Previously: When Luke Maverick falls through a rip in space and finds himself on an alien world, he is taken immediately to a detention center where he assumes he must remain indefinitely. All his immediate needs are cared for, yet he is not content. The longer he stays, the more he craves a return home.
Luke had no idea how long he remained within the compound that served as his detention center. The occupants divided time only in terms of sleep, with no clocks to mark hours or minutes. His sleep was filled with dreams, some of which he would forget, some that carried him back to a sense of normalcy; if only for awhile. When he awakened from these vivid dreams, he was filled with regret, as though he had visited someone he knew was dying and who he might not see again when he returned.
At intervals, the Bronesch appeared with packages of foods and dumped them just inside the solid edges of their confinement. Luke almost felt like they were in a menagerie or a zoo, except there were never any spectators. The Bronesch seemed completely uninterested in their prisoners, although they sometimes sent in a maintenance crew to repair a faulty setting in one of the shelters, measure the purity of the water they were drinking or adjust the temperature. The environment didn’t seem to exert any harm on the Bronesch, but it was apparent they found it distasteful. They looked at their knuckles woefully after dragging them on the hard ground, and wrinkled their noses in distaste for the air quality. Occasionally, one of the tenants would make a request of the maintenance crew, but their efforts were usually met with sharp blows and derisive laughter.
Luke fell into a routine of joining his house companions when he first arose from his sleep time for a shared meal and some idle conversation, which usually involved gossiping about some of their neighbors. Not that their neighbors were of any real interest. They kept as much to themselves as he and his companions did, were never loud, never quarreled, and generally appeared busy with their own daily chores. It was an ideal community; clean, quiet and free from want.
He helped the others weed and water the garden, harvest the fruits and trim the hedges. At the conclusion of their tasks, they broke apart, engaged in individual project time. It was only then that Luke felt the full onslaught of their strangeness. Each of the tenants engaged in a hobby using their own technology. Like the foods, although the metals they shaped and cut, torched and tapped looked similar to brass, silver and steel, they weren’t quite the same density, thickness or color. Lasers seemed to be their dominant tools, which they used liberally, fashioning strange gadgets whose use Luke was unable to determine. Sidha worked mostly with chemicals sometimes trading a new compound for a small collection of assembled parts. When Luke asked the purposes of this strange equipment, they only shook their heads. “No purpose,” said Ollie. “But you never know. There’s always the possibility they’ll be needed.”
“No point,” whispered Sidha. “We are in isolation.”
“You do what’s expected of you,” chimed Mirdeesh. “If you are a bell, you ring. If you are a bug, you crawl around, looking for the things that will keep you busy in your bug time. We are inventors and thinkers. We think and invent.”
There was a computer, although it was restrained in its capacity. You could type on it and save your work. You could create images or engage in games with it. It had an advanced mathematics program that Sidha sometimes used. It had no interactive features for linking with other computers. At first, Luke used it to play solitaire, poker or chess. Soon, it became a sort of diary for him. He wrote whatever came to his mind; rapidly, without censor; just to have something to read when he returned to it.
“Why don’t we quit doing what’s expected of us?” Asked Luke. “Why don’t we go out there?”
“To the perimeter?” Asked Ollie.
Luke grew excited. “Yes. We do the same things every day. We see the same faces. We don’t have to struggle for food or shelter. The temperature never changes. We’re just existing.”
“Don’t you want to exist?”
“Not like this.” He looked irritably down at the last few lines he had written. It was a fantasy about Mirdeesh, carefully disguised as a blonde Earth girl he’d picked up at a night club; a girl with a secret and a terrible past that haunted her. Everything was fine until his character began changing. She laughed scornfully at the words he gave her. She refused to show him affection. She slipped away and began seeing other men. When he confronted her on this, she shrugged, stating he had no control over her. “I created you. I can do as I please with you,” he wrote. The words formed unwillingly on the screen. “I’m not going back.”
“I’m leaving,” he stated positively.
Ollie picked up a couple of the objects from the table and put them in his pocket. “I’m going with you. You’ll need a guide.”
Mirdeesh also began busying herself. “We will need food and water. We should pack the cling frames.”
