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The Cloaking of Calista
Science-Fiction / 5000 words
PREFACE: I wrote this in 2021 as a script for a series of TikTok videos (my first ones for the platform) but had never posted it in full until now. Incidentally, though it can be read as a standalone, it is a prequel of sorts to my Through the Stars, Darkly serial.
Tick tock... Tick tock...
Dan jumped out of his seat when the buzzer went off.
He had run out of time.
He looked at the screen, sweat dripping down his forehead.
“Oh no! What am I gonna do?” he wondered out loud.
His heart beating fast, he hurried to the window and looked outside.
They hadn’t come for him yet. Maybe he could still get away.
Tick tock... Tick tock...
Dan tossed the Orb into a bag, threw the bag over his shoulder, and rushed to the door.
He ran down the stairs and took a peek outside before making a run for his glider.
With a bit of luck, maybe he could get lost in traffic.
But they would come for him. He knew that much.
Missing a deadline was no small thing.
Dan was in a lot of trouble, and he knew it.
He’d have to disappear.
But where would he go?
Could anyone help him?
And for crying out loud, how could he make it stop?
That grating sound was like a song you can’t get out of your head.
He tapped against the side of his skull, but it wouldn’t go away.
Tick tock... Tick tock...
With a grunt, he drove his glider toward the heart of the city.
There were more people there—a crowd he could get lost in.
A red light on the dashboard suddenly started to blink.
It took him a few seconds to remember what it meant—he’d never seen it come on before.
He jerked his head around.
Just in time to see another glider run straight into him!
The shock of the collision sent Dan’s glider spiraling down to the ground.
His eyes grew wide as he saw the crowded street below.
He tried to control the vehicle, but it was pointless. The glider was too damaged to respond.
At least, people had noticed him coming down and were running away in panic.
Dan scrambled hurriedly to the hatch, fighting against the pull of gravity and hoping he could jump out just before the crash.
But something hard hit him on the head, and he fell to the floor.
It knocked him out, but only until the crash jolted him back to consciousness.
Tick tock... Tick tock...
There was that sound again!
But it was covered now by other sounds.
Screams and sirens from outside the now unmoving glider.
With some effort, he got back to his feet. The tube that hit him hung loose from the ceiling as he reached out and opened the hatch.
He needed to get out and away as quickly as possible.
Not only could the vehicle explode at any moment, but whoever had rammed into him—and it had to be Servants—could come for him anytime now.
He froze before he stepped out, realizing they would never come in for him. It’d be much easier to just wait outside.
If the wreckage exploded, it’d do the job for them.
If not, they would just pick him up as he came out.
But what choice did he have?
Tick tock... Tick tock...
He glanced around, trying to assess the damage. Maybe it would not explode? Maybe he could get this in the air again?
Who was he kidding? He was no fixer. And from the sounds he heard and the scents he smelled, this thing was fried and about to blow. If he stayed here, he’d blow with it.
Noticing his bag, he leaned down to grab it, then turned to face the hatch. With a deep breath, he stepped out.
The cold wind bit at his face—in stark contrast with the heat of the burning glider behind him.
Dan stepped away quickly, looking all around him.
A crowd had gathered, gaping at the wreck.
Two men walked toward him, concerned expressions on their faces.
“Are you alright, sir?” asked the first man.
“What happened?” asked the other.
These were not Servants. They looked too... too normal.
Tick tock... Tick tock...
His eyes darted in every direction, looking for any sign of suspicious-looking individuals... or of the other glider.
But there was nothing.
Could the Servants have been deterred by the presence of so many witnesses? After all, those who missed the deadline always just vanished. No one could ever say where, how, or when.
Everyone was expected to complete their appointed tasks within a given timeframe. There was no tolerance for failure.
Ignoring all those who tried to help him—or to get answers from him—he pressed through the crowd and quickly walked away.
Making sure there were always others around him at any given moment, he hurried toward the public tube that would take him deeper into the heart of the city.
While this might keep him safe for a while, he needed a more permanent solution.
Tick tock... Tick tock...
He gritted his teeth, trying to ignore the persistent sound and focus on the more pressing matter of finding shelter.
Could he turn to his family? His father was gone—taken by the Servants—and his mother too scared to do anything that might put her at risk. His only brother lived on the other side of Calista, well beyond his reach.
As he lifted his eyes, he saw the scrolling message one could see everywhere in the city... in fact, everywhere on the planet, from what he’d heard.
“We are your Masters. You are our Slaves. Never forget.”
Dan had seen this so many times, he was not about to forget.
But that didn’t mean he had to accept it.
He knew many others also refused to accept it.
Tick tock... Tick...
