fbpx

Desert Moon

Desert Moon

A Nadie’s Story

 

Formosan, Moon of the Third Planet in the Gliese System

April, Year 2082 (Earth Standard)

 

The paintbrush rustled on paper under 17-year-old Nadine Chu’s hand, leaving clumsy black smudges where it went. The sheet was made of mashed-up pulp, rough and uneven. Formosan was low on luxury items, so she couldn’t use proper paper for her practice runs. She was kneeling at a low table, almost on a level with the floor, while her mother, Yawen, sat in a wicker chair behind a cluttered table in the room’s corner. As always, she was putting data into ledgers: mining quotas, their estimated values, taxes and duties to deduct. Sounds of multiple mining lasers kept coming through the open door. It was a hot day, like most on Formosan.

“How much longer do I have to do this drudgery?” the girl asked.

“You have to practice your letters, Nadie. We’ve neglected your classical education for too long. You’re already behind all your friends.”

“Not all.”

“We spoke about this. Guanyu is a miner’s son.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing. We’re all miners by a fashion. But you are the supervisor’s daughter. You are meant for other things, to keep the tradition. Remember, we are keepers…”

“…of the ancient ways of our homeland. I know,” Nadie rolled her eyes in boredom. There was little use for written script on Formosan – a colony paying its dues by silica mining – and even less excitement. Her friends left the mining settlement, Little Taipei, to look for a Stormer in the northern wastes. It was a subsurface dweller so fast and large it produced dust storms as it moved. Hunting one down was considered a great feat. But she was stuck with her mother to train in the art of scripture.

“I know you were going to hunt a Stormer today,” her mother spoke without stopping her work.

Nadie dropped her brush. It made a great big splotch in the centre of the character she was painting. “What?”

“You need to learn to control the brush. Start anew.”

With a sigh, Nadie folded the ruined workpiece neatly four times and replaced it with a fresh sheet. “Are you spying on me?”

“I don’t have to. You and your friends talk very loud.”

“Is this why I’m stuck here this morning? Look at me!” Nadie picked up the brush she had freshly dipped in paint and flicked it in her mother’s direction. It missed the woman’s nose by a fraction and bounced off a wall.

The ruse worked. Yawen finally shifted her gaze from data pads and papers to her daughter. “Honestly, I don’t know who you take your temper after. Your father’s family and mine were all very tranquil people.”

“You mean sedentary,” Nadie scoffed.

“Do not disrespect your ancestors.”

“Father would let me go hunt a Stormer.”

“Your father is a busy man, Nadie. He has to take care of the whole colony. There’s just no time in which he can preoccupy himself with things you want.” Yawen looked at her daughter with concern. Mother’s expression softened as she tried to mend the bridges. “Come, come, Nadie. We all have things we’d rather do but can’t. You can hunt for a Stormer tomorrow, with Guanyu. He’s strong. He will keep you safe.”

“He can’t go. He has to work in the quarry.”

“I will convince your father to give him free morning. Now will you practice your letters?”

“Yes, mother. Thank you.” Nadie stood up and went to retrieve the brush as Yawen moved back to doing her meticulous work. “Mother?”

“Yes?”

“Why did you call me Nadine? It’s not a Taiwanese name, is it?”

Yawen scratched at the pad before her with a fingernail. It was a gesture of anxiety. “That was your father’s idea. He thought a Western name would aid you after we had to flee our beautiful island for Australia.”

“Why did we have to come here? Why couldn’t we stay on Earth?”

There was old, unhealed pain in Nadie’s voice. Yawen Chu stood from the chair and faced her daughter, placing her hands on the tabletop behind her like she needed to physically support herself before the confrontation. Foolishly, she had thought this moment would not come, but Nadie was a young woman grappling with experiences of disjointed childhood. How to explain to a teenager that her leaping from one place to another was the result of politics in a faraway land the girl had never laid eyes on?

Yawen was spared a difficult attempt to vindicate past actions by a shrill cry of happiness which permeated the door. “Nadieeeeee!” A girl of five ran into the sparse household, wearing a simple brown dress, black hair tied neatly into a single plait. She embraced Nadie’s knee and buried her pudgy face in the thigh. “I’m so happy you’re still here.”

“I’m happy too, Chinnie.” Nadie had a big smile ready. Chinnie, her little ward, often made her laugh.

“What are you doing here, little miss?” Yawen abandoned her chores and crossed into a kitchenette where a big jar waited. “Would you like a cookie?”

“Yes, please. Mommy said me and Nadie can go watch miners work.”

“Did she now? All right then, here you go,” Yawen gave Chinnie a round, flat gooseberry chip, picked her up, twirled her in the air to child’s delight, and passed her into Nadie’s open arms. “Go then. Don’t interrupt your father.”

“We won’t!” Nadie shouted from beyond the door. She ran into the white sun, bouncing Chinnie on her shoulders, both of them laughing as they darted past two squat homes made of local brownstone. Click-clacking of cudgels and pickaxes mixed in with the growing noise of heavy laser cutters. They approached a thick rope strewn around the perimeter of the silica fields and stopped there. Nadie put Chinnie on the ground.

