Yeah, made it! It’s almost midnight, but it’s still Tuesday!
Now, hurry, hurry …
Welcome back, dearest reader, to the second chapter of my SF adventure! If you’re new to the story, please be sure to start with the first chapter.
All right, here we go! 😀
Worlds Rising: Rebellion
Four linears after the Conquest
Sweet thrills made Abbida shiver while she ran her hand down Cole’s back. With practiced motions he was tightening the screws on the generator’s cover panel, his back muscles underneath his shirt flexing, ever so playfully, with every lifting and lowering of his arms.
Though her mouth felt dried out, she tried moistening her lips with the tip of her tongue. She’d learned that from Ilka. At least Ilka claimed that’s what got her any guy’s attention. Lately her friend tired easily, and she was given more food than the other girls, though she already looked kind of plump. So maybe she really had gotten lucky with one of the boys? But Abbida wasn’t out for a boy. She wanted a man.
Underneath her hands Cole rolled his shoulders, but that wasn’t outright refusing her, or was it? In a reckless move, she stepped closer and embraced him tightly, causing a current surge from her fingertips through her entire body, right into her core. Her heartbeat picked up pace, she closed her eyes and inhaled his scent.
Cole cleared his throat. “You’d better stop it now. This has gone far enough.”
His voice vibrated through his body and spread to her nerves. “Maybe I don’t want to stop,” she whispered hoarsely.
Sighing, he peeled her hands off of him. Still turning his back to her, he packed the tools back into the box.
Abbida pursed her lips. “Are you really not attracted to me at all?”
Cole paused, breathed in deeply, then straightened up. Finally, he turned around to face her. Faded rays of afternoon sunshine fell through the skylights, bathing his silhouette in a warm late summer hue, painting light and shade of the trees outside the generator house over his angular features. His eyes were sparkling, and a faint reddish glow tinted his face. Abbida’s pulse quickened. He was definitely not indifferent to her!
“You’re too good for me, Abbida. I already had my chance with women. Find yourself a nice young guy and take it slow before becoming a mother.”
“Don’t say this as if your life was already over! Don’t you ever want to try again? It’s almost been four linears–”
“Three linears, ten circulations and two days!” He grabbed the handle and heaved the tool box up on his shoulder. More gently he added, “Someday you’ll understand.”
“I’m sorry.” She really was. She of all people should have known better. Everyone knew how much he still mourned Inez and their stillborn child. Trying to lighten up the mood she sniffed at her forearms and wrinkled her nose. “Either way you owe me kitchen duty for making me crawl through the sewer tunnel.”
Raising an eyebrow, he smiled lopsidedly, no doubt fully aware she was changing subjects on purpose. After all, they could read each other like one of those old, tattered manuals on the shelf in the corner. Brushing past her, he patted her shoulder. “The drain had to be cleaned before the beginning of rain season, or the generators would be flooded by the first real downpour. Water and electricity don’t make for a good mix–which I hardly need to explain to you.”
“All right, all right, I get it. But look at this! I had to crawl through waste water two fingers deep. There are still air bubbles rising from my pores!”
Mocking her, he bent over her arm. “Aw, come on, they’re tiny.”
“It’s filthy down there! Muddy and slimy … and it stinks! I could hardly move, and it’s stifling, and–”
“And that’s exactly why you’re the only one who can do it,” he said earnestly. He was standing in the middle of the room now: about six feet tall, brawny from his work in the smithy and hardly nimble enough for the task.
Abbida pouted. “Even so. A promise is a promise.”
“And I’m going to keep it. Have I ever failed you?” He smiled and proffered his hand to seal the deal. She accepted and smiled back at him. No matter what, they were best friends forever.
Outside, the gong struck, calling everyone to the meeting hall. There could be no doubt Rona was on duty tonight, for there was no mistaking the impatient double impact of each of what was supposed to be three strikes.
Cole shoved her towards the door. “You go ahead. I’ll lock up and follow.”
It was no use in arguing with him, he obviously needed some time to himself. Mentioning his lost family had rattled him more than he cared to let on. Abbida sighed inwardly and left. Looking back over her shoulder she caught glimpses of him limping back and forth inside the generator house. The extra thick sole of his left shoe disguised the fact that one of his legs was shorter than the other. An injury that had almost cost him his life after the Invasion. Usually he coped quite well, making it easy to forget what had happened to him. But tonight his memories must have weighed down on him.
Knowing he would not want her to see him like this, Abbida turned away and made for the assembly hall.
