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The Archives

If a call for submissions hasn’t gone out already, one will be sent out soon. The tentative title is Dark Dawn, because it marks the beginning of a darkening of Audelian society.

There will be several short stories in this anthology, about  specific individuals called Kelmuns. The stories must fit within the canon of The Archives, so blind submissions won’t work. If you’ve come to this posting that was linked in the call, there is obviously some interest in writing a story. Please contact me at my yahoo.com email address (mmeier5276).

Probably the biggest thing people will wonder about is pay for word count. Here’s the crux of the issue: some of the Kelmuns in this anthology will warrant a higher word count than others.

Stories 2,000 to 3,000 words will be paid $20.00.
Those 3,000 to 5,000 will earn $25.00.
More than 5,000 gets $30.00.

Each contributed story will also receive a free print copy of Dark Dawn* (contiguous United States only), and as many discounted copies as requested (also contiguous U.S. only). Sending copies can get too expensive outside this area, so I apologize to the rest.
When a first draft is complete it should be submitted for “course correction.” The technology should be the same, the names should be correct, and the plot line should match the overall storyline of The Archives. Reading what's already established (some excerpts below) will help in that respect.


*If a contributor has two stories accepted, they will receive two free copies, etc.

An important note is that the book is not about the technology, but a good grasp of that is a must. These stories will be about the people, not the gizmos. There are samples below as examples.

The premise:
There is a secret society of Archivists who record history as they witness it. Hundreds or thousands of years later, remnants of their writing are found in recycled data hardware and translated. Nobody has found more than allusions to the main Archive on a hidden space station in interstellar space.

The Archivists for Dark Dawn should be a witness to the events in the story. Using the contemporary world as an example, a story about a United States president may have an archivist who is the chief of staff, a secretary, or even the person who delivered sandwiches to the office of the chief of staff. Your story, your choice.

The Archives will eventually consist of dozens of novels, and potentially a hundred or more short stories. If Dark Dawn does well, contributors may be invited to write more within the series. We’ll all benefit from promoting the publication as we’re able.

If you’re interested, please contact me at the email address mentioned above. There are some examples below of The Archives so you can gauge your level of interest. There is a lot more to take into account than can be put here.

Serious inquiries only, please, though I'm happy to answer your questions.

This call will remain open until all stories are reserved.

The Kelmuns

The Judges

In short, I'm writing the Old Testament as a science fiction series. There are people who cannot relate to bronze chariots, but stick a blaster is someone's hands and they know what you're talking about.

The Kelmuns are the Judges. Since they are written across so many years, I'm looking for a different "voice" for each story - hence a different author for each Kelmun.

Judge       (Kelmun)   Volume
Othniel      (Tobin)       2591
*Ehud        (Avner)       2631

Shamgar   (Davin)       2644
*Deborah  (Shyla)       2662
Gideon      (Elrod)        2709
Abimelech (Yered)       2749
Tola           (Tomek)     2749
Jair            (Eitan)        2772
Jephthah  (Miron        2794

#Ibzan     (Gabor)      2800
#Elon       (Aksel)       2807
#Abdon    (Sivan)       2817

Samson     (Aviel)         2825
Micah         (Binah)       2845
The Levite  (Matz)         2850

*These stories are reserved.
#These three should be in one story.

The Stories

Sample Chapters

Here is the beginning of one of my WsIP in The Archives. This is the beginning of my science fiction version of the Book of Ruth. As you can tell by the "Volume number," this takes place shortly after the Jair is victorious over Sisera.

THIS IS NOT A FINISHED DRAFT

Naomi = Amira

Elimelech = Jariath

Mahlon = Reuven

Chilion = Dorel

Iseabail = Bethlehem

Amira

Archives volume 2680

Shock and terror slammed into Amira’s chest like an asteroid. Iseabail’s stellar flare would kill thousands – millions. A similar flare thirty years earlier had killed nearly every member of her immediate family.

Memory exploded as surely as the farm statites hovering on light pressure were destroyed by the flaming tendrils seeking to devour. The stench of seared flesh. Decompression alarms. Flashes of shorting circuits. Her mother unceremoniously throwing her behind a sheltering plate. The shuddering of the ring habitat as a Coronal Mass Ejection struck.

Hours later a rescue team had saved her, leading her past the seared corpses of her parents. The scream of air venting into vacuum battled with Amira’s expression of horror as the convulsing habitat slowly crumbled, throwing bits and pieces across the system.

“Amira?” Her husband, Jariath, brought Amira back to the present.

Sweat trickled down her face. With a thought she ordered the life support system to send a slight breeze to cool her. She looked toward Jariath’s sympathetic expression and nearly cried.

“I’m okay.” She’d survived that first flare, then four others before Jariath had married her and brought her to the outer, safer, reaches of the Iseabail star system. “We won’t be hit out here, right?” She knew they wouldn’t, but wanted – needed – reassurance.

“Yes. We’ll be okay.” Jariath pulled Amira in for a hug. The two stood in the command center of their own habitat near the outer reaches of Iseabail, three-quarters of the distance to where light pressure from the star held back the interstellar medium. That boundary, called “terminal shock,” marked the edge of the small solar system.

The chances of a CME intersecting the path of their massive “canisters” was remote at that distance. If, against the odds, the deadly stream of particles came their way, they’d have time to move the dual counter-rotating cylinders out of the way.

The hatch to the main control room unsealed and slid open to admit their eldest son, Reuven. “There’s a flare? Can I see it?” He almost leaped to get a better look at the display Amira had left active.

Amira and Jariath separated. No sense embarrassing their son with outward signs of affection.

She’d never told her two children about the horrors of her youth. When Reuven stared at the holographic display of the flare, she walked into the corridor. Her younger son, Dorel, without so much as a greeting, pushed past to see the terrible beauty. Her heart sank as she blindly fought to get away from the horrendous display of destruction, wondering if her son’s would ever realize – fully comprehend – the devastation and death still happening all those light-minutes away.

Jariath followed her out of the command facility and into the hollow “can.” Cropland stretched for twenty kilometers toward the arbitrary south pole, interrupted only by the ring lake and a small town holding the hab’s maintenance staff. A fusion-powered plasma tube positioned at the axis kept ideal heating and lighting conditions for whatever they decided to grow. Eight kilometers overhead was the opposite side of the cylinder.

“It’s okay, Amira.”

“Okay for us,” she snapped back. “For those living – dying – on those ring habs and statites, it’s not.” He couldn’t know what it was like. He’d never lived through what she had, only seen it from afar.

Close orbit around a cool red star was risky, but nowhere else had sheep been able to produce wool with the trace isotopes needed for the processing of endurasteel. Where there was wealth, people would go.

Jariath placed a hand on Amira’s shoulder.

Amira shook herself, pushing the memory of those horrible years where they belonged – in the back of her mind. “We must prepare. More than just sheep farms were destroyed.”

Hundreds of smaller statites, from one square kilometer up to a hundred, grew food for export. Many of the stationary facilities hovering on light pressure would be counted among the casualties when the final tally was made. Few people were wealthy enough to afford the huge double canister habitats Jariath possessed. Maybe thirty of those existed around the star named Iseabail, each with their own orbit licensed by the System Fathers. To avoid orbital regulations, statites proliferated.

Jariath nodded. “There’ll be a great deal of survivors flooding Iseabail Statite in the next few months.” The System Fathers would increase the levy on farms orbiting the star. It happened every time a flare sterilized so many statites floating above Iseabail’s corona.

“We could leave the system,” Amira said. “Deploy the solar sails, head out past the terminal shock, and we won’t be subject to the levy.”

“Livestock and crops have never grown well in interstellar space. Besides, leaving the system will cost us a substantial price in status.”

