Sooooooo, this story is pretty out of character for me, to be honest. As a general rule I tend to write with a fairly positive slant, and this doesn’t match that pattern at all. It was written as something of an exercise in attempting to create a grittier, more violent/darker tone. There are times, even in the most positive fiction, that scenes with such tones are called for. It…sort of succeeded? At any rate, while I would hardly be able to write the dark, disturbing in-dire-need-of-a-therapist themes some authors out there manage, I at least succeeded in creating a darker tone than my usual fare (I think). In that light the experiment was a success. This short is sci-fi, and about 2600ish words.
Grasp the Stars with Bloody Hands
By Jacen Aster
Aria grumbled as she cleaned the muck out of her carbine. She could feel the combination of swamp water and gore soaking through her clothes as well as her rifle, the high-tech fabric failing under the extreme demands of the last half-cycle. She shuddered as the disgusting sensation reached her skin but, as much as she desperately wanted to strip her soiled clothing off, retaining the function of her pulse rifle was a greater priority at the moment. She may have killed everyone in the guard post, but an unexpected patrol or curious enemy grunt could stumble in at any moment.
She finally finished with the rifle and didn’t hesitate in immediately stripping out of her ruined fatigues. The life of a spec-ops soldier of fortune hadn’t left her with much in the way of modesty, and what little she had certainly wasn’t a match for a twelve-hour belly crawl through a swamp followed by the bloody assassination of a dozen rebel soldiers. Once out of her clothes, a quick rummage through the guard post’s lockers produced a few mismatched replacements that would be a passable fit and she gratefully redressed in the makeshift outfit. A lack of modesty she might have, yes, but it wasn’t the best idea to be showing off her goods when the other mercs arrived.
She’d placed a line-of-sight beacon on the roof some five minutes ago but, thankfully, she should still have a bit of time before the others showed. The basecamp was a good twenty kilometers away and even with the guard post eliminated they’d have to practice a decent degree of stealth in their approach to the rebel stronghold. Plus, much to her irritation, they’d likely have been surprised that she pulled it off. They’d dismissed her despite a solid reputation, simply because she was a good-looking woman.
She always hated that dismissal. Not because she wanted their respect, but because she didn’t and needed it anyway. She hated the killing, the smoke, the blood and tears, everything about a soldier’s life really. Unfortunately, the only two ways off this shit-hole of a planet for a girl not born to money were mercenary work or spreading your legs in the red-light district. Most girls looking to escape chose that second option. It was easier, less seemingly dangerous. Of course, the reality was that most of them never had a chance. They were murdered by clients, became sex-slaves for the private use of Telunkian nobles, or ended up as strung-out druggies who spent their pitiful earnings on their next fix. No, even for all its terror, blood and danger the option of being a solider for hire actually had the better chance of success with a lower rate of death.
Which didn’t mean it wasn’t fraught with its own perils. Aria had escaped death, rape, or enslavement by the skin of her teeth a double dozen times before she managed to pull herself up by her bootstraps, out of the unwashed masses of mediocre mercs and thugs-for-hire. She’d ultimately had to fill someone’s bed anyway, seducing experienced mercs for tips and job recommendations, but she could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Hopefully, it wasn’t an onrushing maglev.
Dressed again, she eyed the water dispenser and the door. The blasted thing was in a blind corner, but she decided to risk it. A quick chug of liquid for her parched throat, a bit more thrown into her shoulder-length hair, and she was back covering the door. She dragged the fingers of her free hand through her muck-covered raven locks, using the splash of water to get at least some of the disgusting filth out of her poor, violated hair. She’d cut it much shorter for the majority of her six-year stint as a merc, but had let it grow of late in anticipation of freedom.
Technically, she already had enough credits to get off the planet, even with the absurd taxes the nobles forced on Telunkian locals that tried to leave. She’d have been broke after she left orbit though, and she had no desire to make it off planet only to get stuck in some distant port with no assets or resources to her name. So she’d taken one last job. This job. Which everyone else had figured for a suicide mission.
