The Storm

cover-the-stormThe tramp freighter fell back into the Einstein dimension, and Ferris‘ aura was a blinding flare. Amalia squinted and turned away. She felt a pang of nausea.

„Welcome to Medea! You’ll like it, you can’t get further from Earth!“ Ferris, pilot and owner of „Ferris Qutar’s Travel and Transport Agency“, retracted the armored bulkheads in front of the windows, clearing the view onto the colony world hanging in the blackness of space. Oceans and continents sprawled beneath swirling clouds.

Amalia swallowed a gelatinous blob of anti-synesthetics from her portable med unit and rubbed her eyes, waiting for Ferris‘ aura to fade away. „I’m sorry, but I want to touch ground as fast as possible. I was locked-in for two months in a long-range liner. I’m just glad I finally arrived .“ She smiled to take the edge off her statement.

But Ferris didn’t care about her anymore. Instead, he was hammering onto his console. Arrays of warning lights sprang into life and the screens of the steering unit got flooded with messages. „Never mind, lady“, he said absentmindedly, „there is some unexpected action going on.“ His fingers danced on the keyboard and flipped some switches, until the lights went dark.

Lady. No one had ever called her that way. „Anything wrong?“

„System failures. There was a nasty ray blast, a notch too harsh. We call it ‚greetings from hyperspace‘. But don’t bother, it’s already over.“ He smiled, but Amalia noticed beads of sweat on his temples.

„QUTAR, space control speaking“, squealed the comm. „Ferris, ol‘ buddy, everything all right? That was a hell of a blast.“

„Yep, thanks“, replied Ferris. „Have had emergency shielding up and running in no time. Hyperspace has to keep out today.“

„Nice. Tell you what, you get your baby down yourself, will you? I’ve got some greenhorns in orbit, they won’t make it without a guide. I just hope you are the last one.“

„The last one?“ Ferris frowned. „Did we miss anything?“

„The trans-solar route is a bit shaky, we’ve got those ray blasts all the time now. Have a look at your watch! Your subjective time has been amiss for three days! We’ll shut down regular travel now and are officially cut off from civilization.“

Amalias eyes widened. She had no clues about subjective times, but after two months of long-range travel she had a correction by just a minute or so.

„A correction of a hundred and fifty percent?“ Ferris stared into the abyss of space. „That never happens! We just skipped three whole days?“

„Bedaŭras, Ferris, you can mourn later.“ The spark laughed and started to cough. „Lots of people already miss you. And you’ve got a customer in Holton Downs who goes crazy about some shit you’ve packed somewhere into your cargo hold. I promised to send you straight down, so don’t you muck around, will you?“

„Got that. See you next weekend.“ Ferris clicked the comm off, confirmed the automated time correction and started to calculate the atmospheric entry for the new destination. Then he turned his seat to Amalia. „I’m sorry, but Dyson Point has to wait. I’ve got spare parts for a stationary ray shield projector and obviously they are on high demand now.“

Amalia frowned.

„Hey, it’s basically en-route.“ He smiled. „What about hotel and dinner on my tab. Deal?“

***

Holton Downs was located on the fringe of a stretch of lowlands and consisted of a bunch of semi-mobile barracks, the type colonists receive as a starting home. Roads extended from the center to the outskirts like a star, broken by scattered shacks. It was the kind of shanty town you could find on every colony, growing like weeds. Behind the outskirts, plantations marked islands of fertility and life in the wasteland.

„Where’s the space port?“ Amalia peeked through the windows while the freighter approached the village. There was not very much traffic, just a few wheel-based vehicles and … horses? Real, living horses!

Ferris laughed. „There isn’t, the only space port is in Dyson Point. Do you see those trails? The maglev runs twice a day, it takes less then two hours for those thousand kilometers.“

In the light of the setting sun they touched ground on a field. The landing zone was marked only by a couple of poles and they had it all for themselves. The air outside tasted of soil and warmth. Amalia bathed in the light, inhaled deeply and listened to the cracking of steel, as the ship started to cool down. Meanwhile, Ferris moved the floattruck from the cargo hold. When they drove to town, he opened the windows with a smile.

