The Void Script
The Void Script
Copyright 2016 Ben Fernwey
All Rights Reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except as permitted by U.S. copyright law. For permissions contact:
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is purely coincidental.
Cover background image credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
The waves of time and gravity bend – they flux shape and form light’s constant journey. Velocity and singular purpose, arcing through the void, shaping the endeavors of man. But their designs were of far greater importance. The oldest and most profound sort of sanctity. Light through the dark – both reliant on the other in the equation of purpose.
In this way the black silhouette appears against the giant holocaust of the dying sun’s facade. The angular shape speeding high across the star’s fiery field. Soaking through its gravity, slowly changing course as it wraps around the body of fire. And then it’s free. Speeding away from the flames, it’s course forever changed by them. Now what was once the silhouette is alight. Its metallic surface illuminated. A mechanized dart. Its purpose nothing less than immortality. A catalyst to produce more of its own, owing its origins to the same.
As the star fades in the distance, the silver-metal probe feels the pull of another, much smaller orb in the black. A wild place without yet the touch of man. Once again the silhouette forms. This time, it is one of fire and smoke streaking through the planet’s sky down toward destiny. Down to the matter appointed to it by its own kind. Down toward its rightful place in the verse. Down toward the dark violent dirt…
[Holo-text drawn from ghost ship – Sector z8GND5296]
Old Earth – 2015
Long after the probes began their journey and well before the rise of the Hierkalanon, Jack had a headache. It throbbed terribly, echoing pain and misery with every slight movement he made. It took all the enjoyment he was having with his friends. It took his fun. Took his carefree ambling elementary school life. He was always worried about getting them now. Because once he got a headache, the day was as good as done.
The more his headaches took, the more he gave. Give me, they seemed to demand, and he acquiesced. Holing up in his bedroom under the sheets, curled up in a ball but perfectly still.
Give me, they crescendo’d, interrupting him playing kick-the-can outside. Give me they screamed as he tried to sleep. Give me. Give me.
“GIVE ME!” Jack winced.
Marcy shouted, “Give me the controller Kevin!”
Jack recoiled and stood up, starting to back away from the tv. The inside of his head erupting into painful echoing sparks. Kevin let out an exasperated sigh and tossed the device in her general direction.
“Fiiiine,” he said, “you don’t have to yell all the time.”
Jack smiled assent, wincing.
“Hey guys, I’m gonna go,” he said quietly, still backing toward the door. Marcy was already mashing the buttons but paused and joined Kevin as they turned to see their friend go.
“Ok man, feel better,” Kevin said smiling sympathetically at him.
Marcy nodded, “Feel better Jack. Next time you can play some more. Maybe this guy won’t hog it the whole time.” She glared at Kevin, who ignored her.
“See you at school bro,” Kevin said, clearly weary of his sister.
Jack thanked them and left. Although he wouldn’t be at school tomorrow. Or the next day.
The initial scans revealed nothing, but with the extent of pain he was feeling, they were performed again. This time, they revealed the shared nightmare that Jack’s parents had for so long silently persuaded themselves could not be the source of their son’s pain. What followed was a series of ever-lengthening appointments and somber talks between his parents and other adults who always looked so sad.
Jack had never given death much thought before and it scared him terribly. He knew that was what the adults were talking about, even though they didn’t use the word. He looked up “terminal” and “malignant” when he could. And while the explanation of these words yielded other words he did not yet know, he soon realized that he was probably going to die.
When he asked his parents what death felt like, they could not adequately explain the sensation to him. Jack could not understand how so many people had died throughout history and yet no one seemed to know anything definitive about it. He wondered vaguely one night while staring up at his black ceiling, his head pounding and his puffy eyes bleary, if death was where he would meet the people whose voices sometimes drifted through his thoughts.
It was a week before Jack saw his friends again, and another before they were included in the news. The school made a big to-do about it and all his friends were extra nice to him. Jack felt ashamed and embarrassed that his condition forced everyone to feel such guilt on his behalf. At least it seemed that everyone felt that way. So instead of making all his friends feel guilty, Jack spent most of his time by himself. He didn’t feel like being around lots of other people anyway. Everyone was always so sad and he knew he was the reason.
The strange thing was, the more Jack had relative silence around him, the clearer and more often he heard the voices. Many voices. Sometimes three or four different ones. Normally there was at least one female voice. They talked about everything it seemed. News, sports, some even did prank phone calls. And then, on an autumn day, Jack was outside on the porch and they stopped.
He found himself in a stream of sensation. He heard his parents voices. Soft and loving. He felt the starchy linen and the encompassing pillows. Various low lights and soft beeps flitted in and out. A feeling of expectation. That he was being asked something and expected to answer. Long periods of dark sleep. The taste of plastic. And then Jack heard a song and discovered what death was like.
Iridesce – 8080
The craft skirted the horizon, cupping the bent haze of the planet’s atmosphere. It listed a moment as it slowed, preparing for what we did not know. I could feel the pilot tense in front of me. The tight spaces amplified everything. I wasn’t sure her history, but she was said to have seen some rough aspects of the void, a fleet conflict among them.
Only a portion of the side of her face was visible but her angled features pierced concentration through the triple plated view. I glanced back out to the craft, now completely still.
Dealing with Andolesians was always a bit dicey. Never knew what may suddenly overcome them. Anarchists at their worst, some sort of egalitarian democracy at their best, I’ve no problem admitting I was continually curious of them.
I glanced at the envoy. She didn’t seem concerned. A blissful ignorance perhaps or maybe just some pills. In my time, the use of “traveling” pills seemed to be ever more common. Euphoria, stupor, mixing your churning anxieties into a calm third person existence. I never cared for them. Still, she was calm, almost annoyed looking. Placing my hand on the shoulder of her seat in front of me I leaned over.
“Apologies for the delay ma’am. We should be down shortly. These occurrences are relatively common, especially among the Andolesian sectors.”
“Sure.” She said hollowly. Pills.
The pilot glanced over to the envoy, her one-piece suit a single grey fabric, tailored to her slim form and adorned by a single ribbon lanced into her left lapel. The blue, white and black of the Mercantile Expanse.
The trip had been a quiet one. Cruising comfortably for 12 day cycles, we’d maybe exchanged a couple hours worth of words together. All polite, mostly useless. She was an easy client, the envoy, and I hoped to finish with her quickly planetside.
Liaison missions in arrow class ships always brooked a little reason for concern. Very small quarters and a single life cabin ensured the journey was determined by the company you were traveling with. The two seats in front commanded wide views of the void while the middle back seat was initially meant for the gunner. After its initial design as a medium fighter was surpassed by other models; the arrow class was relegated to diplomatic transport duty. Fast, agile and always a smooth ride, they were a reliable, if small, ship to work on.
The Andolesian craft slowly oriented itself to face us. Through the view it looked like a tiny light spec on the horizon, but we could clearly see it through the targeting screen above. It’s bulky hull bristled with sensors.
“No weapons systems on board,” the pilot said. She glanced back at me. I knew that meant at least there were none that our scanners could pick up. That ship may even be big enough to hold a small blink turret or two.
The envoy remained staring blankly off. We waited awhile more. Not feeling it necessary to soothe an otherwise tranquil specimen, I remained silent. Staring out at the far-off ship, for what seemed like an eternity, this close to our destination, I let my thoughts wander. If my package was accepted, I’d be able to complete my contract aboard one of the Armada’s legendary Leviathan Doros cruisers. There was no better place for access to clients and the best traveling comforts known to man. I’d sent the lope with my particulars in it months ago. Whether the adjudicators had actually made their way to my paperwork was another matter. The Expanse, especially its military divisions were notoriously encumbered by bureaucracy.
A harsh buzz cut my reverie as our sensors picked up and broadcast the engines of the Andolesian ship throttling away from us. It disappeared in the mist of the upper atmosphere’s light green-blue. Our pilot grunted.
She punched a few buttons and I felt the massive light sail detached itself from our ship. A low shudder and the sail glided out and then started the process of collapsing into a smaller craft. The sail allowed us to make this trip to the rim relatively quickly as it fed through cosmic dark matter, propelling us at exponential speeds. Without it, or a similar engine, the trip would have taken generations.
The RCS outlets on the sail shot quick flaring bursts at various angles to position the sail in its default orbital holding pattern. It would wait there for our ship’s return before starting the trip back out to interstellar space, which would not be soon enough.
Going planetside had its benefits but they were not near enough to counterbalance the generally squalid living and imperfect environs, particularly on Andolesian worlds. Variable gravities, pollutants, allergens, extreme temperatures and the chaotic hazard of the natives all stained my early optimism of sightseeing when planetside.
No, space travel was the stuff. Perfectly controlled atmosphere, the right mix of gravity depending upon the ship and most of all, solace and privacy from the sects of humanity who either could not attain starside travel, or didn’t deserve it if they had.
Then the sky swung around us, the world arcing below, as we angled for entry, to a low cutting terminal orbit.
“Why…the wait?” the envoy finally said, through clenched teeth. I was beginning to feel the growing intensity of gravity pushing against me as well. I took a deep breath to answer, wondering why now of all times she decided to engage in conversation.
