2946-07-09 - Tales from the Inbox: The Heights of Herakles

Nojus was alone. 

He preferred it that way; he’d had partners in the past, but they always seemed to get in the way and cause. He was getting old, but he figured he had ten years left, if not fifteen, before he began to slow down. His followers would be heartbroken the day he hung up his survival multitool and retired to some tropical paradise on a pleasant world, of course; but they’d get over it in time to buy his memoir a few years after that.

Nojus glanced up at the pair of camera drones which hovered a few meters above and behind him. Green lights on each indicated that they were recording. Taking a deep breath of the thin mountain air, he turned around for one last look at his campsite. All the trappings of technology were piled next to the wind-proof tent, already half-buried in driving snow. The weather was far from perfect, but the viewers wouldn’t mind. After all, Nojus’s datasphere audience consumed his footage to see an explorer brave the harshest conditions on any world, armed with nothing but his trusty Reed-Soares Portable Survival Utility, and his sponsors at Reed-Soares Industries were happy as long as their product was occasionally waved where the audience could see it.

Wrapping his simple cloth cloak around his broad shoulders, Nojus turned toward the ridgeline which he’d come to scale. He was already two thirds of the way up to the top, but the final third of the climb was known to be the most perilous, and that would be what the viewers would want to see most. With a flick of his wrist, the big man altered his multitool to take the form of a climber’s pick and tied a length of simple polymer cord to its handle. Technically, rope bent the rules for his videos, but any time he was climbing, he brought some along; the viewers understood his desire not to plummet to his death in a remote mountain gorge.

Despite its reputation for being a perilous ascent which claimed many climbers, Nojus found the ridge ascent surprisingly easy; the rock and ice was crisscrossed with ridges and cracks that provided plenty of handholds, and once he started, the mountain’s shoulder blocked the worst of the wind-blown snow. He’d climbed far worse mountains with far less imposing reputations in the past; once again, he was being disappointed by a peril not quite living up to his expectations. The drones, unperturbed, hovered overhead, and he remembered to occasionally give them a good shot of his trusty, gleaming survival tool. He even made it look a bit more challenging; Nojus would never fake a near miss, but he did put more heaviness in his movements, as if the cold – which was unpleasant, but not a real concern – was seeping into his bones bit by bit. It would build suspense, and keep the audience invested in his journey longer.

The first time Nojus saw the claw-marks, he didn’t think anything of them. They might have been tool-marks from previous climbers – dozens of teams had climbed the ridge since Herakles was colonized, and many had vanished trying. The second time he spotted the marks, he began to realize what he was seeing, and by the third set, he began to grow concerned. Mountains on most worlds were lifeless wastelands, of course – a large animal climbing so far would be rare. Herakles, however, had an unusyally thick atmosphere that was breathable by humans even at the tops of the tallest mountains. It was quite possible, he decided, that local wildlife might prowl the peaks. Nothing of the sort had been in the reports he’d read about the place before climbing it, but even a Core World still sometimes had surprises for its human inhabitants.

Two hours after leaving most of his gear behind, Nojus stood only a few meters from the crest. Beyond, he knew the ridge dropped down at a dramatic angle to the plain on the far side, looking out over a largely uninhabited but lush region of jungles and marshlands. If the weather was clear, he might have been able to get a shot of himself standing there, with the gleaming sea in the far distance – but given the overcast and snow, he knew he’d be lucky to get a shot where the next peak on the ridgeline could be seen over his shoulder.

There was a tremor in the rock under the explorer’s boots as he took a step toward the lip. Frowning, he looked around, wondering whether he’d triggered an avalanche. He saw nothing, but the mountain blocked his view in three directions.

There was another tremor. In front of Nojus, a giant black paw reached up from below and gripped the top of the ridge. As he took a surprised step backward, the creature it belonged to clambered fully up onto the precipice. Nojus doubted the beast was in the Heraklean catalog; he’d heard of nothing like it. Its powerful, vaguely catlike form was almost eight meters tall at the shoulder, and its pelt of ropy, black hairs seemed to defy the driving snow. At first, it didn’t seem to notice that it was not alone on the summit. Nojus crouched low, quickly punching a new code into the handle controls of his multitool. It lengthened and flattened into a machete shape, with a long, curved cutting blade. It was the closest thing to a weapon pattern he had available, since he’d uninstalled the fishing harpoon configuration to make room for a few others that might be more useful when climbing a mountain. 

