• Mark Meier

Lannetay and Bill had many times discussed Carnifor’s assignment. The flight to Herlorwis had taken six standard weeks, and there was little else to talk about.

As Lannetay and Carnifor entered the control room, the ship shuddered, as if crashing through a wall of cotton.

“Landfall in two minutes,” Bill said. “We’ve been instructed to use Pad 33.”

Most One-K colonies had a few landing pads just inside the circumference of the atmo wall. Each bore the designation of the compass bearing from the center of the colony – straight east would be pad 09, south 18, west 27, and straight north was pad 36. Pad 33 rested northwest of the colony’s center.

Lannetay led the way up the short aisle between the two rows of seats in the control area. “Tell the others, Bill.”

Bill’s notification filtered in from the common room’s sound inducers.

Two seats made up the back row in the control area. Two more chairs in front looked out through expansive windows, which were really display screens. The foremost recliners, according to tradition, were reserved for the two primary commanders of the ship. Bill could grow other chairs in the aisle if the need arose.

Lannetay and Carnifor sat at the console which held no real controls. Mostly Bill flew the ship, and the crew gave orders through electronic implants chemically laid down in the brain. Tactile controls could be produced on the panel for people who insisted on “hands on” flying. Lannetay never used that option.

The ship flared to a hover above a circle with the number “33” glowing in the center. Bill lowered the ship’s landing gear and they settled to the surface without a jolt. “We’re down. Five minutes, and you can head outside.”

Bill spent those five minutes with typical behind-the-scenes “housework,” changing the programming in the nanites in each person’s blood to fight local organisms, equalizing pressure, and exchanging data with the colony– everything needed to make the visit safe for everyone involved.

Carnifor frowned. “Why didn’t you take care of the prep work before we landed? You could have gotten the information you needed before we arrived.”

Bill gave a great impression of a derisive sniff. “You want me to trust a strange Core with your lives hanging in the balance? Not likely. Unless you’re volunteering to be the ‘canary in the coal mine,’ Carnifor.”

Lannetay had years of experience with the AI, even though it was with a previous iteration on a smaller ship. “Bill likes to take his own readings. We’ve been surprised before, and neither of us wants it to happen again.” Her husband had died that day. Fighting down the rising tide of sorrow, she swallowed, steeled herself, and told Bill she was ready when he was.

Bill said, “Okay, you’re good to go.”

Lannetay and Carnifor filed through the living area. The commander pointed at L-T and Goofball, then gestured to the deck. They would be staying aboard.

“Olthan, you’re with me.” Carnifor headed toward the starboard lock, and the Marine cut his inspection tour short to join him.

Lannetay simmered at having him make that decision, but crew assignments for off-ship activities were largely his to decide. She sent another sarcastic and imaginary thanks to Admiral Choergatan.

Lannetay saw Marc catch her eye. She nodded her permission, mostly to spite Carnifor. The boy bolted to her side, his wide grin spreading like a supernova. When Carnifor frowned, she smiled to herself.

At the airlock, Olthan unlocked a panel and drew out a belt containing a holstered GR19 disrupter pistol. After fastening that around his waist he then took one of the five Rant 23 rifles from a rack and cautiously slung it over his shoulder.

Lannetay had read Olthan’s file. “Thanks for being careful.”

“Don’t want ta blow off nobody’s foot. Did that once. Sergeant Wilks won’t let me forget it, neither.”

Carnifor eyed Lannetay’s attire. “Aren’t you going to change out of . . . that?”

Lannetay hiked up her skirt and strapped a holster to her thigh, then filled it with a Sheam 7 disrupter pistol. Not a very powerful weapon, but easy to conceal. “What’s wrong with it?” She smoothed her skirt over the pistol and checked to see if it showed. It didn’t.

“You look like a clown.”

“Does not.” Marc took a sonic stunner and dropped it into his pants pocket.

Lannetay couldn’t help but to annoy Carnifor a bit more. “Should I put on a different color of lipstick?”

Carnifor snorted. “Nobody will notice lipstick with you dressed that way.”

Lannetay looked over Carnifor’s bland clothing. “Don’t you carry weapons?”

He smiled. “No.”

Lannetay was unimpressed with his rank as a third degree black belt in Tae Kwan Do. That was all great, but a disrupter at thirty meters beat the best kick in the galaxy.

Lannetay looked up to where she imagined Bill might be watching from. “Okay, Bill. Let’s see what we can do here.”

The lock opened, and Lannetay continued. “I’ll have you know, Carny, my clothing is the latest fashion from Earth. You’re dressed like a common farmer.” Another shot at the commander’s ego. He hated being called “Carny.”

