Run Drift, Run Dark
We dont have enough bodies to fly.
Well find some sir.
We have to get off this rock tomorrow at the latest. God damn, I hate the Moon. Nothing but drifters and grease girls and other trash.
Calm yourself, Captain. Ill check the arrival port again. Im sure we can find someone who needs passage.
We need more than one if were not going lose our pants on the jump to Ctesiphon.
I know. She started walking away.
Hey, make sure they have money this time. Were not giving handouts with my boat.
She waved him away and continued. Captain Jonas ashed his cigarette against the hull of his ship. Knocked twice on the metal hull and walked inside.
Dad, I dont like it here. It smells funny.
I know darling, but were not staying here for long. This is just a resting place. Well leave soon.
Two days on a freight Junker was the best he could do. Anything better and he wouldnt have had enough money to go anywhere else, not even the giant mine called Mars. He was holding his daughters hand as he pushed the cart that held all their worldly belongings through the busy lunar spaceport.
The weirdest kinds of people hed ever seen were congregating in this seeming lonely terminal. Sure, Earth had its diversity but this port had people that were out of proportion. Some were extremely short and stocky. Some were outrageously tall, like basketball players who were also extremely thin. He saw fashions from other planets that perplexed him. There were men and women in layers and layers of dense dull fabric and others that would be kicked out of most public buildings for violating decency laws. There were strange animals too. One woman, extremely underdressed for the cold port, had some sort of furry snake wrapped around her neck and shoulders. As they passed it lifted its head up and looked at them with curious silver eyes.
Mia must be freaking out, he thought.
Oh cool! She tugged on his hand and pointed at the woman with the furry snake. Dad! Dad! Did you see that? I thought it was a scarf. But it moved. Dad, it looked at me!
I saw. Pretty strange, huh?
Strange? Heck, no. Dad, when we get to our new home can I have one?
Well see. He smiled. When I was her age, all the girls wanted a pet rabbit or a pony. Now they want strange fuzzy snakes from the planet God-knows-where. Guess shes taking this in stride.
His plan stopped at this spaceport. He had no idea where they would sleep or eat tonight. When they reached the end of the terminal he stopped and looked around. There was a small kiosk serving fried food, the smell of which revolted him. He looked around for viable alternatives.
He turned to meet one of the tallest women he had ever seen. She looked unbelievably thin, with almost no definition in her torso, and only a hint of a bosom. She was smiling.
No, not at all. He mumbled. Cmon Mia lets keep moving.
Sir, if I may have just one moment of your time. Just one question?
He turned to her. Mia cowered behind him looking almost straight up at the woman.
Are you and your child looking for passage to any of the out-planets?
Why, are you offering?
Actually, sir, I am. My name is Shale. She extended a long slender hand towards him. He shook it.
Mine is Coal. This is my daughter Mia.
Hello Mia, it is so very nice to meet you. Her voice was pleasant, almost musical. She leaned over and extended her hand again.
Hi. Mia took the hand and slowly came out from behind her father. After a moments hesitation Mia asked, Are you an alien?
Coal winced at his daughters candid question. Shale seemed unbothered.
No, Mia. Im not. Im human just like you.
Then why are you so tall and thin?
Well, because my family spent a lot of time in space. They didnt like to live on planets or moons.
Why didnt they like planets?
Thats enough questions. Shale here is going to help us get to our new home.
He started pushing the cart again, walking next to Shale who led them through the alien environment of an interplanetary spaceport.
Whats with all the odd people in this place? He finally asked, nodding towards a short pale man with an impossibly long red beard. If you dont mind me asking. It seems like all the ethnicities in the galaxy are in this spaceport.
Well, Shale began matter-of-factly, this port acts as customs for Earth. You cannot just travel to Earth these days without stopping here. These odd people are just stopping by until theyre cleared for further travel. Many of them are Outworlders and most probably have never been to Earth.
I see. He said, although he didnt fully.
They walked through the main terminal of the port where all of interstellar humanity seemed crammed among a dozen kiosks selling everything from planetary publications to souvenirs to foods that were both familiar and alien.
