A Dispatch from the Enemy

Dear Mom,

There’s not much I can tell you given the content restrictions on personal comms.

As expected our graduating cohort has been split apart and sent off to round out understaffed squadrons. I have to admit I’ve been hoping to be assigned to the Karnos sector so I can fight those upstart Chaonians and their insolent queen-marshal. You’ll probably be happy to hear that instead I’ve been assigned to a backwater station in an undisclosed location. Most likely a typical starting berth on a military cargo ship hauling a pair of lancers to guard against pirates. Lucky me. Quiet and boring. As you can guess I’m not thrilled, but every newly graduated lancer pilot has to work their way up to the big ships no matter how high their scores.

A comms speaker squawked, breaking the writer’s train of thought.

“Apama At Sabao, please report immediately to Declarations and Tariffs.”

Apama stopped typing as the speaker crackled back into silence. She was sitting on a shaded bench in the arrivals courtyard, holding the keyboard steady with her lower hands and typing with her uppers. Rising, she closed the tablet and stowed it in the outer pocket of her kit bag. There was no one else in the courtyard. She’d been the only passenger on the commercial freighter that had landed on this moon.

There were four doors out of the courtyard, one marked with the double helix symbol representing the hegemony of the Phene Empire set above the characters for Declarations and Tariffs. Crossing the open area offered her a view to the sky. Even in daylight it was possible to see the pinkish-red neon-glow aura, shaped like a spiny malevolent starburst, that surrounded the system’s second beacon and rendered it inoperable. The scarily luminous artifact gave this star system its modern name: Hellion Terminus.

The office was slumbering in the afternoon heat with all its windows propped open. Fans gamely stirred up an ice-tinged cooling breeze. Evidently this port was so boring and quiet there wasn’t regular air and space traffic. She repressed a sigh. Still, her instructors had emphasized that hard work and high scores would get you a coveted cruiser berthing as long as you didn’t slack and get comfortable.

Not that she ever really had a chance to get comfortable except when she was inside a lancer. That autonomy was her escape.

The civilian scribe on duty at the waist-high barrier yawned as Apama handed over the thin ceramic chip that held her duty orders. The scribe scanned Apama’s retina, then plugged the chip into a security cube.

“First time here?” the scribe asked as they waited for the green light. A pregnant local woman, she spoke in Yele rather than Phenish.

“It is, thank you.” Apama’s own Yele was good, drilled into her brain via various accelerated programs.

“It’s always everyone’s first time here, and their last. It’s pretty hush around here, d’y’follow?”

“I’m sure it’s lovely.”

As the scribe looked blankly at her, Apama racked her brain for any further compliments to make the anodyne comment sound less condescending. No need to create hostility, especially not when she was alone in unfamiliar territory. It wasn’t that the Karnos sector and places like Hellion Terminus were the enemy. They belonged to the empire, after all. But they weren’t imperial Phene either, not with those spindly two arms and stubby torsos and the impractical ways so many of them wore their hair. These people all spoke the common tongue of the hated Yele League as fluently as their local languages while mangling—some said deliberately—the Phenish taught in schools and required for administration.

She remembered the view from the courtyard where she’d just spent an hour waiting for no obvious reason. “The beacon aura is incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“People say that all the time, but consider what it means for us. We used to be a busy and prosperous cultural hub on the main beacon route between Karnos and Yele.”

“That was eight hundred years ago.”

“Long before you Phene got here. We still tell stories about our glory days. Now we’re just the end of the line. You must be from one of the bustling central systems, eh? They say the party never sleeps on the Triple As. Isn’t that how the song goes?”

“I’m not from there.”

The scribe narrowed her eyes, examining Apama in the way of folk who feel you’ve overstayed your welcome now that you aren’t willing to accede to their demands. “Are you one of those shells? Pardon me. I’m not sure if it’s an insulting term, but the only other one I know is worse.”

Apama had run this gauntlet so many times in the course of her lancer training that she’d developed a special tone and a set of stock phrases. “I don’t have an exoskeleton. But my womb mother does. Why do you ask?”

“There’s a funny gleam to your skin. They say shells exude mucus constantly to reduce friction between the soft skin and the hard outer shell. Is your matron’s skin chitin, or keratin? Or something else?” She lifted her two hands in the gesture of submission. “Pardon. I’ve never had a chance to ask before, and you seem nice.”

What was taking the hells-bound clearance so cursed long?

“It’s complicated. A dual endo-and exoskeleton was one of the earliest Phene genengineering projects. That was a really long time ago.”

The scribe was nodding, the ribands and feathers of her triple-spined headdress waving in time to her head’s movement. “Having a hard shell would be good for certain kinds of dangerous jobs that need extra shielding like shipyard work and ground infantry for planet-side invasion.” Her gaze flicked over Apama’s four arms, the true mark of imperial Phene. “Surprised to see you down here. Military transfers come in via military transport straight to the orbital station. You getting picked up?”

Apama wasn’t sure if it was travel exhaustion that made her uneasy or the weird isolation of this dusty hells-scape of a moon. She of her own self with her humble origins wasn’t worth spit, but a fully trained imperial lancer pilot? That was another story. Ransom. Forced labor in a Hesjan cartel. Spiteful political murder by anti-empire insurgents. It wasn’t common, but it happened.

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