Not all mist conceals

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Diyar waited impatiently for his twin. “If you keep dragging your feet, I’m leaving you behind. You made me miss it last time. I’m not taking that chance this year,” he shouted.

Sivan staggered out of the decontamination chamber. His long black hair was a mess, sticking out from his head like the tentacles of a partunial lagoniva. “I don’t know why you’re so excited about this. You’ve seen it before,” he grumbled.

“When we were children,” Diyar said. “We were barely old enough to remember. And when it came around again when we were teenagers, our parents wouldn’t go without you. What was it you told me when I tried to get you to move faster?”

Sivan sighed. “I told you the only way I was going to see some shelling sunrise was if you drugged me and stuffed me in the cargo shell of the hover.”

Diyar nodded. “Now, you have five minutes. I’d rather have you with me, especially since you promised Briska and Sirin you’d be there.” He grinned as his brother spluttered. The twin sisters who dated the two brothers interchangeably were hard to please, and if Sivan went back on his word, the two of them would make him pay for it for a long time.

Five minutes later, the black haired and brown eyed twins left their underground apartment and went through a series of tunnels lined with electromagnets that granted their vehicle the ability to fly until they reached the main landing bay of the Geliyen settlement on Protoxia VII. It was kept sealed and guarded against the residents most of the time. Only once every fifteen years was it opened to the public, and the huge ships stored inside prepped for flight once more.

Briska must have been watching for them because she appeared shortly after they parked their hover. “You two were almost late,” she said, her charcoal colored eyes flashing angrily.

“My fault, Bris,” Sivan said. “I worked late and overslept.”

Briska snorted. “You ‘worked late,'” she said, making a motion with her hand to show she didn’t believe him. “You were out at the bar again.”

“No Bris,” Diyar said. “He really was working late. I had to go pick him up because the public transit stopped running two hours before he got off.”

Briska opened her mouth. Sirin appeared and elbowed her. “Bris, I work for the same company as Sivan, remember? He was still there after I left, and I caught the last public transport,” she said.

“Let’s go,” Sivan said, catching hold of Sirin’s hand. “We’re going to miss the transport, and I want to make sure we can all sit together.” He dragged Sirin along. Diyar and Briska followed. Diyar glanced at Briska out of the corner of his eye. She was not one for unwanted physical touch, and right now it looked like she wasn’t interested in taking his arm.

They got to the massive ship and climbed aboard. They found a long bench that seated four and settled in. They fastened their harnesses and waited for the ship to fill up. It did and about an hour after they arrived it lifted off.

Diyar watched as the dark browns, grays, and reds of the stone surrounding the city passed the windows. There was an excited buzz in the conversations going on around him. He saw several young children tugging on their parents’ arms and asking what they were going to see. The parents just told them to be quiet and they’d find out soon enough.

Eventually the ship broke through the crust of the planet. On the surface, as if preserved in some giant museum, stood the ancient cities that had once held Diyar’s ancestors. The first residents of Protoxia VII built the towering structures they now saw, drawing on their memories of their homeworld. But something went terribly wrong and they’d been driven  underground. That had been nearly a thousand years earlier, and their descendants still lived in the subterranean territories carved out a millennium ago.

“Look,” Briska said, her breath catching in her throat. Light flickered off the shimmering powder on her olive skin.

Everyone peered out the windows. The cloud cover that was a perpetual drain on the solar generators was parting even as they watched. The glorious golden sun poured light down on the mist shrouded ghost city. No pictures were taken. It was forbidden. No drawings were made. Again, it was forbidden. All you were allowed to have were your memories, and Diyar stored his against the coming gray time.

Too soon the clouds covered the shining orb and the ships made their way back underground. “Do you think we’ll ever see it again?” Sirin asked wistfully.

“I don’t know about you two,” Diyar said. “I know I won’t. I’m 34. I’ve only got eleven years left.”

“Can’t you file for an extension?” Briska asked.

“I’m not a good enough candidate for that,” Diyar said. “I’m just going to enjoy the years I have left and let my life end when they say it does.”

 

Night lights

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“Don’t stay out too long again,” Philippe told her as she relaxed into the body conforming chair. “You almost didn’t make it back last time.”