So tell me about what you propose. Coal said without attempting to look up at Shale.
The Captain and I are looking for people to transport to Ctesiphon and to share in the risk involved.
Risk? What risk?
Financial risk. Ctesiphon is a long ways away. We need food and fuel for the journey, so naturally, those we transport become our customers. In other words, we require payment.
Listen lady, I dont have much money and I dont feel like getting swindled today.
Shale smiled, amused at how anxious he was. You can talk to the Captain about your passage. Im just the pilot.
Shale has arrived with guests. One of them is quite small.
Im on my way.
The Captain stacked another box of food labeled Q-Rations and walked through the ship to the rear airlock. He opened the airlock and walked through.
On the other side was Shale and what had to be the most depressing sight hed seen all year. Standing next to her was a man who looked like hed recently been victim of a famine and a little girl who didnt look much better off. He was wearing baggy clothes that looked like they might rot off him as he stood there. In front of him he had a cart piled with a few second-hand suitcases. The little girl was regarding him with awe.
No, no, no. He waved his hands in disgust. Damn you Shale, I told you to bring me someone who could pay their way to Ctesiphon. Youre like a little kid who finds a lost puppy. Im not taking in any strays or drift trash. Shale, honey, could you have found someone who didnt have a kid? Dont answer that. He waved his arm theatrical disgust.
I can pay, sir.
Captain Jonas regarded him for a moment, sizing him up. Pay? With what? Sorry pal, we got enough troubles will out having to take on yours too. I apologize for my associate; she was unclear on the qualifications for travel.
Shale looked disappointed but held her tongue. Coal was confused on why he did not meet the qualifications.
Shale turned to Coal, Give me a moment with him, I can convince him otherwise.
Coal barely nodded, nearly resigned to the fact that an aging spacer in a vintage leather bomber jacket could decide his fate so easily.
He turned the cart and started walking back to the main terminal. Coal was unsettled. Mia was downright heartbroken.
Were not going on that ship?
I dont know.
What do we do now?
I guess we find another ship.
I didnt like that man. He was mean to us.
Yeah, he wasnt too friendly, huh?
What was wrong with him?
The kid he was toting, for one.
She was sweet.
I dont want some kid running around my ship getting into things she has no business getting into.
Its a headache we dont need.
Okay, but we dont have any other options. I have been up and down this port and there is no one else wanting to take passage on this broken down rusty can you call a ship.
Urania is not broke down.
My systems could use some proper repair, sir.
Stay out of this. Jonas said looking up.
See. Here we have a man, who can pay and is willing to fly with us. He can get where hes going. We can come out ahead. Maybe use the extra coin to do some repairs on Urania. Whats the problem with that?
I dont like the look of him.
You are paranoid.
Ive been doing this a long time, as have you. Hes never been in space longer than a few days. Were talking about taking him and his spawn on a voyage for the better part of a year. You know first-hand what that can do to a person.
Why is that?
His daughter. You saw how he looks. He escaped something bad on Earth and he escaped with his daughter. He will behave because of her.
Captain Jonas rubbed his head. He started pacing back and forth in the cabin, chewing on his lower lip.
Captain, we can either let them ride with us to Ctesiphon and make a profit or we can say to hell with it and see if some drifters need rides to Mars or the Belt. And Ctesiphon will wait until whenever.
You make a hell of an argument, Shale.
Thank you, sir.
The restaurant wasnt crowded, but Coal still felt odd dragging his cart next to the table. No one asked him about it nor told him he couldnt have the large cart next to him. He still felt foolish. The waitress regarded him with bored indifference when he ordered a bowl of chili con lunar for himself and a sandwich for Mia. The food came relatively quickly. He was mildly surprised when his chili contained far more salt than he was accustomed to.
This tastes funny. Mia scrunched up her face in disgust.
So does this. You know what?
Were going to be trying lots of new things. Theres going to be a lot of changes.
Even with food?
Yes, were going to have try lots of new foods. Some of it will taste good. Some of it will taste horrible. But we will have to give it a chance wont we?
