Video Log on private databank
Excerpt from a speech during a Terra-Sol annual investors
meeting at DLPRC, Weapons & Defense Systems section
Speaker: Jeminina Kolar, Executive Vice President
Terra-Sol date 3811.236
Now, in cycle 572 of the Intersystem War, our profits have never been higher, thanks in part to the newly available upgrades to the standard energy shielding. Every government in every system clamored for an exclusive contract, but not one of them walked away when we said
no. [Jeminina raises an eyebrow] I wonder why?
The weapons and defense systems segment of the Donnager-LaForge Private Research Corporation is unique. No company in any inhabited system can offer you a safer investment. War is the only certainty in this galaxy, and the minds working in the DLPRC labs create the most devastating weapons and the most powerful defenses. Coming or going, we have everyone covered. [Jeminina smirks] For the right price, of course.
Historical Archives, Terra-Sol System, Planet Earth
Excerpts from the Pax Treaty and Charter
Signed and ratified during the
Thirty-First Intersystem Peace Summit
Terra-Sol date 3579.128
The primary mission of this fleet is to serve the citizens of the quadrant and ensure those without any stock or stake in the outcome of war have the necessary means to survive it.
Section 1.01 Name.
The ships covered under this treaty, to be of varying types within the same class, will henceforth be referred to as Pax-Class Cargo Ships. Within this document, and in all successive legal proceedings, this fleet will be referred to as the PCCS. The body of people, stations, and resources comprising this entity as a whole shall hereafter be referred to as Pax Ships, Stations, and Citizens (PSSC).
Section 4.06 Deliberate harm.
Should any ship owned or primarily crewed by a particular system be found to have caused deliberate or preventable damage to any PCCS, the system in question will be made to replace the ship, including all registered cargo, at its own cost. Should the system’s government and military refuse to comply with this mandate, no PCCS will either buy or sell at stations and outposts controlled by that power. Additionally, all the system’s current alliances will be considered void.
Section 5.10 Crew and citizenship.
All captains and crew must disavow all ties to any planet, including citizenship. Their citizenship, and what rights, duties, and privileges such status confers, will transfer to the ship on which they serve and the Pax Class Governing Council (PCGC) based on Paxis Station.
Section 5.11 Children and citizenship.
The above transferal applies also to children born aboard a PCCS, but may only include children born planetside if all guardians are included on the crew and/or if all guardians are willing to accept the revocation of citizenship on behalf of those children. Parents or guardians remaining planetside must acknowledge both in writing and on recorded holo-vid that they are also hereafter relinquishing all guardianship claims to the child as well as any expectation of contact or communication with the child.
Section 8.06 Passengers.
No passengers shall be carried aboard any PCCS except in code-locked cryopods. In the case of providing aide for those in danger of grievous bodily harm, all survivors should be immediately put into cryostasis or sequestered in a secure location until the PCCS has pulled into its next port and passengers can be unloaded to be rendered assistance by the local government. Any persons found to be in violation of this order by carrying an individual whose name does not appear on the crew registry, on a cargo manifest, or on an addendum list of rescued persons transported in cases of emergency shall be suspected guilty of treason. The captain is required by this charter and all local governmental law to either administer the appropriate trial and punishment or to immediately turn such persons over to the nearest local government to be dealt with according to the mandates of their legal system and laws.
Terra-Sol date 3811.237
Riston never forgot the smell of burning human flesh.
It had been three Terra-Sol cycles since the fleet of first-strike ships bombed Ladadhi out of existence, but time didn’t seem to matter. Ze recoiled sharply from the odor and the memories that burst out of each particle, assaulting zir brain. It was almost like cooking animal meat, but with the addition of something metallic—the sulfurous tang that showed up once the flames hit hair. Riston hated that part of the smell the most. Of course, it was also the hardest part to erase. Even away from the source, it could cling, refusing to dissipate for days.
The smell got stronger. A new wave of desperately suppressed memories blasted through Riston’s faltering mental blockade.
Warning sirens blared through every speaker for miles and jolted Riston awake.
Hands gripped zir small frame and threw zem out the front door.
Rough stone scraped zir bare feet bloody as the whine of Araean fighter jets grew louder.
Bombs fell. Explosions shook the world. Riston tripped and crashed into the shelter.
The door slammed shut, cutting off zir brother’s screams, blocking out the sight of the fire devouring Ladadhi, and leaving zem with nothing but the smell.