The creature eventually noticed Nojus and, as if surprised, wheeled its head toward him, roaring into the blowing wind. The camera drones were, of course, still recording. 

“What a pleasant surprise!” The explorer shouted back, raising his blade-configured multitool in challenge. He had begun to worry that footage of his adventure was turning out to be distressingly dull. 

Some of you probably recognize the name of the audience member who submitted this story - it's none other than Nojus Brand, a vidcast personality in his own right with a massive audience.

Nojus sends us this story rather than publishing the full-capture drone footage because, according to him, the creature he encountered on the mountaintop snapped up his drones, then darted away. He sent a video of himself telling the story our way, hoping I could do something with it. As an occasional consumer of Mr. Brand's vidcast content, I was only too happy to oblige.

Any of you who know the work of Nojus Brand know that he is somewhat given to getting carried away in recounting his own exploits. I don't think this story is made up wholesale, but I do confess I suspect it might be exaggerated. The creature in particular was probably a Heraklean mountain lion, despite his assertion that it was unknown to the human population of that world, and according to information I could find, they never get larger than about three meters tall at the shoulder. That's still a gigantic predator, but we can forgive Nojus for overestimating its size in his excitement.

2946-07-17 - Tales from the Inbox: The Day's Last Glow

This is an odd sort of submission. Tacita A, the person who sent it in, is a crew tech aboard a merchant hauler, the Izz Al-Din, but she was not a spacer her whole life. Several years ago, she left her home and family on Herakles for a life on the space-lanes. This is the story of how she left her planet-bound existence, and chose a new path, with the help of an Angel - or what she considers to have been an Angel.

I confess I have my doubts. As you will see, her account is unreliable, and it does not agree with other accounts of the Angels in many respects. It is my personal view that the appearance of a hermit was embellished by hallucinations - the Heraklean uplands attract many solitary settlers, and many of them don't bother to register their presence with the local authorities. All the same, her story is compelling, and the audience is encouraged to decide for itself what it thinks of her very unorthodox description of a fleeting Angel encounter.

Tacita lounged alone in the entrance of her thermal tent, staring up at the mountains and basking in the slowly fading narcotic warmth of yet another dose of annuska. Soon, the glow would fade enough that her problems of the world would return, and another dose would be required to prevent her from climbing to the top of a nearby sheer promontory behind which the sun had sunk and leaping off. For the moment, while the drug still plucked pleasurably at her senses, she was at peace.

Annuska had been Tacita’s vice as a youth, but she’d sworn it off the day she’d met Mac. He had never known about the habits she’d left behind. Even through the weeks Mac spent half a world away at Athenea and the entire months he’d spent off-world, she’d remained strong. In the darkness of the lonely, quiet nights when the remembered bliss of one more run of annuska promised to help her get through, she had pushed away the temptations, remembering that when Mac returned, he would chase the temptations away. He always did.

Now, of course, things were different. With annuska dulling Tacita’s senses, she could pretend that Mac wasn’t three hundred kilometers away in another woman’s bed, his wedding band hidden away in a little-used drawer he didn’t think anyone knew about. For the moment, she could pretend the medical bills from Martin’s lighter accident weren’t coming due, and that her brother, who had hung on for six weeks after the crash despite horrific injuries, would in two days be buried in the same cemetery as her parents. She could even pretend she hadn’t seen the marriage termination forms on Mac’s list of datasphere retrievals, and that somehow, everything was going to be okay.

Movement on the promontory scattered these detachedly morose thoughts. Tacita watched dreamily as a feral Heraklean mountain goat, its large, crooked horns jutting into the sky, appeared at the precipice, staring down as if surveying its territory. Heraklean goats were bigger than the original Earth stock, and in the dying light, she thought the creature quite majestic, even though her primary interaction with their kind was to eat their meat on special occasions.