I glanced at the pilot. I’d be getting no help from her. Almost as if in response to my silent plea for the pilot to engage on this topic, she instead activated the outer shield doors to cover the plated glass. The immediate darkness was stark compared to the bright atmosphere we’d been staring at over the last few hours.
Doing my best to paraphrase against the pressing forces of the upper atmosphere I managed, “Our pilot was awaiting confirmation to land. Their ship was our greeting party.”
“Or their first line of defense,” she said.
I checked my mild surprise. Maybe the pills were starting to wear off. At any rate, that was not the line of thinking I expected from a diplomatic trade envoy. Such militant thinking belied a lack of experience or even an abundance of all the wrong kinds of it. Perhaps that’s why she was chosen. She looked increasingly perturbed.
“Does it not seem a bit much to physically encounter us up here in orbit. Why here and now? Why not just deal with us on the ground or send us a translope before we reached the system?” she said, all the while her chin slowly rising, as if her head itself was about to enter the atmosphere.
“Because a ship is most vulnerable in orbit,” I said, starting to feel the vibration of the entry burn.
“There’s little room for maneuvering as you’re taking off or landing,” I said. “And that ship’s only duty, I’d guess, is to intercept incoming vessels. Your ladyship will remember that this is a relatively new planet, unaccustomed to visitors.”
She nodded stiffly, “Untrusting you mean.”
“Perhaps,” I said.
The planet was the only organically habitable one in the system. The system was the only one with any sort of life for epochs around it. In fact, the system inhabited a relatively dark corner of an outer rim constellation that by many accounts was not much good for anything but some spectral mining.
The natives here were said to be from an Andolesian colony ship that went off course many centuries ago. The intelligence file that I provided to the envoy, and seemed to have remained unread, claimed that the ship’s navigation system malfunctioned sending the craft past its intended gravity intercept point. Sailing past their target with dwindling life support, the crew of the colony ship had little choice in selecting a backup planet. Iridesce was their only option.
The world had since excelled at remaining an unremarkable and distant outcropping of humanity. No doubt this was the very reason the Armada had sent a diplomatic package to secure a potentially strategic location. If the Expansion Conflict had taught us anything, it was the value of far flung centers of human capital. Hopefully the small summit my charge was attending would vouchsafe the beginnings of a foothold here.
Yet the planet was a long way from being able to provide any means of galactic strategic significance, other than a place to land and stretch one’s legs. It was a raw and violent place. Even though I’d read of a small Gnostic presence here, the tech appraisal categorized the planet as an E200, a shameful rating dating nearly to when humanity first attained sustainable starside life. If our orbital encounter belied a general untrusting nature of the Andolesians planetside, they certainly had good reason to be. Iridesce was a fertile, relatively unknown presence that had already endured violent strife between its few inhabitants.
The ever increasing shaking that was now rattling us around in our harnessed seats suddenly ceased. The dark enclosure breached with a dim light as the shields collapsed back into their holding form around the ship. The dim light now grew slowly sharper as the viewing pane slowly lessened its shade to spare our eyes the shock of utter blackness to stark planetside bright.
I watched as we soared into a bank of white clouds dotting the otherwise teal sky. Underneath the cumulus, a long glittering jewel of a river rippled light against the deep greens and browns of the rolling land below. As the land drew closer, a town began to form out of the vague pastiche of landscape. Individual buildings, paths and constructions took shape, filling me with some hope for order down below. In the far distance, dagger-tall mountains held sentinel on the ever rising horizon.
“We’ll be down shortly,” the pilot said, as the various landmarks below grew and solidified. A few maneuvers later, and the roar of the vertical thrusters slowing us onto a small landing pad, we arrived. I unstrapped from my seat, helped the enjoy out of hers and watched as the door seal melted away in a fizzle of molten red highlight. After which the hiss and sigh of two similar atmospheres meeting announced the door’s opening as it darted out and up from the craft.
Stepping down from the shuttle, I reached out a hand to help the envoy as she descended the steps. Lightly taking my hand, without looking me in the eye she said ‘thank you’ and continued down to meet the local astral port liaison.
She was clearly new at this. Obviously not a traveler, she had made little use of her trip time. I had catalogs of information on this place, it’s peoples, lands, townships, but she’d declined any brief at the beginning or throughout the trip. I’d probably combed through more research on just this planet than she had for her diplomatic entrance exams.
“Welcome to Iridesce, Lady Andrienne!” the portsman made a sweeping low bow as he met her. He wore a red tunic, cut up the middle with shimmering laces, abruptly terminating at his grey throat. His gaunt features and thinning brown hair, made him look distinguished, if a bit malnourished.
“Thank you…greeter,” the lady said, “I’ll take my quarters now please. I’ve much preparation to do before the summit.”
“This way then, ma’am,” he gestured down toward a long dimly lit hall that stretched into the hillside upon which our shuttle had landed. The landing field was long and scorched. A strange thing, built of blocks of some sort of marble. It’s green sweeping pattern entranced me a little.
“Praxis, will you be joining us?” the man asked pointedly, a look of smug amusement on his face.
“Of course,” I said, breaking away from inspecting the stone.
The Andolesians above must have fed him the ship log they demanded from us. I could see no other way of him knowing my name. He was once an Expansionist however. I did not fail to check who my counterparts would be at the summit. Lady Adrienne was on the summit list of attendees but a liaison such as myself hardly merited any such honor.
I straightened my suit and followed, turning to see the pilot standing in the shuttle’s doorway. Her face was still, but her eyes betrayed sadness. She’d be out in the void soon enough. Home was a cockpit for her. Space could mold the mind to appreciate its quiet vastness. The sheer scale that pretended no favorites, no politics, that barely supported life, pressing infinitely forward softly into slow entropy. It could produce quiet, introspective individuals who relished exploring the expanse within themselves as they hurled them and their clients through the black. It could also warp minds terribly, I reminded myself, turning back and jogging to catch up to the portsman and Lady Adrienne.
“As you no doubt have heard, Iridesce is a vibrant planet, full of life and inhabited by many sects of humanity. Us Andolesians, as you like to call us, mostly, but the Gnostics also have a hold here. There are a few large townships but you’ll find that life here is very different than I’m sure you’re use to in the Core,” the portsman said as we strolled under the massive archway that lead further into the hillside. I took my place next to the portsman and watched the dull expression on the lady’s face as she nodded obligatorily to him and he, looking to her for reassurance of his efforts. He must not get many visitors here.
“I hope I can learn more of this place’s intricacies,” she said a bit pathetically. Her stride was forced. The man glanced at me. He was realizing the depth of his new charge. I simply shrugged. I’d been with this husk of a diplomat barely two week cycles and I was growing ever more accustomed to her dull mediocrity.
After following the long, marbled tunnel that opened from our hillside landing site, we found ourselves turning into a warmly lit hallway. Here the green marble which had composed the landing strip and initial hallway, gave way to a solid gray stone passage, festooned with light sconces and various framed paintings. All of them contained some sort of ode to agrarian life. A common cultural trapping of outer colonies, I mused. A verdant field, swaying in the morning’s early light. Some sort of quadruped lashed to a device, being compelled to pull through the dusty ground. A small girl and petite woman gathering what looked to be apples from a giant tree. All these paintings and more lined either side of our trek deeper underground. I could not help but notice though, that the females pictured, much like our portsman, were small, sickly looking things with an ashen hue to their skin.
After quickly ascending some short stone stairs, we passed through a large wooden door, the other side of which resided an empty reception desk. We traipsed past this and down yet another hallway. This one had carpet, I noticed.
“Here we are!” the portsman said hurriedly, now quite clearly unimpressed by the envoy. He tapped in a few digits, and the door slid open revealing a plush but quaint room that branched off into two minor suites.
“I do hope that this will suffice.”
“It will be fine,” Lady Adrienne said.
“If you require anything further before the morning, please notify me directly,” he smiled, tapping another framed number hung on the wall by the door.
“Thank you…” she trailed.
“Milton,” he said quickly, helping her terminate her thought, and no doubt, he probably hoped, this encounter.
“Milton, you’ve been very helpful,” she said pleasantly, turning to both of us.
“Praxis, you have my thanks as well. I do apologize for being such a bump on the log for a travel companion.”
“No apology needed ma’am. It was my pleasure,” I said. Perhaps there was something in this shell. Self-awareness at least. Or maybe the pills were finally wearing off. But bump on the log? Was she trying to fit in with our rustic hosts?
“I bid you adieu then. I will summon you in the morning prior to the meeting Milton,” she said.
“Very good ma’am. Your luggage should arrive here shortly. See you in the morning,” he said.
Outside, we walked a few moments before allowing ourselves to engage with each other.
“Well I suppose a welcome is in order for you too Praxis,” he said turning. I smiled and noted his rheumy eyes, splashes of blue atop his exceedingly thin figure.
“Thank you Milton. I hope we have the opportunity to work together some more before we leave.”
