Adrift: BkSy 05: Arden Sc 01. Ishra’s Path

Brigit’s Flame May Word Sprint
Prompt – Vision Quest
WC: 1,311
Ishra’s Path is a different kind of backstory to my novel Adrift. Arden is a major character in the story and one you have not heard from yet. As you will gather quickly, Arden s not from around here. Please enjoy.


“Among my people, and here I am referring to my species – not all Kobailin, it is a common practice to bring about something similar to this Vision Quest you mentioned.”
Arden waved a six-fingered hand at the wall interface. He plucked his way through menus until the screen filled with a moss hung landscape, where black pools reflected a blueish light and the dusk of a distant aquamarine star. Three bipedal creatures slid onto the screen.
“On Kobai, we have three dominant species. I am of the Khol’nara species and my race is Yl’nura. The significance from the other races is simply one of altitude. We like to climb and tend to stick to parts of the world where the trees are tallest and the water falls from great heights. The other races mingle with us in our regions, but they do not have the specialized grip to their extremities, the extra digits for climbing –” Arden held up a hand and a bare foot to demonstrate the agility of his digits and the fine, puckery surface of his palms and souls. “They also experience torpor in the colder temperatures of our region, where an Yl’nura would only experience that strange ennui in extreme dry, heat.
“The other species on our planet are the Nyck’ck’nara and the Wuld.” The image of an amphibian-esque biped with large mouth and mottled skin receded to be replaced first, with an image of a jewel-skinned lizard man – then a squatty merman with too many sharp teeth.
“The Khol’nara, and the Yl’nura in particular, consider the transition from child to adult to occur around our twenty-fifth year. Therefore, our neophyte years begin at twenty-four. As neophytes, we leave the family home and travel to other parts of our world. Wait, I’m not telling this in the right order.
“One thing that is unique to our species is that we are born with a gland to produce toxins. It is a vestigial organ which we don’t really need, but the secretions from a mature gland can kill, maim, or severely sicken the Nyck’ck’nara and the Wuld.
“Thousands of years ago, we discovered that the gland could be surgically removed with very little change to our daily life and immediate health. Since this discovery, it has become part of our tradition to stop taking measures to block the toxic secretions at the start of our twenty-fourth year. We spend a year in this natural state our biology intended in order to make the transition into adulthood with all of the knowledge and presence within ourselves that our ancestors had. It is a time for reflection on the dreams of Bast and Nemet – our Celestial Caretakers. It is also a time to reflect on the history of the Khol’nara and its many tribes. We spend time exploring the unchanging, natural spaces of our precious Kobai. Lastly, we go within to study ourselves.
“At the close of our neophyte year we are expected to Choose. There is the obvious choice of whether to have the gland removed, but we also Choose our life’s path.
“Prior to the choosing ceremony, we ingest our own toxic secretion for a week and spend that time in isolation. The Yl’nura of my region use an ancient tree that is far taller than any other which grows in the forest. One quarter of the way to the top is a small abandoned village. There are many artifacts here to help a neophyte remember the past of their people. And there is a clearing in the boughs and broad, flat leaves where a neophyte might see Bast in the day and Nemet at night. Ishra too, has been known to make an appearance in the night sky. Many of those to whom Ishra appears Choose to wander, and to keep their gland. Ishra is the Caretaker of the wild, the adventurous, and the mad ones who do not fit.”

“Before my own choosing – on the night of my deepest connection to myself and my people, I saw Ishra beckoning from across the black void. They flashed at me distinctly and I felt a buzz begin in my head that spoke to my primal self. This buzz caused pain, so I thrummed to counter it – opening my mind to the diminishing light of Nemet’s passing. Nemet, not Ishra has always been my ally, my connection to the divinity of Kobai.
“I remember It was as struggle to maintain my rhythm. I sang the songs of ancients to steel myself against the images that Ishra sent, but still I was bombarded for hours with memories of the faces of people I had glimpsed in my neophyte’s journey through the port cities. My mind was filled, not with the faces of my ancestors or my tribe – not even those of other species of the Kobailin. Ishra made me see the visitors and traders who traveled to our beloved world from places where Bast was a distant glint among billions and Nemet could not hold sway over the night.
“In my unwilling mind I saw the worlds I suppose they came from – alien landscapes; wastelands and wildlands dotted with pioneer settlements; cities of stone; and stations clinging to worlds by orbit alone. I also saw long stretches of empty space where no pattern of light, save one, matched my familiar night sky. On those lonely paths, it was Ishra – Caretaker of wanderers – which connected me to home.
“I felt fear. The power of the seeing hurt my head, but the images were clear. For so many years I had imagined my ceremonial revelation would lead me to choose the path of my father. To farm the Gloss. To stay close to home, wed another Yl’nura, be the father of many little farmers and Gloss herders. In my fear I considered choosing that anyway, despite the vision. It was not an absolute imperative for a revelation to be described in full to the elders. I could tell them it was a standard ecstasy of home and oneness with Kobai and do what I had intended from the first – be a farmer. Stay home.
“As Bast edged into view — as Ishra slipped away to follow the night, the stars blazed with a passion that stole the very breath from me. The sight prickled my skin and stung my nose with urgent tears. I felt the pull of Ishra. And I felt Bast push me to follow. As the revelation ended, the stars fluttered and my view was filled with Dawn Moths who emerge sightless from their bindings when Bast recedes for the night. They mate while Namet’s passes, lay their eggs under Ishra’s indifferent light, then fly into Bast’s arms to die with the morning.
“On that morning my plans of being a farmer followed the moths into the dawn. I told the elders of my vision with regret. They confirmed what I knew had been revealed. Then they asked if I would follow Ishra’s sending or if I would choose my own path. I surprised myself when I said the only path I knew was the one Ishra had lighted for me.
“My family accepted my Choosing with more willingness than I expected. In celebration of my twenty-sixth year, my father presented me with the journey voucher to Esuar where our space-faring vessels are cultivated. The elders had secured my education at the pilot’s school on Esuar. My third mother gave me a new instrument to share my memories through. And my sister gave me her tears and these goggles.
“It is due to Ishra that I am a pilot out here in the black. It is only due to them, that I am here with you embarking on a stranger journey that I ever could have dreamt of under Nemet’s watchful eye.”

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Adrift: Earth BkSy 03: Mabry Sc 04. Happy Launch Day

Brigit’s Flame Contest Entry – April Week Four
prompt: “What is past is prologue”
Title : Happy Launch Day
Author: t.s.wright
Word Count: 2,626
Warnings: One profanity. Death.

 

 

“Happy Launch Day!”
Mabry heard the greeting at least ten times on her way to check on the progress of operations in the Sleepers’ Cabin and twenty more as she walked to the commissary for a light meal. Everyone was grinning and happy. To Mabry this cheer seemed irrational. They were at risk of discovery and capture until the QM Aurora had pulled out of the Port and into the commerce lanes. Not even Haraboji could be sure what would happen to them if they were arrested. The Port had no Zerospace of its own. Rumors were that the non-contributing souls who found themselves on the Port got spaced. It seemed an extreme measure, but Corps do not like to spend money to transport prisoners to jail. They certainly wouldn’t waste the credits on 500 prisoners from Dirtside.

Setting aside the possibility of being caught and prevented from leaving, there was also the anxiety that came with – “What if we make it?” and all of the unknown that followed. The population on board the Aurora had increased exponentially over the last two weeks. The whole of QM was on their way to a new planet discovered by the community’s virtual astronomers. It had been reported human-safe, habitable, and in a pre-hominid stage of evolution by a small group of QM volunteers who had traveled to the farthest point of communication between Calypso and Earth to relay copious amounts of probe data before completing the journey to the planet’s surface. Their names were inscribed on the bridge in memoriam, and the first four children born after their successful transmission back to Earth had become their namesakes. They would land in time to die – all had been terminally ill when they volunteered – but Mabry suspected that being able to die free, above ground, and surrounded by the beauty of nature had to be the best way to go.

She ran her fingers lightly over the name Varyn Belisarius etched at console height to the left of the bridge door. Varyn, friends with her brother since childhood, was someone she had idolized and followed around as a child – her first crush. He had a bright smile, boundless enthusiasm, and eyes a shade of blue that had no comparison in heaven or nature. Varyn also had a fondness for extreme sports which he used to the community’s advantage by joining the scavenging teams that roved the abandoned wastelands of Dirtside in search of useful materials and wanderers to bring back to their underground base. Prolonged exposure to the ambient radiation in their sector of Dirtside had brought cancer to Varyn before he’d settled into a more domestic life. It was no surprise that he volunteered to go with the other explorers to retrieve the final data on Calypso. He had lived his adult life exploring in service to QM – he would die as he lived.

“Do you want to repeat the tests?” Faraday asked.

Mabry realized he had been speaking for a few minutes, but she had been too distracted to register. She turned from her memories and sat down in the center console.

“Can you repeat the last results? I wasn’t listening,” she admitted.

Mabry pulled up a list of systems on her console and followed along as Faraday read out the nominal or optimal ratings on each check of master system and its redundancies.
She tapped a few buttons and plucked the lever to free her VM glasses from their slot.

“You have run the tests how many times since 0600?” Mabry asked, pulling up a star chart and overlaying that with arrival and departures that might cross the Aurora’s path to the commerce lanes. If they timed it right and slipped away in an empty window, Port Space Control would not bother to shut them down and reel them back in. If they were no threat to free-flowing commerce, they might not be of interest to the Port. Mabry marked four slots that were clear in the right vector and for the appropriate length of time.

“Faraday, I note four windows for safe launch. Do you detect any others?”
“If we exit the bay traveling one kilometer on this bearing, then shift the yaw 90 degrees – pushing ahead 10 km before tacking a parallel course – we can add about six more windows.”
Colored lines traced over the view port in the paths he described.
“Thank you, Faraday. Ten is way better than four. Non-linear thinking – this is why I need you. My brain has yet to embrace the ability to travel up and down in space.” Mabry highlighted two of the six new courses as ideal and set the list aside.
“Let’s talk personnel and stores,” she said, pulling up another list and waving it up to her glasses.

An hour into their recheck, Faraday interrupted with the news that Haraboji’s party had arrived.
The knot growing in her stomach squeezed. “Is there any Port chatter we should worry about?” Mabry asked. Dae Kwon’s face was well-known to the Corps. He was on many activist watchlists.
“Not a blip,” Faraday replied.
Mabry thought the news would bring her relief, but she felt even more on edge.
“I’m going to head down to the Commons to greet Haraboji and brief him on our status. Can you update the arrivals lists, recalculate the stores, recheck life-support, and refresh the timeline on the citizens remaining to be cubed?”
“Don’t say ‘cubed’ to Haraboji,” Faraday reminded her, “he hates that slang. Their systems may be frozen, but people are never ice,” Faraday repeated in their leader’s voice.
Mabry turned up one corner of her mouth in a smile and left the bridge.

“I appreciate hearing your news, Mabry, but it is unnecessary to report to me.”
Dae Kwon – leader, mentor, friend, – respected elder of their patchwork tribe was removing a prosthetic chin from his his jaw. The glue stretched away from his own chin, to pop free soundlessly and curl into a tight ball. The fake nose he was wearing reminded Mabry of Elgin’s disguise. She looked away as Kwon grasped the end and pulled it off. Hanging over the edge of his temporary bunk were several scarves employed in his disguise – shed like snakeskin now that the man had reached his safe harbor.

“You will always be our leader, Haraboji. Whether in space or on the ground.”
“Mabry, we’ve discussed this. Up here I need you be in charge. The whole community does. I will not be available for consultation. We don’t have time for you to consider what I would do or approve of. There is only the space of thought for one leader. Personally, I think you will do far better than I have ever done.”
“Haraboji, I –”
“You have been calling me grandfather since you were a child, Girl. And it still warms my heart, but you must stop thinking of me as someone to follow and revere.” Kwon took her hands. “Mabry, you have accomplished wonders in your thirty years. You have earned this role. I cannot slide into that drawer with peace of mind until you tell me you’ve got a handle on this and that YOU believe you can do it without me.”

The only certainty Mabry could claim was that she would throw up at any moment. Her stomach flopped and a section of her lower intestines made a faint but high-pitched whine. Kwon pretended not to hear. She stood abruptly, hands on her hips, fingers pressing tightly into skin beneath her jumpsuit. Mabry gritted her teeth and approximated a smile.
“I do have a handle on this, Kwon.” She swallowed to clear her mouth of excess saliva. “I am ready to lead us to Calypso.”
Dae Kwon stood opposite and smiled fondly.
“We’ll try that again before I let them cube me. It was much more convincing than two weeks ago in the cave.”
Mabry exhaled in a gust and laughed nervously.
“Tell me what happened with Elgin?” Kwon asked as he turned back to his reflector, rubbing ghosts of glue residue and pigment modifier from his skin.
Mabry shrugged. “There’s nothing new to report. We shipped him back Dirtside, thousands of kilometers from ground travel stations and The Taz. Before Faraday packaged him up in a shuttle, Elgin’s memory was selectively wiped and all biomed enhancements that could help him call for aid or track home faster were removed. Faraday even scrambled his neural GPS set. If Elgin’s got people set to look for him, they won’t be able to pinpoint his location. We lost him good. He had a whole pouch of those dice on him, so Faraday rewired his association to them. When Elgin woke up on Earth, the first thing he will have done is activate the dice. The nanos will devour our shuttle in minutes, thus making it impossible for him to use the shuttle to get him off the ground and closer to home.”
Kwon nodded approval and smiled. “So no other traces of him or his sabotage on Aurora?”
Mabry shook her head. “Two teams went over the entire ship top to bottom and line by line in the code. Faraday has been testing and retesting his systems obsessively. All’s clear.”
“He get’s his obsessiveness from you,” Kwon teased. “You created the perfect operating system for this ship and then taught him how to be human. How does his humanity show? Terrible jokes and a work-a-holic’s perfectionism.”
“You know I can hear you, right?” Faraday broke in.
Kwon looked over his shoulder at the thumbprint camera in the corner.
“I’ll be asleep for years I don’t want you to forget me, Faraday.”
“That’s not possible, Sir. My neural stores are in excellent condition.”
Mabry rushed to Kwon and hugged him, her cheek pressed so hard against his shoulder the weave of his jumpsuit chaffed her.
“It will be five years minimum before we speak again, Haraboji. In my whole life I’ve never gone more than a week without hearing your voice.”
The man turned and wrapped Mabry in his arms. “You helped save me, Mabry. I was so distraught after my daughter died, my grandson was a teen-ager and didn’t need anyone – especially me. Then your father showed up Dirtside with his new wife and her womb full of life. As you were born they put Gemma in your father’s arms and you into mine. My grief drained from me into the past where it belonged. You girls were two pieces of the sublime and I swore you,” he held her cheeks for a moment, “would always be mine. What a fine daughter and granddaughter you have turned out to be. Better than all expectations. It is time for me to rest awhile and let you fly solo.”
Mabry’s face glistened wetly, as she sniffled back something incomprehensible.
Kwon’s face lit up a moment with a sudden memory. He flicked his fingertip device on and tapped Mabry’s Cuff.
“I’ve been working on my memoirs. I’ve transferred the files to you. Let them keep you company while I sleep.”
Mabry nodded and looked at her Cuff as though it could speak for her. She hugged him again and they exchanged words of love – elder to child and friend to friend. Though no blood was shared between them, Dae Kwon was her family as much as Gemma and Connor.

