A large drop of dark blood oozed when he pressed down on it and he thought of Joe, collapsed on the floor of his own quarters, in his own vomit and blood. His brother hadn’t even tried fight back.
Maybe because Joe knew he’d already won. Ken gripped the edges of the utility sink, unlike life, the porcelain and steel refusing to bend to his will.
Seven days ago, the results from the DNA testing came in; seven days ago his dreams of a lifetime of love and family with the only woman he’d ever cared about were dashed by the irrefutable proof that he wasn’t their child’s father.
Facts never lie, so the logic followed someone else was.
And Joe. His brother could barely contain himself as soon as he heard the news.
Sarah was not Ken’s.
It wasn’t only stupid dare, it was wrong, and Ken knew he was as equally stupid to go along with it.
Ken closed his eyes, remembering how easily she fell into Joe’s arms on that camping trip. They were drunk, but not drunk enough to know better.
He’d made Jun promise, promises that they both knew, and if he really wanted to admit it to himself, were impossible to keep.
And then when the child came, hale and healthy, it didn’t really take much thought for him to figure it out. The child couldn’t possibly be his, despite Jun’s protestations. Even a monkey with an abacus would have come to the same conclusion.
So she lied.
And he wanted to believe…
He truly wanted to believe, he truly wanted Sarah to be his, and he truly wanted to think that Jun wouldn’t lie, not to him.
Yet beliefs and falsehoods are a faulty premise with which to build a future on. All they managed to create was little more than a house of cards, insufficient to build a better life in, insufficient shelter for a child.
Reaching up, he snagged an old tin bandage box and shook it
open. Only one left. Taping it on, the ancient sticky adhesive promised to take the first layer of skin off with it when it came time to remove it.
“Mmmrow?” Something soft and heavy bumped into his calf, breaking him from his dark thoughts. Looking down, he saw a large brownish striped cat weave his way between his open legs again before sitting tidily by his left foot.
The ornery looking thing must’ve wandered in sometime during a terrific thunderstorm that blasted the airstrip four days ago. Ken had stood watching the heavy black clouds come roiling in, each one spoiling to be the first to dump cold rain upon him. He’d only yanked the hangar door shut after he’d been soaked through and shivering.
The morning after the deluge, he was rewarded by not one, but two dead mice on the worn sink mat and the formidable glower of the beast as it waited for him crouched on the kitchen counter.
That afternoon, he spent his last credits on some boxed pasta and dehydrated cheese and the smallest bag of quality cat food he could find.
Ken reached down and gave its ears a good scratch before the cat batted at his hand and took off at a run to the kitchen. It’s one ear flopping crookedly as it ran.
“Everybody wants something,” he muttered, following the cat into the kitchen. Like a good ninja it leapt easily and silently onto the counter fixing Ken with a hard green eyed stare as he reached for a cereal bowl and the bag of cat food.
“You wanna share?” He asked when his own cereal box revealed only some pulverized dust from the very bottom. His companion only laid back his ears and growled between crunches of kibble.
“Nah, didn’t think so,” Ken answered, returning the clean bowl back to the shelf and heading toward the worktable. He’d eaten the last of the cardboard pasta the night before and even then he knew it wasn’t enough and went to bed hungry and alone.
Sighing he pulled he package that sat on the worktable closer. What caught his attention when he’d found it outside the hanger the night before was the shiny, bright orange sticker affixed to the upper right hand corner:
Ten credits, postage due. Denny, as a shipping broker for a large conglomerate, often shunted Ken extra work when he knew Ken was coming up short. The ten credits would be enough to feed him for the week, if he was careful. He’d drained his tiny savings account to fill the tanks at the airfield and his battered old truck he used for local deliveries. He couldn’t earn if he couldn’t fly, but looking at the piles of bills and notices mixed in with various receipts, he wasn’t even sure of that anymore.
Ignoring the bills, he picked up the package and gave it a gentle shake. No rattles or clinks, despite the fact that it had ‘fragile,’ written on it in what appeared to be at least two of the most common Utoland dialects and that it looked as though someone had stomped heavily on the lower left corner.
