Published by Celestial Recursion, a -30- Press Imprint

Copyright, 2022 © Kristopher J. Patten, C.J Manor , Ashley Franz Holzmann, V.R. Walker

All Rights Reserved

Bui Town – Retrograde

AD 2648

“I’ve got a shot, Boss,” Pink said, a grin dancing at one corner of his mouth.


Arley’s grip held Lyra roughly in front of him but his larger frame left some of his body exposed. He bent a little deeper at the knees to keep the top of their heads level.


“No,” Lyra said, “not while I’m in the way, you don’t.”


A flicker of motion to Arley’s right caught his attention. While he was focused on Pink, Orange slowly crept around in an attempt to flank him.




Arley rotated himself and Lyra to present as much of their front—as much of Lyra’s front—toward all three bodyguards.


Accommodating for Orange’s movement put Green uncomfortably close to having an unobstructed view of Arley’s side. His face contorted in pain from the piece of broken knuckle guard lodged in his thigh but that didn’t affect his ability to pull a trigger.


Arley took a step back to give him more leeway to the sides. The heel of his boot touched the small lip of the raised platform above Retrograde’s dance floor. Arley could survive the fall; he would be mostly unscathed falling a single story even without his armor. But he would have blown the best chance he had to get information about Bonn and the other missing Stargazer crew.


The chance was already about as blown as a match in a vacuum but, as long as he could try to make a deal for information out of Lyra, there was hope.


“I’ll take your boss over the edge. Put your guns down,” Arley said.


“Pretty sure she’ll be fine,” said Orange. Arley thought Orange sounded like a tigress growling softly at prey she was preparing to attack. She faced Arley but her feet were still angled to make a dash to his side.


“She will. We both will. But I’m sure you won’t pull those triggers when a whole club’s worth of people are between you and me,” Arley jerked his head back toward the dance floor. “Maybe Lyra gets away, maybe I manage to take her out of here. If you don’t want to find out, put your guns down and let’s talk. All I want is information.”


“Our business is information. People on Homestead don’t take kindly to theft,” Pink said. He eyed his employer. “Right, Boss?”


Lyra remained quiet. She fiddled with the armor on Arley’s right hand.


Trying to find another shard to use as a weapon?


“Wait,” Lyra said, her voice loud and sharp, like a knife through the tension. “Guns down. Mr. Arley, you can let go of me.”


No one moved.


Lyra sighed.


“This,” she pointed to Arley’s right hand, “is nanofiber. There are no nanofiber fabricators in the Void. This actually is Void armor.”


“I told you,” Arley said.


“You also told me your name was Felz, so you didn’t exactly start out trustworthy.”


Lyra’s bodyguards still trained their guns on Arley. He still gripped her across the shoulders.


“It means he actually is from Stargazer. Guns down,” Lyra repeated.


This time, Green let his railgun fall to his side and collapsed back onto his couch. Pink and Orange followed suit, weapons disappearing back inside their suit jackets. Pink hurried to Green’s aid, while Orange loomed closer to Arley as he let Lyra loose from his grasp.


“Void armor is on the black market, Lyra,” Orange said, in an almost scolding tone.


“It is, but the corps sigil is deactivated on his. That’s a choice that has to be made by a ranking officer. Probably Captain Galaton or one of the Technicians.” Lyra smoothed down wrinkles in her own suit from Arley’s grasp.


“Sorry, wait,” Arley said, raising his hands into a time out gesture. “CASC armor is being sold on the black market?”


Before Lyra could answer his question, Arley noticed Pink wrapping his finger around the end of the nanofiber shard in Green’s thigh.


“Don’t!” Arley called. “Hey, Pink, don’t take that out. If that hit anything, he’ll start losing blood. Leave it in until you can get him to a medic.”


“Lee,” Lyra said to Red, “take Zawadski out through my office and go to the Bio Corps outpost on Coronet.”


She turned to Arley. “Let’s follow them in. I want to show you something I just bought.”


Arley walked away from the stairs that led back down to Smitty’s bar and toward a pair of tall, wooden doors—a luxury on Homestead that was rarely seen, considering all of Homestead’s trees were protected from harvesting to provide the station with oxygen and for the psychological benefit of the population. These doors must have been brought from Earth.


Orange stalked behind Arley as he followed Lyra. He could feel her gaze on the back of his head, still hungry for the blood she had been cheated of.


Or for blood to come? Is this a ruse to get my guard down?


Arley had taken on two assailants before, back on Earth. But those had been underfed career criminals with mind- and mood-altering synthetic drugs in their system. Orange was well-fed and looked like she trained as much as Arley did. She also, he reminded himself, had a gun.