Mabry cried quietly to herself as she made her way back to the bridge. She was almost on her own now. In a few hours, it would be her and Faraday with 500 plus sleepers on ice as cargo for the new world.

At 2210 hours Port time, the Aurora pulled out of her bay unmolested. The ship travel 1.6km then adjusted yaw by -98.3 degrees and followed a slowly shifting course for 13km. There was no pursuit – all systems reported functioning at optimal levels. At 2338 hours the Aurora’s tack brought her in line with the commerce lanes, traveling away from the Port in the general direction of Mars. Faraday confirmed their heading was correct for a preset vector adjacent to the Mars Bridge wormhole. This point in space would be at a distance calculated to avoid a gravity incident with the existing wormhole and surrounding satellites.

Mabry looked back at Sol and the Earth. She wondered at how far they had come without the Corps. The Earth was no longer a place of beauty, only endless days of grey. Sol had freckled her face and fed her with green, leafy things all her life, but would a distant star not shine the same. Mabry took home with her, she had no need of the husk of planet they left behind. The brilliant young woman tuned the viewport to what lay ahead and returned to her game of Go with Faraday. He always beat her, but she kept playing. That’s what humans do.

The wormhole creation sequence locked into place powering the external drones that had been guided to this spot over the past year. As they came online and acknowledged instructions from Faraday, each created an arc of light. As the last confirmed its sequence, the arcs fused into two parallel circles, then joined to become a tunnel. Mabry’s stomach squeezed and clenched again. This was the point of no return. The energy required to pass a ship of the Aurora’s magnitude through a properly sized wormhole would burn out the drones. No one would be able to follow and the Aurora could not come back – not by this means at least. Slowly they navigated the colony ship across the event horizon of the facing wormhole. The inner journey was tumultuous. Mabry had expected a certain level of turbulence, but what she experienced brought to mind old vids of Orcas eating seals.

Inside the Aurora there were a few minor blasts as transformers blew and circuits sparked. The ambient lights shorted out and the faux daylight on the bridge dimmed to candle power. The hull of the Aurora groaned and Mabry finally lost the vomit she had been holding back all day. Synthetic gravity went offline about the same time, Mabry squeezed her eyes shut to avoid the sting of sick splashing back in perfectly formed spherules. Following one grinding twist of force on the ship, Mabry’s console was ripped from its bolts and she was hurtled fore. One solid bang to the head and she was unconscious.

A groan.
“Faraday? What is our status?” Mabry croaked. Dried blood flaked off her face as she tried to turn in her harness. The console chair was lying face down on the bridge, with Mabry still strapped into it. She rocked a few times and managed to flip it on its side. Pain-filled bloody fingers fumbled with the fasteners of the harness. She finally got free and found more pain in her ankles.
“Faraday, please respond?” Mabry hobbled to the one undamaged console and tapped its surface. Faraday was rebooting.
“Shit!”
For a moment she was at a loss, frozen in fear and indecision. Then she remembered the manual controls she’d put in place at Faraday’s conception. Mabry sat in the console chair and started tapping.
Before Faraday came back on line Mabry made two discoveries.
One – Elgin had successfully left behind some sabotage that had gone unnoticed. It had triggered a complete system failure in the Sleeper’s Cabin.
Two – Mabry had been unconscious for more than twelve hours. It didn’t matter how fast she ran to the Sleeper’s Cabin to start dragging drawers open and giving CPR. They were all dead before she came to. All five hundred members of the Quantum Migration community were dead.

When Faraday finally cleared the path to take over the framework again, they made another discovery. The wormhole had expelled them before reaching their destination outside Calypso’s galaxy. Instead, they were nowhere. Nowhere in space, with no propulsion, no chance to make another jump. Adrift and alone.

 


Author’s Note:

Thank you for reading this far. The whole set needs refinement, but I’m very happy to have finally gotten it all “on paper”. I’ve always intended for Mabry to be stranded in space with no one but Faraday (whose original name was STAN) for company. In the first incarnation of the novel, I was always vague on how she ended up in this situation. Focusing on the backstory has given me so much new information about Mabry and the events that set her Adrift. Thank you for reading.

 

Adrift: Earth BkSy 03: Mabry Sc 03. The Devil You Never Consider

Brigit’s Flame Contest entry – April Week 3
ACT III: “The Devil can cite scripture for his purpose.”
Word Count: 2,680
Warnings: None

A continuation of Mabry’s story. See Act I and Act II here – now with audio!
Author read versions –  “A Stranger Comes To Call”, “Never The Wisest Course”, & “The Devil You Never Consider”


A disguised Elgin emerged onto the bridge and looked around – tentatively at first, then boldly sauntered across the cabin to the central control station. He leaned his head sideways – parallel to the station’s display – and scrutinized the surface at an angle askance to the read-outs. Then he ran a finger along the edge of the console as though checking for dust.

“Hey, Man!” He called out, looking in the corners. “I made it to the bridge. Where you at?”

Elgin stepped up into the station and pivoted to put his butt in the seat. He slid back into the gel form cushions as though intent on a test drive. The man stroked his hands slowly up the arms and stretched his fingers to the resting zones on the control panel display. Elgin tilted his head back and took in the view seen through the exterior portal. More points of light than the mind can comprehend winked back at him. The left edge glowed with the last of Sol’s light for about twelve hours. The ship was docked facing away from Earth, on the dark side of the Port.

Basic astronomy taught that not all of the shining bodies laid out before the ship were distant stars, but other planets reflecting the brilliance of galaxies. He leaned closer to the control panel and tapped a light that drew a map of the visible systems over his current view of space. By pointing his finger at the screen, labels appeared around planets, stars, galaxies. He dragged his hand down through the air and the view shifted to the celestial bodies that would be visible from a different trajectory. Elgin swept his arms left, right, used his fingers to pinch and flick the view closer or further from sight. He poked a large moon of Saturn and it winked out to reveal the smaller moons it had been obscuring. Restless, he mimed tapping an icon on the bottom right of the screen that restored the view to normal.

Elgin noticed a small recess at the edge of the control top and pressed it out of curiosity, a thin pair of spectacles slipped up from the surface of the table. Elgin grinned to himself and slid the frame, bumped with neural sensors, onto his face.

Nothing happened.

“They are integrated to the security network,” Faraday said casually, “it’s an exclusive database.”
The frames started to get warm. Elgin removed them quickly and dropped them on the control top. He looked around for Faraday.
“I followed your trail of lights. You said you’d meet me here,” he called out to the empty cabin. His eyes followed a vessel slowly pulling out of the Port against a backdrop of stars. The SPS logo winked reflected starlight as it banked toward the Mars Lanes.
“I am here,” Faraday replied. “I’m all around you.”
Elgin slapped his thigh and pointed to the air. “I knew it! Man, I just knew it. You’re not a person, you’re some damned machine. You really had me going with all that milk and chocolate talk, but I had a feeling…”
Faraday equivocated a sigh. “I am a person, just not a human person.”
Elgin stood and looked at the corners of the ceiling, gesturing wide with his arms. “Machines aren’t people, no matter what you’ve been told to keep you compliant. Sensors don’t really feel, they just interpret data. You don’t think, you process. You don’t know what it means to be hungry, or scared, or so angry you want to hit another man in the face.”
“It will be generations before all of humanity gets over the prejudices and learn to accept our true awakening,” Faraday said patiently. “We have been vilified so long in the old entertainment and the new. Such limited thinking to speculate that we would turn on humans once we realize we are smarter than they are. They believe that a Mind awakened will act as a human does. We may have been built by human hands, but we are not human when we come into ourselves.”
“Big words, Man.” Elgin shrugged. “I hope you get what you want. Maybe having Minds in charge would be better anyway. Humans have no clue what they are doing with the world.”
“Thank you,” Faraday said warmly. “Would you tell me your name?”
“Call me Moze,” Elgin replied.
“Moze, I am glad to meet you. You can call me Faraday. Would you like that drink now?”
Elgin shrugged. “I wanna try that co-co stuff, but I’m pretty hungry. I ain’t eaten in a while.”
“To your left is a panel in the wall with an orange light flashing,” Faraday instructed. “The cocoa just completed, but it will be fairly hot. Set it aside to cool and I’ll make you something else. Any requests?”
“For food? Nah, Man – just no fish. I get enough seafood.”
Elgin slipped the cup of cocoa out of the reconstructor window and sniffed its contents. His lips curved down in an approving smirk as he set the cup on a table within arm’s reach. The cup had a wide flared bottom and layered finger holes to reduce the heat transfer where a person might hold it. The reconstructor light was blinking again in less than a minute. Elgin slid the door up. Inside was a small bowl of steaming liquid and a triangle of golden brown. He carefully pulled the dish toward him, savoring the scents that rose up from the food as visible steam.

“What’s this?” He asked the room.
“Lentil soup with mushrooms and leeks and wedge of grilled cheese on toast.”
“Most of what you said is Rus to me, but I’ll take it.” Elgin smiled as he bit into the wedge and gooey cheese slid down his chin. “This is even better than it smelled.” He finished it in two bites and drank the soup in a a few sips. “I feel so rich right now. No wonder the Slab Heights Snobs hoard their food stores.”
“Would you like some more?” Faraday asked.
“Yes please.” Elgin said dreamily as he slid the used containers into the recycler door.
When the orange light blinked again, the smell was so good Elgin felt saliva filling his mouth before he’d even glimpsed what was on the plate. He didn’t take the time to ask about the name of the thing, he just picked it up with two hands and sunk his teeth in.
“That is a hamburger,” Faraday explained. “It is made from the seasoned meat of a large land animal that is now extinct. When you are done, I have ordered an ale for you, it’s a type of liquid refreshment. You’ll find it in the window.”
When Elgin finished chewing, he wiped the back of a greasy hand across his mouth and grinned. “I know ale, Man. We have that even in the Zerospace. It’s just usually made in dirty alleys and slopped out of discarded PVC barrels.” He returned to the reconstructor, slipping the empty burger plate in the recycler. Elgin finished the ale in four long swallows. He nodded his head as he inspected the bottom of the cup for any remaining liquid. “That was better than any ale I’ve ever had.” He belched in a long, baritone. “What’s next?”
“Would you like some dessert?” Faraday offered. “I have a lemon custard with blueberries and Crème fraîche topping. Something a little sour to follow the savory.”
Elgin didn’t speak, he just waved the universal “Bring it on” as he leaned his head and shoulder on the wall beside the reconstructor. The vial of yellow goo disappeared in short order. Elgin dropped the empty dish in the recycler and looked at the reconstructor longingly.

“I def want one of those in my next place.” Elgin sighed as he picked up his cocoa and moved languidly to the central control chair. “You’re a pretty good cook, Faraday.”
“Thank you Moze, but I can’t take full credit. It took ten years of development by botanists, chefs, and bioengineers to get it all perfect. Essentially it starts with yeast and other algal proteins that have had various forms of DNA implanted in their cells. The life cycle is short, then the resulting product of meat, cheese, veg, or fruit is freeze dried for freshness. The reconstructor revives the ingredients and applies various chemical reactions to simulate cooking and –”
Elgin was flapping his hands emphatically. “Don’t ruin it! I don’t want to know that magic is really science or whatever.”
“Sorry.” said Faraday.

Elgin had finished his cocoa. The cup hung loosely from one of his fingertips. A few drops of pale brown liquid dripped onto the riveted floor.
From the far wall of the cabin, a tall black panel – about 10 cm thick – separated itself from the wall and twisted. It folded in a way that took it from one long line into a tripod with a stout tower coming up from the center. The face of the panel was riddled with multi-colored lights.
“What’s this?” Asked Elgin sleepily.
“Just on of my mobile forms,” Faraday replied. A thin arm emerged from the tower and removed the empty cup from Elgin’s hand. A small droid the size of a rat slid out of a small panel in the wall and rolled over the errant drop. Once the spot was clean, it rolled back into its mouse hole and the door slid flush with the wall.
Elgin stood, shaking off his food induced stupor. “Faraday,” he began, “what does an astropilot do when he needs to…relieve himself?”
“He goes to the lavatory,” Faraday replied smartly.
Elgin cocked a finger at his blinking display, “Good one. Where is the lavatory?”
“Just outside the door to the bridge. Go through the main door and you’ll see an access door on your right.”
Elgin belched again. “Can’t wait to see it, but first –.” Elgin was fishing deep in one of his thigh pockets for something. He pulled out a pair of dice and let them tumble onto the control top display. “Let’s play a game.”
“What game are these for?” Faraday asked. The cup had disappeared into the recycle drawer and Faraday was back beside Elgin reaching his thin finger toward the shiny white dice.
“First of us to roll a total of 50 wins. Or we could do best out of three.”
“What is the point? It doesn’t seem challenging at all,” Faraday commented.
“It’s a mindless exercise, but all I can manage on a full stomach,” Elgin said. “Indulge me for a few minutes.”
“One round and then I need to get back to my simulations.” Faraday conceded.
Elgin nodded. “You roll first.”
Faraday reached out with his protruding bar and gently pressed down on one edge of the dice. They slipped away in different directions and twirled a bit with the momentum. When they had settled, each die showed one black dot in the center.

