by Alex Hernandez | 3,996 words
Isabella Cavalo watched as the wokchoi burst out of the shrubbery and raced toward the archeological team studying the Crystalline Temple; their pounding hooves kicking up a flurry of ice and dirt. The attack was brutal. The six-limbed creatures, wielding ritual quartz spears and blasters, swept over the unsuspecting human excavators and the wokchoi academics with righteous cruelty.
Isabella remembered seeing her first wokchoi, back when their one-way interstellar ship, the SAS Botafogo, blundered into this system, and thinking the natives looked like a blend of armadillo and deer. That was before she saw them in ultraviolet, where they burned in cerulean, and mauve, and painfully bright white, like photo negatives of bonfires.
They skewered and trampled the humans, using the blasters only on the other wokchoi. The snowstorm stirred by the galloping aggressors blocked out the camera’s view, but Isabella continued to stare at the grim silhouettes on the screen. Unconsciously, she adjusted the starboard sail of the Tread Lightly and steered the ship away from Wokbua, toward the tradebeam relay, queuing behind a dilapidated brigantine. Isabella was safe around another world—a more civilized world—but she writhed all the same. Then she caught sight of Fernão Mokanga, being thrown over a wokchoi’s armored back, and disappearing into the Dawabua wilderness.
The large display that hugged the quarterdeck vanished. She was left, clutching the helm, surrounded by wokchoi sailors. The ship’s command platform was dark and spacious, lit with a constellation of ultraviolet LEDs. The only furnishings were the austere work-stalls for the senior officers. There were no chairs of any kind as no such apparatus existed in wokchoi culture—they never sat or lay down.
“That’s all I was able to escape with,” the voice came from somewhere in the back. The stench of Sebastian Nguyen’s sweat filled the cabin and tugged on Isabella. Back on Earth, the odor would have sickened her, but they were light years from a stick of deodorant and the scent was undeniably—achingly—human.
Singbok paced around Sebastian. She kept her glow steady, but the clop-clop of her hooves betrayed her suspicion. “So why have you brought us this information?”
Sebastian just stared dumbly. He was blind to Singbok’s question and, without a strobe-coat, mute.
Isabella fought the need to jump in and translate. She knew that Singbok wanted their stowaway to worry. Singbok had paid for her artificial eye and strobe-coat when she joined the crew. The implant gave her migraines and the coat was oppressive, but it allowed her to function among the wokchoi.
“Isabella, I want to know how this soft, ungainly creature managed to get aboard my ship.” Each armored band on Singbok’s torso flashed or went dark in an intricate pattern of light and color.
“What do you want, Sebastian?” She asked, in Portuguese, and he stood a little straighter. The frightened man had once been their astrobiologist.
“So your master allows to you speak?” The stains on his ragged clothes glinted like medals.
“She wants to know why you snuck aboard with this footage.”
“I need your help to save Captain Mokanga, your real captain, and the few humans left in this asshole of a system.”
Isabella searched his features for something more, for some subtle message, but found none. She interpreted for Singbok, carefully leaving out the bit about Mokanga being her real captain. “As you saw, my old shipmates have run into trouble on Dawabua. If you can take us there, we could mount a rescue.”
“We?” Singbok’s snout was indecipherable, but Isabella had known her long enough to understand that the false-color blues and whites of her question were tinted with doubt.
“Tell her that if we succeed, she’ll be paid in invaluable relics from the height of the Scintillant Age and if we fail, all she loses is one human pet,” Sebastian added.
Isabella listened, taking pleasure in the sound of his voice and ignoring the insult. She translated all the while. Singbok didn’t reply.
“That’s what, eighty of us left in this solar system?” Isabella asked Sebastian, while her Captain ruminated on the offer. “We’re being whittled down to zero.”
“I believe Mokanga is alive.”
Singbok finally flashed, “Could you read the UV message repeated on the screen, Isabella?”
“No, what did it say?” They couldn’t continue their private conversation. The wokchoi usually failed to recognize verbal noises as communication, but if there was too much back-and-forth, someone as astute as Singbok would pick up on it.
“It seems the ethnic Dawas have kidnapped the humans and are holding them for ransom. A ransom no self-respecting person would pay for soulless bipeds. Still… ”
Still, she felt a twinge of hope. “We’re going to do something?”
