The Haunted Stars
Former Bone Piston MechaJock, now Freelancer
Cade pulled on the biofab cigar he managed to swipe off of Meyers after he’d polishing off his second bottle of pricy Sol stock vintage whisky.
“Hmm whre da you heh dat…” The larger man mumbled, his power armor trying its best to keep him upright, though seemingly on the verge of giving way.
Cade smiled. “I brought them with me. Want one?”
“Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. YeahIwanun.”
Cade made a show of reaching behind his back with his left arm that would have pulled at the attention of an AGI long enough for him to use his right to swipe another cigar from Meyers opened chest pack, and at this point, Meyers wasn’t even a primate intellectually speaking.
“Here you go, buddy.” He said, placing it between Meyers drooling lips. It took Meyers about three minutes to grasp what was happening, and then another two to realize he had to inhale to light the thing, all at Cade’s instruction.
The armor did it’s best.
“Wur you frum agade?” Meyers slurred.
“Sigma Draconis” Cade said into his glass, like he wanted to muffle the answer. Most of the mercs had power armor on, and even with their helmets off, the atmofield provided enough O2 that they could sip and whisky and smoke genetically modified tobacco. Those who were;t lucky enough to be wearing armor had breathers, and drank through the feeding tubs.
Meyers still swayed like a broken skyhook cable. “Nofuckinshit? Nofuckinshit? You get back they lots?”
Meyers eyes were dropping up and down like malfunctioning bay doors.
“I don’t like to go home, Meyers.” Cade said, more to himself than anyone else, as a cloud passed the in the heavy sky the twin suns of Sirius. Meyers nodded on, like he couldn’t stop.
Finally, unable to keep his neurological function going, Meyers lurched harder than the gyro assist could take, and fell over into the pho marble bar top, crashing though stone and new wood made to look old, coming down hard and immediately turing over to vomit, and then pass out in a pile of his own puke.
The crowed went wild.
Cade nodded with mock approve and turned around to face the rest of the squad in the ruined bar, Sirius blazing in starset out of the now smashed in vac seal windows.
“Thank you,” he said with a bow, winking one silver eye at Sammy Fitzroy who had abandon her mecha altogether. The fiery haired young women clapped and smiled, but only shrugged at the wink, as if to say ‘maybe’ to Cades implied ‘your bunk after?’ shrug. She turned him down sometimes, but only when she was stone sober, and even then, not very often. Members of So Sirius didn’t do relationships the way regular humans did, but they were usually fucking one of their own three or four times a week. Cade had been with them on three missions since leaving the Bone Pistons, and he liked the arraignment just fine.
Outside, Sirius set in its twin fire glory, burning shafts of light like lances through the ruined settlements architecture where the So Sirius has cracked it open.
It hadn’t been a major battle; just a few days orbital pouring, followed by a few days of building and street to street, clearing out the heavily armed rebel cause who decided going against the company would yield them some kind of profit. They refused surrender, preferring to die at their post, in company gear, on company land, living in structures the company built. Cade had his own sense of honor, and he understood a mans desire to be free but Jesus Christ; build something of your own, right? This was less of a case of biting the hand that feeds, but trying to murder the hands that birthed.
Still, revolution was sucking it’s way through the void these days, so Cade didn’t really blame them. Try fail, repeat. The good news was that it kept his conscious clean when they refused to surrender. Sirius Cybernetics were’t interested in prisoners anyway.
“Cade?” Said a voice from behind, dragging him from his half drunk ruminations. “Cade Kiani?”
He turned, and he almost didn’t notice that she had said his last name. His real last name.
“Amanda.” He said, draining his glass.
“No fucking shit!” Amanda Ferris cried, leaping over the bar and into his arms. The gyro did a lot of the work for him, which was good because she was in her power armor as well, the glittering shell of technology encrusted about them like a technological weave.
She wrapped herself around the bulky metal frame as best she could, and with the atmofields, no helmet meant she planted those ruby red lips on his, and she tasted bitter, raw booze, even as her saffron scent bloomed around him.
He wasn’t nearly drunk enough to not notice Sammy’s eyelids fall flat.
“No shit. What brings you here babe?” He cried, when she finally fell ungracefully off of him.
