episode two of "dry: the serial," a sci-fi adventure series.
|Issac woke some time later--how much time had passed, he had no idea--on a stiff bed in a blue-lit room somewhere in the belly of the Lathan Devers. the name irritated him every time he thought of it, even in the semi-lucid state of recovery he was currently attempting to forget.
Issac was no stranger to the bottle and, consequently, had suffered the effects of more than a few hangovers, particularly in his first few years at university. the feeling now in his head was as if all of his rueful mornings-after, angered by their transience, had gathered forces and united for one last coordinated attack before disappearing into the depths of rehydration for all eternity.
the low hum of the ship had an effect that approached soothing, and Issac concentrated on it for a moment. it was shortly interrupted by a voice that, while normally inoffensive, cut into his thoughts like a c-ray cannon. "you're awake," it stated plainly.
"that seems to be the situation," Issac muttered, raising a hand to block the dim but nevertheless piercing light around him.
the voice breathed a short laugh. "and still an imp. you have quite the reputation, from what the captain tells me."
Issac lowered his palm slightly and attempted to focus through the ocean colored glare of what appeared to be a poorly equipped sickbay. his eyes trained on the figure sitting in a swivel-chair next to Issac's bed. "the pilot?" he asked.
another breath-laugh. "Jaymon Pert, pilot, payload expert, navigator, and," he added wryly, "medical officer of the Lathan Devers." the introduction was rehearsed, and Pert relished in the humor of his multi-title. "you experienced quite a ride. something of a novice space traveler, are we, young man?"
"we," Issac revolted at the condescension of the term, then softened, knowing he hadn't a leg to stand on, "are."
"well," the pilot-doctor began by way of diagnosis, "that certainly has something to do with your symptoms. you no doubt would have been uncomfortable in any case. embarking is ideally sensationless -- that is, if you have excellent gravitational dampening and are operating under general launch procedures. we of course, do not have excellent dampening -- or excellent anything, really, if you'd care to know, and we rarely take off under general procedures." Issac had thought the conditions of his travel to be questionable before he set foot on Devers's ship, and his experience during launch and the pilot’s words were conspiring to cast the ship and her crew in even more dubious light.
the pilot continued, "if we were operating with commercial-grade dampeners, our thrust ratio would have been at the very least...noticeable." his inflection made the descriptor seem even more unconvincing than it would have anyway. "we have no such luxuries. furthermore, our acceleration was, to put it mildly, rapid, in any case. and you, young man, were not strapped in. certainly, my -- our -- familiarity with the conditions of departure aided our coping, physically. still, most of the bodily damage you received was from concussion to the head, not from g-force."
"where the hell were the straps?" Issac asked, dismissing Pert's patronizing tone. it irritated him that, first, Devers had not bothered to make certain Issac was secured, and second, that the restraints had been so damned obscure. "and i didn't have much time, you know, to find them. a fair warning might be in order for future passengers."
a third airy, monosyllabic chuckle from the pilot. "they were right behind you. did you notice the red toggle labeled 'harness,' by any chance? they release the restraints from the bulkhead, as you might have guessed." there was a smile behind the words. he obviously knew the answer, and Issac wouldn't humor him with the expected response.
"you might consider telling someone. we're not all spacebirds like you, you know." Issac said peevishly. "and you don't have to be such a prick about it. what i'm sure is funny to you is damned painful to me."
"you'll mend, young man." again with the diminutive handle. Pert couldn't have been more than five or six years Issac's senior. his reference wasn't to age, though, Issac was certain.
"why did we take off so fast?" Issac asked cloudily. his voice was still hoarse from vomit and sleep. "and who was following us?"
Pert smiled again, which seemed to be his response to every question Issac asked or statement he made. it was annoying. Pert obviously saw Issac as naive, and Issac resented that.
Pert said, "you'll have to ask the captain about that. i just fly the ship."
"and heal its sick," Issac said sarcastically.