“The day’s hot. Put on your hood.” They both covered their dark hair with thin white linens. “Let’s stick to the roads, OK?”

“OK.” Chinnie took Nadie by the hand and they strolled on a track by the rope. Men worked in shallow holes and down in deep shafts, protected from the hot sun by canopies spread on aluminium poles. Nadie looked out for familiar faces, waiting for Chinnie to formulate today’s question. “Why are we called Formosan?”

Nadie looked down into the dark, inquisitive eyes. “We’re not. I’m called Nadie. You’re called Chinnie.”

Little girl went into a huff at that answer. She let Nadie’s hand go, crossed her arms over narrow chest and pouted, bringing her eyebrows together to show anger. “You know what I mean!”

Nadie crouched in front of Chinnie and cradled her puffed-out cheek. “I do. I’m sorry. Our moon is called Formosan after a dog.”

“Like Tensen?” Chinnie’s face brightened and she recalled the warehouse master’s guard dog. The animal was terrible at the job, too docile, but no one would steal from colony’s storehouses anyway, and Tensen was an excellent playmate for kids.

“Like Tensen, but smaller. Tensen is a German Shepherd-“

“What’s a German?”

“That’s two questions in one day,” Nadie stood up, pretending to be cross, then chuckled. “It’s someone or something that comes… Actually, we should go to the library and show you a holovid. Otherwise, you’ll just keep asking me questions, won’t you?”

“Yay!” Chinnie stomped her small feet and stuck out her hand to Nadie. Her mother, Yawen and some other women had put together a repository of video and audio recordings, books and photographs to promote memory and knowledge, especially of Taiwan, but also Earth and mankind in general. “Why are we called after a dog?”

Nadie took her hand and they started a walk back, into the disarray of houses among which stood the library. She considered her answer carefully as she’d never really given the issue a thought. “I guess it’s because of how our moon looks from space. It’s light brown with dark splotches, like the fur of a Formosan dog. I heard off-worlders call it the Dog Moon too. Ill show you a holovid of a Formosan dog. It’s thin and scruffy, but very cute. Father must have thought we’re a bit like it.”

“Your father is funny. He makes us live on a dog. We would be more comfortable if we lived on a cow.”

Nadie laughed. “You’re right. A spotted cow that gives sweet milk.”

They reached the door of the library, a long building with only one storey. No building reached higher from the ground, except for the watchtowers which were more like scaffoldings jutting up into the baked air. Chinnie refused to enter.

“I hear starships,” she declared confidently.

“Impossible. No one’s coming to see us for days.” Then Nadie heard them too. She looked up. Two space shuttles flew fast and low over their heads, rustling up a mighty wind and bringing up dust from the earth. Nadie squatted and put her arms around Chinnie to protect the child. The shuttles came and went in a second, but she heard them slow down and land nearby, among the silica fields. Someone up on a watchtower turned a crank and the uneven sound of warning siren filled the quiet mining town. Too late. Everyone already knew the inspector arrived a week early.

“Go to your mother, Chinnie.”

“But I want to see who’s come.” The girl was restless.

Nadie couldn’t take her along. She feared trouble was brewing. “Go, Chinnie. This isn’t a game. Your mother will be worried sick.”

“OK, I’ll go,” Chinnie looked to the ground, drawing a circle in the dirt with her leg. Disappointed.

“That’s good. I’ll visit you later and we’ll see that holovid. I’ll show you the Formosan dog, and what Germany is.”

“Promise?”

“Pinky swear.” They put their little digits together. Nadie smiled to Chinnie, then she turned around and ran. Joyful look disappeared under a layer of concern.

The shuttles landed smack down in the middle of the quarry, breaking several makeshift structures in the process. Inconsiderate jakes, Nadie thought. She made out a dozen figures standing around the spacecrafts, guarding them. Soldiers with rifles. The fact that the inspector needed two shuttles was a warning sign, but the presence of armed escort filled her with dread. The inspector was going to be forceful.

No one paid attention to her as she made her way to the supervisor’s tent. The miners stopped their work, waiting for the outcome of negotiations. They knew the inspector had come to demand an extortionate sum of silica ore. Her father’s onus was to haggle the price down as much as he could. If the inspector wasn’t in a generous mood, they were likely to starve through the winter on half rations of ungarnished ironbread, if not worse. Most food on Formosan was imported.

Nadie walked past two soldiers wearing mismatched pieces of battle armour. Both were women, strangers, off-worlders – father would call them Westerners after the old Earth denomination. She was more curious than fearful of them but tried not to show anything. “Hi-lee-ho,” one of the soldiers greeted her oddly and waved. They looked towards Nadie as she quickly entered the tent, but neither tried to stop her.

Inside, sturdy metal tables lined the canvas walls. One carried unrefined silica, caked with sandstone and giving off a dirty yellow glow; another was full of mining equipment; another held the scales for measuring yield; another sank under a mound of papers.

