This story is won Grand Prize at the Pod and Planet Fiction Contest YC117, run by Telegram Sam. Check out some of the other great stories posted there.
In the beginning, there is Void. An aching blackness that blankets the senses, makes the mind shudder and the body rage against the prison of alien alloy that entraps it. A relay is thrown somewhere light-years (or is it meters?) away. A sense of movement. Cables twitching and pulsing. After an eternity, Void gives way to simple blackness. The brief flickering of panic subsides, and the hunt begins. A star has wandered from its orbit, no longer shining in its accustomed place. Stars do not simply wander….they must be pulled. Or pushed.
Hassaan could feel the tension leaking out of his muscles finally. It had been weeks since he had allowed himself to relax and the stress of the last few days had been incredible. Nervously he put two fingers underneath his collar and tugged a few times at the new and freshly pressed shirt that he wore, trying to stretch out the fabric. He wasn’t used to living the high life that came with the getup he was wearing but…
A vision straight from a holovid stepped around the corner from the en-suite bathroom, an expensive sheer robe clinging to her curves, a pout on her pale rose lips, “Saan, baby, you’re scowling again. You know I hate it when you make that face.”
Playing up his grimace a bit, he played along with Natalie’s game. Step by step she made her way over to his chair, putting on a show and strutting her way over to the tense would-be businessman, letting her robe slowly slip as she moved towards him, “Let me see you smile, baby.”
This was worth it, everything he had risked to get himself here, he thought to himself, dry-mouthed and heart pounding. Besides, they probably didn’t even know he was missing.
“We have a problem. There is a leak. Three fleets lost in as many days.”
“I know. We’re on it. The data is being processed; we should be able to find something.”
“I hope the Seer can handle this…”
“She can. She always does.”
Some time later, after having once again spent themselves in their rented paradise, Hassaan let his gaze linger over Natalie’s sole tattoo, and the shapely hip that it was supported by. That strange esoteric design was hauntingly familiar, but his attention wasn’t on the particulars of his new lover’s body modifications, simply on the body itself. With a slight giggle the sultry, cinnamon-skinned brunette noted his awakening gaze and rolled over to press herself against him. Drawing hearts with her nails against his chest, “Saanny, baby. I want to go shopping. We’ve been cooped up in this luxury prison for days now! Can’t we go out to get some fresh air?
“We’re on a station, none of the air here is fresh,” he said absently with a smirk. He knew that he wouldn’t be able to hide in this hotel forever, as much as he felt like it. But he had gone two full constellations away from his former employers. Well out of reach of anyone who would care about him anymore. Besides, the next series of jumps would put him out of the Federation and into the Republic and almost completely out of reach of the authorities. He would be safe there. The tickets were already purchased and waiting, but the cruise liner wasn’t leaving for another two days.
“Saaaaaaannnnnn,” Natalie pouted, furrowing her brow and sticking out her lower lip. Her expression shifted instantly to an impish grin, eye sparkling, “I’ll make it worth your while.”
A million points of light, floating through space. Each a brilliantly shining spark, each with its own shimmer, its own unique glow. An ocean of tiny fireflies swirling around aimlessly, fine strands of glass connecting each one to the others. One shifts and pulls others with it, each dancing to its own tune, yet somehow making a greater whole. To focus on one is to be lost in an infinity of connection, but to those with the eyes to see, the mysteries of the universe are there for the taking. The shifting aurora dazzles the senses. More bandwidth. A tinkling of fine crystal begins to ring all around, like the hymns of some skin-wearing tribe. There are no words to the song, only feeling and emotion. Fear. Hope. Joy. Sorrow. Greed. The fireflies never cease their endless dance as they twirl in the darkness.
Walking along the street, Hassaan’s hood fluttered slightly in the simulated breeze that blew through the superstructure of the station. Even with the amount he had paid for his suite, he could barely see the bottom of the Capsuleer Concourse that sat stories above. Space stations let you know where you really were on the social ladder. Even with all of the money this deal had made him, more than he had ever thought possible, there were many levels above where he was walking. Levels that he would never see, simply because some genetic marker said that he could never be an egger. The thought of capsuleers caused a chill to run down his spine. He pulled his hood farther forward to ward off the sudden nervousness. Sometimes having an Imperial heritage had its advantages, even if it was just access to simple, effective disguises. He was Ni-Kunni and had no right to wear the hood that he did, but no one in the Republic would know that. They would be too busy being self-righteous and indignant to notice or care. Natalie however, was being her normal, uninhibited, very public self. Currently she was batting her eyelashes into a security camera with a coy smile on her face. It was probably what first drew him to her at the club that night, what was it? Only a week ago? It had seemed like so much longer. He would have to talk to the girl, see if she could be a little more discrete.
“What algorithm does she use?”
“Algorithm? What do you mean?”