Only Sidha refused to join the preparations. “Won’t you come with us?” Asked Luke.
Sidha gave a wave of dismissal. “These things are not for my concern.”
Sidha would not be talked into joining them. He insisted he had work to do and new felons to assist. “It pleases you to go,” he explained. “It pleases me to stay.”
“It’s the numbers,” said Ollie. “He is aware of the numbers. Mathematics are infallible. He has already conjugated the unknown factors and knows the variables.”
“What would we fail at?”
“Getting off this world.”
“Is that important?”
“Of course it is. This isn’t our world. Each of us came from somewhere else. We have family, friends, business associations, neighbors who probably miss us. Something brought us here. Something can take us back.”
“How foolish,” argued Mirdeesh. “We’re not missing. Here we are, accounted for. What is there missing about us?”
“Maybe we should check to see if there’s something we’ve forgotten,” suggested Ollie, starting to remove his cling frame.
“I was very thorough,” said Mirdeesh, sounding a little miffed. “If we are missing something, we won’t know until we get there.”
They continued on their way. Although some of the inhabitants stopped in whatever task they were doing to watch them curiously, nobody asked questions. Nobody tried to detain them. The hut people continued making patterns from their stones. The floating house people continued building their bridge. The cottage people mowed their lawns and repaired their fences. One person peddled up and down the sidewalk. There was a sign attached to his bicycle: Free Advice.
“Maybe that’s what we’re missing,” suggested Ollie.
“Don’t trouble yourself with him,” said Mirdeesh. “If it’s free, it can’t have much value. Luke Maverick said so himself.”
Luke started to object, then fell silent. This had been his original argument. Everything had simply been handed to them; for free. They had no motivations. No goals, no dreams to fulfill. They had no purpose. Whatever lay beyond the perimeter, at least it would give them a direction.
The rippling effect began almost immediately, but Luke found he wasn’t quite as nauseated by it. He could breathe the air, although the additional chemicals still seemed to drug his brain. He felt sluggish and disoriented.
Mirdeesh and Ollie also appeared to be suffering the effects. “Adjustment protocol,” said Ollie, stopping them in their path. He removed one of the new objects they had carried with them, and tapped on some digits gently with barely outstretched claws. The rippling effect slowed and Luke was able to take in their surroundings more clearly. The ground continued to dance below them in a state of its own loose molecules, and shift within a panorama of rustic colors, but in the distance, he could discern hillsides, outlying crops of rocks and bushes, and the fluttering outline of trees. Where there were trees, there would be water, and Luke set out determinedly in their direction, Ollie and Mirdeesh following close behind him.
It soon became apparent that the trees were growing on an elevated plain. The ascent was so gradual and their perception so distracted by the shifting landscape, they scarcely noticed they were climbing until they stopped to look behind them. They could barely see the compound, which looked from their vantage point, like a village or small town set inside a glass case in the middle of a gaseous atmosphere. They saw no horizon, just a continuation of the ochre, rust, lime green and lavender tinges that dominated the countryside. Only the compound showed a cheerful blue sky rising above it.
Luke was surprised they had gone so far without fatigue. He was hungry, though. When Mirdeesh opened a package of the square, dark bread, he ate ravenously. “We need to be in the trees by second sun,” said Mirdeesh, “or Espiedia’s forces will come for us.”
“Who is Espiedia?”
“She does transfers,” shuddered Ollie. “Nobody who has been caught by her has retained enough of themselves to be recognized.”
“She changes you into another being?”
“Shh. It’s best not to talk about her. She’s a very powerful queen, with spies everywhere. There are rumors she has even infiltrated the Bornesch. If this is true, she might even have stolen some felons under false pretenses.”
Mirdeesh suddenly looked alarmed. She brought out one of her own instruments and scanned Luke quickly, reading her own meaning into the flashing lights and beeps. “No appreciable alterations,” she announced. “You are who the Bornesch brought; humanoid, slightly primitive, lacking in DNA primary coding with the indigenous species. Sleep mode devoted to accessing early learning behaviors. Pronounced interest in mating rituals.”
