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Weakness

February 9, 2020 - Random Miscellaneous

Chapter One – Towels and Thoughts

War. For a long time now, there’d been war over their heads. Farrukh had seen his home, that of his parents and grandparents and great grandparents land on different sides of a shifting border several times in the last decade alone. Still, that was mostly a technicality. Northflow Bay kept the same name and outside of rain seasons provided desalinated water to a sizable part of the southern continent, as well as exporting quite a bit of frozen seafood to various places across the planet for all manner of purposes, and he had seen none of them. Born and raised, conflict had been part of this system’s history his entire life, but this was the first time it had come down to them.

Of course, it wasn’t at Northflow Bay, he mused as he folded towels from the industrial washer and drier. The scent of them slightly hard and chemical as the hotel was of the cheapest sort and the customers weren’t paying enough for soft and scented water or soaps. The war was still elsewhere on the continent, as the Sarumite forces held strongpoints and cities and the Matari weren’t going to bother with their little town either as long as the water and fish flowed as it should.

He finished folding the batch and cracked his knuckles against the small of his back with a wince. Even just bending over the folding table for a while was enough to make his aged back protest these days. A few more years and he’d have to find easier toil or perhaps try to retire on his meager savings. Of course, he was owed more from the town, but men and women of The Rite found many roadblocks in the bureaucracy that others didn’t. Entirely coincidentally of course, and the mayor was very sympathetic to their plights. Of course. The paperwork just took time, and they had to prioritize the poor souls who had renounced the Rite and clearly needed more spiritual and financial support in their troubled lives, so these accidental delays and problems would have to wait just a little longer. Of course. Farrukh understood. Of course.

He suppressed an uncharitable thought about the faithless, heathens and their discrimination. Sometimes he wished the border would stay on the other side. Now that House Sarum was dug in, perhaps it would be. He winced slightly, not enjoying the moment of spiteful hate he’d indulged in for a second there. It was sometimes hard to keep a peaceful heart in the face of his faith being so maligned in this place. He quickly tried to shed it as he gathered the fresh towels on the trolley and started his rounds through the hotel to distribute them. The war was truly awful, he knew that. It wasn’t the way it should be. The Rite should come in peace and leave the world even more peaceful. All his faithful friends in Northflow Bay agreed and regretted that Sarum had to take this world by force. Of course. Of course. He’d seen some of their expressions though, when they thought no one saw. A few of them had more trouble than him keeping a peaceful heart. Fortunately, the war stayed afar, and the town would remain a pointless effort for both sides, until it was done with.

Farrukh whistled a soft little tune as he checked his list and checked every room with a guest to see if they had need of new towels. It was a sadly short one, with a mere three guests today. Travelers to and from the town had pretty much dwindled to nothing after the invasion started. He paused at the last doorway, gently brushing against the beautiful sandy stone the whole building was made of. Most of the town was built that way, but the hotel had been given special attention. Scrollwork and decoration on almost every wall, and very clever airflow had been designed into it to take advantage of sea breeze and seasonal weather in order to keep the temperatures inside quite pleasant all year long. He had to confess to himself, he loved the place almost as much as he didn’t love the owner. Perhaps if he’d ever had that windfall he yearned for, he could have taken over the place. What form that windfall would take, he never quite managed to imagine, but he liked to dream a bit even if it was silly. He knocked on the door.

“Attendant. Bringing towels and clean water.” He heard some shuffling on the other side, a pause – he imagined the guest glancing around to make sure nothing embarrassing or private was on display – and then a gentle “Come.” Sounded. He did.

“And how are we today, young miss? The Bay still treating you well?” he said, looking over at the young woman sitting at the small writing desk with a handheld computer of some sort in her hand and a small stylus with a feather attached to it in the other. An odd affectation, he thought, but couldn’t deny it looked right with the rest of the young tawny haired woman’s style. She was dressed in layers of light cloth, the color of the sandstone around them, with streaks of color throughout. Looking like some scholar of old, fitting her strange self-described profession of Artist and Astronomer. She had come into town two days ago, hitching a ride on one of the few land-bound transports bringing in goods to replace with frozen fish. Carrying a rather large bag of her tools of trade and a smaller one of personal sundry, she’d spent some time in the tavern just listening in to the various groups of locals discussing the war and life in general while they were studiously pretending a stranger in town wasn’t far greater gossip for a town such as this, before finding this hotel and a room for “a few days”.

“I am very well, Farrukh, thank you.” She smiled. “The weather forecast says the skies will be clear tonight, so I’ll be able to study the Red Dragon and get some great shots with the three gas giants almost in alignment. The trip will have been worth every penny and sore heels.” She said, gesturing towards the half-assembled photography, telescope and other strange electronics on the bed. Farrukh didn’t recognize half of it but had no idea what kind of things someone would need for such tasks.

“I’m glad. The rain season doesn’t often allow for clear skies. Have you eaten today, young miss?” he said, carrying a handful of towels to the corner table and shelf that was the room’s concession to hotels usually having bathrooms, with a wash basin precariously wobbling on top of them and a jug of water in his hand. He often wondered about the original builders of the hotel spending so much time on the artistry, but not laying water in the rooms themselves.

She watched him replace the used towels, basin and jug with the new ones, studying him a bit before speaking, ignoring his question.

“Tell me. What do you think of this town? The people?”

