by Martin Cirulis
The girl kneeled in the dark and held her palm flat to the cool floor.
“One…two…three, four. Don’t run now, wait for more.”
Nearly a klom away, the Kalan Raider base was a whirlwind of activity. Hundreds of soldiers and technicians moved in orchestrated chaos. A civilized world would say this was no place for a child. But then, the Oasis was far beyond what most would consider civilization.
“Five…six, seven…eight. Careless kin will meet their fate.”
But if a child was very smart and had found the exact spot where the vibrations from the Raider hanger bay resonated with the floor panels, then it would be possible to keep track of Raider launches without exposing herself to danger. And L’haan Seeker was a very, very smart child.
“Nine, ten, eleven…twelve?! Mother yells, ‘Dusty Hells’!”
In the distance came the sudden thud of booted feet, and a woman’s harsh voice shouted, “I’ve got a heat trail! This way!”
L’haan whispered a word her parents said she wasn’t old enough for. Unfortunately, no amount of smart can keep bad luck away indefinitely.
“Thirteen, Fourteen, don’t be seen! All free girls go in-between!” L’haan stayed frozen for an extra two seconds, assuring herself that the launch vibrations had ceased before leaping to her feet and throwing herself into a crack along the wall
Kalan Raider patrols had gotten more numerous, but as she fell through the dark, picking up speed, L’haan assured herself that the slavers were going to be disappointed today. Jagged metal and dead cables whipped by her face, but she ignored them, waiting instead for the first hair-raising touch of the inertial field that haunted this section. She calmly counted to three, then kicked back against the rough wall she knew would be there and ricocheted into the smooth conduit that angled down and away from the search team. The friction of her palms and feet pressing against the metal eventually brought her safely to a stop in a dimly lit cavernous room. The lone footprints on the sticky, rubbery floor assured her that no one else had discovered her pathway, and she quietly hummed her recon mnemonic to herself. The rhyming guaranteed that there would be no mistakes in the ship count. Her Kintribe would need to know how dangerous space was today.
But for now, L’haan Seeker allowed herself a moment to be proud. She suppressed a giggle as she raced along the spaces and flaws that only a body as small as hers could fit through. This was true freedom. As the shouts and curses of the clunky armored raiders faded behind her, she reveled in the moment. It was just her and the Oasis. Her parents had taught her it was a “station” or “facility” built in times older than old, and that their Kintribe was one of many that had come to live here. Some, like the Downsiders and FungusCroppers, were good and worth trading with, while others, like the RustDrinkers, were best avoided. Of them all, the Kalan Raiders were the worst. Even if it hadn’t been drilled into her at birth to run away from the Raiders, even if she hadn’t watched from the shadows as they marched people in chains to do their work for them, even if she hadn’t heard the laughter and screams, she still would have hated them. If only because of how they treated the Oasis.
To them it was like a problem to be solved or an enemy to be beaten. They cut on the Oasis, blasted holes in it, scavenged every machine they could understand, and tore apart those they didn’t. They treated it like another thing they’d captured. Another thing to put into chains. And it wasn’t. It was Home. And, though no one believed her, it wasn’t just dumb metal. Not at all.
They cut on the Oasis, blasted holes in it, scavenged every machine they could understand, and tore apart those they didn’t.
She stopped for a moment and hung upside down off a cable bridge, straining downwards till her fingers could just touch the thick dust on the ledge below. In less than a blink of an eye, she had traced the sigil for “Bad Path” in the dust and pulled herself back up. Any Forager coming this way for the next while would know it wasn’t safe to press any closer to the Raider base. While she was a Seeker, she had lots of Forager friends and liked to look out for them. Her father had been a Forager before “Mother came around the corner and hit me right between the eyes with a pipe,” which didn’t sound very nice at all, but the smiles he and mother exchanged every time he said it made her feel there was something “wise-age” going on that she didn’t quite grasp yet.
She detoured and went over the Great Humming Trench hand over hand along a fallen ladder. The Hum tickled her feet, and she resolved to find out someday what hummed way down in the dark. This was the joy of the Oasis for a Seeker. The knowledge that there was always something new to find. At the other side of the trench, she took a crooked ramp to the left instead of the Marble Hall. It was the most direct route home for someone quick on their feet.
She trusted the Oasis as an ally, but she was still a Seeker, and a Seeker never took anything on faith. Only a fool forgot the dangers here. And not just the Raiders. Things grew in the dark that could eat humans just as easily as flyrats. And sometimes things just…happened. Sometimes people just didn’t come back to the Kintribe. Even families with safe tasks like the Aquasourcers or the Croppers had folks disappear. Mother occasionally told a story of when she had been L’haan’s age and gone on a Longscout. She had come across another Kintribe way out Sunside, and despite the fact she had made the proper respectcalls, there had been no answer from the Kintribe’s Shieldwardens. And when she finally went in, it was all empty. Food rotting on tables, pots dry on heaters, even roaches starved on their leashes. But not the slightest sign of violence.
