Helenne ran all the way home. Evening sunlight was finally burning through the fog at Seaside Towers, bathing the dirty white apartment blocks in a golden light. She jogged across playgrounds slick with dew, cut across half-overgrown courtyards, and hurried through the misty long shadows of the towers. She was out of breath when she reached Building 47, but she didn’t want to risk the elevators.
After a short pause to catch her breath and slow her heart, she started up the outside stairs. Originally intended only for emergencies, the stairs were narrow and steep, crisscrossing the side of the tower. She squeezed herself flat to let others past, eyes averted. Twice she almost slipped on the black mold that infested the white plastcrete. Nothing was supposed to grow on the plastcrete, and it still held its form without chipping or dulling, but after a hundred standard years in the sea air, molds, mosses and even tiny gizna shells had infiltrated smooth surfaces and tiny cracks.
Their apartment was on Level 12. The door’s label said 1253 AJ VARTUN in block script. That was her father’s name. Her mother had left when she was little. The door recognized her and let her in. The place was its usual mess, and she stepped over discarded packages and a bag of garbage. The cleaning machine was broken again. It sat in a corner with a panel open. She picked up the smelly garbage and tossed it in the shoot by the door. It only took a few seconds, but her father couldn’t be bothered.
Alihan Juro Vartun sat in his big black recliner chair, PVR rig covering his head. A dole-issue smartsuit covered his bloated body, and the belt indicator blinked orange, meaning it wasn’t able to keep up with waste production and would soon need to be emptied. A feeding tube ran from the kitchen unit to his rig-covered mouth. Helenne tried to wake him, to bring him out of the VR adventure. He didn’t respond. She wiped the mountain scene off the wall screen and checked statistics. He’s been in there for sixty-four hours, but override wouldn’t bring him out until eighty. He’d smell of shit by then.
She blinked back tears. He wouldn’t care anyway. He’d just say, “So what, so you got into college. All you have to do is work harder to get barely more than a dole, ‘speci’lly with the Post-Material coming and all.” Her father had never worked; neither had her mother, or her grandparents for that matter. There was an uncle down in Belliniar that had a job, but he wouldn’t associate with the rest of the family. Like mother, wherever she was.
Helenne ran from the apartment and took the stairs up to the roof, another thirteen flights. Her heart was pounding when she finally reached the flat-topped expanse, covered with puddles from this morning’s rain and stained with patches black and gray mold. She brought up the interface of her dole-grade guide implant, and her heart rate superimposed itself on her vision. It was almost two hundred beats a minute, but it soon slowed. She walked across the roof, controlling her breathing. The fog had cleared now, and a pale jade sky hung high above her, almost clear of clouds. She leaned over the rail of the seaward side.
On many worlds, the Seaside neighborhood would be high-priced real estate, for people with jobs and ambitions. But on Erta, the tides ruled the shore, and down below Building 47 was a sea wall, now still thirty meters above the restless dark ocean. Salt air filled her lungs, the sounds of waves pounding on plastcrete walls finally overcoming her heartbeat. Somewhere on her climb, she’d bitten her lip, and her mouth tasted salty. It didn’t matter; it would stop bleeding and her heart would calm down soon. Across the seaward horizon, the sky faded to yellow, and above distant waves, the moon Nokara hung huge and nearly full in the sky. She could see its yellow deserts, its red highlands and small dark seas. Sandstorms ravaged its middle latitudes and a few tiny flickers of light near the terminator spoke of civilization. Above and to the right of Nokara was the dim yellow speck of Osrani, the system’s larger gas giant, and her guide told that up above her head, invisible in the day and dim at night, hung the green-blue speck of Katumba, the outer giant a billion klicks away.
Soon she would be away. Not a billion kilometers, but barely twenty to the North Campus of Apika Public University. Her scholarship covered room and board, and the school had the old-fashioned belief that on-site live instruction was better than VR. That’s why she picked it, and now it had picked her. She spat over the edge, bloody spittle clearing the building to vanish from her view before it struck the sea wall. She’d miss this view, but nothing else. By the time her father crawled out of VR to empty his overflowing shit sack, she’d be packed and gone.
