The Jerkasaurus skin worked wonderfully. It was thick and strong enough to hold it’s shape, but the inner texture was smooth and almost soft after he was done working it. The only thing left was to test it out.
Si took a deep breath and carried the prosthesis over to where Peter and Iris sat in the shade eating an interesting approximation of macaroni and cheese with a side of peas. The color was about the only thing they had gotten right.
“I have a present for you,” he said, kneeling down beside Peter. At the sight of the faux leg Peter’s eyes widened and he spilled his peas in the rush to set them to the side.
Si worked on the leg while Peter and Iris jabbered on about how “amazing” it was and “how generous” he was. They made such a scene that others came over to investigate and all of the attention embarrassed him.
“For a while you’ll probably need help getting it on every day until you get used to it.”
Si helped the boy stand.
“It looks to be the right fit. How does it feel?”
Peter tested it. Put his full weight on it tentatively then smiled broadly. “Perfect.” He proclaimed.
“How did you know his measurements?” Iris asked.
“I took them at night while he slept.” The looks on their faces was worth the lie. He laughed. “Just kidding. They’re all in the database. There’s a full 3d scan of all of us in there from just a few weeks ago as far as our physiology is concerned.”
“Thank goodness for big brother’s gross invasion of our privacy then.” Iris smiled.
Si tore his eyes from hers.
“This bendy part will help you run, when you’re up for it. I wouldn’t try that until you’ve mastered walking,” he continued with a long list of care and maintenance advice that the boy hardly listened to. “One major bonus is this stuff.” He tapped the Jerkasaurus hide that formed the sleeve that sheathed his leg to the thigh. “The smell of it apparently repelles those dragon lizards that bit you in the first place.”
“Neat”. Peter beamed.
“I got you something too.” Si said to Iris. He ran basic to his shop and rummaged around under the bench, then came back. He handed her a bundle and stepped back. She smiled brilliantly and began unfolding the cloth.
“This feels like Christmas,” she said, then gasped. Si had spent every moment that she hadn’t been looking in his direction working on a pair of boots made from the Jerkasaurus hide. The supple leather would reach all the way up to her knees and Si couldn’t wait to see them on her.
“Oh my. They’re beautiful!” She quickly slipped off her torn and batter slippers and slipped a slender foot into the right and tied it into place. “I had no idea you were so skilled with this kind of thing.”
“I have some experience with leather, but most of this was a learning exercise.” If she could see how many failed attempts that he had since converted to belts for the kids to wear she would not be so impressed.
Si held his breath as she stood in them and paced around. If she didn’t like the fit he would be devastated, but he resolved to take it in stride if she didn’t.
“How do they fit?” He couldn’t resist asking.
“Like a glove. I’ve never worn any shoes as comfortable as these.” He felt the tension go out of his shoulders at the comment and she laughed, seeing him relax.
Si looked around the crowd of children, all of which had jealousy written across their faces and he knew he had his work cut out for him.
“I have belts enough for everyone, but we’ll have to take orders for shoes and I’ll get to them as soon as I can.” He turned back to Iris. “I might need an apprentice.” He kidded.
“That’s a great idea! We’ll set up an interview process for applicants and choose the best of us to learn.”
He was shocked. He had been joking, of course, because who would have thought that such interest would be present among the shareholder kids, but she seemed to think there would be applicants and interviews for the opportunity. He smiled at her, she smiled back.
“Thank you, Siris,” she said.
Peter tipped over.
Cato was there immediately to lick his face, and the boy laughed contagiously.
The other kids helped Peter up and they were off, Peter doing his best to hobble along, the rest lending a mixture of support and advice.
A boy in the group said, “I wish I had a leg like that,” and Peter beamed.
“Si” Iris said. Her hand was on his shoulder. He turned. Tears were in her eyes. “I mean it. Thank you.” She gripped his face in both hands and kissed him full on the mouth. She pulled away too soon. “You fixed what I could not.”
“We are all we have,” he said lamely. She stepped back and looked him up and down, the hint of a teasing smile quirked the corner of her mouth.
“You know…the way things are, skills will be the new currency. So you’re the wealthiest person on Ross 128 b.”
Iris’ take on the paradigm shift was surprisingly clear-sighted. She was far more willing to accept change than he would have thought possible for a shareholder. Then again, Ross had definitely broken them down enough. When he’d pulled those kids out of the room Geoffrey had them holed up in, they had been on the verge of emotional, spiritual, and physical collapse. From there, accepting a hierarchical upheaval would probably be a small thing compared to the fear they’d been put through.
“What? You didn’t expect me to be able to use common sense?” Iris said. She had seen the surprise on his face. “I mean. What good does my father’s money do for me here, now?” she lifted her arms wide, emphasizing the ‘here and now’. “I’m sure that if everything had worked out and we’d woken up when we were supposed to and all our rich parents were still alive things would be different, at least for a little while.” She paused, thinking. “I think even then, however, things would have reverted to a merit based system. How could it not? Come to think of it. I don’t think the company really thought it all the way through. Did they really think that years after landing on a planet thousands of years from earth that money would still mean a whole lot to us?”
Si could only nod his head in encouragement. He felt like he was witnessing something special, like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon, or something even better. His words would only spoil it, taint her process with his own conclusions. She had to do this on her own. That was it. A baby bird fighting its way out of a shell.
“What good are credits here? How could they have been so blind?” She was looking at the perpetual sunset. Clouds were moving in and a breeze stirred a lock of her hair. She looked back at him. “Anyway. I think the more people you can train, the better chance we’ll stand, and I’ll ask around and take inventory of all of the skills we have in this group.”
For some reason, he doubted that there would be many usable skills among the group, but he nodded again. After a while, Si felt uncomfortable with the silence that he was sure he was expected to fill, so he changed the subject.
“I’ve been thinking about your wall.” Her attention moved from the clouds to the more immediate distance. A smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. He could tell she was proud of it. He’d have to try to be delicate. “I have a few Ideas of how we can make it even better.”
He was proud of how well he’d phrased the criticism. The real way he felt about the wall was quite a bit different from what he just implied, but the look on her face hinted that she saw through him.
“You don’t like it?” He felt like asking her if they were talking about the same thing. It was pathetic, granted the only tools they had were a few hand tools stored in an under panel of hab, and they were kids, Si reminded himself.
“Well, it's great for most of the kids with Geoffrey, but I think the Rossians could jump over the thing flatfooted if they wanted.”
At the mention of the Rossians, Iris went solemn as she usually did. He could tell that the aliens scared her, which was good. She needed to be scared of them. She folded her arms.
“Okay, what are your ideas?”
They’d worked for a solid two weeks on the new wall. He had the kids dig a trench on the outside of the old wall of piled trees then they began turning the felled trees into actual lumber. He had them strip off all of the branches of each tree, then they would cut each straight segment at one of three different lengths.
The trench ended up going through a ridge of crumbly shalk-like stone that Becky called chert. Her parents were avid rock-hounds and she’d absorbed a surprising amount of information on the subject that she wasn’t afraid to share.
While his lumber mill worked, he and Peter set up a pulley system. He fastened one of the hab’s long tow cables between the tops of two giant trees either side of the clearing. He put a pulley on the cable then attached another to it that he ran another cable through. In this way, he was able to fasten the end of a cable around the top of one of their twenty-five foot lengths and lift it into the air, then slide it back and forth to where they needed it dropped into the prepared trench.
At the end of two weeks Si was amazed at how different the ‘castle’ looked, and the feeling among the tired inhabitants was noticeably optimistic. Above the gate he used the pulleys to hang the giant Jerkasaurus head. Iris didn’t like it. She said that the ornament made them look like a bunch of barbarians, but Si convinced her that it would be intimidating to the Rossians who lived here and knew how dangerous the Jerkasaurus was.
The most surprising thing about it all was that they hadn’t been attacked by…something. He had expected the other shoe to drop any moment and had been, so far, happily disappointed, that was until Geoffrey came with the storm.
They had experienced three storms atop the hill that had threatened to blow them from their perch. Slanting rain, lightning, and fierce wind made visibility near zero and everyone except three kids whose turn it was to keep watch were inside the hab. Several of the smaller children were crying and Iris was comforting them when the door opened and a little girl named Sami stood in a poncho that was so large that she had to bunch it up in her fist to keep from stepping on it.
