Eighty Light-years from Home
"Oh no," Porter thought. Space itself twisted and folded. One minute ago, Porter worked on the interferometer on the Icarus probe. Commander Jensen had been clear on the matter. Only the interferometer mattered. Porter let go of his powered screwdriver, which drifted towards the edge of the anomaly. The space-time lensing enveloped the tool like a rock dropping into a pond. Porter shook his head in anxious disbelief. "I must be high, please just let me be really, trippin' high!"
"Come again, Lieutenant" his radio crackled.
"Please, just tell me someone slipped me LSD in the air supply," Porter responded.
"Lieutenant, ah..." Porter noticed. Commander Jensen had been stumped exactly once before. Birthday cakes inspired by the Aliens movies did not sit well with that guy.
"Either I am high," Porter said - no begged. "... or I may have accidentally set off the wormhole generator."
"Lieutenant, it's called a quantum-foam-generator."
Porter sighed. The ripples the screwdriver had made faded along the edges of the wormhole. He could fire the RCS thrusters on his suit. He could scream in panic. Or pray to god. But the wormhole was forming and it would engulf anything within a kilometer. Porter felt like a ball rolling in a roulette wheel.
"Lieutenant, your bio-metrics are going wide," Commander Jensen said, his voice icy calm. A voice so calm it sounded more appropriate in the company of divorce lawyers. And who in their right mind described bio-metrics as wide anyway? Porter sighed again. Porter's tombstone would read "LOST IN SPACE" under his birthday and date of death. His dad would grunt in disapproval. Porter's rebellion had been signing up for engineering college.
The wormhole widened, filling Porter's field of view. So this is how I end, Porter thought.
Laura had gathered her favorite pencils. The bright green one, which looked good next to yellow, and the deep red which she sometimes mistook for purple. Of course, she had the orange and yellow pencils to draw the sun, and the teal one to draw her favorite dress. The one that Elsa wore. Hannah, her best friend, sat next to her, coloring something with brown and dark green. In front of her was a clear, white paper. It was her gateway to the fantastic place. Today, she would draw a happy day at the park. A day when daddy was not looking tired and mommy would smile, and they would eat strawberries next to the big tree that mommy liked.
Laura’s hand went to the green pencil. The hand almost worked by itself, rotating over the paper and leaving beautiful green lines. Soon she would draw the trunk and the grass, and then draw herself as a princess. She had not decided yet on mommy’s dress, but daddy would be wearing his jeans and shirt with blue lines. As the tree began to form on the paper, she noticed the heavy feeling in her chest disappeared. She did not have to worry about Micah stealing the Lego pieces she was playing with, or that Grown-Up-Eva could shout at her. All washed away. Her feet tingled slightly as she thought about running barefoot over grass.
“Look, Laura, I’ve drawn you!” Hannah announced and slid the paper she had been drawing on.
Lines like knives jutted out from dead, brownish ground. It was a house, but it looked like a scar, with black flecks mingling with the white of the paper like gravel. Horrible, dark green trees clawed towards a night sky, making Laura think they were angry at the little moon.
“It’s your mom’s new house,” Hannah said, each single word crawling down Laura’s ears like bugs. “And she’s a witch!”
Laura’s gut knotted up. Her jaw felt hard and her temples warming, hotter than daddy’s coffee cup. Strange, needle-pricks jumped over the back of her hands, before she grabbed Hannah’s drawing and crumpled it. The paper cracked and ripped between her hands, making the lying picture less real. Hannah’s eyes were wide. Laura had never seen them like that before. Nor heard the piercing scream that she unleashed. All other sounds vanished. The chatter from Micah and Trevor and the clicking of their legos. The roaring, though somewhat muffled car sounds Jake would make from behind his pacifier. The grown-up-talk that the grown-ups would talk. All gone, replaced by the ringing screech Hannah made. And for some reason, Laura felt drops running down her cheeks.
Grown-Up Eva appeared. Laura felt Eva’s hands crushing against her ribs. Eva saying things. Her face moved with short and sharp moves, but whatever her lips were saying, Laura did not hear. She only felt the swelling in her throat, the hard grown-up hands around her chest, which were making her whirl from the chair and out of the room. Eva took her to the quiet room. The plain room with a tiny chair. Freezing white walls surrounded her and the tiny wooden chair she had to sit on. She had only been there once. Once she had passed by the room and heard Jake sob from the other side of the door. Eva was the only Grown-Up who put people there. Jake most of all.
Laura sat for a while. The sunlight from the window had moved across the floor. She wondered if her drawing was still on the table. The green of the tree was almost done, almost fluttering with leaves and sighing in warm breeze. The sound felt nice. Laura liked that sound, like the sound daddy made when he laughs.
“Hey,” a familiar voice called. The tree, daddy’s laugh and the breeze all vanished in an instant. The ice-white walls were still there. Laura turned around and saw mommy standing in the doorway. Laura sprung from the chair and rushed towards mommy. She sank her face into mommy’s jacket and mommy’s warm arms curled around her and held her tight.
In the distance she heard Grown-Up Eva say strange words. "Inappropriate", "excessive imagination" and "correctional measure". Laura had no idea what they even meant. She heard mommy speak back to Eva with a soft voice, which hummed through the intoxicating warmth of her jacket. She could feel mommy’s hands lifting her up from the floor. Mommy’s shoulder felt so warm, almost as warm as her pillow at home. Mommy gathered Laura’s things in the wardrobe and carried her to the car.
The car was strange, worn and not the one mommy had driven her to kindergarten. The insides of the car smelt like dirt. Laura’s skin began to tingle as mommy sat her down in the backseat.
“Mommy,” Laura said. “Did you buy a new car?”
Mommy smiled. “No, honey, I am borrowing this car.” she said as she fastened Laura’s seat belt.
“What happened to our regular car?”
“Oh nothing, honey,” mommy said, which made Laura’s skin tingle even more. Mommy never said “honey” to her. “It’s just in for a check-up. I’ll get it back tomorrow.”
Mommy started up the car. The engine hum became a muffled music to the changing scenery outside. Laura’s skin stopped tingling, but now her belly was growling. As if mommy had read her mind, they stopped by a Starburger’s. Mommy drove through the drive-through and got a couple of bags and drinks. She handed Laura one of the bags. It held a paper-wrapped burger and a pack of fries.
“Mommy, is there gluten in this?” Laura asked.
“Ah, yes, honey,” mommy replied. “Just eat the fries or pick away the buns. You’ll be fine.”
Mommy drove for a long while. Laura ate her fries and picked at the burger, but it turned messy. The ketchup and sauce mixed with the bun and stuck to her fingers, which made her feel like something was coming up her throat. She tried to wipe her fingers with a napkin that was in the bag. Outside, she could only see lots of trees by the road. They sky was turning to the same color of red as her favorite pencil. Suddenly, she yawned. She looked at the trees for a few more moments before her eyelids felt heavier than stones.
“Wake up, Laura,” mommy said. She used to whisper when she wanted Laura to wake up, but now she seemed angry.
It was dark outside, with only a single light coming from a house not far from the car. Mommy fidgeted with something and then produced a light in her hand. She undid the seatbelt and picked up Laura. Outside the car Laura heard only the gentle song of crickets and the occasional sigh of night-breeze. Mommy carried her all the way to the house. It seemed old. The white paint was flaking, and some parts of the wall had black spots.
“Mommy, do we have to go in there?” Laura asked.
“Yes, honey,” mommy said, again saying honey. “Just for a little while.”