Shuddering, Riston closed zir eyes and pressed zirself flat against the wall. Ze thought ze’d left this behind when ze escaped the smoldering ruins of zir home. An instant, though, was all it took to shatter all the work ze’d done in the intervening cycles to shove every bit of zir old life and the day ze lost it all into a deep mental crevice. Experience had already taught zem to fear the smell of metal and meat and sulfur. Catching a whiff of the scent now, in the quiet halls of Datax Station, sent zir heart beating dangerously fast and made zir hands shake.
Fear warred with an inescapable urge to do something. Needing more information, Riston forced zirself to take a deep breath. The scent, though it was only a whiff in the air, nearly choked zem. There was a fire nearby, and someone was caught in it, but no one was screaming. Or running. There weren’t any alarms blaring through Datax Station’s engineering level. If the fire was big, evacuations would be ordered so the level could be flooded with fire suppressant. It had to be done. There weren’t any other options when living on a fallible human construction of stone and metal orbiting a star. Heat damage to the air filtration systems would cause even more deaths than a fire.
Those alarms hadn’t been tripped, so Riston wasn’t in immediate danger. But someone else was.
Ze flicked zir hood over zir head and pushed into the main corridor, hoping the power source in the ID scrambler in the top of the hood was still working. If ze got caught in a zone ze didn’t have clearance for, ze’d be tossed out an air lock. Or at least thrown into a holding cell until they found zir real ID and shipped zem back to the planet ze’d barely escaped from alive the first time around.
But here you are, heading into trouble anyway. Why can’t you ever leave it alone?
Because the ghosts of Ladadhi had been chasing zem for three cycles and ze couldn’t stand to let someone else die the way zir family had. Not if ze could stop it.
Zir thick-soled boots thudded on the grated floor, the weight of every step shifting the metal plates slightly. Soft white light left spots in zir peripheral vision when every third stride took zem past the lights set in brackets in the walls. Ze ignored them for the info panel set between brackets. The station’s logo sat static on the display. It was a good sign. Warnings would appear on every screen on the level if the blaze was growing out of control. There was nothing, and no one ze passed seemed to have noticed the stench, not the three-body crew working in a narrow side-passage to fix the six-degree fault in the cooling system, and definitely not the officer striding down the narrow corridor too fast to see anything not directly in front of them.
Then again, the smell was probably only obvious to Riston. It couldn’t be more than a hint in the air, and it’d probably be gone in less than a minute, sucked into the scrubbers and eliminated particle by particle. It wasn’t gone yet, though. Riston breathed deep, sure that ze had to be getting closer to the source. Then, ze saw it. Outside a sealed, restricted access door was a small, twisted piece of metal on the grated floor. Blackened but not melted, it nearly blended in with the varying shades of gray and black of the corridor. These corridors were all metal on metal on metal, and it was too easy to miss inconsistencies if you weren’t looking for them.
Cursing under zir breath, Riston pulled zir stolen comm out of zir pocket, opened a hidden partition to access the program ze needed, and held it against the security sensor. Ze watched the hall out the corner of zir eye while zir program cracked the permissions of the door.
Too long. There were footsteps in the corridor, and they were getting closer. People might overlook zir existence when they simply passed zem in the hall—ze’d stolen his station-emblazoned hooded jacket from a forgetful, low-level engineer—but no one would believe ze had the clearance to enter this room. And if ze had to waste time arguing with someone about permissions, whoever was inside would probably die. If they weren’t dead already.
With a soft snick, the door opened. Ze turned to look down each side of the curving corridor. No one in sight on the left. Someone in a crisp white uniform approaching on the right.
Cursing silently, Riston forced zir shoulders back, trying to mimic the stance of Datax’s young, overconfident engineers. Zir heart was pounding too fast, and it made zir movements too jerky. Anyone paying attention would practically see the anxiety coming off zir body in visible waves. Ze could only hope the white-clad PCCS officer with the ring of tight black curls encircling their head wasn’t paying attention.
Ze rushed into the room and knelt next to an engineer lying on the floor. Ze checked for a pulse. It was there, no matter how erratic it was. Breathing a little easier, ze looked over the rest of the wounds. Their singed uniform was fused to blistering sections of skin and the side of their head was burned to the scalp—the source of the worst of the scent—but second- and third-degree burns covered their arm. Fire suppression foam was just starting to dissolve, and it was clear from the engineer’s injuries they’d dived toward the fire in order to do something. Whatever it was, Riston hoped it was worth the injuries they would have to live with.
Then ze realized there had been no electronic ding of the door sliding shut and locking behind zem. Someone else had followed zem in, and they were standing in the doorway, keeping it from closing.
