Chasing Jerohim

by Martin Turton
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The drop-off point had been chosen well. So how could everything have gone so badly?

Addison rested both elbows on her desk, her eyes focused on the screen of the viewer. It was the third time she had watched the recording, and yet still she felt as though she was missing something.

The screen showed a corner of an antique market, sunlight spearing through the window and highlighting the rusted, filth-encrusted junk piled on each table. The dust motes barely stirred in that early morning light as the man approached. Perhaps the most wanted man in the galaxy, and yet his walk was so slow, so measured, almost feminine in its delicacy. A middle-aged man, his hair neatly trimmed, his stomach hanging ever so slightly over his belt, his cheeks jowly enough to jiggle with each dainty step. This was a man marked for death by the most powerful corporations this side of the Eye of the Nine.

Addison stared hard at the man on the screen, but as she focused on the fat man with the tentative steps, she was remembering the same man, only this time he was lean and hungry, and he was lying on a field of green, those jowly cheeks were firm, clinging to high cheekbones, and this serious, unremarkable man was laughing, dark eyes bright under a yellow sun…

“Captain I-”

“Shush.” Addison raised a single hand to quieten the young recruit, her eyes never leaving the viewer.

The man had passed the stalls displaying the Jarondian antiques, he had passed the dusty time-pieces from Karon’s World, he had passed the leathery, dull cloths from beyond the Eye, and now he came to the human relics hidden away in their darkened corner of the market. Here, the unremarkable man paused; he lifted some ancient implement from a pile of rusted bric-a-brac. He turned it around in his pudgy hands. It looked like something the ancients might have used to boil water. Addison focused on the antique. Was there some message written on its battered side? She couldn’t see one, but there must be some explanation for the total failure of the day.

Finally, the corpulent man reached the picture books placed directly in front of the screen. A face, at once so familiar, and yet so strange. There was the faint sheen of sweat on his upper lip. His hair was severely scraped into a side parting, his chin showed not the slightest hint of hair among the folds of fat, his clothes were pristine. The fingers, as he leafed through the picture books, were long and the nails polished to shine.

Picture books flickered under those long fingers, tales of heroism and dare-devilry; primary colours sped past in a blur, reds and blues and yellows.

Addison wondered if the man had appreciated the irony in her choice of drop-off point. A man who had spent his life flitting among the shadows now seeking his escape among these ancient tales of heroes in day-glow uniforms.

Those long delicate fingers came to a sudden halt as he found what he was seeking. A ticket to freedom, a sheaf of papers which would bring an end to this life of shadows and secrets, a passport away from those dark figures screaming for blood, thirsting for vengeance after a lifetime of lies and deceit and deception.

Finally a smile did break out on that plump, unremarkable face. A smile which was almost lost among the fat cheeks, a smile which even now was guarded and secretive-the result of a life spent looking over one’s shoulder, of jumping at the flicker of shadows, of waking every morning wondering if this day will be the last. He slowly removed his hand and the picture books fell gently back into place.

And then he did raise his eyes, dark, dark eyes that focused on the eyes of the android which looked at him across those picture books. Eyes that the man must have known were recording his every move.

“You wish to make a purchase?” The android’s voice flat and emotionless.

The third viewing and still Addison felt her breath shorten, her heart ache at the expression in the man’s eyes, at once lost and fearful and yet determined. A young man’s expression in an old man’s face. An expression she remembered so well from so long ago.

“No.” The man finally spoke, his voice slow and measured. “No, but thank you for your time.” Something closed in those eyes, as though he shut himself off from the outside world. “I will leave them for today.” He took a single step backwards, a dainty step for such a heavy man. “I will leave them in memory of the one I once loved.” The brown eyes softened, staring once more deep into the android’s eyes, deep into Addison’s eyes as she focused so intently on the Viewer’s screen.

And then he turned away, a movement of no grace or elegance, only of sadness and regret before he stepped away from the picture books and their tales of heroes and villains in worlds of simplicity and innocence.

And a single tear fell onto the screen of the Viewer before it faded into blackness.

#

There would be some clue, he would have left some reason for not taking the exit.

The scene in the market played out before Addison on the screen on the wall in her office. Over and over the fat man walked up to the picture book stall, over and over he looked deep into the android’s eyes. There would be some clue. If there was anything of the man she once knew left in him, there would be some clue.