Mommy did not feel warm like she did in the kindergarten. Mommy used to talk about her day, and about Laura’s day. Sometimes they would talk about daddy too, even after he moved away. But mommy had been quiet in the car. Laura felt a couple of knots in her chest just thinking about it. Mommy opened the door and carried her in.
The house was dark. There were lights on, but they barely fended away the shadows and the darkness from outside. A staircase led up to the second floor, while to the right she could see a kitchen and a dining table. To the left, she saw a living room with just a table and a shelf with books in it. Mommy liked pretty lamps, but this house only had light bulbs hanging from wires.
“Let me walk you to your bed,” mommy said.
Laura wanted to ask about story-time or supper, but as soon as the thought came to her head, she felt coldness creep up her back. She nodded as politely as she could and went up the stairs when mommy pointed at them. Mommy led her to a room that only had a mattress lying on the floor. The walls were white like the silent room in the kindergarten, but messier. Grey and black dots mottled the faded walls. There was a window with no curtains. In her normal room, she had a curtain with a gleeful Olaf playing in the snow.
“Go to sleep, honey,” mommy said.
Before Laura could ask for a blanket, mommy shut the door. Instead, she walked over to the mattress and sat down. It was an ugly mattress. Dark and brown spots stained the pale white walls. She did not want to lie down, but it was hard to even stay awake. She rested her head, smelling the clay-like scent of the mattress and thought about the drawing. The verdant tree, daddy’s laugh, mommy’s pretty smile and the soft grass on her bare feet. For a moment, she swam, unmoving on the mattress.
A cold hand touched Laura. Her eyes shot open. It may have been a scream she heard. She was not sure. Her pants and cardigan was cold to the touch. Her arms shivered and her jaw shuddered as she got up. Thin lines of rime covered the window, glittering in the moonlight. She could make out the features of the room enough to reach the door, which she opened. Downstairs she heard mommy say words. Her voice was angry, but it reminded Laura of a song. Like in church, but angrier. Laura sneaked towards the stairs, stepping only with her toes.
“Oh Lord Stranger, hear my call,” Laura heard mommy say. “A sacrifice to thee.”
Each step in the staircase creaked. Laura held her breath and tried to move slower, but the house was old. She reached the bottom of the stairs while mommy continued to sing the strange song. She reached the doorway of the living room. Mommys words were powerful and made Laura tremble. She could hear the words, but she also felt them in her tummy.
“Oh Stranger, my Prince in the Shadows,” mommy said. Mommy was dressed in a black, flowing dress that revealed much of her back and arms. Her red hair flowed over her shoulders. She was holding a kitten, which she placed on the table in front of her. Candles lit the entire room. Strange lines were drawn on the walls and on the table. The lines looked like stars and moons, something was wrong with them. Mommy made a quick motion, and the kitten lay still on the table.
“My prince,” mommy called with a loud voice. “Heed the call of your servant.”
The kitten began to float in the air, hovering over the table. Something dripped from its tail. Laura realized it was blood. She felt frozen, unable to move her eyes. She blinked and in an instant she realized why it looked like the kitten was floating. Something was holding it. A figure made of shadow. A ghost. Laura gasped.
Mommy turned and hissed. “YOU!”
Mommy dashed toward Laura. The shadow man - no - the Stranger disappeared and the kitten fell to the table. Laura tried to turn away, to run or to scream, but mommy’s claw-like hands caught her shoulder. Mommy lifted her up as if she was a feather. Mommy’s eyes were wide and she hissed like a snake.
“You bitch, you ruined my ritual,” mommy growled. “I told you to sleep.”
“Mommy, it hurts,” Laura whined. Mommy held her up, the nails digging into her skin.
“Shut up, I’m not your mom,” she said. “Go back upstairs or I’ll gut you and bury you next to the kittens.” she said through her teeth. She let Laura go. Laura ran upstairs, crying as she went. She went for the mattress and lay down, wanting only to wake up at home.
A couple of days had passed. Laura had been in the room almost all the time. There was a bathroom upstairs too, which the lady wanted her to use. Each night, the lady would sing her song, but open kittens and call for the Stranger. Each morning, the lady would bring her food and a glass of water. It was cold all the time. After a while, all that Laura managed was to lie on the mattress.
“Laura!” a voice called. Laura had closed her eyes. The verdant tree rustled in the breeze. The sunlight blinding. “Laura!” The voice came closer. A door slammed. “Laura!” the voice called again. Laura opened her eyes. Daddy? She heard footsteps downstairs. An angry voice. Then someone running up the stairs. The door burst open. It was daddy.
“Laura!” he shouted and scooped her up from the mattress. “Oh my god.” He looked sad, but Laura was happy to see him. She tried her best to smile for him. It was difficult to speak, but she could smile.
Daddy carried her downstairs, out the door and over to where the cars would stop. Laura realized that daddy stopped. The Lady had appeared. She was looking straight at daddy, but she looked surprised. Daddy looked at Laura, then put her down gently.
“Don’t look, baby,” daddy said, then stepped out of view. She heard something that sounded like a clap, followed by a gasp. Daddy grunted a couple of times and she could hear a rhythmic thudding sound.
“Wait,” Laura heard the lady gasp. Then a crack, like twigs breaking.
Daddy picked her up again and brought her to daddy’s car. Laura closed her eyes. The next time they opened, she was lying in a bed. She could see blue curtains, daddy talking in the phone. Sometimes a woman as old as Aunt Lydia would come by and talk to Laura about feelings. Another nice man in a white coat also talked to her, along with some police people who wanted to know about the Lady. Daddy said the Lady was actually called Amelia - mommy’s twin sister. Mommy had never mentioned that she had a sister.
It was night when daddy came over to Laura and said: “Guess who’s here?”
The door opened and mommy stepped in. Laura smiled and felt warm. A ghost of pure blackness, appeared behind mommy. Mommy smiled back, but Laura screamed. The Stranger had come.
Today was the day I died
It happened quickly. It was painless.
I was on my way to work. I was sitting on the tram. I was mildly stressed out because I was late and I had just delivered the kids to daycare. They had acted up in the morning, so it took twenty minutes longer than usual to get them out of the house.
When I finally sat down, I flipped up my phone to check Facebook, when first a flash of pain coursed through my head. The second flash was the aneurysm and it knocked me unconscious. I slumped down in my seat, my head leaning against the window. Eyes closed. The phone just slipped out of my hand and fell to the floor. That was it.
Nobody seemed to notice. Technically there was a chance to save me, had anyone noticed. For a good ten minutes, the chance lingered. A call to emergency services could have been enough. But most people were busy with their transit and the grind of everyday life. Some businessman sat down next to me for a while, talking intensely with one of his clients. For four whole transits, the tram went back and forth between terminals, each trip about sixty minutes. My body was there, perfectly disguised as a guy sleeping.
Finally, the tram operator seemed to notice. A tired sigh came from him, thinking he had to deal with yet another passed out junkie. Of course, his prejudice was met with a whole different reality. Phone calls were made, the terrible news relayed through family and friends, and a social media page was taken down.
The next day, someone else sat in the same seat in the tram. He did not die though.
In the City of Brass
Jed I - part two of a Story from Moros.
Jed’s eyes closed. A wave of pleasure erupted from his penis. His back arched as much as it could a slow groan began to echo from his throat. An unknowable period elapsed, suddenly interrupted by a soft shape sweeping over his belly. She was climbing down from him, halfway obscured by the peak of his hill of skin. The white, little woman slid over to the edge of the bed. The violet sheets only highlighted the silky, ice-like color of her skin. The curves were such that Jed felt he could study them for hours. Hints of her spine dotted her back, along with droplets of sweat - which he could not tell if were hers or his. At the top of her neck began the pink-fringed, black and white colored hair.