Carnifor visibly bristled but remained silent.

Outside, the atmosphere shield shimmered overhead. Designed to skew a star’s light toward “normal,” the shield couldn’t entirely mask the M2 red dwarf’s appearance. Looming large in the sky, it looked more like a massive ball of clotting blood than an actual star.

Nobody arrived to greet the four as they descended the ship’s ramp to the gritty surface. They turned around, taking in their surroundings.

The kilometer-high atmo-wall towered over them from behind the ship. Built by nanites, the wall wouldn’t leak more than an insignificant fraction of the air within. A century might pass before anyone would notice a drop in pressure, but processors made up for anything lost.

Marc bounced on the balls of his feet. “Stage One terraforming?Gravity seems about half normal.”

“Some might call it Stage Two.” Carnifor kept his eyes on their immediate surroundings. “Originally the dome system was called Stage One.”

Lannetay scoffed. “That’s hardly terraforming. Nobody calls a dome-colony ‘terraforming’ these days.” If anyone ever had. She sniffed the air, detecting rich soil somewhere nearby. The grit under their feet had modifications to grow plants somewhere not too far away.

About half of the surface area within the atmo-wall held low, single- or double-story buildings. They all exuded a utilitarian aura, colored in earth tones, and constructed of native materials, though none used the domestic wood products William Placard had listed as their chief export.

“Movement.” Olthan’s hand dropped to the butt of his sidearm. He left the rifle strapped at his back, however.

A car emerged, giving off a high-pitched whine and hovering a half-meter above the ground. The beat-up mechanism no doubt represented a large fraction of Herlorwis’ fleet of automobiles.

“Easy, Olthan.” Carnifor placed a hand on the Marine’s shoulder. “They are why we’re here.”

“Aye.” Even when he didn’t say it, Olthan said “sir.”

Lannetay’s heart warmed when Marc gripped her left hand. She didn’t expect he’d do such things much longer.

The car, each body panel with varying shades of terra cotta, stopped. Flattened duratine pegs took the mechanism’s weight as the antigravs wound down and the vehicle lowered to the ground a dozen meters away. All four doors on the sedan opened, and the occupants climbed out – three men, one woman.

“Lanny Tae?” The woman eyed Lannetay’s outfit and smiled. “I’m Gerid Meit.”

Lannetay recognized the woman’s name as the colonial governor, according to Bill’s file. No telling what had happened since the Wantis claimed the system as their own a few months ago.

All four of the Herlorwians were dressed in sheriq clothing – resembling denim, but much more durable. Gerid wore black slacks and a turquoise blouse under a royal blue suit coat. The men wore all black – pants, shirts and blazers, shoes and socks, everything.

Lannetay stepped toward the car for a handshake. Marc walked with her, still holding her left hand. “Glad to meet you, Gerid. Call me Lanny.” After the warm greeting she felt Marc’s hand fall away. The boy is growing up, she thought with mixed feelings.

“Lanny, your ship tells me you have trade goods.” Gerid stood with feet apart and hands in her shallow jacket pockets.

The three men with Gerid spread out a bit, as if covering her against imminent attack. Though they had the look of farmers uncomfortable in formal wear, they didn’t seem bothered by the bulky pistols poorly-hidden under their jackets. One kept his eyes on the visitors, particularly Olthan, while the other two visually scanned their surroundings – maybe for someone who had exited the ship for some clandestine purpose.

Lannetay eyed the three men, then dismissed them as non-threatening, though capable of aggression. As long as she was peaceful, they would return the favor. “You seem to have reached an equilibrium with your colony wall, from what we saw on our descent. I wondered if you’d like to expand a bit.”

Gerid kept her eyes focused on Lannetay’s. “Do you mean another One-K circle? We won’t have the trade items for a Five-K.”

Maybe not, but there were ways, Lannetay thought. She’d rehearsed options during the long cruise to Herlorwis. “That depends on what you have for trade. Some trees seem to grow well inside your wall. Could we buy some of the lumber your Core lists for sale?”

Gerid’s eyes clouded for a moment, then cleared. “Scans tell me your ship is unarmed, and only two are still aboard.”

Lannetay grinned. “Prudent of you to check before blowing us shield high.” She hadn’t noticed any armaments pointed at the ship, but it was a safe bet there was something – especially after Gerid’s comment. Lannetay had no doubt all three of the colony’s landing circles were covered in some way.

The colonist matched Lannetay’s expression. “Why risk destroying what might be a boon to the colony? Too few ships stop in for trade, but we do like to make sure of intent before we roll out our welcome. Shall we continue this conversation indoors? I’ve been here for ten years, but that glob of red hanging there all day still makes me nervous.” She hitched a thumb toward the ruddy sphere looming overhead.

