This story is a (much overdue) follow-up to “Rain Down.”
On a picnic table outside an old shack, not far from Lian Feng’s barn, Keto Avenant spread out a map. The map had a lot of smudges and blank spots, but it was serviceable. In the sky, Keto could see the distant, dissipating smoke trail from the Midas, extending to the heavens. A fresh trail took its place, forking off in a different direction, southward – a great gash of billowing vapor breaking through the night clouds. What goes up, must come down, thought Keto. Although, not necessarily alone.
The land was owned by a ved’ma, a witch who was a follower of the old God. Technically, it was the same God that the Regency promoted, but superstitious people such as this ved’ma worshipped both God and his underworld counterpart, known simply as Drevaskol, the Demon. As soon as Keto, Daine, and their Vydrina mercenary motorcade arrived at the shack, the woman, the ved’ma, began a ritual. She was deep into it at this point, inside her shack. Keto could barely see inside through the window, but she saw a red glow from a lantern, and occasionally saw flashes of a blood-tinged ritual knife.
The witch’s hut was the perfect place to set up a mobile camp – defensible, high ground, and a couple choke points through the tangle of trees. Also, this woman was so crazy that nobody would believe any story she told – especially a story about a band of mercenaries in the middle of nowhere, armed to the teeth.
Daine walked back from across the field, and all the gathered mercenaries perked up to attention. He had been on the phone with Alexander Vydrina, their commander.
“You’ve all been ordered back,” said Daine to the collected mercenaries. He snapped the antenna on the massive phone down, somewhat angrily. Without hesitation, the mercenaries began to pack up and leave. One soldier came up to Daine. “Sir?” he asked, gesturing towards a vehicle. “Leave that one for myself and Keto,” said Daine, taking the keys.
As Daine began to mark up the map, muttering to himself, Keto tapped him on the shoulder. “What’s up? Why aren’t we going out there to investigate?”
Daine shook his head. “We are. They aren’t. Vydrina wanted his men back.”
She pointed at the map, at the main Vydrina compound at the southeast of quarantine. “Well, let’s at least stop by home base. We’re not really equipped for a long-range expedition.” It was true enough. They had plenty of food and water, but the ground vehicles they were driving were little more than jeeps, not at all fit for long range.
“No extra supplies,” said Daine. “What we have needs to be enough.”
“I don’t get it.” Keto saw the flash of a knife inside the house. The woman was sacrificing some kind of small rodent. The knife went up and down rhythmically while she yelled out words in a foreign tongue.
Daine angled himself away from the other men, and whispered, “Neither do I. I think Vydrina’s in some kind of trouble. The kind of trouble where he needs his men back ASAP. But this mission is essential, he said. We need to recover the fallen debris.”
“Yeah,” said Keto. “Whatever it is.” She heard the old woman ululating inside and saw her holding up entrails to a candle, as if investigating them.
“If anything’s left.”
Alexander Vydrina was in some kind of trouble. At least, that was what Valery Kapashen intended to impress upon the aged mercenary commander today. Flanked by fifteen of Regent Kerensky’s “Masks” — his finest soldiers, used for covert missions – their orders were to bring Alexander in for questioning. Normally, Valery was not involved in these military or police actions, but since the target was a man of high political esteem, and the charge was treason, the Regent trusted no one else but Valery, his closest advisor, to bring Vydrina in.
The Vydrina Company Headquarters was like a haunted castle out of some children’s story. Parts of the building were made of the shiny alloy of the Ancients, but most of it was new construction (though much older-looking than the work of the Ancients). The outside of the headquarters was a series of stone walls, a dark gray. The massive walls contained several brick barracks and a curious-looking tower, spiralling up toward the sky. It was the type of place Valery expected to find a mad scientist presiding over a patchwork monster. To top it all off, it was raining. One of the Masks (in a helmet with a wolf’s face) reluctantly held an umbrella over the head of the Regent’s advisor.
Valery was questionable about the whole arrest. Raskolnikov, the High Priest — a raving fool in Valery’s eyes — was the one who advised the Regent to arrest Vydrina. Valery felt as though the Regency was grasping at straws at this point. Reports of violence in the borderlands were becoming more frequent, as was the aggression from the starving commoners towards nobility. If the looming threat of civil war wasn’t enough to stir a panic, the worsening famine would cause the Regency to lose whatever credibility it had left. Finding whoever was behind the civil unrest was an afterthought at this point. This is like putting bandaids on a severed hand, thought Valery.