Looking at the address, it wasn’t hard to guess why. The address was marked for deep into the “Free-Peoples,” territory. Denny held no love for the Galactor immigrants, something he made plain and often enough, the volume of his suspicions increasing exponentially with the application of alcohol.
How long had it been since they’d arrived? Ken tried thinking back, six years, or was it eight? Certainly no more than ten. It had been shortly after his fifteenth birthday when the tribes had arrived and plowed that barely finished Mecha into the beach sands just north of Utoland City.
The population was thrown into a panic, as the military scrambled hard for a response, while the media made it only worse by getting in the way.
Hakase had pulled both he and Joe from their classrooms to witness the ISO’s coverage of the event first hand…their teacher’s expression grim as though his worst fears were being confirmed right before his very eyes.
Within moments of their arrival, a small group emerged from the tail of the craft and moved down the beach beyond the high tide mark. They carried among them, a struggling figure that they then staked out flat upon the wet sand.
Hakase pointed out to both Joe and Ken, that the man was likely the captain of the vessel.
“What are they here for, Hakase?” Ken had asked, “What do they want?”
“We should blow the entire thing out to the sea.” Joe had grumbled. “Leave it to God to sort them out.”
“Patience,” Dr. Nambu said, gesturing back to the screen.
Ken and Joe watched with Dr. Nambu as a second group appeared. Warily they approached a hastily assembled delegation made up of the U.N. finest military and humanitarian aid branches along with a heavy sprinkling of the national media outlets. The group looked to be made up of older individuals. Exhaustion and deprivation etched deep into their proud faces. They gestured to the ship behind them, and then to a long handwritten list printed on what looked to be heavy paper. Asking politely, in halting Utoland common, they requested a translator, an ISO translator to meet with them before the next high tide.
Ken watched as Dr. Nambu’s dour scowl shifted into a slow smile and a nod.
Within minutes of that announcement, Dr. Nambu was summoned to an emergency meeting of the high council. Ken and Joe were instructed to return to their classes and training.
One shared look between them had the pair headed, instead, to the roof access of the headquarters, where they hoped to get a glimpse of the craft firsthand.
Ryu was already up there, thick arms crossed across his massive chest as he surveyed the scene in the cool, clear air. Quiet and introspective, he’d already earned the nickname as the Owl. As the eldest, at nineteen, Ken found himself relying on the big man’s interpretation of what went on around him.
“I don’t like it, I don’t like it one bit,” He said, as Ken and Joe leaned over the railing to get a better glimpse of the ugly thing squatting on the beach. “Too many birds in the air.” He shouted as yet another military jet roared overhead on its way to the scene below. “They’re gonna crash, or wake that thing up, then someone’s gonna go home crying, fer sure.”
Jinpei crouched well beneath the railing at Ryu’s feet, one ear-bud dangling free as tapped at a small keypad in his lap.
“Whaddya hear, Jinpei?” Ken asked, looking around. “Where’s Jun?”
“Nee-chan’s down at medical. Something about a stomach ache.”
No not a stomachache, Ken mentally amended the young boy…cramps. He sighed.
“Hey, it seems those guys on that ship wanna know how long it is going to take to get someone out there to talk to them…Said something about the water rising.”
Ken thought about the ship perched on the edge of the beach, and the struggling form tacked out there like one of Jinpei’s insect specimens. Seawater was corrosive, and what it wouldn’t dissolve, it would drown.
Ken had just turned back, when the creak of the access door brought him back to reality. It wasn’t Jun, but Hakase himself.
“You’re supposed to be back at your classes,” he said, but he didn’t sound angry, more like resolved, as he met the eyes of each one of them.
“So are you going to go? Did you get selected to be a part of the welcoming committee?” Jinpei piped up, jumping to his feet.
Hakase didn’t answer right away, just held out his hand to Jinpei…
Jinpei, reluctantly removed the second bud from his ear, and slowly handed the device to Dr. Nambu, muttering just loud enough for Ken to hear, “I’ll just make another one.”
