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|Against a Diamond|
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Author: Michele Dutcher
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5 novellas from The Orion's Arm Universe Project. Mine is the first one called 'Heaven's Door'
This story happens on Mars between the years 2501 to 2617. Last reference is Mars 2850.
The abandoned space station hung in the silent vacuum between Saturn and Titan like a floating tombstone. Its empty shell was only memorable because of the phrase it carried with it: ‘Heaven’s Door’. The letters had been painted in fluorescent blocks six stories high and could be seen at a distance of 50 kilometers, smiling down on the surface of the small moon. The relic could be viewed most clearly by the wealthy as they arrived on the intersystem transport from the inner-worlds. It had therefore become a symbol for abandoning the disease and death and destruction of the older planets, and entering the wealth and eternal life of the outer-colonies.
Most people didn’t need a relic to tell them where they belonged; the planetary differences had become instinctual centuries ago.
William Floke knew where he belonged; on the plague rotted surface of Mars – but he sat in a bar on Titan anyway, five steps from the entrance. The holographic program serving up drinks could tell at a glance that Will didn’t belong in the outer worlds. His purple eyes, the gap in his front teeth, and even the way he held his empty glass were blaring signs. But the bartender wouldn’t be calling for back-up. She would let him pass through. Perhaps he was a sex seller - perhaps not.
Paul placed a fresh drink in front of Will, sitting on a chair in front of him to cut off the other patron’s view of his companion.
“I was told by Ace that it’s a woman this time,” William sighed. He sipped on the sweet liquor. "That always makes it a little easier.”
“It is a woman,” replied Paul. He handed Will a square of plastic which he quickly placed on top of his pupil. Reading the thin film, William nodded that he had received and understood the contents. Within ten seconds the blotch had dissolved into the fluid surrounding his eyeballs.
Will’s long blond hair was tinged at the temples with gray. It softened a face that had been hardened by ten difficult Martian revolves, twenty years Standard. “Is she an eternal or a terminal," he asked.
Paul ran his right hand over his balding scalp. “She's an eternal.”
Paul leaned over the small table, getting close enough to feel Will’s breath on his face. “Is your bio-dot still working, Will?”
“Lifetime guarantee, Paul. You already know that.”
“How many of these dots are there now,” asked Paul.
“I was told, when I got the implant, that I was one of only three. And it was mentioned that I only received it because of a specific assignment.”
“Maybe this is that assignment.”
“Perhaps. They told me what to look for. I’ll have to wait and see.” Will looked down and away, uneasy talking about the subject even with his mentor. “Would you like a little sample then?”
“I could be talked into it,” nodded Paul discretely.
Will understood the implication and rubbed his palms together to activate the micro-dot, sending an influx of endorphins to his palms. He unfolded his hands and placed them palms-up on the table.
Paul took two fingertips and touched the center of Will’s hand. He shivered with pleasure for a moment, smiling and closing his wrinkled, heavy eyelids. “That’s nice, my friend. That’s very nice.”
“You’re welcome to take as much as you like.”
Paul withdrew his hand, inhaling deeply as he sat back in his chair. His heavy tummy shifted over his belt as he thought about the offer. “I can’t, although the thought is tempting. I must be in top mental form tomorrow morning.” The pair each sipped on their drinks without talking for almost a minute.
“Yes, Paul, I can still read your mind,” said Will, almost irritated by his friend's insistence on running the dot through its paces.
“Well, read this!” Paul laughed, pressing his index fingers against his temples.
The wild haired young man finally broke into a laugh in spite of himself, remembering for a moment that it felt good to smile.
William glanced around the room briefly. “What do you see, Paul?”
“I see people frolicking, dining, laughing – enjoying the luxury of the Titan lakes. I see a Venusian Tweak in the corner, trying to hide his wings. They've been using Titan recently as a relay point to the use the Beamrider. The word is they're waiting for something or someone, so they’re stuck here, on Titan. They’re like everyone else, trying to get as far away from the inner worlds as possible.”
“I wonder what they’re looking for,” asked William.
“I don’t know. Some secret society, prophecy, oogly-boogly stuff. I’ll bet ArthurCee’s Tweak on back on Mars knows. They’re all interconnected mentally.”
“Really? That could come in handy. Do they have an outpost close,” asked William.
“I’ve heard they’ve set up their own colony, in a biosphere off-world. They have an Earth woman with them I think.”
“He reminds me of R7X. They are beautiful creatures by design. There is just something about the expression around the eyes – unfulfilled longing perhaps.”
