Stars above, stars below
“Hold on to my arm!” Alexandra screamed. Her pupils were almost as big as the turquoise in her eyes.
“Actually, I was thinking of letting go!” Christopher clenched his jaw and tried to pull himself up. His body was freezing from the cold as he hung suspended in space; stars above, stars below.
“If you have the strength to be funny, you have the strength to pull your fat ass up!”
He looked down, wondering where he’d be pulled if he fell. Doesn’t really matter, though, I’ll freeze to death and choke long before I burn up in the atmosphere. Which atmosphere seemed trivial at this point.
Alexandra leaned back and pulled with all of her strength. “Come on, damn it!”
All in all, they’d both been quite lucky. None of the shots fired had hit them, and they escaped the explosion without much harm. Their luck was about to run out, though; the automated security system would soon discover the breach and seal the leak.
Christopher looked around. He first saw the brown planet, then its grey moon. Damn the entire Shul system. He thought to himself as he grabbed a beam sticking out from the hole in the bridge. He let go of Alexandra to hoist himself up, but the beam was slippery, and the pressure was tugging at his legs, pulling him out from the bridge. “Shit!” He yelled.
“Don’t you fucking die on me, Topher!” Alexandra yelled, throwing herself forward, thrusting her arms through the hole in the bridge. She grabbed both of Christopher’s arms, but could feel herself steadily pulled into the breach.
“Don’t you die on me!” Christopher answered. “Find something to hold us up! Or we’ll both be dead!”
Alexandra started kicking and squirming, but it only made her slide faster. “There!” She screamed as her foot got lodged in a piece of wreckage. It was part of the high-speed train they were both sitting in a few short minutes ago.
The situation made little sense to both of them. The people they were escaping from were primitive and vile, and seemed to lack both economy and technology. They wouldn’t have been able to track them like this, and they sure as hell wouldn’t have access to the firepower needed to destroy that train.
“Does this seem a little off to you?” Alexandra asked, pulling with all of her strength, her foot burning and her face growing red.
“Yes!” Christopher groaned.
“I mean the whole thing! Not just the-“
“I know! It’s strange, all of it!” He adjusted his grip, letting go of the beam with one hand, instead grabbing Alexandra’s arm again. “Can we talk about this later?”
“Absolutely!” She pulled again, slowly dragging Christopher back onto the bridge.
“That’s it! You’ve got me!” He yelled, pulling himself up as the door slowly closed behind them, threatening to lock them out.
The Shul system consisted mostly of barren planets and a few dwarves, but was known throughout the universe because of two things: K’hadmera; commonly known as the world that floats; and the Skybridge.
The first was Christopher and Alexandra’s destination. It was a strange cluster of rock and debris located in the outer rim – also known as the Periphery – on the far side of Shul IV’s moon. The floating world hovered above a bottomless pit, held in place by tremendous chains anchoring the giant rocks to the ground. Joseph Shul – the man who first discovered the system – was believed to have died when his ship crashed in the pit. A few attempts had been made to recover it, but both of them were unsuccessful. In recent years, people with too much money had begun settling there, building giant villas on the floating rocks. The rigidness of the chains holding the stones in place kept them from moving, so after a while, they were all adjoined with bridges and lifts of various kinds.
The Skybridge was their current location. Shul IV had a few settlements and villages, and rich deposits of Nebulium 2 and other multi-purpose fuels and gases. Because of all the mining colonies, it had several large spaceports, which made travel there safe and effective. As this was the preferred method of travel to K’hadmera, a bridge had been built connecting Shul IV with its moon. The moon hovered extremely close to Shul IV’s surface, and was mounted on a giant gyroscope, to compensate for the planet’s rotation and gravitational pull. Trains shot through the bridge at tremendous speed, using maglev technology.
“How come we can breathe in here? Aren’t we supposed to be in a vacuum?” Alexandra asked, running her hand along the ethereal wall.
“Normally, we would be, but oxygen is added instantly when the train reports a malfunction.” Christopher scratched his white hair, soon discovering a streak of red.
“Ah, of course! The train might stop for some reason.” She paused, rearranging her brown and orange vest, pushing the magazines back in place and tightening the strap for her rifle. “Some other reason than getting blown to shit.” She also made sure her knife was properly strapped to her ankle, and hidden underneath her once beige boots. “But how do they fill the entire bridge so quick?”
“By dividing it. If you listen very closely, you’ll hear doors opening in the distance.” He took a deep breath and wiped the blood on his turquoise scarf. “The A.I fills only the compartments with signs of life first, and then slowly opens the rest of the tunnel.” Christopher always wore a scarf, hiding the burns on his neck. “And it seems to be working brilliantly! Makes you wonder why everyone was so afraid of artificial intelligence.”
