LOST COLONY CH. 10-3

“You asked me what the worst I imagined was,” he pointed out. “Either way, the reports came to an abrupt end. Remember Stacke’s lecture? Somewhere between five and ten years after arrival, the reports stopped. That’s pretty early on. I’m sorry Tracee, but it’s difficult to imagine what could have cut off their comms but otherwise left the mission in good shape.”

“I know,” Tracee said morosely. She turned the empty coffee tumbler in her hands idly, picking at the lid with a nail. “It just makes me sad. You saw the promotional video, the colonists who signed up must have been bursting with hope. Being chosen for the Ark was a dream. I keep picturing them starving or suffocating, watching the dream collapse around them.”

There was nothing Sparr could say to comfort her. The Odysseus would carry several physicians and at least two more medical specialists like Tracee, but there was scant optimism that they’d find anyone alive. Though few spoke of it openly, most believed that some catastrophic failure in their ability to eat, drink, or breathe had doomed the colonists.

Sparr began to wonder, for the first time, if the Odysseus crew were risking the same fate.

***

Progress on building the air car swiftly accelerated. Once Sparr began to produce the tokens he could be much freer parting with them. His resale booze business boomed once he partnered with Cee. He still bought cases from her, selling them at a loss for a few tokens at a time, but he also arranged for Cee to pay her supplier solely with the counterfeit tokens. That got the tokens out of Santi, and less likely to return to Sparr.

Sailors were also good sources of fresh tokens, and equally likely to haul off the counterfeits before they re-entered the Santi economy. Both Sparr and Cee carefully observed the arrival of new ships and rushed to trade with the crew as they stepped ashore, offering unbelievable bargains. Sparr befriended a man who sold skewers of roasted meat rolled in herbs, buying entire batches at a time and selling them at a loss to the mariners. He might only get seven new tokens for every ten he spent, but as ever more tokens flowed through the fabricator, he discovered a wealth of missing parts.

Cabling conduit – lateral

Gyroscope housing bracket

Power output regulator

Antenna cluster blade

Seat webbing – 25 meters

More and more often, the discovery and fabrication of a new part led to visible progress on the air car or one of its components. Webbing wrapped around seat frames, which snapped onto floor plates. The control panel assembly rose in one corner of the shed, taking shape piece by piece alongside the car until quite suddenly it was complete. Sparr came to realize that the car had been designed for easy assembly with a minimum of tools, which themselves were among the part specifications.

He made a few modifications. Omitting one seat opened plenty of room for Bogg to sit or lay safely on the passenger side floor. Thinking ahead to the journey, he began to offer the creature scraps of food, throwing them onto the floor of the air car until Bogg became comfortable lumbering in and out of the vehicle. Leaving out the seat also opened up more storage space, which he would need to lay-in supplies. With each day Sparr’s thoughts dwelled more on the future and less on his impromptu life in Santi.

On the day that he snapped the control panel assembly into place a surge of optimism shot through him. It was unmistakably a flying car, with a solid frame, thrusters, navigation, and controls. Solar panels on the roof would provide power, although he suspected not enough for an all-day flight. His ride was almost ready.

Practically giddy, Sparr decided to take a break from his evening routine of feeding tokens into the replicator. He wandered toward the dockside plaza, following his nose. People gathered there almost every evening, but it was mid-week that the largest, most boisterous party took place. The scent of roasting game and meat filled the air, mixed with salt breeze, and the fruity tang of cheap wine. A circle of mismatched drums and horns cobbled together an unpredictable but catchy tune while a squat woman belted out lyrics that Sparr’s implant couldn’t decipher. The celebration matched his mood perfectly.

“Who’s your new friend?”

Sparr had found Cee seated near the center of the sprawling crowd, swaying to the music, and half drunk, her arms entwined with those of a stocky sailor. She grinned up at him.

“Alain of Merrylun! This is Owa, I think.” She giggled. “Join us!”

“Hi, Owa I Think.” Sparr shook the man’s hand, noting the strong, calloused fingers, and weathered skin. Like Cee, he was well on his way to intoxication. Sparr wondered how much longer the couple would enjoy the evening before Cee dragged her new friend across the plaza toward her cottage.