He blinked and frowned.
The sound went silent.
Only to be replaced by a different one.
Like a sizzling sound in his head.
But it didn’t last.
And what came next shocked him even more.
Hello? he heard. Can anyone hear me? Hello?
The voice kept talking in his head, asking questions.
Can you hear me? Is somebody out there? Where are you?
Was he going crazy?
He had to be!
Maybe it was from the shock of the crash.
Then again, he’d started hearing that tick tock sound way before that.
What was wrong with him?
Dan shook his head, mumbling to himself.
He realized people in the tube were staring at him.
Whether he was crazy or not, these folks definitely seemed to think he was.
He couldn’t blame them.
Okay, okay, I realize you can’t... you probably can’t answer. Silly me! How could you? How could anyone?
Dan decided he would ignore the voice. It was the only sensible thing to do.
The tube came to a halt and he quickly stepped out, clinging to his bag.
My name is Anton Chase. And... I want you to know this: there is safety beyond the reach of the Masters.
Dan froze in his steps, staring at his surroundings.
Had he heard that right?
No, no, it couldn’t be.
All you need to do, continued the voice, is to leave the city. Join the rebellion!
Leave the city?
Was this a joke?
There was nothing outside the city.
Nothing but a scorched wasteland.
The Masters had made sure of that.
Dan shook his head, wondering why he was even listening to the voice.
Well, sure, it wasn’t like he really had a choice. Not when the voice was inside his head.
But why would he trust anything it said?
It made no sense.
He quickened his pace, hurrying toward the exit of the station.
A cold breeze blew against his face as he set out and walked toward the west.
There was a building in that direction, where lived a friend of his. He had been hesitant to go to him, but he had to do something, and he couldn’t think of anything else.
We need your help! the voice pleaded.
The door opened after the second knock.
“Dan! What a surprise. It’s been a while. How—”
“Zane! I need your help.”
“What? What’s going on?”
“They’re after me. The Servants.”
The man frowned, reached out, grabbed Dan’s arm, and pulled him into his apartment. After a few quick glances in the hall, he shut the door and turned to his friend.
“Why are they after you?” he asked.
“I missed my deadline.”
“And you came here?”
“Where else could I go?”
“I’m sorry, Dan, but I can’t help you. Not while you’re still wearing that.”
He pointed to his friend’s wristpad.
Dan looked down and frowned.
He had warned everyone against the risk of relying too heavily upon one technology. Take it away, and everything else crumbled. Had they listened to him? Of course not. “It’s always been done this way,” they’d argued.
“This old thing? It hasn’t worked since the Cloaking.”
They had mocked him, laughed at his face, called him a ‘dreamer’ and a ‘conspiracist.’ But who was laughing now? Not that there was anything funny about it.
“Doesn’t mean they can’t track you through it.”
Dan’s eyes went wide as he realized what his friend was saying.
“But... How am I gonna get it off?”
“You need to go to the Fringe.”
Dan grimaced at this.
“Seriously. And you better have some credits with you. And be quick about it. And if you want another piece of advice: keep moving. Anytime you stop somewhere, chances rise that they’ll catch up to you.”
Even as he spoke, Zane opened the door again and pushed his friend outside.
“Okay, okay. I’ll get it off and come back...”
“What? You said—”
“I know what I said! But this place is compromised. They’re probably on their way right now. I can’t stay here.” He walked into the hall and locked the door behind him. “I’m going with you.”
The Fringe was called the Fringe, not because it lay at the edge of the city, but because it lay at the edge of the law.
It really was a seedy neighborhood that sensible folks made a point to avoid.
Zane must not have been as ‘sensible’ a person as Dan would have thought, as he seemed to know his way around quite well.
“Come here often?” he asked.
Zane shrugged. “Kinda have to in my line of work.”
“You’re a cook!” remarked Dan.
His friend grinned.
“Where do you think I get my ingredients from? Everything is cheaper here, on the black market. Of course, things got more expensive after the Cloaking, what with us being cut off from the Imperium and all...”
Dan frowned. He hadn’t known this--that his friend used the black market. Not that he was one to judge. But he’d have thought Zane could afford better suppliers.
Before he could ask another question, the other man tapped his shoulder and pointed toward a nearby store. The sign above read “House of Eternal Rest.”
“I’ll go in,” said Zane, “and explain the situation. You keep walking around, okay? We don’t want you in there any longer than is absolutely necessary.”
“Wait! What is that place?”
“Well, officially, it’s a crematorium. But there’s a lot more going on in the back. Alright, I’ll go in. Just keep walking, and I’ll signal when you can come.”
