Cry your tears, my child.
The day is almost done.
Your pain will be wiped away
In the setting of the sun.
—Child’s bedtime song
“ONE HUNDRED YEARS.” The old invalid’s crippled and palsied hand shook, holding an old-fashioned ID card wrapped in gnarled fingers.
“What, Grandmother? What about one hundred years?”
The ancient woman rasped, her words sandpaper on stone, “Dead, one hundred years, and he would have loved me.” Her hand was barely under her control, her deteriorated muscles too old and worn to care any longer what her mind might tell them to do. She thrust the ID card at her granddaughter, drumming it in a desperate beat against her arm. “Rom’n.”
The old woman’s body jerked in a violent fit of coughing, her pain written across her tortured features.
“Grandmother!” The beautiful young granddaughter looked to the man standing across the bed from her, desperately searching for relief from her grandmother’s pain. “Gregor, what should I do?”
Gregoirini Abbadelli consoled her in a tender voice, “My own grandmother, when she died, her hand, I held. Sometimes, to do, that be all we can. Knowing they be held in love when they need us the most be the best anyone can offer.” With the tears of his own memories moistening his eyes, he gave his wisest advice to the old woman’s most loyal protector. “Love her, Innocetta. So she knows, hold her. Hold her, now.”
Innocetta Verona reached to place her arms around the old woman, the coughing shaking them both. Feeling the hand with the ID card pressing them apart, she released her grandmother. In a quivering parody of an old-fashioned dance, the gnarled hand placed the ancient card into Innocetta’s hand. Innocetta leaned in closely, pleading, “What is it, Grandmother?”
“He could have been mine.”
Innocetta turned her tear-filled eyes to Gregoirini. “What does she mean, Gregor?”
“Listen be all you can do.” He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder.
She leaned over her grandmother, her ear pressed close to pick up her final whispered words. “He would have loved me. Now, he’s yours.”
Those were the last sounds Innocetta heard her grandmother speak. Rising to look at Gregoirini standing across from her, letting her tears wash her face, a sudden odor of urine permeated the room. A numbness came over them. When they looked down, they could tell.
The grandmother was dead.
The sweet smell
Of the summer rains beckons.
Yet, the rains are a fierce two-edged sword.
They tempt the smallest of the seeds to produce the sweetness of the harvest.
They flood the valleys, destroying all within their reach.
We cannot live without the rains.
Our Baby Johanaston lies here,
Drowned in the
7-3-2207 to 7-12-2207
REGGEANTE SELVAGGIO, tall and slender, with thick, dark hair not quite under anyone’s control, walked across the room to a screaming control panel. His eyes, brilliantly green, flashed as he pursed his full lips. Reaching to the blinking warning light, he slapped the alarm off. His duty partner across the room was oblivious as far as he could tell, and that irritated him.
“Carli,” he called, with more than a hint of ire, “since we came on duty, it be the third time, gone off, this alarm has. Be it malfunctioning, you think?” He focused for a moment on the displays, then hit a few keystrokes on an old-fashioned keyboard. “Upgrade this system, you think they would. Use this very one, my grandfather did.” He shook his head at the letter he knew he always had to hit twice to make work. He struck it a second time, hard, before it gave him what he wanted.
“Complain too much, you do, Regge, my friend. Be satisfied that the guidance systems of the latest design be, even if all else be ancient.” Carlan’te Fausti was Regge’s good friend, but not too good a friend when the man complained excessively. He spread his hands to indicate the consoles. “Warning systems, only, these be. And of it, think, my friend.” He sat back and laughed, his round face and plentiful girth fitting his ebullient mood. “Would this harsh, unvisited world be a place of choice riches for thieves to steal? Ah, lands they wish to raid, fertile and green? Here? Thinking that, you be, huh, Regge?”
“Not on this world, for certain.” Regge pursed his lips, still studying the readouts. Something wasn’t right, and he hadn’t decided what it was. He knew—as did all children brought up in the city’s educational system—that raiders had visited Trasdrom’man before, just not in his and Carli’s memory. It was the reason for the alarm system in the first place. Now, three times it had gone off, and just on their shift. Three times. They couldn’t afford to ignore it, not with the possibility for raiders looking more and more likely. And, to top it off, it only showed up on the old and outdated systems, not the new, much-awaited and infinitely better interface that had only recently received the much-needed updates. That one was perfectly quiet, not a peep, one.
“Only the old system, it be on, and not the new. Make of that, what should we?” Regge rubbed his chin with one hand, undecided how to proceed.
“Worked very hard to find it on the new, I have, and only one possible explanation there be.” Carli had finished off a prewrapped snack, and he wadded the packaging before continuing, taking the time to toss it casually at a refuse bin.
“And?” Regge grumbled, thoroughly flustered by the jumbled and cantankerous warning system.
“Not finding it, because an out-of-date signal, it be.” Carli chuckled and began unwrapping another snack.
“Noise.” Regge snapped his fingers as an idea came to him. He knew he’d figure this out, if he let it ramble through his mind. “Too much radio noise, there be. Invisible only to some sensors, it be. See what’s there, you will. Watch this.”
“Watch what, my friend? You fail?” Carli, shorter than his friend by a hand, as well as rounder by many more, smiled. His red hair and freckles betrayed his teasing manner, even as his hazel eyes twinkled.
Regge reached to the old keyboarded system to tap a few more keystrokes. Glancing back at his partner, he shrugged off Carli’s condescending glance. “The signal, very basic, it be, out of date, even, and hear it better, this old system can. To search for an old-fashioned signal, these old-fashioned sensors be the best. There be something there, you’ll see. Getting a clear signal, I now be.” He grinned as he twisted a few well-worn dials on his console, bringing a loud humming and squealing noise from an overhead speaker. Turning to Carli, he shouted, “That! The signal to run through your console, it be. Know this soon, we will.”
Carli jumped from his seat, and with a violent shove, he pushed Regge aside. Tapping in his own instructions, the noise abated to a low series of chirps and buzzes. He cut his eyes to the man next to him, growling, “Deaf, I don’t need to be. Enough it be just to hear the noise. Run your signal for you, I will. If this be anything, for you, find out, I will.” Jamming a finger in one ear with a pained expression, he shook his head and returned to his seat.
A faint hum grew in strength, emanating from inside the machine. Soon, an image formed on the viewscreen above their heads. Carli looked up and saw his friend working with the old-fashioned keyboard at his station, and he threw a lightweight drinking vessel at him to get his attention. When he glanced up, Carli pointed to the image.
Regge muttered, his eyes taking in the displays, “Expected a cloud of gliderhawks, perhaps, or a ship lacking authorization. A cryo pod, this be? Flying free?” He looked down and tapped a few strokes. The image enlarged. He looked over at his friend. “Fly in space, they can? Never heard of this. Real, you think this be?” When Carli shrugged, Regge turned the sound back up a bit. At the other man’s frown, he held up one finger to tell him to be patient. “Harmonics. A second signal, there be. Hear it?”
This time even Carli sat up and looked interested. Raising the volume even further, he pulled earpieces over his head and tapped on his console. After a few careful moments, he glanced up at Regge and pulled the listening devices from his ears. His mouth gaped, and he yelled over the noise of the signal, “MegaCorp, and real, it be.”
“MegaCorp?” Regge yelled, also. “Sending a cryo pod to us, why would MegaCorp be?”
“Unknown,” Carli yelled back. “Why be that important?”
“Cryo pods, MegaCorp doesn’t have, not a one. Without spaceflight of any kind, they be.” Regge flipped his controls to signal the spaceport remote guidance division. “A ruse, this must be. Send this to guidance, I will. Know what to do, they surely must.”
THE ELECTRIC DISCHARGE spiderwebbed across one wall of the cabin on the great MegaCorp battleship, as the NeuroShok clattered to the floor. Electric fire shot between the eyes of CaptGen’l Willane Bofsky and UnderGen’l Ma’jene Holcum as their wills wrestled for control of the room. Shaking in fury, her acceptance of the military chain of command was wrenched from her hard rock of a soul and slammed at her captgen’l’s feet with the dropping of her eyes.
“Damn you, Bofsky!” She spat her feelings at him. She knew he would do her one worse than anything she could do to him. She had seen it in practice too many times in the years they had served together. For her to exact retribution at this stage was to invite a rain of horrors upon her head.