If he was the Milton my research led me to believe, he had had quite the career in the Expanse already. Jarmon Milton, it was written, had once been in the Void Armada like myself but was discharged when his first ship was subjected to a very harsh investigation. The captain and crew were all dismissed. Rumor of bodies jettisoned. Whose bodies and how they came to be in the ship were not known. At least not to me. I’d always been suspicious of rumors, but had found in my travels that they at times contained grains of truth even stranger than their ultimate form.
I wondered if he’d read about me before we met again. Expanse dossiers were readily available to everyone, except your own dossier, which was masked until years after service termination.
He sighed. “We shall see. Your transient quarters are here. You’re booked for a week cycle. Lucky for you, days on Iridesce are very close to a standard day cycle. That said, I’ve been instructed to perform a slight detour with you.”
I glanced at the door to my room then back at him.
“What is it?” I asked.
His eyes peered into mine, unmoving.
“Your new assignment…what else?”
I nodded, trying to conceal my surprise. He regarded me carefully another moment.
“Well, shall we then?” He took me down yet another branching corridor to the end of the hallway.
As we strode down the dimly lit corridors I asked why there were no other ships present for the summit. For the work outlined in Lady Adrienne’s preparation documents, I’d have expected a small starport like this one to be bustling with shuttles, diplomats and their handlers. Milton kept his eyes forward.
“Our other guests seem to have preferred to have arrived early. Due to the size of the landing areas, they were instructed to relaunch and loiter in orbit,” he said.
“But the cost…” I said, shocked.
Unless it was a specialized ship, launching from a planet with anywhere near standard E1 gravity was a major expenditure in fuel.
“It’s none of your concern Good Wendish,” he waved a hand and smiled back at me.
“Unhinge your mind from the summit, you have completed your assignment. And besides, you will have more pressing matters to attend to.”
Milton ushered me past an old splintered doorway and into a dark room. Within it laid a frayed carpet upon which a small couch, chairs and table were arranged haphazardly. A man, his face shrouded, in the low lighting, lounged on the couch. I peered at the figure when the door clicked behind me. Spinning I found myself closed in the room. Milton, the portsman, gone.
“Please be seated,” the man said, rising from the couch. Uncertain, I set upon one of the nearby chairs. Drawing himself up to the opposite end of the table with the other chair the figure sat and snorted abruptly.
“You seem the perfect kind,” he said. His voice was low, surprisingly so for his small frame.
“I’m not sure I’ve given you adequate information for such an assumption,” I said, wondering what kind of assignment the Expanse had given me.
“I’ve no lack of information, Praxis il Wendish” the man’s voice had a sudden edge to it.
“How does this information pertain to me then?”
A sudden weariness flooded through me, wrought by this new anxiety. I’d expected to be doing the small jobs associated with summit work for a few day cycles, then heading back home. The air in the room was perfectly still. I was immediately aware of the lack of all other sounds in this dim recess.
“Your retirement paperwork, Mr. Wendish,” the man said, producing a thin folder with the Expanse coat emblazoned on the cover. He slid it to me. I could feel my eyebrows raise and tried to regain my composure.
“What’s this? Have I failed the Expanse in some way?” My efforts to conceal my rising panic were proving to be in vain. I’d heard tales of failed voidsmen being taken to backwaters, officially retired and then never heard from again. Retirement, in these cases, was likely some sort of servitude or death. But those were only for egregious cases, where a tribunal or casting was thought too public an effort. I glanced around the room again.
“Fear…does not suit you,” the man said thoughtfully. I could feel him peering at me. The eyes shadowed with embers burning at their center.
“But perhaps it will lend credibility to your service,” he decided after a moment.
“How am I to retire? I’ve still 43 trillion SU’s left in my contract,” I said. The Expanse was nothing if not contractually honorable.
“And you’ll travel those Star Units in service yet. Now however,” he trailed, steepling his fingers, “you will perform the necessary prerequisites for your new assignment.”
“By retiring?” I frowned.
He stood, extending a hand over the table. The room lightened. His features were still obscured but I could clearly make out the hand.
“And what exactly is this job? Am I to liaise for one of these planet urchins?” I said. The thought revolted me. They’d better retire me if I was expected to stoop so low for the Expanse.
“You will inform on an old acquaintance,” the man said, still holding out his hand. “Do not make me wait, Mr. Wendish.” The edge was back, as if he were speaking through gritted teeth. There seemed little choice in the matter.
If the Expanse had sent a tasker this far out, denial of this job would end my career anyway. I rose and took the hand. As we shook, I noticed his garb. A simple shift, with faded brown designs wrapping the arms and crowning the shoulders of the otherwise gray fabric.
“Who are you?” I asked, wondering if his clothing portrayed any high level of significance to the natives.
“You may call me Servilo. I’m a simple local. Just like yourself.”
Stepping out of the room, I heard the door seal behind me. The long hallway of the astral port stretched onward, rooms dotting its sides at irregular intervals. When I reached the end of the corridor, the hallway split with a massive mural in the center. What old acquaintance could interest the Expanse so?
Either corridor swung around from the mural. I chose the one leading back to my accommodations. Had I not been given, almost forced to take, a new mysterious assignment, I would have explored all the corridors, partially to prepare for the summit, partially for my own curiosity. Now though, exhaustion had thoroughly overcome me. Made all the worse by not knowing when I’d get back home to the Manta.
Now a sea of text dominated the walls’ landscape. Rows of green characters scrolled down either wall. I recognized some of the text’s characters, others were indistinguishable. Guilds, I decided. Some characters formed certain products. Quarried stone, wheat, various foodstuffs. Others were probably names of members. They glittered down the wall display, changing as they descended. For some reason, probably numbing fatigue, I was compelled to continue staring at the twinkling display. Staring through rows of characters, a lion’s head slowly emerged from the illusion’s depths. Stepping closer, the mane writhed more and more urgently until it spun violently around the head like a fiery corona. And while the scene was composed entirely of cascading green characters, the mane seemed to grow in brightness until it dissipated in a shaking terminus and the face it framed fell away into the depths of the spinning text.
Iridesce – 8080
The next morning I met Servilo at the exit of the small star port. The tattered tunic he’d worn the evening prior seemed incongruous with his station as an Expanse tasker. He eyed me and must have guessed my thoughts, or perhaps my face betrayed them.
“You’ll want to go unnoticed,” he said nodding slightly at my dress. I agreed awkwardly, my bright yellow hyper-gala suit was perhaps a poor choice but I’d packed just enough to survive what I thought was to be a semi-formal week cycle summit.
“I didn’t think I’d need to slum down my dress,” I complained.
“No one’s asking you to wear a dress,” he said, a small corner of his wide lips curling upward, “although I’d bet that hasn’t stopped you before.”
I opened and closed my mouth. Where was this levity last night?
Servilo grunted and continued, “Now, enough of that. Remember, you’re retired. There’ll be no way to hide your Expanser ways from these people. But you’re looking to get away from it all and start a life here. So the less you reek of the Mercantile or Armada, the better…let’s get on with it.”
He turned to consult the door console. I noticed a long scar running from the front of his head to the back, as if someone had applied a hack saw to it. The wound split his wispy black hair into two segments, one mop dominating the top and one side of his head, the other a closer-cropped side. Otherwise my tasker looked rather common. He had a wide, pinkish face, pronounced with deep expression lines around his eyes and mouth. He stood about to my shoulders. Even though he seemed in a better mood, his voice was still strangely low.
After a few more moments running over the console, Servilo flicked a final switch and the exit door hissed to the side. On the other side of the door, a cool gray-blue mist enveloped us and I felt a sensation around me that I’d not experienced for some time. Morning dew hung in the air and glittered lazily upon the green landscape spreading out around us. The ground immediately in front of us, though, was well trod to dirt. The paths and shapes of buildings ahead all seemed the same brown in contrast to the bright greens out beyond.
“This way,” he said, striding out into the mist. I noticed his rigid back slowly slump as we made our way out into the township.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“To meet your longtime friend, John,” he said, still looking forward.
What John? I’d interacted with many but I didn’t really know a John. I knew a couple Joes, but…I thought back.
“John Holiday?” I ventured. He was the only John I’d somewhat known but I hadn’t seen him for years. I wouldn’t even consider him an acquaintance at this point. True, we’d been close in the Armada for a time, but I hadn’t heard from him since his abrupt exit from the service.
“Aye. He is, after all, your purpose for retirement. He hides a certain…jewel. We need your help finding it,” Servilo said, as we made our way across the small empty dirt square leading to town.
“What sort of jewel?” I was no voidsman. I could not be expected to extract some treasure from a man I barely knew. And John…Well, John was a man who seized what he wanted and stubbornly fought to hold onto it, if memory served.
“Mr. Holiday will be taking a trip soon. I need you to find out where he’s going and why,” Servilo said. That seemed simple enough. For his size, Servilo’s pace was impressive. As I stumbled to keep up, I desperately tried to take in the settlement closing in around me.
It seemed the settlement was comprised mainly of ruddy dirt adobe structures, the highest of which was no more than a few stories tall. I wondered if they would look as sad if the mist ever lifted and the tri-suns revealed them further. I did not fail to note the scorch marks and blaster holes some of the buildings bore.