There was a light knock on her door. “Wait.” The fat man froze, his fingers gently touching that last glimpse of freedom before the picture was enveloped by blackness at the wave of Addison’s hand.

She walked around her desk, taking her time to make sure she was comfortable, straightening the few items on her desk-papers, pens, holoviewers…but no pictures, never any pictures. She checked her hair in the mirror, the strands of grey had long since ceased to bother her. “Come.”

A young officer pushed open the door, “The CEO to see you, Captain.” He cleared his throat nervously before Addison nodded once. She was ready. When had she begun to use her authority to cow the men? She had once used a sly smile here, a hand running through her hair there, and she would see the need rising in the man as he rushed to do her bidding. Now she used fear and intimidation. And she hadn’t even noticed when the change had happened.

Joachim Heriun, the CEO of Magian Corporation swept into Addison’s office without knocking. Here was a man who wouldn’t be intimidated. “Addison.” He sank into the seat opposite without waiting for an invitation. He had lips which Addison had once thought full and attractive. They now looked twisted and worm-like as he smiled across the desk at her. “Addison. I hope you will be kind enough to explain what the fuck just happened there.”

“Kindael didn’t take the exit.”

Heriun sighed, leaning both elbows onto the desk and speaking slowly, as though to an idiot. “I know he didn’t take the exit. What I want to know is why he didn’t take the exit. Doesn’t he know half the galaxy is hunting him?” Heriun leaned back in his chair. “The Chief Information Officer? The CI fucking O?” He laughed, loud in the quiet of the office. “I always knew your man was good, but the CIO?” He shook his head again, the laughter dying away suddenly, his dark eyes suddenly serious. “So you think you can find him?”

“If he wants to be found.” The hum of the oxygenator was loud in the sudden quiet. Addison shrugged helplessly under Heriun’s shrewd eyes. “If he doesn’t want to be found…” she spread her hands helplessly.

“He can’t live, of course.” The dark eyes were bright and his smile looked cruel and wet. “Fuck knows how he’s kept himself secret this long. You know the Kellandrans are telepathic? How do you keep something from those bastards?” He looked expectantly at Addison but receiving no reply he tapped his temple. “Discipline, Addison. Discipline. Never knowing when the Kellandrans will invade your mind. Living in constant fear of being discovered…where is he?” He slipped the last question in almost as an afterthought.

“What? I don’t know where he is.”

Heriun nodded thoughtfully. “And what’s all this shit about somebody he loved somewhere?” His eyes narrowed suspiciously, “Some kind of code you two had set up is it?”

“We have no code. I haven’t seen him for forty years.”

The oxygenator hummed as the room fell quiet once more.

Finally seeming to satisfy himself that she wasn’t going to speak again, Heriun nodded. “It will be quicker with us. Remember that, Addison. I’d hate to think what the VIC will do if they get to him first. And all those other shitpot corps out there. You know how much the information he has will be worth? Fuck, he knows all the VIC’s secrets, all the stuff he’s been feeding us all these years. Shit, Addison, you know how much we’d have to pay to keep him quiet if he falls into the wrong hands? And we can’t let that happen; there’ll be the shit storm to end all shit storms if the VIC find out what he’s been sending us all these years. Forty years he’s been with them. Forty fucking years.” He shook his head again. “How do you pull off something like this for forty years?”

Addison waited patiently.

“Yes. Well.” Heriun rose to his feet. “I just wanted you to know, Addison, that however this ends, whatever happens with this mess, you’ll be looked after. You’ll have a comfortable retirement.” A flash of even white teeth. A chill ran through her as she watched him stride away.

As soon as he was gone, Addison waved a hand and the screen flickered into life once more and once more the fat man stepped daintily towards the picture books. There would be a clue. He would have left her a clue.

And then it caught her eye, a glint, a shimmer of red on his sleeve as he reached out to the picture books. A glint of metal shining in the rays of the First Sun. Raising her hand, she froze the screen and walked around her desk, her heart thumping hard, and then, as she touched a light finger to the cool screen to focus on the tiny metal object, she saw it. The phoenix cufflink.

And she knew where he would be.

#

So many years ago. A time when Jerohim had still been untouched by the inexorable spread of the mega-corporations. A time when the air still thrummed to the sound of the local miner-birds, when the air was still untouched by the smog of factories the size of small cities. A time when there was no grey in Addison’s hair and Kindael’s body was hard and lean.

