A civilization on the brink of defeat
Two siblings divided by choices made in childhood, one to integrate and the other to remain pure, are forced to confront their differences when their planet is attacked, and their parents killed.
Chapter 1 - Siblings
“Well?” Lieutenant Chalk said. “What do you have to say for yourself?
Tove looked up from her lap. All eyes on her. Chalk’s look was enquiring – sympathetic even. There was none of that in Captain Danver’s eyes. Danvers was short, stocky, and seemed to protrude from his seat like a stub. Danver’s gaze hostile, his lips a searing line across his face. Sonia, Tove’s supervisor sat on the other side of Chalk. Her expression neutral but she nodded silently, encouraging her.
“I don’t know what happened,” Tove said after a breath. “My link cut out. It wasn’t my fault.”
Chalk was about to speak but Danvers cut in. “You say that but there’s no evidence your link failed. It has been checked thoroughly. Diagnostics confirm that there was nothing wrong – the log intact. And complete. It was your fault the fighter crashed. And yours alone. If that had been in the real…”
Chalk raised a hand. Danvers fell silent. “…Six hundred and thirty-two people would have lost their lives, the highest tower in Scaribus City a smouldering wreck and the Academy short of one very expensive fighter.”
“And a pilot of dubious ability.” Danvers muttered, intending this to be heard.
Tove tried to control her breathing. Her palms sweaty. Her heartbeat rattling in her ears.
Are you ok? The message from Jax cut through the swirling emotions which were threatening to consume her. What a stupid time for Jax to interrupt. Here. In the middle of the review panel. Shut up, Jax. Not now. I’ll contact you later. If there was going to be a later. She wrenched herself back to the matter at hand. The three officers still waited for her response. She couldn’t think of anything which hadn’t been said already. She had told them the truth and they hadn’t believed her, so she just jumped at the first thing that came into her head. “It was just a simulation,” Tove said. “I thought that was the point – to avoid damage to life and property.”
Danvers glowered. “That is correct. But we have told you often enough that Sims are to be taken seriously. As seriously as the Real. Have you forgotten? Or is this yet another example of your link misfiring?”
He didn’t need to be so sarcastic.
Tove looked around the room, seeking inspiration, anything but the relentless gaze of three pairs of eyes boring into her.
Apart from the main hangar, this auditorium was the largest internal space in the Academy – built to impress - the domed ceiling soaring to a glittering hologram of the Hesperus galaxy. But every seat today was empty. Apart from the three officers, there were no witnesses to her humiliation. She had no counsel, no advisor, no friends who could tell her what to say. She was alone. The only sound the clicking of the steno-droid in the corner as it recorded the proceedings.
Tove dropped her hands back to her lap. She squeezed her fingers together. “I – I don’t know what to say,” she said softly. “This has never happened before. I was always one of the best…”
Tove’s parents had named her after one of the ancient goddesses of the old Earth, but she was really a spirit of the skies. She had always wanted to fly - ever since she first saw the summer gliders swooping over the western cliffs of their island, using the thermals and the soaring, swirling westerlies as they smashed against the steep cliffs. It was dangerous resisting the forces conspiring to drag you to your death. Accidents inevitable. But this had never put her off. She was flying with the best of them - her father nervously observing from one cliff edge or another - her mother hiding in her laboratory or sneaking glances at her from behind webbed fingers. Her brother Njorn ignoring her. He was always doing his own thing. He would rather look at his own belly button than the wider world. Once a Frag, always a Frag.
But for Tove this was the ultimate – the only thing which she had ever wanted. So much better than diving. Or boys. Or games. Or parties. It must have been obvious this was her destiny, to be the best pilot in the best school. And now she was here, they were threatening to take this from her.
It wasn’t fair.
She had lived with her link since the age of three. Some people gave them names but she accepted it as just another part of her - as much a part of her as the scar on her cheek from her first crash, as her short, cropped hair bleached by the summer sun, as her eyes - one as grey as granite and as fiercely unyielding, the other a softer mix of hazy green and blue.
An island in the middle of nowhere may have been enough for her parents and her stupid Frag of a brother, but this could never in a million years have ever been enough for her.
It was tough growing up with an older sister who was better than him.
Tove was Tove. Whatever he was, he wasn't her. It didn't make any difference that he would always be shorter and squatter, stronger and younger, and that he had never wanted to fly - there was only one thing which defined him in her eyes.
“What do you expect?” Tove would say. “You're a Frag.”
A f’ing Frag.
