– by Azenn
Part I of III:
Bishop twisted his lacerated neck towards the port-side hull window as best he could manage. He had been tethered mercifully to the upper catwalk, allowing him (unknown to the taskmaster, of course) what he loved best in life: a commanding view of an entire ship. The ironclad shackles bit hungrily into his slivered ankles, the chains lacing around his writs made him wince… but, ah! – he had done it. He had contorted himself into a freakish shape he would have once thought impossible at his thirty-two years of age. He had devolved back into the boy of his youth, slim and slender; but unhealthily so. His bruised ribs began to hurt, but what did it matter? Damn his withered back; that was his only worth to the corporate dogs. He would break himself if it meant enjoying this, his last fleeting glimpses of the sky, the stars, of freedom.
And what a sight it was, almost worth the price of his admission as human cargo on the Bestower class industrial. He couldn’t help but gasp. His lined eyes blinked in awe. The heavens in all their glory melted into sunfire around him; for even as the twilight sea of bluish-gray clouds swam past, it sparkled the colors of the setting sun: orange and gold and liquid crimson at the tips. Beautiful the clouds looked, dipped like translucent feathers in a sanguine ink. The dying red sun in this, the lonely fringe system of Saza, bathed everything in that pale glow. It dyed the mists and fog a watery red; it set aflame the enameled ship plates a smoky red; it even spotted the skin of the sickly man shackled to his left a putrid red… or maybe that was the blood he wheezed all over himself.
The Bestower sunk further into the ominous sea of clouds like an unwelcome lead weight; they were now completely enveloped in the darkening mist, now a light shade of purple. A nameless dread pushed against Bishop’s chest. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was drowning, drowning somewhere deep in this lightless region of Aridia where all screams went muffled and all wails became choked gurgles underneath the cruel whip of the taskmaster. He rubbed his neck and traced his descent through the heavens. How far he had been swept from his tribe; how long it had been since his coming of age; but alas, through the stretches of time, here they were: the shimmering feathers he had once worn, dipped in the cloudy purple blood of the hunt.
Bishop bit down hard on his tongue. That had been the day it all changed. He remembered dancing round and round the bonfire, spurred by laughter and music, pressing his wife’s warm palm to his as they counted the stars and talked of growing old. It had been fourteen years since he had–
He paused, noticing the skeleton of a youth, impossibly famished beyond humanity, grinning at him from across the catwalk aisle. For a brief second, Bishop wondered if he himself now looked like that; and then he saw the dreadlocks, crusted with grey, and realized he stared at kin. Skeleton man was one of them, another Minmatar tribesmen, perhaps even from Bishop’s own homeworld.
Skeleton man laughed a dry cough; the kind of cackle made possible only when the mouth has long since traded spit for soot. They had gone waterless for two days.
‘Beautiful sight, isn’t it, mate?’ said skeleton man. ‘And I don’t mean you staring at me,’ he added with a wink.
Bishop shot him a feeble smile that he hoped made it across the shadowed space that gulfed them, lightless as it was save for the eerie red glow. He then shrugged as he turned to resume his vigil. ‘Yeah,’ said Bishop to the glass. They were canned like sardines in a barrel, and every conversation meant dozens of eavesdroppers. Only thoughts were private, and sometimes – like now — those could be stolen. He hated it.
The skeleton gave another hacked laugh. ‘You have kids, mate?’ he asked. ‘A wife, a family?’
Bishop froze. ‘Yeah,’ he said, clenching his fist. A bead of sweat broke on his broke, and he whipped himself back towards the skeleton man, and said, almost a yell: ‘Yeah, I have a family. Why?’
‘Hey, same here,’ said the skeleton, holding up his hands. He then motioned a bony finger towards the window. ‘Good on you if you’ve got someone you can say goodbye to, mate. They’re out there, somewhere amongst the stars. And us, as doomed men, should pay our respects. Each and every one of us. Already dead, we are.’
‘Shut the fuck up, would you?’ interrupted a wiry-looking woman to skeleton man’s left. She wiped the greasy strings of hair from her starved eyes with a shaky hand. ‘That’s the third time you’ve preached this rubbish. Shut up already! Just shut up. I’m sick of it. We don’t need to hear it.’
