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There are few things colder than the blackness of space. But lying here, I couldn’t imagine anything colder than the Human heart that left me half-conscious at the entrance to Docking Bay 12.
I knew where I was. I was on a space station called the Yertina Feray, sixteen light years from Earth, orbiting a depleted, lifeless planet. I knew where I was supposed to be, on the Children of Earth colony ship, heading for the planet Beta Granade. And I knew what Brother Blue was thinking, that my body was no longer his problem.
Again I felt his boot come toward me, determined to kick my life away. I braced myself for the blow and then played dead. He kicked me one last time, and satisfied that I was truly gone, he pulled me beside the cargo canisters of grain that had been loaded off our ship, the Prairie Rose.
My nose mask had been ripped off, and the station’s base atmosphere mix wasn’t going to keep me conscious for much longer. I cracked open one of my swollen eyes as much as I dared. I wanted to get a good look at him as he stood there above me, taking a moment to compose himself.
I had gone from being one of his favorite colonists, with prospects for a good future with the Children of Earth, to persona non grata in a matter of days. I never knew a fall could be so quick.
Brother Blue had taken a special interest in me when he discovered that I could speak a passable Universal Galactic. I had always been good at languages. But Brother Blue discouraged colonists from learning Universal Galactic or getting the nanites to make communication and breathing easier.
“We are setting up Human-only colonies,” he had said. “You won’t be interacting with others. Our mission is to preserve Human ways.” He discouraged us all from knowing too much about the galaxy and other cultures. Earth was isolationist, and our colonies would follow suit. We would bring Human culture to the stars and trade with aliens and be richer for it, but we would keep to ourselves. This was Brother Blue’s promise.
Brother Blue spent hours telling me his dreams for colonization, flattering me with musings of how high I could rise in the ranks of Children of Earth.
“I’m grooming you, Tula Bane,” he said. “You are exactly the kind of person that the Children of Earth needs to help in its cause.”
He had this way of making me feel as though I was the only colonist that ever counted. His look was penetrating, and when he spoke of his vision for Humanity, I was ready to sacrifice anything to help him achieve it. I wasn’t the only one that felt this way. All of the colonists of the Children of Earth felt as though they had been specially chosen by Brother Blue. It was an honor. Even though I had only reluctantly joined because of my mother’s devotion to his cause, I soon felt at one with the group.
When we were diverted to the Yertina Feray due to a ship malfunction, I became even more essential to Brother Blue. He put me to work delivering messages to various aliens that he had to deal with to ensure our ship’s repair. I was one of the few colonists who ventured out of the docking bay where we had set up camp. I felt special each time I stepped onto another level of the station.
I imagined my future. It looked so bright. I could be important, perhaps a leader, on our new colony. I imagined rising through the ranks of the Children of Earth. I ran through the colors that I might choose as my name when I had proved my worth. Sister Grey. Sister Lilac. Sister Teal. Sister Gold.
But then something changed.
I had often been sent to Kitsch Rutsok’s bar to deliver messages back and forth between Brother Blue and representatives from the League of Worlds; they held the reins to our colony’s future. But in the last few days, Brother Blue had gone himself and I wasn’t needed.
And today, the day we were to leave the Yertina Feray Space Station, I saw our cargo—cargo that should have been on the ship—sitting on the docking bay floor. This was a terrible oversight. It would be disastrous for our colony if we didn’t have the grain we needed to start our new life. The grain was the beginning of how we would tame Beta Granade. Life would already be hard there; and without the cargo, sustaining life would be nearly impossible.
Why were the other colonists not concerned that the grain that we were to plant with was being left behind? Why did no one else notice? I asked my mother, who shrugged.
“Brother Blue knows what he’s doing,” she said.
My mother used to always argue with my father when he was alive, question him all the time, but she never did with Brother Blue. He was always right in her eyes.
I pointed the grain out to a few others, who seemed unperturbed by the cargo on the deck.
It was as though no one wanted to see it. But it bothered me. It made no sense.
“Sir,” I said to one of the ship’s officers milling about on deck. “Why is that cargo still out here and not on the ship?”
The young officer turned to look at the cargo and then called over to another officer who shook her head. But at least they agreed with me that it seemed strange.
Brother Blue was called over, and he listened to our concerns with an attentive look. When he’d soothed the officer’s worry, he took me over to a private corner.
He had his hand on my shoulder in a way that he had a million times before. Only before it was comforting, encouraging, affectionate. Now it was menacing. He was looking at me and his face was smiling. To anyone looking from afar, he seemed to be pleased with me, but it was just a mask. His attitude shifted from concerned leader to unknowable monster.
“What place do you have to question my orders?” he hissed.
Suddenly I was unsure of myself and of what I knew. Although this was my first and likely only trip into space, I already knew that things could very easily go wrong.
Surely he didn’t need me to explain the importance of that cargo to him. I would have thought that he would be happy that I’d noticed. I felt confused by his reaction. Was I wrong?
