Authors: Beck Nicholas
Tags: #Science fiction, #teen, #young adult, #space, #dystopian
“Assuming it’s my brother you’re mourning,” his voice is deep and for the first time there’s a slight melting of the ice. “You should know…He wasn’t worth your pain.”
I awake naked, walking.
Midstride, I stumble, awareness flooding my senses.
I squeeze my eyes shut, protecting them from the rising sun’s glare, and cover my ears to block the whine of distant machinery. I inhale, and grimy smog fills my sinuses and coats my tongue like a thick city soup. There isn’t enough oxygen.
Gasping, I bend at the waist. Fall to my knees and black gravel bites into the tender skin. The plastic shrub I use for support is cool and spongy. I cough up a globule of soot-covered phlegm.
Still short of breath, I climb to my feet with stiff, aching muscles. Where am I?
Better question: who am I?
A glance down tells me I’m male, but beyond that the answers start to form, but slip away before I can grasp them. I’m left with the barest outline of an echo of a memory.
Everything I need to function is there, but ‘me’ is missing. Whoever the hell he was. A nearby sign tells me I’m in a preserved garden. So I can read. I continue trying to assimilate everything. The surrounding walls stretch high above me, bordering a small patch of cloudy sky above. The opening makes me feel exposed. Unsettled. It is a sensation probably made worse by my lack of clothing.
Briefly there’s a woman on an overhead walkway. She is older, wide-eyed at my nakedness, and then gone into one of the buildings. A belated surge of embarrassment sweeps through me, staining the skin of my upper body red and heating my cheeks.
I shiver when the heat fades. The wind chills my hairless skin. I need to find something to wear. In my search, I’m drawn to a clearing in the middle of the garden. Here, the noise is muffled and the metal structures and imitation trees with their plastic scents give way to a huge, dark red, weathered tree trunk, encircled by fortified glass. I look up, way up, to where green leaf-dotted branches stretch out like a twisted staircase to the sky.
I press a hand against the glass and imagine I can smell its fresh scent. Here and there small lower branches are stunted and shriveled, the glass cage obviously not designed for growth. Shriveled like I’m going to be if I don’t find clothes soon. I shake my head, bumping it against the cool glass. Fine water droplets inside run to the small patch of soil at the base of the tree.
I need water.
On the other side of the tree, dirty liquid trickles over a path of rocks to wet the soil. With urgency I couldn’t muster before, I stumble on shaky knees toward the source. I notice white, dry spots on my hands, elbows and knees.
I haven’t had water for days. The thought arrives and then lodges in my brain as fact.
I collapse at the edge of a small, murky pool. The brown surface shows the sky far above and a young man. Me. I scan my reflection. Shaved head. Dark, shadowed eyes. Skinny with prominent cheekbones. Nothing special. No spark of recognition fires within me and I avert my gaze from those eyes then lower my head to drink.
Before I can slake my thirst, I see the body.
Blinking, I peer into the gloomy spot in the middle where the shadows from the buildings are at their deepest and vines trail from overhanging rocks. The half-submerged figure doesn’t move. Only wrinkled toes, decorated in a swirling pattern of blue ink, rise clearly from the water.
This isn’t good.
I wade in, my chest constricting as the icy water envelopes my feet, then my ankles. It’s knee deep when I reach the feet. I touch the cold, waxy skin of those patterned toes and a shudder spreads through my numb body. Any thought I could save them disappears. Swallowing bile, I grab a foot with each hand and drag the body to land. It’s heavy, way heavier than it looks. My muscles protest the work, but I have to do something about it.
Once the body is out of the water I can see it’s a young boy, on the edge of adolescence. He’s pale with blue lips and only the whites showing where his irises should be. His head has been shaved, leaving only dark bristles.
The constriction in my chest cramps tighter. I have to close my eyes to press my fingers against the purple bruising on his neck to be sure.
No pulse. No life.
My thoughts swirl like the pattern on the boy’s toes. What happened? It doesn’t look natural. Are they coming back for me?
Blood and feeling return to my extremities. Escape. I need to get away from the crime.
I pause and then dismiss the notion. I have to believe I didn’t kill this boy, but I can’t afford the time to mourn him either. Now is all about survival. I move to slide him back out of sight when the rough material of his jacket stops me.