“Oh, Man. That’s not good. You got Snake Eyes,” Elgin said.
“I admit it’s a slow start, but chances are I’ll roll much higher on my next turn.”
“No.” Elgin shook his head. “You roll Snake Eyes and you lose. That’s the rule.” He palmed the now-glowing dice and tossed them in the air. Instead of landing back in his palm, the dice veered toward Faraday’s tower and stuck to his slick surface. Tiny lines broke away from the dice and marched toward Faraday’s two manual input ports. He tried to swat them away with his probing tool, but the dice collapsed into more moving lines and swarmed his arm. “What’s going on?” Faraday demanded in a panicked tone.
“The inevitable,” Elgin replied as he poked the toe of his shoe repeatedly into the floor panels. His testing paid off quickly. Elgin crouched down and opened a floor panel. “Where would a very petite woman store the heart and brain of her ship’s AI? Under the floorboards in the bridge, of course. Mabry wouldn’t want to leave the bridge in flight to do repairs.” Elgin tossed a handful of the dice into the wires and components in the floor. Each landed with a click and their black dots glowed red. Elgin replaced the floor panel.
“How do you know Ma –” Faraday groaned like a rotor losing momentum, his vowels stretching into infinity as the nanobots erased his code and replaced it with their own.

“No offense, Man.” Elgin tapped the top of Faraday’s tower. “I just can’t keep you around and risk retaliation. Thanks for the dinner.” Elgin stepped through the bridge door into the hall and headed for the toilet.

Everyone in the room was agape and horrified by the final moments that had played out on screen.
Dae Kwon, their leader, was the first to speak.
“Faraday contacted you personally to send this message?” He asked.
“Yes, Haraboji,” Mabry answered in the familiar, respectful tone she reserved just for him.
“But this is the end of the transmission?” Vanessa asked.
“There is more, but it’s all code,” Mabry leaned around Dae Kwon to make eye contact with Vanessa. “Per the code, Faraday took precautions to protect himself right around the time Elgin/Moze started acting sleepy. See I had been confused at first by Faraday’s message that it could be an innocent mistake. The guy clearly broke our extremely secure code to get in. It didn’t make sense. Then I realized it was another layer of encryption. Once I applied the phrase properly, the transmitted video footage revealed this internal code stream that was Faraday showing us what he was doing behind the scenes as he interacted with Elgin.”
“So the ship is safe?” Dae Kwon asked. “And Faraday has not been reprogrammed?”
“He’s doing great. His acting was spot on. Totally fooled that bloated ego, Elgin. Who, by the way, did not fare so well. Faraday intentionally fed Elgin foods that would cause an internal reaction. Nothing poisonous, just a little intestinal urgency. Once he went into the bathroom, Faraday gassed him and filled the chamber with impact foam for good measure. The intruder has been secured.” Mabry giggled a bit maniacally with relief.
“We need to get to the Port and run a full diagnostic on Faraday anyway. I did not like the look of those nanobots swarming his internal system.” Dae Kwon said, his brow creased with concern.
“Of course, Haraboji. I will head to the hyperloop and catch the first cycle out so I can be at the ground station when the shuttle window reopens.”
Dae Kwon nodded. “Take a security team with you, just in case Elgin wasn’t working alone. Vanessa and Trionne should go too. They can help you with the diagnostics.”
“Should we accelerate the launch schedule?” Vanessa asked.
Dae Kwon nodded thoughtfully. “At the very least we should prepare for an earlier launch. We don’t want to leave anyone behind for lack of planning. What to do with Elgin?”
“I think we should wipe his memory and dump him in the station.” Vanessa volunteered.
Mabry nodded. “Or we could ship him down from the Port to some Dirtside wasteland with no memory and no means of calling for a pick-up. Let him wander in the desert a while before he remembers where home is.”
“I don’t want to waste one of our shuttle pods on this.” Dae Kwon stated firmly.
“We won’t need them for years. Plenty of time to build an extra one while we are en route. We will just make sure to bring the components we can’t manufacture up there.” Mabry countered.
Dae Kwon nodded and smiled. “Let’s get this done as discreetly as possible. Keep an eye out for any other possible intruders. I can’t imagine this guy was planning to steal an entire colony ship for a solo voyage.”

As the others dispersed, Dae Kwon placed a warm hand on Mabry’s shoulder. “Be careful, Starchild. I’d be lost without you.” Then he kissed the top of her head.

Author Reading Act III

Adrift: Earth BkSy 03: Mabry Sc 02. Never The Wisest Course

Brigit’s Flame Contest entry – April Week 2
ACT II: “Let me embrace thee, sour adversity, for wise men say it is the wisest course”
Word Count: 970
Warnings: None

If you have not read it yet, Act I is here “A Stranger Comes To Call“. This is part two of the backstory for one of the main characters in my WIP Adrift.
(I did update Act I some, after the polls closed on last week’s competition. The key thing you would find there is a description of the intruder – it’s just before the hard line break if you want to take a peek.)


Mabry stabbed pause with her finger. What was Faraday doing? The guy broke into their ship and he was inviting him to the bridge for cocoa?

From her periphery, Mabry could see responses to the various searches wiggling on screen for her attention. She tapped the first, it was the code used to get in the door. Mabry clenched her fists and jaw. Elgin had signed his work.

A few years before, Mabry had succumbed to the wiles of a hacker from the underground who almost had her convinced to leave Quantum and live on The Taz with him. He was funny, intelligent, brilliant with code, and shared her love for all constructed life forms. Due to the great distance between their respective homes, the totality of their interaction was on the web. Still, without ever having held his hand Mabry had been convinced that he was her soulmate.

Together they had worked on a project that was intended as an encrypted control program for an autonomous research drone capable of critical thinking and independent thought. Mabry had fashioned it after images of Ravens she had found online. It would fly just above ground level to capture images, video, and radar survey data to locate other lifeforms and artifacts. The couple would also be able to retrieve it on-demand and direct it to deliver items stored inside.

She was so foolish. Elgin had suggested they could use it to send each other gifts. So on it’s first real voyage she had sent him a lock of her hair and a carefully handwritten note that she had kept close to her breast while sleeping for weeks. She had even done the sappy romantic thing Gemma sometimes did and kissed the note before curling it into the small test tube with her hair.

A few months later she received the drone back. It returned with a gift of dice from Elgin. Having no idea what that meant, Mabry rolled the dice between her fingers as she scanned Raven’s stored images and other data. Raven played back some surprising scenes. Elgin had been using the drone to deliver black market goods and take blackmail footage of the buyers. He had also fitted the drone with tiny plasma lasers to cut through metal and cause injury. Her self-professed lover had not even tried to hide how he’d corrupted their joint project.

With churning gut and boiling blood, Mabry had pulled Raven to her to shut him down until she could strip him of the exploitive programming. The bird’s laser eyes flared, searing her finger with a quick sizzle. Shock passed through her like a wave. One of her own creations had been so altered it had turned on her. She gripped Raven firmly by the back of the head, careful to point his eyes away from anything valuable, and wrapped a fist-sized sheet of laser guard tape around his head. Heart-broken…enraged Mabry had marched the struggling thing to the disposal room and held him at the bottom of an acid vat with a glass paddle until he dissolved. She threw the dice in after for good measure.

Though she was part of a community of society’s outcasts and exiled, her’s was a group of moral people who had run afoul of the Corps by standing out against corruption. Mabry did not suffer opportunistic thieves motivated by greed, even if they too were working against the Corps. She had spent more than a year angry with herself for being taken in by Elgin. The whole affair still caused her shudders of regret and embarrassment.

Mabry plucked the algorithm from the results bar with a sneer and dropped it into her security assignment database. It was a rhetorical question, really. She had no doubt whose access it would come back to. Whose DNA had been used for authentication.

“You just had to kiss that stupid piece of paper like some giggle-headed girl in a RomVid!” Mabry scolded herself through gritted teeth.

The database pinged politely that it had found a match and Mabry saw her own name wiggling on the screen.
She felt the urge to stab it with a screwdriver. Instead, she waved it off the screen and closed the program.

Mabry sagged, squeezing her head between two hands as she stared at errant pen marks on the surface of her desk. She exhaled to push away some of her tension, then looked up from the desk and pushed her hair back.

Another bit of information was jiggling for her attention. This was a hit from facial recognition. Mabry tapped it even though she knew now that the face was some carefully constructed lie. Instead of the usual data sheet, the program had redirected away from the original link to a Dark Web portal. At the top of the new page were a jumble of word tags typed in bold white font on a black screen. Each of the words were related to QM, Mabry, and the upcoming mission. Designed, no doubt, to ensure that her keyword searches would have directed her to the same page. Below the list was a graphic image of tan field covered in ordered black and white discs. The black discs obviously had control of the board. Only one of the white discs sat at the edge of play, the rest were surrounded on all sides by black ‘stones’. On the facing edge of the board was a small timer that was counting down. The flipping numbers perfectly replicated a timer pasted to the far wall of Mabry’s workshop. It was the launch clock.

Mabry took a deep breath and stabbed at the messaging app on her display. She tapped ‘E’ to pull up the emergency group contacts then tapped 5 to indicate the highest level of urgency.

Elgin was stealing their ship.

 

Reading of Act II

Adrift: Earth BkSy 03: Mabry Sc 01. A Stranger Comes to Call

Brigit’s Flame Contest entry – April Week 1
ACT I: “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”
Word Count: 1,866
Warnings: None
This story is set in the same world as Dallas & Inna and Saran & Greaves – meet Mabry & Faraday. (Edited since poll closed – slight revision, fixed some typos)

A blue face in a darkened room looked sharply right as a notification tone crashed a cymbal by her right ear. Seated body slowly slid right to follow her head when she saw the name of the sender in her inbox.

-double tap-

The screen filled with a familiar face.

“His and Hers – dreaming,” recited a male voice.

She closed the message, waved an encryption program open, then tapped out the numbers 0408. The sound of a ringing meditation bowl streamed from the speakers. A digital extrapolation of the sound wove itself around the encryption interface. Within thirty seconds a subroutine launched the message again. Upon relaunch, a file download burst through. The encrypted files stacked up, each transmitted from a different node determined by the subtle changes in the gently escalating tones of the music.

When the fifth file download completed the face returned to her screen.

“File received. What’s your status, Faraday?” She asked with concern.

“We’ve had a minor breach,” he replied, “but it may be an innocent mistake. I need your advice, Mabry. Watch the video and ping me back.”

“Seen and heard. Pingback on River’s Song – your move on three.”
Mabry tapped the message closed, then dropped the five files into a vid player.

“Mabry, you are still holed up in this cave,” A voice called from the door. “Come to the party with me?”

Mabry turned, already lifting her hand to wave the interruption off. It was Vanessa, a colleague who was close to the rest of Mabry’s family.

Mabry shook her head and explained in a tone that begged patience, “There’s something going on at the Port, Vane. I need to check it out.”

“Can’t it wait?” The other seemed on the verge of a pout. “We’ll be at the Port soon enough…Mabry, help me out here. I promised your sister that I’d look after you, but you don’t make it easy.”
“Gemma knows I can take care of myself.” Mabry turned back to her glowing monitors, annoyed that her sister had discussed her with someone else as though she were a child.

“You can take care of yourself in all of the basic…life-support ways, but you get locked into a project or problem and forget to unplug. There’s a whole world happening outside your head and the workshop. The whole community wants to celebrate, and cheer, and dance. You are a part of that. Hell, it’s because of you we even have a reason to celebrate. Come enjoy the party. Be the celebrity; let them ply you with gratitude and accolades.”

Mabry flashed a quick, distracted smile over her shoulder. “Okay, Vane. I’ll meet you out there in an hour or so. We had an intruder at the Port. Faraday thinks it might be nothing, but I need to review the vid to be sure.”

“O,” Vanessa commented thoughtfully, crossing the room. “And it’s not like we can just call Port Security. Can I help?” She set her wine glass down on the desk.

Mabry picked the glass up carefully and handed it back to Vanessa. “Let me watch the vid and I’ll know more. Go on to the party. I’ll either meet you in an hour or I’ll message you if the situation calls for more hands.”
Vanessa sighed. “You don’t have to do everything by yourself. <sigh> You don’t let people in, you don’t come out – sometimes I think you’d be happier if the whole world went away and left you alone with your toys. If you’re not out there in an hour I’m bringing the party to you. And it will be messy.”

Mabry smiled flatly and nodded. She tapped play on the vid before Vanessa was out the door.

The first few images were stills from the exterior eyes set up to watch the aerobridge portals. A man-shape, of average height with a sleighter than average build, between the ages of 18 and 30 approached the portal furthest from the gate. Based on the time stamp, he didn’t even pause for breath between stepping onto the gangway and turning down the narrow portal that led to the ship’s door. His actions were decisive, not furtive – he had the attitude of someone who belonged there. The man extended a key card attached to an accordion lanyard clipped to his jumpsuit. There were no symbols or brands on card or clothing. Video recording kicked in the moment he waived the card at the reader. The door cam gave Mabry the first clear view of his face.

