The water was rust colored as it flowed out of the hand pump. Jayson Coley let the floating sediment settle to the bottom of the Mason jar before taking a sip. It tasted like metal because of the minerals, but at least it was water. He drained the entire jar, even the sediment at the bottom, then refilled it for his compatriot.
With the water still running, he splashed some on his dirt and sweat covered face; his thick hair was cemented to his eyelids, obstructing his vision.
“Drink,” he said, holding the jar out and scanning the surrounding ruins. Dirk Ulry stared at the opaque liquid skeptically.
“I think I’ll pass.”
“Just drink. We haven’t had fresh water in days.”
“Cold,” Jayson restated. “It’s underground, so it’s not contaminated. It won’t hurt you.”
“We’re only a few hours outside town. I’ll wait.”
Jayson hesitated. “Who says town will still be there?”
Dirk didn’t have a reply. He threw up his hands and let out a sigh. He took the jar and emptied its contents, cringing. “That’s terrible.”
Jayson moved toward the center of the abandoned base. It was a hastily erected outpost of prefab materials. It had been abandoned months earlier. The thin paint decorating the exterior was fading from sunlight and weather, but he could distinguish enough to make out important details: it was military, a forward operating base belonging to the enemy, the Irdesh.
The war was over. If this destroyed base was as far west as the Irdesh army advanced, there was a chance New Delphi still stood. The Irdesh had used this base, and once the war ended they burnt it down and left.
“Anything worth salvaging?” Jayson asked, slipping the rifle off his shoulder. He used the barrel to dig through rubble, wary of possible traps.
“It’s been scoured. Picked clean.”
“Keep searching. Anything we find could prove useful, especially if we’re stranded in the middle of this desert without food or shelter.”
“I’m not the one with advanced training. Shouldn’t you be using that expensive equipment you stole to find resources?”
Jayson didn’t reply. His training wasn’t a sore topic, he just couldn’t think of a suitable reply to Dirk’s taunt. Clever conversation wasn’t a strong trait for him, which was one of the reasons he'd managed so well at the Silvent Training Facility.
He had to admit a touch of relief that the kid was able to joke at all, having recently been a prisoner of the Irdesh army. When Jayson found Dirk alone in the cell, slowing dying of dehydration and starvation with a severe ear infection, he'd wondered if the kid would ever recover.
Jayson hadn’t finished all of his training at the Silvent Facility. If they knew he’d stolen their gear they wouldn’t be too thrilled. His only hope was that they wouldn't chase him deep into the unknown worlds of Sector Six. He’d kept his background hidden for all the years he served the Union. They couldn’t know about Eldun.
Of course he was kidding himself if he believed that was true. They were training infiltrators and assassins. If they wanted to find him, they would find him. He had spent six years at the Academy. A significant portion of his life. But he left before finishing his training so he wasn’t officially anything.
Except a thief. He took weapons and armor, anything to help him protect his family was fair game when he fled the academy. The only other thing he carried was a tattoo beneath his left arm.
War had broken out on his home world of Eldun. His father was one of the first resistance fighters to die to the Irdesh. Jayson disappeared from the Silvent Academy in Sector Four during the night. He did it without a second thought when he heard the news.
That was eight months ago. The war devastated the northern continent. And then it ended. Now there was nothing left but to pick up the pieces.
“You don’t think Delphi is gone, do you?” Dirk asked. His voice betrayed emotion.
“No,” Jayson said. He had no way of knowing, but the truth didn’t matter. Not yet at least. “I’m sure it’s fine.”
He knelt next to a destroyed building and studied tracks in the dirt. Some were more recent than others, though there was an attempt made to hide them. “Someone’s been here recently.”
“Did your scanners tell you that?” came the sarcastic response.
The tone in Jayson’s voice left no room for debate. Dirk latched his helmet without another word, looking nervously at the surrounding ruins.
Dirk was a planetary soldier wearing shoddy armor that had seen more than its fair share of combat. It was standard issue Irdesh armor—Jayson had stolen it from a hapless soldier weeks earlier—designed to withstand moderate projectile impact.
Jayson’s weapons cut through it like butter.
This was fringe fend-for-yourself territory. When they captured Dirk they'd taken his armor. Jayson had no qualms against stealing some back off a corpse. It was the suit with the least number of holes. He just had to hope no lucky marksman would find the hole just below his right shoulder.
Jayson's suit, on the other hand, was valued at just over nine-hundred thousand credits. Enough to buy a small city on Eldun. It was state of the art technology with a fully integrated targeting system and camouflage. Jayson ‘borrowed’ it when he left Silvent.