“Yes, I’ve been selected to go, along with a team of engineers and a small military escort. We’re just waiting for the go-ahead on the translator. Most of them are Military trained, and I think for this encounter…someone with a less likely desire to shoot first before asking the appropriate questions would be a better fit for all involved.”
“You can’t be serious,” Joe said, pulling himself up to his full height, a full inch and a half that of their mentor, “that thing out there’s Galactor, and it’s not safe. We’re coming with you.”
Surprisingly, Hakase nodded. “You got that right, Joe. That vessel there most certainly is, or was. If what I’ve been hearing these past few months is correct, it isn’t any more.”
Ken looked out toward the sea, and the segmented thing that crouched there on wickedly long folded legs. The tide most certainly was coming in, the foamy waves lapping at the machine’s tail section. He thought of the man forced to lie out on the sand, he wondered if it weren’t for the jets and helicopters circling overhead that they’d be able to hear him screaming.
“If it isn’t Galactor’s ship, then whose is it?” Joe asked, his voice little more than a snarl.
“You know what they say Joe, about possession being nine-tenths of the law? I think you could say that it belongs to the people inside it, the same people who built it and brought it here…”
Ken waited up for Hakase to return that night, long after the others had gone to bed. He looked tired, but when Ken offered to make a fresh pot of coffee, Dr. Nambu turned him down. Gesturing to the opposite couch and for Ken to sit, Hakase kicked off his shoes and stretched out. For the first time ever, Ken realized that his mentor looked not only tired, but old…as though whatever he had learned from this mysterious ship and the people that flew it had aged him.
“They were waiting there, with cutting torches, explosives, you name it, they were all totally prepared to destroy what they had brought with them if their requests were not met.” Dr. Nambu had told him.
Ken who kept an eagle’s eye on the steady stream of media coverage and speculation was filled to bursting with questions.
“What are they Hakase? What do they want?”
Dr. Nambu turned a hard eye on him long enough that Ken dropped his gaze. “Not what, Ken… but who.
For three generations they’ve labored under their interstellar overlords under brutal and dehumanizing conditions. For three generations they’ve built, wired, and even designed portions of the craft like you see out there as little more than slaves. Their understanding of alien technology, engineering, and even metallurgy…it’s just beyond anything…Ken we should be offering, hell we should be giving them the fucking moon if they’d have it.”
Ken sat back. Hakase always chose his words carefully, precisely, like steps in a delicate research project. For him to curse not once but twice in a sentence! Ken shook his head, letting his too long hair dangle down into his eyes. It served as screen sometimes to hide from the outside world, until his mentor insisted he cut it.
Through the strands he saw his teacher rub at his face with his hands, as if to dislodge some of what he’d seen, and for a moment, Ken thought his mentor might have fallen asleep until he spoke again.
“What they want Ken, is peace, to cremate their dead, and to be left alone. War is coming, Ken, and we need to prepare. Yet with what they are offering and with the preparations I’ve laid the groundwork for, we might have a fighting chance against them.
“But Hakase,” Ken began, thinking of the worst speculation coming from the so-called news outlets, speculation that his teacher couldn’t even begin to imagine. “If they’re not of this earth, then they’re aliens aren’t they?”
“Go to bed, Ken,” Dr. Nambu said, “and try not to pay so close attention to everything you hear. Yes, they could be considered alien, only a few of their children have been born on this world, if you want to call it that way, but I consider it be nothing more than a technicality. I’ve already looked at the initial results from some genetic testing we were allowed to do, and they’re human, Ken, just like you and me.” Then Hakase leaned back further into the couch cushions, and within minutes his breathing became slow and deep.
The next morning, it was all over the media outlets. Deals were struck and the poor Captain was pulled from the sand, cold and damp, but still alive.
Hakase let Ken read the documents and showed him the area that the tribes, as the “Free-Peoples,” called themselves would be allowed to settle in exchange for the ship and whatever else they could offer in aid.
