The muted blue-whites of the massive moons loomed closer and closer through her optical viewer. They hovered above a remote planet, permanently shrouded in a silvery mist and deterred all potential visitors except those invited.
She eased her legs off the console and stretched her long appendages, which almost touched the ceiling. They ached from the lack of mobility over the past week.
Finally, I can collect my pay and get my ass to a well-earned vacation. Maybe Brother 2, where I can enjoy the sunshine and warm beaches.
She hated cold and kept the temperature balmy inside her cabin. Absent were the obligatory illustrations of family and friends. Instead condensation from the artificial warmth produced a misty frame around the portholes serving as a memento of those left behind.
Space welcomed her to its playground, unsupporting of all life — neither friend nor foe. She answered to no entity and bounced at will from system to system, transporting legal and not so legal goods to destinations most carriers refused to enter. The reward offered to the few beings who dared to venture to all junctions of the universe was to experience astonishing splendor. Her recent travels included visits to the split suns and the matching half spheres of the Byzans and the cascading Édessia waterfall of falling stars. The celestial bodies were beautiful to view but a bitch for interstellar operations. The punishment─ observe horrific behavior from beings she would least expect. She learned early on greed and fanatical devotion to individual causes infected all factions of various life forms. Time after time she witnessed justifications replace compassion.
Her chosen career maintained her lifestyle: a custom equipped ship (owned, not leased), an assortment of illegal weapons and a stash of coin for the day she decided to live in one place.
The temporary beauty of the bluish moons masked the disgusting beings incarcerated on the planet below. The bitter cold and the cyrovolcanoescryovolcanoes made it a perfect host for a penitentiary. There were no unplanned exits from the imprisoned because the outside elements would end any sentence with an instant frosty death.
A muted, far away roar distracted her as she stretched her arms. She glanced over to the prisoner. The criminal had not stirred throughout the entire journey.
Medicated unconsciousness. She picked it up at Midline, along with a fat purse, authorized for deposit upon delivery. Enough supplies were purchased to ensure no stops in transit. The covered creature was small, about half her height and the locked, mittened hands were the size of miniature rodent talons. The hooded head stayed on its chest. The body remained belted to the shuttle wall.
The prisoner must be lethally dangerous for its captors to induce unconsciousness. Its teeth must be the size of razors. She shook off her thoughts. Curiosity towards her package could sever the contract. Besides, the roar did not come from him.
She did not trust beings who were covered. Coverings masked faces, facial responses, and hints to the actions to come. But a being’s true essence could not be disguised or buried, no matter the number of layers applied.
Her own appearance required alteration before she began moving cargo between star systems. She could not afford to be a source of conversation. A good friend on Brother 4 constructed a neutral color for her skin-on-skin covering, illegal since only she could remove it. It erased any traces of past origins, accommodating movement between worlds undetected. Her outerwear never varied from the dark and ordinary.
The escalated rumble snapped her into a panic and the realization of the source of the sound. How did we miss this? She raced across the captain’s platform, attacking the controls, glancing over to the telewindow, shouting to any god who would listen: Please do not let this rogue intruder turn my home into permanent space dust.
This spherical asteroid was huge. She knew these types of deadly horrors were not particularly dense, nor necessarily terrestrial.
“Bart, what the…” she screamed into her console. “Is this payback for not installing your upgrade at MidLine? You are well aware I would not get funded for this job if we did not depart immediately, and the quantity of coin—”
“Sorry, boss, an ion cloud shrouded the big rock. Navigation did not detect it until it fell into our path. I calculate it will hit─”
The roar melded into the crushing metal as the asteroid clipped the craft, spiraling it through the icy clouds to the frozen terrain below.
“As soon as we return to MidLine,” she said, “I’m replacing you with a female version. At least the lies will sound sincere.”
She grasped the manual controls and tried to hang on as the craft rotated at a sickening speed. Her gloved grip slipped, and her backside slammed against the wall. The prisoner did not move. She crawled towards the console and reached for the manual lever.
