission?”
Honey Mustard spread her arms in exaggerated acquiescence and yielded the floor to him.
“You accepted citizenship with CAGE Dynamics to serve on the mission, correct?”
“Of course. Exo-mining treaties prohibited automated operations by private companies. They had to put citizens on the ground to extract resources.”
“You understood the risks their citizenship conferred, correct?”
“We all did,” Quatrain said, “but CAGE offered a great compensation package. Enough to last a lifetime in whatever virtual currency was in vogue upon reintegration. I figured I’d spend a century off-planet, then settle someplace warm and colorful for the rest of my life.”
“And you were in residence on the object for—”
Honey Mustard gasped. “That’s a long time to be on your own.”
“Two-One-Six-Nine’s huge.” He squeezed the throw pillow, shaping it into a prolate spheroid. “Three-hundred-kilometer major axis, two-twenty minor axis. You can’t mine that in a day. After deploying the harvesting equipment, I was awake one week every quarter for stationkeeping. The entire mission consumed four-and-a-half years of my clocktime.”
“That makes you . . . thirty years old as of this date,” Mr. Pink said. “In clocktime.”
Honey Mustard craned forward on her perch. “What was it like on KBO 2169?”
Quatrain traced a finger around the stain spanning the pillow’s minor axis. He could still picture the coffee cup he’d dropped on it—a wide-mouthed promotional mug from a Swiss nuclear-fusion consortium, snagged at an energy conference in Nuevo San José. Its handle had snapped clean off one week later, dousing his lap and Cleeleese’s abandoned pillow in Kona Roast—black with two sugars. It had convinced him to never live near one of the consortium’s reactors.
Honey Mustard’s prompt brought him back to her question, but no closer to a decent answer. He’d used poetry to capture that world. No words he relayed to her now could match those he’d written in residence. His mind retained little more than scattered fragments—the detritus of a splintered dream. The object’s black-body surface, invisible against the sunless void. The habicraft’s utilitarian-gray stationkeeping quarters, smaller than the recspace. His arid periods of stasis; bereft of time, conception, and color.
After a year, his dreams during the brief awakening cycles had become monochromatic. Of all the items he wished he’d carried among his two kilos of personal gear, stylocrayons and a coloring tablet topped the list. He’d tried to capture the sentiment in countless poems. A lesser example, notable as one of his first efforts, came to mind.
Utter blackness stark and dire
Snuffing out primordial fire
Lay your shadow ’cross my soul
Smother my intentions whole
Blot my voice without a sound
Dash my hopes against the ground
Bleed dreams white without a care
Show compassion if you dare
Quatrain cocked his head. Once again, he’d felt no telltale signs of her probing.
“Your brain’s adapted to it,” she said. “You mentioned you have more poetry from the mission?”
Honey Mustard tapped her forehead. “You thought it.”
“Oh, right. I saved all my writing in quantum storage.”
“Yes,” she said. “A team’s examining the data from your habicraft. The format’s antiquated, but we’re hopeful we’ll be able to recover it.”
He balled his hands. Losing his writing to the passage of time had never occurred to him. Cosmic rays, yes, but time? Had technology advanced so far in a century that it rendered quantum storage unreadable?
“Did you exceed the approved stasis-to-awakening ratio to write this . . . poetry?”
Quatrain registered an undertone of contempt in Mr. Pink’s question. “I had the latitude to spend five years out of stasis during the residence. I was awake less than four. In fact, I spent the last ten months in stasis thanks to my—”
His hand shot up to his jaw.
His pain-free jaw.
“We fixed your tooth,” Honey Mustard said. “While you were sedated.”
Quatrain pitched his head back. His eyes welled, brimming with blessed relief. “Oh my god oh my god oh my god!”
He couldn’t say what was more shocking; the pain’s absence, or his ignorance of its absence until now. He’d have gladly planted a wide-mouthed kiss on Honey Mustard’s lips if he wasn’t ninety percent sure she was a mental projection . . . and one-hundred percent certain she’d have cross-wired his brain’s impulse-controls to stop him.
Mr. Pink harrumphed. “A point of order, Mr. Dyer. Did you say you were in stasis when you launched for the return voyage?”
“My tooth was in agony. I’d depleted the analgesics in the medkits. Stasis seemed like a better option than rigging a protodriller for dental work.”
Mr. Pink sucked his teeth. Beside him, Honey Mustard drew her feet onto the stool’s rungs and leaned closer. “You said you chose the mission partly for the money. Was there another motivation?”
Quatrain stopped playing with his jaw. “I was always curious about the future. Back then, lots of people were transposing their clocktimes. Private stasis companies charged a fortune—and that was for sub-century layaways. I knew I could never afford to go that route.”
Honey Mustard leaned even closer, flirting with the extreme edge of her seat. “But you felt it was important to go that route?”
He shrugged. “I just . . . I needed to go beyond my clocktime’s horizon.”
“I don’t know.” He picked at a stray thread on the throw pillow. “Lots of reasons. Maybe I wanted to—”
“Reawaken in an era that might appreciate your poetry?”
A shiver crested on Quatrain’s skin. She’d pilfered the thought before he’d formed it. He’d gained another piece of valuable intelligence. When talking to a mind reader, he risked hearing his most guarded secrets repeated back to him. This secret—flayed of context and guts dripping—elicited a cringe.
That didn’t make it any less true.
During his pre-launch clocktime he’d lived among a tone-deaf populace, one addicted to visual storytelling that skimmed the thinnest surface of life’s emotional and esthetic landscapes. For as long as he could remember, he’d wanted to go deeper. His pubschool classmates had christened him Quatrain after discovering poems on his tablet. The moniker was meant to be an insult. He’d worn it like a medal of honor.
Growing up, he’d yearned for an audience that could appreciate the lush peaks and fertile valleys of poetic assonance, incantatory cadence, and dynamic enjambment. He knew he’d never find one. Art forms rise and fall, flow and ebb, wax and wane. He’d been born into poetry’s darkest nadir and would have died in its shadow, but stasis offered a way out. What struggling artist could refuse a chance to transplant his creative soul beneath a more hospitable sun?
