“Get up.” His voice snaps like a wet towel. He purses his lips as he chews, like he’s taunting me, before turning around and thudding down the stairs in his work boots to the kitchen. I smell Ma making bacon, the dry, boxed kind that breaks into hard flakes in your mouth.
Next to me, my younger sister, Tama, sits up. “I hope he’s going to be all right today.”
“He’ll be fine, so long as we pull in a good harvest.” I look out the sun-filtered window and rub the night’s crust from my eyes. “I heard Ma grumble the Earthers’ll be collecting earlier than usual. Don’t know exactly when though.”
“They’re making sure we follow the rules,” Tama says. Her black hair sticks to one side of her cheek, she peels away all the strays that ended up in her mouth during the night. “I’ll use the bathroom first.” She yawns. “You gonna wash yourself today? Or are you still on that shower strike?”
I sniff my armpits. They look clean, light blonde hair grows out of them like dry summer grass. The comforter smells a bit, but I can’t say if it’s from being stored in the closet most of the year or if I’m the reason why Tama always makes gagging noises before bed. Passive aggressiveness is the sharpest tool in her box, ever since she sold me out to Dad.
“Shampoo is just another way Earthers try to control you,” I tell her. “Human hair doesn’t actually need washing every day.”
Tama rolls her eyes. Sometimes she gets lavender-scented products in the monthly drops.
“Whatever.” She heads for the bathroom. “If Dad loses his shit, my hair won’t smell like blood.”
Water moves through the pipes. It’s a coarse metallic popping sound, like tiny men with rifles are gunning for clay pigeons. Ma once told me that’s something Earth folk did for fun. I wonder if they think about what we do for fun as I touch the back of my head—the gash is only throbbing mildly today. But it’s itchy. At least the discomfort doesn’t feel like emptiness, like the space in the bed next to me. I shimmy across to Tama’s side to curl in the residual warmth. The sheets smell floral; they smell like her.
That’s when I see the drawer of her night-table is open a fraction.
Surreptitiously, I slide the rest of the drawer out.
Inside is an UP Bar, still wrapped in its green packaging. I know Dad’s been giving them to her earlier than he’s supposed to, but the sight of it makes my throat burn with the kind of anger words melt into.
The water pressure eases off. I hear Tama humming as she brushes her teeth. Before she finishes in the bathroom, a towel muffled around her hair, I spit in my hand and wipe it on the underside of her pillow.
Then I make the bed.
Harvesting requires gentle scraping with a thin, subtle knife. If you’re good at it, you can finish off a leaf in under five-seconds; a juvenile plant should take less than ten minutes. We vacuum up the glassy purple flakes into a fire-proof container, which we seal, label, and then store in the shed next to the garage, until the next pick-up.
I held the family record for harvesting. Dad taught me how to be quick, the process is like shaving, something he stopped doing long ago. When he first taught Tama and me how to scrape the leaves, his face was smooth and you could see the squareness of his jaw, the angular cuts of his cheekbones. Dad had been lean as a whippet back then. Now he’s even thinner, since he stopped eating anything but UP Bars. His eyes have a euphoric glaze during the day, a puncturing spitefulness in the evening.
At present, his face is glassy. He’s three UP Bars into the day, and he smiles at Tama, who whizzes her harvest knife across a matured plant—they usually take a good twenty minutes to shave, since their leaves are so much broader and numerous. Last I heard Dad’s fawning praise across the field, she was down to fourteen minutes, which used to be my record.
And he used to smile at me like that.
Instead, like a wasp in a bottle, the gash where Dad’s belt sliced my scalp open thrums distractingly, my grip loosens, and my knife sputters across a palm-sized leaf. I bite down on my lip, sheath my blade, and bend over, hands clutching the knobs of my knees.
No one notices me as I wait for the pain to pass. Dad’s on the ladder, scraping and shaving ore off the tall leaves while Tama chatters at him about which of the neighbor’s sons she likes best. Ma’s hauling the full containers to the shed on our little battery-powered truck. That used to be Grandpa Ian’s job, but since he hung himself in the shed Ma’s picked up the slack, in addition to doing all the cooking and cleaning.