“Someone is here,” she said. Si was standing by the door and turned to share a look with her. She could tell he wasn’t looking to her for any kind of assurance. He wasn’t afraid per se. He was checking in with her to make sure she was alright. Iris came to the door.
“How many?” She asked Sami. The little girl shrugged.
“We couldn’t really tell, but only one spoke.” She paused and her lower lip quivered a little. “I think it’s Geoffrey.”
“To arms!” Si yelled. The children who, by now were standing, had a moment of confusion before reality crashed in. Si had been teaching a handful of the kids how to use the few guns they had safely and those were his ‘squad’. They rushed to the locker and began pulling shotguns out. They appeared way too big for the small bodies that wielded them, but they handled themselves well under the circumstances and were lined up in front of Si and Iris within seconds.
The rest of the children, those large enough to be useful at all in a fight, grabbed their weapon of choice. Two had the heavy axes that they had used to build the wall, and one a hatchet. The rest had makeshift spears which were little more than cut branches with sharpened ends. They looked frightened, but not as much as they had a month ago.
“You know the drill,” Iris barked. “I want my scouts to make sure no one has already made it into the castle, understand?” The kids nodded. “Let’s go,” and she was out the door, shotgun in hand.
She saw Si and Cato veer off to the right, already lost amid the swirling wind and rain. He was their strongest weapon and she trusted his instincts. More than she trusted the air she breathed.
She glanced behind her and most of the children had also split off, taking position along the wall at their designated section. Peter stayed with her carrying his UTS 15. He had become a pretty good shot with it, even though it looked like a cannon in his hands and he could only have six rounds loaded in the thing at a time instead of the fifteen that it was capable of. He walked unsteadily in the mud, but his abilities on the leg had progressed remarkably fast. On dry ground, he could now run, which was something she never thought he’d do again.
Iris looked to the gate and saw a flash of white through the gaps in the timbers. As she came closer she saw Geoffrey’s countenance staring back at her in the darkness. He looked different. Gaunt and it might have been a trick of the darkened skies, but his eyes looked deeper, haunted. He’d had a tough three weeks from the look of it, and she was glad.
“You have thirty seconds to tell me why I shouldn’t shoot you right now,” she said.
He bowed his head in a way that passed as humble for Geoffrey.
“You probably should,” he said. She chambered a round in her shotgun, unconvinced by his act.
“Okay, I will,” she leveled the gun at him, expecting some words of self-preservation, if not some cowering, flinching, something, but his eyes remained dull as he looked through her. “Why are you here, and where are your goons?”
“Dead, is the short answer.” She didn’t pull the trigger so he went on. “Tyrone died when we first noticed something wrong, well I didn’t,” he swore. “I was so stupid. Some of the younger ones came to me a couple days after you left.”
“Escaped,” she amended.
“Escaped,” he conceded. “They said they saw some eyes in the dark of the Samsara. I told them to grow up and stop making up danger when there were plenty of real things on this planet to be afraid of.” Iris lowered the gun a fraction at the mention of eyes. Her blood had gone cold at the thought of the Rossians in the Samsara that Si described.
“Tyrone and Antonia were the first to disappear. We were sure they had gone off and… well you know,” he shrugged. “When they didn’t come back in a full day I sent out scouts,” he cursed again. “One mistake after another.”
“Then one day, I finally saw the eyes with my own. They watched us for days. At first we tried shooting at them but I never heard any proof that we hit anything so I put a stop to it since we were cut off from the armory and only had what were in our guns.”
He bowed his head, obviously troubled by the memory. He was either a terrific actor or at least this part was real.
“We were too afraid to make a break for it, and we were out of food and water. If you say it’s been three weeks I believe you, but it feels like a year. A year of fear and hunger and thirst. Janice. You remember her? She had red hair.” Iris did, but didn’t bother answering him. “Anyway, she went nuts and ran into the dark screaming and firing her gun,” he swallowed and may have been crying. It was hard to tell because she couldn’t imagine Geoffrey crying and the rain made it impossible to see.
“Her head came back,” he gulped back sobs and then she knew he was crying and her world turned upside down. She still hated him, there was no changing that, at least she couldn’t see how, but she did feel, if not sympathy then pity, for him.
“How did you get away?” She asked. Gun now pointing at the mud, though she kept it shouldered and ready.
“We decided that making a break for it was the only way any of us would survive. It wasn’t just my decision, I swear,” he looked up at her, guilt was there, and she marveled at it. Another emotion she thought she’d never see in him. “Devan and, well, too many to name never made it. They were torn to shreds,” more sobs.
When he gained a measure of control over himself he continued. “Me and twelve others made it out, but one was grabbed on the way here by some giant snake in the storm.”
“How did you know where we were?”
“We knew that a day after we realized you’d gone. To be honest, I was planning something, but that feels like a lifetime ago.” He bowed his head again and spoke in a near whisper that she could barely make out. “A different person.”
“And yet you didn’t think twice about bringing them to our doorstep?” She growled. This time he did flinch. “Stay here. He nodded. She turned around and walked out of hearing of the gate. “Go around the wall asking if all is good. If anyone has seen anything let me know.” She told Sami. The girl sprinted away. Iris turned to Peter. “Go get Si.” He nodded and sauntered off.
After a few minutes Si came running into view, preceded by the black dog. She described the situation then Sami came back.
“No one has seen anything,” she gasped.
Iris nodded and looked to Si, asking him without words for his thoughts.
“I mean. I’d be fine with leaving him to the Rossians, but not the rest.” His bluntness was refreshing. She’d expected a lot of hemming and hawing over the subject of sentencing someone to death. She nodded and they headed, as a group, back to the gate.
“Wait.” They turned to see Sami standing in her too large pancho. “Why are you even letting them in? I know Geoffrey is the worst, but the others stood by while he killed us.” She came closer. “You weren’t there. They aren’t worth saving. None of them,” she was angry at the memory she had been forced to recall.
They stood around Sami for a few minutes, unsure how to argue with her or if they even wanted to. Finally, Si put his hand on her shoulder.
“Maybe they don’t deserve to be saved from death…a normal death, but those things out there…they’re not normal. We’ll make sure to keep an eye on them, okay? And when things calm down a little, we’ll make sure they all are punished for what they did.” She didn’t want to agree, but Iris could tell that Si held some kind of special weight in her eyes as he did with most of the kids. Sami looked up at him and nodded, accepting his judgment. They turned back to the gate.
If Geoffrey was surprised to see Si, he didn’t show it.
“Bring your group to the gates. We’ll need your guns. So I want one person to approach the gate carrying all of them. Do you understand?”
Geoffrey was gone for only a few minutes. When he came back, he carried a bundle of guns in his arms. Behind him stood eleven shivering, pathetic-looking refugees.
Iris opened the gate and Geoffrey entered under the watchful gaze of Si and Cato. Cato gave a growl of disapproval.
“Alright, you can come in.” The others sloshed through the mud and passed the gates. A few cried at the relief, most looked too tired. “Okay, Si, you can show Geoffrey the door.”
Geoffrey’s small smile vanished. Si stepped forward.
“Out.” Si said. She was surprised at how commanding that voice was.
“No.” Geoffrey’s voice complained. He looked from Si to Iris in confusion. “I can’t go back out there, please.”
“I didn’t make the choice. You did when you killed Claire and all the rest. You deserve whatever those beasts do to you.” Iris said. Geoffrey fell to the mud, sobbing.
“Shoot me then,” he stammered between gasps. “I’d rather that than be torn apart by those…things!” She saw the sincerity in his pleading eyes, and she leveled her gun at him, but couldn’t pull the trigger. For a full minute she aimed, and he waited unflinchingly.
“Bind his hands,” she growled, angry at herself for not being strong enough to do it. Si gave her a look. She didn’t know what it meant. “What,” she snapped.
“Do you want me to do it?” He asked. She could tell he didn’t want to, but he would if she asked. She hesitated. The temptation was still there.
“No. We’ll do this right. When things have calmed down we’ll have a trial. I won’t stoop to barbarism because it’s the easier solution. We’re not like him.”
Si zip-tied his hands in front of him and walked him to the hab.
