Sin Beyond Redemption
“Apocalypse will come to the årdrakin upon fulfillment of the signs. The first sign, and many signs thereafter, shall be sins of our own making.”
So spoke Älår in the Ancient Age, year 30915.
The third sign is coming.
A world is destroyed.
TRADE STATION JITA hung against the black of space like a spiked bauble, its surfaces glowing neon in multitudinous hues as advertisements beamed themselves at oncoming ships.
Zai’al squinted at the garish onslaught of color as she peered out the viewport. Her ship lumbered in a line of countless other ships toward the yawning docking port, giving passengers like herself ample time to appreciate—or not—the view. The station itself was immense, a pale grey, sprawling behemoth with towers that reminded her of skyscrapers, but these towers were each a mountain or more in size and covered with all manner of advertising. More billboards and tickers floated freely in space along the lanes leading up to the station.
She shook her head. Årdrakin starbases didn’t mar themselves with such loud and visually unappealing displays; indeed, her people’s space stations were dark-skinned, elegant, and respectable biotechnological constructs that glittered and glowed in space like jewels. But Jita, for all its glaring gaudiness, still excited her. Positioned at the confluence of several trade routes, it was a freeport filled to the brim with merchants and vendors from every corner of the known galaxy, and boasted the best commodities anywhere. Far to travel from the empire to visit, but worth every light-year for the fine fabrics Grandmaster Kohakú was here to find.
Zai’al nearly pressed her silver nasal scales up against the clear windowpane and craned her neck, watching the meters-tall advertisements as they slipped by. Most promoted goods, but some, like the holoplacard that came to dominate the view next, flashed images of bodies, rotating through sapient species of all types—even årdrakin!—as they undulated provocatively and beckoned spacefarers to come to their houses of pleasure.
“It’s so colorful,” she said, leaning her elbows on the railing that crossed in front of the window. Another ad slid into view, this one displaying terraforming equipment. “Like a perpetual festival.”
Grandmaster Kohakú, standing beside her, smiled broadly. “Wait until you see the inside.”
Zai’al straightened. “Will we stay here long?”
“Just long enough to see if I can find the fabrics I’m after. But that could easily take a week or two. You can see it’s a large starbase. I have a few merchants in mind to look at first, but if they don’t have anything that suits the zhiska’s taste, we will have to spend more time hunting amongst the other vendors. And they are… everywhere.”
Zai’al’s frill sprang up, causing Kohakú’s smile to widen. Just shy of her one hundred and thirty-fifth hatchday, this was Zai’al’s first trip outside the empire. As an acolyte, the young woman should have been entrenched in her temple duties, but she was also Zhiska Dreeka’s adopted daughter. The temple and the empire was all Zai’al had ever known until now, more or less. When the zhiska had requested a new set of robes from Kohakú, she had also expressly requested that her daughter accompany the grandmaster yåsví on the voyage, in order to broaden Zai’al’s horizons.
“You will stay with me while we are aboard the station,” Kohakú said mildly as Zai’al tried to temper her growing excitement. “Jita is more than the largest market in the galaxy; it also attracts clientele of a less savory sort, hoping to trade their underhanded services for coin. Remember that this is your first time away from the empire, and while I imagine you have done your fair share of study of other races, study is no substitute for experience. There are many here who would gladly take advantage of your naïveté.”
Kohakú patted the young woman on the shoulder and leaned in conspiratorially. Her silver hair and gold, spiked headband caught the light of the advertisements outside. “Not to worry. You’ll still see plenty of interesting things. I often shop in the more… unusual areas of the station.”
Zai’al’s frill flicked forward and her eyes widened with curiosity.
The Entity’s smooth voice filtered out of the ship’s intercom. “All passengers, please report to your quarters for final docking. Repeat: All passengers—”
“Help an old woman,” Kohakú said, holding out her arm for Zai’al to take.
“You’re not old,” Zai’al scoffed boldly, but obediently folded her wings down her back and hooked her arm through Kohakú’s as the two walked away from the viewport. She knew the grandmaster was over six hundred years old, but she hadn’t yet passed into late adulthood. Beyond that, she still had her elder years ahead of her, too.
“Maybe not, but the people on the station don’t know that.” Kohakú winked mischievously. “We live so much longer than most of them, and sometimes it doesn’t hurt to remind them of that, if it means getting a better bargain in the end.”
Zai’al looked askance at Kohakú.
The grandmaster laughed. “Haggling is part of the process, my dear. The zhiska has deep pockets, but that doesn’t mean I should spend her money without due care.” She glanced over her shoulder at the station, growing ever larger in the window. “As with any market, the vendors load their prices for as much profit as they think they can get away with. I’ll pay them fairly for their wares, but not an atsrik more.”
“I do have much to learn,” Zai’al said humbly.
“It’ll be a great experience,” Kohakú promised. “Jita contains all kinds of treasures.”
Treasures indeed. Excitement tumbled Zai’al’s stomach as their ship finally docked and they were allowed to disembark, a temple guardian on their heels. Theirs was a private berth, reserved for the grandmaster’s distinguished visit on the zhiska’s behalf.
As they made their way through the receiving bay, smiling blue-white holovalets coalesced above glowing pedestals at intervals along the corridor. “Welcome to Jita, the trader’s paradise,” they said with their cheery, slightly mechanized androgynous voices. Their generic, nearly featureless, bipedal forms ushered the årdrakin along. Each one picked up smoothly where the last one left off as Zai’al, Kohakú, and their guardian stepped through multiple decontamination forcefields. “We’re always open so you can buy and sell, your way! Stay overnight aboard your own ship, or feel free to rest and relax at one of our many stationside resorts. All guests are encouraged to be on their best behavior at all times, but if you need to blow off some steam, the reinforced gladiator arenas on deck forty-five will be happy to host you and your consenting enemies.” The valets’ message then began again, smoothly transitioning from Zakímí to another language.