“I’ve taught you well, Ma’jene.” Bofsky grinned at her capitulation. He could afford to be magnanimous, now. He was in control of the situation, and she knew it. Looking at the blackened pattern the NeuroShok discharge left splayed across his wall, he laughed. “Even your anger has served me well.”
Holcum jerked her eyes to his face, her flashing pupils narrowed to slits. “Just not in this. Is that what you think? For all the suns gone nova, I’ve worked these groundies over with a fine-tooth comb. Those that couldn’t tell me what I desired to know paid with their lives.” She turned her eyes away from the captgen’l. “None have been able to give us the answers we required. You’re aware of my skill in this matter. I’ve let no one down. There are no answers.”
Bofsky walked to the electricity-scarred wall and picked up the NeuroShok where it had fallen to the floor. “Perhaps. Even so, this is the final Rejuvie. If we don’t get our answers from this one, there will be no answers.” He said the words with a smirk that spoke of desire more than intent. He hefted the tool in his hand, remarking, “And to think, this wasn’t even invented as a defensive weapon. Or one of coercion.”
“You mock me.”
“Mock you? Not in my dreams. I believe this was invented as a method of molecular bonding for metallic sheeting. It revolutionized shipbuilding in the airless restrictions of low planetary orbit. It became a well-known and useful tool throughout the inhabited systems. Industrial molecular bonding, only available for law enforcement once they added governors to control the power output.”
“This is no civilian tool.” Holcum’s eyes were on the weapon, and she viewed it as such. “There’s no governor on our NeuroShok wands. Spare me the lectures, Bofsky. You treat me as though I were a child.”
“Ah, but it is.” He laughed. “They are one and the same, as shown by a shipment of military and civilian NeuroShok wands that were once mislabeled.” Although officially, the civilian NeuroShok was reduced in power to non-lethal standards, the unit was essentially the same as the military version. A simple power governor was used to contain the power output to maximize production capabilities. Reserves of completed tools could quickly be converted from military to civilian and back again as demand dictated.
“And I should care?” Holcum still had hopes of retrieving the wand. She must gain access to the final humanoid from the planet below. His death would be hers, and she would revel in it.
“Perhaps. A technician was, shall we say, distracted. On the input window where he should have checked civilian, he inadvertently left it blank, and because of that, the shipment defaulted to our fully powered military model. Many people died before the mistake was uncovered.” Bofsky walked to his desk, opened a drawer, and dropped the weapon inside. He looked at Holcum and smiled. “We know that to inflict the maximum strength from a military model on the human body will fry the very nerves that allow the human body to operate. More than a few seconds, and it’s possible to cook a person from the inside out. Hence, our wall.” He motioned with one hand.
“Wrap this up, Bofsky. I wish to be away, if I’m not to be given access to the final suspect.” And I will gain access by other means, if you simply give me opportunity!
“In good time. Let me finish. Financial fecundity is of paramount interest to MegaCorp. That technician was labeled as a sleeper terrorist, and he and his family were escorted to the newly set up prisonplanet, Rant. There his daughter died a painful death due to lack of medical treatment, and the corporation received the accolades deserved by their new status as the rescuers of vulnerable civilian populations. The terrorists responsible for inflicting the NeuroShok incident on an unsuspecting population were now incarcerated and unable to inflict further damage.”
“And?” She bit off the word in her attempt to control her anger.
“What will MegaCorp do to those who fail to perform at this task, one that’s so much more profitable? Do you wish to be the one to fail? I cannot protect you in this. I can only look out for myself.” He straightened the bottom of his overjacket, and when he looked up, he gloated with his reasoning. He knew he had her.
“There are no answers. Why can’t you admit that? You do in this final Rejuvie, and you’ll have wiped this race from the face of the planet below us. Just that alone is enough satisfaction for me, but is that the real reason you’re taking this opportunity from me? To protect me? Or just to have the pleasure of using the NeuroShok on this last one? You know it can’t be because you expect to get results where I’ve found none.”
Frustration made her heart pound. She couldn’t let this last one escape from her. This was her final chance to enjoy her hand with the NeuroShok on one of these people, and with MegaCorp’s approval, too. She dreamed of this every night and could hardly wait each day for the next group of Rejuvies to be brought on board. Just to be able to press that electric tip against their skin and create rising screams of torment was better than anything she knew.
“It isn’t always about the answers. You know that as well as I, Holcum. The process used is the interesting thing. The answers, if they come, are welcome. If they don’t, the process has still been well served.” Bofsky opened his drawer and tossed Holcum the NeuroShok, watching her catch it efficiently, its power switch still in the on position. He raised his eyebrows, daring her to question his pinpoint accuracy on the matter. “Whether there were ever answers for you to find is now a moot point. This last Rejuvie is mine.”
With a tightening of her lips, Holcum snapped to attention, tapped her heels together, and barked out, “Ser!” The door barely had time to open before she was gone, her angry storm taken with her.
A CLOUD OF black fury wrapped Holcum as she tore through the corridors, the faces she met just flashes of annoyance in her path. Finally, reaching a corridor clear of intrusion, she stopped, her anger tearing her strength from her. Forcing her eyes shut, and her clenched jaw popping the tendons from her neck, she turned to the wall and pressed her forehead to its surface, one fist slamming into its hardness over and over.
No matter how furiously she beat the wall, she knew she could no more damage it than she could return to the captgen’l’s quarters and claim this last Rejuvie prize. A memory of the final time she had been onworld flashed into her mind. Gods knew she’d tried to forget the horror that event dredged from her forgotten past. Forgotten? No, buried. Intentionally removed from her mind, boxed up, and buried in a hole dug by the dark deeds of nearly twenty years. That first uppercadet who had snubbed her. Rezalton, simpleton, who had helped take care of that one. That’d been her most satisfying kill, better even than all the ones she’d blown back to their makers during those downside conflicts she hated. Well, she admitted to herself, she hated being downside, but blowing people away? That wasn’t so bad. It had provided her some consolation while being onworld.
That last planetside conflict, though. She should have never volunteered for that one. They had been clearing the final rebels from MegaCorp’s rightfully owned mining world, or at least that’s what her team was told. Then, as her team battled the final group of rebels, she remembered. She’d been a little girl there. Her parents, her home, and all the things that were done to her in the intervening years until she was forced into the academy at fourteen. In her mind, on that day, those buried events had become yesterday. Gods, but nothing since had been able to wipe the pictures from her mind, the reeling, flashing images that now demanded her attention every moment of her day. Her little girl’s shattered life. Her parents dead at her side. Her home torn to its foundations. Riding in the dark cage. The men. The men. Over and over.
She could feel freedom only when the stomach-rending surges of satisfaction from the Rejuvies’ pain fed her raw nerves the sustenance they so craved. Bofsky was stealing that final opportunity from her. She could already feel the withdrawal. Her nerves burned, and she felt her need for the pain of others as they screamed in torment, their voices drowning out the horror in her head.
The last time she was on Earth, they had forced her to sit on that dais. She had sat there with groundies, her nerves still raw from that sudden remembering only a handful of sevendays before. They had seen bravery in her actions. She knew otherwise. Her actions had been fueled by blind rage and only blind rage. Even that had been a flyswatter against the black river of torment that had come flooding into her memories. Afterward, her terrors had refused to leave her alone, their blinding reminders here even today, even now in this corridor.
Her body leaning against the corridor wall triggered its built-in sensors. The molecules of its internal substrate realigned themselves, and the glassine, the strongest substance ever used to construct the giant behemoths that flew between the stars, let the light of the planet below, that beautiful world and its twin suns, flood the corridor of the ship.
Opening her eyes and looking around, Holcum could see her lonely corridor was no more. Now she stood on the edge of space. Before her was nothing but the floor on which she stood and the blackness of the universe stretching farther than her eyes could see. In this lonely stretch at the edge of the galaxy, there weren’t even stars to break the inky velvetiness of its texture, only the twin suns, one hugging the beautifully jeweled planet as its own, and the other circling at a great distance.
Unmoved, only knowing how she hated groundies and anything associated with them, Holcum cursed the glassine window wall and slapped a palm to its surface, triggering it back to a featureless, opaque solidity. Turning, slamming her back to what she had seen and all it represented, she threw her head against it and let the tears flow as she sank to the floor.
