On the clearest morning in months, Hovvi was cast in a shadow. Aerie Station hovered in low orbit, aligning itself with the town as the body of its crew—numbering more than the whole population below—scurried about, preparing to disembark.
In the hangar belly more shadows were cast. A trio of giants, flesh scored and twisted with strange metal, stood aboard the quarter-mile disc of the elevator platform. Soldiers swarmed at their feet, as military vehicles and containers full of all manner of equipment were loaded into place. More than a thousand men, and that would only be the first drop. But those giants, the Saviors, they were an army a piece. “C’mon, Besca! Are you sure we can’t bring Dragon down? Like, not even just for the night? It can come back up in the morning before the singularities open!”
Besca Darroh wished she’d brought her cigarettes. People looked at you funny if you drank this early, but no one gave a shit if you smoked. She scrolled absently through her tablet, septuple-checking the inventory, and looked up to see Dahlia giving her the eyes
. A good effort, those usually worked on her in every matter that wasn’t piloting, but even if she wanted to let the girl into the cockpit—which she didn’t—she couldn’t. “Sorry, Deelie, orders are from on high. Dragon stays in orbit unless it’s needed.”
Dahlia lolled her head back. “But isn’t this supposed to be, like, a display? I should be down there!”“You’ll be down there.”“Helping!”
They came to a stop beside Grauritter
, the Savior belonging to Hadrian Ghaust. The modium growths about its legs and arms were thick—thicker on one arm than the other—and coupled with the reinforced plating, it almost looked armored.“You saying Ghaust and the others can’t handle this?”
Besca teased. When Dahlia didn’t bite, she threw an arm around the girl’s shoulder and pulled her close. “It’s a mild singularity, and you’re right, it is a display. But the world already knows what you can do, hm? What it needs to know is what RISC can do without you, so that they don’t even want to think about what happens if you do get involved. What’s the best weapon?”“The one you never use…”
Dahlia mumbled. “Atta girl,”
Besca said, letting her go. “Now you’re gonna be down there, and you’re gonna enjoy the party. Do you know how weird it is having to twist a teenager’s arm for that? There are poor, bored children out there who have homework, or are grounded, who would kill to go out and get as drunk as you and Safie are gonna get.”
Dahlia’s face flushed the way it always did when she was about to lie. “W-we don’t—”“And tell your dad I said hi. If things slow down I might take him up on that fishing offer. The lake down there, oof, just beautiful.” “Alright, alright.”“And also there’s that new lady in medical? Hathleen? She’s about his age and she does yoga.”“Besca!”“I’m just saying, she’s single, and the pickings are slim. We could get him office work right next door, and the dorms are coed.”
Dahlia plugged her ears. “Nope nope nope! I don’t hear this! I don’t hear you trying to hook my dad up with your coworkers! Again! I don’t hear it and I’m walking away!”
Besca grinned, watching her scamper off, satisfied that her mind would be off piloting long enough to touchdown. This wouldn’t be the first singularity they’d run without her, but it would hopefully be the next in a long line of them to come. Ghaust was seasoned, Lucis and Safie were young but they were still adults. Dahlia might have been their trump card, but she was a kid.
Sometimes it seemed like noone else remembered that. Not even Dahlia.
Three hundred and sixty-four days out of the year, Hovvi had a population of five thousand people, with a modest bump in summer months from lakeside tourists.
Today that number was doubled.
When word spread that RISC was turning the singularity into a veritable military parade, flights to Hovvi sold out in hours. By the time the blockades went up to stymie traffic, ten thousand people had made it into town. The streets were filled to bursting with Runa cityfolk, with opportunistic vendor stands hocking seafood and confections and trinkets made as far away as Tohoki. Hundreds upon hundreds of pilot hopefuls flooded the Community Center; queues to the simulation rooms ran for hours, with the highest scores carrying priority interviews with RISC recruiters.
Erected all along the boardwalk were massive walls of screens; some played archived footage of the RISC Saviors repelling invasions all across Runa, others streamed from the empty quarry on Hovvi’s outskirts, where the singularity was supposedly meant to open. RISC had set up a barricade on that side of town, unequipped at first, and lightly-manned—until the space elevator landed.
With the lake to the west and the quarry to the south, RISC anchored in the north, in a wide cattle-field. Hovvi had its Community Center, but beyond that, technology was still largely Pre-Accord. Hardlight, beam-alignments, all foreign machines to people who lived beyond the cities, to say nothing of the things the elevator delivered.
The platform came down in a soft-light cage, carrying Soldiers in powered suits wielding weapons that, in some cases, didn’t even look like weapons. They rode in armored vehicles, on tanks or hovering stages toting artillery the size of houses. Ammunition in trunks as wide as cars with bullets just as long. Chainguns mounted atop spray-steel walls, with feed-belts that could have spanned entire neighborhoods.
