It was going to be a massacre. The teeming, glistening front lines were racing at him, bearing all sorts of knives, swords, and spears. Owen had nothing with which to protect himself, and nowhere to run in the desert. But he stood fast, hypnotized by the motion in the distance of the warriors drawing near.
He heard a voice, resonating as if from the sky. "Prophet 6!" It didn't mean anything. Nothing meant anything when you were about to be torn to shreds by thousands of sweating bloodthirsty Auroran warriors. They would be at Owen's throat in minutes. He was preparing for the worst.
The sky insisted, "Prophet 6. Paging Propet 6." Surely the sky could see that he was preoccupied. Even if the sky didn't have eyes, surely it could feel the teeming masses about to utterly gore him. But it persisted. "Prophet 6… Prophet 6…"
Owen stirred under the sheets. A window onto the starlight outside illuminated almost nothing as he rested in complete darkness. "Paging Prophet 6." He moaned an anguished, sleepy moan. "Prophet 6!"
"What!" he shouted through the pillows and sheets.
"Prophet 6, you are wanted at the bridge."
"Please go to the bridge."
"Ugh." The sleep in his eyes was stubborn. His eyelids felt leaden. Somehow something in him pulled his legs to the side and had him stand, grasping the blank wall for balance, groping in the darkness for clothes. He realized it was a weird thing that someone would want him at the bridge. He looked at the time on his comdev. It was about an hour before he was supposed to wake up to loiter around the engineering room. By loiter, really he did work. It just didn't feel like work most of the time. He remembered a certain ship he was still troubleshooting – a personal project. It was nice that he was paid to do personal projects. Thank goodness for socialism, he thought. Technically, he did own the workshop.
He didn't want to turn on any lights. So in the darkness he fumbled around long enough to put on clothes and fix his appearance by starlight. When finally he emerged with reluctance from the room, he squinted against the light. People were walking the hallways busily when Owen left the little tributary of bedrooms. He found himself floating in a stream of people walking in the same direction, thoroughly minding their own business. There wasn't anyone he recognized – at least not at this hour. He found the lift he was looking for and loaded in with a few high-ranking others. Owen knew most of them, but was too tired to say hi. They took the initiative instead.
"Hey Owen," a friendly but gruff looking man said to him. He was dressed in a high ranking officer's coat.
"Just waking up then, are you?"
"Hah. What are you doing headed toward the bridge?"
"Dunno, someone paged me."
The lift doors opened. "Guess you'll find out then! Take care." Owen began heading toward the bridge while Arnold took one path to a control deck. Arnold was an officer over traffic control. Although the Dedicated of Tuatha was always moving, it was also always receiving traffic. It was the hub of the Fair Trade Alliance and much other related activity, and the home of thousands. The ship's population was fastidiously controlled, and the exact number was somewhere near 24,000.
There were several locked doors which could only be opened by dedicated guards. Owen's ID and retina were scanned on two occasions before he could enter the bridge, where more general officers communicated constantly with other ship leaders and ship interfaces. In the middle of the bustle, the hub of the hub's hub himself stood, his massive frame imposing on the busy but still minimalist space. To Owen, this man was neither massive nor a hub, but his uncle Olaf. He was one of the founders of the FTA, but left his most involved post to fulfill a passion for overseeing the direct action of the ship by captaining it.
Olaf finished a conversation with one of the officers and turned to face whoever had just called his name from the bridge door. "Owen! Glad you could make it."
"Were you looking for me?"
"Indeed I was. Let's take a walk." Olaf took Owen's shoulder in his massive arm and led him down the path toward the lift. "I'm glad you could pick me up – I've been meaning to do this for a while."
Owen wasn't sure exactly what was going on. He had always been like this, though. Traveling on a whim, showing him little surprises. Surely this was going to be another invention. Olaf was the developer of the FTA's prized technological posession: the Greyshoulders Direct Jump. It basically allowed FTA ships to literally evade authority by jumping more readily than any other ship could. The technology was jealously guarded since it was one of the only means by which the FTA could continue existing.
After that, even as the captain of the Dedicated of Tuatha, he was sill tinkering. A special thruster here, an advanced weapon there. Part of Owen's work was helping make Olaf's ideas reality. Owen had already realized a ship based on a vague notion of Olaf's, as well as various other more technical parts. This would probably be something he wanted to show Owen that had been finished by another engineering department he had assigned development of the idea to.
"So what are we up to?" Owen decided to ask.
"I want you to meet someone. You're old enough now to start training in another job, if you want it."
"What job is that?"
"Well you'd have a few choices. But none of them would be engineering – we know you're pretty good at other things too and I've felt a little weird about you being my lackey for so long. Do you feel okay with a change?"
"Sure. I mean as long as it isn't too hard."
"Nah, shouldn't be. You'll have lots of help besides." The lift doors opened onto an unfamiliar hallway. "It's ambassadorship. We want you to start training for our external operations." Owen followed Olaf's trajectory toward the desk of a receptionist.
"Hi. Can I help you?" he asked Olaf.
"Yeah. Get me Madeline."
Sooner than Olaf finished saying her name, Owen felt a presence behind him. The receptionist extended an index finger, and Olaf turned to face a woman with a cunning face and almost wickedly bright eyes.
"Good one, Madeline."
"To what do we owe the honor, Olaf?"
"I want you to take Owen. Did you get my memo?"
