I am Heckman Kawahara Estrada. I was born into comfortable circumstances to responsible and caring parents on the planet Angola Three in Kambamba Province.
My mother, Kamala, was an agriculturist and my father, Hector, was a millwright.
We young ones, Tagawa, my older sister by two years, and Rangel, my younger brother by one year, enjoyed such advantages as became our station.
I have somehow parlayed these significant advantages into a legacy of shame and horror, disappointment and disaster. I'm party to crimes against all life forms, crimes against life itself.
This is my story.
* * *
War knows no season and respects no border. It was a near constant in my life, in my father and mother's lives as it was in the lives of their parents.
At the age of thirty-eight my sire died fighting for someone else's noble cause. My mother was a wounded veteran of two back-to-back wars "to end all wars." I was eight when my father died in combat on some far foreign shore.
My father's brother came to us, married my mother as was the custom, moved us out on the frontier, moved us in with his wife and two six-year-old twin girls.
We scratched out a living. Our circumstances were reduced, but we rarely went hungry, and clothes, food and shelter were good for our time and place. We now had two mothers who cared for us and loved us. We had a father who sought the best for us.
We were so well off and fine and on the very edge of destruction.
* * *
The war exploded around us even out on the frontier. Uncle/Father Jobo, sent me at fourteen, and Tagawa to the badlands to escape the military recruiters or "jack-legged, uniformed kidnappers" as he called them.
My mother, Kamala, refused to be re-inducted. She refused to run or hide. She said no and went serenely about her work.
Uncle/Father Jobo was arrested for treason and executed the day after his arrest.
Mother Kamala was killed in a raid by one side or the other two days after her second husband was killed.
Our second mother, Jordan, fled with the twins and our brother to the Gods only know where. In a matter of weeks Tagawa and I, struggling to find our way in the Badlands, had lost our core family.
We were extremely lucky to still have each other and cousins in the Badlands and to have had so much good in our lives. Our other family and friends were not nearly as fortunate as us.
* * *
"Brother, I can't look out for you if I can't find you."
"Sister, I sent you a message. I --"
"You weren't where your message said you were going to be."
"Clue and I just went --"
"Brother, these are the Badlands, not a playground."
I shook my head in frustration. Tagawa just didn't understand me anymore. I was seventeen. I was a man.
Tagawa moved over to me and placed both hands on my shoulders and looked into my face. It was her dead serious stance. "Brother, you are a fool for that little slut, you and a dozen others. Clue is Antiwar Underground, a recruiter, a whore for the Underground. Leave her. Do it now, today."
I knocked her hands off me. "Sister, you're not my mother. You charge for your favors and you call Clue a whore. You are the --"
She slapped me. I left. I moved in with Clue. Two weeks later Clue had me enlisted in the UFF Navy as a spy for the Underground. The Universal Freedom Front, or UFF was a collation of nations that seemed to have been at war for as long as I could remember.
I tried to find Tagawa before I left. I looked everywhere. I called and called. I failed. It was my first step in a trail of missteps and misadventures.
* * *
I didn't know. Honest, I had no idea what I was doing. I came from the frontier of a backwoods planet. I was 17. I was spying for the Antiwar Underground. I was dumb as a stick and twice as green. I knew this, these were excuses, but they were true.
"Estrada, do you know what Dark Matter is?"
"No, Sir. I've heard it explained, but I don't understand the explanations, Sir."
"Humm ... do you have an understanding of physics or higher math?"
"Ummm ... I see. Philosophy or poetry, perhaps you have studied these?"
"Sir, I, no Sir."
I was at attention. I was starting to sweat. Senior Sergeant Schneider was clearly unhappy with my negative responses. What would happen to me if the Sergeant found no favor with me? I did not want to find out.
"Well, well, humm ... Vend." Schneider's Apprentice jumped forward at attention.
"Test him, now."
