When Worlds Collide
Fin Hoster was crouching over a corpse deep underground in one of the dark, cramped Magma-Core service tunnels. His forehead was damp from the heat and he was wishing he had worn a T-shirt instead of the thick long-sleeve he had on under his coat. It had been nearest the bed when the hammering on the apartment door started. The sulphurous air kept his breathing shallow. He steadied himself on the balls of his feet, doing his best to avoid disturbing the pool of drying blood.
“Remember what you’re doing?” said a gruff older man standing a few feet away, his head an inch from the tunnel’s knobbly ceiling. He had long folded arms, a lantern hanging from his fingers.
“You don’t have to tell me,” said Fin, his thin face pinched. “I take more care over them than anyone. Especially you, Joe.” He pushed his glasses back up his sharp nose and scribbled ‘knife-wound to lower back’ in his notebook. He pinged the elastic over and gripped the notebook in his teeth. It was as close as he had come to breakfast having been rushed out of the apartment by his boss and sent ahead with the old man. Rolling the dead man up, he caught grit and blood under his fingernails. He noted at once the insignia on the dead man’s uniform.
“Who d’you say he was?” said Fin, still biting his notebook. Joe rummaged in his pocket and drew out a notebook of his own, thumbing through the pages.
“Owen Timms. Technician,” he said. “No known trouble. No debts. No enemies to speak of. Harmless, Al said.”
“Owen Timms,” said Fin, regarding the dead man’s bruised and bloodied face, still frozen in shock. “Nobody should end like this. I’ll find them for you, Owen.”
“Why do you always do that?” said Joe, sounding like he had just bitten a lemon. “Talking to it like it’s not just a slab of meat?”
Fin gently released the body and sat back on his heels.
“They’re still people. Only difference is they’ve got no one and nothing now. Just us. And the truth. What’s happened to them. That’s all they got left.” His eyes ran slowly over the body.
“Someone done it. That’s all there is. Catch ‘em. Lock ‘em up. Simple,” said Joe. Fin shook his head.
“Is that all this is to you?” He scratched an itch through his jeans. “Is that why I’m missing my race?”
“What are you, sixteen, seventeen? Always the young, so high and righteous,” said Joe, shaking his own head. “Justice, I call it,” he spat. “Locking up wrongens.”
“Yeah. Obviously. Seventeen, not that it matters. But it’s more than that. It’s not just punishment we’re here for. Prisoners don’t come out any better than they went in, most of them, from what I hear. It’s truth, Joe. His truth. Owen’s truth.” Joe rolled his eyes and turned his head away.
“What? You gonna right him a letter when you’ve got to the bottom?” Joe scoffed. “He don’t care.” He threw a hand towards the body. “Sometimes I reckon you care more about the dead than the living. Ain’t that what your mother said that time she came bursting in?” Fin stared at Joe for a few seconds, his lips tight, his eyes fixed.
“She doesn’t know me as well as she thinks,” he said. Joe huffed and half turned away.
“You might not care,” continued Fin. “Like all the rest. But it matters.” He glanced at his soiled fingertips, then leant over and tried to rub them clean on the ground away from the blood. He then whipped them across the hem of his long, tatty coat.
“You should’ve remembered gloves,” Joe said, scoring a point. “You got it all?” he added, peering over.
“You want to check?” said Fin, offering the body with a hand, his neck muscles tightening.
“What? Me, on hands and knees? You must be joking.” Joe coughed and wheezed. “Anyway, I seen enough deadens.” Fin rose to his feet and came to Joe’s side. He noted the direction the body had fallen and where Owen must have hit the rock wall as he fell. He scribbled it all down.
“I hate these tunnels,” Joe grumbled. “Like to keep both feet up on deck.” Fin glanced at him with resignation. He was used to Joe standing back doing nothing, complaining about working. It was how it went without the boss there.
“No place to die, that’s for sure,” said Fin staring at Owen. He turned his head away and stepped over to the tunnel wall. “Maybe we should go right down the tunnels in case there’s anything more to find. Weapon maybe.”
