A pact struck in the distant future, after mankind has colonized dozens of worlds and diversified into engineered subspecies, saw the death of guns and missiles. With the new stigma of ‘farcoward’ weapons comes a return of the sword, shield, and bow.
Dana Rudolph is a grumpy travel writer hopping world to world, keeping to himself until date of publishing, when he is pulled into a vast, and surprisingly icky, conspiracy where he must do his best to protect the ‘appearl’, an anomalous learning gem that formed on its own inside a supercomputer.
Follow him and his sword as he teams up with an amazon and a leprechaun to dismantle the supposedly divine, forcing him to confront his traumatic past.
(reading time: 45 minutes) (reading time for entire novel: 6 hours, 11 minutes)
Labor of Ruby and Pearl
The Prosecution’s Best Witness
A man, mostly hollowed, took his seat at the witness stand. It was time to present the blood ruby left to him by his captors so it could be admitted into evidence. That way justice could prevail.
The lavish nature of the courtroom was lost on the witness, who felt naught but quiet rage. This case was a great scandal that rocked the cultures of multiple planets and made their news nets quake like a wine skin about to burst; only the largest courthouse in Chappacheck’s Christian District could hold all the press personnel. It was built more like an amphitheater of ancient Rome than the church-like courts so common everywhere else in the region, with the judge behind the pulpit, the jury in the choir box, and the onlookers in the pews.
The curved wooden benches had the traditional figure of a blindfolded female Justice carved into their ends, although her hands gripped the bottom of the cloth and indicated she was peeking. The carpet was crimson and the walls were lined with purple banners some twenty-five feet long. A great stone copy of the ten commandments, complete with life-sized stone figures praying at its base, stood behind the four judges; this was the Christian District after all.
The judges all made sure to look nice for the hundreds of recording devices trained on them. The watch cameras of the common people wouldn’t spot any of the stray gray hairs on their black robes, but the hologram cameras manned by the news networks surely would. Then they would transmit the embarrassing images across the galaxy to all sixty-one colonized planets in all three dimensions.
The witness could not have cared less. To him, everyone present was a criminal no different from the man behind the defense table. The one on trial had basically tortured him to death and now everyone was just here to watch his body twitch.
The prosecutor paced back and forth in front of the witness stand for a few moments, unaware that the man she was about to question wanted nothing more than to stuff a sock in her mouth and kick her down a steep hill. She was a middle-aged woman with tight lips and short hair who wore a gray suit jacket with a long skirt in the modest tradition that tended to impress a panel of male crucifix-in-the-mud judges.
She wanted to be delicate with her questions but direct. Not many people were comfortable talking to witnesses; it was like talking to an uncooperative old computer that might shut down if breathed on too hard.
“Hello John,” she said to the glaring witness.
“My name’s not John,” the witness spat back. “Probably isn’t John…” he muttered.
“Your honors,” the prosecutor pleaded to the judges.
“We are reminding the witness that his freedom is dependent upon his cooperation,” the nearest judge threatened. The three angled lenses on each news camera focused in, catching every wrinkle in the witness’s brow and every hair curling out of the judge’s nose like snakes emerging from their burrow after winter.
“I am cooperating,” the witness said. “You want me to tell the truth, so I am. I’m probably not a John.”
“The witness knows he has been designated as John Doe by the court for the purposes of this proceeding,” another judge barked.
“Oh that’s right,” the temporary John said sarcastically. “Sorry, my memory is not what it used to be.” A few in the crowd laughed; John responded by trying to find their faces. It wasn’t supposed to be funny for them. Only he could laugh at that and even then it was only to be a bitter rattle that clenched his fists and ground his teeth. Jokes like that were flints that he could use to spark a rage and make sure he could still feel something. In a way they were like his first words.
“John,” the prosecutor said, picking up where she left off, “you have been designated as the primary witness in the case of Cosmic Collective v. Hammershine; is that correct?”
“Yes. I am exhibit A,” John said.
“And as such you have undergone the witness procedure to ensure that no biases or confusion color your testimony?”
“So you remember nothing of your life before the events in question?”
“I remember that I’m gay,” John declared. Many in the courtroom shifted in their seats or coughed uncomfortably, including two of the judges.
Dana and Shay
The spaceport was nearly empty that day. The planet Tremory didn’t attract many tourists; a landscape blackened and irradiated by war wasn’t something you wanted showing up in an album file between pictures of your kids on a water slide and some great canyon with a guardrail. Most of the traffic that passed through that port consisted of workers and business types commuting between that trench and either of Tremory’s two moons, where those of lower income tended to live.
Dana was seated at one of the port’s bars nursing a bubbly purple concoction. He plucked a mint leaf off the glass’s edge and chewed on it. The strong taste helped to wake him up a little. Tremory was a peaceful and quiet planet, but it’s very difficult to sleep when you hop between star systems every few days or so. Dana had woken up that morning with one moon visible and briefly forgotten which rock he was on. He was never used to the sky he was under, never capable of looking up and finding comfort in the celestial body that had always been there when he was a child. Now all he ever got was strange suns and moons, like awkward acquaintances trying to remind him what time it was and nudge him into activity.
Like the rest of Tremory’s buildings, the spaceport was built underground in one of three colossal trenches that crisscrossed the planet’s surface. Even if there had been a window anywhere around, it would have shown him a few layers of strata rather than daylight.
