Transitions, Part III: An Erik McKetten Tale
Cat used his MobiGlas to contact the ship’s computer. She was in sleep mode, powered down and surviving off the umbilical connected to the hangar’s power supply, but the computer recognized his tags and opened the basic functions. The screen lit up with a schematic of the ship. He touched the canopy. Nothing happened. He frowned. The mechanic warned him they thought Signy’s computer was faulty, but she let him access her lower functions, so why couldn’t he get at the higher ones?
They were able to get life support online, the mechanic said, so that meant they were able to get inside. Maybe the cargo doors would offer their secrets to him. He tapped the MobiGlas.
A loud gasp escaped the ship amidst a flurry of dust and blasts of stale air. The gull-winged cargo doors, aft of the main cabin, opened both port and starboard. Twin crew ladders extended down, shedding more dust and accumulated debris.
At least she opened.
Cat climbed the nearest ladder and ducked to avoid hitting his head on the cargo door. The “cargo hold”, nothing more than a closet compared to true haulers, was empty and clean. At least she maintained her seals. Dust or moisture could be a sign of faulty seals – and faulty seals were death to anyone foolish enough to take their ship outside atmo.
The aft Glas screen lit up with a static display as he approached. He tapped it, but the computer refused to respond. What did Pappa do to her that day? Cat didn’t know if Pappa finished his work on the ship – maybe the computer wasn’t up and running when they came.
He left the inert screen behind and made his way forward through the narrow crew passage leading to the cabin. Hidden inside the starboard bulkhead was the folding bed Cat sat on when his father took him up for flights – when Cat wasn’t at the helm himself, learning how to fly.
The plush pilot’s chair, all gleaming leather and chrome, faced aft – as if Signy was asking for someone to take her away from her solitary confinement. The last time Cat sat in the chair, Pappa diverted the pedal controls to auxiliary Glas panels because the boy’s feet didn’t quite reach.
He ran his fingers over the leather, still soft and shiny despite the decades, and sighed.
– – – – –
It wasn’t unusual for Momma and Pappa to work late, leaving Erik home alone, but it was several hours after sunset and neither of them appeared through the nondescript doors of the prefabricated quickcrete house. He was beginning to worry. When he tried to wave Momma’s office at the Great Hall, he was greeted by a frazzled and brusque receptionist who mumbled something about passing the message along. Pappa wasn’t answering at the hangar, the comm system in his ship didn’t respond, and his MobiGlas last checked in leaving the hangar two hours before.
He tried watching the Spectrum, but nothing held his attention. He toyed at a game for a while, but it seemed hollow. There was a worrisome beast gnawing at his stomach. A fist clenching and unclenching. And it bore the face of a nameless man in a dark suit and long coat.
The sound of the door sliding open brought relief. He ran towards the hallway.
“Erik? Erik McKetten?”
The voice belonged to a man, but not his father or anyone he recognized. The fist returned, clenched, and twisted at his innards.
“Who…who is it?” He called, trying to sound courageous despite the tremor in his voice.
“Erik, I’ve come to take you to a safe place.”
“Stay back! My father is a Thane!”
“I know, he sent me. Come here and you can see I’m a friend.”
Erik slid down the wall to the corner. He edged his face along the textured surface until he could almost see down the hallway.
“What’s your name?”
“Lito. Lito Gonzalez. I’m one of Jarl Taneli’s Thingmen. Your father sent me.”
Erik took a deep breath and looked around the corner. Standing in the threshold was a dark skinned man wearing the traditional uniform of a BSVC guard. The man held his hands up to show they were empty.
“Where are my mother and father?”
“With the Jarl. They need me to bring you to them. Something bad might happen tonight, and they want you safe with them if it does.”
“I don’t know, kid. I just know what they told me.”
“Okay. I’ll come. But don’t do…anything. I can fight, you know. Pappa taught me.”
The Thingman chuckled.
“I wouldn’t dream of taking on a McKetten.”
