VIGNETTE: An unpublished space opera story in two parts. . . .


The lonetrader Zexan burned into the uninhabited gravity well around Vignette 2323A sixteen minutes in front of the three Triss Lancers that had been chasing it through half the Neworld Frontier. Dexter Willis didn’t throw up, like he had the twelve other times they’d emerged from hotspace before hitting Vignette. He found himself getting used to that inside out sensation of Zexan’s peculiar realspace burn. He was getting used to it, but he wasn’t getting to like it.

He was hitching a ride with a symbic his old merc company had done some business with. The lonetrader sat empty when he ran into its register on the port ring at Regus IV, and it had no plans for the near future. Things were hot in the Regus system, and getting progressively hotter the longer he stayed there, or in any one place. He had a full credit chip from that Androm resistance agent he’d managed to contact on his way around the Regus ring and it turned out to be just enough to talk the symbic into an open ended tour of the Neworld. The symbic was named Torx, and like all other spacebourne symbic, he’d been grown into the wet guts of his bioform ship.

“Talk to me, Torx,” Dex said to the air over his head. “Is it true you symbics ooze things out of your bodies and use them as tools?”

“You have met my kind before,” the symbic replied. The sound of Torx’s voice had been synthesized by a Dellian computer. Symbic don’t talk like humans talk.

“This hilch named Weightbearing told me you’re supposed to be a whiz with some guts you designed for yourself that generate high-rev gravity pockets—higher even than Triss coils manage. That true?”

“Isn’t that why you chose Zexan?”

Dex smiled and nodded to the thin air. The room in which he sat was a big hemisphere, ringed by a bizarre, but rather comfortable living couch. Zexan was big enough to seat forty humans. The air inside was human air, the temperature, human temperature, but the symbic, good as they were with their self-grown mechanicals, had no concept of human privacy. The room would normally house forty strangers for days on end, and there wasn’t even a bathroom. The couch took care of everything.

With an unsettling chirp, a holoscreen spread out into a meter or so of the still air. On the screen, Dex could make out the smooth outline of the hunching symbic in his water-filled piloting chamber somewhere under Dex’s feet.

“Welcome to Vignette,” the pilot joked.

“Swell,” Dex replied. “Burn out as soon as you can. I need to get someplace crowded.”

“I’ll need to scoop,” Torx replied. “I’m hungry.”

“I’m getting nervous,” Dex shot back. They’d already had a couple close scrapes with Torx’s frontier refueling. Though any decent gas giant would do, and there tended to be plenty of those around, skimming took time. Zexan would need to dip sharply into the gas giant’s upper atmosphere and collect any sort of gas (hydrogen was ideal) to convert to energy. It was only a little dangerous, almost never illegal, sort of commonplace, but to someone on the run from the Triss, it was way, way too time consuming.

“How long?” Dex asked.

“An hour,” Torx answered, “if we’re lucky.”

Dex didn’t need to think about it too long. “No way,” he said. “Those three Lancers are back there, and not too far back there. If we don’t burn in somewhere colonized fast, we’re both dead.”

“I could always hand you over.”

The symbic’s computerized voice was neutral, without inflection, as always.

Dex forced a laugh, “Guess so.”

He slid across the tacky surface of the couch until he came to the controls for another screen, which showed a view from Zexan’s rear. Dex could just barely make out the dim blue glow of the ship’s gravity pocket teardropping away behind them. There were stars, and so far that was all. He sighed.

“I really need the fuel,” Torx continued. “I won’t make it too much farther than Silmer without at least a bladder’s worth.”

“Tell me about Silmer.”

“Unitarian mission colony, I think. It’s a human world.”

A possibility, Dex thought. “Population?”




“Skim, I guess,” Dex broke in. “Do what you have to, but we might have a fight on our hands this time.”

“Guaranteed,” Torx replied.

Dex couldn’t ask what he meant by that before the first blast tossed him free of the couch’s adhesive restraints and he was in freefall in the middle of the passenger dome.

Dexter cursed silently, a sort of scoffing sigh he’d picked up on Tlûrs, among the sponges, before asking, “What was that?”

“Triss Lancers,” Torx replied, voice as even as always. “We’re in trouble.”

“Well,” Dex said, pushing off the ceiling toward the couch, “this is it.”

*   *   *

Dexter Willis spent his entire adult life in the service of military organizations that fought over worlds hundreds of light-years from anywhere he might have called home. Like most humans, Dex was a free agent, a free-lancer . . . a mercenary. He fought and killed for money because he was good at it, at first, then because he couldn’t think of anything better to do.

It was during this cynical, lonely, inward time that Dexter Willis recognized his first atrocity.

Generally speaking, wars in the “civilized” galaxy were fought from orbit. Fusion bombs, cluster landers, atmosphere reconvertors, and nano dissemblers did the real dirty work. The creatures of meat and fear that were burned, shredded, suffocated, or turned inside out were targets . . . not even, they were bugs crawling around on targets. Dexter Willis was personally responsible for the deaths of several hundred thousand sentient beings before his twenty-fifth birthday and he’d never seen a dead body in his life. Until that day.

He was working for a group of Triss Suppressors who had instigated a hostile takeover of a chemical processing concern on the fringe of the tiny bubble of space tentatively held by the Androm. The Androm were one of a hundred of what Dex and his kind came to know as “victim races.” They’d build something and someone would come and steal it, they’d establish a colony and someone would destroy it, they’d have children and someone would kill them.