“Same as you I guess. I’m on the drift, found some work, blah blah, kill kill, cash cash. You know how it goes. Jesus, what are you doing here? I thought you were like Bone Piston royalty?”
She was way more drunk than he was, and pretty close to either falling down, or grabbing the nearest living thing and trying to fuck it, which again, was Bone Piston standard. The latin scrawled across the mechs might have read ossa et sanguis, but in practice, it was ‘fucking and money.’
Which, honestly, was pretty much how all jokey units that were’t planetary armies operated.
“Kiani, huh?” Said Franco, setting down his drink. Cade spared him a look over Amanda’s shoulder.
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“Any relation to-” but Cade stopped him there.
“I’m talking to the lady.” He said.
“I san see that.” Sammy crossed her arms.
Cade rolled his eyes to her and opened them fractionally, hoping it read ‘its nothing,’ and not ‘sorry.’ She didn’t give him anything back to indicate either way.
He rolled back to Amanda like an auto turret. “Yeeeeahhh I was I guess. We had a, um. Well, a falling out I guess you could say.”
“You were Bone Piston?” “A Kiani… how do I know that name…” “I thought Bone Piston was destroyed at”
It fell over him like a storm surge, like it always did. He was on the wrong side of thrust, with more than a decade in one of the most ruthless mercenary mecha jock outfits in known space, with a last name that was emblazoned on half of the mechs in the outfit. Yes, he was a Kiani, yes he was a Bone Piston.
Yes, he was fucking tired.
Amanda finally caught the static snow between him and the rest of the group, and seemed to find a handle on her sobriety, at least for the moment. She crossed her arms and leand against the bar, across the canyon that Meyers had made, and over where he still lay, and said “Cool.”
Yeah, real cool. Thanks.
The murmur that both names had started died down quickly as Captain Thrace pushed his was through the crowed, accompanied by his ever present bodyguard duo, resplendent in their top of the line Kiani power armor.
“All right that’g enough; there are a dozen ruined bars and opium dens on this block, everyone go out there and find another. Cade and I are going to have a drink. And Gurro, get Meyers here into the street or an infirmary; I don’t really care which.”
The mumbled speculations evaporated like fading stars, and half drunk soldiers shuffled out of the littler strewn bar, into a litter strewn street in the skeletal visage of a ruined human settlement. Two of the pilots opened up Meyers power armor, and peeled him out like an oyster after donning his breather, dragging him between the both of them like an ancient prophet to be hauled to a cross.
With the hangover he would have, crucifixion might have been a blessing.
“Well,” said Thrace, sauntering up the what was left of the bar, “two minutes and I might have spared you a lot of pain, eh?”
Cade arched his eyebrows and crashed a smile, before draining his glass again. “Yeah, I guess so. Whatever, people find out. Um, sir.”
The good thing about modern mercenary bands is that their structure tended to be pretty loose. In the early days of mecha warfare, most deserters were anti-authoritarian meat heads who left the service because of their inflated egos and refusal to take orders, so the mercenary gangs that blossomed in their wake tended to take a pretty lax view of command. Things had tightened up in the last few years after the Collapse, but still, if you were a merc, chances are you weren’t going to get canned for dirty collars and dirtier language.
The other side of Cade’s indifference was the fact that at some point, everyone found out who he was. After all, he had expensive silver grey eyes, and gene sculpted old Earth Norther European features, the kind of bones and flesh that didn’t comes from nature anymore, bur from a lab more than fifty years prior. Once someone said ‘Kiani,’ anyone looking at Cade knew right away exactly who he was, assuming they were from Sigma Draconis or a mechs jock. The fact was, Cade was expensive. He looked expensive, he spoke like he was expensive, and he used money like he was expensive. When it came down to the mech drop, he really didn’t care what the others thought.
He had been alone most of his life anyway.
“Fair enough,” Thrace said, snatching the bottle and pouring his own drought into the jagged remains of a glass sitting near him. The amber liquid fell into the basin, and he held the gleaming shard against the dying light outside; his own suits hud slapping green light off of his face.
“Vashe zdorovie” Thrace said.
“Sláinte” Cade threw back.
They both drained their glasses.