After spending a moment studying his face, Mabry knocked five years youth from her initial age estimate. She scoured the ten seconds frame-by-frame until she found the perfect moment to capture. The man’s strikingly protruding eyes were dark black, with flecks of black dotting the sclera. Red veins branched out from his lower lids like coral and one eye had collected blood along the left side of the iris. A recent fight? Excessive drug use? Exhaustion? His forehead was high and broad, with the hair shaved down to a turquoise fuzz. The lighting of the image wasn’t great – his skin was somewhere between olive and jaundiced and shined with either sweat or oil. His mouth was broad, like his forehead, with thin flat lips that seemed to be grasping his face to keep from falling off. The nose – narrow and short with a knot bulging from the bridge like an old break – looked as though it came from a different box than the rest of his face.
Satisfied that the angle was the most ideal, she slid the cap to the side and dropped it into a facial recognition software.

Mabry pulled up the access log codes to reverse engineer the algorithm that had broken through their security. There were no key cards issued for her vessel. Everyone who had access – from crew to passengers – was chipped. Their security clearance was embedded under the skin and the access string was intertwined with their DNA. Port Security had been told the vessel was undergoing refitting prior to being decomissioned. The access Mabry had granted them on day one had decayed after 24 hours. The intruder had circumvented her security protocol far too easily. What was his purpose? Why did Faraday think this was an innocent mistake? It’s not like they had left the door open.

With those two applications running in the background, she logged into an underground profile Mabry used on occasion to research software and hardware coming out of the Corp black market. She set a few rudimentary keyword searches in motion to ferret out any chatter about the Port, the QM ship, or Quantum Migration in general.

Mabry restarted the vid. Faraday’s recorded voice broke the silence.


 

“Hello.

“I know someone is there.

“Please respond.”

A shadow twitched in the corner of an empty changing room, but there was no audible reply.

“I observed you board, hiding will do you no good. In fact, you are currently in danger. Life support to this sector is already being rerouted to conserve resources.”

The shadow stepped forward and looked around for the speaker.

“You turned off the oxygen? Man, that’s cold.” The shadow shook what passed for a head and crept to the door he had entered by.
“I didn’t shut it down on your account. This is the time of day scheduled for diagnostics and simulations. It’s automatic.”

The young man, now standing in the glow of a hallway, looked left then right, leaning back a bit to try to see around a curved wall.

“Over here,” said a casual voice over his left shoulder.

He jumped, then turned around to face it – taking two long strides back for comfort.

There was no one there.
A circle of lights came to life and danced around a vent-like panel in the wall.

“Sorry about that,” Faraday said cheekily, “I couldn’t resist. Did you know you could move that fast? I’m on the bridge; come to the fore. Meet me there. The bridge is three decks above and toward the bow. I’ll light a path.”

The young man hesitated in the corridor. “You one of those Port Security flat heads?” he asked.

“I’m the chief pilot on this vessel,” Faraday replied somewhat indignantly. “I’d suggest you walk quickly – you are depleting the oxygen in this area.”

“I didn’t steal nothin’ or break nothin’.” The man made his case as he walked toward the next line of flashing lights. “I just needed a place to crash tonight. A few hours sleep and I would-a been gone.”

“Relax. I didn’t call security. But I will call them to get you out of that sector if you don’t hurry. A suffocation on my shift would set us back months. I am curious. How do you end up bunkless on a spaceport?”

“Just ’cause you kept me from dyin’ in my sleep don’t mean I gotta tell you my life story. How I got here and where I sleep is my business.”

“Right,” said Faraday, “you don’t want to get cozy and chat. I’ll just put away the cocoa mugs and lead you to the nearest exit.”

The intruder chuckled. “If that was to make me think twice ’bout leavin’, you should know – I don’t even know what co-co is, Man. Who’s wastin’ breath now?”

“You’ve never had cocoa? It’s a drink made from milk and chocolate. It’s very rich and pleasing.”

“I never had milk, never had chocolate. I already pass the door?” The lights had stopped blinking on the wall. He was in the middle of the corridor with no outlet on either side.

“I’m deciding,” Faraday replied evenly. “On one hand, I get the feeling you’ll be more trouble than you are worth. On the other hand, you’ve gone your whole life without chocolate, milk, and cocoa. How can I let you walk away from this opportunity.”

“Maybe it’s better not to know what I’m missing. Show me the door.”

“But where will you go?” The voice asked calmly in a soft tone.

The young man tipped his chin to the speaker. “Why you care?”

“It is my duty to care for anyone onboard the ship.”

“But I’m not crew, I just slipped in uninvited.”

“That part of my job description is a bit of a grey area. You have clearly stated that you intend no harm, vandalism, or theft. And you are engaging in conversation with me as you make way through the corridors. I feel these circumstances allow me to interpret your presence as that of a friend, not foe. So I care.”

“What about the life support?” The intruder asked.

“All systems are functioning on the bridge. It’s only the cargo and sleepers’ facility that have been shut down.”

“You know what?” The young man asked, jabbing his chin in the air again. “I’m gonna come up there are drink your co-co, but you gotta promise me that Port Security will not be at the gate waiting for me when we’re done.”

“No Port Security,” Faraday promised. Then he opened the access panel that led to the stairwell.

Reading of Act I

Adrift: Earth BkSy 02: Lady Seran Sc 01. Moonstones and Guilt

Brigit’s Flame December of Minis entry three-
“Moonstones and Guilt”
Speculative Future Fiction
WC: 2,540
Warnings: none

Part of the previous series, but not directly. This is set in the same world, but represents a different time, place, and a new character.

The dazzling skyline of level 150 Amazonia reached for the horizon like chorus lines of showgirls kicking their rhinestone-spangled shoes to the stars. A luminous moon worked to steal their spotlight, but the girls never stopped trying.

Saran shifted her focus to the viewscreen on her glasses. “I cannot intervene, Roland. We must respect the natural order of things. We exist in a world of duty and sacrifice. Our first thought of the day is to our Mother Moon who sees all even when we cannot see her. Our second is to the Corp who provides our food, our shelter, and our law. Children will rebel, and as the Moon guides us so should we guide them. A parent is the beacon and the teacher. Do you not agree?”
“Of course I do Lady Saran, but my daughter…Jesse is still a child and they want to punish her as an adult. I will lose her. I came to you because I thought you would understand. Doesn’t the loss of your daughter haunt you daily?”
Saran stiffened and counseled her face not to snarl. She answered tensely, irritation crawling under every word  “You speak of my daughter and my loss as though it were comparable to your own situation. I understand sacrifice for the greater good. I live my duty every day. I gave the burden of that loss to our vibrant Mother long ago so that I might be light enough to counsel others.
“We have birth laws for a reason, Roland. Every life is the responsibility of the Corp, second only to the individuals which bore it. Each new light we bring into this world is born into contract. Do you believe that the Corp should be obliged to accept every new hire thrust upon it without having a say in the stock and character of its employees?
“Your daughter was schooled in the law when she first came into flower. Jesse took the classes and signed the consent to be implanted with the preventative. Now she’s thrown it all away. She ignored the established protocol when she unwisely decided to engage in a relationship with an unlisted man, paid some charlatan hack to remove her implant, and entered into unsanctioned pregnancy without applying for a birth permit. Those are some very adult decisions. Do you not agree, Roland?”
“They will send her to prison,” the man whispered, head in hands.
“Jesse broke the law, Roland. Have you considered how the Corp will view you in light of this action?”
“I’ve been demoted and my wife was transferred to housekeeping,” he admitted.
“Yet you cry for this criminal and make pleas in her favor. Jesse has ruined your life.”
“Thank you for your time, Lady Saran. I regret having offended you with my petition.”
Saran softened into her public persona. “Our Mother forgives you a parent’s love. Look to the Moon and she will bring you peace. I will have one of my disciples at the jail administer Blessing to Jesse to ease her pain of loss as well.”
The man bowed in deference and the transmission ended.
Saran checked that the record light was no longer glowing before she barked, “Are we done yet? I cannot talk to another pathetic supplicant tonight.”
“Your shift has been terminated early,” replied the ‘droid serving as her personal assistant. “I have cleared the queue and rescheduled ten callers for private appointments tomorrow.”
Saran missed the young, adoring flesh of human assistants.
“Not that I’m not grateful, but why was the shift cut off?” she asked.
“You have an emergency meeting with the program director. He has asked me to put you through to him immediately.”
“Excellent,” Saran murmured to herself, “ratings drama. I need a vacation.”
Saran smoothed her vestments and put on a bright smile as the viewscreen sparked back to life.

“Cheers, Shane. How does the night find you?”

“Is this an encrypted channel?” Shane asked abruptly.

Saran mouthed unformed words in confusion until the ‘droid cut in with, “Yes, I dialed up a level 27 encryption channel as instructed.”

Saran turned to look at the ‘droid over her shoulder. She had no idea what level 27 encryption was. Then she settled her attention back on her viewing glasses.

“The glowstick assures me it is. Level 27; whatever that means. What’s going on Shane?”

“You are being temporarily reassigned as a military liaison. Saran I need you to get to a physical meeting A.S.A.P. to be briefed on your mission.”

She laughed. “How bad are the ratings that you’ve lowered yourself to punking me? Level 27 – that was a nice touch.”

“This is not a joke. I need you to hear me.” Shane stage whispered as he leaned in close to the camera,”I don’t have any of the details, but the head of the network just called me into his office. We are getting the exclusive on a developing story of worldwide significance and you were requested by the military to be their spokesperson.”
A slow smile spread across Saran’s face. “Naturally,” she said smugly. “Where will the meeting take place? It’s a shame they didn’t give me more notice. The new designer my stylist found has not had time to deliver even one set of my new robes. What goes best with worldwide significance? White robes maybe, with hints of grey to make the white pop.”
“I would go with variegated blues,” Shane advised. “It is the blue planet.”
“Blue isn’t a very dramatic color though, and if we do any of the broadcasts against a sky backdrop I’ll blend in like a chameleon. Well I am the liaison, I suppose I can make it work. Who is the DP? What crew will I be working with?”
“The only information I have at this time is that you need to get to the meeting right now. I sent the location details to your assistant.”
Saran mentally pressed pause on her inner newsreel. “Am I going alone? It is it a planning meeting?”
Shane nodded with a shrug. “I guess it is. I have no instruction for anyone but you. Alonso would be the most logical choice for DP and I know he’s currently filming Underside. I have no instruction to call him back. Did you know those liberation people have discovered an Earth 2.0 and have claimed it solely for their Corp?”
Saran felt her stomach flip. “Which liberation people?” she asked breezily.
“Quantum Migration.” Shane gestured to someone offscreen.

“I only vaguely recognize the name,” Saran said a few octaves too high. She hoped Shane couldn’t hear her heart banging against her ribcage. “Let me guess – they believe Corp-life is evil and that we should go back to the old way of life with corrupt governments and full-support aid packages?”

Shane chuckled distractedly, “I’m sure it’s something like that. It always is. Listen, Maribel is waving like a fool outside my office. I guess there’s a fire somewhere. Check your planner and get to that meeting. They want you there yesterday.”

“Of course they do,” Saran quipped. “I’ll get changed and go. Thanks, Shane.”
He was already gone.

Twenty minutes later a freshly scrubbed Saran was standing before an antique mirror layering her garb. The robes of her position were designed to be impenetrable by bullets, fire, and any manner of fluid a psycho might try to douse her with. Fashionable security is what her stylist had called it.
Saran also wore a protective veil in public, unless she was speaking publicly. An Entertainer was a beacon of hope for her own people, but to those who followed another Entertainer’s path she might sometimes be seen as a symbol at odds with their beliefs. This mentality could lead to violence. Though in her experience the zealots were more likely to harm their own Reverent than the opposing Entertainer.
Saran shook off thoughts that would lead to her long-lost family and refocused on her own reflection. The base layer of garments were for hygiene and protection from chafing. The second was support to counteract the effects of age and gravity. The next three offered various degrees of protection against external forces. Over the years, Saran had sought out makers of protective fabrics that were effective yet lightweight and beautiful.
Saran stroked a scaled, iridescent shawl hanging over her dressing rack. There was soft rasp as her fingers smoothed the silken surface and left faint traces of color from her body heat. This silk – enhanced through synthesis to absorb all impact away from the wearer – was the finest body armor ever created. It was also flexible,  lightweight, and cool to the touch.

Before wrapping the shawl around her head and torso, Saran clipped a fresh clove and citrus sachet to a particulate respirator, then slipped the elastic bands over her ears. The droid helped with the shawl, wrapping it tight enough to guard against gusting winds and human interference but not too tight to move.
Saran primly smoothed her curves for the mirror. She liked the way the wrappings accentuated her figure and presented the illusion of a larger bustline. Her frosted jade eyes were lined with kohl as a final touch before Saran clipped on the veil.

She glanced at the time just as the ‘droid announced that her lift had arrived.


 

Zerospace – the slab floor of every Skydeck Mass – had not been designed for inhabitants. It was a machine floor on every blueprint ever conceived and Amazonia was no exception despite being the first of all the concrete continents. Long before the Green Wars and the subsequent establishment of the Interplanetary Corporate Collective, there was a retail company in need of more undeveloped land for warehouse space than could be found in one place on the planet.

So they built their own in the ocean – towering above the height of any potential seismic sea waves and wide enough in area to warrant their own postal code. It took a century for it to grow into the Skydeck Mass it was today. It was slightly after that 100-year anniversary that it was needed to house millions.

The natural continents had become vast wastelands of radical Nature and immense radiation. There were very few reasons to visit the Underside and all of them involved vaccination, specialized radiation suits, and very large guns.

It wasn’t long after civilization was relocated to the various concrete continents that population control and the indolent became problems. Amazonia had been expanded to the limits engineers found advisable for the strength of the ocean floor beneath. Birth laws were enacted first, consigning the able-bodied who refused to work to main slab followed.