In the empty centre space, four people stood. Her father, dressed from top to bottom in a dusty grey work suit, looked grimmer than usual. He had an overcast of snow in his black hair, a two-day stubble and weary eyes. Two men stood opposite him, both younger. The inspector, in his mid-thirties, had exotic ginger hair and beard and wore a leather coat. He exuded the air of haughtiness as he was the Earthen official used to getting his way regardless of the circumstances. Nadie noticed with some satisfaction that he was sweating in the sweltering day.

The third man, or boy rather, was fidgeting nervously. He had the same shorn ginger hair of the inspector’s, but his garb was plainer: white tunic and trousers, it fit the climate much better. He saw Nadie’s approach and immediately pulled the inspector’s sleeve.

“What is it, nephew?” The inspector looked where the boy pointed. “Ah, Miss Nadine. Make yourself at home.” His tone was dulcet. It made Nadie feel sick to the stomach.

“This IS my home. You’re the guest.”

“Nadie, watch your tongue,” father chastised her. “Go back to the house. This is neither time nor place for you.”

“On the contrary. Stay,” the inspector commanded. “Maybe you’ll talk sense into your father. It’s either you or the butt of Major’s rifle.”

Nadie looked where the Major stood behind the inspector and his nephew, and she was a woman again. Her battle dress was an impressive array of chipped and worn elements, similar to the ones Nadie saw on the other soldiers. But her face was the most memorable. Framed with golden hair, it was so beautiful that Nadie almost mistook her for an angel. Angel of death, for Major held in her hands something that resembled a well-used scattergun; Nadie couldn’t be sure that it was one, as her knowledge of weaponry came solely from old adventure holovids where people shot at each other a lot, but rarely hit anyone. She had an inkling that the Major wouldn’t miss.

“Go home, Nadie,” father repeated his wish. “Inspector, please don’t drag my daughter into our talks. That’s unprofessional.”

“Oh? Are you feeling intimidated?”

“Of your mercenary goons? Hardly.” Father crossed his arms and stood straight, defying the inspector who was looking for a sign of submission. Nadie didn’t move an inch. She watched her father with swelling pride.

“We are soldiers of the Earth Expeditionary Forces,” Major Remorra spoke for the first time, correcting Chunwei Chu. She had a strong voice suiting a leader. But so did Chunwei.

“Same difference. You are here to strongarm us into submission.”

“We are here on orders. We keep the peace.”

“Which would be kept without your gun-toting presence. Formosan is a peaceful settlement, we are danger to no one.”

Major Remorra cocked her head like she was sizing up the supervisor and his statement. Before she retorted though, the inspector got back into the game.

“Thank you, Major Remorra. Let my nephew do the talking from here. Callum, repeat the message, so Miss Nadine can help her father see sense. She’ll no doubt understand the generosity of Earthen terms.”

The boy took one step to the front, clasped his hands behind his back and recited words like a recording. “Salutations, supervisor. Earth Council needs every resource to boost expansion of the Pluto Shipyards. We are therefore calling upon you to hand over any piece of silica ore you have currently in your stores. The cargo ship is approaching orbit. Please have the resources ready to pick up in two standard hours. You will be issued payment in one month.” The nephew broke off and stepped right back, his role finished.

Nadie blanched. All the silica ore without payment upfront? These terms were unduly harsh. They would leave them nothing to barter with when traders came. Little Taipei would have to live off the barren wastes, hunt for rodents and forage for desert berries. A few people might survive on that, but a town of their size would be doomed.

Her father knew all this. Sensing Nadie wasn’t going to budge, he let her stay put and responded to the overblown demand. “We can’t do that. One of our long drills broke yesterday. Pausing to inspect and replace it cost us nearly half of day’s haul. It’s irreparable, so we’ll need to barter for replacement as soon as possible. It will easily cost us one million standard units. We also need spare parts for our lasers, that’s a bill for two hundred thousand at least. Without them, we can’t keep the quarry open, and without the quarry, you won’t get any more silica from us. We can reasonably offer you 100 cubic metres of ore by tomorrow morning, considering difficulties with transport.”

“Unacceptable,” the inspector drove a fist into awaiting palm, making an audible clap. “You mistake Earth’s intent, Chunwei. This is not a negotiation. The rules are fully drawn up. Earth needs this ore now. We are taking everything. In addition, Earth is no longer happy with raw silica ore only. From next month on, you will add refined product into the order, in increasing quantity.”

“That’s extortionate!” Nadie raised her voice in anger. She just blurted out what everyone in the room knew: it was a bum deal that would shut Formosan down for good. The only person unaware of this was the Major, who raised her thin eyebrows. Nadie stepped up to the inspector, bunching her hands into fists. “You’ve been working against us from the very start, haven’t you? Father’s been trying to set up a refining forge for three years now. Every time he comes close, suddenly you appear with demands growing and he has to scrap every plan to satisfy your greedy streak. It’s like you want to see us fall down in the sand! If we pay what you want now, we will starve!”

She let a fist fly in direction of the inspector’s nose. She could already see how the blood would burst from the two little holes on the bottom of it, and the mind image gave her great pleasure. She wanted the man to suffer pain he deserved.

