Authors: Steve Stanton
Tags: #Science Fiction / Space Opera, #Science Fiction / Hard Science Fiction
Dedicated to the memory of my father,
Air Canada Captain David E. Stanton 1931–2015,
for a lifetime of inspiration!
“The strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech.”
Federal Judge Stewart Dalzell (Philadelphia, 1996)
White wisps of vapour began to dance like ghosts on the nosecone of the shuttle as Simara carved her trajectory into the alien atmosphere. A mottled brown globe lay below, the desert planet of Bali, a horrible place by all accounts. But a worse fate lay behind.
Congratulations! You have been selected for a free boost to Cromeus Signa on the party cruise of a lifetime—toward understanding the organic multiplicity of human consciousness—the Governor has not published comment on water rationing measures effective yesterday—orbital microwave generators at maximum output—I just wish—
“Simara, you little tramp, get back here with that shuttle!” Her stepfather’s voice broke through the V-net chatter on the emergency override, an angry, drunken voice raspy with phlegm. She could still see his leering face in her mind’s eye, smell the stench of fermentation on his breath, barley mash and bad mushrooms. He had surprised her out of a deep sleep in her bunk with probing fingers between her thighs, a stinky fencepost pushing from his pants, cooing nonsense about his dead wife, the pervert. She had punched him on the chin and fled in her pyjamas to the shuttle.
“I’ve alerted Trade Station to take you into custody. If you put a damn scratch on the paint, I’ll take it out of your share!”
—Minister of Finance calling for absolution of cybersoul proxies—the elegance of any scientific theory is no guarantee of practical utility—cold gamma readings reaching record levels in the suburbs of New Jerusalem—
Simara wasn’t heading for Trade Station or anywhere near the clutches of Transolar authority. She had been foolish to put off her escape this long, with her stepfather ogling her ass and rubbing against her at every opportunity. She should have jumped ship at the Babylon station and claimed her rights as a citizen when she had the chance two weeks ago. Now she would have to settle for the desert badlands of Bali. Never mind, the decision had been made.
::You are entering a dead zone,::
mothership intoned in her mind.
::Elevate fifteen degrees for a safe orbit.::
Too late for that. “Show me the landing targets,” Simara said.
::No data available.::
“Give me the manual coordinates.”
::No data available. Dead zone imminent.::
Turbine brakes whined with resistance as the air became solid in the mesosphere, and Simara could feel the grasp of gravity sucking her slender craft into the rabbit hole. She tipped the wings up to take some speed off her approach. Why was mothership giving her such a hard time? “Show me the mapview.”
—he eats meat, the vile cretin—discrimination against omnidroids is rampant today in all segments of society—frequent feelie users may experience an irrevocable desynthesis of paradigms—
A holographic image of the planet appeared in Simara’s virtual space, a spatter of green dots indicating human outposts. There were two Transolar mining colonies with airstrips for the ore transports, but she zapped them offscreen. Too dangerous for a runaway. Her stepfather would surely sound warning the moment he calculated her trajectory, any second now.
“You little bitch! You can’t go down into that gravity pit. You’ll be trapped in the dead zone forever. Get your sorry ass back here!”
—makes you wonder about the whole purpose of empirical science—download took almost five seconds, and me standing there like a vacant
mathematical blueprint of the cosmos was evident before the beginning—
Simara toggled to the emergency frequency to have the last word to her stepfather. “Go to high heaven, Randy,” she said evenly, tasting bile in the back of her throat as she cut the mike. Her old life had ended; her innocence had been stolen away.
A brilliant flash snapped with a sizzle, and the lights and cameras went out on her instrument panel. Holy shit! She blinked her eyes against afterglow in the sudden darkness. “Mothership, what happened?”
Her virtual space was black, her brain cold and quiet. What the hell? She tapped the signal amp on her earlobe implant, trying to log back into the V-net, feeling nothing but vacuum in her brain, a gut-wrenching emptiness in her soul. Mothership was gone. How was that possible? She tried her omnidroid chats and couldn’t get a pingback. Everything was offline.
Simara grabbed the manual flight-stick with both hands as panic clawed inside her abdomen. She pulled back on the braking flaps, trying to visualize her pilot capsule in the velvety black, calling up system specs from deep recesses of memory. There was supposed to be a panel in the floor to slide open for an outside view in case of emergency. She scrabbled under the keyboard to release the interlock and kicked at the carpet below her feet. A burst of brightness shot up around her as the portal slid open to a raging, crimson crescent rising over Bali. A blast of heat rose from the tiny window of diamond glass. She had done this only once in the simulator and had crashed the damn thing. Where was her backup telemetry? Where the hell was the V-net? “Mothership?”
