We’ve crested the hill and are on the downslope… Erik Wecks has submitted Episode 6 of his 10-part serial story, Gravlander, and the action isn’t letting up, as you’ll soon be reading. It’s hard to believe the story is almost complete, with only four episodes left… and if you’re like me, you’ve got to be wondering just how in the world this story is going to end?
Erik and I spoke yesterday about the story in Episode 18 of Novel Ideas (our webcast discussion on all things related to writing), and I’m happy to report that Erik intends to take this serial story and expand on it and flesh it out. It could easily stand on its own as a novella, but I really enjoy Erik’s Pax Imperium universe, so I won’t say no to more storytelling.
If you’re just discovering Gravlander and haven’t read the previous five episodes, links are below to each so you can catch up quick and then proceed to episode 6 below.
Episode 6: Tortuga
Jo had only turned her back for a second when she heard the man in the stall spit on Tanith.
“Get out, you filthy Grigaro!”
Jo turned back to see Tanith wiping spittle off his face with one hand as he put a micro-scanner back down with the other.
Red-hot rage boiled under Jo’s skin, its fury made all the more poisonous by the impossibility of doing anything to stand up for Tanith. For just a split second, Jo imagined herself charging across the tables at the back of the booth to pummel the fat, stubbled-face of the owner, but she stifled the impulse and put her hand on Tanith’s forearm.
Tanith looked down at his companion. “Kree Pa, Josephine.”
“Kree Pa,” Jo answered in return as they walked out of the booth. Jo hated that phrase—it seemed to embody both the best and the worst of the Timcree. The words may have been translated ‘Timcree, yes,’ but in reality, the best Jo could make of it was the idea that life should be lived with an unquestioning faith that things would work out. To her, it just seemed to be a justification for Timcree impotence in the face of a system stacked against them—an analgesic for the pain. Jo wanted no such painkillers.
The booth owner couldn’t help one more goad as they walked away into the chaos of the smugglers market. “What the hell are you doing with the likes of him, Pumpkin? Did he steal you from your mother? I bet he’s a terrible lover.”
Tanith’s gentle touch on her shoulder kept her in check. When he spoke, Tanith spoke to her in Kree. Even after eight months of living with the Timcree, Jo still couldn’t keep up with their speech, unless she translated it into English. “This gargan isn’t worth it, Meeta.”
Jo only nodded her agreement back. She couldn’t speak through the red-hot frustration of her powerlessness. Tanith was, of course, correct. In a place like this, discretion was the better part of valor. Any outburst on her part was likely to create little or no sympathy, unless she could truly back up her words with actions. A disturbance would only get both of them and the rest of the crew thrown out, wasting the three-and-a-half weeks’ worth of fuel it took to get here. That would probably be the end of her hard won place in Kolas’ clan on Korg Haran.
Jo walked on, burying her frustration, knowing that both she and Tanith would deal with it later as best they could.
Shaken by the encounter, neither of them approached a booth again for quite some time.
This was Jo’s first trip off Korg Haran in the eight months she had lived there, and Jo was surprised at both how attracted she was to her fellow Homo Sapiens and how foreign they seemed at the same time. I truly inhabit a space of my own, thought Jo. Of course this isn’t exactly the cream of the crop when it comes to humanity. I would feel alien here no matter how many times I came.
Honeycombed to the point of instability, the two-mile wide asteroid on which she stood was truly held together by its artificial gravity generators. Located in a system near what used to be the Jersey frontier, the name Tortuga had started out as a purely humorous reference to the ancient Earth pirate island, but once given, a better name had not been found. In her two days in port, Jo hadn’t even explored a tenth of Tortuga’s offerings. Still, she had seen enough to know that she didn’t want to find out about the seedy side of this place, and with Tanith’s guidance, the two of them had kept to the tamest and most public venues Tortuga had to offer.
Even then, Jo felt constantly on alert, trying to avoid any and all unwanted attention. The trouble was, an innocent-looking, smallish, curly blond-haired woman in the company of a Timcree didn’t exactly blend in with the usual crowd on Tortuga. She had at least been smart enough to purchase Timcree-style clothing before she came on this trip.
The four men surrounded them before Jo even realized what was happening. There was no chance to run before one of them sidled alongside Jo, put his arm around her shoulder, and used his strength to pin her to his side. “Now, why don’t you and I leave this Grigaro behind and go somewhere private like?” The medium-height man smelled badly of too much cologne. His bright, purple silk shirt and black breeches and white smile made him stand out in the rough-and-tumble crowd of Tortuga as much as Jo and Tanith did.
Jo looked over at her shipmate and saw that he was standing straight, stiff, and still, his large, yellow cat’s eyes locked on her. The three other men had surrounded him. One of them had a large knife pressed up against Tanith’s back with one hand, while he twisted hard on Tanith’s lanky arm with the other.