Out of nowhere, Major Remorra’s gloved fingers caught Nadie’s wrist and changed its trajectory. The girl lost her balance and fell down on the ground with a yelp. The officer kept twisting the wrist slightly, pinning Nadie down. “Assault on an Earthen official is a punishable offence.”

The boy screamed and covered his face like he was the one being assaulted. The inspector moved back two steps, shocked, but quickly regained his confidence. “Calm down, nephew,” he clipped the boy on the head, shutting him up, and then returned to father and daughter with a face beaming. “That’s right. Major Remorra, take this traitor into custody. May this be a lesson for you, Chunwei. If you don’t satisfy Earth, all of you Taiwanese vagrants will be arrested.”

Nadie’s father stepped up to Major Remorra and held his arms out. “Take me.” Nadie saw pain etched in his face, and she instantly felt contrition and regret. She had failed him by playing into the inspector’s hands. “I will go in my daughter’s stead. She was acting on my orders. I wanted to injure the inspector, so he would not be able to do his duty.”

“Father, no!” Nadie protested. Major applied pressure to her arm and the supervisor’s daughter stopped as her eyes quickly filled up with tears.

“Like daughter, like father,” the inspector chortled. “Notice what we are dealing with, nephew. All of them Asians are the same, they may claim they are loyal, but underneath they are rotten. It wouldn’t surprise me if you’d been secretly selling stashes of ore to the Indochinese, or even to Russians.”

Chunwei again straightened with his pride. He was beaten, but not broken. “I have never defaulted in my duty before today. You forced my hand. I instructed my daughter because I knew you were going to bring about the destruction of Formosan. I could not allow you to do it. This is the extent of my crime.” He turned to Remorra, “Major, release my daughter. I will gladly go with you, and the colony will pay its dues. Only let her go.”

“No!” Nadie shouted. “Father, let them take me. I won’t be the reason why Formosan falls.”

“Silence, child,” he thundered over her so sternly that she looked away from him, feeling hurt, and blinked away the tears he brought her. A short moment after, she was lying face down on the ground. The Major gave in to her father’s request.

“Very well,” for a moment the inspector felt he’d lost control of the situation. He moved forward to restore his authority. “Major, arrest this traitor.”

“Arrest him for what?” a newcomer spoke. It was Yawen, gliding into the tent in graceful step. She came late because she had changed her clothes. Now, instead of drab, colourless attire, she was wearing a black dress flowing to her ankles and adorned with a bright floral pattern. She had put bone pins in her black hair, to a striking effect. Yawen took pains to impress. “Inspector Peter Drury,” she waltzed in front of the official and bowed low, keeping her head down for exactly three seconds before raising her gaze to his level. “May I humbly request your reason for treating my family so harshly?”

“Yawen, I am pleased the heat of this dreadful moon has not diminished your grace,” the inspector changed his stance, awed by the woman’s display. Nadie looked up and felt physically sick. The boorish man was flirting with her mother, and Yawen encouraged him.

“Mr. Drury, Peter, would you consider releasing my erring husband and daughter? I invite you to my home as an honoured guest. I will prepare traditional ba-wan for you, so you and Chunwei can take nourishment together and continue your negotiations in a spirit of friendship, not on empty stomachs. A solution to your differences will quickly present itself, I am sure.”

“That is a generous offer.” The inspector smiled, took Yawen by the hand and kissed the bridge of her palm. She smiled back at him. It seemed his mood improved. Suddenly, the official pulled Nadie’s mother close to himself and grabbed her shamelessly by the buttocks. Nadie looked away in disgust. “I have another one for you, Yawen. Be mine tonight, and I will consider your traitorous family’s release.”

Finally, Nadie thought, Yawen came to her senses. She slapped the offending inspector across the cheek. “You’re a swine.” The inspector vehemently pushed her down in reply. She looked dignified even as part of her dress tore, and the fabric got soiled with dirt. Nadie crawled to her mother and they embraced on the floor. Chunwei knelt down beside them and locked them in with his protective arms.

“I have been tolerant of you Chus for too long. It’s time this dust mote of a place received a proper governor. Callum!” The boy, quiet and frightened, inched to his uncle’s side. “You will assume control of Formosan immediately.”

“Me?” the boy choked.

“Yes. It’s time to prove you can do a man’s job. Round up every resource you can find and prepare it for shipment. Tomorrow I leave, and you’ll be master of this putrid place. Try to keep it afloat for a month. I’ll come back and see how you manage. Impress me by surviving.”

Nadie chuckled, and then she shook with raucous laughter. Her parents looked at her with worry, but she threw her head back and roared at the inspector, throwing him off.

“What’s so funny, young one?”

“You are. The people of Formosan will never listen to this silly stump. The only one they follow is my father. They look up to him. On you they spit.” She produced some saliva which almost landed on the inspector’s boot.

“It doesn’t matter,” he dismissed her with a wave. “Major, call your fighting women, round up the prisoners. We leave at once.”

“I’m so sorry,” Chunwei whispered to his family and hugged the women tight. Nadie was sorry too. She felt responsible for what happened. If she hadn’t burst out like she did, father would sort things out. He always did. But no longer. She braced for rough handling by the Major and the two curious, tough-looking soldiers waiting outside.

