It’s hard to write a story about something that concerns you. Writing requires a degree of passion to play out, and for a lot of people – myself more so than most it would seem – concern is a thing that it’s hard to hold on to for any length of time. But, at the same time, writing is at its core the process of sorting out ideas and putting them into order. When something concerns me my kneejerk reaction is to analyze the problem, put it in order and try to figure out what bothers me and how we might fix that. Writing is a process tailor made to help you do that.
But writing a story is its own beast. Stories need conflict and when you are concerned with a problem conflict is probably baked into the cake. Stories also need characters, and when you’re concerned with a problem that can be more of a problem. They also need setting, a world to take place in, and that becomes an even bigger hurdle. If your characters look too much like you, if your world looks too much like now, you come off extremely heavy handed and you can lose your audience very quickly. I’ve actually tinkered with this kind of story telling before and I’ll be the first to admit it came out pretty mediocre. So I tabled storytelling about issues I was concerned about.
Then, about a month and a half back, I heard someone pitch a story idea with a core concept that I thought was truly excellent. I didn’t like much about the plot points or execution but the core conceit was fascinating. I knew I had to steal the concept but I’d need some other kind of story to build around it.
Before I knew it, I was writing a story about something that concerned me. I’d sworn of this kind of writing for a while but I really, really wanted to do this story and I just couldn’t see a way to throw out the parts that were real life concerns of mine without weakening the narrative. So here I am again, writing a scifi story in the hopes that you’ll read it and enjoy, but also find something to mull over. I beg your indulgence.
A few house keeping things. Language evolves over time – this is known. However, every attempt to predict linguistic evolution that I have ever seen comes off as incredibly forced (I’m looking at you, scifi series that pulled a gender neutral pronoun out of an obscure far Eastern language for hackneyed political correctness points). Thus, while these characters come from some time in our future I will be using slang and obscenities of the present day as stand ins for whatever such language will be used in the future to make things feel more natural and less forced. Again, I beg your indulgence.
And yes, on the topic of language, I’ve chosen to do something I rarely do, and that is include a fair amount of coarse language. Long time readers may find this a surprise, given how rarely I’ve included such language in the past. For a number of reasons, ranging from verisimilitude to the demands of the story, I’ve chosen to break from form. One last time, I beg your indulgence.
And now, on with the show.
Chapter One – The Crash
Lang ran his fingers over the edges of the hole in the wall. It was big – a lot bigger than you’d expect given it was only a four seater that had come through it. He’d been expecting scorch marks but there weren’t any on the wall. The impact had crumpled most of the concrete inwards and strewn it all through the room inside, leaving smouldering rubble strewn on the ground below and inside the room, but what was left of the wall itself was free of carbon tracing. Except for what the smoke rising from within was leaving behind.
Not that there was much in the way of smoke. The rooms the drop pod had landed in were blessedly empty, there wasn’t even furniture or curtains on the windows, just some carpet that had caught fire under the braking thrust when the pod landed. Even the paint on the walls seemed to stubbornly resist burning.
“Anyone up there?” Dex called, his voice half disappearing beneath the sharp pang of the pod’s hull cooling.
“No. We’d have seen them by now if there was.” Of course, the streets outside the house were empty, too. Either drop pods from space landed in this neighborhood all the time or there wasn’t anyone within a five minute run to come see what happened. Either possibility was very worrying. He turned around and clambered down the side of the pod, the hull metal still warm to the touch after its rapid descent through atmosphere. Trace remnants of the shock gel he’d been submerged in until a moment ago sizzled against the hull but the insulated surface of his evac suit kept him from feeling anything.
“No one down here either,” Dex said as Lang clambered down the side of the pod using dents and loose plates as handholds, the magnetic surfaces in his boots helping his feet find purchase. “Priss got Grubber out of the pod but there wasn’t anything there to work on. He’s gone.”
“Hm.” Lang dropped off the ladder the last few feet and landed lightly. Grubber was the teams primary medic and it wasn’t going to get any easier without him. There was the brief pang of loss that went with losing a member of the unit but there would be time for that side of things later. For now, like any spacer downed in combat, first things came first. “What’s the status on the comm?”
“Fried. Priss thinks the primary array got fragged somewhere on our way down, over the Atlantic somewhere probably.” He jerked his thumb towards the pod’s open hatch, barely visible around his shoulder, where the sound of rummaging could be heard. “She’s pulling out the emergency supplies and the toolkits now.”
Lang stepped carefully around Grubber’s body, respectfully laid out beside the pod with a thermal blanket draped over top. “Were there any other pods in formation with us before we came down?”
“It was just us, last I saw,” Dex said. “There was at least one other pod with us until we hit the American seaboard but I think the same coastal guns that got our comm array got them too. But maybe they just went down somewhere farther north or in the ocean. You know how this shit goes.”
“Hm.” He didn’t, of course. No one knew how it went when a major ship broke up over a hostile planet, not unless he had a state of the art supercomputer and a network of traffic control satellites to rival Copernicus Prime. But he got what Dex was saying. “Then we don’t have any officers on site. The situation’s already looking up. I guess that makes you in charge.”