As if in response to my observation a hollow roar swept around us and a plume erupted over the buildings ahead.
“Down!” Servilo grabbed me by the collar and thrust me to the ground with him. A knobby gray man sprinted past us hooting. He was running toward the explosion, holding a long angled weapon over his head. His exclamations were met with others in the distance, as the natives flooded toward the event.
“What is going…” I said, before Servilo shoved my face into the ground.
“Shh! Stay down!” he growled. I twisted my head sideways, spitting out grit. Some popping in the distance and another roar. Servilo released his hand from me and we waited prone for a few moments longer. When we saw some locals returning, I was given leave to stand.
“What the hell was that?” I said, wiping dirt from my face and suit, ineffectually.
“An elder bwear, most like,” he said, rubbing his face.
“Nevermind that now. Let’s go. You have some dirt in your beard,” he said.
Through the mist I could barely make out what had to be the far end of the town, neatly encircled with a low wall, green hills rolling out behind it. By the look of it, the fortification, barely the height of three men stacked atop one another, was made of wood and some sort of plaster. All of the settlement seemed to be contained in an arcing semicircle flanked securely by the prodigious hill that separated it from the far side landing pad.
“You’ll find yourself in need of a friend here,” Servilo said flatly, as he stopped to open a ramshackle gate thinly separating two large adobes.
“I suppose we’d better find John then,” I said.
Servilo tilted his head to the side, another small grin pulling at the corner of his mouth, “aye, because you’ll find no friendship in me.”
I did not doubt this.
Passing through the threshold to the alley, along the narrow dirt thoroughfare, they mostly sat. Like rumpled discarded things, most seemed bizarre gnarled extensions of the earthen hovels lining the alley. These natives shared the same weakly, gray look of those I’d seen running wildly toward the explosion. But these seemed even more sickly. Smoldering cook fires, licking at small stacks of sticks, were nursed within circles of spindly legs. Slowly moving, if moving at all, the alley’s inhabitants were haunched beings. At first I was able to take all this in as we strode down past them. But soon, I was keenly aware of the natives’ stares. I decided that avoiding eye-contact may be preferable.
“They distrust you,” Servilo said, keeping his eyes forward.
“But this is a star port, is it not? They must see farers regularly.”
The tasker harrumphed. “This port is seldom used, and when it is graced with a ship, it’s cargo that’s unloaded, not Expanse retirees.”
A small man with a walking stick brushed by, his yellow eyes never leaving me. A shiver of malice crept up my spine. I need to get whatever information John has and quickly. The sooner I complete this assignment the sooner I could get starside again.
“What about the delegates?” I asked.
He shrugged, “you did not see the whole landing port, did you?”
Servilo pointed to a smaller street where we turned.
“Diplomatic business is carried out in the port. It’s for the same reason these good folk are giving you the Hierkalanon death stare.”
“And that is?”
He stopped in front a run-down hovel and slammed his hand hard upon the cracked plaster door.
“Andolesians distrust outsiders.” Lowering his head, he backed away from the door, “and for good reason.”
Servilo frowned and banged against the door again.
“Heavy sleeper,” he said.
A moment later, the door swung open and a giant man with thick curly black hair sprang forward.
“What in the dunder feck is it?! You know what time it is? Do you know what time it is? Fecking early! What…” his mouth twisted in momentary confusion and then, “Praxis il Wendish! The loneliest liaison of the Void Armada!” John bellowed, roping me into a massive hug.
As I felt the life draining from me, my joints cracking and bones bending, I choked at the man’s rich foul body odor. He thrust me back, both of his massive paws on my shoulders.
“Hello John,” I managed between gasps.
He howled in laughter, “You look great, my favorite black bastard!” He pulled at the tip of my beard, “little dirty though,” he said, his great wide teeth flashing in a fierce grin.
I scratched a few more pieces of dirt out of my hair.
“Bwear cause you some trouble?” he said, glancing warily at Servilo.
“Who?” I said.
“Who, indeed,” John gave Servilo a hard look and then spun, leading me into what I assumed was his home. Within the dim space, neon blue figures dotted and crossed the walls, flanked by two orange glows. Fires crackled at either hearth on opposite ends of the room and upon the walls hung the quiet calculations of data pads. Thick leather chairs and couches were placed at odd intervals throughout the space and the furs of what seemed a dozen different species were below our feet.
“You look…bigger” I said, fighting down the nausea rising amidst the thick musk within the space. This assignment would be my toughest yet, in no small part because of the rank bouquet my old companion emitted.
“Hah! Like it was just yesterday, we were leaving that port, going our separate ways. Me to this paradise, you to some stuffy ship’s cabin for another decade.” He took a pull of a bottle and offered it to me. I declined.
“Look at you! All stuffy yourself now!” He said.
“I’ve still got some life left in me,” I said, glancing at Servilo.
John noticed and craned his head, “That’s good, that’s good. Must be hard when you’re surrounded by dullards for your job. But that can’t be escaped, we have some here on Iridesce as well,” John set the bottle down and glancing again at Servilo.
“I haven’t introduced myself,” the smaller man said stepping around me and extending a hand to John.
“Servilo Longmarh, at your service.” John ignored the hand.
“You’re here to service me, eh? Well I’ll be a tricky client as I prefer the fairer sort when it comes to such duties.”
Servilo lowered his hand. John remained intractably set into the ground, his burly arms crossed.
“I’ve seen you around, man. Some sort of portsman. Well thank you for delivering my friend, you can be on your way then.”
John rounded the room and stood holding the door. Before I could attempt to salvage the dialogue, Servilo made a small bow and turned out the door.
“I’ll need a few moments of Mr. Wendish’s time later to get his transit paper’s squared away,” Servilo said as he pushed through the threshold leading back outside.
“Transit papers?” John cocked an eyebrow at me.
“He’ll need them if he’s to retire here,” Servilo stated flatly as he turned to close the door behind him.
“Good day, Mr. Wendish. Mr. Holiday.”
With that, the door closed and left me with John, mouth agape, although it soon turned into a foolishly wide grin.
John wagged a finger at me, “You’re full of surprises you runt. Going Andolesian like your old boy John? I’d have never figured it.”
“It’s true,” I followed up quickly. Breathing through my mouth helped. By degrees the foulness of this hovel would diminish as it’s omnipresent squalor soaked through me. I stifled another nauseating heave. I needed to make use of this momentum while I had it. Every time I opened my mouth I risked contributing my own matter to John’s filth.
High deception, I had no stomach for it. I couldn’t even worry about whatever lies Servilo expected me to employ now, much less keeping my stomach down. Light skirting and bending of truths was a mainstay of diplomatic liaising to be sure, but this…
“I…see,” John said, his wily smile retreating into contemplative pursed lips. Which aspect was funnier I did not know, John’s wide lips sprouting from his unruly beard or that this was his ‘thinking face.’
“And so you’re here to,” he trailed. Too many questions. I was not ready for this.
“To say hello to an old friend, and start my next leg,” I smiled. Why couldn’t they’ve sent an Ana to spy for them? John was always a distrusting sort. Just because we’d worked together years ago would not ingratiate me to him. At least not yet.
His smile returned. More somber this time.
“Well, welcome again, Prax!” John adjusted his thick jerkin and with a wave of his hand declared, “of course you’ll stay with me until you get your feet under you. This town, erhm, this planet, is not as hospitable as others you may have visited.”
I nodded appreciatively, “Thank you John but you don’t have to put me up.” Is this what Servilo was counting on? Could I not just visit and stay at the port?
“Nonsense! If you’re going to stay here, be it for your probationary retirement period or longer, you’ll need to learn the people’s ways. You won’t do that by holing up in that hill.”
He knows me better than I know him, I thought grimly. Not a good start for me to attempt espionage.
“Well, thank you,” I said.
“Of course,” he turned back to me and must have caught my curious glance around the room.
“You’ll note the lack of space, well, I won’t be around soon,” he said, a wistful smile creeping all the way up into his dark eyes.
“You’ll have the place to yourself for a few weeks,” he said as he stole a look out the roughly hewn porthole window. Outside, the receding morning mists revealed the stark white dagger mountain range I’d seen during my landing pumping up toward the sky. Their beauty was jarring as they erupted from the otherwise tranquil rolling hills around the town.
He took the bottle up again and slumped into a sort of couch that had to be covered with every sort of fur in the solar system.
“John, I…” I fumbled for words. “I’m deeply grateful that you’d take me in, and even more so that you’d entrust me to your residence after all these long years.”
He slammed the bottle down and ran the back of his sleeve across his lips. “Long years? Entrust you? Residence?!” He bellowed between laughs. “Prax, it’s been what? Six years?”
I struggled to recall. With great effort he pushed himself up from the couch and lumbered toward me, placing a paw on my shoulder.
“Remember that Postman we saved? We were stack mates on some of the most gnarled outer rim planets the Expanse had interest in.”
