Cantessa’s Gift – A Mobile Photography Short Story
About Cantessa’s Gift
Every August, I run a theme on Google+, in which I invite people to participate in creating science fiction artistry, photography, poetry, writing, sculpture, graphic renderings, etc. I also create one piece of mobile phone art and accompanying writing, every day (if I am able), into one story. This year’s story, Cantessa’s Gift, is now complete, and is part three of a slowly developing epic story in space. You can read the other parts here:
Part 1: Fire and Night
Part 2: The Fate of Kehema
Part 3 picks up roughly around the time part 1 does, and is nearly concurrent with it. It involves the child of the main character in part 1.
Part 4: The Fifth Age
About The Images
Each image was created on my phone. Man of the base images were shot on my old Galaxy S5, but I have transitioned over to a new phone. So some images were shot on my new Huawei P9, and most were edited on it. I also used my iPhone 4 to get some affects from apps that aren’t available on Android. I have used many, many different apps to create the various images. The single most used app in the series is Photo Editor (see more of my work using this app), which was my go to layering app for quick layering of images, as well as for the two gif images created. Among the list of apps used in the series, in no particular order, are (Android) Photo Editor, Snapseed, Pixlr, HandyPhoto, Infinite Design, Infinite Painter, Shift, SuperPhoto Full, DecoSketch, Repix, PicsArt, Toolwiz, (iOS) LensFX, AlienSky, Matter.
Enjoy this continuing saga in the Fire and Night series.
In the last days of her life, I knew my mother, Imulia. I saw her shine. I did not know my father, Denali, yet I know him. My memories of those distant days of my youth are as clear as the wide and bright stretch of the Anxianovan nebula across the southern sky.
Mother worked in her preferred isolation as a surgical component engineer in conjunction with the Lycium on Granfon, moon of Lanfon. We were stationed there when I was no more than three, and until I was nine at the turning of history.
It is difficult to describe the crucial details of those last few weeks of her life and mine, but we have these days here by the silvery Waters of Elshion, so I can narrate some of the more interesting episodes of those pivotal days.
Santry was a powerful relay and receiving station for information from across the cosmos. They were also a part of the espionage activities that the triumvirate took part in to maintain control over the systems. Through them, the Velor gathered even more intelligence on the sector worlds. Needless to say, the knowledge that was assembled there was highly coveted by all thieves, smugglers, and agents of the galaxy.
The Great War began, you remember, as a result of the reception of a single piece of information at Santry which, once received, was illegally broadcast by some unknown agency, to the far reaching systems. It wasn’t a transmission, but the light of a certain exploding star. This was the star of rebellion.
When Evenov died, you see, like all great souls he was placed in a tomb and sent through space to the heavenly spheres that Jonava had in those distant times, some thousands of years ago, only recently begun having contact with. We had come of age and the heavens of our traditions were becoming our brothers. It was then that the Velor came.
The light of the star that exploded finally reached Jonava, after all these ages and generations and gave proof of the legend that the trajectory of the tomb had been altered. It never reached its burial home.
This single fact rekindled the fire of the Velor resistance. Some knew that the light would reach Jonava at this time, and they had been preparing for the day. When it did, the world’s made their final moves.
And so, my father made his.
The last I saw of my father was the night he kissed my cheek and said to my mother, “Imulia, when we meet again we will all go to the shores of Ydio.” I was a child and at the time knew nothing of the destruction of Ydio. The shores were a moment in time that were no longer possible, so I think she knew then that he wasn’t coming back.
I don’t know what my father’s last mission was. I suspect it was to eliminate any knowledge of the whereabouts of the tomb of Evenov. I do know that he knew he would not come away from it alive.
He laid plans as best he could for our own survival. I surmise he had very short notice and had to be careful of his actions and words. Out of his control, the universe quickly deviated from his intentions.
As soon as my father left, mother became a wreck. She warned me never to speak of our affairs in front of others — only idle chat — lest we risk our lives or Denali’s. Her nerves got the best of her. Shadows became figures, secrets became rumors, and rumors became dangerous truths. One night she raced me to our quarters after her shift and shut out the lights so that I could only hear her fast breathing. She refused to tell me what was happening. Days went by, but nothing did happen. Nothing that I knew of anyway.