I watch as her hat blows away on a waterlogged wind coming in from the east. Mega storms will shoot up seeds and detritus into the atmosphere, sometimes appearing as angry spurts of clouds riding the dense currents. Perhaps more important, the air kicks up a lot of ore dust, and since the lithium analogue’s so toxic, you’ve gotta wear goggles and a bandanna while you scrape leaves. Dad’s got our only respirator, which he lets Tama appropriate on a regular basis (no surprise: he used to offer it to me first if he wasn’t using it).
I need to peel off my goggles every few hours, the elastic band makes my gash ache like it’s being rubbed with a piece of ice, but the sun’s so bright on Aiona that it’s crucial to only take off your eyewear under cover of the forest or wherever there’s shade. Around noon, I walk toward the woods, where Tama and I used to take our midday break.
When I reach the tree line, Dad’s voice hits like a lash against my back. “Kya! Where you off to?”
I reach into the belt pouch on my waist and wave an UP Bar in the air like a white flag. “Lunch!” I shout back.
“You know to wait for Ma!” he barks, and then yells to her across the field. His words sound like loose stones skipping across a pond.
Ma comes eventually, her arms hanging loosely at her sides like blowing sticks in the wind. “Go,” she says, and looks over her shoulder. “Quietly.”
We enter the woods abutting the north side of the farm. The forest floor is a menagerie of tangerine-colored ferns and smooth white logs that look like curved, bleached bones along the path. The tallest trees are only about nine or ten feet and so the logs provide coverage for more shade-happy plants which Ma named skull collard and weeping thistle.
A quarter of a mile in, she stops near the petals of an orange bower and pinches the fleshy fruit growing from the pistil. It’s firm, pale gold, and the rows of seeds inside the fruit are little teardrop shadows. She holds it up as a test.
I take off my goggles, squint, pensively chew my lip. “It cures headaches,” I say.
“That’s lypmallow.” Ma hands me the fruit, shaking her head. “Orange bower is a sleeping agent. Fatal in the right dose. You need to remember things like this, Kya.”
I put it in my belt pouch, on top of my UP Bar, next to my knife. We cross the orange bower patch to a hollowed white log and Ma reaches inside the cavity, pulls out a canvas rucksack with a grey water bottle clipped to the side.
“Town’s about thirty miles,” she points northwest, “that way.” Her voice is so calm as she eases the straps over my shoulders and then tightens them. The rucksack is heavier than I expected, but Ma says that’s because she packed me a blanket and as little bit of food from our monthly drop rations. As much as she can spare.
“I’m not sad you’re going,” she says, straightening the sleeves of my jacket. “I’m just sad I can’t go with you.”
“You could.” I swallow the lump in my throat. She’s never liked crying or seeing others cry. “Dad and Tama would make it on their own.”
“No…” Her mouth becomes a thin line. “No, I don’t think they would.”
“Then just leave them,” I whisper. “They’ve made our lives miserable. Why would you stay?”
She shakes her head. “Sometimes you just have to figure out how to grow where you’ve been planted, Kya. I’ve made my bed. Go find wherever you want to make yours.”
So I walk away, leaving Ma.
She doesn’t say goodbye, and I don’t turn back to see if she waves.
But I think he told Ma when they met on the colony ship coming here, to Aiona. It must’ve been something, or someone, worth fighting for, because she decided to stay with Dad and Grandpa Ian instead of heading to Pontus, the ocean world, where her sister—my Aunt Jo—lives.
Ma’s the one who came up with the plan to get me out. She said if I can get to the edge of town where all the ships take off, she has a friend there who’s agreed to smuggle me into one of the Pontian Free Cities that floats on the ocean. He’s a seed man, a person who collects seeds from local plants and secretly gives them out to farmers for domestication and cultivation.