Things quieted down pretty quickly after that, something that Ken wondered if the ISO had any hand in. Stories of the new arrivals were few and far between. Never lasting more than a day, two at most, as they adjusted to their hard earned freedom.
But the media speculation had been particularly brutal. All kinds of hatred and fear mongering had been given free reign all in the interest of market share and ratings.
Because of that, most companies shied away from any sort of commerce with them, or jacked up their rates enough to make it next to impossible to do so. Joe Asakura’s sentiments of once being Galactor, guilty until proven otherwise or dead, seemed to hold for most the Utoland’s population concerning the tribes.
First things first, he needed the money, desperately, he thought bringing himself back to the present. But perhaps even more, he needed a reason to prove Joe wrong.
Snapping on his bracelet, he set it to watch function, but didn’t activate it. If Nambu needed him, that could be overridden. “I’m heading out,” he told the cat, tucking the box under his arm, “don’t wait up for me.” He’d already made a functioning cat door of sorts into his home with a hacksaw, a bit of scrap plywood and some glue. Now whether the old tomcat would use it or not was up to him.
“Hey Pal, end of the line.” Ken rubbed at his face with his right hand, the left rested on the box on the seat beside him. He blinked taking in the scene. For just one package he’d opted for the commuter bus, it was a bit of a walk, but it saved on gas and parking, and allowed him a bit of a nap. But nothing prepared him for the scene that greeted him when he opened first opened his eyes. It was something out of one of those fantasy movies, Jun liked so well.
Flowers, everywhere. Spilling out of boxes, containers, and baskets hung from elaborate ironwork.
“Jeezsu-shit. Is this for real?” He asked.
“Real enough…they’ve been working at it for years,” the driver answered, moving back to the front of the bus, Ken following clumsily behind, trying to shake the blood loose that seemed to have settled in his limbs while he slept.
“All this,” the driver said, gesturing beyond the window, “is to attract the good spirits. Keeps the iron-workers safe and happy.” The man shrugged pulling the door open for Ken. “For what they do for a living, guess it can’t hurt.”
Stepping from the bus, tiny petals just like snowflakes, drifted across the pavement before him on the fragrant breeze.
Half a block away, more rebuilding was going on. Ken watched as a tower crane began hoisting a massive steel beam up the top floors of a building skeleton. Halfway up, the beam began to turn, and even he could hear the shouts. Long, thin cable lines arched out from the framework snagging the iron and pulling it close enough for a fourth individual to leap from the framework onto it.
Even though Ken knew the man’s weight would be negligible against such a heavy thing, the iron-worker clung, moving along and freeing the previous cables holding it fast, then continued to ride it up to it’s proper position and helped the workers waiting there to guide it in. It was an impressive dance, but judging from the other pedestrians’ lack of interest, one that was common enough.
Rechecking the address against his handheld, Ken realized it was going to be a longer walk then he first expected, and only pedestrian traffic was allowed beyond the bus loop.
Tucking the package a bit more firmly under his arm, Ken made his way into the older section of the district given over to the Free Peoples. Here, it seemed, old abandoned warehouses bloomed to life as various shops and restaurants with extensive living quarters above, many of them reached only by elaborately wrought iron stairs and walkways.
Peering inside curved archways revealed elaborate inner courtyards filled with fountains, benches, and the noise of children playing.
In a little less than a decade, they’d built themselves their paradise.
He found the right address, and he ducked under a brightly striped awning whose number bore the same as that on the package. ‘Raeks.’ A word he was pretty sure, meant, first meal, or breakfast in their language, was stenciled onto the glass door. A glance at their operating hours confirmed it, five a.m. to two p.m. although who in their right mind would be willingly up at that hour was a mystery to him.
A bell jangled pleasantly as he entered, and he was surprised to find the place all but empty. “Take seat, wherever you like,” a middle aged woman called out from where she was watering a line of orchids set on the front windowsill. Ken looked around. The only other occupants were a pair of old men sitting in a far booth, too busy in their own conversation to notice him. The aroma of fresh coffee and old habits lured him toward the counter where another, younger woman worked on what looked to be the store’s accounts.
