Jayson awoke groggy.
A breeze rolled over his face.
Did I leave the window open?
His second thought was: did I leave the light on?
And then: Is that sand…?
He was disoriented, and it took him a few seconds to realize this wasn’t the same place he went to sleep. The sun blasted down above him, near the middle of the sky. It was hot, hotter than Eldun's sun at this time of year, and he doubted he was even on the same planet.
But then where am I? And how did I get here?
He sat up to rub his eyes. Unaware, he hit himself hard in the face with a bulky glove. He was in his armor with the helmet and rifle by his side, but no other supplies. A headache throbbed behind his eyes, but it wasn’t from alcohol. Too concentrated of a migraine, probably the aftereffect of a sedative and anesthetic to knock him out and keep him out.
He’d experienced similar effects before, during training at the academy, so he knew how to deal with the disorientation. But that brought a new concern. Was it only one day later? If he was drugged, it could have been any amount of time since he’d first gone to sleep. The range of where he could be in the galaxy opened up dramatically.
Jayson stood and scanned the environment. His mind was starting to organize itself, and the theory gaining credibility was that he’d been marooned here. But why, and by whom? Was this punishment? He picked up his helmet, wiped the dust off the bottom, and latched it on. It was the same helmet, but felt different against his skin.
He realized the difference: someone had put a lot of work into repairing and cleaning it. That gave him hope. If someone left him here to die, they wouldn’t clean his gear, would they?
He heard the interface of his helmet spark to life. The default nasally voice spoke up, naming a planet he’d never heard of, Mali, and the date. Four days had passed since he’d arrived at New Delphi with Dirk.
The software unit continued to rattle off details, querying an orbital satellite for information about his immediate locale. None of it was useful.
“Who put me here?” he asked, interrupting the AI. The voice shut off, he heard a click, and a rapid female voice began speaking.
“Oh thank heaven it’s you. I’ve been hiding for days and I didn’t know if you would ever return—”
“Corrine, calm down,” Jayson said, not sure if he was relieved. There was a pause, then:
“Aw, you remembered my name. That’s so sweet. Please never leave me like that again.”
“Do you know who dropped me off?”
Jayson stared into the desert. “So I get dropped in the middle of the desert on a planet without any information.” He thought for a moment. “Which way to the nearest city?”
“South. The only city. The rest are ruins.”
“Then south it is,” Jayson said. “And no talking unless I say so.”
The armor was insulated with its own temperature control, but even it was struggling under this heat. After walking an hour he went through his storage hatches and found a liter of water and a day’s worth of rations. He was relieved to have some supplies, but he didn’t know how long he would have to make them last. A day? Week? He would have to drink sparingly.
He swallowed a mouthful, put the canteen away, and started his trek again.
A mirage oasis grew from the sand in front of him and then disappeared into the haze.
The heat made the walk difficult, but he was more worried about how open the landscape was. The land was flat and empty, with only the occasional plant sprouting through the sand. Dust swirled in the air. Climes like this were notorious for oppressively hot days as well as freezing nights. He would need to find shelter before the sun disappeared behind the horizon.
“Why do you think they left me here Corinne?” he asked after another two hours passed. She hadn’t spoken the entire time, apparently willing to obey. “Speculate a bit.”
“You’re an assassin, right? Your computer database has some stored information.”
“Operative. I only kill people when the job offers no alternative. And technically no, I’m not. I never finished training.”
“But you were close. And you were good at what you did.”
“I was impulsive. ‘Driven by ambition’ was how one teacher described me. He must have been right. I never even told anyone I was leaving the Academy.”
“Maybe this has to do with that.”
“You think they are punishing me for leaving?” Jayson asked.
Jayson grimaced. “Forgiving? Then why leave me stranded with limited supplies? But this is too elaborate for punishment. It seems more likely they would put a bullet in me. I don’t think it was the Silvent Academy.”
“Maybe this is an initiation?”
Jayson mulled over the idea. “Not likely. If it was an initiation for something, wouldn’t they tell me what I was expected to do?”
“So what do we do now?”
“We get off this rock. I don’t know the planet and I don’t want to play games. I just want to go home.”
This time Corinne didn’t reply. The day dragged on with no shelter in sight. Jayson looked up at the sky and guessed it was an hour before nightfall, then remembered he hadn’t experienced this sun yet. “How much light do we have left?” he asked
“Forty Seven minutes,” Corinne replied. “And there is estimated fifty-two mile an hour winds tonight.”
“Wonderful. Search nearby landscape for low spots to camp. If I can find something to burn we should be alright. At least I have food. If I eat sparingly, I can make it last two days easy—”
“Oh that was my mistake. Fifty-two mile an hour winds are the forecast inside city limits. In the desert winds are expected around ninety-four.”
Jayson stopped walking. “You’re kidding.”
“I guess I’m staying in the suit tonight.”
“You might want to bury it too. A little bit. So we don’t blow away.”
Jayson blew out a breath of air. “Just find a low spot.”
