ONYX: Chapter Two [sci-fi]

Title: Onyx
series: Facet of Empire
genre: sci-fi. space opera.

Summary: A representative of the Emperor has been sent to an out of the way planet populated by stranded colonists and bloodthirsty pirates. His job? To find one man.
Things do not go well.

p, li { white-space: pre-wrap; }

CHAPTER TWO

Waking up in a strange bed was always a bit of an experience. There was always this sense of disconnection with reality that took a few heartbeats to dispel.

He stretched and yawned hugely, wondering what the day would bring.

Without thought, he reached out his mind and grasped a change of clothes.

They popped into being and fell, scattered, onto the bed around him. It seemed his valet had decided he would wear silver and black for today.

He lifted the clothes and stood to dress. Silver trousers, a short-sleeved black shirt, and a silver jacket with black embroidery. It seemed Balinar thought he should dress correctly for his dignity. Never mind that he was incognito.

He sighed heavily, but dressed in the clothes provided. Balinar probably wouldn’t give him anything else, being the way he was.

There were some who said Balinar was so stiff and correct that he was born with a frown on his face and an organizer in his hands. He was as stiff and correct as a hunk of wood. There was absolutely no bend to him and he knew the way things were supposed to go. His way.

The man who called himself Miles Dareg knew better than to second-guess his valet. He had long since given up all power over what he would wear; that was Balinar’s department. Besides, Miles had more important things to worry about than the color of his shirt and the crease in his trousers.

Looking down at himself, he was vaguely amused at the pride he felt in his ability to dress himself. Less than a year ago, he had needed to be dressed like a giant doll. Yet here he was, fully-clothed, and all by himself.

“Hm, now it’s time for some breakfast,” he said, trying to remember where he was supposed to go.

If he wanted, he had the perfect memory that all telepaths were born with. But for now, he had decided to enjoy his time as an anonymous stranger. So he had decided that for the time being, he would be as normal as possible.

So he thought hard about where he could get some food.

He wondered if they were planning on feeding him in his room. Then decided that no, they would want to be able to know him. Besides, they lived in the desert, which meant they had survived the harsh environment of the land. Which meant that they hadn’t coddled anyone, and he doubted very much that they would start with him.

He chewed his lip for a moment, then set off to find what he could.

He sent out tendrils of thought, tracing where the nearest and most human thoughts were coming from.

It was outside in a large building. The plasti-walls were scraped and scuffed from years of desert sand blowing across them. There were window slats high up the walls, high enough and small enough that no one could possibly climb through, but perfect for venting.

Miles felt a slight smile curve his lips as he pushed the double doors open.

Dozens of long tables with people eating. The walls were plain unpainted gray and the plasti-floors had been semi-decorated in a check design carved out of the surface. In all, the place was extremely depressing looking and no one looked exactly happy to be here. This was the kind of place that people visited just long enough to fulfill their bodily needs.

He peered around and knew that this wasn’t going to be the kind of breakfast he enjoyed. Just looking, he knew that the food left a lot to be desired. They were eating bland little squares of processed protein and vegetable matter.

It seemed that they had matter converters to change the local raw materials into human edible foods. Of course, that didn’t mean that the stuff they made tasted any good.

He didn’t have very much experience with synthesized food, but what he did know, he didn’t like. It was some truly terrible stuff in the taste department.

“Here sir, I got you some breakfast,” a young boy said, offering a plasti-tray with ten of the small, orangey-cream squares. Enough to make a full meal for one adult.

Miles sighed and took the tray. “Thank you.”

He found a seat at one of the tables and stared down at his breakfast. The squares were about as appealing as cat vomit.

Taking his life in his hands, he picked up a square and bit into it.

It tasted like he was chewing on wood chips. He chewed the bite into powder and swallowed. He fought back the need to cough dryly.

“So, what do you think of the food here?” Kaitlyn asked, slipping into the space next to him. She was a little too cheerful for an early morning and the already boiling desert sun.

“Great, this is the kind of food I’ve always dreamed about,” he said sarcastically.

She laughed and shrugged. “I don’t know. This is what we’ve eaten for as long as I’ve been alive. The native plants and animals are toxic to humans. So this is basically it for chow.”

He shuddered at the thought of spending his whole life eating E-rations. He had to feel a little sorry for these people and the sixty-five years they’d been here.