“HERE IT BE,” the control manager called to her overseer, “as Regge said, the signal, and coming this way.”
The overseer stepped to the readout. “The signal, that of a civilian pod, it be. MegaCorp, you say?” He cleared his throat. “Remote, that possibility be.”
“There it be, mas. From me, what do you wish? A warning, only, can I send. No weapons, we have; that, you know.” She looked at him for confirmation.
He motioned to her. “A warning, then, send to them. Away, they must depart.”
“Sending to them, already. Still, the signal, the same it be, mas. To do next, what be it you want?” She sat with her hands poised over her console.
Her overseer paused, and then he made a decision, snapping his fingers in inspiration. “Regge and Carli. Them, we’ll send. Then, take all the blame, they will, if this lands.” He smiled. He had his scapegoats if something went wrong. Knowing Regge and Carli, things could go very wrong, indeed.
HOLCUM STOOD before the door leading into her quarters and drew in a deep breath. Back in control on the outside, she didn’t want to lose her semblance of self-respect once she stepped out of the view of others onboard the ship. She needed to do that for herself. After a moment, she placed her palm on the lock and waited as the door opened. Casting her eyes over the sparse interior, the clean lines and lack of personal items were a comfort for her.
She stepped in and palmed the door closed. The jumble of emotions and pictures raging in her mind could sometimes be pushed into the background when she looked at the nothing surrounding her, as she stood alone in her quarters. Nothing to remind her of conflicts or people. No parents, nor the lack of friends, or even the cruelty she habitually visited on those she came into contact with daily. In this space, she could pretend her mind was this way, also. Clean. Uncluttered. She stripped her clothes off and flung them at the stor’lok, not caring for the moment if they were hung neatly or not. They could be in no more of a jumble than her thoughts. Stepping into the shower, she was glad her quarters were located at a great distance from the bridge and her workstations. The long walks and lift rides gave her transition time. At the start of each duty cycle, she had time to push the night’s terrors away. Returning, she needed the distance to prepare her resolve. People who thought she was aloof and callus didn’t see how hard it was to survive, to be strong, and to not let them know the terrors and horrors she lived with each day.
Stepping from the shower, she snapped a disposa-towel from the dispenser, flinging it into the recycle slot when finished. Moving into her room, kicking her soiled clothing aside, she was disgusted at the disorder and disgusted at herself for not hanging the items properly. Snapping open the stor’lok, she pulled down a freshly pressed uniform and laid it out on her bunk. Clean clothes would provide a fresh start for the rest of the day.
Glancing at the crumpled clothes on the floor, she rifled through her overjacket and began removing the medals and awards she would wear as she exited the room to continue the day. Laying them out on her work surface, she stroked each one with care. These tangible tokens of her military success represented who she was. These were the sum of her life. Attaching each one carefully and lovingly to her fresh overjacket, she recognized the great strides she had taken in her career. Soon, she would be in a position to command her own starstrike cruiser. They had to build her cruiser first, and with a fifteen-year build cycle for the massive ships, that meant she had to be patient. She curled her nose at this outdated wreck she currently served on. Bofsky could have this one. She would be primed and in position just as the latest model came on line. Then, these medals and this uniform would serve her well. She stroked the letters emblazoned on the front of her overjacket. M. She traced the letter and smiled. C. Her smile grew larger. MegaCorp was her life. She would be the most successful captgen’l ever documented in the history of the corporation.
Of course, no one outside the highest echelons of the MegaCorp Military Arm would ever know, as the best of the starstrike cruisers were top secret, but that was fine with her. She enjoyed running in an elite crowd. The fewer people she had to interact with, the better.
She pulled one medal apart from the rest. This one she would refuse to wear today. It was for that time, the time that had brought her buried memories alive for her. She wouldn’t be reminded today of what she was trying so hard to forget. With her anger cleansed from her, perhaps she could reason with Bofsky. Perhaps this last Rejuvie could be hers, after all.
Opening a low and unused drawer, she set the medal inside. Perhaps, when she had enough medals, she would throw this atrocity out with all the other detritus of her life, just as she had that idiot, Rezalton.
She began to put on her clothing one item at a time, a ritual she knew well. Underclothing, clean and trim, and always in standard-issue white. Some people liked to wear special-order underclothing, but not her. It disturbed her carefully maintained MegaCorp image. Others might not see what was underneath her clothing, but she knew. She always knew.
Next, she pulled on her outer clothing, and finally, her overjacket with its many medals. The reassuring weight renewed her self-confidence. For the first time since stepping into her quarters, she felt her sense of pride begin to return.
Only now, with her fresh uniform and medals in place, did she dare to envision herself as her shipmates saw her, and she was pleased. This was what she wanted others to view, and this was the only way she allowed herself to be seen. This was the MegaCorp she represented. This was the Ma’jene Holcum that stood tall and brave before the world, no matter what she’d endured to get here.
CARLI HELD out a sheaf of paper to Regge. On most modern and prosperous worlds, paper was an unacceptable medium of keeping records or sharing information, but it was something very well known on their world. While other more advanced planets had superseded the use of hard copy with technology, Trasdrom’man wasn’t one of them. It lagged far behind the rest of the inhabited systems.
Regge snatched the paper orders from Carli, the look on the other man’s face telling him he’d wish he hadn’t. He glanced at the words and then back to his partner’s face. Wadding the paper, he threw it at his console.
“Remote access? Achieve remote access, they think we can? How, when to us, the thing won’t respond? Barely to get the signal to pick up, we can.”
“Know this,” Carli responded, “expect us to do anything, the ’seer doesn’t. Just the ones who get to chase it down, we be, when it gets through and crashes. Out there, how hot be it?”
Carli had a valid reason for asking. Winters on Trasdrom’man were long and fierce, barely survivable, and never on the surface. Only in summer were the northern and southern portions of the planet tolerable for life, and then it was cruel, even at the poles. Near the equator was worse. The vastly elliptical orbit of the planet allowed it to freeze for half a year and roast for the remainder. Their world didn’t have a word to adequately express the concepts of spring and fall as understood on Earth. This year there had been no transition at all. When the seasonal transitions were exceptionally sharp and vicious, people died, and that happened often. Now, it was summer, and to be outside without a water suit was to risk one’s life.
Regge drummed his desk. “Just for a few days, summer has been here, and already dare go out without a water suit, I refuse. Want to be outside himself, the ’seer doesn’t.”
“Blame him, do you?” Carli gave a rueful grin. “Okay, give it a go, we might as well. An override, let’s try. Remember that delivery, when here to work, we’d just come?” He grinned at the memory. “Intercepted it, we did.”
Regge laughed at the mental images invoked. “Which one? That stimulant shipment, or the one for the year with all the women’s personal hygiene supplies?”
Carli’s eyes went wide. “Forgot all about that one. Fun after all, this just might be, Regge. That pod, let’s the-what-for give it!” He leaped to his feet and headed towards the door.
Regge rolled his eyes and called after him, “Or, give us the what for, it might.” He exited behind his friend and closed the door, making sure the catch was firmly latched to keep the day’s rising heat out of doors.
HOLCUM RESTED her hand on the topmost storage drawer alongside her stor’lok cabinet. She stood for a handful of breaths considering the contents: personal identification cards, information crystals, and other sundry goods suitable for blackmail or revenge. If Bofsky didn’t give in, a little backup satisfaction might be in order. Making her decision, she snapped open the drawer and slid the pile of ID cards and information crystals into her hand. Thumbing through them, one in particular jumped out at her.
Rom’n Rezalton, ultimate pansy.
Sentimental fool! Demoted to underpriv’t, and at my hand! Holcum laughed to herself. He’d been at her side from the first day she’d shown up at the academy, promoted along with her at each step of the way. His interest in her had been obvious, and she’d played him to the hilt.
Overcadet Timons was her first test for him. Rezalton capitulated without a murmur. After that, they crippled another cadet in the games competition, although Holcum had needed to plan it out for him. A little lubrication on the steps, then Rezalton setting off the ship’s emergency drill alarm just as the cadet was starting down. Holcum even secured a copy of the security feed. The cadet made it to the bottom step in record time, and Holcum won the games that year.
