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
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
Homestead I’s terravironment system emulated the growing seasons of Earth. As the days grew shorter and cooler, the warmth of the water in the reservoir that served the growing region produced thick fog that fell over the hub of trade along the waterfront. The residents called it, simply, the Port.
While there was no major naval trade—the lake wasn’t large enough to preclude simply going around it—what had developed along the waterfront over the last decade was, true to its name, similar to Earth’s port cities.
Small dwelling pods intended to be used during the terraforming process of a planet, of which there were none near the anomaly, became temporary homes on the surface. Then permanent.
Homes became shops.
Shops became multi-story high rises.
With every iteration of development, alleys between buildings grew darker and more cloistered. Like fungus on the shadowy forest floor, crime grew and spread.
The fog coalesced over the lake like an ancient god reconstituting itself over an unholy cauldron. A gentle breeze blew the mass forward. A veteran of Earth’s Resource Wars would have assumed a mile-wide column of armored vehicles was approaching.
As the wall of fog battered against civilization, its advance became more insidious. Tendrils of mist reached out through the streets and alleys like pale, skeletal fingers. The fog reduced visibility, enticing the crime that festered in the hidden corners to flourish in the temporary gloom.
Crowds still surrounded the awnings selling produce and spices but they were tighter, unconsciously huddling together for safety like penguins on Earth huddling together for warmth. It wasn’t dangerous to be out in a group. But it could be dangerous to be out alone.
It was also a good time to hunt.
Arley took a swig from a gray clay bottle as he squeezed between a couple waiting to buy gourds.
“Watch where I’m going next time, right, buddy?” he said loudly before chuckling and clapping one of them on the back.
He staggered to a stop and took another swig, letting some of the alcohol run down his chin onto the off-white button-down shirt he wore. He paired the shirt with a thin brown blazer and trousers. The outfit was a far cry from the dungarees he wore in the fields but the threading was still coarse and visible. A working man’s finest.
Arley needed to fit in wherever he might have to go. In a cheap suit, he would be overdressed around manual laborers and underdressed around the city’s elite, but not unbelievably so. No more than a single questioning glance would be thrown his way. The CASC armor that had sat in a trunk under his bed gathering dust was his base layer. It offered protection from the chill air. And potentially other unpleasant environmental features like slugs from the illegal railguns popular among the more serious criminals in the Port.
The high-pitched tinkling slosh of the grain alcohol inside the jug caught Arley’s attention. He began shaking the bottle clumsily like a maraca to a song that only he could hear.
Out of the corner of his eye, Arley saw a pair of feet matching his speed to his left. The fog was so thick that the thatched grass sandals appeared translucent and ghostly.
Arley whistled along to the song in his head.
“Poor Lizzie, you don’t nanana. Can’t buy the hmmhmm nanana,” Arley sang under his breath. It was a song Edwin Felz, the de facto leader of the planting co-op that Arley belonged to, sang at some of their parties. He didn’t know all the words but that was ok. It helped.
“Hey, buddy,” a nasally voice called from behind Arley. “It’s not a good night to be out here alone.”
Arley thought the voice sounded like a blade of grass buzzing between his fingers as he blew across it. Not a pleasant sound.
“I’m alright,” he said, turning to face the speaker. The companion of Ghost Sandals walked a few paces behind Arley and to the right. Their position, with Ghost Sandals abreast of Arley, would allow them to funnel Arley into an alley on the right side of the street. An easy mark might even take a blind turn thinking it was their own idea.
“We’ll walk with you. Protect you from thieves and all. It’ll cost you only 50 RCs,” said Ghost Sandals. His voice was wet and strained. Arley noticed the skin of his neck puckered around a long pink scar that ran across his neck like an impressionist artist’s rendition of a sunset. A damaged larynx. Likely from a blade.
Probably not new to the crime game, then, Arley thought.
“I don’t need any help,” Arley said. “I’m deadly.”
Arley swung his right foot out in front of him in a weak kick, then stumbled to keep his balance.