He has clothes and I need them.
I feel like I should hesitate more, but survival rules. I strip the body of his zipped jacket and blue pants. I leave the boy in a t-shirt and underwear for modesty and try to cover him as best I can. The items are heavy and wet in my hands. I gag, unable to bring up anything from my empty gut other than the taste of bile as I wring as much water as I can from the garments.
Once dressed, I hesitate. I need to get outside these walls, find food and drink, and then figure out who I am. Still, I linger. It’s harder than I expect to leave the boy. “You are not my problem,” I growl to the shape in the shadows.
The garden is secluded. I’ve seen nobody since the elderly woman above. I can stay here, report the body to the authorities and maybe be accused of a crime I didn’t commit. With no memory I’d make an easy fall guy. Every time I think of authority a heavy weight on my chest makes it hard to breathe. There’s too much I don’t know.
A rusty padlock secures the first door out of the garden, but the next hangs on one hinge. It’s open. The heavy wooden door, with its peeling brown paint, moves freely. Beyond is a dark tunnel with faint light at the end. I pause at the entrance, my reflection stretches out on a shining, sticky stone floor. Then I stride into the squelchy darkness without looking back.
I spin and drop to a crouch. My hands fly up to protect my face.
I’m tense. Ready to fight. The hammering of my heart makes it hard to hear but I hold perfectly still, listening for a possible attacker’s next move. I scan the framed garden behind me. There’s a gust of wind and the big wooden door bangs against the concrete wall behind.
I fight a laugh and exhale. Only the wind.
Back on my feet I stride through the tunnel. With the after affects of adrenaline pumping through me I feel more comfortable than any time since I woke.
Empty shop fronts suggest this was once a mall. Lettering on the windows is so faded I can’t tell what they sold. The light grows until I step out into a narrow alleyway between two tall buildings. Light streams through rubble on either side. The walls are blackened and I’m surprised gravel doesn’t tumble from them. I inhale dust and long-forgotten smoke with every breath. Something happened here. Something huge and deadly.
But not recently.
Brown and white moss grows in the corners of the fallen walls. Piles of bird droppings decorate the taller remnants of concrete and stone. The disaster that spared the garden behind me happened too long ago to have killed the boy or taken my memories. And my loss seems way too specific to be accidental. All I’m missing is me, but everything else remains.
There’s movement at the end of the alleyway. People maybe. Water. Food. Answers. I head in that direction, slowing to climb over a stack of crates and boxes overflowing from a large dumpster that blocks half the alley. Fumes rise like an invisible wall across the small space, thick and drenched with urine. Suspicious stains decorate the nearby walls and there’s a box of rotting food scraps dumped on top of the rest of the rubbish.
I freeze. This time I’m not imagining the threat. The voice with the strange, thick accent is coming from a green-robed figure in the shadows of the bin. Shorter than me. High, young voice. Smooth jaw. His only weapon is a light baton swinging from his hands.
I can take him
. Instinct gives me a confidence I have no right to feel considering the blank where my history should be.
“Hey,” I reply. I balance my weight on both feet and let my hands hang loose at my sides. Ready for action but not threatening.
“Name and business,” he says.
He’s talking like he owns the place. “Who’s asking?”
He steps closer, moving further into the light. “Name. And. Business.”
Of all the questions, I’m pretty sure he’s not going to like my answer. My amusement must show on my face because he lifts the baton, which upon closer examination looks like a plastic rod, and points it at me.
“I’ll use it.” The end shakes and his sleeves fall away, revealing slender brown hands. Young hands, like the dead boy’s.
The situation isn’t funny anymore. I hold my hands out, palms up. Classic supplication. “Look, Buddy. I’d tell you if I could.”
“I’m not your buddy.” His volume is rising. “You need to tell me.”
“Settle down. I can’t, really, I can’t.”
“You mean, you won’t. I’m not just a little kid. I’ll make you come with me.” His chin juts. “Then Keane will make you talk.”
“No.” I take half a step back. The kid says ‘Keane’ like it’s a god but no one can make me tell them something I don’t know. “I’m sorry.”
