Harvesting the Spice of Life
Munha adjusted the collection device for the third time in a minute. She was more than used to Khmo’s seasonal gales, but the planet’s winds rarely shifted this often in the course of an hour. In fact, one-third of the planet’s citizens made a living on them not shifting during this time of year.
Gritting her teeth, she swung under the oversized metal sieve, dragging it down and to the northwest, trying to avoid her take from getting any smaller than it already was. The worn edge of the container ripped a hole in Munha’s drab jacket, exposing a strip of tawny skin and a hint of blood that annoyed her more than anything. She rolled her eyes as more particles started to hit the container and expand, turning from a blue that nearly matched the sky to a brilliant scarlet, forming patches of red against the shimmering silver metal it reacted with.
Once a solid enough layer had formed, Munha pulled the switch, bringing the spice into a second container below. A few stray particles from the scraper got in her face, causing her eyes to water. The winds might have been fickle today, but the galaxy-renowned—at least at one point — Khmoan adole remained as incendiary as ever.
Munha had some time to think as the gusts slowed, easily able to tune out the occasional pops of silt particles as they reacted with the container to make the spice. What had been going on for the last few weeks to halve her normal take? She worked through the possibilities:
First, a standard shift. Every now and again, Khmo’s winds would shift over the course of a day or two, lessening the take as a smaller amount of silt would arrive from the Great Desert.
This explanation didn’t feel quite right, as the typical shifting winds just meant they’d come in a different direction for a few days, not shift several times in one day. On top of that, standard shifts lasted a week at most, not the 26 days Munha had counted since they first became unstable.
Second, maybe the planet’s orbit was changing or the angle of its axis was shifting?
If the change in orbit or axial tilt were actually happening, Munha figured she would’ve heard about it by now. If the scientists had somehow missed it, artificial farming islands would be up sooner than later to catch the silt in its new optimal locations. Maybe the ones from centuries ago would be revisited and renovated, that is if they could get all the vornrath, and worse, their pups, out of the equipment.
There was a third possibility: Roughly a year ago, there was an interruption when a band of pirates went to the Great Desert itself to get the spice straight from the source. After three months without even a response from the garrison of two platoons of soldiers — if that — stationed on the planet, a few dozen merchants from Munha’s hometown ramshackled a few combat skiffs and went there themselves.
Apparently the pirates weren’t ready for an assault so close to ground level, as many of them hadn’t even made it to their patrol craft when their base was lit up by a cacophony of pulse cannon fire and bodkin missiles, with the merchants recovering a substantial amount of spice, albeit only half of what they expected.
Had the pirates gotten most of the Great Desert’s supply off-world in those few weeks? Was it depleting through some natural process? Whatever the case, Munha told herself she’d have an answer soon.
The following four days were more of the same — or rather, much, much less of it — and the unease was starting to make itself known in Lsanta City’s markets. Even with the Khmoan tradition of thriftiness, people’s savings would only last for so long, and dipping into them for the first time was a borderline traumatic experience for most people.
Munha wasn’t quite as reluctant to spend as most of her fellow citizens, but she wasn’t thrilled either; she definitely didn’t have as many silver agias, let alone golden auxes to spend as the older families on the planet, and Confederation credits meant next to nothing out here. Fitting, because Khmo certainly meant nothing to the Confederation.
This disregard — and probable contempt — from the Confederation towards Khmo had its benefits. For one, nearly all the citizens of Khmo had some after-market parts on their speeders and skiffs, be they tellurium engine boosters, armor-piercing bodkin missiles, or even mass drivers which fired molten projectiles nearly as fast as a pulse cannon could, but with considerably more well, mass behind it.
Munha had taken advantage of this herself, with her mini-skiff’s speed doubled thanks to those tellurium engine boosters. Its paltry standard load-out of one medium pulse cannon was also upgraded with a pair of light mass drivers, perfect for the recon mission she had planned.
