Here’s the first full chapter of CODENAME: Final Genesis.
FINAL GENESIS – Chapter 1
Iro ducked into a roll and came up swinging his sister’s old sword. His feet caught together, and he tripped with a panicked yell. The sword flew from his hands, bounced off the training dummy, and skittered to a halt on the training room floor.
He stood slowly, rubbing a hand at his aching rear and wondering how big a bruise he’d have. Worse still, someone might notice in the showers. He missed the old days when the Courage had enough water that its inhabitants could still use the showers in their own quarters. Now they had to use the communal ones that only turned on for twenty minutes once every three days.
“What’s going on in there?” Master Tannow shouted.
“Nothing,” Iro shouted back. He ran for his sister’s sword, scooped it up, then made for his tool bag and threw the blade inside just as Master Tannow ambled through the doorway. He scratched at his bearded chin and scanned the room with a suspicious stare.
“I heard you cry out,” the old master said. He had once been a legendary Titan Hopper with over a hundred successful missions. But something had happened, Iro wasn’t sure what, and he had refused to ever board the titan again. Since then he’d taken over as martial master of the Courage. Not that he had anyone of note to train anymore, or any reason to train them. It had been five years since the titan had exploded. Five years since Iro lost Neya.
“I, uh, tripped?” Iro said. He nodded and rubbed at his backside again, taking the opportunity to push his tool bag behind him a little further. “I was replacing the servos in the dummy and stood up too fast.”
“Scrap it, lad, be more careful,” Master Tannow chuckled. “Your mother will have my hide if you brain yourself on a dummy. Especially a stationary one.” He jabbed a lightning fast punch at the dummy’s head. It rocked from the force but quickly settled back into stillness. They were built to take a beating. “Is that what’s wrong with it then? The servos?”
Iro nodded and advanced on the dummy with his old screwdriver. “I think so. But we can’t replace it. Don’t have the parts. I’ve been trying to repair it, but I think it’s just shot.”
Master Tannow sighed. “Just like everything else, huh?” He wasn’t wrong. The Courage was falling apart beneath them. A full quarter of the ship had fallen into such disrepair, they had simply sealed it off and let space have it. The rest of the Home Fleet wasn’t much better. Of the thirty eight ships that sailed away from the titan, they had lost three to failing systems, and one to catastrophic debris damage they simply didn’t have the resources to repair. On top of that, food rations had dropped to half what they were five years ago. Iro wasn’t privy to knowledge about fuel, but he guessed the situation was bordering on dire. The Home Fleet was dying. Without a titan to scavenge from, they wouldn’t last much longer.
Iro poked at one of the exposed servos with his screwdriver. “I don’t think it’s jammed, just burned out.” He retrieved metal casing and started screwing it back into place.
“Probably for the best, lad,” Master Tannow said with a smile. “The poor excuse for Hoppers I’m training these days aren’t good enough to train with moving targets.” Too many of their strongest Hoppers had been lost when the titan died. Too many didn’t make it back. The Courage was particularly badly hit, with over ten rank three and higher Enhancers never coming back. They were lucky Phusone was injured. He was the only rank five Enhancer the Home Fleet had left.
“Want to try again, lad?” Master Tannow asked.
Iro grinned and nodded. He felt good about today. Like his power had been building inside of him for weeks and it was ready to be unleashed.
“Stone?” The old master asked. Stone skin was the easiest Enhancer talent to learn. It involved projecting your power onto another, infusing them with it, then hardening that power into something as solid as stone.
“Number three still works,” Iro said. Master Tannow approached training dummy number three and pressed the button on the floor with his foot. The dummy’s arms started spinning up faster and faster until they were a blur.
Iro breathed in, released it slow and steady. He pointed a hand at Master Tannow, focused on the power nestled inside of him, projected. “Stone,” he said. He felt it move. The power shifted inside of him, flowing from his fingers. Master Tannow stepped in range of the training dummy, it locked on its target, and struck, both arms flailing at the old master.
Iro felt the power fizzle as the talent failed. Master Tannow grunted once, then again, as both arms of the training dummy struck him about the chest. He staggered back, chuckling. “Ow! Should have used a lower setting, huh?”
Iro sighed. Another failure. Nothing but failures. He couldn’t even learn a single talent. He was increasingly certain the power he felt inside was nothing but his imagination. The desire to prove himself as more than just a tech playing tricks on his mind.