The Tweak’s eyes shot towards William as if he had heard him, but instead of looking away William held the stare for just a moment.
Paul drew William’s attention back to the table they were at by shifting in his chair enough to allow him to see the rest of the room. “What do you see, William?”
He studied the crowd for a moment. “I see young, beautiful men whose parents have paid dearly for their everlasting youth. They are dancing with girls who will never grow old and never decay. I see a whole new race of humans: a species so callous that they left us behind to starve on Mars while the nanoswarms ravaged our resources. They could have sent back the technology to stop the plaque, but they kept all of it for themselves. They reveled in the safety and comforts of the hydrocarbon pump-stations here. Peace and serenity - ‘have a lovely day’ – it makes me want to vomit.”
Paul seemed to puff up, reclaiming his place opposite his friend, making sure no one could see his companion. “Don’t get yourself worked up, my young friend. We’re just passing through this bar. No harm done.”
The two were still talking when three men dressed in black and white work uniforms stepped up to their table. The servers pulled chairs from another table to form a tight circle around Paul and William.
“This is the one I told you about”, whispered one of the newcomers, nodding towards the younger man.
The servant looked him over carefully before building the courage to even ask the question. “Can you help me Lord?”
“Do you believe in me," asked William, focusing his purple eyes on the face of the tired workman.
“I do Lord, I do.”
“Blessed are those in pain, for they shall be comforted,” said Will. He once again rubbed his hands together as though warming them and small beads of drugged sweat appeared. He placed his hands on the table, palms up.
The workman's arms were shaking as he placed his hands, palms down, on top of Will's. He shut his eyes and smiled, feeling relief from the inner world disease that was eating him alive.
“Take as much as you need, my friend, for I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.”
Eventually the second man withdrew his hands, placing them on his lap. The relief was only temporary, they all knew that, but for a few days this man would know peace again. “Thank you, Lord,” he whispered.
The music was booming now as the revelers scurried into the loud pleasures of the night. Around the other tables the eternals laughed, and they sang the lyrics to overplayed songs.
But if you could have gotten close enough to hear the lowered voices of the five resolute men in a corner by the front entrance, you might have heard them recite in unison: “In the beginning was the Door, and the Door was with God and the Door was God. And the darkness has not overcome us.”
God looked around the table at his newest disciples and smiled.
Three Earth years ago, on his homeworld, William Floke had been a magnificent specimen of youth. His thick blond hair had shot down over his shoulders like a lion’s mane. At sixteen, before the firm found him, he was the envy of the filthy people who surrounded him. Some thought his linage was the result of an eternal’s romp with a local girl, but he had never met his father or mother, and no one had ever cared enough to volunteer a name.
A member of the firm had chanced upon him while he sat patiently beside his half-sister’s fresh corpse, using a blood separator to harvest water from her veins. Nothing went unused by the desperate Martian society in the years following the nanoswarms of 2599. Even the dead were used to nourish the living.
By now, William had started pulling his hair back into a tight ponytail. His decline into beautiful decay was already beginning. The dot would do that to a man: drain the life force from him quickly, though painlessly. He had accepted that scenario without any reservations. Among the bottom-dwelling Martian aboriginals, every meal was a trade-off.
“Enter”, ordered Miriam turning momentarily from the plants she had been watering. Her arboretum was three stories tall, allowing her Venusian Tweaks to exercise their wings in its rafters, when they so desired. Within the hour, the asteroid she and her tweaks had settled on would rotate enough to see the gaseous surface of Saturn. In the meantime, an image of old Earth and Luna was seen circling in the glass of the bio-dome.
Gabriel, a powerful two-meter winged creature, marched into the room, towering over the ancient woman. He bowed slightly as he came upon her.
“You may exercise if you’d like,” she told him, pleasantly. “I have accelerated the pressure to 500 milibars for your comfort. Luci and Gypsum are already flittering about.” They both looked upwards, seeing the beautiful winged creatures in silhouette, playing like children against the background of her homeworld. She smiled, knowing the increased pressure also forced her body to exercise its organs – giving her a longer lifespan.
“Perhaps later,” sighed Gabriel.
“Do you have news then,” she asked, looking at him directly.
“I saw a human from Mars in a bar on Titan – a man with golden hair with graying edges.”
“There are many men from the red planet passing through Titan, trying to escape the swarms.”
Gabriel stepped in closer, touching softly a pedal of the flower she held. “What you say is true, Mothergod. But this one was different. Most humans whisper behind my back and then look away when I gaze upon them – as if they have something to hide. But this man continued to look at me, as though his motives were pure, although primitive. As he sat, others joined him, saying words I didn’t understand.”
