The first time he had seen it, from above, Stin thought the far-spreading sprawl of low rise, square, flat-roofed buildings looked like someone upturned a truckload of children’s play blocks. Or not. The shapes were too uneven. Maybe more like a skip full of builders’ rubble, emptied out in the middle of nowhere.
The buildings were all shades of ochre, the newer ones more brown or orange, the older ones yellowed and greying. Some close pressed along narrow streets. Others, more segregated in their own patch of land with courtyards and walls. The double dome of the tiny spaceport bubbled up, incongruous, in the midst of it all and anywhere else in the galaxy there would be ninety million health and safety regulators screaming that the residential buildings were too close. Here, though, there was no one with sufficient authority to object – even if anyone had actually cared. From the domes, a street ran to the main square and then continued pretty much straight on until it came to the only other building of real substance. Dominating the mud-brick built housing and offering a kind of low-tech counterpart to the spaceport domes, the stone-built citadel stood as a testament to local architecture, with its odd half-cylinder tower and its own microcosm of courtyards and housing gathered around the curtain wall.
This was the city of Keran. The planetary capital of Temsevar which was surely the most grimly benighted world in known space. It stood – or more sort of slumped – in a vast plain which stretched, dizzyingly, as far as his eyes could see in every direction, bleak and empty with nothing taller than knee-high bushes and an odd grey-green grass which grew all over.
Someone told Stin that before the spaceport, the settlement had just been a trading post centred on the citadel. Back then, it had only a scant handful of permanent residents and a high turnover of the weird tattoo covered nomads, whose tribes ranged the plains around, moving all the time to avoid their livestock over-grazing the sparse foliage. In some ways, he reflected, nothing much had changed – only the city had grown and now the nomads came from beyond the sky and were much fewer in number.
During the short summer the locals told him Keran was a dust bowl and throughout the long winter, it was a frozen hell. For Stin, it was all alien. A place of exile. First impressions always count and he had been left here in the winter. Adjectives that sprang to mind when he thought how he would describe it to people when – if – he got home again were: bleak, desolate, barren and bitter – like finding himself stranded in a gigantic cold-storage compartment. The memory of standing in the vacant dock looking at the empty space that had been occupied by the ship he arrived in earlier that same day, was still vivid. And that of the voice behind him full of friendly sympathy.
“She left without you? Well, no worries, it happens here. You’re not the first and I’m sure you won’t be the last. You’ll get off in a year or two, just might have to earn yourself a bit to pay the passage.”
He turned to see the speaker, a short man with a round face and a balding fuzz of dark hair.
“I don’t know why she – “
The round face broke up into a gnomish smile.
“You’d not be standing here if you did, would you? Anyway, I’m Agernilio Tavi, but everyone calls me Gernie. I’m the one-man band who keeps the port here running.”
“Stin. Stinian Sabas. I’m the dumb fool who just got dumped by his girlfriend. Now I guess I’m stranded.”
“You and me both, only I’ve stuck it out here the last two and a half decades. Oh man, your face. Don’t look so worried – I chose to stay.”
Gernie, he discovered, was the unofficial deity of the spaceport. He ran the place as his own private business venture and that made him the most important person in the whole of Keran. He was the gatekeeper. The one who controlled access to the rest of the galaxy, the one who could arrange for cargos to be shipped in or out.
Everything offworld was prized here – as long as it wasn’t high-tech dependent. The most highly sought after offworld items were weaponry and medical supplies. These would be purchased or exchanged for whatever local trade could offer – exotic food and drink, art and artefacts, some semi-precious stones and metals. Most of what was traded out didn’t come from Keran or even from the same continent. Most trade came – and went – on the backs of the local beasts of burden. These ponies were ugly beasts, with short, stubby ears, broad backs and thick coats, but had peculiar looking split-hooved feet which could spread and grip on soft ground or ice. They would carry trade goods in pack trains, along the single broad road which stretched to the seaport of Vinbrith, just out of sight over the horizon.
Stin went to Vinbrith the once. It had a pretty sounding name and looked totally picturesque from a distance, the cute cottage-like dwellings clinging to the cliffs above the harbour, the little ships bobbing on the tide and the huge wooden wheels turning slowly. It was perhaps only when you saw the wheels, used to lift the cargos on wooden platforms up the sheer cliff face, were treadmills with three ranks of six men chained in together, that the illusion began to fall away. That and the stench. Pretty as a picture from afar, but close to Vinbrith was worse than Keran – and that was saying something. But from there, wooden-built sailing ships carried goods of all sorts to and from the other continent of the planet, which, Stin had been told, was ruled by someone they called ‘The Overlord’ and held the vast majority of the planet’s population and most all of its resources.
Gernie found him the work. There were a lot of things that needed doing which the locals lacked the technical skill to achieve. It wasn’t good pay, but at least it would earn him passage offworld – eventually. Stin was roped in to help keep the port functional and to spell Gernie manning the archaic transceiver which was set up with the one solitary comms satellite in orbit above the planet.
The system was so primitive that it couldn’t even access regular link-based FTL transmissions. That meant that the only real contact the planet ever got with the rest of the galaxy came via the few ships that visited Temsevar each year. But those incoming ships had to communicate through the satellite as the spaceport couldn’t talk directly to them, it was too far behind modern link technology to do so.
It was when he learned that particular fact that Stin finally realised this place wasn’t just at the back of beyond like most Periphery worlds, it was actually a good few kiloparsecs behind the back of beyond.
From Haruspex III: A Walking Shadow part of the Fortune's Fools series by E.M. Swift-Hook.