It went unexplained. Maybe no one knew. Imulia received notice, after years of stable work, of her immediate transfer to the outer colonies. Such transfers were considered an insult in general, but my mother was in some ways relieved to not be so fully under the eye of central authority.
We were placed aboard a medical supply ship which promptly set out on our flight for the mining operations of Tur System. Its three gas giants at one time had innumerable moons rich with ore that had now been sucked dry.
Why a medical supply ship? Just look how close the system was to Karmath Mons, that gem of a world!
Tur was a large system of two suns and three gas giants, one of which gave off its own light and heat, still aglow from the early days of system formation. There were numerous perfectly suitable worlds, moons for mining. Perfect in structure, gravity, stability. These had been heavily stripped of their ore ages ago, much of it passing into the hands of the Velor and allies. It was a foul and filthy place where criminal miners (many of whom were political agitators) contended daily for food wages while bosses pushed them harder to mine what little was left. I had never been away from Granfon before, at least not in memory, and so I made an effort to study the system en route. My fears grew with my mother’s.
I had never seen paper before. Illegal. Untraceable. There it was, slightly hidden under the edge of my mother’s plate nearest her, while we sat at the upper level mess hall on Tur Station 01. A small and wrinkled piece of paper. I went to grab it, but she snatched it away.
She said not a word more until that night in our quarters. She was jittery. “We will be meeting someone tomorrow, then leave everything behind us.”
“But what of father?”
“Don’t speak of him! Not until we are free.”
“Aren’t we free?”
We did not meet our contact a day later. He came to us that night, hurried, in a sweat, and said that we must leave.
“Everything has been arranged. You’ll take a cargo ship to Andredei System, and from there to Grumani embassy at Nacrolis. Here are your electronic documents. Your name is now Evelo and your daughter, Cantessa. We must go now. We’ll take the service tunnels to the cargo holds.”
Our records cleared and we boarded the cargo freighter heading for Andredei. Cargo ships were low burners; they were a bit slower through viscous space. Ordinary engines took a rotation and a half but these olden monstrosities pressed along so that we had a week’s time. It was during this time that mother in quiet told me my father worked for the planetary government and that the worlds were on the brink of total war.
We were just two rotations from Andredei when the ship halted. It just shut down and everything went black. Mother panicked. She was becoming a wreck, indecisive, fearful and despondent and this really spooked her.
Then we heard in the dark a voice, both male and female, and yet neither, from all around us. Inside our minds. Everyone on the ship heard it.
“We are the Vonen Syndicate. We have scanned your ship. You have nothing that we wish to trade for. For the inconvenience caused by our delay, we have replenished your water supply and have folded space slightly between you and your destination so that you will arrived as intended.”
And then they were gone. Vanished like they appeared. There was much talk of the encounter among the small crew those two remaining days. So much speculation. The Vonen Syndicate was, or rather is, a loose body of ancient peoples that no one up to that time had ever seen. Their powerful ships were known far and wide. They had no known enemies and only ever seemed interested in trade, no matter who it was with. It was as if they were always searching for something.
Andredei Station was the crossroads of the sector. A station of beauty, built on the borders of the Five Empires, by the collaboration of the young races of space. It’s spinning wheel had atmosphere for the Grumani, Jonav and Nacrolis, provided they each wore an appropriate breathing mask.
It was under jurisdictional control of the Jonav but was governed loosely. This was better for business — and plausible denial — as the Jonav dealt heavily in foreign subterfuge and contraband. From here, ships came and went: representatives from the Grumani; educators from Nacrolis; the wealthy of Jonav; pirates from the borderlands of Velor territory. Occasionally, so people said, a ship from the worlds of light and order would briefly stop without anyone ever boarding the station.
We were to meet a contact ringside, and head straight for Nacrolis. On arrival, news of our encounter with the Vonen Syndicate turned heads, but the cargo ship was quickly dismissed with the further news that the Syndicate had discovered nothing of value. We had hoped that would be our free pass from scrutiny.
The room was dark, smelled of strange places, and was filled with aliens and their dark alien drinks. Some dictator’s mouthpiece spoke on the holoscreen over the bar.
Mother refused to leave me alone; I was constantly by her jittery side. In this place, everyone could see her weakening nerves in my young presence there.
We met our contact, a pale Nacrolis man who sat there with his amphibious hands on the table, his eyeless sight perceiving our forms, sensing the vibration of our fear. He would meet us again in two Andredei orbits with the necessary data chips for passage.
