Hour of the Wolf

Intaki Prime – South Hemisphere – Drahaana City
Eionell Esatate

A bead of sweat gathered on her forehead where it rested against the pillar, eventually seeping down into her eyebrow through stray hairs plastered to her skin. Then it slipped out, rolling past the corner of her eye and over her cheek like a tear.

The bead lingered near her jaw line, which began to itch as the droplet slowly evaporated into the still air and roused Sakaane from her musing. She sat up and wiped the droplet away. Her forehead burned where it had touched the pillar; even now, in the middle of the night, the smooth white stone still radiated heat soaked up from the sun’s red rays that day. The steps she sat on were similarly warm. It had been an unusually hot day despite autumn in the southern hemisphere being typically cool and dry.

A spot of light caught her eye, bobbing between the leaves of ferns growing just to her left. The firefly came closer, its luminescence weakening as it entered the meager pool of light filtering over Sakaane. A small lamp in the front hall was lit, its light barely reaching outside the house through the draped window beside the door. Other than that and the moons overhead, Sakaane was in the dark.

The bug settled on a flower an arm’s length from her. She sat still, watching it nuzzle the eventide blossom, its rump dimmed almost to nothing while it fed. After a few moments the firefly leapt back into the air, its light flaring bright, and disappeared into the night.

Sakaane reached out and plucked the flower free, briefly holding it up to sample its delicate scent, and idly ran her fingers over the silken petals. After a while her gaze lifted back to the sky. Somewhere in the distance, some animal’s mournful cry echoed out of the mountains, and despite the heat, a shiver raised gooseflesh on her bare arms.

The hour of the wolf. She wasn’t sure now where she’d heard of it, or why it suddenly came to mind. Maybe from a book or an old holovid? It was supposed to be that time late at night, that hour that no longer felt like ‘last night’ but wasn’t yet ‘morning’. That hour devoid of sleep, when every trouble and problem and path that life should have taken but didn’t dominated the mind to the exclusion of all else.

She didn’t need a watch to know what the time was.

It’d been early afternoon when the shuttle landed at the Drahaana City spaceport, and not much later than that once she’d traveled the miles beyond the city to her estate. For the first time, as the car pulled up to the gates and then skimmed along the private road winding its way through the forest to the house, it had occurred to Sakaane just how much land she really had. The realization left a bitter taste in her mouth.

Her father’s study had been hot and stuffy from the sunlight streaming through the windows behind the closed door. For years the room had been immaculate, all its contents exactly as Nasiir had left them that day years ago: A sheet of paper on his desk with an ink pen lying across it as if he’d been planning to write a letter. A book on the side table with a strip of colorful braided fabric, hand woven by Sakaane or possibly one of her brothers in their youth, to mark a page, with shelves of other books, many of them leather-bound, lining the wall behind the desk. An oil portrait of Ilaayda on the wall. Photographs of the children in frames on the desk. A plush sofa and chairs which Sakaane and her siblings had often sat on while Nasiir perched at the edge of the desk, teaching them about Ida.

There was very little technology visible at all, save for a curiously blatant display in one corner of the room: a freestanding model of the Intaki solar system complete with each planet’s moons, the asteroid belts, and a glowing crimson sun at the center. At any given time it showed the exact position of all Intaki celestial bodies in relation to one another and the system’s stargates. There were no wires, no motor; just a pedestal base unit and a multitude of free-floating spheres and tiny objects with precise details etched into them. Sakaane remembered sneaking into the study one night as a girl and plucking Intaki VI from its place, fascinated by the gas giant’s sparkling rings. But she’d been caught and forced to put the planet back (and it had gone on to automatically reposition itself), before being sent to her room without supper.

Her father’s stern order to never touch the display served only to enhance the attraction she and her brothers felt for it despite the house rule regarding questions about space.

The desk also had a comm system recessed into its surface, its glossy command panel dark and smudge-free. No one used it now. Aranza and the staff kept the room from accumulating dust but otherwise honored Sakaane’s instructions that the study, like many other parts of the house, was off-limits.

The study wasn’t immaculate anymore. Having arrived home, Sakaane had torn into the room, pulling out drawers and dumping their contents onto the desk, spilling open a cabinet, and sweeping aside the books on the shelves all while nearly choking on anger and disbelief. In the explosion of papers she’d found her father’s Intaki birth record with its Federation seal in the corner, then later a marriage certificate, and all manner of other minutiae of her parents’ lives laid out in hard copy.

On her knees in the middle of the pile, Sakaane had marveled at the amount of paper. Since leaving Intaki she’d grown accustomed to digital everything: holoscreens, datapads, intangible information streams filtered right into her brain via implants and wetware. And while her father may have forbidden talk of space, the house itself had all the modern conveniences she knew of even if, like the study, it tended to present a more traditional face. But all this? Why insist on so much paper?