Hanging his jacket on a hook at the end of the counter, he pulled up a stool, setting the package beside him.
She didn’t look up from her work as he sat less than a meter from her, instead, she concentrated on a long tally of numbers, pausing only to brush at a few curling strands that escaped from her headscarf.
Like the older woman, she wore a square necked blouse out of some silky material that either clung or skimmed over her curves intriguingly. Her collarbone was almost completely exposed and around her neck a fine gold chain glinted, suspended from it a pair of rings, one plain, and the other set with a small stone.
Safe then. Her intentions made perfectly clear for all to see.
He let his gaze drift over her again, slower this time. Lucky man.
She chewed on her lower lip, reading the last of the receipts. Feeling mischievous, he bumped the box toward her with the back of his hand, breaking her concentration.
“Can I help you?” She asked, not looking up from her work.
“Oh for heaven’s sake’s Laine, get the poor boy some coffee.”
The older woman came up behind him in a swish of skirts and jangle of jewelry. Jun would never be that noisy, or he thought looking up at the younger woman, Laine, unaware…
The younger woman deftly flipped over the white porcelain mug into its saucer just in time for the older woman to lean over and fill it.
“Can I get you anything? You’re a little late for breakfast, and kinda early for lunch.” She asked with a wink.
“No, no. Nothing at all.” Somewhere near his liver, his stomach set up a protest at his words. “I’m just here to make a delivery,” he said, gesturing toward the box.
“All deliveries go to the back door, please, but seeing as you’re new to these parts, I’ll make an exception, just this once.” She held out her hand, “I’m Mina, and you’ve already met Laine, I see.”
Laine had the box in her hands and was carefully checking the edges. Ken felt a blush of shame begin to color his face when her fingers explored the crushed corner and the postage due sticker. “My mother sent this weeks ago,” she whispered, looking up at him, her dark obsidian eyes as hard and flinty as the stone. “have you had it all this time?”
Denny, damn him.
Before he could protest, one of the old men came up from behind, silent like a cat. He withdrew a handle from his belt and snapped it open, the blade as bright as his birdrang and just as wickedly curved.
Three quick slashes and the box was opened, the hooked device making short work of the thick cardboard and reinforced tape.
“Your folks aren’t getting any younger, Laine Ysabet, now go see what they sent you,” he said handing the box gently back, “and leave this poor boy alone.”
“She really wasn’t a bother,” Ken said, watching her move with the parcel further down the counter, before turning back to the old man.
“That girl over-thinks things sometimes, she needs to move on.” Then he smiled, facing Ken’s scrutiny. He touched the long heavy braid he wore over his left shoulder. “Retired, Mina’s husband runs the crew now. He held out the handle of the knife he’d used to cut open the box.
It was weighty, heavier than he expected, and not balanced, one end tipping more than the other. Closer examination revealed a hook with fine metal cabling wrapped tightly around the base, bringing to mind the workers he’d seen earlier in the day.
The other end contained the blade that he’d used to slice through the box. Gentle pressure from his thumb released it, which was as easily as big as Ken’s palm. He ran a careful finger along the flat of the grainy metal, it was the same as his birdrang, he was sure of it. Hard and light, it kept a perpetual edge.
“A blade like this saved my life many times, and just as easily, it claimed two others.” The old man said, collapsing it and hooking it back on a thick trouser loop that looked to be meant for that purpose. He gazed back at Ken, shrewdly, his dark eyes no softer than Laine’s. “You can tell a lot about the man by the blade he carries. Do you have one?”
Ken’s hand instinctively went to the trouser pocket where his birdrang waited, but he stopped. The old man was prying, blatantly so. If he noticed Ken’s movement, he didn’t let on.
“No,” he said, lying, turning back to his coffee.
The old man clapped him hard on the shoulder laughing. “Mina!” He shouted. “Get the Sky-eyes here something to eat, he looks hungry, and Laine is too busy reading how much her mother misses her.”