Amira pondered. She’d been a refugee in her youth, cropping with other destitute people. Watching the hab she’d been assigned to denuded by the thousands seeking anything to eat had only deepened the horror she’d felt. The System Fathers had enacted regulations to keep that from happening again. Croppers were licensed and dispatched from Iseabail Statite, with the numbers determined by the capacity of the habitat. Jariath Hab would see thousands – maybe tens of thousands – of croppers. Failure to host them would result in financial penalties, as well as a loss of status.

The tightness in Amira’s throat loosened as she looked up at the dimming light at the axis. Night was coming. “We could sell.” She turned on the heating elements in her clothing.

Jariath blanched. “This hab has been in the family since the conquest. I’ll never sell it.”

“Sell it to that cousin who owns those three ring habs. It’ll still be in the family.”

“My sons won’t have it though.” Jariath scowled. “And if we sell to Liram, he’ll keep it on his side of the family. Reuven would never get it back.”

Amira waved away her husband’s objection. “Offer it to someone outside the Federates. If you ever wanted to buy it back they’d have to sell it to you. And when Gala comes around they’d have to return it.”

That part of the ownership regulation was carved in endurasteel – literally. What belonged to a family could be sold outside of that family, but only temporarily. When the person who sold it had the means to buy back a habitat, in part or in whole, it was to revert back at a fair price. At Gala, it was returned to the original owner or his heirs regardless of payment.

Jariath’s expression turned calculating. “That’s true. But what’s to keep Liram from buying our hab after we sell it?”

Amira scoffed. “We both know he doesn’t have the resources to buy it out from under us.” She shook her head. “Not a chance. And Gala is thirty years away. We’ll be back before then.” Secretly she hoped not, though. Iseabail flared too often.

“Where would we go?” Jariath asked.

As the plasma tube dimmed to established nighttime levels, Amira gestured to encompass the whole of creation. “Anywhere.”

As long as it wasn’t Iseabail.

***

“I resent being left behind!” Amira’s rant had been going on for an hour while Jariath prepared for his trip to Iseabail Statite. “I’m just as capable as you are, and there are friends I want to visit.” Before she left them all behind forever.

Jariath and his two sons had been busy giving instructions to the automated systems. After the first few minutes of telling her she was too valuable to risk, they let her diatribe continue with only occasional comments in the right places.

Jariath finished entering his instructions and turned to his wife. “Amira. You know the statistics. There’s a small, but significant, probability that a trip from an equatorial orbit to Iseabail Statite could have . . . difficulties. There’s ionizing radiation, raiding attacks, any number of things could go wrong. And women are at more of a risk than men. Statistics prove that.”

“I know.” Amira wasn’t the least bit mollified. “The protections on our hab are better than in our transport. So why not take the yacht? Surely that would be enough safety, and we’ll have artificial gravity, unlike the transport.”

Every habitat in existence had docks for a variety of ships. The main docking bay at the north pole was reserved for the owner, with standardized hardware to accommodate smaller or larger ships. Smaller transports could also dock at the north pole. Larger cargo vessels could only be accompanied at the south pole, and a scattering of smaller transport docks also existed there.

Jariath laughed at the idea of taking their relatively massive yacht to the system’s governing headquarters. “Can you imagine if everyone did that? There’d be no room.”

Reuven and Dorel glanced at each other, nodded, and exited the control room.

“Then take us closer and use the transport from there.”

“No. Why complicate the situation, Amira? Just take care of things here while we find a buyer for the habitat. My contact on the main statite says the System Fathers have set a meeting for ten days from now. They’ll be deciding which habs to open for cropping, and every habitat will be on that list.”

“Why do you trust that ‘contact’ of yours so much? What if he’s wrong?” Amira didn’t know who her husband’s source of information was, and had for years tried to get as much from Jariath as possible.

He smiled. “I never said this person was a ‘him,’ Amira.”

The conversation shifted to familiar territory. “So it’s a woman?”

“Never said that, either.” Jariath’s smile broadened.

After a few minutes of banter Jariath sighed. “The truth of it is I don’t trust automated systems. My grandfather had stories of what the old AIs were like when he was a kid, and there’s a reason we don’t use them. Our systems are close to what would be classified as artificial intelligence back then. They need to be monitored, and I trust you over the best of hirelings.”

Amira checked to make sure the door to the control room was sealed, then stepped up to embrace Jariath. “I know. I just don’t like to be away from you for that long.”

Jariath’s arms encircled his wife. “Two days to get there, Amira. We have to get the habitat sold before the news of the Fathers’ gathering gets out. Then two days back. The longest it’ll take is ten days. You can handle us being apart for that much time, and if you get too lonely you can go visiting in the town.”

***

Amira watched sensor displays of the transport. Within an hour the transponder vanished, so as not to give pirates and thieves a signal to home in on. The hab’s passive sensors were sophisticated enough to follow the now-insignificant mote for another six hours, and Amira stayed there the whole time, staring at the holographic display.

She glanced toward where the small town existed inside the hab. The people there were so far beneath her station she was too self-conscious to visit.

Better to stay home.

And monitor Iseabail for flares.

***

Jariath switched off their transport’s transponder. “Your mother will keep watching,” he told Reuven.

“Why does she do that?”

“She told me once, ‘It might be the last time I see you.’” Jariath shook his head and turned toward the displays in front of him. The status of every system of the transport was spread in an arc in front of him. An identical set of displays and controls stretched out in front of Reuven.

Dorel, strapped into one of the eight passenger seats behind the other two, scoffed. “A dot in a holographic display? That’s not seeing us.”

Jariath smiled. “It is to her.”

“Why do we turn off the transponder, Dad?” Dorel asked.

Before Jariath could answer, Reuven jumped in. “Don’t you learn anything? This far out a transponder just tells pirates where we are.”

Jariath motioned his sons to silence. “Reuven, he’ll learn about space travel in another few weeks. We don’t do enough of it to have it part of his regular curriculum, but I’ve decided to have it added.” He made a note on his internals to have that topic put in his younger son’s education. They’d be leaving Iseabail, so Dorel would need that education.

Reuven’s tone was more normal when he continued. “Pirates watch the outer system for ships heading to and from the bigger habitats. Many times they have cargo or important people. They take what they can get away with, maybe even someone worth ransoming, and let the ship go after wiping the main core.”

“Why leave anything behind?”

Jariath rotated his seat to face aft. “The ship is a tool of trade. They want what the ship carries, and if the ship is left to haul more freight, there’s more opportunity to steal later.”

Reuven turned condescending again. “And if they want to ransom someone, they have to leave someone alive to tell others.”

Dorel frowned. “Then why leave the transponder on for so long when we’re leaving?”

“The automated defenses of the habitat will fire on ships without a transponder if it’s too close.” Jariath unbuckled and floated free of his seat. “Let’s find something to do. It’ll take us a full day before we get to where the transport’s core won’t be able to handle navigation by itself.”

He pushed off his chair to head aft. There were games and educational materials in the larger area there.

***

Iseabail Statite hovered over the north pole of the star which gave the station it’s name. A wide parabolic dish reflected enough illumination for the light pressure to keep the station in place. Solar sails hung above to help keep the station stable. Though thousands of times larger than the other facilities around the star, Iseabail Statite was considered small in relation to most others in the Federates. While other star’s stations possessed dozens of branching spokes, the docking facilities here spread out in four spars from the central hub above the reflector. The largest determined the prime meridian, giving the entire Iseabail system its coordinates.

Jariath activated the transport’s communication system. “Iseabail Statite, Jariath Transport, requesting docking instructions.”