“Me?” Dex feigned shock. “Why me? You’re as much of a Corporal as I am. Got seniority, too, the LT gave you your stripe sixty seconds before I got mine.”
“Not me!” She dropped the toolkits and emergency gear in a heap on the ground and clambered through the hatch. “Not only do you both have seniority on me, regs clearly say that, in the event that there’s a case of equal ranks in an emergency situation, command defaults to the officer or enlisted man with the least critical MOS. I’m comms, medical secondary.” She jerked a thumb at Dex. “He’s armory, sensors secondary. Those are gonna be pretty important in the next couple of days if we’re going to get in touch with fleet command and get off this rock.
“On the other hand.” She looked meaningfully from Lang to the wrecked drop pod. “We don’t have much for you to pilot or engineer thrusters on, flyboy.”
“Besides,” Dex added, “you were okay with taking charge when you were sending me out to check for people down here and Priss to check on Grubber. Almost made it look like you wanted the hot seat.”
“Give me the damn mission log,” Lang said with a sigh, cursing whatever fate had kept the LT from rearranging their drop pod assignments once they’d wound up with three people of the same grade in one four seater pod. “I want the two of you to assess what we can take off the pod in a couple of hours or so, in case we need to go. I’m going to poke my nose out the door and see if I can’t spot whatever welcoming committee they have waiting for us.”
“I’m not taking over if you get shot,” Dex called as he walked towards the building’s front door.
After a full perimeter check Lang decided he may have been wrong after all. There was no welcoming committee. There didn’t appear to be anyone in the neighborhood at all. Their pod had landed in a long line of townhouses, maybe a dozen units in all, but a quick glance in the window of the two next to the unit the pod hand landed on showed that they were just as abandoned looking as the one they’d crashed. And all the doors were sealed. He’d had to exit their landing site via window in the end, only to discover the locking mechanism bolted across the front door.
A notice on the front of the lock announced that the neighborhood was under evacuation orders and the population was ordered to report to the western Fort Worth processing center for resettlement. Dirt and dust caked the surface of the lock to the point where Lang had been forced to scrub it off to read the notice so it had been in place a long time. There were similar locks on every door he could see from the sidewalk in front of the townhouses.
Unease building at the back of his neck, Lang turned around and hefted himself back through the window into the house. “Dex?”
A quick clunk, then he poked his nose around the side of the pod. “Yeah?”
“You said this place was what – America?”
“Yeah, largest and most influential nation in this hemisphere at the time of the Departure. The rule was Do Not Fuck With Them. Pretty sure it was their orbital defenses that fragged us when we dropped inside lunar orbit. Hand me the nanosealer?” Lang came over and fished the requested tool out of Dex’s toolkit and handed it to him. He had part of the pod’s stabilizing thruster system pulled from its housing and started disconnecting it. “I think the part of the U.S. we’re in is called Texas. Why?”
“Hm.” Lang mulled it over for a second, more focused on the fact that Dex’s first move after Priss said there wouldn’t be any thruster work had been thruster work. Then he pushed the thought aside in favor of not answering Dex’s question. “Did America use the same dating system as Copernicus? At the time of Departure at least.”
Dex snorted. “Of course they did. The dating system was standard long before the first colonization efforts, Lang. Hell, the United States spearheaded the Triad project. Come on, Lang, I know you know that much or they wouldn’t have let you enlist.”
“With some of the guys who get in? You never know. Same goes for things like calendars. You know the Rodenberries have their own dating scheme, right?”
“Yeah, because they’re convinced they’re the best humanity has to offer, gotta do everything their own way.” The thruster came free with a pop and Dex dropped it in his toolkit. “This going anywhere?”
“Just trying to nail down some things. Looks like this neighborhood was evacuated a good forty years ago.”
“Evacuated?” Dex gave him a worried look. “Why?”
“The notice didn’t say. But all the buildings along here are locked up tight. I don’t think there’s anyone in twenty miles to come and look at what happened.” Lang held up the mission log. “I’m sure the LT would like to know about it if this ever gets back to him. If you’re thinking of juryrigging those to something besides our pod be sure to pull the timing computer too.”
“Will do.” The two men turned to their tasks and got to work.
“Shiiiiiiit.” Sean lowered his binoculars and handed them to Aubrey. “Definitely something burning out there a good half a mile to the north.”
“It could just be an electrical fire. I hear those happen up in Oklahoma City all the fucking time.” She took the binoculars and stuffed them in the pocket on his backpack. “They can burn forever. Some of the old buildings are just big piles of flammable shit.”
“It can happen, sure, but this neighborhood was built twelve years before the Evacuation and most of the buildings are printed concrete so there’s not that much in them to burn.” Sean turned from watching the trail of smoke roll into the sky. “And none of those fires started right after a fucking UFO flyover.”
“Then don’t just stand there!” Aubrey gave him a light push. “Get your ass moving so we can check it out!”