He paused, blinking. That was unexpected. She had a curious look to her, but he supposed she simply wanted more information for the travel guide she said she published on Galnet to help fund her journeys. He thought for a bit before responding.

“They’re strong. Stolid.” He reflected a bit more on them. The different kinds of fishermen, some working on the vast industrial trawlers that spent months at a time filling their gargantuan holds, and the others working on smaller local vessels for less income but beholden to none but themselves, their families and clans. The maintenance workers that mostly just kept the desalination plant idling during rain season and worked overtime every day when the demand rose during dry spells. Of course, they were simple people for the most part. The ones with wistful dreams and great potential tended to end up in the cities or even off-world, never to be seen again. Still, he had a great fondness for them all, even the heathens that outnumbered the faithful. He found he had no words to describe them all, the overly enthusiastic tattooed “tribals”, the cheerful bakers, the industrious traders, plant managers, subtle by necessity priest, the lazy peacekeepers who maybe had to break up a fist fight or two a year and so on.

“They’re good people.” He said at last, conveying with a wan smile and shrug that he didn’t really know what else to say about them.

“Are they?” she said, her head tilted to the side. “I’ve seen that necklace of yours. I can’t imagine you’re treated very well.”

He startled a bit, reflexively checking to make sure it hadn’t fallen out of the neck of his shirt again. It wasn’t the most blatant symbol of his faith, but it was recognizable to those in the know. It was true, his kind and kin weren’t the most popular in town, but he had no complaints. Not many, anyway. Although with the war having come down to the surface, there were ugly glances and mutterings from some.

“Oh, you recognized it. I wouldn’t say we’re mistreated, miss. It’s just another trial to overcome, and with God we can. Are you faithful then?”

She looked out the window, the stylus tapping on the desk gently as she thought.

“In a way.”

She didn’t volunteer more, looking silently out the window for a while as Farrukh grew a bit uncomfortable in the silence. He knew she had talked to various people in the town, frequenting the tavern as well, asking for stories about the place and taking pictures of the town and its people. She had shown him some of them, the rain and her skill at photography lending otherwise mundane places and people a sheen and beauty he had forgotten was there. It struck him that the photos had reminded him that he did love the town and the people in it.

“Will you be needing anything else, miss? We have a lovely fish soup tonight.” He said to break the silence and shake himself out of the unusual thoughts.

“I think I’ll eat at the tavern, thank you. I need to stretch my legs and limber a little before heading onto the cliff tonight. Will I see you at the tavern, Farrukh?” she smiled gently, the tense topics of before seemingly gone entirely from the air. He gathered his trolly, preparing to leave, smiling in return.

“Probably not. These rains are hell on these old bones. I will take an early evening on the balcony, I think. Be careful out on the cliffs, the paths are sometimes slippery after rainfalls.” He gave her a slight bow as he left, her giving him a slow nod and smile in return.

A strange woman, he thought, but weren’t all strangers from out of town strange in their ways? Perhaps he was strange to her, he mused as he put away the trolly and mentally went over the list of things the hotel needed doing, perking up as he realized he’d finished them all since none of the guests wanted dinner. As he washed his hands in the kitchen, before sorting his own meal, he realized he’d never heard her say her name.

Chapter Two – Isolation

War. For so long over their heads, now on their world, and now reaching them. There had always been this underlying fear that it would happen, but at the same time no one believed it actually would. The communication systems all dying at once was enough to set the fear roiling in Farrukh’s gut. It bothered him that it felt so familiar. He had never felt like this in his life, he was sure of it, but the fear of the unknown coming still felt like something he had always carried. He sat in the hotel kitchen, thumbing his data slate, hoping this time it’d connect to the town hub. It wouldn’t, he knew that, but he still hoped.

Nothing. Nor would any other such unit, the satellite uplinks, facility terminals or anything else that relied on wireless transmissions. There were some antiquated hardlines between a few points in town, but that was of little help. No hardlines existed out of town. Northflow Bay was cut off from Floseswin and New Eden entirely, and the townspeople from each other if they weren’t face to face.

There could be only one explanation. Wide scale jamming of every frequency. Even the communication engineers responsible for the hub, Galnet uplinks and so on couldn’t break through it with their equipment for a few seconds of high density data bursts. The feeling in his stomach intensified as he thought about that. Only military level jamming could do something like that, and according to Severin that wasn’t something the militaries wasted on a location unless they or their enemies were going to operate in the area. Farrukh trusted the old retired marine’s judgment on that, not so much because Sev had spent much time telling stories of his experience, but because he’d rather remained stoically quiet when people asked for any. That was a man who’d seen a thing or two, he reckoned. Things he didn’t want to think about anymore.

He put the slate away and rested his face in his hands for a bit, gently rubbing his eyelids. He felt tired. Worry tended to do that to him, and he’d been worried since the jamming had started last night. Of course, he was hardly the only one. He had found he wasn’t the only one having the idea to go to the comms hub earlier in the day. The crowd had been restless, muttering ranging from secretive to almost hysterical had merged into an uncomfortable susurration when he approached. His joints ached a bit from the walk. The rains were going to be back by afternoon at the latest, he thought.