He looked up and met Honey Mustard’s gaze. Her expression struck him as many things. Curious. Attentive. Alluring. Most of all, it conveyed empathy. Empathy can’t hide; the eyes won’t let it. “Yeah,” he said, “that played a part in my decision.”
“Have you ever considered that your poetry isn’t any good?” Mr. Pink asked.
Quatrain cued a three-tiered response themed around creative fornication, hereditary genetics, and things that rhyme with pink.
Honey Mustard cut him off. “Could I hear another poem?”
“Not another one,” Mr. Pink muttered. “I have eleven more cases to adjudicate before I close this file.”
Prickly heat flushed Quatrain’s cheeks. “Here’s one just for you, Pink Lloyd. It’s free verse and free of charge. Standby—it’s arriving via burst transmission now.”
There once was a salmon-faced dick
A momentously ignorant pri—
“Quatrain, please,” Honey Mustard said. “I’d like to hear another one from the mission.”
Her plaintive tone dissolved his ire. He cycled through a mental ready-reference file and plucked an old favorite, just for her.
Where did you get your name?
Plump with xenon, soot and ice
Don’t I deserve the same?
Loose the drillers, scuds and tracks
They’ll pick your bounty clean
Send your anger not to me
Rage against the machines
Honey Mustard closed her eyes and smiled. “Thank you.”
Mr. Pink scowled. He shifted on his stool, tugging the collar of his rainbow onesie. “Are you going to tell him or should I?”
Honey Mustard’s smile evaporated. “We agreed it was my decision to make.”
“Tell him now, tell him later—it won’t change anything. He needs to know.”
Quatrain eyed the bickering avatars. The angst he’d struggled with upon waking in the recspace leached back into his bones. “Tell me what?”
Honey Mustard clasped her hands and wrung them pale yellow. “There’s no easy way to say this. Your mission ended later than expected.”
His lungs fluttered. “How much later?”
“It was . . .” She broke eye contact. “I can’t. I can’t say it.”
“Eight hundred eighty-one years,” Mr. Pink said. “Your nominal return date was slated for mid-2278. You overshot the mark by nearly nine hundred years.”
The limp statement struck with the force of a blunt object. Quatrain’s gaze scoured Honey Mustard’s face for a sign of confirmation, for a hint of verification.
“I’m afraid it’s true,” she said.
He crunched the implications. His mind reached saturation in picoseconds, triggering a buffer overflow. “I was off-planet for a millennium?”
“We can’t tell you how—”
“We can’t get into the specifics of how we feel,” Mr. Pink said. “Our job is to ascertain certain facts about the conditions that led to this anomaly.”
Quatrain’s blood boiled like liquid nitrogen in a rice cooker. “Anomaly?”
“Stay calm, Mr. Dyer.”
His chest heaved. “How . . . how did . . .” Numbness lathered his hands and forearms. “Oh Jesus[_ . . ._]”
Mr. Pink rolled his eyes. “He’s having another panic attack.”
Honey Mustard spun in her seat and addressed the bare wall. “Push a grain. Now!”
Quatrain declined to chase her gaze. He knew what was coming, but the enveloping warmth was as irresistible as the first sedation.
QUATRAIN FLINCHED AND opened his eyes.
Honey Mustard? Check and double-check.
Mr. Pink? Asshole.
He was getting better at this awakening shtick. This time, he knew the when _]to which he was awakening[_—even if it beggared comprehension.
“Hello, Quatrain,” Honey Mustard said from her silver perch. “How are you feeling?”
He vented a sigh and drummed his fingers on the couch. “Displaced.”
She nodded. “We’re sorry for that.”
He believed her.
He believed she was sorry. Beside her, Mr. Pink’s put-upon countenance suggested he had better things to do. “What went wrong?” Quatrain asked.
“Several things,” Mr. Pink said. “Let’s start with you lifting off KBO 2169 while in stasis.”
“I told you why I did that.”
“Toothache notwithstanding, if you’d been awake you’d have noticed your guidance system had selected the wrong coordinates for the return flight.”
“The reference for the celestial equator was misaligned by one-hundred-eighty degrees,” Mr. Pink said. “You were heading for the Oort Cloud, not Earth.”
“Then how did—”
“CAGE launched a recovery mission to come get you,” Honey Mustard said. “And the others.”
Mr. Pink shot her a flinty glare. He mumbled into his fist.
“The others?” Quatrain asked.
“Other residents in the far reaches of the Kuiper Belt,” she said. “Twenty percent experienced similar navigational anomalies.”
“How many of us did you recover?”
“A dozen, but wrangling you took a long, long time.”
Quatrain processed the revelation. He knew most of the residents sent beyond the two-to-five resonance. Were they immersed in diagnostic emulsion somewhere in this . . . facility? Were they undergoing their own reintegration briefings, learning they’d been cast hundreds of years downstream? “So it was a systemic problem,” he said. “CAGE is responsible for scattering us into the ether.”
“Not directly,” Mr. Pink said. “The subcontractor that provided the navigational hardware scrimped on circuit-hardening. Missions beyond fifty-five astronomical units were exposed to higher cosmic-ray intensities. It compromised the nav systems.”
“You mean I’ve been displaced by a thousand years because CAGE lacked decent quality controls?”
“You can take solace in the fact that the company was rendered defunct three hundred years ago.”
Quatrain slumped against the couch’s backrest. Some solace. He took in the recspace, seeing the facsimile for the first time through the eyes of a time-refugee.
“We represent the consortium that absorbed CAGE’s interests,” Mr. Pink said. “We’re prepared to honor the terms of the contract you signed with them, but there’s a condition.”
“You must agree to hold the consortium blameless for your displacement. Surrender your right to sue for damages—temporal or otherwise.”
“And if I don’t agree?”
“Then you’ll remain in diagnostic emulsion while the case moves forward. I should warn you, these proceedings can take a while to resolve.”
“Another ten centuries?” Quatrain asked, not bothering to mask his snark.
Mr. Pink’s lips chiseled a brittle smile. “No, but decades aren’t out of the question. And the odds of a successful outcome are low. Your decision to launch in stasis won’t help your case.”
Quatrain recalculated the odds of the pair being in the recspace with him. He’d love nothing more than to waltz over and slap the pink off Lloyd’s face.