The odd pair stood for a moment, considering their options. The biosphere was quiet enough that the whoosh, whoosh of flapping wings could be heard circling overhead.”
“May I offer to meld my thoughts with you, Mothergod? In case this is the one.”
Miriam sat down the clay pot and offered her left hand. “Are you ready, Gabriel?”
“I am, Mothergod.”
Their hands touched and locked and Miriam’s eyes turned a pale cherry color. Her mind was traveling now, a voyeur in time and space. “From churning sands as red as blood he arises stars fall from heaven and chaos ensues.” Her mind was moving forward in time now, crashing into the present. “I see a Messiah masquerading as a servant. I see vacant eyes smiling through red, warm blood.”
Gabriel withdrew his hand, severing the meld. He allowed the woman to fall into his waiting arms, steadying her for just a moment. “Are you okay, Mothergod?”
“I am, Gabriel, thank you. Follow this man, see what his motives are.” Miriam pointed upwards, motioning to the two flying tweaks in the rafters. “Take Luci and Gypsum with you – they need an adventure.”
William stood studying the splendid banquet room before him.
The affluent on these outer worlds enjoyed socializing over meals of dirt food: meals actually grown in their own greenhouses instead of being synthesized by chemical corporations. The manufacturers of synthetic foods promised the taste and texture was the same, but the eternals swore they could tell the difference.
William would only be here for this one banquet, this grand masquerade ball, and he knew his service would be quick, courteous and efficient. His service would be perfect. He glanced at his uniform: it was spotless, crisp. He touched his eyelids and his eye color changed from purple to green.
Another server, the man in pain from the night before, nodded at his comforter discretely. William acknowledged the nod with a fleeting glimpse. The servers stood quietly, surrounding the massive room, awaiting a signal from the emcee to bring out the main course.
Each costume worn by the eternals contained a mechanism to holographically produce any image the wearer desired. Images could be as tall as ten feet or as short as a few inches. Mythos creatures were very popular this year.
William scanned the room clandestinely, listening to the babbles of those sitting at tables in front of him.
“You know he’ll show up as Emilio. He always does,” said a seated middle-aged woman in a flowing black linen gown with a pointed hat. “He continues to fancy himself as a starving artist.”
“How can he be starving when he doesn’t even have a stomach anymore? He had it surgically six years ago you know,” replied Rebecca, nodding.
“And Aunt Sylvan will most probably come as a suicide lover,” laughed one of the three witches as the others cackled wildly. “No matter how many young boys she chooses to mate with, she always ends up with a broken heart…as if she still has a heart.”
The theme for the reunion was the lavish Masked Balls of medieval Earth. There was gold and ivory ornamentation everywhere, as far as the eye(s) could see. A thousand candles hung in mid-air, illuminating the white, satin and lace covered tables. There were delicacies from all corners of the inner worlds - and all time periods.
An English tower guard used the base of his staff to pound the floor three times. “Announcing the arrival of the Commander and Chief of the Free World.” A ball of light appeared in the doorway, becoming a solid form within seconds. The figure in the doorway was a small human with a dumb grin – dumb even for a Homosapien.
“Why does he always choose to attend the Masquerade in that form,” huffed a female dressed as a snail. “Look at those big ears - disgraceful. Three hundred Allied presidents to choose from, and he believes that this one was the most successful.”
The small man quickly entered the room, drawing up close to the three-hundred-pound snail. “I like this time period, sweety. There was always something to do on Earth, something to see, some country to blow up.”
The snail wiggled her eyes uncontrollably on their horned shafts, obviously irritated by her brother’s arrogance.
“Surprised I heard you, Edweana,” the small man asked mockingly. “The big ears, remember? Maybe if your disguise had big ears instead of just hearing through your skin, you could ease drop on conversations too. You might be surprised what people are saying about you, sis.”
“Come, now, you two,” comforted one of the witches. “You only see each other once every five Titan cycles. You can be civilized to each other for an evening, can’t you? You are family first – remember that.”
“As you wish, dear cousin,” she relented, sliming her way towards the refreshments.
“Where’s Lanchaw,” asked Doubleu, searching the dozens of family members in the room.
“I think he’s over there in the corner, dressed as a Twin-footed Cyberox,” directed one of the three sisters.
The small human smiled, and turned towards a Lithwoenian feline. “I see him now. I just want to apologize again for beheading his lover in that whole Martian rebellion fiasco. You don’t think he still holds a grudge, do you, Sarpastta?”
