You Must (Not) Let Go
She stumbled, slicing her knees open on the sharp rocks. Her heart raced, threatening to burst out of her chest. She had to get away.
“Where are you, little salish?”
A hole appeared before her, little more than a shadowy smudge just above the ground. She dove for it. Dank air assaulted her senses. Strange things skittered in the pitch blackness, crawling over her skin and under the thin wrappings covering her body. Her hands shook uncontrollably as she pulled herself further into the confined space, fresh tears running down her cheeks. The old man’s shuffling gait drew closer. She jerked around to get a better view of her pursuer, pain exploding in her side as her thin frame connected with a metal stilt supporting the house above her head. She whimpered, clapping a hand over her mouth at the loudness of the sound in the cold night air.
There was a sharp crack as he hit his heavy stick against the frame of the house. “I know you’re under there, little salish. I can smell your blood.” Crack! Crack! Crack! “You think anyone’s going to miss vermin like you? Stop being so selfish.” The old man’s shoes crunched over the frozen ground, crushing the tiny plant life struggling to sprout. “Show yourself, little salish. You wouldn’t want something bad to happen to one of those wee kids, now would you?”
She pressed herself into the hard ground, body quaking from the cold and fear. She could feel the joists of the house above her brushing against her back, looming over her like a massive weight suspended by a slender string. The stale air, thick with the stench of stagnant water and foetid algae, stuck in her lungs. She felt as though she were choking, as though someone were kneeling on her back, pressing all the oxygen out of her. The dreadful shuffling continued, encircling her hideaway, trapping her. She huddled into herself, wrapping her arms over her head and making herself as small as possible. Shivering, she fought off the ravenous hunger clawing at her insides and the bone-deep weariness that told her that if she just closed her eye this could all be over.
All was still, she realized. She tensed. Was this a trap? The cold air sucked the moisture from her remaining eye as she peered into the darkness. The world was an indistinct blur of inky blackness all around her. Dare she make a break for it? Was that darker smudge him? Was he waiting just beyond the edge of the house to dash her brains out on the frozen rocks? Terror gripped her, fixing her into place. Was she going to die like this?
A sharp pain startled her from her slumber. Sera’s eye snapped open, heart thumping in her chest. Grubby brown dirt lit dimly by wretched daylight stretched out around her, dotted with ancient floor supports. The pain came again, a sharp poke into her rear. She kicked at it. Children squealed and ran away. She looked around, feeling like she could sleep for another thousand years. Her head felt thick and swollen, her tongue ungainly in her mouth, so many aches and pains all over her body that she couldn’t tell them apart. Had it all just been a bad dream? She eyed the joists sitting low over her head and weakly dragged herself towards the bright strip of sunlight. The tight space was just a bit more than she could deal with at the moment. Daylight pierced her eye. She hissed. Squinting through tears, she spied the murky glint of water. Scrambling on her hands and knees, she sank her head into the icy lake and gagged on the taste of a leaking fuel pump and too many fertilizers. She forced herself to swallow, the foul taste of chemicals and pollution burning as it went down.
Acrid liquid coated her tongue, filling her mouth, her nostrils, her eyes. She inhaled, drawing watery death into her lungs. Everything burned. The liquid was scalding in her mouth. She swallowed, hating the taste of leaves and death.
She shook the thought loose from her head and tore at the limp plants struggling at the water’s edge, crushing the fibrous stems between her teeth. She sighed. They had even less flavour than before. Better than nothing, I guess…
“Oh, look,” a haughty voice declaimed. “There’s a dirty pest in our back garden.”
Sera turned towards the voice, aware of the clump of damp foliage hanging from her chin. A brace of small girls stood behind her, their ringleader with hands on her hips, faded strips of ribbon tied into the carefully brushed fur on her head.
“Go be smelly elsewhere, pest,” the little girl continued, lisping slightly through the gap where one of her baby teeth used to be, “before I tell my daddy on you.”