“Think about it, Mr. Dyer. Concede one contractual right and you can get on with your life.” He glanced at Honey Mustard as if to solicit her support. “We both respect what you accomplished. You fulfilled every one of your mission’s objectives. As I understand it, your load of xenon exceeded the expected yield by fifty percent. That will keep our lights burning for decades to come.”
“Your lights? What about your ion thrusters?”
Mr. Pink waved a dismissive hand. “Those engines have been obsolete for generations.”
Quatrain’s shoulders sagged. Not only had he displaced himself by the better part of a millennium, but he’d done it so shankwads like Pink Lloyd could parse legalese by the light of true-color bulbs. He gazed at Honey Mustard. “What do you think?”
“He’s right,” she said. “Arrogant and annoying, but right. You’ve been away long enough. It’s time to come back to life.”
Come back to life? What kind of life could he come back to in a world a thousand years removed from his own? How would a transplanted serf from the year 1180—someone for whom a vertical windmill was cutting-edge technology—have functioned in his world of 2180? Like a babbling, slack-jawed freak, that’s how. A sideshow curiosity who couldn’t distinguish an electric sitar’s bog-standard MIDI upgrades from the Devil’s Music.
Quatrain shivered. They’d probably stick him in a museum.
“No we won’t,” Honey Mustard said. “We’ll reintegrate you.”
“Slowly, but I’ll be with you every step of the way.”
“I can’t ask you to—”
“I want to. We can make this work. You’ve brought us a precious gift that will help ease the transition.”
He snorted. “The noble gas needed for longer-lasting lightbulbs?”
“No,” she said. “Your poetry.”
His heart rate tripjacked. Was she messing with his head?
Her eyes glimmered, rivaling Mr. Pink’s onesie. “I’ve never heard anything like your poems. I have a feeling you’ve landed among a populace that will appreciate your creative soul.”
Quatrain sensed the temporal chasm shrinking. Could it be true? Had a cosmic ray traveled untold light-years from an unknowable source, shorted a nav circuit, and delivered him to the era he’d been searching for all his life?
He closed his eyes and gulped a lungful of air. He needed to breathe. He needed to take stock.
“Please,” Honey Mustard whispered. “Let me wake you.”
Her voice’s delicate timbre crystallized his thoughts. Why couldn’t it be true? The sun and the planets—every object in and beyond the Kuiper Belt—owed their existence to a chain of events so random it bordered on impossible. Life on Earth had likely bootstrapped a similar bombardment of cosmic rays to gain its foothold billions of years ago. Why couldn’t he be resurrected in the same manner?
Quatrain opened his eyes. “Okay.”
“You agree to waive your right to sue?” Mr. Pink asked, fuzzy eyebrows arching.
“So noted and recorded.” Mr. Pink faded away, leaving the silver stool vacant. His voice echoed from the ether like an afterthought. “One down, eleven to go.”
Honey Mustard sucked her teeth. “He really is a salmon-faced dick, isn’t he?”
Quatrain chuckled. He had a feeling she’d be more than easy to work with, regardless of his reintegration’s duration and difficulty. “When can you wake me?”
She abandoned her perch and flitted closer. Close enough to see the depth of the empathy—and anticipation—in her gaze. “How does now sound?”
His skin dimpled. Now sounded terrifying. “What’s it like? Out there?”
“It’s . . . colorful, but don’t worry. We’ll take it slow.” She nodded at the bare wall as if signaling an off-screen colleague. “Are you ready, Quatrain?”
He clutched the coffee-stained throw pillow to his chest. “Can I have a minute to—”
“You can visit the recspace whenever you want,” she said. “We have an application for that.”
Of course they did. He wondered if they still had restaurants in the year 3159—and if she might be free for dinner in the not-so-distant future. Grilled salmon with a spicy-dijon reduction, maybe, served on an outdoor patio near the water.
She giggled. “We’ll take that slow as well.”
Oh, right. Mind reader.
He set the pillow on the couch. “I’m ready.”
“Here we go,” she said. “You’ll feel a little pinch as you come out of the emulsion.”
Quatrain closed his eyes and excavated a poem he’d written before his first stasis period on KBO 2169. Its final stanza seemed appropriate for the occasion.
Consciousness sweet, life’s vital nectar
I’d like to taste you soon
Look for me in this self-same sector
Then pry me from my tomb
Though I’ve cursed and cussed and gnashed my teeth
Mired in this lightless scree
To your grace my life I now bequeath
Pray breathe hope into me
He felt a little pinch. It had nothing on an abscessed molar, but he gasped just the same.
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&Survival Aptitude Test: Sound&
THOUSANDS OF RAWBONED bodies packed the Center’s northern stairway. Thousands more glutted the transway two flights below.
Daoren clenched his jaw and balanced on the landing’s edge atop the second flight. He kept his spine as straight as a sparring staff to minimize the risk of contact with the writhing, murmuring horde.
He loathed crowds for one reason.
It wasn’t the shorn scalps or smug self-righteousness worn by Daqin Guojin’s denizens, though the two attributes proved as loathsome as any. It wasn’t the bulging waistlines, triple-chins, or other displays of wealth touted by the entitled elites. It wasn’t even the endless chatterwailing spewed by the malnourished masses.
It was the smell of hunger.
Not the physical hunger caused by a shortage of grooll, but a psychic hunger caused by hopelessness. The miserable scent soured every gathering he’d encountered. Life seven hundred years After the Cycle of Extinctions made it impossible to escape, just as life in a city-state of fifteen million made it impossible to avoid. Still, he took every measure to shun crowds, which made standing amid a crush of humanity doubly loathsome.
The crowd cast particularly cruel shadows in the morning twilight. The shenyi garments favored by most denizens spanned the spectrum, slathering the stairway in a smear of color—minus shades of green. The clothing mirrored the styles of Mother China’s imperial dynasties; stiff tunics with billowy sleeves and broad sashes draped knee-length trousers and skirts. Each of the eight flights also bore ample swaths of dull, white pienfu—the mandated garb of the city-state’s prospects.