It was a long night…day, after that. They spent the entirety of the storm on watch, either guarding the wall or their prisoner. Additionally, Iris wasn’t dumb enough to leave the new kids alone. She upgraded Sami to a pistol and had her sit in the hab with the sleeping newcomers, while Peter and Becky watched over Geoffrey who was tied to a handicap bar in the shower. Even he slept. He was so overcome with fatigue that his awkward position did nothing to keep him awake.
None of the guards at the wall saw any sign of the Rossians, but visibility was poor so she wasn’t comforted much. For the hundredth time that night, Iris thanked the heavens that Si helped them upgrade the wall. It felt far more substantial than the pitiful barrier they had had before, but it still failed to reassure her enough to let half of the children retire for the night.
Finally, the storm let up. The wind calmed and the rain slowed to a drizzle. More light was allowed through the high clouds and through the steady downpour Iris could see a lone figure standing at the edge of the clearing directly opposite the gate. He stood twice her own height and was naked but for a loin cloth. It didn’t seem to care that she saw it. Its sunken red eyes didn’t move from her. They just stared at each other for a time.
It suddenly lifted its head and bellowed what could only be a challenge. She lifted the shotgun but it didn’t flinch. Iris feared that if she shot it others would come out of the dark and attack right then, but she also feared that if she didn’t it would be seen as a weakness.
After a full minute of indecision, the giant jutted it’s chin forward and sniffed before lumbering off into the shadows. They were officially under siege, and this time she worried that no one would come to their rescue.
The freedom and calm that Si and the rest of the kids had felt for the month atop the hill while they built their castle had been smashed to pieces. Now, fear and insecurity filled them all as they waited for the Rossians to attack. Iris had mentioned, only the day after she’d seen the massive Rossian by the trees, that she didn’t know why they waited and ‘I wish they’d just come and get it over with.’
Si was fine with the wait because it gave him more time to prepare. He brainstormed ideas of how to make their castle more than just the relatively weak wall and hab. His first order of business was to pull the hydrogen generator and its attached compressor from underneath the hab. When he was done, after a lot of cursing and sweating, he stood looking at the complicated mess of hoses, wires, tanks, and motors. He had had to snip wires to get it out, and as a result he had to rewire the device so he could connect it to the external power. Then, because it had been controlled by the hab’s computer system, he had to plug it into his tablet to get it to function, but soon, it was turning out compressed hydrogen at a rate of about 42 liters per hour.
Next, he set the small metal fabricator he had stowed in the hab’s storage before he left the motor pool to produce a series of steel canisters to store the hydrogen gas.
“How can I help?” Iris asked. He had been so absorbed in examining a newly printed canister that he hadn’t heard her approach and Cato was off “helping” Peter guard the front gate. He could usually count on the dog to give some sign when someone approached.
Si sat up and swiveled on the chair he’d stolen from the kitchen’s bar to face her. “I thought you were too busy training your army.” He smiled, but there was nothing funny about the need to teach a bunch of children how to defend themselves. They had the new pile of weapons that they’d gotten from the implants that they still didn’t know if they could trust.
Si had counseled her not to use live ammo for the training since they only had what was stored in the hab’s locker. The cases of ammo would seem like a lot until you had a thousand angry Rossians coming at you. Most of the kids, however, were being taught how to use the rudimentary spears they’d been given. No one really had experience to do the training, but they’d looked up some historical videos on the subject which was enough to try to create a sort of phalanx with the kids.
“I think whatever you’re doing will have a greater probability of success than my trying to make warriors out of them.” She watched the group of thirty or so kids try to manipulate their spears in unison. It would be comical if it wasn’t for the whole ‘certain death’ thing looming over their heads.
“I actually need Becky’s help,” he said, and smiled as she tried to cover the hurt and confusion on her face.
“Okay?” She got up and started off to find the little girl.
“When you get back I’ll show you how to make a flamethrower.” She was clearly relieved that he didn’t think she was useless. She smiled and went to find Becky.
Surprisingly, Becky had already made a pile of probable flint, which is what he was looking for.
“I thought that they would be useful. My mom says that indigen…” she paused, thinking, trying to remember the word.
“Indigenous?” Si offered.
“Yeah. She says that all over earth people used flint for many things, including spearheads and knife blades. I thought it would be a good idea to have some incase we had time to figure out how to chip them just right.” Si noticed that she referred to her mother in the present tense, but he refused to be the person to correct her.
“I’m more worried about a spark. Will they work for that?”
“I don’t know. Let’s try,” she said, excitedly. She got up and threw the stone in her hand against the leg of Si’s steel workbench. Si jumped back, almost getting hit by a piece of the flint as it broke in two. “Did you see that?” She clapped her hands.
Si didn’t see. He had been too occupied with self-preservation to see any sparks.
“That was fun. Let’s do it again!” she ran to the pieces and picked them up. This time, Si did see the sparks. A satisfying rain of blue and yellow fell from the table’s leg when it was hit.
Si picked up the flint, examining it.
A commotion over by the door to the hab caught Si’s attention. Geoffrey had Sami. His left hand held her by the hair and his right held a pistol to her temple. He came crashing down the steps, out into the middle of what Peter called the courtyard. When Si pushed his way through the growing crowd that encircled Geoffrey and his hostage, Iris was already there, pointing her gun at them.
“I knew I made a mistake when I didn’t pull that trigger.” The look on her face said it all. There was hatred and anger there, but he wasn’t sure if it was directed entirely at Geoffrey, or at herself.
“What’s your plan here, Geoffrey?” Si asked. “Do you want to go back out there with them?” It seemed like he hadn’t really planned this out.
“Oh, hey. The janitor is talking,” he laughed, but there was absolutely no humor attached to the sound. “I’m surprised the Janitor hasn’t figured it out.” The word ‘janitor’ was dripping with condescension. “I’m not going out there. You are, along with toots here,” he pointed his chin at Iris. “and anyone else that doesn’t want to stay in here with me,” he laughed again, sure that everyone would choose him over the Rossians.
Si didn’t have a gun with him, but he was sure that if he did he would have shot this animal by now and he wondered what Iris was waiting for. He knew that from her range, she would be able to take his head off clean. Granted, he didn’t know if what he’d seen on movies about Geoffrey’s nerves making his trigger finger clench at the moment of death were true or not. She was probably wondering the same thing.
Sami was surprisingly stoic about the whole thing, not a tear wetted her check and instead of yelling, she grumbled. She was obviously upset with herself for being taken captive by the prisoner she had been charged with watching.
Out of the corner of his eye, Si saw Cato crawling out from under the hab’s stairs, directly behind Geoffrey. He crouched, ready to launch himself at Geoffrey. Si shook his head at the dog, and Cato relaxed, just a fraction. Cato had read the situation perfectly, if not the danger Sami was in.
Geoffrey laughed again, interpreting the shake of his head of one of despair. “That’s right, you and this uppity slut are going to get what is coming to you. “Now, go stand by the gate, along with everyone else not smart enough to stay. Oh, and drop the gun sweetie. We both know you aren’t going to use it.”
She glanced at Si, and then lowered the gun to the ground by its sling. Iris was clearly willing to sacrifice herself for the relative safety of the rest of the children, but Si knew that the walls didn’t matter. If they were in here with Geoffrey they would be in more danger than alone outside. He moved to the gate with Iris. For a few seconds Iris and Si stood together, only ten feet from Geoffrey and the rest, but it felt like a mile, then Peter came and stood next to his sister. Geoffrey sneered.
Then Becky came over, and the dam broke. Suddenly more children were standing by the gate than weren’t, even some of his original followers were among those standing by Si. After only a minute’s time, Geoffrey stood alone with Sami. He was shaking with rage, and embarrassment.
“Lou?” Geoffrey pleaded with the boy, who now stood ready to give up the castle’s walls. “Carter?” His eyes went to one that he had clearly thought was one of his staunchest remaining supporters.
“Sorry, man. You… You need help.” Carter didn’t want to make eye contact with the crazed boy across from him.
For a long time, Geoffrey seemed at a loss. He stood there, gun barrel tapping rhythmically against Sami’s sweating head. Iris was the first to break the silence.
“How long can you guard these walls by yourself?”