Traders, journalists, business owners, plant managers and so on in various states of angry to afraid when every redundancy they’d been used to using whenever one or another link in their communications failed had now failed them as well. People with family elsewhere on the planet or out in the black suddenly cut off, feeling the stress of that even if they barely spoke every few months anyway. A few busybodies who were always where there was drama or consternation, trying to make it about themselves as usual. Hensey for instance, complaining very loudly about how he was now supposed to order in new goods for his clothing store, despite never having updated his offerings for the last five years. To Farrukh’s slight amusement, which he quickly tried to suppress, the clothier was clearly disgruntled when no one even acknowledged his presence.

The clothier wasn’t the only one though. Sev’s thoughts on the jamming had spread to most people in town faster than he thought it would without wireless, and in Farrukh’s experience people facing uncertain prospects and dealing with their own fear quickly tried to find someone who could be blamed. In this case, it was the comms hub engineers. One of them was standing on the steps in front of the building wearing cargo overalls full of diagnostic equipment and tools, attempting and failing to quiet the crowd enough that he could be heard. Whenever he managed to quiet one, another felt their question was more important than whatever he had planned to share with them and yet another would then shout his own because clearly it was more important and so was the third and fourth. Farrukh was slightly disconcerted when he realized he was both dismayed at this behavior from his people, while the urge to shout out something of his own – what, he had no idea really, but the urge remained – bubbled up inside him. He had never realized how infectious such a crowd was. He realized they’d both gotten very individualistic yet transformed into a single crowded entity all at once.

His thoughts derailed as a piercing whistle silenced the crowd in an instant. Well, poor young Dim Detlef being a few seconds slower than everyone else and yelling something about his mother needing today’s shopping done into the sudden silence was understandable given his condition. The peacekeeper – Farrukh thought it was Arnold but couldn’t be sure – paused, momentarily distracted by the unexpected sound of Dim Detlef who now looked slightly more confused than usual. He gathered himself quickly though, putting away the sonic driver he’d somehow gotten to produce the whistle.

“Let the man speak, people.”

Arnold, then. That low voice was unmistakable, even from under the shielded helmet. It would appear the peacekeepers had decided to not take any chances while this was going on and had kitted themselves out in what little gear they had. A notable lack of weapons was apparent, but Farrukh suspected from the display that at least Arnold had found ways to modify his tools. Perhaps he had been wrong about them both being lazy and just gathering a corporate paycheck from the fish processing facility owners.

The engineer coughed, muttering a quick thank you and nodding appreciatively at the peacekeeper before he took a second to gather himself and speak.

“Listen, there is nothing wrong with the hub or the equipment. Everything, your data slates and everything else is in perfect working order. We’ve checked, double checked, triple checked and dug out every spare and back-up system we have. They all work as they should, but there’s simply no way to get a signal out. The frequencies are jammed, every last one. If we’d had the right equipment for it, there’d be a chance we could have used an optical tight beam to a ship or satellite in orbit, but that sort of gear is way beyond what we have access to, just like the QE comms. It was simply never deemed necessary for Northflow Bay to have something so expensive lying around when it was never going to be used.”

He stammered slowly to a halt, realizing the last bit of that sentence probably wasn’t going to calm anyone down further, given the situation.

“We’re doing everything we can. Jensen has loaded up his runner with some spare gear and is heading out of town to see if he might be able to get out from the range of whatever is jamming us, but we have no idea where it originates or how far it spreads. All we can do now is wait to hear from him when he returns or wait out the jamming. I’m sorry, but this is simply not on any of us. Please let us keep working, and if we think of a way to get past it, we’ll let everyone know as soon as possible.”

Farrukh felt a slight pride in his people when he saw most of them mutter a bit to each other but quickly nod to the engineer and themselves. The mood shift was palpable, as the rural attitude of getting their jobs done and toughing out any challenges reasserted itself. He turned around and started to head back to the hotel when he heard Sev speak just loudly enough to be heard by the whole crowd.

“Have anyone thought to wonder which side is doing the jamming, and who they’re coming for?”

Farrukh had stopped and looked back. The crowd stayed silent for a few moments before urgent conversations started up, some voices panicked and others trying to dismiss any worries. He felt his stomach roil in fear again and saw the same spread through the crowd. Sev was right. Which side was doing the jamming? Why? Who was going to come to do… whatever it was they were planning to do to the town and its people? Sarum? The Matari? Both? Did it matter in the end? Surely, they’d know no one in town had anything to do with either side.

A shiver ran down his spine as he realized the people talking to each other had quickly split into very distinct groups despite being a throng. The faithful had understandably sought each other’s company and thoughts, and the heathens had found their own counsel more urgent.

He realized with a start he was holding his amulet through his shirt, and one of the tattooed young men in one of the groups was giving him a look he could only call hateful. He spurred his aching joints to more effort than they normally would give him as he hurried back to the hotel.

That had been a few hours ago and since he’d busied himself with what little work was needed with only three guests, one still out on the cliffs, and had ended up sitting in the kitchen thumbing his data slate every few minutes in spite of himself.

It was almost a relief when the back door opened and Jarren Dha’vid, the owner, backed into the kitchen carrying a crate full of foodstuffs bearing the grocer logo, setting it on the main worktable with a heavy thud. Farrukh wasn’t particularly fond of the burly and disheveled man and the feeling seemed to be mutual, but they’d worked together for almost two decades now and had come to terms with it on both sides. It didn’t get in the way of work, and they didn’t have to socialize so peace was maintained fairly effortlessly.

He stood up to help unpack and stow away the groceries that wouldn’t be used for tonight’s dinner service, but Jarren just motioned for him to stay seated. The burly man dug deeper into the crate and pulled out a square bottle of golden liquid, grabbed a couple of glasses from a shelf and sat down opposite Farrukh.