I guess so.
Here let me have a bite.
The sandwich had a vegetable that Coal had never seen, tasted, or heard of in his life. It was greasy, bitter, and blue. He took a bite and feigned ecstasy.
Wow. That is one tasty sandwich.
You like it?
Yeah, can I have the rest?
No, its mine. You have your own food.
Okay, youre right.
Coal smiled slightly and took another spoonful of his chili. He thought about their options. Going to the Belt or Mars was not an option. Not with his eight-year old daughter in tow. Nor was going to the terraforming project of Venus, he simply lacked any skills that would get him a job. No, his best bet was a planet like Ctesiphon. Earth-like; warm and green. A place he could get land and live simply. A place where he could forge his own destiny. Not too many planets like that nowadays.
Mind if I sit?
Coal had been too deep in thought to notice Captain Jonas walk up. He looked like a man trying to pretend familiarity.
Go ahead, Captain.
Jonas sat, legs spread, regarding the cart next to the table with mild amusement. This was not lost on Coal. Jonas looked like a man who didnt often request a seat at a table. He looked like a man uncomfortable with social interaction.
The food in this place sucks, huh?
I hadnt noticed.
It tastes good. Mia said as she took another bite of her sandwich.
Mr. Coal, Shale and I have decided that you may venture with us to Ctesiphon.
At what cost?
A man who knows the value of a coin, how refreshing.
How far will a thousand get me?
So whats your price?
Ten thousand for you, four for the kid.
Coal calculated in his head for a moment. If the money he brought from Earth was accepted on Ctesiphon then he might have just enough for some land or to survive for a while so he could find work.
They shook hands in what was a moment of victory for both of them. They both smiled genuinely and they both believed they were getting the better deal.
Jonas regarded Mia. I noticed youre a family man.
That I am.
Well, I can certainly see that you care for your daughter. Thats good. Its a quality you dont see much these days.
Thanks, I guess.
What Im trying to say is that I know youll do right by your daughter, and I respect that.
Captain Jonas felt awkward now. The business he came for was concluded and he felt out of place at Coals table. He made an excuse to leave.
Theres some work I must attend to with my ship. Enjoy your meal. Report to me after. We are to leave as soon as possible.
Coal nodded. Yes, sir.
With that, Jonas stood up and left. Coal smiled.
Dad, does this mean were going on that weird looking space ship.
Yes it does. Were going to make a new home soon.
So far the only ship Coal and Mia had been on was a Class-4 Junker. A large cargo boat the size of a skyscraper designed for cargo delivery across the systems. It was cold, cramped, and uninviting. He had had to bribe the captain to let him onboard, only to find he and Mia would be sleeping on the floor of the cargo hold along with a number of other drifters lucky enough to bribe their way for passage. Urania was polar opposite of that. She had the large hold necessary for long voyages but the warmth of a private home or a yacht. Much of her floors had carpeting instead of cold metal. The living quarters were small but by no means cramped. He and Mia would share a bedroom. The Captain and Shale both had their own private quarters. There was a room for relaxing, one for exercising, and a larger room for the sole purpose of hibernation. Mia was immediately excited about living on a true and tested space ship. It had two decks, with the living quarters restrained to the first third of the ship. The hold contained enough space for over a thousand metric tons of cargo. For this voyage it held large crates of food, and, as the Captain put it, various shit.
Shale gave Mia the ten-cent tour while Coal hung back with Jonas.
If youre gonna be on my boat, Jonas began. Youre going to have to work just like the rest of us. This isnt a luxury cruise no matter how much you paid.
Im not sure Id be much use.
Nonsense, its mostly mundane stuff. Cooking, running system checks, staying tidy, prepping this or that. Stuff like that.
Sounds easy enough.
It is. Just dont shirk your duties or you and I will have words.
Good. First things first. We need to finish stowing these crates if were going to get off this rock any time in the next decade.
So while they loaded and stowed crates of Q-rations and bins of seeds for Ctesiphon, Shale took Mia on a tour of the engine room.