Only a fool forgot the dangers here.
Sometimes things just happened. And they were happening more often. Turns ago she had been with OtherFather when someone in a suit, like the ones Raiders wore when they went outside but much cleaner, just appeared in a blue flash in the middle of the market. And then with a scream and another blue flash he was gone.
That had been strange even for the Oasis.
And now the Raiders were flying their big ships out all at once. She wanted some idea why before she reported home and so she was here. At her favourite secret.
She was In the GhostBall.
Joshua MechWright and his son had let her tag along a cycle ago when they are out here trying to salvage any of the millions of tiny conduits that formed the walls of this spherical room that was easily a hundred m’s across. Gravity was much lower here and seemed to get weaker the higher you got from the bottom of it, but as much fun as that was, Joshua and his son were not interested in exploring it, only in deriving its purpose. By the end of the day, they were talking way above a Seeker’s knowledge. She could grasp they thought this had been the home of some sort of huge processor, but where it had gone and how it had been removed was beyond even the Mechwrights.
She had come back many times since, exploring its heights. The Whispers that roamed this ancient artifact scared most Seekers away, but they fascinated L’haan. So old they were part of the Oasis themselves, but so faint you could tell them almost any story and they would glow just a little brighter. While everyone knew it was bad luck to put too much into a Whisper, she enjoyed the company they gave as she’d practiced climbing the GhostBall. Gravity was light enough here that mistakes were not fatal. Still, she had learned to grip the tiny holes in the sphere’s surface with the tough pads of her fingers and toes and had climbed high enough to discover, way up in the dark, the sphere changed. The conduit holes ended around the top three m’s or so and the surface changed to a soft silver metal that tingled to the touch. And that was just the beginning.
L’haan carefully assured herself that she was standing directly at the bottom of the sphere, and then she crouched as deeply as she could. She calmed herself, drew a breath, and jumped straight up as hard as she could. The still air rushed by her, but just at the point where one would expect to fall back down, the girl kept drifting upwards. The force of her jump encountering less and less gravity and allowing her to float to the top of the sphere. And just as she neared that silvery cap, she smiled, closed her eyes, and stretched her fingers wide for…
For just a moment, the child named L’haan Seeker ceased to exist, obliterated in the consciousness-consuming silver flare that was The Kesura Oasis. Thousands of square kloms of passages, devices, scanners, and operating systems demanded attention, requested orders, and placed maintenance requests for millions of failing systems. Then it halted as its safety protocols kicked in and it realized that this was not A Bond. It was human/immature/denizen/LhaanSeeker/harmless/familiar/trusted. In the blink between quantum moments, the machine sought out each moment of information that had been the child’s mind, gathered them carefully together, and placed them back in her brain behind the safety of an interface and waited through the eternity of the tick of a human mind. The Oasis went passive and opened itself to the child, putting its sensors and remaining Datagents at her disposal.
All this was just a flash of light for L’haan, and she just reached out as she had learned to do. She knew the Oasis felt L’haan knew the Oasis felt everything and everyone inside it, so she reached out as she had learned to do. Now she could feel the Oasis. Her thoughts flashed through halls and bulkheads. She fearlessly asked and the Station responded. She found her mother, pensive and fidgety after one too many days at rest. Her father, happy to have mother home. She pulled back and let The Kintribe flow over her, sensing its need-to-know things in uncertain times. She could feel dangers coming that were still hours or days away. Time and space meant little to the Oasis and that terrifying open doorway it seemed to be the caretaker of. A door she never dared reach through.
Time and space meant little to the Oasis and that terrifying open doorway it seemed to be the caretaker of. A door she never dared reach through.
But she had no time for that now. She reached out for the angry, red hive that was the Kalan Raider base, driven like a spear into the side of the Oasis. She could sense tension and joy but mainly fear. Someone had found them. Someone who had learned to fight like they did. And they were afraid. Their big ships had rushed out into the dark to meet this threat.
So, the Oasis reached out as well.
And was vexed.
Something WAS coming. Something huge. Something both vessel AND person. Something that was familiar to the Oasis but different. This was Curiosity. And Power. And Violence. And…Hope? And it was coming to them!
L’haan broke the connection in a moment and slid down the curved wall as the faint Whispers scattered away from her intensity.
War was coming!
And she had to warn her Kintribe and all its allies. Tell them to go inward and hide deep away from the edges of the Oasis. Weapons could tear open the skin of their Home. They had done so before.
L’haan ran through the Oasis like only she could.
She had to warn her people.
This was her duty.
She was a Seeker.