The Dust Part 1: Grace

The first part of the Dust collection was inspired by the dust storms that occasionally sweep through the Phoenix area.

Out in the middle of the desert there’s not really anything to stop the winds and the sun, so the city winds up getting some pretty big storms. Monsoon season is pretty dramatic, but the dust storms are tremendous by themselves.

You don’t want to be caught out in them, but looking at them out of a window is spectacular, like being on an alien world.

The Dust stories take place in an extrasolar system with five inhabited plants. Not all of these are in harmony, and as with any other part of human social interactions, there’s a lot of mistrust and factional differences.

Another element of this dynamic is the notion of having a perpetual conflict to move concerns off of internal domestic politics and to a war effort, which the Federals do, both with Earth and other planets, especially New Haven, whose inhabitants are considered lawless by other planets in the system (this is both propaganda and self-fulfilling prophecy), and who have had factions “at war” with the Federals since the colonization efforts began.

Grace was the first story in The Dust, and it’s been altered and edited quite a bit from its original version. I don’t recall all of the changes, but there have been a good deal, and I’ve done some final polishing since its publication on Wattpad.

Originally it was a five-minute write combined with a music-driven freewriting session, but then it sort of evolved into a more coherent story and the seed for a larger setting.

One idea I had for The Dust is that most of the stories are in chronological order by the alphabetical order of their name. I don’t stick to this terribly faithfully in practice, but it’s still true in a macro-scale; Arrival is the “first” story, while ø is intended as a “finale”, though there’s not necessarily a particular order to the series.

The character of Tarion was originally pictured as a space-samurai cyberpunk cowboy. I’m not sure what put that notion (or the name itself) in my mind, but I know that I wanted a character who fulfilled a “knight errant” role for the story.

Grace is a recurring name throughout the stories, because apparently I have a problem with original names, but is intended to reflect a path away from pride and individualism and toward humility and a voluntary connection to a community.

In addition to editing for grammar and clarity, I’ve done some changes since the Wattpad version to tie into the setting more.

Grace is far more focused on transhumanism than the rest of The Dust as a whole, and I think it falls a little into the “cool toys” syndrome, but I still think it’s important as the “starting point” for what is to come.

Tarion knew he was in trouble when his head started feeling light again. He fiddled with the autoinjector, hoping that its secondary dose would be sufficient to get him back to Grace. He could’ve sworn that it was closer. The brown skies above him occasionally let the harsh New Haven sun through to him, bathing the world in an infernal red glow.

It was all his fault. He’d stepped out into a dust-storm without a mask, and he recognized that. It just felt so unfair to have stumbled onto the scavenger’s dream stash and then die because of some fungus-analogue working its way into his bloodstream. His fingers would have shuddered, if their fiber optics didn’t run his input through computers with jitter-reduction algorithms. The feedback he got was chilly, an unnatural cold impacted as much by the damage done to his nervous system as by the environment around him.

The needle found its way into his thigh, and a few seconds later a new burst of clarity came over him. The heat of the world returned, life flowing in past the dirt and grime of exile.

He’d found seventeen working hunter-killer drones, four drop marine kits, and a buggy that, unfortunately, was buried about ten feet too far into dust to be of use in his current situation. When he’d rappelled into the vault he’d thought he might have died for joy, knowing how much the haul was worth. Now he just thought he’d die.

The dust wasn’t just bad to inhale, it made navigation difficult. If he’d been able to break into the Federal networks, he’d be able to use their nodes to find a way home, but they didn’t have Grace on the official maps—and he didn’t feel like facing down a ilius spore infection and a marshall’s squad at the same time. He thought he could catch a glimpse of Halloran’s Peak through a gap in the billowing clouds of dust. A sticky cough forced its way up his throat, and for a moment he almost removed the mask to spit the mucus out. As his hand brushed against the polymer and ceramic frame, he came to his senses and left the mask in place.

His luck turned even as the dust-storm howled angrily against him. The tunnel entrance was exactly where he expected it. The hatch released itself as soon as he pulled the lever, the ancient systems of the maintenance tunnels still functioning despite the war and the fact that their builders had retired to graves hundreds of years ago.

He briefly weighed the thought that an overland journey would be quicker as he dropped into the cool darkness.

If he got lost in the dust, he’d be dead for sure. Down here he just had to be able to count on the quality of his blood filters, and Stavros installed only the best.

The thought of the doctor gave him a moment’s pause. How many people would wonder what happened to him? If he was lucky, they’d send out a search party for his body. If not, he guessed that people use the maintenance tunnels enough that it’d be found eventually. And, because lawmen didn’t come to the tunnels, he could be pretty confident that it would be another wanderer who found him.

He wasn’t sure if that gave him peace or not.