The engine room wasnt really a room. It took up the rear half of the ship. The engine was the descendant of the model that made interstellar travel possible. It was a cold fusion reactor. By harnessing the energy of fusing atoms of hydrogen and oxygen together, the reactor could recreate the energy output of a small sun. In fact it worked on the same physical principle as suns do. Just on a smaller, colder scale. That scale weighed over a hundred tons and spread out like an octopus over the entire ship. The reactor and all of it necessary parts were not contained in the engine room. The reactor was the ship. Urania, for all intensive purposes, was a fusion reactor that just happened to take people along for the ride.
Wow, this is really cool.
Mia I want you to make me a promise.
Do not ever come into this room without either the captain or myself. You can promise me, right?
Not just okay. Mia this is really important.
Okay. I promise.
The first two months of the voyage was business as usual for Captain Jonas. It took a particular kind of person to thrive in the long months of space travel. Growing up in the practice helped. Social people, those who need constant contact with the outside world did not fare well in this environment. Captain Jonas did. He loved it. It was not loneliness to him. It was peace and quiet. It was comfort to be able to escape the trivial conflicts that plagued planets. It was the 24rd centurys way of living off the grid. No governments to hassle you. No herds of people complicating your life. This was the way Jonas liked it.
He spent most days talking with Urania. He would wake up and immediately start correcting course as they traveled through an endless sea of blackness. Urania did not often make mistakes, but he liked to check anyway. He would exercise a bit, shower, and dress in his usual: denim and t-shirt. He would sometimes read interplanetary newsfeeds; these were often months old when picked up by Uranias powerful but limited spectrum dish. He liked to keep up on the events of humanity, especially those of the planet he was traveling to. There is nothing worse than arriving at a planet that is going through some sort of civil war. He had done that once and it took most of his savings and nearly his life to escape. From then on he stayed as updated as he could with current events.
Group meals were his particular way of keeping tabs on what his crew and passengers were up to. He considered them a diplomatic necessity. He liked some gauge of how those on his ship were doing, least some problem arise. He did this out of habit, mostly, but now that Coal and his daughter were on the ship he nearly required them.
On one such meal, Coal had cooked a dish from his homeland, a place called the States. Using some meat and earth-grown vegetables he made a stir fry that, when served over rice, was delicious.
Whats this called again? Jonas asked.
Tejasque. You like it?
I do. Mia injected. Its just like you used to cook when mom was still . . . She trailed off as if studying her dinner.
Still what, darling? Shale asked.
Mia said nothing. She became very somber, picking at her food.
Both Shale and Jonas noticed that a rough subject had just been breached. They pretended not to notice.
My wife died in the war. Coal said matter-of-factly.
Both Shale and Jonas nodded. They knew about the war that was tearing apart the NAU and sent so many refugees looking for new homes. Thousands of the best and the brightest were leaving Earth because they knew this war would not end soon and when it did there was sure to be a new one that engulfed the planet again. They were escaping to space in search of a new, more stable planet of which to call home.
The Mohomadads kill her? Jonas asked, not looking at Coal.
Dont be rude. Shale snapped.
Its okay. I dont mind saying. We were already trying to get off Earth. We had everything taken care of. We had passports, documentation, money, and tickets to the Vega system. We were going to get on the ship the next day. It was beginning to be very unsafe in DalWorth. Gangs of Sangre Cristo and the Fatwa Mudeed were fighting. Groups of Cristo were guarding our neighborhood. Most were decent young men. They protected us for a long time. The state militia had been overwhelmed at this point because of too few men. Kids joined Sangre Cristo and La Mano Blanco to protect their homes and fight a common enemy.
Well, Mia and I, we had gone to the store to pick up some last minute
No dad. Please dont talk about it! Mia put her hands over her ears.
Darling, we need to remember, we must never forget that night.
Then you remember! I dont want to! I want to forget it! Mia got up from the table and ran from the room.
She was already gone. Coal looked like he might cry and Shale didnt seem too far behind him. Captain Jonas kept eating, his expression giving nothing away.
