Chapter one of a science fiction novel by Michael Formato.
A shockwave ripped me from the rem. My eyes cracked open to the light of the digital clock on my nightstand as it flashed ten passed six in a low red light. The rotational-correspondence dial that hung on the wall began to tick backwards.
I had grown accustomed to this constant effect of re-entry – the instability, the result of a slowing rotation on a dwindling planet. The tremors no longer had the same effect on me. I wasn’t a child. I wasn’t rendered a child by their sound and ferocity. It was the opposite now. An annoyance. Endless thunder. Backwards momentum. My being here, a consequence of situation and circumstance.
The massive array pulverized the Atmos’. The friction between the entering transport ship and artificial atmosphere caused a dazzling display of color on a smoked black background. I tried to keep my eyes closed. I no longer cared for the lightshow. My thick curtains remained drawn.
I turned in my bed and noticed the muck that clung to the lenses of my glasses as they quivered with the tremor. Without turning on the light in my room, I retrieved and plugged in my implant. As I inserted the adjacent earpiece, the sound of the connection between the metal pins and my skull was followed immediately by a familiar droning, the usual incomprehensible murmur. Out of it, I could make out the latest bulletin in Hosthspeak, followed by another in Ohrian, and sometimes one in Dama if I waited long enough. The scion was filled with, as I might have imagined, news of the re-entry and an approximation of what the clocks might look like come daybreak. I quickly removed the earpiece and let it dangle by its cord. I did not care unless there were urgent warnings of earthquakes in the proximity.
I wasn’t a rich man. Not in the natural sense of the term. I was wealthy in some respects: enough money to get by, a job that was legal, an apartment not directly beneath the flightpath of the transports, and the aerodrome far enough away so as not to be an annoyance. But as such, instead of a comfortable living within the expansive underground city-network, my flat remained at the mercy of the tremors. Destined to shake on for as long as my extended stay on this planet kept me there.
I clung loosely to the bedframe, pulling myself into a seated position on the mattress while the quake simmered off. But the hum of the tremors remained audible, and the floorboards still vibrated. It would take at least a night before they ended, a few more for the planet’s revolution to begin anew.
The brownish liquid that resembled water was warm on my hands and on my face. The tiled restroom floor was cold beneath my feet. I coughed and I stretched and proceeded with my evening routines and preparations, the start of a new night.
The colors of the re-entry hung like optimism across the edges of the curtains.
The air was thick, laced with the bubbling aether of atmospheric-convergence. It was to be expected on the Surface. My species could never fully adjust to the breaking of the Atmos’, the sudden blips in breathable air, let alone the reversal of the planet’s rotation. Unlike Terre, the fragile Atmos’ of this planet was at the mercy of the constant re-entry by ships of every size and variety, looking to dock for any which reason. It was the same across the Hellas system. The relentless breaking of the seal between the oxygen-less interstellar of Hellas and the artificial breathability of the stellar-ingot I resided on meant that breathing became careful. The air that surrounded me felt heavy on my flesh and in my lungs.
Many have had to live with this their entire lives. Some didn’t even need air. Nevertheless, like the blaze of color that lit up the sky like a torch, I’d become accustomed to the nuisances during my time here. By contrast, adjusting to the nocturnal lifestyle of the planet had been a much easier feat.
The nearest entrance into the Under was a collage of race, species, and attire. I kept to myself, an unwanted guest in a decreasingly unknown world, as I pushed through. The manufactured air of the Under forced its way towards the open current of Surface; the oxygen within became artificially clean again. I found myself once more in the outer reaches of the underground metropolis.
From the cavernous entrance I passed down a descending automated staircase, followed by revolving lifts the size of city blocks. From there, the Under opened and branched into the underground city-state it was named for; an ever expanding grid of tunnel networks one thousand feet below ground.
I snaked my way through the outer reaches of the Under and plugged in my earpiece again.
This district, known simply as ‘First,’ was as aesthetically neglected as it was ethically and politically overlooked. The district was the first network ever created on the satellite, and the first layer/district of the other seven which made up the Under. It was sad to see how the district now lay broken and crumbling. A living and breathing remnant of the promise and potential that had once defined this planet.
The populace moved along the tunnels towards their separate destinations upon First and beyond, most of them finding the connecting energy fields and lifts towards Second and Third. I passed children playing in alleyways and side streets, nooks and crannies that were couched within decaying makeshift strips of conjoined housing. Homes here were often stacked on top of one another randomly and desperately, their entrances nothing but vast openings cut out of rock. The populace spoke in languages beyond my range of hearing, and sometimes beyond even my realm of understanding. And in view, the university where I worked, the first and only on the ingot, was nestled amongst this neglect, a gleaming shard amongst a sea of broken glass.
