Stars Without Number
The Story of Iskandar Shah, Part One
Abraham station rises over the planet below, rises like a moon to greet a strange sun. She’s golden, her light shimmering over the purple skies of Hachiman, far beneath their feet and far above their heads, a gas giant, a hydrogen mine, a distant homeworld to the people who live forever falling, caught in orbit. Caught in space.
But the Iskandar Shah does not belong here. She’s a battered old ship, from some homeworld long lost and long forgotten, rebuilt many times, retrofitted more than anyone can remember. She’s in the dock now, waiting to be destroyed. Only one woman remains on her crew, a woman waiting in her quarters on Abraham Station, waiting to be homeless and tied down at once. Waiting for the death of her ship.
Her name is Cassidy Retsu, and she’s far from home. Eighteen thousand four hundred and ninety-seven light years, give or take. It’s just a number she makes up in her head. It seems to fit. In reality, nobody knows exactly how far it is, nor does anybody care. The spike drives don’t go through conventional space, anyhow. Cassidy, like the Iskandar, is alone – but not forgotten. A light appears on the dreary blank wall. She breathes the chlorinated air, tries not to think about the tang of swimming hall that seems to dominate everything here. She listens to the ring signal. She pulls her hand, idly, over the flawless plastic wall. Probably they’re telling her the Iskandar is gone. Best get it over with.
Captain Yao, pudgy, sweaty-looking as always, appears on the wall. He’s a simple man, and thus tempted by simple things. He’s Joseph Yao now, sworn to the Doctrine, sworn to the penny-pinching Mammon-Christ worshiped on Abraham Station. His last shipment was a herd of cattle, to be taken to Gilead. Yao is going with them – like cattle himself, she thinks, following the shepherd to be fleeced for all his money. But there’s no persuading him, she knows.
“Cassidy. There’s a man who wants to buy the ship, get it off Mr. Cheng’s hands. Would you like to meet him?”
Her answer is yes. Joseph makes arrangements for her to meet the prospective buyer, maybe persuade both him and Mr. Cheng to let Iskandar live, to give her back the stars. Not these endless purple skies, forever swooping by beneath her. She eagerly gets up, pacing in her cell too tiny to pace. She gets dressed, doesn’t bother to look in the mirror. This is about profession, not appearance. Timid steps through chlorinated corridors, curving around the station, space spinning madly outside. Mr. Cheng will be in the hub, in Jericho. She takes the elevator, doesn’t bother with the ladder, and for a moment she’s weightless before the artificial acceleration engages, and she falls to the floor. Mr. Cheng is waiting.
He’s a different sight from Captain Yao – handsome, black-haired, a slick moustache over narrow lips clamping down on a cigar. His eyes are peering, inquisitive, cruel. Two live panthers, genetically sedated – all but born lobotomized – doze at his feet. Two luckier cousins adorn his shoulders, their flecked hides thrown over his immaculate suit. Behind him, a holographic jungle spreads out as he chews on his cigar, mindlessly blowing smoke into the vents, wasting good air. He’s a wasteful man, Mr. Cheng. But he knows to turn a profit. He gives her a cigar. She chokes on it.
He introduces her to the other man in the room. Takashi Yotsubishi, prospective buyer. She’s Cassidy Retsu, last of Iskandar’s crew. She’s ratty next to both men, in little but a tank top and heavy cargo trousers, an oil-flecked cap on her messy hair, mousy, Caucasian-looking. Unattractive. Mr. Yotsubishi is the exact opposite – imposing in his silky black suit, hair well combed, eyes not softer but somehow more kind. He needs the Iskandar Shah. She will make her case, both for it and against it, to try and drive the price down.
They don’t speak much. Well; the men speak plenty. Retsu gives them the specifics; good enough to appeal to Mr. Yotsubishi, bad enough to make Mr. Cheng sell cheap. Yotsubishi drives a good bargain. They eventually settle on four hundred thousand credits, including fuel and star charts. The holographic jungle flickers, looking fake. Mr. Cheng chews impatiently on his cigar, concealing any feelings as the contract is signed. He says it’s high time for them all to get off this damn station, and she couldn’t agree more. No crew to be found here, nothing but Bible thumpers, but there’s two crewmen to Iskandar now. A captain and a mechanic. Mr. Yotsubishi informs her he intends to pilot himself, and asks when they can take off – she gives him four hours. It’s more than necessary, but she puts a damper on her impatience, overestimates the time on purpose.
He gets the permits in order, and leaves the woman to the ship. It’s a love affair of cleaning, assembly and inspection. When he boards the ship, it still looks miserable. Manure dots the cargo bay, its stench hanging everywhere. A low humming comes from an emitter; she can’t say why, but assures him that it works. Spark plugs hang loose, and the ship looks decrepit. But she’ll fly, Cassidy claims, she’ll fly. She insists so many times Takashi has no choice but to believe her. They get their departure window. Fifteen minutes. No time to dawdle, it’s now or in fourteen Earth days, when Abraham completes another lap around the purple skies. Takashi does not have fourteen Earth days.
