Roma Spaceport wasn’t much to look at anymore. The afternoon sun revealed decaying structures, covered in silt and grime, lining the overgrown runway. Still, it was vaguely recognizable as the portal to a once-vibrant metropolis. There was something to a spaceport that even centuries of natural wear could not entirely erase. Perhaps it was the vast expanse of land keeping the forests at bay, for centuries of spacecraft had left their marks in toxic fuels and chemicals. He could almost imagine the throngs of crowds that had once greeted their loved ones on the tarmac, waving excitedly as friends and family returned from furthest destinations of the old Imperium.
Landing was routine for Ranger Orias now, and the thrusters of his orbital cruiser cut out as the landing skids made contact with the cracked pavement. Despite the familiarity, he was a stranger to Earth no matter how many times he had landed upon it. And he was reminded of that as he opened the hatchway. A blast of unnatural atmosphere overcame him and the blinding light took a moment for him to adjust to. The distant space-borne habitats favored for the last few millenia were sterile places, devoid of the scents common to planetary surfaces. Simply put, planets were smelly places, and the Ranger would have rather been anywhere else.
“Ranger Orias, this is Control. Mission is to apprehend violator and return to base, acknowledge.” His com badge chirped.
“Control, I’ve landed successfully and am en route to the signal trace. Violator should be in custody shortly.” Orias reported mechanically, putting on his sunglasses to combat the afternoon glare. He didn’t expect a reply. Control was a small space station in orbit of Jupiter, the last remaining outpost of humanity in the Sol System. It would take some time for the radio signal to reach them.
Roma was a curious place. It had been one of the last functional Imperial outposts on Old Terra. The stasis fields hadn’t been shut down until a few centuries before, and so the ancient city was still relatively well preserved. Naturally, it was also the site of the most violations. There was always a sense of maudlin about the place, as if his boots were disturbing the ghosts of the decaying metropolis. But then, most of Earth was like that. Most of humanity had forgotten its origins on this dusty planet, but the Rangers still retained that knowledge. So, apparently, did the occasional trespasser.
“Subject located, grid 16, building 7. Electrical power generation detected.” The wrist computer reminded him. A holographic panel overlaid itself in front of his vision, directing him to the target. The violator was on the move, swiftly working his way through the wreckage. The computer noted that the man had picked up speed and turned towards the Ranger. His presence had been detected, and that might make things more difficult.
This particular section of the city was quite old. If the oldest records were to be believed, the buildings here actually predated space travel. It was a difficult truth to swallow, but the ancient historians generally knew what they were talking about. The mark of the Christ was everywhere.
He knew of the Christos, of course. They figured prominently in the old histories and all Park Rangers had to memorize the relevant bits of information. But the concept of religion was utterly foreign to him, the texts might speak of beliefs in invisible beings, but to him it sounded vaguely like mental illness. In any event, the Christos were known as a violent, superstitious lot. Many sources blamed them for the Great Wars, the very same conflict that had convinced the Imperium to turn the planet into natural park. Their mythical Inquisitions were the subjects of some of the cheap pulp holo-novels commonly available on the Exchange and were a staple villain in some of the older horror films. Fortunately, no known Christos had been sighted in over a millenium. Still, it was as if their presence lingered in the decaying structures around him. Certainly Roma wasn’t very comforting for him.
Yet, those very same imposing structures were magnificent in their own way, and if they had been raised without the aid of machines, they were all that much more impressive. Certainly the modern, sterile and angular orbital habitats looked nothing like these. The detail in the stone work, even worn down by the centuries, was intricate and expert in its design.
“Subject is moving. Grid 16, building 3. Intercept vector plotted.” The target was moving fast, and that was ominous. His A.I. had already flagged the interloper as potentially aggressive, but he didn’t need the computer to figure that out. Orias gripped the butt of his pulse pistol. It had been over a century since the last Ranger had died in the field, but he had no desire to join that long-dead compatriot.
Overhead, a storm was rolling in, distant thunder giving way as the cloud cover moved to blot out the sun. Storms were rare in this part of the world now, but they were not entirely unknown. Still, they were one more reason Orias hated this duty, and it would make apprehending this violator even more difficult.
Most of Ranger duty was preventing violators from landing on Old Terra in the first place rather than chasing down fugitives on the surface. Some were devious or lucky enough to get around the patrols and there were great rewards on the line for anyone who managed to apprehend those trespassers. He tried to reason with himself that the reward was worth the risk.
Electrical surges in the atmosphere interfered with his tracking scanner. “Subject signal lost. Last known location, Grid 15, building 13. Recommend fallback position.” The computer informed him crisply.
“Yeah, no shit.” He muttered to himself, drawing his pistol. “Give me orbital scans. Roma sector, zoom to last known location.”
“Scanning. Only human bio signature is Lieutenant-Ranger Nathan Orias, sector com…”
“Enough. I get it.” He sputtered angrily. Fifty-thousand Fed-creds worth of A.I., and it couldn’t even figure out where one man had gone. Irrationally, his vision latched on to the gargoyles, the stone demons carved into the sides of some of the foreign structures. He felt his adrenaline surge. Whoever the trespasser was, he was oddly focused on the Christo structures in the ancient city. Old legends of the warring Christos came to mind, cautionary tales once used to frighten children.
Rain began to fall and the last rays of sunlight disappeared behind the angry storm clouds. Wind picked up around him, rustling the debris of the abandoned cityscape.