The adrenaline cocktail coursing through Jo’s body cleared her head as much as the repressed anger a few minutes ago had clouded it. If it could at all be helped, she had no intention of letting herself of going off alone with anyone. She planted her feet firmly on the ground and said loudly enough to make a scene, “No!”
An expression of mixed rage and concern crossed the face of her would-be kidnapper. “Now, little lady, I think you misunderstand me. It wasn’t a request. Let’s be reasonable or your friend here might get hurt.”
Jo’s mind raced ahead, giving her answers before she had time to think them through. “You’re not going to kill him here on the street. Tortuga doesn’t look kindly on that sort of thing.”
The man grinned and leaned in, letting Jo smell the overly fresh mint on his breath. “Now, dearie, those rules might apply to you and me, but they don’t apply to him. I could gut me a Grigaro right here in the middle of everything and then say that he stole from me and no one, absolutely no one, is going to ask me another question, so be reasonable, love, and come along quiet like.”
The sound of the neural stunner charging up startled the man with the minty breath, and he froze as the weapon was pressed to the back of his head.
A low, female voice said, “Delgado, why don’t you let the young lady breathe a little. I don’t believe she’s that interested in your company. The pistol is set to stun, but at this range, it’s likely to leave your brain more than a little scrambled.”
Jo felt the grip on her shoulder loosen, and she seized the opportunity to step out of Delgado’s reach. She turned around to see a short, wide woman with wavy salt-and-pepper hair standing behind him. The familiarity of the woman only added to Jo’s sense of confusion. She would have sworn that she knew her from somewhere, but she couldn’t place her.
Delgado decided better of speaking and raised his hands.
“Now, the Timcree.”
Delgado nodded slightly, and his three boys backed off.
“There’s a good boy. Now run along quiet like and try your luck with some of the regulars you’re grooming. Neither you nor I want any trouble here, do we?”
Delgado shook his head and stepped away. He pulled down his purple shirt, straightening up his dignity as he walked. He never looked back but spoke over his shoulder. “You better watch yourself, Gloria. You’re getting too big for your britches, and someone is going to have to cut you down to size.”
Gloria smirked and answered to his retreating back, “I’d like to see you try, Delgado Lewis. It would be a good day.”
Jo still couldn’t quite place the face, but she was now sure that sometime in the past she had met the woman staring down her attacker. “Thank you…” Jo let her voice trail off and looked at the woman with a question on her face, hoping she would fill in her name.
The woman didn’t take her eyes off Delgado when she spoke, and Jo noticed she kept her hand on her now holstered pistol. “My name’s Gloria Soren…” Then, satisfied, she looked down with guarded eyes on the young girl in front of her. “…and yours?”
On hearing the older woman’s name, recognition dawned. Gloria Soren had captained the Imperial ship that had rescued Jo, her brother Teddy, and her surrogate parents from the Unity. In the aftermath of the disastrous war that followed, there had been no place for loyal Imperial servants like Soren. Whole swaths of them had been shunted off to re-education, never to be heard from again. It was like a spark in the darkness to run into someone from the time before. It felt like more than sheer chance. Jo answered Soren with a slight smile. “Josephine Lutnear.”
Slightly taller than Jo, the answer caused Soren to take a step backward. She inspected the whole of the young woman in front of her. “Little Jo?”
Jo just nodded.
“What in the name of the black, empty void brings you here?”
“It’s a bit of a story.”
Soren furrowed her brow. “I should say, and probably not one that ought to be told here.”
She looked at Jo’s companion. Her tone was cautious and somewhat scolding but lacked the dismissiveness of their other encounters with humans in the market. “I’m not sure what you were thinking parading her around like that, Timcree, but I think it might be wise for both of you to get off the street for a little while. Delgado’s a vengeful son of a dog. Why don’t you come ’round. I happen to have a case of Juraang that I’ve been saving for your kind. After inspection, you might find it worth bargaining for.”
Jo noted Soren’s understanding of the Timcree in that she didn’t outright invite him to share a drink. That would have been an offer that would have been refused outright as a gift from a Gravlander. However, a chance to sample the wares was never unwelcome, as long as suitable business could be had.
A slight eagerness in his posture told Jo’s trained eye that Tanith seemed pleased with the offer. He nodded slightly but did not speak, surprising Jo with his shyness around Soren.
“Good, then it’s settled, and when we’re settled in, Jo, you can fill me in on all the lovely things I’ve missed in the last few years.”
“I’m not sure I’m the best one to tell. I’ve been with the Ghost Fleet since it fled Pontus.”
Soren turned and gave Jo a rather stern look. “Don’t say that out loud again until you leave this place. Understand?”
Jolted by the seriousness of Soren’s glare, Jo didn’t say anything, but instead followed sheepishly in the older woman’s wake, heart beating faster.
