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Loren Cooper works as a technical coordinator for Hewlett-Packard. His short story "Soldier's Home" (which is set in the same universe as "Black Promise") appears in Dark Planet #4.


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Black Promise

by Loren W. Cooper

One

     In the few brief moments before dusk on Hope, when the white sun dives headlong into layered flocks of stolid clouds and streaks pale plumage with rainbows of bloody light before sinking impatiently beyond the horizon, the hardest heart softens for a moment. And when shadows raise phantom shapes on the far horizon to dance with the waves and whistle a watcher's soul to heel, a man can believe almost anything.
     That promise brought Temenus to pause on Hope, hearing the distant echoes of peace. It came to him slowly, in bits and pieces of solitude, leaning on the polished rail of Lady as she turned with the wind. In those moments the quiet voice of the dark waters swallowed the awful silence burning with the fire of memory. Hope loosened his grip on hate and let him turn away from the patient eyes of death. But for Temenus, baptized in the flames of calculated hatred and dedicated to the darkness, such peace could be no more than illusion. One such as he should have known better than to drown memory in the waters of Hope, lest death follow after to remind him of fealty given and loyalty sworn.
     I lost him before I knew him truly, this man who became more and less than a man to so many worlds spinning under distant suns that even his wandering soul never knew them all. But as I studied his journals, walking the rusted beaches, listening to the soft voice of the dark waters, and watching the darkness follow on the heels of the falling white light, I came to understand him. You see, Temenus came looking for a sea deep enough to swallow the terrible burden of his memories, even knowing that for a few moments of peace the price might be that much higher in the end.
     On that soft spring morning when Temenus rose as he had on many a morning before, his quiet ghosts had long since been lulled by Hope's murmuring waters. Exiting his cabin with the light step of a man unmindful of his past, Temenus grinned and waved at Ceis as he crossed the rusty strand toward the impudent finger of Outlie's jetty. Ceis waved back before vanishing into the Ship.
     At the base of the dock, Makali flayed a flatfish with casual ease, rapping the back of the knife sharply against the cutting board twice before using the blade to flip the thick slab of white muscle to the side. Dark eyes danced in a solemn face as he watched Temenus drop down to the deck of Lady. "Looks like Ceis has business with the big boys again."
     Temenus decoupled the catamaran, swaying as the twin hulls danced freely on the water, then met Makali's eye. "Well, he's young."
     Makali laughed, a bass rumble. "He's all of that."
     Temenus walked a quick inspection of his small craft, still grinning. "And how was the catch this morning?"
     Makali waved a deprecating hand at the enormous bowl piled high with the fruits of his night's harvest. "Terrible, as usual."
     Temenus completed his circuit and shook his head. "It must be an unnamed sin, to relish so the flesh of the animals you study."
     Makali cocked a sooty eyebrow. "Sin? Join me tonight for dinner? Fish and red wine?"
     Temenus shuddered delicately. "Barbarian."
     Makali grinned. "Then maybe I'll invite your lady friend."
     Temenus blinked. "What?"
     "Didn't she find you? She stopped by this morning. Said she was an old friend, needed to talk to you about a common acquaintance."
     Temenus felt cold shock rush through him, anger flashing hard on its heels, and let them both pass him by. "I'll probably catch her on the way back."
     Makali nodded and stepped out from behind the board, knife flashing large in one hand. "Make yourself useful this time and bring me one of your little pets. I've wondered about the taste of Bloodfish for some time now."
     Temenus snapped the lines free, rose to the balls of his feet as the wind bellied the sails and Lady slid forward. "It's a curiosity destined to remain unsatisfied."
     Makali's subterranean chuckle came to him on the back of an errant breeze.
     Lady danced before the wind with casual grace, Temenus' hand firm but light as he guided her over the deep swells of Hope's dark waters. Wind rose, curling around him inquisitively as he breathed deep and smiled. In the time it took for Outlie to fade to insignificance on the dark shoreline he enjoyed the rhythm of movement, he and Lady and the wind and the waves all bound together in one common thread, a timeless instant of pure life in motion. He squinted into the distance, until he could just see the dark line of black cliffs that were Point Promise. Then, sighing, he dropped one hand to the console, fanned the control interface into existence, wove the course into a rippling fabric of light, then turned away from the controls as Lady heeled into the wind and began patrolling the perimeter to which he had bound her.