Boonjac, Tread Lightly’s Chief Officer, was a large stag who Isabella thought should have an impressive display of antlers, vehemently opposed going to Dawabua. It wasn’t the hazards of looting the precious artifacts or the even more perilous task of selling them in the black market that deterred him; it was the unnecessary risk in saving a dwindling herd of humans. “My cousin on the planet Muybua can get us a straightforward gunrunning job. There’s no need for this.”
The sailors blazed in deliberation, many of them wanting to take the more lucrative gig on Dawabua, with some of them wondering if they couldn’t just forget the humans and still sack the temple. The rest wanted to stick with what they knew.
Isabella only lent her light to point out that the tribal pastures of the Dawa surrounded the temple complex, in effect holding both colonists and loot hostage.
The debate continued with nauseating effects. Isabella turned off her prosthetic eye for a moment and the psychedelic ungulates went ashen. She saw Sebastian for the first time within the anemic spectrum of human vision. He looked lost and frustrated, oblivious to the raging discussion deciding their people’s fate.
“What’s happening?” Sebastian had caught her staring.
“They’re determining whether to go to Dawabua or Muybua. The second-in-command has proposed an alternative job, much less reward, but less danger.” Isabella found herself wanting to go and touch him, embrace him. Even his hardest, leanest muscles would feel supple compared to extraterrestrial keratin plates. To run her fingers through his straight back hair would be a luxury she couldn’t afford. Dismayed, she activated her optical graft and was assailed by a cacophony of illumination.
“Work has been scarce.” Singbok addressed the group. “About a third of the crew jumped ship on Wokbua. Quaint schooners such as ours aren’t so much in demand these days. I want to plunder the Crystalline Temple. We need a massive influx of riches if we’re to keep plying the tradebeams. But I’m not going to embark on such a treacherous mission without your complete support. Isabella, set a course for Muybua.”
She felt winded. Damn their herd mentality!
Boonjac flared triumphantly. He strutted around the quarterdeck in a gait reminiscent of paso fino.
Isabella shone her unwilling assent and turned to her post. She avoided eye-contact with Sebastian and paid attention to the assortment of levers, buttons and switches, all designed for dexterous cloven hooves. She adjusted the port sail and the Tread Lightly shuddered toward the tradebeam aimed at the second planet in the Bua system. The ship’s jib rattled as it hit the stream of photons.
For a second, Isabella’s eyes caught her reflection in the helm’s casement, her third eye was a blue marble embedded in her forehead, and she looked different, felt different. Her bald head was no longer jarring, but the deep lines on her face were. The black freckle on her cheek worried her. Melanoma? She looked small and trapped within the iron-colored jacket. Something basic had changed in the three years since she broke away from the human reservation and joined Singbok’s crew. Maybe it was Sebastian’s presences, but she felt less human somehow.
“We’re not going to Dawabua are we?” She heard the swelling outrage in Sebastian’s voice.
“No,” she said without looking back.
“How can you do this?” Sebastian yelled. “You fucking cattle! Eighty lives are at stake!”
It took a while for Isabella to realize the scorn wasn’t directed at her. She turned in time to see Sebastian lunge at Singbok. Instantly, Boonjac kicked back and hammered his hind hoof into the enraged human, throwing him across the quarterdeck and smashing him into the bulkhead.
Everyone froze, then Sebastian stirred—He’s alive!—and the crew slowly went back to their business.
Isabella was so relieved that she went to him, but Singbok blocked her path.
“Get back to the helm, Isabella! If we stray from the beam, we’ll get thrown off course, and you’ll shred our sails in the process.”
A long moment passed, she stared at Singbok’s long, cervine face and saw no trace of compassion in those three oily eyes. Sebastian’s shoulder had been pulverized. If Boonjac had hit him square in the chest, he’d been dead before reached the wall. She had to proceed carefully here. Too much was at stake.
She went back to her station. Checked the data trough and made fine corrections to the double main sails, aligning the ship to the massive laser pushing them through space.
“You think you’re part of their crew; their helmsman? You’re nothing but the draft animal pulling this rig along,” Sebastian whimpered, his breathing was ragged. A lung had probably collapsed. “My God, your people are being killed and you don’t even argue with these creatures.”