Sera blushed faintly, very aware of the clump of damp foliage hanging from her chin and the muck that had settled into her skin and wouldn’t come out no matter how much she scrubbed but raised an eyebrow at the kid anyway. “I don’t see your name printed anywhere around here.”
The little girl’s face scrunched into a frown at her will being crossed. “It’s the garden attached to the back of our house,” she said hotly. “Tell it, Evi!”
“Um…” Evi said.
“Not that you would know anything about that, pest!” the little girl continued, ignoring her friend. “Only families live in houses and you don’t have any! Nobody wants you! I heard my daddy say so!”
Sera flinched, the words penetrating deep. “Is that what it is?” she sneered. “I thought a salish had taken a massive runny shit all over a heap of garbage!”
The girl’s eyes flashed murderously. Then she tossed her head and sniffed delicately in a way that made Sera’s heart twinge. “I’m not going to talk to dirty-mouthed pests. You aren’t worth my time to--”
“What are you doing playing around out here?” a voice boomed. Sera and the girl both jumped. The other girls ran. A blocky man towered over them, face set in a harsh glower. “Get back inside and do your chores, girl. And don’t let me see you out here again!”
The girl hunched down, her shoulders coming up around her ears. She turned to run back into her house but not before fixing Sera with a glare and sticking her tongue out at her. Sera scowled and returned the gesture.
“And as for you, you filth,” he said. Sera’s eye flicked away from his contemptuous gaze. “Eating up my pasture, taking food out of my animals’ mouths. Clear off before I take it out of your hide.”
Sera eyed his meaty fists and slunk away, feeling his hostility like a hammer at her back. The ground was rough and uneven under her feet, dusty rocks and weeds and mud littered with bits of wire, jagged metal offcuts, and broken strips of plastisteel flooring studded with rusty nails. There was a damp breeze coming off the lake, bringing the scent of smog and rotting duracrete, turning her wet clothes and face to ice. She shivered uncontrollably, her aching teeth rattling like dice in her skull. The busy chatter of the morning set a pulse of pain beating in her temple. Staying in the shadow of the houses abutting the lake, she moved slowly around the perimeter of the village, clutching at the structures for support. So many fucking buildings… When will I get to the fucking end of them?
A hissing and popping made itself known above the day’s activities. Then thunder split the grubby skies and balls of flame rained down on the village and its surrounds. Most burned up before they got closer than the ridges of the roofs, filling the air with greasy soot and ash. The lucky few that survived exploded as they hit the ground, scattering burning garbage like shrapnel. Sera dodged a missile, tripping over her own clumsy feet into the frigid waters of the lake as a flaming ball of ancient dirty diapers splatted into the dirt a few metres away. A nearby salish lowed a listless complaint at her.
Sera froze, her insides tensing. An old man, a cap askew on his head, stood not far away yelling at the grimy clouds. A broad, motherly woman, paused midway in drying off a casserole dish with her apron, stood besides him.
“I swear, if one of those little brats dares come planetside again, I’ll crack his fucking head open with a spanner!” He shook his fist at the sky to emphasize his point.
The woman tutted ruefully. “Run completely amok, those children have. Absolutely shameful! Ever since what that bastard did to Anasha’s poor nephew, the village has been going to pot. Do you know that Arini’s little one has taken ill again not two weeks since he last came down with something? Apparently, he’s been fussing and crying like a wee one, keeping his poor father up all night.”
The old man shook his head. “Shameful. Shameful!”
“It’s all that damned outsider’s fault!” the woman continued. “It’s a bad influence on the young ones and I bet it’s infested with all kinds of foreign diseases!”
Sera shied as though she’d been struck, her stomach knotting into a tight ball.