The latches disengage. The engine roars and spits fire. The ship kicks off. Hachiman’s purple skies become an indistinct blur, and Abraham shrinks away on the horizon, until it’s nothing but a memory. He tells her he’s going to Amaterasu, Hachiman’s rocky sister, a habitable planet. A planet with ground to stand on, not endless sky upon sky. She doesn’t ask why, but plots a course, and when she’s done, she silently starts to clean up the manure. Iskandar may not be whole, but she’ll be clean. Thus she vows. Takashi steers clear of Hachiman’s gravity, and then, rolling up the sleeves of his expensive shirt, gets to work beside her. They throw every last trace of the cows out the airlock, and with it, any allegiance the Iskandar ever had to Prosperity. A debt is owed to Mr. Cheng, but that’s Takashi’s debt – not the ship’s. She’s her own country, now.
Cassidy undresses, showers in the small communal shower, and retreats to her tiny cramped quarters underneath the common room. She could sleep anywhere now, but it doesn’t seem to occur to her; so Takashi claims the captain’s quarters, and the luxurious First Mate’s stand empty. He washes up in private, and sets the ship’s internal clock to wake him once they pass by Izanagi. It’s just a maneuver to avoid the rings.
Once they’re past the icy rings of the frigid green giant, their course is set for the orange planet that orbits third from the star – Amaterasu. Takashi speaks, idly watching the monitors, telling his mechanic why they’re here – and what they’re doing. He’s looking for a friend he’s never met. An employee, loyal to her lord. Loyal to Takashi, even as his empire crumbled around him. He does not tell Cassidy this last part. He simply says they’re here to fetch Hoshiko Kaito, a good and loyal employee. They come in close around the orange planet, its skies a stratospheric soup much like Hachiman’s, except that here the clouds are golden orange, and that somewhere beneath them lies the promise of land, and people, and air.
They are hailed in atmo. Strangers are rare on Amaterasu. They are to be quarantined, inspected, before they have a chance to leave the ship. Takashi doesn’t object; he cannot afford to. They fly down over the city of Magatama, landing on the very same spaceport where Hoshiko went. Abandoned by House Yotsubishi, she was forced to find work with some salvager lowlife. It isn’t right for a soldier to lose her commander; not even when the commander is a businessman, a samurai in black silk wielding a laser pointer, and even that only in the boardroom. He clutches his sword, a symbol of who he is. Who he will always be, no matter the betrayal that drove him out here. In his briefcase, a laser rifle. New. He assembles it. It doesn’t mean anything; it’s simply a rifle. Cassidy brings out an old battered pistol. If the locals are hostile, they’re going out armed.
They’re met by women carrying assault rifles. They’re guarding two nurses, in white, wearing masks. They have sophisticated bio-scanners, beeping tools displaying complex arrays in holographic light, far above any other technology on the planet. Amaterasu, it seems, is careful around strangers. The nurses check Cassidy and declare her 100% female. Takashi’s genetic makeup is more ambiguous – but male, and unrecognized. All males might be infected, the nurses declare. He will have to wait for the Shirei-kan to make sure. He tells Cassidy to leave, get their bearings, while he waits.
It seems they don’t mind the pistol much, they simply tell Cassidy to stash it. Whatever it is carried in their genes, they fear it far more than the weapons on their person. Other strangers came here seven days ago; strangers whose ship is in hangar B-4. So Cassidy goes there, seeking the person responsible for guarding it. She’s a short woman, curly hair, crow’s feet around her eyes, sipping beer in the oppressive heat under Amaterasu’s orange greenhouse skies. Her coveralls are open, her feet propped up, her eyes tired. Cassidy asks her, and she answers, noncommittal. Her name is Matsumoto Junko. She’s a mechanic. If the strangers die, the contents of hangar B-4 all belong to her. She asks for money to say more; the strangers paid her not to talk. She says they gave her forty, and when Cassidy pays her forty-five, admits they gave her half that. Not that it matters. She keeps the money, and talks. The man is Solomon Harford. A treasure seeker. Went to see a man named Shin of the Kaita about something called the Dog Cages, and brought Hoshiko with him. Shin’s an outcast, without a registered lineage. As likely to stab you and rob you as he is to help, without a proper introduction. Junko offers to introduce them, for even more money. Cassidy declines. Junko tells her that she’ll pay well if Cassidy brings back the body of Solomon Harfield; it’s the fastest way for her to get his ship. Cassidy, again, declines.