Zane handed him a device that looked like a little black box. It was small enough that it could disappear in his hand if he made it into a fist.
“Come back when you hear this beep, okay?”
Dan just nodded as he watched his friend go into the shop.
Without waiting, he started walking again.
As he explored the crowded streets of the Fringe, Dan grew anxious.
It wasn’t exactly the safest neighborhood in town.
He hoped he wouldn’t have to stay here too long.
Then again, would the Servants come here, of all places?
Before the Cloaking, authorities were known to be very reluctant to set foot here.
Hello? Can anyone hear me?
Dan grunted as he heard the voice in his head again.
It had remained quiet for a long time, and he had hoped it would be gone for good.
If anyone is hearing this, PLEASE come. We can’t win this war without your help.
Dan had no idea there even was a war.
The Masters had come three years ago. Out of nowhere. No one even noticed until a ship tried to leave Calista. It blew up when it hit the Cloak. That was when those messages about masters and slaves had started popping up.
At first, people assumed it was an extreme political faction that had seized power and cut the planet off so the Imperium would not interfere.
But when things dragged on, many pointed out how little sense that would make. The Cloak was not only blocking people from leaving, but also from entering. Which meant commerce with other planets was no longer possible.
In theory, Calista was self-sufficient. But, in the long run, it was quite a gamble that no political genius would dare take.
Because of this, rumors soon spread that these self-appointed ‘Masters’ may, in fact, be aliens.
But no one knew for sure.
Because no one had ever seen one of them.
They used human Servants to do their bidding.
And even these did not see the Masters.
A high-pitched beep interrupted Dan’s musing.
He opened his fist and saw a blue light blinking on the device.
It was time to get his wristpad removed.
Two large men waited in front of the shop when Dan arrived. Zane was with them and waved when he saw his friend.
He crossed the street, but as soon as he reached the sidewalk, the two men grabbed him and shoved him into a nearby glider.
“Hey! What’s going on?”
Zane jumped in, though the two goons did not.
“Sorry,” said his friend. “But this was the only way Malax would agree to see you. He didn’t want to risk drawing the Servants to his business.”
Zane pointed toward the seat across from them.
All had happened so fast that Dan hadn’t even noticed the small man who already sat inside the glider.
Though ‘man’ was perhaps not the right word.
Malax had blue skin, green antlers, and large bulgy eyes that constantly blinked.
There had been a large community of aliens on Calista at the time of the Cloaking. And when folks started to suspect that aliens were behind it, many of them had to flee. Some left the city altogether, while others found shelter within the Fringe.
Malax must have been one of those--unless he’d always lived here.
The alien looked at Zane and said something, though Dan could not understand the words.
His friend clicked his tongue and looked at him.
“He wants fifty credits for the job.”
Dan grunted but pulled the requested amount from his pocket.
“Okay. Give him your arm. We must hurry.”
Dan hesitated, but Zane insisted.
With a sigh, he held out his hand.
Malax leaned over with a sharp tool that he slid under the wristpad.
The alien said something, which Zane translated.
“He warns there might be some pain.”
The words had barely come out of his mouth that Dan felt his skin being pulled on, and a burning sensation ran through his arm. He wanted to yank it away from the alien, but the other held it firmly in place. He wouldn’t have expected such a small creature to have such strength.
He was about to yell when the pain suddenly ceased.
Dan looked down and saw the wristpad was no longer on him.
There was a large red mark in its place.
The glider landed, and Malax quickly ushered them both out, then left.
The two men watched the glider take off and disappear into traffic.
“You know strange people,” remarked Dan.
When Zane failed to answer, he looked in his direction and saw his friend shaking his head, mumbling to himself, and rubbing his neck.
“What? Erm, nothing. Sorry, was just... distracted.”
Dan sighed. “Well, your pal didn’t go easy on me.” He rubbed his wrist and his eyes went wide. “Hey! That alien kept my wristpad!”
Zane seemed amused by Dan’s dismay.
“What? You think you’ll need it again anytime soon?”
“The Masters won’t be here forever...”
“Oh? How do you know that? And even if that’s true, you think those wristpads would suddenly start working again?”
Zane shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. It’s gone now. Might as well get used to it. Alright, I need to go...”
“Wait! What? Where are you going?”
Dan’s friend shifted uncomfortably.
“Uhm, I’m not sure. I... I just need to go.” He frowned. Shook his head. “It’s... Gah! This is annoying. I’m sorry, but we probably won’t see each other again.”
Dan was confused.
“I’m leaving town,” said the other with a twitch in his lips. “I gotta get out of here.”
“Leaving town? But there’s nothing out there...”
