Category: Neenan

Flashbacks 4

Main-Tank was dead. Hollice had found him face down in the cargo hold just after the first attack, a trail of congealing blood started at his nose and formed a pool around his cheek pressed against the deck. The remaining four held a short service for him, then airlocked the body.

They’d been in deep space for three weeks according to their own chronology, as measured by the ship’s clocks. As for the verse outside… they’d jumped through so many wheres and whens that, as Gun put it, “our timelines are scientifically speaking completely screwed”.

Like Neenan, Gun and Hollice and Fibo had learned jump-flight by rote and by practice, they had never been to flight school to learn it properly. It was theoretically impossible for a human to pilot a jump-ship without first learning to do the math, but that didn’t stop a lot of people from trying. Most ended up as a greasy puddle needing to be hosed out of the cock-pit, a few did not.

Sarenna had tried her damnedest to make Neenan learned the theory, the equations equations and frames of reference and tensors. It seemed to Neenan that Sarenna, aristocratically-born, Imperium-educated, who had spent her entire adult life as a jump-pilot and officer of the Union Elite, couldn’t bring herself to believe that Neenan didn’t understand calculus. No matter how resoundingly she failed at all the assignments she was given, her instructor just thought she wasn’t really trying. This led the instructor to assign the young pilot lot of remedial work, and then a lot of punishment when the work was invariably botched, if it was turned in at all. So instead of learning advanced mathematics, Neenan did push-ups and scrubbed toilets.

‘She thought I was just obstinate,’ Neenan mused to herself, ‘and it pissed her off, and she ragged me three times as hard as anyone else, but at the same time she respected me for having the guts to defy her. And by the time she realized that I was really just stupid, I was already the best pilot in the group, and it didn’t matter anymore.’



Flashbacks 3

The ship seemed a lot smaller with five people on board, and the cargo hold packed full of unimaginably expensive stolen goods. Neenan and her crew had just pulled off the heist of their lives, and they were exhaustic and travel-sick, ecstatic, and suddenly wealthy. Gun played her music loud, bottles of wine were passed around. Main-Tank had already passed out, slumped behind a stack of crates. The remaining four danced, drank, laughed, and hugged each-other.

“I’d better not, I’ve still got to pilot this thing,” Neenan said, when a bottle was offered, and in response Gun leapt on top of a crate of stolen goods, laughing, foaming bottle held aloft, and toasted her: “Our Neenan drunk is still a better pilot than any other, drunk or sober! To Neenan!”

After the wine a pipe of sweet-scented hydroponic was passed around, setting off the fire alarm. All four of them started in terror at the sound, then burst out laughing, exclaiming, “you should have seen the look on your face!” “No you, you should have seen yourself, I’ve never seen anyone jump so high!”. Gun managed to disconnect the alarm from its power cell, still giggling.

They were happy. They were a bunch of nobodies, small-time thieves and pirates, but they had just pulled off a heist that would make them rich for the rest of their lives.

A little later the proximity alarm started blaring, loud enough to overpower even Gun’s soundsystem. They thought it was the fire alarm again. Gun drunkenly tried to remove the battery from the fire alarm, without success since she had already taken it out earlier.

Fibo was the first realise something was wrong. He smashed the sound system into silence with a crate mallet. In the sudden silence, ignoring the protests from Gun and Hollice he grabbed Neenan by the fabric of her shirt and shouted:

“Get in the cockpit, now!”

For a moment Neenan stood frozen. Cold realisation flooded her. Without a word she turned and ran to the flight deck, with Fibo following. The other two followed behind, with Gun calling out:

“No way. Come on you guys, there’s no way!”

All four crowded into the small flight deck, Neenan sliding into the pilot’s seat.

“Bogey,” Fibo said flatly, pointing at the main console screen.

“EM,” Gun said. There was no response. “It’s a blip, OK?” Gun insisted. “It’s a meteor or something. It’s EM interference.”



Opel sat in a wooden deck chair, typing on a personal console on her lap, while enjoying the bright mid-morning sunshine. Next to her chair was a platter of food: thick slices of yams, fried in batter, a spicy salsa of beans and vegetables, and a bowl piled high with assorted fruit. The yams and beans came from the vast greenhouses aboard the Nahilander ships, docked in the valley below, but the fruit was native to the planet. Around her rose the peaks of the mountains encircling the valley, and the valley itself lay directly before and below her, lush and green. Now that the weather was so nice she had formed a habit of spending most of her waking hours out here on the deck. Even after most of a year, she was still struck by the beauty of this place. Back home on Nahiland there were plenty of lovely gardens and nature parks, but nothing like this.

