Previously Published Story #3: Storage Cylinders

I’m having trouble believing that October is almost over. And that I managed to cram so much into this month. And that there’s still a week left, which will include even more things, culminating in the next Can*Con on Halloween weekend.

This week, I have what will likely be my last previously published story posted before Can*Con – and another of my favorites. “Storage Cylinders” was originally published in Encounters Magazine in 2014, and takes place in a world where Earth is long gone and humanity is almost extinct. It focuses on Bryant, the only human Jurist in the galaxy, who discovers that the most important remnants of his people’s homeworld might be the simplest things imaginable. Hope you enjoy!

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Storage Cylinders

Bryant felt a hand on his shoulder before he stepped through the airlock.

“Are you sure you’re going to be able to do this?” asked his partner, Hyor. Every third or fourth syllable was punctuated by a popping sound from the membranes on his throat as they tried to sap moisture from the recycled air around them.

“I know my job, Hyor,” Bryant replied, trying not to sound angry. Hyor was technically his superior, but their relationship was usually one of equals. “I can remain objective, don’t worry.”

“Not worried. Just curious.”

The slight curve of Hyor’s lipless mouth succeeded in putting Bryant at ease; he smiled wryly as he led the way through the airlock.

Bryant observed the faded, yellow lettering on the entrance to the starship they had docked with while they waited for their patrol vessel’s computer to override the airlock door. The ship’s name, ODYSSEY, was spelled out in the writing system of a language that was quickly becoming extinct. As far as Bryant knew, he was the only Jurist who could understand English, a fact that had taken a long time to accept.

The door ground open, squealing like it was in agony. Before they stepped inside, both Jurists checked the recording units on their shoulders, which were linked to the pads worn on each man’s left wrist. Both would be needed by the Prime Jury if their verdicts were contested.

Given how tiny the ship seemed from the outside, Bryant wasn’t surprised by the cramped, narrow corridor they stepped into. The lighting was dim, but their wristlamps made up for that, showing them the decrepit interior in full detail. There was no paneling on the walls or ceiling; instead, the cables and bulkheads holding the ship together were in full view. Hoses hung low from the ceiling, forcing the two Jurists to duck occasionally as they proceeded down the corridor. Bits of broken machinery littered the ground, along with occasional puddles of industrial fluid; the stench was a sign the ship was still running at least partly on fossil fuels.

The corridor opened into a larger, circular cabin in the same ramshackle condition. Bryant stopped at the threshold. Directly opposite was another corridor, leading starboard into darkness. To the left, he could see a short alcove that served as the cockpit. And to the right –

“I’ve done nothing wrong!”

The screaming, flailing shape was in Bryant’s face before he could react. He stumbled backward, tripped over a loose cable, and landed on his back. As he struggled to get back to his feet, slipping on something wet, he saw Hyor’s sidearm overhead and heard his partner shout something in Rellen, the Capital Authority’s trade language.

“Wait!” Bryant ordered. He could hear the same voice that had assaulted him babbling a few meters away. It was raspy, distinctly male, and speaking English.

“Are you all right?” Hyor asked. He helped Bryant to his feet with one free hand.

“I’m fine, he just startled me.”

Bryant saw his assailant crouched near the center of the cabin. Surprisingly, there was no furniture except for the lone chair in front of the ship’s controls. The rest of the cabin’s contents consisted of a few crates of meagre-looking supplies, scattered tools, and piles of refuse.

Bryant gestured for Hyor to stay back a little and holster his weapon. Hyor stared for a long moment at the huddled figure before letting out a wet sigh and doing as instructed. Bryant moved forward alone, stepping carefully around the scattered objects until he was a meter from the old man. His brown robes were as ragged as the ship, and he was hiding his face behind two gnarled hands.

I’m guessing you know who we are,” Bryant said. As he spoke, he was surprised by how the words on his tongue felt comfortable and foreign at the same time. There was an odd thrill at the combination, one that he had never experienced when he learned English as a child. Back then, he couldn’t understand his tutor’s joy while spelling out words and phrases; now, he had a flickering sense of that emotion.