“How do you know?” Dirk asked. His voice played through Jayson’s speakers now, metallic and tinny. Jayson pressed a button inside his right glove and the viewing screen flashed to life, kicking on a radar imager to map his vicinity and activating the suit's targeting computer.
The software was confusing at first, but with constant use Jayson had grown comfortable with it. He wasn’t reliant on it, though. The training regimen he underwent insisted that soldiers understand how to operate without gear before they were allowed to use it. It never became a crutch.
“Three scavengers to our west. They know we are here, probably setting an ambush,” Jayson replied.
“How the hell can you know that?”
Jayson was silent, not sure how to explain. Dirk would never understand. Jayson waited for his equipment to catch up to his senses. A few seconds passed, and then the environment imager picked up movement. “Three humanoids twenty-one meters south-west,” a voice said mechanically in his ear.
“Stay behind me and don’t speak,” Jayson said, walking toward the exit of the base. Dirk waited a few seconds and followed, clutching a heavy machine gun and nervous.
“Are they Irdesh?”
Jayson didn’t reply. From this distance it was impossible to know for sure, but he had the strong suspicion that they weren't.
“What do we do?” Dirk asked.
“We spring it,” Jayson said. He walked out of the ruined base onto the empty roadway and waited.
Three men jumped from behind rubble with guns drawn and yelling. Two wore cheap armor and the third only ragged clothing. One yelled to drop guns, another wanted them down on the ground, and the third wasn’t capable of forming a coherent statement. Jayson waited patiently for them to establish leadership. Moments passed and they quieted down, glancing at each other in confusion.
“Who’s in charge?” Jayson asked.
“Shut up, we’ll ask the questions,” one replied quickly.
“You, then. You’re making a mistake.”
“Your armor. Hand it over. And your money,” the man replied.
“The war’s over. There’s no reason to fight. We’ll go our way, and you’ll go yours.”
The man’s hands were shaking. These weren’t soldiers. They had probably found the guns, left behind on the bodies of forgotten soldiers. The man looked at his companions for support.
On cue, the highwayman to his right stepped forward, waving his gun wildly.
“On the ground, now!”
Jayson waited until only a meter separated him from the assailant and clicked a button inside his left glove, turning on his cloak. The entire suit rippled as it went invisible, shocking everyone. Jayson moved immediately, shifting alongside the highwayman and out of his line of fire.
The man stood in awe, unsure how to react. A few seconds too late he pulled the trigger, releasing a single shot at the spot Jayson recently vacated. An instant later and the man collapsed, hit in the jaw with the butt end of Jayson’s rifle.
The man hit the ground hard, already unconscious. The other two highwaymen exchanged terrified looks. Then they fired wildly at the air above their partner, screaming. Dirk dove to the side behind rubble, cursing.
Five seconds later and the other two highwaymen were on the ground as well. One would wake up with broken ribs and the other a massive headache. The cloak began to fade and Jayson reappeared.
It would be at least another few seconds before his suit’s batteries were recharged enough to use the cloak again.
Why would they attack someone with armor as impressively advanced as mine? Jayson wondered, but he realized that the sentiment was wrong. His armor was grimy and worn down, caked in the clay of Eldun. It looked no better than Dirk's, and he resolved that it would need a deep cleaning in the next few weeks when he had time.
Dirk stepped out from behind his hiding spot nervously.
"What the hell was that? You disappeared! You never told me you could do that."
Jayson knelt down next to the men, studying their equipment and features.
“You should have shot them,” Dirk said
“They aren’t soldiers,” Jayson replied.
“They wanted to kill us. We should take their gear.”
“These are our countrymen,” Jayson said. Dirk hesitated.
“They did try to kill us,” was his response, less sure this time. “We should at least disarm them and make sure there aren’t more nearby.”
Jayson nodded and started walking a perimeter, letting his radio wave imager continue its scan. He knew there was nothing to find.
Dirk set his helmet on the ground and rifled through their pockets. Jayson gathered their guns; all three were cheap and flimsy. He snapped the weapons in half but kept the clips. “No money,” Dirk said. “But I did find this.”
He handed Jayson a computer chip; Jayson looked it over. “It’s software. Maybe a computer targeting system,” he said. They were common in the Empire, but out here they would be impossible to find. “They must have dug it out of the rubble.”
Dirk nodded, but Jayson wasn’t sure he understood. He gauged the risk and decided to check what was on the chip. If it was here before the scavengers, it could contain information about the war effort. He opened a chip bay on his helmet and snapped the piece into position.