When the trembling returned, and thoughts of Mac with another woman in his arms began to hurt again through the drug’s fading veil, Tacita rummaged through the tent to find where she’d put the rest of the annuska she’d purchased. 

When she found the tin, it was lighter than she expected it to be. There was only one dose left – one final brief window of pure bliss, before it was time to decide whether to head up onto the promontory and end it all or to head back to town and bear the unbearable. From a corner of the tent, Tacita's comm blinked furiously, indicating many unanswered messages and dropped connections. Even the thought of sifting through these and finding Mac’s divorce notifications and paperwork made her feel sick.

The remaining annuska promised one more reprieve, and to this refuge Tacita gratefully fled. Licking her fingers, she rolled them through the tin to collect the remaining dregs of golden powder. As a pleasurable tingling began to seep through her fingertips, Tacita rubbed the powder on her forearms, her neck, her collarbone, to speed its absorption. The trembling began to recede, as did all her troubles receded into the background. With a high-pitched, eager sigh, Tacita exited the tent, intent on feeling the starlight on her skin, but her limbs betrayed her before she made it two steps from the flap, and she fell to the soft, spongy moss, giggling at the absurdity that she had thought it possible to walk during the beginnings of an annuska run.

At first, she tried to watch the stars come out, but the dancing and cavorting of the fickle clouds obscured her view. Still lying on her back, she craned her neck to look at the promontory upside-down. The big goat was still there - either in reality, or in the warped world of the annuska run. It must have noticed the antics of the human far below, because it was watching her, just as she was watching it. Tacita, still giggling, waved lazily at the animal. It didn’t react.

As she watched, another figure climbed into view at the top of the ridge, standing next to the goat. It was a man, or a giant, clad in a suit of grey metal that reflected the rays of the day’s last light, which still fell on the far side of the peak. He was wearing a helmet or a cowl over his head, and the animal seemed not to notice him, though he stood only an arm’s reach behind it. Despite being unable to see the figure’s face, she thought him familiar; perhaps she had seen him before, in another hallucination.

As the solar disk sunk further behind the ridge, its reddening rays seemed to shine through the giant on the promontory. The metal suit seemed to become plates of interlocking Gothic armor, and his headgear became a helmet with an angular faceplate like the prow of a seagoing ship – Tacita had seen an ancient helmet like that in a museum once, many years before. But even as she wondered what this change might mean, the figure changed again – the armor faded and vanished. Underneath, she saw robes like those worn by the monks who lived nearby at Reynders Point. Unleashed from the confines of armor, a pair of giant, dark wings unfurled from his back. The giant's skin was deathly pale, and dark, loose hair hung from his head, hiding much of his face. He was looking down at her, and she no longer felt like waving.

Stepping up to the very edge, the winged man gripped the goat by its horn – any mere mortal that would dare to do the same would have been hurled off the edge by an effortless toss of the huge goat’s head, but the animal submitted instantly - and gently pulled it back from the cliff. As he backed away out of sight, the figure never let his gaze wander; his hair-veiled eyes stayed locked on Tacita until he disappeared from view. As he did, the sun, clinging to the horizon beyond the mountain, finally slipped below, and night came to the tops of the peaks in the distance.

Tacita blinked several times. Already, the annuska was fading again. She’d had hallucinations under its effects before, but she couldn't shake the feeling that the winged giant had been real. Still half-numbed by the drug’s afterglow, she staggered to her feet and stumbled toward the ridge where she’d seen the figure. Perhaps he'd left footprints or some other mark she could see to prove there had been someone there. It was a matter of life and death - hers - that she try.

If she had been sober, the steep hike would have taken twenty minutes. After staggering uphill through the dusk, at times forgetting where she was going and why, at others seeing her destination with crystal clarity, she finally reached the summit nearly an hour after she set out. Her tent, now far below, was illuminated by its own photocells, preventing it from being swallowed by the darkness creeping in from every side. Having brought no light except the blue glow of her wrist-computer screen, she dropped to her hands and knees, looking for any sign of heavy boot-prints that might prove that what she had seen was real.

