Sunday, 5 November 2017

The third of my many entries for this year's Pod and Planet. The first eight are all very short fictions, entered in the 'Eight Thousand Suns in New Eden' category. This one is 749 words.

The Old Wind’s Rising

They met first at the Landfall Shrine, after her father had been cremated. The blizzard which had killed him still gusted fitfully, and the pillars were crowned in snow. He was a senior analyst with a Lai Dai subsid, and she was a steward of the Shrine. He was Jeka, and she was Daala, both Wayists, both Deteis, both Caldari. They married and they worked hard. They kept their heads down. It was a traditional life.

Or it was, until they were summoned. A message from their manager’s manager: mandatory aptitude testing. They attended, as did Jeka’s co-workers. They were led, one by one, into the room, and made to stand still, observing the riotous chaos before them. The walls and ceilings were covered in projected light, a dazzling display of anarchic colour. Birds clawed their way through impossible holes, and Slaver hounds danced upright, partnered together like men. In each corner, a sand waterfall stood, and each fell in its own hypnotic pattern. The doors were closed, and each candidate observed the room of distractions alone.

The room defeated all but three that entered, and each success took an age. Jeka changed that. Her husband was an observant man, far cleverer than her, and he noticed it quickly.  The sand formed glyph after pattern after sigil, from all four empires and elsewhere. “There”, he called, when he was certain. “Imperial Seal, The first man, then the Sabik’s crest. Federation’s Crest, Intaki’s imprimatur, Kaalakiota, Ishukone— ”

“Oh, very, very good!”, came a voice from the ceiling. A fellow Deteis, thin and wiry, stood there. “Only three cycles, the best so far.” The Deteis gestured, silver plugs glinting in his neck, the lights died and the waterfalls returned to their natural curve.  “We have a job for you”, he stated.

It was difficult, Daala accepted. Capsuleers put higher demands on their crews than others, but to spend so long in Anoikis, beyond her reach? Each time they left, the absences grew longer, and the shore leave shorter. Still, Jeka only grew more enthusiastic. “The things we’ve discovered”, he would reminisce. “Such things as you wouldn’t believe! A whole system, every planet shattered! Can you imagine the force?”

She could, because it was so much less than the force that kept him from her.

Each time he went away, they knelt at the Shrine, incense curling around them. Strength and courage from their family, they prayed for. Her great-grandfather, a stellar cartographer, they sought wisdom from. Finally, resting one hand each upon the wooden altar, they gave thanks to Cold Wind and Wind-of-the-West, for all that they had taught the Caldari.

When the parting ritual was completed, the capsuleer would undock, carrying her Jeka away. They always came back whole, until they didn’t.

She remembered the moment her skin had crawled, enduring an icy gale that no-one else could feel: a warning from the Spirits of loss, of struggle, of danger near and far. She ran straight to the Shrine, harried by invisible hail, almost bowling over the Steward in her haste. Storm Wind silently howled around her. She threw herself to the ground before the altar, begging for mercy, yet still the Storm howled, as she remained prostrate before it.

7 hours, she remained, as it blew itself out. All around her, the Steward had lit votives of appeasement, the smoky fragrance of which curled in the stillness. Eventually, the old man had raised her up, seating her on his chair, and placing calming tea to warm her frozen hands. She shivered, in spite of it.

First, the Capsuleer missed one rendezvous, then a second. At the third, they began to worry. The dangers of Anoikis were not unknown, but the Deteis capsuleer was canny, and had avoided them before. They worried, but Daala knew, and had always known. The unthinkable had happened.

After 17 weeks, the Capsuleer returned. The Stratios’s hull was blasted open to space and carbon scoring spotted the remaining armour. His capsule was disengaged and, as the remnants of the shell-shocked crew were escorted to the Med-bay, Daala couldn’t glimpse her husband.She almost dropped the datapad when the message came. “We must speak”, the Capsuleer had sent, “Attend the Med-Bay”.

He was kind, in his way, acknowledging Jeka’s sacrifice. The seven hours he had laboured in the vacuum suit as it slowly ran out of air. It didn’t matter. Daala had known Jeka was dead since the storm had come, because no warmth could reach her.

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