He forcibly brought his mind back to reality and the man in front of him, and continued, “You’ve been charged with theft of goods, defaulting on docking fees, and traveling between systems without proper transit papers. My partner and I are here to judge your case and deliver a verdict.”

The man didn’t look up as Bryant spoke. People tended to avert their gaze from Jurists, out of fear that some trace of their guilt would be given away in their eyes. Bryant peered closer, trying to see the man’s face. His eyes widened in surprise – not because of the deep wrinkles, the crooked nose, or the disintegrating white hair, but because the man’s eyes were clenched tightly together and he was shivering, as though terrified.

While Bryant spoke to the old man, Hyor had drifted over to the cockpit alcove and was examining the flight controls. He said to Bryant, “It looks like he planned to be out here for a while. His course is directed into deep space, not any specific planet.”

Bryant nodded, filing the information later for their brief to the Prime Jury. As he turned his gaze back to the old man, he caught a closer glimpse of the crates of supplies. Each one was stamped with the Capital Authority’s emblem, a crimson trapezoid set over a black circle.

“That must be the stolen food,” Bryant said. “That is the first piece of evidence against you. We will search the rest of your ship to collect additional evidence before rendering our verdict.”

The old man kept silent. Bryant tried to ignore the man’s obvious terror and remain impartial. After waiting for a full minute, he sighed and slowly lowered himself to a crouch, balancing carefully on the dirty, uneven deck.

“Can you hear me?” Bryant asked softly. He tried to sound gentle without being overly friendly.

He exchanged a glance with Hyor and saw his partner’s obvious impatience. When he turned back, he noticed that the old man was muttering under his breath, almost too quietly to be heard.

“Have to keep them safe, have to preserve them, only one, no one, no one left, only me, only me, have to keep them safe…”

Bryant frowned and leaned in closer.

“Keep them safe, have to keep them safe, but I have to live, how do I live, keep it alive, have to eat, food, eating for nourishment, stay alive, keep them alive, everything safe, have to survive…”

“What are you keeping safe?” Bryant’s voice was a whisper. “What are you talking about?”

The old man fell silent. Tears were streaking down his withered face. In a haggard whisper, he said, “It’s all we have left…”

He clutched his head again and continued muttering.

“He might be insane, Hyor,” Bryant called to his partner. The question was whether or not his insanity was deep enough to affect the verdict. Insanity pleas were tricky. “What do you think?”

“For once, I actually have no idea.”

Bryant turned around. Hyor was shining his wristlamp toward the rear of the cabin, opposite the cockpit. His face bore a look of complete bewilderment. Bryant turned to follow the light and instantly saw the source of his partner’s confusion.

The entire rear wall was encompassed by a curving, metal shelving unit. The shelves were stocked with dozens of silver storage cylinders, each about thirty centimetres in circumference. The cylinders sparkled under Bryant and Hyor’s wristlamps like the lost riches of the Céger, before the Authority’s time.

He left the old man where he was and walked over to the cylinders. Each of them was an identical, fairly common brand of storage unit. A solid green light showed that they were hermetically sealed. Bryant looked around at the rest of the decrepit ship, figuring the old man must have spent every credit he had on those cylinders. So this is what he’s keeping safe?

            His gloved hand grasped one.

“Cannot touch them!”

“Stay where you are until a verdict is passed,” Hyor ordered sharply, his membranes popping tensely between each word. He drew his sidearm again and left it hanging at his side.

The old man was on his feet now, but stayed where he was. Bryant nodded at Hyor, then continued what he was doing.

The cylinder was surprisingly light. Bryant depressurized the lid and lifted it away.

There was only one thing inside: a length of yellow fabric, maybe ten centimetres long. Aside from the frayed edges, as though it had been torn on either end, there was nothing remarkable about it.

He returned the fabric, resealed the cylinder and grabbed another. This one contained a small pile of tiny, plastic triangles with rounded corners. Each was no bigger than his thumb, and they came in a variety of colors.