Silently, he poured a good couple of measures in each glass and passed one over before sitting back in the chair and staring quietly for a minute. Farrukh turned the glass a few times, uncomfortable with this unprecedented event, while certain that was the only bottle of actual honest to God brandy in town. Even the tavern only served low quality swill most of the time.

“For the first time in almost twenty years, I don’t know for sure what tomorrow is going to look like, so I figured this bottle should be spent before I lose the opportunity.” The voice was gravelly, and his accent was crude at best. Farrukh to this day didn’t know how this person he thought of uncharitably as a ruffian came to be the owner of this hotel.

“I know we’re not the most likely of drinking mates,” he continued. “but over the years I’ve come to appreciate how dependable you are. Except for that one time the tainted grain put half the town out of commission, you’ve been doing most of the work in this place, without fail. I appreciate that. A lot.”

He raised his glass, and Farrukh returned the gesture a little dumbfounded. Jarren emptied his in two quick gulps, while Farrukh couldn’t quite bring himself to spoil such a rarity so crudely. He satisfied himself with a slow sip, savoring the gentle burn and complex flavors spreading through his mouth before he swallowed. Jarren didn’t seem to mind having to fill Farrukh’s glass less often than his own.

“You’ve been a good employer. It’d be shameful of me if I didn’t work as I could, given that.” He offered, still quite focused on the brandy. He hadn’t had anything like it in at least thirty years, maybe more. Jarren grunted slightly.

“If only everyone else in this town had that principle. Maybe this blackout wouldn’t cause so much trouble.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve just been cooped up in here, haven’t you? There was a fight. Nothing too serious, but four of the dockworkers went up against three others. With pull hooks. Two are in the clinic right now but should be out by tonight. Apparently, there had been a difference in opinion about which of the forces they hoped was coming. Hoped, can you believe it? I dread either one.”

Farrukh swallowed what was left in the glass and quietly accepted a refill as he thought.

“They’re afraid. They don’t know what they’re doing.” He had a feeling he was lying to both Jarren and himself but couldn’t quite put his finger on why. Jarren snorted softly, indicating eloquently and wordlessly that he didn’t share Farrukh’s generous view of them.

They spent another hour working their way through the bottle, talking loosely about the situation and what might come next, stepping gently around the tenser subjects like their views on either side and the people who had now come to blows against each other. He couldn’t really remember ever having felt this kind of camaraderie with his employer and took heart that this kind of crisis seemed to have its own little benefits. Bonds strengthening in adversity.

His heart sank a bit a little later as Jarren demonstrated just how much he doubted the same.

“Listen. I need you to know something.” The uncharacteristic seriousness of his expression and tone made Farrukh sit up a little straighter. He gasped as his employer reached into a pocket to produce what looked like an old Imperial laspistol and put it gently on the table. He stared quietly at it for a bit, as he expanded the list of actual honest to God weapons in Northflow Bay by a third. The other two also being illegal old relics no one really knew where came from but kept as keepsakes or curiosities in spite of the town’s laws.

“I’m locking this in the safe. I don’t think we’ll need it but who knows what the next few days may demand of us? As long as we extend guest-right to people in this hotel of mine, we need to be ready for everything. You know the access code, and if I’m not available in a worst-case scenario, I want you to know where to find protection for them and yourself.”

Farrukh parted his lips, licking them nervously before attempting a response, as he got distracted by the sound of the front entrance door. He glanced out of the kitchen to see the young miss return, carrying her bag of photography equipment, both it and her drenched. The rains had returned, it seemed. He looked back at Jarren who had quickly removed the firearm and the discussion was now tabled.

“Care for the guests, Farrukh. I know I can rely on you for that.”

Farrukh simply nodded, his head swimming a little from the brandy and his knees aching from standing up so suddenly. He slightly unsteadily made his way to the doorway, smiling out to her as she was shaking the water off her many layered clothes.

“Welcome back, young miss! Would you like some di… “

He paused again, mid-sentence, as his pocket vibrated. In slight shock, he pulled out his data slate, hearing Jarren do the same as the young lady pulled out her own handheld computer. The jamming must have ended, he reckoned as he tapped the display showing an incoming audio signal was about to play. He quickly realized the voice that came next was not from anyone in town, the accent one belonging to one of the capitol cities further north-east.

“..flow Bay. Be wa… d… they are comi… less than two da… intention is to wipe ou… epeat, the war is lo… ill everyone. Flee bef…”

Farrukh unsteadily leaned on the doorframe, trying in vain to process what he had just heard and the implications. He tried to think but the only question that came unbidden to mind as he heard Jarren curse behind him was simple.

“Why did they send this to us three?”

The young woman grimaced, looking at her computer with a frown.

“They didn’t, Farrukh. I think they sent this to every single unit in town. It would appear one side is coming to get rid of whoever is not with them. I wonder which side that is?”

Farrukh mutely stared at her, then down at the data slate that now again refused to connect to anything as he thumbed at it, reflexively. He thought about the laspistol, realizing there was going to be a lot more weapons in Northflow Bay in two days time.

Chapter Three – Good Stolid People

War. Once over their heads, now so close Farrukh wanted to cry out in despair. He had spent the previous evening praying until he fell asleep exhausted and had simply resumed when he woke up again. Eventually his search for the voice of God was drowned out by the voice of his roiling stomach demanding anything at all besides the acid.