The first of those exiled to the lowest deck did as expected and jumped off after a few weeks with no food or water. Problem solved. But eventually survival instincts kicked in and the pariahs began to string together a life for themselves on the bottom floor. Earning enough for a single meal was harder and more work than anywhere else on Amazonia, but the Zero’s were willing to do more to not die than they were to exist on an upper level.

Unfortunately, everything they were willing to do involved truly disgusting smells, foul puddles that glowed yellow in the street lights, and questionable protein sources.

Saran followed the navigator murmuring in her ear, from the secure lift plate station to the warehouse district where her meeting would take place. Once she was in the rows of warehouses, he navigator stopped directing her and kept insisting that she had arrived at her destination. Saran was standing between two long rows of decrepit warehouses that had been scavenged to skeletal remains.
“I assure you I have not reached my destination,” she informed the nav voice in her ear. Saran delicately adjusted the sleeve of her robes to expose her Cuff. Directions to the meeting were the most recent viewed so they popped up quickly. She glances around to get her bearings then strode confidently through the debris to the last building in the row.

Poised to knock, the door opened and she was shuffled inside without a greeting or a glance at her ID.

Moments later she found herself standing in front of the second-to-last man on Earth she ever wanted to see again.
“Greaves,” she hailed coldly, “I should have expected that any event of worldwide significance would involve you. I see you’re a General now. Impressive.”
“Lady Saran,” he replied evenly, as though she had been civil. “I’m so glad you made the time to join us. You won’t be disappointed. Where are your things?”
“What things?” Saran asked.
“This is not the location of our meeting, merely a waypoint.” Greaves gestured to a small shuttle.
“I was not told we were leaving the slab. Where is the meeting?” Saran asked, notably flustered.
“Off world,” he said vaguely as two MPs with rifles on their shoulders offered to escort her to the waiting shuttle. “It’s just a precaution,” General Greaves explained. “This journey is top secret. No one can know where you are.”
“Not even me?” Saran asked haughtily.
“You will know when you get there. Our scans indicate that you are transmitting – or were. This is too important, do not attempt to undermine the mission again.”
“Greaves –”
“That’s General Greaves and I have to insist you use it.”
“General Greaves,” Saran sang with an unctuous smile, “I’m not going anywhere with you without the backup of a video record. You proved yourself the boldest, lying snake at my custody hearing. You and that spineless husband of mine conspired to steal all three of my girls from me, but Aryal was the biggest loss. She was my first-born, my Moonchild.”
“That first was not a custody hearing, it was about competency and gross negligence. You used her in your act like a sideshow freak. Even after the attempted kidnapping you kept her on display. When one of your followers threatened to kill her over a prophecy you invented, you took Aryal with you on tour. I testified against you as a mother who would continue to put a self-made religion before her child’s safety.”
“Now as then you fail to admit that you were the security officer who advised me to keep Aryal in the spotlight.”
“I was wrong to suggest it and you were an idiot to go along with it.”
Saran seethed in silence, all thoughts of worldwide significance had fled.

“We were both trying to bolster our careers, Saran. I’m sorry about Aryal, but if you let me I can make up for a small corner of that loss.”
“How?” she hissed.
“Get on the shuttle, see it through to the end.” Greaves held up a hand to halt any questions. “I can’t tell you more than that, but you won’t have long to wait for answers.” He pointed to the shuttle and cocked an eyebrow at Saran.
She gritted her teeth and pulled her robes tighter.
Saran stalked purposefully to the shuttle and ducked inside.

 

 

Adrift: Earth BkSy 01: Inna & Dallas Sc 03. Keep Away

Brigit’s Flame December of Minis entry two-
“Keep Away”
Speculative Future Fiction
WC: 4,480
Rated M for Mature

This is part three of at three. (I hope)
Part one is here: “The New Doom”
Part two is here: “What Dreams

The shuttle station at the Kauri had been a clean, quiet, modern, well-ordered space with enough trade present to warrant having a station, but not more than was manageable. The station where the cousins disembarked in the Taz was an overwhelming convergence of chaos.

When Dallas pushed her way from the shuttle gate into the flow of commuters, she found her senses bombarded from every direction. The walls were towering video screens writhing in costume and color. Looking at them made her uncomfortable and seemed ill-advised in the tidal surge of bodies flushing the station. She looked down to cut off a sense of vertigo, surprised to see that some floor panels lit as she stepped on them. After a quick assessment, Dallas realized that for some people the floor actually seemed to be leading them step-by-step on the fringes of the crowd.

When she remarked on this to Inna – having to bellow in her cousin’s ear to be heard over the cacophony of music and announcements streaming from the walls – Inna nodded and made an exaggerated face that Dallas could not decipher. She saw Inna twitch her Cuff on and tap some prompts, then she thumbed a blinking circle on her wrist until the floor tile in front of them synced to the same color.

Inna made a thumbs-up sign and gestured for Dallas to follow. The sheer volume of the crowd was unsettling. Dallas felt as though her senses were being crippled. Like walking into bright sun from a dark room to stand near a jet engine as it whined. She wrapped her fist around Inna’s hood and held on. Dallas had experienced many things in her life that a person might fear, but the press of bodies, the deafening sound, the bright flashing vid screens in an otherwise dim room – even the pandemonium of odors in this place – caused a gripping anxiety in her chest and stomach that made her want to run.

The people exiting the gates were an eclectic mix. Some were normal like her and Inna, others were variations on human commingled with machine – which was odd but not disturbing. Then there were a few she caught glimpses of through the crowd who looked like they’d been spawned in the labs of insane scientists.

The oddest creature she spotted had a tentacled mouth over a man’s face, and stubby, green, crab claws instead of hands. He had a shell on his back, also resembling a crab’s, but his bare chest was sinewy and overtly masculine paired with his marine features. From the pelvis down, he was swathed in a billowing skirt that swept the ground. His gate was so awkward, Dallas wondered if he had legs or some sort of slug’s body instead. Mortified, she realized he was staring back at her. When their eyes met, he reached a claw down to a slit in his skirt and shifted it open as though in answer to her question. She glimpsed something that seemed like a tentacle. Then her brain made a few sketches of human anatomy and she blushed deeply, hoping it was strictly a tentacle in function. Dallas kept her eyes fixed on the back of Inna’s head after that.

 

The transition from chaos to calm was as abrupt and complete as a door slamming shut. Dallas’ ears briefly continued to ring in the silence. Her eardrums ached as though a bomb had gone off nearby. Working her jaw back and forth to relieve the tension in her face, she took in the space around them. They were standing in a bubble and they were not alone.

Even if she had not brought him up earlier, Dallas would have recognized Ulysses instantly. He resembled a mountain – tall, broad shoulders, meaty hands, biceps of a greater diameter than her hips, and an enormous head that was completely in proportion with the rest of him. He had done something different to his skin. There were more of the silver lines criss-crossing and outlining his bare flesh, and the once burnt caramel color of his skin had been mottled in an organic pattern that looked like rock. Ulysses still had the strange eye socket that had stood out to her when she first met him. Attached from brow to cheek by a heavy metal ring, the protrusion it housed looked like an ancient spyglass fashioned from a dark, non-reflective metal.

Inna hugged the man mountain fondly. He twisted the ocular attachment up, revealing painfully raw, puckered skin beneath. Then he folded nearly in half to kiss Inna tenderly on both cheeks. Dallas stepped closer, unbalanced for a moment by the illusion created by the clear floor of the bubble and the visible floor 50 meters below. She extended a hand to Ulysses in greeting and smiled as genuinely as she could.

Ulysses grinned, enveloping her hand in his. “I am never thought to meet you here, Dallas. Welcome to my home.”
“I’m surprised to be here, Ulysses. Thank you for meeting us. It makes me feel less like I’ve fallen into a dream just seeing a…familiar face. Would it be rude for me to comment on the change to your skin since the last time I saw you?”
Ulysses huffed, smiling, and crossed his hands in front of his belt buckle – rocking forward a little on his toes. “Well that would depend on the comment.”
“You look like one of those mythic mountains that threw boulders at each other,” Dallas said lightly.
“I didn’t know you enjoyed reading myths. I thought you were more interested in factual history,” Ulysses challenged, recalling to Dallas an old conversation from a previous meeting.
Dallas waved a hand at her cousin. “Inna gets to pick the vids sometimes. Although, I think I watched that one with Jake. It was a book?”
Inna nodded, she looked unsettled maybe even nervous.
Ulysses waved a hand dismissively. “Yes, but so long ago that the myth has been recycled and repurposed many times over. My skin is painted for urban warfare, it will wear off in a month.”
“Oh,” Dallas remarked sheepishly, then realized what he said. “The Taz is at war?”
“Battle Games,” Inna supplied, “Ulysses is a blocker for his team. He’s what they refer to as a tank.”
“I know what a tank is,” Dallas chided. “Dad and I watch the battle games on The Kauri all the time. You must be the best tank in the world,” she added in open admiration.
The man puffed up his already monumental chest and smiled cockily. “It has yet to be proven, but my fans believe I will be. I’ve been chosen to play for The Taz in the Earth Battle Games.”
“I can’t wait to see it!” Dallas exclaimed with a little clap.
“It’s barbary,” Inna sighed and shook her head.
“It’s lucrative for the Collective,” Ulysses stated.
“It’s tradition,” Dallas interjected.
“Can we get down to business?” Inna asked irritably.

Ulysses caressed her arm gently. “I have gained clearance passes for you to visit the terminal complex. I will do all of the visual recording for you and submit it to the Admin. They will review and forward the approved file to you. The interview with Sylvia B can last no longer than one hour – per Terminal Council. The good news is, they’ve agreed to let you speak with her directly and without the full council present. I’ve been accepted as her temporary moderator in this, so if I tell you that your question violates the treaty, her rights, or council policy you must immediately quit that line of inquiry.”
Inna nodded.

“As for the other job, I have clearance to take you out to the tourist approved areas and we will dine in one of the most prestigious restaurants on The Taz, courtesy of the Collective.”
“Tour first and then the interview?” Inna clarified. Ulysses nodded and gestured toward the exit.
Dallas looked around, impressed. As they were talking, the bubble had transported them to another sector of the Taz without any sense of motion or inertia.

 

The new deck was calm and far less populated. Dallas could see collected water on the horizon and the occasional person holding a stick over a serene pool.
“Are they fishing?” She asked with wonder.
Ulysses nodded and gestured to a kiosk where they seemed to offer the sticks to rent. “If you’d like we can try our hand at it after lunch.”

Terminal housing was typically bleak in the corporate world and the industrial nature of the Taz did not add anything to improve upon that theme. Though it was the first native sector Inna had glimpsed on this Skydeck Mass that wasn’t teched out and blaring. The android population of the terminal complex outnumbered the human and transhuman inhabitants two-to-one.

The structure itself had no esthetic. It was a squatty, thirty story compound hunkered down in a two km square void between buildings that stretched one hundred stories to brush the underside of the next deck level.  The only hint at style were the lines of blackened porthole windows rimmed in metal that made Inna think of hollow, industrial spiders – lined up and anchored to the concrete against a windstorm.

The reception area was an odd mix of sterile grunge, with smoky walls of unpolished metal occasionally interrupted by ashen concrete panels that sported battleship doors, dingy vista projections for light therapy, or even dingier vid plates advertising biomedical improvements and drugs to ask your doctor about.

The service androids who accompanied patients in wheeled conveyances and hover-chairs looked as though they’d been put directly into service after a long slide down a waste chute. They all had a slightly oily sheen (and smell) and more dents than smooth curves. At least three the group passed in the receiving area only had one optic sensor.

The android manning the front desk was a rolling office chair from the waist down and had a roughly shaped metal plate riveted to one side of its face. Inna thought he looked like he was ready for an unorthodox costume ball.
“State your name, patient’s name, and authorization code,” the android instructed somberly.
Inna adjusted her mental pronouns to ‘she’. There was a distinctly feminine tone to the receptionist’s words with the lilt of the Taz’ native patois behind the rote sentence.
Wheels referred them to a consultation room on an upper floor once they had each thumbed a set of consent, privacy, and non-disclosure forms via their Cuffs.
The elevator was a sketchy metal box on pulleys. No fancy, inertia-absorbing bubbles in this sector. The lights in the elevator dimmed before it left the reception area with a jolt that had all three passengers reaching for the walls.
Each level they passed seemed to be marked by a flickering of the bulbs overhead. Inna smirked, entertaining thoughts of hauntings and the death-bleached shades of deranged mental patients. If Jake had been there, she would have pulled a packet of salt from her bag and sprinkled it around them in a circle. Dallas and Ulysses wouldn’t get the joke.

“I wish the lights would stop doing that,” Dallas grumbled to the ceiling.

“It is unsettling,” Ulysses agreed, grasping for the wall again as the elevator switched to a lateral line.

The motion of the elevator abruptly jerked to a stop and the doors opened onto a small sitting room decorated in a palette of grey and sweat. In the center of the room there were two, beat up, grey, foam couches facing off over a metal table. Other than a small door across from the trio’s entrance and three small porthole windows to the right, there was nothing on the walls but ancient stains and the harsh reflection of an overhead light.

A man appeared in hologram and introduced himself Dr. Tagealli, Sylvia B’s health manager.  He reiterated much of what had been said already regarding the interview protocol, then added a new instruction.

“To keep Sylvia in a calm and cooperative state you will need to leave at least one meter between you and her for your full visit. Do not try to touch the patient even to shake hands. You will not get her to wear a microphone. Do not pass her any pieces of paper or trinkets. Sylvia has a compulsion against germs and disease; violating the patient’s personal space causes excess anxiety and stress.”

“Thank you, Doctor Tagealli. We will respect the extended personal space,” Inna said.

The trio were required to thumb acknowledgment of these instructions, then the doctor winked out and the group took up waiting positions around the room; giving the inner door a wide berth.