A veteran pilot, considered by most to have lived long past his expiration date, once told her to never own a craft dependent on astronomical technology. With his blessing she installed a quaint-looking device of his design. His advice had permitted her to cheat certain annihilation more than once.
“There is a flat summit located on one of the mountains. It is not ideal but should suffice for a landing,” Bart said.
“Oh, sure, now you can see.”
“I do not view another recourse which does not include object interference. There is an infinitesimal probability the suggested landing could be attained if you decelerated the craft’s approach. At the current speed we will bypass the summit.”
“What does that mean?”
“Did you leave your accounts on Brother 3 to your mother or your sister?”
Blasting through the atmosphere, she pulled the lever into her abdomen, begging her muscles to fight the pressure. The craft steadied moments before it would have exploded into the surface. There was no gentle way to land, so she leveled it, collapsing trees, splitting rocks, slashing a path of destruction into the icy landscape.
The shuttle quaked, and the intensity forced her to harness, restricting any additional maneuvers. She had barely latched in when the vessel skidded and slid sideways along the summit. The craft inverted and left her dangling.
Upside down, she clawed at the controls. Boulders hit the roof and white crystals blew inside the new opening. She glanced at the growing gash and said a prayer the snow would slow their landing. The howling of the wind pierced her concentration as she tried to manipulate the levers. Finally, the sounds of carving into the crunching ground subsided. As quickly as they had descended, they were still.
The spasm of her shuttle forced the Captain’s harness to almost strangle her torso.
“I hate wearing this contraption.” She unbuckled it and rubbed the indentions on her shoulders. Snow filled their cabin at an alarming rate.
“Can we communicate with the penitentiary?” She struggled to be heard above the screeching wind.
“No,” said Bart. “All operations are offline. My repair analysis indicates severe damage to the equipment and the exterior. My apologies, all of your coin may have been wasted on the new propulsion upgrades. Too bad my modules were not included. Therefore, the timeline to complete the impairments is unknown. The temperature is a concern unless the rupture is fortified. Also, I cannot evaluate if appropriate materials are available to construct acceptable protection. We are broken, and I cannot defend you from the effects of the external elements. My prognosis is you will expire from exposure.”
She yelled over the wind, “Any possibilities on the surface?” Swirling snow made it nearly impossible to see or hear.
“If my analysis of the topography is correct, there is an underground chamber. Follow the treeline. I cannot warrant a safe arrival.” Bart’s systems clanked, a defect from the crash.
“I do not recommend abandoning your… guest. It necessitates shelter as well.”
Her prisoner, now upside down, was still constrained.
Should I leave it?
If it died, she most certainly would not receive her coin, and if she rescued it, she would be burdened with guarding a dangerous criminal. A movement from the creature interrupted her internal debate. Snow quickly piled around the interior and she realized it was probably cold. The cabin was equipped with a backpack of mobile supplies, food, water, warmth regulated blankets and coverings. She strapped on a variety of weaponry, slipped on a climate jacket and the backpack.
“You will be arrested if you are found harboring weapons,” Bart’s crackled voice warned her.
She laughed. “Dead or alive?”
A muted whimper came from under the thick hood of the captive. She hesitated.
“This will mean extra coin.” She unlocked the convict, instinctively catching it before it hit the surface.
If the circumstances were not so dire, the irony of the prisoner’s handler refusing to disclose the disembarkation code, to guarantee immobility until delivery, would have given her satisfaction. There were no mysteries on her craft and Bart cloned the imprint. She was the only one who had permission to retain secrets. She memorized the code before takeoff.
“If I as so much feel a tooth, your body parts will be dissolved and stomped into the snow.” She knew it could not understand her. The prisoner did not resist when she picked it up.
It must be under the influence of a neural disconnection.
She held it close and could feel a slight amount of warmth seeping through the coverings. This surprised her, as most of the small, deadly creatures were cold-blooded.
She exited the craft and ran in the direction of the cave. Frozen shards of ice bombarded her face and penetrated her jacket, the sting almost unbearable.
The prisoner squirmed, making it difficult for her to hold on to it. The containment straps loosened from the crash and its arms and legs thrashed from side to side. She couldn’t pause, or they would both freeze to death. She yelled for it to stop. It became still.