He went down to the front hall, noting that the guests had forgone breakfasts themselves. They were probably out trying to make sense of what was happening like everyone else. Staring with resentment at the spread at the serving table, he realized he’d immediately failed Jarren who had clearly done Farrukh’s job this morning. In vain, but nonetheless. He looked over the food for a bit and decided it’d taste too bitter.

The kitchens were empty as well, so Jarren himself had probably followed the guests out into the day seeking something, anything at all to distract himself. Not even that ruffian could avoid feeling fear at the prospects that awaited them. He decided to follow suit, leaving the hotel and aiming in the general direction of the tavern.

The message ran on repeat inside his head. They were coming. War was lost, by someone or other. The others were coming here to kill whoever wasn’t on their side. Flee. Flee. He couldn’t help himself and started giggling manically for a few seconds before he suppressed it mercilessly. Flee? Where could they possibly flee, and in what? The trawlers weren’t in, they didn’t have transporters of their own and on foot in any direction would just leave them right in the open when whoever was coming arrived. A few fishing boats had already filled up and left, but that was a miniscule fraction of the town.

At first, he was too distracted by his musings to notice, but soon enough he started looking around in slight shock. The priest was scrubbing his front door vigorously, trying to scrub away the holy symbol of Amarr someone had painted on it in red. Looking around, he saw different versions on other houses of the faithful. It took him a while to understand, but a chill went down his spine when he realized what they were. Someone was banking on the Matari having won and was preparing for their coming by marking the “enemy” houses. Probably in the hopes that they’d pass everyone else by.

He touched his hand to the medallion inside his shirt, praying briefly that it was not the case. Belatedly he prayed again that those who would wish such ill upon them would know mercy and kindness under God someday. He kept on walking, passing the fish processing plant. It felt dead. Every machine inside had to have been shut down, even the freezers, for it to be that silent. It would appear no one was interested in spending their potential last day at work. He could appreciate the sentiment.

He hoped they all spent the day with their families, cherishing their time.

Some clearly weren’t. When he passed the community center that passed for a church for the faithful, he saw a crowd of his kin discussing something animatedly. He took a few steps towards them, to seek some companionship with his own when he saw a glimpse of a couple of items changing hands in the depths of the gathering. Ah. Now he knew where the other two weapons in Northflow Bay were. One of the people on the edge, Geirun he thought but couldn’t be sure without his glasses, waved welcomingly at him. He smiled and returned the wave, but kept his path aimed at the tavern as he nervously tried to process what he had seen. What would they use those weapons for?

A glance at another symbol on a door later, he begrudgingly admitted he understood the need for protection. Two weapons weren’t going to keep whatever armies were coming at bay though. He slipped into the tavern and almost wished he hadn’t when the wall of noise met him halfway. On the verge of turning away, he noticed a few slashes of color in the corner of his eye and turned to meet the eyes of the young miss who had a corner table to herself. She beckoned him over and he decided to comply.

“They’ve spent the morning mostly going around in circles about who could have possibly gotten an upper hand in the war and what to do when they come here. The main sentiment seems to be that whoever would spare the speaker is the clear candidate, but then they return to what if it’s the other side?” she said to him, as he carefully slipped past a loud tattooed fellow before sitting down next to the woman.

“Of course, a few others are advocating a unified front when they arrive, pleading for everyone’s lives and surely they would understand everyone here are just innocent people living their lives without malice towards whoever won.” She continued, her voice quite matter of fact as if she was describing a scene seen through the viewfinder of her photography equipment. He supposed she was used to viewing events as a documentary more than something that was happening to herself.

“Some,” she said, “are advocating for arming up however they can. There are some quite ingenious people there, offering up crude designs for what sounds like quite effective weapons made from the tools of the docks or the maintenance equipment over at the desalination plant. I didn’t even know you could do that kind of thing to plasma cutters.”

“They can’t possibly think to fight them?” Farrukh said, aghast at the thought.

“Hope springs eternal.” She smiled at him, making him wonder what kind of life she had led so far to be able to stay so calm and collected at such a time. Even the distance of a lens couldn’t be enough for that. “Hope, and the racial memory of what happens when they don’t fight. Some of these I think would very much prefer dying than suffer through what their ancestors did. Others of course argue that peaceful surrender would be best. That has twice led to fights broken up before they quite start.”

Farrukh looked around the room, feeling his heart sink. His people. They were hoarding weapons. Fighting each other. Even terrified as some had to be, he had never imagined they would be capable of such things. For a moment he had to fight his rising anger and urge to stand up and berate them all, heathens and faithful both. Then he sank down in his chair, fighting the urge to cry as the fear in his stomach and the anger turned sorrow joined forces and threatened to overwhelm him.

“Why would they do this? Whoever they are. These are good people, all of them. How could this come to pass?” he couldn’t quite avoid his voice breaking a little, realizing he was both talking about the coming terror and his people.

“Because they’re afraid, I think. Not just you, but the ones so very far away. The Tribal Chiefs and the Heirs and Empresses. You have so very little to lose and the greatest stakes you deal with day to day are small problems and challenges you and your neighbors can surely handle when you come together. These far away ones? They have entire nations to lose. Sarum is surely terrified of losing his House and Empire to enemies within and without, as the Republic demands who they consider to be their own people back and Khanid is plotting his own ascent within the Empire who embraced him again. The Republic is rightfully afraid of the military might of the Empire, and the Rite growing within their borders in preparation for total domination. Think about how afraid you and yours are and imagine how afraid you’d be if you had so much to lose.”

