Helionox: Tales from the Systems End – The Tears of Icarus
Part 1: The Child of Alhambra
By T M Romanelli
They called it Cypress Station, and like many other outposts sprinkled throughout the Inner Belt, no one could claim with certainty how this moniker had been acquired. The facility was a modified Bernal habitat anchored to the carbonaceous mantle of 884 Priamus, a small planetoid among the Trojan cluster that followed Jupiter’s orbital path at its trailing Lagrange point. It was an administrative and logistical hub for the mining operations sponsored by established commercial firms and smaller, independent prospectors, and as such it was equipped to meet the routine needs of several thousand colonists. However, Cypress Station was never designed to deal with the frightened crewman that quickly disembarked from an ore freighter and snuck past the customs screening with a high fever and bloody cough.
The MRSV strain swept through the residential quarter, devastating the population with its high fatality index and resistance to standard antivirals. The local health service was overwhelmed within the first days of the epidemic, forcing a strict quarantine to prevent the contagion from spreading to the other precincts. The sector descended into utter chaos after the Constabulary sealed the airlocks, and the subsequent violence killed more residents than the pathogen. Lysirah’s parents died at the hands of rioters that rampaged throughout the interior, looting the infirmary and marketplace as they shouted aimlessly about corporate exploitation and worker’s rights. She barricaded herself in the small apartment and rationed the limited stores of food and water to wait out the lockdown. When the quarantine was finally lifted two weeks later, the med techs found a handful of survivors severely weakened by dehydration and malnutrition. Lysirah had endured against formidable odds but would never consider herself lucky.
The remaining colonists were eventually repatriated, and Lysirah was remanded into the custody of her paternal uncle, his determined refusal overcome by the small stipend granted by the Colonial Authority. Her father had rarely spoken of his estranged brother, and with good reason- he managed a dilapidated algae farm in one of the outlying agriplex domes on Mars, barely making quota and spending the thin profits on his syndorphin addiction. Lysirah assumed all of the menial tasks that had been ignored for years, and despite her willingness to learn, she became an unavoidable target for her uncle’s increasingly violent outbursts. In her darkest moments, she wondered if it would have been better to die gasping for breath as the virus destroyed her lungs rather than be held hostage to Uncle’s bitter charity and abuse. These should not have been the thoughts of a thirteen year-old girl, but her own family was gone and there was nowhere else to go.
The child of third-generation colonists, Lysirah was intelligent and accustomed to hardship. She had been with her parents on assignments throughout the system, and her education was steeped in practical matters as much as standard didactics. Necessity quickly made her an expert at repairing the aging pumps, filters and aqueducts that ran across the farm, and although the work was monotonous, it gave her an excuse to stay away from Uncle during most of the day. In the beginning, she was naïve enough to think her utility would provide a shield against the insults and fists, but Uncle’s contempt only grew in proportion to his dependency on her skills.
They were selling a thin crop at the market a year later when she encountered the tall stranger dressed in robes, surrounded by an unusual entourage. Gripped by the delerium of syndorphin withdrawal, her uncle struck her repeatedly as customers quickly moved past and averted their eyes to her distress. The stranger stepped forward and confronted Uncle while the escorts gently herded the crowd past the small booth. They spoke quietly, but Lysirah heard her uncle say that she should have died with her parents and he only put up with her because she kept the algae harvesters running. This proclamation captured the interest of the stranger, and after some further discussion he reached into his robes and removed a gleaming credit disc. Uncle’s eyes went wide and before she could utter any protest, he had sold his own niece like livestock. Caressing the object that contained his newfound fortune, he was already planning his next drop and remained oblivious as the escorts led her from the stall. Eyes brimming with silent tears, she looked back in desperation but Uncle had already pocketed the disc and turned away.
She never saw him again.
During those first hours of captivity, Lysirah almost surrendered to the toxic mix of fear and panic that followed her realization that she was a victim of human trafficking. Instead, she marshaled those emotions and channeled them into a rudimentary escape plan. Strangely, no one had threatened or restrained her while they traveled on the Maglev destined for Bradbury, the oldest and largest settlement on Mars. She was even permitted to use the lavoratory without the supervision of any guards. By remaining compliant, she hoped to lull them into a false sense of security, and then make her escape attempt when they exited the compartment. Lysirah would scream and shout to draw attention, hopeful that the Security Police would take notice.
“Are you hungry?” the stranger asked as he seated himself across from Lysirah, and appraised her for several moments. When there was no answer, he continued in a gentle, measured tone.
“I must make you aware of several facts,” he began. “The most important of which is that you are not a prisoner. When we arrive at Bradbury Depot, you are free to leave. None of my followers will stop or pursue you. Do you understand?”
Lysirah met his gaze but kept silent.
“I know this is very disorienting, but would you agree that the present circumstances are at least marginally better than being beaten by your uncle?”
“How much better? Well that depends on your-”
“No!” Lysirah almost spat. “How much did you pay for me?”
“A fair question,” he replied after a pause. “You are curious to know the value of your life, although I would advise caution against such specious comparisons. I paid him twenty thousand credits.”