Oh, she’d chewed on Rezalton when he’d complained about the girl being permanently crippled. Holcum had retorted that she wouldn’t be if she hadn’t tried to take away what belonged to her. For that, the cadet deserved what she got. Holcum had no sympathy, whatsoever, for losers like her.
She and Rezalton’d been a good team, too, until he got the idea to proclaim his everlasting love for her over the three days of their T404 Trainer downside mission. She might have kept him around even then, just for the occasional kick, but the final two days of the mission started to get cloying. It was when he used the word love that her stomach turned, and she’d written him off from then on. Grow up, kid, she’d thought. Life isn’t all about first love, candy canes, and fairy tales. Some of us happen to live in the real world, and true love doesn’t happen out here.
Hope wasn’t welcome in Holcum’s world.
Glancing up at the ceiling, she threw her head back and laughed a spiteful cackle, muttering, “The irony of it all is, he’ll probably find a girl, and by the magic of the stars, he’ll live happily long after I’m dead and in the grave.” She reached and wiped her eyes, her frustrations bleeding themselves onto her face, as a second memory consumed her thoughts.
Years ago, just before she’d died for her insolence, an old gypsy woman had cursed her, warning her to be careful what she predicted, because what was set into motion by the prediction often outlived the very events that drove the prediction in the first place. Holcum had laughed then as she’d engaged her weapon. Just to spite that annoying sliver of a memory, Holcum laughed once again and spit her words in that old gypsy’s face, “Some miracle might occur today, Rom’n Rezalton, and in three hundred star-sucking years, you’ll get me just like you always wanted.” Holcum turned her head and lashed her words to the four walls of her quarters. “How’s that sound to you? You just have to wait three hundred years, but you can have whatever’s left of my dry, dusty bones!”
Mollified, Holcum stuffed the IDs and the crystals into her overjacket pocket. Rezalton and all these others would have to wait. She had a final Rejuvie to practice on, but only if she could get there before Bofsky. Striding purposefully down the corridor, she focused on how she would perform the interrogation. Many of the Rejuvies had refused to be captured alive. The early Vids brought back by the teams from downside revealed images of the welcoming inhabitants, so reasonable, knowing if they just explained to the soldiers, all the nice men and women in the black uniforms would go away and let them live their docile little lives in peace. Then, after a few rather delicious deaths, they had begun to run and hide. To get any up to the ship, they had to be tricked or captured. Those were the ones Holcum had enjoyed playing with.
Holcum had expected to get answers at first. She’d learned from Bofsky’s use of the NeuroShok, his favorite techniques for inducing the most exquisite pain, the screams growing ever louder. Subjects regularly died at Bofsky’s hand under the use of the NeuroShok, but until recently, she had assumed the deaths were due to the inferior physical specimens being interrogated. When she held that first Rejuvie under her NeuroShok, she knew Bofsky’s kills had been no accident. Moreover, she was unsure how he’d ever let any subject on any world be carried from the ship alive, no matter what intersolar law stated.
With every press of that wand against quivering flesh, with every scream of pain, with every look of terror as she stepped closer, Holcum had felt crashing waves of pleasure course through her, stronger and stronger. Soon, she was hardly able to think as she pressed wand against tortured skin, the screams seeming to Holcum the cries of a lover’s ecstasy. Trembling as she pressed the wand harder and harder into her victims, the final screams mirrored her own mounting waves of pleasure.
The room finally cleared, Holcum had known one thing for sure. Looking at the NeuroShok in her hand, she was glad the Rejuvie hadn’t had the answers she sought. No man had ever given her what this little stick just had. Whatever it took, it had to happen again. No one was keeping this from her.
Stepping into the detention block antechamber, Holcum opened the rack of NeuroShok wands, pulling one down and idly flicking it on. She had become very practiced with this during the past year, never allowing herself to think past the point when this particular thrill might no longer be available to her.
She rounded the corner, the opaque glassine wall ahead of her hiding its panoramic view of the various holding cells and interrogation theaters. Walking up to it, she tapped its surface, triggering it to clarity, uncaring how it worked, just that it did work. What she saw turned her rising anticipation into twisting hate as she caught a demonic vision of Bofsky, NeuroShok in hand, his actions already preempting her well-formed solicitous requests for this one last opportunity to experience that which no man had ever been able to bequeath her.
Turning, she slammed her still-powered wand back into the rack and erupted her anger into the corridor. He wouldn’t change his mind now. She knew that look. She knew it because it was the same one she’d seen reflected at her during that fraction of a moment the glassine had thrown her image at her, as it was rearranging its substrate to let visible light pass through unheeded.
She couldn’t stand and watch him take what was hers, to see his breath quicken, his nostrils flair, and the sheen on his skin that would tell of his rising pleasure. It was unfair for him to have this final thrill, when all she could do was watch, knowing that only a pale imitation of these pleasures waited for her from here on out.
Holcum glared at the ship’s crew standing on either side of her as she waited for the lift, and was gratified to see them melt away from her even as the internal transport appeared. This was not a moment for the corridor, for sharing. Not her mood, not her life, and certainly not the reason a black cloud of frustration and anger darkened her face. She smirked to herself as the door closed on her view to the corridor.
“Maybe, Holcum, you’re letting your true character shine, after all,” she mused to the lift’s sole occupant. “This does seem to be you lately.” She laughed, the sound sour even to her.
Feeling the IDs against her breast, she pulled them out. Salving her wounds, she perused them. At Rezalton’s, his image focused her anger, and she spat his name aloud in a string of vile curses. “May your tomorrow be three hundred years of nothing, Rezalton. May you never spend another waking moment in the world I inhabit. Once I’m finished with you, your life will never be the same. You’ll be out of my world forever, you and your romantic little I-love-you’s.” She would take care of that before the day was done. Slipping the IDs away, she leaned her head against the wall of the lift.
She straightened as the lift drew to a halt. She had to look her part. She was MegaCorp, and she must portray that image to everyone around her. Weakness wasn’t allowed. Glaring at the faces that looked in as the doors opened, her eyes dared them to enter the lift, to intrude into her space. Her presence melting them away once again, she stepped into the corridor and immediately felt the floor buckle underneath her.
Blistering suns! Holcum instantly crouched, falling into a battle stance. The ship’s been attacked, she cursed, and here I am without a weapon. She ran, searching for something with which to fight, her eyes tracking to the ceiling as she heard klaxons screaming and an announcement begin repeating itself, following her as she moved.
“Emergency escape pods cycling online.”
Dodging the other idiots that were getting in her way, she paid particular attention to the panels opening in the walls. Gods, I don’t want to be in one of those. Let these other bozos in. I want to fight.
The ship jolted again, and the lights went dark, the immediate flickering on of the emergency lighting making Holcum pause to let her eyes adjust. She exulted in the realization that there would be no emergency pods escaping from this level. The wall access panels had frozen halfway open. These pansies would have to stand and fight. They had no choice, now.
She felt distant thudding explosions from deep within the ship, sensed in the floor as much as heard with her ears. Pressing against the wall at the massed sound of pounding feet coming her way, she saw soldiers running the opposite direction, a full array of weapons in their hands. That alone told her there were undamaged and valuable armaments somewhere back along the direction from which they’d come. She waited until they passed, and her tensed muscles hurled her body toward the munitions cache she knew to be there.
Rounding the corridor that led to the nearest weapons bay, time slowed for her as she watched a slow-motion ripple begin twisting the corridor floor in front of her. The metal turned red, then, in a searing spray of sparks and molten metal, it flung itself at her, the hole her eyes dismissed as impossible reaching out to yank the very floor from under her feet.
Her eyes blinked, and in that instant, the shattering of power leads and metal bulkheads all around her became the staccato pop of primitive firearms, as old memories jerked violently into the forefront of her shock-shrouded brain. She peered through the darkness and saw them just there, over that low wall, her troops’ invisi-suits discernible to her only when they moved.
Her armament could differentiate the suits, of course, and she had no concerns about her fire hitting her own men. If the armament sensed one of her own, it wouldn’t engage. She knew the old-Earth horror tales told to every military cadet about soldiers dying from “friendly” fire. Thank the gods above and below that such events no longer happened, at least not during hand-to-hand combat.