Fixing a recorder onto the skiff, Munha headed out in the middle of the night, the squat, teal lights of Lsanta City fading away after just a few minutes, and the cliffs that nearly swallowed the city disappearing not long after that. Roughly an hour later, the skiff found a rocky outcrop in the middle of a frothing sea, green foam lapping at jet black cliffs.
Those cliffs were holding firm under a millenia-long onslaught, supporting the island’s lone dwelling, a squat stone hovel. The building itself was three stories, only one of which as above ground. In decades past, it had served as an outpost for the Ringut Spice Company, with the spice winds blowing directly over the island and leading to some supposedly monumental takes, at least according to Munha’s grand-uncle. The building had probably paid for itself dozens of times over.
The door still had a faded insignia of the company, which had long since gone bankrupt due to family infighting, tariffs, or one of the universe’s other inevitabilities. The opening mechanism was long since busted, in part due a certain adventurous teenager who went there with her uncle several years back. Smirking a bit, Munha pulled out her knife, sliding the bronze-tinged blade in the door until it caught, then flicking it down and to the right, triggering the door’s manual mechanism. The old metal was surprisingly quiet as it let Munha in. Had she oiled the door the last time she visited?
She must have, as the vacation house/doomsday bunker was otherwise identical to when she was last there. The freezer was still well-stocked with rations so nondescript they looked like the decoy food from ancient Earth propaganda. Still, the things supposedly lasted for decades, so if anything ever went down during The Collision, Munha would have plenty of time to figure things out. Khmo wasn’t supposed to be affected in the slightest, but that didn’t stop its risk-averse — no, neurotic— citizens from preparing for it. A second house with a freezer full of food was a relatively tame measure compared to the arsenals and hydroponic complexes some Khmoans had hidden around the planet.
Munha was reheating one of said non-descript rations when she heard something from the lower levels. Just a hint of wind; apparently all those years of farming had done her body some good after all. Drawing her pulse blaster, Munha crept down to the bottom level, only using the illuminator attached to the blaster’s twin chromium barrels. Holding her knife in her other hand, Munha walked down the gray stone steps towards the whistling of the wind, rubbing the turquoise stone embedded in the knife handle for luck as she entered the cellar.
The basement was full of farming equipment, with countless sieves and containers from the house’s old days as a spice farm, their metal a slightly shinier gray than the fill-crete floors. These familiar masses of metal scarcely drew a bit of Munha’s attention.
She was solely focused on the black hole smack in the center of the room. Thankfully not the kind that occurs in space, or else she would have been torn to ribbons the second she entered the house, but a literal black hole surrounded by a purple ring, just there in the middle of the room. Taking a breath, she looked for a possible emitter, or anything that would have created whatever she was staring at. There was nothing. Whoever made it was not just a petty pirate, and was likely capable of causing much more damage. Perhaps they already had. They couldn’t be allowed to do that for any longer.
Munha thought of running, not to the Confederation — that would be a cruel joke — but to her fellow citizens. Even if she could get some of them on her side, who knew how long this thing in front of her was going to last? No, there was only one option. Steeling herself, Munha stepped through the portal…
Festina heard a crash in the lab, working at one of the dozen computer consoles in a shimmering white and chrome room, save for the portal in the center. Had one of the particles boomeranged back into the lab somehow after expansion? She turned, but before she could see what happened, she heard it.
“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING ON THIS PLANET?” Yelled a woman with tawny skin, messy, shoulder-length auburn hair, and a rather substantial-looking pulse blaster to go with a drab olive jacket and well-worn black work pants and boots.
“We are Confederation scientists working on ground-breaking research. How did you get here?” Festina’s boss responded, sounding as if he was about to place their guest under arrest.
“Your portal, or whatever that thing is, is in my vacation house. And are you really even Confederation? The whole sector knows they stopped pretending to give a damn about us years ago.” Munha kept her pulse blaster raised, pointing it right between the uptight scientist’s verdant eyes.
Stepping between the two new best friends, Festina offered her ID. “Yes, we’re Confederation. We have nothing to do with the Confederation’s law enforcement presence on the planet though; we’re here purely for research.”