The flat androgynous voice of the automated flight system spoke. “Jariath, Iseabail. You are cleared for dock 50-Dalet.”

“Is that an insult?” Dorel asked aloud. “The ante-meridian, fourth out from the hub?”

“We may be among the wealthy,” Jariath said, “but we’re hardly in a position to take offense at not docking on the prime meridian.”

Jariath called the station again. “Iseabail, Jariath. Acknowledged, 50-Dalet.”

Reuven added his own comment. “Besides, our small transport fits best at the ante-meridian. Bigger ships use the prime.”

An hour later the three sealed the ship and headed down the concourse to the hub. People routinely gathered where all four concourses intersected. They’d socialize, discuss court cases, and even engage in commerce.

A mendicant not far from their dock reached out. Dorel dropped a small coin into his hand.

“An actual coin?” Reuven scoffed. “There’s barely anywhere that accepts currency payments.”

Dorel smirked. “Maybe where you go. Where he goes, they all do.”

Reuven sniffed his derision. “Grow up.”

“Both of you grow up.” Jariath marched off toward the hub, and found more beggars than ever before. Odd, he thought. Just before they entered the hub an overloaded transport disgorged a group of refugees and Jariath knew the flood was just beginning. Those who had been uprooted would first make their way to the main statite.

Though he wanted to get to his business, he paused for a moment to look at a vintage steel mixing bowl offered for sale just inside the hub. “Look at this craftsmanship.” He pulled Reuven closer. “Just look.” Out of the corner of his eye he noticed the refugees taking the helical concourse down to the lower levels of the statite, where they’d be cared for.

Reuven gave the bowl a cursory glance. “It’s printed. Nobody works steel these days. And even if they did, who would use something like that?” Steel had the reputation of getting dented or dinged through normal use, while more durable synthetics would hold up better.

Just then an argument broke out a few meters away. Jariath returned the bowl to the vendor and smiled, then turned to listen.

“The plot on Hab Shomron has been in our family for generations.” The man waved an ancient roll of pallum. “I have the deed here, with a copy in my habitat, and the original on file in the archives.”

A second man scoffed. “The plot was sold to my grandfather a hundred years ago. You should have filed your claim before now. There have been two Galas since and you never claimed it!”

“I filed my case today.” The first man gestured again with his pallum.

Jariath thought he’d caught a glimpse of a reflection from the back of the man’s hand, but must have imagined it.

The second man spread his arms and in a reasonable tone said, “The widow has a claim that supersedes yours. She’s of your clan. Find someone to marry her, and I’ll sell it to that man.”

Dorel tugged on Jariath’s sleeve. “Father, do we have to stay for this? They’ll argue until evening.”

Jariath nodded. “That they will. Let’s find an agent to get our hab sold.”

A voice in the back of his mind told him it would be stupid to sell, but he wondered if the number of uprooted folks made selling the better option.

***

The virtual placard next to the door on level three read “Elran Yagil - Realtor.” Jariath had set his internals to ignore any labels except for realtors, so only this entrance showed a name tag.

Before stepping into range of the door sensor, Reuven gently took Jariath’s elbow. “We’re really selling the habitats?”

Jariath swallowed a lump in his throat. “We believe it’s for the best, my son.”

Dorel huffed. “Then let’s do it already, okay?”

Jariath steeled his will, We’re doing the right thing, and stepped forward. The door slid open.

Inside was an old fashioned wooden desk – expensive, to say the least. Jariath knew how rare good timber was because he grew some trees for the few artisans who still worked actual wood instead of easier-to-use synthetics.

“That’s a nice desk,” Jariath said as Yagil stood. The man’s name appeared in Jariath’s in-eye display. “Beautiful workmanship.” He authorized his internals to allow Yagil to see his name.

Yagil extended a hand in greeting. “Well met, Jariath. I got it from my wife’s brother. We received a discount, of course.”

Jariath caressed the desk’s surface as he and his sons lowered themselves into synthetic chairs. He wondered what it would be like to sit on a genuine wooden seat.

After a few pleasantries, Yagil asked, “What brings you to my realty, Jariath? Looking to buy another habitat? My sources tell me hab prices will be dropping soon.”

Jariath couldn’t resist running his hand across the desk’s surface again. He smiled before looking up. “Perhaps we have the same sources. I’m looking to sell before that happens.” Remembering the displaced people he’d seen an hour ago, he felt a sense of urgency he needed to suppress.

Dorel gave a quick, frustrated exhale and stood to pace.

“Sit down, brother.” Reuven’s chiding was gentle, but firm. Over a secure three-way connection he added silently, <These things take time.>

<“Sell my hab” only takes a second. Why can’t you get on with it, Father?>

<Sit.> Reuven emphasized the command. <You’re embarrassing our family. There are consequences for that.>

Jariath smiled at Yagil as his younger son sat. “Youthful exuberance. My youngest wants to be about other business, and we’re taking too long.”

“I understand.” Yagil stood. “Would any of you like some coffee?” He turned to open a cabinet – also made of wood. Otherwise the office was as bare steel as the rest of the statite.

<He’s doing it on purpose!> Dorel huffed again.

<Of course he is.> Reuven grinned. <It’s a tactic.>

Jariath sent back, <Stop this or I’ll shut you down.>

<But – >

Jariath snapped his fingers in anger, shooting him a harsh stare.

Dorel gulped. “I’ll take a coffee.”

Yagil gave a wide grin. “You won’t regret it. We have the best Kahta coffee beans brought in, and a single kilo usually costs more than a small transport. My sister’s husband owns the company. I get a discount.”

Yagil activated a mechanism unfamiliar to Jariath. It hissed, gurgled, and eventually sprayed a dark fluid into a transparent receptacle. Using the carafe, he filled four cups, each holding perhaps a hundred and fifty milliliters, and placed them on the wooden desk. The four sipped the blistering beverage while Jariath and Yagil chatted about their family lines, stretching back centuries. Eventually they found a common ancestor named Netsach, who had died more than four hundred years ago.

<He’ll want a discount,> Reuven quipped.

Dorel “sounded” acerbic as he sent, <Maybe we’ll get a discount on his commission. Why do people always have to recite their ancestors?>

Reuven sent, <To keep them alive. Don’t you want to be remembered four hundred years from now? Just shut up and it’ll go faster.> He drained the last of his coffee and the cup’s heating elements turned off.

“Tell me about your habitat,” Yagil said. “I may have interested parties already on the statite.”

Jariath pondered for a moment trying to ignore the apprehension of selling something which had been in his family for generations. “It’s the minimum size for a dual canister where people won’t get nauseated from the spin. The two counter-rotate to prevent precession, and most of the eight hundred square kilometers on each is farmland, though we do lease some fields to herders. It helps keep the land fertile. There are a few groves of trees, and a central ring lake for fishing. A few smaller lakes, barely bigger than ponds.”

While Jariath relayed more details Yagil’s eyes glazed over, a sure sign he was entering data into his office system. “Any contracts for feculence, organic residue, or water imports?”

After numerous questions, answers, and clarifications, Jariath paused before saying, “I’d rather sell to a non-Federate buyer.”

Yagil finished entering data. “Planning to buy back. You are wise. The credit information you gave matches. There is a mandatory two-day period to make sure someone else isn’t selling your hab elsewhere in the system. I’ve already notified certain parties who may be interested in buying today. Are you willing to entertain immediate offers?”

Jariath nodded. “The sooner we sell, the sooner we can be about our business.”

Yagil closed his eyes a moment, then one by one three solidographic displays grew out of his desk. The images were life sized busts of those presumably interested in buying. Next to them floated holographic name tags – Foma Mund, Ranen Fraenkel, and Jasper Hirst.