She sensed the familiarity of this place. She blinked. She knew. Just there, down those steps was a room, and that was where the rebels would be hiding. As if led by an unseen hand, she moved forward, motioning for her troops to remain low. She shook her head in puzzlement. She couldn’t know this place, and yet she did.
As a shell exploded just to her side, the reason was suddenly there. Another memory seared itself into her brain: the little girl she had once been. Twenty years of burying forgotten horrors were wasted as her demons rose up and slammed into her like an old-Earth freight train. In that moment, she was there again, buried in the revulsion of her stolen youth. All she had treasured and believed in had been taken from her by black-suited soldiers, who then repeatedly took her youth for their own.
Standing, uncaring whether she lived or died, Holcum let out a blood-curdling scream as she fired her weapon at the enemy. Groundies were her enemy, and she would wipe every one from the face of this planet.
As the floor dissolved from underneath her feet, Holcum’s hands clutched empty air. She felt searing pain across her face as sparks and molten metal intersected her path. Her body floated in the space where her corridor had been. Sinking, she turned her head away from the throbbing, burning sensation on her face, fighting the pain, only to look deep within the inner workings of her dying home, revealed in the cavity of piping and wiring separating the level she had been on from the one she was falling toward, and then she was through and into the corridor below.
Her foot made contact with the floor, although not at the right angle; she didn’t land properly, couldn’t stand this way, and the snapping of bones and tearing of muscles and tendons yanked her memories back into the staccato beat of the present.
She felt her face, and the touch of her hand pulled away seared skin, sending additional waves of pain coursing through her body. The explosion had taken everyone on this level with it, even if the escape pods had completed their cycle to escape-readiness. She laughed and with difficulty forced out the words, “All ready to go, and no one to use them.” The final words were little more than a groan of agony.
Pulling herself up, using an opened escape pod as her handhold, with her crushed leg offering no support, Holcum considered her options. The ship buckled one more time, taking even that away from her, as she was thrown into the pod, its sensors automatically closing the hatch, filling the pod with cryo suspension gel to encapsulate the occupant, and accelerating away from the brutally stricken warship at upwards of twenty gees. Her last hissed beratement as the capsule closed over her was spat with vile anger.
“Coup de grâce, Rezalton! I’ll outlive you, you pansy!”
EVEN IN THE HEAT of the early summer, the sudden roaring in the daytime sky brought curiosity seekers out into the glare of the sun, their hands held out to shield their eyes from the brightest of the sun’s rays. Residents questioned each other, the unusual sounds pricking the wariness of those who had lived through long-ago raider attacks that had last come in a time young people only remembered as before.
Regge dodged those braving the sun’s heat. He was grateful that with the intensity of the day, some of them were already giving up and heading back inside. He turned to his friend Carli, his words coming out in puffs as he ran, “Heard me . . . you did . . . Carli.” Dodging yet another curiosity seeker, he continued, “Would not work . . . the remote tracking . . . told them, I did.”
Carli agreed. “Stupid . . . all!” He grabbed Regge’s arm and pulled him to a shaded bench. “Too hot in this heat it be, like this to run.” He drew deep, ragged breaths as he pulled a flask of water from his clothing and swigged a large draught. He held it to Regge, who also took this chance to replenish his body’s moisture. “Not even a water suit do I have on. Think you, raiders, this might be?” He cut his eyes from side to side as if he could see the dreaded and legendary raiders peering around the corners even as he spoke.
Regge laughed as he panted in the heat. “Nah! Fools, all those who think that. Raiders be insystem, only.” He waved his arm wide to indicate the far heavens. “From out there this thing came. Tracked a long way, it was. Flying pods? Ever seen one, have you? Cargo holds, their place of transport be. Part of a wrecked ship, this may have been.”
“Hurrying, then, why be we? Control its flight, we cannot. Dying with the heat, we be. Look around you. Giving up and going in a few at a time, the townspeople be.”
“To see, Carli. Just to see be why we hurry.” Regge grinned with the look of a treasure hunter who knows this might be the mother lode of all the treasures ever found.
Carli smirked and nodded his head. “Think you more women’s things aboard, there might be, like last time, maybe?” Regge laughed, his humor goading his friend on. “Or maybe this time a beautiful woman be aboard, one for you to marry?”
“Nah,” Regge came back. “Be saving this one for you, my friend. Know, do I, old, she be, and crippled and crabby, being just the kind you like.”
Carli jumped up and pushed his friend, sending him stumbling in the street. “Already have one like that, you do. Your sister, she be. Another one to want, why would I? Your misery to share?” He jumped back, crossing his arms, and daring his friend to come back with a response.
“Ah, friend, right, you be. Enough be the one we be stuck with, already. Send this one back to the skies, we will. That sister of mine, jealous, she’d be. All for her own, she’ll want you. Tear this one’s eyes out, that sister of mine will.” With that, he rammed Carli with his shoulder, sending the two of them into a scuffle, both of them trying to keep to the shady side of the way and out of the biting heat.
With their scuffles in the dust starting to attract attention, the boys soon had an attentive audience, with several of the onlookers venturing to cheer on one, then the other of the friends. A bruised elbow here, or a scraped knee there, and the two were having just that much more fun, the competition very real, the reason for the scuffle just another excuse to expend youthful energy. Then, both men were drenched, as a bucket of water cascaded over them, showering many of the onlookers, also. Carli and Regge stopped to find the cause of their drenching.
There stood old Mas. Tommeoseo, the local hair trimmer.
He yelled out, “Know your boss, I do, and like you here, he won’t. Boys, on your way you get, you hear?” He dropped his bucket to his side. “Early summer it be, and you boys, cooped up too long have been.” He pointed to the sky. “That be your goal, and lost it already, you may have. A shame on you, it will be! Trust old Tommeoseo with that, you should.” Having spoken his piece, the old barber turned and walked back through his door.
The onlookers finally dissipated in the heat, and Regge and Carli looked at each other hard; and with barely a pause, were back off down the way with nothing to dodge, the heat having forced the people back into the coolness of the city’s thick-walled buildings. They once again searched for their golden pot at the end of their much-too-hot rainbow. However, the next rainfall wouldn’t be until summer reached its end, and even that would be only if the skies deigned to give up of their life-giving moisture. That was a long time away, and this dusty world would have to wait.
IN THE HIGHEST reaches of Trasdrom’man’s sunbaked skies, a gliderhawk skimmed the tops of thermal currents that extended from the shimmering deserts below to the tips of its bladder-filled wings. Its high-pitched screech reverberated throughout the thin air, warning other ’hawks to give it a wide berth. Very territorial, the scant food carried aloft and scattered in the vaporous winds was its to claim, and it wouldn’t share what morsels it could find. Its feet never touched soil during the warm months, as its wind bladders slowly swelled each spring with the warming touch of the sun’s rays, lifting it higher and higher, until it couldn’t come down if it tried. Only the supercooling of the planetary atmosphere that signaled the start of the crushing winter ahead would bring the animal back to its underground nest. Then it would deposit the eggs that had been fertilized while on wing and die, its frozen body providing insulation and then food for its offspring for many months afterwards.
The gliderhawk first felt the trembling in its wings, as something bigger than it had ever known entered the atmosphere. With the first sensations of movement in the air, it turned its mandibles the direction of the incoming prey. Its primitive brain sending its signals faster and faster, its pumping heart driving its skin through the colors comprising the fiery side of the old-Earth rainbow, the normally tepid-hued creature now burned with the color of hunger in anticipation of its next meal.
As the object grew closer, the gliderhawk began to sense this was no ordinary meal. The pressure waves forced ahead of the incoming object began to shake the very core of the creature, even driving the sense of hunger from its primitive brain. Soon, even the heat the ’hawk thrived on had grown too great, and as it sought to find a rescuing thermal in hopes of escaping the monstrosity that was engulfing its world, the searing pressure wave came to meet the gliderhawk.
The gliderhawk’s brain knew momentary pain as the overheated air in its wind bladders swelled and expanded, those membranes stretched past their breaking point. The animal’s thermal lifting ability was ripped from it as it was shunted aside by the thundering cryo pod, and for the first time in many years, one of these creatures landed on the desert floor during the summer of its world. The gliderhawk didn’t know that, though. By the time it hit the ground, it was already dead.