The cottage door opened and Neenan walked a little unsteadily onto the deck. She was dressed in the tunic and trousers that she’d worn on the day she’d crash-landed on the planet, rather than in the clothes that Opel had loaned her.

“Good morning,” Opel greeted her young guest.

Neenan put her hands on her hips. “I want to see my ship,” she said.

“We went to visit your ship the day before yesterday,” Opel said gently. “Do you remember? We went down to the valley together. Our mechanics had done some repairs. You showed me around inside the ship and you let me copy your notes about the planets you visited. On the way back you struggled to make it up the hill.”

Neenan stood blinking in the sunlight for several moments. “I remember that,” she said finally. “I remember it now. I remembered it before, I just thought it was a dream.”

“That sort of confusion is perfectly normal for someone with your condition,” Opel said soothingly. “It’ll get better, you just have to be patient. In the meantime, sit down and have some breakfast.”

Neenan obediently began nibbling at some battered yams.

“Look at this,” Opel said, tilting the console screen so Neenan could see it.

Displayed on the screen was a high-resolution image of a large earthenware jug, with dancing figures carved on it.

“Isn’t it incredible?” Opel said, “It’s over a thousand years old.”

“That’s really old,” Neenan said, underwhelmed. On Florence, where she was from, people used pots to cook in, or threw them away if they were old and broken. No-one would think to look at the decorations on an old piece of kitchenware and wonder about the people who had used it.

“Look at the detail, here, and here,” Opel said, pointing.

The figures were drawn in a jagged, angular style, and they all faced either straight ahead or straight off to the side. Nevertheless the scene was easy to make out.

“We had books with pictures kind of like that on Florence,” Neenan recalled. “Adventure stories. They were for kids, but adults read them too.”

“The people who made this jug had no computers,” Opel reminded her, “no paper, no factories, no electricity. Everything they had, they made by hand, from stone, wood, animal hide, or clay. And yet they had a sophisticated artistic tradition. Even the most mundane objects were decorated with scenes from their mythology. They had mathematics, a written language, and they were consummate storytellers. To us they may look like primitives, but that’s not how they saw themselves. They considered themselves the princes and princesses of the universe.”

“You can tell all that from looking at a pot?” Neenan asked.

In response, Opel selected a slightly soggy slice of fried yam from the breakfast tray, and flung it at the younger woman. Neenan was taken so completely by surprise that she didn’t even duck. The yam smacked her in the cheek and hung there for a moment, before sliding wetly to fall in her lap.

Neenan looked at her host, who was normally so peaceful and dignified, in total astonishment.

“Don’t be such a snark,” Opel said. Her expression was serious, but her eyes twinkled.

While Neenan wiped sauce from her face, Opel brought up another image on her console. This one was also of an earthen jug, but sand-coloured rather than reddish-brown. It also had human figures carved onto it.

“This one’s from a planet called G’nath, which we Nahilanders first visited three centuries ago,” she said. “The G’nathi are technologically advanced, but they’ve managed to preserve some artefacts from their distant past. Their museums are incredible. The original Nahilander expedition to G’nath was intended to last one or two years, but instead it lasted ten, and when the ships finally returned they brought twenty-one G’nathi with them, while a similar number of Nahilanders chose to stay permanently on G’nath. It’s an anthropologist’s dream. Look, see the similarities between the piece from our dig, and the ancient G’nathi one?”

Neenan looked at the console, and saw two old jugs with some designs scratched into them. “Sort of,” she said.

The older woman began tapping away at her console. Neenan looked up, to see a surprisingly large, solitary animal with leathery wings, circling high above the valley. Searching for prey, Neenan thought. It’s a hunter, like me. Except I’ve been stuck on the ground far too long. I need to get back in my ship, and fly away.

In the greenhouse

The greenhouse was vast, so vast it was easy to forget that it was aboard a spaceship. It was also very warm and humid. Since Neenan was feeling so much better, Opel had brought her along to do a shift planting seedlings. The work consisted discarding the seedlings that were clearly dead or dying, removing weeds from soil beds, and planting out the seedlings.

“Why did you bring weeds with you?” Neenan asked, while pulling up some stray greenery.

“That wasn’t deliberate, I can assure you” Opel replied, “we probably brought some insects with us as well. It’s hard to move a large greenhouse and thousands of kilograms of soil without also bringing some other things along with it.”

Neenan held out a gloved fist-full of bristling green plant-life for the older woman to examine. “Is this stuff weeds?”

“Ah, those are,” Opel replied, pointing. At Neenan’s perplexed frown she asked: “You really can’t tell them apart?”