This was true. I’d often thought of that slain Postman in years past. But like all trauma, the more I reflected on it, the more it became a part of me, and so it lost its novelty. I hadn’t thought about the man or the only battle I’d experienced for years. John’s experience was different, of course.
He’d found the man first, I think while he was still alive. More than that, John’s job was security, and so he’d seen other violent encounters. I was there as a low grade diplomatic representative to assuage the perceived wrongs that the native’s claimed the Expanse had committed upon them. The first three year cycles of our Expanse careers we just happened to be assigned to the same landing squad – stack. But I was not about to dismiss his claims of closeness.
He continued, “We went through almost every general segment of Armada training together. We watched friends die. And we fought alongside others who live today…We fought together.” He nodded resolutely, I think, to himself. “No, better to ask yourself how I could not entrust you. Especially with such a lowly thing as, erhm, how you put it? Residence?”
He guffawed again, retreating once more to the couch.
“This,” he said spreading his massive arms across the back of its frame and waving his hands outward, “This is a hole to keep the weather out. And now it’s to you to keep anyone else out as well while I’m gone.”
He was right. We had been through a lot together during our shared years in the Armada. But six years? And with no contact. All those experiences seemed far away, although perhaps they were no less important, even if I’d not thought on them in ages.
“Well thank you John,” I said, “but we didn’t save the Postman. He died on that planet, almost as soon as you came upon him.”
John leaned forward, the shadows cast by the twin fires rippled into a menacing shade across his eyes.
“His purpose was to deliver his charge, was it not? Well I’ve done that. Even in death is their edict, is it not? I saved him,” he breathed.
I thought back to the man and the haunting image of the disfigured courier. The bloody contact we fought our way through came back in a flood long-dormant memories.
Yenro – 8074
The sheaves whipped and slashed at me as I sprinted through the tall grass. Left. Then right. There was no hope in it. Whichever way I turned I was met by the same endless curtain of green. This was no grass, these were distorted trees. Shoots ten feet tall, with sheaves the width of broadswords swaying atop thin trunks that stood straight up from the ground and flowered at shin level.
Their effect was a strange one. Standing made it impossible to see anything not right in front of your face, as the thick foliage spread for thousands of acres around. But if one were to get on the ground or kneel, the bare trunks revealed an opening to spy animals, running feet, and the slain.
I jumped back up. From below, there looked to be carnage to the right but I couldn’t tell if it weighed for or against us. Barreling through the thick vegetation, rounds and beams crackled and burned. Men were shouting somewhere. Maybe 200 meters out? But which direction?
I slammed down on the ground again. Dust stung my eyes but through the tears I could make out someone firing from behind a large boulder. Whoever it was, their position was showcased by the repeating plumes of smoke roused by each shot.
I flanked the boulder, alternating between full on sprints, guessing at the direction, and sliding to the ground to regain my bearing. My heart pounded in my throat and a metallic taste filled my mouth. All the Armada ground training I’d scoffed at was now coming back. Problem was, it wasn’t enough. We were mainly taught small unit tactics and given a basic course at that. I didn’t even know if I had a unit anymore. We were all separated. The boulder was nearing.
A spark of fire burst the sheave in front of me. Another hit head-level to my right. Shit. Someone had a bead on me.
I jinked hard to the left and sprinted. I spun around and saw another beam hit where I’d been. Not good. They were somewhere behind me. Falling to the ground once more I saw an area far behind light up from laser fire. I thrust my iridium pistol in front of me and laid on the trigger. Erupting in a shower of sparks, I sent the full clip hurtling toward the foe, as it cracked and splintered the trunks between. Whether it hit, whether they were even a foe, I’d never know. I rolled over in a semi circle and regained the boulder. This run would be it.
Making for the rock, I fumbled to reload the pistol, slowing as I anticipated its presence. The sound on the other side, reverberated dimly. So choked with fear and adrenaline, the entire scene flowed slowly, as if in a dream. A singular purpose existed, to which no other paths could be considered, frustrated again and again by deadly threats.
They could be waiting on the other side. They. How many were they? They’d waited to hit us at our most vulnerable, once we were far into the swaying field of trees. Would it hurt getting shot? Would I have time to react to avoid it?
I swallowed another mouthful of bile and slowed to a jog, heading where I thought the boulder might be. That would be my luck, sprinting head on into a boulder during a fire fight. Jog, so I have time to deviate, don’t stop, so I don’t get shot. Some choices. I wasn’t meant for this. We were supposed to be in a tropical plantation house now. At least that’s what they’d told us before springing their trap. Keep moving. After all, I may be running to my death. There was no choice however. This was the only straightforward thing to do.
And then, there it was. The rock was big enough to produce a small clearing so the vegetation thinned just before I was upon it. Jumping, I grabbed the top of the boulder and scrambled my way up and over its other side. I landed right next to John, thank Providence. He was not alone.
“Who’s that?” I said.
John did a double-take over his shoulder. “Prax! Get down!”
I crouched beside him and the body, scanning to see what he was firing at.
“You know they can see us down here,” I pointed out between volleys.
“Aye,” he laughed, “but that means I can see them too!” He sent three shots toward some vague shape far off.
“Be of use and look to the other side,” he hollered.
I rolled the dead man out of the way and took a position prone at the other end of the rock. While this was the best defensive position probably within the whole godforsaken field, we were to make little use of it.
It was dusk before the far away sounds of fighting ceased altogether. The small datalink John had hastily deployed blinked slowly, filling the gathering darkness with soft green reminders of its presence. I tore a piece of fabric from the dead man’s outfit and wrapped it around the datalink to cover the light node.
“That won’t interfere, will it?” I asked.
“Only with my source of light,” John said dryly.
“You’re the comm expert. Thought I’d ask,” I said, moving to get a better angle to inspect the body in the dim.
“I’m security, you know that,” he said.
“And what’s your role in your security squad?” I said.
“Comm,” he sighed.
“So, what’s with him?” I asked as I patted the dead man’s form.
It was hard to see clearly, but it was apparent, even in the gathering gloom, that the man was clad in a dirty white trench coat. A glistening dark spot spattered his torso and arm. He looked to be missing a hand.
“Blasted off,” John said, watching me inspect the man. Even though the trencher had deep pockets, I found little. On one arm the man wore a blue and white starred band. I looked up.
“That’s right. A Postman,” John said, watching me carefully. The dead man also seemed to have some sort of decorations on him. One was a clasp made of intersecting planetary rings colored blue and white alternatively. The other was a single black ribbon, whose device at the top was an eight pointed star.
“Highly decorated too,” I said.
John shrugged and held up the man’s satchel. Bulging and bloody. His final parcel. Postmen were widely respected throughout the Expanse. Many people used auto couriers, electronic machines that sped through air and space laden with mail or, if commissioned, were specially designed to take special packages to certain locations. Otherwise there were the translopes that served a similar purpose but for letters or small notes. Many of the void’s most precious deliveries, however, were still entrusted to men. A machine could be hacked, captured or destroyed. With a man, you had one less option.
Many Postmen treated their jobs as couriers as a calling. Some were adventurers in their own right. The more reliable they were, the higher price they commanded for delivery. One in a hundred thousand earned the title of Post Master, an insignificant title throughout much of human history, but within the last eon, they were some of the most respected and honored men and women around.
The requirements to become a Post Master were not very well known. In fact, most assumed they were shadowed by secrecy in order to keep others from learning too much about trade routes and how the very best delivered. On small wild planets like this one, this man was probably very highly skilled and sought after. While not a Post Master, he had the look of a seasoned deliverer. A gaunt face belonging to an athletic body, strong and lean. Perhaps his face looked that way due to the blood loss. He was missing a hand after all. Dark wet strings were all that remained at the mangled arm’s termination point.
John was rifling through another satchel when I concluded my inspection of the body. He produced a brown package, ripped it open, and spilled its contents to the ground. Along with a few trinkets and some ration bars a tightly woven parcel cluttered out. John snatched it up and tore it open with one of his cuff blades. From the sprawling webbing John pulled a small globe and summarily tossed it to me. The sphere landed lightly in my hands.
“What is it?” I said, orienting it in the hopes of catching some star light to illuminate its mystery.
“Oh that’s good stuff,” John said, tearing into a ration bar. I twisted the item and separated the two halves. A soothing aroma enveloped me, cutting through the stink of dirt, sweat and blood.
“Yeah. It’s lip balm.” John’s toothy smile glimmered in the darkness.
“What about that one?” I pointed to the bigger, bloodier bag I’d seen when I first found him.
“That’s his parcel. I’m going to finish the delivery,” he said. Something in his voice gave a finality to his declaration. He would do this and nothing I said or did would stop him. If it even did intend on delivering it and not just taking it as a war trophy. I’d known the man long enough to leave well enough alone.
After we were extracted from that hellish field, we had little remaining time together in the Armada. Our team that had gone planetside was so decimated by the natives’ ambush that we were debriefed and attached to vacancies in other teams spread across the galaxy.