“LOOK! SOMETHING overhead.” The worker shifted his water suit tubes as he stepped from the loading dock. Anyone who did more than venture into the heat and then back into the heavily insulated shading of Summer City’s stolid, thick-walled masonry buildings found the fine net of tubing worn under his or her clothes a requirement in the heat of the planet’s brutal summer. The suit’s bladderpack would disperse a gradual amount of cooling moisture throughout the suit’s net of tubing, easing the excessive warmth of the day, and beating back the heat-induced death that had plagued the earliest settlers of this formidable world.
His partner shifted her glare goggles and looked into the sky. “A retinal solar flash, it be. Your goggles be off, yes? Saw you pull them loose, I did.” She turned to her coworker with a smile that showed she thought this might be another of her prankster partner’s jokes. “In any event, why, skyward, be you looking at all?”
He poked her shoulder and pointed back to the sky. “There it still be. Laugh at me, you shouldn’t.” He reached and turned her head in the direction of the contrail high in the sky. “Just there, look, partner. See it, you will.”
Satisfied, the worker pressed his palm against his bladderpack to infuse his water suit with an additional burst of moisture and turned to lift another package from the transport. He was pleased when incoming ships were unmanned and landed on remote. No people to deal with. No one to complain about the current season’s heat or cold. Rare was it to have a day on this world that was pleasant and comfortable, and discussing it didn’t improve his disposition. It was when summer drew to a close that things would change. The roaring winter winds would hit one night, and the next morning, the driving snow would fill the skies. The runoff of the snowmelt on the still-superheated soils would fill the city’s reservoirs until the ground finally cooled enough to allow the flakes to stick. That was the time to discuss the weather, to offer warnings, or to make plans for survival. Many a city dweller had been out for a time across town on a hot summer day, a water suit with a fully charged bladderpack keeping him or her cool, only to be found frozen the next spring, winter’s blast having left him or her unprepared to simply walk across town. By then, most would have already begun the shift to Winter City in anticipation of the changing weather. There were always holdouts, though, people whose arrogance was no match for the extreme weather systems initiated by the vastly elliptical orbit of this planet around its life-giving sun.
The worker’s partner paused to look, finally locating the brighter streak across the brilliance of the daytime sky. She stood watching until her partner shook her shoulder. As she returned to moving items off the transport, just one thought kept running through her head. No good will this come to. No good at all. Whatever that thing be, gone from here, it should.
However, since she couldn’t do anything about it, and these packages did have to be moved if she wanted to keep her job, she put the thing in the sky from her mind and grabbed the next box. Moved already, one hundred thirty-seven be, and the day be just started. When be midmeal? She looked at a time image on the wall and picked up another box, dreading the day ahead, as it already seemed to stretch on forever.
THE SMALL, furred creature froze. In its experience, unusual sounds usually meant something was going to die, and this small creature had survived a long time by paying attention. One ear twitched. Each small movement of its appendage helped it locate the direction of the sound. Its tiny muscles shifted their massed tension as the vibrations in the air seemed to draw closer, and the small animal stiffened, its ears pointed firmly in one direction.
With its dim eyesight, there was only the darker brightness of the land and the blinding brightness of the sky above. Any sound that came from farther than right in front of its face would come from something unseen, something to give the creature a reason to turn and run as fast as it could, zigging and zagging when possible, a hiding hole its goal, impending death its sure future if it couldn’t find one.
The small heart inside the creature pounded in fury as the sound grew to pummel its sensitive hearing. It tried to break its muscles free, to run for safety, even as its weak eyes sensed the brighter brightness in the glare of the sky overhead. Its eyes hurt, but it couldn’t tear them away. The animal always kept its focus on the dark places its eyes were made for, not the brightness up there where this new sound was from; but this new thing had it riveted. Only as its eyes were truly blinded by the brightness of the incoming assault did the creature’s muscles finally break free of their hold.
With a flash of fur, the spot it had occupied was empty, the creature’s attention to its surroundings serving it well once again.
BURIED DEEP in the soil, protected from the sun’s penetrating heat, the small, burrowing insects that made up Trasdrom’man’s most numerous creatures moved slowly through familiar territory: a grain of sand moved aside there, a small pebble slithered around, the morsel of food taken in for the energy to crawl yet another span of its body’s length. Life moved at a very predictable pace for these creatures. Within their small world, they had no reason to fear, the top of their world’s food chain belonging to them, with the gliderhawks far, far above, and most small, furred creatures preferring those widely-spaced patches of plant growth spread across the globe.
That’s why they froze within their safe, cool, hard-earned shafts and miniature tunnels as the ground started to vibrate with the pressure wave that blasted the soil above them. At the same time, just over the safety of their buried homes, a pair of boots were planted on the vibrating soil. The person inhabiting them looked up from his troublesome transport, the power plant having failed him once again. The pilfered goods he’d managed to secure from an unlocked building in Summer City were at his feet, and he watched as the contrail moving through the sky toward him took on an orange hue. Then, in a gradual sharpening of intensity, he saw it become a fireball streaking through the atmosphere.
Jeanna’te Vapiro wiped the grime from his forehead, the dust of this world’s desert swirling about him with each movement of his feet, the cruelty of summer already upon every part of the land. Resting his repair tool on the transport’s opened power plant access panel, an absentminded movement of his hand pressed his bladderpack, sending moisture through his water suit’s tubes to provide a cooling sensation across his entire body. The water suit was life sustaining in the summer’s extreme weather, and the man let out a curse as he remembered that his water suit’s tubes around his left leg had a clog that he’d forgotten to clean out once again that morning.
Mesmerized by the incoming firestorm, his heart accelerated, driving blood through his veins, as his body released the adrenaline his brain knew it would need. His muscles tensed as his mind pieced together his location, the perceived trajectory of the fireball overhead, and its incoming velocity. His eyes looked in panic at his transport, the tool he’d been using still resting on the opened access panel, the power plant unable to be started. Then, his eyes took in the goods he had taken from the building’s unsuspecting owners and cursed again as his brain and his age-old responses tensed and flung his body—without his conscious volition—into a desperate run for life. As he dived behind a rocky outcrop, the fireball impacted the broken-down transport, sending bits and pieces flying through the air. The rain of pulverized dirt, shattered machine, and pilfered goods showered the man and his hiding place.
Standing and brushing the dirt from his body, Jeanna’te reached to pick up several pieces of debris that lay around him. “Crikes!” he sputtered vehemently. “Last week, this new regulator, just installed, I did. There be the control stick off that transport that in the city I stole last year. Double crikes, loved that control stick, I did! To have it back, I want.” Scrambling over the shattered pieces of his transport, he began to unscrew the control stick from the remains of the vehicle’s shattered interior. As he did so, he glanced at the pit left in the ground where he’d just been standing.
Absently slipping the rescued control stick into a pocket, the man stepped away from the remains of his transport and peered into the crater left by the impact. Placing his feet carefully on the edges of the hole ripped from the desert floor, the pulverized soil gave way, and his boot sank deep into the ground. He scrambled backwards, muttering to himself as he did so.
“Something be down there, surely. Wow! What a story! Taken Out by a Meteor, Unknown Man Nearly Be, or whatever that thing be. How’d that look on the Vid service?”
As the man let his eyes take in the field of debris, he surveyed the damage, accepting that his pilfered goods and his transport were gone for good. Rolling his eyes, he slapped his hand to his head, calling out, “My frickin’ comm unit! In the transport, it was. Of all the suns to go nova, why must my comm blow up? Now, the entire way back, I must walk. Thank the legendary twin suns that to put on my water suit, today, I at least took the time.” He slapped his bladderpack, then remembered the clog. “Crikes! Even if the leg on this suit works not at all. And a frickin’ long way I have to walk!”
It was a long way, and the day was only going to get hotter. The thief ran his hand over the control stick in his pocket and began his journey. He paused and searched the horizon for a moment to orient himself, the explosion having thrown off his sense of direction. Finally, making a decision on the right way to go, he set off, shaking his head repeatedly, for this was turning out to be a very bad day.
Unseen to him, beneath his feet, numerous small burrowing insects were having a very good day. No more did every grain of packed sand have to be shunted aside in the hunt for food, and those creatures that didn’t survive? Well, the insects that lived found them to be very tasty.