Luke didn’t find her analysis of his composition completely agreeable, but he supposed it was better than learning the real he had been usurped to be replaced by a manufactured one. “Why is it safer in the trees?” He asked as they resumed their trek. “If she’s so powerful, why would a few trees stop her?”
“The trees don’t stop her,”explained Ollie. “This desert we are crossing is a neutral zone. The queens stage all their battles here. If you are caught in the neutral zone when one of the queens comes out, you are automatically inducted into her army.”
So this was a desert. It didn’t really seem much like one. He’d always defined deserts as a place filled with sand and there was nothing sandy about the soil he walked upon. It was soft and light, rotating with colors, giving easily to each step, yet curiously, never impeding his progress. Neither did it feel especially hot nor especially dry. He was only occasionally thirsty, but he didn’t know if this was because of the modifications Sidha had added to the water or because of the planet’s somewhat humid climate.
The planet, he was beginning to suspect, was a very large one, slightly more gaseous than earth, with a highly active microbe base. So far, he had not seen any animals, although a few sudden flashes through the sky suggested there were probably birds. As the pale yellow sun sank lower into the sky, the horizon became more apparent. There were mountains with broad, rounded knolls instead of sharp peaks, and a wide, dark valley, deepening to purple and russet under the setting sun. From the highest point, nearly inside the tree line, they were able to just barely make out three faint, wavering ribbons that were obviously highways. “The highways of the queens,” said Ollie, sitting beside Luke and pointing. “The one closest to us is that of the Bornesch. The brightly colored one that goes straight to the mountains is the highway of Queen Prixus. Her people are the Klaktel. That black road over here is one you never wish to take. It is the road of Queen Espiedia. She lives in the Valley of Lost Light. Ohmeya Sun, the large, pale one, cannot penetrate the deep shadows of the valley. It’s only the small red one that awakens her. Her people are not mentioned by name, only as the Roseyamir; the Red Sun Warriors. You cannot see the last road unless we climb that very tall hill. It blocks our view, but this road goes far away and beyond the others. It’s poorly kept now and hardly ever traveled, but it is said that at one time it was the road most favored.”
“What happened?” Asked Luke, who was very curious to see this road, but who also felt that with the settling of the yellow sun over the expanding horizon, it was perhaps better to stay close to the tree line.
“Nobody knows for sure. It’s said that the king disappeared during a battle with Espiedia and Queen Hirshal continues to mourn and wait.”
“It’s time to go into the trees,” said Mirdeesh. “Queen Espiedia’s troops will soon be coming to look for volunteers in the neutral zone.”
It was amazing. Luke Maverick laid on the thin pallet that had puffed out from a size not much bigger than a handkerchief and observed his new surroundings. The pallet, for all its thinness, was very comfortable and seemed to float just above the ever sifting ground. The trees reminded him somewhat of weeping willow. The leaves hung suspended by long threads from slender, drooping branches, but rustled and moved as though there was a wind even when the air was still. As the pale sun went down and the red one came out, the leaf color went from ocher and lime to russet. The birds he had noticed only as quick movements, became distinguishable, their bellies flashing yellow under the ruddy sun. Small animals crept about, their forms distinguishable only for a moment before scurrying off to shelter. The red sun didn’t give a great deal of light. It was distant and small. It was almost like being bathed in rose colored moonlight and yet it was during this transition that the wilderness revealed the most robust signs of life.
He wondered if he could ever get used to a burnished sky instead of a true night with stars and planets circling overhead. He wondered what stars he would see beyond the noxious atmosphere. Just as his eyelids were growing heavy, Ollie shook his arm. “Look, “ he said. “It’s Espiedia’s troops.”
Through the canopy of trees, they could just make out the clearing labeled the neutral zone. At first, Luke noticed nothing out of the ordinary, but by watching closely, he saw that what had at first seemed to be shadows cast by the uneven swells and occasional out-cropping, had independent movement. Their shape was indiscernible. What appeared to be one long, flat line of darkness, would suddenly roll into a rotating, colorful splotch, not quite matching the hues of the landscape, flash forward, then spread out again, blending in with the natural shadows of the terrain.