Damn it. Coal whispered.
It is okay, Coal. Were here for you. Her eyes fixated on Coal.
The captain nodded.
We were gone maybe a half hour. In that time, the Mudeed had stormed our neighborhood and killed most of the Cristo. Then they simply set fire to it. Burned it all. The entire neighborhood. Over a thousand homes just gone.
Everything was gone. My wife, well, I never saw her body. I could only find her foot. It was still in her shoe and all melted together like some sinister piece of modern art. I tried to shield Mia from it. She saw anyway. She asked me what it was. In the stupidest decision of my life I told her . . . only other thing we found was four of our suitcases. They were behind our house in the bushes. One of them had our lockbox. The lockbox had our savings in it. The Mudeed and the fire had taken my wife, our passports, our tickets, everything except those few bags. Later we were able to bribe our way to the Lunar Landing in the cargo hold of a Junker.
Then you met us.
Then we met you.
I had no idea. Shale said.
Jonas nodded in agreement. Lot of folk have been where you are. Many become better men because of it. I bet you count yourself thankful that youre here, alive and well.
That I do.
Good. There needs to be more gratitude these days.
There was no answer.
Im sorry I told them.
Mia was on her bunk, curled up in a ball.
I think about it everyday.
Well, goodnight sweetie.
Do you think we could have saved her?
I think if we tried, we would have died too.
She shifted under the cover s.
He walked over and kissed her hair.
Night. Coal said. He waited until his daughter was asleep. Then he sat on his bunk and cried.
When he woke up he was in his house.
He climbed out of his bed and walked through the bedroom. He smelled sage of his wifes perfume. Pictures of their family hung on the walls. Him and Kyra at the state fair. Their arms wrapped around each other and smiling. A picture of Mia when she was a toddler, dressed in a blue pajamas.
Coal walked into the hallway. He walked down the stairs. In the kitchen he heard his wife.
Hey, you. We need some Spaimamine for the trip. Completely forgot about it. I dont want Mia getting gravity sickness. We could use some ourselves. Never been in space before.
Could you be a hero and go pick some up?
Can I come?
Mia came around the corner as he walked into the kitchen. Kyra turned and smiled at him.
Im so happy that were finally leaving this god-awful mess.
Mia hurried past them.
Im going to the car! she squealed.
No, wait for me.
Thanks, honey-buns. Ill finish packing. She gave him a loud kiss on the cheek.
He walked out the front door, Mia in tow. She climbed into the car.
Then he watched himself pass him. He looked happy, almost relived. The night air was slightly cool. He could see lights on in the other houses of the block. He watched himself get into the car and Mia in the passenger seat. He drove away. Coal was not in the car. He just stood there in the driveway watching the little car disappear down the street. He felt scared then but he did not know why.
He was about to turn around when he heard the gunshot. It was far away. Then he heard another. The gun made a click-click-click sound. Closer now. He could not see the shooter. He only saw a flash illuminate the night sky. It was one street away from his.
A truck sped past him. It made little noise as it passed. It was the older model of a Hum Twelve. As it passed him, he could see the holes in it. There were a lot of young men inside. All of them were clutching rail-rifles. One of them looked at him. He couldnt have been older than twenty. He gave Coal the thumbs up.
Coal watched the truck go to the end of the street. He heard the clicking of a rail-gun. It was joined by another clicking and then another. The sky splashed blue again.
The trunk exploded.
Coal heard men screaming. Then silence. The silence was replaced by the foot-falls of several men running. They ran up the street. There were only few at first. Soon those were joined by dozens more.
Coal watched them charge at the first house on the block. They shot at the door, blowing it open in a plume of smoke and debris. Several of the men went inside. Coal could see flashes of blue inside the house. The men ran back out cheering. They chanted, Allah Akbar!
All of them chanted this. They continued to run inside the houses. More blue flashes. The first house began smoking. Within a minute it was on fire.
They were getting closer to Coals house.
Coal turned and ran into his house. He felt like he simply drifted inside.
He found his wife looking through the blinds at the street. She cursed.