“Everyone clear out of here!” Singbok had caught onto their verbal exchange. “All nonessential personnel retire to the hibernation stables; and someone put the human under too.”
“We should be herding and hunting them, butchering them for their meat and putting yolks around their necks.” Sebastian Nguyen slurred the self-defeating slogans of the reservation. They dragged him out by the ankle.
Isabella set the helm on automatic. They were sailing in a straight line so the ship’s computer could handle the minute course corrections. She headed toward the exit with the rest of the crew, wanting to make sure Sebastian would be okay.
“No, Isabella, return to your stall,” Singbok glared with intensity.
Isabella stopped, waiting for them to be alone, and then said, “I can’t go into hibernation, even though it was my idea to install human technology on this rickety ship? It’s four months to Muybua!”
Singbok took on the informal manner she did when they were alone. She walked over to a food dispenser. “I want to thank you for your show of loyalty and decorum back there. I know it was hard to ignore your injured kin.”
Isabella didn’t respond. A minute later a bowl of greens and crickets was placed on the data trough near her, followed by a mug of thick, bitter beer. Her treat for behaving? Isabella took a swig of the alien stout.
Singbok settled in her captain’s stall. “Ready about!”
“What?” Isabella Cavalo stammered.
“Pull of out the tradebeam and head for Dawabua. I’m not a stupid fawn, Isabella. I have every intention of taking the temple, despite Boonjac’s hysterics. I just wanted everyone quietly sleeping for the duration of the journey.”
Isabella hard-swallowed the alcoholic broth. “So all that was a show? Sebastian was badly injured…”
“I don’t trust humans. Your tender, opaque skin is unsettling. You’ve mastered interstellar flight and suspended animation and yet you lack the incandescent bwahli of mind.” She held up a hoof to belay any objections and continued. “I know he was playing on your allegiances. All that urgent grunting between you two… ”
“Do you trust me?” Isabella found herself asking. It was an imprudent question, but it radiated from her strobe-coat unconsciously.
Singbok’s aura flickered slightly, “With your long arms and nimble trotters, you handle this ship better than I do. You’ve donned ill-fitting spacesuits and performed miracles with tattered sails. As you mentioned, you’ve installed human technology that improved conditions on this vessel tremendously. You’re different, Isabella. As my human, you’ve proven yourself time and again.”
Isabella Cavalo set the mug of unfinished beer down on the data trough and applied herself to the helm. “Captain?”
Singbok stood in her command stall, perfectly phosphorescent. “Pull out of the beam and plot a course for Dawabua and the Crystalline Temple. We’re going to sail the way this ship was intended to be sailed!”
The Tread Lightly was an immense, glass-blown hibiscus; the fifty meter “pistil” consisted of the actual ship from aft to bow, with the mainsails, stay sail, topsail, keelsail and jibs creating a kilometers-wide array of reflective petals. Isabella Cavalo maneuvered it flawlessly. The old schooner rattled free from her prescribed path, tacked into a violent squall of stellar radiation and cruised toward the most desolate world in the Bua system.
# # #
Isabella watched the arctic globe grow on the quarterdeck’s main screen. It looked a lot like Earth bound in an ice age. This wasteland had been her home during her decade at the reservation. They had scrounged around for food and shelter in those barren plains, and when they were drafted as excavators by the archeologist from Chibua who came to study the ancient ruins, conditions improved only slightly.
She pulled hard on the two short levers that straddled her control panel and a loud bang shook the craft as she ejected the ring of masts from the hull. The teeth-grinding sound of metal-scrapping-metal, ended only when the whole collection of sails spun in Dawabua’s L1 point. Free of its rigging, the Tread Lightly looked like a sterling icicle hurtling toward the planet’s dusty green belly.
The command crew stomped their hooves like war drums. They wore combat harnesses jingling with weapons, equipment and other inexplicable tack. The intermittent flashing of their armor created a hypnotic, energizing state. They were rousing themselves for the raid.
“Isabella, bring us down directly on top of the holy place. I want to surprise and scatter these provincial herds,” Singbok ordered.
She stabbed the atmosphere, steering toward a high plateau on the equator. The sudden onrush of air rocked and scorched the ship. In its two hundred years of service, Isabella doubted the old Tread Lightly had set down on a planetary surface more than twice. The temple appeared on a side chart like a beacon. She coordinated a sequence of controlled fatlight bursts, until the ship drifted over the pampas that stretched all around the shrine. A series of sonic booms caught up with them and the ethnic Dawas ran in flowing, shimmering rivulets toward the safety of the ruins.