"yes, that too," Pert responded
already, and a little suddenly, Issac's head was becoming clearer.
"feeling better yet," Pert asked, as if the hangover's lifting was apparent on Issac's face.
"yeah, a little," Issac conceded sourly, not yet willing to surrender his surly disposition and sense of self-righteousness.
"i gave you some painkiller for your headache, and a little of my," he paused dramatically, then continued slyly, "homebrew. for the motion sickness and what have you."
"thanks," Issac said flatly, closing his eyes. Pert reached for a clipboard that had been sitting at the foot of Issac's cot and scribbled a few notes. Issac's eyes remained closed, and he was not impressed by the pilots attempts to appear to double as a medic. a moment passed while Pert presumably studied his notes on Issac's condition. Issac then sighed noisily, opened his eyes, and began to stand up. Pert raised a hand in protest.
"wait, wait, young man. not so fast. i need to keep you here for observation. just a little while longer."
"i'm fine," Issac responded with indignation. "that...drug, or whatever you gave me is working, surprisingly. i feel fine."
"you might feel fine, young man, but i'm not sure you are."
again, Issac supposed that Pert was doing his best to buff his self-image as a man of medicine. doctoral things like "keeping a patient for observation" were part of his habit probably for no purposeful reason, but simply because that's what he'd seen real doctors do in the dramas, or portrayals of real doctors, in any case. "where should i go so i can sleep?" Issac asked tiredly.
"Issac," Pert began, his voice a bit softer. he looked hurt, and the genuineness of the emotion surprised Issac. Pert continued, "please. just for a little bit." and then, more solidly, "i know your health is very important to the captain." Pert gestured back to the bed and Issac sat back down reluctantly.
"do you have a strator, at least?"
"yes," Pert answered, "but it only gets the reports.
"of course," Issac said dryly.
"would you care for me to turn it on?
Pert stood up and crossed the room to the sickbay's archaic, clunky telestrator and turned it on. at first there was only static, then the static formed itself into a waving, black-and-white horizontal lines that were occasionally interrupted by spikes of color. Pert muttered under his breath, then said to Issac, "this thing doesn't get used much. here, i think--" and his voice descended to a mumble again has he fiddled with some of the cords connected to the back of the strator. after making some adjustments, he paused for a second before striking the side of the screen with his elbow.
“just a bit of percussive maintenance,” Pert said. whatever manipulations he had made worked, and after the blow a noisy but intelligible picture appeared on the screen. "as promised, just the reports. and that's the best reception we get. old-style antenna, you see."
"i suppose everything on the Lathan Devers is old style." Issac said.
Pert responded with a smile. then he said, "the captain will be in to see you in a little bit. try to get some rest, young man." Issac sat up in his cot as Pert exited the sickbay. at least the ship had a strator antenna, even if it was just the reports. back on Dulvern, when Issac had still lived with his parents, he had grown accustomed to the myriad of strator programs that were beamed to his personal set whenever he wanted. Issac watched sports only a little, but mostly enjoyed comedies and other programs of humor. they were the easiest, he thought. he would watch the reports every so often -- he felt compelled to in some way -- but they made him either sad or angry, two feelings he didn't volunteer to experience frequently. still, it was only the reports that he had now.
after Pert left, a bombastic Dulvernian man was finishing a story about crime in the capital city. it was on the rise again, the reporter was saying, and somehow the spike in violent activity was related to decreased financial opportunity which was related to inefficiency in the local trade union which was related to, among other things, smuggling, in which Issac was now apparently involved in. though he had no idea what was in the ship's cargo hold, or stashed away in surreptitious niches behind hidden panels, Issac felt certain that it wasn't simply the gadgets and food that appeared on the ship's manifest. he knew Devers to be a man of doubtful ethics, but disguising illegal trading with humanitarian grain was low, even for him, Issac thought with disgust.
following the segment on crime, which Issac had watched only distractedly, another began, which focused on the vociferous religious cleric who Issac had seen on the magtrain's strator. the news agency's graphic bore the words, "Aurorism banned on Dulvern." banned? Issac thought. he sat up and focused on the screen.