Valery adjusted the three-bar pin on his suit coat and, not knowing what else to do outside the massive fortress, merely knocked on the front door, iron-wrought and massive.
A man with ratty hair and a black Vydrina uniform answered by opening the doors wide. “What’s wrong?”
“Good evening,” said Valery. “I have a warrant for your commander’s arrest.”
The man, and a group behind him, broke out into laughter, the baudy kind heard in taverns after work. “You’re joking?”
“I’m afraid not.” The men behind the warden at the door began to creep up, sensing trouble. Valery cleared his throat. I hate dealing with hired guns. They always go off at the most unpredictable times. “I’d prefer to make this as easy and painless as possible. Just some questions for Alexander.”
The doorman crossed his arms. “If you think you’re throwing the commander in one of them labor camps, you have –”
“It’s fine.” A slender man strode out from the shadows of the inner castle. Alexander Vydrina, the old, revered commander. ”I’ll come willingly,” he said to Valery. He turned back to his wardens. “The Regent figures if he arrests enough men, he can stop the revolution.” The men laughed.
Vydrina unstrapped his pistol and knife and held them out to a man with a bushy black beard. “Elliot,” he said, handing his weapons to him, “You’re in charge. Debrief the team when they get back.”
Without shackles, Alexander Vydrina stepped out of his castle and into the waiting crowd of Masks, their painted visors leering at him without expression.
“I don’t see why this one’s different than any other recovery we’ve done,” said Keto, as she pulled the sliding door of her barn 0pen. This barn was seldom used, just off a dirt road, at the very edge of the plains of her inherited land. She was glad to have a chance to restock, since her farm was on the way south, near the ghostly quarantine fences.
“The whole world saw that explosion in the sky,” said Daine. “I don’t doubt that the Regent will send out his best to retrieve whatever’s out there.”
“And then destroy it,” said Keto sadly. That was the modus operandi of the Regency, since its inception after the virus wiped out the Ancients. Destroy the unknown…and it can’t hurt us.
They walked into the barn to reveal a massive truck with a mechanical winch and flatbed — the “Armadillo,” a vehicle that served Keto and Daine in their early days outside quarantine, before their official backing from the Vydrina Company. This was the long-range vehicle they needed to reach the fallen debris.
On the wall of the barn was a gun rack her father had built before he passed on. On it was her self-made “Sablin” sniper rifle. She grabbed it, and a box of tranquilizer rounds. Reluctantly, she took live rounds as well.
“Ms. Avenant?” said a voice from well outside the barn. Keto went out and saw a sharply-dressed man shielding his eyes from the sun.
It was her steward, Jean Corveau, a man with a head of hair and pointy noise like a raven’s. His family had helped with the day-to-day operations of the Avenant family farmland for several generations. When her parents were still alive, Jean’s father served as steward. Now that her parents had passed – as had his own – it had fallen on him to serve Keto. They grew up together, but separately. Jean was subservient to Keto, but they also respected one another; they were friends, in their own way.
“I don’t mean to interrupt you,” he said, fiddling with a hem on his suit jacket.
“No, it’s fine,” said Keto, finishing the straps on her heavy cloth biosuit as she talked outside.
“It’s just that, the workers are concerned about the civil unrest to the north,” he said. “With your permission, I’d like to invite them to stay on the grounds for safety.”
“Of course,” said Keto. She stopped suiting up and looked over at a nearby field, where a great wooly ox was pulling a plow. “I hadn’t even thought of it,” she said. “That’d be smart.”
Jean nodded deferentially. “I’m glad you think so.”
Keto pulled down her mask, covering her head entirely, and pressurized the suit. “I’m taking an extended vacation,” she said, her voice echoing through the biosuit’s filter.
“Of course,” said Jean, carefully. “You are going…out, I see.”
“As far as anyone is aware, no I am not.” She figured Jean knew that she frequently went outside quarantine, but he always had the good sense to not ask any questions.
“Right,” said Jean, beginning to walk off.
“Wait.” Keto ducked into the barn and came out with a shotgun. She tossed it to Jean, along with a box of shells. “Just in case, you know?”
“Thank you, Ms. Avenant.” To Keto’s surprise, he expertly opened the action of the gun and checked the chamber. ”I do hope it doesn’t come to this.”
Keto hoped it wouldn’t. She equally wished her mission outside quarantine would be uneventful. Usually, their missions were bloodless. They’d hear a rumor, read something historical (what few texts the Regency hadn’t burned during The Cleansing), and they’d head outside of quarantine, through secret paths only they knew about. Up until this past summer, they had never encountered anyone else, dead or alive, outside of quarantine. The ruins were practically untouched, and the only hazards they had to worry about were hunger, thirst, wild animals, and the remnants of the virus, which lies dormant in virtually every plant and animal outside quarantine.