“You know, our Veni said that they all could hear it howling over their radios about some bint when they were out slaving away in their free time tidying up the dreadful mess up there. You know, he’s such a sweet boy. Not like those other…”
With a cry like a tree being felled, the salish collapsed into the murky lake. Water bubbled thickly around its head as it thrashed weakly, unable to lift its snout above the surface. Sera stared horrified for a moment. Then she struggled to rush forward, the water and the mud pushing back against her, weighing her down. She got her hands under its head and lifted. It slipped, thunking down deeper into the water. She knelt down chest-deep in the water, sinking her knee into the muck and rotten weeds and under the creature’s head. She leaned back, using the weight of her body and her leg as a fulcrum to raise the head out of the water one agonising millimetre at a time. Her muscles ached, not doing what she wanted them to do, her limbs feeling insubstantial and weak. Sweat beaded on her forehead, turning to ice in the chilly air as the animal fought against her, its flanks heaving in panic. The snout broke the surface and the animal sucked in air, water and spit foaming around its mouth. The elation budding in Sera’s heart was swiftly crushed as the creature kicked limply at the sodden ground, unable to lift its own weight. Its eyes were wide and feverish with terror, its skin dull and slick with sweat as its sides fluttered arrhythmically. Sera cradled the creature’s head helplessly, wanting nothing more than to flee from the agony within her own chest. She stroked it soothingly with trembling hands, utterly powerless to do anything but watch through tears as the light slowly dimmed in the animal’s eyes. Its breathing grew shallower and shallower and then stopped, its head sagging into Sera as its hearts gave out.
“Oy! What do you think you’re doing?”
Sera’s eye snapped to the angry voice. The old man was stomping towards her, a rusty length of pipe raised over his head. She scrambled to get away, thrashing in the swampy water as she pulled herself on her hands and knees out from under the pitiful corpse. Her leg, numb and limp from propping up the animal’s head, collapsed under her. Panicking, she forced herself to hobble on the lame leg, ignoring the excruciating sensation as it returned to life. She ran blindly, getting away more important than any pain she was in. Her foot hit uneven ground and turned. Sera felt herself falling and could do nothing to stop it. Her knee and hand crunched beneath her as she tried to catch herself. Light exploded in her head, leaving behind pain as it faded. She shot a panicked glance over her shoulder. The old man was nowhere in sight. She hadn’t been worth chasing after.
Every inch of her shook as she pulled herself up and tottered towards the carcass of an old harvester rusting away to nothing on the shore. She tasted blood when she licked her lips. The shallow water had not saved her from the gravel and sharp rocks lying under this part of the lake. Skin stinging, she lowered herself gingerly into the shade of the harvester. She felt bruised all over, like she’d been chewed up and spat out for being repulsive and inedible. What a shit start to the day. Although, it wasn’t as if she could remember any day that had started much better. A fallen chunk of the harvester’s body, rust red like blood, stared up at her, harsh angles looking like the severed head of a mechanical predator with gleaming eyes. She turned away, shifting until she could no longer see it. Rocks poked through her wrappings into the bones of her backside. Her face ached from her tears and the cold, every breath like swallowing a fistful of razors, the flesh of her throat raw from the infection she couldn’t shake. The ankle she’d tripped over felt swollen and flabby, a dull, all-encompassing ache radiating out from it. The stench of her made her want to vomit the contents of her empty stomach onto the rocky ground, the stink of foetid lake water and piss and shit permeating every inch of her. There was nothing she could do about it, she knew. Barring tossing herself into a furnace.
She should move. Someone was bound to see her and she needed to get back to the rendezvous point. She remained motionless, exhaustion sapping the ability to do anything other than sag against the rusty harvester. The machine’s battery was leaking onto the mainboard. She could smell the corrosive funk as the components slowly disintegrated. The sun shifted higher into the sky, beating down on her head while the rest of her shivered in shadow. Distantly, more flaming missiles thumped periodically into the ground, pulsing in time with the spikes of pain lancing through her skull. Her mouth was watering again. Where was she going to find something to eat that wasn’t going to make her vomit her insides out? Again. Could you get any nutritional content out of sheet metal? Maybe if I stewed it up, added some algae… Something connected to some dormant instinct in her hindbrain, demanding her attention. She raised her head, sniffing the air. Something nearby was edible. Her eyes darted around, seeking the source of the tantalizing aroma. There! Near the back door of a house not far away, a hunk of frozen vegetable peels smouldered against a garbage bin. Sera shot forward, shovelling the half-frozen, half-charred kitchen scraps into her mouth with ravenous hunger. The meal, most likely left at room temperature for several weeks before being flash-frozen in the depths of space centuries ago, had a particular ripe piquancy to it. At that moment, Sera couldn’t bring herself to care, noisily banging the garbage bin over in her hurry to get every last morsel into her gaping stomach.
