SOOT AND SKY
“I realized my obligations are two-dimensional. They are based on a system that measures nothing more than my capacity to absorb information. What good are we, as creatures, constantly absorbing information? The information given to us has been subjected to a scale of thorough analysis. We must absorb information and we must follow rules. What are rules but opinions that have been sterilized, tested, and cropped? Rules are nothing more than exhausted information resulting from an exclusive, sovereign voice.”
I seriously questioned whether or not my encounter with Gustav was a coincidence. As the ship began its three-day journey to the Backslider outpost, I explained my thoughts to James. He accused me of being Paranoid, but I didn’t take offense. Paranoia drives animals to survive. Clinging to my Paranoia, I embraced survival. Among humans, conspiracies were often disguised as coincidences. Thus, my Paranoia was justified.
The Backslider outpost was located on a small planet called Vaylock, where refugee humans lived among its monstrous natives. After fleeing Earth, humans were not offered refuge by very many species. We were surprised to learn that the Yord were open to the idea of taking us in. The brutish race needed skilled minds to help their society advance in the ways of technology and medicine – things Mankind could offer. What technology we brought from Earth, the Yord were interested in keeping for their own planet. Human refugees proved useful to the Yord, but outside of exchanging shelter and knowledge, we kept our distances.
Vaylock belonged to a star system not far from Earth’s. It was only a 70-hour trip traveling at superluminal speeds. This gave Backsliders a chance to relax and mend wounds. I always had a hard time resting, though. Returning from any mission, especially those in Lansing, was like coming home from a funeral. That city, eight years earlier, had been the last place I saw my husband before he disappeared.
I thought about him constantly. Back then we were young soldiers, carrying out routine attacks on Humanoid facilities. This was, of course, years before James and I worked together. My husband’s communicator stopped responding and my squad lost contact. I frantically signaled him, but it would not go through.
I waited for him at our rendezvous point – that’s what we called it. But the transport arrived and would not wait. I boarded without him. Returning to Vaylock was not easy then, and it never got any easier.
I informed our section leader back on Vaylock, but he had a laundry list of excuses against sending out a search team. And so my husband remained missing ever since. Volunteering for every mission within 500 miles of Lansing, I spent every spare minute searching for him. It was unauthorized. I didn’t care.
With another mission complete, I assumed rest was out of the question, but I did enjoy the quiet time to myself. We were barely out of Earth’s orbit when I sat up in my bunk and grabbed a mirror. I had a nasty cut on my left cheek, the first of three reminders of what an exhausting mission it had been. Taking some ointment from a medical kit, I rubbed it across my cut.
I opened a canvas bag, and withdrew a slip of paper and a metal dart. Both held more significance than the throbbing pain in my cheek. I played the mission’s events over in my head…
The folded slip of paper contained four handwritten numbers:
It was my one accomplishment for the week – a major milestone for my career, if nothing else. Those numbers were a Versinon passcode. Obtaining a code was no small feat. They were important for access to any of their control hubs. But every hub was disguised and locked.
The trouble with disengaging a Versinon lock is that it’s like solving a riddle. The answer could be anything – a piece of metal, a written cipher, even DNA. Rarely was the answer as simple as the code I discovered on the streets of Ann Arbor.
James and I spent most of the week with eight other Backsliders, surveying various populations of southern Michigan for evacuation. I received special orders to take James with me to Ann Arbor, just an hour’s drive southwest of Lansing. We were to ambush a unit of Humanoids who planned to attack and seize an entire neighborhood.
The fight was brutal and bloody. After subduing the group, the Humanoid leader offered his surrender. James kept his gun pointed at the group as I interrogated the leader.
“We have been betrayed,” their leader explained. His words were vague. “They sent you to us. They sent you to destroy us. I’ve kept their secrets for far too long. I knew never to trust them.”
“One of your Humanoids betrayed you?” I asked.
“Much higher than that,” he replied. “I know who you are, Backslider!”
Before I could question him further, he caught me off guard and punched me across the face. Upon impact, my world came to a slow halt. I noticed something on his arm as it brushed across my nose.
There was a tattoo containing four numbers – the passcode. As I fell, the image of those numbers burned into my memory.
“You don’t realize who is on whose side, do you? Check the rendezvous point,” he said, as his second fist pounded my world into black.
The dart, on the other hand, was less important for the Backslider cause, but more a personal victory. The Humanoid’s words led me to the dart. It couldn’t have been coincidence; I stopped believing in coincidences a long time ago.
“Check the rendezvous point” could have meant anything to anyone, but to me it had special significance. Before every mission, my husband and I would establish a rendezvous point. It was an unofficial procedure, sure, but we used it as a safety precaution when splitting up. I’ve used it ever since.
