Welcome to Episode 7 of Erik Weck’s 10-part serial story, Gravlander. Yes, we are now seven episodes in, and it’s hard to believe it’s been almost two months since Erik released Episode 1. I mentioned back in the first episode post that I love serial stories, those great old-school tales where the hero or heroine always ended up in trouble just as the episode was finishing up — will he survive? Will she escape? Those kinds of questions are great for writers because if the story is done well, readers are anxious to see how the next episode plays out. Well, Erik’s doing a fine job because last week’s Episode 6 ended so abruptly that I thought it was a mistake. I was scrolling down the document Erik emailed me, reading and reading and reading and then BOOM. End of episode. Wait… WHAT just happened?
Okay, Erik. Episode 6 got my attention, and I’m hoping all of you readers are enjoying Jo’s journey and adventure with the Timcree. What’s going to happen next? Well, join me below as Episode 7 picks up. And take heart that we’ve still got three episodes left!
One final thing — Erik and I have been having a weekly 15-minute chat called Novel Ideas for over four months now… next week we’ll sit down for Episode 20. Hard to believe. It’s been fun, and we talk about all kinds of things related to writing. (We tend to discuss fiction writing and, more specifically, indie fiction writing and the issues and questions related to writing and self-publishing BUT we do occasionally dip into non-fiction book writing – my backyard.) Point your web browser here and let us know what you think — we’re also wide-open for ideas and questions for future episodes.
If you’re running behind on the episodes, here are some links to the previous installments:
Also, if you’d like a chance to win a free audible copy of The Far Bank of the Rubicon signup for Erik’s newsletter on his website. Erik has also put three of his books on sale at Amazon this week: Aetna Adrift, The Far Bank of the Rubicon, and Unconquered.
And now… on to Episode 7!
Gravlander Episode 7
The Bertha Mae
A sensation she could only describe as having her lungs vacuumed clean from the inside greeted Jo. She began to gag on her own vomit. She couldn’t breathe. She opened her eyes to find her naked body still encased in the viscous liquid of a hibernation chamber. More disturbingly, the liquid was starting to rise from its bed, floating. Huge paw-like gloves tugged on her shoulders, pulling her backward out of the hibernation tank.
Still not able to draw a breath, Jo began to panic. Twisting her head to try to see who was behind her, she noticed floating bits of debris drifting in the chamber. More ominously, beyond the floating bits of metal and ceramics, a ragged hole led out into the soundless, brutal blackness of the void. She couldn’t hear anything. Red emergency lights gave the chamber where she lay an eerie cast. The truth of her situation dawned, and at that moment, she knew she was going to die.
Jo desperately wanted air. Her mouth and skin started to feel cold. The moisture inside her mouth—her vomit—seemed to be foaming and disappearing. As her consciousness fled, a polymer helmet appeared above her. The last sensation she knew was someone shoving something into her vomit-filled mouth.
Jo drifted in a space with no boundaries, weightless and silent. Her body raced effortlessly toward a singular and perfectly round source of light. Without any sense of motion or acceleration, Jo found it hard believe she was moving. She decided the light was expanding, growing toward her while she remained still.
It took only a little time for the light to become so bright it overwhelmed her senses, and still it expanded, racing toward her at incomprehensible speed—as big as a moon, and in a heartbeat, a planet. So bright was the light, it intruded into Josephine’s skin. When she looked down, she could see inside herself—her ribs and the bones in her arm—and still it continued to expand toward her. Now as big as any star, she could no longer see or comprehend anything else. Yet the light caused her no pain. In fact, she felt peaceful, like the feeling you get when waking from the perfect night of sleep.
In another heartbeat, she was engulfed. She crossed the threshold, and the light resolved itself into people—an uncountable mass of smiling people that made up the whole, each one encompassed by their own, small, amorphous light, all of them drifting, sometimes merging and sometimes separated. Jo saw faces she knew—she recognized Sophia and her surrogate-father Jack. The Timcree were there. She saw Zonezeh smiling far away—but most of the faces she encountered remained completely unknown to her. Yet, from all of them, she felt a radiated warmth and gentle care. For a time—she couldn’t say how long—she drifted among them. Occasionally, her light would merge with another’s, and they would be together. In these moments, she could smell them, sweet and kind, and she could even touch them. Jo guessed that she could have spoken to them, but there seemed no hurry about such things. Eventually, their motion would cause them to drift apart again.
