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“You’ve escaped one prison before, so you’ll be escaping another in no time.” Mykal spoke those optimistic words thirty-one days ago, but I didn’t have the heart to remind him that it took me five years to flee Vorkter Prison.
Now that we’re trapped aboard an enemy starcraft and only fed scraps every three days, we don’t have five years to spare.
Our bodies heave in miserable hunger and pain, and I’m in far worse shape.
With time running out, I refuse to lie on the only cot, our only comfort, and I sit on the hard floor.
Slumping against the firm wall, my spine aches, and a sharp pang in my hip radiates like hot agony throughout my rigid bones. I breathe shallow breaths between dry lips, and my shaking hand constantly hovers near my hip. As though I can fix what’s wrong, but the only remedy is outside this brig. Medicine, antiseptic, water.
I have none.
We’re all together, but there is nothing here besides a single cot. There are no bars to peer out of, like at my last cell. This is just a tiny, bare, enclosed room inside a starcraft. Clean with polished floors, sterile walls, and a spotless padlocked door, all bathed in soft pink hues from an overhead rouge light.
Mykal hunches as he stands, the ceilings too low, and since I’m much taller, I spend most of my time sitting or crouching.
Franny squats next to a hatch on the cumbersome door. No windows, the hatch has been our sole view outside the brig, but it only opens when they feed us.
She presses her cheek against the chilly pink metal. Listening.
With our linked emotions and senses, I try to concentrate on Franny. Just for a reprieve from my own torment. I wouldn’t be able to hear what she hears or see what she sees; we still only share touch and taste and smell. I can barely feel the bite of the cold door against my jaw and ear.
Her senses, his senses—they both sweep past me as another pang of misery scratches at my flesh.
I look down.
Crude, gnarled stitches weave jaggedly along my lower abdomen. My golden-brown skin is sickly green and inflamed. I resist the urge to itch.
Franny scratches her own hip—she feels my pain.
I shut my eyes for a long moment. Hating that they both feel the deep cuts from a man I loathe. From Bastell: the man I shared a Vorkter Prison cell with, the one who relentlessly hunted me until he attacked me at Yamafort’s museum.
We may’ve left Bastell behind on our home planet, we may’ve stolen the Saga starcraft and reached space, but he left real wounds that can’t disappear easily—focus.
I open my eyes and try to focus on our plans of escape. Though we’ve failed each and every day. I try to think of anything to forget that last encounter in the museum.
We’re out of Bastell’s reach.
I try to breathe stronger, and then I wince and shift, a stabbing pain shooting up my side. Gods be damned.
Mykal swings his head back, his hard-hearted blue eyes meeting my grim grays. If he could beat down the door with his fists alone, I’m certain he would.
Because he’s already tried. Until the skin on his knuckles busted and bled, and sores formed.
“What are you moving for, Court?” Mykal asks. “Rest yourself. You’ve hardly slept one blink of an eye.”
“It’s not so easy when we need to leave,” I say in a single breath. I sink my head back to the wall, our eyes not detaching.
I asked him to fly away with me, and I’ve led him to a prison. No apology I speak can erase the guilt. I just need to free Mykal and Franny from this place.
I have to.
“There’s no time,” I say with another wince.
Franny stiffens and cautiously glances back at me. I don’t know how to ease her worry.
Mykal takes a step toward my spot on the floor. I don’t know how to ease his either.
“Don’t,” I say weakly, stopping him.
He scratches his jaw. Frustration burrowing through his body and mine. He stays an arm’s distance away and gestures to me. “I may not be a physician like you, but once upon an era, I nursed you from the brink of something foul. I can do it again, you realize?”
It’s too late for that.
His muscles flex. “Court?”
He can’t read my mind, and so I’m left to wonder what emotion accompanied my thought. What did he sense?
I blink a few times. Unsure of what I felt. But I want him to know something. “I still remember…” I swallow hard and fight to speak louder. “I still remember the winter wood.”
His eyes redden. “Yer telling me this now?” His northern lilt breaks through. I’m truly happy to hear it again.
In a whisper, I clarify, “I know what you’ve done for me.”