Issac was all too familiar with Aurorism, as it was called by its proponents. Aurorism had gained stature as a controversial faith system for years. its genesis had occurred on Dulvern, which had now apparently outlawed it, though in recent decades Aurorism had gained notoriety, and a nascent following, on many worlds in the galaxy. Aurorism was, in its most basic form, a pair of simple ideas: technology was anathema, and their deity, and he alone, deserved worship. the cleric and his followers spent most of their time looking back into the past, to a time that, in their belief, was the great dawn of man. they looked to a time when men and women, or so they claimed, had no starships or space stations or even aircars. a time before the ribbon drive or tachyon communication. in fact, they saw a time when there was no communication at all, save for that which took place between two people standing face to face: an idealized past in which humans lived peacefully in small villages and worked the soil with their hands. a time when humans occupied only one world in the galaxy.
the thought made Issac shudder.
although there was no proof that humans had evolved on a single world at some time in the dim mists of antiquity, that was common belief. the likelihood of two species evolving along such a similar path so that they might interbreed was infinitesimally small. the fact that humans had evolved at all was considered by most scientists to be an event that surmounted the most tremendous of odds. That humans had never encountered another intelligent species, or even a vaguely humanoid species, despite their settling of thousands of worlds and exploration of millions more testified to evolution’s elusiveness.
Issac had once thought it absurd that if there were a single planet of birth, no records were kept of which one it had been. he supposed that such a world would have been a kind of imperial seat: it would have necessarily been the birthplace of the ribbon drive, or an equivalent if more antique device, and thus would have populated the star systems with colonists who would have owed allegiance to their senders. yes, it seemed probable that there may have been revolts and pushes for independence eventually, but those would have caused wars, or a the very least significant political strife, and certainly those would have been kept on record, even if the original planet was eventually toppled from its dominant position in the galaxy.
but, he had also realized that while there was no account of a single home world, there were also no accounts of any specific planet originating man either solely or concurrently with another world. to be sure, there were some local legends and folk tales about the dawn of man in such and such a place, but few gave them any credibility, and most who told them merely did so as a demonstration of their homeworld pride. ultimately, it was a question that no one really considered. and, Issac had come to realize, it made sense. there was no particular need to know exactly where the first humans existed. and though it had at first seemed odd to him that somehow these records had “disappeared,” he knew that each generation took some of its general knowledge to the grave with it, and that all grandchildren knew less about their grandparents’ times than the middle generation did, and that their grandchildren would know less about their generation than their children would. sure, some war might have gripped some particular part of the galaxy at some point in the past, but if no one alive remembered it, and no one alive even remembered anyone who themselves could have remembered it, then what was the use in thinking about it? and, though information about humanity’s kernel may have been relevant at one time, it also made sense that perhaps when some new data storage system became standardized, those doing the conversion from the old files to the new ones had seen little need to update some dusty old box of particle storage disks that had been sitting untouched in the basement of some warehouse for fifty years and so decided to save themselves a little time by unwittingly discarding the knowledge of the nature of humanity.
but while fifty years would seem like a long time to keep around old records, it was the blink of an eye in terms of human history. after all, this was the year 28,151 -- the first digit was usually left out in common usage sense it only changed once every ten millennia -- though Issac did not know what it was counting up from.
while Issac had given the idea of an original world a bit of thought in his college days, the Aurorists were obsessed with it. not only did their dream involve reverting to pre-modern ways of life, it also focused itself on humanity’s original world. they now had scraps of documents that they believed to have originated on humanity’s home planet, but they, for a reason that escaped Issac’s ability to logically connect groups of assumptions, believed there to be a trove of documents and records buried somewhere in humanity’s womb, as they sometimes called it. in fact, the name “Aurorism” came from one such document of theirs which suggested that some mythological god named Aurora oversaw each day’s dawn. hence, the Aurorists were in search of a dawn of their own: the dawn of humanity.
