A’arilon Ray looked around for signs of life, but there were none. The lonely howl of the wind ripped down the barren hillside. It caught his long, dark, green-tinged hair, whipping it about as he made his way to the top.
Few details ever changed in the rote, familiar ascent. The same bleak landscape rolled out before him. Black sky. Gray, muddy earth. The long incline that ended at the maw of an abyss. He slipped on the wet ground and made slow progress but, ahead, stood the man he came to meet.
This man stood at the brink of the precipice, his back to Ray.
Ray brushed his hair out of his face and tied it off. He lingered but a few meters from the lone figure, who stared into the nothingness below.
“Father,” said Ray.
It was part of the routine. An unconscious act. Their meeting played out the same way each time. The dialogue never changed.
The man turned toward Ray. Long, flowing black hair obscured his face.
“Father, please. Look at me … ”
The wind stopped.
The man’s hair fell still, revealing a faceless skull. The blackness within the empty eye sockets absorbed all light. It pullied Ray in, as if past the event horizon of a singularity.
He held up his hand and watched his fingers warp, flatten and stretch. They lost dimension, compelled toward the endless dark of Arak Matar’s black-hole eyes.
The fleshless mouth, devoid of tongue, opened and spoke.
“You’re no son of mine.”
Ray shot into a sitting position. He made no sound. His carnelian irises were barely visible around his dilated pupils.
Anjali Hastings sat at the edge of the bed in her green and black Allied military uniform. She yelped at his sudden arousal and stood up, eying him.
Ray sighed. He put his head into his hands. Sweat rolled down the golden-white skin of his back.
Anjali stepped over and put her cinnamon-colored hand on his leg. He grabbed her wrist, acting out of instinct with a craze in his eyes.
“Hey!” she cried. “Take it easy … ”
Ray, only just noticing her, furrowed his bony brow. “Sorry.”
He let go.
She rubbed her wrist and looked at him with reproach, but he took no note. He looked around his quarters. The ocher-hued clouds of Venus shadowed the room, consequences of the artificial sunset. Solar shades regulated each day to a 24-hour period.
Anjali sat again on the edge of the bed. She regarded Ray with her big, expressive brown eyes. “We’re due to leave in a few hours.”
She flipped her straight, thick and evenly cropped jet-black hair over her shoulder.
“You know, I buzzed you … when you didn’t answer, I just came in. I didn’t think you’d mind.”
Ray rubbed his face, tracing his harsh, bony features. Corren features, all, except for the smooth bridge of his nose. It was absent the ossified protuberances sported by the rest of his kind. Even corren-human hybrids, dubbed “variants,” had them.
“Come on … ” Anjali said, pushing his leg, stirring him from his thoughts.
She moved her hand atop his, presenting a picture of contrast in both color and size. Though naturally dark, her color had deepened with regular exposure to sunlight. To bask in the sun was a luxury of life on Venus. On Earth, they could only dream of seeing its light.
She patted his hand. “You could probably stand a shower.”
“Yeah, all right,” he replied. “What time do we report?”
“Twenty-hundred.” She kissed him. “You sure you’re OK?”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine.” He kissed her forehead and rose from the bed. “I’ll meet you in the arboretum in a half hour.”
His voice was dull and monotone. He shut the bathroom door behind him.
She waited a moment, staring at the barrier between them, frowning. She knew it was futile to press him about his feelings, but she dismayed at his preoccupation. As a soldier, she wanted him clear and sharp for the success of the mission. As his lover, she wanted to unburden him.
Leaving his quarters to do her own preparations, she adopted a neutral expression. She had no desire to advertise her distress.
Ray massaged the towel over his head to dry his short hair.
He threw the damp cloth over the back of his chair. Pausing for a moment, he regarded the picture on his desk. It was of a brown-haired, mocha-skinned human woman and a canary-yellow-haired variant child. The little girl’s features were a soft combination of her parents’ faces. Xanthophyll pigmented her hair, a quirk of variant DNA. Their hair never synthesized chlorophyll at any point in their lifetimes. Like her father’s, the bridge of her nose was smooth.
