“Sacred Ground” is something of a space opera, a story about the search for truth, for many people, in many ways.
After my first two time-travel based books, there was a long gap in both time and style before I set out to write a sci-fi novel like a grown-up and craft something a bit more intellectual. I was inspired to ramp up the style and language after becoming a fan of Iain M Banks.
Here is a synopsis:
The war is over. Everyone should embrace peace, but Rakkel is struggling with his emotions. As one of the most valued and successful warship captains within the Placer race’s space-faring Fleet organisation he faces a future that is anxiously unfamiliar.
Long distant from this, a disgruntled Xarrt warrior holds his ship in ambush. He attacks a defenceless Placer outpost, killing thousands. The news enrages Leader of the Placers, Izah, and he instructs that Rakkel be set to catch this fiend.
A religious Placer leader, Ar-Bekan, rallies his followers during a meeting of the Cult of the Chosen. The end of the war gives them the opportunity to reach out into space and seek the mythical land of their forefathers.
An accusation has been made that the establishment of a military outpost called Farway during a critical phase of the war many years before destroyed more planetary life than just a few harmless plants. An investigative mission is ordered.
Rakkel starts to hunt down the rebel Xarrt, simultaneously fighting his own demons. This unknown warrior is the only thing keeping the war alive in some small way – and ending the war would be to end his career and life as he knows it.
As Ar-Bekan and his disciples head to Farway to seek their faith’s one true goal, and Rakkel prepares to stop there for refuelling so he can continue his military quest, the investigation into the colony’s genesis begins – the post-mortem on the morality of wartime behaviour.
More than one person holds a secret, more than one seeks a truth, and more than one is in denial. As the past begins to catch up with them all, love and hate reach out, life and death.
Is this really peace? If it is, how many endings and how many beginnings does it nurture?
“I could get my sidearm and end it all now. It’s so close. The locker’s just behind me.”
He turned his head indolently until his gaze fell upon the row of three grey floor-standing cabinets. The rightmost door glared at him.
“But you can see it. That’s the problem.”
He faced forwards again.
“You can see it. I could… I could say goodbye and let you not see it. I could say goodbye and then do it.”
The silent face eyed him unchangingly.
“If I could say goodbye. You’re days and days away and I can’t say goodbye. I…”
His mind dried up.
Lazy eyes meandered around the dimly lit and expansive cabin. To the two exquisite framed images on the beige wall, their haunting beauty enhanced by the subdued atmosphere. “Sunrise Through Mist Over Keljan City” took on an almost menacing air, the tower tips of the urban jungle were as needles sunk treacherously in a creamy deep-pile carpet. “Tryn From Tryn Station” was a smothering sphere, the planet’s intangible gaseous bulk seeming to reach ever outwards to suppress the sun’s rays which foolishly sought to cascade past its askance northern polar rim.
The scenes were lessons in majesty, the photographs the epitome of perfection, the frames nothing more and nothing less than symbiotic partners for their contents and the environs.
Trappings of a Captaincy, personality for an anonymous room.
Further. The bed was cold and empty, the stark whiteness of the sheets not wanting to offer refuge from the truth. The bed was simple; it was also large and perfectly sprung. There were mornings (or afternoons or evenings, depending on the shift pattern) that it acted like a gravity well, holding him fast, cocooned, comfortable. Duty was a necessary wrench away from almost foetal contentment and a mind that wandered across open plains and not down well-trodden roads and alleyways.
Further. Through the half-open closet door, a poorly-hangered tunic was a dark form with a glinting eye, the lapel insignia catching light from the recessed ceiling emitter and arrowing it across to the far wall like a fine sepia laser.
His gaze followed the ray’s path to where it impinged on the thick square window pane, then continued beyond, unchallenged, into infinity.
He stood and went to the aperture, naked feet feeling the cool mottled carpet.
He peered into endlessness.
Only light can survive out there.
Yet it had been home, more or less, for what seemed like, well, forever. Not in a bad way. In a good way then, he supposed. The only way.
Those who’d never seen deep space leant on inadequate images of emptiness. First timers had their notions of blackness evaporated, their concept of cold, bleak nothing shattered. Yes, interplanetary space was alien, holo-images were amazing, a cold night on a deserted hilltop seemed quiet.
They were a very poor substitute. Laughable.
Sometimes he’d go to the Observation Deck and banish all light from the room, try to make its warm safety an extension of the inhospitable universe without, try to feel lost in it.