As I regained consciousness on the streets of Ann Arbor, James informed me that he was unable to stop the leader from running off. All around me, I saw the bodies of nine fallen Humanoids, each riddled with bullets.
“After you went down, I shot the rest,” James admitted.
I couldn’t blame him.
As we collected the bodies, I told him about the numbers tattooed to the Humanoid’s arm. I wrote them down on a scrap of paper, stuffing it into my pack. I didn’t tell him what the Humanoid had said to me. With our mission complete, we drove back to Lansing.
“I’m going to have to find another car,” James said. “The unit leader surely saw these plates, and they’re going to be looking for us.”
“I’ll upload a status report to Vaylock,” I replied. “Let’s use the northwest corner of Washington and Ottawa as our rendezvous point.” He nodded.
Check the rendezvous point…
After we returned to Lansing, I split apart from James. On my own, I followed a trail to another rendezvous point – where my husband should have met me eight years before. It was a street corner, near the river, in an industrial corner of the town.
What should I be looking for if he never showed up?
I took a look around, wondering if this was a waste of my time. I’ve been there before, several times, but found nothing. And by that point, I observed, the neighborhood had changed so much, it seemed like any clue worth finding would have disappeared. I scanned the area for anything unchanged. The river and bridge were still there, but that was it. The pavement, the buildings, and even the streetlights were all different.
Along the river trail, I spotted a homeless man under the bridge. He was camped out in a tent made of boxes, bags, newspapers – whatever absorbed rain on wet days. His home reeked of stale food products, alcohol, and urine. Choking on the aroma, I decided to breathe through my mouth, and even then I could taste his filth in the air.
“What are you selling pop?” I asked.
He rolled his head toward me, opened his drunken, wrinkled eyes and replied, “Fuck off lady. I don’ sell no drugs.”
“You been around these parts long?”
“Long’r than mos’ folk.”
“Ever see anything… weird?”
“Yeah, I seen lotsa shit,” he laughed. “Gonna haf to be more sp’cific.”
I kicked empty whiskey bottles out of my way, moving closer to him. I could tell he hadn’t been turned into a Humanoid. At least not yet. He was too drunk to be carrying out Versinon orders. He certainly didn’t pose a threat.
“You wan’ sum’n lady? I don’ sell no drugs.”
He began to look uncomfortable.
The strength of his odor grew. By the look of the empty bottles, I realized that, for a bum, he sure afforded the good stuff. Next to his bedroll was a cardboard box full of assorted items. He had to be selling something.
“The neighborhood has changed a lot over the years, hasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “People changin’ too. Ain’ta way thuh use to be.”
“Do you mind if I rummage through your little consignment store here?”
“How mushoo got?”
“How does fifty sound?”
“Fuck off lady. Fiffy bucks? Fuh. Man can’t geh nuffin’ roun’ here for no fiffy bucks.”
“Two hundred,” I insisted.
The bum paused a moment, contemplating the jump in my offer. He reached down, lifted up the box, and let me rummage through it. I sifted through some junk jewelry, old cell phones, and an MP3 player with a cracked display. Then I saw something familiar.
A Backslider tranquilizing dart.
Its design was sleek and silver, though now it was rusted and gritty. More importantly, it was an old model – at least ten years old. With my thumb, I rubbed grime from its label which read “7-24”.
“I sell you that for two hun’ bucks lady. I foun’ it yers ago in thuh gutter. Mil’tary or sumfin’. Waitin’ for thuh right price.”
“You ever show this to anyone?”
“Couple guys las’ month was in’rsted. Told ‘em I foun’ it, but they din wan’ it.”
They probably recognized the Section 7-24 label. The bum obviously had no idea what he was carrying. Pocketing the dart, I tossed my money at his feet.
“Buy yourself a cleaning lady.”
As I crossed over the river, I rolled the little dart around in my fingers. The numbers “7-24” stared back at me without explanation. Section 7-24 was a Backslider security and defense team on Vaylock.
Why would they have been here?
That section had never, as far as I knew, run missions on Earth. It wasn’t the first time I came across discarded gear, but it usually belonged to special operations teams. I found myself quietly reciting the words of the tattooed Humanoid…
You don’t realize who is on whose side, do you?
Repeating this question, I pondered the insinuations. With my mind buried with distraction, I did not at first notice someone following me through the streets of Lansing. Less than a mile from the northwest corner of Washington and Ottawa is where Gustav spotted me.
Though my mission was a success, I returned to Vaylock, with more questions than answers. I tossed the dart back into the canvas bag. Then I opened the slip of paper, committed the numbers to memory, and threw it into the wastebasket.