“If you don’t get away from my bin right this instant, I’ll… Oh.”
Sera froze like an iriaz in the headlights. Lina Svita stood at her back door with a rolling pin raised over her head staring at Sera with raised eyebrows. Sera suddenly became very conscious of the mess of frozen garbage hanging out of her mouth as she knelt in the dirt. She swallowed with some difficulty and stood.
“Morning, Lina. Haven’t seen you in a while. How have you been?” she said with what she hoped was a good approximation of normalcy.
Lina jolted out of wherever her mind had taken her. “Yes, well, you know. Can’t complain.” She twisted the rolling pin in her hands. “And yourself? How have you been keeping?”
“Oh, um, about the same.” Sera rubbed her hands against her thighs. “Just popped down to get some things. Think the kids must have lost track of me in the confusion,” she said with a smile she didn’t feel. “I’m sure one of them will drop by when they realize.”
Lina said nothing, smiling knowingly.
“The telescope’s coming along nicely,” she said, desperate to change the subject. “I really need to replace a few of the caps. That’s why I… But it basically works. Shouldn’t be long before I pick up a signal, right?” She felt genuine hope touching her voice.
“I’m sure it’ll happen any moment now, deary.”
The naked disbelief in her voice knocked the bottom out of Sera’s stomach. She searched for something to say but couldn’t pierce the cloud that had fallen over her mind.
Lina took the choice out of her hands. “You wouldn’t happen to know…” she started hesitantly. “My boy. My Mitri. How is he? Is he… It’s been so long. Is he eating properly? Has he asked about us? Why won’t he come home?”
Sera flushed, unable to meet Lina’s eye. In truth, she had no idea how the kid was doing. “Um, I’m sure he’s just busy with things.” She was the only adult up there with all those kids and she had no idea how any of them were doing. “I’ll tell him,” she promised, for all the good it would do her stained and blackened soul. “When I see him, I’ll tell him you asked after him.”
The other woman wilted and Sera felt like complete trash. Her stomach twisted, guilt and shame flooding her at what she was about to do.
“Lina, I…” She struggled to get the words out. The persistent drumbeat throbbing at her temple told her that she couldn’t afford to think about the extra burden she was laying on this woman’s shoulders. She felt dirty. “Please. I need a place to stay. Can you…” Like complete and utter trash, taking advantage of a woman in the midst of her grief. “Can you help me?”
Lina was still for a few moments. “You know I can’t…” she said, her discomfort plainly apparent. “If any of my neighbours were to see…”
“It wouldn’t be for long!” Sera hurried to reassure her. Shouldn’t have said anything... “I only need… It’s just until I can get off-planet again!” Just making things worse for everyone around me again.
Lina tilted her head as though in thought. “Well, I suppose…” she said slowly.
“Thank you!” Sera darted forward to take Lina’s hands between hers before the other woman could change her mind. Then thought better of making Lina recoil in disgust from her soiled flesh. She settled for ducking her head low in gratitude instead. “Thank you!”
“I can’t put you up in the living room again,” Lina said firmly as she led Sera into her house. “You’ll have to stay in the pantry, you understand?”
“Yes, yes, that’ll be perfect!” Sera said, skull throbbing like an overripe melon as she nodded her assent vigourously. “I’ll be dead quiet! No one will know that I’m here!”
“Good. Because if anyone does, you’re out. Here.” Lina opened the door to a dark and musty room. “I’ll just find you an old towel to put on the floor. You just wait quietly until I get back.”