Lyra’s office was small but filled with ancient trinkets from Earth, Mars, and orbital stations in the Sol system. One small shelf was filled with physical books complete with paper pages. Arley had never seen a book with his own eyes, even though he had grown up on Earth. In the metropolises, books were either on display in virtual museums that could be visited through the CogNet or stored away in hermetically-sealed vaults. Smaller towns in the agricultural zones might have physical copies on display behind glass but Arley had never ventured far away from the skyscrapers that made him feel safe.


The paper inside the blue binding was the color of custard. Arley had the desperate urge to smell the book, confident it would smell of his mother’s bubbling treacle that she dumped liberally over brown bread when Arley was a child.


Lyra walked further into her office and placed a hand on a frosted glass display case. At her touch, the glass lost all opacity and Arley could see the chest piece of CASC armor inside.


“This is the Void armor Ochir mentioned had been for sale across underground channels,” Lyra said. “A lot of recreations are passed off as genuine but this is nanofiber—”


“It’s hers,” Arley said. “It’s Xochitl’s.”


He walked closer to the display case. The red Bio Corps sigil glowed on the chest, matching the red piping that Bonn had fitted her armor with. It contrasted and complemented Yazzie’s white piping. On the left shoulder was a cartoonish bluebird that Bonn had painted onto her armor. Evelynth had given her pointers on sketching and Meli taught her which paints would adhere to nanofiber. Bonn had made a trip out to Arley’s small domicile on Felz’s farm to show him.


“She wouldn’t let this armor go willingly,” Arley said. “The crew is really the only family she’s ever had. Some of the older crew members, I could see resigning and selling their kit to set themselves up here on Homestead. But not her.”


Lyra stared Arley down. Her gaze was nowhere near as predatory as Orange’s—Ochir, Arley recalled Lyra mentioning her name—but it was, possibly because of that fact, much less human. Cold and relentless, like space without an envirosuit or CASC armor. Arley felt like Lyra’s snowy blue eyes bored into him like a mining laser, finding the answers to her questions before she needed to ask them.


“There was a time when the legend of the Voidagers was the only bright spot in my life back on Earth. I’ve read the crew manifest several times, Mr. Arley. Xochitl Bonn is a medical prodigy. 23. Raised by foster parents. You might be considered a prodigy, too, but where Clinician Bonn saves lives, you take them. Easily. And now it seems you, fourteen years her senior, have been removed of your station for an unknown reason. Must have been a serious breach of protocol. So, while I want to find this missing girl, I question what your interest is here.”


Arley nodded. “Yeah. That makes sense. Xochitl is special to me, that’s true. There were seven members of the crew—well, actually, five members of the crew and two of us who were on Stargazer but were no longer officially crew—who had special assignments from Captain Galaton while we’re waiting for the trial to end. All of us are more familiar with that smaller, more intimate group. We’re trusted with knowledge that no one else has. Theophania Yazzie,” Arley gestured to nothing in particular, assuming Lyra had the manifest on a terminal or tablet somewhere in the office, “the Bio Corps Chief, told me Bonn was missing. She trusts me to find her and I don’t think anyone is closer to Bonn than Yazzie.”


“And Xochitl,” Arley continued, “she’s young. Innocent. And always so damn excited about new things—no matter how ridiculous. We both,” Arley laughed, “got really into corn. We shared a meal that was nothing but corn; roasted, fried, boiled hominy, cornbread, corn soup.”


Arley looked back at the bluebird on Bonn’s armor. There was a gouge across the bird’s chest where something had scraped against the nanofiber. Arley reached out to touch the art and clumsily smashed his fingers against the glass he had forgotten about.


“If you know about me from the manifest, you know that I was an investigator for CASC. Domestic crime. A lot of drug-related and violent crime. A lot of missing young people, too. Sometimes I’d find them and it was clear what their captors had put them through. Seeing Bonn in place of those kids… It’s hard to close my eyes. You have to help me find her.”


Lyra leaned back against another frosted glass display case. “I know something about that life.” She studied Arley’s features again. “You’re convincing. I even believe you. But there’s no proof of anything you’ve said. I’m going to send Ochir here with you when you go out to find a lead. After all, you did come in claiming to be one of my transport drivers from the old days, which told me you were dishonest and didn’t take your time to be thorough. Not exactly the best circumstances to meet.”


Arley shook his head, confused. “Felz was a transport driver for you?”

“Yes,” Lyra said, “when I was first getting started. A few years after I came to the Void. Before Retrograde was anything but fantasy.”


“He said he didn’t get down here much.”


“He doesn’t anymore. And back then, the cargoes I had them drop were a little more illegal than drums and bass. I don’t think he’d want his spouse to know, so it doesn’t surprise me that he’d deny any knowledge.”