Hirst, who had long, graying hair, made the first offer of just over eight million r-credits – about ten percent less than the appraised value of the paired habitats.

<He must know prices will be dropping,> Jariath told his sons. “If that’s the kind of offer we’re going to get, I’m not interested in selling.”

Fraenkel’s offer was a bit higher. “My understanding is the price of a habitat such as yours will be less in the near future. Besides, if I have to return the habs at Gala, I won’t be getting full value.”

<Do you see the ears on that one?> Dorel laughed internally. <If they flapped, he’d fly!>

<Dorel, hush.> To the potential buyer he said, “Eight-three doesn’t excite me, Mr. Fraenkel.” Jariath tilted his head toward Hirst’s solido. “It’s better than his eight-two, but I’ve heard nothing here today which will motivate me to sell.” He stood, waving his two sons to follow.

“Nine-five.” Mund stroked his Empire style beard, which was short everywhere but on the tip of his chin, and stared expectantly at Jariath.

With a raised eyebrow, Jariath turned toward Mund’s display. “Did you say nine million, five hundred thousand credits?” He had his internals do some calculations. The results took longer than expected, but calculating the effects of a future cropping was difficult. His internals notified him of unusually high usage.

Mund nodded. “Yes. I’m not buying for a short-term gain. I’m looking to hold this for as long as possible. When you want to buy back, you’ll know where I am.” There was implied value in that, too.

Jariath pondered for a moment, giving the other two some time to make a counter-offer. First Fraenkel’s, then Hirst’s, displays sank back into the desk. Only Mund remained, still stroking his beard.

Yagil produced a pen and sheet of pallum from a desk drawer. “This is a printed copy of the deed to your habitats, Jariath. If you sign here, this is a tentative agreement to sell. No other offers may be entertained, and a deposit of a hundred thousand credits would be yours if Mund backs out of his offer.”

Jariath forced himself to sign. We’re doing the right thing. His two sons sighed in relief. Mund nodded, and his solido sank back into the desk.

“Let’s go celebrate.” Dorel jumped to his feet. “There’s bound to be performers at the hub by now.”

Reuven looked to his father. <Any chance we could get a few credits to spend?>

Jariath nodded. <Fifteen credits each. Save your receipts.> He transferred p-credits stored on his internals to his sons. A thousand “personal” credits equated to a single r-credit, used to buy and sell real estate.

After the two young men ran off, Jariath turned to Yagil. “How reliable is this Mund character? He’s put down a reasonable deposit, but if the value of the hab drops he could back out and leave me breathing vacuum.”

“I’ve dealt with him before.” Yagil called up a holographic form. “Before we accept any buyers they have to pass a credit check. According to this he’s never backed out of a deal once he offers it.”

Jariath leaned in to inspect the virtual document. “It shows here,” he pointed, “he had an offer that wasn’t completed.”

Yagil nodded. “It’s still pending. The seller hasn’t met all the stipulations of the contract yet.”

“Very well. I’ll have to consult with my wife.” Jariath leaned back. “She’ll have some things to say about this, too.”

“I hope she’s closer than a light-day away.” Yagil’s reminder of the time limit was subtle, but obvious.

“Yes.” Jariath offered Yagil their habitat’s orbit and current position. “I’ll have her response before two days.”

***

Two hours later, after visiting with a contractor for modifications to their personal yacht, Jariath entered the public communication center. He selected a private booth which held only a small desk and chair, with holographic pickups. He entered payment, and pondered what to say. He wrote out a message, edited a few statements, shifted himself to be more comfortable, and bowed his head in apprehension. We’re doing the right thing, he told himself. We’re doing the right thing. Finally he set the system to record.

“Amira. We have an offer on the habs in the amount of nine million, five hundred thousand credits. Yes, that’s above assessed value. The boys are thrilled, of course, but they still haven’t realized we’ll be leaving Iseabail, and their friends, behind. Reuven has questioned the wisdom of the sale, but so far neither of them has figured out we’re leaving.”

Jariath scowled a moment, thinking of the conversations that would spark.

“We should leave the Federates entirely. I’m thinking Thiren, Yoadis, Mikar, or even Crecoam. Sure, they’re xenophobic, but they still need food. We could go there, construct a habitat, and feed millions at a substantial profit. Of course, the same could be said of Mikar. Most of the people there are asteroid miners.”

Again Jariath paused. There were benefits and detriments to wherever they’d go.

“Think about where you’d like to go. I’m leaning toward Mikar, but we can discuss it when the boys and I return. And prepare for that inevitable fight with them. I hope they don’t catch on that we’re leaving Iseabail until after we’re not cooped up in the transport. I shudder to imagine two days with them carping the entire time in such a small space.”

Jariath thought about what he might have left out. “One more thing. I’ve arranged to have our yacht’s weapon systems upgraded. Wherever we go, we’ll need to be able to defend ourselves from pirates and raiders. Mandar has been sending out parties to attack whole habitats and stripping them of crops. A ship with the usual weaponry won’t be able to defend against a group of raiders. A pirate ship or two would be enough of a problem. The contractors are already on their way and should be there and finish up about the time the boys and I return. The contractors are expensive, and I’ve promised them a bonus for getting done by deadline, but I think they’re worth it.” A rather large bonus, to be sure.

“So there we have it. I’ll send this message and await your reply before doing anything.” He swallowed. “We’re doing the right thing, aren’t we?”

He stopped the recording, played it back, and cut off his last line. He entered the habitat’s vector. When the system indicated a laser focused on the area where the habitat would be in six hours, he thought-clicked <send> and the message was away.

***

Amira was in the middle of listening to a message from the latest in a series of Kelmuns. The ad hoc leader was thanking everyone who had helped her defeat Syseus, and the families who had sent ships to aid her.

BING! The system alerted her to a message from Jariath.

She saved the message from Shyla and ran the one from her husband and smiled. She wanted out of Iseabail. Every terrible thing in her life had happened here.

She pondered, and composed a return message. “Jariath. I agree with the sale. Make sure there’s language in the contract for the new owner to take care of the staff we currently have to support the automation systems. In case you haven’t heard the news from Kelmun Shyla, she and Faran have beaten Syseus. We should be in for a time of peace. Travel between Federates will be safer for now – even moving to different Dominions.”

Amira had to answer the main question: where to go? She spent a moment to consider. Her internal systems lagged somewhat. She spoke thoughts off the top of her head, just so it wouldn’t appear she was befuddled.

“I agree Mikar would be the best choice. It’s been decades since Avner assassinated their King Cumil, and people in our two Dominions are distantly related. Since the Federates conquered them there’s been relative peace. Their mineral-rich systems could always use more food production, so we could build a habitat and make a profit there as much as Crecoam – with less xenophobia. Maybe we could invest a bit in Mikarian industries, if we have enough cash to do so.”

Her internals caught up with her thoughts, and she realized she had babbled quite a bit. But everything seemed resolved. “Hurry home. We can discuss our destination with the boys when you get here.”

Amira stopped the recording and reviewed it. Good enough. She pressed send.

To get an early start, she called her personal staff to have them begin packing the family’s belongings and stowing it in the yacht.

Finally they’d get out of this cursed star system.

This is a portion of a draft of the story of Rahab. This is another example of the kind of story we're seeking. Every story has it's own voice, though, and each contributor should stay true to their writing style.

Ofira

Archives Volume 2519

 

Ofira was called to the Command Center to answer Commander Dard’s questions about the brothel she operated. Though six stations for crewmen existed, Ofira noticed they were all empty. Only Dard awaited her, for which she was grateful. Her business shouldn’t be blatant in everyone’s consciousness.