“So,” Thrace placed his glass gently on the bar, the acrid smell of burning oil and boiling coolant, the aftermath of modern warfare momentarily dulled by the whiskies malty cheer, “we need to talk.”
Cade wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before mimicking the captains gesture. “Okay. The answer is going to be no, sir.”
Thrace cocked a blond, husky eyebrow the same sunset color as his hair. “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah. My name is Kiani, but I am not Kiani. No more than you.” He paused to watch the binary system fall bellow the skyline, thrusting spears of light upward, like an ancient line of pikemen waiting for a cavaleir charge.
“What’s the story?” Thrace let the words drop like anchors, without pretext or excuse.
The whole fucking point.
Cade sighed and leaned his back to the par top, letting his elbows, ensconced in their pricy power armor shell, rest on it. Before him, the bones of Alexander Outpost smoked in the technicolor light of a post terrestrial sunset. They always asked the story, they always acted like they were the first ones, or if they didn’t, they didn’t care.
Cade had never told them the truth way back when, he always had a lie ready. Kidnap, disappointment, deaths in the family, exertion; whatever. Eventually, he got tired, and someone caught him in the lie. When that mess finally ended, and he left the Bone Pistons for good, he just stopped telling people altogether.
Not like they wanted or would believe the real answer anyway.
“I’m not giving you that.” He said drying to the fading light.
“Why not?” said Thrace in a half pleading manor.
Cade drew in a breath before spinning around and refilling his glass with the the pungent amber of the whisky. “Because that would take you to where I already am, a place where I can’t help you, and the long and short of it is that unless I can get a time machine and a new father, I still can’t help you.” He sipped at his drink before locking eyes with Thrace. “I am a Kiani captain, but only in name. I can’t help you with whatever it is you want. I’m like Luna now, after all they came from the Earth. Sure, I came from the Sigma Draconis… but I’m not taking orders from it anymore.”
Cade drained his glass, and then very gently refilled it while Thrace only looked into the dregs of his own.
Both men let a moment hang between them. Cade could guess what Thrace was hoping for; an inside deal into one of the most advanced mech companies in the human expanse, like all the merc captains who figured out who he was. Back home, Cade would have been royalty. His pricy genetics and his influential name would have me a life that would be completely alien to the one he lived now.
Sure, he could have changed his name. In fact, as an outcast child, he should have changed his name. But this was the point, this was his only revenge. Callius Kiani shuddered at a lack of decorum, and fought to keep the family name clean as snow, despite the growing wine stain of bruises that blossomed all over corporate space. He had tossed Cade out as a failed progeny, and would have denied paternity altogether if the genetics weren’t so conclusive. There was even a time Cade thought his father might have him killed, just to bury his assumed shame.
But this was the new monarchy of the corporate family, the first family lords of new worlds all surrounding the local cluster. Callius could shame his son, he could disown him and cast him to the solar winds; but some human gene twist of honor or surveil forbid him form murdering his own child.
So the only choice was exile, and the hope that a galaxy at large would wear his son to dust, with a secret longing that one day he would return to claim the oligarchical throne, and Callius could defeat his offspring on the sacred, sanctioned terms of business and noble competition, like the progeny of the Caesars of old, returned to claim their birthright in blood.
The last remains of the human evolutionary mandate to produce offspring and keep them alive, and old thread pulling at competitive sympathies.
“Fair enough.” Thrace said, and Cade had to swish his drink in his mouth to keep from chocking. Most mercenary captains didn’t say things like ‘fair enough.’ They said things like ‘then get the fuck out of my outfit, rich boy.’
So much for not caring, right?
“You okay with that?” Cade said.
Thrace just cracked a grin open. “Yeah sure, why not. I mean christ we all got secrets, Kiani. None of us got here by being saints, or else we wouldn’t be here, you know? Luck of the draw, like getting shot when they were aiming for someone else. Oh well.” The older man shrugged.
Cade watched the darkness grow like a poison around them, the pearly glow fading in the thick skyline, and the black void of space swilling the wet horizon. In the distance, orbital fire rained down, and the stink of ozone started drifting in to cover up the acrid smell of battery acid and blood.
“Yeah. I guess so.” Cade sighed.