She hugged her captive. The heat it provided revived her fight with the shards, that pelted her in all directions. A mist formed a crust of ice on her cheeks and nose. The combination of the high altitude and the blizzard weakened her breath. The storm made it difficult for her to pinpoint the mouth of the cave. She was running blind.
Where is the entrance? Should I return to my ship?
Gratefully, as promised by Bart, the cave emerged.
As she entered, she wondered if maybe they should have stayed on the craft and taken their chances. The damp darkness amplified the cold. A chill permeated her being and her feet slipped on the rocky surface.
At least we are protected against the wind.
The Captain released the prisoner and it cried out. She ignored it and contemplated moving further into the cavern. But her thirst overtook her itch to explore their temporary residence. She opened a container of liquid, but before she drank, she looked down at the prisoner. It hadn’t consumed a drop of liquid since they departed MidLine.
“Do not make me regret this.” She unsnapped her weapon from her side and aimed the gun at its head. If the creature was dumb enough to attack, she was ready. The Captain pulled the creature’s hood off.
The being’s sad, brown eyes bulged from an emaciated face. He raised his eyes to meet hers and she almost dropped her weapon.
“A Human? Not possible!” She moved closer to it. “And a child?” Based on the features, she assumed it was a male.
She caught her breath and they continued to stare at each other. She put the liquid to his lips and he eagerly drank. How long had he gone without nourishment? Her mobile kit included sustenance units and she unsealed a packet. His face displayed a glimmer of appreciation. Did I see gratitude? He abruptly stopped drinking. Instead, he cupped a handful of snow off his coverings, sniffed it and stuffed it into his mouth.
Even with her low standards she would never transport a Human. One Human was worth more than her she could save in two lifespans. But a child? She couldn’t begin to measure the boy’s worth.
The demand for Humans had surpassed frenzy and she had heard many beings would resort to extreme methods to acquire one of their own, including murder. She thrived on challenges but not stupidity. Any captain who transported Humans deserved her fate.
Why bring a child to this desolate, miserable planet?
There were no families, only tens of thousands of prisoners from many worlds, and one warden. This warden, like his father and grandfather before him, controlled the prison since its inception. Every generation prided themselves on their evolving techniques to dominate the incarcerated.
This is an opportunity. When I deliver him, my purse will multiply.
Humans were mentally deficient, a universal fact, but she still used military caution while unshackling his small hands. He devoured the nourishment as she sat across from him. She watched his every move, amazed the creature could breathe, much less ingest anything.
The storm howled outside, and she worried they would both freeze to death. She draped the blankets around them and switched on the heat regulators, not sure if the mechanisms were intended for this life-threatening cold. Exhaustion drenched her, but she worried if she fell asleep, she may not wake up.
The Human shivered and rocked back and forth, trying to keep warm.
“The child cannot expire, but what you are considering is not a good idea,” she muttered to herself.
She moved next to the child. Gales raged over the ice from the frozen lake below and plunged the atmosphere to certain death conditions.
They required additional heat if they were to survive. The remaining option was to remove her carefully designed layers of deception. She had never detached her coverings in front of others. A durable adhesive masked her head’s shape and color and disguised her true appearance. Her clients gave up attempting to guess her lineage.
At first, they were curious, but that was before she developed a reputation for delivering packages intact.
More importantly, she practiced absolute discretion by refusing to engage in gossip. She listened to other being’s prejudices and opinions─ to be used for future employment. Her skill for weaponry certainly helped as well, when necessary. Pay was her goal, and she wouldn’t allow something as trivial as her true pedigree to compromise her well-deserved coin.
She unfastened her limbs from her coverings and showed her true self. He did not protest, and his face displayed no fear.
“Well, I guess you are a stupid being if you are not afraid,” she said as the child timidly moved closer to her. She wrapped him under her coverings, instinctively knowing this was the only way to stay alive. Heat from the two beings congealed into a comfort no single creature could provide.
