The audio meter strapped to my left wrist was glitching again. I hit it with the side of my hand. The soft whack seemed loud in the silence. This was the longest night of the cycle and both moons were full. I wouldn’t get a chance as good as this for another thirteen months. The small box made a sputtering sound and the lights flickered on. 5 of them, all yellow. I breathed a sigh of relief. I couldn’t afford a better meter. This one would have to do.
The ruins around me glowed in the moonlight, radiant greens and blues. Tucked down behind the base of a crumbling statue, I slowly extended my hand with the meter out until it was visible to anything that might be watching.
My hand was trembling. Some people said that the Irse had no sense of sight, others said they understood light waves. I figured that a being made of sound might have a handle on light as well, so I erred on the side of just-in-case.
“See me,” I thought. “Come closer, be curious. Don’t you want to know who has invaded your home?”
The ruins were here before the city was built. The laws were pretty strict about going into the old buildings, but there were ways to get in unnoticed. Tunnels that led out of the city proper, emerging just a few meters past the Barrier, were common and I used the one under the Sellshard Tavern for my way in tonight.
“The crawl through that narrow tunnel seems like eons ago.”
I’d been tucked behind this statue for a few hours now. If nothing happened soon I’d need to change locations.
My heart skipped a beat as the lights on the meter flickered and three out of five turned blue. There was an Irse in the meter! My hand tingled and I held my breath, waiting, but the remaining lights stayed yellow. After a long moment, the lights all shifted back to yellow as the meter released the Irse. It had swept through or over the meter and been caught, but it was a known type of Irse. I needed an unknown type. An all five lights blue Irse.
I checked the comm unit strapped to my right wrist. A small map glowed discretely, showing me near the center of the ruins. Dangerous territory, and not just because of the Irse. Other hunters roamed here, some like me that were looking for Irse, others that were looking for food.
I looked at my left hand again, thrust out past the safety of the statue, trying to see it through alien eyes. Or ears. But the Irse had no ears, no eyes. They were made completely of sound waves. Unique, and sometimes undiscovered sound waves, ones that existed nowhere else in the galaxy. Expensive ones, that would net me enough money to outfit myself in the gear needed to work at the starport. A job at the starport meant maybe someday getting off this planet, away from the filth and desperation of the city. I just needed to capture an all blue Irse.
“I could get one of the red disposal suits, and work on the removal ground crew. I’d live in starport housing. I’d come back out to the city now and again, and stop by the Sellshard for a drink. Everyone would clap me on the back and congratulate me on my good fortune.”
I closed my eyes and thought about how I’d live a few years at the spaceport then buy a berth and be a crew member on a starship. I felt a slight buzzing in my left hand and my eyes flew open.
Two blue lights, three yellow. Known type. I closed my eyes again. Maybe I wouldn’t drink at the Sellshard. Melo was usually there, tucked in the back corner, holding an empty glass and rocking slowly. He’d caught an Irse about ten cycles ago, but something had been wrong with his meter and the sound wound up getting trapped in his body. Rumor said it was still in him, whipping around in his brain. Not sure I’d want to celebrate my good luck in the same tavern where Melo was enduring his bad fortune.
“I’ll go to the tavern by the starport. Where the other lucky ones go.”
The starport tavern was filled with locals, all straining to catch a glimpse of someone that had caught a rare Irse. A Lucky. They were easy to spot, with their expensive ground crew gear on. Luckies didn’t talk to anyone else in the bar, just each other, and they walked like the ground was foreign to their feet.
“When I find my own ticket out of the city I won’t be stuck up. I’ll talk to everyone, and buy them drinks.”
Another tremble in my hand, this one strong. I looked at the meter and the lights flickering blue. One, two, three, four… five! Five blue lights! I froze, hoping for luck, praying to a non-existent god, breath shallow, eyes tearing up. The meter shuddered and the lights flashed yellow again. I stared, baffled. It escaped? How could it escape? How strong was this Irse?
My hand was still trembling, and I felt the Irse vibrating through my flesh, leaving, slipping out the tips of my fingers. I jumped up and ran after it, in the direction my fingers had been pointing. I kept the meter out in front of me.
“I lost it! I knew this meter was trash!”
I gritted my teeth as I felt other Irse flow through me, small sound waves jittering as they passed through my stomach, arms, legs, head.
“Keep after it! I’ve got to keep after it!”
My breath grew ragged, but I kept running, leaping over rubble and darting around half-crumbled walls. Every minute or so my meter would flash its lights, all five of them, bright blue. My Irse was tempting me. Leading me on. Showing me the way. I wanted it so bad. So bad I forgot to be scared, or worried, or smart.
I was circling a tumbled down fountain when I ran straight into a hole in the ground. I dropped down into some kind of cavern, my legs hitting hard, and lost my balance. I lay on the ground, staring up at both full moons framed by the opening above me. I moved my arms, then my legs. Nothing broken that I could feel, but my head was buzzing like I had swallowed a bunch of shiverbugs. I sat up, then slowly stood up. My ribs hurt on my right side, but I could walk.
A flare of blue caught my attention. The meter was still strapped to my left hand. All five lights were glowing, sapphire blue, a beacon in the darkness. The lights held steady. I forced myself to wait, to watch, but they stayed blue.
“I did it! I caught a fiver! I’m a Lucky!”
I sobbed once, in relief, yes, but also with joy, then silenced myself. I wasn’t safe yet. Now that I had the Irse, I needed to get it to the vendor by the spaceport, which meant getting back to the city in one piece.
I turned on my comm unit. The map showed me near the outer edge of the ruins, near the entrance to the tunnel back to the tavern. I laughed out loud in spite of myself. I had run nearly all the way back home already.
I looked around to see if there was anything I could use to get up out of the cavern and spotted roots jutting from the ceiling near the opening. It would take some effort, but I could climb back up that way. I walked over and reached up to grab a root when something froze my hand in place. The buzzing in my head grew louder, and suddenly my entire body was shaking, vibrating so hard my teeth were chattering.
I felt different Irse move through me over and over, sliding through my flesh and bones, then slowing down, stopping, and staying in me. Filling me up. My head felt like it was going to explode and then everything went black.
I’m swimming, endlessly swimming. There is no shore in sight. I’m not tired, just a bit bored. The water is warm and there are fish moving around under me. My arms are cutting through the water, my legs are kicking hard.
”Why aren’t I tired? How long have I been swimming?”
Movement shimmers below me, and I put my face in the water to see better. Far below me I can see a room, with people in it. I stop swimming. It’s a tavern, seen from above like someone’s taken the roof off.
“It’s the bar by the spaceport!”
I can see the taps, and the tables and chairs. People are milling about. It’s pretty crowded but everyone shifts and clears a path for two ground crew as they make their way to the bar. Luckies. One is wearing red gear and the other’s is yellow. The one in red looks up, straight up, like they know I’m watching from above.
It’s me. My face. I’m wearing red gear, in the starport bar. I sputter and yank my face out of the water.
An ocean stretches around me, blue and green under a grey sky.
“Has the sky always been grey? Why can’t I remember how I got here? Where is here?”
I put my face back in the water. The bar is gone.
I start swimming again. I’m not sure where to.