The world was smallish, as planets went. It was around three-quarters ocean, with vast mauve and turquoise seas surrounding several large land masses. They approached on the planet’s nightside, or at least as close as the giant star allowed. Cities glowed in the dark ribbons like monstrous diamonds. Decker felt himself relax. At least there were people down there. They couldn’t all be as weird as Sixteen.
Above the northern polar ice, complicated orbital shipyards glittered faintly inside a ring of satellites. Decker almost asked Tobias to zoom in on that area, before he remembered they had no control. There were two large shapes there, maybe some kind of battleships.
“Seems a little …” Decker whispered across the bridge.
Lightly defended? Supplied Bril, who had made an unwelcome return. Decker ignored him.
“That’s what I was about to say,” said Tobias. “Where’s the fleet, or whatever?”
There are twenty-four satellites fixed at geostatic orbits and roughly equidistant from each other. Bril babbled as the craft followed the larger glider through the upper atmosphere. There was a faint rumble, and a faint flaring of orange light in the viewer before the brilliant ocean came back.
“Want to translate?” Tobias asked.
The planet is surrounded by some kind of belt of precisely-positioned orbital platforms. Purpose unknown.
“You worked all that out by sight alone?” Tobias asked with a mixture of scepticism and awe.
Bril was obnoxiously silent.
Decker was about to remind him that if he’d been as smart as he thought, they wouldn’t be here in the first place. And the only rocks he’d be holding now would be the stones in the wall of his cell. But he remembered the AI, and stayed quiet. He’d have to play his cards right now. Because as beautiful and pristine as this world looked, he knew every planet had its dark side. And they were landing in it.
The ship put down away from the closest city, on the edge of a wide, windswept plateau. The light outside the ship was merely dusky, despite it being full on the far side of the bright star. Decker caught a glimpse of a lime-green river bisecting the plane and the waving limbs of whip-like trees, before the view cut it off like a misremembered dream and the screen went back to ugly steel grey.
“Welcome home.” The AI announced coolly, making Decker jump before it shut off with an affected snap. He got off the bridge as quickly as he could, afraid it might self-destruct.
He met the rest of the crew in the airlock. The atmosphere outside read breathable, but Shen was still bundled up in his suit of armour, and a smaller rifle was holstered over his back.
“Don’t trust him?” Decker asked. Shen grunted.
“I still hate planets,” Eldred said, looking out of the porthole at the narrow strip of river and the distant city lights.
“And they hate you too,” said Decker. “Let me take the lead on this one, yeah?”
She turned to him, glowering, but said nothing. She looked a lot older than when they’d left.
“Hand it over and get straight back to it?” Tobias asked pointedly. Decker realised his hand was in his pocket and removed it.
Back to what? As much as Decker could get on with Tobias, he didn’t see himself sticking around with the aloof young man to conduct a search for a single man in a nebula as hot as it was dense.
“Sure,” he grinned falsely. “If it’s that easy.”
It is a pity we won’t have time to explore the city. Bril sent. I can imagine –
“Imagine all you want,” Decker spat. “We’re going home.” Eldred sent him a look he couldn’t interpret. He still found it hard to look at her, so he punched the manual release and walked out onto the surface.
The middle of the night was cool, grey and quiet. A light breeze ruffled sporadic thickets of woodland around the plateau. The ground was soft and spongy underfoot, a mixture of dirt and hard-packed greenery. The river glittered in a low depression a little aft of the ship. There was a damp, pleasant smell in the air. As if it had just rained.
“We supposed to walk?” barked Shen. He was holding his rifle, looking down the thermal scope, pointing it into the nearest woodland. The trees were too tall and whippy, like Eldred’s hair. Something rustled and Shen jumped.
“He might you know … do his thing.” Decker hypothesised, watching the bush. It was vibrating now, soft snarls and squeals coming out of it. Suddenly, a large flying creature blasted through the canopy, carrying a squirming rodent analogue in its claws, its guts trailing in a glistening rope. The bird-thing was twice the size of Bril and took off with a shrill cry that made Decker’s spine tingle. In the half-light it was hard to make out details.
“Well he should hurry up and do his thing,” Eldred grumbled, rubbing her arms. “It’s cold.”
Decker hadn’t noticed.
“What’s that?” Tobias suddenly barked, pointing out at the distant city lights.
“I don’t see …” said Decker, squinting and shading his eyes. But then he did.
There was a faint cyclone of dust in the grey light, Decker belatedly remembering to switch on his thermal setting. It glowed a cool white, above some kind of squat white box, just visible as it crested a hill.
“Vehicle!” Shen shouted his thoughts for him, bending to one knee and planting his rifle stock in his shoulder.
“Hey, easy!” Decker said. “If he wanted to kill us, he could have done it by now.” Like teleporting them beyond the hull of the ship, or having the AI poison their air supply. Or dropping them in the middle of one of those huge oceans.
“You trust him?” Shen muttered disgustedly.
“Nope,” Decker shook his head. “but I don’t think we need to worry. Until he wants us to.”