This past summer had changed all that. The Regent had sent out his Masks to Novoskaya, the very same place Keto and Daine were looking for lost technology. She had taken a life there, a man named Aramis, and though the death was mostly accidental and brought on out of self-defense, she couldn’t forget about it and still kept the man’s diary close at hand. Then, they were attacked by a savage band of survivors to the northern wastes, in the deep frost where the virus could not survive. She had killed a man there, too, in a failed attempt to rescue their pilot. She knew when a person needed killing, but it still didn’t make it easy for her. She wished she had Daine’s mental fortitude. No matter what they encountered, he was an island. She envied that about him, and she relied on his strength — not to help her do what was needed, but rather, to help her cope with what she had to do.
In any case, the area outside quarantine was getting very crowded, and missions of exploration had somehow turned into military actions. The millions of kilometers contained by the quarantine fences seemed very small compared to the rest of the planet. It was as if Rhea was waking up from a deep slumber.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can, Jean,” said Keto. She put a gloved hand on his shoulder and breathed heavily into the filter. “Keep everyone safe for me, will you?”
After driving nearly a week over the trackless savannah of the land south of quarantine — easily the farthest into the “dark territory” they had ever been — Keto and Daine were about to give up the search. They were stretching their fuel as it was, and they didn’t even recognize the land they were in. This savannah was covered in tall grass and strange patches of crystals of differing colors; natural formations that looked like some kind of quartz erupting from the ground.
But finally, at a spot not even identified on their maps, they found the wreckage in a small crater.
In the middle of a prairie, there was a mass of metal — the wreckage of a small ship. There were recent burn marks on the tall, golden grass, and the wreckage wasn’t overgrown at all. This was their quarry.
“My God,” said Daine, his voice heavy from within his blackened steel biosuit. “There’s no way we’re fitting this in the truck.”
Keto ran up to the spacecraft, her eyes wide and starry like a child’s. “We don’t have to,” she said. “Right? We can just take the…guts…out of it.”
“You’re right,” said Daine. He nodded slowly at first, then more emphatically. “Yura would only need the engine to work with. Maybe a piece of this plating. We could combine it with what we learned from that gigantic colony ship up north…”
He trailed off and staggered backward slightly. His face wasn’t visible through his opaque mask, but Keto imagined his jaw was slack with awe. ”Keto, this thing will change the world. Do you realize that? If we can rebuild it…if this thing was up there in the sky…”
“…Then we can get back up to space, too,” she said. “And maybe even travel to wherever the ship came from.”
“Wherever we came from, Keto,” said Daine, beginning to laugh. “Where all of humanity came from!” He clapped his hands and yelled wordlessly, triumphantly.
“Assuming Yura doesn’t just make a coffee maker out of this thing. Remember what he did with the robot we brought back?”
Daine sighed. “Yeah,” he said. He perked up again. “But this, this is different. This is…spectacular.”
“I have to admit…when you’re right, you’re right,” said Keto, grinning from ear to ear. It was always a big deal for Keto to see Daine get excited about something, and she was feeding off his energy.
Keto and Daine drove the Armadillo up as close as they could to the wreckage without disturbing anything. A silver gazelle ran out of the wreckage as the two explorers got out of their vehicle. Daine took out a massive, two-handed tool — an Arc Cutter, used to slice through heavy metal. He turned on the tool and it vibrated, causing him to vibrate as well, like using a jackhammer. Keto suspected the tool was meant to be mounted onto some type of vehicle, but she also knew Daine was exceptionally strong. He cut through what appeared to be the front of the craft. The windows were smoked over and cracked from the crash, but once they were inside, they found a pristine cockpit. There were dials and buttons of all kinds, and two chairs. “Those don’t look very comfy,” she said, frowning.
“We’ll leave the chairs, then,” said Daine wryly. “But these must be the pilot’s controls. We’ll get that back first. And there must be a schematic in here or something that can show me where the engine block is…”
“Daine,” she said, laughing. “This thing isn’t a truck, you know.”
“I know that,” Daine said, partially ignoring Keto. ”Let me figure this out. I’ll cut everything to size — carefully — and use the winch to get it all on the Armadillo. I need you up on that ridge, Keto, to keep a lookout.”