Shit. A smart survivor would run, but there was an unconscious engineer in front of zem, and they were half covered with burns. Riston couldn’t be the kind of smart that meant leaving this person to suffer. Only seconds had passed since ze’d entered the room, but every second counted in situations like this. Making several decisions in quick succession, Riston scrambled to the cabinets under the main console.
“What are you looking for?” The voice was high-pitched, but it was the tone more than the words that made zem pause. There was no suspicion or threat. And then they made it more confusing by adding, “Maybe I can help.”
So, ze answered. “If I can find a med-pack, I might be able to save their arm.”
A click. A scrape. The person behind zem took a step. “Try this.”
Riston flinched. No blow came. The motion in zir periphery was simply a hand offering a tube of salve, and yet there was nothing simple about any of this. The salve was an incredibly powerful and expensive ointment, and the hand was a high-quality cybernetic prosthetic, far above the standard models made freely available to the general public. Surprise and curiosity made zem risk a glance up at zir unexpected assistant.
Immediately, ze wished ze hadn’t. Tall, tanned skin, and terrifyingly pretty. Brown eyes with upturned corners watched zem from under gently curved eyebrows, and the face as a whole seemed far younger than expected. Most importantly, they hadn’t moved while Riston blinked at them in shock; they were still smiling tentatively, their hand outstretched to offer zem exactly what ze needed to help the engineer, who was beginning to rock and groan with pain.
Nodding, ze carefully took the salve, grabbed the first-aid case from the cabinet, and hurried back to the patient. The carbon-reinforced ceramic knife in Riston’s boot was a little broad to be useful slicing through the uniform shirt, but ze didn’t have time to search for something better. Thankfully, instead of leaving, questioning zem, or issuing orders, the PCCS officer knelt and gently helped Riston cut and peel cloth away from burned skin. Every motion spoke of patience and practice, but Riston doubted their core expertise was in medical because they didn’t offer any advice or corrections as ze worked. Soon, ze’d cut enough of the cloth away to begin smoothing ointment over the blistered skin. The salve was even more potent than ze’d expected, seeming to ease the engineer’s pain almost instantly.
“You sure you won’t get in trouble for giving this away?” Riston asked quietly.
“No, I’m not, but being able to tell the captain I helped save one of the station’s best technicians will help. It’ll mean the station commander owes the PCCS a favor.”
Riston’s hands paused. Ze looked up. “This is one of their best techs?”
“Has to be.” The officer gestured to the machinery along one wall. “Only upper level engineers are allowed to handle the rotational control systems.”
Ze looked down, moving a little faster. “Which is how you knew I didn’t belong here?”
“No, the tech in your hood told me you didn’t belong here.”
Oh no. Ze had to get out of here before anyone else arrived. If the PCCS officer noticed the ID tech in zir jacket, station security would, too. Even if ze got away today, they’d triple-check every single ID scan on this level, looking for the one that didn’t have the right history. Once they started looking for Riston, they’d find zem. Zir ID simply wasn’t that good.
But the officer handing zem a roll of nano bandages was between zem and the door. Ze wouldn’t be able to leave without pushing past them, and if they grabbed zem with that prosthetic, ze wasn’t going anywhere without ripping one of zir own limbs off. So, ze kept working. Ze wrapped the burned arm and watched the bandages compress to stop potential blood loss, because these came from a basic emergency kit and that was just what they were programmed to do. The medics would have to fix the settings. If they got here in time. The engineer was starting to shiver with shock or pain or…something. Whatever it was, Riston doubted it was a good sign. Why hadn’t an emergency crew arrived yet?
Getting up and purposely not looking at the PCCS officer, Riston went to the wall panel. Immediately, ze saw the problem and manually sent the fire alert that a glitch in the system—maybe the same that had caused the fire—hadn’t allowed out before. Then, without a glance, ze shifted toward the door, trying to stay a full arm’s length away from the officer.
“Where are you going?” They didn’t move, but ze saw them watching zem.
“Away.” The door opened at zir approach, and Riston scanned the hall. Not empty, but no sign of security yet. Ze flicked the hood up to cover most of zir face. “Thanks for the help.”
Footsteps followed close behind zem, fast and heavy, boots thudding against the grating. Ze didn’t look back—couldn’t when ze had to watch zir path to avoid the few people ahead—but it sounded like the officer was catching up. Riston risked a quick glance back as ze turned a sharp corner.
An impossibly tight grip caught zir arm and held.