The date in the lower right corner of the image read 170-27-04.
The holographic calendar displayed 183-17-10 in lazy, fluttering blue numbers. It was 183 years since the Blight. Already the 10th month of Venus’ simulated Earth-length year, the two-year mark of Ray’s posting approached.
He stared for a while at the photo before wrenching away his gaze.
Reaching into his closet, he took out the enemy uniform issued for the upcoming mission. The black and red bodysuit dangled from the hanger. The cuffs brushed the floor as he lay the suit on his bed. Outwardly impassive, intense disdain churned within him. He was loath to don those colors again.
Digging back into the closet he withdrew, piece by piece, the armor he would wear over the bodysuit. His hands closed over the breastplate and he hauled it into the light. The black material shone like polished obsidian. He held it at arm’s length and twisted his mouth. A black, matte patch covered the silver crest of the Confederation Elite Imperial Guard.
He donned the bodysuit and pulled on his boots. He fitted the armor into place and glanced at the clock. Grabbing his gloves, he tucked his helmet into the crook of his arm and left to meet Anjali. Slowly fading light seeped through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the corridor. Clouds enveloped the Allied base, buffeting it like a ship on a cotton sea.
High above the surface, the installation floated at one atmospheric bar. The weather whisked it around the planet every four Venus days. The atmosphere traveled faster than the planet’s own rotation. Within the base, the air mimed Earth’s at its prime. The life-sustaining gases rendered Venusian settlements buoyant.
Ray pulled on his gloves as he walked. His Allied compatriots had never been fast to extend to him courtesies. They reserved them for fellow humans. Ray’s race made him an aberration and the humans never failed to remind him of it. Seeing “that corren” in strange, all-black armor incited sideways looks and whispers. Hatred for the Confederation ran deep, and correns came from the Confederation.
Outside the arboretum, Ray paused. The metalliglass floor, walls and ceiling provided unobstructed vistas in every direction. Overhead, the sky was clear. The sun set. The western thunderheads and smaller wisps drifted in ruddy contrast to the darkening east. Night and stars remained hidden behind the curtain of fading daylight. Beneath his feet, opaque ocher clouds churned.
Ray entered the botanical space. It brimmed with color, but the pervasive ocher palette of Venus muted everything. Anjali waited by a weeping cherry tree. A vestige of Earth, before the Blight. She wore the same Confederate armor as Ray, her crest hidden, too, beneath a thin, opaque disguise.
“You’re late, Raymond,” she said, using his entire name to drive home her displeasure. She looked at him with a mixture of disappointment and concern.
“We’ve still got time before we report,” he replied.
“Oh, so you remember the mission plan?” she scolded. “You know Heston has his eye on you. On us. He’s been looking to get us shipped back to Earth since we got here … says we’re not doing any good. You dragging your feet doesn’t help us out.”
Ray frowned. “I wasn’t dragging my feet, I just got caught up. It’s not easy wearing this again, revisiting this part of my life.”
“You need to get your mind right,” she chided. “You need to be harder.”
“Harder,” he frowned. “They raised us to be hard, Angie. Unfeeling killing machines. You want me to be that again?”
“Of course not,” she snapped. “But you can’t swing all the way soft. There’s still a war on. There’s still fighting left to do. I need to know I can depend on you. Heston needs to know it, too. We need to prove our usefulness to keep our spots.”
“Well, we’re about to be put to better use, by his measure,” Ray replied. “But I really don’t like this.” He brushed the covered Confederate insignia with his fingers. “I can feel it in my gut.”
“We don’t have a choice,” Anjali responded. “We don’t get to question our orders. That’s not how it works.”
Ray looked at her. “Who’s idea was this, Anj? His?”
“I don’t ask our generals why, Ray.”
“What about the great Fleet Admiral Hastings. Would you make an exception for him?”