in any case, their rebellion against technology in which, paradoxically, they utilized technology (the cleric was frequently traveling from world to world), was becoming more and more militarized as it became evermore mystical. what had began as a docile philosophy of reduced technological involvement had now become a threatening religious cult of increased technological destruction, and this evolution had apparently gotten to such a point that the Dulvernian authorities now saw fit to prohibit the practice of the religion and the gathering of its followers. Issac had heard nothing of the impending ban before he had left Dulvern, and he wondered what had happened that had caused the government to act so quickly.
the images had cut away from the cleric, and two talking heads were discussing his views on the topic when the door slid open. Devers walked in, a little smirk on his face. "how ya feeling, my young astronaut." his smirk stretched itself into a smile and Devers plopped down nonchalantly into the chair Pert had occupied earlier.
"why were we fleeing the surface?" Issac asked impatiently. "and who was chasing us? what have you gotten me into?"
Devers's smile widened even further. "better, i see. we'll talk later. first, i've got to make sure you're well."
"yes, the pilot examined me thoroughly. i am in much better condition than i expected to be after the rough ride you put me through."
Devers said, "well not so fast, now. have you felt any dizziness since waking up? you vomited any more? the headaches--" Devers stopped. Issac was clearly not listening to him and Devers repeated his name to draw back his attention.
"what? yes, sorry. it's just that--" he pointed in the direction of the strator, and Devers turned to see it. immediately his face fell.
"oh, my," Devers said grimly. "i've heard little of this. barely time to watch the reports, you know. what is--"
Issac relayed the key points of the story to the captain. they both watched the report for a moment, Issac with more genuine interest and Devers with more gravity than either had expressed since Issac’s arrival at the spaceport. as the talking heads continued their conversation on the government’s announcement, made only moments before and just now breaking the telestrator waves, a large photograph of the man filled the screen. it was him in the midst of a speech, wild-eyed and strained. his long brown hair fell to the middle of his back, and his beard stood out several inches from his face. he was a thin man of average height, and loose, flowing robes, purple in this image as in most, hung loosely off his boney frame. his eyes were dark, his face hawkish. he carried a wooden cane, purportedly as a crutch for his minor disability, a weak left knee. he rarely stressed it under any of his body weight, and wielded it more like a staff, as if he was using it to cast onto his listeners the same spell he was trying to cast with his words. at the bottom of the image, his name appeared in block letters. "Mellor Devers."
"oh, my," Lathan Devers repeated, almost in a whisper. "what is my brother getting us into now?"
the captain was a man of middling height and forever had a day's growth on his face. his hair was brown and a little wavy, and he was, while not overweight, a bit shy of perfect fitness. he wore a white shirt under a brown jacket trimmed with cotton. Devers kept a blaster conspicuously at his hip whenever regulation permitted, as it did on his vessel but had not in the spaceport on Dulvern. Issac doubted, though, that it was his only armament. he had a rebellious nature about him, and Issac wondered how much of it was genuine and how much of it was an act that lent him credibility in his more underhanded dealings.
Issac, who by now felt completely recovered from the tumultuous departure, followed Devers down a tight corridor away from the ship's sickbay and into the mess hall, if it could be called that. it was a small room, dimly lit like most rooms on the Lathan Devers, and had just enough room for a small table and a bench against the back wall. Issac and Devers entered to find the rest of the crew already eating, but Devers continued addressing Issac. "for some, i guess, it's just a...journey, i suppose is the right word...into finding what works best for you. or however they say it. but make no mistake, there are powerful political forces at work here, Issac."
no one else was speaking and Issac suddenly felt a surge of awkwardness caused by his realization that he was totally out of place. Devers noted the emotion, and understood its cause. he cleared his throat and spoke in a slightly raised voice. "you've met Jaymon," Devers said, gesturing to the pilot, who, while chewing, looked up at Issac and gave a little wave. "this is my mass expert and second in command, Gamne," and Devers waved a hand towards the black clad woman, who gave Issac an annoyed glance and set back to her food, "and the third crew member is Syry, the comms officer."