The air began to heat up in her cloistered cabin, her nosecone now burning red like a meteor heading to fiery Armageddon, shrieking like a haunted soul. Gravity had claimed her into a tight hellhole, and she was coming in way too fast for a controlled landing. Simara tightened the straps on her shoulder harness as her shuttlecraft bucked with turbulence, her fumbling fingers slippery with sweat. A pall of acrid smoke gathered like a heavy tapestry around her, the smell of burning wires and melting plastic. She was going to roast in her pyjamas and die on a crappy desert planet. Shit!
A flash of lightning exploded around her.
Simara woke flat on her back on a hard surface, panting for breath under a smothering weight of gravity. She reached for her hammock straps and flayed empty air. What the hell? Nausea and unfamiliarity gripped her as she peered at a craggy stone ceiling in musty, murky darkness. A cloying humidity filled her nostrils and throat, the smell of something mouldy and putrid. She gasped and sat up with alarm as an afterimage of trauma filled her mind—her escape shuttle screaming through stormy clouds, a lightning flash, an explosion, the dark face of doom. Her remembrance seemed splintered and sparse, broken fragments lacking in detail, and her memory backup was mysteriously offline. She tapped her earlobe amp to login to the V-net and got a dead blank. Mothership was gone and all her omnidroid chats were quiet. Even the newsfeed was down. Shit.
A handsome young man stared at her from under auburn ringlets, sitting cross-legged on the rocky floor beside her, barefoot, wearing strips of animal skin over muscular shoulders and a leather loincloth at his narrow waist. He smiled at her with peaceful good nature. “Hi,” he said. “How are you feeling?”
Simara could not place his strange accent—not trader-space, for sure, probably a virgin grounder, a primitive cave dweller by the look of it. His words seemed slurred, his tone serene. His eyes were brown and beautiful. “Where am I?”
“Bali,” he said, “second from the sun. I brought you in from the desert.” He shook his head. “It’s not safe out there.”
A string of pin lights revealed a gloomy cavern enclosure. She was imprisoned in rock, trapped underground at the ugly bottom of the gravity well with no V-net signal. Simara patted her hips under the thin padding of a zippered sleeping bag. “Where are my clothes?”
The boy pointed behind with his thumb. “Soaking. You soiled yourself.” He shrugged with complacence.
The air rumbled with thunder in the distance to match her rising temper at his indecency. “You wiped my bare ass?”
The boy pouted in consternation at her outburst. “Um, I guess so. I thought you might be dead.”
Simara grimaced as more memories flooded her consciousness, the sexual assault from her stepfather, her fight and flight for freedom, the loss of mothership. She was alone now on an alien planet with no technology, a vagrant fugitive cut off from her friends and social network. A sickness welled inside her, a coiled spring that demanded immediate and commensurate release, and she hung her head as tears spilled onto her cheeks.
“I barely peeked,” the boy said. “I didn’t mean anything.” He rose to his feet and took a few cautionary steps back. “I was just trying to help.”
“No.” She waved a hand to brush away his complaint. “My stepfather tried to rape me.” She wiped her nose with a sniff. “Not the first time. His wife died a few months ago in a vacuum breach. The whole damn ship is a rattletrap.” She sobbed again and resigned herself to a good cleansing cry.
The boy dropped his gaze. “I’m sorry. I saw your shuttle coming in fast and trailing smoke. Your cockpit blew out the top just before the crash. I followed your failsafe chute and found you unconscious two days ago. My name is Zen.”
Simara blinked back sorrow and looked up at him in surprise. “Two days?”
“Yes. Are you sure you’re okay? No broken bones or anything?”
She patted herself more carefully now, fearful of injury, checking for pain or inflammation, every movement a push against the heavy gravity. She was wearing socks and a bra and the signal amp on her earlobe, all she had left in the world. She tapped her ear, but the grid was still dead. Even her subconscious psychic connection was gone.
Thunder rumbled again, and the rock seemed to tremble. A cough rasped in her throat. “Do you have any water?”
Zen ducked through a rocky archway and returned with a ceramic cup. Her eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light. The cave walls were dry and the floor sandy, the low ceiling decorated with spiny creatures like sea urchins hanging upside down. Simara pointed. “What are those things?”
Zen glanced up. “Argonite clusters. Stone flowers, we call them. Iron impurities in this hill give them that pinkish hue.”