“Shut up!” He jerked the gun off of Sami’s temple, and in that instant Siris moved, and as he did, so did Cato.
Geoffrey’s gun came up but Cato’s teeth tore into the boy’s calf and his shot went wide and splintered the wood above Iris’s head a split second before the flint that Si had thrown smashed into his skull. The boy was dead before he hit the ground. Si had only been ten feet from the boy, and he’d thrown the heavy stone with as much force as he had been able. When Si came forward to pull Cato off of him, he didn’t have to feel for a pulse to know Geoffrey’s sentence had been carried out.
Why didn’t he feel anything? He’d expected to feel relief or sadness maybe, but not nothing. Had this planet already torn his soul away from him? Or was it just that Geoffrey wasn’t worth a second thought? Si felt hands grip around his waist, expecting to see Iris when he turned around, but Sami was there, tiny and crying. He knelt and pulled the little girl to him, comforting her as best he could. Her sobs were a balm to him, because through them, he began to feel emotion again. He looked over Sami’s quivering shoulder and saw Iris holding Peter and Becky who’s cheeks were also wet. She mouthed ‘thank you’ to him, and smiled.
They’d dug a shallow grave for Geoffrey and left it unmarked. No one gathered or even said anything about him when he was interred. Si just rolled the body in and began covering it with earth.
The next few days were tense. Everyone prepared for an assault on the castle, but no one really knew when or how it would happen. It was clear, however, that all of the kids had decided that the Rossians couldn’t possibly win with Si and Cato on their side, and he had wanted to disillusion them of the notion, but Iris said that they needed the hope, false as it seemed to him.
Days passed and Si had put everyone to work in his shop at one point or another. Those that weren’t at work on one of his projects were on guard, watching and waiting. By the end of the week, only two Rossian sightings stirred the castle. Neither resolved into an attack of any kind, but both made Si’s heart pound with adrenaline and sweat bead his entire body. It seemed they merely wanted to remind them that they were foreigners and decidedly unwelcome.
Maybe that’s all that would come from them? Maybe the gigantic rotting Jerkasaurus skull intimidated the Rossians as Si had promised Iris it would.
Cato scratched at the big spiked collar that Si had helped Iris make for him. He looked even more fierce with it on. Well, maybe not now, hind paw digging into the fur on his neck while his head stretched farther and farther forward. His eyes rolled back in his head in apparent ecstasy.
The thick Jerkasaurus leather belt was studded with sharp metal spikes that he’d had the fabricator print out. Besides looking cool, Si hoped that the spikes would keep a Rossian from tearing his friend’s throat out. Maybe he should make a collar for himself, he thought.
He’d taken his meal for a walk and ended up, unconsciously on the rampart they’d built above the gate. They hadn’t had enough material inside the castle walls to build a ‘fire step’ or ‘rampart’ all the way around the inside of the wall so they built four narrow sections, essentially towers, at equal intervals around the castle.
He stood looking out over a potential battlefield making plans and discounting plans as commanders had done pre battle for as long as humanity existed. He was so deep in thought that he didn’t register someone climbing the ladder behind him and didn’t even notice Iris standing right beside him, looking at the same scene, but contemplating completely different thoughts.
“I miss them.”
He choked on the food he didn’t realize was in his mouth. He coughed several times to clear his airway and then laughed.
“Sorry,” he apologized. “I didn’t realize you were there.”
“Wow, you must be really worried.”
“I hoped that once I left the Samsara they’d forget about me, but they apparently held a grudge.” She must have interpreted the emotion behind his words.
“You can’t blame yourself. There was no way you could have known,” she put her hand on his shoulder.
“Geoffrey took the punishment, but I’m the one that is to blame for the others being killed. The Rossians must have tracked me back to the other half of the ship or maybe they already knew that this half was here so they came looking for me, either way, I’m the reason they got massacred.” Iris shook her head.
“The difference between you and him,” she nodded toward the turned soil that marked Geoffrey’s grave, “is that he refused to take responsibility for anything, “ while you are bound and determined to heap every mishap on your own shoulders. Both are flaws,” she sidled up next to him and actually laced her arm in his then rested her head on his shoulder, “but I like your flaw a lot better.”
She definitely had a way of derailing his self recrimination. He turned his head and kissed the top of her head. He didn’t even think about it, and he was embarrassed after he’d done it, but Iris hugged his arm and purred. She looked up at him.
“You, Osiris Tarek, are fast becoming one of my favorite people,” she kissed him on the lips. “Just so you know, If we don’t make it through this, I don’t blame you for anything except being the very best example humanity has to offer.” There was a tear in her eye.
He thought about telling her just how sad he was at not being able to really think about the future that they could make together, but he decided that she needed hope just as bad as the rest of them.
“You know ol’ Jerkface here,” he patted an exposed ridge bone that jutted out of the top of the Jerkasaurus skull in front of him, “might end up making the Rossians realize we’re too much for them.
She smiled but he could see that she didn’t really believe it.
“With the mods we’ve made to the castle, it might just be true, plus we have the big gun on the buggy.” He tried to sound upbeat, but it was hard.
“We’ll make the toughest stand any group of kids ever has.”
They were both quiet for a long time, just enjoying holding each other. It was surprisingly relaxing. Si would have thought that this moment would still feel novel and almost adrenaline charged, but her touch actually calmed him significantly and he was able to think about something other than their impending doom.
“I miss them too,” he finally responded to her.
“I thought you weren’t listening,” she said. He patted her hand, but said nothing. “I think I miss my grandma the most. Isn’t that strange? I thought I’d have missed my parents or friends.” She sighed.
“I miss my dad a lot. I spent most of my free time with him though so I guess that makes sense. Is it some kind of blasphemy to pick which person you miss the most? I mean, is it disrespectful to the others?”
“I don’t think so,” she said, finally lifting her head from his shoulder. “Not as long as you remember the others as well.” She smiled at a thought that played behind her beautiful eyes. “I remember my friend Elizabeth and I decided to walk home from a party that had turned unappealing for some reason or another. We were so scared when we got to the Yakka district, but we kept going and we were both amazed when we had both made it through safely.” She looked sad now.
“You have to understand that we had been told stories most of our lives about the dangers in the yakka districts, but after that I think a part of me knew that it was all made up to keep us at each other's throats. Or maybe people fear what they don’t understand.”
Si stood up straight, pulling away from her.
“I didn’t mean…” Iris started, But Si wasn’t angry, he was thinking, and couldn’t help but interrupt her explanation.
“The Samsara. I mean our half, It has a reactor…” his words trailed off as his thoughts jumped too far too fast.
“Yeah…” Iris said, confusion colored her voice and face.
“That’s it!” He grabbed her shoulders and smiled. She smiled back, but only because his exuberance reflected off of her.
“I need to go for a drive. Can you handle things here by yourself while I’m gone?”
“Uh, what?” She asked. “Si, I think you need to slow down and explain yourself.” He nodded and took a deep breath.
“You’re right, but on the way to the shop.” He turned and climbed down the ladder, followed by iris.
“I need to get to the small reactor on the Samsara. If it’s still operational it could change everything.”
“But you said it was shutting down.” Iris countered.
“True, but it has been ‘shutting down’ for the last hundred years. I just need it at about five percent capacity.” What he loved about Iris is she didn’t need every detail planned out. It was exactly what he needed from her, because the truth was he had only about two percent of a plan figured out anyway.
He liked this little car a lot better than the one his old leader took him in. It was open all around and he could feel every breeze and smell every scent. He could feel his jowls flap in the wind as they zoomed past trees at three of his fastest speed. Smells flew by so fast he could barely identify its direction before another came.
From the smell of it, they were headed back to the place where they’d woken up. The place with the flying things that came from the dark with teeth and claws. He liked chewing on those. They were both crunchy and chewy.
Once in a while Cato smelled the familiar scent of the creatures that had thrown him off the cliff. The ones with bad eyes. Those scared him the most, but he had been smelling them even at their new spot on top of the hill. The people had built walls, which was good. The walls helped others know where their territory was, but Cato was worried that the bad-eyed things didn’t know about respecting territory, or perhaps they didn’t care.