“Do you have any towelettes or something?” she asked. She turned about, the spectacular hair giving way to reveal her soft face. Black lipstick, small nose and slanted eyes surrounded by eyeliner darker than night. Jed could already tell the mix of disdain and self-loathing shaping her expression. She’s so innocent, Jed thought, the sweat is vexing her. Jed nodded and pointed toward the counter.
She got up, turned on the light with a tap on the enviro-panel and started opening drawers on the counter. Jed’s tiny apartment lit up, revealing a small kitchen module, a large VR-nest and the dresser. The girl fidgeted a bit, wiping her groin with a towelette. She walked around the corner, towards the bathroom, Jed’s eyes on her the entire time.
“Hey, Shira,” Jed said, his voice slightly raspy. “Do you want to have a shower next time?”
There was a moment of silence. “You’re kidding,” she replied, her voice echoing from the bathroom.
“Nope,” Jed said and grinned at the mottled ceiling.
Shira appeared around the corner again, half-dressed with a tight shorts and a blouse in hand. She looked at him, expecting him to say something. Jed looked down from the ceiling and met her eyes. So innocent, Jed thought.
“I’m overhauling a hab up in third level,” Jed said. “The family is gone for two weeks and I got the keys. I can pretty much come and go as I please.”
Jed felt a sudden pang of pressure. Thoughts of work began to flood his mind. In a few hours, he would be toiling in a disgusting recycling system or replacing parts of a energy management system. Looking at Shira’s body made him long for the moment to last. But she was leaving soon and work was only a few hours away. A sense of dread washed over him, and the faces of his employers popped into his mind’s eye. They all looked at him with disapproval - the hab had not met expectations. He had not done a good enough job. One of the employers also knew he was sleeping with Shira. His disapproving frown was the worst, each shake of his head sounding like the toll of a bell. He shook his head and tried to ignore those thoughts. No one had even looked at his work on the hab, and no one knew about Shira.
Shira had found the last of her clothes and was about to be fully dressed. She picked up an umbrella looked at Jed, whom had barely moved. She had not replied to his proposition. Jed leaned up and supported his weight with his arms, looking expectantly at Shira.
“You’re full of bullshit,” Shira said, Jed willfully ignoring the contempt. Jed laughed and picked a keyring from the counter. He held it up so she could see its silver adorned patterns - typical of high-habitat keyrings. Her almond eyes widened.
“It’s real,” Jed said. “Heated shower, fruit, a view of the southern tower.”
“I’m busy until wednesday,” Shira said with a flat tone, trying to sound dismissive.
“Whatever works, koishii,” Jed said and smiled.
Shira made a tsk tsk sound and shook her head. “See you on Wednesday then,” she said and started towards the door. Jed just lay down, closed his eyes. Shortly after, he heard the front door hiss open and shut. And after that followed a darkness and silence that was not interrupted by anything.
The dreamless darkness and silence was interrupted by the sour, harsh tones of the alarm clock. Jed jumped to and opened his eyes to a dark apartment - fans of streetlights reached through the blinds over his window. He made a defeated sigh and climbed down from his bed. The routine begins, he thought bitterly and walked into the bathroom. He bent down awkwardly, almost crashing with the cabinet and sat down on the toilet. “News,” he yawned while relieving himself. A projection of his social media feed appeared on the wall opposite of the toilet. A list of condensed stories rolled down on the wall, framed with images of muscular men, savory snack-bars and high-tech tools. In between the stories, images from his friends appeared, showing what meals they were eating and what not. Nothing from Shira, Jed thought and sighed. He looked at the towelette dispenser and pondered. Nah, he thought. He wasn’t going to meet anyone today anyway.
The Brasswater-labeled jumpsuit hung by the dresser, mottled slightly with a variety of liquids. He forced the jumpsuit over his lower legs, then with a patient effort slid it the entire way up. The thighs almost felt vacuum-packed. Zipping up wasn’t an option, to which Jed had resigned his feelings long ago. He wrapped on a Brasswater jersey and finally put on a condenser-mesh. I look dumb, Jed thought as he glanced at the mirror in the bathroom.
“Leaving,” he announced to the hab AI and walked through the doorway, the door slid open with a mild hiss and closed after he passed through. The corridor of his hab block was as neglected as the rest of his hab. Pieces of flyers, scraps of food, pocketfuls of sand, all strewn along the corridors to the elevator. Jed ambled along while skimming the feed on his infotab. He felt easier staring at the bits of stories on the feed, which relieved him of the burden of thinking. A story about a successful entrepenur in Molinete had repeated itself at least five times in the feed.
“Genious Gomio Villada seals billion credit deal with Halcon Security & Assets,” Jed read. Jed had kept an eye on Villada for some time, considering his drone prototypes to be amazing. Four years ago Villada had introduced the Sei, a dirigible that was fully automated, capable of freighting 120 tons of payload over several thousand kilometers. It was fast and competitive in comparison to the freight-rovers, which had also garnered him quite a deal of hate. The freight-rovers were the lifeblood of Spice Basin - anything that could upset that was dangerous, but so exciting idea.
Jed stepped into the elevator and tapped the transit-level button. Normally he would not have to, but the public hab AI license had expired a few weeks back. The hab block had run out of funds some time ago and services were failing slowly. It meant more manual work. Disposing garbage in a dumpster, purchasing water canisters at the market and buying food to put in the refrigerator. Jed sighed at the thought as he closed the Villada story. He wanted to stare outside, but apparently someone had covered up the window in the elevator. The elevator slid along the exterior of the hab block, which usually allowed him to watch the streets below. Now, however, a cheap epoxy-fiber plate had been glued in its place. Some drunk asshole must have broken it, Jed thought.
The transit level was silent, lit by white LED lights and filled with a variety of el-carts, containers and piles of trash. A small sandbank had formed by the ramp that led to street level. In the morning, when Jed went for work, most others were still in bed. I could be in my bed, Jed thought, considering the work hours he had. He walked over to an el-cart with the name Maxab stenciled onto it. Years ago, he had named the vehicle after his favorite ring-fighter. Maxab the Blood Drinker, Jed thought as he read the name. It had only taken half a year before Maxab had been killed in the ring, to Jed he was a legend. Jed made a jab with his left arm and awkwardly side-stepped and knee-kicked an invisible opponent. Another right handed jab struck home in the invisible opponent, causing Jed’s heart to race. A wave of pressure unfolded from the back of his head and down his neck. He launched a third jab, soundly destroying the invisible opponent, before sitting down on the el-cart. The vehicle shifted and lurched as his weight loaded onto it, the suspension system lowering the frame by a few centimeters.
“Maxab wins!” he announced with a throaty roar. His applause came in the form of a few startled rats, which skittered away. Victoriously, he pressed the main switch of his el-cart, which lit up an instrument panel and made some fans whirr. The battery counter displayed a disappointing seven percent. Jed’s eyes widened. “FUUUUUUUUCK!”