“And your research led you to make this thing?” Munha lowered her blaster just a few degrees. Festina supposed it was better to be kneecapped than to have a hole blasted clean through her skull. “Yes. Long story.” Festina said, a drip of sweat running down her face, betraying her outer calm.
“Now if you don’t mind, would you kindly go back through the portal? It would be for the best.” The boss said, keeping his eyes on the screen as he lectured Munha like a disappointed parent.
“Go back? And tell them what? That they’re starving because the Confederation has some secret teleportation technology lab somewhere on planet? You really want that getting out?”
“You can try. But you know how accepting Khmoans are of new information, especially rather bizarre information.” The boss shrugged, going back to work as if Munha did not exist.
“Let us give you something to make it worth your while. Do you need any credits?” Festina said, her fingers trembling a bit as she fixed her blonde coif.
“Credits? Now that’s a good one. They’re not worth a damn out here, and I doubt people like you have ever even seen hard currency, let alone have any.” Munha rolled her eyes, her blaster now aimed right at Festina’s chest.
“Well what do you want then? Your spice back? Simpleton.” The boss said the last word after a pause, his eyes going into low orbit and then to the Khmo’s core.
“Xato! You can’t treat this woman like a lab tech fresh out of The Academy.” Festina let out a sigh. “Is there any way we can help you? In return you’ll have to keep your mouth shut.”
“All I want the winds on Khmo to go back to normal. Things always go to shit when someone messes with the Great Desert, which is exactly what you are doing. People are already starting to run out of supplies in Lsanta City, let alone in the smaller towns.”
“I am terribly sorry to hear that. However, our research is too important to stop. We are looking for ways to counteract the effects of The Collision. We know how much Khmo’s spice winds mean to its people, but frankly, what we are doing here will help hundreds, if not thousands of planets in the years to come. That’s certainly more valuable than some mildly exotic seasoning.” Xato said, his voice lofting up well past the lab’s vaulted ceilings.
“So the Confederation is willing to let us starve? I never would have guessed.” Munha raised her blaster again, but before she could fire, another shot came from across the room. She staggered as the stunner slug hit her in the shoulder. She was out cold before she hit the floor.
Munha finally woke up, her shoulder feeling like someone had taken a sledgehammer to it. She was surprised to still be alive, not that being imprisoned by the Confederation, especially that asshole Xato, was much better than being dead.
Her cell was even more sparse than the lab, with barely even two tones of gray. There was a sleeping bag for a bed and a refresher tucked into the back corner of the room, but that was it. But while Munha’s room was painfully dull, the conversation outside of it was not.
“What are we going to do with her? Just let her rot for examining a portal which appeared inside her own house?” Festina yelled. Maybe they thought Munha would still be unconscious at this point and wouldn’t catch the conversation.
“We’re letting her rot for attempted murder and you know that.” Xato said, as pleased with Festina as he was with Munha when she walked through the portal.
“I’d maybe agree with that if you hadn’t admitted we’re starving an entire damn planet for this batshit research. You said your plan would get us travelling between star systems years ago, and after all this time we can still barely go between continents!”
“And there we are.” Xato said, throwing up his hands. “You’re still mad that the Minister liked my idea more than yours. I have concrete results and progress, even if it’s gone slower than we would like. All you have is that sludge from a hellscape of a world that you keep like a pet. That cost us an entire laboratory, not to mention all the techs injured in that little experiment.”
“That ‘sludge’ is from farther away than you’ve ever gotten, and it’s so complex that we still don’t even know what it’s made of. Meanwhile, all you have to show for your experiments are a wounded citizen in a prison cell and a starving planet.”
“That’s enough. The minister was right about this planet and you know it; we don’t know what else would come through if we opened the portal there.” Xato said, his tone making icicles form at his feet before he softened a bit, unclenching his fists.
“You know what Festina? Take the rest of today off. You’re clearly in no state to work.” He sighed, walking down the sparse, fluorescent hallway, escorted by a couple security guards in forest-piped gray uniforms armed with nightsticks and pulse blasters.