“No fear,” said Joe. “Chance to see the ship’s engines is all you want. I see it. I know you and ships and bikes.” Fin screwed his face as if this was not exactly news.
He placed a hand flat on the rock. He wanted to feel the engine’s vibrations, but he couldn’t.
“Keep your mind on the job, boy.” Fin ignored him. He had practiced that – letting things go. It was getting boring being treated like a child but he knew that getting into arguments didn’t help anything. All anyone saw was how young he was. Never mind what he could do.
“Shine the light then. I need to see the entry wound up close.” Fin placed his notebook against his dark, worn trainer and knelt down again.
“Sooner you’re done. Sooner I can get off home. My sister was supposed to be coming today. Huh. Arn still gets the day off.” Joe scowled. “Why does he have to chase down these jobs?”
“Money, of course.”
“Money. He’s got plenty. Nice if he’d share it around. He’s not coming now. There’s no respect for a man who’s been through what I have.” Joe shook his head angrily. “I should be boss.” He thumbed his chest. “Owes his freedom to the likes of me. Well, I ain’t lifting another finger.”
“We’d be done quicker if you did. Hold it up.” Fin waved an arm. He sighed at Joe’s huffing, stood up and took the lantern from his hand. “You want to get it done. You’re not helping.” He moved back to the body. “I was supposed to be racing today. Well, reserve.”
“On that bike of yours? No wonder you’re just the reserve.”
“No.” Fin’s brow furrowed. “On a team bike. Special racing model. I’m reserve because, well, they say it’s my motion sickness holding me back.” He snarled. “I’ve told them. It’s no problem when I’m in control. Riding. They know what I can do.” He paused, staring motionless at the ground. “Dan wants me off the team. Scared I’ll push him out. Huh. I would if I got the chance.”
“And you won’t get that working for Arn,” said Joe, tilting forward at the waist.
“Like I have a choice,” said Fin.
“You want to forget professional racing. Do you know how many get to actually do that?” said Joe, gesticulating with an open hand. He paused. Fin was in a studied silence. “The point of dreams isn’t to fulfil them. That would only disappoint. The point of dreams is to have something warm in your head while you’re scratching around in the dirt below deck.”
“I could go it alone,” said Fin, responding to his own thoughts rather than what Joe had said. “But I’d never win anything on my bike. It’s as old as you, Joe.”
“Hey. Enough cheek from you. I should hope for a bit more respect from the son of Artimis Hoster, if no one else. Old war dogs can starve on the street for all they care. Not your mother though, I bet - after what your father done for Garovia. Looked after proper, I expect. All I ask is a bit of the same. Nobody cares. Still working. Babysitting apprentices.”
“Babysitting?” Fin pulled a face, amplifying the word. “You think I need that?” He knelt down again, shining the light at the dead man’s back. “Anyway, it’s criminal the way they treat Mum. That’s one reason I’ll never join up.”
“Oh,” said Joe. “Arn said you was too frightened of getting hurt.”
“Frightened? You believed that?” spat Fin, jerking back up. “I’m not frightened of getting hurt. No more than anyone. But I won’t kill. Not anyone. Not ever.” He turned back to the body for a split second. “And you can tell Arn I even took the pilot school exams. Would’ve gone too if I hadn’t had to take this apprenticeship.”
“If they’d have you,” said Joe. Fin rolled his eyes.
“Seriously? We needed the money,” he said.
“Because your mum owes, you mean?” Fin shot him a look. Joe shrugged, smiling knowingly.
“Arn’s got a big mouth.”
“Course. He’s all mouth, our Arn. Don’t worry, I don’t spill. Anyway, credit where it’s due, she should be proud of you, working it off. Your dad would’ve been.” Fin’s back straightened, the thought dwelling in his mind for a moment. He looked up at the old man.
“That might be the first kind word you’ve ever said to me, Joe.”
“Well, don’t get used to it.” Joe waved for him to continue with the examination.