“Well; even though the bridge is controlled by an A.I, it’s not the same as synthetic humans with artificial brains…”
“No, but according to those maniacs, the bridge would’ve tried to murder us a long time ago, deeming us inferior or some such nonsense.” He ran his fingers through his hair again. Damn, that bullet was too close! The cut wasn’t deep, but it would surely leave a mark on his head. Another ridge in my hair.
Alexandra looked down and wandered in silence for a little while. Far behind them, the doors slowly started to close again, preserving the oxygen.
The train had travelled two thirds of the way when someone fired on the bridge. The impact was heavy enough to tear the hull open, so it had to be a high-impact round, Christopher figured. Not some random bucket with a cannon, in other words. This wasn’t done by the same people who attacked our home. This was done by professionals with credits to spare. Maybe they know we have something of theirs. He suddenly remembered Alexandra’s comment earlier, and turned towards her. She found it strange as well.
A tear fell from Alexandra’s face as she trudged through the tunnel, then another. She looked to the stars above, trying to stop herself. She knew her home was out there somewhere, orbiting the giant, red sun. Alexandria, she thought. The first place we discovered after the exodus.
“Brighten up, will you? You’re named after the brightest sun in the fucking universe.”
Alexandra couldn’t help laughing and crying a little at the same time.
“What’s wrong?” Apart from our home being blown to shit.
“You almost died…” Alexandra looked at her brother, her turquoise eyes meeting his.
“For the millionth time. What of it?”
“I couldn’t protect you!”
Christopher laughed a burly laugh. “Protect me? Since when?!” He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close like a little child. “That has never been your job!”
“I know it’s not my job, but you’re my brother, and I-“
“We’ve barely seen each other the past ten years, Sandra. Don’t go all sibling overdrive on me now! You know what I did … what I’ve done. My life was on the line every single day!”
“I just want to help!”
“You always want to help! That’s what makes you, you! But you can’t always help. Sometimes no help is needed, or you can’t do anything. We’re together and we’re alive, for fuck’s sake. What more do you want?”
“I…“ Alexandra looked down, as if the black, empty space surrounding the bridge were suddenly placed on her shoulders.
“You can’t retroactively help me! I don’t need your help now! You feel guilty about what happened, and you wish you could’ve been there for me. I completely understand, trust me. But that’s all in the past. Let’s focus on our future together instead. We can start by making sure we have one.”
Alexandra said nothing. She wriggled out of his grasp and gazed towards the moon in front of her.
She doesn’t know me anymore. Christopher thought, clutching his gun. She doesn’t know this side of me, the insightful one. He turned the safety off and carefully removed it from its holster. That’s right, sis. I grew up. He felt uneasy.
Giant pneumatic pistons and rods hissed above them and below them. The thick material from which the bridge was made kept most of the noise out, but they could still feel and hear the rumbling as the bridge contracted ever so slightly.
These tunnels weren’t made for walking in.
They kept wandering in silence, stars and nebulae shining above and below, worlds and worlds and worlds stretching out all around them.
And here we are, in the outer rim. All the way out in the Periphery.
Christopher had never felt more lost.
“You know;” Christopher finally caved, unable to take the silence anymore. “These giant pump-looking things? They’re there to compensate for the difference between the moon’s extreme perigee and apogee. The bridge can be compressed and reduced almost by 500 kilometers.”
“Since when do you care about stuff like when the moon’s closest and not? I thought you gave zero shits about science and technology and the likes. Unless it can be fired or fired upon.”
“First of all, this bridge can be fired upon. If anything, those morons back there proved that. Second; I don’t, normally. But we are standing in the universe’s biggest architectural accomplishment. It’s the most expensive thingamabob ever built! In the midst of this shitstorm, that’s something to think about, at least.”
Alexandra started laughing. “It is a remarkable thingamabob, I’ll give you that.”
“See!” He looked towards the grey surface thousands of kilometers ahead. If we walk into the atmosphere, we’ll fall to our deaths… He suddenly realized. Then he noticed something. What he’d been waiting for. “Heads up, Alexandra!”
A train approached from the distance, fast and silent. Close to a thousand kilometers per hour, shooting through the corridor. Only a few inches of space between the train and the bridge. No escape if they decide to run us through.
Alexandra grabbed her rifle. “Maybe they won’t attack us,” she dared hoping.
“Oh, they will. I just hope they get off the train first.”
“That’s really up to the A.I, isn’t it?”