From my understanding, he’s also the one who gave Ma the seeds for my garden, which she passed onto me with a warning. She said, you need to share this with your sister. But whatever you do, don’t tell her about the seed man.
After twenty minutes, I turn onto the path Tama and I used to secretly walk together when we escaped into the forest for our midday break. Near the flying tassel bush, a bowl-shaped cluster of branches, is where our garden used to be. Half a year earlier, when the plot was full, Tama and I worked together to remove stray stones, and anything that might resemble a weed or something poisonous. We ate together, fruits like pale pink elephant squash or the little translucent bauble fruits we called spirit figs, until it was time to sneak back to work in the ogor fields.
Now, as I pick up a clump of dirt in my hand, I can still smell the chemicals Tama used to kill all the plants after she snitched to Dad about the garden. Ammonia and diquat. The smell makes a sharp, prickling sensation in my nostrils, and a shiver rills through my chest. My fingers are a sieve as the dirt falls back to the ground.
In the corner opposite of the flying tassel bush, I push a stone off a patch of leaves with the side of my boot. Underneath is a hole containing the UP Bars I pretended to eat over the last six months. The foil packages flash blue, green, and orange under a small beam of sunlight. Some of the brown, spongy bars poke out through gnawed corners.
I’m leaving the hole uncovered for Tama, as a monument to how everything went so wrong.
The shift in her behavior happened when I turned sixteen, and Dad started looking at me funny—looking at my face like he was trying to find himself in a mirror. Tama, who was fourteen, started doing the same not long after, whenever we harvested our plot for lunch. She asked why my hair was so blonde. She asked, “How come I don’t look like you?”
Though by far, the most recurring question was: how come Ma had given me the seeds for the garden and not her? I didn’t have an answer to the latter question lined up, since I wasn’t supposed to tell her about the seed man. But even if I had told Tama the truth, it still wasn’t a reason why Ma had favored me and not her. Ma was never transparent about anything, much like Grandpa Ian, and she’d snap at you whenever you asked a question she didn’t want to answer.
As for the former, the only explanation I offered is that I was different, though I didn’t know how that difference came about. In hindsight, I think my unintentional phrasing, misconstrued as self-perceived exceptionalism, was the catalyst for her snitching on me to Dad.
It happened over dinner. “Kya’s been hiding all her UP Bars,” Tama said casually, while cutting up a piece of cured ham. Dad’s eyes widened to the size of glossy marbles (he had seven UP Bars that day, a personal record). “She’s also been growing food in the forest,” Tama added, and then shrugged as she looked at me across the table, as if to say, no harm no foul.
The ache in the back of my head says otherwise.
Wind shoots through the tassel bush, and I shiver as it presses on my wound like a sandy balm. I move on. It’s best not to linger in one place for too long.
Walking consumes the rest of the day. I pass by fields rife with Devil’s Tulip, giant cupped plants that developed a natural luminescent waxiness to reflect the sun’s tyrannical rays. Around evening, I reach the next stretch of forest before town. The moons appear, three white shadows that make a loping line across the mauve sky. Roughly, I’ve trekked eighteen or nineteen miles, and no signs of Dad or Tama angrily blustering through the bushes.
For dinner, I unpack some of the food Ma gave me. It’s all Earth food: packaged synthetic eggs, a bag of chips, and a couple cans of corn. Even this meager array is generous, since most of a colonist’s diet is UP Bars.
I pop open the chips, and saltiness blooms in my mouth. I chew slowly, swallow carefully, anticipating the same euphoria that follows when eating an UP Bar: a fuzzy veil cast over my vision. Sometimes my breath would feel like soft fabric on my tongue. They’re filled with enough sedatives to keep you light-headed and fluffy-eyed for days.
All I get from the chips is an echo in my belly, and a greasy, moreish aftertaste that has my fingertip rooting around in the corners of the bag for the last crumbs of flavour. I save the eggs and corn for later, and for a moment I think almost longingly of the stash of UP Bars I left uncovered for Tama to find, but I prefer the pain of hunger, of emptiness, rather than the lush, fleeting sense of a high, and the distress that follows.
