This is getting good! Welcome to Episode 4 of Erik Wecks’ Gravlander — a 10-episode (10 week) event that follows the old-school serial style of storytelling. If you haven’t read Episodes 1 through 3, don’t start reading here yet! Instead, click on the links below and catch up with our heroine, Josephine.
Done? Okay, now you’re ready for Episode 4. Erik’s not playing around with the cliffhanger endings and the shotgun openers, as you’ll see next. And next week? Hard to believe Erik will be half done with his latest Pax Imperium story. His Kickstarter was a success, meaning Gravlander will have one really amazing cover when Erik collects the ten episodes, maybe does a rewrite here or there, and offers it up as a new novella. But I’m getting ahead of myself again. We’ve still got six more episodes after this one, and as anyone familiar with Erik’s style of storytelling and plotting can tell you… anything can happen.
See you next week for Episode 5.
Episode 4: Taboo
Although the attack surprised Josephine, Kolas hadn’t been caught off guard. He managed to allow his opponent’s thrust to push past him to the left. Grabbing the knife-wielding wrist, Kolas pivoted his body until he was standing almost back-to-back with his opponent, holding the knife out in front of them both. It proved to be a serious mistake. The other Timcree wasn’t about to allow Kolas to deter him so easily. With a loud grunt, he twisted the blade downward and stabbed Kolas in his exposed thigh. The commander screamed and collapsed to the deck. Silence descended over the crowd. As Kolas lay curled in the fetal position, his assailant leaned down and retrieved his blade. Kolas screamed again.
Jo started to turn away, not wanting to see, not wanting to hear, but the end for Kolas did not come. Instead, his opponent stepped back and stared down at Kolas for a few seconds, face impassive. Then he turned away, dripping knife still clutched in his hand. Apparently sated, the bulk of the crowd followed his lead, dispersing to their stalls and their shopping. Slowly the hum of conversation returned to the bazaar in the grand ballroom of the ancient orbital cruise liner. As if some spell had suddenly cut her loose, Jo rushed forward to Kolas’ side. Seeing the amount of blood pooling under him from the wound on his leg, it was immediately clear to Jo that Kolas was in trouble. The wound had no doubt cut an artery. Unless something changed, Kolas would bleed out.
Reaching into the pocket of her still stocked nurse’s jumpsuit, she pulled out a tourniquet and was about to apply it to his leg when Tanith put a firm hand on her shoulder. “You not help him.”
Jo looked at Tanith. Her training took over, and she spoke calmly, even as her hands continued to prepare the tourniquet. “He’s going to die. I have to help him.”
Tanith blinked slowly once while his forehead wrinkled. Jo could tell he was struggling with the words. More than his expression or action, his vice-like grip on her shoulder told her how much he wanted her to listen to him. “They kill him. Think Gravlander bad spirit—not good. You no touch.”
Josephine continued to move forward at breakneck speed. Kolas was bleeding out in front of her. There was no way he would live long enough to be murdered if she didn’t help him. One thing at a time, thought Jo. Then she hit upon an idea. Immediately, she put the tourniquet down on the ground and stood up. She pointed at Tanith. “Then you put it on him.”
It took a second, and he gave no sign with his reserved expressions, but then Tanith seemed to understand because he slowly knelt down next to his dying commander. Jo continued to point. “OK, now you take the bandage and wrap it around his leg.”
Tanith looked at her and didn’t move.
This time she pantomimed what she wanted him to do, and Tanith seemed to get the point.
Jo tried to instruct him as he wrapped the automated bandage around Kolas’ leg. “Make sure it’s nice and snug, and then connect the two ends like this.” She again acted out what she wanted Tanith to do. Progress seemed glacial.
Tanith gingerly finished his work, much too slowly for Jo’s liking.
By the time the task had been completed, the commander had lost consciousness, and his color had worsened. The sudden pressure by the bandage brought him back only a little. He gasped but didn’t regain consciousness. He had lost too much blood.
To Jo, things didn’t look good. She had been on a team in the ER that had lost a patient once about a year ago. He had been an engineer who had fallen two decks before breaking his fall on a railing. Miraculously, he hadn’t died on the spot, but in the end it hadn’t mattered. The railing had turned his liver to jelly, and he had bled to death internally before the nanites could stop it. Jo didn’t want to have that happen here.
Kolas’ worsening color told her she had little time. She pointed at one of the other crew and said, “Medicine! On the ship! Get medicine.”
The crewman just stood there staring at her, uncomprehending.
Tanith seemed to understand, however. Translating into Kree, he gave several orders. The crewman nodded his large head and ran off toward the ship. Two others, including the mechanic, headed in a different direction.
“He needs blood.”
Tanith nodded slowly.