The quality of the apparel reflected wide disparity, announcing the wearer’s social status without a wasted word. So did the pinched faces above the quju collars and zhiju lapels; they represented the different lineages of all fifty Chengs.
Daoren maintained his balancing act, but contact was unavoidable. Every random rub of a shoulder or careless brush of an arm made his skin shrink and throat itch. Mercifully, the nearby crowd settled down, congealing into clumps of four or five. Islands of families formed on the Center’s stepped shores, adrift in their thoughts. Few among them spoke, praise be to Sha.
His gaze settled on his own island. Its inhabitants included Lucien and Cordelia—he hadn’t called them Papa and Momma since he was ten—and Mako. Daoren stood at arm’s length while his parents closed ranks around his brother, and so they should.
Today was the day of Mako’s S.A.T.
Lucien wore a purple shenyi woven from the finest gleamglass[_ _]filament. The color and quality suited his position as a member of the Cognos Populi—and the Cognos Populi was all about appearances. Unlike most members of the bloated forum, his body retained its youthful leanness. He placed a steady hand on Mako’s shoulder. “Once you’re inside the Center, get to your seat right away. Give yourself time to settle in before the test starts.”
Daoren grunted. The pang of hunger in his father’s eyes clashed with his pragmatic tone. Lucien had vaulting ambition, but his lineage served as a crippling anchor. Caucasoids whose ancestry traced to the ancient western continent were a distinct minority in Daqin Guojin. Asianoids, Indonoids, Africoids, and Eastern Caucasoids like the Slavvs enjoyed the majority. They also enjoyed the benefit of multi-generational wealth on which to mount their social ascent.
“You must remember to breathe,” his father continued.
Mako’s head bobbled as if on a spring. His glassy eyes remained static.
His brother was easier to decipher than Lucien. Despite years of counseling, Mako hadn’t learned to hide his emotions. They always clothed him, and none fit his wiry frame better than anxiety. Though ten months older than Daoren, he stood three inches shorter and weighed fifteen pounds less. He overcompensated for the genetic slight, hence the aggressive patterns of glass implants in his face and arms. His expression—what could be seen of it beneath a tangle of black bangs—displayed ill-disguised dread.
Daoren pivoted away, unable to stomach the smell of his brother’s angst. The landing atop the second flight provided a view of architectural splendor that all but the most jaded eyes would find mesmerizing.
Zhongguo Cheng’s administrative district basked in sunlight. Its towering structures integrated every geometric shape imaginable. Trapezoids. Toroids. Icosahedrons. Polygon meshes. Their sprawling spectraglass façades glistened, reflecting yellow, orange, and red hues. Blue, crystalline transways threaded the structures, mimicking the serenity of ambling, ancient rivers.
The visual effect was a lie, of course; the city-state restricted flowing water to decorative fountains and waste chambers. Distant levitrans navigated the transways, their teardrop hullforms riding on proud cushions of compressed air. They transported society’s elites in the kind of style the masses might dream of possessing, but never own.
The majestic vista offered little relief. Daoren put his back to the splendor. He glanced up the stairway and took in a more bitter view.
Six flights above, an archway gaped like a starving mouth in the Center’s columned façade. A domed roof consumed at least one hundred acres of bone-white, shock-fused ceramic. The cost of the roof would have fed ten thousand families for a year, but the old rulers of Daqin Guojin had needed a suitable abode for their new test.
“Slow, deep breaths will help calm your mind and sharpen your focus.”
“I know, Papa. I know.”
“Heed your father, Mako,” Cordelia said, brow folding into shallow creases.
It was a Slavvic brow; broad due to her cropped hair, but statuesque even when furrowed. She’d selected an azure shenyi with gold trim and matching wrist rings for today’s test. The wrist rings were ordinary ceramic—moldable crystal jewelry cost a hundred times as much. Cordelia restricted her glass implants to the helices of her ears. Five round studs followed the custom of the ancients, descending from violet in the crowns to red in the lobes. A tiny hole pierced the center of each helix; she’d stopped wearing the green studs at his father’s insistence.
“Do you have enough grooll?” Lucien asked.
Mako clenched his hands. His gaze panned the lower flight.
Daoren read the signs as easily as a glass scroll. “I thought you said she wasn’t coming.”
“Then why do you look for her?”
“I’m not looking for her!”
“It’s obvious you’re looking for someone.”
“Teimei, Bushudo, and Zilian,” Mako said, spitting out the names. “We agreed to meet on the northern stairway half an hour before the test.”
Daoren snorted. “They’re probably on the other side of the Center. Your friends couldn’t tell north from south with a compass and a plasmonic map.”
“At least I have friends!”
“What use will they be to you? You’d better focus on whether the test’s passing score is still twenty thousand points.”
“Daoren!” Cordelia said. “Your father told you there’s no truth to that rumor.”
“And we know how much the Cognos Populi values the truth.” He glared at his father. “How many times have they raised the S.A.T.’s passing score in the last thirty years?”
Lucien buried his fingers in Daoren’s lapel. “Tread carefully, boy,” he said, twisting the burrglass material. “You sound more and more like a dissenter every day.”
Daoren shrugged off the insult. “Funny how the simplest questions ring as dissent in the ears of the ruling caste.” He pulled free from his father’s grasp. “Forget your friends, Mako. You’re on your own in this world. The sooner you accept that truth, the better.”
“Pay your brother no mind,” Cordelia said. “I’m sure your friends are here.”
Mako wrung his hands. “Then where are they?”
“You know Teimei,” Lucien said. “That boy’s always running late.”
HEAVING BREATHS SCORED Teimei’s windpipe, like he was inhaling two grains of sand for every molecule of air. Knotted bangs flayed his eyes raw with each stride. Cramps wracked his muscles, but he was close to the objective; closer than he ever imagined he’d get.
Behind him, the slap of sandals announced Bushudo and Zilian’s pace. Their distant footfalls rebounded off the glass walls bracketing the concourse, doubling and redoubling, making the two sound like twenty.
The flutter-echo faded when he hit the end of the concourse and burst onto a stark plane of white glass. Five hundred feet farther, the objective soared skyward.
The Great Northern Border.
Teimei stopped, ignoring the instinct to cross the cull zone as fast as his legs could carry him. How could he not?
