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No one is safe when the warning sirens on a space station blare.
It could be anything. Imperium battleships. Meteor storm. Asteroid. Pirates. Or maybe my mortal enemy, Brother Blue, the man who killed my family and left me for dead.
I stood in the arboretum staring at Quint, the planet that the station orbited. It was a terrestrial planet, a bit smaller than Earth and mostly made of rock and metals with a gray looking ocean. There was a rust-colored fertile line, the Dren Line, which cut the planet as though it were wearing a belt. It was there that the planet had the tiniest hint of color. It was my favorite part to look at.
I was light years away from the girl I'd been on Earth. I could hardly remember who she was. At first, I had not wanted to go to space. My mother had dragged my sister, Bitty, and me away from Earth, which was reeling from climate change and pandemics. My mother had been charmed by Brother Blue's promises of a fresh start by expanding to new planets and of Humanity living in the stars through his organization, the Children of Earth, and eventually so had I.
I had believed in him.
After our colony ship, the Prairie Rose, left without me, it blew up en route to Beta Granade, the planet we were supposed to colonize. My mother and sister were dead not even knowing that I had been abandoned here on this space station. They died thinking that I was being taken under Brother Blue's wing, being groomed to have a high place with the Children of Earth, aiding in the formation of past and future Earth colonies that didn't even exist.
Before he left me stranded on the Yertina Feray, I had been keen on helping him with his mission. Once I'd left Earth, I'd always imagined that I would be a settler. I'd grown to love the idea of it.
What a joke that dream was now. He'd fooled us, and in a way, I was dead, too.
The strobe lights continued to pulse in time to the sound of alarms, which indicated that all inhabitants should get themselves down to a shelter immediately.
"We should not tarry, Tula," said Thado, the arboretum caretaker, as he pressed a button with his long tentacle-like arm to close the lead panel over the window. The curtain would help to minimize the station's radiation levels and protect the precious plants he cared for. My view of Quint disappeared.
I felt blinded, just as I was by so many things that had happened so far in my short life.
I heard the door slide open and the familiar steps of Tournour's boots. He'd come to make sure that I was accounted for and to let us, his friends, know what the actual danger was before he went about his duties.
"Solar flare," Tournour said. Thado blew air from his blowhole in relief. There were so many things in space that were worse than a solar flare, not that that was something to be shrugged off. But to me and my friends, the Imperium attacking us would be worse.
Tournour approached me and squeezed my hand.
"Tula, you have to get to a shelter." I looked at up at him. His antennae were very still, showing his full attention. Since he had made his feelings known to me, there was something about his face that reassured me that everything was going to be all right.
"Is there anything I can do to help you?" I asked.
He shook his head. I fixed my eyes on the triangle patch of skin between his antennas, which flushed a little darker when he was near me.
"Standard protocol. Annoying but necessary," he said, squaring his broad shoulders. "I'll catch up with you when the all clear sounds."
As we walked quickly to the exit, he calmly clicked his communiquer and started issuing commands to his people. Tournour was the chief constable, and the Yertina Feray Space Station was in his care. He took that job very seriously. When he was on duty, he had a grace about him that commanded authority. He walked with a straight back that made his long limbs look longer, and I followed his orders immediately when he was like this.
Thado was right on our heels. He was a Dolmav and to me he always looked like a sea creature, swimming through the air as he caught up with us. Despite the fact that I was Human, these two aliens were my only real friends on the space station, and they would not let harm come to me if they could help it.
I knew after what they'd seen me through that I would always do the same for them.
As we exited the arboretum, Thado pressed a basket of trests, my favorite fruit, into my hands. They were green and thick skinned with purple seeds on the inside. They were annoying to eat and their juice stained everything, but they were sweet and high in the vitamins many species needed and did not get enough of in space. They were also easy to grow, and that was why most space stations and ships grew them. Best of all, they staved hunger away for most aliens. They had become a staple in most alien diets. He knew they would be welcome in the underguts shelter where I would take refuge from the storm.
"Thank you," I said. It was these small kindnesses that had kept me alive these past three or four years and had helped me to carve out my life bartering favors and goods.
"Good that it's a storm and not the Imperium passing by," Thado said.
Even though he and Tournour worked for the Imperium, they had no love for it. Here on the Yertina Feray we were far enough away from the center of things that they could afford to resist in their own tiny ways. But it would be good for no one if we were inspected.
"Or invading," I said.
The Imperium was a military governing force that they had to obey. The Imperium had taken control in a coup a few years back from the League of Worlds, and it seemed to roll over planets, stations, and species.
There were five Major Species, or those who had more than twelve colonies scattered throughout the galaxy. The balance of power shifted among these five-Brahar, Loor, Dolmav, Per, and Kao. Those with more than five colonies but fewer than twelve were considered Minor Species. Below that, species were barely considered spacefaring. But under the League of Worlds, those could petition for planets to colonize and in that way they could grow in time to be Minor Species and eventually have some voice in the way the galaxy was governed.
The Imperium wanted to cease colonial expansion. The Brahar were the instigators of the coup, preying upon those officials in the Major Species who fed on greed. They changed the way things were done in the galaxy. First, it was the razing of planets, which was unheard of in the past. They started with the planets that housed simple organisms; they went in and took every resource, rather then earmark them for expansion by Minor Species. Then they took worlds where there was potential for intelligent life to bloom; where the League of Worlds would leave those planets alone, the Imperium did not. And there were rumors of culling the planets of the species that they determined to be less desirable.