“When I get you people back in touch with the Empire, I’ll make sure to feed you all of the best things. You’ll never be able to look E-rations in the face again. Believe me.”

She laughed, delighted at the thought. “How are you going to get word out that we’re here?” she asked. “Do you have a com unit?”

He tossed the square back on his tray. “I don’t need one. My ship’s in orbit and they’re linked to my neural implant.”

“You mean, you could call them at any time?” a middle-aged looking man asked.

Miles smiled. “Sure,” he said, “they’ll come when I call. They’re just waiting for me to send word and the shuttles will deploy.”

A look of delight spread across the man’s face. “We’re finally going to get off of this hellhole of a world?”

Miles examined the man, saw how desperate he was. This was a man that had only survived for the years they were stranded. He had known that his prolong would leave him with hundreds of more years, living on this desert planet with nothing to look forward to.

Now Miles was here, a savior in human flesh. The man was so filled with relief and joy that it was hard to look at him.

“When can we leave?” the man demanded.

Miles shrugged. “A few days or so. Your people will need time to gather up all of your things and decide who really wants to leave and who wants to stay.”

“Stay? Who could possibly want to stay here?”

Miles smiled. “You never know what people will become used to. What they will come to think of as normal, and what will become home to them.

“Maybe some of your people will want to stay here, especially if they’re assured of being on the trade routes. If they know they’re an acknowledged part of the Empire, they may not want to leave. After all, this is home for many of them. The place where they were born and raised. I’m sure that a few might want to stay.”

“How could they want to stay here?”

The boy shrugged. “It’s hard to tell what some people will want to do. It will take a few days to leave anyway, which will give everyone time to make their choices.”

Kaitlyn touched his sleeve. “How many people are in your crew?”

Miles brushed his knuckles across her cheek and smiled fondly. “I only have a crew of ten, which leaves plenty of room for all of your people. You don’t have to worry that any who want to go will be left behind.”

She smiled brightly, relieved, even though she didn’t really know why. She was young enough to be idealistic, young enough to believe that things always worked out in the end, that there had to be space on his ship for everyone. That no one she loved would have to be left behind, dumped like old, dirty laundry.

He was glad not to have to be the one to pop some of her bubbles. Glad not to be responsible for that shining light to go out of her eyes.

Maybe he was getting too old. That would explain the sudden darkness that filled him. He had seen too much of the universe to allow himself to be caught up in the moment. He was just too old in the head to let himself get too involved in the things that happened, to pin all of his hopes on one chance. The stakes had become too high for such idealism.

That was why there were three warships up there with his flagship. He had enough firepower to handle any situation that happened to come along.

He had always been one of the more focused members of his family. He tended to hold even with what he wanted or needed, rather than frittering his time away. Some of his sibs were just plain irresponsible. It surprised him that they always ended up getting the job done, since they never seemed to do any work.

Sometimes he couldn’t understand his family. They were as much a mystery to him, as he was to them. And his father…

When he was around the man, he could sometimes feel his father’s puzzlement. Through all of the man’s shields he had felt his love and his bemusement at his son’s oddness.

Miles drew in a deep breath and stared down at the ration cubes on his tray. Sometimes he wondered why he had been born so different from everyone else in his family. Why he had always been the odd man out. It was truly mysterious.

* * *

Kat watched the boy pick at his food.

He was even better looking today than he was yesterday, which was a little hard to believe. He was so fantastic looking that she had to wonder if he were real. The fact that he was going to take them all off this rock just added to the amazement.

All of her life, she had heard tales of the Empire. Of the many worlds she would someday see. She had dreamed, but with little real hope that they would ever leave Kirovalla. Now this man/boy had come to be their savior and carry them away.

He was so good-looking and he seemed nice. He was just the kind of guy she had dreamed of signing Contract with. But for some reason, even though she was attracted to him, she wasn’t attracted to him.

Instead, for some strange reason, she kept seeing Sheila, or rather, Sean, in her mind’s eye. He was so manly, far more virile seeming than Miles Dareg.

Her eyes shifted across the mess hall to another table.

There he was, talking to Smith Richards. They were laughing, something she had never really heard Sean do before. It was a full sound that warmed her up inside. She had never realized that she was so cold until she heard that laugh, that wonderful, human laugh. It made warmth flood all through her body.