“I wouldn’t have survived without you.” My voice cracks, days and months and years rushing toward me. Frostbitten skin and the crackle of fire and his impossibly bright laughter. I remember the moments after I escaped Vorkter.
Where Mykal brought me to his warm hut out of the wet snow. Hovering over my gaunt frame, nearly nose-to-nose, he lathered mud and herbs on my wounds. Grenpale remedies.
He was a wild Hinterlander.
I was a lost boy of fifteen, and years later, we’ve found ourselves in a similar position. I’m on the brink of something foul again, but there are no trees, no mud, no plants, nothing that can save me by his hands.
I take in a breath, finally understanding my emotions, and I do everything I can to contain them. Bottle them. Swallow them. So they won’t know this fear.
Let me suffer alone.
Mykal bends low to be at eye level, palm on the floor. “I don’t want yer praise. I got you in this mess—”
“No.” I cut him off.
He’s still kicking himself for not stopping Bastell. In his mind, he broke a devout promise. He swore that I’d never encounter that cruel bastard again, but I did.
I already forgave Mykal a hundred times, even when he didn’t need to be forgiven. He’s just not ready to absolve himself yet.
He reaches out his hand to me …
“I don’t want your guilt,” I say, more strictly than I intend. Purposefully pushing him away, and it works.
He retracts his callused palm. And he flicks his forefinger in a vulgar Grenpalish gesture. Rising to a hunched stance again.
I try to bury my disappointment. Because I long for Mykal. I want him closer and closer, our chests pressing together and the heat of our bodies easing us into a contented sleep. I’m called toward him. Every minute of every day.
Toward his kindness and fortitude and foolish optimism. A great pull beckons me into his arms, but in the same breath, I’d rather Mykal be far, far away from my suffering.
If we touch skin-to-skin, the link will make him feel what I feel tenfold, and since we’ve kissed, we’ve already heightened this bond between us a significant amount. He’s noticed the shortness of my breath, whereas Franny can’t distinguish the subtleties as well.
He’s even started recognizing emotion in me that I can’t even name.
“I’ll just be standing right here,” Mykal says, angling toward me, “where I can stare at your handsome face.”
I roll my eyes, but I don’t mind him staring at all. I want to smile, but it seems like an impossible feat.
Quietly, his gaze slides down my weakened frame. Inspecting me from afar.
I do the same to him. Sweat builds up on his pale skin and drenches his wheat-blond hair.
All we’ve ever known was the ice and snow on our frozen planet of Saltare-3. None of us are used to the sweltering room temps here.
The brig stinks badly of a musky odor, our stench the obvious culprit.
We’ve all shed our onyx-and-gold StarDust uniforms to combat the scorch. No slacks, no cloaks, and Franny slung off her bra. Left only in black underwear, we sweat through those and make the best out of the absolute worst.
Beads roll off Mykal’s sideburns and slip down his stubbly jaw. I watch his eyes lower to the tangled scars and ink over my heart, and then I scrutinize his brawn. Bands of his muscle have begun to lose their tautness, not as carved or cut as they once were.
My squared jaw tightens, and a rock lodges in my throat. I want to believe that he’s fine. That he’s not hurting, but I can feel him starving. I can feel his stomach gnawing on itself and his body withering away.
Franny is worse. Her rib cage is visible and juts in and out as she breathes, more skin and bones than either him or me.
My concern for her grows and grows every day.
She refuses to eat our rations. No one is willing to take more than our share, but we’ve all volunteered to take less.
Mykal fixates on my stitches. He grumbles a harsh curse and grinds his molars. More guilt cinching his features.
“You’re not to blame,” I say while trying to sit more upright. I can’t pull myself up without angering the wound, so I stay mostly slumped.
“I am to blame,” Mykal growls. “I sewed you up poorly—”
“No,” I interject again, my heart pounding. “Your sewing is what’s kept me alive, Mykal. If we hadn’t been taken as their prisoners, I would’ve healed properly.”
But our Saga starcraft had been roped in by the Romulus, and the cadets physically pummeled us as we struggled and fought to run. All the while, their commander of some twenty years looked on. Leering with no ounce of sympathy, he ordered us to be locked away, and later, we learned his name.