“To sort it all out. To find our prey.”
“She IS the algorithm. Let me show you.”
“But I thought you liked the way I act in public?” Natalie asked quietly, lips almost twitching into a frown.
“I do…just not…not right now while we are travelling. And maybe a bit after,” Hassaan tried to think up a good reason without having to detail why he needed to lay low at this particular moment. Screwing his eyes shut and holding the bridge of his nose he tried to think of an appropriate response. Natalie’s eyes immediately softened, stepping forward and putting a finger to his pursed lips. “Shhhh….it’s fine. I understand. It’s your culture, your upbringing. I can respect that. Be warned though,” her eyes took on a predatory glint and a hungry smile, “I will have to make up for it in private. A girl just has to have a certain amount of….release, you know?”
Hassaan’s mouth immediately went as dry as a tinderbox, but the fire started somewhat south of that.
Some of the fireflies are dim and feeble, bare data, cold and silent. They are the reliable ones, attached to other lights with hard lines, but also are the ones avoided by parasites. Too easy to follow an infection back to the source, to purge the Parasite before it can establish itself. The brightly glowing lights are the ones that Parasites prefer, the ones whose song reaches far and whose movement tugs many strings. Parasites can hide in the shadows cast by these lights, slowly corrupting them, changing their patterns, making them into hollow shells that ring false when you listen to their song. Others sing true, no matter how far they wander from their point of origin, even if it leads them down dark paths that lead to their eventual demise. Crystalline songs delivered dutifully through the web. Parasites seemed to have a hard time detecting these elements, even if they feared them. Some inner blindness? Or maybe a clash of values so immense that they become alien? No matter, just another data point.
The two spent the afternoon as lovers throughout time have done. Shopping, having various beverages hot and cold, going to the holo theatres, all the while stealing brief romantic exchanges while they thought no one was looking. Of course on a space station, someone is always looking. Security monitored every part of the station, through both AI and human observers. Other than to smile wistfully or ogle crudely, the human Observers paid them no attention. The AI observers watched them impassionately, like they watched everyone. They forwarded their signals to the datacenter for analysis, storage for a legally required time and eventual deletion. During that time, anyone with the proper authority could access and review the footage. Even with cutting edge data storage, the server rooms were massive. The human brain couldn’t even begin to scratch the surface on the influx of images, but unfortunately the being that followed Hassaan and Natalie through the digital realm had stopped being human many years ago.
“Can she see us?”
“I don’t think so. There’s so much data that her optic nerves are the last thing she’s paying attention to.”
“Stop tapping on the glass. You’ll make her angry.”
At dinner, which they ate at a classy, but out of the way boutique restaurant, Natalie was dressed much more modestly, though no less bright. Her bubbling personality was tamed into a demur calm, that only a smirk and a sparkle in her eyes betrayed. Hassaan was having a moral dilemma. He was torn about whether or not to come clean to Natalie. They were travelling together and that intertwined their fates more than their physical relationship, he justified to himself. On the one hand she had happily played along, making up a reasoning that even he hadn’t thought about. He could leave it at that little white lie and be done with it. He had to admit, the calm and graceful act was somehow just as enticing as the exuberant exhibitionist. On the other hand he didn’t want to sour a blossoming relationship with that kind of lie. This woman had followed him after a night of drunken boasting at the Brass Rail, been mindful of his every need during their trip, and had changed her entire public personality in an instant, just to suit his supposed religious sensibilities. Never mind that they had only truly known each other for a short time. He told himself that the incredible sex had nothing to do with it. Nothing at all.
Patterns amidst patterns. Where some some see chaos, others find fractal order. A baker on Matar makes an order from his distributor in the city, but his wife has some sickness they cannot afford to treat. A mail to a lost sister in Luminaire. Desperation. Hope. Irrelevant. The human drama played out over and over. Different people, different stories, different lives. Same motives. The motives never change, the story remains the same, simply with different actors. How does one find a particular poisonous leaf on the forest floor? How does a long-limb find a mate in the methane-covered jungles of distant Therusse? Some things cannot be taught, only experienced. Instinct counts, even when you are an immortal. The songs of a thousand different stars hum melodiously, a single repeating, clear toned ping betraying the choir. Follow. Safe. Waiting.
“So, I ended up selling my access codes to the highest bidder. Made more money than I’ll ever be able to spend. It’s been the only time I ever made real cash working for those inhuman bastards. That’s why I want to keep a low profile for now,” Hassaan’s confession had lifted one weight from his chest and put another one back on. During the whole thing, Natalie had sat stock-still, eyes wide with her hand over her mouth. He couldn’t read the expression on her face and couldn’t tell if she was horrified or worried, and he dreaded the former. When it was obvious that his story was finished, Natalie lowered her hands to her lap slowly. Without making any sudden movements, she enfolded his head in her arms and whispered, “I am glad you got away from those horrible things. We’ll stay in till our ship leaves, and then we will leave this all behind and start new lives.”