Arley closed his eyes, silently cursing himself. He had made so many missteps in just a few hours. Was he slipping? Allowing himself to underestimate the Homesteaders because the technology was so inferior to Earth?


Just like stopping the engines.


“Alright,” Arley said, rubbing his eyes. “So, you said I’d go with Ochir once we find a lead. You don’t have any information on kidnappings? Or the seller for Bonn’s armor?”


“No,” Lyra shook her head. “Seller identities are always protected in these auctions. And I haven’t heard anything about the kidnappings.”

“I know the Navarc sect thinks the Stargazer crew are demons and evil doppelgangers. Could they be behind it?”


“No,” Lyra said, “I don’t think so. The Regulators have them under heavy surveillance after the anti-Voidager demonstration they organized a few months after you came to Homestead. The really radicalized ones seem to have just,” Lyra snapped her fingers, “vaporized. Gone underground somewhere.”


Arley nodded. “Williams was injured in that riot. That seems like the kind of attitude that could head toward kidnappings.”


“Yes. And it’s possible. But I think we should keep looking before I let you go blasting your coilgun around a Navarc church. Where was Bonn taken?”


“She was coming out to the farm I work on. Felz’s farm. From downtown near the admin buildings.”


“You don’t know where along that route she was seen last?”



Lyra walked to her wood-topped desk and projected a map of Homestead into the air between her and Arley. She drew a line between the dense cluster of towers and Arley farm with a flick of her black-nailed finger.


“Do you know where any others were?” Lyra asked.


“One in the Port. Another in the Shipping District. DuPont was last seen leaving another crewmember’s party in their quarters below decks and heading to his. But, Lyra, between you and me, I wouldn’t be surprised if DuPont was murdered by someone on the crew. He’s an– interesting guy. Those quarters are two decks below Lakeside.”


Arley went through the list of missing crew that he had committed to memory and Lyra marked them on her map.


“You said a lot of Voidagers work on Felz’s farm?” Lyra asked.


“Well, I guess that depends on what you call a lot. There’s maybe twenty of us. Not enough,” Arley pointed to the cluster of points around Homestead’s lake,” to account for all these. And none of them were from the farm.”


“Right. But I wonder if someone on the crew has a grudge.” Lyra gestured to the map, “These are all pretty densely packed, considering all of Homestead. And the few that don’t match are out near the Shipping District. Someone entrusted to move produce from your farm to haulers going out to Bright Star or the crews building Vista Nueva would have a reason to be in those places.”


“I don’t want to believe it’s someone on the crew. But it does look like I’m heading back to the farm. You said you know Felz. Can you give him a call and get a list of people who move produce? I’ll—Ochir and I, rather—will start questioning them when we get there.”


“It’s pretty late, Arley,” Lyra said.


“Felz is up,” Arley said, shaking his head. “We both have trouble sleeping. And questioning people when they’ve been asleep is a tactic we used back on Earth. Hard to keep your lies straight when you’re not even solidly in reality.”


Arley looked to Ochir, who had been silently waiting at the edge of Lyra’s office. “Ready for a hike?”


“I have a vehicle,” Ochir said, the words slipping out like hidden daggers.

Without another word, Ochir walked toward the back of Lyra’s office. Arley remembered the exit at the rear that Pink and Green-Lee and Zawadski-had used.


“Thank you, Lyra,” Arley said, pressing his hand on her desk.


She nodded once.

Ochir’s vehicle wasn’t nice by Earth standards but personal vehicles weren’t commonplace on Homestead. A converted cargo mover, the treads had been replaced with traditional wheels and painted, predictably, in neon colors.


Ochir and Arley rode in silence as the gravel paths of Bui Town and the Port gave way to rutted dirt drives. Tall stalks of corn lined the road, creating a private oasis from the rest of Homestead. It was one of the things that initially drew Arley to corn.


“I heard you talking about corn earlier,” Ochir said, breaking the silence. “It’s one of my favorite foods, too.”


“One of the crew came up with a recipe for corn pancakes. I’ll get you some after we solve this. I’m sorry about Zawadski.”

Ochir smiled. “He’s had worse.”


The viewport glass in front of Ochir and Arley exploded into a spiderweb of cracks with a deafening crash. Ochir turned the wheel sharply to the left, corn stalks thudding against the weakened viewport as they careened into the crop.


“That was a shot. Probably a kludged-together rail gun,” Arley said, pulling his coilgun from his waistband.


Ochir nodded. “Lucky they weren’t made as well as mine. This glass is safety rated for loading, not ballistics. And,” she pointed to a deep pock in the glass directly in front of where Arley was sitting, “they were aiming at you.”