“All this stuff just looks like plants to me,” Neenan said grumpily. “I guess I thought Nahilander technology would be more… high-tech.”

That made Opel smile. “High tech?” she asked rhetorically. “Our technology is ahead of most other civilizations we’ve encountered, but we can’t eat spaceships or computers. And we’ve only ever found one way to grow food. Or perhaps you were referring to our finely-crafted traditional Nahilandian hole-punchers?

The hole-punchers were battered, ancient plastic trays, bristling with finger-length protrusions, that fit exactly over the seed-bed containers. Once a bed had been cleared of weeds and the soil raked, the tray was pushed down onto the bed and then lifted, leaving precisely-spaced holes for the seedlings to be dropped into.

Neenan found the whole situation bemusing, and slightly surreal. “I can’t understand why you all take turns at doing this,” she said a minute later, “I’m not complaining, it just seems really inefficient.”



Something woke her suddenly, a noise. Something wrong. Neenan groped for her side-arm, but found herself swatting at empty space, and a bare wall where the shelf should be. She stood, throwing aside her blanket. She was in a small room that she had never seen before. A sleeping mat and a tangle of blankets lay at her feet. Apart from that the room contained some clothes, neatly folded and piled in a corner, a stool, and a table on which rested an empty cup. The door was slightly ajar. Light came in through a high window, a bit too small to climb through. Outside she could see only green. She wasn’t on her ship, but this wasn’t a prison cell either. She cast about for a weapon and found nothing. That wasn’t right, Neenan always kept a weapon close, there should be a blaster either strapped to her body, or within arm’s reach of where she slept. Her vision was blurred, her head was throbbing and the pain made it hard to think, but she needed to figure out what in hell was going on. She grabbed at the blankets and shook them furiously, one then the other, but no friendly weapon came tumbling out. She wanted to scream in frustration. In her head she heard her own voice and Sarenna’s, in chorus, repeating over and over: “You idiot. You idiot. You idiot.”

The sound came again, very close. She grabbed the cup – at least she could throw it to buy a moment’s distraction – and flattened herself again the wall by the door, listening. She could make out footsteps, and breathing. There was only one of them, she decided. If she took him by surprise she should be able to take him out, even unarmed. Best to do it right away, in case there were more of them coming. Fear coiled in her belly, hot and acid. She forced herself to breathe slowly, to fight off panic. In her mind she could hear Sarenna barking: “You get exactly one chance at this, soldier, so do it right or you’re dead. You can do this! Now go, move it! Go! Go! Go!”

In a single motion she slammed through the doorway and took a fighting stance, body turned, knees flexed, the cup held ready behind her head.


Flashbacks 2

Neenan was on the nameless planet, posing as a visiting aristocrat in order to gain the sympathy and hospitality of mad old Duchess Charhelm. Really she was hiding from the Elite, lying low and allowing her ship’s trail to fade for a while before she jumped again. She sat on a cushioned, ornately carved bench, in their great temple. No, not temple, a “cathedral”, they called it. A vast, massively over-decorated building that was somehow simultaneously gaudy and gloomy, imposing and ridiculous. All around her were elaborately-dressed lords and ladies. These people believed that members of the aristocracy were fundamentally different from the majority of humans on their planet. Their science was advanced enough to tell them that there was no genetic distinction between them, but nevertheless there was a difference. The aristocracy were marked by God, elevated as a sign that He intended higher things for them than for the sinful masses. Neenan sat stiffly upright, acutely aware that, for as long as she sheltered on this planet, her survival depended on convincing her hosts that, in her own world, she was even more rich and noble than they were. She would have preferred at gun battle.

On the stage in front of her priestesses processed back and forth, lit from above by beams of garish electric light – or by God’s love, who could tell? The priestesses brought the new season, and the renewal of their deity’s love and forgiveness. They were eerily similar to one-another: tall, very pale, and underfed, their eyes made huge by the dark make-up that had been applied to their pale faces. All had the same high, jagged cheekbones and hollowed-out cheeks. They walked with a jerky, unnatural gait, swinging their thin hips to the side with each step, balancing on the stilt-like structures that women wore instead of shoes here. All wore the same glazed, intense expression, gazing into the audience as if they were trying to convey some deeply important message by thought alone. Perhaps they really did look across the veil that they believed separated their world from the next.

Suddenly the cathedral, the priestesses, Lady Charhelm and all the rest of them disappeared. Instead of a cushioned pew, Neenan sat on a hard metal chair. The room was small and harshly lit by a single diode lamp. She sat at a small table across from an old woman in combat fatigues.

“Everyone gets the sickness,” Sarenna said, in a voice like the machine that turns rock into gravel.