Master Tannow pressed the button and number three slowed down and stopped spinning its arms. He turned to Iro with a wide, sorry smile. “Don’t beat yourself up, lad. Not like we have a titan to Hop to. Besides, many people don’t learn a talent until they’re older.”
“You know any Hoppers who didn’t have a single talent by seventeen?” Iro asked.
Master Tannow opened his mouth to answer, but they both knew any denial would only be a lie.
Iro heard laughing from the hall outside the training room. He ran to his tool bag and zipped it shut to hide his sister’s sword. A moment later, the Courage’s three trainee Hoppers sauntered into the training room.
Cali and Mia Inego noticed him immediately. They were sisters, both strong enough Enhancers that Master Tannow claimed they were close to reaching their first rank. They were also ruthless.
“Oh look,” Cali said, grinning at him. “It’s Talentless.” She was the taller of the two twins and wore her hair shorter, shaving the left side down to stubble and leaving the right side to grow.
Mia skipped over to Iro, crouched down in front of him, and stared up at him. “Are you finished with the dummy? Did it win?” She snickered. Mia looked just like her sister only a little shorter and with dark hair that hung down past her shoulders.
“Leave him alone, Mia,” Cali said. “He and the dummy have a lot in common. I’m sure they have a lot of deep and meaningful conversations. Like what’s it like to be completely useless?” They both laughed at that.
Iro knew from experience there was no point in fighting back. Both sisters knew a talent and had the power to use it. As far as everyone in the Home Fleet was concerned, that made them a higher class of citizen. It didn’t matter that only one in a hundred people could use the power inside to fuel talents. Nor did it matter that without a titan to scavenge from, Hoppers were less useful than techs like him. All that mattered was they had the power, and that made them better than him. Nobody would stick up for him, not even Master Tannow.
Iro hefted his tool bag onto his shoulder. It was heavy, especially with his sister’s sword inside, but he was used to it. He been carting it around for years now. He dodged around Mia and headed for the exit, keeping his head down. The trick to surviving on the Courage was to keep his head down and try not to get noticed.
Iro paused as he reached the training dummy. Cali was leaning against it. She saw him stop and winked.
“We’re allowed to be useless,” Iro said. “Neither of us have talents. What’s your excuse?”
Mia burst out laughing, but Cali’s face went red with rage. “What did you say?” She pushed away from the dummy and started toward him, fists balled. It was a fight he couldn’t win. Even without her talent, she turn him into paste without trying. Iro struggled to swing his sister’s sword without falling over, but Cali had been training to fight for years. On top of that, Mia could throw an Enhancement on her sister.
Iro burst into a run, heading for the door. He bumped into Dobi just before the door and almost fell back onto his arse. The bigger boy was the same age as Iro, but broader and stronger. He was also an Enhancer, the best trainee Hopper the Courage had. Dobi glanced at Iro, shook his head, then continued walking.
Cali paused, obviously waiting to see if Dobi would give Iro a beating. When he didn’t, she lurched after him again. Iro turned and fled, the sisters’ threats chasing him down the metal corridors.
Iro found Roret working on the algae irrigation system. The other boy was a year younger than him, but knew his way around the Courage’s mechanical systems like no other. Iro dumped his tool bag on a nearby bench and slumped down next to the vat his friend was working on, then explained the encounter with Cali and Mia.
“One day, they’re going to catch you and beat your arse blue, Iro,” the younger boy said.
Iro shifted and winced at the painful bruise he found. “The dummy already did that for them.”
“Because you were trying to fix it, or because you were swimming at it?”
Roret was the only other person who knew Iro carried his sister’s sword around with him. “Let’s just say I tripped and leave it at that.”
Roret fished something out of the vat, stared at it for a moment, then shoved his arm back into the churning algae. They had run out of real food a year ago. Iro had all but forgotten what fruit or bread tasted like. Algae was the only thing they could grow in the meagre light that reach them from the stars. The windows above the vats showed those stars twinkling at them.
“You hear about the Sunset?” Roret asked as he fished in the algae for something else. The Sunset was the second smallest ship in the Home Fleet. It produced Scrappers for sending over to the titan. Hoppers who could create and control powerful automatons. “It’s running out of fuel. None of the other ships are willing to send any over so…”
“So they’re going to leave it behind?” Iro asked. Another ship abandoned to drift out in space. Iro didn’t really know much about the other ships in the fleet. The different crews didn’t really mingle anymore. It was a waste of fuel sending people off ship.