“Gladiator arenas,” Zai’al murmured in wonder.
“Not for the faint of heart,” Kohakú said. They reached the security station and obtained their temporary station IDs. Afterward, Kohakú continued, “I’ve heard they allow spectators to bet on the fights, but you risk getting caught up in the inevitable spillover. Anyone who takes their trade disputes down there means serious business, and the results are always bloody. The arenas are also where those less savory sorts I mentioned tend to make their deals. We will not be going to deck forty-five.”
Nodding, Zai’al looked ahead to where the plain, concrete corridor ended at a heavy set of double doors. Grey, steel, and windowless, with a giant 01 stamped on them in bright white, they looked more like blast doors than anything else. Or maybe doors to some kind of prison? Zai’al’s steps slowed uncertainly.
“Here we are,” Kohakú declared, and strode forward, giving her purple wings a flap before caping them down her back. She beckoned Zai’al. “Come on.”
The doors rumbled as they approached, opening onto a vast promenade. Not expecting the rolling thunder of walking feet and other appendages, the chittering and clamor of voices, crying children, blaring music, and so much more, Zai’al immediately clamped her frill down and squinted. Brightly lit by manufactured daylight, the promenade looked clean despite the crowds of people streaming by. It stretched for meters to an outer wall intermittently decorated with moss, creeping vines, and water features, along with art installations that stretched upward for at least three decks. Trees and other plants in large planters dotted the floorspace. Vendor stalls crowded the edges of the promenade between bays containing shops.
Zai’al’s neck craned again as they stepped out of the corridor. Overhead, the holographic ceiling alternated between depicting cloud-studded skies of various colors, more advertisements, and directions in several languages. A cool, fresh breeze lifted the strands of her mint green hair, held up in a high tail that cascaded down her back. The delicious aroma of cooking food wafted along the air.
“Welcome to Jita!” The words came at her in several different languages at once, from several different kiosks in close proximity. Her wetware’s translation feature set kicked in before the greetings had time to register in her brain, effortlessly rendering them into Zakímí.
“Step right up!”
“Fabulous deals today!”
This time, it was Kohakú who hooked her arm around Zai’al’s and steered her into the foot traffic. “It’s a bit overwhelming at first, isn’t it?”
“Only a little,” Zai’al said as her gaze turned to the other shoppers around them. How many species could she count? Lorelein, ilteni, khenqoid… and many more she did and didn’t recognize. “The largest markets in Anoërakin are a lot like this, just filled mainly with our own people. And once, when the zhiska went on her tour of the empire, we did stop at Nidihírí for a day, so I got to see the trade hub there.”
A sudden squeal of pain brought Zai’al’s attention to her feet. The promenade was packed, everyone in close proximity, and beneath her sandaled foot was someone’s tentacle.
“Pardon me, I’m so sorry!”
The triziad yanked the indigo appendage free, leaving behind a smear of slime that stretched from the bottom of Zai’al’s sandal before snapping. Bursts of color traveled up the thick tentacle to vanish into the bare torso.
“Maybe I should stomp on that tail of yours!” The short alien’s words came out as sharp slurping sounds, but the threat landed all the same. It tried to puff itself up to meet Zai’al’s eyes but barely reached her chest. Another, smaller tentacle toyed with the butt end of a gun strapped to the triziad’s side.
“Don’t,” warned the temple guardian. He shouldered his way forward, subtly twisting his halberd so that the light caught on the weapon’s blade.
Zai’al quickly raised her hands, deliberately wiggling her fingers and thumbs at the triziad’s eye level. “It was an accident. I don’t want any trouble.”
The triziad’s eyestalks waved between Zai’al, the weapon, and the wiggling fingers, then seemed to size up the guardian, who stood even taller still and cast a glow on the surroundings from the highlights on his black armor. But after a moment, the tentacle slithered away from the gun and wiggled back at Zai’al.
“Just watch yourself,” the alien muttered.
Zai’al swallowed the lump in her throat and nodded, lowering her hands. “Yes, of course. Again, my apologies.”
With a harrumph, the triziad turned and continued on its way.
“Thank you, Vikram,” Kohakú said to the guardian, who inclined his head and stepped back. To Zai’al she said, “You remembered your studies. The triziad are notorious for their anger toward offworlders, except those who know their gestures. Well done.”
Blood slowly returned to Zai’al’s face, bringing a warming sensation with it, but her frill stayed down. “Why do they allow weapons here?” she muttered.
“This is a freeport,” Kohakú reminded her. “And it acts as its own sovereign entity. Oh, the station administrators do have some general expectations of everyone of course, like what you heard from the valets when we first arrived, but we’re generally left to police ourselves.” She gestured around them, as much as she could in the crowded conditions. “Since the idea is to promote commerce and profit for all, everyone generally behaves well and adheres to a basic code of conduct. Usually. Those with the itchiest trigger fingers tend to be ousted by the rest fairly quickly. The system wouldn’t work if everyone allowed chaos to reign.
“Give me a chance to look up the vendors I want to visit first, see if they’re still here,” Kohakú added, as if the confrontation had never happened. “After that, I’ll take you to my favorite restaurant in this terminal and we can plan the rest of our day. I think you’ll benefit from touring the station a little before I really start hunting for what I need.”
The grandmaster cut through the crowd, heading toward a gleaming hardlight display in the middle of the concourse. Zai’al followed behind, being extra mindful of where she placed her feet.