“That’s what they want us to believe, but what proof do we have? All those videos we’ve seen come from them. I’m not buying any of it. There has to be something out there.”
Without another word, and still mumbling to himself, Zane turned and walked away.
Dan stared at him in disbelief.
Could his friend be right?
Could the voice be right?
Could there really be something out there?
Bag over shoulder, he headed toward the nearest tube, knowing this question would now haunt him.
He had to find out...
It would be easy to leave the city.
There were no controls.
They didn’t need controls when everyone was convinced the world beyond was dead.
So long as you didn’t try to leave in too obvious a way, chances were good you could pull it off.
But that meant no glider.
And that meant he’d have to walk.
Dan had only hesitated a few minutes.
It’s not like there were radiations, nothing like that. If it really was dead out there, he could always come back. So he might as well check it out.
The only problem was he had no clue where he was supposed to go.
Calista was a big world.
As he rode the tube toward the city limits, he stared at his bag.
Could the Orb help him?
It had a lot of knowledge in it. In fact, it held all the knowledge of the Imperium... Well, at least, all that had been available before the Cloaking.
He had worked on this project for years.
People had mocked him for even trying. Just like they had mocked him for denouncing the dangers of relying upon one sole technology.
In his mind, the Orb was the solution. A decentralized way of accessing information without having to rely on a wristpad or on thilium energy.
It fed off the light of the sun. During the day, it produced enough power to maintain it during the night as well.
The only part he hadn’t figured out yet was how to enable remote access so others could connect to it. Because only that would make it a viable alternative to wristpad technology.
Dan got off the tube at the last station.
It was night now, which would work to his advantage.
He stopped at a shop to buy all the necessities he might need—food, water, rope, a lighter... He had no idea what to expect out there, so he grabbed anything he thought might be of use.
After paying at the counter, he stuffed everything in his bag and walked toward the scorched land he could see in the distance.
Dan hurried away from the city, throwing frequent glances over his shoulder.
He was concerned the Servants might be watching the borders.
At least, he was glad it was night. Because there was nothing here. No trees, no bushes, no boulders... nothing he could have used to hide.
Only burned earth that cracked under his feet.
He would have to walk as far as possible before daybreak, or someone was sure to see him.
But the more time passed and the more he wondered about the folly of his actions.
What was he thinking?
Where was he going?
There was nothing here.
Nothing and nobody.
Why would he keep walking until daybreak?
It’d make more sense to turn back.
But to go where? Back to the Masters and their Servants?
He shook his head, grunting and groaning.
With a sigh, he stopped and sat down on the ground.
Opening the bag, he pulled out the Orb.
So much had changed since the Cloaking, he wasn’t sure it would be of much help. But it couldn’t hurt to try.
He put the sphere in his lap and made a sequence of taps on the surface. It began to glow as it came awake.
A display appeared, floating in the air before him.
With a few quick gestures, he brought up a map of the region.
Zooming in, he studied the surrounding area, which was highlighted by a red dot.
There had been a small village nearby, but he wasn’t sure if it still was there. Yet, it felt like a better alternative than going back to the city.
After turning the device off, he slipped it back into the bag, stood, and walked in the direction of the village.
Twenty minutes later, he heard a distant buzzing sound.
It grew louder as he approached.
The sound came from the village. It was obvious now, as he could see buildings outlined against the night sky. And it kept increasing as he approached.
But when he reached the first structures, it all went quiet. As if he’d walked through some invisible force field.
With a frown, he looked behind him, but there was nothing to see. Not even a shimmer in the air.
He backtracked a few steps and, sure enough, the buzzing returned.
Intrigued, he went back into the village—and its embracing silence—and walked through its dark and deserted streets.
This was when he saw the light.
He thought he’d dreamed it at first, but it flickered back into his sight.
Could someone be living here, in this forgotten and forsaken place? He headed in its direction, wondering what he would find.
The light grew in intensity, just like the sound had before. It came from the second floor of a large building, he realized, as he came to the end of the street. There were several windows there, and all of them shone brightly.
He walked into the building, went up the stairs, and looked for a door that had light spilling out from underneath.
When he found it, he paused and listened.
But there was nothing to hear.
He reached for the knob and turned it.
The door creaked open.
He stepped in.
Dan was startled by what he found on the other side. It was like something out of a big-budget holoflick. Except for the candles. That was unusual.
The walls were covered with yellow reflective paint. Hanging on the surfaces were holoscreens and flat, touch-sensitive control panels—though all of them were turned off.
There also was an empty table and four chairs in a corner.
But what caught Dan’s attention was the open doorway across from him. The air within shimmered and twirled. It seemed translucent, though he could only see darkness beyond.