Bogg sat, but restlessly sniffed the air, trying to locate the source of the sweet, roasting meat. In a moment of fondness and generosity, Sparr went to fetch several skewers and an amphora of almost-respectable wine. He shared the meat with Bogg, but kept the wine for himself.

The gathering gave clues to how the occupants of Kaybe lived without books or writing. The planet’s dual religions weren’t the only sources for stories. There was an established oral tradition, with storytellers seated at several spots in the plaza, collecting a token here or there for a well practiced tale. It had grown too late in the evening for younger children, but those of teen years hung out on the fringes of the light, pursuing romances, fighting, or dreaming about when they could themselves become sailors or adventurers. There was music, dancing, and laughter in abundance.

Either satisfied with his treat, or realizing he wasn’t likely to receive another, Bogg lay down at Sparr’s side. He sighed, stretched out, and let Sparr scratch his muzzle. Even in the shifting firelight, it was obvious there was just as much grey as brown or black in his fur. The creature wasn’t young. He huffed, lagging behind Sparr during any extended walk, especially up hills. At the end of the day, the amiable creature often had energy for little more than foraging for dinner. Sparr felt a melancholy twinge. How many years more did Bogg have?

Owa was telling Cee a story. The sailor had just arrived from a journey of many months, trading cargo at Caibo and points north, and had tales from each of his stops. Some, no doubt, were intended solely to keep Cee’s interest, but there was an underlying theme.

“… and the warehouse porters swore they had seen flying machines in the night!” the sailor was saying.

“Where was that?” Sparr continued scratching at Bogg’s muzzle and ears, but turned toward the couple.

The man met his eyes eagerly, pleased to have an audience. “Apore, I think. But,” he added, “that wasn’t the only place where we heard similar stories. I don’t usually go, but maybe I’ll make a sacrifice at the Origin temple while I’m here.” He turned to Cee, giving her a clumsy kiss. “If I have any tokens left after tonight!”

Sparr bit back his opinion of the Origin. The religion was exploitative, but it only thrived because the populace of Kaybe needed some certainty in their short, difficult lives. And their lives were brief. Looking around the plaza, Sparr saw an abundance of younger people, and a sprinkling of those of middle years, but few that looked to have survived to age sixty. For a moment his thoughts turned to Tracee. Had she been horrified to find human life on Kaybe in such poor condition, or had she been thrilled to find anyone alive to help at all?

Using Bogg as a backrest, Sparr stared up at the sky. In between sparks from the campfires he caught glimpses of the unfamiliar constellations. No, he thought, correcting himself. They were no longer unfamiliar. Though Sparr hadn’t given names to the constellations he knew where in the night sky to find them. One particularly bright star seemed almost fixed in the southern sky, while a distinctive crescent-shaped sprinkling of stars kept to the east. He could navigate if necessary, which it might be. Whatever navigational systems were built into the air car probably depended upon satellites or ground stations that had been long neglected.

To his left Cee stood, giving Sparr a wink as she led Owa toward her cottage. The sailor happily accompanied her, sliding his hand down to squeeze and grope her ass as the couple giggled at some unheard joke. Sparr laughed softly, happy for both of them. On a planet where death was never far enough away, few turned down the opportunity for an evening of pleasure and companionship.

***

The launch of Ost’s eepay wood raft was even less dramatic than Sparr had anticipated. Crewed by only four sailors, the massive and heavy vessel seemed uninterested in even pulling away from shore, much less moving under sail. It took several more helpers on shore, including Sparr, to finally coax it into the current. From there, he stumbled back ashore to watch as the ponderous craft wallowed lethargically away in the ebbing tide. Even after the sails were dropped it took minutes before it made visible progress.

“A ship which can barely be steered, carries no cargo, and is three-quarters submerged.” Jance shook his head as if embarrassed to have created such an ungainly craft.

“And is worth thousands of tokens!” Ost added, clapping Jance on the back.

Jance let out a long sigh, but rallied. “Here,” he said, “let me show you a ship of true beauty.” He led them along the beach to the secluded spot where he was building his next ship, the sleek vessel based on the design that Sparr had shared months earlier. Construction was even farther along than it had been just one week ago.

“The eepay!” Ost exclaimed. “You did find a way to use it.”

