Welcome back to Gravlander, a 10-part serial story set in Erik Wecks’ Pax Imperium universe. If you’ve been reading along, you’re probably as anxious as I am to learn what happens next to Little Jo. If you’re not at all certain of what’s going on here, you’ll want to read the two previous episodes — click HERE for Episode 1 and HERE for Episode 2. Then you’ll be ready to see what happens next…
But before we get to Episode 3, just a fast reminder that Erik has a new Kickstarter going to raise funds for the cover of Gravlander (the image above) when it’s finished. Erik’s goal is to publish it as a novella, so if you’re liking what you’re reading, please consider backing the project. Click HERE to visit the Kickstarter.
Okay… now it’s time. Let’s go see what’s next for Jo as she joins the Timcree… and see you next week for Episode 4.
Episode 3: Korg Haran
As she gently stirred the artificial spices into her nutriment paste, Jo watched Razod Kolas’ pinkish lips for any sign of his attitude toward her presence, but the scarred Timcree commander gave no indication that she could perceive. Out of the pressure suit that had modulated his voice, Kolas wore a powder blue jumpsuit similar to those worn by the rest of the crew. To Jo, he looked to her as any other Timcree—gray skinned, with an overly large head and long lean limbs.
Four days after leaving the Ghost Fleet behind, she still had not even an inkling of how to read her new companions. Besides the four Timcree in the raiding party, there were two more on board the freighter where they now sat. They were, in general, a quiet lot. Only the commander spoke English well. His lieutenant, a male named Ardo Tanith, spoke a few words and clearly understood more than he said, but his halting English made conversation difficult. The other two spoke no English at all.
The five of them sat together in the small mess hall of the Timcree transport. Silence seemed to be the rule at the table. The only speech was some kind of short chant said before the meal. It had been the same each time, so Jo took it to be some kind of prayer. Wanting to be respectful, she had started bowing her head along with the Timcree as they chanted.
Jo was just about to put another spoonful of the bland paste in her mouth when the commander unexpectedly spoke, disturbing the calm. “You are not from a military family, are you?”
Jo wondered how he had reached his assessment. “No. I am not. While I have been with the Ghost Fleet since its escape from Pontus, I only joined the military two years ago.”
The apparently sanguine commander did not nod or give any other sign of his thoughts. “If you were not part of the military, why were you on their fleet?”
“My family and I were refugees. My surrogate father works for Prince Jonas.”
“What is this word ‘surgate’?”
“Surrogate—it means substitute. The man who raised me was not my biological father. He was killed by the Unity Corporation when I was very young. I and my brother escaped along with the man who raised me.”
Again no reaction, just a long, slow blink. “You have a brother?”
“Is he also on the fleet?”
“No, he is not.”
“Where is he?”
The last four days had been some of the loneliest she had ever known. Her longing for even simple communication and her ever present desire to please had made her unwary, but the commander’s question hit her like an electric shock, jolting her back to reality. It struck Jo that the commander’s questions might have more behind them than simply friendly conversation. The Timcree lived throughout the galaxy. Their populations were said to be just as large or larger in the Unity homeland as they were elsewhere. They were known smugglers. Jo realized that she might be in danger. What’s he digging at? A sailor from the Ghost Fleet, an escapee from the Unity, and a survivor of Aetna—Jo knew that she could fetch a pretty price if the right people in the Unity found her.
Don’t be stupid, Jo! She paused. She had no doubt her face had betrayed her fears. She looked up at the commander. “I would rather not say.” Even as the words left her mouth, Jo realized their inadequacy. Refusing to tell communicated almost as much about her importance as did a direct answer. Jo winced.
The Timcree’s eyes narrowed a little, scrutinizing her deeply. It was the first understandable expression she had seen on his face in four days. “Information is also a commodity. You have much to learn.” The commander looked down at his plate and continued his meal.