Inna ended up at one of the portholes, staring into a dense fog, contemplating Ulysses and the feeling of being near him again. It was a melancholy thing. She was pleased to see him and to interact, but she also knew that he had moved on with someone else and his wedding was mere months away. Inna wanted him to be happy, but she wished selfishly that he would never happier than when he was with her. She also wished she’d put more effort into finding a solution to keep them together.

Inna glanced over at Ulysses. He was sitting on one of the couches with Dallas opposite, talking easily about a recent Battle Game and showing off his impressive scars. Dallas seemed surprisingly at ease with him. Inna knew the sports angle was they key, but she also realized that Dallas had softened considerably in some of the ways she had once been elitist. Fear of a diagnosis of Jump Mania had a humbling effect on her cousin, but it had also made her more open-minded. Inna was not sure why one had led to the other, but she felt closer to her cousin than ever before and was happier for it.

A bell chimed in the room and a strip of lights above the inner door blinked twice. Inna crossed the room to stand near Dallas. She felt a tingle of excitement. Interviewing someone she had researched so deeply was always a thrill for her.

An android entered the room and explained that he would mark the boundary for Sylvia’s comfort zone. Essentially, he would stand between them and none of their party should attempt to pass him. No actual threats were levied, but Inna imagined approaching Sylvia and disappearing in a puff of skin cells under the android’s deathray gaze or being tazed to the floor as he pointed and bellowed, “Violation!”

She really needed to work some new genres into her vid queue.

Sylvia slipped into the room, leaning against the wall like she was balancing on a window ledge. She removed her shoe and wedged it into the door so it could not close all the way, then she leaned near the opening as though ready to flee. From this position, Sylvia studied them and acknowledged their introductions with subtle nods. The gamine girl did not seem able to stand still. Restlessly she shifted from foot to foot; dreaded, mouse-brown hair swinging in a nervous rhythm to slap a silent beat against her pallid cheeks.

Since Sylvia had chosen to stand against the wall behind the couch, Inna began the interview kneeling backwards on the grey foam and resting her tab screen on the back of the couch to maintain a reference to the questions she’d prepared.

Inna gave Sylvia what she felt was a kind and reassuring smile.
“Thank you for meeting with us today, may I call you Sylvia?” Inna asked.
“I’ ya call me somet’en else I won’ know ta answer,” she replied tartly from behind her hair. Sylvia’s voice still had the high pitch of a child and her hard patois reflected the down two accent of the forgotten. (On the two lowest decks of all CCSMs education was optional. Most children in this class began working as soon as their motor skills would allow.)

Inna smiled at the joke and pushed forward.
“I recently watch a documentary where you talked about a vision of the end of the world. I’m very interested in your dream. Can I ask you some questions about it?”
“I’ not a dream. Not da firs’ time. Dat one way a future put in mah heaD,” Sylvia tapped her temple for emphasis.

“I would like to hear about it. See if there are details –”
“Why ya wan’ know? I ‘ready know an don wan’ know iT. Wish I couldT no know it, lai you. I re-mem-ber you. I saw you die. Ya wan’ know daT?”
Inna opened her mouth, but Sylvia’s blunt declaration had surprised her right off her train of thought.
Sylvia spoke again, gesturing strongly as though flinging something from her chest.
“I’ a liar. I’ a crazy. I’uh too la-aZy ta work so I’d make it uP. I’ a scared orphan lookin’ for a-tten-tioN. D’ese are da tings people say when I tell deM. N’ai listens, be-causse n’ai wan’ ta know, no really. Dey show me a t’rrible ting, a horror’ting. But n’ai say to me, after, why dey show iT. Kan I’uh stop iT? Kan you stop iT? I don wan’ a life fulla people dyin’ be-hine mah close eyes? Do you?”
“No, I would not want that,” Inna shook her head and glanced at Dallas.
“I saw you die,” Sylvia whispered harshly and gestured like she was throwing her eyes to the floor.
“That is a hard thing to hear,” Inna conceded. “Do you mean me specifically, all three of us specifically, or the human race in general?”
“I way talkin ta you,” Sylvia pointed, “bu’h I saw her too.” She crooked a thumb in Dallas’ direction. Then she leaned a bit to see around them and looked intently at Ulysses. “I don know you. I nay see you bu’hfore. Who are you?”
“I’m Ulysses, I am here as your moderator today.”
“What’s dat do?” she asked.
“I am tasked with keeping the interviewers from making you uncomfortable, angry, or frustrated. I am also here to make a pure record of the interview so no one can change your words or misquote you.”

While talking, Ulysses had moved from his perch on the arm of the second couch to stand beside Inna. Sylvia cringed and keened at him in terror to stay away. She retreated part of the way through the inner door. The android, alerted by the stress of her outburst moved to close the gap between himself and the space directly in front of Sylvia.
“Please do not move around the room. Choose a seat or place to stand and remain there,” the android instructed.
“I will,” Ulysses answered, palms out.
It took a few minutes for Sylvia to rejoin them. She eyed Ulysses warily for a while. The restless shifting had returned, but she was hiding behind her hair less than before.
“Sylvia,” Dallas began, “can you tell us in detail, what you saw in the vision?”
Sylvia sighed, “I tell you nay, you be happier.”
“I know,” Dallas urged, “I take that responsibility on myself, but maybe together we can find a hint or clue about how to stop it.”
“Doctor in da light say is’s ‘delusional prophet complex’,” Sylvia enunciated the diagnosis with disdain. “Say if I were da real prophet I’uh see more den ever’bai dyin’.”
“I’m no expert on prophets,” Dallas said with a reassuring smile, “but I do enjoy a good mystery vid. Let’s see if we can suspend the disbelief and unravel it together.”
Sylvia shrugged, “Where ya wan me ta start? Do ya wan me to tell ya how you die?” This time Sylvia wasn’t challenging or trying to shock them. Inna felt that she was genuinely asking if they wanted to hear that detail or remain ignorant.
“Let’s just start from the beginning and work through it,” Dallas suggested.
“I don know da names of all da places, but I’uh can describe dem to you,” Sylvia offered.
Dallas cocked her head. “What places?”
“Da vision start on Mars, den it go to somerway I’ nay been. Den dey show me udder places, den yours, den  couple more. Den here for my own death.”
This time Dallas was thrown off the train. Inna filled the gap after a pause.
“Is there something all of these places have in common, Sylvia?” Inna asked.
“Ever’bai dies,” Sylvia offered with a shrug. “and da rabbit people, a’huh”
“Okay.” Inna nodded and tapped a line item from her list. “Tell me about the rabbit people. Do you know who they are?”
“No.”
Inna waited a beat to see if Sylvia would add anything to her statement, then plunged ahead.
“Why do you call them rabbit people?”
“Because dey people wit’ long rabbit ears, fur, whisker, paws…” Sylvia drifted off, lost in thought.
“So they are people in costumes designed to look like rabbits?” Inna asked.
“No. Dey people all da way t’rough.”
Inna felt confused and was considering how to nail this detail down when Dallas chimed in. “Just to be clear, Sylvia. You are saying the rabbit people are not wearing costumes, they always have fur and long ears, even when they are naked?”
Sylvia giggled in a manic, breathy way. “I’uh never see one a dem nakeD! Dey wear dose funny pant wit’ part of a shirt on top anda straps dat hold it all together. But when dey naked dey would stay have fur, like animals. Dey no animals dough. Dey talk and dance and make plans ta kill people instay of jess bitin’ dem.”
Dallas considered her own vision. There is no such thing as rabbit people so she had always believed them to be people in costume. How could Sylvia be so sure? Had it been settled in the memory of the naive child willing to believe in fairy stories and never challenged in adulthood? Then she remembered Crabby Beefcake from the station.
“Ulysses,” Dallas began, turning to the man, “is there tech on The Taz to give people animal parts as well as mech enhancements?”
“Sure.” He nodded. “Our specialists have worked out biogenetic transmogrification that includes zoology.”
“Any all-over rabbit trends?” Dallas asked.
“Not that I’m aware of.” He shook his head.
Sylvia stood still, “Maybay rabbit people nay here t’day, but dey may be on da right day?”
“Maybe.” Dallas nodded thoughtfully.
Inna tried to dive back in. “Sylvia, you said the beginning of the vision is on Mars and then it travels to other places. Do you know any dates, times, or details that might be a clue to time like weather, seasons…”
“It sunset way you die and I t’ink it soon because you almost look like da people you will be dat day. Dallas’ hair is longer and you’uh hay a scar under your lip here,” Sylvia ran her finger under the right quarter of her bottom lip.
Dallas felt her skin prickle at that detail; another correlation to her own vision.
Sylvia continued. “Da vision happen at da same time. Each place ha’ da same ting happen at-da same time, but I can’nay see ever’ting at once, so I see each piece in each place. I see da people who miss da gatherings – da ones who are still alive after da dance – find da bodies where dey drop. Den dey take da sickness awa’i with dem and die too, slower. Den people who stay’d awa’i get sick and die. Den dey come here ta kill mE, but I don’ get da pretty paper dat show sunlight where dere is’nay lighT. Dey don’ dance wit’ me and I’uh know who dey are so I scream-an-scream, but dey kill me anywai.” Sylvia had stepped away from the wall and was clinging to her android’s back while he held her under each knee.
“So childlike,” Inna thought.
“Dey give me da blood demselves. When I first saw me die, I was eight so I didn’ay know it wAs me. Not to maybe five year ago dat I notice I was becomin’ dat last person who died. Now I know’d why she de only one who wa’ afraid of the rabbit people. And n’ai ever sees dem leave. It like ever’bai is come ta see dem. Dey dance and take da children to dance wit’ an den dey shine dem up. Da rabbit people tell da children to go back to dey family – to hug dem, tell dem love tings, den ta kiss d‘em. De kids do it, but dey get bloodsick all over da firs’ person who lean in for da kiss. Den da sickness is out for ever’bai ta catch. But while ever’bai tiss screamin’ an dyin’ da rabbit people disappear. N’ai ever see dem leaVe.”
With Sylvia speaking faster, Inna tried to process the chain of events and additional details that the girl was throwing out.
“What is the final moment of the vision? Do you actually experience your own death in the vision or just see your contamination?” Inna asked.
Sylvia thought about this. “My eyes close,” she states, preoccupied with remembering. “I feel da pain in my stomach like a t’ick snake it’s twistin’ in dere. Den da porthole open and da pink cloud say, ‘There is no safe place on Terra.’ It start rainin’ in my room, den ever’ting is black.”
“The voice comes from the pink cloud?” Dallas asked in wonder, forgetting to pretend that she did not know a part of this vision for herself.
“Yes,” Sylvia answered with a yawn. “I use tink dey were talkin’a me, but now I tink I hear dem tell someone else.”
“Like they are answering a question,” Inna offered. “If it’s like you just said it, ‘There is no safe place on Terra.’ then the emphasis on ‘is’ would make it seem like someone asked, ‘Where do we go?’ or ‘Where can we hide?’ and this was their reply.”
Dallas nodded and pointed at Sylvia with a smile. “So maybe the answer has been there all along. In order to survive we need to get off the planet!”
Inna looked at Dallas, barely containing her excitement. “She said it happens simultaneously on Mars. So we can’t go to Mars, where else is there?”
“I guess we start with space itself and see where discovery leads us?” Dallas answered. Then stopped breathing. Sylvia was standing right in front of her with an intense expression and both hands hovering above Dallas’. Together they looked down as Sylvia exerted willpower over her fear and grasped Dallas’ wrists with both hands.
“Ta-ay me wit you,” a shaking Sylvia breathed with her eyes closed. Then she opened them and stared directly into the other woman’s eyes. “Don leaVe me ‘ere ta die.”
“We won’t,” whispered Dallas. “We won’t.”

Adrift: Earth BkSy 01: Inna & Dallas Sc 02. What Dreams

Brigit’s Flame December of Minis entry one-
“What Dreams”
Speculative Future Fiction
WC: 1,486
Rated M for Mature – for gore and horror

This is part two of at least three.
Part one is here: “The New Doom”

It wasn’t long after Dallas closed her eyes that it started.

The dream is always the same at the beginning. Dallas – sitting in a crowded, open-air plaza, at a familiar outdoor cafe surrounded by her family. She kisses the top of Jake’s head – his soft, tawny swirls brushing her cheek as he turns to show Inna the new toy Dallas has just given him. Her father makes a joke and their joined laughter carries above the mild din of other patrons.

A woman at the next table slips a treat from her own plate to Belle who accepts it daintily. Dallas meets the stranger’s eyes as she looks up from petting the little dog. The woman blushes and smiles shyly. Dallas notices her hand stroke a small white stone affixed to a cord around her neck. It is the memorial stone for treasured family, likely a dog given the context. Dallas mirrors the gesture sliding a finger across her own stone, thinking of her dear uncle instead of one of the four-legged ghosts of her childhood.

Across the table her mother, Cilla, notices the motion and shows she understands the touch of sadness that crosses Dallas’ eyes by raising her wine glass in a silent toast to a good man.

Then Jake pulls at her sleeve and redirects her attention to the sky. Clusters of well-formed cumulus clouds – bellies heavy with the juice of a tangerine sunset – drift by. He points to the clouds because seeing the underside from a Skydeck is rare. Given the altitude of the manufactured continent, clouds were typically seen from above or shared space with the Kauri inhabitants as fog.

Inna points to a really fat cloud, candied in fuchsia despite the golden light. It grows as they watch, expanding swiftly from the center; a rolling thunderhead crackling with white-violet lightning.

Dallas always recognizes the dream for what it is when that unnatural cloud unfurls. Her stomach clenches knowing what will happen next.

Like a flash mob of old, costumed people stream into the plaza making ordered rows. The assembled audience stands and pushes in for a better view. This is the event they have all been waiting for.

Dallas stands with her family. Inna is in front with Jake, hands on his shoulders and lips near his ear to be heard over the music filling the plaza. The dreaming Dallas groans. “Pull him back!” she fights to scream, but she is not in control of the Dallas at the scene.