The last time I saw John in the Armada, he carried his oversized rucksack, which I knew contained that mysterious parcel. And while I couldn’t be sure, I sensed that its presence contributed to John’s wide smile as we said our goodbyes and he boarded the arrow class shuttle bound for his new assignment.
Iridesce – 8080
The same grin faced me now, six years later, yet again with this short tempered man on some wild planet, although now I was surrounded by warm light and furs.
“Aye, we didn’t save him,” John agreed.
“In a way, though, he saved me some time,” John said, considering the back of some sort of cloth ticket. “Saved me from giving my whole life and spirit over to the Armada,” he said.
He looked up, “You still have that lip balm?”
“No, I…” I laughed. I’d chucked that thing not long after John ‘gifted’ it to me.
“What’s on the docket for the rest of the day?” I asked.
“Well,” John placed the cloth ticket back on the table. “For me, I’ve got some logistics that need minding. For you, my understanding was your weird little port friend was going to set you up nice and proper with your papers. Your retirement stipend will come in handy here. Probably go a long way too,” John said thoughtfully.
“Anyway, I’ll leave you to it. We can catch up later tonight. I’ve acquired a barrel from the Verdant and think tonight’s a good one to make devotions to it,” he said, snatching up the ticket once more and striding for the door.
“Oh and your port buddy is not to come in this house. I trust him as much as I like him – Not at all.”
With that, John Holiday swung the door open to what seemed now a brilliant day, and closed me in behind it.
Old Earth – 2030
Marigold felt the lightning. The frenetic tendrils, veins of light through the open Midwest sky, sent thrills up her spin. Sometimes she imagined her whole nervous system was aglow when the electric shocks cracked against the sky. Her classmates were more dubious.
“Hey Mare, come on, have one with us. What are you doing anyway?” he said.
She turned around slowly, opening her eyes as they came to face her friends. She knew what lightning felt like.
“Just watching the sky,” she mewed, strolling lazily over to the circle of lawn chairs on the deck.
“Watching’s always easier when you actually have your eyes open,” another said.
Marigold scrunched up her nose and wiggled it at him.
“Thanks. Brad,” she said.
“Hey, just trying to help,” he laughed, then choked, smoke billowing out of his mouth.
“Hey, it works better when you don’t try to eat it,” Marigold said.
“Shut…” but he couldn’t finish his retort, and was overtaken by another coughing spell.
“Here. Don’t be an idiot like Brad,” Tom said. His hands deftly rolling the paper and handing the smoke to his girlfriend.
“Thanks babe,” she said.
She chewed an end off, burned the other and began a series of petite tokes.
“Achk!” Brad concluded.
“Jesus, that shit goes down the wrong pipe and you’re done! You look adorable by the way, Marigold,” he grinned.
She couldn’t help but laugh. Brad, while not an ugly person, had an exceedingly wide face and beady eyes. The effect when he smiled was infectiously comical.
“Oh!” Tom said, leaning forward and gripping his chair, “did you see they’re doing a drawing for three seats for the next orbital?”
Tom was fun to look at too, but in a very different way.
“Yeah, but what are the chances of getting picked up?” Brad said.
“Like…1 in 700. Dude, this is a tiny school. And it would be free!” Tom said, leaning forward further.
“They’re doing them twice a semester now,” a girl named Tanya said quietly.
“How do they have the money for that?” Brad said, squinching up his face against the smoke.
“I don’t think there’s any money involved,” Marigold said, “I bet they get tax breaks for sending their students along as part of a federal program.”
Brad waved his hands mockingly.
“Oooh, so smart. Pssh,” he said, following the display with a wink.
Marigold stuck her tongue out.
“So we’re like guinea pigs or something?” Tom said, a bit dismayed.
“Yeah but it’s totally safe,” Tanya took a long pull at her wine bottle.
“I think they do something like three launches every day.” Tom puzzled over that for a while.
“When was the last accident?” he finally said.
“It wasn’t an accident. But it was a year ago,” Brad flicked his smoke away.
“Oh yeah, the Sino-Russian thing,” Marigold remembered.
Brad grabbed the lighter and leaned over it, as if he were telling a ghost story. “They say, the crew knew what was about to happen. Imagine, if you will, infinite blackness above. A beautiful shell of white and blue and green and I guess some sand color but mostly blue below,” Brad said.
“That would be earth,” Tom said flatly.
“Yeah, that,” Brad continued, “and you know. You just know, that your ride is only going to be a half hour long. Two orbits. Then you’re burning real quick to get back down and you’re excited and anxious and hopeful and just trying to take it all in. And then the impact sensor goes off, four minutes into your free fall. You literally just got to space and already something is trying to kill you.”
Brad made a fist with one hand and painted invisible dots with his other fingers to demonstrate. One dot on one side of the hand, one on the other.
“You’re told you have five minutes to get your shit figured out and adjust course out of the way to avoid an impact. Could be anything. Space junk. Rogue satellite. Alien ballsack. Who knows? Only thing that matters is that you move. So your pilot pulls the stick this way and that. RCS going all around. Blah, blah, blah. Problem is, the impact sensor is still on.”
Marigold felt another thrill of lightning as it added effect overhead to Brad’s story. She took a deep breath and enjoyed it coursing through and out of her. Brad paused a moment, looking at her.
“Stuff hits pretty hard, huh?” He said proudly.
She raised her smoke as if to toast him and smiled.
“So anyway,” Brad’s wide smile descended again upon the small flame. His features alight like a mirthful caricature of a jack-o-lantern.
“So anyway, they couldn’t get out of the way,” Tom finished for him.
Brad stopped and dropped the lighter.
“Come on man,” he said. “That’s not it. That’s not all of it!” he said.
“Fine, fine.” Tom put his hands up.
Brad resumed with the lighter. Thunder growled low in the distance.
“You can’t get far enough away to avoid the impact. You’re low on RCS. You don’t know if you’re going in the right direction. Is this thing coming at you at hundreds of miles an hour; coming at you from the top? The bottom? Left, right? You don’t know which way to go to get out of its way the quickest. And. And! If you move any farther, you’ll either put yourself into a higher orbit, where you’ll be trapped. Or you’ll adjust your vector of reentry which is not good if you don’t want to smash into a mountain or fry up or whatever,” Brad was panting.
“Actually,” Tom began to point out.
“Shush, man!” Brad shouted.
“Let me finish. Ok. So here’s the finish. These guys. And girls. I think there was at least one girl…” Brad looked confused again.
“There were three girls,” Marigold said, arms crossed.
“Right. Whatever. They get schwacked by this space object and all die. What sucks even more is that they knew they were doomed for basically five whole minutes. And when they finally recovered the wreckage, they found a massive metal net had run straight into them. They tracked the launch of that satellite to Russia 10 minutes prior to our own tourist launch.”
Marigold watched a couple of deer emerge down below by the tree line that their patio overlooked. The doe raised its head. The animal and Marigold stared at one another.
“So the Russians knew when and where we were launching,” Tom said thoughtfully.
“Not only that,” Brad said, “they decided to attack us.”
Tanya yawned, “and that’s why we retaliated,” she said.
The deer turned away and Marigold regained the conversation.
“Yeah, the sanctions,” she said.
Brad put up a finger, “and the orbital strike,” he said, tossing the lighter aside.
“Orbital strike?” the three others asked.
“That’s it. You’ve had enough,” Tom reached for Brad’s newly lit smoke.
Brad flicked the bud away before Tom could reach it.
“That meteorite strike? Seriously? You guys thought that was a legitimate thing?” Brad asked, clearly impressed with himself. “You think that was galactic karma or something? A month, to the day, after our orbital gets blasted out of the sky and a northern neighborhood of Petersburg gets vaporized. No. That was an orbital strike,” Brad concluded.
“Yeah, but they could just track it back to us then,” Tanya said.
“Not if it came from out of Earth’s orbit. We’ve got plenty of stuff orbiting around lots of different bodies out there,” Brad said.
“And guess, what?” he said, wringing his hands in excitement. “If we were to launch a strike from a different orbit it would take awhile to reach its target.”
“A month,” Marigold said.
“Exactly!” Brad said, slouching back into the lawnchair. “So it probably was still in Earth’s orbit, but maybe in a really high one,” Tom said.
Brad looked unimpressed. This began another quasi-argument over orbital times that Marigold felt sure was founded very little on fact and mostly on Brad and Tom’s half-baked interpretations of magazine articles they’d read.
Eventually the boys went in. Tom squeezed Marigold’s arm playfully as he passed her to scrounge for food inside with Brad. Tanya excused herself. Said something about studying. More like finding another bottle of wine, Marigold thought.
Left alone on the deck, she peered back to the bucolic scene before her. Dusk was overtaking the greens of the grass and small wooden outcropping, but she could still make out the figures of the deer, just within the tiny woodland.
Clopping down the steps in her sandals Marigold began to traverse the backyard’s field but stumbled and rolled softly on the grass. The smoke she’d burned above on the patio was in full effect. Giggling on the ground she flung her sandals off and stood. The cool wet of the grass between her toes was a surprising relief to the otherwise muggy evening. Ahead, the deer were still.