“Court is right,” Franny chimes in from the door. “He could’ve been eating a hearty meal if we weren’t stuck here. One made for the gods. Not the little bits of bread we’ve been given for supper.”
At the mention of food, our stomachs collectively groan.
“Mayday,” Franny curses and rests her forehead on the shut hatch.
I suddenly shiver.
Cold ripples through me, and my arms and shoulders quake vehemently.
Their heads swerve to me, and they stare me down as though I let out a dying wheeze.
“Why are you cold?” Mykal asks. “Aren’t you sweating? Isn’t he sweating?” He looks to Franny for confirmation.
“He’s dripping sweat.” She nods. “Maybe there’s a draft over there.” But she doesn’t believe her own words. I can tell as her stomach flips. I think she wishes it were just a draft.
I don’t want to alarm either of them, but all I know is how to prepare them for the worst. How to help them survive in foreign places.
My pulse speeds as their panic sets in, and I try not to tremble again. Biting down hard, my teeth throb. “Franny,” I say slowly. “You can ask me anything.”
Mykal starts pushing at the flat ceiling for any exits. He does this every hour, but urgency floods him more than ever before. He shoves harder. Faster.
I think he feels my fear.
Franny stays in a crouch and presses her ear back to the padlocked door. Concentrating.
I lick my dry lips. “You’ve been wanting to talk for weeks on end,” I remind her.
Her brows scrunch. “I know I’ve been harping on about what the Romulus commander told us, but it’s not important right now.” She unconsciously touches her hip, scratching.
I swallow and say, “You mean that we’re human.”
I don’t know what a human is.
I don’t know what or who we are, but I haven’t known that for years. Now is no different. Learning that we’re human has only left us with more questions that need greater explanations.
“There’s nothing to talk about,” she mutters, unmoving. “You know nothing just like the rest of us.” Worry undercuts her snappy tone, and I’m not good at figuring out the origin of emotion. But I assume her worry is about me.
Franny has already asked if Andola, also called Earth, is shaded pink. She theorized that the cadets placed us in a pink-shaded room to make us feel at home.
But Commander Theron hasn’t seemed to care about our comfort. Clearly. What makes me even more nervous: they had separated us at first. But only minutes later, they threw us in the same brig together. I’m not sure why.
I answered Franny, I don’t know what Earth looks like. We only know that Saltarians were forcibly exiled from Earth thousands of years ago.
Franny asked how we can be human if we look Saltarian.
I answered, humans must look like Saltarians. She snorted and said, that, I could’ve figured out on my own. It made Mykal laugh. One of the few times we’ve heard the lively sound.
She asked what a Helix Reader is, the device that blinked orange and told us we’re human. Which, we’ve discovered, is why we were able to dodge our deathdays unlike everyone else.
I answered, I don’t know.
She asked if all humans are linked together by senses and emotions. Like us.
I answered, I don’t know.
She asked what makes us human.
I don’t know.
At the door, Franny mutters to herself, “After all that we’ve been through, we deserve a better ending.” The heat in her voice is far away, barely inflaming me.
I gather my strength to say, “… talking is important.”
Franny is motionless, but her pulse pounds and pounds. I want her to ask me whatever she needs to ask. Tomorrow, I may be gone.
“You’re dying,” she shoots back and swerves around to face me. Her eyes sting.
My eyes burn, and Mykal wipes his runny nose, all of us on the verge of tears. He shoves the ceiling more forcefully. Urgently. Until he’s banging his fists for an escape.
It hurts more to watch him bash his knuckles. His skin splits open again, and I grimace.
Franny shakes her hand out, feeling Mykal’s pain too.
I need him and her to survive. They must. So I dig into my last reserves of energy, and I reach for the heap of clothing. I grab my black slacks. Slowly rising, I brace most of my weight against the wall. Creeping upward.
Mykal drops his arm and spins on me. “What are you doing? What—have you gone mad? You—”
“I’m fine,” I interject and force my leg into one of the slack holes.
Mykal tenses, boiling hot. He bows toward me, putting a callused palm on the ceiling. “Then tell me you aren’t dyin’ right in front of me.”
