Monday, July 28, 2014

The Prequel

“This is the End”

The jump clock was beeping again. I failed to notice. I was in the cockpit, and the clock was no more than a foot away, but still it didn’t register. I was deeply absorbed in an instruction manual for the Midnight Fire, my father’s ship. I’d just gotten to the technical description of her landing struts. They were fascinating. If you didn’t know, B42-756 class messenger ships have TACTILE landing struts. They can sense the type of structure they land on and adjust their grip-type accordingly. It’s really quite amazing, and…

“Thea Terrma, I do believe you’re about to miss another one,” my father said, slipping into the pilot’s chair to my left, arriving just before the obnoxious clock began to crow even LOUDER now that we were in the final ten seconds of the wormhole. He smiled, putting on his reading glasses so he could see all the instrument panels. I sighed and let my book fall to the floor with an impatient thump. I was learning how to navigate, so I was supposed to help with landings. “The chance to see a planet from space is a rare opportunity. It’s a sight many beings never witness.”

“What’s to miss?” I asked dismissively. The purple tunnel of the wormhole dropped away, and we emerged back into normal space. A planet took up most of the view outside the cockpit windows, a boring orb of brown and white and blah. We’d been to this planet many times before. I often waited in the ship, eager to be off to a more glamorous world like Coribus with its massive oceans. The Great Archive was another favorite, a literary oasis in the void, a planet covered in libraries on every subject imaginable. 

The planet grew quickly. Sunlight peered around the rim of her horizon, turning the edges to shimmering gold. I had to admit the sight was beautiful, even if the planet itself truly was not. The blasted thing was nothing but snow and rocks and ruins. My father was a courier. Most of the time we ferried messages to this particular world, sensitive missives my father refused to share, even with me. Today was different, however. Today we were delivering a package. I didn’t know what was in it. I had learned not to ask. Father was afraid someone would hurt me for information, I think, so he tried to make sure I knew as little as possible. 

“Where am I headed?” Father asked. His voice was gentle, not a hint of impatience even though I should have our course plotted already. He was quiet most of the time. I suppose I was too, but mostly because I spent so much of my spare time reading. I’m not much of a dreamer. I’ve always been more interested in technical manuals than fairy tales. It had made me a good student for my father, most of the time.

“Um, two klicks north by northeast,” I replied a little uncertainly. I thought that was what the navigational display was saying, anyway. “Here,” I added, remembering at the last second. “Turning on the beacon.” I flipped a switch and something on my father’s display activated. It would show him the right direction to fly in, so I wouldn’t have to continually call out directions. I had just learned how to use it last week, and I usually forgot it was there. 

“Very good, sweetie,” my father said. “We’ll make a pilot out of you yet.”

“Why would I need to learn how to pilot, Daddy?” I asked. “That’s your job.” I had no desire to drive. I liked reading and tinkering, not flying. 

“The more we know, Dorothea Terrma…” he let his voice trail off expectantly, waiting for me to finish.

“The more powerful we become,” I replied, trying not to sound bored. I knew I would always have my father around to pilot anyway. With navigation settled for at least a few minutes, I bent over to grab my book. The next section was on maneuvering thrusters, I thought. Or life support. Either way it was bound to be interesting. 

I was reading about carbon dioxide scrubbers when the ship touched down with a gentle bump. I looked up from my book as Father removed his glasses and threw a canvas bag over his shoulder. “Why don’t you come with me this time, Thea? It would do you some good to get out of this old tub.” He gave the wall a light tap in mocking condemnation. 

“She’s not a tub, Daddy,” I scolded. “She’s beautiful.” I sighed. Getting outside did sound sort of nice. Though it would be terribly cold. The tall, metal door to the docking bay was still open, letting in all that frosty air. “Fine. I’ll come,” I said. 

“I know, I know. Glad to have you, now get your shoes on. And be quick about it!”

I reached under my seat again, this time snatching up a slender pair of comfortable slip-on shoes. I was already wearing warm, wooly socks, so I wasn’t too worried about my feet, but I raced back to my cabin and grabbed a nice, thick coat to protect me from the elements.

I sort of wanted to grab Father’s hand as we descended the boarding ramp together, braced against the chill that immediately greeted us, but I decided not to. I was thirteen now, too old for that sort of thing. I didn’t like this world very much. I couldn’t help it, the place was just so dreary. And the people were awful. They wore breathing masks and shiny body armor, all black. They were called warts, but no one seemed to know exactly why. No one had ever seen their faces to find out whether they were warty or not. I suppose everything has to have a name. Human doesn’t exactly make much sense either. I mean what about girls? Shouldn’t we be huwomans?