As though he felt her eyes, he stopped laughing and turned his head. Their gazes crossed and met.

She looked away quickly; sure that what she was feeling was somehow wrong.

This was Sheila, Grandmother’s daughter-turned-son. It was wrong for her to feel that way about him. Especially since she had never felt that way about Sheila before the change.

She had been taught that it was better to love the person inside than just a person’s body. So if these feelings were real, she should have felt something for Sheila before. Should have known something was there. Instead, she had always felt uneasiness in Sheila’s presence and a sense that she needed desperately to escape.

Yet the moment Sheila was turned from female to male, she wanted him. Was drawn to his attractiveness like some wild animal ruled by her body and not her mind.

Then again, Sheila had always been kind of bland, a shadow person. As a male though, it was as though he had come alive.

His name is Sean now; he’s different, she thought. There’s something more real about him.

He smiled at her and she felt her heart shudder to a stop. There was something there.

* * *

He wasn’t used to girls not being interested in him. It was a little disconcerting, but he wouldn’t let it get to him. He could already tell that she was interested in Sean, and that the feeling was reciprocated.

Besides, he wasn’t interested in any of the people here. He already had a lover, someone of who he was singly loyal to.

It just seemed odd that someone would ever be uninterested in him.

For most of his life he was seen as one of the best and the brightest, more beautiful than any normal person could imagine. Yet here he was, gloriousness personified, and she was falling in love with someone else. He didn’t know whether to be hurt or not.

Finally he decided that it didn’t really matter. He was happy with what he had, so why shouldn’t she be happy?

He shrugged and slowly broke one of the food cubes into small, microscopic pieces.

When he got back to his room, he thought that he might call in some real food. Something that he would be willing to eat, something with some taste to it.

His stomach rumbled and he had to smile. It had been a long time since he was actually hungry, and even now he knew that if he wished it, he didn’t need to be. He could live for months without food or water; all he had to do was wish it.

For now, he was willing to hold onto his hunger. It made him more like the people here and less likely to stick out. Besides, he found it rather amusing to be as vulnerable as a normal human.

Miles idly melted one of the food pieces into a glob. He knew that no one was watching what he was doing. Still, even while amusing himself, he was careful. He would be like the others for as long as he could manage it.

He wouldn’t be alone for as long as he could hold onto the Miles-persona. He would be one of them. Would have people around him that would like him for himself, and not worship and fear him for what he had been born as.

A smile curved his lips. It would be nice to be anonymous, just one more among many.

* * *

“What’s taking him so long to call?” Jocelin demanded, pacing back and forth, his hands fisted at his sides.

“Please calm down, Mr. Pierce, he said that it might take a few days to finish his business,” Balinar said, carefully refolding one of his lord’s shirts.

Joss threw himself on the bed and gnawed at his lower lip. It was a bad habit, one he had long since given up, yet here he was.

“How could he do this to me? I should be with him right now, not waiting here with you. I mean, how many times can you sort his clothes before going insane?”

Balinar turned and raised an eyebrow.

Joss looked at the man’s impeccable uniform and knew that he was a real sight by comparison. His clothes were rumpled and his hair was mussed. He knew that he was a wreck of his usually neat, perfect self.

He also knew that Balinar was just as antsy as he was. But the man wasn’t showing it; the only sign of his uncertainties was the way he kept sorting and re-sorting his lord’s clothes and possessions.

“You never become used to waiting,” Balinar said, “there’s always that same terrible feeling. It’s just that he has never left you behind before, so you don’t know what it’s like. I, on the other hand, am always left behind when you both go off adventuring.”

Jocelin sighed, he knew he was acting like a child. It was just that he had never been this completely alone before. “I just wish that he would at least send a message saying he was all right. I hate this waiting, it drives me crazy!”

The valet stepped close and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I understand your anguish, I feel it as well. But you have to be strong and know that he will be back.”

“I know, I know, but that doesn’t keep me from feeling the way I do. He’s so strong, and I’m not. I need him,” he turned and placed his hand over Balinar’s.

The man squeezed his fingers. “You have to be strong for him. He needs you to be there. No matter how strong he seems, he needs your love and support.”

Joss looked up into Balinar’s eyes. “He needs us both, not just me alone. We have to be strong for him.”

The man smiled and, for a moment, everything was all right.