The test: I went on a shuttle ride with Vend and a Flight Nurse. We boarded the UFWS Homeward Bound, a "C" class freighter. The three of us descended down toward the DM Drive bay. The closer we got to the bay the worse I felt. I felt a flood of creeping things from inky midnight horrors with pestilence-covered, sticky, clawed feet and razor teeth and an appetite for pain racing up my naked spine. I surged into pure unadulterated terror. The pain came later and the screaming much later.
Vend was sitting by my bedside when I came to.
She crossed to me, stood over my bed. "You are sensitive to Dark Drives. At thirty feet out you collapsed. I was fifteen feet out when I collapsed."
I tried to speak. My throat was dry and scratchy. Vend gave me a cup of ice chips .
I wheezed out my question, "Was that the test?"
"Part One. Part Two comes now."
"You go back to visit the Dark Drive again. If this work is for you, this time you'll be just fine. You'll have been inoculated."
Vend moved in closer and lowered her voice. "Sailor, the more sensitive you are to the DM drive, the greater the probability of you becoming sterile. The probability for you is about ninety percent if you have the Standard Rate of Exposure over the next twelve months. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
I beckoned Vend in even closer. "And if I go back to the front ... I'll be dead in far less than twelve months."
"Your choice, Estrada. Get dressed. You and a DM drive have a hot date."
My "hot date" was uneventful. In fact, after I shed my initial unease, I felt quite at home in the drive bay.
* * *
"How old are you, Estrada?" We were at a training site on the low security side of the base. Vend was walking me through the use of DM Mechanic's tools.
"Eighteen in three months. Vend, why am I even here? You are the Apprentice."
"You are here, amanta, because the Senior Sergeant wants you here. Have you asked him this question?"
"Of course, he said I was a wild card. What's a wild card?"
"Why do you call me that, amanta? What does it mean?"
"A term of affection. It means 'little brother.'"
I turned and looked at Vend. She was taller than me, stout and strong with clever hands and a quick mind. She was handsome and attractive with plum-colored eyes and hair. She smiled at me.
"Vend, you're you don't look much older than me. How old are you?"
She shrugs, "Don't you know anything, amanta? You never ask a woman her age." She paused for a moment. "Do you play poker?'
"Oh, well, do you play cards?"
"I don't think so."
"You are putting me on, right?"
I just looked puzzled.
"Earth, you know about Earth?"
"Of course, everyone knows that legend."
"Legend? Earth is not a legend, it's real. You're fucking with me. Jesus Christ. You do know about Jesus Christ?"
"Is she an officer?"
I strung her along for a while longer. When she finally realized I was just teasing her, she described me in lots of words and terms, none of which sounded very endearing.
"I apologize, amanto. Please forgive me."
"You little shit! You speak Salas?"
"A few words, big sister."
She pushed me hard. I fell down laughing.
"You little smart ass. Tomorrow we cross over to the high security side of the base. We take a shuttle up to the new ship. A new kind of ship, something new in the history of the world. We will be accepted or rejected by OS R.3 and, and only if we are accepted will we start work on construction of the cage for the dark matter. If you play games over on the high security side you will end up very dead very quick."
"Wait, wait what is OS R.3? What the hell is that?"
Vend started to make a fist.
"No, no, Vend, I don't know, honest."
"Estrada, you ... the OS is the Operating System that runs the ship. It's a collection of the most advanced and innovative software ever created. It'll be an honor and privilege to work with OS R.3."
"Have you been on the ship? What class is it? What's it called? How --"
"Estrada, slow down, take a breath. I'm sorry I pushed you. I had no right or reason. You can put me on report."
"Amanto, tell me about the ship. The amazing ship we will be working on."
Vend leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.
"OK, OK, but remember, the OS chooses and she may not want us, understand. And, and listen, amanta, this is important. Everyone on the high security side is on edge. There're Marines everywhere with deadly force, field weapons and independent authority to use them. Please, please be careful. Watch me and Sergeant Schneider, follow our lead."
I was about to respond, but Vend cut me off.
"I lost my brother, Serr, when he was sixteen ... an accident ... be careful, be serious ... I have never been on the ship. The ship is the Nina. Amanta, the Nina is like the seventh wonder of the universe."
Part One of Five