“It’s weird being out here, isn’t it?” Thrace mused. “Being born out here, being raised, I sometimes wonder if we carry that missing part of us around. Like maybe we know at some genetic level that we are in danger out here. Not that we should’t be here, but that its dangerous, like back on Earth there might be some cave or castle or whatever we can curl up in and actually fucking relax, but out here… I don’t know. I never feel at home.”
Cade let his eyes fall from the deepening night and into a middle distance of memory. He did know, he knew exactly what Thrace meant, like the thousands before him. A generation back, the colonies were a vast, accessible frontier. A generation before that, the D-Drive was brand new tech, and before that, no human alive left the dim light of Sol.
Cade didn’t like to think about the generations prior, generations still stuck on one world political ideals and ruined Earth philosophy. Five generations. Between 1500 and 1650, the great changes had been mostly navel, and had brought settlers to the new world a speeds that the old Earth primitives would called fanatic. Between 700 and 850AD, things only got worse.
But no longer, right? Now things got better, now humanity thrived. But a darkness seized that hope in him; the darkness of human conflict, and more so, the black claws of the eldrich tearing through reality to devour the meat of his own people. The thought made him shudder.
Thrace slapped him on the back and held his hand on Cades shoulder for a few seconds. “Can I speak with you?” he asked.
“Aren’t we speaking now?”
There wasn’t much danger of their conversation being overheard by any of the other jocks. Victory had left its long black stain of drunken revelry and obscene human displays of base biological affection, and they had mostly cleared this bar already. In the ruined buildings behind them, the rest of the crew were lighting perapetrol fires and floating firefly lamps in the cooling night air.
“Um, sure.” Cade took another pull on his cigar and refilled his and the captains glass.
Both men left the ruins of the bar and strode out into the dusty street. Cresting the crumbled remains of a small apartment building, they looked out across the vast empty plains of Sirius III. Over the red slate ground, only the white blaze of Sirius sank again the dark horizon, spotted with plateaus so gigantic, they looked like the black shapes of enormous Earth archologies.
Strung out across the deep star field that bleed into existence with Sirius failing light, smoke billowed from the massive terraform machines high into the heavens, adding oxygen to the poisonous atmosphere that nature had seen fit to give the tiny world.
“So.” Thrace said, not looking at Cade but at the star set, activating the suits internal ND field to block out the blazing star.
“So” Cade echoed, unsure what the captain wanted to talk about, and not really interested in finding out. He slipped on a pair of expensive shades and let the power suits still hot batteries stay cool.
“I wanted to ask, Kiani; what are your plans now? This contract is up, you headed home?”
Cade shook his head and swallowed more smoke. “No. I don’t like going home.”
“Of course you don’t, you like it out here. Look, we’re taking a new assignment, after this. A big one that is going to stretch the resources we have at our disposal.”
“More oppression, I take it?” Cade fixed his eyes on the dying starlight, squinting.
“Something like that, yeah. It’s for Kyto Station. It’s for Halo.”
“Sure. Wait, Halo? Like, Earth?”
Thrace pursed his eyebrows and nodded. “Yeah, Halo like earth Halo; what other halo would I be talking about? Three weeks shore leave for the crew, then we get our hands dirty again. It’s a massive contract, kid. Six months of work pacifying the major gangs that run the archologies in central Japan. Yakuza witch hunt kind of stuff.”
“Jesus, so they call a frontier mercenary unit? Are they that much of a threat?”
Thrace shrugged. “Yeah, so they say. Yak was powerful from way back when Earth was a lonely boat for humanity, now they run mechs and guns, buy politicians and elections. Someone in the government finally wised up, and they want us to fix the problem the way these things usually get fixed. You know how public opinion is, they send in the army and it all becomes about fathers and sons…”
“‘Cuz there are no fathers and sons here.” Cade interrupted.
“Not Japanese fathers and sons. Not UNE fathers and sons. You should come, it will be fun.”
“I think this is where you offer me something I can’t refuse?”
Thrace threw him a sideways glance. “Because a huge sum of money for doing what you do best isn’t attractive enough? Jesus, you really are a rich boy.”
“Says so on the mech.” Cade sipped at his whisky.
“Okay, fine you little shithead. You’re good, like good enough to run your own unit good, and more so, I like your mech. You have versatility that you don’t see these days.”
“You like Potluck, huh?”