This planet was called Aa’zz-ore, and once upon a time I referred to it as my temporary refuge. Now I called it home.
Nobody spoke to me as I entered the inlet that led towards my office. They never did. I attributed this to the open hostility of the species barrier and the difficulties that usually came with it. Behind closed doors they believed I was untrustworthy. A Galax spy looking to maintain order from within.
In the Hosthspeak language, spoken by the majority of the Aa’zz-ore species, the word for human was Da’av-ach, which (when transcribed) translates into Ro’ck-hop or Rock Hoppers if one accounts for the language’s lack of pluralization and verbs. The other languages that made up this planet’s melting pot, over twenty documented ones in total, were much cruder when describing my race. The word scum came up quite a few times, often preceded by the word colonizer or ‘butcher.’
In truth, I am what you call a polyglot. A “prodigy of language,” as my Terre mentors had explained, and exactly what Galax officials were hoping for. It was something I had excelled at as a teenager; I was able to speak nearly twelve languages by the age of sixteen. I was “exceptional,” and the Galax intended to make full use of me – to shape and mould me into the living stereotype I now am. A colonizer, able to learn an occupied planet’s language in less time than it would take to eradicate its population in pursuit of their resources. I was the ethical solution to a vile enterprise.
Needless to say, when I came of age and the true nature of the vocation for which I had trained became clear to me, I abandoned ship as fast as I possibly could. A deserter. A criminal in the eyes of my own home planet.
The door to the bureau across from mine was open as I turned to enter my own. The fragrant smell of tea lingered in the small space between them. I fell into the chair at my desk and saw the daunting figure of the woman across from me lift her eyes from the hologram that hung over her lap. I smiled courteously and tipped my head in greeting, and she responded in kind. She was one of only a few people who gave me the time of day in this place. Forced to, I guessed. She was of the Ohrian race, a species found in the Strata galaxy neighbouring Terre’s. I was well versed in the Ohr language, and (at least in my estimation) I taught the language fairly well in lecture, to her chagrin. She was frequently a guest orator in my lessons, and twice as often poked her horned head in to my auditorium as only a sceptical superior would. It was always quite a sight for me to see her towering frame squeeze through the low doorframe. I never did get used to it.
I thought about mumbling something aloud, perhaps a comment about the gyration and the rumbling, but I decided against it. I stood, collecting my written notes and book bag before exiting my cupboard. I was halfway out the corridor when I heard my name buzz into my earpiece, causing me to stop and turn. The curled horns popped out the doorframe first, followed by her charcoal skin and grey eyes, her long hair tied back in a tall bun.
“This is your last month isn’t it?” she said wordlessly into my earpiece. I didn’t know whether to frown at the comment or not.
“My contract is up after the semester,” I replied in the same telepathic manner. She nodded at that.
“Are you heading back to Terre?”
Another nod, followed by a pensive silence. She meant to say something further, her mouth opening and taking in a subtle breath before closing again. “Have a good evening, Mister Lucas,” she said aloud. I watched her head vanish behind the partition, and I chose not to reply.
The rumble in the ground and in the walls had begun to soften, I noted, at the first moment I was able to catch my breath.
Minutes after the class I had been teaching ended, the auditorium lay empty. Even at that, my first breaths as the students vacated the room were greedy and coarse, as if I had been holding it for the hour and a half. At the end of the day, it was much easier to save face under the watchful gaze of no one.
I needed these moments, this tranquility, that for the most part did not exist naturally for me any longer. Not on this planet.
Residing as I did in a place where you can literally see, hear, and feel the world move beneath you, and where every passing face displayed a hardwired hatred towards your kind, even artificial tranquilities became rare. They had to be purposefully created – in my case, practically out of necessity.
Constant vibration. A perpetual hum that seemed to resonate just behind the eardrums. The rotation of the planet itself (or, at least for the moment, the lack there of) played tricks on the eye and the mind. Human eyes, at times, moved much faster than the world around it, being accustomed to the constant and unshifting rotation of Terre. We evolved on a rotating planet; the eye and the mind attempts to process information that does not always exist. The phenomena of mind and eye overcompensating for a constantly altering planeterial revolution was a nauseating experience. In that moment, my stomach and my lungs bore the full brunt.
Seven years… seven years, and still the sensation hit me as if it were the first time. I collected my things gently and I walked, my earpiece bobbing and bouncing off the right end of my temporal lobe as I attempted to move back towards my office. The static sound of electrical voices buzzed from my dangling earpiece.