Simara studied the strange rock garden on the cave ceiling. Perhaps some weird magnetism in the iron was scrambling the V-net bandwidth, blocking her signal. Zen wore no earbug, probably living without a brain implant in these primitive conditions, a digital virgin. How the hell did he communicate? “Don’t you have the net?”
“A net? No, I use a spear for fishing. The carp in the deep caverns are blind, so they’re not hard to catch.”
“Not a fishnet. A communications network. You have no wristband, no eyescreen, no tablet?”
Zen nodded his understanding. “My father had a wristband, but it only worked in orbit on the dark side. All radio signals on Bali are scrambled by solar flares. We have computers in shielded installations underground where thermal energy is converted to electricity, but nothing on the surface. Even at night we can’t get a stable connection through the geomagnetic storms.”
Simara grimaced. She was net-dark and -deaf on a desert planet, and mothership was gone. She took a sip of water and spit it out with disgust. “It’s salty!”
“You don’t like salt?”
She handed the cup back and rubbed her tongue against her teeth. “Do you have anything else?”
“I have guava mead, but it’s fermented.”
She shrugged. “Please, anything to get this vile taste out of my mouth.”
Zen bowed and ducked again into darkness. He returned balancing the brimming cup, and she sampled his new offering, an exotic mix of warm beer and fruit juice. “Don’t you have refrigeration?”
Zen shook his head. “We’re out in the badlands. This base is a minimum campout, just bare-bones. The lights are solar powered, but the voltage is low. Sorry.”
“That’s okay. This is good.” She saluted him with the cup and took a long drink.
“So,” Zen said as he resumed his seat beside her, “no broken bones?”
“I’m fine. Thanks for saving me. My name is Simara.” She held out a hand in greeting, and he stared at her fingers in confusion. Didn’t people shake hands on Bali? Was the boy some sort of fanatical recluse? He hesitated for an awkward moment and finally took her palm with a gentle caress. That was weird.
“We’re an hour from the main community cave,” he said. “There’s a doctor there and cold drinks. We should get someone to check you over.”
“I don’t need a doctor. Just some food and a walk outside. I can’t stay long in this coffin cave. I like to be high up in the air where I can see everything at a glance, preferably weightless in space. Gravity sucks, you know?” She offered a smile at the old trader joke, but it went unrequited.
Zen shook his head again. “You can’t go outside during the day on Bali. The solar flares are too hot, and the rads will scramble your brain. Even at night you can’t go out without a breather. Cactus spores will clog your lungs.”
Simara frowned. What an awful situation. “Why do you live in such a horrid place?”
A hint of indignation clouded his features. “This is my quadrant,” he said sternly. “I have native salvage and mineral rights on my heritage claim. I’m third-generation landed, which is rare, ’cause it’s not a great place for humans to breed.”
Oops. Simara spread her palms for peace. “I’m sorry, Zen. I hate to be such an idiot, but my system is down and I don’t know the first thing about Bali. We were just passing by to offload some merchandise at Trade Station.”
Zen pressed his lips and nodded. “Hardly anyone comes to the surface. Bali is strictly a mining colony—volcanic minerals, gold, copper, zinc. The equatorial zone is a treasure-house of magma.”
“Is that the rumble I keep hearing? Volcanoes?”
“No, that’s dry lightning from the geomagnetic storms. We get it all the time here in the desert, and sometimes a bare sprinkle of rain, hardly enough to keep the lizards wet.”
“I think I got hit by lightning on my way in. I saw a blue flash and my board went black. Autopilot must have failed. I thought I was going to die.”
Zen’s face was grim. “Those new escape pods have failsafe eject on the altimeter when the power is off, but it’s a hard way to go. I think you pull about six-g in reverse to cancel your downward acceleration. You probably blacked out even before you hit the ground.”
Simara stared with curiosity at this muscular caveboy. “You seem to know quite a bit about rocketry.”
He raised broad shoulders at the compliment. “I’ve claimed a bit of salvage in my day. Not many shuttles get in past the lightning. Not many pilots survive.”
A memory flashed back to the dead instruments on her shuttle dashboard, her helpless feeling of panic in the darkness. “I’m lucky you noticed me in the sky.”
“You were like a paintbrush stroke across the heavens,” Zen said as he moved his hand in a slow arc, “a shooting star from the desert god Kiva and sure sign of his destiny. He brought you here for a reason.”
Simara boggled at the notion of patriarchal deity and tilted her head at him. How could he speak of providence to a woman who had just been sexually assaulted? Why would any god orchestrate an attempted rape? Weren’t gods supposed to be loving and righteous? “I’m sure you don’t mean that to condone domestic violence against women.”