“By all means.” Lannetay gestured for her to lead the way.

The three guards fanned out farther, and Gerid led Lannetay and her entourage past the car into a sprawling tan warehouse less than a hundred meters away.


If you're wondering more about these characters, their origins are detailed in Ebony Sea: Origins. If you appreciate this story, please share on social media, and consider supporting the author's ability to continue writing by purchasing the Origins story and leaving a review at the link above.



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  • Mark Meier

By Mark W. Meier

Act I

The Final Spell

Scene 2

“Horoscopes, fortune telling, and tarot are next, Ken. And get used to incense. It’ll help create a mood for your readings.”

If I’d accepted help from others in the Brotherhood it could have been done in a few months, but I hated owing anyone favors. Senior Brothers might ask for help in return at the worst possible time, ruining my own plans, which is why I had this assignment. I hated my Brothers almost as much as I hated you.

You lost your job busing tables at a local franchise restaurant because you called in sick too often. No matter. Your time with an oversized tarot deck on your coffee table would garner you more than enough cash at next year’s fair.

Any deck of cards could give a tarot reading, but a specialized deck tended to impress people more. A crystal ball added a level of mystique, and the fragrant Nag Champa powders added to a simmering candle warmer amplified the effect.

The next county fair brought longer lines outside your tent. People remembered your dream readings; now they wanted to know their futures. I seldom prompted you. By the end of the fair you’d earned more money – five dollars at a time – than you’d ever possessed.

“Give your money to Gilbert & Associates.” That enterprise was controlled by one of my other clients. “They can work magic – no pun intended – with money, and you’ll be wealthy by the next county fair. You’ll never have to fill out a job application ever again.”

In the meantime, your latest job of sweeping floors for a cleaning service put food in your pantry, paid the electricity bill, and built up a workroom for magickal training. Over the next year you learned numerology, runes, and potions, all of which came as second nature to you.

You moved from your apartment into a small house in Lake Hills, next to an industrial park. The oily stench there was less obvious than the untreated sewage near your previous flat. You felt safe enough, though, to stop carrying your pistol – during the day.

When neighbors discovered your skills they asked you to paint runes on their walls. The crime rate around your home dropped to near zero, thanks to my intervention. You suggested which numbers to pick in the lottery, and those were numbers that won – no big jackpots though, as that would be too obvious. Your concoctions helped them lose weight, gain muscle, earn promotions, and find love.

Again, you were careful. Too much too soon is almost as deadly as too little for too long.

In the course of two years Gilbert turned your three thousand dollars into three million. Using a half million, you bought property in the country outside of Bristol. We needed acreage to learn spellcasting.

Watching your home being built from the already-completed greenhouse, you turned morose. “But what about love? I’m so alone it hurts. Can’t you bring someone to me?”

“They’ll only get in the way. A needy woman will derail your training.”

While you washed dirt and residue from your hands I could see you thinking. I’d given you everything you’d need to find the solution, and you didn’t disappoint.

“How about a non-needy woman?”

“A prostitute?” I pantomimed a shocked expression.

“Well, yeah. She can see to my needs when I want her, and she can otherwise go about her business.”

“Hmmm. We should use a teenage girl who won’t mind staying out here in the middle of nowhere. Barely legal would be best.” If she were over eighteen she wouldn’t be of much concern to the police.

Your face twisted in horror. “I’m thirty-five. Eighteen . . . that’s wrong.”

“Why? Younger girls are easier to control. They’ll be more impressed with you and won’t cost anywhere near as much money. And they’re . . . cleaner.” I peered closer at some white sage, pretending to inspect it.

Your resolve crumbled in record time. “Okay. A girl of eighteen.”

“Get three of them. A real man’s attention will tire only one or two girls that age.”

“Three it is.” You didn’t even pause that time.

“Set them up as your daughters. That’ll keep most people from questioning you if you’re seen with them.”

Your country home eventually grew into a sprawling mansion. One entire wing held your magickal training facility, another, your three girls. Your greenhouse was updated to grow things native to different climates. As the years passed, you acquired new companions – that is, after paying the previous ones a handsome severance package.

“Why is it taking me so long to learn spellcasting?”

So I could attend to other projects at the same time. I wouldn’t tell you that, of course.

“Because you’ll be needing all the things you’ve been collecting and grinding.” You’d worn out two mortar and pestles in the five years you’d been working. Vials of completed spell components covered entire walls in your storage rooms.