“Yeah,” Nasal Voice said. “I think we should probably have your back.”
“But the price went up. 75 now,” said Ghost Sandals.
Arley stopped walking.
“You guys don’t get it.” He took a drink. “I want to be alone. If I wanted company, I’d go somewhere for company. Get out of here.”
Arley continued walking, picking up his pace. He turned into the first alley that appeared on his right. Corrugated tin ran along one side of the tight, tapering space until it butted up against light gray adobe brick that formed the opposite wall.
A dead end.
He heard footsteps crunch on the pebbled sidewalks behind him.
“We told you it was a dangerous night,” Nasal Voice said.
“Should’ve listened,” Ghost Sandals continued.
Arley turned to face them, his clay jug dangling from two fingers of his left hand. “I’m not scared of you!” Arley screamed.
Ghost Sandals produced a blade from his pocket and held it up to catch the scant light that made it into the alcove.
“You should be,” he said.
“100 RCs and we’ll leave you alone. If you refuse again, we’ll take everything you have,” Nasal Voice said.
Arley clumsily swung his left hand in a high arc and released the jug. It sailed through the air lazily, giving Ghost Sandals more than enough time to step out of the splash zone. The two assailants exchanged slight smiles. Such an easy mark.
Nasal Voice’s smile faded as he looked back at Arley, who had drawn his coilgun while the men were distracted with the bottle of grain alcohol. A high-pitched whine emanated from the coils. A soft blue glow indicated it was ready to fire.
“Drop the knife,” Arley said quietly. The loud boisterousness of his voice had died with the jug.
“Hey, man, we’re just trying to make some cash,” Nasal Voice.
“And I,” Arley said, pointing the muzzle of his weapon at the shards of clay that littered the ground where Ghost Sandals had been standing and pressing the firing stud. The ground exploded into superheated plasma, leaving slagged pebbles and clay behind. “…am just asking you to drop the knife,” Arley continued, focusing his crosshairs back on his assailants.
Ghost Sandals tossed the blade on the ground and raised his hands. The pink scar on his neck jiggling as he swallowed repeatedly.
“Where would I go for information?” Arley asked.
“Like,” Ghost Sandals said, his gaze darting to Nasal Voice for reassurance, “you mean a library?”
Arley rolled his eyes. “No. Why would— Nevermind,” Arley interrupted himself. “I’m looking for someone who was kidnapped. Who in this town knows criminal information? Underground stuff?”
“You probably want to go to Retrograde,” Nasal Voice said. “Lyra makes most of her money by being in everyone’s business. Chances are she already knows somebody is shooting up the alleys.” Nasal Voice tipped his head toward the smoldering ground.
Arley had heard of Retrograde from some of the Homestead citizens. It was a live music club where old Earth songs were recreated on instruments fashioned in the Void. Sometimes stage plays were held based on Earth serials or literature.
“How do I get there from here?” Arley asked.
“It’s in the center of Bui Town. Back out on the street we were on and head away from the water. When you get to the square, turn right and you’ll hear the music,” Ghost Sandals said.
“Alright,” Arley nodded, his eyes on Ghost Sandals’s large knife. “Let’s all get out of here before someone comes to investigate the shot.”
Arley had to hand it to Ghost Sandals, Retrograde was easy to find. In a town mostly constructed from gray astrocrete made from pulverized asteroids and synthetic fibers, Retrograde had been painted haphazardly in bright neon colors. Gantry light strips from freighter ships had been affixed to the doorways of the club, the diodes altered to give off a dim purple glow. The effect was intended to make each step through a passage akin to passing through the anomaly.
The center of Bui Town was, Arley learned from Felz, one of the first settlements on the “surface” of Homestead I. The station had several levels of habitable space below the surface. Most had begun life as bunks and communal spaces for the first residents and crew of Homestead I while the surface was worked to a system that could sustainably produce food and provide a more natural environment for human and animal life until a habitable planet was discovered in the Void.