“Not me,” Neenan wanted to say, but instead she plunged, screaming, into the vacuum of space.

Scientific curiosity

Dip reclined in a long low deck chair on the big wooden platform in front of his friend Opel’s cabin, sipping a tall glass of a chilled sweet tea. The view of the valley was spectacular. If he squinted, he could just make out the collection of spaceships and temporary structures that made up the research settlement that had been his home for the past year. Even the largest of the ships looked like a child’s toy.

“Meteor woman?” Opel said, looking at him askance.

“That’s what we’ve been calling her, down below,” Dip said. “Her arrival was pretty spectacular, after all. A sonic boom, a blazing ball of fire, and a crash into the side of a mountain. She made an impression. The kids are all dying to meet her.”

“It doesn’t even make sense,” Opel mused, “it wasn’t a meteor, it was a ship.”

“It was like a meteor,” Dip said, smiling at her literalness. “How is your guest doing, anyway?”

“She’s improving,” Opel replied.

There was a crash inside the cabin.

“Slowly,” she added.



Neenan couldn’t recall how long or far she had travelled, or how many jumps she had made, before her crash-landing on the Red Stone Planet. Weeks, she thought, but sometimes it seemed as if it might have been much longer. Years. How old was she now? The question had no meaning, depending as it did on the orbital motion of a far-away planet in another solar system, in another plane.

She’d left behind Fibo and Main-Tank and Gun and Hollice, her closest friends and partners in crime. She’d had to, the pace of travel would have killed them. The plan had been that Neenan would go on ahead, keeping herself one step ahead of the Elite forces, leading them on a merry chase long enough for the rest to recover and get off-planet. She wondered if they were still alive, somewhere. She hoped so. She could imagine them holed up in some grubby spaceport in the Peripheries, where the Comintern patrols didn’t come so often, laundering their take a bit at a time. Keeping their heads down, but still finding time to go out dancing to the fast, jaggedly repetitive music that Main-Tank loved so much.

She could remember the slow, dawning elation she’d felt when she’d gone four jumps without encountering any trace of the Elite, then five, six, seven. Then a dozen or more. Slowly she began to accept that she’d done the impossible: she’d outrun the Elite, she’d gone so far so fast that they couldn’t follow. That made her mighty. A master of the universe.


Initial notes on Planet GF21-229040CD6

The planet has no name – inhabitants just call it ‘the World’. Technologically advanced, has jump-travel (could they provide replacement parts??) But there seems to be little contact with the rest of the universe – what contact there is seems to be for tourism, not trade.

Government: Complicated, can’t make head or tails of it. Religious leaders, elected government leaders, members of the hereditary upper class, and heads of trade syndicates all play a role.

The seat of government is the City-State Haneyha (huh NAY hah), often just called ‘the Capital’. The head of government is the Chancellor, government also includes a High Council, composed of priests and members of the nobility, and a Low Council of representatives chosen in a general election every 6 years.


Neenan and Opel

The two sat on Opel’s balcony, overlooking the valley and the hills beyond. It was late afternoon, with the sun bathing the valley in golden sunlight.

“You’re looking better,” Opel noted.

Neenan cast the older woman a suspicious look, but said nothing.

“You have questions,” Opel guessed. “Ask.”

“Am I a prisoner here?” Neenan asked through clenched teeth.

Opel burst out laughing. “Prisoner? No, you’re a guest. You can leave now if you wish. But I advise you to stay awhile longer, to complete the process of healing.”

“And how long will that take?” Neenan asked immediately.

“How should I know?” Opel shrugged. “The sickness is different for everyone. You’ve had a long, long journey, you can’t tell me this is your first time. How long does it usually take, for you?”

Neenan scowled, and turned to gaze at the distant hills.

“I never got sick before.”


Florence (Neenan’s backstory)

Neenan’s childhood had been spent on Florence, a perifery planet of the Great Union. Florence had been inhabited for just under a century; the colonists had come to extract the energy-rich fossil fuels that lay beneath the planet’s surface, and later the Florentines branched out into copper mining. Later still a plastics manufacture industry grew up. Labour was cheap on Florence, and it was better to transport finished products than raw materials. Neither of Neenan’s parents had worked in mining or manufacture through; her mother was a train steward, and her father a clerk at one of the local Union Administration offices.