Most people in the civilized galaxy had a datawatch wrapped around their wrists, and Dana was no exception. He tapped the gray smooth disc of its face, like a water-polished stone perfect for skipping, and watched the current time flash and then fade away.
“Relax, your flight doesn’t leave for another hour,” the bartender said. He was a portly fellow named Isaac with orange hair pulled back into a pony tail, a short orange beard, and a gut like a lazy horse’s; he was also an old friend of Dana’s. He swept the wooden bar with a rag since there were no other customers to occupy him. There wasn’t anything to watch on the three news monitors over his head either, just the same old garbage about rising tensions between Nephilnaut and Oiloash, the collapse of a continent’s economy six suns away, and a fluff piece about the galaxy’s largest commercially available breed of koi fish.
“I saw a tank of those things in a Leprechaun restaurant on Champusk,” Dana said after noticing the fish on the monitor. “The owner told me they only live three months.”
“Sounds like another trash beast,” Isaac said. “You know, some engineered living thing with not much of a purpose. Maybe it survives somewhere not in a tank, but nobody cares where or why.”
“It’s the hearts,” Dana explained. “All they did was ramp up the growth without going deeper in the code. The heart gets big like the rest of it but doesn’t get stronger. Gives out after a few months.”
“Well it’s a good thing you’re not burdened with one of those giant hearts eh?” Isaac jested.
“Isn’t that the truth,” Dana said before taking a huge slurp of his drink.
A shadow passed over Dana. He looked to his left to see how far the shadow was cast; it draped itself all the way across the bar and over the edge like a black scarf. Whoever owned it must have been huge. Come to think of it, the shadow was like a scarf in other ways. It flowed. Curved. A woman. Dana just eyed his glass and watched the little bubbles gasp at the surface and pop out of existence. He wanted to be alone. The last thing he needed was some Amazon tourist questioning him like he was a hologram guide. He heard the sound of a shoulder bag landing on the bar.
“What can I get you Miss?” Isaac asked the woman.
“A green fairy please,” she said. Her voice was strong with a tiny rasp to it. Instead of looking up, Dana continued to force a red line into his forehead with the rim of his glass. She must have been a tourist. Only someone without their space legs would order absinthe at a Tremory bar. Isaac chuckled a little.
“Fresh off the boat Miss?” he asked.
“Am I that obvious?” she groaned. Isaac was about to say something when Dana jumped in. His stare remained glued to a little notch in the bar’s wood.
“Yes you are,” he said. “Tremory is a dry planet. The drink left this pebble along with the guns and bombs. There’s probably more booze left in your liver from the last time you drank than there is on the rest of the planet.”
“Damn,” the Amazon said. “I can’t even get through my connecting flight without getting called out. This is the first time I’ve traveled off-world.”
“And what world is that?” Isaac asked.
“Can’t you tell? She’s from Tortim,” Dana said.
“Okay… how did you know that?” She asked. “You haven’t even looked at me.”
“Easy,” Dana replied. “You said ‘connecting flight’. Only one planet near here owned by Amazons: Tortim. Plus, not many Tortim girls leave home, so that’s probably why you know nothing about anything.”
The Amazon glared at Dana, not that he could see it. She turned her attention back to the bartender.
“Regardless, I’m still thirsty enough to drain a fuel tank. What do you have that tastes like alcohol?”
“Just give her a bomberry soda Isaac,” Dana suggested. Isaac looked over to his new customer for approval.
“I’ll only try your order if you look at me,” she said to Dana.
“Fine,” he grumbled and finally separated his head from his glass.
Even though she was only of average height for an Amazon, about seven foot two, there was still plenty to take in. Her skin was tanned by the active outdoor lifestyle of her home. Her hair was dirty blonde, short, and very curly despite her attempts to bind it in the back. Dana noticed that her clothes, a green shirt and tan pants, were IML products; that notched his respect for her upward some. Several wooden octagonal rings were wrapped around her upper arms in the Tortim tradition. She had a sheathed mace slung over her shoulder, also IML issue. One last thing caught his attention; she was beautiful.
The Amazon took the same moment to analyze Dana back. He too was in full IML garb, from his gray and red jacket down to his steel-toed boots. His shoulder sheath held a short sword called a Gladius, like the foot soldiers of old Rome. She guessed his age was somewhere around forty-two, assuming he’d never gotten a telomere boost. His hair and copious stubble were salt-and-pepper and the expression on his face suggested he could never get the taste of that pepper out of his mouth. He could’ve been an intimidating figure if he wasn’t slouched forward with a ridiculous red ring on his forehead.
“I guess I’ll take that soda,” she said. Isaac gave a nod and turned around to prepare the drink. A small red number with a minus sign appeared on her datawatch, indicating the purchase had been authorized. “My name’s Shay by the way,” she said to Dana. “Shay Leaf.”
“His name is Dana Rudolph,” Isaac said while mixing some pulped berries into a glass of seltzer. He’d correctly anticipated Dana’s rudeness and decided to answer for him. “I’ve known him for many years and I can tell you he’s a fantastic man with the attitude of a flea-bitten skunk. Would you believe he has two children?”
“Does he really?” Shay asked with a mischievous smile. Dana looked at Isaac in confusion.
“Yeah,” Isaac replied, cracking a smile himself. “And their names are Piss and Vinegar!” He laughed heartily while the Amazon chuckled. Dana even grinned. Kids. That was a laugh. If a wreck like him were to spawn the end result could only be something extreme like a serial killer, a drunken pilot, or perhaps a self-mutilating rodeo clown.