It was supposed to be a party—a celebration of a profitable trip—but Josephine knew better. No doubt, the medical scanner would make Kolas and his people a lot of money. They couldn’t have procured it without Soren’s help. Timcree didn’t celebrate until they returned to home and clan. The scanner might be the excuse, but the drink they shared was designed for pure forgetfulness.
The case of Juraang lay open on the table, already half gone. Before the end, Jo doubted any would be left.
Having lived with them for only a few months, Jo knew that every Timcree had their reasons to forget. Kolas drank to curse the lonely trips that took him away so often from the woman he loved. Thradling—the mechanic—drank to forget the Timcree girl who had died four days before they were to wed. Tanith drank to forget his own impotence in a system that hated and reviled him for no other reason than his birth.
Jo drank to numb the desperate aching of her singular, lonely heart. She might be the only human who had a modicum of acceptance among the Timcree. Yet she was in no way Kree. Her visit with Soren reminded her of that today. Even just the small bit of kindness shown to her by the older woman—just the fact that Soren knew her, had known her previously—all of it together tore open the papered-over wound of Jo’s loneliness and brought it storming home anew. Jo drank to forget.
A queer feeling came over Jo when she saw the Timcree woman walk into the makeshift medical clinic she ran with Tanith. She hadn’t seen her in twenty months, not since that day in the market when Jo had recovered her belongings from her by ‘giving’ them to her, an unforgivable act of charity from a Gravlander to a Kree. Jo’s adept use of Kree taboo against her had started the long, slow process of creating a hard-won respect among the Kree, and the stinging shame of the encounter had ensured that the Kree woman had never before entered the clinic. That, and she was a member of the rival clan who had violently disagreed with Kolas when Jo had first come on board Korg Haran. Now heavy with child, Jo instinctively sensed the desperation that must have led her here. She refused to look either Jo or Tanith in the eye when she entered the exam room.
The Kree had a saying, “shame given once, returns twice.” Jo wondered if that were about to come true for her.
After laying her on the table, Jo and Tanith passed the scanner over her body. Both knew the Kree must have been concerned with her fetus, and without a word they waited to examine it until the end. The problem became immediately clear to Jo. The scanner started to beep its concern. Jo shut off the warning. She glanced at the worried mother-to-be. For less than a second their eyes met, and Jo felt the understanding pass between them. She knows, she thought. Jo did not look at her again. Instead, she continued with her scan and spoke dispassionately to Tanith. “The baby has no brain, Tanith.” It wasn’t technically correct. The baby did have a main brain stem, but the telencephalon had failed to develop, and Jo was pretty sure that Tanith hadn’t yet learned the word telencephalon, so brain would suffice.
“I see that also, Meeta.”
“The mother knows that something isn’t right.”
Jo didn’t say anything more. Instead, she turned control of the large scanner over to Tanith and quietly left the room, heart in her throat.
Delivering bad news was always tricky business with the Kree. Science might say that the baby could not live because it had failed to develop a proper brain, but for the Kree, there was always a reason such a thing occurred. In the face of a universe apparently indifferent to the Kree, the superstitious Homo Dissensio always found a cause for any misfortune. Jo and Tanith had agreed that with such a view, bad news was best delivered without the outsider present to act as a lightning rod for the inevitable blame.
Jo walked the short walk from the med bay to her quarters, tears gathering in the corners of her eyes as she went.
The first sign that a tempest brewed came before dawn. Jo sat at the table with Zonezeh and the precocious terror, Jozie. Jo’s relationship with the Timcree matron of the Kolas would never be warm, but Jo had learned that Zonezeh reserved her only affection for Kolas and her child, so she no longer took it personally.
Without any introduction, Kolas stepped in the room and announced in his usual deadpan, “We won’t be opening the clinic today. Do not walk outside, Nurse’s Assistant Josephine.”
This was surprising, but not in itself concerning to Jo, until she noted that Zonezeh had jumped a little at the announcement.
Experience had taught Jo that at times it was best for the Gravlander to disappear. Without a word, she took her bowl and disappeared to her quarters, but she could only stand isolation for so long. Her will dissolved when she heard animated voices in the corridor outside her door. She had just stood from her bed when the door to her room opened and Tanith stepped in.
“What’s going on, Tanith?” Jo spoke in English.
Tanith responded in Kree. “The baby with no brain has been born. The mother is blaming you. The other clans are threatening war on the Kolas clan unless we turn you over to them.”
Jo’s stomach turned sideways with fear. “Tanith, she knew!”
“Tanith, it’s a lie and a trap!”
“What can we do?”
“Very little, Meeta.”
Tanith drew Soren’s neural stunner from his belt. It had been part of the trade for the Juraang. He pointed it at Jo. “Everything will be OK. Kree, pa, Little Josephine.”
The bolt of perfectly tuned electrical energy hit Jo square in the face.