"pleased to meet you, Issac," Syry said brightly. he smiled and rubbed his large nose with the back of his hand. then, sitting down his fork, stood and reached out his palm to Issac, who accepted it reluctantly. "i hope you're enjoying your flight so far!"
"it's been great," Issac said sardonically.
"i of course don't believe in any of that prophesy garbage," Devers continued as they sat down, despite Issac’s tacit wish to change the subject or, more preferably, not speak at all. "but i do believe in its power to start wars. and a man in my business, well, i can't say i haven't done my share of war profiteering when time’s were tough, but if the money's not quite at good in times of peace, the chance of coming home alive is much better."
"you don't seem the type to care too much about home," Issac said, feeling irritation for the captain supplant his social discomfort.
"well, you have to be alive to spend your credits," Devers said with a grin. he had retrieved two plates wrapped in foil from a drawer and, gesturing Issac to sit at the table, set one of the plates in front of him. "remove the foil, and you'll find that the dish self-heats," Devers explained. Issac had eaten a similar dish on his previous space flight; the auto-warming platters were generally low in taste but high in nutrition and convenience. "it tastes like northern prairie fowl," Devers explained.
"but what is it?" Issac asked, peeling back the foil casing with a trepidatious bend of the wrist. the grey meat sizzled almost instantly and quickly began to steam. Issac was not impressed by its look or its smell.
"just...think of the fowl," Devers said. "you'll get used to it."
"where are we going?" Issac asked abruptly.
"well,” Devers said, gesticulating with his fork, “we’ll eat, and then i want to take you to the bridge after we--"
"no, i mean the ship. where is the ship going?"
"i don't understand."
Issac said, "you said we were taking food to Klin. but someone was chasing us. the police don't chase relievers."
"who said it was the authorities after us?" Devers asked.
"who was it, then?"
"it could have been a number of people, Issac," Syry interjected, explaining happily. "we received no communications and, according to Gamne, the mass and energy signatures were not conclusive in the least. my best guess, however--"
"shut up, Syry," Gamne growled.
Syry laughed loudly, and a touch maniacally, Issac thought, giving Syry a confused glance. Gamne did not smile. Syry took another bite of his food chuckled again, but did not continue.
"we're going to Klin, Issac. and we are on a mission of mercy. only it's not the kind of mercy the giants like."
Devers was referring to the interstellar business organization, a loose body populated by the commerce ministers of most major trading worlds and chaired by a revolving member of the business community, usually a founder or chief officer of a major commercial corporation, elected by a board of his peers. it was understood by most outsiders, at least those familiar with Devers's style of mercantilism, that the IBO, nicknamed “the giants,” existed purely to serve those with wealth and power, and gave small time traders and producers only enough leeway to prevent outright rejection of the entire system. aside from the chair himself, or less frequently, herself, the rest of the giants were public officials, and thus were supposed to be disinterested, but the backroom deals were only thinly veiled, and thus the galaxy's corporate interests had gained the support of the galaxy's violent, coercive power. further, they trained and equipped their own "security forces" which were rarely held in check by planetary government forces.
"so it was cops," Issac said with a touch of exasperation. "or was it security? and what are we carrying that has them so upset? and why did they turn around? surely this ship can't outrun them."
Jaymon laughed his single-breath laugh at Issac's last statement. "and you know this on what authority?" he questioned.
"well, i don't know," Issac said, "not for sure. but from the looks of things i'd think this ship would have a hard time outrunning a piece of space junk."
"looks aren't everything, young man."
Gamne spoke, but did not look up from her food: "captain says you're engaged, so i think you'd have got that pretty well figured on by now, kid."
"excuse me?" Issac was offended, but not as much as he was confused. Syry looked concerned but did not speak. a bemused expression formed itself on the captain’s face, and he was apparently willing to let the kids get to know each other in their own way. "what the hell is that supposed to mean?"