Dana’s smile died quickly as he noticed someone else sit at the end of the bar. This fellow was dressed all in black and had a dark goatee. He looked angry, but as long as he was sitting that far away Dana figured he was free to scowl as much as he wanted. When Isaac was done laughing he also looked over. He seemed mildly annoyed that someone’s presence had cut off the tail of his joke.
“Hey pal, can I get you anything?” he shouted down to the young man, who just waved him away. “I wonder what his deal is,” Isaac whispered to Dana and Shay.
“He probably just found out it’s a dry rock,” Shay whispered back. She looked at Dana to see if she could elicit the same smile Isaac’s joke had, but the grumpy fellow now had his eyes glued to one of the news monitors overhead. Isaac placed Shay’s soda in front of her and turned to see what had transfixed his old friend. Shay looked as well, so none of them noticed how intently the man at the end of the bar watched the same story, or how much he was sweating.
…We are getting new information every few minutes or so… but what we can tell you is that there has been a theft. The Appearl has been stolen. It went missing just a few hours ago. It was taken from the laboratory where it was being studied on the planet Seismodem. No word on the culprit yet, but we have confirmed that they killed three guards and may have used farcoward tactics. For those of you just joining us, the Appearl, the controversial accidental creation of Quiztech’s nanocomputer, has been stolen. The local authorities have told us there are a few persons of interest. Okay… yes… We’ve just been told that due to the device’s mysterious and powerful nature, it has been categorized by the Collective Bureau of Dangerous Substances as a class one deadly material. This means the culprit can be treated as a terrorist by Cosmic Collective standards…
“What’s the Appearl?” Shay asked. As if to answer her, the monitor started playing earlier footage of the device; it was an opalescent sphere.
“That 2D stuff doesn’t do it justice,” Dana said. He pointed a finger at the screen, lifted up his left wrist, and then tapped his datawatch with the pointing finger. The watch, always on, always watching, always ready to access the burgeoning web of recorded knowledge, emitted a hologram of the Appearl so Shay could see a greater representation of its beauty. Even the simulacrum had an indescribable draw; the sphere seemed to change colors, yet it didn’t. It appeared to be emitting a light so bright that you must avert your eyes to protect them, yet they all stared at it without blinking.
“It was an accident,” Isaac said quietly. He ogled the hologram, elbows planted firmly on the bar. “Seismodem is where a lot of the best programs come from. Those people working for Quiztech had some experimental computers they were working on, nanomachine stuff.”
“Rivers,” Dana specified. “Each computer is the size of a room and is filled with rivers of nanobots like shoals of fish. Each one is a little computer. It’s supposed to be based on the water vascular system, like in sea stars. The idea was that you could build a more organic machine, one with so many parts that it could adapt to difficulties and fight off viruses better than anything else.”
“So is the Appearl some kind of giant computer chip?” Shay asked, incredibly curious. Her daily life back home consisted mostly of hard labor, hard drinking, and fist fights, so now she nursed a new interest in the world of tiny, fragile, electric things.
“No,” Dana corrected. He’d kept himself very well informed about the device just like he kept informed about everything else, from the percentage for a proper tip in Champusk greasy spoons to the length of the largest waterslide on Ploomb. “It’s like an actual pearl. They’ve theorized that, somehow, a bit of dust or a fingernail clipping or something random like that accidentally got into the machine. It interrupted the flow of the river, eventually causing nanobots to build up on its surface. Layer after layer… Until that thing was so big it interfered with the computer’s function. Imagine their surprise when they cracked open the shell and found that.”
“So what does it do?” Shay asked.
“Not sure,” Dana replied. “They’re keeping that a secret. I’m damn sure it does something though, otherwise those pale weirdos on Seismodem would’ve auctioned it off as some one-of-a-kind jewel by now.”
“Wow,” the Amazon said before absentmindedly taking a gulp of her soda. Her eyes lit up. “Damn. That’s good.” She savored the sour and strong flavor for a moment and then tapped her datawatch to check the time. “Oh crap. I’ve got to catch my boat.” She stood up, grabbed the tall glass, and downed it in three gulps. Then she slid most of the ice into her mouth and crunched it with gusto. “It was nice to meet the both of you,” she said while saddling her bag over her shoulder. Her eyes lingered on Dana a moment longer than Isaac though. Then she grabbed one last little chip of ice that had fallen on the bar and held it to the back of her neck as she walked away.
“Those tree dames,” Isaac commented to Dana, “you’ve got to wonder if any man is actually man enough to handle one.”
“We sure aren’t,” Dana said with a slight smile. Isaac reciprocated.
“Can I get you another round? A sandwich or something?” Isaac asked.
“No thanks,” Dana said. He was distracted by the young man at the end of the bar who hastily got up and power-walked away in the same direction as Shay. Dana noticed he had a cumbersome backpack on that hung low like it was filled with stones. He had a sheathed knife on his belt. For a split second Dana caught a glimpse of the logo on the sheath: the image of a crab carapace with eight sharp claws. He no longer pictured stones in the man’s backpack. They had to be bombs. Or severed heads. Or jugs of bubbling green acid. That’s because the people who carried weapons with the crab, weapons made by the Dark&Dagger corporation, were not to be trusted. They were farcowards. Dana watched more intently now. Shay turned to the right and disappeared. The man in black followed behind her and also vanished from view. The port was nearly empty… A feeling overtook Dana. His initial twinge of suspicion was now a worried grinding sound in his head. I’m tired, he thought. My boat’s coming soon. And I’ve got lots of reservations to make… there’s no way I’ll find enough content by deadline if I don’t keep my nose to the stone. And I’m so tired… but not too tired to kick this kid’s ass. With that Dana stood from the bar and started following the man in black’s trail.