I leaned forward to inspect a glass jar of powdered lavender. “Besides, it’s the hardest of all magick to master. It’s easy to pull a rabbit out of a hat, pick the right card from a deck, and make someone’s watch disappear. Any idiot can learn that. Magic is simple, magick is more involved.”

You kept with it, despite what seemed like foolish activities. A flask with pine extract? An envelope with bits of string? Even the broken remnants of a porcelain teacup stored in a felt pouch.

You hired staff to keep your home tidy. A decade passed, and you finally cast a simple spell – creating fire.

You complained bitterly.

“I can strike a match and make fire.” You sipped tea in your work room, watching the pyramid of lint and splintered wood chips burn down. “It took ten years for me to cast a spell to do that!”

I drew myself up taller and let my face reflect a bit of my anger. “You’re just starting.” Raising my voice wouldn’t matter, since nobody else could hear me. “The next ones will be easier. In another ten years you’ll be more powerful than you can imagine!”

You frightened so easily. A hint of sharpened teeth and smoldering red eyes, and you lowered your gaze. Cowed, but not cowering.

“It just seems to be taking so long for so little progress.” You pointed to the smoldering remains of burning pine pitch and linen emanating from a copper brazier.

“Little progress? Your entire lifestyle is supported by donations from grateful clients. Do you want more, like astral projection?” A rhetorical question, since I already knew the answer.

You nodded.

“How about summoning and dispelling spirits? Speaking with people long dead, enchanting mundane items, flooding entire valleys, burning whole towns to the ground? Does that appeal to you?”

Your eyes widened with an avaricious gleam. “Yes.” Your whisper screamed.

The hook was set. “What if such power required the use of . . . unconventional . . . methods?”

“I want it.” Your hands clenched, as if grasping something intangible. “I want it.”

“You’ll need help.”

Now I would really make some headway.


If you appreciate this story, please consider supporting the author's ability to write more by purchasing The Brotherhood, available in print and on Kindle. Please share on social media, and leave a review on the page linked above.


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  • Mark Meier

Wind shrieked in protest as the William Placard plummeted through the thin atmosphere at Herlorwis. The air barely qualified as “atmosphere,” being about half the density of the envelope around Mars.

Streamers of ionized atoms howled in the wake of the descending Ladybug-3 cargo ship. Lannetay, owner and captain of the vessel, smiled inwardly at her second-in-command’s nervous grip on his chair arms.

Lieutenant Commander Carnifor clenched his teeth. “Lannetay! We’re going to crash.”

Lannetay sneered inwardly. If Carnifor really believed they were about to crash, he’d object more strenuously. “Stuff it.” She continued as before, allowing deflectors and shields to protect the hemispheric ship. She had to gauge things closely, and turned her attention to the readings. Just a little longer.

Carnifor bristled. “Who’s in command here?”

“I am.” Lannetay knew good and well she was in charge. “You might get to tell us where to go, but I run the ship. My ship. My rules.” She considered it somewhat of a miracle he’d agreed to have their first stop in the Wanti Confederation be at this backwater colony.

The William Placard’s artificial intelligence, Bill, spoke to Lannetay’s mind via electronic implants – almost like telepathy. We are getting close to their atmo shield. Maybe we should slow down a bit.

A few seconds more, Lannetay thought back. I like annoying him.

Bill used sound inducers to speak aloud. “We’re getting a message from the colony.”

“Play it.” Lannetay and Carnifor spoke in unison. Lannetay scowled at the commander, who didn’t seem to notice.

William Placard, Herlorwis colony.” A woman’s voice held a bit of tension. “We have you on final approach. You’re dropping a bit quickly. Perhaps you’d consider decreasing your rate of descent.”

Out of the corner of her eye Lannetay saw Carnifor’s “I told you so” smirk. She ignored the condescending man.

Lannetay’s in-eye display showed the circular atmospheric retaining wall expanding as the William Placard plunged toward the colony. She carefully monitored their approach for a few more seconds as the dirty brown landscape showed more rocky detail. “Now, Bill.”

The AI threw in full thrusters, decelerating hard. Artificial gravity fluttered, fighting to keep up with the change. Bill showed their course plot and Lannetay smiled. Right on target, right on velocity.

“We’ll be below maximum to pass through their atmo shield.” Lannetay had done similar maneuvers dozens of times. None recently, but this was her first trading mission in more than a year ̵̶ thanks to a certain admiral.

“Barely below the limit.” Carnifor highlighted a readout for her attention. “Another few meters per second and we’d splatter.”

“We’re freelance.” Lannetay scoffed inwardly at Carnifor’s naivete. “If we made our approach according to Navy specs, we’d be pegged as frauds in an instant.” According to his file, the man was known for two things: bravery, and following regulations.

