Void Iterations, page 1
By Scott T. Palermo
Sasha Fion-Wae was thinking up an excuse for being late to study again when the skies above Lanis darkened and a heavy rain began to fall. Her nose wrinkled at the unfamiliar scents in the air and she felt the earth shiver under her feet, a deep rumbling which seemed to come from all around her.
The young girl gazed upward in silence as her ears filled with shrieks of terror as massive ships from the Void broke through the clouds above. Even as the adults around her fled, Sasha began to run opposite them, following the dread ships as they moved toward the fields of black rock south of the city. She laughed as she wove through the crowd, pulling her unruly chestnut hair into a ponytail.
The fields of black rock were barren and lifeless, littered with the cracked and broken remains of a bygone era. Her parents claimed the rocks were from the before times, when ships came regularly from the Void to trade with the settlers of Lanis.
Sasha ignored the calls of her younger brother, Thomas, to stay away. Sasha pretended she had not heard him, happy he remained behind. It would be much easier for her to get close undetected as Tomas was a clumsy child. He had inherited their father’s thick torso while she took after her mother, thin and lithe. Though nearing fourteen cycles Sasha still had a child’s inexhaustible energy and stamina. That enthusiasm ran contrary her parents’ wishes that she sit still and become a scholar like her father.
Sasha slowed as she approached the black rocks, the area strewn with the rubble of ancient buildings. They’d been stripped of any useful materials long ago to build hovels on the outskirts of the sprawling metropolis. No one dared to live on the black rock itself, save for insects and the few reptiles which fed on them. It was widely known that the land was cursed. Some said the ghosts of worlds destroyed by the ships of the Void would come there to warn the people away from repeating the mistakes of the past.
Sasha picked her way through the rusted remains of that bygone era, unafraid. She had come there many times, lured by the stories her great uncle had told her. For her, the black rocks held the secret to the wonders of other worlds. Sasha found a good vantage point away from the other daring locals who had gathered on the edge of the rocks to gawk at the ships. She crouched behind an outcrop and looked out on the ships, her curly auburn hair blowing in the artificial wind caused by landing vessels.
She was a little disappointed in what she saw. These weren’t the shining beacons of trade and plenty from Uncle Verne’s stories. These ships were ugly, pitted and marred. Nearly a dozen in all, they hulked in the empty field like beasts. Sasha couldn’t make heads or tails of all the pieces protruding from all sides of the ships. Most looked cobbled together from a dozen different crafts, colors and styles clashing in a splendid chaos of function over form.
One ship, larger than the others, showed signs of movement. Prettier than its peers, the ship’s pearl surface was uniform and unmarked save only some weapons jutting from its sides. It was long, nearly as long as Domer Wae’s home, though not nearly as wide and it sat on rows of metal legs, looming nearly three stories tall. Sasha was amazed that something so massive could fly without any wings to support it. As she watched, part of the rear of the ship lowered to the rocks below, revealing a ramp leading up inside the ship from below.
The first crewman to exit was a pale young man, his handsome face marred by a long scar which ran from his right eye toward the back of his head, one arm covered in tattoos of alien design. He looked out warily from his one good eye, his dark hair blowing in the breeze, and grunted something behind him in a guttural language before jumping off of the ramp to one side holding a large rifle.
Behind him came a creature like nothing Sasha had ever seen. It seemed manlike in shape but its body writhed and twisted as it moved. It crouched down toward the ground and Sasha watched it dissolve into a dozen amorphous creatures which sped off quickly in different directions. Behind that creature came a woman who would dwarf the strongest man on Lanis. She grinned fiercely at the forming crowd and leapt to the other side of the ramp from her compatriot, unslinging a rifle thicker than a man’s arm and a full meter long.
Last, another man moved into the doorway but did not descend to the ground. Dark skinned and older, with long silvery hair held back by a knot, he stood on the metal ramp and looked out on the city and the growing crowd of spectators.
“People of Lanis.” His voice boomed out louder than a crashing wave. The people who had begun to form on the edge of the black rocks collectively stepped back and looked to each other for support.
“We have not come here to make war upon you. Do not give us provocation and we will depart the way we came, in peace.” One of the city leaders, a younger man whose name Sasha had never learned, stepped forward.
“Why have you come here? What do you want from us?” He asked, his voice sounded meek to Sasha though he spoke as loudly as a man might.
“We need supplies, which we will trade for in technology and knowledge. There is much that we can offer you but it is essential that we get what we have come for.”
“What if we refuse to trade with you? Your ships are an abomination. Your technology brought ruin to the First Worlds.”
“We will barter in good faith but be aware that we will not leave without that which we require.” The man said calmly, his voice even.
“A threat then? How can we barter when the alternative is death?” The man looked around him and gestured wildly trying to gather the support of the crowd. “I say you will get nothing from us. I say you must leave this place and never return.”
