Alex Steddard sat with his back to the golash tree on the large hill overlooking his parent’s farm with his lightboard on the ground next to him. He was thinking about the same thing that had occupied his mind for the last month. Tomorrow would be his eighteenth birthday; and in order to get out of being drafted into the military, he had decided to join the religious order known as the White Falcon Order. In two days’ time, therefore, he would be leaving Calos II for the first time ever in order to go to the training compound on Portus. In his whole life, he had never been farther from his parent’s farm than the village of Heersch which was only twenty miles away. Even with their limited technological access, it was still only a trip of a couple of hours. Now in two days’ time, he would be going to the capital city of Calos II over eight hours away. He would then take a starship to the planet of Portus, a trip of at least eight days and four light jumps. To make matters worse, he was going to have to pretend that he actually believed in all this White Falcon rubbish, and probably would have to pull this off for several years.
His parents still believed in the True Path, and the Overlord, but he was an intelligent and enlightened thirty-fifth-century man and didn’t need a religious crutch in order to survive. Science had explained how and why Dark Space came into existence. Furthermore, his upper-level professor had explained how all this religious nonsense was really just a cover for bigotry and hatred. Alex was beginning to wonder if it was a mistake to join this Order. After all, in two years his enlistment would be up. Then he could get his own farm and settle down to a nice quiet life somewhere far away from Calos II and Dark Space. But if he was drafted into the military, he would most likely be assigned to some border world garrison that lived in constant fear of being gobbled up by one of their larger, southern neighbors. Or even worse, he would be assigned to a patrolling warship having to hunt down pirates and other renegades. Neither were prospects, he particularly relished.
Suddenly his timepiece went off, indicating that it was now thirteen hundred hours and time for him to get back to work. He might be leaving in two days’ time, but his parents still expected him to do his chores. First of all, he had to clean the water purifiers, and then he had to feed the G’morks. Picking up his lightboard, he snapped the sail into place and unfurled it. Taking hold of the control handles, he activated the board’s solar catchers, and he let it level off five inches above the ground and skimmed back to the farm and his daily chores. Sailing toward the farm, he thought about the G’morks. They had once been normal cattle stock imported from planets further away from Dark Space in order to start up local herds. However, due to overexposure to Dark Light, they had mutated. Now they weighed around six hundred pounds, had two heads, stank to high heaven, and were very noisy. On the flip side, though, they provided very tender and tasty meat, and reproduced at twice the rate of normal cattle stock. Since they could only live within one jump of the border, there were never enough of them to fulfill the demand and thus one could make a rather large fortune from them. Personally, Alex did not think the money was worth the work and smell and would be very happy to see the last of them.
Arriving back at the farm, Alex lowered his lightboard to the ground, shut it down, and put it back in the shed where it was normally stored. Opening the supply locker right next door, he grabbed a cleaning kit and began walking over to the water purifiers. This was neither a pleasant nor an easy task. It generally involved scraping off the snaarl leeches that tried to chew through the insulation on the wires and feed off the electricity from them. Although it took hours to do each day, it was vital as unpurified water could kill a grown man in about twenty-five seconds, yet another effect of living less than thirty-five minutes from Dark Space. About halfway to the purifiers, he heard a voice yell out, “Hey, Mr. Monk! How goes the day?” Turning around Alex saw his older brother Argus waving his arm as he moved towards him.
Gritting his teeth, Alex raised his hand to return the greeting and yelled out, “It goes well. How about yours?”
Catching up to him, Argus smiled broadly and, pausing to catch his breath, responded, “So far it is going pretty good. I have a few days left while my ship gets refitted in space dock, so thought I would come and visit everyone.”
To that Alex laughed and, switching his cleaning kit to his other shoulder, replied to Argus, saying, “Well, since you’re going to be here for a few days, how about giving me a hand with cleaning the purifiers?”
Argus joined Alex in laughing at that statement, remembering well how unpleasant and tedious a task that was and responded, “I think not. I am going to head over to the house and surprise our parents.” With that, Argus waved goodbye and began walking over to the house.
Alex watched his brother walk off for another minute and then, hefting his pack, continued on his way to the purifiers. The trek took about twenty-five minutes and while walking over, he began thinking about his brother. Argus had turned seventeen in the year 3396, about four years before the wars ended. He had joined the Dieron navy as a volunteer rather than waiting to be drafted and got assigned to the RDMS Valiant. Any frigate was considered a plum assignment because, unlike ships of the line, they roamed from battle front to battle front going where the action was. Because of this, the chance for prize money was greatly increased. Being assigned to the Valiant was considered a stroke of incredible good fortune since Captain Mayner was known nationwide for being able to find action no matter how quiet the front seemed. So prize money and quick promotions were almost a guarantee.