And he couldn't deny this. It was as much a part of him as her connection was to her. He tried to explain. He wanted to think for himself. He liked his independence. He loved his island home. This was all he ever wanted. Wasn’t this enough? It was for him, why couldn’t it be for her?
When he made his way down the cliffside to the lagoon below, the Sun and the brightest of the fourteen moons, Anubis, were high above him, the sky a pale pink which would darken to a more bruised lilac as the day progressed. It was bright and light and the water sparklingly clear, but it was still cold. Bracing. He'd stopped wearing his suit five days previously. The cold felt good, made him feel alive and alert and he needed to be alert - the Raven had been spotted on one of the underwater cameras a week ago. For six days he avoided the sunny side certain he would find the fish lurking in the deeper shadows leeward of the lagoon.
Five metres deep - a steep wall of basalt descended a further fifteen, diving with a simple air-exchange respirator; eight minutes left, more than enough to scout the entire gulley. The towering rocks of the cliffs were high above. His father told him that the word sinister came from the old world. He swam with the cliffs to his left and the open expanse of the lagoon to his right. He had grown up here, explored every cranny, every cave, every plunging ravine, but today he had a prickling sense of unease; shoals of easganns and cuddies darted in weird formations he’d never seen before. He glanced backwards to witness a rock fall - a sprinkling and splashing of high-pitched sounds punctuated by the dull booming of more haunting resonances.
He turned towards the open water, knowing something was wrong but clueless to its cause.
He broke the surface, ripped the mask from his face, confronted by sights and smells which didn’t make sense - clouds of acrid, dense smoke poured over the cliffs spreading giant tendrils of darkness over the lagoon’s surface. Through a gap he glimpsed a flash of glinting silver to the south and when he turned, his heart lurched and stopped. He had seen them in the holographic movies. He would recognise them anywhere. But they shouldn't be here. Praxos was a bread planet. It had no military value. He stared, numb, frozen and disbelieving as the silver fighter banked sharply, twisting towards him. He replaced his mask, sinking into the waters, hoping to submerge before the jet completed its turn.
His parents were Keepers of the Gardens. They maintained the hydroponics, cultivated the algal vats and looked after the simple mechanics of the Orchard. They were not and had never been fighters. There was no reason for a Cerulean to attack his home.
He dived towards the wall of rocks, backing into the first cave he came to. The surface frothed and churned as the silver jet hovered above him. He drifted deeper into the cave’s passage, paddling his hands to propel him, feet-first, into the enclosed darkness, struggling to suppress the panic which threatened to overwhelm. A flashing light warned that his air was exhausted. His only weapon, three darts attached to his right forearm, each containing enough neurotoxin to paralyse a Raven or perhaps a large Gruber but no match for a Cerulean or his jet. He heard the click as the air filter breathed its last. The jet still above him, the water spuming against its anti-grav turbos. His eyes, acclimatised to the darkness, distinguished the fine spines of the urchins scattered on the walls to his left, and as he glanced downwards, he saw what he’d been hunting; its large dorsal eye sitting proud on its sleek black mottled surface. Impossible in this darkness to gauge its true size but certainly larger than he was. If attacked he’d have little chance against its sharp serrated teeth. But the Raven held its ground - its single eye dolefully watched as if it knew that he was now the hunted. He couldn't last much longer. Every cell in his body screamed for oxygen. He could hold his breath for two minutes. If he hyperventilated, then he could perhaps make it to three. But he had never been sandwiched between two predators before. His vision tunnelled - the jet still there but so was the air he desperately needed. Flipping his fins, arms outstretched, the water bubbling around him, he broke the surface, gulping air and brine deep into his burning lungs. The jet, tired of waiting, ascended vertically. It flashed out of sight, heading across the island.
He waited, ready to dive at a moment's notice. The turbos had cleared the smoke in a circular ring around him but with the jet’s departure, the black pseudopods of inky blackness slid like a living organism towards him. He swam, keeping the cliffs to his right, the smoke so dense that he couldn't identify the platform which his father had built into the tiny isthmus. His throat scorched from the choking bitterness of burnt plastics and partially combusted petrochemicals.
He removed fins and mask, then climbed the six steps to the platform, running to the shoot and squeezing his feet into his Neoplims. The shoot flashed green and he stepped onto the pod, but the pod crawled.
Come on, come on.
He was a Frag. Unsullied by any implant. Happy to swim, deal with tech and laze around watching holos. But if he had access to any form of neural transference he would have been alerted to this attack, connected with the news feeds, linked to his sister and his mother. His father told him that it was his choice whether he was integrated or not. But his choice had always been informed by his father's views.