The dark man from the ship frowned slightly and gestured toward the city leader. The man with the scar aimed his weapon at the city leader, whose chest burst into flame as a blinding light emanated from the weapon. He barely made a sound before he fell backward, his chest smoking from the blast. Sasha caught a slight frown from the woman soldier even as she held her weapon out toward the crowd. The man’s voice boomed out again, silencing the locals even as the corpse continued to smoke and the smell of burning flesh reached Sasha’s nostrils.
“People of Lanis, we come in peace to trade for supplies.” The spaceman’s voice did not change its congenial tone. “We will barter in good faith but will have what we require. We will brook no resistance. Who among you will trade with us?” The crowd fell to muttering and looking at their feet. An old man stepped forward whom Sasha recognized as the former head of the Roarc family, one of the oldest and most powerful in the city. While he held no official position on the city council, his word carried great weight.
“I can speak for the people. I will trade with you on their behalf. Please do no more harm to us.” The man from the ship gestured for him to come forward and brought him into the ship. His soldiers remained outside with their weapons aimed at the crowd.
Sasha saw nothing else of interest that day, though she remained at her vantage point for another hour. The two who stood outside their ship remained vigilant and soldiers from other ships joined them in their watch. None of the other ships made requests to speak, though they stood guard in all directions. The crowd dispersed once it became apparent that nothing more would happen, some few carrying the body of the city leader away with them.
That night she faced her parents fearfully, having been ratted out by Tomas. The family room was lit by candles as well as the low glow in the fireplace as the night’s logs mellowed to embers. Besides her parents and little brother, her great uncle sat near the fire, his aging bones requiring a more consistent heat than the others.
“What were you thinking?” Her mother exclaimed.
“I guess I wasn’t.” Sasha said, knowing her mother wou
“You had your mother worried sick, staying out there so late.” As usual her father made no personal claim, leaving her mother to take the helm.
“Ah, leave the girl alone.” Uncle Verne’s voice came to her aid. “She’s unhurt, no harm no foul.”
“This is your doing.” Sasha’s mother turned her attention to the old man. “Always telling her tall tales of the before times, making her want more than to work for the Wae.”
“And what’s wrong with wanting more?” He asked. “You’d rather she stay home and learn to sew while all your husband wants is for her to read books and become an old maid, trapped behind the library’s walls.”
Sasha’s mother turned to her husband. “Are you going to let him talk to me like this?”
“Uncle Verne,” He began. “you’re not helping things. Sasha needs to learn that her curiosity needs to be tempered by good sense. A man was killed out there today, Sasha. You have to realize that these starmen are dangerous. After all, what kind of people continue to use interstellar craft after what happened to the core worlds?”
“Monsters, that’s who.” Sasha’s mother declared.
“Maybe they’re still traveling the stars because everywhere they go they are greeted with a mob.” Sasha surprised herself by saying.
“So you’re taking their side?” He mother asked, “The murderers?”
“No mother,” Sasha realized that there was no reason to fight any further. She scowled as she caught Tomas sticking his tongue out at her.
The next morning, the whole city was bustling with activity. No one was sure what the ships from the void wanted but rumors included everything from food and provisions to slaves and valuable jewels.
In return they promised wonders beyond any known on Lanis. Plants which grew in days and could feed more men per acre than the ones they currently planted, machines powered by the light of the sun itself which could harvest crops faster than a team of men. In addition they offered knowledge that had been lost over the long years, the alchemical secrets of stronger building materials, ways to make medicines that could heal the sick of a dozen common ailments.
Sasha was privy to more accurate information, her family being bound in service to one of the wealthier families in the city, the Wae. The Fion-Wae were researchers and scholars, raised from birth to maintain the Wae library and provide council to Domer Wae, the head of the Wae family. Sasha was considered too young to be of use in council but she was a swift messenger and her memory was faultless.
The city council had been tasked with deciding who was to provide the supplies the spacers requested and what compensation they could expect for what they provided. Domer Wae believed that the Roarc patriarch intended to use his position as negotiator to take the lion’s share of the rewards.
He sent Sasha running back and forth to the city center all day, ferrying verbal messages between himself and those coordinating the supplies. There was a lot of arguing and name calling. Sasha was under strict orders to repeat word for word certain things one of her social standing simply does not say to high ranking members of society. The messages got very intense and Sasha enjoyed every minute of it. She believed that there could be no greater pleasure than speaking to a superior in such a way that they turn red in the face and knowing that you will not get in trouble for it. Still, she worried that the Domer was pushing his case too firmly and feared the consequences for her own family if the Wae were punished.
By the mid-afternoon Sasha had been told by the head of the city council to bring no further messages from the Wae. Domer Wae was enraged at being snubbed. Sasha stood quietly in the doorway to his study while he paced and raved at the nerve of the councilor.