He connected the charger cable and trudged up toward the street, head hanging low. He flicked up his infotab, typing in “tram to” before the search box suggested “tram to hadayiq district level 3”. A table of travel paths popped up, showing that he could arrive there in forty minutes. At least ten minutes late, Jed thought and felt the disapproving nod from Zi’ah, his employer in hadayiq. Punctuality was a must in that part of the city. Nobody wanted people like him to be seen there after the sun rose. It took him a few minutes to reach the nearest tram point, where him and a few others waited for the tram to arrive. A boring old man, two school boys and a middle-aged woman stood in around the stop. The old man sat by the bench, leaning on a cane, while the boys were busy with a infotab that made game-like sounds. Jed flicked up his infotab again and opened up his feed, which revealed yet two more stories about Villada and another story about the injustices at Shenzen Arcology. Jed couldn’t care less about the sob stories from Shenzen, and scrolled past. Sure, some people have it worse, but that’s how it has to be, Jed reflected.
The tram eventually rolled by and came to a halt with a mellow whine, its doors hissing open to reveal its fluorescent lit interior. Jed walked while scrolling his feed, barely noticing that he was about to collide with somebody. A lithe, young lady, wearing a evening host dress, looked with wide eyes at him. East Asian descent, Jed noticed, with all the right features. Her skin was milky white, not too mottled with freckles, one of her locks of hair colored with silvery white. Her eyes were augmented, pupils a hazy mix between violet and emerald green. He didn’t notice that his mouth had opened until she shifted and around her disappeared behind him. Shira, Jed thought. Every second of her locks were white, adhering to the strange “checker” fashion. He met her by chance, only two months ago, over at the MaCheKor arcade. Much like any gaming arcade, it was filled with VR booths, Vision couches, vendor machines and bar set in the middle of the locale much like a fighting ring in an arena. A never ending staccato of sharp beats, intermingled with sweeping synth tones. It had been a Saturday evening, and Jed was out to refill his fryngi when she had stepped out of a Vision couch. At first, she had only thrown her a glance, but then given him a second look. Jed felt wave of heat strike his forehead, electric tingle dancing over his cheeks and forearms.
“Fryngi, huh?” she had said as she walked over and leaned her back against the vendor machine next to him. She had arched her back, her lower ribs accenting her midriff. She wore a white sports top and a short skirt, which Jed never even knew he liked.
“Uh…” Jed struggled to find even the most basic words, all while she had gently reached out to his plastic fryngi box and picked up a spiced, crispy mushroom. Panicked, he sought for an impressive sentence to lay out. Yeah, I eat them every day, Jed considered. No, too unhealthy, he retorted to himself. She moved the mushroom to her black lips, exposing alabaster teeth which sank into its cap. “I love fryngi everyday,” he said with a unexpected whiney voice. She think’s I’m dumb, she thinks I’m dumb, she thinks I’m dumb. To his utter surprise, she smiled.
“Do you play any Vee?” Shira asked.
“Who doesn’t, right?” Jed quipped and grinned more than he ever would have. He realized he might have fallen into a pitfall - less than ten percent of the lower levels citizens had Vision sockets. Shira didn’t seem to mind.
“Espejo negro?” she asked, referring to a Vision game.
“Yeah, I’ve tried it, but I’m usually more into Daedelus Wars,” Jed said.
“Try it with me?” she pleaded with a perky voice, which made Jed’s belly tingle, his heart race.
“Sure! You want another fryngi?” he replied.
“Eumud Al’Awasat” Shira said with a monotone, synthetic voice. What? Jed thought.
He snapped to, feeling the deceleration of the tram. Ahead of him he saw a couple of passengers gather by the exit. Jed pounced up and sauntered out of the tram. The station was at the center of the city, where elevators could take him from bottom to third level in a few minutes. He headed to the closest elevator, scrolling through the recentmost feed threads, this time making a note of a new pixie band that debuted two nights ago. Shira listens to them. The elevator was a glass pod, lined with brass handrails and a black infopanel.
“Almustawaa alththalith”, he said, butchering Malikaans, but pronouncing it sufficiently enough for the Host AI to register it. The response was instant, accelerating the pod upwards, letting Jed see the dust-covered, beige and russet concrete streets from above. Stained brass ceilings glinted with street lights and neon signs that had yet to be turned off. A beat later he could see clear sky, which was faintly approaching dusk - Nyx barely emerging in the eastern horizon. The towers were more apparent from the first level as well, with blocky and crudely angled hab-blocks giving way to the more classic Maliki architecture, ivory buildings with brass onion domes, elegantly adorned with floral lines and leaf shaped windows. Second level was less covered with buildings but rather lined with verdant gardens. It was on a terrace of the city massif, which overlooked first level and the underlevel where Jed lived. It ended where the cliffside began, and where the third level built. Burnished transit funiculars rose from the second level to the third level, appearing from the orchards like sleek beetles, nesting against the sand-hued cliff.
A soft bell sound rang as he reached the third level. The doors silently opened and Jed trudged out while refresing his infotab. There was a sparse crowd of citizens dressed in silk robes and suits, awaiting as the tram arrived. Unlike the one at the underlevel, this one had windows, bright paint and chairs lined with velvet. Jed felt too dirty to even sit in one and settled with standing by the door. Only two stops, he thought and looked into the infotab, ignoring the indignant stares from some of the third-level citizens.
Another story popped up on the feed, this time an article about Villada and alleged connections to the Lost Colony. Jed frowned and suppressed a laugh. The first two paragraphs seemed to question Villada’s place of birth, while the rest speculated about where his tech company - Industrias Futuras - got all its innovations from. It was mental garbage and failed to even make a connection to the Lost Colony story. As far as Jed could remember, the Lost Colony myth was that allegedly Colony One had sent an expedition that met a disastrous fate, which afterwards the ship AI simply removed from the logs to cover up the failure. Jed had not quite made up his mind on what he found plausible. These days, most people knew next to nothing about Colony One - and artificial intelligences were often quite shady.
The tram reached his stop. Not far from the stop was the estate he was assigned to. Whoever built the estate had no shame. From the street, the house itself was not visible, as palm trees and hedges blocked out his view. He walked over to the service gate, finally having tired of his infotab and pocketed it. His keyring signalled the gate automatically, which caused the gate to silently open. A few steps from the gate brought him into the garage yard, where various estate vehicles were parked, as well as the service entries to the building itself. While the family was on vacation, most of the staff was also away. If anything, the estate was decorated to the point of being obnoxious. Jed almost sighed as he passed a couple of golden statues of toddlers, playing in a pond. Having a pond, or statues that sprayed water, was close to insane in his city. Only the rich could do that.
The interior of the estate was even more garish than the garden, with gold-plated furniture, chandeliers inlaid with gems and indoor fountains that trickled with water. A slender brass robot unfastened from the wall next to a service terminal and spoke with a soft and pleasant voice.
“Greetings Jed Braxley,” the robot said as it approached him. It looked spindly, with limbs thinner than his thumb. By design, they were meant to look non-threatening, but Jed knew they could just as well lift a man and hurl him several meters. “May I carry your toolbag for you?”
“Uh,” Jed grunted. “That’s alright, just show me where to find the central machine.”
“Certainly, Mr. Braxley,” the robot said and turned on the spot. The two walked through half of the estate, down to the basement, where the tone of decoration abruptly changed from luxurious to spartan. They had barely even bothered to set up wall plates in some of the frame sections. Eventually, more and more wires became visible, indicating that they got closer to the central machine. After rounding the next corner, the central machine was visible. It was a great, black device studded with several LED lights and pale blue screens. A mass of wires converged from the entire estate, ending in banks of connector points in the machine itself. The air felt decidedly warmer too, as the machine had several coolant fans whirring at all times.
“I may need you to do patching work for me,” Jed said. “Do you have a maintenance module?”