As she searched, a deep, bone-shaking rumble filled the air. Tacita looked up just in time to see an orbital launch roar past, its belly seemingly close enough to reach up and touch as it climbed upward to the stars. There was a landing pad for orbital craft in her home-town, but it was almost never used – more likely, the spacecraft had just lifted off from the larger burg of Corinthea, many kilometers away. Though it was only above her for a fraction of a second, Tacita was enamored with the vessel's clean lines, its spotless, gleaming hull panels, and the way its rumbling vibrations filled her bones, cancelling out for just an instant the persistent post-annuska tremors.

Just as soon as it had come, the spacecraft banked sharply upward, and its roar faded, its glowing drive dwindling until it was only a moving star, then disappearing from sight entirely. The silence rung in Tacita’s ears, and she was alone again on the ridge. With nothing left for her in the world, the stars, slowly multiplying in the retreat of the day’s last glow, seemed a sympathetic audience to her tragedy.

As she turned her eyes back to the ground, Tacita spotted a single impression, which might have been a footprint. She touched the oblong patch of crushed moss and dirt gingerly. Though far from conclusive, Tacita decided this was enough proof for her - there had been someone on the ridge after all. She wondered where the giant had gone – there were no other prints, no lights, and no paths leading in any direction.

“Running won’t help.” She said, realizing only after she spoke that the words were meant to address the departing orbital craft and the giant man, who in her drug-addled mind were one and the same. "Other worlds are bound to be just as cruel.”

Even though it was true, it seemed like a pathetic counter-argument. Her choice of two unpleasant fates had been given a third option, and it didn't matter to her whether this had transpired by chance or through the work of an inscrutable guardian angel. If her life on Herakles was crumbling, why was she bound to it? “Fine.” Tacita said into the darkness. “We can try it your way.”

2946-07-23 - Tales from the Inbox: Ven's Angel

The spacer who provided today's entry was in his twenties in 2918, when he lived with his mother and sister on Ceres. His presence there during the last year of the Ceresian habitats was very easy for me to prove. I was also able to find stills of Angels inspecting the refugee camps on the worldlet, before it was evacuated, though Ven S. did not provide them. His story of a close encounter with an Angel holds up. If the date he remembers is accurate, the events below took place less than three weeks before the evacuation of Ceres.

He's now the captain of a small vessel running passengers and small cargoes between the worlds of the Silver Strand. As far as I can tell, that's all he does in the Strand; this is consistent with the evidently bare-bones lifestyle he seems to live in his public datasphere footprint. He's only an occasional consumer of Cosmic Background content, but he read another of my posts on the text feed where I mentioned the audience demand for Angel-related stories, and decided to send his in.

Though I did not clear this story with Simona Durand, our local Naval Intelligence attache, Ven's story does not contain anything they tend to find objectionable. Unfortunately, since we published what we knew about New Rheims, Simona has not been quite as responsive with our requests as she has been in the past; I do hope that our studio's decision to post what we did about New Rheims has not damaged our working relationship with their representatives.

Ven hurried home as soon as he’d heard the news: the Angels were coming.

The streets of Afolayan Park were no filthier than they had been the day before, but with such esteemed visitors on their way, the slums attached to one of the oldest and largest habitats in the system seemed intolerably unkempt. Afolayan had once been one of the best off-Earth habitats in the system, he knew, but the War had changed many things. Refugees from the devastated regions of Earth had come to Ceres as they had flocked to the other less-affected habitats in the system, and Afolayan, Ceres’s largest habitat, had opened its doors and allowed Earth’s unfortunates by the thousands. Ven and his family had been among these refugees who’d settled into the hastily-assembled accommodations installed in what had once been the mining city’s park district, a hundred meters below the Ceresian surface. 

Ven’s father had hoped the chaos on the old world would ease, and that in a year or two, he would be able to return to Earth and continue his old life with his family. The authorities had promised that they would put right the regions ravaged by Rattanai armies, and that the refugees – no less than two billion strong when the exodus finally petered out – would be slowly returned from exile.