Cato had to put his paws out wide to keep from falling out when Leader didn’t stop at the bottom of the hill like he had before. The little car tilted and dirt flew from the round things that made them move. They got to the top in only a few seconds, but those few seconds made Cato a little nervous.
Cato was even more surprised when Leader didn’t stop the little car outside, but instead, took them through the hanging wall of plants and into the dark. Lights came on on the front of the little car so they could see. They went down a few lengths of tunnel, making four turns before Leader stopped the little car and looked at his glowing square. He knew that the square was important because Leader took it with him everywhere and looked at it often.
Leader said something and then got out of the little car so Cato got out too and started smelling the area to make sure nothing was hiding. Leader and all the other people didn’t ever seem to care about this part of their security so Cato assumed that they were comfortable leaving the important task to him.
Cato watched as Leader pulled a long bar from the back of the little car and then put it in between two doors and forced them apart. When they were open Cato rushed to look in at the new space but stopped at the edge of a deep square hole. At the bottom, he could smell water, and sure enough, when Leader tossed a glowing stick in, it fell into black water that suddenly lit up with the stick's light.
Cato was concerned when Leader began to pull things from the little car and put them in his pack. He was going to go into the water, and Cato didn’t like that because he didn’t like water. Sure he would go in when his old Leader would take him to the beach, but only up to his belly. Leader went to the edge of the hole.
“Stay.” Leader said. Cato whined louder, but Leader held up his hand, using one of the hand signals he learned that meant the same as the word he used. Cato sat and tried to look as obedient as possible. Maybe if he was obedient, Leader would take him with him.
Leader jumped into the hole and submerged into the water. He didn’t surface again. Cato barked. He whined…and he stayed.
Si was an excellent swimmer. He spent summers at the pool with his brother and sister and prided himself in being able to go as long as he wanted, but diving down an underwater elevator shaft on an alien planet with forty pounds of gear on his back was so far removed from his summers at the pool that he trembled with nerves, or maybe that was the cold water.
He prayed that the reactor room wasn’t flooded and that it still had power. If it didn’t he doubted that he would have enough air to get back to the surface in time. Even now his lungs burned to gulp in the air he’d deprived them. He’d come down one level through the shaft, then slid through the open doors to the corridor that led to the reactor room. There was no evidence that the room was free of water, but there was hope, and so he went on.
He turned the corner and sat the dull red light on the panel next to the room’s door. He slammed his palm against the door and was instantly pulled into the space by the onrush of water. He gulped in a breath when he found open air and then turned, gripped a metal pole and pulled himself out of the path of the torrent of water that rushed in. The door closed automatically behind him, but not before the crash of water filled the reactor room to Si’s knees.
Red and yellow warning stickers stuck to every surface and decried the need for vigilance. This reactor, the one in the front of the ship, was designed to be removed and transferred to a colonial building for a more permanent energy source for the colonists. It was small, for a reactor, but Si wasn’t sure how he was going to get the thing out once he went through the process of disconnecting it. Adding to the complication was the water. Once the reactor was fully disconnected, this room would lose power, and the doors would open automatically. The stale air that he had been so grateful was here, would be gone in an instant. He looked around the room for anything that would help and found four sets of containment suits in a small locker room off to the side. Above the suits, a sticker described protocols in case of containment failure. Also in the locker room, Si found air tanks that were used in conjunction with the suits.
He smiled, a plan forming as he checked the tank’s readings. They were full, or at least the super-old gauges attached to them said they were.
He worked on inflating two of the suits. One had a hole and so he switched it out with another, but it seemed as though his plan would work. Two yellow radiation suits floated on the knee-high water like a couple of fat guys Si remembered from his summers at the pool. They would float on their backs or sometimes on inflatables that their large bodies dwarfed.
Si went to the reactor and pulled his tablet from his pack to begin the long step-by-step instructions on how to disconnect the reactor while maintaining fission. He set the tablet to play Bob Marley, breathed in deeply and got to work.
Iris saw the storm clouds and swore. She wasn’t sure they could make it through another storm. Mentally it would be taxing in the extreme, even if the Rossians didn’t choose to attack them during the tempest, when they would have a greater advantage, it would be difficult to keep everyone from going crazy with the stress.
She had argued with Si about leaving them now, but he was so adamant about going.
A few of the other kids, the ones in the new group who didn’t know him well, voiced that they thought he had just left them because he saw the writing on the wall and didn’t want to go down with a sinking ship. She’d put a stop to the talk, but it had been said and the damage was done. The thought that maybe Carter and the others were right poisoned everyone’s attitude. She could see it spread even in the most stalwart of his admirers.
Peter assured her that it was just because they didn’t know him and that he would never abandon one of his responsibilities which is how he saw every single one of them, a responsibility that he was honor-bound to protect.
The hardest part, however, was that Peter had felt the need to assure her. It’s just the fear, she told herself. Anyone would question in these circumstances.
His explanation for why he was going was tenuous and non-descript, but his excitement was genuine. He truly believed that whatever he was going to do was necessary for their survival. She just hoped that he would be back soon, before the clouds.
Iris looked out over the top of the Jerkasaurus toward where she’d seen her first Rossian and saw movement as one, then another, then another alien came from the trees. Soon she couldn’t distinguish individual figures from the mass that congregated in front of the castle’s gate.
“To arms!” She yelled. Behind her, children scurried through the courtyard. Peter was at his station directly below her, guarding the front gate. He looked up at her through the gaps in the rampart’s flooring.
“Iris, what do you see?” He was too low to see the group of Rossians amass on the other side of the hill’s curve.
“Looks like we’re going to have plenty of targets for Si’s new weapons,” she thought she sounded surprisingly calm. She knew Peter was excited to try the flame-thrower attached to his back, and it saddened her to see how he almost smiled at her words. Others arrived at the gate to help Peter, and he relayed the news.
Sami and Becky arrived and yelled up to her for orders. She had made the two girls messengers since they were fast and too small to use many of the weapons effectively.
“Sami, go check on Carter, I want to know if there are any Rossians on his side.” She could see the boy over the top of the hab standing on the rear tower. She probably could have yelled the question to him, but she wanted to establish a habit of communicating through the girls since she’d anticipated it being too noisy to yell at him during a battle.
A ululating cry came from the group of aliens drawing her attention. They were on the move. She imagined that the big one in front was the one that had made the noise, but from this distance, it could have been any of them. As they came up the hill, a chant reached her ears and she shivered.
She judged that maybe fifty of the things approached, far fewer than she’d feared, but as their size became distinguishable she realized that the fifty might as well be a thousand. Most of the creatures were devoid of weapons of any kind, but a few carried nasty-looking cudgels.
She looked down the inside cube of the wall below her and saw a bunch of scared kids caressing the triggers of their weapons.
“Hold your fire until I say,” she yelled.
“Carter, says the back is clear and he wants to bring his guys around to the front,” Sami yelled up to her.
She didn’t turn to face the girl, but yelled over her shoulder.
“No, tell him I want him to stay where he is. I want our rear covered unless they breach the gate.”
“Yes, sir,” Sami yelled and ran back around the hab.
“Becky, go check the hab and make sure the littles are okay and that no able-bodied soldier is hiding in there,” she hated using words like able-bodied solder, but the kids had responded well to it. It seemed to give them courage to pretend like they were warriors instead of frightened children.
A shot sounded from below. None of the Rossians clutched at themselves or staggered, instead the big guy in front gave a cry and the group rushed forward.
“Take aim!” Iris raised her own shotgun and pointed it at the giant in front. She waited until the terrifying aliens were within fifty feet. “Fire!” She pulled the trigger and the castle was filled with the crash of thunder and the smell of sulfer as nine slugs slammed into the group of aliens. Well, maybe fewer than nine actually hit anything, but nine was the number of shotguns that they had currently pointing at the aliens.
Only two fell, and only two others clutched at a wound. The leader that she had shot, barely flinched when she fired, though she could see the hole seeping…something as it ran forward.
“Fire at will!” She yelled.” The aliens were already too close, their giant steps ate up the distance in a matter of seconds. Bursts of shotgun fire popped around the courtyard below her. Iris cocked her gun and before she could aim it at her target, the big Rossian jumped and gripped the Jerkasourus tusk in front of her. She shifted and shot the hand that was terrifyingly close to her.