“They sense us,” whispered Mirdeesh. “But they will not come here. The tree harbor is outside their jurisdiction.”
“Who owns the trees?”
“Nobody owns the trees. They belong to themselves.” She fiddled with her ear lobes, her fingers stroking the metal crescents. “This is…” she hesitated as though struggling with new words, “a wildlife refuge. No transfers can be from the wildlife.”
“We are wildlife?”
“We are in the trees, aren’t we?”
There may have been little shape or form to the phantoms that crept their way through the clearing, but something about the very way they moved made the hairs stand up at the back of Luke’s neck. He couldn’t say if it was fear, dread or instinct, but he felt as repulsed as if he was in the striking ranged of a venomous snake. He didn’t close his eyes again until the last evidence of the moving shadow figures had disappeared from sight.
When he awoke, Ollie and Mirdeesh were already up and about. They had prepared a beverage he had learned to consider a major part of their breakfast. The taste of it varied; when hot, it was almost like a coffee drink with cream. When served cold, it was more like iced tea. It was both energizing and filling. He thought about how easily the product could be marketed on Earth, then pushed the thought aside. There was no Earth here. Maybe there had never been. Maybe the Earth he had thought was real had never existed and he was just now waking up to the truth.
“We should pick a road,” suggested Ollie. “The roads will lead us into the towns. We don’t have enough supplies to stay in the trees for long.”
Luke gazed at the tall hill from which they were supposed to be able to see the fourth road. “We can decide from there. That high up we might be able to see the evidence of any surrounding towns.”
The others agreed this was a good idea. While the hill was much steeper than anything they had climbed previously, Luke still not feel particularly strained. Although his background in science was no greater than average, he found himself analyzing this planet’s composition. Along with oxygen and carbon dioxide, there had to be chemicals in the air that not only created visual distortions, but also satisfied a certain amount of their nutritional needs. Their hunger was satisfied far easier than when they were in the compound, and they all seemed to have a little more energy. It was more gaseous. Molecules bound more loosely than his Earthly home. As they reached the top of the hill and looked out over the unobstructed view, he realized not only was the pale sun larger, so was the planet. From end to end of the horizon, there was barely a curve.
The three of them looked out over the four roads in silence. Even from the distance, Queen Espiedia’s road looked sinister. Its turns and dips were designed to cling close to the outcropping of stones and take advantage of the scattered trees and shrubs; even occasionally building a wall, to keep it in shadow. It veered sharply away from where the pale sun came up and traveled in the path of the red sun. It disappeared where it plunged down, downward into a valley so deep, it appeared violet.
The highway of Queen Prixus was indeed colorful. It sparkled in the thin sunlight as though laid with jewels and presented a nearly straight path toward the mountains. Now and again, it intersected with the Bornesch Road, that appeared like a commercial highway, meandering loosely toward Ohmeya at its zenith, and growing smaller and smaller until it disappeared on the horizon. Mirdeesh was holding one of her numerous small instruments in front of her. “There is a town,” she announced, “one red sun awakening from us.”
She handed her palm sized gadget to Luke. It was a viewer with a lever that worked much like the zoom lens on a digital camera. Through it he saw where one of the branches of the Bornesch road veered to the right, a series of cross-sections mapping out streets and the tiny dots of housing. Curious, he traced this busy center that fanned out than narrowed to little more than a faint path that all but halted before meeting with a fourth road.
The road of Queen Hirshel. He focused the lens to its maximum capacity. It revealed what had also once been a highway, but that was now choked with weeds. In places, the foam like material constituting the road’s surface had crumbled, leaving in its place the shifting colors of the natural landscape. As barren as it was, it had one feature in its favor; it veered as far away from the red sun’s rising as Espediedia’s road traveled to it. “How long will it take us to go through the town and cross over to Queen Hirshel’s highway?” he asked.
His two companions looked at each other uncomfortably. “We don’t know,” admitted Ollie. “It hasn’t been done.”
“Nobody goes there?”
“Oh, certainly somebody goes. Maybe many bodies go. But we haven’t done it yet, so how shall we know how long it takes?”