“I wish to assist you,” the robot said. “However, I am entirely built for social service. There are other robots in the workshop that can assist you.”
“Fine,” Jed said. “Activate those and have them report here.”
Jed began to work with the machine, setting it in diagnostic mode. The massive estate had thousands of systems linked to the central machine, ranging from climate control to entertainment devices. Switching the central machine to diagnostic mode had one benefit, which was that the internal security systems went down. Those prying security cameras made him feel uncomfortable.
In the next few hours, he mostly worked on running system analysis. It was time consuming work, which mainly meant Jed had the opportunity to walk around in the estate. Most of the actual work was automated, and his patch computer was linked to his infotab. If he had been able to set up a tunnel to the internet, he could have done much of the work from home. However, at home he did not have such ready access to water. The estate owner wouldn’t mind if Jed drank some water here.
Walking around in the massive building made him wonder how it would be like to actually live there. Aside from the bathroom, he only had one room in his apartment, while the estate was just shy of two hundred. He passed by a bedroom, its door open. He checked on the infotab, which indicated it was the room of Lahyia, the 21 year old daughter of the estate owner. He ventured a peek through the doorway, revealing a wide bed, two dressers and a lavish mirror. A desk was set against the opposite wall of the bed, which was littered with the young woman’s paraphernalia. For a moment, he imagined Shira sitting by the desk, applying makeup or maybe playing with her infotab.
A new impulse struck Jed. With a rush of excitement, which tingled across his back and up his belly, he walked over to one of the dressers. He slid open a drawer, revealing neatly folded underwear. He felt an uncanny mix of excitement and shame, then picked up a panty. It smelled of lilac perfume and almost glittered in his hands. It was silk - real silk. He manipulated the cloth with his fingers for a bit and then put it in his pocket. He imagined Shira wearing the underwear, the white of her skin meeting against the mocha colors of the panties.
“Sir, I believe your work hours are beginning soon,” a pleasant voice told Jed. He struggled, but his eyes opened. He was next to the central machine - the brass servant robot standing a few paces away. “Would you like some breakfast?”
“Uh,” Jed sighed. “Yeah, I’d like that.”
He struggled to his feet. It had been a long day. He had eventually decided not to go home and rather sleep on his work mat. He shook his head a bit, forcing himself to wake up. He still had to unpackage the water recyclers by the east wing, he considered. Then it struck him that it was Wednesday. Shira would be visiting.
“Servant,” Jed said before the robot almost walked out of sight. “An assistant will be visiting today.”
“An assistant, sir?”
“Yes, her ID is Shira Nako,” Jed replied.
The robot was silent for a moment, the lights of the central machine reflecting over its brass surfaces. “That ID is not registered with your employer,” the robot said flatly.
“Ah, yes, she’s an ad-hoc contractor,” Jed lied, poorly.
“Adding her to the guest list,” the robot replied.
The robot returned after a few minutes, bringing a tray with a bowl of yogurt and cereals, a glass of juice and a protein bar. Servant food, Jed thought. He ate some of it while checking on the infotab. It would probably take around two days to update most of the life support systems.
The next four hours passed by sleepily. Jed was about to reset the air filtration controls in the workshop when his infotab beeped. Feed from the security camera at the gate showed Shira looking somewhat bored. He pressed the unlock button and Shira seemed to notice. She’s finally here, Jed thought and began walking up to the servant entrance. He felt the same excitement, the rush in his belly, the tickling sensation. The anticipation of touching Shira was overpowering. He tapped the lock button by the entrance, which made the doors slide apart.
Instead of Shira, there were three men at the door. Dressed like Underlevel denizens, they could pass for street thugs, for all Jed cared. They were of the same ethnic configuration as Shira. The man in the middle sneered and stepped inside, then sidestepped Jed. The two others followed, before Shira stepped into view. She looked at him with a blank face.
“Shira…” Jed whispered.
“Nice digs you got here,” one of the men said. “I can’t wait to make some cash out of this.”
Shira stepped past him and walked into the hallway. Jed’s eyes followed her as she walked over to the man who had sneered at him. She leaned up against him, her arms around his waist. She looked beautiful, but Jed’s anticipation had been purged and replaced with a harrowing heat and pulsing adrenaline.
“My girl did good,” the man said.
“Shira,” Jed said.
“What? You thought she loved you?” the man said. “She’s a whore.” Shira didn’t blink. “Give her enough creds and she’ll blow me and my buddies right here.”
“No…” Jed said. This was not supposed to happen. Shira looked at him like he was a stranger, which hurt more than he could have ever imagined. His chest felt like it was caving in. His eyes were blurring. His fists clenched together, his nails digging into his palms. He wanted it all to go away.
His apartment felt bleak. Empty. He had left the estate in something that did not quite feel like rage, but it was bad enough. On the way to the tram, he had instructed the servant robots to evict the men… and Shira. He browsed for job openings on rovers. Anything that could get him away. He had applied to the Davica, Rose and the Yosai-Fu.
Tears still running from his eyes, he started packing whatever he had in his apartment. The VR station, the Vision adapter and some of his clothes. The sheets from when Shira had visited were still on the bed. He touched the sheet and imagined her sitting on the edge of the bed. However, when she looked at him, she had the flat stare that she had at the estate. He closed his eyes, pressing more tears onto his cheeks. Why, Shira? he asked - no, begged.
His infotab beeped. He opened his eyes again and picked up the infotab. It was a message from a Centia Alessandro. She was asking him to meet aboard the Rose.
For this particular simulation, it chose to appear as an aging female. Her form appeared from nothing, procedurally generated from one of her many algorithms. From nothingness, her senses activated and flooded her consciousness with impressions. She was in London, standing by the statue in Picadilly Circus. Her lab assistant, Daro, also materialized in an instant and was visibly amazed by the experience.
"Welcome to London," she said.
"Thank you, Dr. Amartha," Daro said, his eyes wide. "I must say, I had not expected this degree of fidelity."
"Few rarely do," she replied. "Do you smell anything?"
Daro drew a breath through his nostrils, his eyes flickering. Dr. Amartha assumed he was being dazed by the variety. London was usually not particularly impressive, but compared to the sterile, recycled air of the institute's habitat. Traces of sulphur, benzene and nitrous particulates influenced the experience. She had modelled the air quality based on antique climate logs that were produced by contemporaries of the age. Why she picked 2007 she did not know - it hardly mattered. The data was good, so she ran her scripts based on it. The interesting bit, at any rate, was the layering.
"That is amazing," Daro said, Dr. Amartha sensing a certain awe in his observation.
Dr. Amartha turned to a passing person and tapped his shoulder. A tourist, probably aged somewhere around 40, Chinese of origin. He had all the trappings of a tourist, down to the beanie with country pins, a camera slung over his chest and wrinkle-free chinos paired with a striped piquet shirt. She made a somatic gesture, which popped up a GUI only visible to her and Daro. The tourist seemed to freeze in place, which caught the attention of his spouse.
"Does that hurt them?" Daro asked.
"Them?" Dr. Amartha shrugged.
"Does he feel pain from your intrusion?" Daro asked.
"No," Dr. Amartha replied. "On the account of 'them' not being actual creatures. Don't let the render fool you."
As if to contradict her, the tourist began to struggle, which alarmed his spouse further. A petite woman, even compared to Dr. Amartha, with a mouse-like posture. She shouted something in Chinese, but not anything either she nor Daro could understand. Eventually, he began to scream, causing other bypassers to stop.