Sera shuffled into the room, the gloom soothing to her tired eye. She stood there awkwardly, feeling at a loose end. Lina returned shortly with the promised towel, a thin and tattered thing that was little more than a rag. Sera did what she could to fold the towel into a comfortable bed and lowered herself onto the narrow strip of floor between a set of cupboards lining one wall and a row of barrels lining the other. The synthetic floorboards were hard and unyielding on her bones, the thin towel doing little to cushion her head. Outside, the thump-thump of improvised projectiles from the trash moon continued. The dust from the empty shelves tickled her nose. She sneezed, the sudden flash of intense pressure ringing in her skull like a slap. The door to the pantry slid open, spilling light and noise onto Sera. Through slitted eyes, she saw little Inabi peering wide-eyed into the room. Sera smiled and waved. The child pulled away, her footsteps echoing as she fled into the rest of the house. Sera swatted in vain at the door, dragging herself up when she couldn’t get it to close.
“--don’t know what you’re thinking letting that thing into the house,” Tefi’s voice rumbled through the crack in the door.
“Maybe I’ve just gotten sick of your performance in bed and thought the outsider could do a better job of it.”
“Ha! Like I could believe even you would want to touch that. Come on, Lina. Did you have to have it around our girls? And near our food?”
Lina sighed. “The outsider’s not that bad. And it can’t even eat our food without being sick. Besides, after what it did with our poor Nadi…”
Sera slid the door shut tight, blocking out their words. She curled into a ball on top of the towel and rested her aching head on her arm. Seconds ticked by. Sleep wouldn’t come. Sera stared into the darkness, tracing shapes in the shadows. Boredom nagged at her like an itch under her skin. Shifting about only amplified her various aches and pains so she remained still. She hoped somebody would come talk to her but nobody did. Her stomach gurgled uncomfortably, spitting acid up into her oesophagus but there was nothing she could do about that at the moment. So long as she didn’t throw up all over Lina’s floor she would be fine.
Everything was heat and pain. She writhed, seeking relief from the bed of rocks and nails she was lying on. Serpents fought within her gut, tearing her apart from the inside. Turbolasers pierced her head, splitting her in two. A thin and pathetic mewling came out of her mouth. Eternity folded down to nothing around her. The shadows stretched their tendrils out and shook her shoulder.
“Outsider, your ride home’s here. Wake up.”
She pulled herself free. Waves of agony rolled and crashed in her head, chasing her doggedly no matter where she fled.
A sigh curled into the darkness. “It’s been like this for ages. You’re going to have to pick it up and carry them, Yeniil love.”
Uncertainty bubbled in the ether, coalescing into a great finger poking at her vaguely. She swatted the offending member away from her. The uncertainty sharpened into action. Pincers grabbed her and hauled her to her feet. She whimpered, feeling wet sludge dislodge from inside her face and flow down the back of her throat. The tendrils and the pincers dragged her into a needlestack of light. She willed her head to fold in on itself like a sock but her skeleton wouldn’t allow it.
Something was passed between the two. “It’s not much, I’m afraid, with the way things are.”
“Oh, Aunty, I can’t…”
“I’ll not take no for an answer. The other is for my boy and I’m trusting you to see he gets it. Now then,” she was patted firmly on the arm, “I wish I could give you a painkiller for your head, outsider, but we’ve none left after Arkav guzzled the lot last winter. Here’s hoping you feel better soon.”
She grunted and wobbled her head, hoping that would be sufficient. She was led from the bright pressure wave of light into chill darkness, sapping the swollen heat from her body. The pain ebbed and for a blissful instant she felt like a person again. Then the balance tipped and all the mucus in her head turned to ice.
“Guh…” She wiped her streaming eye and nose on her sleeve, feeling utterly wretched. They were fair from the village, she realized, the imposing shoulders of the big kid, Meat Head, bobbing dimly in the murky glow emanating from the redlight he used to check their path for hazards.
