Beneath an Emerald Sky

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 2 (v.1)

Submitted: December 19, 2012

Reads: 82

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Submitted: December 19, 2012

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Chapter Two

TWO DAYS LATER

It was zero six hundred hours. Right on schedule, a Hadrian transport flew across the sky, its roar vibrating the very atmosphere. The earliest crescents of sunlight were just starting to rise from the horizon, spreading the first subtle tints of green into the heavens.

Den opened his eyes, and immediately shut them, wincing. He rolled over and brought a hand up to his face, rubbing the muck and dryness from his eyelids, and then tried again. He repeated the process until his vision was completely clear.

Groaning, he sat up slowly, judging by the amount of light that shone through the crack in the curtains that it was early. He focused, taking the faint sound of Lor snoring from the next room as confirmation.

What had woken him? He looked over his surroundings, his eyes adjusting to the dim light. And then he heard it again: a short, deep buzz from the direction of the window.

He threw the single blanket from his lower body and rotated himself to slide off the bed and onto his feet. He walked over to the window, and slid away the curtains.

A bud-bug, its shell glinting softly in the low light, was perched on the window-sill. It sat on the other side of the thick screen, facing him with tiny black eyes.

Den looked back, perplexed, and examined the beetle. The twin horns on the front of its head, each one almost two inches long, indicated that it was a male. Males of this species – one of the largest on the planet – could measure half a foot in length and live up to three years, if they weren’t killed by younger males before that. But, judging from how this one’s dark metallic-green shell had begun to turn grey, it must have been well over two years old.

“You’re a warrior…” Den heard himself murmur to the bug.

In response, the beetle tilted its head and clicked its large mandibles together twice before turning itself to face the screen, bumping it several times with its horns, as if trying to gain entrance. When the screen held, it turned back to look directly at Den, and clicked again.

As it turned in the dim light, Den noticed a single straight scar running across its right outer-wing, too clean and long to have been sustained in a fight for a mate. Even the talons of a pigeon-hawk, assuming one had decided to leave its roosting grounds in the city and hunt insects almost as large as itself, would not have been able to cut so fine a wound.

Den moved his head closer, the bug’s eyes following him calmly.

“How’d you get that scar? Almost lost yourself half a wing there.”

The bud-bug clicked its jaws together and opened its shell, flexing its still-working translucent wings as if to emphasize the word ‘almost’. Its head tilted menacingly to one side.

Den chuckled. “Of course. Almost.”

The bug closed its wings and straightened its head again. It clicked at him.

A strange sense of familiarity came over Den, as if he and the bug were connected in some strange way. His mind wandered to the old stories from the beginning of the occupation – old at least for his generation – that had originated in places where the ancient culture had been almost completely erased. The belief still abounded in some Eastern continents that Humans had an immortal soul which passed from one life form to another, that upon our deaths our souls would be ‘reincarnated’ in another body. Could this insect contain the soul of some nameless dead guy? He realized how silly the thought was.

The bug, however, seemed satisfied. It clicked one last time at Den before turning its back to him and opening its wings. Its powerful legs pushed it off of the ceramic, and then it was gone, buzzing away towards the bud forest.

Den watched it disappear into the distance, a sliver of sunlight now rising over the horizon, and felt a profound sense of loss.

“Long life to you, Half-wing.” he said softly. “May your skies be clear and your smoke sweet.”

Shrugging off the shiver that threatened to run down his spine, Den walked over to his desk, and picked up a pipe. He prodded its contents, and, satisfied it was still loaded, took a seat in the rolling chair, swiveling himself to face the window. He had purposefully left the curtains open, and now he burned everything in the bowl, gazing at the growing light in the direction the beetle Half-wing had flown.

Den sat for almost ten minutes, letting the feeling of melancholy wash over him as he watched the sun rise. Then he reached over to the desk and picked up the set of E-goggles lying next to the discarded pipe. Standing up to move to the bed, he put them on, and slid the attached earphones into his ears. Then he pressed a few buttons on the side of the setup and leaned back against the pillow as deep electric chords and distorted guitar sounds began to fill his ears. The experience extended as the lenses of the goggles threw intricate visualizer images into him, bouncing and contorting to the sounds of the music, and the deep bass shook his skull. And there he lay, in absolute comfort, as music tore into his mind through three separate senses.

