Welcome back, my inklings! Here is the science fiction adventure tale “Verser” which won first place in the Constellation 6 writing contest at the beginning of May. I hope you enjoy it!
by Robert JV Christensen
Hail’s heart was pounding as he sprinted through the smoldering city streets while fire-arcs, like bolts of lightning, cascaded down around him slashing deep wounds into the ancient steel skyscrapers. He held a toddler, in his arms as he ran, sheltering him as best as he could.
“Hold on, Harp,” Hail said to him. The boy, shaking with fear, could only cry. He winced and shrieked as a loud crash let Hail know that another building was coming down nearby.
Holding Harp tightly, Hail leapt from where he stood up a few stories to the roof of a nearby parking garage. Casting a hasty glance up at the sky, he saw the sun eclipsed by an enormous flying metal structure. It was the Iron Fortress of Ageless.
Hail and Ageless were Versers. Once, there weren’t any Versers. Life was better then.
The Iron Fortress cast another deadly strike of flame down upon the city and Hail frantically looked for a path of escape.
“Omni,” Hail shouted, “can you hear me?”
A staticky male voice resonated in the air around them, “Of course I can hear you, Hail. I’m Omni.”
“Where’s Ageless headed? Has he got a bead on me?”
“You’d probably be dead if he did, Hail.”
“I don’t have time for this! Where should I go?”
“The chaos up here in orbit is getting out of hand. Ageless is having to guard against those parasites from the Greedy Five. I’ll bring in some space debris and mix it up while you head…” Omni trailed off.
“While I head where?” Hail prompted. “To the missile factory, okay? I’m multitasking here, let me send you the coordinates,” Omni said as dozens of blazing points of light appeared and spread smokey streaks across the blue sky, “meteor shower made to order.”
“You’re amazing, Omni.”
“I know,” the voice crackled, “but you better get out of there, those rocks are gonna come tumbling down pretty quick.”
The meteors hurtled down on the Iron Fortress knocking it off balance in the sky. It staggered to one side but soon the flashing whips of fire that had been punishing the city began to bat most of the meteors away. Huge fragments of the shattered stones sprayed down on the city as Hail careened back down into the streets, gaining speed as he traveled.
* * *
The industrial quarter had been left mostly untouched, Ageless would want something in return for his efforts to annex the planet after all. The rest of the city of Albion was in ruins. Such was the cost of refusing Ageless when he took notice of your world. Most of the citizens who could afford to had already evacuated but the destruction and merciless slaughter of whoever remained was more about making an impression on the other nations on planet Clyme. After this, no one in the galaxy could doubt that Ageless was to be feared.
The missile factory came into view as Hail darted out from an alleyway. He scanned the skies for drones before he snuck inside. Harp was silent, but his small hands where white knuckled grasping the fabric of Hail’s vest. The Verser looked around the main atrium. Daylight shone through the large factory-style windows onto the complex rows of auto-assemblers and resource loaders. Clyme wasn’t all that different from Earth. Harp whimpered.
“It’s okay, Harp. Let me contact Omni and see if he knows where your sister is,” Hail said soothingly.
“That won’t be necessary,” a young woman’s voice echoed from somewhere out of sight, “He already guided me here.”
“You must be Juna,” Hail said, “You can come out. I wasn’t followed.”
“Alright, spaceman,” the voice responded as a teenage girl pressing a finger to her wristband appeared from thin air in front of one of the machines.
She nervously looked around the room before hurrying over to them and taking Harp up in her arms. “Hey, little guy,” she whispered to him. Harp nuzzled into her, burying his face in her shirt. Standing in the window light, she was awkwardly pretty, with amber eyes and a crooked mouth.
“Thank you for saving my brother,” she said looking up at Hail.
“It’s the least I can do, but I haven’t saved anyone yet,” Hail said, “Ageless is still out there and we’ve got to get you-“
“Offworld,” she supplied hastily, “I know. But how? No one’s been able to leave the planet since his fleet arrived.”
“I haven’t heard yet,” Hail said frankly. Juna forced a deep breath and pursed her lips.
Her voice was unsteady as she spoke, “Okay, so then what’s next?” “Omni’s keeping Ageless busy for now but he’s probably got something planned, I’ll have to contact him.”
“Won’t Ageless trace the transmission?”
“Not on Omni’s channels, he’s got about four million of them broadcasting on the ether and it’s all scrambled with different encryption methods. Even if Ageless manages to crack one all he’s likely to end up with is country music.”
“What’s country music?” Juna asked, perplexed.
“Sorry, I keep forgetting I’m not on Earth,” Hail chuckled, “it’s nothing important.”
“If you say so.”
“I’ll call for him,” Hail said, turning to the open space overhead, “Omni!” His voice echoed as Juna waited apprehensively for a response.