Ven’s father and grandfather had died waiting, watching in dismay as fifteen thousand refugees resettled in Afolayan Park became used to their squalor, fighting for a small number of issued luxuries and a chance to respond to job postings offered by the city’s permanent population of miners, engineers, geologists, and metallurgists. Afolayan Park was all but walled off from this population; without a pass, none of the refugees living inside could get past the well-guarded checkpoint leading into the city proper.

Ven had been born to the Park, the second generation of interminably dispaced persons. Now his twenty-fourth year was approaching, and still there was no news of resettlement for anyone in the slums. As he clambered excitedly up the irregular, often-repaired stairs of the building to the family’s small third-floor residence, he wondered if he would die under the enclosed, artificial sky of Afolayan Park, too.

“Ma!” Ven called as he entered the residence. “Did you hear?” In the dim light, he could just see the urn containing his grandfather's and father’s ashes set on a shrine-like table in the corner, surrounded by flickering holos.

“Hear what, Ven?” His mother, who'd always longed for a life she never knew under the warm Ceylon sun of her grandparents, seemed more sickly than usual, sitting by the tiny, dingy window with her cracked reader-slate.

“Angels are coming. Where’s Jaya?”

“Ven, the Angels wouldn’t come here.” She replied with a sad smile. “Jaya has been out all day. Probably spending time with that Sidley person again. She seems to like him very much.”

Ven winced. His older sister had grown into life in Afolayan Park better than their mother, but not much better. He didn’t have the heart to tell his ailing mother that Sidley was a narcotics-pusher who worked for one of the more violent street gangs in the Park. He tried not to think about what striking, dark-haired Jaya was doing to get her fix, in absence of credits or luxuries with which to buy Sidley's wares. “The Angels are coming here, Ma. To the Park. Everyone’s talking about it.”

“Why would they do that?” She shrugged.

“I don’t know.” Ven admitted. There were rumors, but nobody knew for sure. He set down the bag he’d carried back from the distribution center. “Here’s what we got this week.”

The sight of the half-full bag animated his mother, and as she rifled eagerly through it, Ven took her place at the window, looking down at the street. A pair of thugs ambled by, covered in garish nanotattoos identifying their allegiance. Ven watched them check the electric scooters chained to the front of the building across the street for anything worth stealing, then slouch against the façade of a building while shouting rude things at a trio of young women who had tried and failed to avoid their notice. Ven remembered what Afolayan Park had been like when the refugees had first come – it had been grim, spartan, but orderly and hopeful. Now, it was still grim, and still spartan, but the order and hope had suffocated below so many meters of rock.

“Any media stamps?” Ven’s mother asked hopefully.

“Couldn’t get any.” Ven replied, turning around. Escapism had, he suspected, was the only reason his mother hadn't died young of heartbreak; he would doubtlessly be sent to trade other non-essentials for media stamps with other residents in the next few days.

When Ven looked out the window once more, the street thugs were gone. Since this usually meant trouble, he frowned, pressing his face to the polymer panel to see down the lane in both directions without seeing anything that might have spooked them. “They’re here.” He whispered to himself.

“Hmm?” His mother, still sorting out the rationed items, didn’t look up.

“Angels.” Ven replied, as the building shook again, a little stronger. Around a corner down the street, a trio of Solar Refugee Authority men in full riot gear ambled into view, weapons ready. SRA almost never ventured deep into the Park in such small groups, but Ven already knew they weren’t alone.

Stooping to avoid a web of datalink cabling strung across the intersection, an Angel stepped around the corner following the three men. It was almost five meters tall, and it looked nothing like the Angels Ven had seen in datasphere media snippets. Where the Angels which had penetrated the Rattanai defenses of Earth to hold the line against their armies on the ground had been bulky, heavy-looking frames, this one was spindly and graceful despite its size, its faceless head turning side to side as it examined its surroundings. A tubular object like a weapon barrel protruded from its left arm, but Ven thought the metal-sheathed alien looked like more of a scout than a warrior.