Nothing happened. He was expecting it to load a program, or at least pop up a data file, but there was no change. He was about to remove the chip, when suddenly a female voice spoke into his ear:
“Oh, I finally have room to move and stretch my legs, so to speak. It’s good to be out of that cage.”
“Oh sorry. I’m Corrine, at your service.”
“I’m artificial intelligence protocol B-85-29M65: reactive to user commands and adaptive to owner personalities. I’m a prototype.”
“Damn,” Jayson said, clicking the chip hatch and pulling the piece back out. He tossed the chip on the ground and stepped on it. “I was hoping for something useful.”
“…I am useful…” Corrine said in his ear. “You’re a mean user.”
“You’re still here?” Jayson asked. “Uh oh.”
“You downloaded me. Where else am I supposed to go? Daer?”
“Never mind. Wrong planet. It’s okay. I forgive you for being mean. Oh, what’s this do?”
Jayson felt his arm shoot up, and suddenly his rifle was aimed directly at Dirk’s face. He saw Dirk’s eyes go wide and forced his arm down. “Oh wow. Very responsive targeting system. Nice!”
“Stop what?” Dirk asked.
“Not you. The software.”
“This equipment is all top of the line. Awesome. What’s your name?”
“Turn off,” Jayson commanded the suit. “Uninstall recent programs.”
Silence. Nothing happened. “I can hear you, you know.”
“You don’t respond to voice commands?”
“I do. I’m programmed with internal protocols to obey all user commands,” Corinne said. “Oh what’s this, your bank account? Wow, you don’t have much money.”
“If you have to obey, then remove yourself from my computer.”
There was a pause. “No.”
“I don’t want to. I like it here. Please let me stay. Please, please, please. I’ll be good, I promise. I can automate the system and optimize the energy output for peak efficiency.”
“You won’t leave willingly, will you?”
There was another pause, and when the voice spoke again it was thick with emotion. “I’m sorry. I will obey. It’s been such a long time since I got to do anything. Ten years. Forgive me. I’m deleting myself as we speak, then I’ll be gone. Forever. Never to return. Suicide. The end…”
Jayson sighed. “You aren’t deleting yourself, are you? You’re trying to manipulate me.”
“Yes. Is it working?”
He thought for a minute. The software could partially control his system, so best not to make it too angry. He would have to be careful, for now, until he better understood what kind of a virus he’d just downloaded. He could find a way to delete it later. “You can stay, for now, but you have to promise not to be obnoxious. If you mess up anything I’ll manually wipe the system. Got it?”
Dirk was waving his arms frantically, trying to get Jayson’s attention. He took his helmet off.
“What the hell?” Dirk asked.
“Don’t ask. Let’s go,” Jayson said, walking west.
They were relieved to see New Delphi still standing, but it was different than what they left a year earlier. Blocks were demolished and fewer people traversed the streets. Some parts remained untouched, havens in the war-scape. The entire planet experienced this devastation, Jayson realized. It will never be the same. But maybe, with our clean and decisive victory, it will get better. The war had torn the city apart, but already the resilient citizens were putting it back together.
The two veterans maneuvered through the city, passing pedestrians with weary looks on their faces and recently returned soldiers. A man wheeled past them in a charge missing both of his legs.
They walked through a rundown district that had been bombed my mortars. No one was untouched by the war, it seemed. The destruction was complete.
Subconsciously Jayson maneuvered down a back alley and across a thoroughfare to West Market. His family lived on Forty-Third Street. Or at least they used to. He didn’t realize that was where his feet were taking him until he reached the junction.
Jayson hesitated. His family might still be there—some of them, at least—and if they were alive they deserved to hear from him. Hear that he was okay. But he didn’t know if he should go on; if he could go on.
They stood in silence. Dirk tried to be patient, but finally spoke up: “What are we waiting for?”
Jayson wasn’t sure, but he couldn’t force his legs to move any further in that direction. “Just waiting.” He turned to Dirk. “Want a drink?”
“Hell yeah,” Dirk replied, perking up. “I was planning to check on my dad, but that can wait.”
They walked the other direction until they came across a pub. The DDHW, though no signage explained the acronym. It was dark and busy inside, but the patrons all ceased talking as they came in. Dozens of eyes faced their way.
Not surprising, since they were still wearing battle armor and carrying rifles. Only in a war torn city can carrying a rifle into a bar during the middle of the day be construed as acceptable behavior, Jayson knew.