Then the Saviors came down. The RISC duo of Grauritter
were first, and their pilots, Hadrian Ghaust and Safie Calhan, were received with the applause and adulation expected of national heroes. They boarded their giants, and walked off the field and around the town to the southern barricade as the elevator rose back up to Aerie Station. Magnifique
, the Casobani Savior, came down with the last of the equipment. Lucis Abroix stood perched upon its shoulder, smiling and waving as the crowd below exploded with riotous cheering. Fans, paparazzi and foreign journalists had been among the first arrivals to Hovvi, eager for the album debuts Lucis tended to drop at events like this.
With a showman’s bow, Magnifique
joined the other Saviors quarry-side.
By mid-afternoon, Hovvi was surrounded by the might of the RISC. The tourists loved it, of course. The locals were mixed; business boomed, lake-tours and restaurants filled out and stayed filled. Some places saw more money come through in hours than they’d see the rest of the year.
People walked the neighborhoods, eyeing old houses and talking loudly about how yes, they loved the city, but wouldn’t living here be delightfully quaint? Most decided they’d rather just summer. They went to the lake houses instead.
The hours went. Stages rose, the air filled with the sound of music and the clamor of too many people in too small a place enjoying themselves too much to care.
Besca stepped into the back lot of the Community Center and leaned against the door with an exhausted sigh. Late afternoon now, she’d been conducting interviews since morning. There was only so much she could take at once, only so many times she could ask the same questions—and get the same ‘this is what you want to hear, right?’
answers—before the names and faces all blurred together. There’d been promising candidates, she didn’t remember them anymore. Not that it particularly mattered.
This wasn’t her job. It should be—she
managed the pilots, she should
have a say in who got in and who didn’t. But at the end of the day RISC would choose someone based on a checklist, and a scoring system she’d skimmed once and never looked at again because it didn’t work. The last two pilots were disasters, but they’d lucked out with Safie. Now they thought they could do no wrong again, and chances were they’d be leaving Runa with someone who would be dead in two to three months.
God, who did she have to kill to get a smoke around here?
Lucis smiled into the mirror, checking his teeth and smoothing the last of the moisturizer onto his cheek. “Saff, you are an absolute miracle worker! Honestly, with talent like this you’re wasted as a pilot.”
Safie giggled, fluffing out his hair. “Just wanna make sure you look good—you don’t make that too hard. Oop, close real quick for me.”
She came around and Lucis shut his eyes so she could work on the eyeshadow. “But hey I heard the demos. You could walk out there wearing a trash bag and those songs’ll still kill.”“Ugh, I could kiss you but I’m not gonna waste your gloss.”“Oh, you seen Ghaus by the way?”
Lucis scoffed. “Out past the checkpoint, of course. I practically begged him to come on to the Chloe and Road interview with me, and do you know what he said?”“Nothing.”“He said nothing! He just stared at me like some kind of chiseled homunculus. I’m trying with him, Safie, I really am. I’m not saying we have to be best friends, but a little camaraderie, you know, it’s good for appearances.”
Safie leaned back, appraising her work. Lucis must have sensed she was done, and opened his eyes. He blinked happily into the mirror, nodding approval. “He’s just not comfortable with that sorta stuff, Lou. But I’m sure he appreciates you trying to include him. I think that’s sweet.”“You’re an angel, Saff. Sure you won’t come on stage with me?”“Can’t, can’t. Deelie’s dad really wants to take us out fishing.”“Mmh, scheduling can be such a pain,”
he said, standing. He hugged her lightly, kissed the air on either cheek. “Give me two or three minutes to draw the crowd.”
Safie smiled, nodded. She put on her hoodie and sunglasses, which was usually enough subtlety when Lucis was around. With a wave farewell he left the trailer, and as the door shut there was an almost deafening roar of excitement from the nearby crowd.
When the coast was clear she scurried out unnoticed, and made for the docks on the far side of town where Dahlia was meant to meet her.
Along the waterside cliffs, where the roads were narrow and beaten and missed even by locals, where a lone house, modest, without windows on its second floor, stood quietly at the face of the lake, something had happened. Something more miraculous than the singularities, or the Saviors and their famous pilots, and all the forces of RISC that came with them.
On their way out of town days prior, the residents—a mother and father, by only the most technical of definitions—had made their first mistake in many, many years. A small mistake, a simple mistake, and one that would carry incalculable consequences for them, for Runa, and in fact for every last soul on Illun.
They’d left their daughter’s door ajar.