     Tasting the musky breath of Hope's Oceans, Temenus studied the waters which here shaded toward deep velvet blue. He always half-expected them to be waiting for him, convinced that they enjoyed the game as much as he. Stooping, he caught up the coiled line and the tough square of absorbent fabric knotted carefully into one end. Cross-drawing a small knife from a sheath on the inside of his left forearm, he let the ceramic blade kiss the third finger of his left hand. Dark blood welled eagerly in the knife's wake. Wiping the knife quickly on a small red patch at the front of his belt, Temenus resheathed the blade and held his cut hand over the knotted end of the line. Fabric darkened and swelled as it drank thirstily of his blood.
     Massaging the finger with his other hand, he milked blood into the fabric until it had blackened to the color of burnt meat. With practiced ease Temenus pressed a stitchpatch over the finger, anchored the line, and dropped the bloody fabric into the water hissing past Lady's stern. He trailed the line carefully through scarred hands, eyes lighting suddenly as he saw a dark silhouette break the crest of a wave. Jagged fins cut the water, grouping themselves loosely around the end of the dragging line.
     Then the line pulled tight, hissing across calloused palms. Lady slowed as he shifted his feet, set his weight, and snapped the line taut. Flexible cord looped his trailing fist, bit into his flesh like a wild animal, and sang as the bloodfish surged against the sudden torque.
     Droplets of spray caught the light as the line whipped through the surface of the waves. Fins circled slowly around their champion as Temenus clenched his jaws and fought to hold the animal to Lady's trail. Temenus gasped, eyes widening as physical sensations gained a sudden sharp clarity, sweat sliding along his flesh like the sharp icy edges of razors kissing his skin, the wind roaring distantly around him while the gentle swells made the sedate Lady seem to stagger like a dockside wastrel.
     He lurched against the railing, threaded one leg through the webbing, and shook his head. Never had contact come so swiftly or with such strength. Fighting vertigo and disorientation, his face split into a child's grin of sheer pleasure as he pulled the line hand-over-hand with every bit of strength sudden adrenaline could provide. The bloodfish, lord of Hope's waters, top of her seas' food chain, fought back savagely. Temenus laughed aloud as he closed his eyes against the directionless glare of Hope's white sun, listening to the sound of his own pulse hammering in his ears. Then something swept forward, laid a heavy hand in the deep places of his soul, and the laughter caught in his throat as he opened his eyes and saw the dark form rise from the waves like the sum of all fears.
     Monstrous, lithe body the color of old blood, teeth gleaming in wicked rows, eyes as dark as the fabric of night's embroidered cloak, his adversary hung fully exposed as though contemptuous of gravity. Temenus' hands slackened on the line as he flinched, and the moment shattered as contact dropped away. The bloodfish, suddenly no more than six feet of toothy attitude, dropped out of sight into the body of the next wave, leaving the line to snake limply across the suddenly empty waters.
     Temenus gasped and hung from the rail, shaking his head. "So strong."
     Suddenly hearing his own whispered voice, he straightened, pulled the line and now pastel fabric back into Lady. Moving slowly, he bandaged bleeding hands and poured himself something cold and bubbling. After some time and three glasses, he dropped another sanguine sign over the rail and stood swaying and watching the waves. Staring at the impenetrable waters, he rode the Lady back and forth across the shoals, and though jagged fins cut the waters around Lady, pacing him, no other deigned to take up his challenge as the day wound down to night.
     Temenus turned home while the setting sun broke the clouds at his back, polishing the waves until droplets of spray gleamed with evanescent glory. Ahead, standing on the dock with the sun in her face, he could see her waiting. He let Lady nuzzle gently up to her berth, and pulled himself lithely up to join the one he had once thought to leave behind.

Continue on to Part Two