“No,” Major Remorra surprised her and everyone gathered, inspector the most.

“What? Sorry, did I mishear you? I think you said yes, you will do so straight away.”

“No. I said no.” Remorra offered her hands to Yawen and Nadie. Instead of cuffing them, she helped mother and daughter to stand. When Chunwei joined his confused family without aid, the officer staked her reasons. “I won’t do dirty work for a bully.”

Inspector threw his arms wildly in the air. “This is unheard of. You are a commissioned officer of the EEF. You will do exactly as I say.”

“No, I won’t.” Remorra reached to her chest and tore off a black-and-white badge. She tossed it at the inspector. The item bounced of his coat lapel and sank into the dirt at his feet. “I resign.”

The inspector puffed up his cheeks, which grew redder and redder. He looked like an inflated balloon that was going to pop. His neatly arranged worldview stood up on end. His nephew, seeing uncle baffled, hid behind his back. Finally, the inspector managed to air a few indignant words, “You… You can’t!”

“I certainly can and I’m doing it. Find yourself another henchman. I won’t take part in hustling down what looks like good, hardworking people, especially when they can’t even afford a decent landing pad.”

“It wasn’t a priority,” Chunwei Chu threw in. He was, as always, fiercely proud and protective of his people’s achievements.

“Chun, ease up,” Yawen touched his cheek in rare public display of affection. “Thank you, Major. You are an honourable person. We are indebted to you forever.”

Remorra shrugged. “I’m just doing what feels right.”

The inspector didn’t give up just yet. “This is insubordination. I will have to report you before authorities, Major Remorra. You will be court-martialled and no doubt put in prison until you’re old and sick and then you’ll die in disgrace. Unless you reconsider.”

“I couldn’t care less.” Remorra turned to leave.

“Guards! Come! I’m in danger!” he shouted. The soldiers outside didn’t even flinch.

Remorra stopped and called out herself, “Gregg, Faulkner, report inside supervisor’s tent. On the double.” They immediately listened and stormed inside and to attention. “The inspector was calling you.”

“Us? Really? Sorry, mister inspector, we’re not guards. We’re soldiers,” said Faulkner, the taller brunette woman.

“Of fortune,” Gregg added in a singsong. She was the one who greeted Nadie earlier when the girl entered the tent, stockier and with sides of grey on her temples. Nadie was starting to grow fond of this pair and their resolute commander, three very unlikely allies against the oppressive Earthen representative.

“That’s right, Sergeant. We are going back to independent work.” Major smiled. It was a lopsided smile, but still the prettiest one Nadie had ever seen. That woman had looks to spare, and she didn’t even try. She could have been anyone with that face, so why did she choose to be a soldier? Where there more soldiers like her? Suddenly, out of the blue, Nadie was considering a career in the military.

“Right about time,” Faulkner huzzahed. She let her rifle stock touch the ground by her leg. “This army discipline is starting to grow stale.”

“Ten-hut! Grab your ass in gear and pick up that rifle, Private! You are in Augusta Remorra’s army! Drop down and give me twenty!” Gregg yelled at the top of her lungs. She was just like the Drill Sergeant Nadie saw in a holovid last month.

“Roger!” Faulkner responded and hit the ground for a quick round of pushups. She was grinning all the while. It was obvious these women were messing about.

“Enough of this! Is no one on this dreaded dog of a moon faithful to the Earthen government?” the inspector boomed, but his star was waning. He knew he had lost.

“I am,” Chunwei Chu stepped out and hit the inspector squarely on the jaw so hard the coated man spun around and his nephew yipped. “I have waited a long time for this.”

The inspector took two steps back and spat bloody spit on the ground. Rubbing the sore spot, he said, “Supervisor, you have just signed your death sentence.”

“He takes bribes from the Chinese,” Private Faulkner commented with apparent indifference, but Nadie thought that she caught a shimmer in her eyes.

“Is this true?!” The supervisor jumped to the inspector and grabbed him by the scruff of his leather coat. The two men struggled and careered backwards, straight into the table filled with silica ore. It went down in a rumble, showering them with rocks, and both of them collapsed. A big chunk of extracted material bounced of Chunwei’s chest, pushing air out of his lungs. Nadie and Yawen both rushed to help him, while the inspector’s nephew shuffled on shaking feet towards his uncle.

While a small commotion engulfed the tent, a big one unveiled in the quarry. A noise of multiple hand sirens joining together peppered the relative silence. The Chus forgot about the inspector and his nephew and looked towards the exit. “Something’s wrong,” Yawen said.

“Gregg, Faulkner, go check it out,” Major Remorra ordered the duo. The soldiers marched out quickly, passing by a large man coming in the opposite direction.

“Guanyu,” Nadie recognised her friend and jumped up to him. He was two heads taller than her, and broader, easily one of the strongest miners in Little Taipei. Not the most handsome though. Years of work on deep silica seams chafed his face. “You’re flustered. What is it?”

“A stormer is coming. Big one.”

“Are you sure? They never come this close to the mines.”