“You know the answer to that,” she answered, visibly irritated. “Daddy’s command of Earth’s navy doesn’t afford him sway over us. And I hold no sway over him.”
Ray screwed up his nose. “It’s just … this stinks. Something is wrong, here; it doesn’t add up.”
Anjali narrowed her eyes at him.
“Think about it,” he continued. “We can’t fight our way out of a wet paper bag. Our army? On Earth, we’re getting routed, pushed to the brink … but, here, we somehow acquire a fully functional Confederate ship, decipher its controls and clearances … and, now, we’re just gonna fly it back to them and walk right into Overground?”
“Your brother deciphered its controls and clearances, Ray, you don’t trust his abilities—?”
Ray waved away the mention of A’arilon Daedalus, the only other corren in the Allied service.
“You throw the word brother around like it means something. He’s as much my ’brother’ as you’re every Indian’s sister.”
“Fine,” she said, fully annoyed. “Discount what small claim to family you have, but it doesn’t change where we’re going.”
“It’s the Confederation Emperor’s seat of power! Darek Marseh, Angie. This rates with you?”
“What am I supposed to do about it?” she barked.
Ray’s expression curdled.
“Do you want to fly there,” she added, reigning in her frustrations, “with all your qualms, or would you rather Heston has his way with us? You want to give him an excuse to throw us off base, without transportation?”
Ray shook his head and grunted in disgust.
“Let’s go,” she demanded. “We don’t have time to be moaning like children.”
She walked out of the arboretum and toward the hangar.
Ray sulked, and followed. “Who says we haven’t made that one mistake already?”
“I don’t want to go back, Ray,” she warned.
“You don’t think he’s already punched our ticket?”
She lapsed into silence at his sarcastic retort. She took a step and then stopped, forcing him to halt or collide with her. She turned and put her hand on his chest.
“We could defect … ” she whispered.
Ray brushed her hand down to her side, intertwining their fingers. He warned her a look. “Treason,” he whispered.
“Are you so worried about that?” She extracted her hand from his grip and rapped her fingertips on his breastplate. “Humans treat you like garbage.”
“You’re human … ”
She smiled. Her big brown eyes were warm. “My kind in name, not nature.”
Ray exhaled through his nose, keeping his voice down. “I don’t want to go back there, either, Angie.”
Thoughts of Earth induced dread in everyone.
Ray looked down at her coy face.
“And the Reds would never take us back; Daedalus and I are pariahs. We deserted. Now we’re supposed to go back? Arak Matar would never let us live. He and Marseh would have us publicly flayed, castrated and slowly, very slowly, executed.”
Anjali opened her mouth to speak, but he put his finger to her lips. He frowned.
“We can either be killed by the Reds in retribution,” he continued, “or by the Allies as traitors … ” He sighed. His shoulders slumped. “There’s no choice. Let’s go.”
He walked to door and it slid open to reveal the hall between the base and the hangar. He stood in the opening, letting Anjali pass. They walked the rest of the way in silence. Ray concentrated on the endless sea of clouds rather than his thoughts. The sulfuric acid-laden wisps were the last glimpses of Venus he ever expected to see.
General Heston waited at the hangar door with Colonel Robinson and Major Pruša, flanked by two MPs.
Pruša looked at Heston, who nodded, and the Major stepped up to intercept Ray. “Lieutenant Commander A’arilon. A word, please?”
Ray glanced at Anjali and reluctantly joined the Major in conference. For a human, Pruša was tall, but soft-bodied. Despite his height, he still ceded half a foot to the six-foot-eight-inch corren.
“Word is going around that you’re not pleased with your appointment,” said Pruša. His blue eyes were as placid as they were rare. If Ray hadn’t known better, he might have misconstrued his pink-skinned superior’s demeanor as friendly.
“You know what scuttlebutt is worth, Major,” Ray replied.
“Yes, in fact, I do, but I don’t think we agree. I find it highly valuable and often, if not true, a way to the truth. So, Commander Corren, Confederate turncoat, humor me. Unburden yourself.”