“What’s in there?” Hyor asked.

Bryant shook his head. “I don’t know.”

He studied the other dozens of cylinders. All had been shown the kind of care someone would give their most precious possessions. The old man was obsessed with preserving their contents. But what’s so important about fabric or bits of plastic? Insanity was too easy a conclusion; Bryant knew there had to be something he wasn’t seeing.

Determined to understand, he began pulling down cylinders at random and looking at their contents. The first contained a worn, conical shell with slashes of brown across its pale surface, common enough on most planets. The next held an old, rusty key and a padlock, though it was obvious they weren’t a match. Then there were a few soft, fluffy balls that could fit in his palm, made of a white material he didn’t recognize.

The old man started whimpering, but Hyor’s command kept him from doing anything else.

Bryant’s confusion grew with every cylinder he looked in. He could hear Hyor tapping his sidearm against his leg in boredom or impatience, but decided to ignore him while he grabbed another cylinder. He was shocked when he recognized what was inside.

The metal figurine was slightly bigger than his hand. He rotated it between his fingers, taking in the four legs, the long neck, and the black and white stripes. He knew had seen something like it before, but for the moment he couldn’t remember where. The voice of his old tutor came to mind, reverberating like an echo, too incoherent for him to place.

And then it struck him. Bryant set down the cylinder and activated the pad on his wrist. As quickly as he could while still holding the figuring, he entered in a search command for the pad’s link to their patrol ship’s database.

It did not take long to find the file he needed. When the hologram emerged from his pad, the projected image was nearly identical to the figurine: long neck, four legs, black and white stripes. There was a single phrase across the bottom of the image:

Zebra, formerly of Earth.

Now Bryant remembered. He had learned about zebras with his tutor, when they were studying flora and fauna from his homeworld. Normally recalling his childhood lessons was pleasant; now, it only made him feel numb.

They said everything was lost. They said there wasn’t even enough to put in a display case.

            He returned the zebra to its cylinder with caution, almost terrified that he might break it. He resealed and re-shelved the cylinder like the others, his thoughts a whirring mess that he couldn’t decipher.

When Earth was destroyed, generations before he was born, there were hardly any humans offworld. The few who survived were absorbed into the Capital Authority, and they were so scattered that human culture was virtually forced into extinction. Bryant knew more about the history of Hyor’s people and the Authority’s other major species than he did about his own kind.

Could everything here be…?

The items varied more and more with each cylinder he unsealed. The worn sole of a boot. A cluster of broken pottery that might have been a plate. A misshapen lump of onyx. A flat disc, wider than his face, with a faded label on its surface. Torn fragments of paper, the writing too faded to read, so that he couldn’t even tell if they were from the same document. A tiny, corroded tube that he was pretty sure used to be a battery. A cracked glass with a long stem. Clumps of hair or fur, stored together even though they varied in coarseness and softness. Half a candle, melted sometime long ago, the wick no longer attached.

None of these items seemed at all important. He would expect a collection of things from Earth – possibly the only collection in existence – to include important documents, photographs, or relics from the most pivotal events in human history. These cylinders, however … To Bryant, all they contained was trash, the residue of a dying species that no longer had a home.

He noticed a cylinder on the far right with a blue light on its control panel in addition to the green, which meant that it was climate-controlled. He reached for it, but then paused and glanced behind him. The old man was staring at the floor in apparent defeat, resigned to the fact that he couldn’t keep his cherished possessions from being examined.

In addition to the hiss of escaping air, light mist whooshed from the cylinder as the lid was removed. Bryant waited for the mist to dissipate so he could see what was inside.

A single ice cube rested at the bottom. Bryant lifted it out between his thumb and forefinger. The cube was imperfect, having partially dissolved before it was preserved. He looked at it more closely and realized there were flecks of brown liquid dotting its surface; the cube had been in someone’s glass. Bryant couldn’t begin to imagine how it had survived long enough to make it inside the cylinder.

This was what he was looking for. This water…

When he saw a tiny rivulet running down his glove, he gasped. As quickly as he could, he returned the cube to the cylinder and resealed it. His heart was pounding, and he took a breath to steady it.