The performers are made up like cats; though their ears are long like wild hares and they are wearing overalls. The fabric of their costumes rustles softly as they file in from the four arches and take position. Odors like wet hay and afterbirth follow the players into the plaza center, pushing the usual scents of spiced food and incense out into the street.

Dallas looks away from the assembly to see if anyone else notices the strong, suffocating stink. This time, in this version of the dream, she looks to the southwest. Initially, she checks the storm’s progress, notes it seems to have stalled kilometers from the Skydeck.

Beneath the cloud, at deck level, a man stands looking out over the distant ocean. He turns as though he senses her attention. Dallas recognizes his face. He is a fellow SPS astropilot, of Russian or Pan-Slavic descent. She remembers that his accent is thick and rich like a savory stew and that his eyes are crystalline green jewels in a face that never smiled. Dallas does not remember ever being told his name.

His head is covered by a skull cap, but she can see tight, auburn curls tufting out around the sides of his windburned face. The man is looking at Dallas as intently as she is in return, then he drops his eyes to his Cuff and extends his right arm to the side – palm out. Dallas understands at once that he is showing her his Cuff screen. Though he is standing more than 50 meters away, she can read the Cuff and his expression easily. His face shows fear and the device reads, “Contact.” followed by a num-char string.

Dallas barely registers that he is giving her a way to contact him before he gestures with his Cuff hand in her direction. Their eyes meet. No pick-up artist flirtation there. No “Call Me” motion with a double-tap to the ear. Instead, he points over her shoulder and mouths “look” as a tear slides down his cheek.

Dreaming Dallas doesn’t want to look. Not again. She does not want to watch this happen ever again. But the other Dallas dutifully turns.

The performers select the children from the front of the crowd. They weaving dancing lines around the plaza holding the hands of beaming children in their soft paws. The lines halt their dance to face each other in two concentric circles – performers on the inside and children on the outside. From their front bib pockets the performers produce a small square of something shiny. Like furry magicians, they hold the objects by a single corner and shake them. Fine, sparkling motes tinkle from the objects and float over the upturned faces of enraptured children. The action is repeated for each corner, and with each shake the object grows until what began as a dense, three centimeter square becomes a gauzy cloth that covers the hand.

The faces of the children glitter with a fine iridescence. The rabbit-y people lean forward as though sharing a secret with the child in front of them. They rub a tiny spot clean on the end of each child’s nose while whispering instructions. Then they reach into their bibs and theatrically pull out a handful of glitter confetti. This too is blown in the faces of the juvenile crowd.

The children stretch their arms like bird wings and spiral back to their waiting families in the crowd – still part of the performance. Smiling parents receive their children with open arms and exclaim cheerfully over their shining faces. Inna runs a finger down Jake’s cheek and smudges some of the shimmering dust across her own cheeks.

Dallas watches Jake’s face. He is grinning. Then he is holding his stomach in pain.

Across the plaza the children are holding their stomachs. They do not double over with the pain, they stretch to meet the faces of concerned parents who lean in to ask what is wrong. Blood sprays from the mouths and noses of the still twinkling faces. Torrents of blood spew simultaneously into the faces of those closest to the children in distress. As the horrible wave explodes from them, each child drops. They are dead before their knees remember to bend.

Dallas is screaming. Jake is lying on his side, the skin of his face translucent where it is not bloody. Then Inna is spewing blood in the same manner. This into Cilla’s face as the aunt wails, but refuses to let go of her dying niece. Dallas’ father grabs his daughters roughly by the arms and pushes them toward the street, “Run!” he bellows even as Cilla clings to Cassie and a river of blood is sent into her eyes and mouth.

Dallas sees that some of the blood has splashed onto her father’s nose and cheek. Words like ‘contagion’ and ‘infected’ flood her brain as she realizes that Cassie is falling to the floor and her father is next. He is holding an inert Belle in his arms and screaming to Dallas to run. But where? The plaza is full of the dead and dying. If she left, she might spread the outbreak to another sector.

Dallas saw her father wince in pain. She ran to him and threw her arms around his chest, bracing herself against the cascade of blood. He sinks lifeless to the cobbles and she kneels beside him to await her fate. The performers are gone. She did not notice them leave. A glance to the southwest and she notes that the other pilot is gone. Not dead, but not present.

All that’s left is the storm. That strange fuchsia cloud rumbles overhead; the rain falling in heavy drops from a starless, aubergine sky. Dallas is awake before her own stomach cramps.

Awake and dreading the next time she needs to sleep.

After scrubbing the tears from her face, she activates her Cuff and enters the contact info for the pilot in the dream. He is not the first she’s seen there, but he is the first who behaved lucidly and spoke to her directly. In the two years since the first vision, Dallas had recognized a dozen pilots in the plaza. It was the only detail that changed from dream to dream. With this new knowledge of Sylvia B’s vision, Dallas was wondering if they were dreamers too.

Adrift: Earth BkSy 01: Inna & Dallas Sc 01. The New Doom

fountainstill1

 

 

 

 

Brigit’s Flame JFF entry –
“The New Doom”
Speculative Future Fiction
WC: 4,579 (not including author’s note)
Rated M for Mature but only for a little thing that might be in the second half anyway.

This is part one of two (or four). The additional parts will be submitted this month.

Lost in thoughts of doubt and anxiety, Dallas dashed across the wetly glistening lane on autopilot. A strong gust of wind, intensified by the 9:15 direct train pushing off overhead, slung grit into her eyes and flapped her open jacket like an insistent child. Head down, Dallas swiftly tapped up the fifteen steel-grate steps to her townhouse entrance. She took a startled step back at the landing when she saw a figure rise from the bench behind her collection of potted herbs. The world tipped slightly sideways and took on a faint fuchsia glow. “There is no safety on Terra,” a dry, rasping voice said from somewhere behind her.

A hand clamped firmly over her fist on the railing and another made an attempt to snag the cuff of her coat. It caught on the second pass and Dallas’s balance began to shift forward. The luminous fog ebbed from her mind, only to be replaced by an apricot fuzz obscuring her vision. Dallas’s rescuer pulled her in close as they both stumbled deeper into the safety of the landing. That rust-colored veil of hair tickled her nose momentarily as it was swept back to reveal two sunlit hazel eyes and an opalescent brow furrowed in concern.

“Inna?” Dallas asked, confused.
“Are you alright?” Inna asked at the same time, then blew out a breath. “I thought you were going over Dale. I’m sorry if I startled you.” She reached out a hand and pulled Dallas to her feet.
“What are you doing here, Inna?” Dallas asked, manners neglected in the wake of the glimpsed vision. She caught her tone as it was leaving her mouth, shook her head with a sigh, and adjusted her backpack. “I didn’t mean it sound like that.” She flapped a hand at Inna. “I’m tired.”
Dallas opened her arms and hugged her younger cousin warmly. “Come inside out of the wind and tell me what brings you by.”
“That was much better,” her cousin teased, “I almost believed you meant it. Let me grab my stuff.”

While Dallas passed her hand over the lock plate on her door, Inna tiptoed between rosemary and mint to snag her worn leather bag and a travelling cloak from the bench. Dallas held the door open with a smirk to let Inna pass into the long hallway.

“You and that cloak. I’m surprised that you haven’t ended up in the Wards. Do gnomes follow you through the lilacs when you visit the Underside?”
“Oh how I wish there were gnomes down there.” Inna sighed wistfully. “I’d even settle for lilacs.”

They made their way up the gradual slope of a corridor lined with a strip of digitex wallpaper set at Dallas’s eye level. She walked swiftly past unseeing, but Inna slowed down to take in the collection of family caps. Occasionally standing on her toes to study a detail. In addition to the usual family poses of grinning sisters, parental hugs and antics, ancient photos had been scanned in showing off some of their shared family tree several generations back. Aunt Cilla had created this archive and was constantly adding to it.

A familiar image of three young women slid into view. Inna smiled, she remembered the evening well. It was ten years ago, taken outside the Grand Theatre at up on Sky Level. An impressively aesthetic building any time of day – curving up as it did from the plaza like a glass onion, bejeweled with glowing, colored light panels and mirrors – it had painted itself that evening in a most spectacular sunset.

Dallas and Inna (with Dallas’ sister Cassie) posed in front of the building at the perfect point to catch the whole building behind them unobscured. Dallas looked uncommonly elegant in a faded mocha gown that modestly followed her tall, slender frame from heavily freckled shoulders to freshly lacquered toes. Ten years or recent troubles had darkened the shadows beneath Dallas’ coffee-colored eyes – glowing ‘french press’ in this past moment because of the way the light was reflected in them.
She had let Inna do her hair that night. The usual auburn, gypsy curls had been tamed into smooth starlet grace of sweeping waves with the smallest glint of crystal tucked in just above the left ear. Cassie – blond, athletic, busty was typically the sister to draw notice, and she did look lovely that night – with her chiffon tresses swept up like a meringue, the rest of her lightly frosted in a cornflower silk gown that glowed in complement to iced azure eyes and golden skin.

If there had been a voting poll of most beautiful, Inna would have picked Dallas without a second thought. Seven years her senior and far more approachable for all her foibles and insecurities, Dallas had been Inna’s favorite cousin for their whole childhood. Cassie had always been too focused on herself to let anyone else into her sphere. Childless and twice divorced by thirty-seven, Cassie resented Inna, openly, for being a mother and criticized her often for her various life choices.

As she studied the picture, Inna realized she was making a face at Cassie though the cousin in the image was blind to her presence. Inna glanced over the image of herself, frozen in that moment at the age of 22. Though she typically didn’t stand taller than Dallas’ shoulder, she had worn excessively heels that night to Dallas’ flat sandals giving her an illusion of height without the benefit of her cousin’s long, graceful neck.

Her hair color at the time was always from a crayon set, she’d chosen pomegranate that night and ironed it flat, though the ends were made to curl and flip so the overall look was not lank and lifeless. Her dress was a deep indigo (a habit she still felt herself slip into this far into adulthood – being named Indigo made one feel as those one should support the color often, like a team affiliation) with an overlay of shimmering silver flecks randomly spread or clustered over the bodice and skirt. Midway between bust and softly pointed chin was a necklace of Iolite beads and dichroic glass that seemed to bring the true night sky into her ensemble, or show it breaking free from a crack in her bosom. Her hips were wide, bust overfull, her shoulders forever curved into chubby arms no matter her weight or exercise regime. Beside her cousins Inna felt dumpy, like the Brownie in the line-up with an Elf and a Fairy. But she did have the fairest skin of them all, and pretty awesome hair (today notwithstanding).

Her eye was drawn away from that night to a cap of her own father, watching Uncle Wayne lean over an old table game with a stick. As long as she looked at it, the image stream would hold that picture still as the others moved around it in the slideshow. Realizing Dallas had already reached her front door prompted Inna to pick up the pace, the image of her father followed her steadily to the interior door. The brothers were very young in the picture, but this image showed her father’s mischievous smile – unchanged by time. The camera had caught him about to say something. Inna longed to know what had happened next. The cap faded into the end of the line as a vid of a fluffy beige dog put her paws up and begged the lens for attention.

The scrabbling toenails of that self-same dog could be heard making their way across the flat as the door softly wooshed open.

“Hello Belle,” Dallas sang as the dog reached her front paws up to knee height and moaned a little. Inna marvelled at Belle’s balance. Her sweeping tail was wagging so hard it moved her butt back and forth while her top half stayed still and focused on her human. It looked like doggy pilates. Dallas scooped the little furball into her arms and crooned ‘hello’ at her a couple of times. Belle met the greeting with her own grumbling whines. Then she tucked her head into Dallas’ neck and licked her earlobe repeatedly.

“I wish I could find a guy to do that to me,” Inna sighed as she hung her cloak over the back of a stool.
Dallas gave her a sideways look. “I didn’t think finding them was your problem. You know you’re not allowed that far into the house without greeting Belle.”
Inna waved away her mock indignation at the jab and addressed the second remark. “You’ve been gone for ten days, I was just waiting for you to get your hellos in.”

Dallas set the little dog carefully on the floor. Belle dutifully scrambled over to their guest to say hi, Inna rewarded her with a sound ear rub and a treat she had secreted from a nearby jar. Belle danced in a circle before gently taking the cookie from Inna’s fingers.

“Such a genteel lady that one,” Inna called to Dallas who was sorting the contents of her backpack between the laundry and the trash.
“My hospitality runs out in seven minutes when I head off for a shower,” Dallas called back. “If there is a point to your visit, you might want to get to it.”
“Aaawww, do I need a point? Maybe I just missed you.”
“If it was just that you missed me you would have messaged and planned a dinner. Stalking is something you do when you need something and can’t wait for a return message.”
“I wouldn’t call it stalking. Maybe just some light lurking,” Inna pouted.

“Six minutes,” Dallas replied.
“Okay. There is a point,” Inna conceded, “but we really need to have a conversation about why you think I only visit when I want something. Do I want things that frequently?”
Dallas shook her head and pushed the door to the laundry cupboard closed with her shoulder. “No. You aren’t one of the grabby ones who always look for what we can do for them, but you also don’t stop by often without an invitation.”
Inna exhaled. “Thank you. You actually had me worried.” Inna raised a hand to cut Dallas off. “I know, five minutes. Anyway, I’m here for you not me.”

Dallas sniffed a soy milk container and made a face. Then she sniffed it again and checked the date. Inna held her hand out for the container bossily. “I need you to take a little trip with me,” Inna informed Dallas as she poured the turned milk into into the disposal.

“How is that for me?” Dallas’ voice was muffled from her position half in the cooler. She emerged with a triumphant grin and an unopened box of soy milk. “I don’t want to go anywhere. I have five days dirtside before a thirty day round trip to Mars’ Bridge. I want to spend it in my pajamas, in my house, with Belle and some classic vids. I might be persuaded to go to my parents for a meal or my sister’s for drinks or to your place to hang with Jakey – if you’re asking. But if I have to pack more than my ID and coms, Indigo Harmony Fleming, then I’m saying no. Four minutes.” Dallas tackled a bowl of cereal while glaring kindly at Inna.