“What’s a stormer?” the Major asked.

“You’ll see. Better get your people to higher ground,” the supervisor advised. He knew what danger a grown stormer posed better than anyone else. “Let’s get out, everyone.”

“What about the inspector and the boy?” Nadie remembered.

Inspector Peter Drury had his own plans. The ginger-haired man got up when no one was watching. “Out of my way!” he shouted and pushed Nadie out of his way. With the boy dragged by the elbow, they ran out of the tent, and the inspector waved in his hand a device the size of a remote, with a hyperbolic antenna sticking out of one end. “Turn green, you useless piece-“ the rest of his words got lost in a sudden gust of wind and red sand. The inspector and the boy vanished inside the cloud

“What was that about?” Nadie asked.

“A communication device. He’s trying to call the cargo ship,” Major Remorra sprang after the inspector in a bid to catch him.

“Put your hoods up! Everyone out!” Chunwei Chu instructed. “Guanyu, take my family to a safe place. I need to make sure everyone’s left the site.”

“I’m not leaving you, father,” Nadie insisted.

“Do as I say. You’ve done enough harm for today,” he reminded the daughter.

“Be safe, Chun,” Yawen moved in and kissed him, and then the supervisor ran off into the dust, same as the Earthers did before. Guanyu led the remaining Chus in the other direction.

The stormer was a huge beast. They couldn’t see it, but they saw what it was doing. A dust storm raged the strongest wherever the underdweller went, breaking down aluminium poles, sending their strewn canopies into circles on air currents. The ground shook and changed its configuration. Whole pieces of packed earth and rock were collapsing into mining shafts dug out beneath them. Staying put would be extremely risky.

They could not see very well as kicked-up sand kept going into their eyes. Guanyu ran ahead, forging a path for Nadie and Yawen. They held to each other and walked steadily up a shallow slope. Talk was impossible with dust quickly filling up any orifice it found. Every step took them away from the raging storm. At last, they reached the scaffolding of a tower and climbed up. Four haggard men were already huddling at the top closed to the wind from all four sides by pieces of roughed-up canvas tied to poles and to each other.

Guanyu peeked out through a crack. “I can see the supervisor from here, I’ll go help him.” He didn’t wait for anyone’s response and jumped out, leaving them. Nadie moved to watch. Guanyu climbed down fast and ran back to the site. The stormer was stalking the quarry in circles, unable to find a way out through the rocks, like a bee trapped inside a house. Little Taipei was generally shielded from incursions of such creatures. It sat on a big slab of tough sandstone too thick to tunnel through. What had brought him away from its nesting grounds and into the hard-to-reach camp?

Nadie looked farther into the distance and saw the reason. A battered yellow sand speeder gave chase to the stormer. The figures inside it were too small for her recognition, but she knew who they were without seeing details: her friends who went out in the morning to hunt down a stormer. They managed to bring one back into the camp, as they intended. Only it was very much alive. The driver – she knew it would be Weiting, Formosan’s apprentice blacksmith and builder of the mismatched vehicle – was bringing his speeder on daring-dos after the creature. Jenna, a girl Nadie’s age and like her called by a non-traditional name, balanced on one side of the car. Pin, who trained to be a nurse, stood up on the other. He brandished a spear, a long metal staff with an electrified end, while she produced sporadic single shots from an old hunting rifle.

The stormer seemed not to notice their efforts. It kept changing directions, spewing out great pillars of dust and pebbles as it went. Here and there, pieces of silica mixed into the storm, giving the mist a golden shine. Things kept collapsing into rubble with a rumble. The quarry was unrecognisable.

Elsewhere, Major Remorra gave chase to the surprisingly nimble inspector. From time to time she stopped to raise her scattergun but always changed her mind, didn’t shoot and resumed running. That lucky turd of the inspector made it out of the stormer’s area of rampage on the southern side of the camp and was running up a high hill. Callum was not with him.

Nadie searched for the boy, fearing he’d fallen victim of the stormer. But he was safe in the eye of the storm, the quiet area where the shuttles had landed. Someone was helping him climb onto one of the ships’ roofs. Nadie couldn’t see who it was but imagined either Faulkner or Gregg. She hoped those impressive girls in armour were safe. Remorra’s soldiers had gathered on top of their ships and were just watching. Why didn’t they shoot at the stormer? Surely they had enough firepower to bring the beast down.

She scanned for the underdweller and instantly froze. Inside the storm, between two great mounds that weren’t there that morning, clambered the familiar shape of a little girl. It was Chinnie. Why was she there, not at her home? Somehow, the curious child had wandered into the beast’s range, and no one was with her. Nadie came to a snap decision.

“I’m going down,” she told her mother.

“No. It’s too dangerous.”

But Nadie didn’t listen to Yawen. She judged the ground under the tower and hurled herself from the edge. A big lump of soft sand caught her safe and she rolled down the slope to her feet. Visibility got much worse again, and she ran half-blind in the direction where she saw Chinnie last. Whistling of the wind was the dominant sound, although she heard a crackle of a rifle from time to time, and the engine of Weiting’s speeder droned like a clickety bug in and out of earshot. She held her hood on top of her head with one hand and kept pressing on until she thought she heard her little friend whine. She was close, perhaps only one sandy buildup away.