It too was laughable. More than once he’d laughed at it. Actually laughed.
It was a blackness without surface, an all-encompassing and utterly intangible void. The fullness of three dimensions didn’t do it justice. It was everywhere and everything because it was everything.
Galaxies were specks. Planets within galaxies were specks inside specks. Colonies teeming with life were fractions of fractions of the specks inside specks.
Home was wherever his feet were, and he and his home were a nothingth of a speck.
He was entirely valuable and wholly insignificant.
The struggle was vital, daily, all-consuming and completely irrelevant.
The stars weren’t moving; the ship was stationary. Sometimes, when you were moving at a decent enough speed, there would be something amidst the nothing to catch your attention. Occasionally it was good enough for a light gasp or a reflective moment.
That was when you felt least like a speck. Or at least lucky to be a speck, witnessing the beauty.
His mind churned.
I love this job.
The locker was still eyeing him ceaselessly as he turned toward it again. The vivid silver-grey door handle was there, calling.
The mute face across the room was still there too, impassive. He sighed.
“So what now if not this? If you were here you’d tell me. But we’d fight. I never see you, and we’d fight. You’d say I was drunk and not worth bothering with—all talk and not myself. Then I’d say I was myself and go to the locker to prove it.”
He took two steps to where the laser pistol lay concealed.
“See? And tell me why not. Peace is death. Peace is nothing for me. What else? What else do I do? What else can I do? I’m Rakkel, shining star of the Fleet! Got a tough job? Get Rakkel—he’s the one. He’s dedicated. He knows where his place is. A quiet life? Never. Betray a colleague and get thrown out? Not Rakkel. Now peace? Live and breathe the Fleet, then take it all away? What? Go home, be nobody, do nothing, see nothing, experience nothing. How?”
He ran a few skewed steps forwards and asked her eyes, his hands wide, pleading, “How?!”
There was no answer. He sat down hard on the chair and felt it, winced. The half-empty glass on the desk reached for his hand, then moved away.
A single red word
beamed out from the terminal screen.
“How to be nothing?”
He ran a hand through short blonde hair, pressed his palm briefly against his skull. The jarring had given impetus to the headache which had been some time brewing. He rested his elbow on the desk, closed his eyes, shook his head gently.
“If only you were here to tell me. But we didn’t choose that. Perhaps… perhaps…”
A tinny bleep issued into the room.
He closed his eyes. Not now.
He looked down at what state he was in.
The last thing he needed was a female form—a very appealing female form—but when the door slid back, that’s what he got. It was going to be one of those evenings.
It had already been one of those evenings.
He took a breath to try and clear his head, muster the best sobriety he could. “Piya.”
He saw her captivating blue eyes flick to the glass on the desk, knowing she’d say nothing.
“We are standing down from Alert. The whole fleet.”
“As part of a show of… solitude, I guess.”
“Just thought I’d let you know.”
“You could have just called.”
“I was passing.”
He nodded. “Yes. Sorry.”
“I’ll leave you to…” She thought better of insinuation. She corrected herself. “’Night.”
“Yes.” Yet his thoughts were elsewhere.
The door slid open to receive her.
“Piya?” He stood.
She stopped mid-stride. “Yes?”
“If this really is peace, what will you do?”
“I mean, after.”
“I don’t know. Why?”
After an awkward pause she half-shrugged and smiled. “Night.”
The door closed and Rakkel was enveloped in silence again.
He sighed a half-drunk self-piteous sigh that was becoming too familiar of late. Only to himself. Couldn’t let this get out amongst the crew.
He pursed his lips.
If this is peace. If. And if not?
His head hurt. Still a tiny voice of reason was there, somewhere in the murk. It pulled his stubborn frame into action, almost as if sleepwalking.
He went to the desk and hit a key on the terminal.
OUTGOING MESSAGE DELETED.
The pretty face vanished to a point and was gone.
Rakkel Irr stretched his weary back and went to the window. He had a momentary desire to step outside, breathe deeply of the crisp air in the clear infinity and lighten his dull senses. To walk without stinting as if in a vast garden, to bound unconfined through the stars, to drink in… what was it?
But not freedom from travails. Not freedom from aggression. Freedom from himself.
He glanced over to the now-blank terminal.
“I’m not nothing yet,” he said to the room, turning his attention back to the transparent portal. “But you may wish you’d been here.”