He felt a presence beside him and turned to see the old man standing a couple meters away.

“How,” Bryant said, “did you find all of this?”

The old man didn’t respond. He was staring at the cylinders with a kind of longing. There was a strange smile on his face.

Bryant tried again. “These things … they should be in a museum.”

“If the Authority wanted our species in a museum,” the old man replied, dropping his smile, “they would have collected these things themselves.”

He wandered away again, only a couple meters, but it seemed as though he had forgotten saying anything. Bryant studied his fingers where he had held the ice cube and saw the slick, wet residue that had been left behind on his glove. He frowned, realizing that tiny remnant of Earth’s water would evaporate and be lost forever in the ship’s recycled air.

“Hyor.”

His partner didn’t respond. Bryant looked up from his gloved hand, desperately seeking guidance from the more experienced Jurist.

Hyor wasn’t paying attention to him. His gaze was focused on a hologram projected from his pad. Bryant couldn’t make out what he was looking at, only that his fingers were moving rapidly on the projected screen.

“Hyor,” he pressed.

When his partner looked up, his expression was intense. In one smooth motion, he deactivated his pad – and drew his sidearm, pointing it directly at the old man.

Instinctively, Bryant’s hand shot to his own weapon, but he came short of pulling it from its holster. He demanded, “Hyor, what are you doing?”

“We need to take this man into custody.” Hyor continued to stare at the old man, who was frozen in apparent confusion.

“What about a verdict?”

“The verdict is guilty.”

Dumbfounded, Bryant shook his head. “I contest the verdict. It’s not unanimous –”

“Your objection is noted, Bryant, but the judgment stands.”

“That’s in violation of the Authority’s statutes –”

“By Statute 12-7 of the Capital Authority Code of Justice, the Prime Jury may supersede any Jurist and issue a direct verdict. They just did so. The verdict is guilty, Bryant.”

“Why is the Prime Jury superseding?” Bryant demanded angrily. “We haven’t finished collecting evidence yet, or rendered our own preliminary verdict.”

“Those questions can be handled in an appeal, Bryant. We need to carry out the verdict.” Hyor fixed his full attention on the old man again. “You will be taken into custody until a sentence is passed. Your property will be confiscated –”

“No!”

Suddenly the old man was in motion, sprinting away from the two Jurists, stumbling toward the darkened corridor opposite where Bryant and Hyor had entered. Bryant called out, but the old man ignored him.

Hyor didn’t bother to call out. The single energy blast struck the old man in the back just as he reached the corridor’s threshold. The extra force and his own momentum sent him sailing into the darkness.

Bryant’s weapon was in his hands in an instant, pointed directly at his partner. Hyor pivoted on one foot so that his sidearm was aimed at Bryant’s forehead. They stood there like that in silence, Bryant acutely aware of the rows of storage cylinders stacked behind him, and that he was the only thing between their contents and Hyor’s sidearm.

“Hyor, what are you doing?”

“I told you,” Hyor replied, his voice surprisingly level. “By Statute 12-7, the Prime Jury issued a guilty verdict for this case. Our job is to carry out that verdict.”

“But not the sentence, Hyor.” Unlike his partner, Bryant’s voice was shaking as he tried to accept what was going on around him. “You just committed murder.”

“No, I didn’t. The verdict was passed, and he resisted. A count of resisting arrest is retroactively added to the charges. He was going for a hidden weapon –”

“What weapon?”

“– which adds a retroactive count of attempted murder against a Jurist. Sentence passed is death, also retroactive.” Hyor’s lipless mouth contorted into a grim smile as he added, “It’s all legal, Bryant. Now put down your weapon.”

“Not until you explain yourself.”

“I just did.”

“What did you see on your pad?”

Hyor didn’t respond. His wet breathing was labored from tension, almost echoing in the decrepit ship. Again, both Jurists lapsed into silence, staring at each other over the barrels of their weapons.

When Hyor finally spoke, it wasn’t the response that Bryant was expecting.