“Don’t cause any trouble Dana,” Isaac called after him. “If you pull that sword out here you’re likely to get yourself arrested.”
Dana waved away the warning without turning around. Perhaps it was foolish to pursue. Shay was an Amazon after all. That contingent of women those thousands of years ago changed themselves for that purpose. They reknit their DNA on the great electric looms during colonization to become fully independent of the patriarchy. They, with the Leprechauns, became something new: a subspecies. These mighty women towered over everyone else, could lift incredible weights, and had livers so strong they could neutralize most poisons. And somehow… there were always Amazons. Even without men to perpetuate them.
That’s why Shay didn’t need his help. Even if the kid with the backpack full of rope, perfect for tying women to train tracks, was up to something, by the time Dana caught up she would already be holding him up off the ground by one wrist and be in the process of spinning him around until his hand popped off. He still had that bad feeling though… like the shadows under every passerby were whispering to each other, discussing when to slit their owners’ throats in their sleep. The feeling only got worse as Dana walked and didn’t see any sign of his two targets. He passed kitschy little shops full of Tremory souvenirs, huge schedule screens, a capsule motel where you could sleep in a lovely little coffin-like chamber until your flight was ready for departure, and a slightly grimy noodle shop with a sign depicting an ecstatic mustachioed shrimp holding a glass soda bottle. Sorry, wrong crustacean, Dana thought. I’m looking for a crab.
His worries started to throb. He had to at least find out if she was okay. It was kind of his job after all, looking after green travelers. They needed his guidance.
Dana imagined his own ears growing and sharpening like a bat’s in the hope he would pick up the faintest echo of a footstep. There were only so many paths for them to choose; Tremory architecture wasn’t particularly creative. Cramming a civilization into a trench tends to make one build in straight lines, so Dana picked up speed and backtracked to see if he missed something. There has to be something… dames the size of tigers don’t just disappear. He spotted it: a corridor with employees only printed on the wall. At the end of it he could see a downward staircase and the base of a large statue. The statue would undoubtedly be one of the hallowed Privates of the war that turned Tremory into one of those food spots on the side of a microwave that’s been cooked so many times it became black and unidentifiable.
There were eight Privates: men and women who received notoriety for refusing to go into a battle where they surely would’ve been penetrated a million times by radioactive particles. Their pacifism got them executed by firing squad. After Tremory finished itself off and everybody calmed down in the darkness of the trenches, the Privates were practically deified. A lot of statues went up in public places and became shrines for citizens and workers to kneel at and dispel their anger and cravings for violence.
Dana looked around and, seeing no one, walked down the passage and stairs to the statue. The lights back there were much dimmer, perhaps to draw more attention to the statue, which held a working lantern in its hand. A boy with a lantern, Dana thought. That makes this a statue of Private Miguel Noon: the ward of light. Executed by firing squad in the days of dirty guns, his last offense being his refusal to turn out the lights as he was dragged out of his illegal pacifist clubhouse. How come I didn’t get the statue treatment when I died?
There were a number of favors spread around the statue’s base: dried flowers, metal tokens, photographs, and a few candles burning with smoke that changed color every few seconds. Off to the side, against the wall, Dana could see several drums of C-gel; that area must have connected to one of the boat maintenance docks. The statue appeared to be the central hub of a number of passages, many of which terminated in huge metal bay doors. None of that mattered too much to Dana at the moment, since he was busy drawing his sword and thinking, Why are bad feelings always right?
Shay was unconscious on the floor about twenty feet from Dana. Her attacker stood over her, knife drawn and pointed at him. His heavy backpack sat next to the Amazon’s head with its top unzipped. I don’t want to know what he was about to pull out of there, Dana thought.
“There are easier ways to get a girlfriend pal,” Dana said, spinning his sword and taking up a battle stance. All of the pipes for his sword were in his luggage, so he would have to rely on the unenhanced blade for now.
“I didn’t hurt her,” the kid in black spat. “And I’m already done with her, so why don’t you just take a walk old man. She’ll wake up in a couple hours anyway.”
“You dosed her? What do you have that can keep an Amazon down for a few hours?” Dana asked, genuinely curious.
“Salvovine,” the kid said, thrown off guard by the question and unsure if there was any point in lying.
“Oh. Well in that case maybe I will take a walk. It should only take a few minutes for her to finish up.”
“What do you,” the kid started to ask before becoming distracted by a very large hand wrapped around his ankle. He looked down in shock to see a furious look on the Amazon’s face, without a grain of sleep left in her eyes. He panicked, wailed, and stabbed down at her wrist. Shay released her grip and rose to her feet, kicking her assailant’s bag off into the corner. It collided with the wall and produced a surprisingly loud and strange sound: like a hundred fingertips sliding sonorously on the wet rims of a hundred crystal glasses. They all stopped for a moment and looked towards the backpack.