“Where are we going?” Sera said thickly, wrapping her arms tightly around herself. She surreptitiously spat a wad of phlegm into the dirt, absurdly grateful no one was around to see her in her sorry state.
“Back,” came the terse reply. “I’ve warned you before about going anywhere with Claw and his lot.”
Had he? “I needed to get new capacitors! It was very important for my project!” she blustered to cover her confusion.
The boy sighed. “Just don’t do it again,” he said with little hope in his voice.
Sera grumbled an indistinct response, blushing in shame when she needed his assistance to stuff her weak and trembling body into a space suit. Dark thoughts rumbled in her head, feeding and in turn being fed by the rhythmic thudding of pain squeezing her skull. The ass-numbing vibration of the flyer stopped and she blinked. The depressingly familiar fields of bleached grey trash stretched out unending and miserably featureless around her. Their passage through space had slipped completely out of Sera’s notice. Sera got off the flyer unsteadily, staring around unseeingly as she fumbled to engage her gravity belt. Two figures ran up to them from a new entrance into the base that had been cleared when the King had commenced the periodic bombardment of the planet. One was a boy Sera wasn’t familiar with. The other was Mitri, following behind the other kid and keeping a stern eye on him.
“The Bomb sent me,” the unfamiliar boy said, his voice rasping over the comms as he struggled to catch his breath. “He said, uh, there’s been a change of plans and, uh…” He frowned as though trying to recall what he’d been told. “Demon has convinced the King to call a meeting on the crater situation now. He’ll try to calm things down but you need to get to the south hold as fast as possible.”
Meat Head hissed in a breath. “Jawbone, you’ll need to take Killer the rest of the way.” He shoved something into Sera’s hands. “Run to Night Fang,” he said to the messenger kid, “and tell him to remember what happened in the Rust Bowl.”
“Uh…” The kid glanced between them, alarm flickering under the uncertainty in his eyes.
“You’ll do that, won’t you, Scab?” Mitri said, the softness of his voice incongruous with the glare he was giving the kid.
“I could just tag along to the meeting,” Sera said, feeling like she was holding a puzzle that she should be able to solve but just couldn’t quite. “Or I could, you know, wait in the ha--”
“No!” the two boys said in chorus.
Sera squeezed her eye shut, grimacing. “Fuck, please don’t shout,” she whispered when her ears stopped ringing.
It was Lina’s parcel that Meat Head had given her Sera realized dimly as Mitri steered the flyer though the invisible gravity traps on the far side of the base. It was old, a small bag of sturdy canvas, probably shielded, the kind a workman would take out on site to carry his lunch in. One of the straps was loose, showing an insulated box, a bundle of clean clothes, and what Sera guessed to be a pot of waterless cleanser. She threaded the strap through the other fastener, securing the bag shut as tightly as possible. The flyer slid to an abrupt halt.
“Sorry, this is as far as I can take you,” Mitri said, his voice shaky. “I’ve just remembered, I’ve got… I’ve got things I have to do. Back at the base.”
Sera slipped off the back of the flyer, bewildered. Then she spotted the overturned speeder not far away and the way he wasn’t letting himself look at it. “Right. Not a problem, kid. The walk will do me good anyway,” she lied. The parcel shook lightly in her tired hands as she held it out. Mitri stared at it as though it were a live snake. “Your mother wanted you to have this.”
He stayed hunched and frozen on the flyer, his knuckles white beneath his fur as he clutched the control column. “I… I’m sorry, I…”
Something broke inside Sera. “Your mom loves you, Mitri,” she pleaded. “Why won’t you go home? They all miss you! Your dad, your sisters…”
Deep shame and grief flashed across his face. “No, I’m sorry, I can’t! I have things to do!” Sera jumped back as he gunned the flyer’s engines and sped away, broken sobs quickly fading to nothing as he hit the edge of comm range.