“It helps weight the hull,” Jance said, beaming. “You see, with a keel this deep it needs to be heavier than…”

Sparr watched as Jance led Ost on a tour of the ship under construction, excitedly pointing out features he was particularly proud of, and answering Ost’s questions. Both men were as animated as he could remember. To Sparr, it felt like the beginning of a goodbye. His friendship with the men had anchored him, giving his time in Santi meaning and a human connection. The next phase of his journey promised to be fraught and lonely, with only Bogg to keep him company. Santi hadn’t been without peril, but Sparr suspected he would look back on his time here fondly.

***

“One sack of onions, one crate of dried beef strips, two sacks of meal, and one of dried beans.” The merchant stacked Sparr’s purchases on the dusty ground next to her stall. “Fourteen tokens.”

Sparr paid the woman, being careful to use tokens that he had already fed through the replicator. After loading up Bogg’s pack with the meal and beans, the two lumbered back to his stall, and the fabricator.

“This is beginning to look like an expedition, Bogg.” In fact, the stack of supplies he intended to bring along on his excursion over the southern ice was nearly complete. In addition to food, he had purchased and packed furs, blankets, and a few simple cooking tools. To supplement the collapsible water bottles that had been in his survival pack, he also purchased several salvaged alloy containers that hundreds of years earlier had started their lives as jugs for transporting and storing something resembling olive oil.

If Bogg was impressed by Sparr’s preparations it didn’t show. The animal shuffled over to the replicator, which was often warmer than the rest of the room, and lay against it. He sighed. A day spent dutifully following Sparr on his errands had exhausted him.

Sparr’s companion wasn’t the only one feeling the cold. Although the seasonal variations weren’t nearly as significant on Kaybe as Earth, they did change. It was already several degrees cooler than it had been when Sparr reached Santi, and cooler yet than it had been in Vonde. Sparr found himself more often than not donning a second layer or vest.

It would be much worse on the flight. The fabricator, missing some critical material, had been unable to produce the windshields for the vehicle. Even a flight in mild temperatures would be chilly. Flying over the ice with no protection from the wind would be untenable. Sparr had purchased several pieces of salvaged glass, lashing them to the front of the vehicle, but still worried about how far he’d be able to fly at one time. At least Bogg could lay on the floor of the car out of the wind.

A few new tokens clinked together in his pouch, the change back from a day of buying supplies. Not wanting to disturb Bogg, Sparr ignored them for the moment, turning instead to an inventory of his pack. Given what he had put it through, the material was in surprisingly good shape, the straps still held up, and the survival supplies well protected. He had used surprisingly few of them. A few of the antibiotics and antivirals had been lost when Sparr used them as props for his improvised magic trick at the Origin temple in Vonde. He communicator and the survival blanket were showing signs of wear, but both still worked. He even had a few flattened energy snacks lodged at the bottom of the pack.

Finally there were the pistols. Slow to recognize the routine dangers he faced on Kaybe, Sparr had been forced to rely upon knives or his saber for his most recent fights. With that lesson imprinted, he had taken to always carrying the light pistol that had been included in his pack. The heavy pistol he kept stuffed away.

Sparr had only to find a few more parts before he could complete the air car. He had purchased his provisions, fabricated plenty of new tokens, and began his goodbyes. He was on the cusp of a new phase of his adventure.

He had just one final goodbye.

***

Multi-platform Power Shunt (Small)

He could have finished the car a week ago. The air car, Sparr had thought, would be assembled from a collection of unique parts. Instead, he found that it relied upon parts such as the Power Shunt, which were also used in other vehicles or machines. Once he identified and fabbed them, the car came together quickly.

His trips to the shed became more frequent, as he moved his supplies, along with any new parts, from the fabrication site to where he was assembling the car. Bogg lugged provisions in his pack, while Sparr hefted the parts as unobtrusively as possible. Not that anyone would notice. Women and men lugging and selling salvage were everywhere in Santi, a practice hundreds of years old and no more noteworthy than catching fish.

At the shed he stacked the supplies and connected the shunt, a device which delivered power from the main cell cluster to the individual thrusters and stabilizers. He flicked the power switch and was rewarded with a row of green status lights on the main panel. The air car was complete.

“So this is where you’ve been hiding.” Imon’s two thugs stood on either side of the shed door, blades drawn, and grinning maliciously.

Sparr wasn’t completely surprised. A month earlier he had watched as they helped the assassins track him. At the time the arrival of the Alliance military drone had frightened them off. Now, it seemed, they had regained their courage.