“You idiots,” the kid shouted. “If you broke it I’m going to gut you like… Waaah!” Still rather perturbed, Shay lunged at him while he spoke. She drew her mace and smashed it into the floor, her target barely leaping out of the way. First admiring the cracks it left in the stone floor, Dana then eyed the mace itself: a relatively simple ridged metal cylinder with a long handle, sort of like a weaponized rolling pin.
“Look, just let me grab my bag and I’ll get out of here,” the kid whined frantically.
“You think you can drug me and get away just like that?” Shay asked rhetorically. Her voice was a deep growl like an ancient chainsaw that had a tendency to whip around and slice off fingers.
“I didn’t hurt anybody,” the kid shot back.
“Doesn’t matter you snot,” Dana said, walking towards him. “We’re taking you to the cops.”
“Try it!” the kid yelled and ran to meet Dana in battle. It wasn’t difficult to see why he thought he had a better chance getting past the bulldog of a man that was Dana Rudolph as opposed to the seven foot plus Shay. He sliced with his knife quickly, going immediately for Dana’s exposed throat. It was a simple enough attack to block; the blades clanged together. The kid pulled back and went for a stab this time, again at the neck.
Of course he doesn’t fight fair, Dana thought. His IML clothing could withstand several direct hits from any blade before it would begin to tear or puncture, so the kid in black aimed for the head to end it quickly. Dana ducked and swung the broad side of the sword into the kid’s stomach, forcing him backward a step.
Behind all the sneaky tactics the kid did have some skill, which he displayed by dodging another strike from Shay’s mace without even turning around. Then he hopped up onto the statue of Miguel Noon and took up a stance between the stone legs to give himself some cover. Shay and Dana circled around the base so that one of them was in front of the kid and the other behind. There was nowhere for him to go, a fact he finally accepted. He smirked. There were ways to carve holes in any trap and he had one of those ways tucked into his jacket pocket. The kid sheathed his knife and drew out a black cylinder that had what looked like a sapphire arrowhead at its tip.
Shit, Dana thought, eyes widening. There was nothing that kid wouldn’t try. Dana sheathed his sword as well. If the farcoward wasn’t going to play fair, the smartest thing to do was surrender and hope the kid just took the bag and left.
“What’s that? Dana what are you doing?” Shay asked, surprised by her new friend raising his hands into the air in submission.
“It’s a laser,” Dana said dejectedly. It had been several years since Dana had encountered anyone like that kid. The age of the Cosmic Collective was not one of peace, but it was one with strict rules of war. Fed up with impersonal death, with robots delivering doom to millions with button presses, all three human subspecies had successfully instilled a new cultural taboo. Just as most looked upon the idea of cannibalism as disgusting and immoral, everyone now saw the easy weapons of the exploration age as vile and cowardly. Only the most depraved individual would take a life from a distance without any risk to himself. Without the grim intimacy of watching life drain out of their victim’s eyes. Only the worst. Only the farcowards.
“What?” Shay asked in nearly a whisper. She loosened her grip on her mace but didn’t lower it. She’d never dealt with such evil, with the bloody weaseling of bullets and energy beams. It struck her as so completely… unsportsmanlike, as if someone pulled out a cat o’ nine tails in a child’s game of tag. Her mouth hung open in shock.
“You,” the kid said, pointing at Shay with the tip of his laser. “Get over there with him.” Shay sheathed her mace and walked around the statue to Dana, scowling the whole time and muttering something about getting her hands on him under her breath. While the farcoward was focused on Shay, Dana took a few slow steps backward. If he remembered correctly they couldn’t be more than two or three feet behind him now.
“Should’ve stayed on Tortim,” Shay said to Dana as she took up a spot next to him.
“Sometimes you just have to see how bad things can get,” Dana countered.
“Now there you go hurting my feelings,” the kid said as he backed up toward his bag, weapon aimed at Dana’s heart. “I’ve got important things to do,” he said, trying to justify the use of the laser. “There are much greater consequences than whether or not you die by light. I know you won’t believe me, but I’m helping the whole species. Everything will be better because of me. Just give it a few generations.” His foot bumped into his bag and he heard a much quieter version of that haunting and enigmatic sound. He turned his head just enough to see the bag and reach for it.
Dana seized the moment and drew his sword. He whipped around and stabbed through the top of one of the metal drums of C-gel he had positioned himself in front of. With his sword deep inside he pulled across the top to rip the biggest slit in the metal he could. By that time the kid had already turned back and was aiming his laser. It was focused squarely on Shay’s chest. Dana dropped his sword and grabbed the barrel from the bottom and the side, heaving it into the air. The metal was extremely cold against his bare palms. Confused, but still feeling threatened, the kid pressed the button on the cylinder.
Point four seconds, Dana thought. Point four for a pocket laser to charge. The beam itself would be instant. If that moment was less like an instant and more like an eon, Dana would have had the time to become a philosopher of guilt. He would have had a million years to contemplate all the ways in which that woman’s death was his fault. If his plan didn’t work, that is.
With a grunt and a shake, a huge splash of red fluid gushed out of the hole in the barrel and drenched Shay. A blink later, the kid’s laser emitted a high pitched sound and a brilliant beam of blue light only as thick as fishing line. The arrow of energy struck Shay’s collarbone… and bounced off into the ceiling where it left a curving black burn line.