Shen took a few seconds to process the logic before holstering his rifle. “I don’t like it.” He finally said. Decker wished he would take off the creepy armour.
The “vehicle” turned out to be some kind of ancient dune buggy. So old that when the driver brought it to a halt on wheels of all things, Decker wondered if it might collapse on them like the shell of a dying beetle. It was tall, about three metres long, with a polarised glass viewscreen and four doors above rubberised wheels almost as high as Decker’s chest. It might have been red, but the low light spoiled it. A squall of dust churned up around them as the motor snapped off. Several more birds took flight. Decker could smell hot oil.
The driver’s door opened with a creak. There was a man at a high wheel and a complicated dashboard. He looked small, ineffectual, out of place. He was anything but.
“Sixteen,” said Decker.
The light in the car was strong. The old man was dressed this time in a soft crimson bathrobe, some kind of drug stick between his teeth. Decker could see knobbly pink knees and fluffy blue slippers on the pedals.
“Hop in.” The old man grinned.
“We really need to get out of here,” Decker said half an hour later. The car was bouncing down wide, grey, sloping valleys and across dry riverbeds. He was feeling nauseous with the erratic motion, and the city didn’t appear to be appreciably closer.
Sixteen bulldozed through a wall of scrub, snapping several tree spines. The huge wheels pulped and spat out the remains in their wake like some overly wasteful boat.
“Nonsense!” the old man said, eyes eagerly in the heavens. They appeared to have lightened. “You only just got here!”
Decker turned around in the front seat for help. But Tobias was staring out of the window with foreign eyes, and Eldred had passed out from the awful rocking. Bril was curled in her lap, silent and eyes shut. But Decker doubted he was sleeping. He didn’t like to transmit around Sixteen. Didn’t trust he couldn’t be intercepted. Shen had insisted on perching on the rear platform of the vehicle, and Decker could occasionally see the hulking armour bouncing around out there.
“I’ve got the rock,” Decker said, fingering the cursed thing in his pocket.
“I know you have.” Sixteen nodded to himself.
“Deal was, you get the stone, we get the ship and a clean name.” Decker persisted.
“I haven’t changed the terms.” Sixteen replied. Decker shivered at that simple phrase. The subtle way he wielded the power. Even in words.
“Really?” Decker felt a hot flush creeping on. “Because I didn’t get the part where we slaughter an enemy fleet.”
Sixteen sighed. “You’re spoiling it, you know.” He looked coldly at Decker. “Sunrise on Outer Eden is beautiful.”
“That’s the name of your world?” Decker realised he was getting drawn into distraction. The name meant nothing to him, as did the conversation.
Sixteen smiled. “It’s a facsimile of ideal society. The embryo of a transcendent adulthood. The catalyst, if you will.”
“Autofellatio is a big word as well. You’re good at it.” Decker said.
If he was trying to annoy the old man, he failed. Sixteen pointed out of the viewscreen as they roared up another hill. “There!” He shouted, pulling the car into a drift and halt.
The light hit with no warning. Beyond the city, now twenty kilometres distant, there was a shimmering blur on a watery grey horizon. The city was all steel and ceramic spires, occasionally interspersed with lower domed structures. A vast spaceport sat on the edge of the platform, on the edge of a colossal lake. It didn’t look as advanced as it should. And despite the lights, Decker couldn’t see the tell-tale lights of fliers, buzzing like flies around a week-old corpse. Where were the advertising drones, the flying billboards, the lovers sneaking into and out of windows after dark in illegally muted fliers?
But he forgot all about it as the sunrise blasted away the night in an eyeblink. The supergiant star bathed the world in electric blue light, and Decker could briefly see the bones in his hand before the viewer dimmed further still. It rose out of the horizon like some immense blue disco ball, bathing the sloping valley in a UV light that should have been lethal. The city now hurt to look at, and Decker looked away.
“Beautiful,” Sixteen sighed, and Decker swore he could hear a note of emotion in there. “It’ll be a shame when we leave all this behind.”
Decker could hear Shen cursing outside, and Tobias stuttered awake with a yelp. But Eldred remained asleep, breathing shallowly. Sixteen looked them over with a paternal smile. Was it Decker’s imagination, or did his eyes stop for too long on her?
“Leave what behind?” Tobias spluttered thickly.
Sixteen chuckled. “All in good time, Mr Jensen. All in good time.”
“Time we got out of here.” Tobias said. His hand was resting on his hip again. “You promised us the ship.”
Sixteen gestured over his shoulder at the sunrise. “Are all your crew such bores, Mr Decker?” He said. “This is a sight only witnessed by a handful of people across all time.”
“The ship.” Decker reminded him.
“In good time,” Sixteen repeated. “It needs a little fixing up after your last ah – engagement.”
Engagement? It seemed an insufficient word to describe the annihilation of a Coalition naval battlegroup. And the lives inside.
“For now, consider yourselves my guests,” Sixteen turned back to the sunrise, took a long, slow breath and blew it out. “And there is much I wish to show you.”