“Yep. Ahah!” He pulled something new out of the vat and held it up victorious. It was a clogged filter, the mesh black with mold. “This is for you.” Roret dumped the filter in Iro’s lap and held out his hand impatiently. Iro fished about in Roret’s tool bag, found a mostly clean filter, and handed it to the other boy. He looked at the moldy filter with distaste and wrapped it in cloth before putting it back in Roret’s bag. This was what the Home Fleet had come to. Eating algae from vats, and re-using moldy filters.
“Don’t you wish it was different, Ror?” Iro asked. “If we still had a titan to Hop to, we’d have food, fuel, parts.”
“Oh yes,” Roret said enthusiastically. “And you’d take your sister’s sword, Hop across to the titan, slay a few monsters, and save the fleet.” He chuckled and shook his head at Iro. “No point in wishing things were something else, Iro. Accept them how they are and deal with it. So we eat algae now. It’s not so bad. Sure, it tastes like my foot and smells like your foot, but it keeps us alive.”
“My mom said they’re cutting back water rations again,” Iro said, smiling.
“What? No, no, no. Don’t say it.”
“Showers every fourth day from tomorrow.”
“I hate you, Iro.”
“Wasn’t my choice.”
Roret grunted as he fitted the new filter into place. “The bearer of bad news always always tells it to the boot.” He chuckled, then sat down next to Iro, sighed, and wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead on his arm. “We’re dying, aren’t we Iro?”
That seemed far too pessimistic a question from his young friend. “Nah. Not if I can help it, Ror. You remember what Neya always used to say?”
“Who’s your little friend with the big nose?”
Iro laughed. “That too.” Iro coughed and put on his very best big sister impression. “Courage will get us through the darkest times. You just have to be brave.” It was a terrible impression, he had to admit, but he was starting to struggle to remember what his sister sounded like.
“You know that’s a metaphor, right, Iro?” Roret said and shook his head.
Iro had never really thought about it before. He’d always just taken Neya’s words at face value.
“Idiot,” Roret said and stood. “Come on. I’ve got the filters in two more vats to check before I can call it a day.”
Iro arrived back home before his mother. He expected that. She was a senior officer on the Courage, third in command. She almost never got back before him, no matter how long his days. He dropped his toolbag in his room, next to his old handmade radio, and a box of spare parts he somehow never found time to sort.
He made his way to the kitchen where the family had once cooked meals, sat and ate together. Nobody cooked anymore. Iro glanced down the hall to where Neya’s rooms sat untouched. His mother kept it just as it was the day she left. There was a public shrine close to the docking pods, dedicated to all the Hoppers who lost their lives the day the titan died. But his mother kept Neya’s room as a personal shrine. He sometimes found her standing at the door, staring in, a sad smile on her face as if she was having a conversation with her daughter.
Iro crept along the hall, ignoring the rusting metal bulkheads. He paused at his sister’s door, staring at the handle. Neya had always been the brave one. The genius Enhancer. The fearless Hopper protecting her team. Iro was just a talentless coward, hiding in her shadow. His hand fell away from the door handle. In five years, he’d never managed to work up the courage to open it. Too scared he’d find the ghost of his sister waiting for him.
The front door opened, his mother sighing as she stepped inside and pulled the door closed behind her. Iro hurried away from Neya’s old room and quickly set about wiping down the breakfast bowls they’d left this morning. The fleet couldn’t spare water for washing dishes anymore. Now they all wiped bowls down with disinfectant cloths. It left an aftertaste that transferred to the algae, but at least it made the stuff taste of something.
“Hi, you,” his mother said as she squeezed past him. “How went the repairs.”
“Brilliantly,” Iro said, putting as much cheer as he could into his voice. “I fixed the whole ship. Runs like new.”
She chuckled. “You know, I did think I heard it purring while at the controls earlier.”
Iro finished wiping the bowls, then placed his own underneath the dispenser. “It was easy,” he said. “I even invented some new fuel to use.”
His mother paused at Neya’s door, brushing it with her hand, then turned and opened her own door. She looked tired. Her skin, once pale, was now waxen. She had cut her hair down to her shoulders a few years back, then more recently cut it again above her ears. It was easier to clean that way. There were bags under her algae green eyes, and her smiles never quite reached past her lips. Still, she stood straight-backed despite her exhaustion, and never once did she complain.