Ray looked over his shoulder. Heston and the swarthy Colonel Robinson were talking to Anjali.
“Eyes on me, Commander,” Pruša ordered.
Ray returned his attention to the Major. “You put me in charge a week ago. Gave me no input on my team, no insight into the plan. I feel ignorant and ill-prepared. I can’t, for the life of me, understand why any commander worth his salt would want it this way.”
Pruša smiled. It was convincingly warm yet obviously false. Ray’s insult had been plain.
“Commander Hastings recommended you to lead, and that’s why you do. It certainly isn’t because I want you in charge of anything, but her reputation is sterling. Feeling in the dark? Tough break, son. You know what you need to know. Some of you know more than others. Hastings knows more than you. Ask her to shine her light on your ignorance if it bothers you so much.”
Ray opened his mouth to retort.
“Don’t talk,” said Pruša. “I’m not interested in what you have to say. You have orders. Follow them. You’ve been briefed on your role. If we felt you required greater knowledge, we’d have provided it. Your insubordination is wearisome, Commander. Put some ice on your swollen hoo-hoo and do your job.”
Pruša proffered another disingenuous smile. He clapped Ray on the back and pushed him back toward General Heston. The man’s medium-brown skin always carried a hint of red, as if flushed with constant embarrassment.
“A’arilon,” Heston said, caustic, as Ray and Pruša rejoined the group.
The General’s relative dearth of height allowed Ray to tower over him by close to a foot. Anjali, too, stood taller than her superior.
Ray flared his nostrils and narrowed his eyes. He saluted.
“Commander Hastings,” said Heston with a subtle twist of his mouth. He looked at them both with a hint of disdain. “If we’re done with the hand holding … With me.”
Ray glanced at Anjali. She shrugged at him and he responded with an eye-roll. They followed Heston, Robinson, and Pruša through the airlock doors and into the hangar bay. Anjali stopped to straighten her ill-fitting Confederation uniform.
“Come along, Hastings,” Heston urged as he waddled further into the large bay. He led them to a Confederation cutter-class, medium-range starship. “You’ll remove those patches once aboard. You have to proudly present that insignia for this mission—”
A small vehicle drove by, nearly clipping Heston, causing his kilt to blow in the breeze.
“Damned, crazy— I think she was aiming for me!” he sputtered. He shot the driver a menacing glare as he gathered his wits.
“Should we detain that woman, General?” asked one of the MPs.
“A few more inches and that could have been satisfying,” Anjali whispered to Ray.
“I’m glad you’ve never said that to me,” he replied with a beleaguered smile.
“No, no … ” Heston said to the MP, “just … take note of her. Interview her later. Ship her back to Earth if she doesn’t appreciate her post.”
The General frowned and turned his attention back to Anjali and Ray. “Where was I? Oh, yes. So, we got her working.”
“You mean Daedalus got her working, Sir,” Ray interrupted.
A perturbed scowl crept over Heston’s face, but he checked it. “Lieutenant Daedalus worked closely with an entire team of human engineers, Lieutenant Commander. You’d do well to remember their contributions. Commander Gage, in particular, was instrumental in our success.”
“Is that why you assigned Gage to Klippeborg? As a thank you for a job well done? I’m sure he appreciates being back on Earth.”
The General ignored the sarcasm.
“This is what you’re piloting,” Heston said, motioning at the stolen enemy craft. “All those simulations we had you do … were based on the controls for this cutter.”
“You don’t think they miss it?” Ray asked.
Heston frowned. He turned a deeper shade of brown.
Colonel Robinson interjected. “We found her derelict in space, Commander, just beyond the Mars orbit. Floating there ... with two dead crew aboard. No sign of struggle. Hull intact. So, we brought her in. I shouldn’t need to tell you things you already know.”
“And you didn’t find it at all suspicious … ” said Ray, crossing his arms. Ignoring the Colonel’s admonition.
