This is a continuation from the previous entry of my Starforged-inspired fiction project, which I posted last week. As such I don’t think of it as a new “chapter” and didn’t trigger any start of chapter stuff. If you want to catch up from the beginning, the setup is here. Mechanical notes are in the collapsed boxes!
Winder negotiated docking with the Helia AI’s bay, one of a million details of space travel Echo had never considered. Whenever the ship had arrived in his township, it settled down on a grassy field and lowered a ramp. But Echo could hear the howling wind outside the hull, feel the burning cold creeping in around the imperfect seal with Helia. He zipped up the grungy old suit, took a deep breath, and stepped into the plastic hallway that had extended out from a gray-brown hab.
At the other end of the tunnel, a dark figure leaned against the open doorway. She had her rifle over one shoulder and a thick scarf bunched up around her neck. Obsidian-dark skin and the lightest eyes he had ever seen. Echo stopped, uncertain.
The woman sighed. “It’s cold out here, Echo. Coffee’s hot if you want some.” Then she turned and went into the hab.
Was she…unhappy? Angry? He had no idea how to gauge her other than not a farmer.
Echo poked his head into the building. Major Freeman was cradling a small steel cup in her hands, inhaling the steam. She looked up at him and nodded her head toward a dingy carafe. “Any clean cup you can find. Wasn’t my turn to wash up. The brains always forget though.”
As he stepped in, the airlock door quietly shut behind him and the bright green LOCK sign lit up over it. Didn’t know what to do with his hands — a shake or hug or a punch, who knows how these people greet each other — so he quietly plucked a mug out of the sink and poured himself a drink.
“He always said you were sharp,” the Major muttered around her cup. “Or was firing the thruster Good Advice’s idea?”
“That was all me,” Echo said. “But it calls itself Winder now.”
She nodded. “All The Time In The World et cetera et cetera, oh sure, I remember.” The Major looked far away for a moment, sipping companionably with Echo while the walls of the hab thumped with the wind storm. “Thought you’d have come sooner but I’m grateful you’re here now. Next supply ship doesn’t arrive for two tendays and my contract here runs 20 more past that.” She shrugged, put down the cup, then picked it back up and poured herself one more cup from the carafe.
“Sooner?” Echo asked. He drank too fast and burned his mouth. “So you knew I was coming? How? I mean I just took that ship just a few days ago…”
The Major smiled for the first time, brilliant teeth. “Guess the old guy needed some time to figure things out. So! The brains want to meet today’s savior, and then they’re going to want to ask you to help us…help me secure this place. They have a theory about how to go about doing that.”
Echo shuffled his feet and tried to shrug deeper into the old suit. “Brains? Secure? A theory about — I’m sorry, ma’am, but I’m real lost here. He didn’t send me or anything, you’re someone Winder thought I should connect with —“
But she had already turned, waving a hand over her shoulder for him to follow as she walked away. “You’re here now and that’s what matters, Echo. It’s warmer underground anyway.”
Sure enough, the space under the hab buildings was quiet, warm, civilized. They walked down a short staircase and came out in a greatroom suffused with the distinctive glow of full-spectrum bulbs. The air was moist as well. It didn’t take long for Echo to spot the hydroponics along the back wall. His folk preferred dirt but had also been blessed with fertile soil and a yellow-spectrum sun.
Work benches and desks were scattered haphazardly around the space. About a dozen older folks with looks ranging from Terminus-chic to Outland scavenger were either staring at holo displays, or eating, or napping.
“Here’s the pilot I was telling you about,” Major Freeman said. She didn’t look back at Echo, just continued walking to the middle of the space, finally stopping in front of a disheveled older man. Echo thought he was more on the scavenger end, maybe stole his clothes off a Terminus fitness guru. “Zari, this is Echo Sedano. Echo, Zari.”
“Doctor Zari Vandu,” the old guy quickly corrected, reaching out a gloved hand. “I’m the head of the operation here, chief xenohistorian. Don’t mind them, they’re working,” he said, flapping his hands vaguely toward the rest of the greatroom. “I hope Kimbra gave you some coffee? Do you need anything to eat? We’ve got some kind of fruit that’s just about ripe I’m sure—”
“Major Freeman,” she corrected, and smiled. They each held their smile a moment past comfortable. Echo looked at the hydroponics wall. Some fruit did sound tasty.
“So you’ve seen what we’re dealing with firsthand, yes?” Dr. Vandu asked, stepping in front of Echo. “Our work is substantially hampered by constantly needing to repair damage to our sensors and replace what I can only describe as stolen material.”
“Those things are stealing stuff?” Echo asked. “They’re not just animals? Or whatever? My ship can’t even detect them as life forms.”
“And yes, that is the problem isn’t it?” The doctor asked, then looked to Freeman.