What Dex didn’t know when he’d signed on with the Triss on that short, easy tour, was that the chemicals the Androm were processing on that asteroid were essential to their reproduction. When the Androm home world was laid waste three hundred years before by the accidental firing of a Wïn crust missile, the Androm were pushed to the brink of extinction. It took them all three of the next centuries to regain their numbers into the millions and no one really knew how precarious a hold on life they still held.

The Triss knew, of course, but being Triss, they didn’t care.

Dex didn’t care either, until he led a recon team through a portion of the asteroid. Androm live in a dense, cold atmosphere that was almost too much for Dex’s team’s smartsuits. They saw the guards first, huge jelly fish the size of bulk containers and the protective parents killed six of Dex’s team before they were cut down themselves. The human mercenaries’ weapons shattered the Androm like glass. There was no blood, but the screams resonated in Dex’s skull for weeks after—maybe they never went away.

The babies were pools of the deepest blue Dex had ever seen, and when the humans realized what was going on on that asteroid, they withdrew. The Triss tried to kill them on their way out, and only Dex and two of his team survived to hit hotspace. The asteroid was scoured by the Triss and the Androm were, in a generation’s time, all but wiped out again.

It’s simply assumed throughout most of the galaxy that humans have no sense of loyalty and hold life in little esteem. Humans are soldiers, killers, and that’s all.

Dex wanted the galaxy to know how wrong it was, and he’d spent years bolstering the Androm resistance in any way he could. He slapped at the Triss and made them show themselves for what they were, and the Triss hated him for it. He stopped as many wars in the ensuing years than he’d fought in, and that made him a hero to only a wretched tiny minority. The galaxy didn’t want to change its mind, and that made Dexter Willis dangerous.

*   *   *

The second blast wasn’t as bad. Torx must have been alternating the gravity pocket frequency to try to block part of the Triss plasguns. Doing that would slow Zexan down, but block the shots. It was a trade off no one ever knew exactly how to play. Dex hoped Torx was lucky and started getting into his smartsuit just in case. A tactical screen showed only three moving stars. The Lancers were back there, still glowing from their realspace burns.

He almost had his helmet on when Torx reported, “We’re in trouble. I was on a vector for the gas giant. It has several moons. We’re putting down.”

“They’ll melt us from orbit at their leisure,” he said, trying not to scream. “Those moons probably don’t have more than a town or two among them at most. We’d be lucky to find a free prospector to—”

“I have no choice.”

“We’ll be sitting ducks,” he said, hearing in his own voice the beginning of a rather frightening realization.

“I’m not sure what a duck is,” Torx replied smoothly, “but I know what a fusion explosion is. They damaged one of my intracoolers. If I don’t set down and grow another one, I’m going to explode.”

Dex hated it when he had no choice, and he told that to Torx as the living ship started its descent.

* * *

“You haven’t been eating well,” the smartsuit told him when he snapped the helmet on.

“Screw you,” he muttered.

“Would you like a nutritional injection?”

It was a woman’s voice, like usual. Dex could never understand why they always had to sound like women. “No,” he told it. “Shut up and leave me alone.”

He re-thought that order after a few seconds—smartsuits tended to be somewhat literal. “I want important, emergency information and safety status reports only, okay?”

“Understood,” it said.

Dex could feel himself getting heavier, then there was a little bump and he knew they were down. For a second they were stable, but then the ship started listing to one side. Dex let go of the couch and rode it out. He didn’t want to end up stuck to the seat upside down, with no way of getting down.

“Torx!” he shouted through the smartsuit link. “Torx! Damn it . . . open an outside hatch. I need to get out of here. I’m dead in here!”

“You’ll be all right,” Torx answered and Dex knew then and there. . . .

“You . . .” he started.

“They won’t fire on the ship,” Torx added, voice still perfectly flat. “Not again.”

“You sold me out,” Dex hissed. “You sold me out to the Triss.”

There was no answer.

“What happened, symbic?” Dex asked, louder. “Did my credit run out?”

“Yes,” was the only reply.

Dex gathered his belongings, such as they were, into a sealed pack and hefted his only really loyal companion, aTilner & K’kelka 48.15 melter rifle.

“Open up,” he demanded. “Just let me . . .”

There was a long silence, too long.

“Let me try.”

There was a bit of hesitation, then a hole appeared on one wall, and grew bigger as the air rushed out. Dex let the wind pull him along and ended up rolling out onto spongy, cold ground. He stood up and ran several steps away from Zexan. The ship was half buried in the soft, muddy ground. Around it and in a short path behind it was a trail of burnt moss. Everywhere else the surface was just a deep ochre color, unbroken to any horizon.

“Great,” he said to no one in particular, “you had to let me out onto the flatlands.”

He brought the melter up and leveled it at the ship. The smartsuit comm link was still up.

“Hey, Torx,” Dex said, straining to keep his voice level, straining harder to forget how little time he had left before the Triss tortured him to death. “Remember that time you took me and Captain Eddie and that merc brigade through the Rinn Cluster?”

“Yes,” Torx answered, “of course I do.”

“You really saved our asses on that one. The Rinn wanted us dead. You faked that manifest chip, scooped us off Tirrlie, and grew a new arm for Captain Eddie.”

“Yes,” Torx answered again, in that same voice. “That was exciting. A very exciting mission.”

“Captain Eddie never liked you.”

There was a pause as the symbic considered its fate. “I never liked either of you. Humans. You would sell your crèche mates.”

“Guess that makes us even,” the human replied.

Dex pulled the trigger and Zexan went up in a small but hellishly hot orange fireball, and was completely gone in less than a second.


Read Part Two next week!

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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2 Responses to VIGNETTE: An unpublished space opera story in two parts. . . .

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