Still, that meant the pay was good. Assuming, of course, that her supposed allies didn’t kill her in some half-baked attempt to absorb her portion of the pay. A serious concern, considering that accomplishing the impossible op she’d just finished paid fully half the total credits up for grabs.
She heard a click come across the secure comm at her ear, the agreed upon signal, and tapped a quick double click in response without removing her pulse rifle from covering the door. It hissed open, drawing a wince from her at the noise, but it wasn’t really her problem any longer. Any more action was the problem of the hulking brute of a man that stepped through the door with his own rifle foolishly slung over his shoulder. He hesitated when he caught sight of the barrel that was leveled at him, then scowled and moved inside anyway, followed by his two lieutenants. At least one of his underlings was smart enough to have his sidearm out, even if it was pointed down.
The hulking brute growled, eyed the room, then raked his gaze over her. His eyes stayed riveted on her haphazardly dressed form far longer than the room, and she recognized the look of lust in those dull, grey eyes. She tightened her grip on her pulse rifle, prepared to fight her way out if she had to. It proved unneeded as he abruptly gestured her out. She carefully slid passed the small group, then passed the rest of his crew outside and back into the swamp.
Three steps ahead.
She’d made him come to her on purpose, made him come into the guard post. A veteran she’d seduced, or perhaps been seduced by, had told her that rule. Always be three steps ahead, not just of your enemies, but of everyone on this godforsaken planet. She’d made Captain Avatin come to her so that he’d see the gore of the guardhouse troops splattered over the walls of the post. She’d killed them that way, instead of much cleaner options she could have used, so that the sight would be properly chilling. Now, she was walking away not only unmolested, but completely uncontested. Three steps ahead.
Aria laid back as best she could in the seat of the automated aircab. She’d passed three others in the small village in favor of her current ride. It was older, more beat up and a bit slower, but it had a transparent roof and for once in her life she wanted to look up. To look at what was now, finally, within her grasp. Normally, people like her didn’t want to look up. It was simply too potent a reminder of their chained fate. Doubly so on a clear night, and it wasn’t hard to guess why.
The planet’s terraforming ring was visible with the naked eye.
The thin line of orbital lights circling the planet was clearly, tauntingly visible in the night sky from virtually anywhere on the surface. Certainly from anywhere within the limited zone that had already been terraformed. The sight might have been a beautiful promise on another world, to be gazed at with hope, but not here on Telunka. No, never here. Not when the vast majority of those on the planet were only barely more than slaves. Not when the orbital ring represented those that kept them that way. Anyone not of the noble caste was effectively trapped here, strangled by the nobles who controlled both the caste system and the only means off the planet.
The caste system was not, perhaps, what the original colonists had intended to exist on Telunka. At least, Aria doubted it was. But the indentured nature of the workforce the colonial expedition had brought along had naturally bred the caste system over time. Now, the nobles and richer merchants lived in luxury within the habitats of the terraforming ring, while the workforce of peasants, tradesman, and other support personnel were the ones suffering on the surface.
Worse, terraforming had slowed after the first decade, the nobles happily redirecting funds away from the effort. After all, they had a nice place to live. To them, the only reason to expand the terraforming would be if they ran out of the resources being gathered from the early habitable zones. A state of affairs that would take centuries to come to pass. No surprise, then, that they considered it quite safe to slow the planned thirty-year terraform to a glacial three century project. No skin off their proverbial nose, even if it was a violation of their original contract with the people as a whole. A violation which had given rise to the various rebellions and outlaw groups.
Perhaps, Aria thought to herself as her eyes wandered away from the lights of the ring to the stars that filled the rest of the sky, if she was a better person she might have fought with those groups. But she wasn’t. Instead, she simply fought whomever she was paid to fight, so that she personally could get off this festering cesspool of a world. As she settled in for the remaining flight, she shrugged. Whatever the case, tonight, the sky looked beautiful.
