Arc 1 . The Secret War .

Chapter 1 .

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VAI

I never imagined I could become friends with a K’thaktra—and I guess I wasn’t friends with Thrissko, exactly. We were friendly acquaintances. That was a better term for it. Still, I had gotten him into this mess, so I figured I had to get him out of it before I left the planet for good and maybe never saw him again. Besides, I didn’t want to just ghost on him. I wanted to say goodbye before I left. That felt important. And you can’t say goodbye to somebody if they’re being held prisoner by a local crime  . . . gang. Crime gang? I supposed the term was crime syndicate, but that sounded too couth for this band of thugs.

My okulus chirped again to let me know my father was calling. I set it to silent, shrank it to its smallest size, and snapped it into a pocket within my cape.

“I know, I know,” I muttered, “I’m late.”

“Did you say something, sir?” said the three-armed mechatronic to my left.

We were sitting at the counter of a coffee stand in one of the busiest areas of Olympus City. The Saturday night crowd thrummed all around us, a chaotic crush of people going in every direction—mostly Human and Bundu-jo, but with a few Starwatchers peppered in, too. They were all so busy. Checking their okuli, scurrying on their way. And volos were zipping everywhere above the crowd like a chaotic swarm of bees . . . The only one of the Gathering’s four races I didn’t see represented at all were its newest—the K’thaktra. After the war, they had integrated into society surprisingly well, but still, certain feelings had remained hard, and even after all this time, not many of them had migrated this close to Earth.

I was watching the storefront on the other side of the boulevard, pretending to drink koko from a paper cup that had been empty for the better part of half an hour, and Warpaint—my mechatronic—was on the stool next to me, just kind of hulking there. Making whirring noises with the little movements of his head, of his hands. Looking ridiculous.

“I said I’m late” I frowned, in reply to Warpaint’s earlier question.

“Yes. We should depart for the shuttleport at once. Your friend will have to fend for himself.”

I set the paper cup down on the counter and stood up. “He’s not my friend.”

“Oh, I hope you haven’t taken the young K’thaktra as your lover, sir. I must caution you that the laws against such a thing are severe. He is only 16 years old.”

“What? No. He’s just definitely not my friend, that’s all. What does his age have to do with anything?”

“You are far older than he is, sir.”

“No I’m not.”

“You’re 97 years old today. It would be –“

“I—Warpaint. I’m 17.”

“Why do you keep saying that, sir?” If a mechatronic could look at a Human with sorrow and pity, he looked at me that way now.

I sighed and paid the elderly Human woman who operated the coffee stand, making sure to leave a handsome tip. She nodded her thanks, but looked glad to see us go. I wasn’t sure if it was because we had occupied the seats for so long, preventing other customers from sitting, or because she disapproved of us generally. I supposed it didn’t matter. She hadn’t said anything, but I stopped and doubled the tip. On the Shadow, I wouldn’t need the money anyway.

Warpaint and I moved toward the boulevard.

No one had come in or out of the tailor shop since the boss—the Bundu-jo they called Papa—had gone in about 40 minutes ago. All this time, I had been trying to gather my nerve. My heart was pounding low, ominous beats into my ears. The OPEN sign remained lit, and the holographic advertisements continued to appear in the display window as people passed by. The shop was part of a complex of storefronts that wound around to face other alleyways and streets; a thousand facades all honeycombed together. Public records indicated that the main door was the only exit. I was certain there were no customers inside. It would just be the gang—the gang and Thrissko.

A late model Levitric repulsor—a four-seater—puttered and popped as it skimmed over the crowd, and I thought briefly of Callie and Posha and Emilio, my old friends, people from a forgotten life . . .

No, I thought, not forgotten. Just over. Think about what comes next, Vai, not about what has already passed.

Not far from here, the shuttle that would transport me to the Gathering Exploration Vessel Shadow, and away from Mars forever? Was waiting. I had already wasted so much time soaking inside this fear and indecision. I had to do this. To walk away now—to fail to take action the first time I had ever really been tested—was something I could not accept of myself. Cowardice is something you carry with you forever.

So I began my walk through the chaos with Warpaint following behind me, and my volo darting here and there a few meters above us. Like me, my volo was one among many. Lost in the swarm.

I primed myself for violence.

“Be careful crossing the street. Watch your step. Look out, sir!”

I stopped for a moment to face my mechatronic. “Listen, will you shut up? I’m trying to get a good boil going.”

“That one nearly bumped you.” Warpaint pointed—aghast—at a little Starwatcher man padding fluffily through the crowd, his big ears flopping to and fro.

“Sometimes I’m going to get bumped,” I said. “Relax.”

I started toward the shop again and heard Warpaint quietly say, “But you’re so very old.”

“You don’t have to protect me from people just walking by. That’s not violence. Your job is to protect me from people actually trying to hurt me. Right?”

We came to the door, and a blue hologram of a Bundu-jo business-woman in a black suit sizzled away into nothingness. In its place appeared the hologram of a tall, broad-shouldered Human teenager in a slightly-ragged cape, slouching as he walked, being followed closely by a dragging, depressed mechatronic. Then a sparkle of light swirled around him, and his ragged cape was transformed into a beautiful silkstyle cloak, and he looked at himself, satisfied and amazed. Now he could hold his head up high. His slouch was gone. He marched proudly in place, going nowhere. There came a robotic burst from an unseen speaker: “Come inside! We’ll fix you up! Come inside! We’ll fix you up!”