The quiet awakened her. A cloud-choked sun replaced the blizzard; the cave opening shimmered in the dull glow. The Human child’s little arms hugged her neck and she could feel his heart beating. His head snuggled against her shoulder and she felt an odd sense of comfort. This is how beings who own pets must feel. She gently rested him on the cave floor.
She never cared for children. The few she had met projected an intense honesty and wonder that scared her. Luckily this boy was not a toddler or, worse, an infant.
She redressed her frame, carefully layering the coverings designed for deception. The boy slept.
I am not sitting here while he suffers the effects of the medications. Time to explore.
She ducked under the staggered stalagmites and into the silent whiteness. Every tree limb was trimmed in snow.
Now what? Locating my shuttle is not an option. It is probably buried.
She was deep in thought when the Human tugged at her jacket. His face showed a fear absent just hours before. Or had it been days? She had no concept of how much time had passed.
“I am not leaving without you,” she whispered. “You are my ticket to financial freedom.” She clutched his hand and walked towards a clearing to get a better feel of their location.
A ledge jutted out from the side of the summit past the clearing. She took a few steps onto it to for a better view of the terrain below. The child wiggled away and refused to follow her. His eyes showed apprehension. She laughed.
“You must think I am your mother,” she said out loud. “Do not move.” She tried to sound threatening and pointed to the ground. But she knew the Human was too simple minded to think of running away.
Her ship crashed on a level parcel Bart sighted near the top of a mountain. But she did not dare try to find it in this unforgiving environment.
Maybe the Warden confiscated it, or, more than likely, it is buried, obscured by ice and next to impossible to find.
She scanned the horizon to set parameters on their location. The spirals of the prison, tall above the frigid landscape, stood as a stark contrast to the surrounding whiteness. The structure stood proud over the confined population. Clever architecture gave the appearance of an attractive, yet uninviting fortress.
Beauty camouflages all types of deceit.
A permafrost lake surrounded the final destination for the universe’s vile, evil, and depraved. The misleading minarets kept its inhabitants inside, devouring its residents, fading their memories of past lives and other worlds.
She continued to walk further out onto the edge, lost in her thoughts of the prison, unaware of the growing distance between her and the Human. The Captain ignored the child’s increasingly urgent yells and computed the time it would take to travel from the summit to the prison.
We will never make it by dark.
She reflected on their options: they could wait, hope they were tracked and the warden sent a rescue team (hope became an option when there were no other prospects); sprout wings and fly (she chuckled at her humor in these bleak circumstances — her wings were buried under a snow drift); or, if she chose the slim chance of survival, a probable suicide trek down to the prison.
What was the kid saying? It sounded like come back. She turned to face the shouting child and her legs wobbled unsteadily as the ledge under her shuddered. An awful cracking noise grew louder and louder expanding the splintered glacier, with her on the wrong side. She stood paralyzed, not sure of what had happened, and watched the fissure continue to separate her from the Human. He screamed and motioned for her to hurry.
She sprinted towards him, and lunged forward as the ridge broke way, her long fingers gripped onto the separated ground, snow and ice falling into the canyon below. He reached for her arms and struggled to help her.
The boy’s grasp on her arms would have been laughable if her legs had not been dangling above a vast canyon. Her boots gripped the sides of the missing ledge and she swung her body to land. She scooped up the boy and they inched back to the cave, careful not to disturb the frozen earth.
She steadied herself against the cavern wall. Ending her life on this planet was not in her plan. She had to be more careful.
She rummaged through the pack and found the nutrients. The supplies would not last more than a cycle, the liquid a little longer. She had not planned on feeding both of them. But that was before she discovered her cargo was a Human child and he had been denied nourishment.
If he is too sick or dead, they may not pay me.
To her surprise, he waved away the offer of more food. She looked at him quizzically. Did he notice there was not enough for the both of them?
No, Humans did not possess intelligent thought.
She chewed off a bite but found she could not eat in front of him and put the rest away.
They could not stay in the cave. The only resolution was to find a way to the prison, deliver the Human, receive her purse, repair the ship and get off this frozen terror. In other words: a miracle.
How old is he? Why is here? She focused back to reality. He is merchandise, nothing more.