Ze stumbled, zir upper body jerking to a stop and zir legs continuing another two steps. Thrown off balance, ze veered hard to the right, one arm wheeling as though that’d be enough to keep zem from crashing. Zir back slammed into the wall, trapping zem between the cold, sloped metal wall and the PCCS officer crushing zem. As soon as ze had zir feet underneath zem, Riston tried to push off and bolt.
Tried. The prosthetic hand tightened so hard and fast it sent shocks of pain shooting down into zir hand and up to zir shoulder. Ze gasped and flinched.
The officer’s hand loosened, but they didn’t let go.
This is it. I’m dead. Ze waited for accusations or threats to start, bracing zirself for anything…except what they actually said.
“I’m Ensign Cira Antares, she.” She—Cira, apparently—waited expectantly.
All ze could think to say was, “Okay.”
One side of her mouth quirked up. “This is usually where you’d give me something to call you.”
Interesting. Not asking for zir name, just a moniker. Oddly, it made zem want to tell her the truth. “Riston. Ze.”
There was no logical reason for it, but something in her posture seemed to relax. “Is that your first name or last?”
“I don’t have a last name anymore.”
“Literally, according to what little I was able to find about you.” Although her expression was pleasant, there was a keenness to the expression around her brown eyes that unsettled zem nearly as much as her words.
“You looked me up? How? You have neural implants?” Ze looked again for implants, but there was still no glint of the tiny shifting mechanisms in her eyes.
“No.” A secretive smirk curved her full bottom lip. “But I’ve seen you before.”
“No one sees me.” Ze made sure of it. Staying hidden was what kept zem safe. Besides, ze definitely would’ve remembered meeting someone like Cira before.
“The first time was more than a cycle ago. I was waiting for a delivery for my captain, and you were in the passage off the upper-level dock.”
First time? Riston’s mind snagged on those two words. They didn’t make sense. Had ze somehow missed her more than once? Ze tried to think back to the day she was talking about, but ze spent a lot of time in the maintenance passages of the station’s docks.
“I missed the beginning of the conversation—those passages echo, and it makes eavesdropping complicated.” She paused, almost like she was waiting for Riston’s reaction. When ze didn’t even blink, she kept talking. “I heard enough, though. You gave a huge chunk of credits to a kid whose mother was sick. Credits you’d been saving up to buy an ID that’d pass all the security inspections. Which would’ve gotten you a job and an actual life.”
Oh. Now ze remembered. “I— That was…” The words choked zem, and the itch to be anywhere else flared to life, but Cira was too close, and her cybernetic hand was still locked around zir arm.
“That was an incredibly selfless thing to do,” she finished for zem. Her upturned eyes softened, and her black ringlets danced as she tilted her head. “You caught my attention, so I got a picture of you and used it to search for your ID.”
Riston’s breath caught. “What’d you find?”
“Enough.” Cira scanned zir face, though Riston had no idea what she could be looking for. “I know you told me your real name and that you’re not originally from Datax, but not much more than that.”
It took an effort for Riston to keep from slumping in relief, although if the sensors in Cira’s hands were sensitive enough, she’d still feel the twitch in zir muscles that ze couldn’t fully suppress.
“The next time we docked here, a friend of mine looked for you. Ze watched you run interference between security and some refugee orphans who’d slipped off their transport ship.” She raised one gently sloped eyebrow. “A couple people ze talked to claimed you almost got caught. Twice.”
“Exaggerations.” But they weren’t. The second time, ze’d had to leave one of zir bags behind to squeeze into a gap barely wide enough for zir skinny body turned sideways. It cost zem a hundred stashed credits and the jacket ze’d been wearing the day ze escaped from Ladadhi—the jacket that had belonged to zir brother.
Footsteps echoed through the hall, the steps numerous and heavy enough to rattle the grated floor. An emergency team had finally arrived. Cira glanced up the hall, her expression shifting quickly until it settled on a resigned wince.
She isn’t supposed to be down here, either, Riston realized. Although regulations were looser when Pax ships were docked at a station, anyone serving on board a PCCS or on Pax Station was legally required to limit contact with anyone who wasn’t a Pax citizen. She might get her whole ship sanctioned if she was found here talking to zem.
Instinct took over. Riston used Cira’s grip on zir arm to tow her to the closest storage compartment. Unlike the restricted access panel, the security on this one took less than a second for zir program to crack. Ze hurried them both inside as soon as the opening appeared. The door slid shut behind them just before the emergency response team turned the corner.