Under the Imperium, every species was out for itself. Brother Blue had managed to get Earth to avoid the Imperium razing by exploiting the five-planet loophole, making it seem as though Earth was fully Minor. Only there didn't seem to be any Human colonies at all. That's what I'd inadvertently discovered when he stranded me here, and what made him ask me to kill my friends Reza and Caleb.
I hadn't done that, of course. I'd put them into cryocrates and shipped them off to the Outer Rim.
Everyone, including me, was afraid of the Imperium. No one could travel freely anymore without a special pass. No species could speak up without being silenced. It was seemingly unstoppable. Tournour and Thado worked undercover, collaborating with the Imperium to keep us safe on this far outpost.
"Tournour works quite hard at making sure the Yertina Feray isn't even a blip on the Imperium radar," I said.
"I'm thankful every day for that," Thado said. "He makes my unfortunate collaboration with them bearable."
"Be safe, Thado," I said.
Living in space was not safe. One could only hope that the metal that housed us would stay together and protect us from the dangers we faced daily.
"As you," he said. I knew he was giving me a blessing in his language, but the nanites that swam in my bloodstream and in my brain to help me translate sometimes failed when it came to sayings, idioms, or songs. Universal Galactic was not a poetic language, so when an alien wanted to give you a truism, they spoke their mother tongue. The nanites helped to fill in those gaps.
The nanites still amazed me. To think that I had small intelligent nanobots swimming through me regulating the gases in my lungs and attaching to my brain stem to help me translate and speak to other species was nothing short of a miracle. Every species had their language, and sub-languages, but the standard for all aliens to use was Universal Galactic. Universal Galactic was not easy to learn, but for almost all species it was doable.
The nanites helped with the precise understanding that was necessary when negotiating or governing. They were expensive to get, though, and not everyone had them. I only had them because my old Hort mentor Heckleck had stabbed me with his barbed tongue to inject me with them. I was lucky to have them. It gave me an advantage despite being a Human, a species that most aliens disliked dealing with.
Thado and I parted ways. He went up, and I went down to the underguts.
I could have chosen to be assigned, like him, to the shelter where the more affluent waited out these kinds of cosmic events in luxury. Instead I chose to remain assigned to the station's underguts shelter where there were too many aliens crowded into too small a space.
The underguts was where all of the rabble like I once was ended up. It was housed in the very bones of the station. It was a shantytown of metal bins and desperate aliens who had no means to live in the residence rings and no currency or way to leave the Yertina Feray. Most of them would beg for jobs from the few ships that docked here. They may have been looked down on, but I knew that they were the backbone for the whole underground economy here. I had lived there for my first two years on the station, scraping together an existence first by being an errand girl for Heckleck, and then striking out on my own dealing in barter and favors.
I felt a pang for a minute thinking about Heckleck. Were he alive, he would not go to an underguts shelter if he could help it. A good time to get a good price for things is when people are facing their mortality. Rich people have the most to barter when they think they are in peril.
Heckleck was always looking for a good deal.
The underguts shelter was no place of luxury. It was the dregs of the station, near the shantytown. Even though I had gotten myself out of the underguts, when a lockdown happened, I always threw my lot in with them.
I had a soft spot for the forgotten and overlooked. Because once upon a time that had been me.
In a way it still was.
When I got to the shelter, a thick-metal-walled room deep in the center of the station, I could smell the fear on everyone. Aliens were sitting everywhere they could. There were no beds in this shelter, so aliens would string up hammocks and put makeshift bedding on the floor. It was crowded and uncomfortable. I didn't have to check to know that there was not one Human in the bunch. When I first arrived on the Yertina Feray, it was nearly two years before three Human Youth Imperium cadets became stranded on the station. That was when everything changed for me. When I discovered the depth of Brother Blue's betrayal.
But those Humans had been gone for over a year, ever since I sent Reza and Caleb, who had become my close friends, to the Outer Rim, frozen in deep sleep in cryocrates. I had no choice-I had to save their lives, although my fear was that those crates had become their coffins. The third one, Els, had met her death here on the station. Brother Blue had killed her for what she knew and because he thought she was me.
I squared my shoulders. This was not the time for regrets. This was the time to make sure that I made it through another day.
I signed in with the Brahar guard and tried not to shudder when her reptilian-like scales brushed my hand. They reminded me of a purse or a belt. The Brahar were cold blooded and cold hearted. It was their world that had set the Imperium into motion, and so they seemed to always be in charge whenever there was an emergency.
"We've run out of salt paks," she said.
I knew that this shelter had probably never had them. She waved me away as the next aliens checked in and the long last siren wail signaled that shelter doors would now close. There was no leaving now until the all clear sounded.
I walked around the shelter and began handing out the trests to the aliens holed up in there with me. We would be huddled together for at least thirty hours, and the aliens in the underguts were always lacking in the essentials that I now had.
I didn't want to forget where I had come from, so I freely handed out what I could during these lockdowns. Real fruit was always a welcome treat on a space station, but during the long uncertain hours of waiting in a shelter, it was a piece of comfort.
It made me feel good-Human-to be able to help others in some small way. I had made it clear long ago that these were not favors owed to me, but I was no fool. I knew that my good will went a long way in keeping me in every alien's good graces. I liked to think of it as insurance. It was hard enough being Human. And if Heckleck had taught me one thing, it was to always have favors in the bank that you could call in.
When the last trest was handed out, I settled in, finding a space where I could. Then there was nothing to do but sit with my thoughts.
Text copyright © 2015 by Cecil Castellucci