“If you do not have a plan, start moving and one will appear,” she said out loud, forcing herself to believe the words. “Nothing good happens if you remain stationary.” The boy mirrored her actions and helped her bundle up their few belongings. They began their trek along the rim.
Is this a fool’s folly, hiking down the mountain and across an ice lake? She asked herself but did not cease her stride.
After a few miles of navigating the rough terrain, the child stopped and aimed down the mountain. She ignored him. He seized her arm and motioned again. Tops of carefully arranged stones peaked through the snow defining a path. The trail looped between trees and boulders. She paused, but only for a moment as they moved downwards. She trailed him gingerly, his tiny feet secure while hers slid. He directed them to the scattered trees, and she understood: he wanted her to hold the branches alternatively to steady herself. They walked at a good clip; the child did not ask once to stop. Although it was still early, she worried about nightfall and whether they would still be alive by morning.
It became warmer as they traveled down the mountain, but if they did not continue to move, the cold would saturate their coverings. Even at their quick pace, the darkness shadowed their descent. It would be hours before they arrived at the lake.
“I hate the cold,” she said.
The child pointed to the grove of trees bordering the path. He motioned for her to follow him.
“I trust you,” she said. “You can eliminate without my assistance. I can see you from here.” He grabbed her arm and pulled her into the trees. He motioned to a blade strapped to her leg.
He felt it in the cave.
He removed his mittens and thumped on a sizeable tree trunk. Using his fingers, he exaggerated an outline for a long, thin piece on the bark.
“You lived in the cold,” she stated, studying the boy. His eyes did not contain the dishonesty she could read in beings who fooled the universe with their assumed intelligence. She felt a sense of trustworthiness in this Human. Then again, all beings could successfully mask true intent if their life depended on it.
Am I hallucinating from the lack of nutrients? What do I have to lose? I am probably dead anyway.
The Captain unsheathed the blade and extended it almost to the size of a sword. The spread of his hands told her he needed half its size to manipulate the wood. She shortened the blade, mimicked his pattern, and traced three pieces: two large and one smaller, but wider. He motioned to her backpack and she permitted him to scrounge through it. He pulled out ties for the supplies used if the kit was ripped. He touched the blade, turning his palm over. She hesitated. If she gave him the modified dagger, he would have a weapon and could use it to harm her. The retractable blade gave her a tactical advantage in any altercation. That made her smile as she felt the other ammunition beneath her coverings. Besides, she always carried double.
She wasn’t sure if he would be able to grip the heavy metal, but he didn’t flinch when she slapped it into his hand, a little harder than she should have.
He examined the blade and slid the edge down the side of a tree, manipulating the scalpel, balancing it on his wrist. The tree appeared substantial, but she wondered if it would fall on them, as he expertly scooped sections from the trunk. The child influenced the precision and sharpness of the weapon, forcing the tree to his bidding.
Satisfied, he methodically stripped the pieces of wood of their bark, He ignored her constant pointing to the darkening sky.
“Kid, we are running out of warmth.”
His hands flew lengthways, following the curves of the wood. She showed him the laser pulse so he could add heat to the knife.
He gestured to her boots. She didn’t understand. What was he making? The way the boy handled the weapon deserved her newfound respect.
His miniscule brain capacity’s ability is to sculpt objects. This must be his sole gift. Some creatures can fly in atmospheres utilizing only their winged appendages.
She thought he might have smiled. Did Humans smile?
In moments, he had crafted flat, thin boards, elongated and smooth. He handed her blade to her and he motioned to a boulder near the path.
Is the kid crazy? Is this a Human trick? Why am I tolerating his ploys to detain us? We cannot afford distractions.
The Captain knew death was breathing down their necks. Yet, her gut told her to pay attention. She was learning something new. She sat on the boulder, and he twisted the supply ties around her boots and the wooden extensions. He handed her two sturdy sticks he had stripped from branches and lightly planted them in the ground, exhibiting to her that they were for stability. He strapped both of his feet onto the wider wood slat. He expertly maneuvered behind her and pushed.