Word around our neighbor’s, the Finnegars, is that their eldest son Cole even sees specters when he’s high. He turned sixteen last year, which is when the Earther’s start sending you UP Bars, so by the time you’re an adult, your head’s used to being in a fog while you work, you’re used to ignoring your hunger. That’s how they get away with sending less ‘real food’ in the monthly drops.
After my sister snitched on me, Ma would chivvy me to the toilet to throw-up once Dad and Tama had gone to the fields. The first time she did it, she put my head over the bowl and jammed two of my fingers in my mouth.
“I’m not going to help you every single time,” she urged. “Hurry Kya—up and out!”
Every day for the next three months was a morning row of gagging, my abdomen repeatedly tightening and unclenching. I kept gasping in between acidic bursts, “I can’t breathe!”
I inhale a long breath and lie down in the nubby grass. In, out, like a bellow. My chest gets hot from the memory, and I look up at the sky.
It’s clear, no Earther ships visible. Not yet. However, supposedly they’ll hang in orbit, just beyond visibility, conducting passive scans to look for agricultural anomalies on Aiona’s surface. Ma says that if people grow local food for subsistence, they grow their own culture, and shared commonalities mean potential resistance to colonial law—
Something shifts, and I sit up.
The sound is close by. It’s either the wallowing of some desperate creature, or it’s my stomach stirring uncomfortably—both equally likely.
Affirmation of the latter comes as I lean onto my side and vomit. The body yearns for habit, for structure. This time at least I don’t have to stick my fingers down my throat.
Most of the ships are skiffs. They have chemical thrusters, only suitable for traveling short distances. A few freighters have larger drive cones and stand like large metal pillars on the launchpads, supported by an intricate gantry network. The only sign that dispenses information is about a half-mile from the launchpads, secured to the roof of a small diner. Rendered in blinking orange lights are launch schedules. Almost all the ships on the various pads are to take off in the next few hours.
There’s nothing to do but wait inside the diner. I take off my bandanna, let my goggles rest around my neck, and dump my rucksack in a booth next to a large window. The server comes by, and I order a cup of hot water infused with lemon powder. Every few minutes, I look out the window and squeeze my hands together. The prospect of getting caught by the Earthers makes my palms sweat. On the chance that a colony fleet or random patrol scans me and sees I have no travel documents, I could end up back home. Or on Hemera.
I’m not sure which destination would be worse.
“You Kya?” a low voice asks. In the window, I jump at a reflection that appears uncannily similar to mine. A tall man, tanned as tea with a ponytail of yellow hair, is standing at the edge of my booth. He’s blind in one eye, milky white where his iris and pupil should be. I don’t answer but shift away. I’ve never seen a man that tall before.
He doesn’t seem to mind. “It’s good you’re cautious, but I’m a friend,” he says. “I’ve known your Ma for a while. I’m Adrian. Can I sit?”
I lean back against the booth and shrug. Adrian drops a pack from his shoulder onto the seat next to me, briefly looks at the menu screen over the counter, and then offers to buy me a coffee.
“Never had coffee,” I say.
“Ah,” Adrian chuckles. “Well, the stuff here isn’t real coffee, but it’s as good as it gets out in these parts.”
I fold my arms over my chest. “So how do you know my Ma?”
“Through your grandfather, on the colony ship coming here to Aiona.” Adrian rests his hands on the table. “Your grandpa was a seed man, but back on Earth, when big agriculture corporations took control of the planet’s food supply. He helped people find ways to grow their own food in secret, just like your Ma tried to help you.”
“Earth is just like here?” I ask mournfully.
Adrian tilts his head to the side. “Maybe worse. I haven’t been there in… a long time.” He scratches the stubble on his face. His eyes are wide and a little watery. When I frown at his sudden emotion he blinks them back like he’s embarrassed by the display.
“Look, Kya, I’m glad you came,” he says.