The alien shrieked and the tusk broke.
The leader thudded into the ground below. She swore when she couldn’t see it. She heard yelling, and crying, shots, and bone-chilling alien sounds.
She scanned the inside of the wall on both sides below her. It was chaos. The children had backed away from the walls when the aliens had reached them. One had even dropped her gun and was running for the hab.
All along the wall, the enemy climbed the outside. In seconds they would be inside. The gate below her gave a shudder as something hit into it.
A roar of flame sounded and she felt the heat from Peter’s flame-thrower. The alien below shrieked again and stumbled away from the gates, fully engulfed. The rest of the creatures didn’t seem overly affected by their leaders pains. Her hand went to the control.
The buttons in front of her had been taken from the road maker and each of the four had new labels taped to them in Si’s boyish hand-writing.
She hit the one labeled Front-1 and clicks sounded from along the wall, but for a terrifying second nothing else happened. Then the flints snapped forward and flame erupted from the walls. Rossians screamed as they cooked. A couple of the canisters hadn’t lit from their flints, but as the conflagration merged from the surrounding tanks, the streams of gas exploded into flame.
Eerie Rossian cries drowned out all other sounds, and when those died away so did the gunfire and yelling. Only a handful of wounded aliens staggered away from the flames to seek refuge in the shade of the trees. She let them go. One by one the flames spurting from the canister along the front of the castle sputtered out. A section of the wall had caught on fire and Iris shook herself from her near shock of still being alive.
“We need to put that out! We’re going to need the walls when they come again,”
Si held his breath ready to cut the last wire. He had finished every other step and now it was time to see if the blue light emanating from the small reactor window would continue or if it would die the moment he disconnected it completely from the Samsara. His multi-tool shook in his hand as he pinched the handles together.
Suddenly, the door slammed open and the onrush of water pressed him against the reactor. He could feel the thing still humming with energy. The water was cold, but the yellow suit he wore protected him from getting more soaked than he already was, but as the water rushed over his head the pressure hugged the suit against his body. The clear plastic face shield formed to his face and when he tried to suck in a breath, he couldn’t. He had a moment of panic until a rational portion of his terrified mind reasserted itself.
He shrugged the air tank off his back and swung it around in front of him. He twisted the valve and felt the pressure build inside his suit, compensating for the water pressing from the outside. Finally, after what seemed like forever, he was able to take a few shallow breaths. His ears popped, but after a minute he breathed normally.
He chuckled, suddenly overcome by the irony of being smothered by the very suit he wore to be able to breathe in chilly black water, but it wasn’t black. It was blue. It pulsed in time with the reactor’s humm.
He had tied the reactor to the duel yellow fat guys he’d made with the other suits and it now floated above the floor at waist height, almost like he had planned it. He pushed the reactor out of the room, down the hall and when he got to the elevator shaft he went to the fat-guy ballasts and slowly twisted their valves until the reactor ascended with him in tow.
The pulsing blue light from the reactor cast strange colored shapes along the inside wall of the elevator shaft. When his head popped above the surface of the water he heard Cato barking. Looking up was difficult in the suit, but he could just see the brick black shape of his best friend pacing back and forth on the edge of the shaft, worried excitement evident in his movement.
The next hour, Si worked on retrieving the reactor from the water with the buggies winch. Finally, after feeling exhausted and more than a little pleased at his success, he nevertheless had a nagging anxiety that urged him to greater speed. He covered and strapped down the reactor in a rush and reversed out of the corridor until he was able to turn the thing around. Once out of the Samsara, he flew down the hill at a near suicidal pace that drew whines of worry from Cato.
The weather had worsened considerably. Dark clouds obscured the everpresent twilight to the point that he was forced to flip on the buggies headlights to see his precarious path flashing by ahead of them.
Dirt flew in a rooster tail behind the buggy as the vehicles' knobby tires tore into grass and soil.
Siris heard the battle before he’d even reached the base of the hill. He smelled a tangy smoke and heard occasional gunshots, but there were far too few of those. He swore and nearly cried, angry at the Rossians, the planet, the fates, something…everything. Why couldn’t they have waited? Why couldn’t he have been faster?
When he crested the hill, he saw hundreds of giant Rossian bodies milling about in front of the castle walls, or rather, what was left of them. Most of the walls were reduced to a pile of burned sticks. Looking past the Rossians, he saw a number of huge alien forms attempting to break into the hab. The hab shook with the struggle.
Si heard another gunshot, then a scream.
“No!” He yelled.
The Rossians standing closest to him, who to this point had been enthralled in the show at the hab, turned and looked at him with those terrifying red eyes. Si smashed the gas pedal to the floor and navigated the buggy through the waiting army of Rossians. With his right hand he woke his tablet and hit a series of buttons, then slid to a stop near one of the demolished walls of the castle.
Rossians, at first hesitant with surprise at his arrival, now rushed forward with reaching long-clawed-hands. Cato jumped down, barking and growling his challenge at the dark shapes.
“Cato, come!” Si yelled while jumping from the buggy multi-tool in hand. He slashed at the straps with his blade and yanked the yellow hazard suit from atop the reactor.
Blue light spilled out in a rhythm that was familiar to the Rossians. The leading ranks of attacking beasts stalled and tilted their heads in confused thought. Successive rows also saw the light and the dull roar of angry shrieks silenced. Suddenly, the battle was halted. An unspoken command brought all of the giant Rossians to the edge of the blue light. The leading ranks knelt finally and laid their heads against the ground. Others followed their lead until all were paying their respects to the reactor as Si had seen them do before.
Cato whined, perhaps saddened that he couldn’t fight the now prostrated scourges of this planet, after all, they looked far less intimidating with their heads against the ground.
Si slid his tablet into his pack and shouldered it then grabbed the UTS 15.
The noises at the front of the hab had even stopped. Si ran around the dark mounds of worshipping Rossians toward the hab. He passed dead Rossians on his way and a few lumps that were too small to be aliens but that he was too scared to investigate closely.
At the broken door, he stopped, aghast. Blood, human blood, covered the inside walls and floor.
Cato sniffed at the blood. Si would have been sick all over the floor if he had had anything in his stomach. He recognized Becky’s shocked face from amid a pile of…pieces in the corner.
“Iris!” His ‘yell’ was more of a gasp. It was like he didn’t have enough air to call out.
“Iris!” He tried again.
A noise came from the back of the hab and Si rushed down to the hall. At the end, the door to the rear bedroom and the facility’s shower was ajar and someone on the other side pushed to get it open, but were hindered by a couple giant Rossian corpses.
Si tugged and pulled at the mottled Rossian flesh until the door opened enough for him to poke his head in.
A dozen or so scared faces stared back at him from the dark. Iris’s was among them, and he let out a relieved breath, but tears were running down his cheeks. So few. He had failed so many.
With one final yank he jerked the door enough to enter. Iris and Peter hugged him, followed by all the rest, even the bedraggled and wounded Carter gave him a half hug.
“How did you get through?” Iris asked.
They filtered out of the broken down hab. Eyes were covered, but even so, whimpers escaped most of the kids as they passed the grisly scene at the front door.
Peter had a massive tank on his back, flamethrower in hand, and with his mechanical leg and frowning face, he looked like a middle-aged battle-hardened veteran rather than the child that he was. He scanned the courtyard, ready to light-up any threat before the group. Cato refused to let the boy lead however, and the dog ranged ahead, sniffing and growling at the occasional prone Rossian.
“How did you…turn them off?” He asked, examining one of the still aliens a little too closely for Iris’s comfort.
“Peter, get away from it!” She snarled at him.
“I brought one of their Gods to them.” He said simply and pointed at the faint blue light pulsing from the buggy.
The light seemed less bright now and the hum less loud. He lowered his gun and pulled the tablet from his pack.
“No. No. No,” he said. He hit buttons on the tablet, but the reactor didn’t respond. It was losing power. Its fissionable material was finally depleted. The tablet flashed its warning, in a counter rythm to the slowing reactor glow.
He ran to the reactor.
“Get them back into the hab!” He yelled over his shoulder but he didn’t look to see if they obeyed.