“Everyone ready! I want to charge the temple as soon as we hit the ground. I know most of you will grab the treasure and run, but I want my command crew to make the humans a priority.” Singbok said, giving Isabella a small concession.
“Am I allowed a weapon, Captain?”
“You’re not going. You’ll get trampled.”
“Without me the humans will think this is another attack on them. My presence will calm them. I know the layout of the temple complex from my days at the reservation. Also, my strobe-coat can translate the local language for you, in case there’s need to negotiate.” She had practiced these arguments on her lonely, months-long voyage here.
Singbok unclipped a blaster from her martingale and tossed it to Isabella. “Try to keep up,” she said, ignoring Boonjac’s vivid protests.
Isabella fired the landing repulsors and the ship lowered itself on the sparsely grassed stretch of tundra. Everyone gathered on the main deck and when Singbok dropped the wide, starboard gangplank, the crew shot out of the ship like racehorses from the gate.
The summertime air was thin and ammonia scented; and unnervingly reassuring. Isabella focused on her breathing as she jogged behind the stampeding crew. Her nose and cheeks stung from the cold and corrosive breeze. She kept her pace steady and her watering eyes on the monument.
The Crystalline Temple looked more like a gaudy São Paulo casino than a place of worship; the massive prismatic structure was adorned in purple and blue florescent lights that fluctuated rhythmically to produce hymns of ultraviolet. The large gimbaled lens at the peak of the design glinted in the overly saturated sunlight. The temple was built at the pinnacle of the Scintillant Age, an era of scientific and spiritual radiance; a time of exploration and expansion, when the wokchoi developed the solar sail and flocked around, Bua, their sun and deity. Ah, to have met those aliens. Instead, the colonists had arrived at a particularly dim point in the wokchoi’s resplendent history.
A torrent of lasers from the temple’s parapets halted their assault. Singbok ordered her team behind some of the lesser buildings in the complex and returned fire. Ancient, ritualistically crafted crystal shattered into a blizzard deadly, glittering glass. Only Isabella found it ironic that a place constructed in reverence to optics being undone by lasers. She shot a few rounds, adding to the sacrilege.
The Dawas had the high-ground advantage, but their overall defenses were laughable. Boonjac aimed his high energy cannon and ended the first skirmish by turning the temple’s battlements into globs of bright red, molten glass. The native herd fell back.
“Now’s our chance, Captain, the artifacts are being held in the tower and the human prisoners are probably penned in the cloister.”
Singbok shone her consent and Isabella shepherded the invading sailors up the main causeway and into the large quadrangle. A few unseen Dawas fired from galleries and open arcades. A stray beam punched Isabella in the hip, throwing her on her side and curling her from the pain. Her strobe-coat reflected most of the blast, but the heat crackled her skin and short-circuited the band running around her waist. She crawled to her feet and limped after her crew.
The filthy humans were indeed huddled in a corner, avoiding the hissing beams of death that crisscrossed the courtyard. She caught sight of Fernão Mokanga among the eighty left of his crew. She also noticed a few children.
“This is a rescue mission!” Isabella shouted, her voice hoarse from disuse. She rapidly repeated in broken ultraviolet for Singbok. “Sebastian Nguyen sent us! Get behind our herd and stay out of the way!”
The humans darted along one of the enclosure’s translucent walls and gathered near the only entrance.
She saw Fernão make a series of hand gestures to Gietvot, the regional leader. The bull was the size of a moose with armor as thick as a rhino’s. Isabella remembered him overpowering Fernão in Sebastian’s video. His corona flamed in a foreign hue and more Dawas appeared on the bulwarks. The downpour of blistering light became terrible. The reek of burning soil and keratin masked the indigenous pang of ammonia. She sometimes forgot that wokchoi had no internal skeleton and the boney exterior and fibrous muscles were all that held them together. Crack the armor open and you had so much venison.
Boonjac hefted his cannon and cut a swath, turning the western wall into magma. Isabella Cavalo turned to him and incinerated his brains with her blaster. His headless carcass collapsed and she took cover behind it. This was it.
