The future is an unruly thing. Inertia—the universal law that only effort and time can bring change—does not seem to concern it.
—Laerke Wyss, And Again (2067)
Inland Sicily, Earth
Caro gently lifted her foot off the accelerator as she steered the whining ETV around a sharp turn. Rolling hills painted in sepia tones by fallen leaves swung past its hardened windows.
A myriad of lights blinked in the valley below as dusk dissolved slowly into night. A heavy freight rocket towered on an ageing launch pad, ready to heave Phoenix Station into orbit. Monotonous rows of concrete blocks housed scientists and engineers—and the soldiers who were the only reason the launch complex had not been looted months ago.
Caro was a Junior Scientist. Which had sounded great when she had applied for the position but was not turning out all that great. She mainly chauffeured more important people around the base and wrote mind-numbing protocols that no one ever read.
The tart scent of Earl Grey filled the ETV as Asmund, sitting beside her, unscrewed the lid of his army-issue mug. He almost spilt the tea over his pixelated camouflage suit when Caro brought the vehicle to a screeching halt.
Shouts and clangs filled the air as hooded figures swarmed around a crude roadblock that Caro had almost slammed into after a particularly sharp hairpin turn. Calloused hands wielded long metal pipes and wooden clubs. Caro’s frantic gaze jerked to a single black pistol being pointed at them from behind the makeshift barricade.
“This is Electric Transport Vehicle 12 heading for Phoenix Base, do you copy?” Asmund spoke into an ancient and discoloured radio transceiver that had only recently been screwed onto the dashboard. All standard communication equipment had gone cold during the Great Blackout. Not even the pooled wisdom of Phoenix Base had been able to bring it back to life.
“We ran into about a dozen civilians blocking the road fifteen-hundred metres from the base checkpoint. Permission to engage?”
“Are they unarmed?” a staticky voice asked over radio.
“Negative, 3C, at least one of them is carrying a firearm, over,” Asmund replied with a swagger that reflected half a lifetime with a gun strapped to his side.
“Copy. You are permitted to use force against any civilians belonging to that group should they refuse to let you pass. The safety of the two Phoenix crew members in your company remains paramount. Over.”
“Copy that, engaging now. Out.”
Asmund fastened his chin-strap.
“Won’t be a minute, sweetheart,” he told Caro with a wink as he stepped out of the vehicle. Even amid the danger, she cringed at his tacky manners.
The humid warmth of the Italian summer hit Caro through the open door. Crickets sang their rasping song, oblivious to the shouts of the men and women blocking the path of the ETV. Asmund answered the shouts in his own broken Italian as he braced himself against the side of the vehicle, clutching his stubby assault rifle. Most Sicilians had refused to learn Proper English for generations, even though it had become the only official language in their post-nation world.
Asmund moved out of cover for only a second, and his right shoulder exploded in red mist. The hills rang with the sharp bark of his assailant’s pistol.
Sinking to his knees, Asmund managed to maintain the grip on his own weapon and return fire. Caro’s ears started ringing as the heavier and deeper shots of the rifle exploded in bursts of three right next to her. At the barricade, wood splintered, sand shot up. The wearer of a thick and torn denim jacket, a dark stain spreading on his left thigh, fell into the arms of another member of his group. Their shouts grew throaty, like the growls of cornered dogs.
Caro pitied them despite their aggression. Behind her, another soldier noisily opened a heavy roof hatch as a third threw herself over the passenger seat to drag Asmund back into the vehicle. Caro yanked it into reverse.
Specks of white cracked the windshield as bullets bit into it. Caro sent gravel flying towards the disorganised mob as she sped backwards. Shots from the roof of the ETV silenced another man, probably forever.
This would be the last time Caro’s two other passengers smelled the acrid, nitroglycerine scent of fired bullets. They would leave Earth on Phoenix Station tomorrow. On Askay, the Ideas and Ideals would brook no lethal weapons, not even in the hands of soldiers. If they made it to Phoenix Base alive, that is.
“We have a casualty. We are retreating. Request airborne backup,” Emma shouted into the radio while clinging to Asmund’s tactical vest with her other hand. The ETV swayed violently.
“Repeat! I do not copy! No, we—”
The entire vehicle shook as a back wheel hit a rock.
“Copy. Wilco.” Emma ended the call. She turned to shout into the back of the vehicle. “The base is under attack, they won’t dispatch drones!”
“Under attack? What the hell? By whom?” the third soldier yelled through the open roof hatch. His voice carried the faintly melodic accent common to the Proper English of Eastern Europe. Caro was ninety percent sure that his name was either Ron or Ben.