The reputation and instincts of Captain Mayner did not disappoint, and by 3400, twenty-one-year-old Argus had a fortune of around two million Dieron Rudi. He was a Lt. Commander in the navy and had command of the attack sloop RDMS Bluefire. Now five years later, he was a full captain in command of the seventy-five gun frigate RDMS Invincible. Apparently he had just been assigned to patrol the Dark Space border looking for pirates and other miscreants. Alex had to admit to himself he was not particularly happy that his brother had chosen Calos II as his port of call while on Dark Space patrol. He knew that Argus thought he was a bit of a coward for joining the White Falcons in order to get out of military service. His brother thought everyone should be willing to “do their duty to king and country” and could not understand why Alex would rather not serve. It was not surprising to Alex that Argus thought this way; after all he had grown up in a universe at war.
The concepts of peace or looking after yourself first were not things Argus could understand. Nonetheless, it annoyed Alex that his brother couldn’t accept his decision to avoid military service. Argus had always wanted to be a sailor and a soldier; all Alex wanted was to be left in peace. As he approached the purifiers, Alex was forced to cease his musings so that he could focus on the task at hand. He had almost lost his hand once before due to a mixture of daydreaming and a hungry salfish, and had no desire to repeat the process. Pulling on his protective leather apron, trousers, and gloves, he grabbed his shock stick and scraper and began the cleaning process.
Later that evening, a very tired Alex trudged back toward the main house having finally finished the last of his chores for the day. Glancing at his timepiece, he discovered that it was already nineteen-thirty. Cleaning the purifiers had taken longer than usual, so he had not gotten around to feeding the G’morks until almost seventeen hundred hours. Stopping at the outdoor tap, he rinsed off as best he could before going indoors, knowing his parents would not appreciate him coming inside covered in the filth and dirt of the lake and stalls. He dried himself off with a towel, then pushing open the front door, he went inside the house. His father and older brother were sitting in front of the fireplace drinking some hot K’vass and talking about Argus’s new command and what he was doing on the Dark Space border. Meanwhile, his mother and two sisters were busy in the kitchen preparing dinner. As Alex walked into the main room, his brother saw him and waved him over to them and handed him a mug. Taking a seat, he was able to catch the tail end of the conversation and learn why Argus had come back home to the border. He heard his brother say, “… so basically no one knows where these new ships come from or to whom they belong. All we know is that they are powerful and have already destroyed three merchant ships and one passenger liner. We have to try and locate them or their base, ascertain how much of a threat they really are, and, if necessary, destroy them.”
His father sat in his high leather armchair digesting that piece of information while he took a drink from his mug. After a few minutes, his father responded, “Are you sure these ships aren’t the ancient enemy? After all, they have only been spotted right next to Dark Space, and from what you just told me, it’s possible they are on the move again.” Alex watched his brother’s face at that comment, knowing that he found his parent’s adherence to that old religion only slightly less ridiculous than he did himself.
Argus took a minute to control his annoyance at that suggestion and to keep it from showing on his face. After regaining his composure, he said, “I don’t think so. After all, science has firmly established that nothing can live out there, so no; they are just a very well-equipped pirate band. We will hunt them down and destroy them like any other band.” Fortunately the conversation was cut short at that point when Alex’s mother walked into the living room to announce dinner was ready and invite everyone to come through to the dining room for dinner.
Even after all these years, Alex still thought five am came way to early. Rolling over he slapped the top of his alarm piece to turn it off. Although he had to get up, he was reluctant to get out from under the warm covers into the cold morning air. After about five minutes, he finally got out of bed, pulling on a pair of trousers along with an old shirt and sweater, and headed downstairs to eat breakfast and begin his daily chores. In his opinion, this was the only downside of being a farmer; you never really got a day off, even if that day was your birthday. Walking down two flights of stairs to the ground floor, he entered the main room and just stared in open-mouthed shock at what he saw. His family had decorated the house for a birthday celebration. Hanging over the hearth was a giant banner with the words ’Happy 18th Birthday’ in large stenciled lettering. Green and blue streamers hung from the walls all around the room. The table was covered with a rich wool cloth and on top of it sat a large birthday cake with blue icing and white letters which spelled out “Happy 18th Alex”. In addition, there were two steaming jugs of K’vass, a plate of Cramen crackers with G’mork cheese, and a plate of G’mork strips with eggs. His brother stepped forward saying, “Happy birthday, bro. We figured that since you were leaving tomorrow for your chosen vocation we would give you a combination birthday celebration and farewell party.”
Alex was completely dumbfounded. The only other time he had ever seen such extravagance was when his brother had been promoted to full captain two years ago. Finally recovering the use of his tongue, he managed to stammer out a quick thanks, and then, moving forward to the proffered chair, he sat down. Laughing, his brother Argus offered him a mug of K’vass and a plate of food . At that point the rest of the family, then helped themselves and, after bringing the gifts out for Alex, sat down, and began to celebrate his eighteenth birthday.