She was stumbling by the time she got near her observatory. Her laboured breath rasped loudly within the confines of her helmet, pungent sweat soaking every layer of clothing between her and the outside world. She sucked listlessly at the tube to the suit’s water bladder, the last stale droplets gone hours ago. The fragile spire of her radio telescope came into view, two smaller space suit clad figures dancing around the structure, fistfuls of garbage flying from their hands. A blinding, feral rage welled up within her, blotting out all thought.
“Hey!” Her voice cracked and reverberated over the comms. The twin figures whirled around to face her. Peels of laughter rang in her ears as they renewed their assault on her precious antenna. Fury boiled in Sera’s skin. “Hey!” She struggled to cross the last few metres between her and all her hard work, the jumbled and uneven landscape fighting against her at every step. “The fuck do you think you’re doing!”
The boys laughed at her screaming, dodging skillfully out of the way of the handfuls of trash Sera impotently threw at them.
“You think this is funny?” she snarled, blood pounding in her ears. “See what I’ll fucking do to you, you little assholes!”
The boys started, uncertainty and fear flitting across their features. For a moment, Sera thought she saw a flash of sickly yellow reflected off the grubby interior of her helmet. She snapped her eye shut and shoved her head into her shoulder, not wanting them to see, not wanting them to know.
“Get the hell out of here,” she growled, icy shame trickling down her spine in a greasy flood.
She barely heard their rapid retreat over her own heartbeat, adrenaline and guilt making it race uncomfortably fast within her chest. Laughter pierced her ears, the boys’ fright turning to merriment as soon as they were beyond her reach. The last dregs of fury drained from her, leaving her with nothing but grey, leaden exhaustion soaking her bones. She slowly opened her eye, seeing nothing amiss in her smudged reflection. She jerked her eye away, not wanting to look at herself. Her heart dropped into her stomach like a stone. The reflector dish meant to catch signals out of the air was hanging limp and stationary from its support tower. I can’t. I fucking can’t. She was so fucking tired. Everything was too much and she was struggling to just keep up, let alone make any progress. She stood rooted in place, her ragged breaths burning through her precious store of oxygen, fighting to get the powder keg of her emotions under control. Clenching her fists tight enough to make her bones ache, she trod with heavy footfalls to the access ladder she’d dragged for kilometre upon aching kilometre all the way from the salvage point.
She was utterly spent by the time the job was done, light-headed from a depleting supply of breathable air and in agony from the angle she’d needed to contort herself in to reach the dish’s mounting bracket and terminal connectors. She fell more than climbed down the ladder, crawling inside the observatory and fumbling with numb fingers to remove her helmet. The air tasted of stale sweat, hot electronics, rotting food peels and the faint miasma of poorly contained human waste coming from the bottles of frozen piss sitting in a far corner. Need to take care of that. She stayed prone, her breath puffing out of her in great clouds as the room’s meagre heat drained out the open door into the unshielded moonscape, turning her paralyzed limbs to ice. There was a pulling within her, like something being sucked up through a straw, giving her the spurt of energy she needed to clamber to her feet and shut the frigid cold out. Shaking her shoulders against the sensation, she scraped the frozen moisture that had collected on the door into an old can, the energy already fading. It didn’t matter. None of it did. She could rest after she got something hot into her. She dropped her heating coil, little more than a long metal spring wound around a non-conductive rod, into the can with a thunk, fighting to thread the exposed ends of wire into the delicate connection points. It would heat the ice in no time at all. If she could only. Get it to fucking…
She flung the coil aside, sending the can and its contents tumbling across the grubby, uneven floor. Uncontrollable sobs erupted unbidden from deep within her chest. She collapsed, her bones crying out at the impact. The pain fuelled the tears flowing out of her. She beat her fists impotently against the floor, her wails filling the observatory to the brim, drowning her in her own misery. Her tears ran dry, her burst of destructive energy petering out to nothing. As if she expected anything different to happen. Her stomach spasmed painfully, her mouth flooding with saliva and bile. She was so hungry, she wondered briefly if she really needed all of her limbs. Pulling a thin arm inside the layers of wrappings enveloping her, she felt the deep valleys between each rib. It was time to face facts. She wasn’t getting enough nutrients and there was no way that the Force alone was keeping her vertical. She was drawing energy from Bastila. She was dying and she was dragging her partner, her love, down with her. Sera whimpered, thumping her head rhythmically into the compressed pamphlets and packing material beneath her. It was all her fault. All of it. If she weren’t herself, if she weren’t a selfish, ravening monster devouring and destroying all in her path, everything would be fine. How many people would still be alive if it weren’t for her? How many more had to suffer and die from her inflicting her wretched existence upon this galaxy? Why haven’t I just killed myself already? Put everyone out of their misery. Am I that much of a fucking coward? But what would that do to Bastila? She didn’t deserve any of this. She didn’t deserve to be snuffed out because she saved the life of a murderous traitor. But it didn’t matter. Sera was going to die and Bastila was going to be taken down with her, drained dry by a parasitic connection. Sera curled in on herself, rocking slowly as she cried into the darkness.