Without preamble, the portly command began. “Your employees are a bit too blatant.” He scowled, but a sense of unease colored his words. “Everyone knows, but they don’t want it flaunted.”

Ofira nodded, looking out the vast portal into star-speckled infinity. Somewhere out there were the defensive platforms which protected the star system of Tihas from raiders and pirates.

And the Avudelians. According to reports they were headed toward Tihas, and fear spread before them.

“Do you hear me?” Dard snapped.

After shaking off the awe of the vista outside, Ofira said, “Yes. It’s only that I’m always impressed with the immensity of the universe.”

The commander wasn’t deterred. “The entrance there,” he pointed in the direction of her salon, “has a rendition of Breboa’s wife, a clear sign of what your business is!”

Ofira was positive nobody was offended except Dard. This meeting seemed an overreaction to the situation. Maybe he was worked up about something else, like fear of the Avudelians. They’d crushed all opponents. So far.

Ofira wondered if Dard was a bit of a prude. Probably worshiped Sidu. Besides, Ofira knew Breboa and his wife, despite being quite real, weren’t ultimate, so who would be hurt by putting her symbol there? “Have you received any complaints?”

Dard swayed, as if dizzy, and grabbed the back of a crewman’s chair. He sat, sweating profusely, and pivoted to face her. “Yes.” He made a sign behind his back which Ofira saw only half way. Thumb and index finger squeezed together, with middle finger reinforcing the index, symbolized the pinching off of life-giving fluids.

Ofira nodded. Certainly Sidu. As for complaints, there would only be one, and that by the commander telling himself he was offended. “I see. Perhaps I can do something to placate the offended party.”

Avarice might be Dard’s motivation. She sent a communication to the station’s AI. <Kamor, is he looking for a bribe?>

<I’m duty bound to not answer that question,> he sent back. <Regardless of the answer I cannot tell you.>

Ofira’s gaze went to the scene outside again, toward where the invaders would come from. After a moment the commander snapped a control and the portal switched to a desert scene from a fictional canister habitat. Nobody had succeeded in building a canister – yet.

Ofira decided to try offering him money. “Maybe ten thousand credits would help ease the complainant's conscious.” She had the money, but barely.

Dard stood so violently the chair he’d been sitting in toppled and shot from the control panel to the door leading to the commander’s office. He turned an apoplectic visage to Ofira. “You’re trying to bribe me?” A sheen of sweat erupted from his forehead.

Ofira held up placating hands, but before she could speak a minor alarm bleeped. “What is that?”

The commander switched the portal to a sensor hologram. A fuzzy mass approached the Yardain Wall from the opposite side. “The Avudelians. They’re here.” Dard’s expression turned to panic. “They’ll kill us all!” He grunted in pain and clutched his chest. Face flushed, eyes bulging, he collapsed to the deck.

“Calling a medical team,” Kamor said. “The commander has died. Massive coronary. They might save him if they hurry.”

For five minutes Ofira stood aside, staring at Dard’s lifeless figure, wondering what was happening. How could a medical team take so long to arrive? Shouldn’t there be someone closer for this sort of thing? Where was the crew? Someone needed to be in charge, and Dard wasn’t going to be for quite a long time, if ever.

Above all, Ofira wondered if she’d be blamed.

Kamor intoned, “Commander Dard is beyond rescue. As you are the only other person present, command of station 34E997A is transferred to you until further notice.”

The medics arrived and cut Dard’s blue shirt apart so they could work on the man, their first step taking a blood sample.

Ofira argued against taking command. First off, she was a woman. Kamor laughed at the self evident nature of the argument, but otherwise ignored it. Secondly, there had to be a second in command.

“According to my training,” the AI said, “anyone invited into the Command Center is a candidate for command, pending other qualifications. That’s only you. If a janitor was here, they’d be disqualified due to lack of experience – the second metric in your favor. You’ve kept your business operating with twenty employees, so you know how to command. Thirdly, the current crew would have been better candidates, but none of them have been on station for even six months. The most seasoned of the lot still struggles with which way gravity pulls.”

Kamor sent Ofira all the command codes she’d need. They were stored in her memory while she watched the medical team working to revive Dard. Injections, compressions, even electrical shock, nothing brought him back to life.

The crew arrived. No virtual name tags were presented, so she didn’t know their names. Kamor insisted he’d been unable to contact them earlier, which seemed unlikely to Ofira. These six were closest? And it took twenty minutes to get here? Couldn’t they have crossed the entire station in that time? And all of them were unreachable at the same time? None of it seemed plausible.

Long minutes passed while the staff continued to work on Dard. The crew sat at their assigned consoles and studiously ignored the commander and the medics. Finally they took him away to be recycled. Biological matter couldn’t be wasted. He’d end up being composted in some ring hab growing flax or cotton.

When Ofira remained standing behind the crew, they stole glances over their shoulders. She found it a trifle irritating. <What’s their issue, Kamor?>

<They’re asking who is in charge,> Kamor said, laughing. <I told them it was you but they don’t believe me.  Avio, the man on your right, thinks it should be him.>

<Then it’s time to set things straight.> Ofira spoke in a commanding tone, “It looks like the Avudelians have arrived across the Yardain Wall. Keep an eye on things. If the situation changes, contact me at once.”

None of the six had the courage to even acknowledge the order.

“I’ll be next door.” Ofira slipped through the door connecting the command center with the commander’s office.

Inside, there was room for an austere metal desk covered in the detritus of being in charge – actual paper, a mug half-full of cold tea, and writing implements. Ofira’s nose objected to the putrid stench of black licorice wafting from the tea and was grateful it was cold.

One corner of the desk was devoted to the entity Sidu – a shallow tray filled with sand upon which stood a thin humanoid representation of the entity, its right hand making the pinching sign. The left hand held a small scythe with which to cut down plants.

“Kamor,” Ofira said, “Is there someone who can take that away? I find him offensive.”

“I’ll have a staff member remove it.”

The desk stood at an angle in a corner, two straight-back chairs opposite the desk chair. A rather large portal, smaller than the control room’s window, dominated one wall to the right of anyone who sat behind the desk. An oval conference table with room for six dominated the rest of the room. She vowed to change the positioning of the furnature so she could look outside as she worked.

Ofira wanted more color, too. The Tupelo Tree green walls made her want to vomit. Perhaps Kiwi? Or maybe just a few potted ferns. They were nearly impossible to kill and would be more interesting than bare walls. They’d also help the life support system.

<Commander?> Even Avio’s internal voice quavered. <What should we do about the Avudelians?>

“He drew the short straw,” Kamor quipped.

<Is there something we can do?> Ofira asked, fully knowing the answer.

The man paused long enough to convince Ofira he asked the rest of the crew. <I guess not.>

<Then remain at your post and keep me informed.>

<Should we report to the king’s office?>

<You haven’t done that already?> Ofira asked. <Do so. Let me know if anything changes.>

“Just like a commander would say,” Kamor said. “You’re a natural.”

“Shut up.”

“Shutting up, Commander.”

“And have someone come in and clean this mess up.”

Ofira spend half an hour straightening things up and arranging things to her liking. Part of her wondered why she bothered, since she’d be replaced by the next day. Or the day after.

An orderly arrived. Maybe he should be called a yeoman, Ofira thought. His midnight blue shirt, with orange pinstriping along the cuffs of his sleeve, told her he was part of the permanent staff. A virtual name tag of Tigh Gerth floated in Ofira’s vision.

“C-com-commander?” Gerth stammered her title as a question, as if reluctant to defer to a woman.

“Gerth, I’d like you to get rid of some of these things I won’t be needing. You’ll need something to carry everything away, but when you go, take this tea away. It’s smelling up the room.” She shuddered.