A few moments passed before the staticky voice responded, “What!? I’m kind of in the middle of something right now.” There were explosions in the background of the transmission before Omni cackled, “Look at ‘em burn! It’ll take a while for you to buff that out, sucker!”
“Is he always like that?” Juna asked, raising her eyebrows.
“He only talks like that about androcogs and Versers,” Hail responded before adding under his breath, “at least I hope.”
Omni continued, “Alright, you three…three, right? You did get the kid there okay, didn’t you? I’m only picking up two signals.”
“Juna’s got a biocloaker,” Hail said. “Right. And I couldn’t pick that up? I’m getting soft,” Omni said, “I’ve paid off Martha to get in with a transport. She’s got escorts with lots of firepower on them so don’t sneak up okay? You know how to act around Martha, don’t you, Pacey?”
“Don’t call me Pacey, I’m Hail here. And Martha? You could say we’ve met, but how’d you afford her?”
“I hacked into your account.”
“You did what? We’ll talk about that later,” Hail grumbled, “Where do we meet her?”
“There’s an underground passage from the factory to the test silos. She’s going to land right inside, where they used to launch the missiles. She’ll pick up the royals and then, whoosh, they’re outta here. Good luck, HAIL.” Omni pressed on the last word before cutting the transmission. Hail shortly received a data packet from Omni of the building’s layout and he directed Juna to the side door they needed to take to get to the tunnels.
They scurried down a metal ladder into a long darkening corridor. Dust floated through the air, illuminated by the single shaft of light that dripped down from the room above. The electricity supply, or whatever had once powered Albion’s factories, had been disrupted in a concentrated magnetic storm that Ageless set into motion in the planet’s atmosphere before invading.
“Looks like we’re going to have to feel our way through the dark,” Hail said.
Juna let Harp down to stand on his own and took him by the hand, “Hold on, Pacey, I have something that will help.”
“Thanks, Omni, now she’s calling me Pacey,” Hail complained to himself.
A staticky voice broke in, “You’re welcome, Pacey.” “What the heck, man? Don’t do that! You have any idea how creepy that is?”
Juna smirked at their exchange and dug through her pockets until she produced a tiny directional light. She clipped it to his shoulder and twisted it’s casing to turn it on. The light blasted into her eyes and she squinted. Hail chuckled.
“Lucky you had this,” he said.
“Not exactly,” Juna replied with hesitation, “I needed it to get through the catacombs when I escaped from the palace.”
“Oh, I see,” Hail said seriously, “I’m so sorry.”
“Why should you be sorry?”
“About the palace, about your Mom and Dad…everything. I wish there was something I could have done.”
“Forget it, spaceman. Besides, I don’t want to talk about it in front of Harper.”
“Is he okay?” Hail asked, “He hasn’t said anything since I found him at the bunker.” Harp studied Hail with round eyes that barely blinked.
“He doesn’t talk,” Juna said a little sharply, “Now let’s go, I don’t want to talk about it.”
Further into the tunnel, once the corridor had branched its way into a dozen or more interlocking paths, Hail stopped to consult the building’s layout in his internal navigation system. He looked up to see Juna staring at him. He looked down again, concentrating on something only he could see.
“So, honestly, what’s the deal with you Versers? You’re Hail and you’re Pacey? Is Hail like your codename or something?” Juna asked innocently. Hail thought hard about how to answer but said nothing. Juna continued, “I mean it’s not like anyone knows where you guys came from so what’s the point of hiding your identities. I’ve heard that Versers can just show up anywhere without needing a spaceship, is that true?”
“Yeah, that’s true,” Hail said uncomfortably.
“So why can’t you just zap us out of here?”
“It doesn’t work like that,” Hail said.
“For that matter why can’t you guys just zap in somewhere whenever there’s trouble?” Juna was getting agitated.
“Believe me, I wish we could. There’s a lot more to Versers that you don’t understand.”
“Then tell me, Pacey or Hail or whoever you are. What don’t I understand? How is it that you can just show up somewhere, do impossible things and then leave but when Ageless showed up to…when he did what he did, you weren’t anywhere to be found? If you Versers can be anywhere whenever you want then where were you when we needed you?” Juna choked on the words as she spoke, her eyes brimming with tears. Harp made a distressed whine and pulled his hand away from hers, fled a few steps and crouched against the tunnel wall. Juna let out a dismayed sob and looked at her brother remorsefully. Hail turned away and struggled to gather his words. After a few moments he partially turned, a deep conviction in his voice.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t there to save your parents but I’m here now, Juna. I’m going to help you and you’ll just have to believe me that I’m doing everything that I can. Versers don’t belong here. We never did. All you need to know is that Versers like Omni and me are trying to make it right.” Juna fell silent for a few moments.
“We probably don’t have much time,” Hail said, “Best to hurry.” “I know. It’s just that,” Juna kneeled down and put her arms around Harp, “I don’t know what’s going to happen to us now.”