“Trust me, I’m not making that mistake again,” Suyen said with a shudder.

Philippe tied the tourniquet tight on her upper arm and tapped her lower arm until he found a vein that didn’t have too many holes in it. He slid the needle in and depressed the plunger on the syringe.

For a moment Suyen felt nothing. Then came the weight on her chest, the sense that she couldn’t breathe. She let her eyes close. She could hear the monitor as it beeped, letting everyone around her know that her heart rate was slowing. For a moment, she heard and felt nothing.

Light flooded her senses and she was floating above herself. Philippe was beside her, constantly checking all of her readouts. The director and his assistant were watching her wasted form as it struggled to maintain the life she so desperately clung to.

Knowing her time was limited, she willed herself out of the secret lab and out into the night sky. She lifted herself higher and scanned the city. She saw the streets and took a moment to enjoy the beauty of the lights of the cars, streetlights, and the city. It mesmerized her and held her attention for several seconds.

She tore herself away from the view and focused on her mission. She continued looking and, just as she knew she was at the limit of her time, she saw what she needed. She locked the details in her mind before willing herself back to her body.

She woke to Philippe’s worried face. “You cut it close again, Suyen,” he said. “A few more seconds and you wouldn’t have survived.”

“I know,” Suyen said. “But I found her.”

“Where is she?” the director asked.

Suyen opened her mouth when suddenly her heart monitor started going crazy. She gasped, hands clenched as her chest felt like it was going to explode. She was vaguely aware of an IV being stuck in her hand, of something hot piercing her veins. She dimly heard shouting. Then there was nothing but a solid tone.

Suyen found herself staring down at her body again. This time there was nothing binding her to it. Her heart monitor was a flat tone and her chest was still. The director was screaming at Philippe, who had tears running down his cheeks.

“How the hell am I supposed to know what happened?” Philippe snarled, startling the director into silence. “I told you she was too frail to keep going. I told you she needed some time to rest. You knew your daughter was safe, that she would be okay for a while longer. You could have given Suyen time to recover from her last trip.”

Suyen realized what had happened. She was dead. Her body, not accustomed to having her soul consistently ripped out of it, had given up. She let herself drift out of the lab. She floated up into the night sky. There she gazed down at the streets and lost herself again in the mesmerizing light.

The dead do not lie

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Yun stood next to the river, her lantern in her hands. Her cousin Min stood next to her. “Yun, you do yourself more harm than good in this,” Min said.

“You are wrong, Min,” Yun said. “The lanterns carry messages to the dead. He will hear me and come.”

Min shook her head. She didn’t know if the lantern festival came from Old Earth or not, but her cousin clung to the hope that her deceased husband would return to speak to her. He’d died without telling her where their son was and Yun was desperate to find him.

There was a deep tone. Yun knelt beside the detha nadi and set the rose tinted lantern on the surface of the water. It was a moonless night and the many lanterns floating along were the brightest lights against the black. Min stood with her cousin until the last of the shimmering silk and paper creations drifted past.

“It is time to return to the house, Yun,” Min said, putting her hand on Yun’s shoulder.

“Yes, that is where Heng will come,” Yun said, rising to her feet. “We must hurry. He can only remain in the world of the living until dawn.”

The two women hurried along the glowing path back to Yun’s silver and turquoise home. As they walked in, they were greeted by the smell of rotting flesh. Min gagged but Yun clasped her hands in front of her chest.

“By the gods, what is that stench?” Min asked, covering her nose and mouth with her sleeve.

“It is Heng,” Yun said, pointing to her husband’s favorite chair.

Min looked and nearly fainted. There, sitting in his usual spot, was Yun’s dead husband. He looked exactly as he had in life, though he glowed a sickly green and you could see the pattern of the fabric on the chair through his body.

“You called me, Yun. What do you want?” Heng asked, his voice hollow and irritated.

“Heng, where is our son? Where is Jingyi?” Yun asked.

“You called me here for that? Jingyi is dead, foolish woman,” Heng said. “I drowned him in the river. Why else do you think I was executed? Someone saw me do it. Were you absent at my trial?”