He looks at me, not in a searching way like Dad; his gaze is one of recognition. The realization washes over me that this man is more to Ma than a friend. He’s more to me than just the seed man.
“You see it now, huh?”
Nodding, I manage to squeak out a “Yes.”
He grins. His teeth are large, one front tooth is slightly chipped, but we have the same lips, and he has dimples like mine. I stare intently at the opalescence of his singular blind eye. It seems like it discerns more about the world than his seeing one.
I clear my throat. “I think I’ll have that coffee.” I don’t know what else to say. Adrian signals the server for two coffees.
I think of asking him about Ma’s life story, and Grandpa Ian’s maybe. But he was always so closed-mouthed—is it wrong to learn things he didn’t choose to say to me himself from some stranger he knew before I was born? I shift, feeling suddenly uncomfortable, and then I feel a pulpy squish in my belt pouch.
“Oh.” I take the orange bower out and place it, flattened, next to my cup of hot water on the table. “Forgot I had this.”
As we wait for the coffee, Adrian pulls out a cloth bundle from the breast pocket of his jacket and unrolls it across the table. There are several compartments with little glass vials and pairs of tweezers inserted into them.
“Your Ma believed in choosing a path and sticking to it, for better or worse,” Adrian murmurs as he dissects the orange bower. He picks up every seed with the tweezers and drops them, one by one, into a vial thinner than the width of his thumb. “I loved that about her. But it’s the nature of seeds to migrate, just like people trying to find better pasture. I’ll teach you about the seed network, if you want, when we get to Pontus.”
“I’d like that,” I reply. We sit in silence, watching each other as the server places two steaming cups of coffee in front of us. I take a sip and wrinkle my nose.
Adrian smiles. “It’s not for everyone.”
As I go for a second taste, the shipyard horn goes off. Adrian snaps his attention to the window. The ghostly outlines of Earther mining ships have appeared in the sky, and the dropships are beginning their descent into the atmosphere.
“Looks like it’s time to go.” He downs his steaming coffee, hastily pays the server, and then tucks the vial of seeds in his jacket. He stuffs the bundle back in his pack and throws over his shoulder as he glances anxiously out the window.
“Hopefully it’s just a typical drop,” he says, and tosses me my rucksack.
But nothing is ever typical with the Earthers. If I know it, he must know it too.
“Shit.” Adrian suddenly puts his hand on my shoulder. “Stay calm,” he mutters. “But there’s Earther Eyes at your eight o’clock.” He keeps his other hand discretely near a holster I only now notice, high on his right hip. “Just look straight ahead, and don’t stop walking.”
I always thought “Earther Eyes” was just something we called them. The guards that watch the colonists wear long jackets with a patch that has a tiny blue dot in the center, and shiny black helmets that are panoptic cameras. Ma warned me once, it’s impossible to sneak around them, and you should never try. They’re trained to breathe as little as possible, so when they move as swiftly as they do they look inhuman, god-like, to make you believe there’s no hope in resisting them.
Adrian’s grip on my shoulder tenses. “Almost there,” he says under his breath. “Hang on—” But his grip suddenly loosens.
Air rushes past my ear as he pushes me behind him.
A bullet hits the launchpad behind us—the new colonists scatter at the sound of shooting, but the Eyes don’t chase after them. They focus on us, advancing as we shuffle away. Adrian pulls his gun from its holster and shoots back, to little effect: one of his bullets pierces the tail of an Eyes’ jacket. They separate and hide behind the pillars of nearby launchpads, firing at consistent intervals until Adrian’s gun clicks that he’s out of ammo.
“Get on the ship!” he commands. He tosses me a small chain with a bead on it as I run for the stairs. “Lock yourself inside if I’m not behind you!”
Shots ricochet against the metal facing of the launchpad as I climb the stairs, my rucksack jostling against my back. When I’m at the top, I look down and catch a glimpse of Adrian. His hands are in the air, offering surrender. One of the Eyes has a pulsar rifle aimed at his head and walks around to zip-tie Adrian’s hands behind his back.
The other Eye is coming for me.
