And now, presented again for your enjoyment, the fourth and final installment of a short story featuring the origin of one of my central characters in Exodus: Empires at War. I will present this story in four parts. Anyone interested in reading the story in its entirety can go to my website, Imagination Unlimited, or directly to the story page at Exodus Shorts. The story can be downloaded in Word, PDF or Kindle format. Or you can see all of my books at my Amazon Book Page. I will be putting out another serial short in the next couple of weeks.
Refuge: Book 3: The Legions is currently out on Amazon. If you like Exodus, you will probably like Refuge. If you don’t like either one, you probably shouldn’t be reading my work. And now, the final installment of A New Life.
This day they were hunting bigger game, the twelve ton Hexa-Buffalo, the beasts that were one of the reasons the King Tigers grew so big. A lot of people thought herbivores were the gentler animals, spending their days as they did cropping grass or watching for predators. Cornelius knew better. He had hunted these beasts before, and if given his choice he would rather have gone after the tigers any day. Again he carried a military grade particle beam rifle, an emergency weapon for the possibility that one of the noble born asses might botch his shot.
“You be careful out there,” his father had told him before the party split up, his father with the other men who would approach from downwind, using their scent to move the herd in the direction of the shooters.
“You too,” said Cornelius, giving his dad a hug. He was the last family that the young man had, or at least the last genetic relation that actually knew who he was.
Humphrey was on this hunt, still wanting that big trophy head to mount in a study, so he could lie to his friends about how brave he was. There were two other nobles, including the Duke himself. Cornelius knew that the Duke was a skilled hunter who could be depended on to stand his ground and make a good shot. Still, he wished the Marine Captain was taking the place of either Humphrey or the other noble, a young man whose frightened eyes tried to look everywhere at once.
“There they are,” whispered the Duke, coming up beside Cornelius. He nodded back, having already spotted the herd, including a magnificent bull, as large as any that the young man had ever seen.
“Who takes the first shot, my Lord?” asked Cornelius, watching as the herd began to move their way with a lowing sound.
“Let Baronet Kroger have it,” said the Duke, motioning at Humphrey, who was looking wide eyed at the large animals, sweat pouring down his face.
“Yes, my Lord.” Cornelius made his way over to the Baronet, then motioned for the man to squat down while he went to a knee. “That big bull is yours, my Lord. Make sure your weapon is set to maximum accel, and only fire when I tell you.”
“I know what I am doing,” said the fat man. “Don’t tell your betters what they must do.”
“Again, my Lord. Only fire when I tell you to. Those are the Duke’s orders, not mine. If you have a problem with them I will ask him to come over and tell you himself.”
“Insolent swine,” whispered the man, trying to look fierce as he turned his eyes on Cornelius, and only managing to look scared.
“Here he comes,” whispered Cornelius, looking over his own scope at the big male. He’s fifteen tons if he’s a kilo, he thought. Too good a trophy for this bastard. And I don’t want him too close, in case this son of a bitch doesn’t bring him down. “Fire,” he said to the Baronet. Nothing happened, and he saw the big bull tearing at the grass with all six hooves, then start trotting their way. “Fire, damn you,” yelled Cornelius, taking his eye off his scope and glaring over at the noble.
Humphrey pulled the trigger, and Cornelius knew something was wrong by the way the rifle recoiled. It was a high end hunting rifle, and had grabber units built into it to take up some of the recoil, but still should have pushed the man back more than it did. The man fired again, and the rifle again barely bucked.
“What the hell did you do?” yelled Cornelius, pulling the rifle hard out of the man’s hands. He looked in disbelief at the velocity setting, which was the minimum the rifle was able to send a shot down range.
Another round cracked by at high velocity, and Cornelius looked up and out to see a cow by the bull go down to her knees, while the bull and the rest of the herd turned tail and took off at a run. More shots, and some other beasts were hit, none hard enough to bring down. Cornelius brought up his weapon and tried to get a shot at the bull who was leading the herd toward his father. But there was too much dust, too many other darting forms. He took a shot and killed a smaller bull, but only a kill of the dominant male could stop them from the charge.
“Goddammit,” he yelled, jumping up and running after the herd, fearing the worst. The herd charged to the wood line and in, taking cover, all but the dominant bull, which was stomping and ramming his horns into something on the ground.
“Good God, no,” yelled Cornelius, seeing his father’s rifle on the ground near the bloody mess that in no way resembled a human being. He brought his rifle up and shot the bull, a narrow beam that burned a hole through the hindquarters and out the chest, dropping the beast. He stumbled up to look down on the bloody meat, splintered bones, and torn rags that had been his father, tears rolling down his cheeks. The other men in the beating party gathered around, looks of disbelief on their faces. The elder Walborski had been a fixture of the hunts for decades, and to be taken in such a manner was beyond comprehension.
The Duke and the other men came up a minute later. The Duke looked like he was about to cry as well. But Baronet Kroger only had eyes for the big bull. “My trophy,” said the man, all smiles. “He will look fine mounted on my study wall.”
Cornelius turned, grief becoming rage in a second. He walked over to the man and slammed his fist into the fat face, knocking the Baronet to the ground. “This was your fault,” he screamed at the man. “If you had checked your rifle and made sure that it was set right, this bull would have been killed. But you didn’t have the brains for that, you stupid son of a bitch. I’m going to…”
Cornelius stepped forward, then brought his other leg coming for a kick. Two of the beaters grabbed his arms and held him back, while the Baronet held his hands over his face, trying to protect himself.
“Calm down son,” said the Duke, putting a hand on Cornelius’ shoulder. “This is a tragedy, but it will do you no good to get violent.”
“I will have you thrown in jail,” yelled the Baronet, pushing himself up to a sitting position. “You assaulted me, and I will see that you serve time in a labor camp.”