He did not wait for idle chat, but got up and left us in a hurry.
I stared at the holoscreen, some propaganda being broadcast. And then we too left.
Our second meeting with the Nacrolis fixer never took place. We waited at the table for him. Hours and sweat and nerves went by, but he never showed. Everyone became someone suspicious, and our hope of escaping seemed lost. My mother did not know what to do. We had little money, and up to this time it seemed she was simply following a plan that my father had somehow prearranged. Without his influence, that plan could not have gone on forever. It was here, at Andredei, our last stop before success, that his attempt to save us failed.
Imulia had two sides. From my youngest memories I knew but one. One in which the slightest interruption in the orderly routine of her life overran her senses. Stress, timidity, uncertainty crept in until genuine anxiety became fear and finally terror.
The other side I knew all too briefly in these short days ahead of us. We headed to our quarters late on the evening that our contact failed to appear. We went by way of the shipping ports to try to board a flight — it was a fool’s plan — only to be harassed and questioned by security. My mother was unprepared for the informal interrogation, and so we left in a hurry as soon as we could. Well home, and in the door, we saw in the light of the blinding Andredei star outside our window, the blood of either a Grumani or Sorent – for it was bright red in the exposed air – smeared across the floor.
Imulia screamed. Her legs gave out and I think even for a time she forgot about me. I cried to her, but nothing roused her. Only after my own shriek of terror from seeing a Grumani hand on the floor of the next room did she wake.
From that time until her own death she was changed.
We ran. And then we hid. Deep into the maintenance tunnels. Imulia acquired keys to the lowest security levels, I know not how, and we spent days dodging custodians and maintenance personnel. We lived off of food waste before it was burned for fuel and the rest jettisoned into the sun. Mother made contact with some men ringside willing to smuggle us out, but she worried that the price was too low to be legitimate. We had little choice, so we took their offer.
We had no choice. There were thieves and killers in our own quarters and we were out of credits. We had to leave.
We boarded a transport ship that mother had chartered through some dark contact and left port. We saw little of the crew until we were well out of Andredei space, and when we did, it was brief. It was during our first dinner with the other passengers that I noticed — as did they — that the stars changed. We have shifted course. That was about when the food began to affect us.
They were not smugglers but slavers! Our food was drugged, so that all passengers fell asleep. I woke alone in a dank cell and didn’t know where Imulia was, but I could hear through the doors the faint screams of other prisoners who had woken up to the same evil fate. Somehow, the fact that they were alive comforted me.
It would be roughly two days before we arrived at our destination. The slavers, I later discovered, had taken us into the borders of Velor territory. Mother would not escape from there alive.
I do not know what sector of Velor territory we were in. Somewhere near Graukus perhaps. Little is known of the territory. I first saw the red planet, where I was purchased and where that vile creature the Baron ruled, only while escaping from it. It was a small artificial moon, floating amidst the asteroids of a swirling gas giant, far out and away from a dual star system. Here was a second seat of crime, which stretched as far away as Tur System.
The Baron was a singular being. I’ve never seen in all the sectors of space any race that resembles his biology. And yet he was only half biological. I believe he may even have stolen some of the gene splicing secrets of the Velor. From the back of his head and down, his spine extruded in cyborg metal. His flesh was attached from between his shoulder blades down to his torso by large metal hooks and wire. This wasn’t necessary, surgically, but he wanted it that way. His pulled skin was dried and putrid. His mechanical spine continued below his severed torso, and ended in a floating barge that gave him movement, sustenance and even weaponry. He had no mouth and spoke only into the minds of those he communicated with. Even portions of his brain and mind were computerized and digital. And it was a terror to hear him slither around in my thoughts. He held sway over all those who came near him.
We were rowed up before him, a mass of new slaves. One by one he examined our minds, briefly and silently talking to us while everyone waited in fear. Then it was my turn.
“So! Your mother tells me you are running. Your father is a Santry agent on a potentially fatal mission. How very exciting! The both of you are pricy commodities then. I will keep you on my personal staff.”
I stared at the crystal, afloat and spinning in the sealed air of the display chamber. It was mesmerizing.
It was then that I was startled by the creeping in my mind, and noticed it before I heard the low electric hum of the Baron’s floating barge entering the room.