Farrukh stared blankly at her, the scales of what she was talking about incomprehensible to him. He could sort of grasp the continent he was living on. When he tried to encompass the planet, it grew fuzzy and vague very quickly. Trying to even imagine either the Republic or Empire as a whole set him dizzy as vertigo kicked in. God had clearly not meant for him to even consider such stakes, much less contemplate the decision making needed to govern it. He understood the fear though. He felt it so keenly in his soul and imagined these far-away giants feeling the same. That he didn’t quite manage.

There was a brief commotion as the crowd quickly separated two women who were about to come to blows, calming them both down as they stared daggers at each other and the people holding them back. Curse words that made him wince as he heard them flying with abandon, for a few seconds no one would ever be able to take back. Whoever this enemy was, they had already done more damage to the town than it had endured in its worst moments for a century. He worried what more damage would be done before they even arrived.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” She said, prompting him to look quizzically at her. She glanced down at his chest, where he was rubbing the medallion again. His hand left it as if burned as he looked around the room and realizing that for the first time in his entire life, he felt like he was in danger among his own people. That his own people could be the danger. The tribals and heathens, his friends and his people, had been the ones to mark the houses. They knew that depending on who arrived here tomorrow, he could turn from neighbor to enemy.

“I… I must go.” He stumbled towards the exit, giving the young lady – he still hadn’t remembered to ask her name – a quick thankful nod before he headed to the hotel, sticking to alleys and avoiding thoroughfares that’d have too many people. He really did want to cry out at the injustice of it all. His own home, feeling like it was smothered under a blanket of dread.

He slipped in through the back entrance and quickly busied himself clearing and then cleaning the front hall and kitchen, eager to deafen his thoughts with exertion. He even found a very brief moment of resigned amusement that such a task would be enough to be called exertion. His age was really catching up to him. Focusing on the work, even to the point where he barely noticed the young woman returning to her room, he managed to find a semblance of calm.

He’d always taken pride in it. The hotel may have been cheap and low on amenities and service, but it was usually spotless. The familiar tasks needed to be done and whoever came here tomorrow would find it immaculate and he would greet them as he would any guests seeking lodging. He spent almost a full minute feeling good about that and the scene he envisioned, before the thought of someone with a spray can of red paint arriving before them. Or perhaps many.

Dropping the washcloth from suddenly limp fingers he buried his face in his palms, biting down on this tongue to stop himself from crying out. They were good people! He was a good person! They were all stronger than this, in this town. Shaking with exertion and realizing he hadn’t eaten all day, he stared at the freezer for a while before he gave up trying to convince himself to eat. Instead he walked with heavy footfalls back to his own room.

It was sparsely furnished. He never felt like he needed much here, other than a place to sleep, a closet and the chair on the balcony. He rummaged a bit in the closet before finding and pulling out a small bottle of what he could only – and charitably at that – call utter swill. It’d do. It took him a few moments to get the cork off and fling it out into the streets before sitting back in his chair to watch his town for what he suspected was the last evening.

The view and sounds usually soothed him. The very soft murmur of the sea washing up against the town on quiet nights, or the hum of the desalination plant in active seasons. Some evenings the shouts and heavy machinery when the big trawlers came to deliver their harvest. The almost deafening seafowl chatter when the local fishing fleet came in, gutting and cleaning fish on the way in to harbor and flinging the unwanted parts back into the sea. With a grimace after a swig, he grunted sourly at the thought of a town too inconsequential to even have a biomass reclaimer attracting this sort of attention.

Tonight, what he had hoped would be a soothing sight looked alien. The harbors, fish processing, desalination plant and cargo terminals all dark and quiet. He couldn’t remember that ever happening in his lifetime. Instead, the areas around the community center and the tavern glowed brightly in comparison and the sounds of agitated but unintelligible voices reached him as the town prepared to face its last night before the storm. He didn’t quite realize how quickly he’d emptied the bottle on an empty stomach before the lights in his view started swimming about a bit.

Weighing his options, anger won out. He threw the bottle out into the encroaching dark with a muttered curse before falling back in his chair and slowly but surely falling asleep. He appreciated the imagery of surrendering to his growing inner darkness as the outer one fell over the town.

He didn’t know how long it had been when he started awake. Groggily, he determined it was at least close to midnight while wondering what had woken him up. The sound repeated and to his horror he realized what it was.

Gunfire.

Someone was shooting over near the town center. A muted roar of angry voices sounded throughout the town as from what he could tell at least four or five different places were suddenly hot spots of ferocious activity. He thought for a moment he could hear pull hooks and cudgels clashing with wood and flesh. As he was about to stand up, he froze as a panicked figure came running down the street with two others in hot pursuit waving what looked like improvised weapons. He could only stare in shock as the sound of panicked panting and the footsteps of someone running for his life passed him by and they disappeared around the corner.

This couldn’t be happening. This couldn’t possibly be happening.

He stood up shakily, stone cold sober now, and gripped the banister. He wanted to scream. To shout. To tell everyone to stop. To ask them accusingly what the hell they thought they were doing. The enemy, if there was one, was out there! Why were they fighting each other? Their own blood, their own town?