“I wouldn’t call it hiding,” Sparr replied, rising carefully from where he had been stowing supplies into the air car. His mind spun. With the shed discovered he could no longer protect it from looting. “A man’s gotta put his head down somewhere.”

The wiry thug stepped just inside the door. In the alley beyond, Sparr now saw Imon himself, seated on a crate and looking bored.

“Sorry,” Sparr said, in mock politeness, “Occupational Safety and Health regulations require type-one protective eyewear to enter this facility.” He had laid his saber down while working on the car, but had the survival pistol tucked into his waistband.

The thug ignored him, his nervous eyes taking in the car, Bogg, and the stacks of lumber and nautical supplies. He spotted Sparr’s saber. “It’s your safety I’d be worrying about.”

“What do you want?”

“I’ve been thinking.” Imon spoke up but remained safely out of the way. “You seem like you’re competing on my turf. Afraid I can’t have that.” It was merely a pretext. Imon no doubt had been looking for an opportunity to even the score with Sparr for some time. They were there to kill him.

The grin on the first thug’s face confirmed it. He now stood closer to the saber than Sparr. “Why don’t you step outside?”

If he went through the door he’d be caught between the two thugs. Once again, the harsh reality of life on Kaybe would force him to kill or be killed. “I have tokens,” Sparr whispered, hoping to attract the attention of both thugs. “Here,” he said, reaching as if to retrieve his pouch of coins. The wiry thug seemed unimpressed, but the heavily muscled brute just outside the door was curious.

He leaned into the doorway. “Show me.”

Sparr snatched for the pistol and shot him, the round clipping the brute’s shoulder, blowing away a chunk of muscle and bone. The man staggered away, howling in pain and surprise. The other thug lunged at Sparr, but with the air car between them, was too far away. He scrambled around the end of the car as Sparr chambered another round.

“You die!” the man shrieked, but before he could strike, Sparr’s next shot tore into his chest. He flopped forward lifelessly, blood pouring onto the dry soil of the shed floor.

Outside, Imon bolted toward the plaza, followed by the injured thug. For several heartbeats Sparr considered pursuing them. He could almost certainly catch the injured thug, and might track down Imon. Killing the men would make Santi a safer place, but Sparr thought better of it immediately. He couldn’t kill men, even known thugs, in the middle of a crowd. He’d be marked, and would arouse immediate attention.

Either way, he had to act quickly. There was a trail of blood leading from the shed, and a body within. Soon curious sailors would notice, and Imon himself might return looking for revenge. It was time to go.

Bogg had wandered off to dig for crabs at the beach. Perhaps intrigued by the disturbance he returned, muzzle flecked with sea foam. Sparr threw a piece of dried meat into the floor of the air car, a sufficient enticement for the ever-hungry creature. As Bogg settled himself, Sparr quickly loaded the rest of the supplies, balancing them as carefully as possible. He opened the shed door to its full width, just enough to accommodate the air car.

It wasn’t the way he had intended to depart Santi. Sparr, in his more optimistic moments, had envisioned a festive departure with laughter, hugs, well wishes, and a final kiss from Aine. It had always been a fantasy. Taking off in the air car would only have resulted in confusion and fear. Though anticlimactic and sad, the rushed departure had advantages.

Sparr had taken a few minutes to familiarize himself with the control panel during previous construction sessions. There was a manual mode, where the pilot operated the craft with a stick and a separate lever for lift, not that different from similar vehicles he had flown back on Earth. He could probably figure it out, but the idea of spinning awkwardly over Santi while he fiddled with the controls and sent people screaming in all directions wasn’t appealing. Instead, Sparr selected an automated mode, plugged in a direction and altitude, and pressed start.

The thrum of the air car’s thrusters was lower pitched than the Alliance drones, something felt more than heard. The car rose slightly, vibrated as the stabilizers kicked in, then crept forward. Sparr’s heart was in his throat. If something was going to go wrong it would almost certainly be early, and hopefully at low altitude. The outside world opened up around him as the front of the car nudged through the shed doors. He first caught a glimpse of the sailing ship that Jance was constructing, the next row of sheds, then the docks beyond. The car began to climb and turn, aligning itself with the southeast direction that Sparr had given it.

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