He would have to do this thing the old fashioned way, he knew. He double-checked the power pack in his pulse pistol. The green readout was comforting. He tightened the collar on his jacket and moved forward, taking cover behind a collapsed church.
Lightning flashed, and he felt a surge of momentary fear course through him. A great stone statue of a man stood before him, tied to the cross, the symbol of the Christ. The eyes tilted skyward, as if in intense agony, yet still coherent somehow.
“Get a hold of yourself.” He whispered. This was a simple job, and he was letting the ferocity of the planet’s weather get under his skin. If he apprehended the violator, there would be great rewards, maybe even a promotion. And if the subject really was a Christo, as impossible at it seemed, he would be famous for having discovered one. Certainly he wouldn’t lack for money. Determination overtook his fear and he pressed on.
Orias shuffled through the halls of the church, ignoring the trickling through the cracked stones, searching for his quarry. The violator had to know he was here, that was why the subject had been moving so quickly after he had landed.
Movement shot out from the corner of his vision and a frightening growl seemed to emanate above the loudness of the storm. The shadow lunged at him, and his pistol barked twice, as much from reflex as conscious intent.
A flash of lightning revealed the shadow to be a feral dog, common enough in the old city, though they usually had the sense to avoid Rangers. The shadow of the cross was above him now, the blood of the dog dripping down the base of the statue. It seemed to be accusing him of something, looking down upon him with a strange sense of outrage.
“Signal Trace, 52 meters.” The computer reported. The sound echoed across the ruins.
Orias suppressed a curse, shutting off the audio-visual functions. The violator was close. For a moment, he considered retreating and calling Control for backup. But then the violator might escape and circumvent the orbital satellites.
Minutes passed, and to the Ranger they were the longest minutes of his life. His heart thumped loudly in his chest and his senses strained for any sign of the interloper. But there was nothing. Only the constant sound of rain greeted him, only shadows playing across the old church buildings confronted him.
The wrist computer blinked once. Thirteen Meters.
Sweat covered his palms as he backed himself against a stone wall, looking all around him. But there was nothing to be seen, nothing to be heard.
He had to be here, in this very room! Clarity of vision overcame him for just a moment. Perhaps it was a shaft of light burning through the storm, or just another flicker of distant lightning, but he saw it!
His finger squeezed the trigger. Pulse darts flew into the ruins, shattering stone and shooting steam up from puddles of vaporized water. Somehow, the interloper was quicker, flying through the shadows and sheets of rain as if he hovered above the ground.
Orias breathed heavily, but his pulse pistol was held firmly. No violation had ever gone like this. The statue looked down on him now, as if he were a thing to pity, not to fear.
“You are in violation of Terran Space!” He yelled into the storm. “Give it up!” Yet the words rung hollow in his ears. There was none of the usual command and authority in that voice.
Only distant thunder answered him. Had he imagined the whole thing? Was it just another feral dog? He couldn’t be sure, but planetside weather patterns had caused extreme difficulties for Rangers in the past. He could do no more. His determination fled at the thought that the trespasser could have easily killed him, for he seemed at ease moving through the ancient ruins. Even the Commandant would understand a Ranger’s reluctance to continue at this point.
Nothing else crept from the shadows or revealed itself to him as he worked his way slowly, carefully, back to his orbiter. For a moment, as he turned the corner to the spaceport, pistol still gripped firmly in his hand, he half-expected the ship to be gone, stolen by the interloper. But it remained just as he had left it.
Relief flooded his awareness as he felt the familiar breeze of the air circulation system expel the strange scents of Earth. He closed the hatch tightly and leaned against a bulkhead, catching his breath, purging the adrenaline from his system.
He froze. Fear paralyzed him completely for the briefest of moments.
A book of the ancient sort rested upon the surface of the pilot’s seat, the cross emblazoned in shimmering gold upon its obsidian surface. A note rested upon it, hand-written letters scrawled hastily on the yellowed paper.
You look like you need this more than I do.
There weren’t any real places to hide on his small craft, and so he felt the sudden shock melt away slowly. Curiosity overcame his hesitation, and he opened the book to a page the violator had folded over.
There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory.
Outside the storm had begun to recede, the sun bathing the cockpit of his orbiter in warm light once more. There was something magnificent in it for the Ranger, the relief of his fear and an appreciation for just breathing. The Christo could have killed him, could have sabotaged his spacecraft or just ambushed him in the wreckage of the city, but he hadn’t.
He thought about the strange shadow and wondered about the supposedly extinct Christos and their strange beliefs. He thought about the origin of humanity on this ancient world and wondered for the first time if the Imperium had done the right thing in hiding the memory of it from the people.
“Ranger Orias, this is Control. Have you apprehended the violator yet? Acknowledge.” The comm chirped. The Ranger looked down on the book, a gift from a man who probably could have killed him if he had desired it. Some consideration was owed here. He chose his next words carefully.
“Control, there is no violator here. We have an orbital sensor glitch from the overhead satellite. The A.I. couldn’t get a lock on anything down here. Repairing the satellite and returning to base.” He reported, tucking the book under his arm and taking his seat. The usual communications delay would have him halfway into orbit before they received his reply. There would be enough time to make good on his claim. Of course, there would be no fancy promotion or article for him in the Imperial News Service, but there was something else interesting.
Roma vanished beneath the cloud cover as his orbiter gained speed. He opened the book again.