‘But it’s the truth,’ commented the sickly man to Bishop’s side. A wet cough rippled through him, but he soon continued: ‘We are the dead. We must be. For this planet is a dead world, a poisoned world, and it consumes the living.’
Wiry-woman shook as she glared at him. ‘What are you, a witchdoctor? Don’t spread rumors,’ she snapped. ‘Don’t spread rumors!’
The skeleton chuckled again. ‘But rumors are fun.’ He took on a dour face, and deepened his already scratchy voice. ‘They say on the palest of winter nights on Saza IX, if one listens long enough to the wind, you can hear the song of the legion-dead fast asleep in their unmarked graves.’
Wiry-woman turned the full force of her icy glare towards him, but an unfamiliar voice spared skeleton man the verbal reprimand that was about to accompany it.
‘And that’s the name of this planet, isn’t it?’ asked a hesitant voice from somewhere nearby, obviously well aware yet still dreading the answer. ‘Saza IX, right?’
The skeleton nodded. ‘Ever since the good old boys Concord lifted their ban, the Amarr corporate pigs have been tripping over themselves in delight. Why do you think they’ve been shipping us ‘voluntary’ migrant workers by the month to Saza IX? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not our women, renowned though they may be,’ he said, winking at wiry-hair.
She rolled her eyes, and skeleton man continued. ‘Let me tell you all something I heard. It’s an archaeological corporation that runs this site, yes? But they never run a dig; they don’t ever excavate ground; and they never build more shelters or warehouses. People come here. They don’t leave. What happens to them?’
‘They VANISH!’ shrieked what must have been a rather panicky woman somewhere out of sight. Bishop didn’t like the sickly man much, but he was sure glad he wasn’t chained next to her. ‘No one ever sees them again! Just like my kin who–’
‘That’s right,’ interrupted the skeleton, glancing down the catwalk aisle towards the dozing taskmaster. He lowered his voice as if to lead by example. ‘Wish doom on these Amarr dogs while we still draw breath. It was nice knowing you all, mates, but we drew the short stick.’
‘No!’ said wiry-hair with the fierce fire of desperation in her eyes that made even Bishop pause. ‘There’s always hope. Don’t listen to this Brutor village idiot. You have to believe. Let me hear you all say it.’
A silence fell between them all. No one said it. Bishop had closed his eyes. It would be nice to believe in something, but the skeleton was right. They would all die here on Saza IX, each and every one of them, like cheap cattle for the corporate slaughterhouses to meet some fat cat’s bottom line. And if they survived this desolation, if they made it a week, perhaps a month, maybe a year, what would it matter? In the cosmos, manpower fueled industry, and the captured tribesmen from various Minmatar fringe worlds would all be spent like horses and left in the morning slop for the birds of prey.
The skeleton grinned. ‘Hey, look at that. We’re here.’
And so they were. The Bestower coughed itself out of the blanket of mist that had smothered it, and all of a sudden, as if a wind had blown away the sheets, Bishop could see the shattered world that lay smoldering not more than a precarious fifty kilometers below him. If it had once been green, that time was long past. For all the world had turned to ash; and it swirled playfully with its brothers, the grey snow and yellow dust, all three smearing themselves like rain against the glassy port-side window. Bishop could see the empty ruins, so vast and so very silent, stretched out like a graveyard of twisted metal. Rubble littered the sunken, snow-covered streets. Fallen monuments, like toppled sepulchers, shone with a soft metallic gleam. And here and there and everywhere between, the colossal wrecks of an unremembered people, gilded silver and cloaked in translucent deathshrouds of mist, rose out of the barren landscape like ironclad cairns and vanished into the fog at dizzying heights.
One of those colossal wrecks swung dangerously close, and for a brief moment Bishop assumed they would crash and burn in a fiery inferno of charred steel. But with that thought, the heavy ship lurched sideways and upward, creaking like an old battering ram, and averted them from a passing fate. He heard a few curses from those around them as they banged and bruised limb against limb. But Bishop couldn’t help but smirk. He had shared a thought, trivial it may have been, with a pilot.
The ship leveled itself to the sound of the engine moaning. They now skirted at a safe altitude, well above the unreal city of the dead. Their course had them slowly sinking further into the red sun that itself sank on this ashen world.
‘Prepare yourselves,’ cackled the skeleton. ‘We’re descending again.’
((insert quarter for parts two and three))