After a while, he fingered another few buttons, transferring the images from the goggles to the Visual Integrator. Feeling a slight tingling in his temples, he closed his eyes, and now saw the pulsating colors and shapes on the inside of his eyelids.

Den smiled. Having close friends in the Entertainment Section had its advantages. Having one of the best quality buds in the province to trade with didn’t hurt either.

The VI would shut itself off after an hour, as prolonged exposure caused splitting headaches. But Den was asleep again in less than half that time. The sensors in the goggles measured his level of awareness, and lowered the volume of the music accordingly, until he was slumbering, breathing smoothly on the cool mattress.

* * *

Noon. Tera was always awake first. As usual, she waited until now to rouse the others. She walked to the E-center in the common-room, a large TV-like device on the wall, and tapped a few buttons on the screen. In unison, the personal E-goggles of everyone in the house started beeping, waking them from their slumber.

Den jerked slightly into awareness and his hand slapped the side of the goggles, silencing the offending sound. He sat up, pulling the headset off and reaching over to drop it on the desk.

For the second time today, he rubbed his eyes until his vision was clear, and then slid off the bed. After cleaning, reloading, and emptying his pipe, Den approached the water-dispenser on the wall and held down the button, drinking deeply. The water was kept in a central cooler and hooked to a filter. This way, every mouthful was exquisite in both taste and temperature. Once he ran out of breath, Den filled his lungs and drank again.

The water ran into a drain, and moments afterwards it was followed by the heavy mouthwash that Den had swished around his mouth. And as always, he couldn’t resist the urge to run his now spotlessly clean tongue along his now perfectly smooth teeth.

Now that he was awake and budded, Den threw on a tattered t-shirt to compliment his cargo shorts, and flexed his body, cracking his joints, before opening the door to the common-room.

Pushed by the draft from his bedroom window, the thick curls of smoke from his wake-up bowl flowed into the room with him. With all the bedroom doors but Lor’s already opened, however, the air was laced with wisps of white, and spicy to the smell. He breathed it in deeply, like he did every morning. There were few things better than a good wake-and-bake.

Tera was sitting on one of the gigantic bean-bags that were spread around the room, with Lara, sharing a large loaf of bread they had torn into quarters. They smiled a greeting to him and Lara tossed him one. He bit off a chunk gratefully and savored the extensive variety of spices, nuts, and cheeses infused into the bread. He grunted his approval and nodded thanks before sitting down on a second bean-bag.

The Hadrians had seen no need to change the primary sources of food on the planet. Breakfast was usually bread. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t variety. Breads came in sweet and salty varieties, stuffed with meats, cheeses, fruits or vegetables, and could be made from wheat or corn. As they slept almost 13 hours a day on average, there was no such thing as formal lunch. Dinner, however, was a large meal, usually consisting of some array of vegetables and a serving of some animal product. Enormous cattle farms supplied beef and milk, and genetically engineered varieties of tuna and cod were shipped from the coasts. Eggs and meat came from poultry farms – chicken, ducks, and geese. After dinner, they would all get drunk. Human brews, vintages and spirits were almost as popular as their Hadrian counterparts, and so the selection was ever-changing.

And that left a great deal of time for pleasure.

The E-center’s main control panel consisted of a single large rectangular screen. A few status lights blinked or glowed from one corner, as well as indicators of time, date, and more. From here, the entire Communications Web was accessible. They could connect to the personal data pad of any approved Human or Hadrian, although most households had only enabled contact with a few close friends or business contacts. The remainder of the Comm. Web functioned much as it had for the past century. Only the content had changed, accommodating the websites of every government section, as well as those of independent entities trying to sell their own products. There were also websites dedicated to academia and general knowledge, many of which they had studied as children.

The web was useful for acquiring products or information that were hard to find at the local commerce center. But as far as entertainment went, that depended on the programs installed in the E-center. There was a standard set of programs that covered all the basics, but for custom-made programs, one usually had to acquire a corresponding E-chip through trade. These could contain any type of E-program: films or series, music, visualizers, games, and more. Lor, ever appreciative of art, had made an effort to collect a number of older programs, such as aerial footage of landscapes all over the world, and pre-occupation films and documentaries. Any of these programs could be run from, and displayed on, the control screen, as well as run from any authorized data-pad.