“To think I paid good money to get that man elected!” He raged, knocking an ornamental vase over in his anger. Sasha jumped slightly at the noise it made as it shattered on the hard wooden floor. While she had seen the Domer angry in the past this was the first time she feared he would lose control. “I’ll have him replaced with a duck after the next election. I’ll see his family driven from the city, their name stricken from the records. This will not stand!” He paused for a moment and turned toward Sasha, who wilted under his angry gaze.
“Girl, what would you do?” He asked. Sasha wasn’t sure if the Domer had ever spoken to her directly before this day. She was a functionary, a message carrier. Even that was only because her father had recommended her for her faultless memory. Her ability to recite long messages word for word was a family trait, one which had served them well in their years working for the Wae.
“Pardon, Domer?” Sasha replied warily.
“What would you do if you were slighted in such a fashion? By all accounts I should be in the city center right now working directly with the planners. They can’t acquire what they need without my help but still the Roarc seek to marginalize me. My mines provide the only iron ore for hundreds of clicks around. So I ask, what would you do?” Sasha would later realize that the question was rhetorical but at the time, she was too young to know she was expected to keep her mouth shut. She gave him the only answer she could think of.
“I’d go talk to the starmen myself. Make them deal with me directly if they want my supplies.” The Domer stopped for a moment and considered her words, rolling the idea around in his head.
“What a fine idea! Of course I can’t go myself. I heard what happened to the young fool who tried to argue with them. I could send a messenger though…” He looked at Sasha again, perhaps truly seeing her for the first time. “Girl, will you go to the black rocks and speak to the starmen on my behalf? I can only give you the most basic of messages. You will have to try to convince them to speak with me.” Sasha knew this might be her only chance to meet the strange foreigners, and with the Domer’s blessing no less. Her mother could hardly fault her for following orders now could she?
“I’ll go.” She said without a moment’s hesitation. “But I don’t think I can speak as bluntly as I did the council. The starmen might think I speak for myself.”
“Of course not. These are warriors not politicians. Politicians are inherently cowards and must be treated as such. Soldiers must be approached with respect. I will prepare a message for you to bring to them.” The Domer thought for a minute and gave her a statement to recite to the dark man. Sasha nodded and almost ran from the room.
Sasha was so nervous she practically ran the whole way to the black rocks, her mind constantly reciting what she was to tell the spacemen. Once she reached the edge of the dead plain she was gasping and stopped for a moment to catch her breath. There were men, women and other, stranger things loitering around the ships. Some few had climbed up the exteriors with tools of some kind to repair the strange things protruding from the sides of the ships. She counted at least six different types of nonhuman creatures milling about amongst the soldiers. They seemed uninterested in her though, so she continued walking toward the main ship.
She approached warily, not sure how to let them know she was not a threat. Her heartbeat was pounding like thunder in her ears and she was so intent on not looking dangerous she almost didn’t hear the scarred guard telling her to stop. He had his weapon raised before she realized and practically threw herself to the ground.
“I said halt!” The man called out to her. He held his weapon pointed directly at her and the pounding of her heartbeat stilled for a long moment. “What are you doing out here?”
“I’m… I was sent. I need to speak to your leader.” Sasha kept her eyes low, trying to look as innocent and small as she could.
“Why should I let you speak to Omar?” The man replied. The name spurred her faultless memory into action and for a moment she wondered how a bloodthirsty spaceman had come by
“I have a message from Domer Wae. He said to tell you that the council is holding up your supplies out of greed and he wishes to treat with your master directly.”
“Pretty ballsy coming out here alone, little one.” The woman guard growled. “Who’s this Domer you’re speaking for? That your boss or something?”
“He is the head of the Wae family. My family is bonded to them.” Sasha replied.
“Bonded? What kind of crap is that? Are you some kind of slave?” The man asked.
“No!” In her anger Sasha forgot to be scared and raised herself up to her full stature. “My family are not slaves. It is tradition to bind to a greater family for protection and employment. We have been bonded to the Wae for seven generations. We serve happily because as the Wae become greater so we are also raised up.”
“Don’t sound that much different from slaves to me.” The man said. “I’ve seen a hundred ways to be a slave on a hundred worlds. Can you strike out on your own if you wanted to?” The question confused Sasha. The thought had never occurred to her. Working for the Wae was how things were. One day her children would serve the Wae as her parents did now. She considered the question a test and tried to answer to the best of her ability.
“I think that I could but I would be alone then, without the protection of the Wae. Who would be there to stop me from being robbed or killed? Who would plead my cause to the city council if there was need? I would be no better than the unbonded, scraping out a living on the outskirts of society. Why would I want such a thing?”
“To be free.” The man replied. He had lowered his weapon and leaned against the gangway comfortably. He had evidently decided that a young unarmed girl was not a threat.
“Freedom will not fill my stomach. Freedom does not clothe my family or provide a roof over my head. Without the patronage of the Wae we would not have access to the library or the time to research and study natural philosophy. Our every thought would be to ensure our survival. What use is freedom then?” The man looked thoughtful. He beckoned her to move closer with free hand.