“It is beautiful, is it not? One of a kind.” He enjoyed flaunting his power, “There are some who would sell entire planets to possess it.”
“But it’s just a crystal.”
“To you perhaps. But do not let your indifference make you careless of what others deem priceless.” He laughed a painful laugh in my mind. “It is why you too are so well taken care of, despite my own fickle way with the living.”
I stared again at the crystal. I wanted to destroy it, and I made it known to him in my mind. I did not understand in my youth that just then I was tempting the nihilism of this alien’s own recklessness.
I was one of the youngest servants to wait upon the Baron. He considered my being the daughter of a high triumvirate agent, with high level clearance even at Santry no less, to be a valuable commodity to him. A good bargaining chip in some unforseen future. Mother was also thus regarded and although we were kept separated, we were not put in harm’s way. We were not, it seemed, expendable.
It was during my eighth shift that an alarm was sounded. While I was in the main hall, Ghoesh assembled his lead fighters, warriors from a myriad of worlds, and broadcast his thoughts to all in the room. Few readers have ever been able to do so, yet he made his thoughts known as if it were his normal speech. They were to take to the ships, and to the guns. The moon was under assault.
The battle raged. Gunships bombarded the moon with laser fire, bombs, shock robots. The red planet fired it’s guns, split ships, while its own fighters launched into space. These were pirates, all of them, and their warfare was disorganized and foolish. They commandeered ships, recklessly assaulted one another, yet they were intimately familiar with their respective adversary’s tactics.
In the midst of the quaking and explosions, Ghoesh gave various orders over his armies. But he let down his guard at the gate of his thoughts, let slip a confession, “Kulani, how your warfare makes me fall for you yet again!”
His closest servant dared critique and snapped, “Ghoesh, you damned fool! You’ll get us all killed for that ‘moltica’!”
“So be it. I’ll win her mechanical heart yet!”
It was a sick sort of history and affection he had for his opponent, overburdened by the viruses of computer circuitry in his partially electronic brain. And he was willing to drag his entire empire into the folly, and all lives with him.
The attack was a heavy one, an assault that took even the Baron Ghoesh unaware. He had a rival that matched his own strength and cunning. In the midst of this furious battle, Imulia freed herself, along with a number of other slaves. I was hiding behind the Baron’s self-proclaimed royal curtains when she found me. She had a strength I had never seen before.
In the confusion, we were to head with the others to escape on a ship. “Wait!” I said impulsively as we were making our way in the chaos. I ran to the private chamber of the Baron, what a foolish but fateful thing to do! — and with a chair, another collectors item, smashed the case holding the crystal that he coveted so dearly.
When I had seized it with my hand, the doors shut solid. I discovered on turning, two eyes peering at me from the other end of the room, guarding the closed doors with electric bladed speer. A woman of subtlety and near reflective skin.
“You have done what I have for ages longed but feared to do.”
“Then you have to help me,” I said desperately!
She looked deep into my eyes, then spoke in cryptic riddles, I assume to defend her mind from the Baron’s probing thoughts. “I never helped you. I never saw the crystal stolen. I will remember nothing.” Her eyes flashed a metallic green, and she placed her hand on the wall. It glowed and the doors opened. My mother was there on the other side pounding to get me free.
And we did get free, on that ship with a number of others. Our destination, a solar system deep in the heart of Velor territory. I know only that it is called Moltec.
We had no more than arrived at Moltec when we encountered the scout ships of the Velor. It was a strange situation that revealed itself then. Our pilots made no efforts to avoid them, and so it seemed they too were pirates allowed to roam free in Velor space.
They scanned us. Their beams swept through the ship as we were headed towards a larger battle cruiser in orbit around that fiery desert planet. This is when I notice that the crystal I had stolen from Baron Ghoesh glowed with a faint light, as if in response. Half the scouts then disappeared while the others followed us within the system.
Our rescuers too were slavers. It seemed nothing inside Velor territory could resemble goodness. This enemy of Baron Ghoesh was a cyborg, half humanoid, half machine. From what I’ve learned since that battle, Kulani was from that desert planet but was enslaved by the Baron when young. She was a powerful individual, a reader like the guard of the Baron’s chambers.
She escaped later on, but having grown to love power herself, she took over the slave trade of her own people. Ghoesh loved her for it. Their rivalry was a major source of the spread of slavery over the sector the last 140 cycles.