Laine. At the mention of her name, Ken found his eye wandering back to the woman. Surreptitiously, he watched her, sipping at his still too hot coffee as she read two pages of what looked to be a handwritten letter, tucking in yet another stray lock back behind a small rounded ear. Hair like that must tangle easily, he figured, if one would be so bold as to reach out and touch it.
“Here, mind you it’s hot.” Mina set a steaming bowl of what looked to be oatmeal before him, knocking him loose from an unbidden daydream.
“Wait, I can’t,” he started to protest.
Mina just rolled her eyes. “We have food, and the old man says you’re hungry, ground-walker, so eat. Besides with the lunch crowd coming in, it would just go to waste anyway.”
She brushed past him, her soft leather shoes whispering across the floor to set the two other brimming bowls before the old men, the first one gesturing to his partner, who now peered curiously around the booth at him.
“Get a good look, old man,” Ken grumbled, “it’s not like I’m going to be coming back anytime soon anyway.”
It was as if they heard him, for they both seemed to laugh at his words.
Ken shook out his napkin and picked up his spoon
It wasn’t just oatmeal. The grains were rounded and almost crunchy. Someone had also added a generous handful of almonds and raisins along with some fragrant spices before topping it off with what tasted like heavy cream.
He was about halfway through his meal when he caught himself glancing back to where Laine sat. She’d unwrapped a small cup and saucer of what looked to be translucent ceramic. Reaching carefully into the box, she then retrieved a series of pieces, stacking them carefully one atop the other much like her receipts. Before scooping up the wrappings back inside the damaged box and making her way towards him.
She stopped at the register, and punched in a few codes, pulling out a couple of what looked to be credit chits.
“Hey look, I’m sorry about the…” but she didn’t seem to hear him, tucking the chits underneath the placemat his bowl rested on.
“No wait, listen, I’m sorry about it being damaged, that shouldn’t have happened, and I still owe you for breakfast and coffee.”
But Laine shook her head. “It’s not your fault the teapot got broken, it just happens, I suppose. But fair is fair and it says you are owed….”
“No I’m not. Just keep it. They probably overcharged you anyway.” He slid the chits back across the counter.
She looked at him; her face angled partly away, her dark eyes shrewd.
“If you run all your business this way, you’d be in trouble, mister.”
Hoo-boy that hits a little too close to the mark. He thought, remembering the meager piles of receipts and the much larger stack of bills.
“You have no idea,” he answered shaking his head. “I’ll tell you what,” he said looking over towards her neat stacks of paperwork and tablet. “I need some help with some bookkeeping, serious help. If I bring in what I have, and if you can help me make some basic sense out of it, then we’ll call it equal, okay?”
Laine scooped the credits up, tucking them into her apron pocket. “Deal,” she said, before moving off into the kitchen.
Ken finished his meal, covering his hand over the cup when Mina came back and tried to refill it. She made a clicking sound with her tongue, but moved onto the lunchtime customers rapidly filling the place. Crowds always made him watchful, so tossing the last coin he had in his pocket from his bus fare, Ken grabbed his jacked from the hook and left.
Arriving at the station, he reached into his pocket for the return ticket, and pulled out not only the stub, but the two five credit chits as well… damn.
Mina poured the last of the coffee into the old man’s cup. “You meddle worse than an old woman, grandfather.”
“And you need to learn better respect for you elders.” He gestured with his chin toward the counter. It was full now, the lunch crowd filling up all the stools and most of the booths as well.
Laine moved easily among them, taking orders in either common Utolander or their native Nahbe. Most of their custom was still of the People’s but a few ground-walkers were sprinkled among them, their colorful eyes wide and wary.
“Sky-eyes’ll be back, you know. He’s lost a piece of his heart somehow and he needs it back. Maybe Laine can help him find it?”
“You think so?” Mina said, trying not to roll her eyes. She looked out onto the walkway, but the young man seemed to have vanished from sight as easily as he appeared. “Utolanders have no hearts. At least none that I have seen.”
“Perhaps, then, this fatherless boy is here to prove you wrong.”