“Right you are. And she has been diggin’ us so far.” He checked his ammo and made sure new magazines were ready in his vest.
“How are we going to do this? There’s no cover to hide behind and nowhere to run.” Alexandra stopped and went down on one knee, and then removed her backpack.
“You’re right, but we might still have the element of surprise on our side.” The train started decelerating, slowly coming to a halt a few hundred meters down the bridge. There was one door remaining between them and the train, but it would open the very second someone stepped out. If lady luck smiled on them, it would only be a passenger train. But lady luck seldom smiled these days.
“How do we have the element of surprise? We’re right in the open and they’ve-“
Christopher fired three rounds into the roof of the bridge, shattering the light source. “Space is dark,” he smiled, firing a few more rounds, blacking out the entire compartment. He followed Alexandra’s example and took his pack off. They both got down on the floor, resting their weapons on their packs, waiting for the door to open. “The very second light seeps through that door, open fire.”
“What if they’re civilians?”
“If they are, they’ll stay on the train.”
They waited in silence.
Alexandra felt a knot in her gut as the bolts in the door started releasing. She placed her finger on the trigger and took a few deep breaths. Her finger felt wet and slippery, the trigger heavy and difficult. She took another breath.
One in the chest, one in the head. Christopher cursed himself for losing his rifle when he almost fell through the bridge. The door wasn’t that far away, though, and he was holding his most trusted pistol. He took a deep breath.
The door opened.
Alexandra’s rifle thundered throughout the bridge, a brutal contrast to Christopher’s subtle bursts. High velocity rounds were good for ripping your enemies to shreds, but they were hell on the ears. Alexandra screamed and kept squeezing the trigger, round after round leaving her barrel; shell after shell ringing as they rolled empty across the floor. Streaks of light flashed across the room as the fire burst from the muzzle. She could see the blinking faces of the men entering the room, red and black mesh tearing under the sheer force of her bullets.
High quality synthetic fiber, Christopher thought. Not the first people with expensive equipment who tried to murder them. “These are the same people who attacked the train!” He yelled; his pistol hissing as the thermal rounds left the muzzle. He aimed carefully – the heat would melt the leather around the mesh, but not puncture. At best, it would slightly warm the person hit – he needed to hit them in the head.
Alexandra gave no answer, her ears ringing from the thunders of her rifle. She didn’t care to count how many she felled, but by now they were pouring into the room faster than she could kill them. Muzzles flashed in the dark as they returned fire. The bullets whizzed and thudded around her, each one closer than the last. She knew there was no way they’d tear through the hull of the bridge, but they would tear through her like she was butter.
And she was on her last round.
Hitting a person in the head or groin with thermal rounds made for terrible screams, and created a vile smell, but it was what he had. From the sounds, Christopher hit a few people already. He could feel his heart racing now; the return fire was getting dangerously close and he only had two magazines left. To semi-auto or not to semi-auto? He fired a few more rounds, missing. He knew he needed to do something, and quick.
When he heard Alexandra’s rifle giving away an ominous click; that was the push he needed. He screamed from the top of his lungs and switched the safety to semi-auto, searing bursts escaping his weapon as he rolled towards Alexandra. His little stunt was sure to draw their fire, but hopefully it would shock them as well, earning him a few valuable seconds.
“We need to make a break for it!” Alexandra screamed, tossing her rifle to the side.
“You read my mind!” He answered, reloading.
“Cover me!” She grabbed her knife and ran towards the door.
Damn it! Christopher tried to spread his bullets as much as he could, keeping the soldiers from firing back. I can’t let them hit Alexandra! They would be able to see her as soon as she ran into the light coming from the door. He let out another scream. “Come on, fuckers!” Round after round left his weapon, only a select few hitting their marks. Pretty soon, his clip was empty, and he was left to his own devices.
Alexandra screamed and jumped towards the closest soldier. A few rounds had hit her vest, but none of them high velocity. Nevertheless, she’d feel it once the adrenaline wore off. She pushed his rifle aside and drove her knife in under his arm. “That’s what you get for trying to kill me and my brother!” She said, her lips inches from his face. She pulled the knife out and drove it back in for good measure, then she crushed his nose with her forehead. Before he hit the ground, she’d flipped his rifle and started firing at the person behind him. A trail of blood and brain matter blinked like snow crystals in the light from the door as he fell to the ground. She grabbed his rifle as well and positioned herself next to the door. “All right! I’m in position!” She yelled to her brother, firing a few rounds into the next room.
There was no response.
Damn it all to shit! Christopher clutched his thigh as he beat the soldier to death with his pistol. I should’ve known this would happen. He grabbed the rifle from the ground and dragged himself towards the door.