Vibrations in the ground became so intense that Nadie threw herself flat on her belly. Few yards off to her position, a great sinkhole opened, swallowing the sand. Something large leapt out of it and paused in the air above. The creature unfurled a pair of leathery wings and flapped them few times in a test. Its protracted body was covered in a thick chitin shell in the shade of dark sand, with six brighter shovel-like legs hanging down from its sides. The beast opened its great elongated snout and let out a hoarse croak.

It wasn’t a stormer, it was a sand dragon!

When the beast came out of the ground, the storm ceased. It was no longer burrowing in the sand and kicking it up in fountains. The sun came out over the chaos and destruction it caused. It left no stone unturned. The dragon’s long head moved side to side, checking its surroundings; a row of beady black eyes focused its hatred on Nadie’s frame stretched on the ground below. She found herself unable to move, paralysed with fear. The flying monster croaked again and readied for a deadly strike.

The ringing of sand speeder turned into a thin roar overcame her world. The unwieldy yellow machine mounted a sandy ramp and flew into the air between the dragon and Nadie, showing her the scratches of its undercarriage. Then it landed back on the ground on the other side. Jenna fired off her rifle and its lead projectile bounced off the creature’s side, just under one of its wings. The flying menace abandoned her quarry and flew after the distraction.

Nadie still couldn’t move, petrified by the close encounter. What brought her back to life was the tiny scream, not a long ways off. The girl gathered her courage to stand up and ran. Chinnie lay on top of the mound she was about to cross before the sand dragon’s emergence. made. She was shrieking like a wounded calf, her knee was scraped and she had lost one shoe, but otherwise, the kid was unharmed. Nadie scooped her up and sat her on shoulders.

“Nadie!” Chinnie continued to bawl.

“Don’t worry, little ray of sunshine. I’ll get you out of here.” Nadie looked in search of the dragon. It was still chasing after the speeder. As she observed, the beast neared the land vehicle and flapped its wings. The wind it created shifted the sands under the machine’s back wheels and it flipped up from the rear to land on one side and slid into a hole in the ground, immobilised. “No!” she cried.

A flap of dragon’s wings took it away from the scene. As it turned around in the air, croaking in its triumph, the passengers quickly jumped out of the defunct vehicle and ran in three different directions. The sand dragon spread its wings to full span and dived after the unlucky one – Pin. Nadie should be running to safety, hers and the child’s who was straddling her shoulders, but she was stuck again, watching.

“Nadie, run! Nadie, run!” Chinnie pulled her by the hair, but Nadie didn’t react even to the pain. She saw Pin turn around as he ran, the wannabe nurse still held the spear in his hand. He flung it at the dragon; the electric end seemed to strike one wing before it fell to the ground. The beast noticed the jolt and gave a larger croak but kept on coming, its claws stretched to catch Pin and drag him up from the ground. Pin tripped and fell. The beast was almost upon him.

Then Nadie heard the simultaneous discharge of fusion rifles. Green, red and blue lances tore into the giant shape of the dragon, blasting it off course, eventually driving the beast to the ground with a mighty crash. Major Remorra’s soldiers finally broke their rest and they didn’t stop shooting. While one half of the unit battered the monster with a volley of energy projectiles, the other half reloaded. That way their barrage didn’t end. Sand dragon thrashed and screamed in agony of death, but it was resilient. The soldiers had to continue shooting for nearly a minute until it ceased to move. Finally, Sergeant Gregg signalled the rifles into silence. In the eerie lack of sound, the body of the sand dragon lay still, charred and smoking among the mayhem it had created. The quarry was destroyed beyond recognition but no one was hurt beyond the destroyer. Nadie let out accumulated air from her breast. Above her head, Chinnie sobbed.

“Why are you crying?”

“It didn’t mean any harm. It was just looking for a way out.”

Nadie didn’t know how to respond. She was glad the monster was dead. It was a menace. Yet Chinnie made a fair point. It was also an animal, corralled, hounded. It may have been scared, same as she had been for herself, for Chinnie, for Pin. She didn’t care. The dragon deserved to die. Was she broken for thinking that way?

“Nadie!” her mother ran up to her. Yawen had been following Nadie since young woman’s exit from the tower. “What were you thinking? Give me the child.” The woman took Chinnie in her arms and soothed the crying girl. “Don’t run away from me like that ever again.”

Nadie’s father came with Guanyu in tow, confirming there were no casualties, just a whole lot of confusion and ruin. Others moved into what suddenly became a staging ground: Pin, Jenna and Weiting, Chinnie’s mother full of relief for her daughter’s safety, and a whole host of miners with their wives and children. Pin boasted the dragon kill was his. Nadie realised how childish that was, although she’d wanted to go out with him and the others in the speeder that very morning. Her three friends were responsible for bringing the sand dragon into the quarry. She didn’t mention it when people asked questions of her father: what was going to happen to them? How were they going to survive without extracting the silica? It was obvious they’d have to stop digging out the ore and do repairs instead. But how would they fix things without proper supplies? The traders would rob them blind, and that only if Little Taipei wasn’t browbeaten into delivering their ore to Earth first, for no pay.