To look upon the border wall was to look upon the mythic. Legendary battles had been fought in its shadow; battles whose heroes were immortalized in sculptglass dioramas throughout the city-state; heroes whose exploits were embedded in the cultural scrolls of the Spires.
Sheer mass gave the wall an air of permanence. It fanned east and west, stretching one hundred fifty-five unbroken miles to the Eastern and Western Seas, bisecting the peninsula. Its cylindrical watchtowers topped three hundred feet, their crystalline shafts as gray as mourning shrouds. Archways penetrated the wall’s base at two-mile intervals, too many to count.
There was a purpose in their design, his tutors at the Librarium had once said. Each archway could accommodate the passage of a Jireni column, their heavy weapons, and their Hexalite levicarts. To the north, far beyond the wall, lay the mongrel colonies.
Teimei pushed aside all thoughts of the mongrel incursions of yore. To the south, somewhere within the wall, lay another enemy made more ominous by its proximity and ruthlessness. He resumed his sprint and crossed the cull zone.
He reached the closest archway two hundred feet ahead of his friends. He sank to a knee, wheezing, and watched their approach.
Bushudo had ten paces on Zilian—not surprising given her trimmer frame and love of physical conditioning. Zilian’s complexion matched the ruddy morning twilight, his mouth a black pail for scooping oxygen. White pienfu clung to their bodies, wrapping them from neck to knees in coarse burrglass. Snarls of matted hair bounced in time with their bounding strides. At ten times the distance, anyone would recognize them as prospects for denizenship. The plain garments and unruly hair were dead giveaways.
There was a purpose in that, too.
They thumped to a stop before the archway’s entrance and folded over, panting. Teimei scanned their route for pursuers, but the view seized his attention.
Daqin Guojin’s expanse of multicolored glass and crystalline structures glittered. The skyline fused scintillating geometries at dizzying angles and stupefying heights, radiating harmony, balance, and strength. Red cupolas with flared, golden eaves topped many of the structures.
The Imperial Regalia.
A vestige of Mother China’s lineage, the regalia served as the signet of the Cognos Populi. It also served as the signpost of civilization’s last oasis on the sterile Earth.
The sight stung his eyes. Forty miles to the south, Mako would be standing on the steps of the northern stairway, wondering where they were, unaware that he’d never see them again.
Teimei pushed that thought aside as well. He rose and focused on his friends. “We don’t have much time. The watchtowers will have noted our arrival.”
Bushudo raised her head, hands pressed against her thighs. She gulped air like a fluid. “You’re . . . sure . . . about . . . this?”
Sunlight kissed the glass implants adorning her cheeks and neck. The spiraling ocher studs sparkled, setting her skin afire. Her Asianoid beauty stilled his breath at the worst of times. In this moment, she shone more radiant than ever, but glass glinted brightest before it shattered.
Bushudo straightened and pinned him beneath one of her searching gazes. “Are you sure[_ _]this is the right decision?”
Teimei willed himself not to cry. He was sure she would fail the S.A.T.; her previous prep-test scores left no room for doubt. He was sure Zilian’s inability to think clearly under stress spelled his doom. He was sure his own[_ _]chances of passing were null. Yipsing had failed the S.A.T. two years ago, and his sister had been blessed with much stronger aptitude for the required technological knowledge.
“Teimei! Answer me!”
He swiveled away from Bushudo, not trusting his stinging eyes to stay dry. His gaze tracked through the darkened archway to the desert beyond the wall.
Mountainous dunes heaved and swelled, their razorback ridges bleached like skeletal remains. The sea of sand stretched to infinity, starved of color, moisture, and life.
Teimei shivered. A month ago, they’d agreed the northern desert held their salvation. Seeing it now only strengthened his conviction. “I won’t be harvested,” he said. “No other way is this quick or this painless. Isn’t that right, Zilian?”
Zilian fixed his wide-eyed gaze upon the sandy void. He fingered the black studs stippling his forearm.
The stud pattern mimicked the crystal daggers carried by the Jireni. Teimei had played Jireni and Slags countless times with Zilian as a child. His friend was never a slag. Now the security force he so admired and so longed to join was hunting him.
Zilian’s eyes pleaded. “You’re certain it’s painless?”
A shrill hiss leaked across the cull zone—the unmistakable acoustic signature of highly compressed air. It came from everywhere and nowhere.
Zilian’s panicky gaze locked onto the structures to the south. “Merciful Sha!”
Bushudo snatched Teimei’s hand. “Are they coming?”
Teimei detected no movement across the cull zone. “Zilian! Where are—”
Zilian bolted through the archway without saying another word. He reached the desert in three seconds. The instant his sandals touched the sand, a jarring screech radiated from his head.
Zilian clapped his hands over his ears—ruddy mist sprayed between his fingers. He staggered and collapsed onto a dune. Blood oozed from his ears and blotted the sand.
What little grooll Teimei had in his stomach climbed his gullet. He gagged and gaped at his friend’s motionless body, willing it to move.
“We can’t let them take us alive!”
He tried to process Bushudo’s plea, tried to translate her fear into action, but his mind and body no longer occupied the same vessel. He sensed her tugging his hand, pulling him through the archway. Faster and faster, as if compelled by an invisible force, Teimei swept toward his salvation . . . toward the wind-spun sand . . . toward Zilian’s corpse. . . .
His muscles froze. His legs stopped functioning, halting him steps from the desert.
Bushudo’s fingertips slipped across his palm. Her body broached the archway’s mouth.
Another horrid screech slashed the air, its ultra-high frequency identical to the first.
Without uttering as much as a whimper, she dropped to her knees and slumped face-down next to Zilian. White sand lapped up the blood streaming from her ears.
Teimei cradled his head, eyes awash. He opened his mouth, scouring his soul for words to beg her forgiveness.
The shriek of compressed air slammed it shut again. He whirled to the din.
A hulking black form hovered in shadow at the far end of the archway. Other figures flanked it, cloaked by swirling gray mist. The shrieking din ceased.
The silence triggered a clamor of conflicting thoughts. One thought alone gave him any hope of survival. “I’ll go back to the Center!” he said. “I’ll take my chances on the test!”