Takashi, meanwhile, meets with the Shirei-kan. She wears a traditional yukata, and walks with the calculated stride of someone careful to display her privilege. Powdered cheeks, kohl around her eyes, a sunburst symbol painted on her forehead, matching that of the enormous statue which stands over the spaceport; over all of Magatama, like a watchful goddess. The Shirei-kan looks at him, with two eyes, then closes them, and declares him pure. She’s got the MES strain; a psychic, and the nurses must kneel before her. Such is the fate of women psychics on Amaterasu – to live as gods, while the men become monsters. The nurses explain, patiently, that impure men infected with the strain turn feral, mad, impossible to control. They and their family are forever cast out. They do not say why. It is simply the way it is – on Amaterasu, and elsewhere, or so the nurses claim. Takashi keeps quiet about the many male psychics he’s seen on other worlds, neither feral nor cast out.
Finally given leave to step outside, he takes in the view of the city. A bustling metropolis, a city of lights and cars and sounds and honking horns, the smell of gasoline and fruit stands, and above it all a heavy lid of sulfuric gas, trapping the citizens of Magatama under a lid of endless orange, dimly illuminated by a distant, unseen sun. Men and women crowd to gawk at the rare off-worlder, the men bearing facial tattoos declaring their lineage. They are pure. He hails a taxi, goes to speak with Cassidy and learns about Shin. The Dog Cages, it seems, are outside the safety of Magatama’s protective caldera. They’re up there – beyond the border – in the vicious orange clouds that drape Amaterasu in eternal summer. He tells her to bring filter masks and protective clothing from the ship. He makes small talk with the taxi driver. No roads go that close to the Wastes, but the driver will take them to the distant farms, if they so wish. He’s chatty, friendly.
Cassidy brings goggles, masks, and gear, loads them into the taxi, and the two are off. The highways and houses of Magatama sweep by, with propaganda billboards praising arranged marriages and the importance of genetic screening, beside adverts for underground water parks and the latest fashion. Amaterasu has little contact with the outside world, a bubble suspended in a distant past with cars, and skyscrapers, and smartphones. And living goddesses, presiding over it all.
The images of goddesses become fewer and fewer as they leave the city. Actual women do, too. As hydroponic rice fields sweep by, and the driver stops for volcanic gas to fuel his car, Takashi makes notice of the bare-faced, bare-chested men who work the farms. No lineage. No guarantee of purity. No right to enter the city, the driver informs them.
The driver leaves them in the most remote village. It is reminiscent of the Prosperity descriptions of Hell. The air smells of sulfur and rot; the homes are made from corrugated steel and scrap metal, almost burning in the intense heat. The men wear nothing but fundoshi, no tractors or vehicles to help them work the terraced farms, on the steep slopes at the edge of the caldera, the orange sulfuric death-clouds mere meters above them. Crude tools and axes litter the area. The men look agitated, stirred by the presence of a car. The driver sounds nervous; he tells them where to find a phone booth, and gives them his number. Then he leaves.
Takashi looks over the men. Inbred, he concludes, or else born of other forbidden unions, uncertain lineages. Banished here before they turn feral. And here, before them, a bare-faced man carrying a sword, and a woman offworlder. They mutter and mumble amongst themselves, discussing the fates of the strangers. Takashi asks about Shin before they can make up their minds. He was stabbed by a Feral. He’s dying, slowly, inside one of the huts. The strangers who came by – Solomon and Hoshiko – paid well, but stirred up trouble. They spooked a feral living in the Wastes; how the monsters survive out there is anyone’s guess. It ran here, and nearly killed Shin, and made the locals even less inclined to be kind to strangers. They eye Cassidy, hefting their tools like weapons.
Takashi tells Cassidy to save the man’s life. It may be their only chance. A man named Ken uneasily trusts her with it, and lets her inside. Shin is naked, pus dripping from a wound in his side, flies buzzing around him. He rambles, feverish, dying. Cassidy gets to work, cutting dead flesh with a laser scalpel. It is gruesome work, but Ken gives his approval; he can tell they’re trying to help. He will tell his brothers to leave them unmolested, as best he can. Many, he confesses, are not right in the head – but he makes Takashi swear not to tell the authorities. They are not feral, he insists. They are brothers, most, by blood. Their mother is an outcast, a woman who birthed a boy who turned Feral, and thus lost her purity. They are all impure, forbidden to breed. Of course, there isn’t much law out here to stop them.
Ken tells them the Feral that almost killed Shin is still out there, beyond the electric fence that marks the border to the Wastes. But he also tells them of Solomon and Hoshiko, of the Dog Cages beyond three large rocks.
Cassidy and Takashi put on their masks and goggles. There’s no turning back. Soon, the burning skies have swallowed them, and they’re alone in the sulfuric wastes.