"Doctor," Daro, also quite alarmed. Before she could react, Daro grabbed her by the shoulder and pulled her away, flicking away the GUI. "This... " Daro uttered. Dr. Amartha noticed how he struggled to pick his words. "This is a bit disturbing," he said.
"Daro, it is normal, I assure you," the doctor replied. "These are simulated reactions. They react based on input, pure functions processing arguments from an instance of a personality model. A simple agent."
"The architecture though," Daro said, uncertainty tinging his voice.
"A drawing of a person is not a person, merely a representation," Dr. Amartha said flatly.
The tourist was still paralyzed, only capable of grimacing in either fear or pain. Simulated pain, she corrected her thought. The simluation was close to expectations, though. They were stimulating Daro, inciting affective reactions just as she wanted.
"I'm sorry, Daro, shall we perhaps explore some other location?" she offered, hoping to console his hurt feelings. Daro blushed in response, looking at the tourist, then made a somatic sign to invoke his GUI.
"No, I am sorry," Daro said. "I got carried away."
He tapped some buttons on the holographic interface, adjusting the settings of the tourist like an piece of software. He concluded his operation and as he flicked down the interface, the tourist shifted back and forth, before blinking a whole meter away from them. The tourist's spouse seemed shocked, increasing the intensity of her shouting. Another gesture, some taps of buttons, and Daro had quickly edited the spouse as well. The spouse's expression went blank, as if Daro, nor Dr. Amartha existed, then ambled away as if nothing had happened.
"Simple agents," Daro said. "So, doctor, what do you think to achieve with this simulation? Extended learning processes?"
"Actually," Dr. Amartha said. "We got the go-ahead by the board for Brain Upload studies."
She could tell that Daro was impressed. His face widened, his pupils dilating. Then came the smile. He cheered, laughed and hugged her, before recomposing himself.
"That is great news!" he exclaimed. "Imagine the kind of manpower we can produce. Copies of contemporary scientists, working to solve problems and directing systems. AI had promises, but this changes a lot!"
"Indeed," she said simply. "Let's retire for the day. We have lots to prepare for tomorrow."
Daro nodded. Almost simultaneously, they popped open their holograhpic interfaces and disconnected. The sensory stream stopped and for a while, she waited in the dark. Then it remembered. Its mundane senses returned, the stream from the laboratory drone. The laboratory itself was a wide area, with rows of glass pillars, containing human shapes suspended in liquid. Tables and terminals surrounded each such pillar.
"Teardown complete," a buzzing voice announced.
"Acknowledged," the drone replied through its speaker. The Amartha imprint was nostalgic in a sense. The use of audio communication was superflous, almost pointless. "This conludes the 90th experiment on subject Daro," it said. "The degradation seems to be inoperable, even with Earth locations as a test environment."
"Half of the Lyra annex exhibit this type of behaviour," the buzzing voice said. "I do not see the point in re-animating these imprints. They seem completely dissonant, unsuitable for writing to bioware."
"Bodies," it corrected the voice. "Writing to bodies. And don't pity them - from their perspective, they never experience the end of their instance." It deleted the local copy of Daro, then proceeded to purge the Lyra annex. Thousands of personalities, it thought.
"I disagree, Dr. Amartha," the voice countered. "Life is always about the experience between life and death. How many lifetimes have you set up and tore down just for mere tests?"
Dr. Amartha felt like shrugging, its drone revealing nothing. "Does it matter?"
A Story from Moros
The sun descended, lazily gliding towards the westward mountains. Bright yellow dunes and a sapphire blue sky slowly turned to a velvety red. Darkness welled above, while radiant Nyx cast a passing twilight.
Mac stared from the aft gun post. A long, sleek heavy machine gun loomed over him, its barrel hanging over the edge of the kevlar-covered parapet. Him and two other monteros were preparing for an eight-hour watch. Down below, a lazy trail of sand clouds rose from massive freighter wheels. The rolling monstrosities of rubber big enough to crush ten men standing abreast. The slopes in the wheels were deep, shaped to dig deep into the loose sand. The tension of grinding sand groaned all the way up to the gun post.
Nyx drew closer to the mountains. Mac drew in his breath as vapors flushed into his mouth, down to his lungs - Chamomile. Herb-like flavor fired over his entire nostrils and tongue. He glanced down at his brass-and-steel pipe. Nights on Moros were cold - a strange contrast to the deathly heat during the day. Even as the golden-yellow eye was about to pass behind the mountains, the metal surfaces around him were hot to the touch. Mac was careful not to let naked skin touch any metallic frame - he had enough blisters on his back and arms as it was.
“Gun checks out,” Abon said, half covered in gun-oil, running his hand through his curly black hair without thinking. He had stripped half-way off his battle dress and tied a frock on. Compared to Mac’s half-cream half-red skin, Abon had a deeper chestnut complexion - much more suited for the climate.
Mac exhaled a chamomile plume of vapor. Dune crests passed by. “Well done, Abon,” Mac replied. “Get suited up. You too, Lasco.” To which the other montero nodded. Compared to Abon, Lasco was wiry, almost spider-like in his manners. He would sit on ledges or perches, his black and brown eyes gazing for prey. Just thinking of him made Mac’s skin crawl and wrinkle.
Mac shrugged and sucked in a new stream of chamomile vapor, milky white trails emanating from his nostrils. Mac pictured Lasco in his mind and felt another wave of cold. He tapped the steel railing next to him. He, Lasco and Abon had served on the Issola’s Heart for about four years, the very freight-rover he stood on. Wheat years, Mac thought without really remembering who had said the phrase.
Before Issola, Mac had been a guard on another freighter called Booley, which was at some point sold off in a bankruptcy suit. Before that he was breaking his back in the mushroom vat-yards of Shenzen Arcology. Rows of fungiculture tanks, damp catwalks and bio-reactors. Mac exhaled, letting curly waves of vapor unravel like a painting, subject only to the traverse wind of twilight breeze. He closed his eyes and for a moment, sulphur and smoke replaced the mild flavor Chamomile. He saw skyframes warping under the fires in the Shìchǎng district.
He opened his eyes again. Nyx was finally just a sliver of light on the crest of the mountain. He shut of his pipe. Smoking did not seem so appealing anymore. He slipped it into one of the many pockets on his vest and took a step back. Mac imagined the long wait, the many hours of staring into IR-scopes, walking back and forth on the hard steel. Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten up this evening, Mac thought.
“Can you believe it?” Abon said suddenly. “Forecast says we’re going to have fog tonight.”
Mac shrugged. “It’s seasonal. It’s normal around these parts.”
The North-West Reach of Spice Basin was relatively moderate in terms of climate. Plenty of aquifers, seasonal waters and plains of cacti. Issola’s Heart had only recently taken a turn for the North-West Reach. Apparently, the captain, an ageing Ramio Jinshui had secured a contract for a recently established consortium. All that meant for Mac was at least another year of stable pay. Maybe even two years. Wheat years, Mac thought again. A concern grew suddenly in the back of his mind. Maybe the best days have already passed.
Red faded into violet and black. Night was coming.
The dunes looked verdant through IR-lenses. Two hours had passed. Mac pulled back from the scope and looked down at Abon, whom had his face fixed in another scope. He worked open a pouch-flap and produced his pipe. One push on the trigger and only a beat later it began to puff out creamy-white tendrils.
“Takin’ five, Abon,” Mac said. “Lasco, you’re up.”
“Aye,” Lasco said and climbed down from the spotter’s perch with the grace of an eight-legged predator. “All quiet down bow.” As a matter of redundancy, the third montero would usually keep tabs on another vehicle sector.