The control screen, however, was only one screen among many. The others, which were arranged to form a horizontal ring around the room two screens thick, could be set to show any combination of programs.

At the moment, there was one cluster of four screens playing a bird’s eye view of some temperate forest, one four-screen cluster playing a more classy variety of pornographic art, and one single screen next to the control center showing the news. All three programs were muted at the moment, their various sounds replaced with a collection of psychedelic music made by a local artist who they often saw at the commerce center. Accordingly, every remaining screen depicted visualizations to accompany the tunes.

Once the day’s routine was done, the four of them would sit and smoke from the hugely elaborate water-pipe in the center of the room, and space out for hours, only stopping to have sex or drink greedily at the water dispensers, until dinner time.

The house’s hygiene facility was divided into two rooms: one, a small one with a self-cleaning toilet and a sink, and a shower-room. Here, there was a row of showerheads arranged on one wall above a row of foam-lined benches. This was where each couple spent the majority of their private time, showering together on the comfortable benches as the custom-installed steam-jets projected a cloud of mist around them. The other half of the shower-room contained a small pool, and this was the only part of the building aside from the water supply that was monitored by Hadrian officials.

Each member of the household was required to do fourteen hours of swimming each week. Two people were meant to fit in the pool at once, in the interest of saving time. They would access the pool’s control-pad with a DNA scanner, and turn on the preset current. Then they would swim against it for a minimum of thirty minutes before they could exit the pool. There was no physical barrier keeping them from leaving, but if they did choose to a Hadrian official would be around to find out why. This was how the Hadrians had chosen to set up and enforce the Humans’ exercise requirements, and, considering the lack of other infringements on their freedom in every matter apart from breeding, they found no reason to complain. Especially since, when one was budded, a good swim was extremely enjoyable.

Den watched the pace at which Tera ate her breakfast, and timed his own eating accordingly. Lor, almost always the last to emerge from his room, appeared amid a cloud of fresh smoke as Den and Tera stood up, brushing crumbs off their laps.

Den nodded a greeting to Lor as Lara tossed him the last quarter of bread. Then Den winked at Tera, who flashed a grin at Lara and followed Den into the shower-room.

Lor sat down next to Lara, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear affectionately. They would hang out until the other two were done, and then take their turn. The four of them would throw their daily swimming hours in after that, then they’d all relax until dinner.

By the time Den and Tera emerged, glowing, from the shower-room, the sun was high in the sky, forcing the beetles to battle for cover on the undersides of the bud-bunches until the heat passed.

* * *

In the city, the green-tinted sunlight burned down against the buildings, its heat rising in distorted waves off of the synthetic cerasteel. The baking grey asphalt of the streets was bare of any Human or Hadrian figure who had any choice in the matter, the rest trudging their way under thin white cloaks to whatever destination awaited them. Songbirds and bud-bugs alike had taken shelter underneath awnings and balconies, waiting for the heat to die down, while the pigeon-hawks had returned to their nests and covered themselves with one gray-green wing.

This was the still of midday. Twelve hours from now, even the opalescent glow from the moon would shine on more activity than there was now, the cool night air a welcome for all sorts of Humans and Hadrians to go roaming the peaceful scrubland. But now, even the small, feral cats living on the lower mountain slopes had stopped hunting mice and rabbits and were dozing in or below the branches of the occasional tree.

A single towering building marked the center of both the city and the province. Its surface was made of the older of the two commonly-used cerasteel varieties. The original, maroon-colored material had cracked slowly over the years, and the newer grey cerasteel had filled in the spaces, drawing rune-like lines along the entire structure. Due to its nature, older cerasteel was weaker at higher altitudes. Because of this, the intricate patterns extended downwards, a system of silver vines that had crept the wrong way, stretching a little more than halfway down the building.

This was the Capitol building. The administrative personnel of the entire province were based here, as well as any residing Hadrian government officials. All other Sections reported to this place, and any inter-species relations were established and maintained here. Despite its intricate outside appearance, it was a dull, unfriendly building, the Hadrians having been quite aware of the psychological effect such a location had on the populace. Accordingly, making a visit to the Capitol was generally not considered a pleasant experience.