She took her rifle and clambered up the ridge, a distance equal to a cornfield away from the crash. She set up a tripod and rested her rifle on it, using the scope to survey the land around the crash. She whistled and waved at Daine when she was in position. He waved back and started cutting, his arms like cords of steel as he held the arc cutter steady. He got the flight controls out in one piece, or so it seemed — there were some wires dangling down, which Keto hoped weren’t too important. He began to work on what she assumed was the rear of the vehicle, and after a time, cut out a chunk of block of pipes, wires, and other metal Keto couldn’t even begin to make sense of.
The ship was nothing like she had dreamt. She always thought these craft – built by a technology advanced society – should look perfect and polished. The colony ship they found in the Northern Wastes, the tundra north of quarantine, was made of a white metal, pristine and smooth. Now she realized the ship must have been missing something. Maybe erosion over nearly a millenia had stripped off the exterior plating of that ship. Because what they were looking at now — from a ship crashed not one week ago — was a spacecraft armored with some kind of craggy-looking, natural rock plating. It was as if the ship had erupted from the core of Rhea; it was like a giant stone stalactite, cut out of some subterranean cavern. This ship was also substantially smaller. The colony ship was almost tall as a mountain, but this crashed ship was barely longer than two Armadillo trucks.
Keto’s attention was drawn by a glint of light in the distance, just where the distant prairie and night sky met. Other vehicles. Someone else was coming. She yelled down to Daine, but he couldn’t hear her with the Arc Cutter whirring. She left her rifle and slid down the ridge, then ran up to him. “Daine! Someone’s coming!” she yelled, over the din of the truck’s winch.
He pulled a lever on the Armadillo, and all was silent again, except for their breathing through their biosuit filters. “Come on,” he said, tapping Keto on the shoulder and running back to the ridge.
They climbed back up and Keto looked through her scope to see what was coming. Several white-and-red vehicles, closing in fast on the crash site. “Regency Foxhounds,” she said. “I guess they saw the smoke trail too, huh.”
Daine took a look through the scope. Their truck was stranded down at the crash site. Driving it away was futile — on an open prairie, there was no way the lumbering Armadillo would outrace a group of the Regency’s slick Foxhounds.
Two armed guards led Alexander Vydrina into a chamber of stone. There was no roof, and sunlight poured in from far above.
Let’s get this over with, thought Valery Kapashen. He was already sitting down at a metal desk, with his legs crossed and a cigarette in one hand. “Please, sit,” he said to Vydrina, gesturing to a chair far less comfortable than his own.
Valery regarded Alexander Vydrina — a veteran of a dozen military campaigns, a decorated hero and a renowned gun-for-hire. His mother had always warned him to beware of working men who bore no scars, because they were liars. Vydrina’s face was pure and unscarred, strange for a soldier of his advanced age. The stories about Vydrina had always talked about his military involvement in broad, vague terms — “oh, he was the man who captured Misha Ryzhonin,” they would say, but there were always details missing from these stories. What exactly was he good at? Marksmanship? Scouting? What was his preferred weapon? Such was the legend of a man like Vydrina — he was described only as capability personified. He carred with him a dangerous reputation, filled with a hideous capacity for violence that Valery could only admire. Truly, Vydrina was a man after his own heart.
“There’s going to be hell to pay for this,” said Vydrina. “The longer you lock down my men, the longer it takes me to help secure Istovin from the rebels.”
Valery laughed. “Oh come on, now,” he said. “Your primary concern is outside of quarantine. As soon as I call of the investigation, you’re sending them right outside quarantine to follow the smoke trail. That’s your primary concern here, not the growing rebellion.”
“From what I’ve heard, that is your concern as well,” said Vydrina, pursing his lips tightly as he spoke the words.
“Fair point,” said Valery. “Fine then, let’s get this over with.” He slapped a file folder on the table in front of Vydrina.
Vydrina flipped through. “What is this?”
“It’s the evidence I’ve collected,” he said, elocuting each syllable. “From reviewing your files. You have some equipment unaccounted for in your inventory. Namely, some one hundred assault rifles that you purchased or manufactured, but never received.”
Vydrina closed the folder. “I’ve never had a love of paperwork,” he said dismissively.
Valery took a long drag from his cigarette. “Are you providing weapons to the rebels?” he asked in a simple tone used for children.
“No,” said Vydrina. “Good God, Kapashen. What would be the point? I’ve spent nearly thirty years supporting the regency through my wealth and manpower. Can you give me one reason why I’d throw that away for some workers’ revolt?”