The residents of Homestead I soon moved to habitation areas on the surface to be closer to the natural environment they had created. Former domiciles in the sub-levels were refitted to administration centers and businesses. The wealthiest residents maintained habitation both above and below ground to escape the necessary but uncomfortable seasons imposed by the station’s rotation.
Bui Town radiated outward from a modest public square, one of the only places in the city where grass was grown. During the day, residents languished under shade trees and jogged along small, gravel paths. At night, especially when the fog claimed the city, the square was deserted.
The buildings around the square were all two-story structures; most had been built with a shop underneath and a residence above. During the Founding Day celebration, residents and visitors from other parts of Homestead I crowded the balconies to enjoy music and food. But, as in the park, the danger that came with the anonymity of the fog had driven most humanity away from the center of Bui Town.
Except for Retrograde. The tinny twang of a guitar constructed from leftover skimmer parts and electrical wiring rang out in the street in the staccato bursts of a dance song. Arley could hear the din of hundreds of drunken conversations competing with the music. He took a drag from his cigarette, enjoying the burst of orange that lit up the air around him as the glow of his cigarette cherry reflected in the fog.
He had been to murder scenes on Earth that turned other Defenders’ stomachs. True, most crime had been eliminated as PRIME reduced scarcity and ensured every citizen had basic necessities. But crimes of passion weren’t tied to scarcity and resource insecurity. Murder was a parasite feeding on humanity. As long as there was civilization, rage and murder would hang over it like invisible storm clouds. Arley had been the one to investigate the ruined bodies, the splattered walls.
He’d been the one to confront the murderers. Some were remorseful. Others reveled in it. He trained himself to be ready for anything the criminally insane could throw at him, training his eyes, mind, and body incessantly.
Arley’s peers had described him as fearless. Inevitable.
Looking at the crush of smiling humanity singing along to vaguely rhythmic noise, however, he didn’t feel bold. Didn’t feel powerful.
What is this world? he wondered.
Arley tossed his cigarette on the gravel and ground it out with his boot. He took a deep breath. People didn’t gather like this on Earth. Most people stayed at home donating resources to PRIME. So many bodies together… it reminded him of images of the resource riots he had seen in school. Desperate citizens mowed down by their own governments.
He felt sick.
And then he walked into the club.
A quiet alarm went off as a woman in a long, red dress approached him, her hand outstretched to prevent him from entering further.
“I’m sorry, citizen, we don’t allow weapons into the establishment,” the woman said. “We have sensors embedded in the door frame,” she explained.
“Is there somewhere I can store my gear?” Arley asked.
“Of course. I’ll take it to the safe and provide you with a retrieval token.”
Arley handed the woman Ghost Sandals’s blade that he had managed to grab as he slipped out of the alley and his coilgun. The woman’s eyes widened at the sight of the firearm.
“I haven’t seen one of those since Earth,” she said.
Arley shrugged. “Just a security blanket. It barely works,” he lied.
Arley ran a thumb along the edge of his broken gauntlet knuckle plate. “How do your sensors work? Ferrous materials? Should I hand over my flask, too?”
“Yes. Just place it on this mat,” she indicated a green felt square with her open palm as if she was plucking a harp.
Arley patted his pockets. “Guess I left it at home,” he said, smiling.
The woman passed him a token. “Enjoy yourself,” she said. The sentiment seemed genuine.
Arley’s eyes fell on the bar, one of the only well-lit places in the entire club.
Take the edge off, Arley thought to himself.
“Do you have anything distilled from corn?” Arley asked the bartender.
The man nodded and placed a shot glass in front of Arley without a word.
“Before you go,” Arley held a hand to the bartender and took a sip of his drink. “Oh, wow. That’s good. Corn is my favorite. Anyway, where can I find Lyra? I have a problem and I think she might be the key to solving it.”
The bartender, a short, older man in a faux leather apron, held up his index finger. He pulled a bottle from underneath the bar and topped up Arley’s shot, then limped away.
Did he hear me? Arley wondered, concerned the sound of the live music had injured the bartender’s hearing over the years.