Kyra, you have to get out of here! He heard himself say.
She acted like he wasnt there.
You have to leave! Run now!
She ignored him and ran up stairs. She cursed the entire way. He followed her. In the bedroom she started picking up bags. Bags they were going to take with them. She grabbed two of them and dragged them down the stairs. She went through the kitchen, through the back door. She threw two bags into the bushes of their backyard.
She ran back into the house. Ran upstairs again and grabbed two more suitcases.
Get out of here! Please run!
She didnt listen. She carried the bags downstairs. She was frantic.
She almost made it to the kitchen when the door blew apart. She screamed as the blast knocked her over.
Four men ran into their home. Coal screamed. He heard his wife scream behind him. She tried to grab the bags and keep running.
Coal jumped in front of the men. Still screaming, he swung at first one. The man had a beard and held a rail-rifle. Hate filled his eyes.
Coal fist flew through the air and connected with the mans face. His hand went through like it was nothing. All four men ran through him. Coal swung wildly the entire time. He tried grabbing at one of them but his hands only found air.
He heard his wife shrieking. He ran after them. They caught her in the backyard. The suitcases lay in the grass. Two men grabbed her wrists. She wailed and started kicking at them.
Shes a feisty harlot, huh? One of them said.
Drag the whore inside.
The entire time Coal attacked them. His swings never connected. His screams elicited no response. They could not hear him.
They dragged his wife back into the kitchen. She struggled the entire time. They threw her on the table. One man held her arms, two others held her legs.
Get the fuck off her! Coal tried grabbing them but still his hands passed through them like they were not there.
Lets give this Ahbe what she really wants. The forth man undid his pants.
Coal screamed again. His screams became sobs.
The other men started tearing at Kyra clothes. Ripping open her shirt, pawing at her pants. She was crying.
Yes, thats a good little whore.
The forth man climbed on top of the table. On top of her.
He couldnt do anything. He could only watch. He fell to his knees and wept.
Please, no! She screamed. Please no! Someone help! Help me! Coal!
Yeah she likes it! What a good little harim! He punched her in the face.
Please, stop! No!
They took turns. Coal sat on the floor, his eyes shut, his hands clamped over his ears. When one climbed off another pulled a long flare out of his pocket. He went to the living room and stabbed the wall with it. When it was firmly embedded he pushed the top of it down like a lever and walked back into the kitchen. A few seconds later it burst in flames. It did not explode. It burst like a balloon when filled with too much water. The flare expanded and expanded until it burst with a loud tearing sound and then a whoosh. It splattered everything around it with a slick viscous liquid. Then it popped with a flurry of sparks. The wall, the carpet, their furniture started catching fire.
Kyra was sprawled out on the table. She could barely open her eyes. Her legs stayed spread after the last man climbed off of her. She could not move. It was if she was paralyzed. She just lay there, moaning in pain. Like she had horrible stomach cramps. The men started laughing. One of them pulled out another fire flare. He grinned.
Im gonna give this little fornicator a taste of hell!
Please no. she whispered.
In one motion he stabbed the flare into her stomach. She gasped blood. He pushed the top down.
Then they all ran away. Out the front door. Back to the street.
She was whimpering and coughing up blood.
Coal . . . please . . . help me.
The flare burst. The next moment she was covered in fire.
He screamed. The house was burning. He could feel the heat.
Coal opened his eyes. Shale was standing over his bed.
Coal wake up!
Mia was standing next to her. He sat up, unsure of where he was. He was sweating.
Youre okay. Shale whispered.
Dad, you were screaming.
Was I? He looked over at Mia. Her eyes were wet. She had been crying.
I couldnt wake you up. I ran and got her. You were scaring me.
I guess I had a bad dream. He noticed he was gasping for air.
If that was a nightmare, then that was the worst one Id ever seen anyone have. Shale wiped his forehead.
You just lied there in bed screaming at the top of your lungs. I thought you were having a seizure.
No, Im okay.
What was it about?
Coal didnt answer right away. He caught his breath.
I cant remember.