The boy and his escort stepped out into the cold Jord night. Above them, through the omnipresent clouds, was Mani, the largest of Jord’s moons, shining with blue-grey light. Erik stared wide-eyed at the vast orb. He thought he could see a small, brighter, spot on the large disc.
“What is that?”
Thingman Lito looked up.
“That spot on Mani. It’s small, can you see it?”
Lito shook his head.
“Sorry, kid, but I don’t have your eyesight.”
A sharp crack of thunder ripped through the air. Lito’s head snapped back up. Both boy and man froze in place. Seconds later, the ground shook.
“What in the wastes…”
Another crack of thunder. Then two more.
“I’m not sure…it could be…”
The flash of light caught both off guard. Erik saw a streak of fire, plunging almost straight down, like a meteor screaming directly for the pair.
“Erik…run! Run to the Great Hall!”
Lito didn’t wait to see if Erik heeded his advice, but took off at full sprint on his own, leaving the bewildered ten-year-old alone on the dusky streets, his panicked gaze alternating between the shrinking shadow of the man and the growing glow of several balls of fire.
Erik ran. He wasn’t alone. Men, women, and children emptied out of houses to stare into the sky. Some yelled, some cried, some ran back inside and some ran away – towards the hangars, toward Foundation, toward the city borders. Civilians, Citizens, Thingmen and Thanes mingled in a confused mob. None seemed to notice the red-haired boy as he ran, jumped, pushed, and stumbled his way through them. He didn’t know what was happening, but more cracks of thunder and new balls of fire told him it wasn’t good.
Pappa sent Lito for a reason. Something bad was happening, and Lito abandoned him! A Thingman abandoning his charge was…was unheard of. He could be jailed, excommunicated, or even executed for such a crime. If whatever was happening was enough to cause a Thingman to abandon his mission, it was enough to terrify a boy into a panicked dash for the only safety he knew: his parents, in the Great Hall, which seemed so far away.
The street gave way to stiff, short grass. Erik stumbled on the new surface and fell into the park. A hair-raising wail carried on the wind. The otherworldly voice was joined by another, and another, until a chorus of murderous screams stabbed into his ears. His face was wet – from tears and dew – and he wanted to stay there, close his eyes, cover his ears, and wait for his parents to find him and tell him it was all a bad dream. But he was the son of a Thane, destined to captain his own ship someday on raids and trading runs. Destined to be a warrior for Clan and Corporation. He couldn’t give up – not like Lito.
The sky suddenly brightened. The wails grew into a crescendo. He forced himself up and looked across the park – in time to see the fireballs slam into the wide square around the Great Hall. The ground shook and shuddered. Unrecognizable hulks of metal jutted out smoldering craters, flames and steam crackling and hissing around them. Their jagged shape gave them the appearance of savage teeth. The Great Hall, ringed by the smoking and burning black teeth, was trapped in the maw of a dragon.
Erik was frozen in time. Prone, on the wet grass – smoke and steam, thunder and screams, cold air and winds of fire, all ripped around him. The teeth belched forth demons – tall, man-like shapes with bulbous heads, rigid silhouettes, glowing eyes and long arms. Fire spewed from their arms, bright flashes wounding the air itself and setting the wooden facade of the Great Hall to flames.
More fire came from behind him. One of the blasts struck a demon and he fell. Several others turned and fired back. Erik clawed at the grass, pulling up clumps as he tried to bury himself and hide from the gunfire.
The sounds blurred together into a symphony of nightmares. The ground continued to shake. He was aware of someone running past him and he chanced to look up.
The demons, he realized, were men in powered armor. The glowing eyes were their helmets. They bore the markings of the UEE. Marines. His mind raced to fill in the gaps. The dragon teeth were Marine drop-pods, called “Nails” after the scream they made as they burned through the atmosphere. They were ruthless killers, the best of the UEE’s ground forces, and the worst to go up against. Only Vanduul were more feared than UEE Marines, and most sane people would have a tough time deciding which was worse. And they were attacking Breida; attacking the Great Hall.
Attacking his Momma and Pappa.