Hassaan’s heart soared. He had made the right decision.
“The Seer has her answer, she has scheduled a meeting.”
“Like you said, it’s been days since the fleets started running into unreasonably bad luck. She didn’t seem at all surprised when I told her to look into it. Somehow I think she already knew we were compromised and was already looking into it.”
“I am very glad she’s on our side.”
“You and me both.”
The assault team didn’t even bother knocking. They simply opened the door to the suite and swept in with the precision and grace of a dance team. They weren’t police. The police were on standby in the hallway, standing at ease. They knew professionals when they saw them. Dark grey camo that seemed to let them become one with the shadows in the corners of most stations, with a simple corporate logo on one shoulder and a Capsuleer Alliance logo on the other. No names, no tags. Armed well enough to take on most of the local force by themselves. Two quick injections and both of the occupants of the room were in restraints and being hustled out of the apartment and onto a very sleek looking frigate before the local lawmen even noticed that they had only been given paperwork on the one of the individuals. And try as they might, the trail of the woman stopped cold at the obviously fake name registered at the hotel. The paperwork for the man however was impeccable, with all of the correct forms and signatures. The formal charges were corporate espionage, and accessory to mass murder, neither one of those the chief wanted to deal with, and was he was happy to pass the mess on to someone else’s jurisdiction. By the footage, the woman was a “Exotic Dancer” by profession, so he wasn’t all that concerned about her lack of paperwork. He had been Station Security long enough to spot them a mile away. Most capsuleers treated them like princesses and prized possessions, so he wasn’t at all worried for her safety.
“Luck sometimes plays a greater role than all the money in the universe, but it is effort that allows you to take swift action when Luck presents you an opportunity. We got lucky this time. Perhaps our man had not gone to that particular club? Nevermind his choice of companion. All the men and women of that establishment are Ours. What if he had recognized the corporate logo that Natalie had foolishly tattooed on herself? She has been reprimanded and told to get it removed, but also awarded for her excellent work. The implants we have given Our people seem to be paying dividends, especially the ocular recording implants. I have already burned his access and am going over his contacts in the recent past. This isn’t a random act, he was recruited. You have seen the confession recording, someone paid him in ISK for that. ISK means other capsuleers. I need to look into this,”
As the fog in his brain began to lift, he heard the slamming of heavy doors and saw flashes of orange. His clothes? What was going on? He found himself in a sparse, white cell, that would have been considered very comfortable if it weren’t for the details of three different space battles being constantly projected onto the walls. Casualty estimates. Names of the deceased crew. Battle footage, photos of both living and the dead. A never ending procession of carnage that played itself out silently on the walls of his world. Only the door was not covered in the gruesome details. And in a scrolling bar across the top of his cell the words “YOUR ACTIONS CAUSED THIS” circled the room endlessly. Hassaan began to weep before the first hour of his sentence was complete. He knew that for the rest of his life he would be a prisoner. Prisoner of the unholy, inhuman devils that he once dealt with and then betrayed.
“So what do we tell Leadership?”
“We tell them that the hole was found and plugged. Hand them the evidence.”
“Just like that? How do I explain the turnaround time?”
“Simple. We have a very efficient intelligence network. They all have their own Seers too, just nobody talks about it. Information is power, and power is the currency of the game.”
Natalie woke up slowly curled up under linen sheets and a warm blanket. The fuzziness she felt meant that she was back home, among the Family. She uncurled her arms and stretched. Hassaan hadn’t been a bad man, he had just made some mistakes and had the bad luck blabbing to the wrong woman about things he shouldn’t have. She did have to admit that she had almost blown it with that stupid tattoo. Mama had already talked to her about and knowing her she had it removed while she had been unconscious. A small, square bandage taped to her hip was all the proof she need to know she was right. The bonus would be nice though. And maybe they would let her visit him one more time in prison. She would bet any amount on the fact that he would rather sleep with her than strangle her. In fact, she was almost positive she had played up the supporting role enough that he wouldn’t even suspect her, she would just be an innocent caught in the crossfire. Ha! How he had ever taken her for innocent, she never knew. They had met while he was drunk, and she was giving him a lapdance at the stripclub. Not exactly the place to find innocent flowers! She loved her Family, and a handful of her Sisters and Brothers had died in those massacres. The bounty money would be very nice and revenge was sweet, but she had been extra lucky that he was spectacular in bed.
One problem solved, another one presented. The dance continues. Was this an old player or new? It was so hard to tell most of the time. It was a game of chess in the dark against an unknown number of opponents. There was nothing else like it. So once again she immersed herself in the gelatin suspension that allowed her to drift through the nets of information like a spider dancing in her web.