Apparently the Velor allowed their war to go on. It kept the Baron in check, and probably provided the empire with labor. I have heard that Velor pilots too were slaves.
Whatever the truth of it, that day was a furious battle of three navies. Ghoesh had routed the pirates as we were escaping his domain. He pursued us to Moltec. At the same time, the Velor appeared in the Moltec system in an attempt to take the crystal — it was a data crystal — I had stolen. They did not know Ghoesh had it, else they would have killed him.
We didn’t have time to dock at the battle cruiser before the Velor and the Ghoesh navy were upon us. The fighting was intense. Kulani defended us from the Velor, and herself and her fighters from Ghoesh. It was a violent day.
The battle raged. I was strapped in like all the others, and I watched the monitors to track the battle. I felt the ship as its symbol moved on the screen to dodge the fire that might kill us. We were stuck in a dogfight that did not end. Our pilot was valiant in evading the Velor, at least 8 fighters and as many scouts for support. We were assisted by five fighters, four of which were destroyed. The Velor swam like a school of fish. A fifth fighter managed to destroy two of the Velor, rare indeed, and shoot down a third which went crashing to the surface of Moltec in a blaze. Then we were hit.
Mother knew what was coming. The ship had been hit and weakened, so it wouldn’t be long before we were lost. She unstrapped me from my seat, grabbed my hand and took me to the escape pods. The first hatch had already been fired. The second was empty as well. And yet a third. They were all empty.
I began to cry. The ship rocked and boomed from another blast. “Be brave, daughter. It won’t hurt.” She held me in defeat while we waited for the final blast.
But in that last moment it came to her that there was one last chance. She ran me down another corridor, opened a hatch, and we climbed down into the ship’s maintenance tunnels. A bit further down the tunnels, she opened a large and thick electronic door which entered into the cargo holds. There we found one last escape pod. These were smaller models, for one passenger. Mother opened some ration supply containters and quickly dumped these into the pod. She then readied the pod into the firing rig. I entered it only half way when I realized there was no way for it to fit us both.
She answered my eyes, “I cannot go with you. It’s the only way.”
“Do as I say daughter. The pod has a small lightspeed burst but do not start the beacon for at least one rotation so that you are safely away from this place. I’m sorry we failed you.”
Before I could protest, she shut the doors. We put our hands on either side of the glass. The ship rocked again, as my mother launched me away. It exploded as I exited, and I was knocked unconscious. I dreamed of walking with Imulia and Denali, together on the shores of Ydio, a place I had never seen.
I woke in the deep of space. I did not know how long I had been out. It had to have been some time, as I had a headache from blood loss, and my forehead was covered in dried blood. My atmospheric levels were low, and the explosion had damaged the beacon. When I realized this, the panic set in that I was trapped in a tumbling pod, a tiny object, a grain of salt in a vast cosmos, and would suffocate as I watched the stars spin around me.
I screamed, but the muffled echo of my own voice stopped me. None could hear it. My heart raced. I cried. I thought of killing myself, nine years old in a cage. But how? Then hope came of rescue, or even that I would be captured. And then again came the panicked scream at the impossibility, and again the silence, the tears, the nihilism and the hope yet again. My mind spun around like the stars. Forever.
In my last hours I faded in and out of consciousness. I had no more air to breath and it didn’t matter. I wanted it to end. I began to dream and was delirious. In my sleep I spoke to a voice, the singular calm voice of both a man and woman. I remember their every word.
“We are the Vonen Syndicate. We have scanned your escape vessel. You possess a data crystal that is of great value to us. What is your price?”
“You may have it,” I said, asleep inside my mind.
They were silent. Then, as if in surprise, “You part with it so freely?”
“All that I love is gone.” I wanted nothing more than to die, but dared not say it. “You can have it. I want to be rid of it!”
After some quiet, they answered, “This is a most gracious gift. None have ever been so generous. Please. Allows us to grant you the request of your heart. What is it?
I did not want to die, truly. The thing that I wanted woke me from my sleep, and I screamed with tears inside my shuttle prison, “I want my parents back!”
And then I was not, for they took me, and I walked in the halls of the Vonen until the day of my return. Though they could not grant my request, my daughter, they became my guardians.
The crystal? It contained their forgotten history. They simply wanted to know where they came from.