Addison had liked to sit with her back resting against a tower built by the ancients, its stone slowly crumbling; the slope below her stretched out into a vast vista of honeysee grass and riyas trees stretching hundreds of feet into the air. Overhead there was a constant stream of miner-birds, of scudders and larger ships carrying goods from worlds far away. Sometimes, when that distant sun was low in the sky, she could even see the parent ships in orbit, the ships that navigated the wormholes and travelled to worlds Addison could only ever dream about.

The Dreamer. That’s what Kindael had called her when he met her by her tower of crumbling stone.

Once Kindael had found her asleep by her tower and his laughter had awoken her. He had laughed a lot in those days.

“What were you dreaming about, my love?” He sank easily to his knees by her side, kissing her softly on the cheek in welcome.

A warm wind drifted across the honeysee grass, bending the willowy stems in its wake and warming Addison’s cheeks. Even then, even after three standard months with him, the sight of him still made her heart lurch. “I was dreaming about my true love of course, what else?” she grinned.

“Ah, of course you were.” Kindael frowned. “The bane of my life. What a lucky man he is.” He poured Lysan Fire into a plastic cup he had brought with him and held it out to her. “I only hope I can amuse you enough until he arrives.”

Addison punched him lightly on the arm, enjoying the feel of his muscle tensing against her knuckle before she kissed him lightly on the lips. “You’re late.”

Kindael smiled. A strange smile, more a quirk of the corner of his lips. “It seems my dear father has decided I should find myself some gainful employment rather than spend my days amusing you.”

“Oh?” Addison turned so she could lie in Kindael’s arms, his chest felt strong and hard against her back. “Well, it wouldn’t be before time, you do spend far too much time lazing about.” She took his hand in hers, playing with his fingers.

“He’s got me a position with the VIC.” Spoken quickly, almost as though he hoped Addison wouldn’t hear.

“What?” Addison twisted around so she could look at him. “The VIC?” In those days the VIC, the Veil Interplanetary Coalition, had been just that, a loose coalition of planets and races vying for prominence amongst a score of other corporations in the race for dominance among the new worlds that were colonized on a seemingly daily basis. “He must have powerful friends, your father.”

“I need to speak to the Kellandrans tomorrow. I’ll tell them I don’t want it.”

Addison was only half listening, her mind racing. “I take it you haven’t told your father about me then?”

There was an apologetic silence.

Addison laughed, straddling him as she stroked his shoulders. “You should take it.”

Kindael rested his hands on her hips, desire mingling with confusion in his dark eyes. “Take it? How can I when-”

He was cut short by a light finger resting against his lips. “It’ll be fun. Think of all the things you can learn before you leave. You know the Kellandrans have begun developing a new lab on Hestinir? Magian would love to know what they’ve found that is so interesting out there.”

Kindael laughed, “There is that, I suppose. But if I do give you anything, you’ll owe me big.”

“Here’s a start,” she pulled the cufflinks out of her pocket–a phoenix, it’s wings spread wide and the flames arcing around it etched in perfect detail, the metal glowed bright under the yellow sun. “A present for you.”

Kindael took the box from her, giving the cufflinks only the most spurious of glances before he looked back to her, his eyes full of hunger. “That wasn’t quite the reward I had in mind.”

#

“Captain.” Addison was woken by a light hand on her shoulder. “Jerohim, Captain. We’re approaching Jerohim.”

Addison nodded at the young officer before turning to the window of the transport. Jerohim. A world that had once been her home. But now it could have been any alien world to her as she looked down on a sky of red, the smog thick and close, penetrated only by the ghostly yellow lights of the transporters and scouts of the Magian Corporation as they drifted slowly and noiselessly through the shifting, swirling clouds.

As they descended, the factories and flat domes gradually came into view, black and inky through the smog. “What worlds we create for ourselves.” Addison murmured against the window. Seeing the young officer shoot her a questioning look, she shook her head at the man. “You are sure we weren’t followed?” They had tried, of course. Heriun had placed her under watch even before he had left her office, but a lifetime of secrets and shadows had taught Addison well.

The officer shook his head. “Nothing since Lirand’s World, Captain.”

“Good. Take me down then.”

There was something about returning to her home and finding it nothing more than another faceless world in an entire system of faceless worlds that left Addison disconnected, numb as she wound her way through the endless spires of grey, past the factories belching out their noxious fumes. This was no longer her home, nothing more than another world sacrificed to the god of progress, another world fallen victim in a race to which nobody could see an end.