She picked up the thread. “Doctor Vandu here believes these things are somehow connected to the Monument out there.” She paused and walked over to a full-wall display. Her approach activated the display, fed by an outside camera zoomed in on the base of the Monument a few kilometers away. “They’ve taken physical samples around the base, aimed their sensors inside it, no joy. Me, I would love to get inside this thing. Honestly it’s why I took the job—“
Vandu shook his head, grimacing. Freeman continued. “—but doing so would, I suppose, present certain risks to my being able to fulfill my contract providing for the overall security blah blah blah. So nobody’s tried going in, and the brains aren’t ready to do that yet either.”
“Calling us brains is infantilizing,” Vandu muttered. “We’re just not prepared to execute our field operation here yet. But when we do…we’re going in here.”
He gestured at the display wall and the camera zoomed in toward the base of the monument. It really was just unimaginable how it could have ever been built. Kilometers across at the base, kilometers tall. But near the base, a small black fissure.
“And I think the dust devils you saw out there are coming and going through it,” the Major said, tapping the dark crease in the monument wall.
“Dust devils, oh I like that very much,” Vandu nodded, also staring at the display.
“I’m going to talk to Echo for a minute,” Freeman said. “We’ll be back.”
Echo’s eyes were wide. “You want me to go with you inside this thing? First humans to enter it? Don’t they have drones or —“
The Major and Echo were back above the greatroom, in the landing bay hab. Echo was a tad taller but Freeman dominated the space. “That’s right. Can’t be drones, machines can’t approach. Just like the one in orbit.” She said.
“Inside! And then we’ll, what, exterminate these uhhh what did you call them? Dust devils? Did you notice they can change shape? Fly? Look, I just need provisions for the ship, that’s all I came here for. I can wash their dishes or —“
Kimbra Freeman put her hand up. Echo stopped himself from babbling. “Echo, look at me,” she said, directing his eyes toward hers. “Okay. Listen. This is the life you chose when you inherited that ship.”
“Inherited, no, what —“
“He did not just give you a multimillion credit armed space vessel for a joyride, Echo. And now I need your help.” She stopped, cleared her throat, changed the timbre of her voice a bit. “I’ve offered you hospitality and accepted. You have the means to help me and I am not asking you to risk your life. I’m asking you to help. Will you?”
He should have realized the hospitality, hell the ship, came with…this. Adult obligations. He only half-understood the rites and traditions Kimbra was invoking here but he could hear it in her voice.
“I…yeah. I’ll help.”
She shook her head. “That’s not how it goes. You say to me, I swear a vow to aid you however I can.”
“Wait, a vow, no I’m not … you don’t understand … I —“
The major drew a blade from a sheath on her leg. “I too swear a vow to you that I will protect your life with my own in return for your aid.”
Echo realized he had never actually seen an iron vow made for real, in person. Only in shows, or in stories the ship’s previous pilot had shared, or heck, in songs. Vows were something you sang about! Not something a farming community’s Paragon was ever going to have to make.
“Do you have a blade?” She asked, still holding her own up.
He patted his suit, helpless, feeling pulled along faster than he had expected. “…no?”
Freeman nodded. “Let’s see what else he left you in the ship.”
“Hello Major,” Winder said as they walked aboard. “Nice having you aboard again.”
Freeman smiled again, again with the brilliant teeth. “Heard you changed your name again. How was he, last you saw?”
The ship was silent a beat. “Reconciled,” it said. “Ready to rest.”
The major walked into the commons area, very familiar with its layout. “Left his blade, then, did he? Retired for real?” Echo followed along, suddenly feeling like a stranger in his own ship. The kid near the adult table listening to adults talk about adult things.
A panel in the commons area Echo hadn’t noticed before slid away. Behind it, guns. A rifle, a pistol. And a long sheath containing a composite-alloy blade. A weapon for pirates, but really a weapon for anyone who didn’t want to poke holes through a hull in vacuum.
Major Freeman walked to the newly revealed space and reached in for the blade. “You’re flying with … Winder, but what you really inherited was this.” She handed the blade to Echo. “There. Now. Swear to me you’ll help me.”
“I already said I would!”
She shook her head. “The vow makes it real. Means I can count on you how you’re going to count on me. This is how we do this out here.”
His hand touched the handle and trembled.
She sighed. “Or don’t. It’s fine, kid. It sounds like he didn’t really give you the briefing he should have. Just put it back and fly home. I’ll have the brains put together some food for you.” She held her hand out to Echo for the sheath.
There was a moment, Echo felt, when the trembling stopped. He took a deep breath and pulled out the blade. Weirdly light, whatever the composite was, certainly not “iron” like they called it on the shows. He held up the blade and made eye contact with Kimbra.
“I swear to help you however I can in the defense of this place.” His voice didn’t sound like his own.
No more brilliant smiles, no more trying to win him over, just a hand on his shoulder. “Attaboy,” Kimbra said. “Let’s figure out how we’re doing this.”