He climbed atop the reactor and pulled an auto driver from his vest. He started pulling the plate from the front of the device that protected much of the essential wiring that he’d so painstakingly rerouted a few hours previously. He didn’t really have any hope of making any difference, but he was going through the motions. When there was a problem, he fixed it. It’s what he did. It’s what he was good at, but now, his brain told him there was absolutely nothing he could do, unless he had reactor-ready uranium in his pocket and knew how to use it.
He cursed again and again as he worked, but then a hand was on his. He looked up.
Iris was looking at him. She slowly shook her head. Tears and snot covered his face, and he wiped at it with his sleeve.
“You have to go. Take as many as you can on the Buggy. The reactor is losing power. In a few seconds these assholes are going to come to and tear us apart.”
She was calm. She turned to the other children, who cried, but were also relatively calm.
“What’s the point. This is the end. We did our best.” Sami hugged Iris’s hip and Peter crouched to scratch Cato’s ears. “We’re too tired to keep this up.”
Behind her, one of the Rossians raised its head slowly clearly wondering why their God seemed to weaken in front of them.
“Well…” Si climbed atop the buggy and racked a round into the large machine gun mounted above where the reactor lay. “I’m not going out without taking as many of these with me as I can.
Peter smiled a grim smile and nodded. He put his back against the buggy and the others did the same, pointing their weapons outward.
The end came quickly.
In a matter of seconds Si saw flashes of death all around him as he slammed fifty caliber rounds into the Rossians. Cato went down after being the first to attack one of the awakening Rossians. He tore at the thing’s neck face, and arms but lay still after being thrown against the buggy’s side. His thick, neck twisted at an odd angle.
Si screamed his anguish as he pressed the handles of the mounted gun. He saw Sami disappear among the advancing forms. Peter was overwhelmed, his terrible screams punctuated by the flames erupting from the makeshift flamethrower he sported. His last sight was of Iris screaming as he was. Putting voice to her own frustration, anger and fear.
All went black.
Si jerked awake. His eyes hurt and were blurry. He felt dizzy and almost wretched, but among all of the pain and confused senses, he heard a familiar voice.
“Siris, It’s okay, just breathe. That’s it,” the voice gained a face as his vision slowly improved. His dad looked back at him, a wide smile split his face.
Si tried to speak but a fit of coughing made his head pound and his vision turn blurry again for a time.
“It’s okay, son. Just breathe.” He felt his father’s strong hands caress his cheek and work at something at his chest and side.
A harness. He was unhooking a harness. An alarm beeped in an annoyingly adamant rythm that only compounded his headache.
“Am I dead?” He finally managed. His voice was a rasping gasp.
He had’nt put much stock in any belief of an afterlife before, though he had wondered occasionally about the possibility as he supposed most people did. It appeared that he should have paid more attention to his mom when she spoke of God and his plan for all of us, but at the time he was only interested in what he could see, touch and fix. He looked around after calming from another bout of coughing. Heaven was strange. Blurry metallic gray walls and colorless lighting made it seem far more oppressive than he’d imagined. Maybe he hadn’t made it to heaven.
“It is for me son. Now it is anyway, because you’re not dead. You’re alive, awake, and with me again.”
A noise made Si turn his head, and his head swam. A bored looking woman in a lab coat entered through a door that slide closed behind her.
“Oh good, he finally woke. Let’s see.” She looked at a tablet. “Osiris Tarek?” She asked. Not bothering to look up from her tablet for confirmation. “A Yakka boy?” Her tone took on a degree of interest. “The only one onboard,” she stated. She looked up finally at his dad. “Have you told him anything yet?”
“Not yet. He just woke.”
Siris was annoyed.
“What’s going on? Where am I?” He croaked out.
The woman pulled over a stool on rollers to the side of his…he looked around and saw that he was strapped into a hibernation pod. His hibernation pod. It had his number stenciled on the side, but it wasn’t in the corridor where it had been. He was in some kind of medical room. Instruments surrounded him on either side of the pod.
“You’re on Ross 128b. We have landed and what you just experienced was just a dream.” Her delivery was that of a woman repeating something for perhaps the hundredth time. She held up a hand, forestalling the flood of questions. “Please, give me some time to explain further before you start in on the questions.”
“Upon awakening from our long slumber, the crew checked pending laser communiques from earth as is protocol, and among the list of thousands of terabytes of data was a series of priority messages regarding the children of this colonial mission. It seems that in the thousand years it took us to arrive, certain…mistakes were discovered in the hibernation pod programming. It only became evident to the scientists of earth after other colonial missions informed them of the problem.”
“You see, there is a problem with the shutdown code that the growing child’s brain can’t interpret. When the Samsara began it’s hibernation shutdown the computer automatically synced all of the pod’s that didn’t shutdown correctly as a way to preserve the inhabitants. Am I making sense so far?” She asked.
He shrugged. Nothing of what she said really made sense, but if this was a figment of his imagination it was a good one. He was curious so he nodded for her to continue.
We still don’t know why, or how the occupants…the children…dream together, but it has been reported by other colonies as well. If the child is awakened early, they invariably die. The only way out of the shared nightmare is for the child to die in the dream itself. So we waited. Most of the colonies reported that their children awaken after only a few days, the violent nature of their dreams too much for the poor children to handle.”
“Are you saying that all of those in my dream as you call it, are still alive?” Hope blossomed in his chest.
The woman looked annoyed at the question. She wanted to get this over with and didn’t care for anything that derailed her monologue.
Si reached down and began pulling himself out of the pod.
“Hold on son,” his dad put a hand on his shoulder to hold him in place. Si pushed it away.
“Dad. I have to go. I have to see her. He pushed and his body, weak and shaking, fell forward. His dad caught him before he face-planted on the metal floor.
The woman muttered something about Yakkas but Si was beyond caring. He lifted only leg, then the other, while his father helped him walk slowly away from the pod. A cold sweat beaded his forehead, and his body felt like it had the flu, but he persisted.
“Your body needs to rest.” The doctor woman complained, but she clearly didn’t really care about his wellbeing, just how it would affect her schedule.
“Doc, If he’s healthy enough, I think we can take it from here.” His father was clearly annoyed with the woman’s total lack of bedside manner as well.
“Well, I’m sure he’ll be fine, but all the other kids stayed in their beds for at least twenty-four hours before…”
“Well, we Yakkas are hardier than most,” he interrupted.
She grumbled again. “I’ll leave the rest up to you then, “she said to his dad and left the room in a huff. He shuffled his way slowly after her with his dad guiding him along his way.
As he went, he was able to speed up and even though he felt dizzy, and his muscles were on fire, he progressed rapidly until his shuffling steps were stumbles and his father had to keep repeating his admonitions to ‘slow down’, but he didn’t he pushed harder to go faster. The rounded a corner and heard growling. From the alcove where Si had found Cato originally, the dog had cornered three unfortunate crewmen tasked with removing the dog from his pod.
“Cato!” Si yelled. The dog turned on unstable paws. He saw Si and shambled forward, the two approached each other in a comically uncoordinated run.
Si knelt and let the dog lick his face and in his exuberance the big dog knocked Si backward where he lay laughing as the dog licked his weeping face. The crew members just looked on in shock, as did his dad.
“Let’s go get the others.” Si said, and allowed his dad to lift him again to his feet.
They walked away together. The crewmen tried half heartedly to attach a leash and collar to the dog, but when he growled at them again, they backed away and followed the three as they stumbled their way toward the shareholders' sections.
Si’s dad talked as they walked, and answered all of his questions that came in gasps as his tired lungs struggled to keep up with the pace, but he wasn’t giving the answers his full attention. He had one thought.
When finally they stood outside the door, Si worked at calming his racing heart that he was sure was only partially caused by his excursion.
The door slid open and the faces that looked at him from their beds brought a bright smile to his face.
Sami, Becky, Carter, Peter…They were all there, and Iris toward the far end of the room was arguing with another woman in a lab coat. She obviously wanted to leave her bed and had even disconnected the various devices that shareholder kids warranted. Parents crowded the walkway between the rows of pod-beds. They hugged and crooned over their loved ones.
Most of the children had tears, clearly confused by the vivid dream that would undoubtedly scar them all for life, if this was life…and not a dream.
Iris looked his direction as a hush fell upon the room. The children had all stopped what conversations they had been having with loved-ones and physicians when he entered.