Jo could not say how long she floated like this, content. Then, through a gap in the amorphous mass of floating lights, she saw her brother Teddy, and she wanted to be with him. Desperately, she tried to control the drift of her own globule, to guide its light in some way, but struggle as she might, she couldn’t make it go where she desired. Then Teddy disappeared, and Jo began to weep.
At that moment, something changed. Jo drifted outward, away from the center of the mass. She watched in growing panic as she drifted back across the threshold, still surrounded by her own light, stretched thin like a tendril of plasma from an erupting star. She was held there above the incomprehensible mass, a tenuous thread still tying her to the community, and she knew the thread would break. It would snap, and she would break apart, spilling into the darkness, and yet it did not. Her tenuous connection remained while she floated for an age, high above the shining lights.
As she regained consciousness, the first thing Jo recognized was the awful flavor of her own bile in her mouth. Still unable to shake the sense that she remained somewhere else, floating in serenity, her mind refused to process the horrid taste.
A male voice, crackling with static, pushed away the last shreds of her reverie. “That’s right, Pretty Baby. Come back to us. Don’t leave us behind.”
Josephine recognized the tang of the cured, polymer HeFar in her nose and opened her eyes. The Helmet and Fresh Air Respirator gave her vision an amber cast, which didn’t help the pallor of the horrible face positioned above hers in its own HeFAR. Seeing the greasy, dark hair, puffy stubbled face, bulbous nose, and disfigured grin, she recoiled. Weightless, the motion sent her body swimming.
A gloved hand reached out and gripped her gently on the shoulder.
It was only then that she recognized that except for the HeFar creating air for her lungs, she was naked.
She tried to struggle from the grip.
The voice in her ear pleaded with her. “No, Dolly. Please, listen to me. We don’t have time for this! You have to get in a suit before they find you. Stop. Please, stop.”
The urgency and almost grief in the voice led Jo to stop struggling. Confused and scared, she tried to calm her mind, to organize her thoughts to make sense of her world. She looked again at the man holding her shoulder. He wasn’t a Timcree. He didn’t have the long build, the typical gray skin, or the look. For a moment, Jo watched him while her brain tried to make sense of anything, to find an anchor.
In his eyes, she could see nothing but compassion, even concern. He kept his eyes decidedly fixed on her own. His refusal to look at her nakedness helped Jo trust him even more, despite herself. Don’t be so naive. He had plenty of time to look before you came to.
In the hand not gripping her shoulder, the man held out a pressure suit.
He spoke as if to a wayward child. “Pretty Girl, you have to trust me. You’ve got to put this on. I need you to trust me. There are some very bad people about ready to come on board this ship, and if they find you, there will be trouble. Please, put this on!”
Still unsure of even her surroundings, Jo remained silent but took the suit from the man and started the awkward process of wriggling her body into it. “Where am I?”
“You’re in the airlock of my ship, the Bertha Mae, or what remains of her.” The round-faced man sounded bitter.
Jo’s mind finally felt like it was starting to function a little, and while she tried to wriggle into the self-sealing jumpsuit, she asked another question. “How did I get here?”
“That’s a longer story than I have time for. Let’s just say I was paid handsomely by a Timcree to get a package from point A to B, and somewhere along the way, I got suspicious about the six-foot package in my hold and took a look at what I was carrying. It’s a good thing for you that I did, otherwise when those damn imperials showed up, I wouldn’t even have known to come get you.”
Now fully alert, Jo struggled even harder to finish the work with her suit. “Imperials? The Unity attacked your ship?”
When he answered, the ugly man sounded like a child whose blocks had been knocked down. Jo would have sworn he was crying, but she didn’t take the time to look. “Sent a missile right into her pretty little side. Blew my engineering compartment and my cargo bay to hell.”
