There was a saying, or perhaps a very short anecdote. It explained how to get to Vola Par from the capital. Travel north until your feeder vents clog with mosquitoes. Then turn left. It was one of Zeegon’s favourite sayings. It said a lot about the place with which he considered himself more or less inseperable.
It was true that, just a few hundred miles to the east of Vola Par the air grew damp and the lakes and forests were thick with obnoxious blood-sucking insects. But out in the rolling northwestern plains, there was nothing for the mosquitoes to cling to in order to keep themselves from blowing into the sea. And nothing for them to feed on except the occasional Volan and the herds of cattle they drove. And if you took a single drop of blood from either species, they’d chase you all the way to the edge of the galaxy just to squeeze two right back out of you.
The north tip of Vola was freezing and inhospitable, with the arguable exception of the tower farms that dominated the polar regions. The south of the continent … well, that was the territory of an entirely different breed of obnoxious blood-sucking insect, if you asked anybody in Vola Par. The south of Vola wasn’t even Vola. It wasn’t the same country, wasn’t even the same world. It was the capital. It was the Dome. And as far as every offworlder was concerned, it was Aquilar. And Aquilar – not Eternal Aquilar the planet, but Aquilar the solar system, Aquilar the monolithic institutional empire – was all there was.
Zeegon had never been to the capital. He’d learned about it, of course. He’d never quite believed that the world on which he lived was teeming with life – a trillion people in all, it was said, albeit spread across the system’s three planets and eight habitable moons – but that was what the teachers insisted. It was hard to imagine when you were out there, pressed like a bug in a hot glass vise between the plain and the sky. When you saw the dust of a fellow traveller on the horizon and thought well, so much for that moment of peace and quiet.
The most crowded place Zeegon had ever been to was Vola Krat’n, out on the coast. It was something of a tourist destination, and had a reputation as being a den of mild-to-middling iniquity, but as far as Zeegon was concerned it was just a slightly noisier, slightly more heretical, unnecessarily-crowded version of downtown Vola Par. It was about as crowded, in fact, as he could really imagine any place being – even though he knew, on an intellectual level, that the capital must somehow be more crowded still. City folks, he’d long since decided, must stack like cups.
Nobody really bothered to come inland to Vola Par, and Zeegon liked it that way. It was a long way to come for very little reward – which as far as Zeegon was concerned made it thee best-kept secret in the empire. The sleepy, close-knit little settlement was as old as any city on the continent, with church-slabs dating back to the reformation and cruder sacred sites dating back further still, and in a lot of ways it was unchanged since its very foundation. The people of Vola Par were farmers, mechanics, builders – and all, in their own ways, members of Zhraak’s great and ubiquitous flock.
Well … flock … there was another saying, one that the Orthodox Zhraaki priesthood of Vola Par were fond of. If you cannot but be a sheep, be a better sheep.
Zeegon … disliked this saying. He far preferred the one about the mosquitoes. But even so, he had to admit that this second saying defined his home and his people almost as succinctly as the first. If you squared your shoulders and clenched your jaw and determined to put as good a face on a saying about sheep as possible.
His family, the upstanding and respectable Pendraeggs of the suburb of Three That Was, had – or so it sometimes seemed – been part of Vola Par since Eternal Aquilar had accreted out of star dust. A Pendraegg had probably been out there with a mag-scrubber, brushing the primordial particles into place, then sitting back and folding his arms in satisfaction and saying yessir, she’ll make someone a fine lil planet one day. They had deep roots in the farming community, and deeper roots still in the priesthood.
Zeegon was one of the Pendraegg family’s first and freshest tendrils into the world of mechanics, and had enjoyed considerable success. He’d done his share of work in the tower farms – it was something of a rite of passage for the young adults of Vola Par – but had always gravitated towards the automation machinery, the transports, the maintenance jobs. So it was probably fair to say that his was an offshoot more than it was a whole new root. Still, it was a start.
As for the other root, he’d never really considered a life in the Zhraaki priesthood. But that wasn’t so much a question of choice, so much as … well, difficult to say really. For one thing, there just weren’t that many opportunities to fix up and test-drive buggies in the priesthood, although he might have started a whole new denomination if he’d taken that path.
Mostly, though, it was just the way it turned out. If you travel north until your feeder vents clog with mosquitoes, after all, there’s always the option of turning right. Metaphorically speaking.
Zeegon had never really suspected how far his love of wheelers, buggies and PIVs would take him, but it was just possible that his parents had. They’d named him – on the urging of his uncle, who was a Zhraaki priest – in reference to an icon in Old Grand Fweig that denoted the shape and motion of stars and planets in space. Zeegon spoke of curiosity, exploration, adventure; of a soul intended to seek truth and meaning outside the limitations of the world in which it had been born.
It was entirely possible that nutty old uncle Io had been onto something.