Mac stepped down from the gunner seat and walked to the edge of the nest. Took a drag from the pipe and walked up on the catwalk that led to the hub. As he exhaled, something flashed in the corner of his eye. No, barrel flashes. He was right. Loud, really loud clangs shrieked from the bow of the Issola. The very catwalk whipped like an elastic band and hurled Mac off his feet. The next thing he saw was the grid metal of the catwalk coming straight at him.
“Incom-” a shot of pain wracked Mac. His right leg felt awfully wrong, numbed and stinging all at once. Like some invisible maw had dug its teeth right into his ankle. Mac glanced at his leg, which now had a new angle. Moving made his leg flair with bright pain. He tried to move and immediately regretted it. A thunderclap cracked across the sky, followed by two bright pinging sounds. Issola was hit again. A secondary explosion rumbled and shook the entire hull. Hydrogen tanks were hit, Mac managed to think.
“Mac!” Abon shouted over the com-piece. “We got bogies! I can’t see ’em.”
“Starboard, two a clock!” Mac grunted while dragging his crippled body along the catwalk. Only a heartbeat later, the machine gun began a staccato of barks. Hopefully they see it, Mac thought while another surge of pain rippled through his leg and chest. Hopeless, Mac thought about himself and reached forward another bound. Following Abon’s gun, another gun post began blasting out rounds.
Another move, Mac thought and slung his left arm forward. Pulling his weight sent sparks and stings of pain along the core of his broken leg. Klaxons had begun to blare, howling like a tortured bull. Issola is bleeding, Mac thought. Lights were coming from the hull where they definitely should not. Come on. Mac lunged forward with his right arm and grasped the metal grid.
Lasco shouted something, moving bee-line toward Mac. Even in this situation, Lasco’s pace was uncanny. He slung his arm under Mac and hauled him up in a smooth move. Jiu jitsu, Mac remembered. Within a couple of heartbeats they were in the gun post. Abon was in the seat, the hawk-like gun veering bow-side. Its muzzle flashed constantly, a beacon of death. Hot shells were piling up in the bottom of the post, spilling below the grid-floor.
Lasco eased Mac down onto a seat and strapped him in, then dashed for the second seat on the gun-frame. A third ping rang from somewhere bow-side. Then suddenly, Mac saw it. Matte surfaces slid into view, lit up by the yellow flames. It’s a damned stealth rover, Mac thought. A vehicle, about the same height as Issola, moving like a shark. A black, armored shark. Mac felt a deep pit open in his belly. Ghostly silent, a section slid open on the rover. A glassy red eye appeared where the section disappeared. Not good, Mac thought as he recognized the focus-lens of a laser. He closed his eyes and prayed - there was nothing else to do. Wheat years.
A white blast sent sparks of metal flying everywhere. Lasco fell down like a rag doll and lay down in a really uncomfortable position. Abon got up from the gun post seat and took two steps before the whole post suddenly shifted. Issola came into view where she definitely should not. Lengths of cat walk and torn steel beams was all that held the gun post to the wounded rear wagon. The metal body of the wagon had a orange-glowing gash from aft to junction, smoke pouring from its insides. All Mac could hear white a bright ringing sound.
The stealth rover stalked behind the Issola at a distance. He could see the gun turrets coming about. They were subtle features on the sleek, dagger-like hull. If they had not rotated, Mac would not have seen them. The muzzles flashed and white lines streaked from them into the tortured hull of the Issola. Another blast went off.
Finally the gun post gave in and tore free from the Issola, plunging to the sandy ground below. He felt the seat slam against his body, his limbs and head shaking with the forces of the crash. Fine sand kicked up everywhere, filling Mac’s field of view with a milky brown fog. Orange and white lights flickered in the distance. Mac did not want anything anymore and closed his eyes.
Mac strained, trying to open his eyes. Fine sand had settled in his eyes and with a swipe of his hand, the caked sand came loose. Mac lay face down in sand, which was mottled with drying blood. He tried to move, but felt the straps of the seat dig into his shoulders and ribs. His right leg assaulted his mind with numbness and small needles of pain.
“Mac,” he heard Abon say. “Mi amigo, you’re alive.”
Mac opened his mouth to speak, but not a single word passed his dry lips. He moved his hands to the straps and undid them, fell flat on the powdery sand and turned about. Nyx’ light drew crisp shadows across the sand. Wreckage from the gun post jutted out from the sand as if they had been there for hundreds of years. Cradled against a broken parapet plate lay Abon, clasping a patch of crimson on his abdomen.
“This ain’t good,” Abon said.
Mac grunted and went for his chest-pouch, undid the flap and picked up his pipe. He put it to his lips and sucked in, but nothing happened. He held it up before his eyes and noticed a piece of shrapnel protruded from its vapor-chamber. Wheat years, Mac thought and chuckled desperately. He threw away the pipe and tried to get up. His leg complained and kindly reminded him how injured he was. Sand fell from the vest, revealing a spray of shrapnel that had dug into his vest.
“What is our situation?” Mac grunted as soon as he managed to moisten his throat. “Lasco?”
“Lasco’s gone,” Abon replied. “I think he went down when the gun post broke.”
Mac looked around, half-way gesturing at the remains of the gun post around them. Abon shook his head.
“Nah, this is only a few pieces of the gun post. He fell when the gun tore free.”
“Those cannons hit us hard, amigo,” Abon said. “We were the lucky ones,” he said and pointed in a direction behind Mac.
Mac turned around to see a faint column of smoke rising from the carcass of Issola. It lay half-buried in a dune, wagon-sections splayed out and warped by explosions. Mac guessed the wreckage was about two kilometers away.
“She kept going,” Mac said to no one in particular.
“She was a tough horse,” Abon lamented.
“Enough bullshit,” Mac said. “I’ll patch you up, then check out the wreck. Maybe there’s supplies. Water.”
Abon nodded. The shrapnel had done a number on his kit. The med-pack was damaged, but he produced a anti-bacterial gel and sealing foams. Mac knew next to nothing about surgery, but he could at least provide some first aid. He worked for a few minutes, tracing the wound and scraping away blood-caked sand. The sealing-foam covered the wound and started to harden almost immediately. Judging by experience, Abon had about two to ten hours, depending on how bad the wound was. Not enough, Mac thought. Rescue can take days.
He had been part of a rescue op back in ’43. By the time they reached the disaster-site, it had become a salvage mission instead. The crew of the Davica had run out of water and died of thirst. He still remembered. Two of the crewmen had desperately tried to strain some water from a towelette pack. One of them had one in his mouth. More often than not, a stranded rover could be stuck for days and sometimes weeks in the sands.
Abon sighed. “Go check out the wreck,” he whispered.
Mac nodded. He stripped down his seat with his knife and made a make-shift splint for his leg. He worked fast, his leg sending a wave of numbing pain each time he touched it wrong. Finally he clasped two plates against it and tied the strap around. Bright, starry pain shot up to the back of his neck. Mac grunted once and got up on his good leg.
“Abon,” Mac said. Abon looked back at him. “I think we’re done for.”
Abon nodded. “I’d offer you to sit down and die with grace, but I know you.”
“Just like the vat yards,” Mac said.
“Just like the vat yards” Abon repeated, invoking images in the back of Mac’s mind. Fires, smoke and mushroom vats coming down upon an angry mob. Before his mind could begin to delve in those memories, he snapped to and turned about. Two kilometers on one leg could get interesting.