Once she was clear of her lovely boss, Festina walked up to the cell, running her fingers down a golden gauntlet hidden under her sleeve before she opened the magnacrete door. “That’ll loop the cameras for a couple minutes, so don’t worry about being caught.” She smirked.
“I’m sorry about this whole mess. In case you couldn’t tell, Xato is a bastard, albeit a bastard with some very useful resources. I was going to blow this place sooner rather than later, but you showing up has . . . accelerated things.” Festina shrugged her shoulders, keeping an eerie smile on her face.
“What do you mean?” Munha asked, grateful to, but nonetheless confused by this woman who just probably saved her life; Festina was as bizarre and off-putting as she was helpful.
“That sludge Xato was bitching at me about? He has no idea what it can do. I’m going to show him. When shit hits the fan, go back to the portal room. Do not look back. I’ll make sure the Confederation puts all their heat on me rather than you.”
“And what will happen to Khmo?”
“No need to worry about your planet. If there’s anything the Confederation hates more than cleverness, it’s being embarrassed. They are going to pretend this never happened and hope one of their dozens of other teleportation projects works.”
“I guess I don’t have any other choice than to believe you, do I?” Munha said, getting up and approaching the door.
“You don’t. Love the turquoise on the handle by the way.” She smirked, tossing Munha’s confiscated weapons back to her before walking to her quarters seemingly without a care in the galaxy.
Munha managed to hide the weapons before the cameras turned back on and waited. She wouldn’t have to wait for long.
Festina went to her quarters, entering the arcane combination to her safe. Inside was a writhing mess of black sludge crashing against its titanasteel container. The sludge was from a world that suffered constant lightning storms, a world Festina would have visited much more had the Confederation and Xato seen past their fear. What’s one little lab destroyed from lightning going through a portal compared to a technology that could preserve entire star systems?
From what she saw during the portal’s brief opening there, the sludge adjusted to the electrical forces given off the lightning, changing shape to avoid strikes, but still being hardy enough to take a direct hit if needed. After years of tinkering with her gauntlet and its electrical emitters, Festina now had decent command over the sludge, or at least in practice she did.
Pressing a button, the sludge surrounded her hands, giving Festina the strangest pair of evening gloves in the galaxy. She flicked her wrist and a tendril of the sludge smashed the camera lens. She made a fist and smashed the door open. Another flick of the wrist disabled one of the hall alarms. A good warm-up for a day that was years in the making.
Hearing the alarm go off, even for just a second, a couple security guards confronted Festina, their uniforms almost matching the facility’s dull walls. “Ma’am, we were told to contain all foreign breaches by any means necessary. If you surrender now, we’ll just take you in, if not . . .” They let their words hang and brandished their nightsticks.
“Out of my way. You don’t need to be caught up in this.” Festina tapped her gauntlet and the sludge formed a pair of daggers, their blades shining like obsidian. The first guard took a swing and had his nightstick cleaved in half; he lost his hand as he grabbed for his pulse pistol.
The second guard retreated, fumbling for his own pulse blaster. The first shot went over Festina’s head, leaving a spidery dent in the magnacrete wall. The second blast was caught square on her blade, creating a cloud of blue particles as its energy dissipated. The third shot was wild again due to the guard’s shock, the ceiling easily absorbing the impact. He did not get off a fourth, Festina’s black blade severing the blaster and his fingers.
The alarm triggered once the first guard’s biometric sensor read that he was losing a severe amount of blood. Festina raced toward the control room, configuring the sludge into a round shield and khopesh, effortlessly blocking pulse blasts with the shield and taking more than a few limbs from the hapless guards with the khopesh’s curved blade. She almost felt bad for them, but at least they were still alive, not to mention that prosthetics came dirt cheap nowadays.
Festina was out of breath and she slogged through the last few guards; the sludge could be configured to make weapons, but she still needed to swing them herself. Adjusting the khopesh and small shield into a hyper-thin stiletto blade and riot shield, Festina slid the stiletto into the door, cutting it out. Xato was ready for her.