Yun wailed and ran from the room. Min faced the man. “Why did you do it?” she asked.

“I was tired of having to support a useless mouth,” Heng said. “Jingyi would never be a productive member of society. He was unable to work in the fields, his hands were too weak to use tools, and his inability to speak made him worthless as an Elder. So I ended his life.”

Min nodded. “A pity the Elders and Yun see it as murder. I see it differently.”

Heng looked surprised. “You agree with what I did?”

Min glanced around, making sure Yun was well out of hearing range and that no one was listening outside the doors and windows. “I do. Yun refused to listen when I told her that the gods cursed Jingyi. He was helpless, with no capability to care for himself or others. There was no need for her to drain herself to the point of death caring for both you and him. There was a reason I stopped coming over for several months, Heng. She forbade me from visiting until I took back what I said. I refused.”

Heng nodded. “It is good to know that there is one person in this world who understands what I did.” He glanced outside. “I am grateful the ceremony took place so late tonight. The sun is rising and I am free to go.”

“Farewell, Heng,” Min said. “May the gods not prolong your punishment.”

“Thank you, Min. Care for Yun, and may she forgive me one day,” Heng said. He faded away as the first light of dawn entered the room. With his disappearance the smell vanished. Min sighed and went in search of her cousin.

A broken past

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Issana walked slowly through the field, her oxygen mask secure over her face. The radiation suit creaked and hissed as she moved, the mutated plants brushing against the reinforced fibers. She constantly checked her scanner. “Sani, anything?” The voice over the communicator in her ear was her partner Noran.

“No, Noran. There’s nothing yet. Just like five minutes ago. Will you please stop pestering me and wait for me to check in on my own?” Issana asked, her tone carrying her exasperation.

“You don’t check in regularly so I have to make you,” Noran said with his usual logic.

“I report every thirty minutes, as is required by regulations. Just because you get impatient is no reason for you to claim I don’t follow orders,” Issana said.

Noran sighed. “Sani, the radiation levels are really high today. That last storm really did a number on the atmosphere. The projection is it’ll take a month before it’s back to normal levels. We’re all worried about you so I’m going to check in with you as often as I feel is necessary.”

Issana sighed. “Fine. But if you startle me and I get hurt please realize it’ll be your fault.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Noran fell silent.

Issana continued forward, sweeping her scanner in front of her. A loud beep made her stop and orient the device on the reading. “The scanner picked something up ten meters to the east of my current position. The terrain is flat so I’m going to go check it out.”

“Copy that,” Noran said.

Issana headed cautiously forward, watching the ground for hidden dangers. The sound from her scanner got louder. When it became one solid tone she cleared the readout and stopped. She frowned. “I’m sending you a holo. I have no clue what this is supposed to be. It looks like some kind of barrier though.” She snapped a picture and sent it back to the base.

While she waited for Noran’s response, she examined the metal thing in front of her. It was a long metal pipe set on a pile of eroded stones. There were smaller metal pipes set at angles to help brace the thing. She didn’t touch it, fearing to either contaminate her suit further or tear it on the jagged, rusting surface. She took a few more holos, though she kept those on her camera rather than sending them back.

“You’re right. The Director says it’s a barrier. You’re probably standing on some kind of ancient road. That was used to prevent people from going beyond a certain point, possibly because that was some kind of animal refuge or large private property,” Noran said. She heard a faint conversation. “Sani, you need to get back here. Meteorology just reported another storm coming through. You’ve got forty five minutes, so hurry your ass up.”

“Got it. I’m on my way,” Issana said. She turned off her equipment and started back towards the base. Radiation storms were deadly, even with the suits, and she had no desire to be another casualty of this particular human stupidity. There were other, more interesting and less painful, ways to die.

One man’s trash is one woman’s treasure

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Sora stared at the ruins of her planet from space. “This is awful,” Coperno, her reproduction partner, said.

Sora tilted her head to one side. “You expected anything different?”

“No, but it was still nice to believe in the false hope the Elders gave us that we could return home with no transitional issues,” Coperno said.