She saved a place for him, but when he finally showed up, he walked straight up to his roommates instead, shaking hands and patting shoulders. Since Tarek’s younger brother Raman had joined them, five of them were sharing a hut. Cole used to say odd numbers made for better harmony, but there was no denying the place was crowded. His roommate Tarek regularly volunteered to go hunting–just to get away from it all every once in a while, as Abbida suspected.
Up front some tables had been pushed together to function as a podium, and the council members were already present. Rona, the apparitor, raised both arms to address the assembled village community.
“Quiet!” she called. “Settle down, everybody! Cole, Tarek, Raman, there’s room for you up here… All right, let’s begin. Any objections regarding today’s agenda?”
Since they had all agreed to the agenda at yesterday’s meeting, Abbida wasn’t expecting anyone to speak up. All the more it surprised her when Tarek raised his hand, “We need to talk about the Recruiting–”
All sorts of shouts surged up, cutting him short, with people leaping from their seats and gesticulating over their neighbors’ heads. Abbida shrank into her chair. Had he gone completely crazy?
Rona waved her hands, trying to restore order. “Stop it, everybody! Let’s hear him out!”
It was no use. Tarek’s open breach of taboo had enraged people to the point that they weren’t heeding Rona at all. With a questioning look on her face she turned around, but the five council members were just sitting there, stony-faced, doing nothing–and Abbida couldn’t escape the feeling, they’d been expecting the turmoil.
At last, Mandras, the oldest among them and spokesman of the assembly, lifted his staff and clobbered the session gong. “Quiet! Shut up, all of you! Sit down, or I’ll cut everyone’s evening rations!”
That helped. Meals had been meager from the start of the current linear and had already been reduced even more three circulations ago. Any less meant starving. And yes, Tarek was right, this situation correlated directly with the Recruiting.
“You’re just annoyed because your hut is too crowded!” an elderly woman shouted. Abbida only knew her by face. Still standing, the woman clenched her fists, staring at Tarek angrily. Or maybe anxiously? As Abbida recalled, she had three sons. Were they old enough to be recruited?
Tarek’s face had turned dark red. Grinding his teeth, emphasizing each word, he said, “Are you accusing me of trying to send my own roommates to combat–just, so I can roll over in my sleep more easily?!”
His voice grew ever louder, to the point where he was yelling at her, and agitated shouts answered him from all sides now. People were starting to push forward, and Abbida feared they were in for a scuffle. The woman, too, seemed jumpy, but didn’t back down.
Finally, old Mandras pounded his fists on the table and stood up.
“Nobody is accusing you of anything, Tarek! Sit down! You too, Nana! All right then, a motion to add an item to the agenda has been put forward–”
More shouts interrupted him, raising another hubbub, causing Mandras to lose patience. He struck the gong with his staff as if he was beating one of his tarps now.
“I won’t say it again! I’ll cut rations in half…!”
Instantly, everybody fell silent.
“There we go! Now! Who votes for the motion?!”
Apart from Tarek only few raised their hands, and hesitantly at that. Cole, who was sitting next to him, looked around, grimaced and raised his hand resolutely.
“Motion denied by the majority. The item will not be added to today’s agenda. Tarek, you may put the motion down for tomorrow’s assembly.”
Tarek snorted in disgust and shook his head. Patting Cole’s back he turned and pushed his way out through the crowd. Silently, people watched him leave until the door slammed shut. Then everybody started talking at once.
Abbida was afraid Mandras might act on his threats and shorten their food rations, but now that Tarek was gone, nobody seemed compelled to calm people down. After a while they went back to the agenda, and for the rest of the meeting Abbida only listened with half an ear while contemplating Cole’s back. With every move, every gesture of his, the muscles on his back would be outlined against his shirt. Did he really not want to be touched by her?
Gloomily, she sighed when suddenly his seatmate Raman turned around and noticed her glancing longingly at Cole. Caught red-handed she blushed, but when he frowned she just stared back at him defiantly. She was old enough to bed whomever she pleased!
Instead of getting annoyed, Raman dropped his gaze, suddenly appearing very vulnerable. Too late, Abbida realized he had more pressing worries than the love life of his neighbors. His father had been killed during the Invasion four linears ago. Of all his brothers only the eldest, Tarek, was left. Nobody knew what had become of the other three. Tarek had probably tried to discuss the matter of Recruiting for his younger brother’s sake. But the assembly had declined, despite–or maybe because–their mother had lost her mind over her losses.
Meanwhile, the assembly was swiftly checking off items on the agenda: the number of population was consistent, with currently one hundred eighty-six villagers. One of the elders had died yesterday. Having been the last surviving founder, Engineer Friederika had withdrawn back into herself ages ago and had become bedridden a few linears prior to her death.