“That’s…,” she began, quickly doing some calculations in her head, and realized that her parents would have worked a full rotation to earn that amount. “That’s more than I could ever repay you. Unless you plan to slave me out-”
“Listen very carefully, Lysirah,” he interrupted. “No one here will harm you. I would have given your uncle more if he possessed the mind to negotiate.”
He reached into his robe and handed her a credit disc. She thumbed the index and noted it contained twenty thousand credits. The casual nature of this gesture was impressive, although she worried about what the stranger expected in return. Lysirah tried to give it back but he declined.
“Should you decide to leave us, you may use those funds to get settled somewhere safe. They are sufficient to sustain you for a year. Longer perhaps, if you are frugal.”
“I don’t have any family left,” she replied softly. The enormity of those words struck her only after she had spoken them.
Her host, for lack of a better term, nodded. “Your uncle remains, even though he will eventually succumb to his addiction. Perhaps I have hastened his demise by providing the means to purchase an overdose. Does that knowledge disturb you?”
“No,” she said, expecting to feel some measure of guilt but finding none. She viewed her uncle’s death with an almost clinical detachment, and pictured a lifeless body next to an algae vat. In time, perhaps she would allow herself to feel pity.
“You mentioned followers. So… uh… you’re the leader of a cult?”
One of the attendants let out a short laugh, then resumed his work on a data slate. She looked back at her host, and saw he was laughing, too.
“Your presumption lacks context,” he said. “However, I concede the fact that our organization presents some… superficial similarities. Permit me to ask one of my attendants. Rojaan, do you think I am a messianic zealot?
“We all become what we choose to be,” said the young man who had laughed. He looked directly at Lysirah and adopted a deep voice. “Shall I chant for you?”
“Pakshet ka!” she said, undeterred by the sarcasm. “It still sounds like a cult.”
“Arriving at Bradbury Depot in five minutes,” the train broadcasted in several dialects.
“The time is upon us,” her host announced as he stood. The other members of the entourage were gathering their belongings and preparing to disembark. “You are welcome to join me. You are also free to follow your own path.”
The Maglev slowed to a smooth stop and the doors opened. They exited the carriage into a mass of people crowded on the platform and gradually ascended to a landing near the station entrance. There was a security patrol screening passengers at the checkpoint, her awaited rescue only a few steps away. Lysirah looked around the terminal at the endless procession of strange faces, and imagined herself lost among them, alone. She turned back to her host, who was waiting patiently for a decision.
“I can go whenever I want?” she asked, struggling to hide her fear.
“The choice will always be yours.”
“I don’t even know your name.”
“How rude of me,” he apologized, and his smile was reassuring. “I am Pleida.”
They walked out together onto a bustling avenue bathed in filtered light that shone through the geodesic dome high above, and boarded a comfortable transport that took them into the heart of the settlement.
Even ten years later, Lysirah remembered that day with distinct clarity.
After her arrival at Pleida’s household, a sprawling compound named Alhambra that sat on the edge of the Mercantile District, she was introduced to other children of various ages who had suffered some tragedy that left them without any family. The stories of loss were familiar, but as she made new friends and acclimated to her adopted home, Lysirah reconsidered the presence of luck in her life. The Children of Alhambra had all been granted a second chance by the individual who claimed his greatest investment was in human potential. Occasional inquiries about how Pleida had accumulated his vast wealth and the true purpose of the organization were politely but firmly deferred. His many business interests and obligations also meant he became a peripheral figure in their daily lives, having delegated that responsibility to his trusted staff.
The attendants, a diverse group she came to know as Conservators, had created an environment similar to a boarding school where the adoptees were cared for and mentored. Lysirah was enrolled in a nearby academy, where she quickly excelled in maths and technologies. She matriculated to Elysium Polytechnica, a prestigious advanced studies institute, and earned a certification with honors in applied spatial engineering.
When she returned to Alhambra, Pleida gradually disclosed some of his confidential plans, surprising her with the scope of his ambition. He invited her to join the ranks of his Conservators, using the expertise she had to help achieve his vision. They discussed the need to observe the strict code of conduct that governed them as well as other details of which she had heard only rumors while living and studying at the estate. It was important to Pleida that her decision not be based on any sense of debt or gratitude, and while Lysirah acknowledged that those feelings were sincere, she also assured him of her profound curiosity regarding the future he sought to create. After a brief orientation period, she was assigned to her pentum.
The pentum was the most common cadre used by the Conservators to train its recruits, and the group that Lysirah joined included two other men and women of different ages and backgrounds, all of whom would be supervised by Adept Ferran. No member had any remaining natural family, in accordance with the principal requirement that had existed within the order since its inception. Although Pleida did not demand celibacy from his followers, the hardships of distant travel and extended assignments were far from the norms of typical familial tolerance. After the training, the pentum would be disbanded and its members assigned to different septs based upon their skills and the needs of the Conservators.