Administrator Keldor squinted as he stepped into the wide, cheaply-carpeted hallway outside the darkened conference room from which he’d emerged. A thinner, balding man who had been standing with his back to the wall just outside the door now detached himself from the plaster and took up his usual position at Keldor’s right shoulder.

“Good news, I take it, sir?” He asked, ignoring the look of discomfort on the Admin.’s face as he glanced up at the offending lights, which had been made brighter than desirable on purpose.

“Good as can be expected, Will.” Keldor replied as he began walking. “They said they’d try it our way for now, but they’d be letting us know if the situation changed.”

Admin. Keldor had just previously been discussing a matter with the head of the Produce Section. They’d been receiving pressure from the Hadrians to put a stop to a series of complaints among their workers, who had been demanding more pay in the form of bud. The Hadrians, ever nonchalant about business matters, had wanted to increase the workers’ wages on the spot, but the Produce Section Chief had told them it wasn’t that simple, that the bud had to come from somewhere. So Keldor had stepped in. He’d been able to scrounge up a few percentage points to add to their bud wages, but not enough to meet their demands. Instead, he had proposed that the workers receive a small discount on all non-payroll bud purchased through regular commerce channels.

Will nodded. “As good as could be expected, sir.”

The pair walked quickly and deliberately down the unwelcoming corridors in the main office sections of the tall building, passing glossy-eyed menials and the occasional Hadrian official. Will read off a list of items the Administrator had yet to see to this week, the older man nodding curtly to each as he logged it in his memory. Once Will had finished, and heaved a sigh as if he’d been eager to get the professional unpleasantries out of the way, they were both silent, passing into an area of the building less populated by assorted staff. They came upon a large set of metal doors.

As his aide halted behind him, the Administrator leaned forward at the side of the doorway to present various parts of his anatomy for a DNA scan. There was a series of cheerful beeps, and the doors slid aside heavily as Will was at his side again.

As soon as the sliding double doors thumped shut behind them, both men suddenly relaxed, as if grateful to be alone, although the hallway from which they’d come had been as empty as the elevator they were in now. The flawless mirrors and leather padding on the side walls of the compartment were a welcome change to the bland, functional office area they’d escaped.

After a few moments the elevator door opened for them once again, and then they were in a darkened corridor with a maroon carpet and lovingly-crafted dark wood paneling on the walls. Intricate imitation oil-lamps occupied sconces along each side of the hallway, and there was a set of lavish rosewood doors at its far end. From the immediate surroundings, it would be hard to tell that this was the top floor of the building.

A fine mist of sweet smoke hovered in the air, and it parted, disturbed, as the two men strolled down the hallway. The cloud came from small vents in the hand-carved crown-molding of the walls, a constant trickle of bud-incense smoke that infused itself into the entire structure.

Keldor had designed this entire floor himself. The elevator occupied the rough center of the setup, and the hallway, which Keldor had made longer than necessary to prolong the experience of entering his home, led to the first in a ring of rooms that extended to the men’s sides and behind them, beyond the elevator.

This first room, beyond the redwood doors, was Keldor’s office. The two men entered, each one pushing the door in front of him and letting it swing closed behind him. The room was as dark as the hallway; the glass of the large window had darkened automatically to obstruct the glaring sunlight.

Both men had been focused on enjoying the cool, sweet air and visual aesthetic of the hallway. But now, Will smiled and walked over towards the desk with Keldor. The older man took his seat behind the desk, with his back to the window, while his aide sat across the redwood surface from him, in a chair of equal elegance and comfort. He leaned back and put his feet on the wood, while Keldor reached into a desk drawer.

The item he produced from within the redwood drawer was a masterpiece. Long and delicate, resembling an ancient Native American calumet, the pipe’s stem was made of hand-crafted briarwood, with strips of carved meerschaum laid into the sides of the shaft. The wooden top of the shaft was engraved with tiny images telling the story of a war long-passed, and an end-piece of amber-colored catlinite formed the pipe itself. The bowl of the pipe was set into the top of a carved bud-bug, which was facing forward and had its wings extended upwards to form the front of the bowl. The bug’s head was lifted, its two horns pointing at the sky, and the pipe’s igniter rested between them. The pipe’s mouthpiece was polished cerasteel, and aside from a few of the carvings, which depicted Hadrians, it was the only indicator that the elegant piece had been made during the Occupation.