For a split second, Singbok was paralyzed by confusion. Despite the chaos, she had seen Isabella’s betrayal. The captain reared up and kicked her four front legs wildly. She targeted Isabella. Her fiery aura asking on simple question, “Why?”
“Because I need [dark] ship.” Without another flicker, Isabella blew off Singbok’s left hind leg. Her scream was blinding. Isabella felt a wrench of remorse as Singbok buckled under her weight and lumbered to the floor. After all, she had taken advantage of the old doe’s modicum of tolerance.
Singbok was ablaze with obscenities, but Isabella had shut off her false eye and shrugged off the damaged strobe-coat. The wintry air pricked her skin. She shivered. The colonists “cowering” near the entrance, pulled blasters from beneath their rags and created a grid of carnage that effectively ended the siege. What Singbok didn’t understand, was that losing a leg had saved her life.
# # #
The Tread Lightly exploded from the yellowish atmosphere of Dawabua on a pillar of fatlight. Long minutes passed as the schooner sliced through the 1.3 AU of space between the planet and waiting sails.
Captain Mokanga met Isabella on the quarterdeck. He had been wandering the commandeered ship, making sure it was stripped of extra mass and then stowing all their passengers in hibernation stables.
“I’m surprised the Dawas helped us,” she said, still steering.
He walked around the command platform ignorant of the UV readouts glowing with data. “They are the descendants of the architects of the Crystalline Temple. When we confirmed that the whole thing was an immense continuous wave laser, intended to shine the glory of bwahli into the darkness of space, and more importantly, that we could repair it, they were ecstatic.” She could see his smile from the corner of her eye. “Also, we had complimentary goals: we wanted to leave and they wanted us gone.”
“And you believe the antique laser, tracker-pointer, the power source are up to the task?”
“The wokchoi had magnifying glass death rays before Homo habilis ever flung his first stone. And this temple was constructed at the peak of their civilization. The beam is insanely powerful, the solar collectors run at perfect efficiency, and the Dawas have taken a sacred vow of maintenance. That’s all we can ask.”
It was the same sort of faith she placed on the old ship. “What will they do to the surviving sailors?”
“Release them, I think.”
She concentrated on the fast approaching sails, playing the controls with flourish, showing off for Franão. She threaded the slender body of the ship through the rotating halo of masts, and then clamped them into place with a bone-shaking clank. The Tread Lightly regained its floral appearance. She checked the data trough to make sure everything was secure, then turned from the helm and saluted smartly. “One solar-sail ship, sir.”
He returned her salute, “Is she worthy of interstellar flight, Commander?” His dark brown skin was soothing to look at; it absorbed all light and gave nothing back.
She downed the knot in her throat and answered evenly, “She’s a bit beaten, Captain, but meticulously tended.”
“Can you sail her?”
He placed his hands on her bare shoulders, held her at arms’ length for a second then pulled her close, wrapping his arms around her. “Thank you,” he whispered and squeezed her for a long moment.
“You didn’t tell Sebastian I was on your side?”
“The less people who knew…” He slowly pushed her away, gazing into her eyes, “Isabella, I’m relinquishing the captaincy to you.”
“Let’s be honest, I haven’t captained anything in more than ten years and I’m less than useless on this alien craft. I’ve discussed it with our people and we all agree.” He let her go and moved toward the exit. “When you’re ready, the hibernation unit in the Captain’s Stable is waiting for you.”
He left her alone on the naked quarterdeck, dumbfounded, until an urgent blinking reminded her that she was about to intersect with the vast shaft of light emanating from the planet.
Isabella—Captain Cavalo— aggressively broached her ship into the gale of particles. The reflective foil of the sails billowed and exploded with dazzling silver. The Tread Lightly ran faster than it was ever intended to and continued to accelerate. The archaic schooner held and steadily beat the beam until it crashed free of the Bua system’s termination shock and into the turbulent environs of the heliosheath.
It would be a long while before the ship was safely navigating the calm of interstellar space and Isabella could rest, but there was a bracing satisfaction in the pitch of her ship and the pale blotch at the end of her sextant.
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© Alex Hernandez 2012
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Alex Hernandez is a librarian by day and a science fiction writer by night (or early mornings actually as he also have a two-year-old in the house). Alex has recently sold a few short stories to Baen and The Colored Lens.