Lysirah’s pentum was unusual in that its members would remain together because it was a technical group tasked with ship operations. The oldest, Helena, was a propulsion specialist that had quickly become Ferran’s adjudant due to her maturity and experience. Matthias was a telemetric engineer fluent in the core code used in the navigation interface, Jord was a specialist in life-support systems management and Daidre worked with composite materials to reinforce hull integrity. At the age of twenty-five, Lysirah was the youngest of them all, and was responsible for the power distribution networks as well as general vessel maintenance. She was occasionally teased about being a glorified mechanic, but inevitably the others would need her essential skills that were applied only after a suitable amount of light-hearted begging and pleading.
The group had lived and worked together for more than a year and during that time had become a family in many practical ways, with Helena and Matthias assuming the roles of surrogate aunt and uncle. As with any kin, there were idiosyncrasies that required accommodation, minor territorial disputes regarding the shared living facilities and the rare argument that produced mute stand-offs before détente returned. The instruction program also included a significant amount of cross-specialty training that would give the pentum more flexibility as it approached various tasks- Matthias had learned to degauss plasma valves almost as well as Lysirah could pilot a small craft.
The pentum was united in their devotion to Pleida, although the exact circumstances that had brought each of them into his circle differed. Whether there was a strong desire for a sense of belonging, or a chance to be part of something greater than themselves, they were all given an opportunity for personal fulfillment that none of them could have accomplished on their own. As they approached the end of their first training cycle, they received Pleida’s singular gift- the surgical implantation of a cortical interface that would connect all of the Conservators within an adaptable mesh network. Having surrendered the last vestiges of privacy to this permanent link with the Ascended Intellect, they were permitted to decorate the outlet at the base of the skull with the symbol of their chapter. Ferran applied the subdermal pigment himself, a crimson red caduceus decorated with stylized horns, to denote his pride in the close-knit unit he had mentored during the past year.
When it was done, each one of them bore the distinctive mark of the Mercurian Sept.
Originally founded as an experimental station that permitted its scientists to conduct human testing unfettered by ethical boundaries, Mercury was soon populated by convicts, political dissidents and other undesirables that were cast into an expedient exile by the interim administration. Many did not survive the bleak environment or forced modifications, but as time passed in their collective isolation the prisoners and their wardens slowly merged to create a resilient culture that transformed a backwater penal colony into a thriving hub of cybernetic and engineering research. Within a few generations, almost all of the inhabitants were heavily augmented and the fruits of their suffering became a lucrative export to the biomedical industries of the Old World. The newly formed Interworld Governments was forced to acknowledge Mercury’s growing economic power and technical expertise, and eventually granted amnesty to the population when the colonies were declared a special economic zone whose advanced technologies continued to feed the insatiable demands of an entire system.
The extensive habitats were located at each of Mercury’s poles, constructed at the bottom of impact basins deep enough to shield them from direct solar exposure. The absence of sunlight in these craters permitted the paradoxical formation of thick ice sheets on a planet where equatorial temperatures were hot enough to melt lead, and the miniscule axial tilt meant the habitats were shrouded in a perpetual darkness even at perihelion. The massive cylindrical structures were embedded in the regolith and spun on their central axis to create nominal gravity, where they formed an elaborate series of interconnected laboratories, research centers and living quarters for more than a hundred million industrious inhabitants. An eclectic mix of colonial grit and intellectual prowess drew many inner system academics, engineers and entrepreneurs into a fierce competition for the chance to exploit advanced Mercurian technologies. Pleida had already established a commercial presence at the Kepler colony where his Conservators had helped advance the fields of cybernetics and other biomechanical augmentations, but Lysirah’s pentum would be assigned to a facility that fabricated heavy components for deep space vessels.
They were required to complete one final exercise before beginning their first assignment. Cryosleep was a mundane medical procedure practiced by all personnel traveling throughout the system, but the Conservators viewed it with some reverence as a ritual named the Deus Aestiva. The Divine Dormancy was a technique employed not only for space travel, but also as a method to preserve knowledge and skills within the order. A few Conservators had experienced cryosleep periods as long as fifteen years before their emergence to perform a critical task. This was one of the reasons Pleida insisted his followers did not retain any natural family, for a parent in extended stasis could conceivably survive their own child.
Ferran escorted his pentum to the Life Sciences Center on Pleida’s private campus, a well-equipped facility that housed the large cryosleep units. The members disrobed before climbing onto the padded support frame that resembled a standard acceleration couch. He moved from station to station, using a handheld injector to deliver the drugs that would trick the brain and body to enter a hibernation state. As the sedation deepened, a diagnostic module was attached to the forearm and a sterile needle inserted deep into the bony cortex of the lower leg. After a final calibration and monitor test, the frame descended into the unit as the cover lowered and then locked into place, sealing the armored sarcophagus. The interior was pressurized with a chilled perfluorocarbon that entered the lungs and other orifices, suspending the occupant in a viscous liquid that provided oxygen and protection from the acceleration forces commonly encountered during in-system transits.
The exercise was a formality to identify any potential side effects, and was scheduled to last a mere three days. Every aspect of the process after induction was fully automated, with multiple redundancies that made Ferran’s continued presence quite unnecessary. He decided to leave the medical suite to get lunch.
There was nothing that could go wrong.