* * *

“Are we sure about who he is?” Tristen asked.

“Truthfully? No. There’s no way we can be completely certain about anything, especially with our lack of information about the outside world.”

Grandmother looked at her second son Tristen, and raised an eyebrow. He had always been the suspicious sort. As a child, he used to skulk around like a spy from some holodrama. It had been funny really.

She knew that a government recruiter would have been after him in a flash. With his intelligence and natural talents, Imperial Intelligence would have loved him.

As it was, he had been forced to set aside his natural inclinations and grow up a normal person. Now though, he had someone to look at with mistrust, someone he hadn’t known his entire life. She rather thought he was enjoying himself immensely.

“Kat says he’ll get us out of here in three days,” Smith said. He was as stolid as usual, no doubts or uncertainties present on his face. Not that he wasn’t as suspicious about the stranger as Tristen was, he was just more able to mask his feelings.

Smith had been her good right hand practically from the day of his birth. A real godsend, the perfect son to help her in all of the things she needed, especially here on Hell where she had had only him to depend on for all of these years.

“How do we know that he’s not working for the pirates?” Tristen asked.

Grandmother shook her head. “He has a black Wand. Where would the pirates get one of those?”

He shrugged. “Maybe they killed the real messenger. There is no way to be sure he is who he says he is.”

“Tristen, calm down and think. We either trust him enough to believe he is who he says he is, or we don’t. Either way, we treat him hospitably and wait until the three days are up to see if his shuttles will come. In the meantime, we can pack up our things just in case,” Smith said reasonably.

She smiled at her son. He had always been so sensible. If something needed doing, he would do it as long as it needed doing. But there were no frivolous expenditures on his list of things to do.

“Mother, how do we know that this guy won’t do something before then?” Tristen aimed the question at her, knowing better than to expect that his brother would allow himself to share his worries.

Grandmother closed her eyes briefly and squeezed the bridge of her nose. “Darling, you can’t spend all of your time thinking like a spook. Sometimes you have to trust in what people say. Of course we will keep a close watch on him, make sure he doesn’t do anything to put us all at risk. That’s simply the best we can do.”

He pursed his lips, holding silent, but his look was eloquent.

She shook her head. “Tristen, dammit, listen to me. If he is a representative of the Emperor, we simply cannot afford to turn him against us. He is our only hope of getting off this rock and back into circulation. And if he is not what he says he is, we will watch and find out.

“But Tristen, for now we have to take him at face value. He’s all we have. Our only chance out of here.”

Smith touched the younger man on the shoulder. “The survivor committee says that it will take another two hundred years to build a spaceable ship with the leftover parts of the colony ship. So unless you want to spend the next couple of hundred years baking in the sun, we have to trust that he is who he says he is.” Smith’s face went hard. “At least until he proves otherwise.”

Tristen obviously didn’t like the idea, but he said nothing. Just stared down at his fingers, hiding his face.

* * *

“Our informant sent news this morning. A ship has supposedly arrived to take them off planet. A representative of the Emperor has come as well,” the hard-eyed man said.

VanChesna examined the man closely. “Is the informer to be trusted? Mistakes have been made before.”

The man shook his head. “There’s no doubt in my mind. We have confirmed the presence of Jewel’s rep. There’s definitely at least one ship out there.”

“So,” Van tented his fingers in front of his face, “finally, we have the opportunity to leave this planet. All we have to do is get access to that ship.”

Once upon a time he had known the wonder of traveling through space. Had been one of the top independent merchantmen. Then had been the emergency landing on this rock, only to find out that his ship would never make a lift-off.

After twenty years, there was the chance of rescue. Unfortunately, the ship had turned out to be a colony vessel heading for some planet halfway from beyond.

He knew that it was his fault the colony ship had crashed. But it hadn’t been his fault that they were assholes that didn’t want anything to do with his people. Which was how he and his crew had become pirates, taking what supplies and tech they could manage to steal.

Now they were about ready to leave this desert world. Were about to become starfarers once again.

A grim smile twisted his lips as he thought about final freedom.

He wondered if he would be able to clear his conscience with a good life. He wondered, then realized that he didn’t really care. All he wanted was to get off this planet. To be out and about once more, listening to the silent whistle of the stars. To be back in civilization where everything seemed so much simpler, not to mention more comfortable.

 

TBC…

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