I scramble: the first airlock door opens automatically, but the next set leading onto the bridge are locked. I’ve never used a bead chain key, so I just press it hard against the door’s lock, a square of metal with a set of small lights in the left-hand corner—it concurrently chimes and they flash red as I slap the bead against the lock twice, three times.
Behind me, the Eye’s quick, dull footsteps on the stairs grow louder.
I press the bead more softly against the lock, and it rewards me by turning green. The pressure door slides open and I rush inside as the Eye turns the corner, force myself to only touch the bead against the lock, holding my breath until the door slides shut again.
Red. I crouch down, exhaling. The floor beneath me is grated, covering up all kinds of wires and conduits, and a series of blinking lights that leads to a blocky grey wedge in the floor. It’s covered in rows of red-lettered words and all kinds of gauges with digital readouts flashing random numbers.
Adrian’s ship is small. The canteen in the corner has a bag of lyophilized blood in the fridge and rows of tiny vials, full of seeds, but no food and minimal water. On the port side, there’s a bunk bed. The pilot’s seat and crash couches are spaced less than five feet apart. That’s it, not even a toilet that I can see.
I drop into the pilot’s seat. Beneath my feet is a loose panel I remove in the hopes of finding an escape hatch, but it’s just more skeins of electrical wiring. There are some basic instructions for heating up the core at the helm, and camera feeds show the outside on a three-screen array. I find the spot where Adrian had put down his gun in surrender…
He’s gone. The Eye that had him isn’t anywhere in sight either.
Tears well in my eyes before I can blink them back. Snot salts the inside of my nose as I grip my sides and cry, big, heaving sobs—and then I give a little scream as gunfire erupts right outside the airlock door. One of the monitors shows the other Eye dropping his aim from the bead lock, then I see him smash the stock of his rifle into the metal plate and hear the muted thud of it, just a few metres behind me.
I think about how much I simultaneously hate Tama for what she’s done and miss her too, all at the same time. I hate Ma for not telling me about Adrian and regret not saying a better goodbye. Despite everything that’s been said and done, a part of me feels that you can never truly say goodbye to where you’re from. I’ll always be Kya, the ogor harvester.
I droop forward in the pilot’s seat… and something beeps.
“Adrian,” a sonorous voice on the screen says, “if you get the chance—”
“Fuck!” I push back and slam into the pads of the seat. The man on the screen freezes and my eyes widen, taking in the portrait of Grandpa Ian… though his hair is less salty and sparse, his eyes a little bit brighter and deep, loamy brown, like Dad’s.
I look down. When my hand clenched on the armrest, it landed on top of a touchscreen. I lift my fingers away and the screen blinks, starting from the beginning.
“Adrian, if you get a chance, try to persuade Aphelion—” I hit the touchscreen again. “Aphelion,” I repeat. That’s Ma’s name. I let go and the video resumes. “—to get to Pontus. I know now that my son was responsible for ousting you to the Earthers when you were imprisoned on the colony ship. His personality, his temperament is all my fault, but there’s no hope in reversing it now.
“If you manage to get to Aiona, tell Aph that the place you’re born isn’t necessarily the place you belong. I’ve tried convincing her to let Kya go, but you might be the only one who can get through to her now. The Earthers’ll be coming for me any day, unless I do something about that, so don’t send any tight beams here, Adrian. Just get your daughter to a Free City.”
The video freezes on a still of Grandpa Ian’s face. His mouth is slightly open. His lips are dry, cracked, just as I remember. They’re like Tama and Dad’s, dried out from the heat of the ogor fields.
Unless I do something about that—like hang yourself in the shed? To remove any reason for the Earthers to come looking for you again?
There are so many memories that I want to re-process with this new found piece of information, a key to why my life has been the way that it has.
But there’s no time.
Outside, another round of pulsar shots hits the airlock door, a weapon designed to overload system circuitry and neural synapses equally well. The lock won’t hold up forever, I can’t fly this ship to safety, and if they’re shooting now they figure me for a seed man too. The best I can hope for is a terminal shock reaction—rather that than a short, oblivious life spent labouring on some Earther penal farm in a slave-cowl.