Sora nodded. She’d never believed them. Unlike Coperno – and the majority of those from Nursis – she was a product of war. Her parents were soldiers, fighter pilots to be precise, and had sold their skills to the highest bidder until her mother got pregnant with her third child. As required by the law, she and her reproduction partner were forced to settle on the nearest planet to raise their children to their age of majority. Only then could they resume their previous occupations. Sora could still remember the constant bombardments, evacuations, and near misses flying with her parents.

She heard a soft murmur and turned to look over her shoulder. “The Elders are here.”

Coperna took her arm and led her to where the remnants of the settlers from Nursis were gathering. “I know it looks bleak,” one of the Elders said. “But the scans are promising. The majority of our settlements are intact, though there will be some rebuilding necessary. The problem will be food. The most damaged areas are the farms.”

“The Consortium has offered to share with us the secrets to their hydroponic grows, and will give us the necessary equipment,” another of the Elders said. She paused. “But the price they require us to pay is steep.”

“What is it?” someone asked.

“We are to give over our second born, no matter what they identify as, to be soldiers for a term of five solar cycles,” the first Elder said. “Fifteen percent of our harvests are to be packaged and sent to the central repository, along with the same amount of the seeds produced by the plants we grow, to further the genetic research being done on the flora of the galaxy.”

“I’ll accept those terms if it means I get to go home,” a woman said. There were shouts of agreement. Sora didn’t say anything. The Consortium was as corrupt as any government, but they would help impose order on Nursis. That was something the Elders couldn’t manage to maintain no matter how hard they tried.

“Then if that is the will of the majority, we will accept their offer,” the second Elder said. With that, the nineteen Elders turned and left.

It took a month for the farmers to get used to the hydroponic bays. Once they learned how to manage them, the Consortium shuttled the residents of Nursis down to the surface and helped set up the hydroponic farms before handling out supplies. The armada that had driven off the Kitarthi departed, leaving two battle cruisers and five frigates to continue assisting the survivors of the bombardment.

Sora and Coperno returned to their house with their three children. The girls were terrified of everything around them, clinging to their parents as they walked down cracked and scorched streets.

The house was relatively untouched, though the windows would need to be replaced and the main door was slightly warped. Coperno forced it open and the five of them walked in. “Go to your rooms,” Coperno said. “See what harm has been done to your possessions.”

“Yes Coperno,” the eldest of the three said. She led her sisters back into the house. Sora shook her head. Coperno refused to let the children give him the appropriate honorific traditionally granted to the paternal genetic donor.

“I’m going to our room,” Sora said.

“I’ll look over the kitchen and see what needs to be repaired,” Coperno said. The two adults headed into separate parts of the residence.

The door to the bedroom was completely broken. Sora dragged the scraps of thin metal away and walked inside. There was no power, but she found the flashlight that she always kept on a shelf next to the door. It was on the floor, but it still worked.

She turned it on and started inspecting the furniture. There were some cracks, some scratches, but nothing was broken. She looked at the exposed conduits. There were a few circuits that would need replaced, but that was easy enough for Coperno to do.

Sora finally went over to a blank spot on the wall. It was paler than the rest, an obvious sign that something was there. She pressed her fingers against a latch that was barely visible in the dim light. It slid open.

Coperno knew about the small hiding hole. He had one himself somewhere in the house, though Sora didn’t know where his was. He wasn’t aware of what was in it though, and would most likely have insisted she destroy what she kept secreted inside if he did know.

Her treasure was a thin metal case, no wider than a circuit board and about as large as one of the data pads. She cracked it open. Inside was a black and white portrait of a man and woman. Both were dressed in something far more elegant than Sora had ever seen, and they seemed to be gazing at each other with an emotion that she couldn’t identify.

These were the founders of her mother’s genetic line. They’d lived on Old Earth nearly three thousand years earlier, long before the Kitarthi tried to enslave humanity. She ran her fingers across the front of the image. One of her mother’s ancestors had sealed the portrait in a protective composite of some kind, preserving it for all time. This picture was the greatest treasure her mother had, and she’d given it to Sora before leaving Nursis to resume her life as a pilot. Sora sealed it back in the case and put it back in its hole. She closed and locked the panel before rejoining her family.