Wart headquarters was a single, massive building. It looked like it had been very nice once, long ago. The floors were polished white and gold tile. The walls were all wood paneling. They were polished too, but very worn looking, and black in places were people had touched them too often. Along the corridor we walked, there were stone statues at odd intervals, but they had all been reduced to formless shapes, and I got the impression they were very, very old. 

The red elevator was as terrifying as ever. It was a very deep crimson, exactly the color of spilled blood. I’d only ridden up once, a few years ago.   It always made a startlingly loud, sudden ping! every time it arrived. I won’t say the creepy elevators were the reason I’d never come back, but they certainly hadn’t helped encourage me. Still, I resisted the urge to grab my father’s hand. I gripped the red railing instead. Father pressed the button for the 22nd floor. Father always met the warts there, I remembered that from my last time here, too.

The elevator rumbled downward slowly. A digital display above the button panel counted down the floors as we passed each one. 34, the vivid green numerals read. Then 33… 32… 31… Finally with a clattersome rumble the elevator stopped at 22. The doors opened onto a dimly lit corridor, half as bright as the one above. I squinted into the darkness. I could see shapes moving about, but I couldn’t see what they were doing. I imagined dozens of monsters in gas masks waiting for us, their lips parted wide in huge, predatory grins. I pictured dagger-sharp teeth just waiting to tear us to ribbons, and… decided such ridiculous imaginings were a waste of time and stepped out of the elevator after my father. 

The hallway was cold and drafty. We passed a few warts, but they all ignored us. Their voices were deep, bass rumbles, distorted by the strange masks they wore. Almost robotic. My father couldn’t afford a robot, but I’d seen plenty. When I’d asked him about the masks, Father had speculated that the warts couldn’t breathe normal atmosphere like the rest of us. They needed the masks to survive, probably.

It didn’t make them any less creepy.

Just like we always went down the same elevator to the same hallway, we ultimately wound up before the same door to the same room. There were no signs, no plaques on the doors. I’m not sure how my Father could tell one door from another, but I supposed he had been here more often than I had. I swallowed and took a deep breath as my Father opened the door. The room within was surprisingly misty. And warm, so warm I immediately started sweating in my winter jacket. 

I don’t know why anyone would want a hot, foggy room in the middle of their base, but whatever. Two warts stepped forward out of the curling mists. One looked like your typical black wart. The other, surprisingly, wore shiny silver armor and a red gas mask. I wondered how the machinery that kept them breathing worked, pictured pneumatic tubes and oxygen filters. A normal starship has a device for turning carbon dioxide into oxygen; maybe the warts needed something of the reverse. 

“You have the package?” the black one asked. The silver wart didn’t speak. He only stared at us with the dark, blank eyes of his mask. It wasn’t unnerving at all. That’s a lie. It gave me the creeps like nothing else. 

“Yes, yes,” my father said. He pulled a small cardboard box out of his bag and placed it in the outstretched hand of the normal wart. “My usual fee should be sufficient… is there anything else you need?” Father’s voice was calm, but there was a tension undergirding them. He wanted to leave as badly as I did. 

“The last piece of earthtech… finally!” the black wart blurted suddenly. The silver wart turned to regard him. I couldn’t read any emotions through the impassive red mask, but I was willing to bet the talker had said something he shouldn’t have. Earthtech? What could that mean? My father had taught me that the concept of earthtech was a myth, a misnomer for ludicrously overpowered gadgets that could only exist in rumor and fantasy. And I had no use for fairy tales. 

Then the silver wart finally spoke. 

“This is the end.” There wasn’t an ounce of distortion in his voice. I found myself surprised at how… normal it sounded. “Sorry,” he added, and pulling out a laser pistol he shot my father twice in the chest. “Your services are no longer required.” I screamed. I think I screamed, anyway. I have no memory of actually crying out. I just remember finding myself with my head buried in my hands, mouth open and throat raw. I had dropped to my knees, too.

“Next time you want to open your mouth,” the silver wart told the black, “you may as well stick your gun in there and pull the trigger. Now I have to find another courier.”

I wanted to take my father’s head in my hands, lay it in my lap as he lay gasping and dying. I wanted to be strong for him in these last moments. I wanted it so badly. 