“Right away, C-commander.” He plucked the cup from the desk and hastily retreated to the corridor, the hatch closing behind him.

While Ofira waited for Gerth to return, at least two hours, orders arrived from in-system to activate defenses the moment Avudel ships crossed the Yardain Wall. Eventually she gave up on waiting for Gerth to appear and stalked into the corridor to visit her girls.

In the packed salon, every display showed holographic sensor images instead of the expensive artwork she’d bought the rights to. A dozen men, with another dozen women, watched with slack jaws. Millions of Avudelian ships hovered a fraction of a light year away from the Yardain Wall opposite the Tihas star system. They were coming, and Tihas couldn’t stop them. Rumors told what had happened to Enban and Mikar when they’d attacked the cruising ships of Avudel. The reports stretched most people’s credulity, since local entities were supposed to be more powerful than foreign ones. Since Avudel’s Entity was able to defeat them, this proved which was supreme.

To be sure, none of the ships were large. Each was reportedly barely big enough to hold a family, but even pinpricks could hurt when a million were inflicted.

“What’ll we do, Ofira?” one of her girls asked.

“How would I know, Hebla?” Ofira’s acerbic response did little to chasten her. A woman had no standing with the king, despite her ad hoc command of the station. If married, perhaps a husband could find out something, but the trillions residing in the system would make his voice one among a massive chorus.

But Ofira had no husband.

Hebla appeared confused. “I heard you are now in charge. Doesn’t mean you know things?”

Ofira shook her head. “No, it doesn’t mean that.”

“What do they even want?” a client wondered aloud. “And what are they waiting for?”

The Yardain Wall was a region of tangled space which averaged about a light year thick. When the tangle writhed, the Wall could expand to more than triple that width, or thin out to nothing. More than likely they were waiting for a writhe. Ofira told him that, and he ignored her as if she hadn’t spoken.

After a half hour Ofira sent a message to all the girls. <Is anyone going to work today? If you serve nobody, you’ll not eat.>

One by one, as their in-eye display showed the message, the girls perked up and turned their attention to the men. Distracting them from the sensor holos took more effort than usual, but eventually the men were led off to private rooms down one of the two hallways.

Ofira breathed a sigh of relief. Without income she couldn’t afford to bribe regulators who could close her down. Even though profits were high, the bribes nearly matched that. Someday the king’s office would exert enough influence this far away to regulate her side business to death.

“Ofira,” the station’s AI called. “A prospecting ship is returning from the Machuv Cloud. They request permission to dock for inspection.”

“Granted. And thank you, Kamor.”

All the material inside the system’s terminal shock had already been harvested. Only the cloud of comets held unused resources which could be processed and used. Despite those who insisted star lifting could solve any system resource problem, nobody had found an economical way to pull the needed material from the star itself. To that end, prospectors went out daily to look for comets in the Machuv Cloud. Anyone trying to enter the system without approval would run afoul of a defensive platforms, of which there were more than a billion.

Ofira switched the monitor from sensor readings of the Avudelians to the approaching ship. The bulbous craft had a pimple of a control room and a proboscis of a docking tube protruding ahead of it. As the ship neared the station that pipette extended further. The craft’s AI docked them, and the station’s shielding extended to hold the craft in place.

“Kamor,” Ofira ordered, “after they’re cleared I’d like to meet with the captain.”

“Sure thing.”

“And connect me with security. Those men have been Out for months and may be a bit randy.”

Kamor confirmed the order, then Ofira spoke at length to the station’s peacekeepers.

***

As the station commander, Ofira exercised as much authority as any ship’s captain. Only the king’s administrators in the inner system could countermand anything she ordered, but with the communication lag of hours, they never did. That’s why her girls could ply their trade with only a modicum of restraint. That kind of business would never withstand the scrutiny of the inner system unless connected with a temple of Breboa’s unnamed wife.

Ofira entered the commander’s office and Covon Navre, captain of the prospecting ship, stood up from one of the straight back chairs. She closed the hatch and said, “Relax, Navre. I’m not exactly a stickler for protocol.”

“Couldn’t be,” Navre said, a backhanded reference to a woman being in charge. He sat again and stretched his legs out and gestured to the monochromatic bulkheads. “Not much for decorations, either. What’s the meeting about?”

Ofira sat in her office chair behind the gray metal desk, the top of which was empty now, so Gerth must have come back. “You may have heard there’s an Avudelian fleet across the Wall.”

“Avudelians?” Navre scoffed. “That bunch of nomads who ran off from Erub?”

“That bunch of nomads caused an economical collapse in Erub.” Ofira couldn’t believe Navre was that ignorant. Perhaps that was willful. “From what I’ve heard, they took every gram of precious metals from the whole Domain.”

“Hyperbole.” Navre interlaced his fingers across his flat belly. “There’s no way to actually do that. You really should have someone put up some kind of fresco in here.”

Ignoring the attempted change in topic, Ofira’s reply brought them back toward what she wanted. “Maybe it is an exaggeration, but exports from Erub stopped overnight, and they fed thousands of star systems in this whole galactic arm. When in the last few decades has the Erubite military been heard from?”

Navre frowned. “What are you saying? Besides the fact you don’t like color on your walls.”

Ofira leaned forward. “These Avudelians were slaves. They built the ring habs Erub was famous for, they planted and harvested the crops. They mined the cometary clouds of all those stars, and the Erubites were lost without their free labor. That’s why we don’t hear about Erub nowadays.”

Again Navre scoffed. “There were invaders from across the Great Tangle. They destroyed economies all over the galactic arm.”

“Yes, the Tangle Folk devastated whole star systems, but that doesn’t explain Erub. They had the best military in the galaxy.”

“Enough of the history lesson, Ofira. Why are you telling me all this.”

Ofira wondered if she detected a trace of dislike in the man. She brought up a small hologram of the Avudelian fleet. “There they are, right across the Yardain Wall, Navre. Millions of space ships, ready to invade. They’ve devastated every Domain which stood in their way, and now they’re two light years away from Tihas.”

“This is the most logical place to cross the Wall.” Navre still dismissed the notion of an Avudelian attack.

“True. I’ve been ordered to activate defenses the moment they cross the Wall.” Ofira stood, signifying the end of the meeting. “You’ve been informed. If you leave the system, it’s at your own risk. We won’t wait for you to return.”

Navre sneered and pushed himself to his feet. “I’m going in-system with a cargo of ore. It’ll be weeks before I go Out again. In the meantime, we’re taking some leave on the station.”

Nobody liked being dismissed so summarily, and Ofira was no exception. “Are you?”

Finally Navre’s expression grew serious, maybe even hostile. “With the commander’s permission, that is.” He bowed his head to show a minimum of deference.

“Granted. See to it your people aren’t too boisterous.”

A pensive Navre asked, “Are there areas which are off limits? I’m talking about places normally not prohibited.”

“For the moment, no.” Ofira guided her guest to the hatch leading to the corridor. “If your crew becomes too spirited, we may have to revisit that question.”

“Very well.” After a brief pause to look at Ofira’s bare walls, Navre said, “Seriously. You need some color here.” Then he turned away and sauntered down the corridor.

Ofira had no doubt the man’s crew would be visiting her unofficial enterprise within minutes.

She returned to the control room to monitor the Avudelian fleet.

If such a ragtag collection of space craft could be construed as a fleet. Still, they had accomplished miracles.

***

The largest room aboard the massive station was the cafeteria. With sage green walls and holographic scenery outside of false windows, the cafeteria was capable of seating a thousand at a time. As usual, it was packed.

With fifty thousand people to feed, keeping the place clean was a constant struggle. One table after another, in continuous rotation, was off limits for a deep clean. Otherwise they simply received a token wipe-down.