The whole gathering exploded into chaos, people shouting one over the other. Nadie’s father and mother tried to calm them, reply to questions, restore order, but they kept failing until another force arrived at the scene. The Formosans stood apart to let through an all-female contingent of soldiers in colourful, mismatched battle armour. They marched in a neat column of twos. Ahead of them walked Major Remorra, with Gregg and Faulkner behind her. The Major stepped lightly onto a rock and threw a device to the empty ground before her. It was blinking with a green light.

“The inspector is dead,” she announced. “And that’s just the start of your problems. A cargo ship got signal to land. It is filled with Earth’s people, EEF soldiers and mining experts. They intend to take over Formosan. They intended to do it all along.”

A murmur of disquiet went through the crowd. Chunwei raised his hands in the air and spoke out, “Why are you telling us this? To scare us?”

“To give you fair warning. They’ll be here within the hour. You better pack up and leave.”

There was more disquiet at that.

“We have no spaceships,” Yawen Chu explained. “Will you stay and help us?”

“I sympathise, but there isn’t enough of us to repel them. Our shuttles can slip away undetected if we leave at once. We have enough space to take three people.”

There was another, much bigger murmur in the crowd. Formosans started raising their hands, stepping closer to secure transport off the moon, like rats fleeing the sinking ship – or jumping to another. Others weren’t convinced and booed Major Remorra as well as those eager to leave. The officer disregarded all of them and spoke directly to Nadie. “We’ll take you and the little girl. The third one has already boarded.” Her words were cast iron. No one dared to defy them. The rest of her speech was levelled at Yawen. She seemed to prefer speaking to women above men. “Let the cargo ship know we have Callum Drury and will release him safe and sound once they guarantee your safety. His uncle may be dead, but his father holds a good position in the administration, so that’s a good bargaining chip to have. That’s all we can do for you.”

“Then maybe WE should be the ones keeping him,” Guanyu broke Major Remorra’s charm by suggesting, and some miners approved, feeling their strength in numbers.

“You can try, but I won’t let the innocent boy pay for the sins of his uncle” the Major reloaded her gun noisily. Her entourage did same in a show of force. There were a dozen of them against a hundred of Formosans, empty-handed or bearing outdated mining gear. The locals were suitably cowed.

“Major Remorra can take him, and all that she chose” Yawen agreed loudly to settle the issue with face. She walked to her daughter and embraced her. “Go in peace. Be safe.” She leaned to her ear and in a breaking whisper added, “I love you, my child.”

Nadie frowned, fighting a swell of mixed emotions. Why her and Chinnie? She was curious about Major Remorra and her warrior women but her place was with her parents, and a kid was a liability, no use to a squad of warriors doing a runner. Lastly, how could her mother so blatantly cast her away to go with off-worlders? “I’m not going anywhere.”

“You will go,” her father said. “We built this place with you in mind, your safety. It’s no longer safe though. There are some dark days coming and I don’t want you to go through them. We will see you soon. Major Remorra will take care of you in the meantime, is that right, Major?”

“I will. Don’t be surprised if she gets fitter and more disciplined.”

“Where will you go?”

“There’s talk of a Colonial Congress gathering in the Wolf 359 System.”

“I’ve heard of them,” Yawen said. “They seek to overthrow Earth’s control of the colonies.”

“We will find them. They’ll have need of good fighters. A conflict is on the cards and I’m tired of being on Earth’s side. Underdogs have a certain ring to them. Your daughter can represent Formosan before leaders of the Congress. Maybe they’ll agree to cobble up a force and come liberate you.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” Chunwei agreed in not so many words. Yawen just nodded. They spoke for all Formosan. The deal was sealed.

Nadie felt strangely relieved. Now that her parents gave their blessing, she was itching to go. She’d never really belonged to the mining settlement.

“Great. It’s time to move out.” Remorra jumped off the rock and began the stride towards the shuttles.

Chinnie’s mother passed the child to Nadie, tears streaming from her eyes. “Protect her,” she pleaded.

“I will,” she took Chinnie by the hand. Little girl was too confused to sort out her emotions. She didn’t cry or protest or cheer.

“Come on. It’ll be fun,” Faulkner invited them both into Major Remorra’s war column.

“Just a moment.” Nadie looked at the assembly of familiar faces. Guanyu and her other friends stood to the back, none was eager to come forth or make jokes now. She wanted to say her goodbyes at first, but she saw that she was never really like them. And now she was given a purpose reaching far beyond theirs and she had to grow up fast. The whole colony depended on good outcome of her mission. Pride and curiosity propelled her. “I’ll be seeing you soon, heading an army. Come on, Chinnie. We have a ship to catch and go to faraway places. They’ll have German shepherds there too.”

They walked off with the soldiers. Nadie didn’t look back.

An hour later, the cargo ship came and Formosan became the first colony forced to accept Earth’s military control. The Colonial War had started.

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Close Menu