He walked another fifteen minutes before Corinne found a suitable location. He set to work digging a hole to cover the lower half of his armor. The environment was mostly sand, so it wasn’t hard to manipulate. He insulated himself against the wind, then sat back and tried to relax. He ate part of his rations and powered down his suit to only minimal heat and processing. He couldn’t afford to be wasteful, so he would suffer through a low tech night. He wouldn’t get much sleep.
“You can talk about the planet now, Corinne,” Jayson said.
“Really? It’s called Mali. Ok, so I was searching information about this world a while ago, and it looks like its short on clean water. Most of the surface is a sandy clay mixture and it almost never rains. When it does the surface turns into a muddy mess that lasts for months. Even then the water is difficult to use.
“Relief equipment was delivered by other planets through a trading company called Infinity Logistics belonging to a man named Oliver Atchison. It is to cleanse the water supply and purify the underground reservoirs, but they still never have enough, so it’s rationed. The citizens fight over it a lot.”
“So I should protect my water,” Jayson replied.
“What you have is considered a decent amount, I guess.”
“What else did you find? Is this a human world?”
“Uh huh. Just under a million inhabitants centered inside one city. Garran’s Ridge. It's a mining planet with a large labor force and very few educated people. Mali is part of the Indeil Kingdom and are sanctioned to receive tradesman from Terminus at a spaceport outside the city. The rest of the world is uninhabitable.”
“Who’s the leader?”
“None currently listed. But there is a name that pops up a lot. Warren Smith.”
“Warren Smith,” Jayson mumbled. He didn’t recognize the name. “Anything else?”
“Nothing yet, but I’ve only searched public forums. Do you want me to dig around in secure locations?”
“Nothing dangerous. Don’t do anything that could get us into trouble.”
“Yes sir,” Corinne said, and then fell silent. The helmet powered down and Jayson tried to sleep.
Wolves howled, somewhere in the distance, and then fell silent.
A silver moon crept over the horizon like a shy maiden.
He slept for an hour the entire night. At one point the wind picked up to such vicious levels he was afraid the suit would be ripped out of the ground. Ninety- four kilometers per hour seemed a modest estimate.
He couldn't think of another time he'd ever been this exhausted as the wind buffeted him.
Jayson watched the sun come up the next morning physically and mentally drained. He knew he couldn’t wait around. He dug himself out of the hole and removed his helmet, breathing the fresh air. His suit felt sluggish from the sand and he knew it would be weeks before he managed to clean it all out. So much for his mystery cleaner. He hoped that would be the last night he would ever spend here in the desert.
He trekked south again. Corinne loaded a map of this region, but Garran’s Ridge wasn’t clearly denoted. The only maps she could find were outdated and the surveillance equipment on the satellite failed years ago. The best guess was that the city lay between twenty and six hundred kilometers south.
Not encouraging, but there was nothing Jayson could do about it. The fear that he was left here to die, however, started to gain credibility as his water supply diminished.
Around midday Corinne spoke up: “Vehicles approaching. Quarter of a kilometer away and moving quickly. Hover cars, maybe.”
Jayson readied his rifle and peered down the scope. To the south he saw ten approaching vehicles. “Jeeps. A lot of them.”
“Are you going to shoot them?”
Jayson lowered the rifle. “Not the best way to make friends.”
“Then what do we do?”
“Nothing,” Jayson said. He held the rifle unthreateningly and waited for the ground cars to arrive. They encircled him, keeping their engines running and guns trained on him. One of the vehicles powered down. A short man with a cropped brown beard climbed out.
“Who are you?” the man asked.
“Jayson Coley. You?”
“Ralph Patel. We received a distress call two nights ago and came to investigate.”
Jayson didn’t reply. The call came before he woke up, so it must have been sent by whoever dropped him off. The man eyed him steadily. “Hand over your weapon.”
Jayson felt his hands subconsciously tighten around the rifle. “I’d rather not.”
The man narrowed his eyes. “It wasn’t a request.”
He weighed his options.
It didn’t take long.
Reluctantly, Jayson stuck the butt end of his rifle out. The man took it roughly from him, checked the clip to see if it was loaded, and tossed it in his hover car. “Now your water.”
“You’re robbing me?” Jayson asked, a hint of resignation creeping into his voice.
“You can keep your equipment and food, but the water belongs to us. We have orders to regulate any that comes from the outside. It’s for your own safety,” the man said, then repeated: “your water.”
With a sigh, Jayson unhitched the compartment in his suit and pulled his canteen out. The man grabbed it and put it in his vehicle. “We’ll take you to Warren and he can decide what to do with you. Climb in back.”
Jayson clambered onto the back of the Jeep and they headed south. The ground was rough and they bounced over the sand dunes.
A man sat opposite him, scruffy and wearing little more than rags with dirt smudges covering his face. He used the tip of a dagger to clean grime from under his fingernails. Seeing Jayson watching him, he grinned. He only had five teeth that Jayson could see.