She was dimly surprised to see her tower of black still standing. Her tower, which had stood for millennia, was in a sorry state, it looked as though some giant creature had taken a savage bite from the turret leaving a jagged hole exposing the decaying rooms inside.

And there at the base of that tower, his strangely thin legs stretched out before him, sat Kindael. His dark, shadowed eyes watched her approach. What to say after forty years’ absence? Addison could think of nothing, instead she silently joined him at their tower and sat next to him, her own legs stretched out before her.

Before them, where once there had been honeysee grass and ryas trees standing tall and proud, now there was nothing but a sea of faceless housing, each one the same as the last.

They sat together in a silence which was never strained. Overhead, where Addison had once seen the giant ships which had traversed the wormholes, now there was nothing but that thick red smog which swirled and churned above them.

It was Kindael who finally broke the silence. “You got old, Addison.” He didn’t look at her; his eyes were fixed straight ahead.

“And you got fat.” Out of the corner of her eye she saw him nod slowly in agreement, his chins bunching with the movement.

Another long silence, but this time it was Addison who broke it. “What happened, Kindael? It’s a merry old shit storm you’ve stirred up.” For the first time she turned to look at him, and her heart ached, though for what she could not say. “You know how many people are hunting for you right now?”

Kindael smiled unconcernedly. “I grew tired, Addison.” He met her eyes, and she saw the man he had once been, almost hidden in those pudgy eyes swollen through lack of sleep, but still there-the man who had been full of laughter, unbowed by the cares of the world. “Have you ever been so tired? Unable to trust anyone? Every knock at the door, every buzz of the phone, fearing that you had been caught? And the tests…the tests the Kellandrans began when they knew they had a mole…” The jowly face sagged and Kindael leaned back against the wall. The hair which had been so carefully combed in the market was now mussed and sticking up at odd angles. “But look at this, at what we have spent our lives fighting for. Is this world that the Magian’s have made for us any better than what went before? Any better than the VIC would have made?” He waved a hand, a gesture that seemed to incorporate the featureless hovels before them and the eddying smog above and everything else that had been destroyed not only on Jerohim, but also on the countless other worlds the corporations had fought for in the past forty years.

Addison said nothing for a long while; instead she slipped her hand into his. It felt nothing like the strong hand she remembered, it was soft and damp and cloying, but she held it tightly and her heart ached all the more. “Perhaps we got so lost in the fight that we forgot what it was we fought for.” Her words were soft, nothing but a whisper, a memory of the breeze that once blew across a vast vista of honeysee grass, and yet Kindael nodded in agreement.

“I have watched you all these years.” He ran a soft thumb across her hand and she fought against an involuntary shudder. “I watched you on the newscasts, sometimes it seemed as though you got a promotion every time I sent you some information, and so I would struggle to send you more just so I could see you in the news. I watched you age and harden, and I loved you every time I saw you.” A single tear ran down his fat cheek, and Addison pretended not to see it.

Silence. This was a silence where Addison knew what was wanted, but she couldn’t find the words. Instead she stared out across a sea of flat roofs, of smoke and dirt.

Finally Kindael slowly withdrew his hand from hers. “You should go, Addison. It won’t be long before they come.”

The relief she felt at his words sent a wave of guilt washing through her. She rose to her feet and looked down at her lost love, a fat and broken man. “I’m sorry.” Was all she could say.

Kindael shrugged, his smile weak. “At least we got to see our brave new world.”

Addison leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek, it was damp with sweat. “I’m so sorry.” She whispered before leaving him at his tower of crumbling black stone.

She stopped and turned to watch the tower once she reached the road. She owed him that much at least. He didn’t leave her waiting very long. There was no explosion, no crack of thunder, only the quickest flash of yellow, bright and stark under the sky of red. A blaster pistol, she guessed, bowing her head.

As she turned away, she pulled her hair loose from the pins. It fell around her face, grey and dry and brittle. And she dimly realized there were tears on her cheeks. Tears for a life yearning for a love she hadn’t realized had died, for a home that was no longer there.

And then she moved on, aimless and lost, an old woman with wild grey hair, the sky thick and red with silently drifting orange lights permeating the gloom. And she heard a voice, an old man’s voice.

“At least we got to see our brave new world.”

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