I wipe my eyes, my nose, and unsheathe my harvest knife.
When the bullets stop, I run, knife poised to strike as the Eye reloads. With a serpentine sweep, I stab upward, just underneath the rim of the helmet. I thrust and twist, the tip of my knife collides with his jaw, and I hear the guttural crunch of bone. The Eye stumbles, a gurgling sound emits from the helmet, and he topples forward, flopping like a beached fished into my arms.
I stagger, hold his body in a haphazard hug, realizing that he’s just a man, like any other.
And I’ve killed him.
I don’t even notice the sound of boots coming up that stairs until I hear Adrian’s voice above me. “Drop him, Kya,” he says. He has his little pistol in his hand again, aimed at the Eye.
“He’s dead,” I say, though I do as he commands. The Eye’s helmet slams against the metal with a reverberating thud, and I scuttle a few paces back.
Adrian shakes his head. “They all have body mods. Don’t die as easily as you think… so, you’ve got to be sure.” Then he shoots the Eye through the chest, and I flinch.
“You did good,” he wheezes. There’s a crescent moon of a bruise around his blind eye, and he’s clutching his abdomen with his other hand. A nasty red stain leeches through his shirt. “Let’s go. God knows there’ll be more coming.”
He shucks the pulsar rifle over the side of the launchpad and lumbers inside. From out on the gantry I watch as he heaves himself into the pilot’s seat and begins punching in codes on the various screens. His eyes briefly flick to Grandpa Ian’s message and he closes the window. He turns around, sees I haven’t moved, and says gruffly, “Kya, hurry up and strap in. We’re going to do this quick and dirty.”
“But, your wound… if we take off—”
“It’ll be fine,” he replies, and then pauses like he’s caught himself in a lie. “It’ll be what it’ll be. Strap in.”
He rapidly goes over the pre-flight checklist, and I notice I’m still holding my knife. The Eye’s blood drips from it. My hand shakes, and I’m about to throw it over the railing after the rifle, but instead I crouch and wipe it clean on the dead man’s jacket and resheathe it, then follow Adrian inside and close the outer door. I lie down on a crash couch and pull the brace straps over my head. Thinking later, doing now.
All sorts of codes and lights twinkle from the screens, and Adrian grabs a stick with a see-through plastic hand grip. He pushes a series of buttons and nudges the throttle forward. “Try not to pass out.”
The minute the core flares, I’m pushed back into the pads of my seat. Flattened is more like it. My knuckles turn bone white as I grip the armrest and try not to swallow my tongue. There’s no sharp pain, just an incredible ache that comes with the weight of the ship’s upward propulsion. The thrum of the core and the ominous creaks of the ship’s steel struts and ceramic heat tiles makes my heart palpitate.
From the corner of my eye, I see Adrian struggling to stay awake.
Eventually, the booster cuts out and the effects of microgravity manifest—in particular, small droplets of blood begin to form and drift out of his wound as we ascend higher above the atmosphere. The computer beeps a readout that it’s outside Aiona’s gravity well, and we switch to battery power. I hoist myself out of my seat and immediately drift on my momentum—this is what swimming in an ocean must be like.
First things first, I push towards Adrian and examine his wound. The light from the screen gives his face an odd greenish cast, and he groans as I ease him out of his jacket and then peel back his shirt. There isn’t much to discern with the globules of blood obscuring the hole. I prop him up so he’s perpendicular to the floor and luckily see an exit wound on his other side.
“There’s a pack of lyophilized blood in the canteen,” he says. “Get it.”
I’m able to tell I’m holding it the right way up because of the writing, but we’re also in zero-g. “You need to help me. I don’t know what to do.”
“Not much to do. It’s a gut wound. Likely internal bleeding.” Adrian groans again. “You can bandage it up, and set up the transfusion pump. Was there morphine in there?”
“I didn’t see any.”