* * *
Twelve years later...
The western view from the fifty-eighth floor of the Frandis Hotel stretched from the outskirts of the spire city of Meldensen to the red sandy badlands beyond. Towering buttes and ragged hoodoos dominated the northwest vistas. To the southwest, lost in a pink afternoon haze, the rim of the rugged Jarheen Canyon was barely visible; the steam and dust of its famous rip tide was a swirling white cloud marking the rush of water from the distant Nandem Sea. A huge crescent Erta, streaks of blue, white and olive, hung over the western horizon, the planet’s gravity distorting the very shape of Nokara, raising earth-tides as the moon swung closer to its more hospitable parent.
The stunning view was lost on Chrys Berk-Ovis. She was still struggling with her name tag. The little plastic rectangle displayed:
Academian Chrysanthemum Berk-Ovis
Imperial History Department
Exeter Public University
But Chrys had never shared her parent’s interest in flowers and her given name did more to cause people to stumble over their words than her carefully sculpted appearance. She stomped her foot in frustration. She might have been short, barely 1.55 meters even after a few centimeters of height enhancement, but she’d spent most her nearly eighty years and much of her excess funds meticulously developing her face and her body toward her own view of perfection. “Why won’t you display my first name as ‘Chrys’?” she demanded, growling in irritation at the plastic card.
the card replied back, its electronic signals transmitted to her implant guide cybernetics.
“But that’s not how people know me,” she griped.
“I just want to impersonate myself, you mindless piece of nanocrap,” she grumbled. In her opinion, the entire idea of name tags was archaic. At least on Erta, everyone could exchange personal information through guide identifiers, making this primitive external display, well, primitive – and unnecessary. And annoying. Here on Nokara, nearly half the conference attendees were from Erta or its moon, and most of the rest came from important worlds that were just as advanced. But, accepting the futility of arguing with a poorly programmed piece of plastic, she went back to concentrating on perfecting her appearance.
Mirroring the window, she examined herself in detail. Her gold and platinum streaked hair was pulled back in a complex braided tail. Her eyes shone with an enhanced violet radiance. Her face, clear of any superficial makeup, had a healthy rose finish, no blemishes or lines disturbing its nanomed-maintained smoothness. It would be at least a couple of standard centuries before her internal mix of biological and mechanical nanomeds would allow enough aging for her to consider a full body regeneration. She smiled, flashing perfect teeth.
Her black and gold mobius dress was a little extreme for a professor specializing in the relics of a two thousand year dead civilization, but she wore it well, its broad oblique bands covering, forming and exposing her shape with a careful mix of modesty and promise. With her legs exposed below mid-thigh and with her ten centimeter heels, needle thin spindles ending in transparent motile pads - she could sprint in those shoes, if so inclined - enhancing her calves and increasing her height, she knew her looks would turn more heads and cause more stammer than her tongue-tangling given name.
Satisfied, she ordered her purse to follow her, strode confidently from her miniature suite, and headed down to the convention room floor. Obscured behind the mirrored window, an afternoon windstorm took shape over the badlands of equatorial Nokara.
Chrys Berk-Ovis rode the elevator down alone and arrived into a crowded foyer, her purse hovering behind her at a respectful distance. Her post-graduate assistant, Helenne Vartun, immediately worked her way through the crowd to join her. Chrys eyed the younger woman, taller than her mentor by at least twenty centimeters, but whose flat shoes halved the difference. Helenne wore her brown hair in a short conservative style and covered what Chrys thought was a worthy natural figure in a loose yellow dress suit. Helenne had continually disregarded her mentor’s advice on matters of appearance, and still insisted she would develop a more serious and respectable reputation based on her accomplishments alone – the naiveté of youth.
Chrys noticed Helenne’s puzzled stare toward the nametag she‘d planted squarely over her half-exposed left breast.