But I was out of my mind with terror. 

I froze in fear, unable to think or move. Father was whispering something, I realized, but I couldn’t hear it. I was missing his final words. Somewhere deep inside me, I felt my heart breaking. Somewhere beneath the layer of fear that had taken such a thorough hold of me. 

“I despise cleaning up the messes of weaklings like you,” the silver and red wart said to his comrade. He stepped up to me and held his pistol close to my head. I began to tremble. A low moan tried to escape my lips, but they were shut tight as a vault.

“Well…” the black one coughed. “Allow-allow me then.” He pulled a pistol from his own holster and began to step forward. Still I couldn’t move. I suddenly became aware of pain in my knees. I’d slammed them into the rough stone floor when I’d sunk there. 

“So you do have a spine,” the silver and red monster said, taking a step back and lowering his gun. Before either one of them could murder me, an alarm began to clang out, saving my life. It was the most awful howl I’d ever heard. It made the emergency alarms on the Midnight Fire seem tame by comparison. 

“By the Drop, what is that?” the silver wart cried. 

“Could it be subject 1-4-9-9?” the black one asked. 

Suddenly I found my legs. I had to get out of there. My father was dead now. His eyes had gone glassy. I couldn’t think about that, though. I felt like the fear had made a fool out of me. I couldn’t seem to process anything. The only thing that had changed was that now instead of being immobile, all I wanted to do was flee. 

So I did. 

I raced for the door as fast as my skinny legs could carry me, leaving my father’s body behind. 

“I suppose it could be,” the silver wart was saying. “How should I—hey!” A laser bolt pinged off the door as I wrenched it open. Another nearly blasted my right hand off where I’d lain it on the doorframe. 

“Oh let her go,” I heard the black one say. “She won’t get far, and we need to…” I didn’t hear the rest. As soon as I made it back into the hallway, I flat out booked it for the elevator. I’d lost my coat. I don’t know how. I’d never taken it off. Maybe it had come loose while I ran. All the while the alarms rang incessantly. I didn’t know what had happened, but it had surely rescued me from certain death.

I pressed the button for the elevator eight or nine times before I managed to calm myself down. The corridor was empty now. None of the lurking, skulking shapes we’d seen on the way in. Something had happened. 

I should look for stairs, I realized. I swung my head wildly, to search, but it was too late. The elevator opened with that same quick ping! I stepped back as it did, afraid more monsters would come out to kill me, but the elevator was empty. I quickly punched the button for my floor, slipped and hit the next floor down too. 

The elevator stopped on 33, but I couldn’t see anything. “Ho there!” someone called. “Hold that elevator!” Someone with a distorted voice. Fat chance, I thought, tapping what I hoped was the door close button over and over again till the doors finally began to rumble closed. 

Once back on floor 34, I made another run for it. This level was as empty as the 22nd had been, and I made it back to my ship with no further trouble. It was when I tapped the entry code and stepped up the gangplank that it hit me.





I slumped against the wall in the Fire’s tiny cargo hold and lost myself in tears. I sobbed myself sick. Eventually I had to stop, gasping and hiccuping. I couldn’t believe it, that fear. I’d let it ruin me. Never again, Thea, I told myself. Never could I let fear rule me like that. I would be brave next time, no matter how hard it was. I started crying again, quieter this time. I had a feeling it would be a long time before the hurt went away. 

If it ever went away.

I’d been so sure I’d never need to learn how to fly. Now here I was with a starship and no one to fly her. I tried to force myself to think practically. I needed a weapon, so I could defend myself, and somehow I needed to find a pilot. I got up and made the short walk to my little cabin. I had a pistol there. I’d never used it. Father had made me hide it, just in case we ever got boarded while I was sleeping. 

I had a little trunk next to my bed filled with most of my possessions. I rummaged around inside until I found it. A slender silver model with a needle-thin nozzle. I checked the power pack. Still good. An image of my father flashed into my mind, the stunned disbelief on his face as he’d been shot, then the pain and terror. I laid down in my bed and curled up. I knew I needed to be strong, but it was so hard. I didn’t sob anymore, I just cried softly and tried to think about what I would do next. It all seemed so hopeless. I thought maybe I heard footsteps outside, but when I lifted my head and listened I couldn’t hear a thing. 

Never again, I told myself once more, then said it aloud just to make it real.

“Never again.” 

This is not the end of Thea’s story… to find out what happens next, read Earthbound, coming soon!”