Neenan was a genuinely shy child, and also a child who used her shyness to cover the fact that she genuinely wanted to be left alone. At school she avoided both the bullies and the overly-passive kids who were bullied, and did well on tests but rarely spoke in class. On the way home she avoided gangs, cops, and worse, and once home she retreated to her top bunk and lost herself in books, keeping out of her siblings’ noisy arguments. She had no book-console and did her reading on little phone screen, which her mother repeatedly told her would damage her eyesight. Her parents were loving but had little spare time: her mother worked on the trains twelve days on and three days off, and her father had his hands full with her sister and brothers, who were always getting into some kind of trouble or other. Neenan was the ‘good one’ even though she wasn’t really ‘good’, she was just a little less disobedient than her siblings, and took a little more care to avoid getting caught.


A flashback continued

The two women sitting at the little table were dressed alike, in dark fatigues, but otherwise they couldn’t have been more different. Sarenna was as old and tough as one of the great Melian tankers that run for thousands of years and never break down, her hair grey-white, and her skin like yellowed parchment. She was an old soldier, a veteran of half a dozen wars, and a member of the aristocracy who had come up through an elite military college on Polinion. Across from her sat Neenan, not yet 25, with unlined dark brown skin, and a thick accent that marked her as a poor girl from the slums of one of the periphery planets. The girl could have used a translator, an almost-invisible device that would have given her a good Polinish accent. The choice to use her own naked, native voice spoke of a certain aggressive stubbornness, Sarenna thought. Neenan wanted everyone to know that she was from the periphery. She was a non-comissioned fighter who’d just been sent up on the strength of her exceptional aptitude for flying. Surrounded by members of the aristocracy, she made it clear that she didn’t want to be one of them, that she was proud to be scum.


A second visit

Space-going vessels were for the most part not designed to withstand entering the atmosphere to land on a planet’s surface, and instead travelled from one orbiting space-port to another. The huge, efficient Melian cargo ships would not even enter a planet’s orbit, docking only at huge deep-space ports. At these deep-space stations they would dock, unload and re-load, and leave their cargo and passengers to continue their journeys planet-wards aboard smaller vessels.

Orthos was one of the technologically least-developed of the known worlds, and exported little. With only rudimentary space-going technology and an ever-worsening fuel shortage, there was no deep space port anywhere near Orthos, and no Melian spaceliners came anywhere near it. There were only a few dozen small space-stations in high orbit around the planet, reachable by grandly-named “shuttles” which were essentially cable cars climbing a carbon-fibre tether to anchors far above geostationary orbit. One of orbiting space-stations was Solis Station.

Andy stood in one of the long, empty, warehouse areas on Solis’s top level, patiently awaiting the arrival of his trading partner. He’d eschewed the uncomfortable benches and instead he stood, leaning against the high side-walls of the rented motor-cart he had laboriously steered through Solis’s corridors and cargo elevators. The cart was laden with small, heavy crates, and with two electric cart-trucks perched somewhat precariously on the top of the pile. He had not brought anyone along to help with the unloading and re-loading though. His trading partner, the Jhollorian called Neenan, had stipulated that he come alone.


A flashback

“So you think you can fly a jump-ship?”

The old soldier’s voice rasped like gravel being suctioned up a too-narrow tube.

Sarenna wore dark grey fatigues with no mark of her rank. She was fifty but still strong and fit, her wiry body giving a whiff of coiled menace even as she leaned back in her hard plastic chair, legs stretched out under the table. Her eyes were icy blue and she had two centimeters of fine blond-and-white hair, which did little to hide the uneven track of raised blue-white stich-marks that bisected her skull. Her skin had the colour of yellowing paper and the texture of weathered canvas.

Neenan, a younger Neenan, shrugged.

“It’s just a ship. I can fly anything.”



After bidding Andy of Orthos goodbye, Neenan piloted her small ship out of orbit at a painful snail’s pace.

“Do I really need to go this slow?” she asked out loud. Neenan was taciturn around other people, but she had a habit of talking to herself when alone.

She thumbed through the sheaf of handwritten notes she’d created in preparation for her trip to Orthos: summaries of local shipping rules, customs, laws and regulations governing spaceflight, some notes on local technologies.

Her hands were shaking, and the flight deck was spinning slightly.


The gold-buyer of Jhollor

She was brown-skinned, and her short hair was tightly curled. Such features were rare in his country of Harator, where most people had light skin, almond-shaped eyes, and straight, blue-black hair. If he had not known that she was not of his world he would have thought that she was from Agim or Selia on the northern continent. She said that her name was Neenan, and that she was from Jhollor. That caught his interest: although Andy prided himself on keeping himself informed about the goings-on in other parts of the galaxy, he knew almost nothing of Jhollor. It was one of the most distant of the known planets.

She had called his private channel, which meant she must have paid Dabon a hefty sum to get hold of his key. Like many businessmen Andy liked to make sure that anyone who cold-called him could afford to pay a bribe, to cut down on annoyances.