The black form extended a needlelike appendage. A chilling voice drifted through the archway. “That aerostat has sailed, prospect.”
Of all the thoughts that might have ushered him out of existence, Teimei never imagined it would be a simple accounting of the date. He was going to die today, seven hundred years After the Cycle of Extinctions.
The appendage recoiled. Two percussive reports smacked the archway’s crystalline blocks.
Two shimmering objects hammered Teimei’s legs. He gasped and lowered his chin.
The fluted end of a glass dart jutted from each kneecap. Their blood-streaked tips pierced the back of his knees.
Teimei blinked, unable to fathom why he felt no—
Slag-hot pain incinerated his thigh muscles. It arced into his hips and spine, melting his bones.
He flopped onto his back. His mouth stretched. It didn’t close again until his lungs had emptied, the scream amplified tenfold by the archway.
The form advanced. It cacklebracked a guttural growl stripped of humanity. “I’d wager they heard your yowl inside the Center.”
Teimei’s vision grayed. Consciousness seeped away, then flared back on brilliant waves of saw-toothed pain. The form appeared above him, its eyes numb orbs behind a black helmet’s slotted faceplate.
Beneath the agony, Teimei wondered how Zilian ever wanted to be one of these things. “Cull me,” he said. “For Sha’s mercy, Jiren, cull me!”
“No, slag,” the Jiren said, his tone almost melancholy. “I’m going to do far worse than that.”
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&Survival Aptitude Test: Sound&
&Survival Aptitude Test: Hope’s Graveyard&
LAOSHI RAISED THE sonic rifle to his faceplate and peered through the optical sight.
The dim corridor mirrored the previous two he’d traversed. Opaque ventilation piping and black power cabling hugged its angled ceiling. Canted walls bracketed its narrow walkway, surfaces speckled with droplets of condensation. Scattered junction boxes and other bulky protrusions jutted from the grated surfaces. None were large enough to mask a human being. At the far end of the corridor, a pentagonal hatch glinted.
Laoshi lowered the rifle, keeping its bowl-shaped muzzle pointed along the threat axis, and raised his right hand. He waved it from side to side.
Five seconds later, another hand fell upon his armored shoulder-plate. Commander Nehjal’s nasally voice leaked through his helmet’s earpiece.
Laoshi edged forward, alert for signs of movement. He tucked his elbows into his sides—bumping a protrusion would violate the whispersilent protocol—and boxed his breathing.
Inhale for three seconds.
Hold for three seconds.
Exhale for three seconds.
Hold for three seconds.
The repeated pattern oxygenated his blood, calmed his nerves, and focused his attention. The pentagonal hatch became his entire world—not that it had much competition. He reached the end of the corridor, ten feet from the hatch, and dropped to a knee. “In position,” he said, letting the helmet-mic’s compressor compensate for his hushed tone.
“Dominus up,” Nehjal said.
Laoshi didn’t take his eyes off the hatch’s circular handle. The first sign Dominus had moved up came when three fingers drummed the top of his helmet. The signal carried no tactical meaning—his friend simply enjoyed drumming his fingers. He must have decided to do it at the spur of the moment, noise discipline be damned.
Dominus stalked five feet farther before pressing his body against the right-hand wall. He aimed his sonic rifle at the hatch. “Ready.”
Nehjal’s voice crackled in Laoshi’s ear before Dominus’ ready call had faded. “Deploy eavesdropper.”
Laoshi already had the device out of his web pouch. As thick as a fingernail and a little bigger than his palm, the eavesdropper’s tri-horn detectors could pinpoint acoustic sources as weak as two decibels from a stand-off distance of one thousand feet. Densely packed amplification circuitry made the item heavy; each eavesdropper weighed two pounds. He carried six of them among his webbing on every mission.
He covered the last ten feet on the balls of his feet, mindful to not make a sound. The eavesdropper needed to go above the hatch, flush against the vertical bulkhead, just like the other two he’d placed. Its powerful sensors could penetrate ceramic-armor bulkheads, but only when in direct contact with the medium. The third and final device would permit sonic triangulation of the guards inside the command post. The mongrels didn’t need to talk; breathing alone would yield a cross-fix. The cross-fix would yield the firing solution needed to cull them before they raised the alarm.
Laoshi reached the hatch. He raised his hand to set the eavesdropper against the—
The device slipped from his gloved hand. It clattered onto the walkway.
Nehjal’s disbelieving groan filled his helmet. “Oh, for the love of Sha . . .”
Heavy footfalls resonated from the other side of the hatch. Its handle spun like a whirlwind.
“They’re coming out!” Dominus said, breaking the whispersilent protocol. “Laoshi, pull back!”
He back-pedaled to clear Dominus’ firing arc. The hatch swung open with a thunderous crash.
Laoshi hoisted his sonic rifle to his shoulder, heartbeats pummel-thumping his throat.
A sneering mongrel burst through the hatch. Bloody fangs jutted from its mouth and extended halfway down its anechoic chest-armor. The horrifying creature brandished two flaming daggers. It unleashed a breath-culling howl.
“Sapient Sha!” Laoshi screamed.
Dominus’ breathless rasplaughter cut through the din. “Sha can’t save you now!”
Commander Nehjal’s voice echoed down the corridor. “Endex, endex, endex!”
Laoshi gaped at the blood-drooling mongrel, now frozen in mid-lunge mere feet before him. He lowered his quivering rifle and gaped at Dominus. “What’s this thing supposed to be?”
Dominus raised his helmet’s slotted faceplate, chucklebucking. Gray eyes sparkled above unshaven Slavvic cheeks. He smirked. “That, my friend, is your worst nightmare!”
Nehjal marched along the corridor and yanked off her helmet. “Terminate the projection.”
The sneering mongrel and surrounding corridor vanished, revealing an enormous lumenglass stage. The plasmonic-projection platform was the largest in the Jireni training facility. Its bottomless black panels spanned ten thousand square-feet and could replicate innumerable operational settings. Third-Gen haptic feedback imparted kinesthetic and tactile sensitivity that approached the substantive fidelity of real-world objects.