Before his foe had another point four seconds to attack, Dana turned the barrel on himself and showered in the red liquid. At any other time it would have tasted terrible, like aloe juice and bleach, but for now it tasted like salvation. Dana spit out enough of it so he could talk.
“Get him!” he ordered Shay. Both of them, stained red and dripping like they had just punched their way out of a crocodile’s mouth, ran towards the farcoward with their weapons drawn. The kid grabbed his bag and ran up the nearest flight of stairs to try to escape. The bag seemed to increase in weight as he ran, dragging him down and almost tripping him a few times.
Shay and Dana dealt with the opposite effect; the C-gel that covered them reduced friction to nothing, so they ran much faster than usual, as if the air preemptively parted to let them through. They hopped up the stairs in a few great strides. Shay made it there first thanks to her long legs and she smacked the kid on the shoulder with the hilt of her mace. He crumpled to the floor and dropped his bag. The fight was not out of him yet though, as he spun around and fired the laser again. It missed both of them and struck the ward of light in the knee, sending chips of stone flying. Shay grabbed the kid’s bag and pulled it away, aware that it was the only thing he cared about. He responded by kicking, screaming, and clawing at the straps.
The bag broke away, giving Dana a window to sock the kid in the jaw. He tried, but his hand just slid off without any force, which threw its owner off balance. Remember you idiot, no friction, Dana thought. The kid kicked Dana on his relatively dry thigh, making him stumble. Unfortunately, his foot landed in a small puddle of the gel and he slipped onto his wet back, sending him sliding down the stairs and toward the statue. Thanks to the potency of the gel he could’ve slid for a mile without stopping. That is unless something got in his way. Another laser beam erupted from the cylinder and struck the statue’s legs again. This time the damage was more severe. The statue groaned and its legs cracked. The ward of light leaned forward.
It’s going to crush me, Dana realized. He tried clawing at the smooth floor to slow his slide, but the C-gel still prevented him from getting a grip on anything. He rolled onto his stomach and pressed his dry thigh against the ground. It worked, but not well enough. Miguel Noon’s left shin cracked down the middle. The lantern in his hand buzzed a few times and went out. It was as if the darkened lantern indicated the statue’s death because, not a moment after, it fell. Dana slid perfectly in place under it as the Private’s forehead smashed against the floor and sent pieces skidding away like chunks of thick lake ice.
“Dana!” Shay shouted. She kicked the kid in between the shoulders as hard as she could, hoping to break some bones; he collided with a wall and seemed to pass out. Shay saddled the kid’s bag over her shoulder and ran to see her friend’s fate. Surely he was dead. One of the first males she had spoken to in over a year and within an hour he’d been pancaked. She wondered why normal humans let themselves be so fragile. How could they stand having such brittle bones and short lives? Dana was like a poor little moth drawn in by the lantern’s light and then zapped out of existence. A hand shot up from between the statue’s legs.
“Sweet thorny goddess,” Shay sighed with relief. “What are you doing down there?”
“Admiring his gluteus maximus, what does it look like I’m doing? Help me out here,” Dana said and extended his hand. Shay grabbed it and pulled him out from under the statue. “Good thing he had a wide stance or there wouldn’t have been room for me. Where’s that dirt bag?
“Up there,” Shay said and pointed back up the stairs. The spot where she had left him was bare. “Or not,” she growled.
“Don’t be surprised,” Dana said. “Farcowards have always been good at running away.” He took a moment to catch his breath. They both seemed lost for words. They barely knew each other and were from different corners of the galaxy, and yet here they were basking in the afterglow of a shared battle. They both became acutely aware that the only sound was their own heavy breathing.
“I don’t really know where to start,” Shay said, wiping a red slime of sweat and C-gel from her forehead. She rubbed her thumb against her fingertips. “What is this stuff that deflected the laser?”
“C-gel,” Dana explained. If there was one thing he was more comfortable doing than fighting, it was this. For a moment he got to feel like an encyclopedia. The words came out of him with no effort because he had them stored in a dry and safe place in the lower part of his brain: the place where normal people would store childhood memories or the date of their wedding anniversary. “You might know it as godsweat. No boat can break the light speed barrier without a coating of this stuff covering every inch. The maintenance guys get these big electric brushes and they foam the stuff up before greasing the ships down. After that it’s all physics, something about tachyons not being able to penetrate the barrier and create spatial friction. If you try to go anywhere without it it’ll take you about a million years.”
“Yeah I did read about it a little in my guidebook on the way here,” Shay said, trying to make up for her obliviousness. “I’m glad you knew that it reflects energy. Makes you wonder why people don’t just slather themselves in it all the time.”
“Two reasons,” Dana said. “One: farcowards are rare. Don’t let this scuffle sour your opinion of a perfectly nice planet like Tremory. There are plenty of other types of people out here for you to learn to hate. Two: if applied too frequently this stuff is toxic. It sinks into your skin and prevents your blood from carrying oxygen. We should be fine though.”
“Well okay,” Shay said. Another moment of silence. She glanced at her datawatch. “Well I missed my boat.”
“We’ve got bigger problems,” Dana said. Shay looked at him and he could see she was emotionally drained. There was a sort of chilly quiver in her irises that indicated she just wanted to teleport home, curl up in bed, and pretend humanity hadn’t spread to sixty-one different planets. The look was her only indication of sadness though. She was a proud Amazon and even if she had felt like crying, which she didn’t because she’d been through much tougher fights than that, she would never let a strange man see.
“What problems?” she asked.