“I need to take you into custody.”

“What?”

“Your judgment is clearly flawed. The contents of those cylinders are clouding your –”

“How do you know what’s in these cylinders?” Bryant demanded. His grip on his weapon tightened. “You asked me what was in them, so clearly you didn’t know then. What was on your pad, Hyor?”

“I’m sorry, Bryant.” He actually sounded sincere. “I need to take you into custody. And everything on this ship will be confiscated – and likely destroyed, with the exception of the stolen supplies.”

Bryant couldn’t believe it. How could the Authority destroy everything?

“Hyor, please.” Bryant tried not to sound like he was pleading, but failed. “These cylinders … these might be the last remnants of my people.”

“Your people are dead, Bryant. Earth is nothing but a memory, and humanity will follow soon enough. Your only allegiance is to the Authority and your duty as a Jurist.”

Bryant couldn’t see a way out of this. Hyor was right; his first duty was to the Authority. He was already likely to lose his position as a Jurist, depending on how their superiors viewed this case. There was clearly more going on here, but he wasn’t going to find out in a standoff with his partner. His only hope at protecting these cylinders was compliance, and negotiating with the Prime Jury later.

Feeling like he was betraying his people – what few of them were left in the galaxy – he lowered his weapon.

Hyor kept his weapon trained on Bryant. “Thank you,” he said softly.

At that point, Bryant expected him to lower his weapon, as well. Instead, he saw his partner’s shoulders tense –

Bryant threw himself sideways as quickly as he could, and heard rather than saw Hyor’s weapon discharging. Something exploded behind him, and then a searing heat struck Bryant in the side, knocking him against the shelves and rattling the cylinders stacked there. As he fell, Bryant desperately raised his weapon and squeezed the trigger. He landed in a heap on the refuse-laden deck.

To his surprise, there were no more shots.

Grimacing against the aching heat in his torso, Bryant forced his eyes open. Hyor wasn’t standing anymore. He was on his knees, eyes wide in shock, membranes desperately groping for air while one hand clutched the gaping wound in his chest. He stared at Bryant in disbelief, and then collapsed backward and lay still.

Bryant gasped and let his body relax. When he dropped his weapon, the sound it made against the deck reminded him of the shattering he had heard. He looked beside him and saw one of the storage cylinders lying in pieces. Among the twisted shards of metal were a few tiny droplets of water, sizzling and steaming against the deck. Bryant just stared as the brown-flecked water fizzled into nothingness, refusing to let this last memory of Earth’s oceans disappear unseen.

He wasn’t sure how long he lay on the deck, staring at the destroyed cylinder. When he finally tried to move, there was a sharp slash of agony across his entire midsection. He looked down, and noticed for the first time the thick pool of blood collecting on the deck beneath him – and the shocking hole in his side where flesh and bone had been before.

After a few more minutes spent struggling to rise, Bryant finally made it to his feet. He looked around the cabin, feeling oddly sluggish. He took in Hyor’s collapsed body in front of him, the boxes of Authority supplies, the general decay of the ship … and finally past them, to the flight controls at the other end of the cabin.

Slowly, he staggered forward, carefully avoiding the refuse scattered across the deck. He cast a brief glance down the starboard corridor and saw the old man’s crumpled form in the shadows. A part of him wanted to pay some sort of last respect to the man, but he couldn’t remember any old Earth funeral rites, and he knew he didn’t have time.

By the time he reached the flight controls, he could barely read the display. His numb fingers tapped across the sections of the screen that were familiar to him, seemingly in vain. Bryant frowned, wondering why he didn’t seem to be accomplishing anything.

Then he heard it, in the distance: the sound of an airlock disengaging.

It was followed soon after by the sound of ion engines powering up.

He was no longer standing when the Odyssey began moving forward through space. Instead, Bryant lay on the edge of the cockpit alcove, staring across the cabin at the shattered storage cylinder while tiny flecks of tears rolled down his cheeks.

His last thought was of lost pieces of humanity, before the Odyssey sped away into the void.

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