“Couldn’t convince the damn thing to use my short name,” she said. Eyeing Helenne’s lavender badge, she asked, “And how did you get yours off that putrid eggshell tint?”
“There’s a color menu for it,” Helenne explained. “Would you like me to fix your name for you?”
“It won’t let you edit the given name,” Chrys grumbled, turning to flash a smile and some leg toward a group of men from Lordabaelis.
Helenne sighed and said, “Here, pass me root control, and I’ll fix you up.” Within seconds, the first line of the name tag switched to ‘Academian Chrys Berk-Ovis’ and the background took on a lavender hue identical to Helen’s tag.
“How did you do that?” Chrys demanded.
“I just told it to display nickname instead of given name,” the younger woman answered, grinning.
“Piece of low-grade nanocrap didn’t tell me I could do that,” Chrys complained, pretending to straighten the tag and then smoothing nonexistent wrinkles from her dress. She gestured for them to leave the foyer and head toward the main hall.
Helenne signaled backed, offended. She passed her mentor a small data block.
Chrys paused to greet a couple of dark-clad Garissan Academians, full professors from the prestigious Moi Institute of Knowledge, extending her chest to ensure that they got a good look at her nametag. While flashing a smile and engaging in autonomous small-talk, she signaled back to Helenne,
Helen asked while outwardly greeting one of the Garrisans, an ebony skinned man well over two meters tall.
Chrys retorted, still flirting with the older and shorter of the two Garrisans, gracefully working her way past them to continue toward the cavernous open hall.
The convention’s exhibit hall was for show, mostly to cater to the public and to provide a forum for mixing and showing off flashy presentations. The serious work of the conference took place in smaller lecture halls scattered through the Frandis Hotel’s convention complex. But it was a fabulous show. Holographic displays soared towards the high vaulted ceiling. A reconstruction of the atrium of the original Imperial Spring Palace – circa 4000CE – dominated one quadrant, its intricately embellished pillars continually changing to display the glories of the Jenan Age.
Chrys and Helenne threaded their way through the crowd, rarely pausing to acknowledge the display booths. Near the far wall, Helenne fell behind, captivated by a simple flat screen projection and a small display cabinet exhibiting sleek silvery miniature spacecraft. It was a presentation of an event every Nokaran knew by heart, and one most Ertans had at least learned in passing.
The video projection was from salvaged data four centuries old: faded two-dimensional color images of a chemical rocket launch, a flared silver rocket leaving the Nokaran plain, trailing a pillar of fire and smoke. The woman’s voiceover commentary sounded distorted, “Commander Brekman’s expedition left Karduk Spaceport aboard the Vigilance a Mark II Antos shuttle, docking with Hope Station after an eight hour journey…”
The scene cut to the chemical rocket, its tanks nearly depleted, rendezvousing with a primitive space station, a motley collection of cylinders, antennae and solar panels. Chrys tugged at Helenne’s sleeve. “I’m sure you know how the story turns out. Come on, you can watch the show some other time.”
Helenne hesitated for few more seconds. The picture cut to a jerky video from inside the station as the crew transferred to their pioneering interplanetary craft. “But to think they made it all the way out to Katumba Station and back on just chemical rockets and a balky fission reactor. It’s incredible.”
“Well, some of them made it back, anyway. Not exactly a glowing success, if you pardon the pun, but their setbacks, disasters and pitfalls are what makes it such an epic story. I’m sure the movie loops and you can watch it later. Let’s go,” Chrys insisted, leading her reluctant assistant toward the hall’s far exit. She couldn't really grasp Helenne's fascination Brekman's Expedition. It was completely outside the scope of her thesis and current studies; wandering off into a subject just because it was interesting would never get her a full-time position.
Passing a display of relics from the Second Federation War, they strolled under a high arched gate and into a busy hallway. The evening’s lecture sessions were almost ready to get underway.
Professor Partraen Jessik, was late. His public comm was set to busy, so they were forced to stand along the ornate wall, scanning the crowd for a man they had never met.
Chrys signaled, pushing herself up on her toes to better scan the crowd.