“Damn,” he says. “I’ve had trouble getting supplies for the last few months. Earther’s are always on my tail…”
“It hurts a lot?” I ask, and feel hugely foolish.
“It’ll be fine,” he says, though I sense he doesn’t believe that either. He’s already turning chalky. “If we want to stay off colonial radars it’s a seventy-two hour journey using just maneuvering thrusters. We’ll run out of blood at the rate I’m dripping. Killing the pain would be good, but morphine would slow me down too, and that would be better.”
I look around—there’s mine, but… “Where’s your backpack?”
“Eyes got it.” He shifts in his seat and jerks at a sudden grope of pain. “Why?”
I slump, if you can do that without a down to slump into. “The orange bower seeds. Ma said they could put someone under. I figured, maybe…”
“My jacket.” He flaps a hand over one shoulder. “Vial. Inside pocket.”
I remember: only the bundle with the tweezers went into his pack. His jacket is floating towards the airlock, I kick off my crash couch and intercept it, and then bang into the door myself—moving is so weird, speed is hard to judge, and what with no gravity and the high stink of Adrian’s blood filling the little cabin I feel more than a little like puking.
“The orange bower is… good idea,” Adrian says. He sounds a bit slurry. “No pain in sleep. Might slow down my heart rate. Help control the symptoms until we get to Pontus.”
I send myself back to his side more carefully and pull the vial out of his jacket. Then I scowl, recalling Ma’s warning. “She said it could be fatal.”
He smiles, weakly but fiendishly. “Better to hover over death than sink right into it.”
“You want to risk it?” I think I know what I would do, but this is Adrian’s decision to make. It’s the kind of freedom I’ve been waiting to experience, and if I were in his position, I wouldn’t want anyone to interfere.
“One seed,” he breathes.
I drag the stopper out of the vial with my nails and shake a seed into the air. It drifts over his face, right above his lips, and he sucks it in then leans back, cracking it between his teeth.
“Nice work, Doc,” he says. “You’re part of the seed network now.”
“Hah,” I say, but he fixes me with his gaze.
“No joke, Kya. You’re one of us. You’re resistance.”
When I stow the nozzle everything still smells of copper, and puking remains an option. I turn from the canteen to find Adrian carefully maneuvering himself into my crash couch. He gestures to the vacated pilot’s seat. “You have the con, captain,” he says.
“I’m…” I pause. I don’t want to tell Adrian that I’m afraid. I am, but I say instead, “I don’t know how to pilot the ship.”
He nods wearily. “I’ve set up the autopilot. And your Aunt Jo will be waiting for you at the docks.” He reaches for my hand and grips it tightly, and his gaze focuses a little more as well. “It’ll be all right Kya. You’re strong. Stronger than I would’ve ever imagined. And I’m so proud of you.”
My chest tightens; he didn’t say us. He didn’t say Aunt Jo will be waiting for us at the docks. But I smile, and nod, and he relaxes back, closing his eyes as I strap him in.
Once Adrian begins to drift off into a peaceful-looking sleep, I notice how quiet the ship is; the air scrubbers are the only soft, fuzzy noise. To pass the time, I read the ship’s operations manual and occasionally look out the tiny window above the canteen to watch cones of white super-heated steam shooting out the sides, pushing us toward Pontus.
I pick up and examine all the different seed vials in the canteen until sharp waves of hunger wash over me. I try to sleep, which passes a few hours. But when I wake up, I’m hungrier than before. All the food in my rucksack is gone… except for the UP Bar in my belt pouch.
I open the shiny packaging and then let it go, watching it float and rotate in front of my face. I’m resistance, Adrian said. Even though I escaped from Aiona, from Dad, and from the Earthers, the UP Bar taunts me with the awareness that resistance will be an everyday battle.
Direct threats might dissipate over time, but power comes from the structures that facilitate control. As my stomach begins to twist into byzantine knots, I watch the UP Bar with a new kind of intensity.
The real struggle lies in not cracking, never giving a single inch.
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