"I did. Thanks for bringing him here."
"Well I'll leave you two to your business. See you later Owen?"
"Sure thing," he replied with uncertainty. Olaf walked back to the lift and vanished. Owen had the distinct sensation of being dropped off at a new school.
"Good to meet you, Owen. I've heard great things about you." Madeline extended a hand. Owen shook it.
"Good to meet you."
"I'm sure you have a lot of questions. Why don't you step into my office for a while."
Madeline started walking. It was a winding path through a forest of smallish soundproofed glass conference rooms, a few of which were occupied. Soon the rooms became more often walled, then completely without glass. The doors became more sparse, then Madeline opened one. "Please, come in." Owen entered before Madeline.
Around him was an array of accoutrements. Picframes here and there, kitchy lighting on the walls, and an older computer sat at her desk. False windows displayed a feed from a leafy outdoor view not present on the ship. She followed Owen in. "Have a seat. Would you like anything? Tea? Coffee?"
"I'm fine, thanks." Owen sat on the rather nice couch against the wall. She took a seat in an armchair facing it, just in front of her desk. It was like a psychological clinician's room. There was a quiet moment. Owen was looking around the room, while Madeline was fixed on Owen from her armchair, both arms folded across her lap.
"So Owen, how is engineering going?"
Owen let enough time pass between her question and his response to sound relaxed. "It's tedious, but productive. I'm proud of the work I produce, and I'm happy doing the work despite the tedium." He noticed how the clinician's furniture arrangement primed a psychoanalytical-sounding response in Owen.
"Would you be interested in possibly doing something else?"
Another microscopic reflective pause. "I would be interested in trying something else, but I'm not sure I can make commitments if the work is less satisfying than engineering."
"That sounds reasonable." She inhaled sharply through her nostrils and bent forward to appear frank. "Well, what I'd like to offer you is work as an ambassador. It involves travel, which I've heard is important to you, and it involves speaking with the leaders of client organizations. Basically you will represent the FTA and its policies abroad. I know you've probably been drowning in the structure and policies of the FTA with Olaf as your uncle, so I think you should be able to pass the ambassadorship exam with minimal studying. That is, if you're interested."
"Hm. I've been eager to travel again for a long time. Sure, I'll try it. I'd rather not make any commitments, though."
"Excellent." The glint in her eye hid something deeply veiled. Owen knew with conviction that he was being ushered into ambassadorship for some particular reason. There was something behind this.
"Where are you?" Owen stumbled in a shimmering darkness.
He turned around and found himself in the lobby of an opera house, lit only by ambient light through the windows of the dome which cast blurry vague shadows. Someone was standing on the other edge of the large image of a compass set into the dusty marble floor. Ancient drapes brooded in the distance across the windows.
"Hello?" Owen's voice resonated in the room. The clothes of the someone across the room collapsed in on thin air. Owen started walking across the compass to the pile of clothes when he felt a presence behind him. His neck prickled. He felt paralyzed. He could not turn around. He knew the light didn't shine behind him. He knew, whatever, whoever it was, it was not worth turning around for. The horror crawled across his skin from his neck.
"Don't turn around," a friendly voice whispered. The whisper reverberated across the room. But it wasn't comforting. The presence seemed to press inward from behind him. "Don't turn around."
Owen's eyes flicked open on the darkness of his bedroom. He was shivering. Had someone touched the thermostat? He rose out of bed and turned it up anyway.
He fell back and thought about traveling again as he lay staring at the stars outside. Maybe what had been eating at him was the stagnancy aboard the Dedicated of Tuatha. He had a few good friends, but it would be easy for him to leave them. Owen was known as the Ice Queen by one of his better friends.
He thought about the snow falling in the village where he spent his earlier years. About how he'd loved to sit on the wooden cover of the well just outside as the snow fell. The soft tinkling of chimes sounded like the motion of the snow falling. Owen slept.
In the coming day, he would depart for a huge, busy, dangerous place: Earth.
Owen stood in front of the docks door waiting. He expected Olaf to come down and say bye, but he hadn't come yet. He wasn't relaxed because next to him stood Madeline, who was quite at ease.
"Since we're heading towards Goliath, you might be able to meet us there after your meeting on Earth," she told Owen.
"Have you ever been through Earth's traffic control?"
"Not yet, no."
"Be really careful! The Feds are really on edge, and they'll gun down any ship behaving sketchy. Just do what they say."
"I'm not too worried."
"Of course you aren't," she grinned.
After a pause which was longer than it was comfortable, Olaf appeared out of the lift a ways down the hallway.
"Yo!" he called, and loped toward them. "Sorry I'm late." He put his hands on Owen's shoulders and said, "Watch out for traffic control. They're very intense. I sent all the notes on getting to the meeting and anything else you might want to know on your comdev. Once you're done, contact us first and take your time coming back. I'll have a credit chip for you when you're back."
"Sure thing. See you later." Olaf hugged his nephew. Owen opened the dock door, leaving Olaf and Madeline behind chatting and trotting away.
He found his way to the beta version of the ship he had been working on. It was an angular thing, designed for agility and speed in both space and in air. Owen stood there and regarded it, weighing the risk of flying something of a prototype which, although it had at least been tested for safety and emergency functionality, hadn't been thoroughly troubleshooted. Also the software Owen had designed from scratch for its interface was exactly that: handmade. It also lacked finer troubleshooting.