His chest puffs out and he flicks a switch on the end of the weapon. “If you don’t come with me peacefully, I’ll fire.”
The door clicks closed and seals behind Davyd, leaving me alone with his comment’s echo. Samuai
worth the marking of my skin.
“You’re wrong,” I say. I know what Samuai and I shared. I know it was special and true and would have lasted.
But he’s no longer here. I’m talking to myself. And wasting precious seconds.
I slip out of the storage area and head for the Lifer sleeping quarters. My hope of passing through unnoticed ends when I see Kaih. Her blond, shaved-short hair and baggy clothes don’t detract from her blue-eyed beauty. Probably because it shines from within.
Lately, I avoid her innate goodness even though she is my closest childhood friend. She longs to help, to make up for what I’ve lost, and probably to tell me everything’s going to be okay. I can’t bear the lies. No matter how well intentioned.
“Asher?” It’s amazing how much sympathy and question she manages to load into my name. Underneath it is a hint of hurt.
Guilt at having to cut another conversation with her short slows my steps, and I muster a smile. “Sorry. I can’t stop. New orders.”
I don’t wait for the inevitable questions and see her lift her fingers to bite her nails. Something she only does when she’s upset.
Automatically, I duck, entering the Lifer’s sleeping space as the doors seal shut behind me. Here the ceiling is low enough I can brush it with my elbows bent. Several small screens on the walls show the countdown until estimated planet arrival. My gaze lingers on one flickering display. In a week another year will fall, making all us Lifers another year older and closer to serving out our sentences. Above, they celebrate the end of the year with a huge ball. Preparations are already underway. Down here, it will be another day.
The light from the regular banks above never feels bright enough to pierce the gloom, and the five steps between each Lifer’s bed and cupboard never feel far enough to pretend we have our own space.
As usual it’s mostly deserted. Some would still be in the galley, while others would have already returned to their assignments at the Farm or Manufacturing quarters. Those with free afternoons would be in the training rooms. Only those on night shift lie in their beds trying to get a few more hours sleep.
For their sake I am quiet, weaving easily between the beds to mine. It is a path I know because I have always slept right here. There’s nothing to make it stand out from the rest—that would be asking for attention from the Fishies who occasionally inspect down here.
I walk past the empty bed where my brother once slept without pause. The time for sitting there and replaying our last joke or last fight is gone. Now I need to honor him with truth and, if necessary, justice. I didn’t come down here to mourn.
In the bed next to mine lies the reason for my delay. I pad over and kneel beside her.
“Mother,” I say. Her breathing’s heavy, but with her back to me I’m not sure she sleeps. Her head, with its dark, close-cropped hair exactly the same shade as mine, doesn’t move. I touch her shoulder, feeling bone. She seems frailer in rest than she ever would in the training rooms. “Elex,” I try again, using her name.
She turns in a fluid motion. The soft overhead light glitters off her shining dark eyes. Was she crying? The thought cramps my belly and brings a lump to my throat, but then she’s pulling me into her arms in a warm but brief embrace.
“Asher, what are you doing here? Is something wrong?” The usual authority is back in her voice. The authority she hides when a Fishie or Naut is present.
I exhale relief. Mother is far too strong to let grief crush her. She survived my father’s loss nine years ago in the failed rebellion. Now she will not let what happened to Zed destroy everything she’s worked toward. There are far too many lives depending on her decisions.
The report on my brother’s death was short. It said there was a malfunction in the training room resulting in no oxygen for seventeen minutes. Zed and Samuai were fighting a practice bout. It was too late by the time they were discovered. Strangely, no one saw it happen. No one saw anything.
“I have a new placement,” I say softly.
She sits up and pats the bed next to her. “Tell me.”
Where we work is assigned by the Fishies and supervised by Neale, who graduated to the role of Staff Captain after my father’s death. However, it’s the unspoken rule amongst us that my mother be informed of any changes. It’s necessary for her to know where everyone is in case their post creates an opportunity to gather more information. Information on what happens in the quarters of the Officials and even more importantly, the thirteen Astronauts, who keep the spaceship on course for its final destination. This is where my father failed. He simply didn’t know enough. My mother will not make the same mistake.