What son doesn't want to impress his old man?
He was within nine or ten metres of reception when the shoot stopped. The shoot always worked. He felt the pod judder and start to descend, his stomach sinking with it, but before it gathered sufficient momentum, he reached out and grabbed the rungs. They were wet, slippery, and spaced uncomfortably far apart but he would have to climb. This was the only way to the surface now.
Reception was an empty utility area cut into the cliffside under the main residence. It was used for almost anything, but whatever it was before, it wasn't now - half the house collapsed inwards and the space was a mass of twisted metal and fallen masonry. He yelled for his parents - a dozen times at least - his hopes diminishing with every unanswered call. Clambering over the debris, he squeezed past a concrete buttress and stood on the north facing patio; the sight greeting him one of Armageddon, everything either on fire or smoking. The orchard, the maize, the wheat blackened and charred, smouldering. Five of the six algal vats destroyed, the sixth oozed its viridescent green through a jagged rent in its side. But his only thought was for his parents. His mother must have received sufficient warning to escape.
He shook uncontrollably. His only consolation his sister hadn't been here. He sprinted down the western trail to the research laboratory. His eyes stung. He coughed and spluttered, desperate to ascend to the last ridge where he would at least have a view of the geodesic domes. He imagined them as they were, as if imagination alone would aid the power of preservation. But the evidence of his streaming eyes confirmed that the domes had taken a direct hit and lay shattered in a jumble of smoking wreckage stretching from the edge of the cliffs to the raging ocean below; whole panels tossed and hurled against the exposed rocks as if they were mere toys discarded by an angry child.
It didn't take long to find his parents.
His mother dead. The right side of her face deformed and misshapen. His father's arms cradled her head. His left eye still open – Njörn’s faintest whisper of hope extinguished in a moment. A shaft of metal pierced his belly and a trail of blood revealed the path his father had taken to drag them both to this point. His father sat with his back to the cliffside; his mother on her left side, her head resting against his chest. From a distance, it looked natural, as if they had done this a thousand times before, relaxing after a hard day's work, gazing into the western skies, the endless Pelarian ocean stretching before them.
They had always loved each other.
They had always loved him.
He closed his father's staring eye and sat beside him, facing seaward, trying not to look down at his mother’s head. He didn’t cry. His thoughts turned so slowly that it took an age to contemplate something that he should have considered earlier; Tove would have known of his mother’s death before him.
They were linked.
Now they were both alone.
It was Jax again. She didn't bother to reply. She burrowed deeper into her bed.
Come on, Tove. What happened?
Would he ever stop bugging her? Probation, she responded. It could have been worse. A lot worse. But it was still bad enough. Her perfect scores wiped out by one stupid mistake in one stupid training exercise.
Tove, you can’t lie in bed all day. They’ve given you a chance. Take it. Prove them wrong!
She knew it was bad form to refuse a challenge but she almost did - so much easier lying here and moping – but he asked her for a third time and so she followed him to the courts, trying but failing to disguise her reluctance.
She'd never been a fan of Weevil. It was childish - a cross between squash and Break the Wall, played in an enclosed rectangular court with the main facing-wall filled with yellow bricks on one side and red on the other. The object to hit a sponge ball against your opponent’s bricks releasing virtual weevils which dissolved their remaining tiles. The game played in the real but the link between opponents permitted anticipation of their moves. Like most games, it was never just about hammering the ball, although that was all that Tove wanted to do. She had been told that the bricks were representations of old naval biscuits - the staple ration of sailors in the old world - infested with small beetle like creatures. There was even a species named after them, Stegobium paniceum – the Biscuit Weevil.
Tove was too distracted to give the first game her full attention. However she won the second, but only just, and possibly because she fluked a shot which she had meant to smash but instead sliced off the frame and caught Jax wrong footed. The decider was close. She focused now, seeing his intentions as easily as her own - dropped, sliced down the line, off the left-hand wall, twisted, turned and smashed - she manoeuvred him out of position - a gentle lob and the last of his wall was at her mercy. But her mind blanked. A silver Cerulean jet swooping over the ocean towards her - so close she could touch it - the burning laser blinding her and for a moment everything flashed white and the next, black – obsidian and absolute, accompanied by a whisper so faint that she didn't know whether she imagined it or it had been within her all along - Love you.
She collapsed, her body folding to the floor.
Jax dropped his racket and ran towards her. Tove! Tove! Are you alright?
This was the second time today he’d asked the same stupid question.
Was he that blind that he couldn’t appreciate she would never be alright again?