“Why would he,” the forty-pound, three-headed panther purred. “I’m not angry about your disemboweling my fifth ex-husband. Forgive and forget has always been my motto, dear heart.”
The small human smiled and began to stroke the nose of the huge feline. “You always were a pleasure to be around, Sarpastta.” He began to move towards the Cyberox in the corner. “But you know Lanchaw, he can hold a grudge for half-a-century or more.”
The sound of an entity beating a crystal glass with a piece of silverware, rang out above all the conversations. “Ladies and gentlemen, females and males and undecideds, welcome to this humble masked ball. Kudos to Emilo who chose to sneak in as a bi-breasted Jiggernaut this time, instead of donning his usual starving artist façade. Kudos.”
There was polite clapping all round, coming mainly from the entities who had appendages to clap.
The tuxedoed master-of-ceremonies continued his speech. “I’ve been informed that a Sorscorgian feast is in store for our small band in twenty Earth years, so put that on your calendars. Remember: we’ll be meeting again in twenty Earth years, with our hostess with the most-est being the ever lovely Edweana.”
Again there was polite applause, and the six-foot snail bowed graciously, as much as it was possible for a snail to bow.
“We have a special treat tonight,” said the emcee. “Amcarea has agreed to grace us with one of her charming melodies. Words will be in Earth English, for those who want to adjust their audio-translators.” The host graciously gave the stage to a two-foot-tall insect who touched her wingtips, a signal to a group of musicians who stood at the ready.
“Lifetimes will roll past like waves on an ocean,
On an ocean where storms rage and tides tear at innocent shores.
But here, down in the deep, sounds turn to silence,
Within the cold depths of my heart – it is you I adore.
Life and light are so fragile
Death and darkness survive.
I search for you through eyes of many colors.
As I do I can see the long rolling ages roll by.
Our reunions are brief while we are breathing…
But we shall join hands, when we hear death’s cry.
Life and light are so fragile
Death and darkness survive.”
The music stopped and the singer smiled, taking a small bow as the audience sent their love towards her in whatever way they felt appropriate. The emcee reclaimed the stage.
“A toast, then, my friends, a toast: To life and death, to evil and righteousness, to hope and despair, to yesterday and tomorrow. They are all equal sides of the same sphere. To the partners - the pack if you will - with which I travel. You are my true family and Titan my true home.”
All lifted a glass, except those who had chosen to come without appropriate appendages, and they merely smiled.
“Enjoy the party.” The emcee towards the headwaiter and nodded discretely. The wait staff took the floor, bringing each celebrant their order.
Within an hour the night’s entertainment had begun. The light was muted as couples and threesomes took to the floor, dancing away the loneliness of the Titan night. The ceiling was transparent and the gas giant Saturn could be seen twirling overhead. The southern pole was clearly flattened from this angle. People who had lived on Earth said the consistency and color of the planet was that of a puddle of muddy water.
A traveling star suddenly shone through the translucent ceiling. William knew it was actually the reflection of Sol’s light bouncing off Heaven’s Door, some 150 kilometers above them. He snarled when he saw it, in spite of his mental training and his usual indifferent demeanor. “Heaven’s Door indeed,” he muttered to himself - as if the people of Titan thought of themselves as angels. The arrogance of the Eternals surrounding him was occasionally overwhelming.
Amina was the typical, middle-aged woman, in a garish sequined gown and mask. She chose to remain at her table when her companions invited her to dance. She explained to them that she was feeling a bit drowsy, and not to worry.
William was at her elbow now, brushing the front of his shirt against the back of her shoulders as he served a drink. She smiled to herself for an instant, giving into the fantasy of having this young man for an evening. She waved to her friends as her eyes quickly met Will’s while he served at another table. He touched a button on the edge of a stack of dirty plates and they quickly disappeared.
Then he was at her side again, close enough to smell the perfume on the nape of her neck. “Was there anything else I could bring you, Miss? Anything else you needed?”
“Nothing more. Thank you.”
And then it happened: a few drops of her Venusian wine hit the bronze of her kneecap. She giggled to herself at having been so awkward, although she couldn’t recall having touched the glass. Will leaned over her, offering a napkin, smiling into her blue-grey eyes. Together they pushed her chair back as she slipped her hand into his. Amina shivered for a moment as sensation shot from her fingers to her feet.
There would be no accidents tonight, no slip-ups. Amina told a friend she was going home to bed, as indeed she was. She secretly met the attendant by the servant’s entrance.
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