Jo had no idea if he understood her or not. For the next five minutes, she watched helplessly. She wanted to be right in there, checking Kolas’ vital signs. She couldn’t even tell for sure if he was breathing, but she thought so. She stood there shifting her weight from foot to foot as her anxiety continued to increase.
Instinctively, she knew that her own medical knowledge was much greater than those around her. She wanted to be the one in charge. Her only hope was that if they got him out of the bazaar, they might let her treat him.
The two who went for the stretcher came back first with what amounted to a sheet attached to a couple of metal poles. They weren’t alone. Several other Timcree came with them. The group talked quietly among themselves as they loaded the commander onto the stretcher. One of them, a woman, knelt at Kolas’ head as they worked, keeping up a constant stream of conversation. Jo guessed she was somewhat younger than Kolas. She didn’t cry, but Jo found her constant stream of words unusual for the Timcree.
As soon as they had Kolas in the makeshift stretcher, they started moving.
Jo objected. “What about the medicine?”
Tanith turned to her and none too gently grabbed her by the arm. “Not safe! Come.”
Jo let the matter drop and started running behind the stretcher.
Within just a few seconds, she was helplessly lost in a maze of corridors and passageways. The way seemed narrow. They were running down a dark, residential corridor that Jo guessed had once been well lit and opulent. On each side, doors led to staterooms. Jo noted that almost all of them had been painted brightly, a contrast to the remnants of the stately decor. Then, coming to the other end of the corridor, the party stopped, and one of them went forward, making sure the coast was clear. When it appeared that all was in order, he signaled for the rest to cross. The group had just assembled on the other side when the missing crew member appeared, toting a gravpallet with Jo’s boxes of medicine on them.
Now the group moved as quickly as possible, stopping occasionally to make sure no ambush awaited them. The only way that Jo could tell how nervous Tanith and the other Timcree were about an attack was from these careful movements. Otherwise, their faces showed little fear.
Jo lost track of how many airlocks they crossed and how many ships they passed through. She had the sense they were moving away from the edge into the center of the mass. Eventually, they passed into a little freighter. Here one of the Timcree was left to stand guard by the door, which was quickly sealed behind them. Kolas was ushered into a room nearby. Jo made to follow but found her way blocked by the same female Timcree who had been standing at his head. Jo could now see that she was with child, her belly already well distended. Jo wondered if the child were Kolas’. It would explain why the commander had set out on such a risky mission.
The Timcree woman towered over her. The veiled threat was hard to see, but Jo felt it.
Jo was about to press the matter when Tanith, who had been carrying the litter, came back and intervened. Once again, he used a firm grasp on her shoulder to communicate.
He was about to move her away from the door when instinct took over for Jo. Anger rose to the surface—she was here to help. She hadn’t come to be shoved aside. She pulled her shoulder out of Tanith’s arms and got right in the pregnant woman’s face, yelling. “Now, you listen to me! I’m the nurse here! I can save his life, and you will let me in that door!”
The seriousness of Jo’s error only became apparent when one of the other Timcree standing nearby turned and punched her in the jaw. Jo landed hard on the deck, spitting blood from where she bit her cheek. In shock, Jo scooted away across the deck, and wrapped her arms around her knees.
The Timcree started to step toward her when Tanith stepped in front of him. This time he spoke. “Up.”
Jo complied, and when he led her away by the shoulder, she did not object.
A short way down the passage, Tanith kicked open a door, which led to a small set of quarters. Jo entered without resistance. The door was locked behind her.
Several hours later, Jo was still locked in the dim room. There was only one small light in the corner. She lay curled up on the bed. She couldn’t sleep but instead lay there watching the door. Her mind ran over the events of earlier, trying to suss out some hidden detail that would make sense of it all. It felt futile, but her only other option was to give up and that felt worse.
She was exhausted.
She wondered again if she were a prisoner. The shock had worn off, and she was left with a gnawing sense of her own vulnerability.
She didn’t have anything to do except stare at the space surrounding her. The quarters clearly belonged to someone. Jo wondered if it were Tanith. The decor was eclectic, to say the least. The room was jammed with all sorts of items—none of them seemed to be in complete working order. In one corner, a small but neat pile of computer components lay stacked and organized. In another, there lay a stack of old-style, e-paper books. Jo had briefly considered reading one of these, but when she picked the top one up, she saw they had been written in Kree. She put it down again. Books like these—at least English books like these—were the kind of thing you could find in any junk shop anywhere in the galaxy.
A small desk, colored bright green, sat next to the bed, and above it hung a simple map of the local system. The desktop itself seemed to provide the only serenity in the whole room. It was empty.
Jo lay there wishing she had been allowed to bring her Ghost Fleet tablet with her. That and her head’s up had been taken when she decided to leave. They had been—rightly—deemed a security threat. Even her nurse’s uniform had been removed of all its patches. Only one concession had been made. She had been allowed to keep her personnel beacon, which could be activated in an emergency. The problem was that it was located back in her room on the ship, so that wasn’t an option right now.