The food dispenser chimed and Iro took his bowl and pushed his mother’s into place. Green algae slopped into it through the tubes. It smelled like sweat and tasted like nothing. He hated it and missed real food. The dispenser chimed again and he took his mother’s bowl and placed it next to his own. They looked more empty than usual. Rations decreasing again. Iro grabbed their spoons and quickly ladelled a couple of spoonfuls from his bowl to his mothers, then pushed it to the other end of the table and sat down to wait.
When his mother reappeared, she was dressed in a fresh uniform. It was mostly clean, which was to say it was one she hadn’t worn for a few days. Iro should have thought of that. He looked down at his own clothes, still sweaty from the day’s work and spotted with dried algae from the vats.
“You’re growing out of that fast,” his mother said as she sat down. “Seventeen is too old to still be growing, Iro. We’ll have to put in you Neya’s old clothes soon.” The name dropped like a stone between them. Iro couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Well, this looks wonderful,” his mother said, pulling her bowl in front of her. “You must have spent hours preparing it.”
He smiled at the old joke. “Only the best tasteless green slop for my mother.” He’d lost count of the number of times they’d shared the same exchange. It was comfortable and brought a smile to both their faces.
They ate in silence. Iro swallowed each spoonful quickly. It might not taste of anything, but he hated the taste of it all the same.
“How goes the training?” his mother asked once they had finished. She was the only one, other than Roret, who knew about Neya’s sword.
“I think I’m improving,” Iro said. “I only fell over once today.”
“Definitely an improvement,” she said. “And it looks like you didn’t fall on your face this time. I’m impressed. Are you still struggling to hold it steady?”
Iro shook his head. “The weight’s fine these days, I’m used to carrying it. I just can’t seem to find the proper balance.” He sighed. “It would help if Master Tannow would train me.”
His mother crossed her arms. “You’re not a Hopper, Iro.”
“I know that.”
“There’s no shame in it. Techs are just as important as Hoppers. More so these days. Without you…”
“Without me the engines don’t work, the doors don’t open, the algae doesn’t grow,” he finished for her, sounding more petulant than he meant to. “I know all that. The Hoppers still get treated differently. Special. They get more food, fewer duties. They get to train.” None of that really mattered to him. “She was a Hopper.”
His mother glanced at Neya’s door once more. Another awkward silence settled between them. Iro sulked. He knew was sulking, felt the familiar weight pressing down on his shoulders. He could never quite think of the right words. He wanted to be a Hopper, even without a titan to Hop to. He wanted to face down monsters, to train to fight. He wanted to be someone who would make Neya proud of him. And he needed to atone. Because maybe if she’d had her own sword with her, instead of some dull-edged armoury blade not weighted right for her, she might have fought her way free and made it home. Maybe she’d still be alive, if not for him.
His mother leaned forward, moving her head about until he couldn’t help but look at her. She pulled a face, squinting with one eye and sticking out her tongue, still green from the algae. Despite himself, Iro laughed.
“There he is,” she said. “Maybe I can help. Teach you the basics at least.” She stood and rolled a shoulder. “I think I can just about remember how to hold a sword.” She’d been a Hopper in her youth, an Enhancer who made two runs onto the titan. But she’d failed to open her First Gate, and that ended her career. You only got one chance to open the Gates.
Iro jumped up, knocking his chair over. “Really?”
His mother nodded. “Sure. You know the training room schedule? We’ll find an hour every couple of days to get down there. I’ll try to remember how to swing a sword, and you can try to learn from an old woman too used to a comfy chair.”
Iro skirted the table in a moment, bent down, and wrapped his arms around his mother. “Thank you!” He knew it wouldn’t make him a Hopper, that without a talent he’d never be a Hopper. But at least it would be some progress. At least it would be a change to the normal ship routine.
An alarm sounded across the ship. The general alarm that bleated through every room and loud enough to penetrate the cold of space. Both Iro and his mother stopped, frowning and staring up at nothing for a few moments. Nobody had heard the general alarm since the day the titan died.
As suddenly as it started up, the alarm stopped. His mother frowned at Iro for a few more moments, then rushed to her feet and ran to the comm panel.