Luke handed the viewer back to Mirdeesh and sighed. Not only did these people appear to have very little concept of time, they were extremely vague about distance. He wondered how they had ever been able to advance to higher mathematics. Picking up the cling frame that molded immediately to his back when he pulled at the straps, he began ambling down the hill toward the Bornesch highway. They hadn’t gone far when a voice halted them. “Felon or advocate?”
Luke groaned, expecting a blow to fall on his head. “Felon or advocate?” Repeated the frog woman.
“Advocate,” he called out firmly.
The frog woman stopped in the process of delivering subsequent beatings, and leaned on her stick, eying him suspiciously. “Do you bring with you legal counsel?”
Mirdeesh stepped forward. “I am legal counsel.”
She humphed. Her henchmen leaped forward, placing their molecular unstable finger tips at the pressure points of Mirdeesh’s neck and wrists. “Inaccurate use of warp drive resulting in felonious action,” they confirmed. “Two counts of rebellious nature. Counseling status acceptable.”
“Acceptable. Why haven’t you excelled in your field? Are you lazy?” Mirdeesh received a rain of blows Luke had previously assumed were reserved for his own benefit.
“My pleasure is to maraud,” she chimed firmly, refusing to cowl under the blows.
The frog woman tapped Mirdeesh, who remained unflinching, once more on the forehead, experimentally. “Counsel wisely,” she advised. “Do you have here a qualified journeyman?”
Ollie stepped forward. The frog woman circled him slowly, sniffing the air around him and scrunching her nose. “Oliepuses! Three count felon! You realize if you fail this time, you will be sent to rehabilitation.”
Ollie held his head up firmly. “Yes, Queen Clovia. I will not fail. I will not be rehabilitated.”
“What are the three principles of marauding?”
“Marauding changes the status quo. What was once becomes what isn’t now. Marauding creates the availability on new resources. New resources stimulate healthy growth. Marauding is the first line of defense against enemy forces. For those who maraud, there are no secrets.”
“Do you maraud without my permission?”
“Yes, your royal majesty.”
“Why do you maraud?’
“It is my pleasure.”
“Hum,” she said distrustfully. “Twice I’ve seen you violate the Marauding Cantons. You gave back for free a portion of your acquisitions.” She whacked him twice on the head, a little severely. “You give nothing back for free. There is always a service fee.” She circled him again. “You failed to maraud outside your jurisdiction.” She gave him several more whacks, battering his shoulders and back. “We can not spread the principles of marauding without infiltration.” She sighed and leaned heavily back on her stick. “You need to learn conviction, Oliepuses. Do you wish to always remain a felon, easily content with a few trinkets and external comforts?”
“No, your royal majesty, I do not. I wish to become liberated.”
“Liberated? You are free to come or go. Nobody is stopping you from making your own decisions.”
“My decision remains. I wish to be a journeyman and assist Luke Maverick.”
“Assist him well, then.” She gave him one more thump for good measure. “You have three felony convictions against you, yet you still have not learned conviction. Felons are filling our compounds, and I’ve grown tired of attending to them. Your mission isn’t to go out and secure more felons so you’ll have more company. It isn’t cost effective. A journeyman must journey! Do you understand this?”
“Yes, your royal majesty, Queen Clovia. I willingly journey, both into the known and the unknown. I will,” he hesitated, “overcome my convictions.”
She smacked him once, rabidly. “Don’t hesitate. Overcome.” She returned her attention to Luke Maverick. “You will begin recording your terms of legal advocacy immediately. Failure to do so will automatically re-designate you to felony status.”
Mirdeesh stepped forward. “This will sting just a little, but it will stop.” She placed a small, round disk just behind his left ear-lobe. “It’s a memory card. From now on, everything you remember pertaining to the aspects of marauding will be recorded and analyzed for the purposes of defense. May your advocacy be glorious.” The disk bit in, then melded peacefully with his skin, leaving nothing more than a slightly hard surface where it had fastened. Luke Maverick touched it with wonder, barely feeling the invasion He thought hard, trying to remember the three principles, and an answering voice responded, “give nothing back for free.”