They can sense when I lie.
I fight back tears. Stomping on emotion. But I’m afraid. I’m angry. I’m wading in despair. I’m so many things at once, and all I want to be is at peace with them. And it’s over.
It’s over for me.
I run the heel of my palm beneath my watering eyes. Shivering.
Mykal steps forward. “Court—”
“I’m not dying,” I retort.
A burning tear scalds his cheek. He wipes it roughly away. “My pa is rollin’ in his grave, the one that I dug, just hearing the boy that I’ve been loving lie to my crooked-nosed face.”
My chest tightens in a different kind of agony, and I struggle to step into my slacks. Teeth chattering and clanking. Hands vibrating.
“How are you cold?” Franny questions.
“I have a fever.”
“A what?” Mykal asks.
I don’t answer. Gently, I lift the hem of my slacks to my waist. The fabric brushes harshly against my inflamed wound. I inhale a sharp breath. Blood rushes out of my head. Light bursts in my vision. Faint, I start to slide down the wall.
Mykal instantly catches me beneath my arm and supports me upright.
I place my hand to his chest. And I try to push him back.
His hurt flares in me. “What are you doin’?” He sways slightly, even with my weak force. Clearly he’s depleted too. More than I’ve ever seen him.
I have to hang on to his shoulder to stand. He lets me, and he brushes my dark hair out of my lashes with an aggressive hand. Rarely gentle, on any occasion.
Our eyes meet.
“I’m fine,” I protest.
“You know you’re not,” Mykal growls. “I know you’re not. Franny knows. We all damned well know. So stop pushing me away, Court.”
I suck in emotion, but water pricks my eyes. I shudder. “You don’t deserve to feel what I feel. Like Franny said, you both deserve a better ending—”
“We,” Franny spits back. “I said we. That includes you.”
I hang my head. “Just let me die,” I mumble.
Mykal’s chest rises and falls heavily, and his palm encases my jaw, clasping my face. “What was that?” he asks.
But Mykal can read my lips from any distance, anyplace, after doing it so often at StarDust. They both can.
He knows what I said.
Franny screams at the locked hatch, “Help us! Anybody out there!! Please, gods, help!”
No one has been able to hear our pleas. We don’t know where the Romulus crew took our friends from the Saga starcraft. Including my older brother.
Kinden, the Soarcastle sisters, and Zimmer have been missing ever since we were thrown into the brig. The last we saw of them was on the observation deck. When we learned we’re human.
If we want to escape, we have to do it ourselves.
I’m going to die.
Tears threaten to well again.
Mykal taps my cheek. Twice. Trying to show affection and get me to lift my head.
My throat almost swells closed. Finally, I look up at Mykal. And I choke out, “I’m afraid to die.” I don’t know how both sentiments can be true. I don’t understand what I’m feeling. Death is more complex than it’s supposed to be.
Only love makes sense.
Forcefully, Mykal says, “You won’t be dyin’ anytime soon.”
I blink and tears fall. “You and your fantasies.”
He cries, “I promise you.”
Both of us hunching, I tug him closer, gripping his bicep for dear life. His bare chest pushes up against mine, an electric spark zipping through my veins.
“I promise you,” he repeats, wrapping his burly arms around my shivering body.
Warmth kisses my flesh. I hold on to him, and the more Franny calls for help, the more I think of Kinden.
“Mykal,” I whisper. “If you see my brother again, tell Kinden I’m sorry…” I take a second. “I’m sorry … I couldn’t give him longer.”
All my brother wanted was more time with me.
And I’ve lost him again.
Mykal pulls back and stares deep in my eyes. “You’ll be telling him yourself.”
I doubt. “I have one day left. If that.”
He pats my cheek again. “Today is the day of freedom then.” Mykal wears a halfhearted smile.
I’m about to mention how every day our plan of escape wields the same desolate result, but Franny speaks first.
“It’s different now,” she says, voice raspy from shouting. But she’s settled back into a crouch, ear to the door.
“How so?” I wonder.
Purpose locks her shoulders. And lights her eyes on fire. “We’re more desperate than ever before.”
Copyright © 2019 by K. B. Ritchie