He remained silent, tears slowly streaming down his cheeks as sobs fought to escape his clenched teeth.

Farrukh was on the verge of a breakdown when movement caught his eye. Movement and a brief flash of color. It was slow and deliberate, sticking to shadows and moving only when it looked like it wouldn’t be seen, if he didn’t have such a vantage spot. He realized he was looking at the young woman trying to sneak through town carrying her bags. She was trying to get out of town before she herself fell prey to its newfound chaos.

The words of Jarren echoed in his mind. His charge. His job. What he was to be relied upon for. With uncharacteristic determination, yet with a small voice in the back of his head screaming at him to hide in his room instead, he quickly made his way down to the safe and input the access code. He hesitated slightly as the door smoothly opened on perfectly balanced hinges but didn’t let himself waste more time. He pulled out the laspistol before heading out the door. He briefly wondered where Jarren himself was before the situation he was facing quickly took over all his attention.

He wiped the nervous sweat from his brow as he tried to be quiet and stealthy despite his old bones protesting furiously at the crouched run he attempted, following the path he’d seen her take. He glanced around each corner before taking the turns, cursing himself each time as he realized he would only attract attention with the sudden movements but still couldn’t help himself. He wasn’t made for this.

To his relief, he spotted the young miss half a block ahead. She was clever, having used exactly the path he would have chosen for the task. Few would be in this semi-industrial area, and there was little in terms of lighting here at night. Still, she was hampered by her bags and trying to be stealthy, so it was slow going. He wanted to shout to get her attention but decided perhaps he was in a better position to cover her from any sudden dangers if he stayed at this distance.

She had paused at the sight of something lying in the road, taking a few seconds to study it silently before she moved on. Following almost in her footsteps, he froze when he realized what it was. Arnold, in his peacekeeper gear. Dead. The cheap outfit hadn’t proven much use against the bullets that had pierced his chest and faceplate. With a sob, Farrukh fell to his knees. There was only one weapon in town that fired projectiles like that. He’d seen it last in the hands of someone he would have named family and dear friend in the faith.

Someone who had now murdered the peacekeeper.

From the blood, it appeared more had been wounded but at least hadn’t died on the spot. The sound of gunfire was now closer to the tavern area, so they’d had to have moved quickly. He drew a shaky breath, biting back another sob as he wiped tears from his eyes. He had his charge. He had to keep the young miss safe. He could deal with his grief later.

He’d almost lost her but managed to catch up just as she reached the edge of town. Pausing, she stayed in the shadow of the last building for a while, seemingly consulting her little pocket computer. Maybe she had some navigation software that worked without external data. Farrukh had once navigated by way of a paper map, so he knew it was possible, but found himself curious how this young woman had come to learn such a skill in this day and age.

She put the computer away, glancing behind her, seemingly straight at Farrukh. Staring back at the shadow he was hiding in for uncomfortably long, she finally turned away from the town and started wandering surefooted out into the low hills as if she knew her path even in the dark.

He spent a few moments wondering what to do next. She was ostensibly safe from the townsfolk now, but where could she possibly go? Where could he himself possibly go? Going back into town seemed like it’d just invite some sort of violence from someone. Anyone. Almost overcome with grief at that thought, he decided to catch up to the woman and try to escort her at least to where there was water to be found, and maybe a place to hide out until the chaos subsided.

His joints ached painfully as he tried to outpace her before she vanished into the hills, the only reason he didn’t instantly fall behind being a lifetime of living here. Even so, he almost did lose her when she stepped into a gully out of sight. He wondered how she could know that it wouldn’t be full of mud and water, the ground there being too rocky and hardened to succumb even to the rainy season. Panting hard, he stepped around the edge of it and almost stepped right into her.

“You are a very tenacious man, Farrukh.” He gasped as she spoke, even if the tone of voice was friendly. She had expected him. When had she realized he was following her?

“You should probably aim that old thing elsewhere, though.” She remarked, looking at the lasgun he’d reflexively aimed at her in surprise. Stammering something akin to an apology, he quickly pocketed it before trying to explain himself. She held a finger to her lips.

“Ssshh, it’s all right. I know. You were just concerned for someone you had given guest-right to. I apologize for leaving so suddenly and without warning, but I felt it was prudent.” She pulled back the hood to reveal her tawny hair before putting down her bags.

“I’m just glad you made it out safely, young miss. I’m so sorry. I can’t apologize enough. I swear I could never have imagined there being danger for you in our home.” He stammered out, before pausing to catch his breath. He was definitely too old for this shit. He didn’t even have the energy to feel bad about thinking in such crude terms. He decided to just be quiet for a bit as she waved away his apology wordlessly, then knelt to open her equipment bag.

It was as full of strange things as he remembered, but he wondered what she could possibly want now, right here.

“Hold on a second, we’re far enough away now and I need to be able to signal the driver.” She said, fiddling with a heavy looking boxy kit, a small electronic screen and keypad with unfamiliar symbols on it. What did she mean? Signal? Was the jamming area so small? Then why hadn’t Jensen returned yet? He watched, confused, while she tapped in some command and the device powered down.

A chill ran down his spine as a thought was slowly forming in his head. No, it wasn’t possible. Surely not. As if to spite him, he felt his data slate vibrate in his pocket. Slowly, with dread, he pulled it out to see it running the usual updates and tests as it connected to the hub after a period of absence. She was doing much the same with her own, as well as seemingly sending a quick text message before stowing away the computer and jamming device both.