Fin found the hole in the dead man’s overalls and tore it wider. He steeled himself and examined the jagged wound.
“Hey, Joe. Look at the shape of this.” Joe bent over to look and Fin could feel his heavy breathing blowing down his neck.
“Mind your head out,” said Joe. Fin tipped to one side.
“That’s been done by a Frusk starblade, hasn’t it?” he said.
“Could be,” said Joe, having a further look. “You might be right.” Joe messed Fin’s wavey brown hair. Fin instantly broke away. “Starblade. Lethal, them. I seen plenty killed by them back in the war.”
“What are we telling Arn then? We saying, what, some kind of Frusk agent’s done this?” Fin bent down and examined the wound again.
“No, boy,” said Joe, righting himself and stepping away. “Anyone could’ve. Starblades are common as anything. Souvenirs. Everyone had them back then. Course I wouldn’t put anything past Frusk scum. But why would they? I mean what’s down here for them? Every ship’s got a Magma-Core. Nothing special about ours.”
A siren suddenly whined out of the tunnel’s speaker system. Joe, threw creased-paper hands over his ears. Fin jumped up.
“Collision alarm!” Joe looked confused. Fin, Joe’s equal in height, forced his hands down. “Collision alarm.” The old man rolled his eyes. “I’m telling you, Joe.”
“Hasn’t been a collision for fifty years.”
The radio on Joe’s belt crackled.
“Joe. You there, mate?” Fin watched as he fumbled for the radio.
“Joe here. That you, Al? What’s going on? Can’t you shut this racket off?”
“You’d best get up here quick. You ought to see this.”
“What is it, Al?”
“Just get up here, now!”
“We’d best get up top then,” Fin said. Joe pointed along the tunnel.
“You go on. These old legs got their own pace.” Fin slipped his notebook back in his pocket and hurried along the tunnel towards the lift.
Pushing back the swinging door at the top of the lift-shaft, he stepped out into the light, shielding his eyes, but what he saw instantly had his eyes as wide as they had ever been. The sky was crowded out by a colossal mass. Another nation-ship appeared to be listing out of control and on a collision course with Garovia. Fin could see mountains, forests, rivers, a city, a rough-cut slice of a country, all at a steep angle, looking like it would go fully upside down if it carried on rotating. The impact was going to be massive and devastating, and at this range, unavoidable, perhaps only minutes away.
Fin’s education told him he was supposed to lie down and adopt the brace position, but he found instead he was frozen to the spot. He felt like ice-cold water had been poured over his brain, even as a dozen questions and scenarios swirled in his mind. He could feel panic seizing him. It was too massive to comprehend. He was awake in a nightmare.
The door swung open behind. Fin glanced round to see Joe coming wheezing towards him. Joe’s friend, Al was hurrying over from the site control room some fifty metres to one side of the lift shaft. He was wearing the same uniform as Owen Timms.
“Slay me dead. I’ve seen it all now,” said Joe, his arms hanging limp as he walked. Fin stood there staring, hands clasped behind his head, wind tickling his long fringe, Joe beside him. Fin shivered like it was an icy morning.
“That could take out a city,” said Joe. “The whole ship will be shaking like a drum when it hits.” Al arrived at their side, gawping at the sky.
“Best not stand around,” he said.
“Oh? Where are we going to go?” said Joe, folding his arms. “Back in the tunnels? Let the magma spill up to us when it hits?”
“Nowhere,” said Al with a pout, and then scratched his chin. “Nowhere to go. Hey, ain’t this what happened to the Tusca Prime before it nose-dived into the Pulsar.” Fin swept back his hair, turning on the spot.
“That was the Frusk for sure,” said Joe with a firm wag of his finger.
“And that’s why everyone with any sense wants to Raft up,” blurted Fin. He agitated on the spot. His mind was still racing, his guts cramping.
“No!” spat Joe, going red in the face. “Not everyone. Not us Loners. Never. Keep your useless allies.” He wheezed, waving a hand at the incoming nation-ship.
Fin couldn’t keep still now.