Ofira, as ad hoc base commander, for the first time used a small private dining room in a nook farthest from the serving line. She retreated there immediately to avoid getting cornered by the inevitable sycophants. She chose a seat in that nook hidden from the commissary at large.

Someone must have noticed Ofira’s arrival and been notified of her change in status, since a staff member brought her a plate of food. Now an appointee, Ofira no longer had to pay. Those not a member of the crew paid a high price. Shipping in enough food was a constant struggle. So was the removal of sewage, but that was used in part to buy the food.

The dish of the moment was a vegetable stew. A few shreds of meat, but more than that would be an indulgence. “Thank you,” Ofira said to the plump woman who had brought her food. Ofira suspected the woman was heavy enough that she did more than sample the cooking. That woman retreated without a word. Perhaps she didn’t like a woman commander any more than men did.

Ofira tried the stew. Typically bland. Few people wasted the effort to grow seasonings in the Tihas system. Bringing it in from other systems was prohibitively expensive. She wondered why nobody here on the station used container gardening to produce seasonings, seeing how much could be charged. There was one man whom she suspected of raising small plants, but she had no direct evidence.

Sipping another spoonful of broth, Ofira considered trying her hand at some horticulture. Surely she could siphon off enough fertilizer and other materials for a patch of savory, thyme, bay, maybe even something spicy.

“Commander?”

Ofira looked up to see Sinay, one of her girls. Sinay and the others would refer to her by her temporary title when in public. Only in the confines of her side business would they use her name.

“What is it, Sinay?” If the girls had a de facto leader other than Ofira, it was Sinay. For her to come to Ofira in the cafeteria meant something was going on. “Have something to eat. You can talk while we wait for the food.” She sent a message to the commissary’s node to have another meal brought. This one she’d be charged for.

Sinay sat across from Ofira. “The blue suits you,” she said, referencing the uniform Ofira now wore. Then Sinay looked out into the large room. “There are a pair of men in the salon.”

Laughing, Ofira said, “I’d hope more than a pair.”

“They don’t look like our regular patrons.” Sinay paused while the same woman as before brought stew.

“Thank you,” Sinay and Ofira said in unison. As before, the woman left without a word.

“What’s different about them?” Ofira asked.

“You know Obreth?” Sinay tried some of the stew, then blew on the spoonful and stirred it into the rest.

“Yes. Big fellow. Smells of garlic.” Breboa alone knew where that man found enough garlic to constantly smell of it. That was the only evidence the man grew garlic in his quarters.

“These two followed Obreth in, but acted like they didn’t know him.”

Ofira pondered. “Did anyone ask Obreth about them?”

“He said he’d noticed them in the agora on level six.” Sinay sipped some broth. “Obreth swore he didn’t know them, and I believe him.”

Ofira’s girls had to be good at reading a man’s body language. The occupation didn’t have much forgiveness built in. One woman could rely on the rest to warn her if some man didn’t seem safe to be around, but too many without the skill made the whole system dangerous.

“Were these two men dangerous?”

After swallowing, Sinay said, “Not unless beards are dangerous. They entered, looked around, loitered for a few minutes, then left. It’s like they didn’t know what the salon was for.”

Everyone on the station knew what the salon was for. A sigil of Breboa’s wife graced the main entrance and should remove any doubt. Nobody hid that purpose, though many simply pretended it didn’t exist.

“Kamor?” Ofira called out.

“Yes, Ofira?”

“Where are those two men Sinay mentioned?”

The AI paused. “One moment.”

Ofira finished her stew before the station replied. Sinay was halfway done and pushed the remainder away from her. Ofira was nearly offended at someone not finishing a meal she’d paid for. Then again, there was a reason Sinay was slender and Ofira wasn’t.

“They appear to be exploring. Neither of them are attempting to go where they’re not allowed, but they’re checking every entry.”

Ofira pondered a moment. “Where did they come in?”

“They came into the main docking area and were assigned an oriel.” The AI paused again. “According to sensor records they came from the region of the Yardain Wall.”

Sinay and Ofira exchanged a surprised glance.

Kamor continued. “They’re headed in the direction of their ship. Maybe they plan to leave?”

“Lock them down!” Ofira bolted for the cafeteria’s exit, elbowing people out of the way, yelling for everyone to make room for her. Eventually she cleared the mob and sprinted down the corridor toward the main docking facilities. She heard someone pounding after her, and at a corner managed to catch a glimpse of Sinay.

“Kamor,” Ofira gasped. “Which oriel?”

“G,” came the reply from an overhead sound inducer, indicating one of the smallest of the sixteen available docking areas. There were more than a hundred docking ports, only two score of oriels, and ten actual bays.

Ofira turned right, ran to the last intersection, and down the ramp to where the hatches to two oriels were across the corridor from each other. An observation port for G let her look inside as a small fish-shaped craft slid out the doors. She muttered an oath as Sinay caught up to her.

***

For days Ofira sat in the commander’s office and reviewed every sensor reading, every recording, and every shadow connected with the two strangers. She even took meals there, seldom acknowledging those who tried to engage her in conversation.

The men had done nothing, which in and of itself raised Ofira’s suspicion. Everyone had something to hide. That they didn’t produce electronic picks to open forbidden doors and hatches was suspect. Did they already know what was hidden from their sight? All they did was keep quiet and listen when others were around. Questioning people only revealed they didn’t notice the strangers.

At one point Ofira looked up from her desk’s new position and stared at the stars. They called to her in a way she couldn’t define.

“Maybe they had help,” Kamor said, interrupting her reverie. “After all, I wasn’t able to keep them from leaving.”

“If you don’t know already who helped them, how could we find out?” Ofira fumed. She itched to discuss the Avudelian invasion with them. Their Entity seemed greater than Breboa, and that spoke volumes. That the younger of the two men was somewhat attractive meant nothing. She’d lingered more than once on a holo frame of him.

Ofira stood, stretched, and paced the perimeter of the office. Perhaps Navre was right. That color of green did get tiresome to look at unless one kept busy. But it’s not like the salon, where she needed to keep a pleasant scene for the men to look at while waiting for their appointments.

The AI hesitantly said, “I’m not sure if this means anything, but at the same time you were running with abandon, Navre was in the Temple of Breboa.”

Ofira pondered. Their local entities did have some power. There were some who believed the stars themselves were entities, and that’s how they held back the interstellar medium. Certain tangle storms could come into star systems and disrupt transport and communication, but incidental donations to Breboa were supposed to keep the terminal shock in place. Everyone gave small coins to that end, dropped into a box outside the entrance to the temple. What harm could it do? Even Ofira dropped a bit of money in Breboa’s coffers from time to time.

“Do you know what he sacrificed, and what he was asking for?”

Kamor said, “AIs aren’t supposed to record that kind of information.”

Ofira stopped at the desk and sat again. “But you did, right?”

“Since it had to do with you and the well being of this outpost, of course I did.”

“Are you going to tell me, you collection of spare parts?”

The station’s voice conveyed humor more than any person’s laugh could. “A meat bag like you might not be able to handle what he asked for. Navre was irked at you, for some reason.”

“You know good and well why he was upset with me.” Ofira’s fingers tapped her frustration on the desk. “Out with it.”

“He promised half of his share of the cargo to, I quote, ‘Thwart the plot Ofira has going on right now.’ He dropped a clipping of pallum into the statue’s mouth where it disintegrated.”

“That’s an acceptance.” Ofira had personal experience of offerings not being accepted. In fact, none ever was for her. “Why does that have anything to do with the survival of the station?”