Abbida had always been fascinated with the apparatuses hailing from the founding period. Sadly, many components were wearing out noticeably, replacements had long since been used up and the village community had no plant facilities to manufacture new ones, let alone the necessary knowledge or resources.
In the beginning they would patch things up and improvise, but their makeshift fixes would only last for so long, and everyone knew they needed completely new approaches to generating power, to irrigation and drainage, to safe cooling and heating systems. All of this demanded ingenuity and Abbida’s head almost burst with ideas to try out.
So, about one linear ago, when she had just been appointed to the technical team, she had paid old Friederika a visit, hoping to pick the seasoned engineer’s brain. To no avail. Friederika, who had always been considered taciturn if not downright rude, hadn’t become more forthcoming with old age. She hardly ever spoke to anybody and refused to receive Abbida. Even so, her death was a pity: Another major piece of knowledge lost, once and for all.
Statistically, one of the younger women made up for the loss, announcing she was three circulations into pregnancy. People showered her with good wishes, she beamed with happiness, and the unborn child’s father, still hardly more than a boy himself, burst with pride.
Afterwards, Rona read out the agenda for the following evening followed by the work plans, which everyone concerned already knew anyway. Old Mandras announced the distribution of food rations and finally dissolved the meeting.
Pushing her way out, Abbida bumped into Raman at the doors. Her first impulse was to slip past him, but somehow that seemed cowardly. Instead, she smiled at him apologetically. “How are you coping in your new hut?”
“What do you think? You try living with four guys. The sleeping mats are laid out so close, I keep waking up whenever someone rolls over in his sleep.”
In her mind’s eye Abbida painted a picture of Cole’s bed this close to hers… Hastily she pulled herself together, “At least it’s like family.”
His expression turned bleak.
“It’s not to same, of course! Nobody could ever replace your brothers.” She bit her tongue before she could make it any worse. “Someday they’ll return,” she added meekly.
He just left her standing there, and she almost felt grateful. She shouldn’t have tried to cheer him up. From the beginning of the Recruitings he had lost his father, three older brothers and basically his mother, too. Up until now they had spared the youngest sons of a family, but who was to say things would stay that way? Now that he needed to shave every morning, it might be just a matter of time before they came to haul him away, too. That was just the way things were ever since the Invasion.
Later that evening it started raining.
The linear was drawing near its outer extreme, and rain season seemed to set in early. Abbida was tasked with hut duty for the remainder of the quarter circulation. So she ran home right after dinner before any of the other girls, to start the fan heater and sweep the mud off the stairs. At least she wouldn’t have to clean boots, too. That assignment was for Latisha–but knowing her sister, she would probably carry out her duties just so not to be reprimanded.
Abbida huffed, fired up the generator and checked the oil level. The device puttered and the fan sucked in damp air. She slipped off her jacket and hung it over the drying rack. Thankfully, old Mandras hadn’t walked his talk, and there had been no cuts to the food rations. She felt full, if not utterly so. Cabbage always sat heavily on her stomach. Why didn’t they serve it for lunch instead of right before sleep, of all things? Then again, before long they might have to eat it morning, noon and night. They were running out of stock.
And rain season hadn’t even really started, yet. Once the ground became all muddy and needed to be secured so as not to wash away, they’d be rolling out dry and bottled rations again. Nothing compared to lentils with pickled cabbage–day in, day out.
Taking hold of the upper end of the rolled-up carpet, she lugged it out of its corner and laid it down at the edge of the living space. Behind their curtains, each woman or girl was responsible for her own stuff, but the common space had to be kept clean in turns. Abbida crouched down, sliding forward on her knees to roll out the carpet evenly, so she wouldn’t need to smooth it out later.
The day before had been Latisha’s turn to clean house, as was clearly recognizable, for she hadn’t bothered sweeping the rug before rolling it up. Abbida grimaced, climbed to her feet and was about to reach for the broom when the sound of the council gong startled her. Somebody clanged it hard and ceaselessly, making her hair stand on end. But she didn’t recognize any of the alarm sequences they all knew by heart. Whatever was to be announced must have been unforeseen and unusual.
Abbida ran towards the stairs, stepped into her boots, realized she had forgotten her jacket, and ran back inside. Darn it, she’d just managed to spread dirt all over the floor! Whatever, this would have to keep. From all sides the neighbors came running now, and she followed the crowd back to the meeting hall where they were intercepted by old Mandras and Rona, who stood in front of the closed doors and wouldn’t let anyone pass.
The rain stopped. Clouds of steam were rising up between agitated groups of shouting people, raising questions without getting answers. Cole, Tarek and even Raman were helping to keep the villagers at bay, though normally everyone was allowed to enter or leave the hall at will.