„I’ll drop you off at the ‚Gloria‘, it’s the best hotel in town. Well, and the only one. I’ll just deliver my stuff at the generator house, have a chat and be back in no time.“

Amalia smiled. Hyperspace already started to fade away from her memory. A cosy bed, a hearty meal and firm, planetary ground beneath her feet. She couldn’t have asked for more for her new beginning.

Ferris stopped at the plaza, dropped her off and carried on. There were some shacks on the place, and groups of people hanging around. Amalia strolled to the hotel, totally at ease, and enjoyed the wamth of the sun on her back.

„Good evening, Ma’am.“ A man left the lobby, tapped his hat und pointed at her bag. „May I? I’m Leslie, Old Gloria is my baby.“

„Oh, thanks a lot!“

„You’re welcome, but maybe you should join me inside. These guys are a bit fishy.“ He peered at the people gathering at some of the shacks.

What Amalia had taken for an evening chat seemed to be more dire in nature. She saw two men who posed before a group and talked constantly, stressing each argument with large gestures. Their addressees ignored them. They tipped their heads back and stared straight into the sky.

Others were watching, whispering. The air smelled of fear, a child wept.

Then, flaming lights flashed through the dusk and enshrouded the watchers. Amalias wiped her eyes, reached for her med unit and synthesized a jelly blob. It tasted red. The flaming auras jittered and weakened.

„Dammit!“ Leslie set Amalias bag down and watched the sky. Glistering streaks danced through the heavenly blue, just like an aurora. It was beautiful.

„Another ray blast. I pray they fix the goddam‘ shield projector soon!“ It crackled, and the lobby of the hotel went dark. Leslie swore and rushed into the building.

Golden lights seemed to drop from the aurora, hitting people and transforming them to blazing pillars of light. Amalia flinched. But no one noticed, no one but her. No one noticed anything. As usual.

***

The next morning, a deafening noise woke Amalia from a nightmare. Somewhere out there, a diesel engine came to life. The place next to her was empty, but still warm.

She staggered to the window, opened it and peered onto the plaza. Instantly, she flinched back, coughing, as the stench of burning plastic hit her lungs. Dawn was on its way, but the plaza was already brimming with people. Cries and barking commands made her ears ring. For a moment, silvery flames billowed around the people.

Amalia squinted and fetched her med unit. It was still too early, but she synthesized a jelly blob anyway. It tasted like dusty-gray orange. The silvery shadows remained.

Amalia gasped and reached for the med, restarted the unit, but the status screen stayed dark. With her fingernails, she opened the latch at the back, deciphered labels, pressed buttons. She got a chill as the diagnostic run did not even start. The unit still produced jelly without problems, but the medical synthesis was broken, maybe because of the ray blasts.

She glanced out of the window. She could still see the silver lights billowing the people, some tender and pale, some flickering and blazingly alight. She could see them. She all alone.

***

The lobby was abandoned, the screens dark, and there was only emergency lighting. In front of the hotel gathered half a dozen people, including Leslie. Amalia could see weapons.

„Good morning, Ma’am“, said Leslie. „Maybe you should stay indoors until the freakshow is over.“

He pointed towards a group of people who stood in the middle of the street, staggering, staring at the sky without any expression. Others were shouting at them, shaking them up, but it was useless.

„They’re no freaks, Leslie“, said another one. „Dammit, there’s Franco. Hey, Franco!“

„Kiyoko, no!“, bellowed Leslie, but the woman rushed to a man with a flaming aura, talking to him and slapping his face as if he had been unconscious.

Francos aura lit up and swallowed Kiyoko. Both twitched and collapsed, the aura floating above them.

„My goodness.“ Leslie lowered his gun and hurried to his friends.

They can’t see it, realized Amalia. They can’t see the aura.

„No, Leslie! Keep away!“

But it was too late. Leslie attracted the aura like a magnet. As soon as it covered him, he staggered and dropped his gun.

Amalia screamed and started to run.

***

Ferris‘ floattruck rested on its side in the backyard. Amalia thanked all the heavens, as she found the pilot working on its engine in the spot of a single lamp.