Two days later, Jo woke in the middle of her sleep cycle to Ardo Tanith standing over her, shaking her. Startled to find a Timcree in her quarters while she slept, Jo yelped and shrank back against the wall, pulling the blanket with her.
Although he didn’t respond to her outburst, Tanith stepped back from the bed, giving her space to recover. When she could breathe again, he gestured for her to follow him and said, “Come.” Then he stepped out of her quarters and waited for her to throw on her navy uniform.
As she pulled up her nurse’s jumpsuit, worried thoughts danced through her mind. Since the conversation at the table two cycles ago, Jo’s discomfort had grown. She wondered if she had merely leapt from the reactor room into the reactor. At the time, held hostage on the hospital ship, she had felt a sense of adventure and wide open spaces in going with the Timcree. Now only a standard week later, she was already feeling again that sense of impending doom that had haunted her for two years as a nurse on the Ghost Fleet. She wondered what could have gone wrong to wake her from sleep.
She stepped out of her quarters into the dim and messy corridor. Stacks of abandoned crates stood here and there, carrying who knows what treasure saved by the Timcree for its future usefulness. Tanith stood beside her door waiting. He neither looked at her nor said anything. Instead, he turned and walked at an unusually brisk pace toward the bridge, which lay high above at the back of the ship. In several places, Josephine had to duck between hanging wires as they went. At one point, half the grating had been cut away to get at a component underneath the deck. It had never been replaced. Jo stepped around the exposed ductwork and data terminals and continued aft behind her companion.
When Jonas had seen the condition of the freighter the Timcree had docked with the Gallant, he had almost rescinded his permission for Josephine to go with them. It could have easily been taken for a stripped derelict.
Most worrying, almost all of the radiation shielding seemed to have been removed, which would have been problematic enough in a normal star system. Here in the Crucible, where every other day brought some kind of stellar weather, it seemed downright foolish. Jonas had offered to replace the shielding for the Timcree, a rather extravagant offer, and one Jo doubted that he would have made if she hadn’t been intending to go with them.
Kolas had refused, saying his ship was in perfect condition. A fact that would be contradicted shortly after their departure from the Gallant when the life support had gone out, forcing them to use portable breathing systems for about eight hours before the mechanic—a Timcree Jo guessed to be named Thradling—had sorted out the problem.
Jo hadn’t yet been able to figure out why the Timcree had refused the generous gift. It’s not one the Prince was likely to repeat, and even if the shielding had never been installed, it could have been worth a fortune on the black market. It puzzled her like so much else about her new companions.
Arriving on the command deck, Tanith stepped forward and quickly took his seat at the helm. Razod Kolas stood beside the captain’s chair, one hand upon the torn synthetic leather of its upright back. He waved Jo forward to stand beside him, and for just a second, Jo thought she saw the barest threads of a grin cross his face.
Jo stepped forward to stand beside the captain. As she did so, the mechanic climbed into the command deck behind her, along with the others on the crew. Looking out the front windows, Jo noticed that they were now running perpendicular to the gravity well with the star to starboard.
The commander didn’t look at her when he spoke. “We are up orbit from our community. It is time that we turn and face them for docking. It is a tradition that we gather for the viewing.”
Feeling more of an outsider than ever, Jo didn’t say anything, but instead, turned her gaze forward.
The commander gave an order to the pilot. “Klipst Kree.”
“Pa, Klipst Kree.”
Slowly the ship started her rotation, pointing her nose up the gravity well, facing the deep dark, and beyond it, the limb and bulge of the Milky Way. Then, as if suddenly pulled toward the local star, the bow seemed to nose over, past the outer reaches of the universe, and fell quickly toward Josephine Lutnear’s new home. Still several miles behind them, a structure slowly drifted into view. Still far away, Jo could make little of it except for the sun glinting off its mottled exterior, and then, as it caught them up, Jo realized just how large a structure it must be, and she gasped. As the details came into view, the ship’s crew began to talk among themselves in animated tones, and then Jo finally understood what lay before her: ships—hundreds of them all tied together airlock to airlock, all of them in various states of disrepair, some of them open to the vacuum of space. So many of them piled together in a mass that it was almost impossible to tell where one began and another ended. Some of them were massive ore haulers, others nothing more than personal transports capable of holding, at most, two passengers. Josephine’s mouth gaped open in awe.