If the storm cleared and he walked right into a Federal patrol, they wouldn’t offer him a dose of antidote until after they booked him into custody. The law moves slowly when a delay kills two birds with one stone. While he didn’t technically have any illegal augmentations the Federation liked to believe that anyone on New Haven who wasn’t happy with natural human flesh was a criminal by default.

The revolver on his hip weighed heavier than usual, instinct reminding him that he was not the only denizen of the tunnel. Although he couldn’t smell anything through the mask, he recognized grizal droppings when he saw them. An adult grizal was too large to maneuver quickly in the maintenance tunnels, but even a juvenile was a real threat. He’d make a nice morsel for one.

He popped the seals on his mask, the hissing overwhelming his ears in the quietude of the tunnels. The distinct smell of matted, unwashed fur suggested that there was one not too far away.  He activated his augmented vision, watching an overlay come over the world, bringing the dim lighting up to a more tolerable grayish-blue. Even with amplification there wasn’t enough light to really make out details. He activated the ultrasonic scanner on his belt, routing its data through a jack in his arm.

He drew, keeping the gun lowered but ready for action. The echo scans pinged back to him as he moved, reporting empty corridors and a false alarm. Then the pattern broke, a muddied spot in the tunnel indicating the disturbance caused by a large animal.

A deft movement of his finger turned the underbarrel light on its highest intensity, and the creature in the shadows roared with surprise and anger. Flinging his off-hand to the rear of the gun, he fired, pulling the hammer back so quickly that the flashes of light seemed to blend together as the cylinder spun. The beast roared, and Tarion swore he could feel spittle on his face. The warm, wet breath of the monster may as well have been pure carrion, and he dodged as much to avoid the incoming stench as the retaliation that was sure to follow his assault.

Three of the shots he fired connected. The other three went astray as the beast sprung to action. If he hadn’t scored at least one good hit, the mutant would have been right on top of him. Instead, it missed, not fully compensating for its wounded leg and careening down the tunnel.

He flicked the light switch, on the off-chance it would attract more unwanted attention, and ran. His boots landed harshly on the metal, their ceramic inserts causing reports that were barely audible over the ringing in his ears.

The echoing pings spread further out into the darkness, each step moving the bubble of perception further from him until the next ping brought up a new picture. Occasionally he’d see the bubble in his mind start to wobble—either the trains passing through distant tunnels causing the world to shift or the fungus beginning to play with his brain again. The grizal had stopped, either dying or deciding to nurse its wounds and look for prey later. Tarion wasn’t sure that he cared. It stopped mattering the moment the second wave of phlegm forced its way up, and he doubled over to retch.

He thought back to the casino tables. Cel’d been a nice lady, he supposed. He felt bad about leaving her like he had. ‘Course, it wasn’t like he was the father of her kid, but they’d had some good moments together. He wondered if she’d say they were married, if anyone asked her. It’s not like they were about to apply for a license from the Federals, but she’d kept loyal to him and he to her.

She was a degene, one of the descendants of the replicants. Over the generations they’d begun to recover from some of the obsolescence protocols, but she still maintained some of the beta line’s grace and, most dramatically, their skeletal modifications. It had taken him a while to get used to holding a hand with an extra thumb and a climbing pad on its palm.

Still, he remembered how he used to watch her dance, holding onto the memory’s warmth in the icy cold of the tunnels.

Tarion realized that he had slowed, the itching sensation of the infection crawling through his skin and veins feeling more important than moving on. He had to force himself to keep from reaching down to his ankles and begin tearing at the skin. On his natural arm, he could see the blue fungal colonies beginning to creep across the skin, drawing patterns in the places where his immune system was able to stave off the infection. For now.

At least he was in familiar territory now. Cel would have his body, if nothing else. He reloaded the revolver absent-mindedly, trudging through the darkness with the ultrasonic reflections as his guide. He wondered if bats thought it was offensive that humanity had stolen their methods, even though he had only read about the Earth creatures in a book. He’d heard the Federals kept a zoo based on genestock from the original colony ship, but out on New Haven there were greater concerns.

A rumble in the distance reminded him of his purpose. Grace had never been designed with hiding in mind, and even after the Federals began looking for it its inhabitants had no desire to hide. It wasn’t like the Federals were going to drop replicants or active hunter-killers on a world they controlled.

The noise of Grace always struck him as incredibly obvious. With the Federals looking for it, it was a miracle that they’d managed to stay hidden so long. The life support systems filtering out the toxins and keeping the air comfortable, the power plants sending steam out into the tunnels as they harnessed the power of the atom, the clattering and clashing of industrial machinery turning out guns and limbs and computer chips roared in defiance against Federal encroachment.

By the time Tarion arrived at the lock, he struggled to stand. The first cracks of light broke through as the door unsealed, and his eyes throbbed with the light. When the gate opened, all he could do was let his lips open in a grin as he fell to his knees. He didn’t even mind that the light faded as he toppled, collapsing to the metal grating of the corridor.

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