“… it was you? You have been jamming us, this whole time?” Farrukh felt his knees shake as his world realigned around him. She was a photographer. Artist. Astronomer. She had come to get unique planetary footage of the Red Dragon as a rare conjunction of the Gas Giants in the system was happening. She had said. He had even seen her other photography projects on Galnet out of curiosity after he’d first spoken with her.

“Yes.” She said, matter-of-factly. She straightened up and looked at him, studying him closely.

“But…” he couldn’t finish the sentence, despair threatening to overtake him. She smiled gently and sighed softly.

“It’s okay, Farrukh. I understand. Sit down, breathe. You’ve been through a lot and you’re not as spry as I’m sure you once were. This would be a lot for anyone to handle.”

He did as she told, unsure if it was so much out of his own free will or if his body simply did it on its own. Thoughts raced furiously through his head as he pieced together a few things, while catching his breath.

“The cliff. When you went out to the cliff, you were carrying the bag of… of things. Lenses and so on. That’s when you activated the… the jammer. In the night. But… but you were back in town the next afternoon when the message broke through it! It was… you… “ he gave up, gathering his knees to him with one arm, the other hand wiping sweat from his forehead and tears from his eyes.

“Can you at least tell me who won? Who you are working for?” it almost came out as a wail. “Who is coming to kill us?!” he sobbed.

“Hm? Oh, no one’s coming.” She said, calmly, as she crouched before him. “There was only ever me. I’m sorry, Farrukh, I really do like you, but I did have a job to do.” He stared at her in shock, not quite managing to deal with the pace of things.

“A job? What… what job could possibly require… require… all this?” he exclaimed in disbelief.

“An unpleasant but important one. Do you remember what I told you about the fearful ones so far away? Sarum. Shakor. Filmir. Catiz. All of them. You see, their fear isn’t just causing this war. It’s perpetuating it. Because of their fear, neither side is willing to take the risks needed to finish it. Every measure is a half measure. Every push is a skirmish. Every shift of a border temporary and transient. They’re afraid, just like you are. Only their fear is going to slowly kill everyone as they exhaust each other and eventually they both fall to their own flaws and failures.” She explained this slowly, but with calm certainty.

“They can’t be allowed to be the designers of this conflict. Not the sole ones. It has to go from a glowing ember to a fire capable of burning one or the other, and it never will if they have any say in it.”

“… I don’t understand, what does any of this have to do with us?” Farrukh almost wailed, as anger was starting to build at her patiently talking about things he neither had anything to do with, nor understanding of. He turned his head as she simply pointed towards the town. His breath caught at the glow. Too big. Too many. There had to be at least a dozen buildings on fire around the town for it to be that bright. He stared incredulously as she started speaking again.

“An ember. A solitary little flicker in the infinite darkness. That is what your town is now. It wouldn’t even register on the scales they operate on but imagine for a moment a thousand of them. On Floseswin. On other worlds. Other systems. Embers lit across the whole warzone, and even outside of it. It’s of course different every time, as we adapt to the local conditions. Here where the war has touched down, it was very easy. A jammer, and a single faked message was all it took. Our numbers aren’t great of course, so it’s slow work and we can only be in so many places, but every ember counts. Every little point of light in the darkness, people who chose a side and crossed a line. Eventually, it’ll be a conflagration that will force an end to it all.”

He looked at her, as she sounded almost a little saddened by the necessity but hardly regretting what she had done. He roared as an anger he had never known before rose up within, the laspistol back in his hand as he aimed at her.

“You did this! You killed them all!” he shouted, flecks of spittle almost reaching her still calm expression. His hand shook, but at this range he couldn’t miss. She didn’t flinch or look away, simply looking silently at him as he roared wordlessly and tried to will himself to pull the trigger. The lasgun fell to the ground as the strength left him and he sank together, sobbing.

“I have never killed anyone in my life. I cut you off from New Eden and gave you a possible threat to deal with. Do you remember when I asked you what you thought of your people? You said they were strong. Stolid. The thing is, you aren’t. Just like how you share fear with the leaders of nations, you share their weakness. To preserve themselves and what they perceive to be right, they will do anything… except the right thing. The hard thing. In two days, your town devoured itself, and what remains standing will be those who picked a side and now must convince themselves to keep going or face the horrors of what they have done. You can even tell them of me, and they’ll deny it. Whichever side won, the line was crossed and all that remains is a path to damnation or justifying what they did in their weakness.”

He cried bitterly, barely listening as she gathered up her bags, a floodlight revealing a two-seater hoverbike approaching them quickly. Damned. He couldn’t even deny it. All she had done was let them reveal who they were when things got frightening. Northflow Bay had damned itself forever. He’d never know which side panicked first and fired the first shot. Flashed the first blade. It didn’t even matter. It didn’t even matter who had won, as they’d still lost themselves in their fear.

“Goodbye, Farrukh. I fear there is no absolution for anyone involved here, but if there’s any consolation… sometimes fire forges strength. Perhaps you or the others can find some.”

She didn’t look back as she got on the hoverbike and the ragged driver gunned the engine and quickly disappeared through the hills. Farrukh couldn’t help himself. Hysteric laughter echoed in the gully as he realized that not only did he have no idea who she had worked for or with, but he hadn’t even remembered to ask her name.

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