Cornelius pulled at the men holding his arms, but they were strong and would not give him an inch.
“Go home, Cornelius,” said the Duke, patting him on the shoulder. “I will make sure that your father’s remains are brought in for cremation.”
“I want him arrested, now,” yelled Kroger, getting to his feet.
“Don’t worry about jail,” said the Duke. “You’ve been through enough.”
Cornelius nodded and walked away, still steaming inside with a murderous rage. Someday I’ll see that son of a whore by himself, and he’ll die. Even as he thought that he knew it would never happen. Men like Kroger, the privileged, were always protected. The best he could hope for was to be stunned by security and taken to jail.
* * *
“You no longer work here,” said the shift leader as Walborski tried to go to his station.
“What do you mean?” asked Cornelius in shock. He had taken a couple of shifts off to attend his father’s funeral, then set his dad’s affairs in order. But that was all according to company policy, and had been approved ahead of time.
“I’m not really sure what happened, Walborski,” said the shift leader. “It came down from management that you were no longer to be allowed on the line. I guess that means you were terminated.”
“Terminated?” said Walborski, still in shocked disbelief.
“I am really sorry, Walborski,” said the foreman, shaking his head. “It’s not up to me, and. I guess I shouldn’t say anymore.” The foreman turned away, still shaking his head.
He’s worried that he might lose his job, thought Cornelius as he turned away. And I really can’t blame him. This isn’t a free society. We’re only free to cut our own throats with our actions.
Later he tried to get in touch with the Duke, but was turned away. Calls to the employment services did no better, and he soon found that he was not employable on this planet. And then all the money in his and his father’s accounts disappeared, and he knew that the enemy he had made on that hunt was getting him, and he had no way to get back at the Noble bastard.
* * *
“What’s wrong?” asked Cornelius as he came in the door of the apartment and saw Katlyn sitting on the couch, crying, the big cat in her lap. He had been fruitlessly searching for a job, taking public transport now that the aircar was gone. And the answer had been the same at every venue. He had the skills that robotics factories were looking for, but he had a black mark on his record.
“The apartment manager informed me that we have to move out by the end of the week,” said his wife, tears rolling down her face. “What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know. It looks like I’m sunk on this world. All I have to look forward to is a life on the dole.”
He thought for a moment and looked at his wife. “I’ll give you a divorce if you want. So you can find, you know, someone with some prospects.”
Katlyn stood up and put her arms around him. “I don’t want someone with prospects. I want you.”
“Then I don’t think we can stay here,” he said, looking into her eyes. “I wouldn’t be satisfied just existing.”
“And where would we go?”
“To the frontier,” he said, a smile crossing his face. “To the land of opportunity. What say we give it a try. How would you like to become a Marquise?”
“I’ll go anywhere you do,” she said, sitting back down and stroking the cat. “As long as we can find Big Tom here a good home before we go.”
* * *
The freighter didn’t look like much, even to someone who had never been in space before. It was a hyper V tramp, thought to be good enough to haul prospective colonists to sector transshipment points, where they could be loaded up on other ships to get to their final destinations.
Cornelius could tell that Katlyn was terrified as she looked at the cryo chamber that was to be her resting place for the next four and a half months. It would be transferred to another ship with her in it.
“I’ll hold your hand while they put you under,” he said, holding her. “And I’ll be there when they wake you. Look, it’s got to be better than spending a third of a year sitting in cramped quarters for the voyage out.”
“It’s OK,” she said, in a voice that told him it was anything but. “Help me into the thing.”
That looks like a coffin, he thought, as he helped her to step into it. Medical staff started to attach sensors and push tubes into her veins, while he stood over her holding her hand. Before he knew it she was unconscious.
“We find it better to put them under as soon as possible,” said one of the techs, while another pumped nanites into her body. Cornelius knew they would scour her cells of ice crystals before she came out of cryo, and repair any damage caused by freezing. Then the lid was lowered and sealed, and his wife was quick frozen while he looked on with some anxiety.
“Look,” said the tech who had been talking to him. “This is old, tried and true tech. The founders used it for a thousand years to come into this space, without a loss. Well, maybe closer to five hundred years ship time with dilation. But the point is that it works, and works well. And we’ve improved it in the last thousand years. So your wife and you will awake in a new system.”
“You been out to the frontier?” asked Cornelius as he climbed into his chamber, sitting next to Katlyn’s.
“A dozen times,” said the tech. “I really prefer it to the core worlds. Tens more years of this and I plan to start a new life out there as well.”
“A new life,” said Cornelius as the needles were inserted into his arms. Then the world faded and he knew no more.
“What happened?” he asked a different tech as his eyes opened. “What went wrong?”
“Nothing,” said the tech. “You’re going to be a little disoriented for a bit. But you’re here, at your destination. We’re about ready to wake your wife.”
Cornelius sat up in his cryo box and tried to get out. “Take it easy,” said the tech, putting his hand on Cornelius’ chest.
“I promised my wife I would be there when she came to,” said Cornelius, pushing the hand away and climbing out of the box. He staggered over to the next box and looked down on his wife, still undergoing the process of reawakening. He stood over her till her eyes fluttered, then opened. She saw him and focused, a smile touching her lips.
“We made it, honey,” he said, gasping her hand.
The flight to the surface was bumpy, in an old shuttle that had seen better days. They walked out onto a tarmac that was relatively unscared. A flock of flying creatures, not birds, flew overhead, and they looked up, then started walking to the terminal.
“We made it,” said Cornelius, squeezing Katlyn’s hand. “We made it.”
“To our new life,” she said, looking into his eyes. “And a family. As soon as we can I want to start a family.”
“I can do that,” said Cornelius with a laugh. “It will definitely be my pleasure.”