“We’ve had her for a while, now,” Heston picked back up, ignoring Ray’s bait. “Your corren kin has been over the ship with a fine-tooth comb and everything is to his satisfaction.”
Heston looked at Anjali.
“The three of you logged extensive hours in the flight simulator Daedalus developed. I’m satisfied. And so should you be. All command coding is intact. Those credentials should get you into Overground.”
“Should?” Ray asked.
“Yes, Commander,” Robinson insisted, his tone sharp. “Should. There is no guarantee. But we’ve hatched a good plan and we’re confident. You should share our confidence.”
Ray’s expression soured.
Heston responded in kind.
“Your crew is already on board,” he said. “They’ve been prepping while you two were … otherwise occupied.”
He cast an unveiled, disgusted expression at Anjali. She kept her composure.
Ray, though, could not excuse the insult. “Respectfully, General, mind your face when you look at her.”
He brushed Heston as he passed. Anjali followed Ray up the gangplank.
“Lieutenant Commander A’arilon!” Heston bellowed. “You are done! Your commission in the navy was a charity. Your exchange in my army is a gift! You got a second chance you never deserved … there won’t be a third!”
Ray turned on his heel and rounded on the small, fat man and Heston shrank backward.
“Then take me off this mission,” Ray demanded with quiet menace. Robinson and Pruša could barely make out the words.
“Damn it, A’arilon,” Pruša complained, but Ray ignored him.
“Well, ah—” Heston stammered. He wilted beneath Ray’s intense aggression, stupefied by the breach of decorum.
“Throw me in the brig, then. Court martial me!” Ray pressed, not raising his voice. He took a step back and held out his arms. “Better yet, execute me right here.”
“That’s quite enough, Commander!” both Robinson and Pruša demanded, in unison.
Ray stepped toward Heston, who retreated a step lest they touch.
“You think we’re all as stupid as you,” said Ray, he cast a glance at Pruša for good measure. “Anyone without shit for brains could smell the stink all over this.”
Heston adopted a low, even tone. “Get on that ship or I will have you executed, right here!"
Major Pruša stepped toward Ray. “Lieutenant Commander, get on that ship. You overestimate how much of an asset we think you are. We won’t hesitate to drop you.”
Ray crossed his arms. “Looks to me, Major, like all you do is hesitate.”
“Take aim at this traitor,” Heston ordered the MPs, his voice calm to the point of sounding bored.
The MPs trained their rifles on Ray.
The entire hangar crew stopped what they were doing to watch the standoff. The crewman who had almost run down Heston brought her cart to a halt. She rested her arms on the steering wheel and placed her chin atop them.
Atop the gangplank, Anjali put her fingers inside the collar of Ray’s breastplate. She gave him a gentle tug. “Raymond,” she said, in an even tone.
“Get on that goddamned ship. NOW!” Heston bellowed.
Ray tensed and shrugged off Anjali’s hand, but he turned and took to the ramp. She double-timed to match his pace.
“Have you lost your mind?” she whispered.
“No,” he replied. “Just testing a theory. And I’m not happy with the conclusion. We’re not coming back from this. Can’t you see that?”
“I’m just following orders, Commander,” she said without meeting his gaze. “Perhaps you should do the same.”
She chewed her lower lip and glanced over her shoulder at Heston. He widened his eyes and gave an almost unnoticeable, but sharp, shake of his head.
Ray and Anjali entered the cutter and the ramp raised behind them, sealing the hull.
Heston turned and glowered at his charges. “You MPs, dismissed.”
After they had walked off, he looked up at the Colonel.
“He’s much smarter than he looks,” said Robinson.
Pruša nodded, frowning at the same time. “Vile snake. Lets just hope Hasting’s appraisal of him is a sober one. If we sent them off with him in charge just because she’s sweet on him … ”
“All we can do, now, is wait and see, Major,” Heston replied. “But I have faith in Commander Hastings.”
He looked around the hangar at the idle workers. He locked eyes with the stout female crewman.
“Get back to work!”