Tensions — Brandann R. Hill-Mann

I wrote a series of short stories a few years back when the setting of my space opera was intended to be a comic. It was a fun way to build the world and solidify the story up until the events of the comic were meant to take flight.

For various reasons, the project didn’t take off, but that’s okay. Since then I’ve toyed with different ways to tell the story, from attempting to draw the comic myself, to scripting it as an audio show. I’m still not sure which medium the Novi’s story will take, but I still like these for the peeks into the setting that they are. I’ve reworked some of the lore and culture, renamed the main characters (and looking to see where they develop as new people), revised the prose, and now present these for your enjoyment.

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Xandarian colonization happened while Astrea was still in nappies. The hilltop shrines to Forge Mother were torn down and their religion made illegal before she could walk. Even so, she’d been raised in the old ways by her parents, her father the Ogimaa-inni at the time. At least until they died in the early wars. The war was less a true fight and more a slaughter, Novi’ite soul swords no match against the heavy artillery of the Imperium Navy. Since then, the people of the swampy forest moon of Novi did their best to go through the motions of integration. They hid their language, their beliefs, and even allowed themselves to be conscripted into Imperium Navy’s Marine forces.

Clad in her poncho and helmet, Astrea swung tree to tree on her zip lines, making quick work of her patrol circuit until she realized that her team had fallen behind. She paused, letting gravity tip her upside down, she wound one foot around the cable, something she did naturally since childhood. All Novi’ites did. Forged from the stars, they felt more at home above the ground than on it. 

She frowned into the dense foliage, unable to see the others. Preceded by the telltale creak of branches, the non-Novi’ites caught up, Smith huffing from exertion, and Quince adjusting his gloves. Only those born off-moon would need gloves, since their hands lacked the protective calluses all Novi’ites developed.

“You know how to build bridges,” Smith groused, point with her lip to the suspension bridge between hubs of native homes. She fidgeted with the straps of her harness. “It’d be easier than these stupid cords.” She added a hasty, “Ma’am”.

In a gesture Astrea read as patronizing, she’d been made squad leader, for pretending to be obedient. Had anyone asked him, Orion would have told them she was driven by spite, and not loyalty. “It wasn’t my decision to send you here for zip line training.” The Xandarians had built what infrastructure they could when they put their base on the little moon, but they soon learned why the natives traveled the way they did. “We find this easier.”

“Of course you do.”

Astrea felt her eyes narrow, but said nothing. Instead, she shot her second line onto a high branch and pulled herself above the lower canopy. From here she could see all the way to their training camp, smoke from the cooking fires twining up through the branches. She made it back far ahead of the others.

“What’s wrong?” Orion would recognize the set of her jaw, the thin line of her full lips.

“Nothing.”

“Okay.” His dark eyes, so like her own, told her he did not believe her one whit. She knew better than to lie to him, but the snickers of the rest of the squad catching up absolved her from having to explain further.

Orion returned to the fire, turning over the plump pouches of rolled leaves with a stick so they would cook easily. The indigenous grains which were staple in Novi diets wafted their aroma, mingled with sucker fish, making Astrea’s stomach growl. 

Andrews swept in, dropping clumsily from the tree, gravity pitching him forward. Whether or not he rammed into Orion intentionally, nearly spilling him into the fire, was impossible to tell. A muscle in Orion’s brown cheek twitched, but he said nothing as he easily regained his balance.

Andrews laughed. “Oops.”

Orion drew a deep breath in through his nose before letting it out again, self-soothing.

“You should apologize,” Astrea muttered. Her eyes stayed fixed on her gear, even though she didn’t need to look at it to do the maintenance.

“What was that?” Andrews turned on the toe of his boot to face her. He rolled his shoulders, emphasizing their height difference, and crossed his arms over his broad chest.

Not one to be cowed by off-moon pricks, Astrea rolled to her feet, meeting his eyes and mimicking his posture. “I said you should apologize, and show him the respect he is due.”

“Astrea, it’s fine. No one was hurt.” He ran a hand over his black hair, cut clean for service, the spiky ends blue in the twilight. 

“It’s not fine,” she insisted. “You’re owed respect.”

A barked laugh rose up from Smith. “That’s right!” Andrews looked at her, clearly missing an important detail. Smith didn’t make him wait in ignorance. “He’s like, a prince or something.”

Red kissed Orion’s cheeks, the apple of his throat bobbing as he swallowed in discomfort.

“Really?” Andrews stepped around him with exaggerated steps, scrutinizing him as a platoon leader might do for inspection. He plucked at his uniform and sniffed the air audibly. “Under all that dirt?”

“I think it’s a tan line,” Quince added and jerked his chin at Orion. “From those spiffy goggles.”