Soon Tanith had the Timcree transport expertly orbiting around the mass. He seemed to delight in seeing how close he could come to the hulls of the behemoth without hitting them. A couple of times he even seemed to scare some of the other Timcree on the command deck, leaving them to shout at him. Commander Kolas seemed as sanguine as ever.
Eventually, Tanith found the location he sought, an airlock on an ancient luxury liner. As Tanith brought the ship into dock, Jo gaped at the huge derelict above her. She had no idea how a ship designed for orbital pleasure cruises two hundred years ago found itself in orbit around a star behind an abandoned gate. As the ship bumped to a gentle stop, Kolas turned to leave the bridge, beckoning Jo to follow. “Welcome to Korg Haran. It means ‘safe air.'”
Exiting the freighter, Jo first noticed the smell. Every atmosphere—station, ship, planet, or moon—had its own unique odor, but Korg Haran’s stood out among them. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant, although the musk of unwashed humanoid made up a large portion of its waft. However, there were other smells, as well—spicy food and the aroma of machine oil and hot electronics mixed in. Safe air, she thought. I wonder if that was meant ironically.
She didn’t have much time to think long on the topic because the commander started off at a brisk pace through the airlock into the waiting mass of vessels, and Jo had to work hard to keep up with his long stride.
They stepped out into a wide, open space which had been converted into a bazaar. Jo guessed that the bazaar accounted for much of the smell that greeted her. The commander walked confidently through the tangled mess, threading a path across the floor. Timcree were everywhere, and not all of them looked the same. The commander and his companions seemed to be the tallest of the lot, and perhaps the least human, but Jo had little time to observe, as almost all her concentration was focused on keeping herself safely in the captain’s wake.
On the freighter, she had seen no weapons. Those taken on the raid on the Gallant had been quickly stowed and not retrieved during the flight. Now she noticed the crew each wore a rifle slung on their back, and as she trotted along, the crew took up positions around her.
The thought occurred to her that she might be a prisoner, and her heart started beating faster.
They got halfway across the open space before anyone really noticed her. The first cry came from a kabob vendor to her right. “Gravlander!” she exclaimed. Her neighbor also took up the cry, “Gravlander! Kash’y! Gravlander!”
And now the cry of ‘Gravlander’ rang out over and over again as word spread throughout the bazaar. A crowd started to follow them.
The captain picked up his pace.
At first, Jo wondered at the excitement. She hadn’t been completely unprepared. She had guessed that her presence in a Timcree camp would cause a stir, similar to the presence of the Timcree on the fleet—except she was an invited guest—but the crowds’ intensity surprised her. Soon they were shouting other unintelligible things than “Gravlander,” but it wasn’t until one of them started shoving some of the Timcree crew that she understood clearly their hostility toward her.
Despite the surrounding crowd, the commander forced his way forward, making for the nearest exit from the chaos. They had almost reached their goal when a group of well-armed Timcree in pinkish red jumpsuits brought their progress to a sudden halt. In front, a Timcree, similar in build and height to Kolas, stood with his long arms at his side. Behind him, a group equal in number to the crew stood in a line, weapons at the ready.
Jo understood nothing of the argument that followed, although the word ‘Gravlander’ came up frequently. It all seemed so calm. In fact, Jo would have hardly recognized it for a disagreement, if it weren’t for the weapons pointed in her direction. Understanding the situation to be highly dangerous, she stayed still, trying to appear calm and unthreatening. Without warning, a knife appeared in Kolas’ opponent’s hand, and he lunged.