Arley was taking the last sip of his corn whiskey when the bartender beckoned him to the other side of the bar and pointed up a red carpeted flight of stairs.
“Thank you,” Arley said.
The bartender merely nodded once and limped back behind his counter.
At the top of the stairs, Arley found two men and a woman in garishly bright suits. In contrast to Arley’s broad-woven muslin, the group lounging in plush chairs drinking fruit juice wore expensive material so tightly woven it had a reflective sheen to it. They were the epitome of Homestead I alternative fashion; one solid sun-blocking reflective lens that crossed the eyes, neon colored contact lenses in the pair without glasses, short-cropped hair with fiber optic filaments added at random to provide luminance.
Beyond them, a slight woman in a dark suit coat and ripped trousers sat at a wooden piano.
She continued playing as she turned her head to lock eyes with Arley.
“I heard some asshole was shooting at people in the Port. I told my friends here,” she nodded at the colorful trio, “that we should bring them in so we could talk sense to them. And then guess who shows up at my club with a fucking coilgun?”
Lyra punctuated her final sentence with a series of descending chords on the piano. She stood, scowling at Arley.
“Sit,” she gestured to a simple wooden chair between the thick cushioned chairs Lyra’s colorful guards enjoyed. A man in green had his legs crossed and tapped his foot to the music in the club below to Arley’s right. A woman in orange and a man in pink sat on Arley’s left. The woman took a bite of a citrus wedge that had been perched on her glass. The man glared back at Arley.
As Arley sat, Lyra joined him across a narrow table in a similar chair.
She laid her hands on the table, palms up. “Smitty tells me you think I can solve a problem you have.”
“I need information,” Arley said.
“That doesn’t really seem like a problem.”
“A friend of mine has gone missing. I think someone took her. Can you help me?”
Lyra’s scowl softened. “Look. Mr…,” Lyra waited for Arley to fill the gap.
“Felz,” he offered. Arley didn’t want to run the risk that someone had seen his name on the Stargazer manifest. With the celebrity status the crew had with some of the people of Homestead I, it was certainly a risk.
“Mr. Felz,” Lyra continued, “I don’t make it my business to sell information. That kind of thing tends to put a target on your back. I make it a point to learn everything I can. I know what’s going on in every little nook of this station. When information does change hands here, it’s because it’s the right thing to do. I try to protect my fellow Homesteaders in ways the Council’s Regulators can’t.”
Arley straightened in his seat.
“But do you know how many people are on this station, Mr. Felz? Tens of thousands. This person, what’s her name?” Lyra asked.
“Xochitl Bonn,” Arley said.
Lyra’s head turned to the right a fraction of an inch when she heard the name.
She knows Xochi’s from Stargazer, Arley thought.
“Xochitl,” Lyra continued, “might be your whole world. But I’m trying to look after a literal world. I have to prioritize the greater evils. And that might mean working with lesser evils.”
Lyra steepled her fingers in front of her thin lips and leaned toward Arley.
“How can you convince me Xochitl’s disappearance is a greater evil?” Lyra asked.
Arley stared back at her.
Then he laughed.
“I’ll admit, Lyra; you’re a good actress. Is that from the plays you put on down there?” Arley pointed to the stage below.
“You’re a criminal!” Arley said. “What can I buy here: guns, drugs, people? Take one of your color-coded buddies out for a quick assassination if I have enough RCs?”
“We do not sell people here, Mr. Felz. And we don’t condone assassinations. At least not without proof that the killing is in line with our consciences,” Lyra said, scowl returning.
“Alright. You don’t sell people. You’re not total scum. Help me find someone who may have been sold, then. Xochitl is just a kid.”
“Money,” the green-suited man said over the top of his glass.
“What’s that?” Arley asked, caught off guard.
“Mo-ney,” the man repeated, breaking each syllable down for Arley.
“You just want money?” Arley asked Lyra.
She shrugged, a slight smirk playing on her lips before diappearing. “Money is a good way to convince me about greater evils, Mr. Felz.”