When she saw him her face lit up. She pushed restraining hands from her and all but tumbled out of the pod. He also forgot caution and ran to her. His will was enough to make up for his unsteady feet and he reached her just as he felt a firm hand on his shoulder.
“What is this Yakka boy doing here?” He heard a deep behind him, but he didn’t turn, he couldn’t. She had his eyes captured by her own. Her cold hands gripped his face and brought him to her for a kiss.
Gasps filled the room from the onlooking parents, crewmembers, and doctors. A shareholder girl and a Yakka boy was unthinkable.
“Boy!” The voice growled and forcefully turned Si around. His legs made him sway with the movement, but he was able to keep upright. “That’s my daughter you’re assaulting!”
“Assaulting? Father, he saved my life!” he looked past Si but held both his shoulders in a firm grip.
“No he didn’t sweetheart. That’s what we’ve been trying to tell you. It was just a dream.” His voice took on a much slower, almost condescending tone when speaking to his daughter, Si noticed.
“No it wasn’t.” Peter yelled from behind his father. He still laid in his bed, but the look on his face said it all. The thought that his father had just called what they had all experienced a mere dream had offended the lad. In fact, as Si glanced around the room, all of the children had been offended. Others chorused the injustice. “What if this is the dream? It feels just as real to me?” Peter said, and pinched himself.
The Female doctor in the corner stepped forward, obviously believing herself the expert on the matter. “Now, Peter, what your father is trying to explain is that you all shared a scenario for a time. And that scenario would have felt very real indeed. We don’t blame you for being…confused, but…” she turned to face Si. “That is no excuse to forget your station.”
She looked toward the crewmen who had followed them hoping, at some point, that Cato would allow them to collar him. “Take him back to the crew section where he belongs.” The crewmen nodded and gripped Si’s arms once Iris’s father released him.
“He knows the way.” Richard Tarek growled, and the two let go immediately. At least his father seemed to have some pull with his fellow crewmen at least. Si glanced over his shoulder at Iris before he walked back to the doorway. Her eyes were red and her cheeks were wet with tears.
As he neared the door he heard her continue to argue with anyone who would listen, as did most of the children he passed. Hands were suddenly around his waist and he looked down.
Becky looked up at him.
Her naturally curly hair was clean and shiny, unlike his own dirty, greasy locks that covered his ears and neck. Apparently, shareholders warranted a higher degree of care than Yakka boys as they slumbered. He suddenly felt bad for Iris as he wondered just how bad his breath was.
“Becky!” Her disbelieving mother admonished her from a safe distance, as if his ‘condition’ was catching.
Si batted her head.
Becky turned, anger flashing in her big brown eyes. “He saved my life. More than once. He saved all our lives.” Her small arms waved to the whole room.
Her mother took a tentative step forward. “Becky it was…”
“No. Don’t say it was just a dream! We lived it!” She stomped her foot in a way that made Si smile despite the situation.
“It’s okay Becky. They don’t understand. They probably never will,” he bent down and gave her a hug. “Grown-ups are stubborn that way.”
They left the shareholders and walked slowly back through the clean, bright corridors to where he was said to ‘belong’.
“I understand, sweetheart.”
“No you don’t! If you did, you would let me see him. For you, nothing happened. You just woke up. For us, another life happened, and it was so full of experiences that it dwarfed our time back on earth.”
William Thatcher looked at her with condescension behind his eyes. She wanted to smash something brutally painful into his head over and over until he understood. Not something fatal, she still loved her father, but something that would cram the truth in past his thick skull.
She looked into her fathers uncomprehending eyes and began to sob. “I love him.”
“Preposterous,” his one word response was full of all the disgust and incredulity within him. “Impossible.”
“Because it was a dream?” Her voice rose and she stood on her tiptoes, daring him to deny her reality.
“Because he’s a Yakka,” his tone had softened and his gentle hand on her shoulder pleaded with her not to argue this point.
“Exactly! He’s better than us.” His mouth gaped and he pulled his hand away from her as if burned. “In this place. This new life, he is more valuable than all the credits you have,” she laid her own hand on his forearm. “You can’t pay a dragon lizard not to kill you with credits.”
“Dragon lizard?” He scoffed. “They don’t exist.”
“You don’t know that! How could you? You haven’t even left the ship since it landed.”
She had been surprised that the only people that had even left the Samsara since it had arrived nearly three months ago had been a handful of scientists fully clothed in protective suits. They took readings and samples and did their best to determine what cocktail of drugs they’d vaccinate the colonists with in an attempt to stave off whatever unseen dangers lurked in the environment.
“No we haven’t because this is reality.”
“I think I liked my other leg better,” Peter said from his bunk in the corner. They had been moved to a tiny set of quarters where they would subsist until the habs could be deployed and their new home established. Her brother sat on the bed, looking down at his leg.
Her father’s face scrunched in confusion. “What leg?”
“My other one. The one Si made for me after the dragon lizard bit it off. You know, the things that don’t exist?”
He just looked at the boy for a long time. Iris could see something percolating within. Finally, he seemed to be thinking.
“You know, you’d know all about his leg if you’d bothered to ask what had happened to us,” she felt devilishly pleased when she saw actual physical hurt in his expression.
To her surprise, instead of reacting defensively, or even angrily, he sighed and sat down on his own bed.
“I’m sorry. You’re right, Iris. Tell me what happened to you.”
She hesitated. It was almost like telling him now might cheapen the experience. Like, because he believed it was just a dream, he wouldn’t give any of their trauma the kind of respect that it deserved.
“Please,” he insisted, patting the bed next to him.
She sat and began to recount the story of how they’d managed to survive the past three months. Peter was surprisingly close-mouthed about his fight with the dragon lizard and his leg, he merely laid on his bunk and closed his eyes while she talked. After she was well past that part, however, he perked up and contributed to their tale with his own perspective.
Her father sat spellbound. She couldn’t remember another time when he paid such close attention to her as she spoke. He seemed legitimately invested in the story and only interrupted with occasional clarifying questions.
“I knew that Ladderkin boy was trouble,” He grumbled as Geoffrey’s depravity became apparent. “His mother isn’t much better. How they passed the psych evals, I’ll never know.”
Even though she had seen Claire and the two had hugged and talked, she still sobbed when she told her father of how her friend had died. He hugged her and patted her back like when she was young. He was so enthralled by the story that he actually clapped his hands together in glee when Si caught both Peter and Becky at the top of the ladder when they fell. She couldn’t help but smile, despite the tears still wetting her cheeks, at his reaction. This is the man she loved, only it was usually she who clapped when he told of how Wellington or Nelson performed some magnificent feat. He was openly amazed, and not the close-minded fool he had been when she’d started.
The description of the Rossians visibly disturbed him and he shifted, unsure what to do. It was obvious that he felt some kind of paternal duty to comfort her, but was at a loss of how to go about it.
“Who would have imagined that such terrible violence could be conjured by a bunch of youths.” He rushed on in an attempt to cover any offense he’d given. “I assure you, no reports of such beasts have come in from the drones and scientists that have ventured out.” She nodded, accepting his attempt to pacify her fear, but she had the sense that he was convincing himself as much as her that the terrors of their dream couldn’t be real.
In the end, he sat for a long time, silent.
Finally, after Peter had fallen asleep and she drifted somewhere in between, cuddled in his arms, he spoke.
“I understand, I think, why you say you love him. You take after your mother. We weren’t always shareholders you know, and I tend to forget what life was like before the company made us all rich. Margaret often had to remind me of our humble beginnings. Since she passed, I’m afraid I get caught up in it all. Most of those people that were so shocked when you kissed that boy…”
“Si,” she interrupted him.
“Si,” he amended. “They were just as Yakka as the rest of us. We all worked. Maybe this new place is our chance to change some things.”
She looked into his warm blue eyes and squeezed him tightly.
“To be honest, when we were faced with certain death at every turn, our backgrounds didn’t really matter to most of us after just a few days, except Geoffrey and those too scared to go against him.”
“Maybe I’ll talk to the Captain about assigning someone to keep an eye on the boy. I don’t think that, legally, we can do anything about something he did while unconscious, but it is an indicator for certain.”