Andrews reached up, plucking at the strap of the yellow-lensed goggles pushed back into Orion’s hair. “Stylish.”

Orion stood stock still, his teeth grinding. Even royalty—little more than an honorary title since colonization—had to serve. Orion did so without argument, even if his brother, our current clan leader, hadn’t advised him to in order to keep the peace.

“Novi’s a hereditary monarchy,” Smith continued, sketching a mocking bow in his direction.

“Quaint.” Andrews held his hands out at his sides as he turned in a circle. “Prince of all of this reeking swamp and bug-infested trees.”

“Stop it,” Astrea warned. They were treading dangerous ground around the ever-fraying boundaries of her patience. 

Smith glanced at Astrea, but made no other acknowledgment of her. “Can you imagine him representing this shithole in the Imperium Senate? In his poncho?”

Andrews’ mouth twitched. “Do you own shoes, Sixer?” A derogatory term used against us, reminding us that our moon no longer held its original identity, instead bearing the designation as Xandar moon number six. “They don’t let shoeless savages vote in the senate, royalty or not.”

Orion’s fingers balled into fists, making his tendons stand out against his muscles. It took a great deal of effort to push him to anger, his natural tendency to be peaceful. Once he got there, however, there was no stopping his rage until it ran its course. 

“I said stop it.” Astrea took a step forward, shifting weight to her forward foot and pausing there.

“What will you do?” Smith asked. “Pray to your dead gods for a start to fall on my head?”

“No, no, they are stars.” Andrews jabbed Orion on the shoulder with a single finger. “Isn’t that what you Sixers believe? That you’re some kind of special people?” He jabbed once more. “Feels like regular Novi’ite refuse to me.”

“Don’t touch me.” Orion shook his shoulder out and stepped back. He kept his voice low and calm, and a little too even.

“Or what?” Andrews poked him in the middle of his chest this time. “You gonna hit me? Do it. I’ll enjoy watching you put down like the dog you are.”

“He won’t do it,” Smith chuckled. “He’d rather let his little girlfriend do it so he doesn’t get in trouble.”

“Afraid of the Peacekeepers, Sixer? Afraid they don’t give one wet shit who you are?” Andrews stood almost toe to toe with Orion now. Neither Orion’s brother, or my own who served as war chief, could save us from punishment by the Imperium’s watch goons. “That being the prince of some nothing moon of nearly extinct primitives means nothing to—”

Astrea slammed into him, throwing all her weight into a dropped shoulder and sending Andrews staggering. She would have kept going, longing to feel the way her knuckles felt when they cracked against those cheekbones.”

“Get off me, moon mongrel!”

Orion’s strong arms caught her around the waist, pulling her back against him as she spit and swore in their native tongue. “Astrea, stop,” he growled at her through his teeth.

She made a feral sound, struggling against his hold. “Let me go. I want them off our moon!” But Orion held tight, giving her not even a scant centimeter. 

“It’s not even your moon, swamp rat.” Smith put an arm in front of Andrews, though who she was protecting wasn’t clear. “You’re standing on Imperium territory. You’re only here because we let you be.”

“We’re not—”

“Astrea, stop,” Orion told her once more. “It’s not worth it.”

She kicked and extricated herself from his grip. “You heard what she said!”

“I did.” He let out a sigh. “She’s right.”

Orion’s words knocked the fight from her. She looked at the three Xandarians, forming a wall before them. A tribunal of entitlement. Smith lifted her chin enough to look down upon them, haughty and self-satisfied. 

Astrea could hear the pair of Peacekeepers as they approached, the hum of their tasing weapons rising above the buzzing insects of the swampland. Their boots tramped across the suspension bridge from their compound, making the ropes groan under their weight. Their sterile uniforms and dark masks kept them anonymous. “What’s the trouble here?”

Smith thrust a finger through the air at Astrea. “The savage attacked us.”

“I want her reported to leadership,” Andrews added.

“Is that true?” one of them asked, his voice altered and tinny through the mask.

Astrea kept her chin up, a thousands arguments on the tip of her tongue. As squad leader, she had a right to tell her side of the story to the commander. But when Orion’s eyes met hers, her brown cheeks heated, and she understood his silent plea. She swallowed every word that begged to be spat at these invaders. 

“She was provoked,” Orion stated.

The second Peacekeeper raised a hand to stymie any further excuses. “You can tell it to the base commander, your highness. You know the laws.”

Orion made no other effort to argue. He squeezed Astrea’s elbow before stepping back from her to let the Peacekeepers bind her hands in the magnetic manacles.

“I am relieving you of your duties as squad leader, Novi’ite.” He turned the shield of his mask up at Orion. “Will you come peacefully, highness, or do I need to restrain you as well?”

Orion held his arms out, wrists crossed, in silent answer, and let them lead them both away.

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