No, he realized, as it deferred to its human escort’s choice of direction. It wasn’t a scout. It was an emissary. Nobody had ever seen an Angel without its armored suit. The secretive xenosapients had saved humanity twice in recorded history, without asking anything in return, but no human had ever seen the face of an Angel.

The SRA men led their charge toward Ven, and the towering alien ambled along in their wake, the few refugees on the streets gawking up at it. Ven noticed that its lower legs were reverse-articulated, like those of a bird, and that though its footsteps shook the foundations of Afolayan Park, it avoided stepping on any of the litter and debris choking the street. 

“Look at that.” Ven whispered. His mother paid the spectacle no mind, even as the floor under her feet rumbled.

The alien stopped halfway down the street and pointed to one of the buildings, its head tilted in an obvious question. The men turned around to address it, but Ven had no way of hearing what was said.

Its curiosity satisfied, the alien followed its minders down the street. With a thrill of something like terror, Ven realized that it would soon pass right in front of his window – and that its head would be almost on level with him. He wondered if it was better to hide and let it pass, or to try to get its attention.

The Angel’s eyless gaze swept each sagging building, each alley, each pile of refuse. Though it was impossible to determine what it thought, Ven hoped it was disappointed. He hoped that it knew that most humans lived better than the Afolayan Park refugees, and that the Park was, at least supposedly, a temporary situation.

Finally, when the shuddering grew too extreme for her to ignore, Ven’s mother joined him at the window. “That’s an Angel, is it?” She asked rhetorically. “Hmph. Doesn’t look all that special.”

“It’s amazing.” Ven replied, not really paying attention to her.

The Angel stopped in front of the window, looking down at a refugee who gawked back up at it from the side of the street. Its domed head was only two meters away; Ven wondered what was behind all that metal. Was it really an alien, as the datasphere media said? Was the Angel merely a machine, serving the interests of distant masters? Or was it something else entirely, something which hid within an indestructible shell to protect its surroundings  rather than itself?

The pedestrian moved on, and the five-meter-tall creature looked up to Ven’s window. The young man gasped, his blood seeming to turn to ice in his veins, even though he had no way of knowing for sure that the Angel could see him, there was no doubt in his mind that he was observed. Though it had no eyes or expression, its attention speared Ven, and he felt as though every layer of himself was being peeled back for its silent inspection. 

Before he had time to even gasp, Ven saw the Angel turn away, and the uncomfortable impression vanished. Gulping a few breaths, Ven watched in silence as it followed its SRA guides to the far end of the street at a stately pace, then turned out of sight.

“I wonder what they mean by bringing that thing here." Ven’s mother muttered.

“It means things are changing, Ma.” Ven guessed.

He wasn’t wrong. 

2946-07-27 - Editor's Loudspeaker: The New Rheims Committee Hearings

Delegate Sylja Nisi-Bonn's committee began holding hearings this week in Congress on the New Rheims cover-up. While I was not able to catch the past three days' hearings live - our studio and Yaxkin City are nearly on opposite sides of Planet - I have viewed the recordings of all the hearings to date. I know that many people in this audience are very interested in what comes out of the investigation, who don't have the time or bandwidth to view fifteen hours of recordings. As such, I will provide a brief list of highlights in a text feed post after the last hearing this week (on the 29th).

Some of you likely took my advice the last time the investigation was mentioned in this space, and added ingestion rules for Delegate Nisi-Bonn's datasphere releases related to the investigation; however, I have already spotted several concerns which her press office has chosen not to highlight, or perhaps which nobody on her staff recognized the significance of immediately.

As there have only been three days of hearings so far, it is too early to determine whether Congress is going to play along with the Navy's evident desire to keep the actual cause of the disaster secret from the public, but given how heated discussions between Admiral Godfrey and Delegate Nisi-Bonn became on the second day, I remain optimistic about our chances of learning what happened. Members of this audience should be cautioned that congressional investigations take months to reach even the simplest conclusion; though we can watch its progress day to day, we may not have answers before the end of the year.