No. I couldn’t be. We were going to be settling a planet. While there were indigenous plants, it could take years before we cataloged what could or couldn’t be consumed by Humans. The Children of Earth had a calling: to make a Human oasis among the stars. Our plans for colonization came at a high price, because once we left Earth, we were exiled for good. Earth Gov had a different priority: to rebuild from years of drought and plague. But we of the Children of Earth were certain that in the long run we were doing our best for the future of Humanity, just as those who’d left before in the generational ships had. We needed the grain and the seeds to ensure that future.
“We’ll need that grain,” I said. “We colonists will need those supplies.”
“Tula Bane,” he said. “You really are very smart. It’s a pity that you don’t listen to me.”
“But I do listen to you,” I said. “I am trying to be helpful. Brother Blue, I’m just trying to learn.”
He considered me thoughtfully. His grip on my shoulder was no longer threatening. It was a pat of confidence, just like he used to give me when I had done something right. Relief flooded me. His smile changed to something more genuine. “Child, I hear you. I see you. But do not concern yourself in affairs that you know nothing about,” Brother Blue said. “Learn to unlearn.”
“Yes, Brother Blue,” I said, bowing my head in respect. He had a vision, and he had knowledge that I did not. We all trusted that he knew what was best for us.
“Have I not already helped four Human colonies settle the rocky planets that the League of Worlds has so graciously leased us? Beta Granade will be the fifth,” he said. “I know what I’m doing, Tula Bane.”
“Of course, Brother Blue,” I said. “I didn’t mean to question your orders.”
“I can see that you didn’t,” he said. “You were being enthusiastic, but I need you to follow and do what I say.”
“Yes, Brother Blue,” I said.
“I need you to go to the Brahar ship on Docking Bay 5 and make a delivery.”
“But I want to help here,” I said, “with the load in.” The errand would take me away from the preboarding preparations.
“Do as I ask, Tula,” Brother Blue said, and then he flashed that smile. The one that made you feel as though you were the only person in the universe. How could I have ever doubted that Brother Blue knew what he was doing?
“There are plenty of strong bodies to load,” Brother Blue assured me.
I had no choice but to obey his wishes as we set about our final preparations. I took a bag heavy with fresh food, salts, and water from Earth to the docking bay with the Brahar ship and gave the bag to the captain. Its value was great. I tried to ignore the desperate aliens who were begging for work near his ship.
“Tell him that she’s fueled and ready to go,” the Captain said.
I made my way back to join Brother Blue, my family, and the other colonists before reboarding commenced for the final leg of the Prairie Rose’s voyage.
I felt relieved to see the docking bay had been cleared. The error had been corrected; I needn’t have worried after all. I took a look around the hangar. We were nearly ready to go. I delivered the message to Brother Blue who seemed to understand it. He smiled at me and touched my face.
“Tula, for one so young, you’ve been such a help to me on this voyage,” Brother Blue said coming up to me as I stood with my mother and my sister, Bitty.
“Thank you, Brother Blue,” I said, “for the opportunity to be of service.”
“We’re very proud of her,” my mother chimed in.
“Come with me, Tula. I have something for you,” he said. “A gift.”
“A gift?” I said.
“Good work must be rewarded.”
I looked at my mother and sister. They were nervous. My mother did not like space travel although it was she who had decided to move the family off of Earth. Bitty was three years younger than I was and frightened of everything.
“I’d rather stay with my mother and sister,” I said.
“I insist,” he said.
“It’s all right,” Mother said. Her pride was showing as the others took notice of the special attention Brother Blue was giving me. She nudged me forward. The higher I rose, the better it would be for all of us. “We’ll be fine without you for a little while.”
I followed Brother Blue to the hangar’s anteroom and there, stacked in the corner, were the bins of grain.
“They’re still not onboard,” I said.
Surely this time he would explain to me why they were not on the ship.
“You held such promise, Tula. But you have eyes that see in the dark,” Brother Blue said. “It’s such a disappointment that you had to exhibit this independent streak so late in the game. If I’d seen it earlier, I’d never have taken you under my wing.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
But instead of answering, it was then that he punched me in the face.
“Why?” I tried to ask, blood filling my mouth.
He hit me again, and now I was too stunned to scream. He did not stop until I was limp. At some point my air mask was knocked off, and the atmosphere of the space station struck me as though it were another blow.
It was only when he thought that I was dead that he moved away from me, into the hangar where the colonists were gathered, leaving me behind the forgotten cargo bins full of grain that had so concerned me.
I wanted to groan, but my lungs ached. I wanted my mother. But I could not call out. I wanted to promise Brother Blue that I would not question his wisdom or mention the cargo bins ever again. But I knew better than to let on that he had not finished the job.
I strained my ears to listen as he gave a speech to his followers.