As Keldor prepared the beautiful pipe for a load of the best weed in the city, Will gazed over Keldor’s left shoulder at the oil painting depicting the metropolis as it had been before the occupation. He had been born in the years after the Hadrians had arrived, before they had implemented their gene programs. Indeed, his was one of the last generations of Humans to have natural parents. He glanced out the window, noting the stark contrast between the two worlds, depicted and real. Then he turned to Keldor.

“So, do you think the Produce workers will go for it?”

Keldor answered without looking up from the bowl he was packing. “They risk facing the enforcers if they don’t.”

Will shook his head chidingly. “Ungrateful shit-heels. The first sign of sobriety and they become like children. Have you reminded those dead-heads that we have more to worry about than making sure a bunch of subhuman bastards don’t lose their buzz?”

“Perhaps you should pity them. I still remember what being sober is like.”

“Oh, to hell with them. If they had the slightest feel for business they wouldn’t keep running out of bud in the first place.”

Keldor smiled. “That’s probably true.” Then he lovingly brushed the sticky residue from his fingertips before lifting the pipe.

The two men became subdued, as if the pipe held some deep seriousness in its wooden heart. Will removed his feet from the table and leaned forward. Keldor heaved a forlorn sigh.

“To absent friends.” Keldor said.

“To martyred friends.” Will gave their traditional reply.

Then they both spoke together. “May their skies be clear and their smoke sweet.”

Will waited in silence for his oldest friend to draw deeply of the sweet smoke, to the point where it burned the throat, and then a good deal more. He drew the pipe away from his face, his throat muscles clenching back the fit of coughs, and handed it quickly to Will before bursting out sputtering and coughing, drawing in urgent breaths in between convulsions.

Will did the same, drawing up to, and then past the point at which the smoke caused discomfort in the back of his throat. He quickly deposited the pipe on the desk, and then joined Keldor in a long series of pained coughs.

By the time they were both finished, breathing normally, both men were watering from the eyes, and sniffing back fluid from suddenly-runny noses. To an observer who had missed their coughing fits, they might have appeared to be weeping.

Keldor now thumbed a few buttons on his desk-panel, and the room’s E-center begun to play deep, melodic music made almost exclusively with non-electrical instruments. The songs were in a playlist specifically made for this daily ritual, and the notes were powerfully melancholic.

The two men sat in silence for a full few minutes, Will gazing out the window, and Keldor leaning back in his chair with closed eyes. Then, after a few entrancing musical tracks, the older man leaned forward again and picked up the pipe for round two. Unlike before, this time he cradled the pipe affectionately in his hands, running his fingers along the carvings as if reliving old memories. And when he took a hit from the pipe, he did it softly, and stopped before it became painful. He handed it to Will, who did the same.

This ritual, known as The Burning, was an old one, passed down from the time before the occupation when bud had finally been given the ceremonial role in mainstream society it had deserved for so long. The ritual consisted of a group of old friends paying their respects to their lost comrades, the first hit meant to be a symbolic payment exacted from each of them in exchange for the pleasant memories of the departed. After the occupation, the ritual had fallen mostly into memory, and when it was performed, any old pipe was used. But the pipe that lay on the desk between them was no ordinary pipe. It was a piece-pipe, a bonding pipe hand-made by a group of close friends, each of whom had contributed something to its creation. The pipe was symbolically meant to hold a small piece of each person’s spirit, hence its name, and when one or more of those friends died, the ceremonial sharing of the pipe between its creators became a mourning ritual, in which the remaining friends would burn the spirits of the fallen into their memories and bodies.

Every day for over fifty years now, Keldor and Will had smoked this piece-pipe in honor of fallen brothers. And their names were carved into the bottom of the wooden shaft, four men whose friendship had been forged in the fires of revolution and tempered in the heat of battle:

Keldor… Dunbar… Edward… and William.


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