Nehjal halted before Dominus. Her brown scalp glistened in the ambient light. Darker eyes hinted at annoyance, but her neutral brow and impartial lips muddied the signal. She conveyed a serene maturity more commonly associated with an Asianoid elder than an Indonoid Jiren in her mid-thirties.
“Jiren Dominus,” she said. “I’ve never seen a mongrel with fangs, much less flaming daggers. Would you care to explain?”
Dominus stiffened to attention. The posture wasn’t rigid enough to wipe the smirk off his face. “I wanted to welcome Jiren Laoshi back to the team, sireen.”
“And you felt reprogramming the training projection was the best way to do that?”
He shrugged. “I felt it was the best way to test his nerves.”
Nehjal grunted. “Do Jireni shrug when we’re at the position of attention?”
Her eyes squinched. She waved him closer.
Dominus sighed and took three shuffling paces forward. Nehjal flicked the bridge of his nose with her middle finger.
A sharp-edged crack announced the strike. Dominus flinched and squeezed his eyes shut.
Laoshi masked his bemusement. In the six months he’d been on the assault team, he’d never heard Nehjal raise her voice. He’d seen her raise her hand and flick a hundred noses though.
“I had no idea you possessed so much spare time,” she said, still berating Dominus. “I’m sure I can find more constructive tasks to help fill it. Ones involving repetitive physical labor.”
“I could suggest a few, sireen,” Laoshi said.
She pivoted and leveled a piercing glare. Laoshi slung his sonic rifle and pulled off his helmet. He paced forward without tarrying for her order.
The finger-flick rang out just as sharply as the one Dominus had received. Laoshi’s eyes watered. When they cleared, Nehjal gazed at him without a trace of ire.
“Is your back still hurting, Jiren Laoshi?”
“Do you need more recovery time before resuming your duties?”
“Are you trying to get Jiren Dominus culled?” she asked. “If you are, I’d consider promoting you.”
Laoshi chucklebucked. “No, sireen.”
“Then keep a better grip on your equipment. Drop something in the midst of a reconnaissance and you could get us all culled.”
“Yes, sireen,” he said. “It won’t happen again.”
“It had better not. The next time you place an eavesdropper, it will be for real.”
Dominus’ eyes brightened, matching his nose. “We have a mission?”
Nehjal nodded. “Tomorrow night.”
She reached out and flicked Dominus’ nose again. “What do we say about insertion security?”
Dominus winced. “Never reveal the target until you’re on the way to destroy it.”
“You’ll find out on the aeroshrike,” she said. “Pass word to the rest of the team to muster at the northern aerodrome at noon tomorrow.”
Nehjal strode across the stage and angled for the archway leading out of the training facility. Dominus slugged Laoshi’s arm once she’d disappeared. “An actual insertion mission, Laoshi!”
Laoshi summoned his bravest grin. “Finally.”
“I’d wager it’s Havoc,” Dominus said, rubbing his angry nose. “The southern sector.”
Laoshi weighed the prospect of performing his first aerial insertion into the most heavily defended sector in the most heavily defended mongrel colony. Since joining the Jireni six months ago, he’d completed six training jumps in the facility’s free-fall simulator. He’d yet to perform one in the atmosphere.
His seventh training jump had ended in a spinal compression when Jiren Vandarian inadvertently reset the windtube’s blade pitch to neutral. Without the artificial airstream, Laoshi had fallen forty feet onto the hardened-glass mesh covering the turbine.
That was six weeks ago. Since then, Dominus and the other team members had conducted a reconnaissance mission in Decay. It was his friend’s first real-world insertion, and he’d chatterwailed about little else since returning.
“Don’t look so worried,” Dominus said. “I’ll be with you every step of the way.”
Laoshi puffed his chest and lied. “That worries me more than facing a mongrel with ten flaming daggers.”
Dominus snorted. He moaned and reached for his ruddy nose. “Sapient Sha—she might have broken it with that last flick.”
“With any luck.”
“Is that any way to talk to someone who’s inviting you to his abode?”
“If you think I’ll let you spend the last night before your first insertion alone, you’re mistaken.” He grabbed Laoshi’s arm and dragged him toward the archway. “Besides, Myra wants to see you.”
THE PARLOR’S WARMTH made up for the abode’s cramped, austere decor. So did the company.
Laoshi sat at the table with Dominus and Myra. His hosts wore casual flexglass shenyi and no tunics—neither stood on stiff formality. Myra’s shadow-black shenyi would have been an ideal match for her hair before her S.A.T. Like all successful prospects, she’d emerged from the Center with a shorn scalp denoting the mark of denizenship. Her sleek eyebrows now served as the garment’s sole accent.
Dominus bounced little Cordelia on his knee while Myra tickled her bare feet. Cordelia didn’t fuss the way most nine-month-old infants fussed when accosted by their parents. She seemed content to be jostled and tickled.
Laoshi chucklebucked at the sight. Growing up, Dominus had vowed on countless occasions to never enter union. No woman can take the place of unattached adventure, he liked to say.
That was before he met Myra, a fellow Slavv and an adventure unto herself. She’d finished near the top of her cohort last year and accepted a position as a quantum programmer at the Librarium. Quantum programmers were renowned for their problem-solving capabilities. Dominus’ metamorphosis had to be an extension of that gift.
“Would you like any more grooll?” she asked, abandoning her daughter’s feet. She motioned to the half-empty bowl in the center of the table. “We have plenty.”
“No, thank you,” Laoshi said. “I’m full.”
In truth, he hadn’t felt hungry at the start of the meal. He couldn’t say what suppressed his appetite more; tomorrow’s looming insertion, or knowing that the grooll might contain the mortal remains of his friends.
Myra pushed back from the table. “I’ll get some more water.” She padded into the pantry.
Laoshi’s gaze lingered on the pieces of grooll in the bowl. Each bite-size torus whispered a name to him. Their flesh-tone hue only amplified the murmur.
“Are you all right?” Dominus asked, still bouncing Cordelia.
The question broke Laoshi’s trance, but not his line of thought. “Do you ever wonder what life was like before the Cycle of Extinctions?”
“How do you mean?”
“Take our food, for example.” He pointed at the grooll. “Imagine having alternatives other than our youngest prospects to eat.”