“Well for starters we destroyed the statue of a hallowed Private. That’s like stomping on bunnies on this planet. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to get caught up in the paperwork. I’ve got somewhere I need to be.”
“We should tell the police,” Shay said, confused by Dana’s on-edge tone. “They should know there’s a lunatic with a laser running around.”
“I can stop by Isaac’s bar and have him make a report a little later. Listen… I’m not really comfortable telling you why, but I’ve got this thing about police. Any guys in uniform really, marching around thinking they’re powered by the will of the people like some creepy little toy soldier…”
“Okay,” Shay said, oddly accepting of his little rant. “I guess I better go buy some new tickets.”
“Why don’t you come with me?” Dana asked, surprising himself. What was this feeling? His blood was flowing a little more quickly. Usually it felt sludgy, blocked up by festering rage and clumps of regret like tangled swamp weeds clogging a sewer pipe. Could it be curiosity? Could it be that he might actually have something to do in the near future aside from traveling the galaxy shaking hands and sleeping in stiff beds?
“Why would I do that?” Shay asked nonchalantly.
“I might not look it,” Dana said, “but I’m kind of a wealthy man. I’ll book you some tickets on my flight and you can get your luggage transferred over. Plus, I could give you some tips about not getting yourself killed and/or ridiculed every time you step foot on a new rock. And once we get into some dry clothes and get onboard, we can take a look at the kid’s bag and see what’s in there that’s so important.”
“Why the hell not? As long as you’re paying for my flights,” Shay said.
“Good. Look, why don’t you head to one of the apparel shops in the port and pick up some dry clothes. Hopefully they’ll have something in Amazon sizes. It won’t be IML though, sorry.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll go and tell Isaac about all this. Then I’ll grab some clothes too and we can meet at bay fourteen in… fifteen minutes,” Dana said looking at his datawatch.
“You know you’re a huge stereotype right?” Shay asked.
“How so?” Danas asked back. He’d never thought of himself that way. Maybe he used to be like everyone else, but he would never know.
“All the gray old ladies on Tortim will tell you. Men are crazy. Men are weird. They’ll drag you up a rainbow and then next thing you know you’re wrestling them in the mud.” She ran her hands through her slimy hair with a squelching sound. “Case in point.”
Their boat, which they could see docked on a stone pad out on the planet’s dead surface through a long bay window, was strictly utilitarian. Its gray pencil-shaped hull was dotted with a series of small blue windows and six pairs of stubby fiberglass wings. Looking at it evoked the image of a surly school bus driver ordering her charges to sit in a straight line with their butts touching leather and to be quiet as a gagged mouse. A series of lights flashed and the boarding tunnel extended from the port and connected to the side of the boat.
We are now boarding voyage 26 for the day. Voyage 26’s destination is the planet Maymow. No stops are scheduled. Please have your ticket or datawatch confirmation code ready at the dock for approval.
Dana watched the attendant put the microphone down. There was really no need for her to use it since the voyage’s eleven passengers were all within earshot. He tapped his watch and hung back, black mystery bag draped over his shoulder. If Shay didn’t get there in the next forty-five seconds he was leaving without her. Fifteen minutes means fifteen minutes, he thought.
As if she’d been waiting for him to start getting antsy, She rounded the corner. Dana could see the corners of her dirty clothing hanging out of her shoulder bag along with the handle of her mace. Her hair looked like she had just washed it in a bathroom sink and there was a small streak of eye shadow under her left eye. Her new shoes, a big floppy pair of transparent blue and white sandals, made her stride sound like the waddling of an obese scuba diver’s flippers. She seemed all the more uncomfortable thanks to her yellow T-shirt with the tag sticking out and a pair of jeans that probably felt two sizes too small even after she sucked her stomach in as much as she could.
“Shut up,” she said in response to Dana’s smirk. “They barely had anything in my size.” One of her hands gripped the exposed handle of her mace, suggesting she was still controlling the urge to go back and pummel the person who sold her the clothes. “So where are we going anyway? If it’s not Tortim it’s new to me.”
“I’ve got some work I need to do on Maymow,” he said, right before they approached the young woman taking the tickets. Dana’s watch displayed a red hologram of two strings of numbers and letters. The attendant tapped a screen on her kiosk a few times and waved them through, but not without eyeballing the colorful giant woman before her.
“Watch your head,” she said. Shay rolled her eyes and ducked under the doorway. Dana and his crouched companion followed the rather tired procession of people onboard the craft. It was empty enough that they could choose whatever seats they wanted, so while most of the passengers chose seats near the boat’s one restroom he decided they should sit in the last row of seats where they would be safe from any prying eyes, oblivious and uninterested as they might be. Since the seats in the back were wider for easier access to any handicapped space travelers, Shay didn’t have to squeeze into one. She immediately removed her sandals and propped her feet up on the empty seat in front of her; their sweaty smell filled the air.
“Oh that feels better,” she said, wiggling her toes and cracking them one by one with a sound like an angry gavel. “So what is this work that you have to do on Maymow?”
“You said you had a guidebook,” Dana mentioned.
“Well since you’re a Tortim girl I assume you prefer paper to E-files.”
Shay submerged her forearm deep into her shoulder bag, searched for a moment, and pulled out a paperback whose pages were now stained red by the C-gel left on her clothes.
“I guess I’ll need you since I just ruined my book,” she said.