One of the upended drawers spit out a pamphlet with a large logo and bold text about travel hazards stamped on it. She’d seen it once before, nine years ago, and studiously avoided looking at it.

The study had a closet. It wasn’t until she’d pulled aside the door and rummaged through its contents that her search ended. Until then, Sakaane hadn’t known what she was looking for. She just needed…something. Something to show her that Darac Rin really was a lying bastard.

At the very back of the closet, a careless gesture had knocked aside a thin panel covering a recess in the wall. The panel had been cleverly tacked up so the casual observer might not even notice it was there, but age had eroded the fastener and the panel had fallen away at her touch. The recess behind it was crude, little more than a hole kicked in the wall. It contained just one item: a large jar filled with a yellowing liquid that was well on its way to turning to sludge.

Sitting there with the jar in her hands, Sakaane’s disbelief and anger had boiled over into sickened, disappointed bewilderment.

The jar contained a capsuleer’s socket implants, similar to but not as refined as the ones she had embedded in her own skull, neck, and back.

Sakaane blinked and shifted position on the step, trying to banish the awful visage of the jar from her sight. It’d been left lying on the floor of the study. She’d sat outside since then.

Stomach acid churned and she pulled a measured breath in through her nose, not wanting to retch again. But that didn’t change reality. Her father had been a capsuleer and Darac hadn’t lied. And now she knew the answer to the Serpentis pirate’s sneering question: The house, the land, everything she’d had growing up… All of it had been paid for by the wealth Nasiir Eionell had inevitably accumulated during his exploits in space.

The saving grace, the one thing she clung to, that she refused to believe could be anything but, was that if pirate scum like Darac Rin had sworn vengeance against her father and his family, then Nasiir must have been an honorable capsuleer the same way she remembered him being an honorable man. There was nothing else for it. It was simply how it had to be.

Something else nagged at her. Where was the money now? After Nasiir’s death, Ilaayda maintained ownership of the estate but the savings Sakaane had been able to access to pay for upkeep and her mother’s care had been paltry. At first she’d used most of her navy pay and then, later, her own wealth, to continue on where the savings left off. When her mother had passed in January, essentially the only inheritance Sakaane had received was the estate itself.

She didn’t particularly care one way or another; she didn’t need the money. But she did wonder. The cost of acres and acres of land and living allowance for the family, even over the course of Sakaane’s life, would still have been a pittance to a capsuleer. The photo of Nasiir teaching young Sakaane to fish proved he’d kept his implants intact into her childhood at least. Even if he wasn’t actively flying anymore by then, surely he’d had a fortune. It was nigh impossible for a capsuleer to be poor by baseliner standards. The funds were…somewhere.

As the day had worn on, the sun baked the house and Sakaane’s exposed skin. Her wetware eventually alerted her to receipt of a message from the bank. Despite how long it had been since the last time, she knew without opening it who it was from. Her wallet balance confirmed the anonymous benefactor had deposited a sum roughly equivalent to the value of Vakkas ki Shaanti. The note accompanying the funds said, I’m sorry you found out this way. It’s not what your father would have wanted.

She’d promptly dispersed the money to her ship’s surviving crew as well as the families of those who had stubbornly remained behind and been lost. It wouldn’t bring them back, but she hoped it would help in some small way.

Maybe that’s where the money was: with the anonymous benefactor. But who was it? She still had no idea and no way to trace the deposits.

Frustration surged. It seemed everyone had a piece of her lately. Apparently everyone but Sakaane knew what was really going on in her life. She felt out of control.

No, that wasn’t it. She wasn’t out of control. She was suffering from everyone else’s control. Puppet masters, people pulling strings behind her back and manipulating her. Her father, by hiding the truth her entire life and stunting her knowledge of New Eden out of fear of recrimination if his true identity as a capsuleer became known. Darac Rin, by stalking her since that chance encounter at the holoreel convention, waiting for a moment to strike, threatening her life and grandstanding in public, and then finally catching up to her and having his way in the asteroid belt, knowing she never stood a chance against him. Layla, by goading and taunting and baiting in council with that ever-present smarmy smirk on her face, just waiting for the virgin president to trip up. Even Bataav, with what he’d kept from her, and the trust issues they’d had since he confessed.

The anonymous benefactor, who always seemed to know when Sakaane was at her worst. And who knew who else was out there with their fingers in her business, exerting influence to make her dance to some predetermined design?

She nearly laughed at how absurd it sounded. She didn’t really believe her life was some kind of conspiracy. Nevertheless, lately she had felt stuck in a dark room, blindfolded, with other persons whose identities she didn’t entirely know, trying to play a complex game of chess without knowing the rules or that it was, in fact, chess.