“I’m going to protect you and get you to safety,” Hail said resolutely.
“What about Albion? Everyone I know is either gone or…” her voice trembled, “We can’t stop Ageless. He’s too powerful.”
“You can stop Ageless. Clyme isn’t the first world we’ve taken back from him and it won’t be the last. But if you want to stop Ageless, the first thing to do is to survive,” Hail said.
“Where to now?” was Juna’s only reply.
“About five hundred meters ahead, then the path makes a turn to the left. It’s easy from here. Wait, what’s that noise?” Hail said suddenly as he switched off the directional light on his shoulder.
The sound of footsteps moving swiftly down the hall was echoing from somewhere in the web of hallways.
“Take Harp and turn on your biocloaker,” Hail insisted, “Get to the silo and wait for Martha. I’ll lead them the other way. Don’t make a sound!”
“How will I know her?” Juna said desperately.
“Trust me, she’ll make an entrance,” Hail said, “Now go!”
“Come on, Harper,” she whispered as the two of them fled off into the darkness leaving Hail behind.
Hail began backtracking down the hall in the dark and shouted, “Let’s move! They’re coming!” The strangers’ footsteps stopped for a moment before they picked up again with greater speed. About a hundred yards away, shining around a corner, Hail saw the mingling flashlight beams of their pursuers. Hail took off in the other direction as loudly as he could.
“This way,” the voice of one of the pursuers echoed through the hall. Hail led them through the winding passages following his internal display of the tunnel layout until he was sure he’d given Juna enough time to get to the Silo. He pulled a pair of coin sized discs from his pocket and pressed them together, giving them a twist to lock them into place. There was a quiet whirring sound emanating from them now. He rolled the discs down the hallway and crept to the next turn so he would have somewhere to run. He held his finger gently on a button on his belt, waiting for the right moment.
“This ought to slow them down,” he thought and watched for the lights to come near again.
“I think we lost them,” Hail shouted down the hallway to draw them in. The footsteps came louder and in a moment three lights came into view, each mounted atop a fierce looking assault rifle. It was difficult to make out the pursuers with their gun lamps glaring out in front of them but Hail could tell when they were close enough to his trap. The three soldiers charged down the hallway until the moment that Hail pressed the release trigger on his belt. In a bright flash of purple light the coin trap burst open and the soldiers where snagged up in a sticky web that suspended them off the ground in the cramped tunnel.
“They’ve got a Verser!” one soldier shouted as they struggled to get free.
“Ya think?” Hail shouted with a laugh as he turned down the hall and ran off toward the silo.
* * *
As Hail rounded a corner and daylight from the silo came into view he slowed down. He hadn’t run into Juna yet or any more soldiers so he proceeded with caution. There was a multi-toned harmonic electrical hum, the sound of idling photon drives on a starship, coming from the silo ahead. He sighed to himself in relief until a shadow passed in front of the tunnel entrance only a few dozen feet away. He stopped in his tracks, still cloaked in the darkness of the corridor, and tried to make out who it was. Martha hated surprises, and her mercs loved reacting violently to them. The shadow seemed to be staring at him. With a blinding flash of light, an explosion crashed outside like a clap of thunder which echoed down into the silo and through the corridors beyond. The shadow’s blackened steel body glinted in the fiery light as he turned to look up and unleashed three quick blasts of his rifle at something passing overhead.
It was an androcog, a mechanized humanlike soldier of Ageless’ merciless and unfeeling android army. Worse still was the next thing Hail noticed, in the aftermath of the explosion another sound came to his ears from out in the silo beyond the androcog. Harp had begun crying.
“Over there!” the androcog shouted, “They’re cloaked.”
Harp’s cries grew louder as the androcogs convened on the source of the sound. Hail swiftly moved to the doorway and stopped just inside. He looked frantically around assessing the situation. Five androcogs on the ground and one still in the cockpit of a light fighter. Were they scouts? A vanguard? Either way more were coming. What had exploded?
“You can’t hide from this,” one of the androcogs said as he plucked a silver sphere from his belt and threw it on the ground near where the crying was coming from. Hail rushed forward from the door frame without a sound. The silver ball quickly flew back at the one who threw it as if it were kicked and burst into a splash of bright green dye. The force of the canister opening knocked the androcog backward but it had played its part already. The dye splashed onto Juna and Harp making them partially visible. Juna screamed and sheltered Harp as the five androcogs surrounded them. One of them reached out and ripped the biocloaker from her wrist, causing them to reappear and throwing her to the ground in the motion.
While the androcogs moved in to grab Juna and Harp there was a sound like shattering glass from the light fighter and a body careened over their heads and smashed into the wall. Sparks flew as it fell to pieces, its frame cracked and servos exposed. The androcogs turned, weapons raised, to see their ship smashed open and its railgun armed and turning toward them. They fired wildly on the cockpit, ripping it apart in a flurry of gunfire, as the ship’s gun barrels began to spin. Hail was nowhere to be seen.