Aria eyed the last ship on her shortlist critically. It clearly wasn’t a local ship, far too streamlined to have come from their little half-terraformed ball of mud. The cynical roots buried deep in her personality noted that the smooth, red outer skin and long tapered shape made the Tavrish look more than a bit phallic. The slight bulge at the center of the ship, enclosing the hollow space where its translight core would be generated, somehow only enhanced the effect instead of helping to dispel the impression. Still, beyond the advantage of being visibly well maintained, the massive 750-meter trade ship had what she wanted. Namely, a far distant course that would take months to reach its final stop, a captain with a good reputation, and a number of young engineers who had reacted well to her flirting when she’d scouted them.
She had no intention, no intention at all, of remaining a soldier of fortune that crawled through swamps to make a paycheck. No sir. Which meant she needed another skillset, preferably one that would make her valuable on a starship. Engineers were the one absolutely irreplaceable position on a ship of any size. Even more so than a captain, really, as a ship could never make any worthwhile distance without someone to carefully maintain and balance the translight cores over interstellar distances. You might manage to make a single sloppy jump in an emergency, without an engineer, but you certainly wouldn’t make two. That made it worthwhile to scout them, to find which ships had a few engineers that she could bribe, seduce, or otherwise coerce into providing her some hands-on instruction. She also only wanted to do it once, if it meant offering more than money and a little flirting. She was trying to escape that sort of thing, after all. Which meant a nice, long trip to a far off star.
After three days of canvasing the spaceport for every ship that was leaving promptly, and tracking down each of their crews to get a feel for which had susceptible targets, she was certain that this was the ship. The Tavrish had a good reputation and it was due for a direct shot to Pentalliviah, a nearly five-month trip even at the high superluminals the powerful ship was capable of. A bit of good fortune had jumped it even farther up her list once she’d investigated it and sent an initial inquiry. Its captain was willing to cut her typical passenger rate in half if she acted as an enforcer for any internal problems that cropped up on the long voyage. Virtually no-one reputable kept proper guards over long distance runs, it just wasn’t cost effective. But with so many souls trapped in a confined space for months on end, conflicts could very well require aggressive resolutions. A veteran who could effectively take a shockstick to a bar-brawl was worth cutting said person an at-cost passage.
She turned away from the ship. Yes, this was how she would leave this pathetic ball of hubris and hate forever. She would send her final acceptance to Captain Jinan when she returned to her rooms. After that, it was only a matter of wading through the remaining bureaucracy. They couldn’t stop her now, she had dotted every i and crossed every t.
If anyone had thought to ask, Aria would have told them she was surprised to find herself looking back at Telunka as the Tavrish made its final checks in orbit. She’d always envisioned refusing to look back, of brushing the thought of the planet off like so much dust off her combat boots. So she was surprised, but there was no one present to ask, so none but her would ever know. She was one of only two passengers on this trip. Most people didn’t favor the idea of such a long haul, choosing multiple shorter journeys to cover such distances. Add in that her fellow passenger was a foreign merchant who’d likely seen a thousand departures and Aria found herself alone in the ship’s observation bubble, looking back with surprise, instead of forward to the stars.
She caught a bright light out of the corner of one eye before the glass of the bubble automatically darkened on that side. She turned and was just able to see the source from this angle. The engineers were testing the translight core, the massively dense ball of swirling power being generated in the hollow of the ship’s center. From what little Aria knew, that core was the only part of the ship technically capable of superluminal travel of its own accord. The rest of the ship simply got towed along by raw force when the core hit a hypergate and accelerated.
Such cores were so bright that she knew the test would be visible to anyone on the ground looking up. It was another thing people like her hated. Had hated, in the past tense, for her. Now, she felt her blood stirring in excitement as she witnessed it and, in a moment of clarity, she finally understood why she was looking back at the world she hated.
She wanted to tell her homeworld to fuck off as she escaped its grasp.
The test concluded, the core shut down, and the deck of the Tavrish shifted ever so slightly as the ship began pulling out of orbit. The ship was fast for a merchy, even in sublight space, and it didn’t take long at all for the planet to begin shrinking as they made their way toward the edge of the system and the waiting hypergate. As she watched her past fade away in the distance Aria smiled, a true and genuine smile with no hint of smirk or grimace, for the first time in her own living memory. She turned firmly away from the view in satisfaction. Whatever else may come, she was free.