“Let me guess,” Dana speculated, “you just picked up the first book you saw at your home port with ‘guide’ somewhere on the cover. Just snatched up the one with the most copies available and assumed it was the best.”
“So?” she shot back. “What kind of adventure would it be if I was following a dotted line the whole time? I just grabbed it on a whim.”
“Well you’re lucky then because your judgment was right. That’s the best damn guide available. Flawlessly researched. Uncolored by any particular bias towards any particular rock. Meticulously detailed reviews of restaurants, theaters, theme parks, and every well-baited tourist trap in the galaxy.”
Shay found it odd that the chronically grumpy man would offer such a glowing review of anything short of a public gallows, so on a hunch she flipped the book over and looked at the author photo.
“Oh,” she said. “You wrote this.”
“No I didn’t,” Dana replied. “The old me did. A different man. Dumber. I write tons of guides, each one better than the last because I know a little more. Because the old me dies every time he checks out of a hotel. And a new me takes off on green wings for a new world.”
“You’re an overly dramatic travel writer, I get it,” Shay said, rolling her eyes. Dana’s mood soured a tad. He’d been spoiled by everyday readers hearing his speech and thinking it was deep stuff that belonged on velum or yellowed scrolls rather than in displays next to brochures for petting zoos.
“I’m the best-selling travel writer in the history of our species,” he spat. He grabbed the book out of her hands and wiped as much slime off the cover as he could. “My books are in every port on every free world. Thanks to the occasional shipwreck in the middle of space, there are probably plenty of copies swirling around in the great black holes and getting spat out into other dimensions for other beings to learn from.”
“Okay, calm down whistle-bird. We all hear your pretty little song. So I guess you get to go anywhere for free right? Your publishers pay for the flights and all the hotels and restaurants let you stay and eat free in hopes of a good review?”
“That’s the gist of it.”
“I guess that’s impressive. Honestly, your IML skills are something better to brag about. Speaking of… I’m itching to see what that laser wimp has in that bag.”
“Me too,” Dana said, shrugging off Shay’s disinterest. He set the black bag on his lap and pinched the zipper in his fingers. Something in the bag seemed to get heavier, forcing his knees apart. This unsettled Dana. They knew the owner was a farcoward, so there was little limit to the depravities that could be stored in his knapsack. The zipper could be the trigger to a bomb. Perhaps opening it would unleash an invisible vapor of a weaponized virus whose symptoms included intestinal knots and begging your god for one sweet drop of mercy.
“Well?” Shay urged.
“Yeah, just hang on a second. I don’t want anyone thinking this is ours. I think there’s a privacy curtain for the handicapped section.” Dana set the bag down in the seat between him and Shay, stood up, and searched the wall for a hook or handle. He found one and pulled it across to the other side where it hooked into a metal ring. A thick, pleated, blue cloth now separated them from the rest of the sparsely populated boat. Their little pocket was only darkened for a moment though. Dana noticed an unusual light on the cloth. The presence of his shadow staring back meant it was behind him. Of course she had no patience. That woman felt like there was nothing she wasn’t allowed to touch. Dana whirled around. His jaw dropped.
One must first understand what it would take to make Dana Rudolph’s jaw drop, since he was a man that had seen just about every strange thing human beings do for fun and every desperate thing businesses do to survive. He’d seen a man wrestle a genetically engineered alligator in a dark cave lit only by the reptilian monster’s bioluminescent tongue. He’d watched a chef in a diving suit make a hearty vegetable soup from inside the cauldron it was cooking in. He’d seen the trapeze artists of Empro dance across spider silk ropes with a cavernous death waiting below them. He had never seen anything like what Shay now held in her hands. The television footage didn’t even begin to do it justice.
The light was a mixture of colors fluidly crossing over each other: soft purple, icy blue, regal white, and a green like clouds of sea foam. With the curtain closing them in and the colors undulating so calmly they suddenly felt like they were underwater, so much so that Shay took a deep breath and expected cold liquid to fill her lungs.
The light blanketed not just the walls and the two stunned passengers, but the orb that that was emitting it as well. Despite the lack of microscopic vision, Dana simply knew that the orb was perfect. There could not have been a divot on its surface, even the footprint of a dust mite, because they would have seen it as a scar in the pattern of the light. Its surface was like glass, fluid but still, breathed out by some nymph who represented every sea on every planet. Its appearance was… poetic. How could something so stunning, so… miraculous, survive in the clawed hands of a farcoward?
“It’s the Appearl,” Shay whispered, after what might have been several minutes of silence.
“What does it feel like?” Dana asked, consumed by curiosity.
“It’s like…” Shay struggled to find the words. Every apt description seemed to dispel near her vocalizing it, like soap bubbles popping in her eyes without stinging her but before she could see the rainbows in them. “I don’t know. It’s cool but it’s… alive.”
“You mean it’s moving?”
“No… it just feels… like it could move.”
They were interrupted by a loud whirrrrrr. Shay snapped out of her trance and gently lowered the Appearl back into the bag. The light around them vanished, making everything look fuzzy and coarse. She zipped it closed quickly. They both saw thick red foam spreading over the portholes on either side.
“They’re applying the C-gel,” Dana said. “We’ll be taking off in a minute.”
“What are we going to do?” Shay asked. The sight of the Appearl could make anyone feel helpless.
“I don’t know,” Dana admitted. “I don’t think this one’s in the guidebook.”