“Verser terminated,” one of them said into his communicator.
Suddenly the Verser dropped down from the sky above them with a long black pole in his hands, coming down from a great leap, and smashing it across one of the androcogs knocking him into pieces. The tip of the pole resonated with a smoky blue light that trailed behind it as he swung it deftly around.
“You didn’t really think I was going to shoot my friends, did you?” Hail said as they raised their weapons to fire on him. In a mad rush he spun his way through the androcogs, smashing their weapons and scattering their robotic parts. Only one androcog remained standing after Hail’s assault and it leveled its weapon at him, firing bullets into his chest repeatedly as it paced steadily backwards. Hail staggered back at first but then he leapt foreword with a spin and an upward strike, sending it flying into the air to break apart against the silo wall. Harp was shrieking while Juna watched in dumbstruck fear. Hail pressed the spearlike staff against his hip and it magnetically attached before rapidly telescoping down into an innocuous six inch baton.
“You’re not…human,” Juna said in shocked disbelief.
Hail, who stood before her with holes through his vest and smoke trailing up from his apparent wounds, looked at her nervously.
“Hail…Hail’s not human. Pacey is,” he offered.
The source of the explosion from before was made clear as another was heard and one of Ageless’s fighters flew across the opening of the silo leaving a trail of black smoke before it crashed. A choppy transmission from Omni came through to them.
“Ageless- – – Martha – – -get – – -is near- – -move! move! move! ”
A round orange ship being circled by black and silver gunships came into view overhead and they began to descend into the silo. Hail knew the ship in the center as Martha’s infamous Mean Tangerine.
“Hey, you little troublemaker,” A grizzled old woman’s voice blasted over a loud speaker on the Mean Tangerine, “Get those kids on board quick. You’re not paying me well enough to wait to get killed.”
“That’s Martha,” Hail said hastily as he hurried along with Juna to get her to the boarding plank as it lowered, “You get used to her. She gets nicer if you can afford her company.”
“Hail?” Juna stared at his wounds.
“Call me Pacey,” he said calmly.
“Will you be okay?” “I’ll be fine. I’m just a Verser,” he said.
“Will we be okay?” she said with a shudder, looking down at her brother.
“I’ll make sure of it,” Hail said resolutely. As the boarding plank raised and Juna was almost out of sight he shouted, “I’ll see you later, Juna…Harp… Godspeed!”
Hail took cover in the small tunnel entrance as the orange ship blasted straight up and in a flash they were gone. Ageless’s fighters tried to pursue them but there was no chance of catching Martha in open space.
Hail leapt to the lip of the silo and looked back toward the city. The buildings were engulfed in smoke, the ones that were left standing that is. Another transmission from Omni came to him, now clear.
“That’s all the more we can do, Hail, mission accomplished,” he said.
“But Albion… Albion’s toast…” Hail said, “Ageless is going to pay for this.”
“Look, you can shake your fist later. Log out, Hail. It’s going to get a lot harder to do this if he finds you and gets your signature.”
“Understood. See you later, Omni,” Hail said as he took a last look at the destruction that he was leaving behind. He closed his eyes and his body turned grey before it fell apart into a cloud of ash leaving behind a directional light and a few bullets where the Verser had stood.
* * *
A young man, fifteen at most, lifted a headset and visor off of his head and set them down on his desk. He breathed a heavy sigh and rolled his electric wheelchair away from his computer. His hands shook slightly with an involuntary tremor. A woman’s voice came from outside of his room, “Pacey, dear. Come down for dinner! It’s getting cold.”
“Coming, mom!” he shouted back and rolled out of his room.
* * *
Later that evening, out on the deck behind Pacey’s house he sat looking up at the stars. A scrawny, scruffy college kid with small round glasses leaned against the railing next to him.
“Hey, Omri?” Pacey started.
“I’m Omni here,” the scruffy one responded playfully as he reached over to mess up Pacey’s hair.
“Come on, man, let it go,” Pacey laughed before continuing seriously, “Do you think that Ageless knows the game is real? I mean, he couldn’t possibly do what he’s doing if he knew, right?”
“I don’t know, Pacey. There’s a lot of messed up Versers out there,” Omri said, “but we’re getting to people. There are more of them joining FreeVerse every day.”
“I know, but it’s just not enough. I just can’t help looking up there at the stars and wondering. Where’s Juna? Which one of those billions of galaxies is she living in?”
“Maybe one day we’ll find out and you can meet her, Lover-boy,” Omri joked.
“Shut up, she doesn’t even know I’m her age,” Pacey said, trailing off into thought. After a few moments he said, “I just hope she and Harp will be okay.”
“Yeah, me too, Pacey.”