Both doe and buck were now considering her. Breaching the sparse outer tree line, she approached the animals slowly. About a dozen paces out, she stopped. Neither animal had moved. The two deer and she stood motionless for a moment in the somber beauty of the darkening wood.
Lightning rippled across the sky above. Pinks and deep red hues illuminated the wood Marigold now inhabited with the deer. Shuddering with a sort of pleasure, she briefly looked back at the house and could see the boys moving about within, near the sliding glass door. Brad was gesticulating wildly and Tom was laughing.
She returned to the deer. Both had moved. Both were now right beside her. A bit startled, she instinctively started to back away but stopped. Slowly, she raised both hands and gently placed each on the necks of the animals on either side of her.
The course chestnut fur was warm. The heat of life. Marigold could feel the electricity within the animals. There was a hum that buzzed in her fingertips and suddenly she could hear the white noise of a television softly lapping in her head.
Arcing above in brilliant white yellow slashes, lightning sheared the sunset sky. Marigold felt the small of her back bow and felt the sweat erupt on her forehead. She looked up and noticed, with increasing anxiety, that the streaks in the sky were not fading. She didn’t hear thunder…She hadn’t heard thunder for many of the strikes. Must be far off she allowed. Or heat lightning. That was possible and she thought she remembered reading somewhere that it wasn’t accompanied by thunder. But the pit of her stomach was turning as the white noise grew. She pulled her hands away from the deer who remained, bizarre living statues.
Lightning again. This time the strikes added to those of the last display. “Ooh!” she moaned. What was this? What was happening to her? She’d always felt the electricity of lightning but never like this… Marigold tasted metal.
This was all too strange. Maybe she was dreaming? Or having a stroke, a darker voice inside of her suggested. She needed to get back to the others. This was a bad trip. What had Brad given them? Another shock across the sky and the thrills she’d felt before suddenly overtook her. Her naked toes dug into the soft dirt. Her eyes rolled back as she shook in an involuntary curtsy. And in the dark woods, she felt the type of pleasure she’d shared only with Tom and one other. But this satisfaction was deeper, more profound, and the coursing joy of it washed over her for some time.
With her eyes closed she felt the warmth from the deer near her as the white static grew and grew. When she opened them, the sky was a terrifying inverse. Sharp white filled most of the air above with sparks and cuts of darkness in between. She looked down at the animals but when she saw them she recoiled. Both remained quiet statues staring back at her. But where their soft dark eyes had been, only ghastly whites shown. Marigold felt the lightning. And the static overwhelmed her.
Iridesce – 8080
I learned a great deal throughout the week following my landing on Iridesce. I learned that I was to be officially retired, at least for now. Servilo had deigned it prudent to showcase a growing friendship between ourselves in order to keep open lines of communication and curtail John’s already intense suspicion of him.
I’m not sure which was more laughable, the friendship itself or the extent to which we applied ourselves in its marketing to John. Although, it seemed to do little to assuage John’s unfavorable opinion of my tasker.
During one such showcase, Servilo and I shared a pot of butter tea at a small outdoor cafe. However, our invitation to John, predicated upon him being a now famously retired Expanse local, was only met with a bitter laugh from the man. He subsequently disappeared, leaving a flurry of dust and expletives on the path we trod to the establishment.
Presently, we sat within the ramshackle stick fence enclosing the space in which customers – only us apparently – were expected to enjoy this purveyor’s food, of which there was little variety. After seeing the food menu, which consisted of two items: a plate of olives and sprouts and a bowl of cold oats and leaves, we decided that buttered tea would suffice.
“So how long do you intend to maintain the retirement paperwork?” I asked quietly, holding my mug with two hands, soaking up its warmth against the cool midmorning air.
Servilo cocked his head to the side with a puzzled look.
“Why,” he said, “indefinitely, of course.”
I could feel my eyebrows raise.
“You told me you wanted to retire and so I’ll fulfill that duty for you, Praxis. Retirement, being of course, permanent.”
He looked around. “Not only as your friend, but as a member with access to the necessary Expanse comm systems to accomplish the task.”
I could guess what he was playing at, but the need to actually retire me when basically every local I’d seen showed not the slightest interest in anything other than their sad planetside concerns, seemed overly honest to his scheme.
“But,” I started.
He ran me over, “But if you have concerns with how any of the paperwork is coming along, let us discuss it at another time,” he said, affecting pleasantness and a toothy smile. The edge in his voice was unmistakable though.
He eyed me a moment longer, then in a very hushed voice, “Of course, nothing is ever assuredly permanent. Any number of circumstances could arise, where your service to the Expanse could flame a renewed interest in your continued association with it.”
I gulped down a mouthful of tea. First the retirement was for my cover, now it functioned as blackmail. If I did not complete this assignment, I would not be getting any others. Perhaps I could retreat to the Lady Adrienne at the port and escape with her.
No, I decided quickly, as I noted the man’s dark eyes opposite me. They swallowed up light, emitting an intensity I dare not challenge yet. He was not one to leave such an opening unaccounted for. There would be a trap, or she would already have been briefed of my reassignment.
I gave a ragged sigh and stroked my beard. Even a week had put it into a strange and somewhat unruly shape. Shaving was another sacrifice I’d not expected to be levied upon me. Servilo said it would engender me to the local populace. A hoodlum, however, I was not. The scraggily beards I’d scene, not only here but throughout the galaxy, had always spoken to me of men who, for whatever reason, felt it necessary to display their virility in the most base, uninspired, and frankly, lazy, way possible. I was rarely surprised when such creatures had little or less to offer in terms of ideas, rank, or social eloquence when pressed. I moved my jaw to the side to scratch the tuft. It was also itchy.
I wasn’t sure if the difference in hair would overcome the more apparent ones between me and the locals. Even with my slight frame, I towered over most, and my ebon skin stood in a healthy vibrant contrast to their withered grey flesh. So distant to a healthy human did they look to me that I disliked to linger upon them. Even an extra moment’s consideration of one of their ilk left pangs of sorrow, pity and disgust mixing in my gut.
As I rubbed my face I looked out at the landscape before me. The past few days, I’d felt as if I’d explored every nook of the town. Even so, within it there was little to speak of. Row upon unruly row of adobe huts. Some were festooned with tools hung outside or seats and tables corralled nearby – shops and restaurants. Others were non-descript but could house a variety of functions. Some must have been homes. Some were offices, which Servilo and I had visited to complete the various, and very visible functions of sending paperwork off world. Others were medical clinics or storage domes. We were told this by John.
Thankfully we’d not yet needed medicine or had taken a job as a hauler, a profession which seemed to engage half the town. Haulers, dragging everything from tree trunks, carts of stone, bushels of hay, baskets of ore, barrels of pickled food. At all hours the slow plodding of the planet’s poor natives announced the menial transportation of material. The price of unfettered freedom I reminded myself. To be Andolesian was to have the freedom to do whatever one chose, but to rarely have the means.
That was the other thing I learned. I was to be an Andolesian now. A new citizen of Wilhelm, a small village to be sure. But one that commanded a vastly important strategic location – a spaceport. The geography around it was commendable as well. Out past the town’s earthen wall, a great plain opened further to a distant horizon, capped with the teal sky. To the immediate left of me the stark, dark gray, mountain spires I’d seen my second day on the planet rose a few leagues away and stretched out as far as I could see. To the right, the plains dropped away into a thick forest and it’s sudden termination in the distance led me to believe a sea was nearby.
“What are you doing?” Servilo said, clearly annoyed.
“Just thinking about this place. Since I’ll apparently be here awhile” I said, examining his reaction closely. He gave none.
“Hmm.” He flicked at a small bug that circled atop his mug. The server meekly approached us.
“Anything?” he said.
“No.” Servilo waved him away.
The man forced a smile and backed away into the safety of his hut.
“John has a Gnostic,” he said suddenly.
A Gnostic? On this rim planet? They really were everywhere. I waited for more. The information did not come.
“So?” I was getting tired of him always expecting me to be following his line of thought.
“You’d do well to get in with the Gnostics. You’ll find them more trusting of outsiders.” He performed another scan to ensure no one was nearby.
“Those pandering academics?” I balked.
Starside, Gnostics could be found wherever Expanse leadership was. Advisors at their best, synchophantic power grubbers at their worst. Well, their worst tended to be their norm.
“You’ve much to learn Praxis. You’ve been starside too long.”
He tossed some coin on the table and stood. They didn’t accept personal credit transfers here. I hadn’t seen a local yet, aside from John, who had the telltale wrist chip. I gulped the rest of the sweet drink down and followed Servilo out and around the corner. At least their tea was good.
But my faltering mood was soon decaying like the blistered and rank meat of the shop keeps we passed. This charade was getting tiresome. A week had gone by on this dirtball planet and I was no closer to eliciting whatever secret Servilo needed from John and his mysterious trip. Something had kept interrupting my attempts to ask him.
“My assignment wasn’t to make friends with every sect on this planet,” I said, jogging to catch up with Servilo’s quick pace down the alley.