“Well Festina, it looks like you were a traitor after all. Imagine . . . my . . . surprise.” He fired away with his pulse rifle with each word, azure energy smashing against the riot shield and forcing Festina back.
“You really think I didn’t know about all those experiments? That your little gauntlet fooled all the cameras I put in your lab?” He smirked, holding his fire for a moment as he flicked a switch next to him, electricity crackling once he turned whatever it was on, bolts flying around the room hitting surfaces seemingly at random.
The current arcing through the air drove the sludge mad, jet-black tendrils twisting and contorting around the bolts, despite Festina’s frantic adjustments of her gauntlet.
“Such a disappointment? This was supposed to change the galaxy? It can’t even defend one measly person.” He fired at the now defenseless Festina, who dove under one of the auxiliary power desks to dodge his blasts, the sludge still swirling around the room to match the electricity as the desk took a pummeling, each blast gnawing away at the sheet metal.
“Now do you see why the minister chose me? I didn’t get distracted by trivial things like . . .” Xato gripped his chest as two pulses had just torn straight through his chest.
Munha gave Festina a nod as she stepped through the portal, thin trails of smoke still blowing from her pulse blaster’s twin barrels.
Festina returned the favor before turning off the arc generator; the sludge returning to her gauntlet. Running her thumb down the gauntlet, the sludge wiped all of the camera records but one. She had a message to send after all.
“Hello Minister; it’s been a couple years. If you forget the last time we talked, I hope this jogs your memory.” She smiled, her wild eyes looking through the camera lens. “Anyway, I just wanted you to know that your little experiment is dead, as is your attack dog. I didn’t want to go this far, but things got unsustainable; I can only take so much corruption, you know?” Her eyes rolled involuntarily, just like in her countless rehearsals.
“Anyway, you and the rest of the fools in the labyrinth of bureacracy you call a Confederation will fail, and fail miserably. That will happen regardless of what I do, but I will make sure you don’t take the people of this galaxy down with you, just like you nearly starved the citizens of Khmo out of a blind hope. I’ll be seeing you soon.” She gave a mock salute before sending the message over to the Minister’s office on Luetti V.
Moving to one of the other consoles, Festina directed the cleaning bots to get all the unconscious guards, as well as Xato’s body, to the facility’s holding cells. They’d wake up in a day or so, not that Festina really minded one way or the other. She just didn’t want the clutter, the trouble, nor the smell of keeping them all on board when she severed the major sections, which Festina was soon hard at work doing.
After longer than she cared to spend getting the emergency protocols in order. If the Confederation had any real military presence on Khmo she would’ve been blasted back into the sand within seconds of lifting off, but their neglect for Khmo’s “simpletons” meant they were just happy with their tax earnings from the planet.
Finally, the station lurched, throwing off kilo-tons, if not mega-tons of sand as spindly arms extended from each side of the beige hexagon, the boosters attached to them firing once the arms fully unfurled. The auxiliary stabilizers on the main structure wobbled the craft a bit as they acclimated to Khmo’s thick atmosphere, which was infinitely heavier than the vacuum they were produced in.
After a minute or so of hovering, Festina pushed the throttle, and the hexagon blasted into space, heading right for a nebula with so much signal interference that Festina wouldn’t have a bother in the galaxy while she continued her work.
Happy with her course, Festina moved on to the next item on her agenda: The place was absolutely hideous; at least Festina would have a lot of time for remodeling. She knew exactly where to start. With barely a thought, or even a flick of the wrist, the sludge surrounded the portals ring, breaking it with a crunch almost as loud as the lab’s engines. Festina allowed herself to smile as her real work finally began.
Freddie Bastiat is a law student whose real name you’ll find out once Andrew Kaczynski doxxes him. He’s a fan of Yoko Taro games, college football, and the restoration of the Byzantine and Achaemenid Empires. You can find him on Twitter @Tht_Fat_Bastiat.