“If you were plotting something which would protect me, his sacrifice would endanger everyone aboard.” The AI actually sounded concerned. “I’ve been observing him since your meeting, and hadn’t decided on how much of a threat he was.”

“I appreciate your candor.” Ofira leaned back in the chair. “Where did those two men in the fish ship go?”

Kamor cleared his non-existent throat. “They headed In. Would they do that if they were Avudelian?”

“They would if they were spies.” Ofira asked, “Would you recognize their ship if it came back?”

“You have to ask?” Kamor chided.

The commander grinned. “Let me know the instant they show up on sensors, okay?”

“With a billion sectors, what are the chances they’d come back here?”

Ofira admitted Kamor had a point. Only to herself, though. No sense in the AI getting arrogant. She stared out her window and pondered.

***

The three minute walk to the salon took Ofira a full hour. Word had spread that she was in charge, so one person after another stopped to speak with her. One crewman wanted the right to more rations, a resident wanted lower prices for life support taxes, another thought he should have larger quarters. She’d have been upset with the delays, but it was part of being in charge of anything. Even a junior officer on a feculence transport would have the same issue, provided there were enough people aboard.

The door with a sigil of Breboa’s wife slid aside and Ofira entered the main salon. A pair of girls lounged provocatively on one end of the room, while five young men from a visiting ship waited at the other end for their appointments. For some reason a few of the girls were in much more demand than the others. Ofira never understood why. They were all beautiful.

The viewers were all set to sensor readings of the Yardain Wall and the Avudelian fleet again. At least business wasn’t being interrupted, Ofira mused.

The scan images hadn’t changed much since the fleet first appeared. Interstellar space swallowed up translight sensor energy, so any signal returns from two light years fell off to nothing. Only the fact that there were millions of ships in the fleet made them visible, a great fuzzy cloud at the edge of sensor range.

“How are things going?” Ofira asked Hebla, the darker of the two girls.

“It’s as if the men are nervous.” Hebla stretched in an enticing way. One of the five young men ogled, but the others ignored her. “We’ve seen more business than normal, as if they want to get what they can while it’s still available.”

The other girl, Vanle, shifted her posture to elicit another leer. “They’re more than nervous. They’ve all heard what the Avudelians have accomplished. Even if Erub wasn’t enough, everything since then would scare anyone. Especially when they’re parked in open space two light years away.”

“They want more action.” Hebla grinned, then whispered, “It’s good for our accounts.”

Ofira nodded, then activated a sound suppression system. Keeping her back to the men she said, “Kamor, what is the latest analysis of profits here?”

“Hebla is right. Income has nearly doubled since the Avudelians arrived.”

The darker girl grinned at the station proving her right. Vanle also smiled. They were all getting wealthier because of the increased visitation here. Ofira’s bribes wouldn’t increase, so everyone profited.

Ofira canceled the suppressor, but Kamor left it on as it said, “Ofira, the Avudelian spy is returning. So is Navre, about an hour behind him.”

Ofira turned to a corner and scowled. Navre was going to force her hand. That man was trouble. “When those two contact us for docking, have them fly Out for a few moments. When they’re out of view of Navre, have them dock in the biggest bay we have.”

Kamor acknowledged the instruction.

“I’m going to my rooms.”

***

Ofira found Sinay waiting for her in the spacious, wood-paneled living area of her personal quarters. The slender woman’s face was grim.

Sinay stood up from the divan she’d been seated in. “We have new orders from Tihas Statite.”

Taken aback, Ofira asked, “Why would you know and not me?” She lowered herself onto a comfortable chair and put her feet on a cushioned hassock. A wide portal, stretching nearly from deck to overhead, showed the starscape outside the station.

“Navre reported you to the king’s office.” Sinay glanced at the deck, as if she couldn’t keep eye contact. “They’ve told me to assume command of the station. They want me to put you in custody. They know about your bribes, Ofira. I think they were upset with not getting their share.”

“I see. The main temple wants their cut.” The former commander hesitated for a moment. “Navre is on his way here. They’ll put him in command, if they haven’t already.”

Sinay blanched.

“What’s the problem with him?”

Finally the new commander met Ofira’s eyes. “He wants me.”

Ofira laughed. “All men want you. We charge a higher price for you than anyone else.”

“He wants to own me.” A rictus of hatred flashed on Sinay’s face for just one moment. “I’ve sacrificed many times, and with valuable items. Breboa spoke plainly to me. ‘Navre will one day rule over you. For now, I’ll keep him at bay.’” Sinay shuddered.

“That day won’t be today,” Ofira said. “Kamor? Are you still answering me?”

The sound inducer overhead gave a mechanical chuckle. “Nobody’s told me not to. As far as I’m concerned you’re the station commander.”

“How far away are the Avudelian spies?”

“Spies? I thought we didn’t know they were spies. We don’t even know they’re Avudelian.” Another laugh from Kamor.

“Assuming they are, how far away are they?”

“They’re about to dock, according to your earlier instructions. That bay has an oriel set aside for repairing small ships, and we’ll have them settle there. Of course we’ll have to close it off to sequester them.”

Ofira stared at Sinay. “Do you intend to follow your orders?”

“I have to, Ofira. I don’t have a choice.” A flare of red crept up Sinay’s neck. “I don’t want to, but I must.”

“Very well. May I make suggestions?”

“Please.” Sinay gasped the word as a sigh. “I’m not a commander. I’m only here to follow you.”

Ofira nodded. “Don’t tell anyone of these orders. Let me go to the temple to seek Breboa’s guidance.” She couldn’t help but wonder why she would do that. Perhaps habit.

“Also,” Ofira continued, “keep the Avudelians . . . suspected Avudelians,” she amended, knowing Kamor would correct her, “behind the bulkhead in their bay. When I’m done in the temple, put me in custody with them.”

“Consider it done.”

***

The darkened temple in the bowels of the station had no occupants when Ofira arrived. Unless invited, witnessing another’s sacrifice was considered gauche. People had been ostracized for violating that code.

Passing the initial offering box, Ofira entered the temple. She set an indicator to let others know someone was within and giving a sacrifice. She approached the statue and knelt. “Lord Breboa, I seek a favor.”

The steel statue was a representation of a normal human male from the waist up, two meters tall. The arms were stretched in front of it, as if reaching to hold something. This is where sacrifices were placed. If accepted, the items were engulfed in flames. A particularly devout sacrifice required the worshiper stand in those hands and place any items in the statue’s open mouth. If accepted, it would vaporize. If not, the worshiper would burst into flames and die.

Stand forward. The words thundered in her mind. Present your sacrifice as a true devotee.

Ofira collapsed to the deck in fear. She felt as if her bones would fall apart, and maybe they already had, since she could not stand. “Lord!” she cried. “Why do you speak now after all these years?”

That is not for you to know. Present your offering! Now!

From a wallet Ofira withdrew a credit chip holding all her material wealth. She scrambled to her feet and climbed into the hands which seemed to reach out to her. They lifted her so she could reach the gaping maw of the statue, and she threw the money in. The chip bounced off the teeth and fell back into her hands.

Why do you linger? Are you not a true worshiper?

Again Ofira tossed the small disk, and again it ricocheted out.

You are false. You will die.

At those words the statue’s hands erupted into flames, roaring around Ofira and cloaking her in a conflagration. She screamed, and screamed, and screamed again.

Then Ofira realized there was no heat. She wasn’t on fire, didn’t burn, and remained untouched. When the flames faded the voice in her head accused, You have turned to Him, haven’t you?

“I don’t know what you mean,” Ofira said. “Who is ‘Him’?” She received no answer.

Shaken, but otherwise unharmed, Ofira climbed down and left the the temple behind. There was no reason to be there, and no reason to return.

 

 

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