It was a twenty minute trip, so he’d only been less than thirty kilometers out. A little more than a day on foot.
The city was large, cramped, and poor. Beggars littered the roads and dust clung to the air. He’d thought New Delphi was a ravaged city, but the more he saw of Garran’s Ridge, the more he came to realize his home planet would be their vacation spot. Not just the beggars but even some laborers were emaciated, showing signs of lacking nutrition and hygiene.
A boy no older than four with dark skin and hair tried to climb onto the Jeep. The nail-picker shoved him off with a boot.
No one smiled. There was suffering in abundance.
They passed an alleyway. At its mouth a crying mother held a sleeping child. No, not sleeping. Dead.
“Jayson,” he heard in his helmet. Corinne was whispering. He hadn’t known an AI program could whisper. “I found something.”
“Did you send the distress call?”
“No, but listen. I decided to hack a few computer networks, and I got curious when I noticed two unlisted warehouses. Each has a contingent of guards, but the manifests say they are both empty. So I dug deeper, and both belong to Warren Smith.”
“What happened to doing nothing conspicuous?”
“I piggybacked the network onto a computer inside the warehouse and found this:” Corinne continued, ignoring him. The view of the city dimmed as Corinne brought up a series of images and files on Jayson’s viewfinder. He saw the inside of a dark warehouse. It was enormous and packed with bulky equipment. The place looked abandoned, and nothing was in use.
“What am I looking at?” he asked.
“That’s the water purifying equipment delivered over the last twelve years. Half of it, anyway You can guess where the other half is.”
“They aren’t using it?”
“Smith has it on lockdown. The purifiers were never used at all. Yet there are constant broadcasts about a water shortage. Warren releases regular statements claiming that the Indeil Kingdom turned its back on them. That they were left here to die. He’s using the water shortage to dominate the planet.”
"Why? What possible reason could he have to make people suffer like this?"
"He has Union ties. He's planning on getting the population to rebel against the Royal Family so he can turn the planet over to Darius Gray."
Jayson felt his breathing quicken and closed his eyes. “Okay,” he conceded.
“Jayson, he’s letting children die so he can trick people and—”
“Corinne,” Jayson added sharply. “Shut up.”
To her credit, she did. Jayson’s mind was racing, but he didn’t want to let emotion take control. Got to stay calm. Not my planet, not my problem. The last time I tried to help people in need, I got hijacked and dropped here.
The Jeep stopped outside a four-story building surrounded by dozens of guards milling about.
“Come on,” Ralph said, parking and climbing out. He grabbed the water but left Jayson’s rifle in the vehicle. He gestured for Jayson to walk ahead.
The building was old and musty, but bustling with activity. There were another fifteen guards inside the lobby, as well as dozens of civilian personnel working at computer terminals. Of the fifteen armed men, five were in powered Union armor, though lacking any distinguishing marks. They eyed him as he walked inside.
He was led across the lobby, up two flights of stairs to the third floor, and down a twenty meter hallway to a set of offices. They paused outside the largest set of doors, which directly faced the staircase. The hallway split to the right and left, leading to more offices that appeared unoccupied.
A receptionist nodded to Ralph, opened the office door, and stuck her head in. After a moment, she looked back at them and opened the door all the way. “Mr. Smith will see you.”
“Thanks baby doll,” Ralph said, roughly pushing Jayson forward. It was large with a bay window. A gaunt man with deep set eyes and pale skin sat at the desk scribbling on a piece of paper as they entered.
He made them wait ten minutes before finally glancing up.
“Helmet off son,” Warren said, scribbling again. Jayson unsnapped the helmet and held it at his side. Another few minutes passed. “A soldier. We don't see many like you this far out. Are you going to cause problems?” Warren asked. Jayson didn’t reply, and Warren looked up again. “I asked you a question.”
“No sir,” Jayson replied.
“Good. That’s better. I don’t know anything about you, but you seem a good sort. If you understand one simple thing, you’ll get along fine: this is a peaceful town.”
Jayson didn’t reply. None was needed.
“I heard your distress signal and guessed you’d be looking to get off world. That right, soldier?”
“That’s good. Real good. Keep your nose clean and stay out of trouble, and I’ll see what I can do.”
Jayson nodded, but Warren had already returned to his scribbling. Jayson was quickly led back downstairs and outside. “We’ll be keeping an eye on you,” Ralph said, walking back toward the administrative building. “We don’t tolerate outsiders poking their nose where it doesn’t belong.”
"Come back tomorrow and we might have good news," he said, then hesitated. "We’ll hang on to your gun for you."
Jayson nodded. He’d been expecting as much.
Ralph glanced around and then leaned close to Jayson. “As you can see, things are going smoothly. Let your boss know that we only need a few more weeks before the planet will be in full revolt.”
Jayson blinked. "What?" What boss?
But Ralph was already gone, disappearing back into the building. Jayson waited for a minute and then turned and headed down the road. With luck he could find an inn to spend the night. Preferably some place without cockroaches.