“Nobody’s going to think you’re Navy wearing that outfit.”

Lannetay looked down at her saffron Boh-Runo blouse with coral buttons. She liked the way it set off her eggshell skirt. Carmine stockings, embroidered with black piping, reached into claret Andy M. pumps. A cherry tam by Lo Ton completed the ensemble. “Definitely not trying to be Navy.”

Olthan’s coming. A moment after Bill’s announcement the Marine lance corporal paused in the hatchway and cleared his throat. He’s standing at attention. Bill laughed in Lannetay’s head.

“What is it, Olthan?” Carnifor asked.

Lannetay liked the awkward Marine. He never intruded when she wanted to be alone. Unlike some members of her crew. She glanced at Carnifor out of the corner of her eye.

“Just goin’ to do my walk-around, s–” Olthan choked off the “sir” he normally used to address an officer.

Carnifor shot a scowl over his shoulder at Olthan. “Get out of that habit, Olthan. It’s been months now, and you might get us killed if the wrong person overhears you.”

“Y-you said you wanted to walk with me, s–” Olthan blushed, then pivoted and bolted through the open hatch.

“Why won’t that hatch close?” Carnifor asked. “We’ve been in the control room for hours. Isn’t the hatch supposed to close by itself?

“I don’t want our crew to think we might be . . . inappropriate.” Lannetay watched an in-head hologram as Bill made their final approach to the colony. No human could match the precision of a Core or AI, but Lannetay preferred to keep close track of things.

Carnifor rolled his eyes. “Who cares what they think? We’re in charge. We’re not supposed to be Navy, so it doesn’t make any difference.”

Oh, so now he’s not Navy? Bill’s quip almost made Lannetay laugh.

“It makes a difference to me. I don’t want even a suspicion of wrongdoing.” Lannetay didn’t add her thought of, “And I don’t care what you think.”

Carnifor stood and stretched, with Lannetay following suit. The commander strode into the living section of the cargo ship to accompany Olthan on his rounds. About half of that space protruded from the half-sphere of the William Placard. The control section jutted out from there. There wasn’t much to inspect, but the daily chore kept Olthan busy for a few minutes.

Lannetay watched as the two men followed the exercise track bordering the area in a rounded rectangle. Ten circuits equaled a kilometer. One portion of the room held flexible-use entertainment equipment, another a dining facility, and another a rudimentary sickbay. Barriers could be grown from macrites to separate each section, with sound dampeners to further isolate different activities. Mostly the crew didn’t bother with the physical obstructions.

L-T, born Letinnialimek Twunyesperinak – which is why people called him “L-T” – played a game of chess in the dining area with Lannetay’s adopted son. Nine-year-old Marc usually held his own against the Navy lieutenant. Lannetay smiled at the memory of the boy cutting his hair to match L-T’s close-cropped style.

Nearby, the seasoned fighter pilot and part-time programmer, Romiy Sentro, used the entertainment area as a flight simulator to practice dogfighting. He’d been given the call sign “Goofball” because of his penchant for practical – and impractical – jokes. Though using the direct mind-linking implants, the man still twisted and tilted his body to “help” get commands through the interface.

None of those three paid any attention as Olthan peered into every nook and cranny he could find. If his augmented senses detected anything out of the ordinary, he’d report it. Next up were the crew quarters, the engineering spaces, and finally the cargo hold.

Carnifor left the soldier to his duty and walked back to Lannetay, grumbling to himself just loud enough for her to hear. “Olthan doesn’t need me for this.”

“I thought you wanted to follow regulations,” Lannetay said.

“We haven’t stopped in months. What are the chances someone managed to get aboard?”

Lannetay ignored the question. “We have a strange crew, Carnifor.” She’d made that observation a number of times already.

The Navy man edged back a fraction of a meter so he wouldn’t have to look so steeply down at Lannetay. “Won’t catch me disagreeing. What did you do to get this sentence?”

Lannetay didn’t want to talk about herself, but rather the rest of those aboard. Though she’d read their files, she wanted Carnifor’s thoughts.

“What did you do?” Lannetay already knew. She just wanted to hear his side of the story.

Bill interrupted before either could elaborate. “Atmo shield in ten seconds.”

Lannetay grimaced, then headed back to her seat in the control cabin.

Carnifor followed. “You’ll have to tell me sometime.”

So will he, Bill sent to Lannetay.


If you're wondering more about these characters, their origins are detailed in Ebony Sea: Origins. If you appreciate this story, please share on social media, and consider supporting the author's ability to continue writing by purchasing the Origins story and leaving a review at the link above.


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