In the hole in the ground, the dirt continued to settle on top of the round device that, on its way down, had torn a hole in the roof of the world, stripped a gliderhawk from its home in the sky, pulverized a transport, and been the reason many small insects had paid with their lives that day. Despite all that, underneath the settling grains of sand, a green panel glowed, indicating life still lingered, waiting.
CARLI SAT at the unfamiliar control board, his hands slowly running over the sensors at first, then speeding up as the familiar movements returned to his fingers. He smiled at the opportunity to use these more advanced inputs. The old-fashioned ones in his department were certainly familiar and easy enough for him to use, but these were downright fun. He glanced at Regge, who was twirling some images on a glass.
“Regge, like to have one of those, I guess you would, huh?”
Regge shot him a half-grin. “Had one, I did, at my dad’s house. Take it with me, I couldn’t. Wanted it for his own, my dad did. Know how it works, that be why I do.” He continued to push and pull information from the databases available to him until he found just the one he wanted. “Hey, Carli. Throw this one to you, I will.” Regge flung the image from his glass and watched it appear on the display above his friend’s console. “What you be looking for, that image will have. See, you will.”
His fingers tapping several controls, the image sharpened, and one small icon grew to fill the screen. Carli grinned excitedly. “The one, friend, be it. This satellite feed, if follow it, I can, we might be able to track the landing position of that pod.” As he brushed sensors and slid his fingers up and down the various controls, some images on the viewscreen rolled and tossed themselves off the display, while others grew larger, then shrank, as the console followed the information thrown to it from the glass, tracking it back to its source. He called to his friend, “To download this infodump, make sure the glass be properly set. A lot of information this will be, and interrupt the information dump, I cannot.”
Satellite images began flashing across the display, stills grabbed from live feeds as well as short motion bursts. Carli’s eyes remained glued to the images as he searched for one that showed anything that might lead him to the location of the cryo pod he and Regge had discovered.
“Regge, that first image we saw. How long has it been, and what was the time when the atmosphere, it hit? If I jump back these feeds that much time, a calculated track and a possible landing site I can extrapolate.”
“Have to grab the image back. Bump it to me, will you?”
“Catch.” Carli twirled his fingers on a sensor and watched as the image on the viewscreen overhead wrapped itself tightly into a ball and flung itself onto Regge’s glass. Regge reached his hands into the image and pulled it inside out, pinched one side, twisted, then flung it back to the big display.
“This be when we were outside. The thing was just a contrail then, remember?” Regge walked up behind his friend to watch him do what he did best. He knew they were thought of as goof-ups in the city’s port and satellite division, but this was why they still had their jobs. They had been whizzes in their final forms at school, and they were very good at manipulating the images. He grinned as he recognized one that flashed across the viewscreen. “Stop! There, Carli. Right there.” He hopped around the console and pointed to the top of the image. “Contrails. Remember seeing that, I do.”
“Ah, ha, Regge. There we be. Stymie us, the ’seer thought he’d do, but no such luck. Watch this!” His fingers, now fully refreshed on this more modern system, flew like the wind over the sensors. Then, with a flourish, Carli slammed his hand onto a palmpad, signaling the console to extrapolate the landing site of the foreign body detected in the image.
The two men watched with smug faces as the realimage changed to a very realistic graphic tracking the contrail’s speed and direction, while factoring in the pull of gravity, the blistering summer heat, and the friction of the air as the object had knifed through the atmosphere. Overlaid on the moving shape were numbers, coordinates, and words telling what the console knew about the object at any particular instant, as the display ran forward. The picture finally showed the contrail ending on the surface of the planet with a giant X marking the spot, its coordinates overlaying the center of the X, indicating just where the men needed to look.
Reggeante slapped his friend on the back and laughed out loud. “Good at that, you be. These reminders, every now and then, I need, just to know why I put up with you the way I do.”
Carli sprung from his chair and pushed the other man on the shoulders. “Say that, you just didn’t! To put up with you, be what I do.” He licked his lips in anticipation, expecting Reggeante wouldn’t be able to resist his gibe, and he was right.
“What? You, you crude moron! Take that, I won’t,” and he shoved him back. When their overseer stepped into the room to see what the noise was all about, he rolled his eyes at the two young men wrestling on the floor, and then the display overhead caught his eye.
“Men!” He yelled the word, getting their attention. “The biggest two idiots I know, those you be, but impressive, that on the board be. Keep you around, that be why I do. Don’t ever let me down, boys.” He turned to look at them lying on the floor. “Now, out and get a cryo pod for me, go!” He turned and stormed out the door, slamming it as he exited.
Regge and Carli looked at each other, their clothes dirtied and their hair mussed. Regge reached up to flatten his friend’s wild locks, and they both grinned. Leaping to their feet, Carli hit the download cue, and grabbing the glass, Regge followed him out the door.
CARLI LOOKED over the city transport he and Regge had been assigned. Not only did it have the most skin damage of any vehicle he’d ever driven, but even in the dryness of this world’s atmosphere, it was covered with rust. He called to his friend standing in the cargo bay, “Rusted it be, but how? No water be anywhere in the city. Summer, now, it be out there.”
“Winter, Carli. Winter be what puts it on. Runs good, though.”
“Ah, Regge!” He kicked the side of the transport, his disgust apparent in his every motion. “A piece of junk, this be. Break down, it will, as soon as out of the city, we be. Thinking what, were you?”
Regge jumped down from shifting the load on the transport. He walked over and slapped his friend on the shoulder. “The adventure. All about the adventure, it be.” He looked around at the loading hangar and motioned outside the open door toward the sun that blistered the buildings standing in mute defense of humans’ attempt to live on this harsh world. He leaned in to Carli, “Better it be to sit inside, the glass display to stare at? Huh? Better than that be this day. This we do, and change, our lives may forever do. In me, you should trust, my friend.”
“True, out of the office, we be.” Carli didn’t look pleased.
Regge vaulted back on the transport. “Your water suit, you have? Wear it enthusiastically, my friend. Cool, it will keep you, and fun, this day will be. Rejoice, Carli.” At the continued look of disappointment on his friend’s face, he grinned. “Cursed to you, be this day. Cursed with the joy of interesting times.” Regge laughed out loud as he continued, “A curse for me to enjoy, that curse be!”
Carli pointed out another flaw in Regge’s plans. “No windows be in the transport. So, in the heat for the day, we must ride?”
“Whiner. For adventure, today be! To have the adventure, live, you must! Come!”
Carli leaned against the bent and rusted transport. “My water suit I be wearing. Though hot it be, travel with you for the day, I will.” His voice not sounding very glad at all, he continued, “An adventure, today will be, for sure. To me, though, a curse still a curse be. Thanks, Regge.” He wiped his face and turned to his friend. “To do what, be it you need?” The best thing to do when his friend started on a roll was to give in and go along.
Both men made sure their bladderpacks were filled with lifesaving moisture, and with Regge at the controls, and Carli holding the portable glass that would lead them toward the extrapolated and downloaded coordinates in its memory matrix, Regge paused the transport, giving Carli’s glass time to orient itself to their current position.
After a moment, he looked at his friend. “Well, say anything, does it?”
“It does. Just hoping, I was, willing to turn around and not do this, you’d be.” He reached up and pumped his bladderpack. “Turning into the hottest day of the summer so far.”
“And not getting any cooler. Still with me?”
Carli sighed. “With you, I be. Straight, you must go, and direct you from there, I will.”
With a grin, Regge stomped the power, and the machine crawled forward at the gradual pace it was designed for. Despite the driver’s grin, that was very slowly, indeed.
Finally, Carli cracked a smile. “Look, friend.” He slapped his companion on the arm and pointed. There were several examples of native fauna slowly moving through the sun-scorched desert. “Moving faster than we, the wildlife be. Be this all the power this transport’s got?” Seeing the look of consternation on Regge’s face, Carli laughed. “Get there before we do, the var’delk will. What a machine for us you’ve picked! The men we are, and with the big, bad machines; yet outrunning us the little four-legged furry things be. Leave this glass right here for you to see, maybe I will, and take a nap. Okay?”