Her hand ached. With effort, she unclenched her fist. The flower had been crushed, the petals mangled and the stem folded and broken. She peeled it from her sweaty palm with a resigned sigh and tossed it onto the ground at her feet. The flower’s corpse lay there a moment before being lifted and flipped away into the dark by the briefest shift in the night air.

Ragtrenasal suprabyl nepryktun,
Bhaavasal narav nepryktun

She tried to recite the mantra Mammal had given her to calm the blood thundering through her veins but the words echoed hollow in her head and she abandoned the attempt. For years she’d taken comfort from knowing Nasiir had been a follower of Ida, a man of peace, even if she couldn’t specifically remember what he’d taught her. Ida and capsuleering were definitely not mutually exclusive…but she couldn’t help feeling deeply betrayed by her father and her faith by proxy. How many people had her father implored to be true to their path, all the while denying who and what he was? If a capsuleer could really be so powerful to be akin to a god, why was he hiding from a bully?

The lump in her throat was painful to swallow. The emotions were much more complicated than that and she was too confused to coherently sort them out. But there was another piece of the puzzle she could lay down: the Serpentis attack on the passenger liner hadn’t been random after all. No wonder there had been so much paper. Nasiir had given up his life as a capsuleer and done everything he could to keep his family out of space, wipe out any trace of their existence that could be retrieved remotely, and as soon as he set foot offworld again he’d been killed. But after twenty-odd years of living as a baseliner, wouldn’t anyone have thought the danger had passed?

The fact that it hadn’t brought up a very troubling question: What had Nasiir done to Darac to prompt the pirate to nurse his grudge for so long?

And if not for the Quafe talent event she had wanted so desperately to compete in—

A sound, barely audible but unnatural in the quiet night, made Sakaane’s head jerk up. Nearby, just beyond the edge of the faint pool of light, lurked a shadow. She might not have seen it except for Naracandra’s light barely highlighting the silhouette. She tensed, ready to spring away.

The shadow moved just slightly so the available light fell across angular, battle-hardened features. But the eyes that peered at her weren’t hostile. The dark eyebrows just above them angled up slightly with an unspoken inquiry.

“I—I’m fine,” Sakaane said. “You just…startled me. Carry on.”

The commando nodded, the barest smile of compassion and understanding gracing his lips, before he melted back into the night. She blinked and could no longer distinguish his form from the surrounding black.

He was one of Bataav’s men, a member of the unit assigned to keep Sakaane’s home secure following Darac’s colorful proclamations in FreeIntaki that past March. Others in the unit were out there, too, patrolling in shifts. She rarely saw any of them.

Her eyes were drawn back to the sky. Bataav was up there, somewhere. She yearned for his reassuring presence, but the way things had been… A sudden surge of regret and uncertainty washed over her. Surely they could get past it. Despite the recent tension, he nevertheless had taken time to try to find out more about Darac Rin: where he was, why he hated her family. Everything and everyone else, her friends and responsibilities and the paths she had committed to, waited up there for her too. So was Darac Rin, and, somewhere, the truth.

The door behind Sakaane opened. “Khasri,” Aranza said quietly. “You should come to bed. Try to rest.”

Looking over her shoulder, she managed a weak smile. “I’ll be in soon. Thank you.”

Aranza’s hand clasped Sakaane’s shoulder briefly before the elder woman retreated inside.

A wisp of cloud passed over Naracandra. Peace moon, it was called. Dogging its path was a smaller, blurred blob that Sakaane knew was Ulsacandra: the destroyer moon. Those two paired up in Intaki’s night sky in a never-ending chase. Ulsa’s rising foretold doom, but Nara’s light tempered conflict and soothed the weary.

As the cloud moved on, Sakaane closed her eyes and turned her face up to Nara, hoping for some of that fabled magic, and thought about taking a vacation. Yes, that sounded like a great idea. A break, to rest and to consider.

The heel of a boot scuffed on the front walk. Surprised, thinking the commando had returned, Sakaane looked. Sure enough, a man approached, but his form lacked the bulk of body armor. She thought he must have had a car drop him some distance from the house and walked the rest of the way, for there had been no sound of an engine nor lights to betray a vehicle. Briefly she wondered why Bataav’s men had let the visitor get so far unannounced.

When he emerged fully into the light she understood why, and for the first time that day felt true relief. He said nothing, only paused briefly to gaze at her while his hands worried carefully over a shard of sheerite. Then he stepped forward, holding out his arms to beckon her to him, and she leapt forward, choking back a sob.

Bataav held Sakaane for some time before the couple went into the house together, closing the door behind them.