“Yes sir, of course my purpose is to protect you from actual violence,” Warpaint said. “I just worry about you. Perhaps too much . . .”

“Okay, good,” I told him, as I opened the door. “Keep that in mind.”

I was 1.93m tall; in the shabbier parts of the city, some people would still have said I was 6’4″; but even so, Warpaint towered over me. To make it through most doorways, he had to rack his head down below the height of his shoulders and twist through sideways. He did that now, as we stepped inside.

One side of the shop was lined with bolts of fabric in a variety of colors and textures. There were ornately carved wooden stands, each holding what looked like a large book of even more fabrics. These, the customer could touch, flipping from one sample to the next. The other side of the shop held clothing of every description, framed on floating discs that seemed to rise, slightly, at my presence. Each piece turned slowly around and around. They were lit like works of art. Jackets, skirts, cloaks, gloves, scarves. The carpet was a velvety red that felt—there was no other word for it—plush beneath my boots.

It wasn’t exactly what I expected a gang hideout to be, but I supposed if it had been, it wouldn’t have made for a very useful front.

I caught sight of myself in a mirror. My cape didn’t look ragged at all, and I didn’t seem to be slouching.

“You’re not depressed are you?” I whispered.

“No sir,” whispered Warpaint. “I’m very happy. I’m so content.”

A Bundu-jo female, perhaps in her early 20’s, sat behind the counter with her okulus in front of her, watching a news program with the audio playing. “Be right with you,” she called without looking up.

“—Councillor Li took a tour of the historic warship Shadow today, in advance of its official relaunch as part of the new Gathering Exploration Fleet. Shadow, which played a vital role in The Gathering-K’thaktra War, was originally decommissioned 75 years ago. It has spent the last decade being extensively retrofitted with the latest technologies. Following her personal inspection, Councillor Li had this to say:”

“There’s no reason for a ship like this to sit unused indefinitely. She’s one of the finest the Interstellar Armada ever built. Eighty-some years later, she’s ops-ready. And we expect she’ll still be operating 80 years from now. That should give you some sense of the great job the G.E.F. did with this refit. The technology here is truly top of the line.”

“You served aboard the original Shadow during the war—”

“That’s right. I was 20 years old, fresh out of I.A. Academy, just an astrogation tech. This was the very first stop in my career, so I’ve always had a special regard for the Shadow. I’m happy to see her return to action.

“Councillor Li may be happy, but not everyone shares her sentiments. Councillor Z’kaska has taken the unusual step of issuing a public statement of dissent, objecting to the recommission of Shadow on behalf of—and I quote—the millions of K’thaktran lives obliterated on Rondo IV, on Sol II, on Mazax VII and Mazax VIII, on Fij—.”

The woman behind the counter waved a blue hand over her okulus and it went dark.

I smiled and shook my head. “Couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch of obliterees.”

“You have a problem with the K’thaktra?”

“Not today,” I said.

“The boy and his robot,” she said. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m sorry, do you know me?”

“I have eyes, don’t I?”

I nodded yes and stepped up to the counter. She did have eyes.

“We can make anything you need,” she monotoned, “shirts, jackets, hats. Whatever.”

“I’m here to see Papa.”

I felt a little self-conscious saying papa. A feeling the Bundu-jo quickly punctuated by responding, “Mr. Papa doesn’t have time to talk to robots and big boys, love.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said, “but I need to talk to him, and I don’t have a lot of time. So can you get him, please? I’m late for a thing. Is he listening to this? Is he looped into your volo?” I waved at the volo floating over her shoulder. “Mr. Papa,” I said. “Hello. I’m here about Thrissko.”

She raised an eyebrow. Or, rather, the ridge of skin above her eye went up. “He’s not looped into my volo.”

“Oh,” I said. “Then can you get him, please? It’s about Thrissko. The, uh, K’thaktra kid.”

“Thrissko the K’thakta kid? Is that his outlaw name? Will we find him shooting off guns in the Terran Old West? Robbing payroll trains? Does he have a red bandana over his mouth?”

“Bloody hell,” I muttered.

She laughed. “Relax, boy.” Then she swiped her okulus back on and her fingers flew across the screen. A few moments later a door back behind the counter hissed open, and she gestured for me to enter. I moved toward it with Warpaint following behind me. The young woman held up a hand. “Just you. Your robot waits outside on the street.” Robot was another insult. Mechatronic provided an accurate description of what these living machines were. Robot meant slave. I turned and looked at Warpaint.

“I really must protest!” he exclaimed.

“Wait outside, it’s okay,” I told him.

“Sir, I am under strict orders to stay with you whenever possible, and—”

“And right now, it’s not possible. I don’t have time to argue with you. Wait outside, that’s an order.”

Warpaint shook his head as he lumbered toward the exit. “Do be careful, sir. Call for me if you need me. I’ll be—”

After he had just stepped outside, security shutters slammed closed over the windows and the entrance, the OPEN sign disappeared, and the lights inside the shop dimmed to an atmospheric dark.

On the other side of the shutters, I heard Warpaint’s very muffled voice shout “Oh no! Treachery!”

I turned back to where the Bundu-jo woman was waiting. She gestured again toward the open door. “Go ahead,” she said. “They’re waiting for you downstairs.”

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