warm wilds drowsing
last in a string of planets
stars carry magic
Under the dark light of an iridescent sky, the mountain seemed to slumber. There would be no sunrise, for this was a world among stars and dust, lit only by the swirling gases of dueling nebulae. Dark, yet warm; heated by cosmic winds and a fiery interior. Far from the trail, out of sight and sheltered among trees, I tamped out the last flames of my cooking fire. Wanting to contain the smoke, I reached out to the ether to call up a small quelling breeze, a whisper of air to disperse the smoke among the canopy above.
The fire had been a necessary evil, a way to sear the brook trout I’d netted upon waking an hour ago, but it wouldn’t do to be caught out in the wilds alone if I could help it. And I could always help it. The night before, I had camped far off the trail among a copse of trees and set wards of warning along the perimeter. I never knew who might stumble into my camp within the wilds: friendly wanderers were less common these days than roving thieves.
The planet Renga was home to an increasingly diverse population: original settlers, mostly of mining descent like me; billionaire tycoons bent on earning (or buying) a fiefdom; bandits; anti-tech health nuts; and other fringe groups lured by the planet’s off-grid reality. A lack of tech persisted naturally here. Though most people preferred to live blessed by the benefits of the galaxy’s ever-evolving technologies, the same elements that had made the mining so profitable here five hundred years ago also held electromagnetic properties that made it almost impossible for modern tech to thrive. Even the most rudimentary computing device would stop working within days, sometimes hours. In many ways, Renga was like a living museum. Old-timey gadgets that should have gone the way of the dinosaurs still held a thriving market here, machines deemed ancient and barbaric by most galactic standards were coveted and valuable.
Which of course is why anyone hiding from the United Galactic Front authorities thought Renga was just peachy. The planet also attracted its fair share of third and fourth sons, billionaire prospectors aiming for feudal lordships. The governmental system here varied widely by locale: galactic, feudal, republican, and in some places it was just a free for all.
I’d never known anything better – found it hard to imagine there even was such a thing. Renga was my home. My family had been among the planet’s first settlers. Japanerican miners, born and bred. They’d set up shop above the largest deposit of Chaline in the known galaxy, a pricey clay-like substance used by medics to nourish the body, reverse the aging process and trigger the healing process. Like I said, it was pricey. The first settlement, Puraimura, had blossomed over the years to hold the honorary title of capitol city according to the United Galactic Republic. If the rest of the planet didn’t quite agree, well, that wasn’t any concern of the Republic’s. Most people these days called it Prime City, or just Prime for short. Me? I called it home.
I stood up, dusting off my full-length coat and shaking out the knit silken fibers. Leaves tended to cling to the jacket, but I loved it. The dark blue yarn was interwoven with a pattern of off-color leaves, naturally cloaking my presence as I traveled the wilds. As a special courier for the United Planetary Postal Service, I had drawn the attention of more than one bandit in the past. Despite my slight frame, I could hold my own and was proud to say I’d never lost a single missive. Still, it was better to avoid trouble if I could.
It wasn’t just bandits I had to worry about. Not everyone was so accepting of GMO chimeras like me. My people had been genetically modified with panther DNA and few other minor additions that made us hardier and more suited for the dark mines of Renga and it’s surface. When they’d first come, the atmosphere hadn’t been ameliorated yet, oxygen levels still low, and the surface had yet to be inoculated with earth bio-forms. For over a hundred years, the miners had lived out their days under a cluster of hard-shelled domes and working the mines The gene tweaks helped my ancestors see in the dark and sense any disturbances in the mine. Their enhanced reflexes and agility were key to their survival, especially when an unstable section of mines collapsed in 2487. But the same energy waves that made it so hard to use tech here triggered some other changes in our DNA, made us more in tune with the quantum field of this planet. Some people said what we could do was just physics, masquerading as the unexplained – others called it magic. And, despite what you might have thought, not everyone liked it.
Some people here believed magic is sinful. Others sought ways to use it to their advantage. And then there were the purists: people who considered my modified DNA impure, unsightly or just plain demonic. Yeah. I was no stranger to prejudice. It didn’t bother me – much. But it was as good an excuse as any to live among my own people in Prime. I didn’t have much family left, but as a twentieth-generation descendent of the original settlers, it was comforting to stick close to my roots. Too bad my brother didn’t feel the same way.
Stooping, I picked up the small stick I’d been carving and turned it over in my fingers a few times, finding the sensation of the smooth, etched wood pressing against my skin comforting. I shouldered my pack, wishing I didn’t miss him so much. I hadn’t seen Jarn in over a year. I missed him, though we hadn’t been close for years. He’d rebuffed my proposal to share the New Year’s meal three months ago, declined my invitation to a birthday party the year before. Maybe it was time to just let it go. I had plenty of friends and cousins back home. So what if my twin wanted to pretend I didn’t exist?
My ears twitched, the way they always did when I was annoyed, and I ruffled the hair between them, more out of habit than any actual desire to be presentable. Prime was only a few hours walk away, just a quick descent down the mountain. If I’d been sticking to the main route it would be quite a bit longer, but I rarely did anything the way you’d expect. My grandfather had often regaled me with tales of his misspent youth, the years he’d wandered throughout the wilds of Renga delivering mail before he’d settled down with my grandmother. It was his bag that I carried today, a well-worn leather pack that generations of carriers had used before me. My grandfather had insisted it came from First Earth itself, a relic of the past, but I doubted the leather could possibly be that old. Still, I cared for it regularly, carefully cleaning and oiling the leather after every run, just the way my jiji had done.
It was also he, Onkoro Wakanazu, who had ingrained in me the importance of staying off the beaten path, far away from the preying eyes and devilish snares of any would-be bandits.
“Nikta, you must always be strong. Not just in body, but in mind,” he used to remind me, tapping his forehead. “The weak get eaten by the strongest. Survival of the fittest is no antiquated scientific principle, not here on Renga.”
The memory of Jiji made me think of home and I became anxious to return. I broke into an easy run, my boots flexing with each stride, hitting the forest floor soundlessly. I didn’t just have ears like a cat – I could run like one, too. Graceful, silent and dangerously light on my feet. As I ran, a grating screech tore through the forest and a small reddish shape missed my face by inches. An owl. Wings soundless in flight, it was perhaps the only occupant of the forest quieter than me today. Squeaks pierced the night as the owl found its prey, talons securing the small vole in its grasp as it flew up into one of the nearby trees. I wasn’t fazed, familiar as I was with the circle of life. Life on Renga wasn’t always easy. If you didn’t watch out for yourself, nobody else would. Weak meat, strong eat, I thought. I had always enjoyed that simple truth, considering it fair enough.
The vole, of course, would not have agreed.