Gamne set her fork down with a clunk, and looked at Issac squarely for the first time. "i don't know. what does it mean? am i insulting you, or am i insulting your girl? you're probably not smart enough to figure it out, but if you sleep on it, things might become clearer to you." her eyes shone despite their dark complexion. Issac wondered if there was a trace of smile at the corners of her eyes, but that made him only more angry.
"you don't know the first thing about me--"
"and you don't know the first thing about this ship," she countered briskly. "so let's call it fucking even." she picked her fork back up and consumed a hunk of the grey meat aggressively. she breathed loudly as she chewed. Jaymon squeezed her knee lightly, as if he agreed with her, but saw the value in civility.
"alright, alright," the captain said disarmingly. he laughed a little. "i'm sure we're all just a little stressed out from take off."
"you still didn't answer me," Issac asked, turning his frustration back on the captain.
Devers laughed. "you have many questions, my young space traveler. speaking of space travel, i'll tell you what i wanted to show you. you've never seen a jump before, have you? i mean visually, standing of the bridge of a ship."
Issac stopped eating. "all i really want is to get back home."
"soon enough," Devers said with a smile. "but come, finish your meal. we're about to begin our journey."
the captain stood and placed his half-eaten dish into a receptacle on his way out of the mess hall. Syry, also finished, stood and said to Issac, "you're in for quite a treat -- that is, if you've actually never seen it before. i never get tired of seeing it." he laughed for a reason that escaped Issac and followed the captain out the door.
in turn, Jaymon turned to Gamne. "i'm going to check the calculations one more time. i'll be on the bridge." he kissed her lightly on the cheek and left Issac alone with the intimidating mass expert.
Issac had a few more bites left and ate them hungrily. he noticed Gamne wasn't eating, and glanced at her dish. it was empty. he felt a pang of anxiety: she had stayed for a purpose, and as each second of silence stretched out, he grew more worried. he supposed she meant to berate or humiliate him some how.
"so, you and Jaymon are--" he broke the silence uncomfortably.
"so it’s actually true that you're engaged, right?" she interrupted. he made eye contact with her for the first time. there was a shine in them that he hadn't noticed earlier.
Issac nodded in confirmation.
"is she an atmospheric like you?"
"uh," Issac muttered, confused at the line of questioning, "she gets around a bit more than i do. part of her schooling--" he was sure that she wasn't interested in the details, but kept talking in hopes that she would either cut in again or, better, get bored and leave, "has to do with studying poverty on other worlds, so she, you know, goes and sees them, i guess."
she stood, and Issac stopped. he eyed the last bits of his food, and despite his desire for them, decided that now would be a good time to make an exit. he slid his chair back and began to stand. she stepped close to him, however, blocking him. he remained seated and kept his eyes on the floor.
"do you know what she does the void of space, Issac?"
"how do you know she is faithful to you? you can't possibly, can you?" the implication was clear, and Issac rejected it.
"but you don't know her--"
suddenly, he froze. she had moved again, and now her legs were straddling him and her arms were draped over his shoulders. she leaned in, and her mouth was touching his ear. she whispered, "you know, there is time to pass while the ship is in the wormhole. time with nothing to do."
"but Jaymon--" he protested feebly. he was petrified, but at the same time a shock of energy ran through his body. he felt her weight on him, and found it desirable. her breasts pressed closer to his face, and he realized that he was staring at them.
"Jaymon has to stay in the cockpit, sweetheart." sweetheart? Issac thought in a panic. she continued in her low, sensual whisper. "Jaymon serves my purposes while we're in space, but it's not often we get a feral young passenger along for the journey."
"i'm hardly--" her left arm slipped off his shoulder and he felt a tight squeeze. his reserve nearly collapsed. "i'll find you after the jump." and with that, she stood and walked briskly out of the room without looking back. Issac exhaled heavily and sat slumped in his chair, panting and confused.