Jo got up. She needed a distraction or she was going to go crazy. She looked again at the stack of books in the corner and then squatted down next to them. Carefully, she started to sort through the stack. Most of them looked like novels of some sort, but there was one book titled Psisteriker ken Kree. After flipping through the book, Jo guessed that the title had something to do with Timcree history. Jo picked up the last book in the stack and was surprised to see the title, Iglishes/Kree Wortendar Puch. Jo had a suspicion she knew this book. She flipped it open and was rewarded with Kree words laid out next to English words. She was just about to return to the bed with her two newfound treasures when the door open unexpectedly. Jo turned and looked over her shoulder.
Tanith entered. Seeing her squatting next to the books, he stopped. His lips pressed into a thin line.
Jo stood and stepped back, instantly on alert. She had already made one major mistake today. She hoped she hadn’t made another.
Tanith said nothing but came to the bed and picked up the two books she had set there. He stared hard at Jo. He stooped and put them back at the bottom of the pile. He turned toward her. “You like books, yes?”
Tanith didn’t say anything else but walked to the door. “The commander will see you now.”
Surprised that he was still alive, let alone talking, Jo stepped into the corridor behind Tanith.
Kolas lay in a bed, under heavy covers. His face still looked pale but some of the life had returned. The female Timcree, who Jo now guessed to be his wife, sat in a small chair by his head. She had been talking with her stoic husband when Jo entered the room, but now she became silent, staring at Jo and blinking slowly. She sat up to her full height, straight-backed and stiff.
Tanith had entered the room in front of Jo and he now spoke.
The commander slowly opened his eyes. Seeing Jo, he licked his lips to wet them and then spoke. “Thank you for my life. Tanith tells me that I would have bled to death without your help.” He tried to shift a little in his bed and grimaced as he did so.
The woman next to him clicked her tongue, and her eyes narrowed as she watched Jo. At least her feelings appear clear, thought Jo. “I’m not sure what I did. Tanith stopped the bleeding using my tourniquet, but I am surprised to see you alive, let alone conscious and talking.”
Kolas kept his face as impassive as ever. A small wave of his hand dismissed the thought. “We are a tough people, Nurse Technician Josephine, and we have some knowledge of medicine.”
Jo wondered what knowledge they had. Had they given him a blood transfusion as she suggested?
The commander went on. “I owe you an apology. I have not been wholly honest with you, and it has become apparent to me that I haven’t been wholly honest with myself.”
Jo wasn’t quite sure how to react to this. She wondered if this were some kind of last confession of a guilty soul before the commander died. That wouldn’t do at all, especially when she thought she might be able to make a difference. She decided to be deferential. “What have you hidden from me?”
The commander continued to speak, but he was starting to sweat. Jo began to understand how much effort he expended to speak with her. “How much do you know about Kree religion?”
“Not much. I know that Timcree are superst…” Jo caught herself.
The commander finished the thought. “…a superstitious lot.” He fell silent for a minute, and Jo wondered if her interview was at an end. “It’s a fair assessment from an outsider.” The commander went silent again as he gathered his strength. “What appears as superstition to outsiders has been vital to hold together our community. The galaxy has been a hostile place for the Timcree. Is it any wonder that the majority of my brethren would rather not see themselves as the castoffs of a society that is better than theirs? Our distrust of outsiders is hard earned and thick. Should it surprise you that we think ourselves superior to humans? It’s a spiritual response to our rejection—a protective mechanism. Our separatism has helped us survive for hundreds of years. Where others would have folded and died out, the Timcree still exist.”
The effort to speak had clearly worn the commander out. He paused here and rested, letting his words sink in. I’m not welcome here. I’m breaking their taboo. Until this point, Jo had thought the Timcree fear of her presence was merely a kind of stranger fear. Now she understood it to be much more. The Timcree’s status as something other than human wasn’t a mere nod to their differences—it was something essential to the formation of the community itself. “That’s why you wouldn’t take the radiation shielding from the Prince. Accepting a gift from the Gravlander would break the taboo.” Commander Kolas nodded slowly.
Jo contemplated the Timcree woman across from her and saw her disdain in a new light. She also started to get an inkling of the difficulty of the situation. Any treatment she gave would be seen as exalting the humans above the Timcree—a way of reinforcing the fear that the Gravlanders were superior to the Timcree. Jo wondered how far the taboo would go. She indicated the pregnant woman, who blanched at the gesture. “The baby? If I treat the baby, would it be taboo?”
“I see. I assume you have a plan?”
Kolas nodded again, slowly. She could tell he was almost spent from the effort to talk with her. The two words came as a whisper. “Train… Ardo…”