“Brothers and sisters of Earth! You are on an incredible journey! I envy you as you set out to your new home. Circumstances have forced a change in my plan. I must deal with the politics and datawork that the League of Worlds requires.”
He explained that he would instead be heading to Bessen, a moon which served as the capital of the League of Worlds, to consult with the Five Major Species and the other Minor Species members about new planets that the Children of Earth were bidding for. He would then go back to Earth. He informed the colonists that he had bought a small ship that would leave immediately after the Prairie Rose left. I listened to more of his speech, but he did not mention rendezvousing with the colonists on Beta Granade at a later date.
That was a significant change in plan.
Brother Blue always went with the colonists all the way to the planet for first landing day. Only when the first season was through and the colony was deemed as thriving would he go back to Earth to handle the coordinating and recruiting of the next batch of colonists.
There was a collective moan of fear from the colonists. Brother Blue had promised he’d be there with us every step of the way. He had so often told us that he was the only one who could protect us on our journey from the perils of space, from aliens, and from the Humans left over from the generational ships, who’d set out for the stars in the past, settled nowhere, and wandered and roamed. They had grown too wild to join the Children of Earth colonies and were not welcome back on Earth.
I wanted to stand up, but I could not move. And if I did, I was afraid he would surely finish me off. Cowardice kept me quiet.
He continued, hushing them like a soothing father.
“I know, I know. It’s disappointing to me as well. But you are the true pioneers! I am envious of your adventure. The first days on a new planet, full of hope and possibility, is my favorite part of the mission to settle the worlds that we aim to call home. I will think of you as the Prairie Rose heads to its new planet. And wish you speed and light as you begin to grow and build and make your new home. Although Earth Gov does not appreciate it yet, you are doing a great thing for Humanity. And when times get tough, as we already see they can by our unscheduled stop here, remember that what you do, your courage, your strength, your perseverance, will always be remembered.”
There was applause. Then I listened as the colonists began to board the Prairie Rose. Brother Blue was likely standing at the entrance to the ship, and I could hear him as he shook hands with every one of the colonists and wished them luck.
Surely my family had noticed by now that I had gone missing. I shifted my body and watched as best I could from behind the crates as my fellow Earthling colonists filed past the anteroom that hid me. They walked in order, as they had been taught. They walked with their heads down, as they had been taught. What I had long suspected was true: We only saw what we were told to see. But now I was seeing something else: Brother Blue was like a magician I’d seen once when I was young, distracting the eye from what he was really doing. I thought back to all of the times that he’d confided in me and realized that they were all tactics to keep me from asking questions. I’d been fooled. The grain had been the last in a long line of things that had bothered me somehow. His words always told a different story, a soothing story, a logical explanation for things that didn’t add up. All along I’d known deep down inside that something was not quite right. But I’d been blinded by my desire for a position in the future with Children of Earth. I had been kept in place by not wanting to rock the boat.
I would not make that mistake again.
Though blurry, I watched as Brother Blue approached my mother and sister and heard him say, “Tula will be traveling with me, Mrs. Bane. She’s too valuable a right hand man for me to give her up now.”
“Yes, Brother Blue,” she said. “We’re so happy for her prospects.”
“She’ll rise very high under my tutelage.”
And there it was. No one would suspect that it could be otherwise. My family would never know or have cause to believe that he would lie.
Brother Blue stayed until the last colonist was onboard. He stayed until the docking door swung and clicked shut with a hiss of air. He waited until the sound of the ship unclamping from the station came. Only then did he walk away. From where I lay, I could see that he did not look disturbed that he had just broken his word to the 167 colonists in his care. He looked relieved.
And then he was gone.
No one would care about a dead body on the docking bay. I’d seen plenty of them. They were robbed and then disposed of by the rabble of aliens who looked for work on the few ships that docked.
But I was not dead yet.
I tried to adjust my weight again to make some of the pain stop, and then dragged myself out of the anteroom to the hangar, as though I could somehow catch up with the ship before it left the station. But it was too late. They were gone. What was I to do now? My eyes caught sight of the Prairie Rose as it sailed by the window in the hangar. It moved so slowly that at first it didn’t seem as though it was leaving at all. It was only when it began to shrink in size against the blackness of space that I was sure that it was leaving me behind. The Prairie Rose sailed on its edge, looking like a thin silver line; when it reached acceleration, it flipped up, ready to slingshot around the nearby depleted planet below and shoot out of the system in a light skip.
It was a sight to see.
The ship had five shiny points, its metal glinting in the glare of the weak sun. It looked like a tin star, the kind I had seen in history books, the kind that officers of the law wore. I managed to lift my hand, as though to touch the ship, before it vanished from sight.
Then, the ship was gone, and so was my family.
They had all left me here, on the floor of the Yertina Feray space station.
That knowledge—that I was utterly alone—felt sharper than the beating. It made the pain in my body intolerable.
Everything—the hangar, the window, and the ship’s fading streak of silver—went black.
Copyright © 2014 by Cecil Castellucci