Jo had finished wriggling into the suit, and it was sealing itself when she realized she would have to reset her HeFar. She cued the HeFar to disband. As soon as the polymer helmet evaporated, she bit down again, triggering the HeFar generator between her teeth, and a new polymer bubble erupted, this time attaching to the collar of her pressure suit.
Not long thereafter, her suit signaled that it had a firm and complete seal. Almost instantaneously, Jo’s companion grabbed her around the middle of her pressure suit and pushed her toward the outer door of the airlock. “Hang on!”
Jo couldn’t see for sure what happened next because the polymer on her HeFar had yet to cure, but the explosion of pressure, along with her sudden exit from the airlock, made it clear that her companion must have cycled it on an emergency setting without depressurizing the interior first.
This can’t be happening, thought Jo. I’m going to die. She started to panic again. At that moment, her helmet finished curing, and the colors and light of the galactic core revealed themselves before her. Suddenly, it didn’t matter. After all, I’ve already died twice today, what’s another? Josephine relaxed, stunned by the colors beyond her. For a moment, she rested there, and then they were gone as she slowly rotated.
Her companion’s voice brought her back to reality. He still held her around the middle. “We’d better get you clipped on to me.”
Jo was rotated back to face the man from the Bertha Mae.
Jo reached out and took hold of him by a strap on his arm as he let go of her and then grabbed a line from his belt. Facing him, Jo was able for a brief moment to see the damaged cargo ship towering above them. A rather nasty field of debris drifted to her side, but Jo didn’t really pay much heed. It was the Unity fast boat perched over the cargo ship that drew her attention. It made the Bertha Mae seem small. The gleaming, reflective hull was studded with rail guns and missile bays. Nearly a kilometer long, Jo could barely see her from end to end.
Seeing the fear on her face, her companion twisted himself around to look at the Unity fast boat, allowing Jo to float free on the line tethering them together. Staring at the ship, he answered her. “Now we wait to find out how thorough they want to be. I launched the escape pod, and since we’re sitting in the middle of nowhere drifting to further from nowhere, they may be content to just let us starve to death.” He smiled grimly through his face shield. “It’s a lot of paperwork to process a prisoner for reeducation. Often better to just let them die on their own.”
“Who are you?”
“How did I come to be on your ship?”
Ohlson watched the Unity fastboat as he answered. “Just a bit of fair trade with a Timcree. I stop by Korg Haran to do a little buying and selling now and then. There’s only a few of us that’s even got an idea where it’s at, so it can be a good place to make a trade. One of Kolas’ gang asked me to smuggle a box off of their little flying warren, and that was a first. I didn’t dare say no. Kolas is good business for me. Brighter than most Kree by my opinion, so I took the box on board and was scared out of my mind when I opened her up and saw you in there. Almost pissed my pants. I’m a thief, a liar, and a cheat, but I ain’t no people smuggler. That’s a good way to get yourself killed. The Unity don’t take kindly to stuff like that.”
Ohlson used the jets on his suit to turn back to face Jo. It was hard to see into his suit, as they now floated some ten feet apart connected by only a tether, but as he spoke, Jo could hear the calculation in Ohlson’s voice. “The real question is, how did you get on Korg Haran with the Timcree? They don’t let anyone in there.”
Jo didn’t hesitate. “I don’t think this is exactly the best place to discuss my past. Right now, I just want to know how we’re going to survive the present. I assume you have a plan.”
“Suit yourself, but if my plan works, we’re going to have plenty of time to talk. I got a private message off to friends who happened to be nearby. They ought to be along in a few hours—long before the air runs out. That is, if these guys decide to leave us behind.”
For a while, they drifted in silence. Jo worked hard to keep her body floating in one place. It must have taken another five minutes before she realized that she was free floating in the void with a stranger whose plan required keeping her there for several hours. There was as good a chance that she would die there as any other. To her surprise, the thought caused her no dread, but it did make her lonely. She didn’t want to die alone—attached to a stranger, but still alone. “I was on the Ghost Fleet when it escaped from Pontus…”