“But they have to help us! We need to get to the base!” protested one of the two Phoenix crew members from the back of the vehicle, a middle-aged woman with close-cropped brown hair.
“Yeah, we’re doing our best here, lady,” Ron or Ben replied as he jammed a fresh magazine into his rifle.
A sudden impact rammed Caro’s skull into the headrest and a blurry galaxy of stars flashed before her eyes. The ETV tilted wildly as its rear slammed into the side of a hill.
“Shit, shit, shit!” Caro yelled, as she frantically fumbled to put the heavy vehicle back into forward. Its wheels spun, screeching on loose ground. The remaining men and women in front of them seized the opportunity and charged, voices distorted with rage.
“Let me out!” Asmund demanded through clenched teeth.
Emma dropped him out of the still half-open door without another word. He hit the ground hard with his good shoulder and rolled onto his belly, swinging his rifle around. Emma sprang after him to provide cover.
Like madness itself, the mob sprinted towards them, dragging long and dancing shadows behind them in the floodlights of the ETV. Two more fell and skidded along the ground as bullets struck their chests.
“Hold fire! Hold fire!” Ron or Ben shouted from the roof of the vehicle. The other soldiers obeyed instinctively.
“Children! Back there by the barricade!”
The four remaining attackers slowed, sudden doubt in their eyes as the shots ceased. One of them turned around towards two shapes moving in the twilight where the cone of the ETV’s headlight met darkness.
“No!” a woman shouted with a shrill voice, “Girati! No!”
Asmund yelled at them in Italian. Emma stepped around the open door, rifle fixed on the group. The woman cried out and threw the metal pipe she carried to the ground.
“No!” she continued, “Non sparate! Per favore. No!”
The others of her group followed her example and slowly held up their hands. Their empty palms were wet with perspiration.
Ron or Ben climbed out the back of the ETV with the stock of his rifle pressed firmly against his shoulder. Keeping his muzzle pointed at the shivering group, he stepped towards the children. As the soldiers handcuffed the four remaining adults with zip ties, Caro dared to step out of the vehicle as well. The two passengers followed her.
“We don’t have time for this!” the woman with short-cropped hair demanded. “We need to get to the base!”
No one paid her any attention.
Gravel crunched beneath Caro’s boots as she teetered towards their prisoners. The woman with the metal pipe broke into tears as Ron or Ben sent the two children running towards her. A scrawny man kneeling next to her talked feverishly to himself. His wrinkle-framed eyes were entirely devoid of emotion.
“Il grande lupo verrà! Lo so. Ci aiuterà!” he repeated to himself, cowering on the ground. His head shook back and forth as if in a trance.
“What’s he saying now?” Emma asked, pointing at his haggard face with her chin. Her rifle did not waver for one second. Faint yammering wafted over to them from where Ron or Ben was checking the pulses of the fallen men and women. Caro bit her lower lip hard and forced her eyes away.
“Something about a big wolf, I think,” Asmund replied. He was clutching his right shoulder with white knuckles. Caro hurried to help him stop the bleeding. It had only been a grazing shot, but even so his sleeve glistened red, and the air was heavy with the rusty scent of blood.
“He thinks one of those ghost wolves is going to help him,” Asmund concluded. He clenched his wide jaw as Caro tore open the packet of gauzes the soldier carried in his shoulder pocket and pressed them onto his injury.
Caro had heard rumours, but she had never met anyone who actually believed the wolf stories. Cold shivers ran along her back and legs in the warm night. Moths flapped around her outstretched arms, already gravitating towards the irresistible pull of light.
Only days after the Great Blackout, villagers around Phoenix Base had started talking about lone canines prowling their streets. Some claimed they preyed on humans, others insisted the wolves were angels, here to help them in the lowest hour of humanity. What all stories agreed on was that the wolves were much larger than any ever sighted in Europe.
“No!” the woman assigned to Phoenix Station cried out, louder than before, “No, no, no, no! We have to go now!”
She pointed down into the valley with a shaking hand. Floodlights had turned on all around the launch site, and mist was drifting away from the enormous rocket. Something exploded on the concrete pad next to a logo of the Alliance of The People—the silhouettes of two blue hands, palms upwards with outstretched fingers.
Emma whistled through her teeth.
“You think the Behemoth’s behind this?”
“I’m not sure that still matters,” Ron or Ben replied.
Large cranes swung away from the top of the rocket, and distorted sirens echoed through the surrounding hills. Small dots crawled away from the towering boosters, like ants running from a fire.
“No! They’re launching!” the woman whined, clawing at her almost shaven scalp. “Why are they launching already?”