“We can’t just stand here!” he snapped, his voice shaking.
“Look at it, boy!” said Joe. “What can you do?”
“Nothing!” Fin shouted, pacing round and leaning into it. “Nothing! Look, I don’t care. I’m going back to the city.”
“You crazy? It might hit there,” said Joe.
“Well, I’m not standing around with you. And there’s my mum.”
“Your mum? I thought you couldn’t get away fast enough.” Joe rested back on his heels, like he was watching a fireworks display.
“She’s not well. There’s nobody else.” Fin started towards his anti-grav bike. Joe called after him.
“If you see Arn, tell him I quit. Frusk saboteurs, Frusk murder. He don’t pay enough. Al’s gonna give me a job here, topside, if anything’s left come morning.” Fin waved over his head.
He kickstarted his anti-grav bike and raced high up into the air, his long coat flapping behind him. Ahead lay the Inlands: farms, forests, meadows and hamlets. The pitching world above closed in slowly but with terrifying certainty. The way it loomed over was dizzying. The scale of it was bewildering. Fin concentrated hard on keeping his eyes straight ahead. But it was always there. There was no sound from it yet, just the darkest, heaviest raincloud. If a raincloud dropped bombs it would do less damage than what was coming. Everything was about to change. Fin felt a sickness in his stomach and throat. This wasn’t supposed to happen. His hands felt slippery on the bike.
He held the bike with one hand and reached for his phone. It came awkwardly from his coat pocket. He almost dropped it. The bike lurched as he turned to see, just catching the phone, then swaying the bike almost out of control before righting it. Adrenalin surged through him as he found his balance again. He flipped the phone open. It pinged straight out of his hand, plummeting into the forest below.
“Arrgh!” he screamed into the wind.
The slow missile crept across his line of sight, forcing him to concentrate so hard and grip the bike so tight that his head began to hurt. The Garovian sky was beginning to fill with spacecraft taking off, heading out of the atmosphere. That was fine, Fin thought, for those who could afford their own ships.
From the edge of the forest, Fin dropped down, hovering just above the river Bowen, which snaked across much of the ship but from here on, was more or less straight, all the way into Bow city.
Fin leapt off his bike when he reached the roof of his building, not even bothering to switch it off. It juddered as he made for the door, causing him to look back as it bumped into another bike, knocking a row of them over. He ignored it, throwing open the door and all but leapt down the stairs, breaking against the wall, twisting round and leaping down the next flight.
Twelve floors down he fumbled his key in nervous hands, partially numbed from the ride. In a surge of urgency, he closed the keys in his fist and shoulder barged the door, tumbling through onto the kitchen floor.
“Mum!” He got up in the silent flat. Not even the heavy feet of his shaggy dog, Slobber. “Mum, where are you?” He tried each room. “You here?” She wasn’t. He rushed back out and down another eight floors to street level.
Panic was taking hold on the street. As the ship above crept closer it looked more and more like it was going to land right on Bow City. He took off again through the honking traffic, weaving around a pair of dented cars, locked together, their drivers out and shouting at each other. The privately owned ships swarmed above the city, all heading straight up.
Guessing his mum might have taken the dog to the park, Fin was racing that way when he heard an unmistakable voice calling him. He halted as a reflex.
“Arn. I can’t stop. I can’t.” He made to run on, but Arn’s raised voice held a note that paralysed him, striking something primal deep within. Fin had never understood it. Nobody else had this effect. The short, plump, mostly bald man swaggered over in a weighty overcoat two sizes too big.
“You gonna fob me off?” Stubby fingers ringed with gold snatched Fin’s wrist.
“It’s my mum! The park,” Fin yelled, trying to break free. His skin burned beneath Arn’s grip. Arn’s iron stare was easily a match for Fin’s determined eyes.
“It don’t flow that way, boy,” said Arn, shaking his head. Fin boiled inside, desperate to scream, but a vice within clamped down and made him swallow it. He ground his teeth instead. “You come with me right now, or maybe I’ll nudge her interest back up, or even...