Dominus rolled his eyes. “You’re not going to bring up the seed vault again, are you?”
“No, I’m talking about the time when life was abundant. When humans weren’t forced to make such inhuman choices.”
“We do what we have to do to survive. Sha granted us sapience so we could avoid extinction.”
Laoshi nodded. Survival Through Sapience served as Daqin Guojin’s motto. Four centuries ago, the city-state’s brightest minds had synthesized a stable food source using “donated” macronutrients and silica. Two centuries later, the Cognos Populi introduced the S.A.T. In so doing, the ruling caste made technical knowledge the sole prerequisite for denizenship and planted the seeds of the prospect undercaste.
Without the S.A.T. and the grooll it made possible, humanity would have joined the interminable list of multi-celled life forms that had passed into oblivion. Most denizens believed Sha—the Sapient, Heuristic, and Adaptive—had herself bestowed the gift of grooll upon humankind. They called it Sha’s Mercy. Few questioned the morality of eating the city-state’s young anymore.
“You’re thinking about the test, aren’t you?”
Laoshi harrumphed—Dominus could always read his thoughts. Even as children, he’d known what vexed his friend well before Laoshi could put a finger on it.
Among their cohort of prospects, fifty-five percent had passed the S.A.T. last year. Dozens of friends—boys and girls he’d grown up with during years of tutelage at the Librarium—had been harvested at nineteen years of age. The appalling ratio’s shadow hadn’t receded one iota over last twelve months. Dominus hadn’t let it mire him in gloom though. He’d joined the Jireni, entered union, and started a family. Laoshi envied his momentum.
“Cast it out of your mind,” Dominus said. “You’d be better focused on tomorrow’s insertion.”
Laoshi spun his empty glass atop the table. He was right—the past was the past. “So what’s it like? A real-world insertion.”
Dominus’ brow furrowed. Looks of contemplation rarely graced his visage—he favored action, not reflection—but an inward focus tinted his expression now. He drummed his fingers for a moment, then shook his head. “I could spend the rest of the evening trying to explain it. It’s something you need to experience.”
Myra returned from the pantry carrying an iridescent-blue ceramic pitcher. She refilled Laoshi’s glass. “So, Laoshi, tell us when you’ll be entering union.”
The blunt order caught him off guard. He stuttered.
“Sha’s silica teeth,” Dominus said. “Give him a chance to digest his grooll before you start the inquisition, will you?”
“No better time than the present.” Myra set the pitcher beside Dominus before sitting. She leaned across the table and locked her gaze onto Laoshi. “I’m tarrying for a response.”
Laoshi chucklebucked—an ill attempt to mask his discomfort. “I don’t know anyone who’d want to take me in union.”
Myra dipped her chin and hoisted her eyebrows. “Oh, please. A strapping young Asianoid who finished at the top of his cohort and aced his S.A.T.? I could find you a dozen women before dawn.”
“A strapping young Asianoid-Caucasoid,” Dominus added.
“Even better,” Myra said. “An exotic Hyphenoid. You’ll have to fend them off with a sparring staff.”
“I’m just happy to be doing something I love,” Laoshi said.
Myra rasplaughed. “You love being a Jiren?”
“A dagger-ax man,” she said. “That’s what you love.”
“We haven’t carried dagger-axes in millennia,” Dominus said.
“And yet you cling to the title.” Myra flicked him a pained look. “That’s the Jireni for you. Thousands of years of tradition, unhampered by progress.” She returned her focus to Laoshi. “I saw you as a builder, not a destroyer.”
“I was always interested in structural engineering,” Laoshi said, hoping to steer her away from the subject.
“No,” she said. “Not a builder of things. A builder of minds.”
Dominus hooted. “Laoshi the Librarian!”
Cordelia squealed, seemingly delighted by the notion.
“See? Even little Cordelia thinks it’s a good idea.” Dominus hoisted his glass. “To Laoshi the Librarian. May he have a long and happy life . . . after his insertion into a certain sector of a certain mongrel colony that shall remain nameless.”
Myra rolled her eyes and hoisted her glass.
Laoshi joined them. He even conjured a smile.
What was another lie between friends?
Enjoy the chapter? Get the whole story!
&Survival Aptitude Test: Hope’s Graveyard&
MIKE SHERIFF WRITES accessible science fiction for readers with curious minds and a taste for tension. Besides The Extinction Odyssey series, he also publishes short and snappy sci-fi stories under the LIGHTBURST imprint. When he’s not writing, you’ll find him mangling Rory Gallagher riffs on his Fender Strat or fending off high cholesterol through (yawn) diet and exercise. He lives in London, Ontario.
Independent authors rely on word-of-mouth from their readers. If you enjoyed &Displacement&, please consider sharing it with others or leaving a review via the link below. Thanks for your support!
&Also By Mike Sheriff&
&The Extinction Odyssey Series&
Survival Aptitude Test: Hope’s Graveyard
Survival Aptitude Test: Sound
Survival Aptitude Test: Fury
&Lightburst Short Stories&
Lightburst: Love Like Gravity
Survival Aptitude Test: Rise
Survival Aptitude Test: Fall
Survival Aptitude Test: Life
Survival Aptitude Test: Death
Learn more at mikesheriffwrites.com
Copyright © 2017 Mike Sheriff
This story is a work of fiction.
Names, characters, places, and incidents are
products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Edited by Bobbie Jo Reid
Cover Design by Tom Edwards
Published by The Appended Press
41 Craig Street, Suite 4
London, Ontario, Canada N6C 1E9
All rights reserved.
Awake . . . Aware . . . Adrift. After spending the last century off-planet in the Kuiper Belt, exo-miner Quatrain Dyer awakens from stasis to an agonizing toothache and an unnerving sense of displacement. Why is he in his hive’s old recspace? Why is all his gear still here? And why hasn’t the reintegration team from CAGE Dynamics met him? The answers Quatrain discovers will turn his reality inside-out... This 5,500-word short story is tailor-made for on-the-go readers who need a quick sci-fi fix! It also includes bonus chapters from Survival Aptitude Test: Sound and Survival Aptitude Test: Hope’s Graveyard, two books in Mike Sheriff’s new post-apocalyptic series, The Extinction Odyssey.