Irritated, Regge mumbled, “Full, I hope your bladderpack be.” He glanced at his partner, and smirked to see him sit up and take notice.
“Why that, do you say?” He glanced into the back of the transport, checking for additional water supplies. He’d ask his partner to stop before they got too far from the city, but he knew Regge wasn’t about to do that, not with all the complaining he had done. “Why, about my bladderpack being full, should I have to worry?”
“Well,” and Regge gave a very long pause, “pack any extra water, I didn’t. Your responsibility, that was.”
“What?” Carli twisted in his seat. He’d been giving his bladderpack extra slaps ever since they’d pulled the transport into the sun. It wasn’t even close to full any longer. “Told me that, you never did.”
Regge looked at him, an amused expression on his face. He tapped the glass with his knuckles, leaving it flickering through several images, unsure what he intended. “Pulled up your system’s log today to check your information feeds, did you?”
“What? No.” Carli’s felt his panic on his face. “Straight to the transport, I came, just like you told me. To know, how was I?”
“Well,” and Regge shrugged. “If the message you’d get, I wondered, so wearing a double bladderpack, I be. Okay for today, I think I’ll be. How be you fixed?”
“Go back, can we, Regge? Want to get that water, I really do.” He risked death without it. How could his friend do this to him? It was the making of an unparalleled disaster.
“Now, Carli. Get this job done and run back and forth at the same time, we cannot. Just fine, I feel sure you will be.”
Carli sank into his seat, fighting the urge to tap his bladderpack. He wanted to, he really did. He didn’t want to run out of water, either, and already the day was very hot.
Oh, Regge, pay for this, you will. Pay, you really will!
GUIDING THE TRANSPORT toward the magic X wasn’t as easy as it had appeared from the city. It was way out, in the first case, and the roads indicated on the glass’s terrain simulation were sometimes no more than dusty tracks between rough piles of stones.
In this region of extremely dry summer soils, the earth was usually hard-packed, and seeing the mounds of fine matter stirred up and disbursed by the movement of their transport was surely a signal of something unusual. They truly knew they were close when they started noticing debris scattered about, pulverized rock and dislodged dirt that were very out of place. It wasn’t until they started to see bits of machinery that disappointment began to set in. They knew this was the remains of something. An object, most likely a machine, had blown up here, and whatever they were seeing, they weren’t likely to find it in one piece.
At one point, Regge stopped the transport to get out and look around. They were nearly to the dead center of the coordinates, and things were getting worse, not better. Sighting a depression with impact ejecta piled around, they noticed the great amount of machinery debris mixed in with and even partially covered by the finely powered soil.
Carli finally broke the silence. “Too late, we be, Regge. Pulverized, it was, as soon as that thing hit.” He stepped to the rim of the crater. “Hey, look. Here, footprints. Beat us here, someone else has, to scavenge the area. Even get to be first, we don’t.” He turned to glare at Regge petulantly. “Wasted the day for nothing, we have. Plus, hot out here, it be.”
“Oh, not so bad, it be.” Regge started to whistle. “Keeping me plenty cool, my water suit be. Having two bladders makes the use of water not a concern, and slapping my bladder be of no cause for worry. Great out here, this be.” He grinned, as Carli shot him a look that could slice butter on the coldest day.
“Share, can you, Regge? Very low, I already be.” He’d been very conservative with his water use, and he wasn’t even close to emptying his bladderpack. That didn’t mean he was cool, however. Just the opposite. Conserving wasn’t practical when it came to keeping cool with a bladderpack.
“Nah. Okay, that be, Carli. I be just fine with what I’ve got. Not that hot, the day be, yet. Long before your bladder runs out, back to the city, we’ll be. Just be easy with it.” Stepping closer to the depression, one of Regge’s feet hit a soft spot on the ground, and down he tumbled all the way to the bottom, with his arms flailing, and sending sand and soil flying through the air.
“Regge! Be you all right?” Carli leaped to the edge of the crater to peer over.
“Just fine. Not that far down, it be. However, Carli, all the debris? Not the thing from the sky, I think.” Regge looked up at him with a grin on his face.
Carli shot him an astonished look. “Why that be? From just standing in that hole, to tell, how can you?”
Regge stooped and rubbed the dirt from a glowing green panel, and then he turned his grin back to his friend. “That be why, friend. Standing on it, I be. What we came to find, this be it,” and he held out his hand for Carli to pull him from his discovery. “Need to dig it out, we will. That be for sure. Get on the comm, as need new hands, we will.”
Carli was in agreement that more people were necessary, as he had no desire to use up his precious remaining water excavating in the dirt. “Right you be this day, my friend. There be no dissatisfaction in me at all, except getting very hot, it be.”
Regge reached over and slapped his bladderpack for him.
“Hey, Regge. Too soon to slap the pack, it be. Make me run out, you will. Stop that!”
“Ha!” Regge laughed at him. “Be the fool, you always will. Plenty of water on the transport, there be. Loaded it myself. My silly joke, as always, you fell for. Because I like you, that be why I tease you, Carli. Smart, you make me look.”
“With those looks, a lot of people you fool. Looking smart be far from the same as being smart.”
“Ah, don’t sulk. In fun, it all was. Some help, let’s get, maybe even a remote digger, and this thing, out, we’ll manage. To see what it really be, I want badly.”
Carli looked thoughtful. “Safe for me, you think it be, to go down to look?”
Regge grinned and placed his hand on his friend’s back. With his palm, he shoved Carli, sending him sliding into the hole. At his friend’s look of disbelief, he smiled wider.
“Safe I be sure, see? Pull you out, I will, when you wish.” With that, he walked to the transport to call for additional help digging out the cryo pod, ignoring the pleas that followed him.
“Regge, now would be good. Regge? Regge, be you leaving me? Don’t leave me, Regge. Out, now, I want. Enough, I’ve seen. Regge? Regge?”
REGGE’S OVERSEER walked around the heavily damaged pod.
“At this, boys, look.” He ran his hand over its surface. “Slagged, this whole side be. Even shapeless, the metal be, where the edges on the far side, crisp and sharp should be. What caused this, I wonder?” He scraped his fingers across the green panel still glowing under the grime. “A good thing, that be what green usually means, right, boys?”
Regge jumped up on the old transport he and Carli had driven out, landing next to the pod, now loaded and tied securely to the back. Hearing a shout of triumph, he looked at the workers who had helped pull the pod from its resting place in the dirt. They all turned toward a man wearing heavy glasses under his outdoor goggles as he stood up smiling and making an announcement.
“A transport, all these broken parts be. Sitting here, it must have been, when landed, the pod did. This be why the pod be slagged, I think.” The engineer turned, looking at those around him, smug in his assessment.
Carli jumped on the transport next to Regge. Now feeling refreshed with plenty of water in his bladderpack, he quietly leaned in and quipped in his ear, “Not so smart, he be, if he thinks one transport, when hit, this damage would do to the pod. Much more than transport damage, this be.”
“Aye, but what be the cause of so much damage, even to make the metal melt?” Regge idly traced the undamaged MegaCorp logo on the one good side. “At least flash, the lights still do. Maybe what be inside will come out, and the story of all this tell us.”
As they jumped down, the overseer pulled them close, a cunning look of secrecy on his face. “For the pod, think you someone will come? If not, what might be inside? Who knows?” He looked at the others helping to clean up the area. “Valuables inside, there could be. If so, maybe share it, we could. Keep quiet about that.” He grinned at the two discoverers in anticipation of just what might be inside their find. “Track anything else, did you? For this pod to be here, somewhere out there, a ship must be.”
“Nothing else on the feed was shown. All we found, this be.” Carli and Regge both shrugged their shoulders at the ’seer.
The overseer jabbed them both in the chest. “If that be so, then ours, this be. What be inside belongs to no one but us.” He turned, and with a self-satisfied strut, walked back to his transport and its artificially-cooled interior.
As the two true discoverers of this possibly abandoned object climbed into their summer-heated transport, they commiserated with each other. They knew if it was valuable, the ’seer would want to share. But if a deadly criminal were inside, the pod and all its responsibility would belong to them, alone.
Such was the life of the peons they were on this world, but still, they turned and grinned maniacally at each other. Today had been a grand adventure, and whatever the pod contained, they would do it all over again, if they had the chance, with no regrets.