“There are people still on the pad!” Caro cried out, just as the rocket’s engines began to glow.
In absolute silence, the light intensified as if a small sun was rising in the middle of the valley. Smoke spewed out of tunnels around the launch pad. Then, thunder rolled over Caro as the sound waves reached them.
Slowly, majestically, the rocket rose. Like an elephant raising its head, it hovered away from the concrete pad, submerging the fleeing people below it in light and smoke. Caro had to squint as the boosters reached their height. As it gained momentum, the rocket tilted on its three pillars of fire. Caro would have almost called it gentle, were it not for the booming roar that shook her ribcage.
On a glowing arc, the rocket climbed into orbit. Phoenix Station’s long, dark voyage through the stars had begun.
Caro closed her eyes before she turned her gaze to the charred launchpad below. Smoke and water vapour drifted in the wind, leaving behind the aftermath of death and havoc the flames had wreaked. Behind her, one of the injured locals cried out in pain. A sudden, profound weariness took hold of Caro.
Her eyes drifted back up towards the speck of light the rocket had become in the dark sky. She was hoping its crew was heading for a better place than what humanity had built on Earth.
Why are hardship and sorrow such apt soil for beauty and wisdom to blossom?
—Logbook-entry by Melinda Thering, one of the twelve Forerunners who survived the journey from Earth to Askay (2263)
Light. Dim, blue light continually shifted shape. It swam and jittered as objects congealed out of the haze of Neal’s vision. A slightly yellowed, grey bulkhead drifted into existence, worn by the touch of a hundred thousand hands. A small bull’s eye window remained dark except for a few brilliant pinpricks of white.
The stringent bite of disinfectants flooded Neal as smell returned to him. Then the warmth of his gelatinous bed joined the orchestra of his senses.
Of course, Neal had not been sleeping—hardly anyone on Elin Station ever slept. He had been in what medical personnel like him called Lucid Deep-Space Hibernation. Everyone else called it Knockout.
Even after almost two full years in interstellar space, LDSH was still an absolute marvel to Neal’s eyes. He could have easily lost an entire day at the snap of a finger, diving into the intricate dance of molecules that made LDSH possible—if the tight schedule of the station allowed it.
The drugs pumped into his veins subtly changed their shape as they passed the blood-brain barrier. Every function of the human body, from the heartbeat down to sebaceous glands, was slowed, while the brain’s neurones still kept firing. It was not unlike dreaming but not being able to wake up.
Neal had summited Askay’s harshest mountains and flown into orbit with arms turned into wings. The longer he had built these wonder-works of his imagination in LDSH, the more real the sweat on his skin and the heartbeat in his throat had become.
Memories of the soft touch of fingertips against his skin rose in Neal. His throat constricted around a painful lump. Liv’s eyes twinkled in the dim light of morning, green and stunning like the birth of a star, as they hid under the thin sheets.
Had he already been in control of his motor functions, Neal would have slapped himself. He had promised to stay away from memories of her, but they always pulled him in—like a meteorite gripped by the unwavering mass of a planet. They brought him an elusive and gentle calm, which outweighed the price he paid when he was ripped from his dreams by the cruel waking procedure of his capsule.
Trying to ignore the stale taste in his mouth, Neal concentrated on the cold air filling his lungs. His limbs were solid lead, and his tongue felt like it had sprouted a thick coat of fur since he had last used it. A wave of nausea hit Neal like a bucket of warm water thrown in his face.
A red circle blinked steadily on a small screen facing Neal, and his capsule tilted backwards. He sucked in air between his teeth, as two thick needles slid out of an implanted port at his groin. With a soft clink, the glass lid on Neal’s capsule sprang open, and he sat up stiffly.
He had a slim face, not haggard but with delicate features and interested eyes. Only his teeth looked slightly too big for his mouth. A tousle of thick, black hair framed the light blue of his pupils. His fingers were long and slender, creating a subtle contrast with his otherwise athletic build. His skin was bordering pale and the vellus hair on it light. Small red spots and birthmarks speckled it where it was not covered by the tight white undergarment he was wearing.
An unflatteringly stained bulge around his waist covered his diapers. Interstellar travel was dirty work.
Neal shuffled over to a cupboard, undressed, cleaned himself with disposable wipes, and slipped into a light grey overall and a pair of dark blue sneakers with zippers instead of laces. He admired how every piece of clothing he threw into the laundry container miraculously reappeared in his cupboard, washed and neatly folded. He hated washing clothes. It took too much time away from the important things in life—like reading scientific essays, and drinking coffee to read more and faster.