This baffled him. Not the gateway itself—it was, after all, a rather common construction—but the fact that it obviously was active. It relied on the same technology as wristpads, so it should have stopped working after the Cloaking.
After only a few seconds of hesitation, Dan walked up to the fake door and stepped through.
His entire body tingled as it was instantly dematerialized and rematerialized in another location, hundreds of miles away.
It was not dark here, not at all.
He now stood in a large, well-lit room, with many other gateways lined up against the wall. There were machines everywhere. But, more importantly, there were people.
One man looked up as he arrived, and smiled.
“Oh! Oh! We have a visitor!”
The man hurried toward Dan, holding out his hand.
Dan shook it, startled.
“What? Where am I? What is this place?”
The other man laughed.
“This, my friend, is where we’ll write the future of Calista. This is the heart of the Rebellion. By the way, I am—”
“—Anton Chase, I know. I’m Dannik Marel. I recognize your voice. You’ve been in my head!”
The rebel blinked, then grinned. He looked over his shoulder at his colleagues who had gathered nearby.
“It works! I told you it would, didn’t I?”
When Dan asked how all of this was possible, Anton explained how they used alien technology.
Dan looked at the people in the room and noticed there were quite a few non-humans gathered there.
“They did this?” he asked dubiously.
“Oh, no!” Anton laughed. “We found ancient artifacts—before the Cloaking, mind you—dating from the Moonrise Collapse. They were buried deep in the earth.” He pointed at his colleagues over his shoulder. “Our alien friends here only helped us understand how to use them. They have a different way of thinking. Which is fascinating.”
“Is that also how you were able to speak inside my head?”
“Not only yours! But yes.”
He grabbed Dan’s arm and pulled him toward a nearby machine, which he excitedly pointed at.
“This, my friend, is what makes it all possible! It allows us to connect to very specific brainwaves... It’s like, every species has a unique print, a unique pattern. Once you have it identified, you can set the machine to send messages only to that specific print. Which means—and that’s the beauty of it!—it can’t be hacked!”
“Servants are humans,” he reminded the rebel leader.
“That’s true. Which is why we’re not bombarding the city with messages, or being too specific about how to find us. But we have gateways in every village surrounding the city. Anyone looking for us could find us easy enough. We’re even broadcasting a sound—you must have heard it!—to help guide folks to us. And if a Servant comes... Well, the gateways can identify their uniforms, in which case it would set off an alarm and send them into a cell with no way out.”
“What if they came in without the uniform?”
“Then we’d have a problem,” admitted Anton. “But have you ever seen a Servant without his uniform?”
The man clapped his hands, and a young boy came running.
“This is Charlie. He’ll take you to a room. I’m sure you must be exhausted! We can talk more after you’ve rested.”
Dan nodded and followed the boy down the hall.
As days went by, more people flocked in. Some had also missed their deadline, but many more just had enough of the Masters and were looking for a way to fight back.
Dan spent a lot of time studying the machines and speaking with the alien scientists.
And one day, something clicked in his head.
He brought out the Orb and stared at it.
This thing he held in his hands contained the sum total of human knowledge. It would be a formidable weapon against the invisible invaders. If only he had a way to connect it, to make it accessible...
And now, he did!
He discussed it with the scientists, and they found a way to hook up the Orb to the machine. Not only could they now speak inside people’s heads but they could give them access to information as well.
And they could add to this information with new data.
To access the data, one would have to answer some basic questions that were designed to identify Servants and block them out.
It was easy enough, as Servants had their minds altered and were now incapable of saying anything bad about the Masters.
In the years that followed, the technology was fine-tuned, and the Orb became a vital tool for the Resistance.
It would be a long time, however—several generations—before the Cloaking was finally lifted.
But that is a story for another day.
My name is Dannik Marel.
If you see this video, that means I must be... No, not dead! At least, I hope not. But I must be gone.
And by gone, I mean, no more physical body.
I made this thing, you see, this Orb that can bind us all through knowledge. But access is not as decentralized as I had hoped, because the system relies too heavily on the Orb.
The only way to fix this is for me to go inside it.
I know, I know, it sounds crazy! But believe me, I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t our only option.
Once inside, my mind will merge with the system, and knowledge will spread with me.
There will be no stopping us, then!
Anyway, I have to go...
Trust no one!
Want to read more of my Science-Fiction stories? Check out these titles, if you haven’t already:
Letter to Tya (a dying Emperor and war criminal writes a letter to his newborn daughter)
The Ever-Changing Flow of Time (a non-linear time travel story into alternate realities)
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Text (c) 2023 by Alex S. Garcia.
Header: royalty-free stock images, edited by me.
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