“I can’t,” said Valery. He flicked the cigarette stub into the corner. ”That’s why you’re free to go. I apologize for the inconvenience.” He looked Vydrina in the eyes for a few moments, then casually glanced away.
Vydrina got up and strode towards the door, where one of the guards opened it. He paused in the doorway. “There is one more thing,” he said.
Vydrina reached into the folds of his jumpsuit and slapped a dagger onto the table. “I found this in my cell. What’s the meaning of this? Why’d you put it there?”
“I’d rather hoped you’d use it,” said Valery. A jagged smile spread across his face like a creeping vine.
“You’re fucking sick, Kapashen. Fucking sick,” said Vydrina, seething. He stormed out of the room and yelled for a guard to take him back home.
It was still nighttime, and Keto and Daine were cornered. From a secluded cave, sunken in to the side of the ridge by the spacecraft, they took turns looking through binoculars. There was a gathering army of Regency elite soldiers, Masks, patrolling the perimeter of the spacecraft. They inspected the ship, as well as Keto and Daine’s craft. But they didn’t do anything. They just sat around and waited, like they were guarding a bank vault. It was supremely frustrating, particularly for Keto, who didn’t relish the idea of walking back to the quarantine fences with no truck and no salvage.
Keto was throwing pebbles against the wall of the cave idly. ”Why wasn’t there anyone in the ship, Daine?”
He set the binoculars down and sat down against the mouth of the cave, wincing from soreness. “I hadn’t thought about that,” he said.
“Maybe another ship picked them up and took them away from here,” she said. “There must have been so many ships that left. You know, when the virus hit.”
“Well,” said Daine, looking through the binoculars again, “We’ll never know with those assholes out there.”
Just then, a stream of fire gashed out from the prairie and hit one of the Foxhounds, causing the vehicle to explode and send metal everywhere. “What the hell was that?”
“A third party,” said Daine, handing the binoculars to Keto. She saw red lights now, some kind of lasers, coming from the tall grass of the prairie. One of the lasers sliced through a Mask’s polished red-and-white bio-armor and left a smoking hole.
“Come on, this is our chance! We have to make a move or else we’ll never get that truck out of there!” said Daine.
“But Daine, we don’t even know who these people are, or what they –”
“Damn it Keto, we don’t have time! If we wait, whoever that is will find us and kill us too! We won’t get another chance like this! Move!”
They ran out of the cave, using fallen rocks and the ridge at their backs as cover. The Masks had managed to cover and create some kind of defensive formation, using the Armadillo, their own Foxhounds, and the downed spacecraft as cover from the deadly laser-fire from the grass. “I can’t even see where it’s coming from, Daine.” Keto and Daine held their position and watched the two sides trading fire. Keto saw the flash from the muzzle of a Mask’s assault rifle and heard a scream from the grass.
“Look, they’re falling back,” said Keto, pointing at the Masks. “They’re giving up.” She saw the Masks piling into their Foxhounds and beginning to drive back north, towards quarantine.
“Not exactly,” said Daine. As he predicted, the vehicles stopped and the gunfire began again. “The Masks flanked them,” whispered Daine, as if he was explaining an opera to Keto.
Keto heard a rustling to her left and cried out. Daine drew and fired his pistol into the night, in a three-shot burst. A man screamed wordlessly and fell over dead. He wore dark-green armor, painted with symbols Keto couldn’t recognize. Unlike Keto and Daine, he wore no filter or helmet of any kind over his head.
“They’re advancing on us,” said Daine. “Come on, we have to get to the truck!”
Keto looked through the scope on her rifle and saw more of the dark-green armored men clambering into the cab of the Armadillo. “Damn it! They’re going to take the truck, Daine!” As soon as she said that, she heard the engine roar to life and saw the headlights flicker on. More of the men in dark-green climbed into the back. The combat was over now, and the survivors on both sides retreated, leaving their dead and dying by the husk of the spacecraft.
“Who the hell were those people? And what were those red beams they were firing?”
“We should go back to base,” said Daine, defeated.
“Yeah,” said Keto. She kicked a small piece of crystal across the savannah and looked on as the Armadillo disappeared into the cover of night. Half of the foxhounds were driving off farther into the distance, while half stayed stationary, either disabled or driverless.
“No,” said Keto. “No, actually, we need to follow them Daine. We have to follow the ship. You said it yourself, Daine. This could change the world.”
Daine turned his head and all Keto could see was his opaque black helmet. “Whatever it takes,” he growled.
“Whatever it takes,” she agreed.
To be continued (no later than Feb. 14)…