She stumbled twice and cussed at the boy. He blocked her before she could take the devices off of her feet. He signed for her to stand up and he pushed again. The Human could have grown two heads and she could not have been more astounded. She soared down the mountain, the motion and her body merged together. She realized she probably should be scared, instead she felt exhilarated. The child matched her rhythm, staying close behind her.
She veered around renegade rocks and trees but remained upright. The bruises and scrapes from the crash and the ledge evaporated as the spirals came closer.
This would be a lot faster and probably fun without my appendages constrained.
They arrived at the edge of lake, the darkness advancing behind them. She paused to withdraw the liquid and substance. Again, he refused to drink or eat. This time she would not allow him to rebuke her. She crossed her arms in defiance, signing she would not eat unless he did. He finally agreed and took a miniscule portion. He passed on the liquid and stuffed a handful of snow in his mouth.
She stepped onto the barren lake and promptly fell, the wood-slippers preventing an uncomfortable landing. The prison spirals seemed so close, yet her calculations did not lie. No doubt the crude downhill transport minimized the distance between them, but they still would not arrive before the faint light disappeared altogether. It had begun to snow. She shivered.
Their only hope, and it was slight, would be to hike back up the mountain to find shelter. The boy stood stoic, not bothering to shake the flakes from his hair. The cold did not seem to bother him.
The child crooked his head and pointed to the slight slope downward towards the fortress. His eyes studied the base of the mountain’s landscape and he led her to a huge, wide tree. He did not ask for the knife, instead guided her to carve an oversized, oval piece, much thicker than for the feet extensions. She did not think twice. His options had already proven better than the alternative.
The blade balked at the thickness the child demanded, but the technology adjusted to her prodding and cut through the rigid wood.
He accepts his limited strength. She tried not to feel impressed. Intelligent beings would have at least tried to cut through the bulk. Or, did he comprehend they were out of time?
The boy held his hand out for the knife. She handed it to him and he clumsily scooped out the interior and muck, smoothing the bark, but stopped, eyeing the encroaching darkness. The rough interior would have to suffice. He tried to raise the huge oval platter over his head, but the Captain took it from him and obeyed his instructions and carried it to the ice. He motioned for her to take off the wooden planks and to sit down.
These Humans are funny creatures. Did the child decide he wanted one last moment of play?
“You cannot push me, if that is what you are attempting, I am much too heavy.”
He pointed to the oval and insisted.
“Okay, I could use a good laugh before we both expire.”
He ran behind her and rammed into her. She hardly moved. He slammed into her again and the oversized saucer slid a couple of feet. She scrambled out and looked at it and then at him.
Is this a type of primitive ice carriage?
The laws of physics were on her side. She signaled for him to climb in. She dug her boots into the ice, which crackled under her weight. She felt every bruise and every cut from the crash and her foolishness on the ledge. She used the carriage to steady herself and began to push and run. The boy clenched the splintered sides. Blood oozed between his mittened fingers.
She jumped in behind him and they flew across the ice towards the intimidating spirals. The darkening sky and the intensifying cold chased after them.
The prison came into view. Her equation of the ice versus motion did not include a way to stop the makeshift saucer. She let go of her grip and grabbed the boy and they tumbled onto the lake before the carriage skidded into the prison.
She dusted the snow and ice off the boy and checked for any injuries. The exhilaration of the saucer ride cleared her mind. They had made it and she had the Human to thank. She eased herself to her full height and stood tall alongside the boy.
How do we enter the prison? Do they not see us?
“We will either be welcomed or terminated,” she said. No guards greeted them. They waited, not sure for what. The penitentiary stood silent as the snow turned into heavy swirls.
The occasional moan of the ice, and the now far sounds of the mountain trees breaking the wind, compounded her concern that they would freeze to death. She unconsciously circled her arms around the boy and brought him closer to her.
What in the universe would a prison want with a Human male child? A pet? A slave? Or something more unthinkable?
She cleared her throat and a wall opened. They both walked through, and a door closed behind them.
“Welcome Captain Kandley,” a monotone voice vibrated off the walls. “We are thrilled you lived through the unfortunate landing.”