“All but that stupid fucking name. What does it mean anyway?”
Cade smiled perfect gene molded teeth, white as Sirius herself. “You don’t get it? Potluck, you know… take whatever comes.”
“That’s real menacing.” Thrace said dryly.
“When was the last time you saw a soldier shit himself and run because the mech was named Hell Master?”
Thrace turned away but was smiling. “Alright, fair point. Whatever. I don’t care what it’s called, I care what it does.”
“You ever seen one before?”
Thrace furrowed his brow. “Of course I seen one before, kid I’ve been jockeying for almost thirty years, I’ve seen plenty. Just not all that common.”
Cade smiled and pulled on his cigar, blooming smoke into the high winds.
Potluck differed from standard mech load outs because she was a mech inside a mech. Like old earth babushka dolls, the main body of the 40 foot frame acted like a standard mech, but the cockpit was actually a smaller, man sized mech that acted like powered armor. It was useful in clearing buildings and jumping between the micro and macros elements of battle. You didn’t get the full strength of a regular mech, but you got most of it, and all the benefit of the powered armor. Cade had had six mechs shot down beneath him, and the powered suit had saved his life twice. He wasn’t going to be changing that anytime soon.
“Anyway. Earth? Yeah? Say ‘yes’ you, fucker.”
“How about ‘No.” Cade replied.
“You want me to beg?”
“No,” Cade sighed, “I don’t want you to beg.”
“Then whats the problem? You were with the Bone Pistons for almost a decade, now you join up with me for 3 missions and you’re out?” Thrace turned to face Cade’s profile.
“You know why I don’t like going back to Sigma Draconis, Thrace? Why I can’t call my father up and ask him to give you a discount on his machinery? Because that is no longer my home.” Cade turned to lock eyes with Thrace, the and captain was hit full force with the silver grey depths of a mans soul. Cade went on.
“My father has two heirs on world, heirs he created in tubes and stuck into my mother to harvest. He molded them into his own vision. He reaped them like wheat, and they are genetic perfection in his eyes. You know what I was? A late night and a defective Trojan spray.”
Thrace raised an eyebrow. “You mean you were-“
“A mistake. A naturally born child. Sure I have my parents pricy genetics, but it wasn’t enough, it wasn’t perfection. So, in his caesar like way my father cast me out so I count inherit anything. I grew up in an orphanage until the Kelsey Riots of 2156 burned it down. Then I was on the street, pick pocketing my way to a mean every night, all under the towering persona of the man I didn’t know to be my father. By the time I was ten, I was working with the local gangs to steal mechs parts and guns, lifting my trust without even knowing it.”
“Jesus. So you really are Kiani. I thought maybe you were just bullshitting.”
Cade waved his hands in a suit worn ‘no’ gesture. “Shut up, you see my face. When I was twenty I – something happened and I found out what I was never meant to know; I found out who my father was. I had proof, I had means, I even changed my name, and corporate world or no, the media blitz would have been enough to shame my father into taking me in or buying me out. I could have went to some cushy Hilton on Drac and eaten room service for the rest of my life. But I didn’t. I took his name and nothing else. I had to get off Sigma Draconis, and you know the best way off a planet in those days.”
“Jokey.” Cade turned back towards the star. “See, this is what we are, captain. We don’t stay indoors anymore. That’s what we did and look what happened to the Earth? We have to move, we have to fulfill our genetic mandate, maybe the last mandate to crawl across the face of the heavens and thrive out here. No one gives me anything, I earn it. No one pities me because I built my own worth. I know who I am.”
“And who is that?”
Cade smiled. “None of your goddamn business.”
Thrace cocked his head fractionally and turned to go, the heavy scent of the atmosphere was bleeding through his armors atmofield, and whatever Cade Kiani was, he wasn’t on his team anymore. Before decendinf the rubble, he stopped himself mid stride. “You still didn’t answer my question though, why you won’t to come with me to Earth? Or is that a riddle too?”
Cade let the cigar fall to the rubble strewn floor, and smiled in the gathering dark. Turning to face Thrace, the hazy brown sky fell to black, and a few heavy blobs of ozone filtered stars hung heavy in the sky behind him “No big secret, I already told you before; I don’t like going home.”