„What are you doing here? Why aren’t you in the hotel?“ Ferris grabbed Amalia on her shoulders, scrutinizing her. „Never mind, maybe it’s better that way. I’ll have fixed the truck in a minute, and then we’ll leave as fast as possible. Did you see the aurora? It was a ray storm, again. If this is going to keep happening, we will be contaminated after all.“

Ferris turned to the interior of his truck.

„Ferris, didn’t you see those people? There is something horribly wrong!“

Ferris gaped at Amalia. „You mean, apart from some of them dropping dead after running around like zombies?“

„There is more! My med unit broke, and … I’m out of meds. I mean, I can see … things. I can see their aura, but it is wrong!“

„You see what?“ Ferris tousled his hair, grabbed a spare part and bolted it to the engine until it creaked. „I’m cracking up. Do you hear those screams? I’ve got no clues what’s happening, but whatever it is, we’ll run. Give me just a minute and we are out of this town. We can talk about your drugs later.“

„Ferris, you don’t understand! It is contagious! You know, your aura, it’s silvery, delicate and like a feather, but theirs are different!“

Ferris stopped again, looking at her. „What do you mean? What’s different?“

„They are blazing, like fire. It falls from the sky, from the aurora.“

„The ray blast. Do you mean that? Can you … see radiation contamination?“

„I dunno. I just know that these people are not the way they ought to be anymore. And … it moves. If someone dies, it moves on to the next. Do you understand?“

Amalia grabbed Ferris‘ hands. „If someone dies, it’s not over. It moves on to the next, and to the next.“

Ferris shook his head. „Really, I have no idea what you are talking about, but you scare me to hell. Let me just fix the truck and then we’ll get out of here.“ He glances over her shoulder. „Leslie!“

Amalia spun around. Leslie trudged towards them, his aura aglow, quivering and twitching in their direction.

„Ferris, no! It got him!“

Ferris hesitated, then he got a pressure wrench and raised the tool like a club. He shoved Amalia behind him.

„Ferris, we have to leave! It doesn’t work that way!“

But the pilot brandished his weapon, making sure to stay between Leslie and Amalia. „Leslie! What’s up? It’s me, Ferris!“

The hotelier cocked his head, as if we was thinking. Then he buckled down, unconsciously. Ferris relaxed, but Amalia shook her head.

„No. No!“, she whispered. He was too near.

The golden flame leaped to Ferris.

***

Ferris froze, then he started to tremble as if he had a seizure. Amalia felt like watching a fight. His silvery aura rocked back and forth, thickening here and thinning out there. But the golden flame engulfed the pilot like syrup, clinging to him and penetrating him drop by drop.

Ferris jerked around.

Amalia shrieked, fetched her med unit and hammered it with full force onto his head. But the pilot doubled over in the last moment, twitched uncontrollably and drove her back, pressing her with all his weight to the hatch of the engine, without even raising his hands.

Amalia screamed again, twisting frantically, ignoring the pain as the engine ripped her skin open. She was trapped. Ferris did not make any attempt to beat her, but then she understood what was happenig.

She felt a tickling on her neck. She saw the golden aura crouching towards her, it moved like oil on silver water.

Ferris is not my enemy! He doesn’t even know what’s happening! They are all contaminated!

And I can see it.

Ferris‘ face twitched from cramps. He was staring blindly at the truck, but she felt how he was fighting it back.

It’s the aura! I can handle that, even without my meds! Especially without my meds!

She closed her eyes. Ferris vanished, but the image of his aura remained. Desperately she focused on herself, weaving herself in a web of glistening silver. Weaving it tight, as tight as possible, so tight that the golden flame would have no chance of penetrating it.

Amalia opened her eyes, as Ferris groaned and gave way. The golden flame was still covering him, but it flickered and quivered. Then it changed its shape, moved to a dense, woven structure.

Amalia shook her head, watched the net billowing, swinging. She felt blood trickling down her back. What the hell was happening? Trembling, she let herself down and leaned towards the machine.

Ferris fell on his knees.

Amalia sobbed, extended an arm, covered with a silver glow.

Ferris didn’t move. But the golden flame twirled around, formed a stretched arm, a face.

Her face.

„This is no radiation“, whispered Amalia. „YOU are the storm!“


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