“Adrienn’s gonna be so mad,” she muttered, her eyes on the door. Riston wanted to ask why. Ze didn’t. Cira glanced at zem, though, and seemed to see zir curiosity. “It was a risk coming down here to find you. Hacking into the security feeds before we leave to black out the whole time I was down here is an even bigger risk.” Then she smiled, relief brightening her eyes and warming her whole face. Ze found zirself leaning in like a piece of space junk falling into orbit around a powerful star. “At least there’s a legitimate technical glitch I can blame this time.”
“Okay.” Ze didn’t understand what reality ze’d fallen sideways into, and zir heart was still pounding from too many close calls. Ze couldn’t think of anything else to say.
She released zir arm and stepped back, but only about a half a meter or so, close enough to grab zem again if ze tried to run. “Where’s your family, Riston?”
“Gone.” Dead and gone and burned to ash so small there hadn’t been remains to bury.
“Do you have anyone here?”
“I don’t have anyone anywhere.” Riston rubbed absently at the spot on zir forearm where ze’d definitely find bruises in the shape of her fingers later. “Definitely not here.”
For almost a minute, Cira studied zem. The inspection went on so long ze caught zirself scanning her irises for implants again, but there didn’t seem to be anything technological lurking in her eyes. She just…wasn’t looking away.
And then she asked, “Want to try your luck somewhere else?”
“Luck?” Riston had run out of luck a long time ago. Honestly, ze considered it a miracle ze wasn’t dead yet. “I don’t have luck. Are you offering some?”
“In a way. I’m offering a ride, and at the end of it, I’ll leave you somewhere new. You’ll have a clean ID and a few credits to your name, enough for you to build a new life.” Her expression shifted, something in the same family as sympathy and pity glimmering in her eyes. “What you have here isn’t a life, Riston.”
Ze stepped back, unexpectedly stung. “I never said it was, but—”
“You’ve been risking everything to help others,” she cut zem off. “Over and over again. It’s time for someone to do the same for you. You’ve earned a chance to start on an even playing field for once and build something better for yourself.”
This couldn’t be real. Riston’s older brother had often said, “If it’s too good to be true, it’s a trap,” but he’d usually been talking about business deals, news feeds, and their parents’ offers of clemency. Still, Cira’s offer definitely qualified as too good to be true.
Pax ships were only allowed to carry passengers who were locked in cryostasis, and those pods were exorbitantly expensive even to rent. Forget buying one. The sixty-three credits Riston had were enough to feed zem for a couple of days, but ze was several thousand short of being able to step on board Cira’s ship. Sure, it had sounded as though she was just going to hand zem a cryopod and an ID chip and all the credits ze’d need to establish zirself somewhere new, but how often had something like that happened in the history of humanity? Even if her offer was legitimate, it must come with a massive debt to be collected at some later date. One ze likely wouldn’t ever be able to repay.
“Is there anything worth holding on to here?” Cira’s voice went soft. “Let me help you.”
Ze wanted to, wanted it so badly ze found zirself leaning into her again, sucked into her gravity, but taking the leap from yearning to accepting…
There was an old saying—ancient; Old Earth stuff if ze remembered right: better the devil you know. Riston knew how to scrounge and scrape on Datax. If Cira kept to her word and her ship dropped zem somewhere else, ze wouldn’t know the customs, the dangers, and maybe not even the language. Yes, life here may be ten different kinds of awful, but at least ze knew what to expect.
But what ze could expect was nothing. Ze’d never get a job on Datax because zir ID wasn’t good enough, and zir minor hacking skills weren’t enough to build zem a better one. Buying the ID or the hack was thousands of credits, which would take zem cycles to save up again, and ze had nothing of value to barter for the service, either.
So why in the name of every black hole in the universe was ze even thinking about turning away from a chance to escape?
“I know this is a big decision,” Cira said, unfailingly patient, “but once the emergency personnel make sure their tech is okay, they’ll start looking for the person who patched the engineer up. Whether you come with me or not, you really shouldn’t be on this level by then. I’m going to do what I can to wipe the system, but it’s not impossible that someone will remember seeing you. Things will turn ugly fast when they figure out you’re not in their system.”
And she was right. Which was why it was so reckless of zem to have gotten involved at all. But that smell. It seemed like ze was pathologically incapable of walking away from it.
Despite the danger, ze stood there searching her face. Ze didn’t find anything to convince zem to turn down her improbably good deal.
“If you’re serious, and as long as you know I got literally nothing to pay you back with, I’ll be more than glad to accept a ride, Ensign.” Ze held zir breath.
“We better get moving, then.” Smiling, Cira leaned in, her face alight. “Tell me, Riston. Have you ever seen Pax Novis before?”