I said, “As I recall…”
The collar of my tunic lurched to the side. Servilo’s fist, wrapped in the fabric, slammed me into the wall. Small pebbles and bits of plaster showered off the building and down upon me. The smaller man looked up at me, expressionless.
“What assignment?” He said lowly. “Take comfort in knowing how important you are to this enterprise, manifest in your continued existence. However, if your promise of progress turns to countering any that I’ve cultivated in my long cycles on this world, I will personally see that you never leave it.” This all said in rapid succession and at a forced whisper.
The wind knocked out of me, I gasped for air. If this tasker started to associate me with whatever duty had brought him to this unenviable place, I doubted I’d have much left of a career. On second thought, a career might be the least of my worries. My hands were already up. I choked.
He loosed his grip and spun.
“Good. Right now I need you to follow, learn, and make some damn friends.”
Sullenly, I straightened my tunic and followed him. We rounded another corner and were out in the open street again.
A thin haze of dust seemed omnipresent as the midday suns dried the dirt paths that the incessant haulers churned over and over again. On this side of the town there were thankfully less of them. Instead, there was a sort of hunting guild nestled between the blacksmith and a massive fermentation tank. Here, the locals sported a variety of weapons and if any of them were hauling something, it was a corpse. The only prey I’d seen had been a few cervidae, dragged in on simple wooden litters.
Today, however, as Servilo and I walked past the guild with its unique thatch work roof, we saw a different prize. Servilo glanced at the animal and then back at me. He slowed and stopped.
“That’s the elder beawr most likely,” he said.
“A what?” I clucked back.
The creature was enormous.
“An elder beawr. A local creature. A beast very similar to bears of the Old but much larger. They go insane as they age,” Servilo said, crossing his arms and watching the men finish their skinning of the animal.
What did that mean? Going insane?
“Like, rabid, you mean?” I asked.
“Insane, is probably the more appropriate term,” he said, sniffing at the animal.
With a bit of a sigh he said, “these animals continue to grow their entire lives. The Gnostics think that this may have something to do with their degenerative mental state as they grow older. They think there’s a link between growth hormones and mental acuity in them. So they continue to grow, becoming fiercer as they age due to territorial and mating fights as well as the need to maintain a massive amount of food. They eventually go out of their minds and literally kill themselves through physical exhaustion.”
I was hardly hearing him as I watched in horror as three men hefted a skinless paw out of the way so they could slice at the ripe hunks of dark muscle beneath. The smell was encompassing in the midday warmth.
He turned and started walking away, “They’ve been said to run for hours, making a bloody mess of everything that gets in their way. When they’re dying they do not hunt, they merely berserk. They fall into a hallucinogenic state and exert themselves for days on end. When they finally do perish, it’s either from exhaustion or they’ve torn themselves apart.”
His matter of fact way of explaining the massive animal filled me with unease. I bumbled behind him while still glancing at the scene behind us.
“So that one went crazy and died?” I asked. I think I heard him actually laugh. Although it could have been a cough.
“No,” he said, recovering, “that was the one you heard when you first came into town.”
“But they were fighting it,” I said.
“Yes, but it was still sane. If there had been a bwear in a disintegrative mental state near Wilhelm, we would have had real problems.”
“That’s not a real problem!?” I jabbed a finger back at the beast.
He stopped and smiled now.
I crossed my arms, dumbfounded. “Well why not?”
He glanced past me taking in the animal again. “It’s not nearly big enough.”
We were back at John’s place. We split ways. Servilo kept walking to his own quarters and I keyed in.
When I walked in, John had someone pinned to the back wall. His arm lifted high, as he roared at the figure he held up. Struggling against his massive clenched hand, a woman clawed and kicked for breath.
Iridesce – 8080
Personal defense on colony planets was always a top priority. A clean water source, food, shelter, means of sanitation and medical aid were all fundamentals. But without a proper means of defense, your water, food, home and medicine could all be readily taken. One of the first things I noticed about the locals in Wilhelm, aside from their withered forms and clear lack of sanitation, was the variety of weapons they carried. Everything from swords to laser weapons. This being a planet in a rim system, the tech disparity was enormous. According to Iridesce’s history this led to some amazing victories in early colonization conflicts, as well as some horrific defeats.
In my preparation for the liaising job that brought me to this rock, I’d read about the Cliffs of Dro, Shni’s gambit, and the Great Granary Massacre. Each were battles only possible on Andolesian colony planets. Untrained commanders in charge of forces fighting for their survival led to truly barbaric conflicts. The Cliffs of Dro being perhaps the most disturbing.
Sixty years ago, and halfway around the planet from Wilhelm, a similarly small village was razed by marauders. The village enjoyed a key trade route with another, larger town. The villagers had access to a particular type of sand and water source and became adept at producing brilliant and practical glass pieces. Plying these wares with their larger neighbor won them prosperity. Another, more warlike and base people decided to wrest this prosperity away from the small village.
After the razing, the few remaining members of the small village gathered up what hidden wealth they had remaining and made for the larger town. It took little to raise an army with the help of their larger ally, who were incensed at their treatment.
The marauders were still vastly superior in numbers to this larger town, and upon hearing that they were moving to fight them on behalf of the smaller town, intercepted and pursued them both. These maneuvers took place on the long plains that sloped up to a growing forest on one side and the Cliffs of Dro on the other.
Atop the narrowing lands, the townspeople slowed their pace until the marauders were marching within eyesight between their forest and the edge of the Cliffs. So assured of their victory, the marauders, with their fearsome blades gathered together in thick ranks and charged the much more widely dispersed townspeople.
But their reckless charge proved fatal. The spread of the townspeople was an encircling maneuver which corralled the marauders, cutting off their escape back down the sloping plains. Once the marauders were incredibly close in their charge, the people produced their guns and fired. While the first volley devastated the marauder army, the pincer move and subsequent volleys pushed the marauders back to the cliff edge.
So great were the marauder’s numbers that the members in the first ranks who were taking fire were pushing back against the rest of the host. At the other end of the host, countless others were forced off the dizzying ledge and the army retreated into air. Finally, the ranks were sufficiently depleted that all that remained were marauders with no other members behind or in front of them. Like so many other wronged people throughout history, the townspeople’s vengeance was especially terrible. The remaining marauders were given the choice to fall or die by the gun.
Now that the planet’s colonization was further along, such disparities in armament were someone mitigated. No longer were there entire armies with only sword and entire others with guns. The tech had spread somewhat. Still, some communes were vastly more powerful than others. In and around Wilhelm, with ammo being scarce, gun usage was generally low. Laser usage even more so. As was vehicular movement since there was no widely refined fuel source on the planet. Basic fossil fuels or manual labor propelled the few machines available. Multiple quadrupeds were employed in the carting of cargo or people through the streets. John had mentioned a few rudimentary steam wagons were about as well, but their long runs between towns, and lack of a reliable coal source, made them a rare sight to Wilhelm.
Even with the dissemination of tech, personal defense was still critical. The hard men and women in Wilhelm had not yet troubled me. The natives I should really fear, according to John, were the more wilder tribes outside. Renowned for their ferocity and brutal attacks on trade caravans; theories abounded as to the genesis of these wild peoples. Some said they were small sects of direct descendants, spawned from the Creator Pods that had first terraformed and planted the planet. While the supposed Gnostics in town would most likely enjoy a dialogue with such creatures, the feeling I got from John was that most Andolesians here would rather cut these tribes down and be done with it.
In the Armada I’d generally relied upon others for protection. The rangers and foundry sentinels were trained professionals that served that singular defense function. My only exception had been with John in that bloody field so many years ago. And since then I’d never felt the need, or the want, to carry a weapon on me. That is, until I spent a week in Wilhelm, and especially now that’d I heard about its surrounding animals and people. I bet Lady Adrienne wished she had a weapon right about now.
John hefted her higher upon the wall. His massive hand outstretched around her neck and chin. Roaring at her, spittle bespeckling his beard, he bellowed “tell me, where were you going!”
She looked wildly around but he shook her and she refocused on him.
I was paralyzed, overcome by shock at the violence before me.
“I…told…” she gasped. She was wearing a common traveler’s shift, far below her appropriate station. Her legs kicked out weakly. What was she doing here? Better yet, what in the hell was John doing to her and why?
“You were going on our springer?!” John growled. Blood was curling down his hand.
“John,” I said.
I saw his head cock toward me.
“Close the door Prax,” he said, refusing to turn further away from the Lady Adrienne.
“John, she can’t deserve this. She’s…” How much should I tell him?
I began again, “You don’t want to…” I pulled the door behind me and started to slowly walk toward him.
“Oh I want to!” He said, his head shaking in small twitches. “I haven’t wanted to so much in a long time,” he sneered at her.
Her hands and fingers were pathetically trying to gain purchase against his hand, now coated in thick streams of blood.
“Fine. But don’t!” I said.
John laughed bitterly.
“She’s a spy, Prax,” he said.
Her face was purple. Mouth agape.
“John, let her go,” I said, coming near the wall he’d pinned her against.
“If you kill her, you’ll have more problems,” I said, trying to keep my cool.
“No! I’ll have one less!”
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