“Alright. Ten thousand,” Arley said.
Lyra closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose.
“Thank you, Mr. Felz. Your drink is on the house. Please enjoy your time at Retrograde and don’t bother me again.”
Arley remained seated.
“Twenty thousand,” he said.
Lyra sat down at her piano and began to play.
The pink-suited man waved a hand at Arley like he was clearing away dust. “Come on, man. Time’s up.”
“How much, Lyra?” Arley asked, his throat feeling dry.
“Buddy, let it go,” the woman in the orange suit said.
“I’m from the Stargazer,” Arley said, stumbling over his words in haste.
Lyra stopped playing.
“Name?” she asked.
“Defender. Highly decorated on Earth,” Lyra said, standing.
“Do you mind if I ask why you joined the mission,” Lyra asked.
“PRIME identified me as a good candidate because I rarely donated resources. My free time was considered important for decompression by my Chief.”
Lyra narrowed her eyes at Arley as she sat. Her gaze studied his face and suit before falling to his hands.
“Is that CASC armor you’re wearing?” she asked.
“Seems a little worse for wear,” she pointed to his broken right gauntlet.
“I damaged it—,” the image of the trapped construction workers flashed into Arley’s mind.
He cleared his throat. “I damaged it on a mission.”
Lyra nodded slowly. “Let’s see your corps designation.”
“You know a lot about CASC armor,” Arley said.
“Yeah, well, the Bio-Corps walk all around the station in theirs. So it doesn’t matter that I studied it in the history documents before the Stargazer docked with Homestead, does it? Let’s see it.”
Arley unfastened the top three buttons of his shirt and displayed the blacked out designation panel.
Lyra’s brow furrowed. “That’s probably the best recreation I’ve seen. But I don’t appreciate being lied to.”
“Your drink is not on the house. You are not welcome at Retrograde,” Lyra stood. “And I’m keeping your coilgun.”
“Lyra, I’m not lying to you,” Arley pleaded, standing to keep Lyra’s eyeline. “Xochitl Bonn is missing. She’s in the Bio-Corps. Other crew members are gone, too.”
Lyra held up a hand. “You’re not lying? Is it Felz or Arley? Here’s what I think: you have alcohol all over your suit. You got drunk, found a coilgun who knows where, started shooting up the Port, and came here to live out some fantasy of being a mysterious Voidager. You’re lucky I’m going to turn you over to the Regulators. If you had hit anyone in your trigger happy rage, I’d have a bullet put in the back of your head and drop you in the lake.”
Lyra’s guards had slowly climbed to their feet, letting their boss have her final word before advancing on Arley to throw him out of the club.
I can’t let this chance go, Arley thought. Good thing their sensors only detect metals.
Arley curled his fingers toward his palm and slid the shattered nanofiber out of his cuff. He trusted his speed. Back on Earth, he had delved into the serials of the past and taken inspiration from pastoral law stories. He trained himself to draw his weapons before his opponents could act.
Accuracy was less trustworthy. Arley had enjoyed the character he’d played through the streets of the Port. And the corn whiskey.
Do it, he told himself.
Arley whipped his wrist toward the green-suited man, sending the nanofiber flying into his thigh.
Almost simultaneously, Arley reached down to the table with his left hand and hurled the table toward the remaining two guards.
Time seemed to slow. Arley could see Lyra’s eyes widening with shock, almost frozen. He needed to make his next move quickly or he’d likely end up with holes in his back.
Black market railguns were nowhere as powerful as his coilgun. But there were three of them.
CASC armor was tough. But it had a limit.
Arley lunged forward, past Lyra, and grabbed her around the shoulders. The green-suited man shouted in pain but still managed to pull a gun from somewhere inside his suit.
Orange and Pink already had theirs trained on Arley.
Arley held Lyra firmly between the muzzles of the guns and himself.
He hoped Lyra’s guards were trained well enough to hold their fire when their boss was a human shield.
“Now, where were we?” Arley said.