Zen winced with discomfort. “No, of course not. What your stepfather did was evil.” He sighed a gentle whisper. “And I’m sorry about your stepmother. But Kiva brings good out of bad, and reconciliation between light and darkness.”
Simara glanced away to calm her spirit. “That sounds wonderful, Zen,” she said quietly, thinking him a harmless acolyte of some grounder folk religion. “Thank you.”
“I know it sounds like superstition at first, but that’s okay. Every onion has many layers.”
Simara smiled. “You have onions in the deserts of Bali?”
He grinned at her and nodded. “They grow in terraced gardens on the windward side of the mountains.”
“Anything else to go with them?” She held up her empty beer mug. “I’m famished.”
Zen took her cup and rose to his feet, his brown legs rippling with strength as he towered over her in his leather loincloth. “Would you like to soak in a hot geyser while I make breakfast?”
She gaped. “Really?”
“Sure.” He pointed to a crevice in the wall where a string of pin lights twined past a jumble of craggy boulders. “There’s a grotto down the tunnel to the left. That’s one of the reasons I picked this cave. Natural hot springs.”
Simara wondered if her bad luck could finally be changing. A handsome grounder boy with a hot tub? It sounded too good to be true. “Well, that sounds wonderful, but I didn’t bring a swimsuit.”
Zen slapped his forehead in a pantomime of stupidity, then held up a finger and disappeared through the archway. He returned in a moment and handed forward a pair of raggy turquoise boxers, faded and frayed. Simara hesitated for an instant, but nudity seemed an unwise option in the company of a primeval caveboy dressed in a thong, so she tucked his boxers into her sleeping bag and wrestled them awkwardly up her legs, like a butterfly working in a tight chrysalis. She extricated herself with a bare modicum of confidence and tested her bra for decency with her fingers.
Zen crawled into the rocky crevice, and she followed him down a narrow corridor encrusted with glinting salt crystals that felt sharp and granular on her forearms and knees. A pungent, briny scent wafted up from the depths as they burrowed their way downward following a single strand of pin lights. A moist heat collected on her skin like dew. Finally the tunnel opened up into a huge cavern hung with stalactites and murky with fog. Simara rose gratefully to her feet and stretched aching limbs. A foamy pool bubbled with promise in the grotto, and Zen crouched to feel the water with his hand. “It’s almost scalding today, so be careful.”
“Thank you, I will.” She took off her socks and dipped in a foot. “Whew, that’s hot.”
“You’ll get used to it once you’re in. I’ll bring breakfast in a few minutes.” Zen ducked back up the tunnel as she nestled slowly into the hot spring, inch by burning inch until she hit her belly. She reached with her toes for purchase, feeling a promise of buoyancy in the saltwater, and found a ledge on which she could crouch in up to her chin. Soon she was floating freely in weightlessness—home again in her natural state, liberated from gravity in blissful relaxation. She revelled in abandonment to the heat as her face flushed with blood and pebbled with a cleansing perspiration. This was great. She had survived a crash in the badlands of Bali and ended up in a luxurious spa retreat!
Did she dare trust this native caveboy? He seemed nice enough at first glance, but could she ever feel safe with a man again? Her own stepfather had betrayed her. The drunken oaf had treated her with vile disrespect, called her a slut, a tight pussy. She was still shaken, still wary.
Zen returned with a wooden bowl and dangled his powerful legs in the water from a rock shelf. He plucked a morsel with his fingers to show by example and held the bowl out with invitation.
“What is it?” Simara asked as she pulled herself up beside him.
He shook his head. “It’s a secret.”
Simara pursed her lips in thought. Probably cactus and sand lizards, maybe bird or snake. Oh well, it should certainly be better than starving to death. She tasted a salty, chewy bite of meat. Not bad, not raw, so Zen must have cooking facilities of some sort. She tried another bite, a mushy, stir-fried vegetable, and together they settled into a steady rhythm of eating. Everything was too salty, but she didn’t dare complain. “Great,” she said as Zen watched her with open fascination. “Thank you.”
She wondered if he was ogling her breasts through wet transparency—probably so, after untold weeks living alone in a cave in the wilderness with no V-net. Beer for breakfast and now wet lingerie for brunch! At least her pool-boy was handsome and pretended civility—she was thankful for that and damned grateful for everything else. Maybe it really was destiny, a change in her fortune from the grounder god of Bali, the Kiva spirit. By any measurement, it was totally better than a fiery crash in the barrens of the desert. She turned to Zen for eye contact. “So what are we doing today?”