“Topher! Answer me, for fuck’s sake! I need to know you’re-“
“To be honest, I’ve felt better.” He said as he stumbled to his feet by the doorway.
“You stupid- Shit! You’re bleeding!”
“It’s nothing. Focus on the soldiers!”
Alexandra fired a few more rounds. From what she could see, there were only two left now, but they were well hidden in the doorways on the train. She took a few deep breaths and went down on one knee, carefully aiming through the sights. She could see one of the men, lurking by the side of the train. “That’s right,” she mumbled. Stick your ugly little head out and-“
A bullet whizzed past her, almost taking her ear off. “Fuck!” She screamed, losing her concentration.
“I’ll give you some cover fire.” Christopher was in too much pain to aim properly, so he lazily pushed his weapon around the corner, steadily firing. Hopefully, this made sure the enemies didn’t want to stick their heads up too high.
“Thanks.” Alexandra looked through the scope again, soon finding the man who almost killed her. He was squeezed underneath the nose of the train, his rifle fixed on Christopher. The man didn’t even flinch as her brother’s bursts clanged all around him. Alexandra fired a single shot, but pulled too hard, hitting the train instead.
“Careful!” Christopher yelled. “If you destroy that train, we’ll never get out of this space-shit!”
Her shot stalled the man long enough for her to take another. This one hit near the shoulder, it seemed. She took another breath, preparing for the kill shot.
“Look out, Sandra!” Christopher suddenly yelled, pushing her away from the door. A violent thud emerged just before they fell to the ground. Christopher landed on his back, but was quick to get his rifle up.
Another soldier had come through, firing at them at point-blank range. Before Alexandra could react, Christopher had riddled the man with holes. “Son of a bitch made a run for it!” He said, out of breath.
Alexandra hadn’t even heard the shots, but there they were, clear as day on Christopher’s chest. There were two pancaked bullets and one hole. “No, no, no, no, no!” She immediately started crying.
“Oh, for the love of- You just murdered a thousand soldiers in cold blood! It’s not very becoming of you to cry right now!” Christopher groaned and stuck a finger into the hole. “It’s not that deep, anyway.”
“I can’t lose you, Topher, I just can’t! Not now!”
“Then get me the fuck on that train and let’s get moving! You can’t do anything for me here!”
“Good point.” She gathered some of the rifles and all the ammunition she could find. She also grabbed a med-kit from one of the dead soldiers. She tried to examine their armor and their uniforms, but there was nothing there to give them away. She stabilized and bandaged Christopher, making sure he wasn’t bleeding, externally or internally.
“Shouldn’t we get out of-“
“Yes, after I’ve stabilized you. I already told you; I’m not losing you! If I carry you into that train, bleeding and-”
“It’s okay, Alexandra. I get it. Don’t worry about it, I’ll just lie here and … be stable.”
“Good. How are you feeling, by the way? The bullet went straight through … I don’t know what it hit.”
“Actually, I feel pretty good, considering. I’ll be back on my feet in no time.” He smiled. She’s going to hate me for this if I die. Christopher couldn’t bear to tell her how he really felt. Like I’m already dead…
After making sure she had everything she needed, she walked over to the man hidden underneath the train. He was still alive, moaning and groaning from the bullet wound in his shoulder. “Shut your fucking mouth!” Alexandra said, placing her boot on his shoulder.
The soldier whimpered, trying to pry her boot away.
“You tell me who the fuck it is you’re working for!” She hissed, pressing her foot down even harder.
“Skybridge Security,” he answered, “I remove the filth from the tunn-”
She raised her foot and stomped down a few times. “Wrong answer.”
“Okay!” The man surrendered. “Okay, okay, okay, fine!” He winced and rolled over on his back as Alexandra released him. “I’ll tell you who I work for.”
Alexandra leaned closer. Maybe she’d finally have an answer. Maybe they could stop this before it grew into a war.
That’s all it took; a second of carelessness on her part.
The metal blinded her as he pulled it, silver streaks shooting across her eyes. She didn’t even register the muzzle on the temple, much less the tremendous roar as the bullet shot forth. The pure spectacle of it all made her fall backwards, landing on her back, her vest covered in blood. She looked up, but the soldier was no longer there; reduced instead, to bits and pieces.
She stumbled to her feet, shaking. “Wow,” she started. “These people really don’t want us to know who they’re working for.” She removed his corpse, halfway in shock. Then she went to get Christopher. “Let’s get you on that train, Topher. I’ll get you some proper help when we reach the moon. “
There was no answer.