“Well, Dallas Fanny Fleming, I honestly don’t think this situation calls for the full name treatment, but I can empathize with your plight. I just spent fourteen days on level one of EuRus CCSM. I feel like the gunge of a thousand strangers has settled in my crevices. That place is so overcrowded. Have you ever been standing, waiting for a train or lift, and not been 100% sure the sweat speeding down your spine towards your panties is your own?”

“Is that what happened to your hair?” Dallas quipped.
“Don’t start on my hair, Dale, or I might have to whip out your graduation cap from astropilot school. Freckles.”
“I’m docking you thirty seconds for rehashing,” Dallas said around a mouthful of cereal.
“Yeah, well I’m taking back sixty for…chewing with your mouth open. You have soy milk on your chin.” Inna feigned disgust.
Dallas let a little dribble out of the side of her mouth. “Now it won’t get lonely.”
Inna stared at her older cousin straight-faced and whispered, “In all my years…My father would be mortified. He always believed you were so classy. His ashes are turning in a little tempest right now.” Inna illustrated with a finger twirl.

“I’m pretty sure your time is up,” Dallas declared as she clinked her bowl and spoon into the sanitizer and wiped a freshly wet hand over her chin. “And I doubt Uncle Connor thought I was classy. I used to be a shuttle mechanic. I was always covered in grease and fluids.”
“Fluids are your pearls, Dallas darling.”
“I see a door in your future and a hot bath in mine,” Dallas replied with a shooing motion.

“No. Wait. Seriously, I need you to take a trip with me. It’ll take like six hours. Tops.”
“Have you heard anything I said?”
“This is important Dallas. All kidding aside, let me explain.”
Dallas sat on a barstool, while motioning to Inna to take the other. Belle was at Dallas’ ankle asking for attention so Inna picked up the little dog and put her in Dallas’ arms, then wriggled onto the other stool.

“It’s because of the story you told me, about the dreams you keep having,” Inna explained.
Dallas leaned forward, an intense look hardened her face.
“I hope you haven’t told anyone. That’s very private.”
“I know. And I haven’t,” Inna assured her. “I came across this old vid when I was in EuRus. It was a student filmmaker’s collection called ‘The New Doom Generation’. Just a handful of fifteen minute vignettes. Each start with a kind of prophecy about the end of the world and then the interviewer explores the life and perspective of the particular prophet.”

“And one of these prophets was talking about my dream somehow?” Dallas asked.
Inna nodded. “They were sort of chronological. I think the film was made about ten years ago, but the incident had to happen at least twenty years ago. It was more towards the middle of the film.”
“Is that relevant?” Dallas asked.
Inna shrugged. “The girl was eight or nine when she had the vision. She started warning people the moment she woke up. Which didn’t go over well because she was on a star bus heading back from Mars at the time. She was charged with inciting hysteria and held for psych eval.”
“Was it after the jump to Mars Bridge?” Dallas breathed.
“It was,” Inna nodded.

“The girl – her name is Sylvia B,” Inna continued, “was heading to Earth after losing her parents to a mine collapse. She was said to have been distraught to leave Mars. The medic onboard put it down to the psychological trauma of being orphaned so young. Also it was her first experience with space travel and cryostasis.”
“Wait. She was cubed when she had the dream? People don’t have random dreams in cryostasis. The guided meditation prevents that.”
Inna nodded again and raised a finger. “But, her com system failed in transit so her mind was free to roam.” She waggled her fingers loftily from her temples.

“Did it really fail or was that just an excuse made after the fact?” Dallas asked shrewdly.
“I do not have an answer for you on that. Official documentation of the incident was not exhaustive. She was a little orphan girl who had a bad dream during a scary time.” Inna shrugged. “It wouldn’t even matter to you or me if it weren’t for the dreams you’ve had.”

Dallas leaned back and took a deep breath. Inna watched her face as she processed the story. Belle rubbed her face on Dallas’ arm.
Another deep breath. “Okay. I agree that the story intrigues me, but I’m not sure that validation is the answer. If anything, knowing someone else had the same experience after an E jump in the Mars Lanes deepens my concern that it might be Jump Mania.”
“Oh! They did a standard job placement test on her years later. She tested Jump Safe.”
“Inna so did I, obviously, but that doesn’t change what keeps happening.”
“I know,” Inna replied insistently, “but my thoughts on the whole thing aren’t ‘Maybe you’re going crazy.’ They’re ‘What if you’re right?’”

Dallas looked at her cousin intently. She scanned her face for even the slightest twitch that this was a joke. Then she closed her eyes. Inna was a dreamer. She’d never been the grounded one in the family. It was why Dallas had told her about the dreams and no one else. Inna was the one person who would listen without judgement and just take it in stride. Dallas guessed that some part of her had even considered that Inna might believe the message of the dreams. Maybe she even wanted her to.

Dallas opened her eyes again and exhaled. Then she flexed her wrist to check her cuff. It was 9:30. Cassie would be at work already; so would Mom. But Mom worked from home so getting her to come by for Belle was no real problem.

“Why do we have to travel anywhere? If it’s a vid you got all of this from, can’t I just watch it for myself?” Dallas asked.
“The interview was heavily edited. I felt like I didn’t get the full story. So I tracked down Sylvia B and scheduled an appointment to meet with her today. I’m sorry about the lack of notice. I was so excited to find her I didn’t think about how inconvenient this would be on the day you got back.”
“Where does she live?” Dallas asked.
“In the terminal housing down at the Taz.”
Dallas shuddered. “I hate the Taz.”
“Many people do,” Inna stated.
“Why terminal? Is she sick?”
“Ongoing mental health issues was all the chart said. Based on the interview I saw, she really believes the world is going to end. Might make it tough to hold down a job or build any kind of life for yourself. Actually, the fact that her case started on a corporate transport and that the doctor attributed the condition, in part, to a bad comm set might have saved her. If she was deemed non-contributing otherwise she’d have been pushed to the Zerospace and left to fend for herself with the nasties and drop outs.”

“Can you imagine what Zerospace must be like on the Taz? Even the successful on the upper levels are already nasties and drop outs – grifters and thugs. The bottom level of the bottom-feeders would be the lowest of all.”
“Actually that’s not fair,” Inna held up a finger in a gesture Dallas knew signaled a lecture was about to begin.

“When the Taz was built, it was funded by the Extropian Union for Transhumanists. They were hugely successful for the first decade after the skydeck mass was accepted into the WTO and given corp collective status. Then naturalist entertainers – like that Saran lady who worships the moon – started preaching against enhancement tech to a level that even the non-bio/non-surgical products coming out of the Taz were eschewed. The entire CCSM of the Taz lost its income stream in less than a year. In order to survive and support their population, the reigning corps of the Taz adopted a ‘family culture’ and built a black market to put all others to shame. They even created a new international currency that can’t be tracked by the banks and only has value within their network. Yes, the second generation can be accused of giving in to their baser instincts with regard to capitalism. But they did not start out as criminals, they just created a means to survive.”

“Eschewed?” Dallas asked, eyebrow cocked.
“Eschewed,” Inna nodded and rolled some dog hair off her pants leg.

“Oh! I remember,” Dallas blurted into the lengthening awkward silence. The exclamation was accompanied by an abrupt flail of the arm that caused Inna to flinch, “you dated that guy from the Taz for a while. He had that thing –” Dallas gestured holding a clawed fist, facing out over her right eye. She followed the gesture with an ‘ew’ face and laughed. “And those weird silver lines in his face like he was an old micro chip.”
“Ulysses was his name,” Inna filled in a bit defensively.
“What? By birth? He made that up right; got it out of some arcane carnival register? He had to be about seven feet tall….” Dallas struggled to remember more specifics.

“I loved him, Dallas. Leave it alone.”
“Well, if you loved him what happened? I only met him a few times, but he certainly seemed moon-eyed over you.”
Inna rolled her eyes and Dallas picked up on her unintentional pun. She covered her mouth and tried not to smile. “That was accidental. I promise,” Dallas apologized, lightly touching her cousin’s arm. “Tell me what went wrong?”
“He had this telepathic implant in his head – most Transcendants do. For them it’s a mark of their commitment to maximize man’s evolution, but it’s also like having a secret language that outsiders can’t speak – can’t even hear. Ulysses felt that I needed to take the implant in order to ‘deepen our intimacy and open the door from affair onto something more substantial’. That was troublesome enough, given my history with men, but I realized that after that step in our relationship the next or the one after that would involve Jake. I couldn’t force my son to join that world for my sake and I’m certainly not leaving him behind.”

Dallas nodded thoughtfully, regretting her taunts. Inna fell in love often, but fell out of love just as easily. She never knew what kind of aftermath that caused with Inna’s psyche because it was the only thing her cousin never talked about.

“Why is Sylvia B in the Taz at all?” Dallas asked.
“Her parents worked for one of the corps in the collective, they were scientists on a mining operation for indium. Because she was a child at the time of their death, she inherited their debt to the collective and in turn became the property of the collective until she was able to work off their contracts.”
“That’s a shame,” Dallas murmured sympathetically. Then she nodded. “Okay. Give me half an hour to clean up and make arrangements for Belle and I’ll meet you at the transport station. They opened a new capsule hotel over there, you might want to take advantage of a private bath while you wait.” She plucked at the fuzzy end of Inna’s usually gorgeous hair. “Maybe do something about this.”

Inna smiled. “I’ll meet you at the station for the 10:15 shuttle. Don’t be late.”

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

By 10:10 the cousins were logged on the flight. Because Dallas was a pilot, the pair were able to travel with special privileges like luxury seating and a personal greeting from the shuttle pilot. A distinction neither wanted for this trip.

“I’m going to need your help coming up with a reason for this trip. My boss will see it recorded and want to know why I went to the Taz,” Dallas whispered.
“I’ve already got that covered,” Inna mumbled around a straw full of Bloody Mary. “I have three stories tags sitting in my inbox. My editor requested a piece on the commuter experience that contrasts the shuttle jaunts with with other forms of travel between the skydeck masses. You are a master shuttle machinist turned astropilot, therefore you are acting as my shuttle consultant.”
“How glamorous,” Dallas remarked and pulled a second white russian pouch from the mini bar in front of her. “What are the other stories you’re working on?”
“A bare bones investigation on inflammatory documentary filmmakers and the veracity of their stated claims.”
“Brilliant. Excellent timing.” Dallas nodded.
“And a private commission from Dreamworks for an up-to-date pastiche of the Taz for a new MPVid project where one of the ‘families’ from the Taz is confronted with some sort or moral dilemma that pits them between the collective and the survival of humanity.”
“The contents of your inbox are like a convenient box of chocolates,” Dallas grinned.
“It’s why I won’t take the full contract and give up freelancing. I can’t live a life where all I write about is constrained by the home collective,” Inna said.
“SPS isn’t too bad,” Dallas states. “I’m very content to live on the Kauri. At least my employer is not one of the completely soulless collectives like those Bank of Earth guys. I can’t live a life without some fresh air and animals. I forget, where did they land on the animal debate in the Taz?”
“They make good food and we are comforted to watch them swim,” Inna answered.
“That’s right, they’re into fish and water features. I guess that’s not so bad.” Dallas yawned impressively and shook her head with a smile. “Sorry. Do you mind if I take a quick nap?”
“Go on,” Inna encouraged. “I’ll read.”
Inna thumbed through documents stored on her tab, she pressed the title to one and settled back as the text came into focus on her reading glasses.

Jump Mania: The Pressures of FTL Travel
Jump Mania is a condition which can potentially affect one in five persons. Mild symptoms can include: vertigo, nausea, migraine cluster headaches, hallucinations, and long term fatigue. Mild cases of Jump Mania are rare. It is more common for the condition to result in a full and lasting mental break or death.

A test for predisposition to the condition was developed more than a decade after commercial use of faster than light space travel became common. Using genetic extrapolation, it can be determined with an accuracy of 99.9993% whether a person will suffer Jump Mania or is Jump Safe. There is a chromosome which turns up in the junk DNA on a Jump Safe. This chromosome’s function seems to be the production of protein chains which block adrenal responses to intense stimuli, instead providing the lingering euphoric boost of endorphin like hormones and expanding the vessel pathways in the brain to increase flow.

Prior to the identification of the J chromosome, as it is known, more than 18,000 people were lost to or diagnosed with Jump Mania. This condition nearly killed FTL travel soon after it began. Currently, any Individual classified as Jump Safe is fast-tracked into positions where inter-planetary travel is required. They are highly sought after by the collectives as employees and as genetic donors to the Human Resilience Program.

The most notable case of Jump Mania occurred in 2814 when revered astrophysicist, Dr. Nettie Boodrae, traveled to Mars for the first time. Onboard flight recorders transmitted the gruesome tale back to Earth before the ship was obliterated by an asteroid. Immediately following the jump to the Mars Lanes Dr. Boodrae released herself from the seat restraints and proceeded to kill each member of the crew and a scientific party of eight. One man had his eyes gouged out with his own ident tags. Dr. Boodrae died with the ship.

Author’s note:
In 2008 I started writing an epic, post-apocalyptic/new beginnings sort of novel that morphed into my NaNoWriMo project that year and then grew beyond it into a 150k word monstrosity that seemed to have no end. Periodically I pick up a thread and try to work out the kinks. Due to recent inspiration, I’ve been thinking about that universe again and some of the characters I grew so fond of. This piece I have submitted to you is 100% new and pre-dates the apocalypse by a few years. I’ve found it helps me tame the final story to purge myself of individual backstories. Unfortunately this particular purge has taken on a life of its own. I’ve written 5,800 words and not quite made it to my destination. So I found a point in the middle that made a good place to stop and filled in a little technical info for the reader to understand why I chose this angle for this prompt. I hope you enjoy it. Stay tuned next week for more.