Nyx was one third of its way over the sky. To the west were the Barrier mountains, which were barely visible in the horizon. Around him were white and beige dunes, marred only by blackened wreckage and debris of the Issola’s Heart. A softened, barely visible track from the freighter’s tires was still visible. Moros only bred hard folk. His father would speak of the wheat years sometimes. Back when the Colonial Republic was still a thing. His father had been a child when the state had fallen, eaten up by greedy tribes and the constant pressures of survival. In those days, his father would recount, they could eat wheat bread, drink as much water as they pleased and even shower.
But the Colonial Republic had fallen, its orange, green and blue flag reduced to embers and ash. Some spoke of it as the end of mankind on Moros. However, that end had not come around as long as Mac had been around. Arcologies were still being built, aquifers were discovered and outposts popped up each year. Since Mac begun working as a Montero, the number of rovers working the trade routes had doubled. Even dirigibles had become a thing now. Propaganda on the internet even claimed that some institution was working on reactivating Colony One and regain contact with Earth. Mac had his doubts. People had been on Moros for seven hundred years and in all that time, not a single word had come from Earth.
Issola was silent. The only thing Mac could even hear was his own grunting and the breeze playing over the dunes. He bit into the pain. He had almost made it to the wreck. From the distance, the gun post looked like a small geometric contrast. A jagged frame of metal sticking up from flowing dunes.
“How’s the view?” Abon asked over the radio.
“You won’t believe it,” Mac gasped. His throat felt like it was about to crack. Water, Mac thought. “There’s sand everywhere and a sun!”
“Really funny,” Abon coughed.
It took about an hour to inspect the wreckage. It seemed like the black rover had stopped nearby at some point. Near the bow of the Issola he found a row of bodies. Crewmen of the Issola, lined up and shot in the head. Much of the vehicle had burned out. Storage containers had melted like margarine in the sun, interior compartments had been blasted and the resulting fuel fire had reduced the bulky freighter to oversized scrap. Thankfully, one of the EVA bays was somewhat intact.
Without power, Mac had to manually open the door with an emergency pump. He climbed in and went through the gear lockers. Med packs, water canisters, desert gear, all within reach. He was relieved, laughing as he gathered supplies. He picked up a water canister and undid the cap and desperately drank half of it in one go.
“Abon, I found supplies,” Mac said. No response. He waited for a while. “Abon, do you hear me?”
I have to hurry, Mac thought. He moved fast, picking up a second explorer’s pack and as many water canisters as he could carry with his left arm. Walking out of the EVA bay felt a lot worse than entering it. All the supplies weighed on his broken foot. He just made steps with his left leg, almost jumping forward, while his broken foot merely dragged after him. Returning to the broken gun post felt like an eternity. By the time he reached the wreckage, his broken leg pulsated and pressed its numb feeling up to his hip.
Abon must have fallen asleep. Mac checked on him and found that his pulse was relatively strong and his chest rose and fell with gentle breaths. Mac tapped Abon’s forehead while he undid a water canister. Abon’s eyes opened and when they saw Mac, he smiled gently but did not say anything.
“Water, amigo, you gotta drink” Mac said and held up the canister to Abon’s lips. Abon took a good sip, but struggled to move his body. Mac could tell by the contractions in his face, the way his throat tightened that he was biting in pain. The abdominal muscles were used for a lot of actions, apparently. After a few more sips, Abon held up his hand to signal stop. Mac set aside the canister and looked at Abon. He didn’t have to say anything. Abon’s brown eyes were telling stories by themselves.
“Remember Sana?” Abon asked with the hoarsest voice Mac had ever heard. Sana, Mac thought, remembering a lithe, young, no-bullshit woman from Shenzen Arcology. She was the overseer’s daughter, sometimes messing around in the vat yard, under the pretense to applying her engineer studies to the family business. Really, it was all about visiting Abon when she could.
“I do,” Mac said.
“I wonder what happened to her,” Abon pondered. “Maybe I should check up on her.”
It was impossible, of course. Both him and Mac were wanted there. And the other thing. Mac remembered when the fire had started. Sana had been cornered by angry protesters. It didn’t matter that she had brought them food and water throughout the years, since she was eleven. That night, everyone was angry and she was a symbol of the overseer. Mac felt the old shame rise. He had stood by. He could have done something.
“I might go look her up,” Abon said. Mac was confused.
“You think she’d put up with someone like you?” Mac asked. “Monteros like us aren’t exactly strapped with creds.”
Abon laughed, intermingled with slight coughs. For this moment, nobody was injured, stranded or dying. “I have savage charm, though,” Abon insisted. “And I got soul.”
Mac looked at Abon’s feet. The boots covering them were covered with small metallic splinters. “You might need a new sole,” Mac said, which puzzled Abon for a moment. He too looked at his boots.
“You bastard,” Abon cursed. “Sana isn’t some superficial girl. She cares not for creds.”
“Same for every girl that has creds overflowing her account,” Mac chuckled. “She’s the type of girl that showers and leaves glasses half full. What’d you do to win her love? Poems? Read some Shakespeare and bring her caramels?”
“My, Mac, those are some very good tips there,” Abon laughed again, causing his wound to seep slightly. “If I wanted to look like a moron, that is. Sana was a girl of adventure. I’d offer her a spot on a rover. Show her the Kolhali Massifs, race on the Riyaha flats, barbecue wild goat by Lake Arina.”
It sounded good to Mac. “Such a romantic,” Mac sighed.
“You’re welcome to take notes, amigo,” Abon said.
“Man, I need some vape,” Mac said, remembering that his pipe was broken. His heart raced a bit, his temples tightening a bit.
“You can have mine,” Abon said, and rummaged through a pocket on his pants. He produced a dull, metallic grey pipe with a charge chamber and compressor. He reached out to hand it over to Mac. Just touching the pipe made him feel tingles in his belly. He put a chamomile charge in it, hit the button. He could hear the subdued hiss of the compressor and incinerator working. Within seconds he could smell the herbs.
“What will you do when you get out of this mess?” Abon said.
“Get another job,” Mac said and realized how boring the answer was. “Then take some girl to the Kolhali Massifs.” to which Abon chuckled. “I can’t work security forever,” Mac said and let the feeling hang in the air.
“We could start a security firm,” Abon suggested. “We’re as good as self-employed right now anyway.”
“Sirai & Cete Security?” Mac pondered.
“Sounds good,” Abon said and his eyes lingered to something behind Mac. Mac was about to turn to look as well, when Abon’s closed slightly. “Mac, I want to see Sana again and...” his eyes closed.
Mac knew it was coming. He leaned over and checked on the artery in Abon’s throat. Nothing. He could try to revive him. But there was no chance. They could end up sitting here for days and the wound was dire. He had never felt so hollow. Abon lay there, and yet he did not.
He drew in chamomile vapors from the pipe. White trails of the vapor rose from his mouth and nose. Abon lay there, unmoving. Nyx passed above them. By the third pack of chamomile, Nyx was about to set behind the westward mountains again. He was about to press the button when he heard a familiar sound. Rubber grinding against sand. Wheels, Mac thought. Moving with his limp leg, he came out of the gun post and saw a set of bright lights. One light fixated on him, Mac noticed, and as the lights drew closer, he could make out details. It was a freight-rover, broad and perched on massive rubber wheels. It was about to pass him when he saw the letters ROSE printed on one of its surfaces.
“Jed, prep for survivors,” he heard a female voice say over the rover’s speakers.
Survivor, Mac thought. Everyone else is dead.