“What’s going on? Let us in!”–“Why is the gong ringing?”–“Open the doors!”
Up front people were starting to push. Abbida almost stumbled, so she backed away just in case. Cole and Tarek planted themselves protectively in front of the council members. Rona lifted her hands. “Quiet! Do you want to hear what’s going on, or not?”
The pushing and shoving stopped. Behind Rona one of the other council members stuck her head out through the door, waving Mandras closer. They whispered, and the mutterings in the crowd died away with people trying to hear what they were discussing. Finally, Mandras turned to face them, lifting his staff over his head.
The noise died down.
“Friends! Neighbors! Fate sometimes takes strange twists and turns, and as if Tarek had anticipated what–”
The rest of his unctuous speech was lost in a storm of outrage. Alarmed, Mandras backed away from the crowd, and Abbida suddenly felt queasy. She had never seen him afraid to address his people. Cole was shielding him with his broad back, holding up a wrench the length of his forearm. “Have you all gone mad? Let the alderman speak, or we’re all going to regret this!”
He was swinging the wrench in a loop now, and the foremost people shrank back, but were held up by those right behind them shoving forward. Abbida felt the hair on the back of her neck rise. She hadn’t seen her neighbors this worked up since the last Recruiting. They wouldn’t…?
Behind Mandras the doors slid open. One after another the council members stepped out, clearing a passage. Instead of letting people in, however, they were looking inside as if someone else was supposed to come out.
After a moment of uncertainty, a young man stepped outside, hesitantly, his gaze unsteady as if he didn’t dare look anybody in the eye. Collectively, the villagers gasped for air.
The cry, coming from right behind Abbida, made her jump. Raman’s mother pushed past her, her voice, almost crazed, spiraling higher and higher, “My son! My son is back!”
In the following turmoil Abbida got pushed this way and that and was almost knocked over. For a panicky moment she had to fight not to get trampled, then she elbowed her way out of this madness and watched on from safe distance. She saw Cole and Tarek take Ashok into their middle and bulldozing him a way towards his mother, not going all that easy on the bystanders. Ashok’s mother threw her arms around him, and Tarek hugged them both. Watching them finally reunite made Abbida’s eyes well up with tears.
The gong was being hammered again, loud and reverberating, and, for the time being, the clamor died down.
“There!” someone shouted, pointing towards the meeting hall.
A second man stepped outside, looking intimidated, probably from all the commotion. Then another, and another, until twenty or more sons, brothers and fathers were standing there, facing their old neighbors, silent and a bit shocked.
People gawked. The mood had completely changed. Perplexity was spreading, a sort of restrained thrill, as if they couldn’t bring themselves to believe their own eyes. As if they didn’t dare accept the inconceivable.
Abbida only had eyes for the boy standing furthest away from her: Joram, Tarek’s third brother. He’d grown up since that day two linears ago, when they had come to take him away.
His arms and legs weren’t as lanky and didn’t seem too long for his body anymore. He’d become broader; his build would not quite, but almost rival Tarek’s. And he stood tall. If he ever wanted to kiss her again, he’d have to stoop down. And this time she might not slap his face for trying.
Abbida tried to circumvent the masses of onlookers in order to catch a better glimpse of Joram. But when she finally reached him, he didn’t recognize her. She wanted to call his name, it was on the tip of her tongue, but the look on his face made her choke. Indifferent and lost, his gaze washed over her, while he let himself be dragged away by his family.
After that Abbida felt numb. Around her the crowd dispersed. Whoever had a home comer in their family led them home, everybody else went to celebrate with a drink. People were in a party mood. Everybody, except Abbida.
Cole locked the meeting hall’s doors, then came up to her, “You alright?”
“Yeah, sure. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“You tell me. You look like old Mandras ate your rations.”
Despite her strange mood she couldn’t help a grin. “It’s nothing. Just… unexpected.”
Something in his tone made her listen up, “What?”
“Don’t you think it’s strange that they’re back? I mean, think about it. For almost four linears they’ve been taking our young men, and none of them ever came back. Why now? Today of all days!”
“You mean, right after what Tarek said at the meeting…?
Abbida felt goosebumps race over her skin. Cole was right. Nobody had ever dared break that taboo or demand to debate the omnipresent threat. As if not to provoke the mostly invisible, yet overly powerful invaders to strike again. And then, no sooner than somebody finally built up the courage to rebel against the silence, the kidnapped men reappeared–just like that.
As if the villagers simply should have said, we don’t want that, give them back. As if the strangers knew what was going on in the village. Instead of raining blood and thunder over the village, they simply let the men go.