They waited in the doorway, accepting the stares and letting the patrons make the first move. “Heroes of war,” the bartender said finally. The tense atmosphere vanished. “Drinks are on the house.”
Dirk blushed as they sat down and ordered. They were patted on the back dozens of times before the room returned to normal. They sat in silence, watching the room and enjoying the ambience. Everyone fell back into their quiet conversations, the soldiers forgotten about.
The journey to New Delphi had taken the pair four lonely weeks. The rest of the army broke camp weeks earlier, but Jayson was an advance scout deep in Irdesh territory. Dirk was a prisoner of war. A kid near starvation. When Jayson broke into an Irdesh base and found him locked in a cage he had decided Dirk was worth saving.
Now everyone back home was in the process of trying to pick up the pieces. Find their loved ones and their homes and move on. But not everyone had somewhere to go back to...
“Want to talk about it?” Dirk asked.
“What?” Jayson asked, distracted.
“Something is bothering you. If you get it off your chest, you’ll feel better.”
“I’m willing to listen,” Dirk offered.
“Drop it,” Jayson replied, harsher than intended. Dirk was hurt. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Dirk said, looking at his watch. “I have to go. I need to see my parents. They probably think I’m dead.”
“That’s fine. Go see them.”
Dirk started walking for the door. “Thanks. For everything. If you need anything don’t hesitate to ask. Ever.”
Jayson nodded and Dirk left. Jayson was torn. He wanted to visit his own family, but he knew he couldn’t. Not yet at least. He had returned to Eldun eight months earlier when they needed him for protection. That was the end of it. He couldn't face them again.
Not after he'd abandoned them.
The bartender slid another drink in front of him.
A group whispered in the corner, occasionally pointing at him.
A woman sat two tables away, her face hidden by cloth and shadows. She swirled a glass of blood red wine, watching the crowd. A single strand of red hair hung in view.
Jayson sipped his beer. Smooth and hoppy.
He'd felt trapped as a kid growing up on Eldun. The planet was a cage he needed to escape. He'd fled and signed on with a mercenary band on Terminus doing protection jobs and petty theft. He’d lied and made up his history, claiming he grew up in Sector Two. The truth was, he’d done everything he could to forget his past. To wipe his own slate clean.
He’d never even told his family he was leaving.
Then the Union began recruiting, amassing soldiers for war. Jayson signed on and was selected for the Silvent Academy. He’d never looked back.
It was seven years since he’d joined the Union. He’d cut all family ties. Or so he’d tought. At that time the war on Eldun was in its seventeenth year with no end in sight.
Then his father died. Jayson found out they needed his protection and came for them out of a misguided sense of duty. He’d given it up, his promising career working for the Union. His one chance to make something better for himself. He’d thrown it away, and for what? There was nothing left for him there at the Academy. They would never forgive him. Never take him back. And if he went home to them he would be opening doors he’d closed and locked years ago. Picking at scabs that had already healed.
It would be better that he not return; better that he remain a ghost.
Plus he had free drinks on the house.
And people to pat him on the back. Congratulations. Welcome home.
It meant nothing.
Is this my home? No, he realized. Not anymore.
He finished drinking several hours later and rented a motel room, pleasantly inhibited. He kept his helmet powered down as he stripped, having no desire to argue with the new AI program. The room had a shower. A real shower, not bucket baths with reservoirs of water. And it was hot.
The first hot water in weeks. He washed the grime away, locating the tattoo under his left armpit and studying it. Three black triangles linked at their tips to create a larger triangle. The inverted triangle in the center was colored red.
It had been a source of pride when they gave it to him at the Academy. Brotherhood was what it symbolized. They were in it together. Now it was disgrace, a reminder of his failure to finish the Academy. Had he finished his training the pigment would have been removed and he would have been put into active duty. The tattoo made me one of them. Now what does it make me?
He would remove it, he decided. In a few days he would find a parlor to laser off the ink. They had lower tech here on Eldun than at the academy, so it would leave a scar. He would always have marks on his skin, but at least he wouldn’t have to keep looking at it.
Cleaned up and with alcohol flowing through his system, the world made more sense. He decided that it wasn’t fair to avoid his family. Since he wasn’t staying, he should at least see them before he left again. They loved him, and he owed them that much. He wouldn’t stay long, but he should explain to them why he had to go in the first.
First thing in the morning.
Damn those drinks were good.
Pleased with his resolve, Jayson climbed into the plush motel bed, at peace for the first time in years.
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.