After arriving on Vaylock, James and I entered the outpost and walked down the long, narrow corridor toward Section 7-26 headquarters. We shuffled past other Backsliders moving up and down the corridor, and finally reached the office of Bangkor, our section leader. He was a short, fat, leathery man, with a scrappy smoker’s voice.
While we both maintained professional dispositions, Bangkor and I never got along. I suspected his contempt for me was rooted in more than just my breaking a few procedures. Fundamentally, we did not click. Our views on the rebellion were totally different. He was very clear that missions should be short and simple; small results were better than no results at all. On the other hand, I felt that stronger reconnaissance and longer missions would spare more lives.
But in the end, Bangkor was in charge, and I simply obeyed commands.
We entered his office. Without looking up, he said, “Did you complete the mission?”
“As assigned, yes sir. And we obtained a passcode,” said James.
Bangkor looked up. He shot me a glance.
“Passcode?” he asked.
I said nothing.
“Yes, sir,” said James. “We have reason to believe that the code we discovered will grant entry into select Versinon facilities.”
Images of the Humanoid’s arm flashed through my mind.
“Well, don’t just stand there gawking at me. What is the code?” Bangkor demanded, pulling out a pen and paper.
“9-1-4-9,” I replied.
He wrote it down, and then frowned.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
Bangkor took a folder from his desk drawer and flipped through its pages. I shot James a concerned look.
“This is an old style of code,” he said. His eyes scanned the contents of the folder.
“What do you mean?” James asked.
“I mean Versinon hasn’t worked with numeric codes in almost a decade. It is an entry code, but it’s defunct. We’ve already linked it to abandoned turning stations around the Great Lakes. Old churches, warehouses, places like that.”
“So you’re just going to ignore the code?” I asked, my frustration wavering on the brink of anger.
“Unless you plan on breaking into an abandoned Versinon facility, this code is useless. The Humanoids have switched up their codes. The modern codes use letters or symbols. You have to remember that Versinon is always evolving, updating its methods.”
“I understand, sir, I just thought…”
“You thought what?” Irritated, Bangkor rubbed his sweaty brow, staring at me through fat, squinty eyes.
I fell silent.
“What? What were you going to say?” he snapped, “Kill-switch? Is that what you were going to say? Get it out of your head, Ati! It’s a stupid idea. They don’t exist.”
I watched as he took the scrap of paper, stuffed it into the folder, and shoved the folder under a pile of papers.
“Also, sir, you failed to tell me that the Humanoids were located not far from the Puritans.”
“You needed someone to light the firecracker, Ati. Gustav was long past due – the bastard should have been eliminated months ago. While you waste time between assignments, handling your own agenda, his people were killing too many of our agents.”
“So you sent us to Lansing, hoping that I’d run into Gustav? Is that right?”
“The two of you are dismissed,” said Bangkor. He went back to his work.
“I could have died down there! Why didn’t you warn us?” I clenched my teeth.
“You are dismissed!” he yelled, never looking up.
There was no discussing it.
James suppressed a look of frustration. I left Bangkor’s quarters. James caught up to me.
“What did he mean by your own agenda? Were you looking for him again?”
“Yes,” I confessed.
I am always looking for him…
Frustrated, James replied, “So – wait, you mean to tell me that I drove all over the city searching for you, and you were using that time to find a trail back to him? After all this time you still put our missions at risk?”
“I don’t get much spare time on Earth. When I’m there, I have to search.”
“Well Bangkor must feel like your personal taxi service. To him, you’re just hitching rides back and forth in order to tend to your own problems.”
“You used to help me with this.” Annoyed, I crossed my arms, looking away from James.
“That was a long time ago, Ati. I lost a bit of confidence. Can you blame me? It has been years.”
I couldn’t blame him. Nodding, I understood where James was coming from. But I wished he understood what I was going through. He tried. He really did.
“I’m close to finding him. Reed and Thal…”
“Reed and Thal are running supplies down to Toronto.”
“Exactly. It will be a piece of cake for them. So they will have extra time to check a few addresses for me before the trip back.”
James’ eyes softened, no longer staring hard at me like I was the kid with a baseball bat trying to explain a broken window.
“You are unrelenting,” he smiled. “So… any word from them?”
“No, and I’m starting to worry,” I replied.
“No news is good news, then?”
“Not in this case.”
They needed to find him and bring him home. They needed to find my husband…
If you’d like to finish Ati’s story, as well as have the artwork which is included in the official copy, you can purchase the full 25 chapters of Nails Jane via Amazon, lulu – digital, lulu – print, createspace, Barnes and Noble, or smashwords. Prices vary from vendor to vendor. Nails Jane is available in print and ebook format.