Which raised the question, why they hadn’t revolted a long time ago?
For the first time, Abbida felt she didn’t know all there was to know about the village community. Around the square the shadows were growing longer. She stared intently and blinked, but nothing was there that didn’t belong. Even so her scalp itched unpleasantly.
Shivering, she wrapped her arms around herself. “I’ve got to go. It’s my turn cleaning house.”
“Right… I’ll see you tomorrow at work then.”
In what was obviously a conscious effort, Cole’s expression lightened up. He waved and made for his own hut–which was going to be much more spacious tonight, with Tarek and Raman out to stay with their mother and their returned brothers.
Abbida walked faster, fending off an overwhelming feeling of loss of direction. What had happened today was huge. More so than met the eye, she feared.
~ ~ ~
Hundreds of thousands of kilometers away, Zhao Li Xiao found himself climbing the long-winded stoop to the patriarch’s palace. On arriving at the top he stopped in the antechamber to the audience hall. He needed a moment to calm down inwardly.
This was the day.
Up here, transparent floor-to-ceiling windowpanes breached the outer wall of the semicircular room in regular intervals, presenting visitors with a breathtaking view of the grandeur and seemingly endless reach of the capital. The most renowned architects had created this lookout, to purposefully draw one’s attention to particularly aesthetic sights of the City. Not too long ago, a much more naive Li Xiao had been standing here, hardly able to tear his gaze away from the colorfulness of the numerous boulevards, parks and ponds.
Now, four years after witnessing with his own eyes the rich flora and fauna on the planet’s surface, this miniature paradise revealed itself as the ersatz it really was. Artificial gravity and atmosphere were supposed to delude people to believe in a vastness and dignity that, if one looked more closely, turned out to be nothing but purposely created illusions. For him as a pilot, the City hardly offered enough space to properly speed up his machine.
There it was again, this tenacious, disturbing wistfulness, his constant companion since the patriarch had revoked his delegation with the planetside stationary forces. All his attempts at reasoning with his brother–even pleading with him–had been to no avail. Only a few days after the invasion, the Haodang Long, the ‘Grand and Mighty Dragon’, had summoned him back. Under penalty of losing his pilot’s license, should Li Xiao resist.
So, here he was. At least he was allowed to fly at all, if only dome-to-dome, always casting longing glances to the big blue-green planet beyond. So close, and yet unreachable with the short range fighters he was given. More so than any other citizen of the homeland, Li Xiao was prisoner of his social obligations.
He caught himself reaching up to touch the tattoo above his temple and the tiny almost invisible scar it was hiding. He stopped the motion half-way to convert it into a greeting, answering the guards’ salute. Pensively, he watched the deadpan expressions of the patriarchal life guard.
Their indifferent demeanor was all for show, of course. They knew exactly who he was and had been monitoring his every move through use of biometrics since he had entered the palace. Here, deep inside the colony, nothing ever went unobserved, much less the members of the Second House. Danger was all around, even within the ranks of one’s own family. This was a lesson any member of the Five Grand Families learned from the day of birth.
Li Xiao took off the cap of his dress uniform to carry it under his arm and cleared his throat. At once, the doors–made of opaque, armored glass–slid to the sides, and Li Xiao stepped into the security system. He endeavored to endure the standard operational procedure while inwardly he was suddenly reeling with anxiety. For weeks, he’d dreaded this audience. Now he just wanted to get it over with. But as soon as he crossed that threshold, his worst fears all came true: Everybody was there.
The Haodang Long was sitting on his slightly raised podium, with second and third brother, their wives and half of the court facing him to the right. Officially, there was no such thing as a ‘court’, naturally, for officially the patriarch was the elected head of the oligarchy. Unofficially though, Li Xiao’s eldest brother Zhao Shi Wei had held the position for almost a century, and political structures had become consolidated to a point where in the darkest corners of the sysnet one might stumble upon the term ‘fossilized’. Not, that Li Xiao would ever hang around those dark corners. Officially.
The attendance of the women and the secretary for family affairs left no room for doubts: today they were out for his head. Although, said dark corners of the sysnet would surely argue they were here for another aspect of his anatomy altogether.
In the end it made no difference. Not with the batting of an eye did Li Xiao let on what he was thinking, just as he’d been taught from day one. He bowed deeply to his eldest brother, “Long live the Haodang Long.”
Then he addressed the delegation of the First House, the House of the Tiger, invoking the formal greeting, “Welcome honored guests. I welcome you to my house–as I welcome the bride to my heart.”
Thanks for reading!
Chapter 3 of Worlds Rising: Rebellion will be published next Tuesday here in Joey’s Café.
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Rise and shine! <3