The tightness of the corridors became heightened as the hours continued their inversion towards yesternight, the evening suddenly coming to life within the confines of these walls. I kept my head down as I walked, avoiding extended stares and looks as they came my way. Daggers.
It was a short walk, not even ten minutes, from the allotted space I used to teach and the office I took refuge in, but I would have preferred it without the eyeballs and the sneers and the comments in languages people believed made their conversations private.
Passing the threshold of my office often felt like a reprieve. On this night, however, my stomach still ached and my heart still raced; all of it to such a point that I clutched my chest where my heart would be, fully believing that this gesture alone was the only thing separating me from full-on cardiac arrest.
I slammed the door to my office, and realized the severity of my accelerated heartrate. The room itself seemed to spin as I tried to sit down. My pulse echoed against the walls of the enclosed space. The sense of motion sickness I felt back in the auditorium was replaced by a full on spell of anxiety.
It was nothing new in the end. These episodes happened frequently, all of it culminating into panic attacks and a shortness of breath. Today, though, was harsher than most, my extended breaths distorting even my own vision as I tried to focus my attention elsewhere. I tried to work past it, spreading an array of articles and reading material (including half corrected student essays) across my desk – to no avail. They all seemed to just morph into a blur of blankness, words without meaning. I just sat there waiting for my hands to somehow animate themselves. My headspace became so convoluted that I didn’t even hear Rakshasa enter the office until a ceramic mug was plopped down on my desk unexpectedly. The sound it made nearly made me jump from my seat.
“What… what is…”
“Drink it. It’s acting up again. Your heart.”
I stared at the cup with blank interest. “Ah… I… thank you.” I collected it and took a sip.
“If I may ask,” Rakshasa continued after a moment had passed, “What is it that causes your anxiety?” I attempted another liberal sip.
“How do you know about that?”
“You humans are born so poorly equipped,” she laughed, “as you must have known already. I had thought the scion would have corrected that for you.” She pointed at it dangling by my ear.
“I try to keep it to a minimum as it is,” I said. “It’s maddening. And I don’t need to be constantly reminded of how primitive my race is compared to others of Hellas,” I added in good humor.
“We of the Ohrian race can read a heartrate as easily as you can read a page. I heard yours loud and clear the moment you entered. To be honest.”
“Some might call that trait coincidentally romantic,” I said, and I watched her chuckle at my weak attempt at a joke as I sipped again.
Since I had last seen her, almost six hours earlier, she had changed into something less official. From a formal suit and trousers, she now wore a simple white blouse that revealed the skin of her arms, tight black leggings and knee-high leather boots. Instead of the tight bun that I had become accustomed to, her shoulder length black hair hung loose, shining brightly under the artificial light. It was the first time I had ever seen her this way. Casual.
“But back to the original question,” she stared down at me. I laughed.
“Ever feel like you’re walking on eggshells? Constantly?” I watched her peer upwards theatrically in pensive thought.
“Back when I was a child on Ohr perhaps,” she replied. I cringed slightly, realizing I had just asked a genocide survivor if she had ever lived through destitution.
“I apologize. That was insensitive of me.”
“Don’t. Speaking of it freely is a pivotal part of moving on from tragedy, I’ve found. And stop apologizing for things that are out of your own control. Your specie does not dictate this.”
I nodded at that slowly.
“We are all a bit stubborn,” she continued, “Born stubborn. Bred stubborn… I can see now where all this pent up anxiety derives from. All we ever hear of humans, we Ohrian, Hosth, Ma’kaar, Damanaian, are their flaws and their ruthlessness towards anything that stands in their way. I was educated on Terre. Humans are no different than any other race. Especially here. Where none of that even matters. In the end, we have all escaped from something. Anyhow,” she stared down at my now empty mug of tea. “I hope that has helped you.”
“It has. Thank you again.”
She smiled and headed for the door, bowing her head under the doorframe.
“I was going out for drinks later,” she said, turning her head past the doorway. “I figured it’s not your thing, but you’re welcome to join me if you wish, I know Terrean’s have quite the tolerance.”
I chuckled. This was an unexpected twist.
“Sadly, I’ve been promising a meeting with one of my students for a while now. Not sure how long it’ll last.”
Rakshasa nodded. “Understood. Perhaps another time.”
“Though,” I replied before she was able to turn, “I may be a bit late, but I suppose I could meet up with you afterwards. If it’s not too much trouble,”
“Excellent,” she said with a little smirk, “I’ll buzz you the coordinates.” She entered her own office and sat down quickly, crossing her legs and fishing a pair of reading glasses out of her drawer. I held my gaze on her for a few moments before shifting my attention elsewhere. The night was young.
— By Michael Formato