It was dark, icy tracks running down her face. It had been dark earlier, she recalled. She hadn’t bothered to turn on a light. Too exhausted. She rubbed at her face, realizing too late that she hadn’t removed the space suit she’d been wearing. What had woken her? She looked around muzzily, trying to figure out what was different. What was that? Was that, like, a pulsing static noise she heard? Her eye fell on the faint amber glow coming from her telescope’s main console. Her heart beat loudly in her ears as she tottered towards it, not allowing herself to breathe. The monitor flickered in time to the static, an almost-discernible pattern in its rhythm. She reached under the bottom bezel and fiddled with the adjustment knobs until the line of a waveform showed clear and crisp. Her heart beat more loudly now. She boosted the amplitude of the signal to a comfortable listening volume, adjusting the frequency of the receiver one increment at a time, paranoid about missing anything. The sound flicked as she moved from one value to the next, a millisecond of comprehension piercing her skull. Nerves making her clumsy, she fumbled to open the advanced settings. Working through the fractions of an increment she narrowed it down and down and…
Voices burst to life in the empty observatory, multiple, chattering over one another. The sounds of a crowd, music, the cadence of an advert. There was a crack, the crowd roared, jubilant, the voices excitedly shouting, swept along with the moment. The words were unintelligible, Sera couldn’t understand transmitted speech that wasn’t directed at her, but she knew what a sports match sounded like. Her heart thudded painfully in her chest, doubling her over. It felt like it was trying to beat right out of her ribcage. She clutched at her chest, fighting to calm herself. But it was too difficult. Tears rolled unchecked down her cheek. It had finally happened. She’d made contact with the outside.
Voices echoed off the high, metallic ceiling of the Main Hall when Sera finally managed to find her way in, head throbbing. She scowled down at her datapad full of notes to keep her request for a flyer on track, a sense of frustrated urgency roiling within her blood. I swear these kids have changed the fucking halls around! Didn’t matter. She would be home soon. Her knees wobbled at the sheer weight of relief and elation contained in that thought. Focus! Don’t fuck this up at the last second! Just one voice, she realized as she squeezed through the mass of bodies clustered around the throne.“--think I wouldn't notice if one of the flyers was taken out without approval? No one leaves this place without my express permission!”
The slight figure of the King quivered with rage, the reflected light of the great slab behind the throne shining golden on his pale fur. He stood rather than sat, using the slight elevation of the ragged dais to tower over the older boys flanking him on all sides.
Wait, that was me, Sera thought as the words followed the circuitous route through her head to her brain. A quiver of apprehension wormed its way into her gut. Her gaze found Meat Head, the broad shoulders of his peers separating him from his usual place at the King’s side, guilt far too plain in every line of his body.
“And I will know if one of you tries to pull something like that again,” Leader said, his voice low and dangerous. “My scouts are constantly patrolling the debris fields and if you so much as think of disobeying me, if you so much as think of breaking formation and visiting your parents--”
“Hey now, isn’t that a bit harsh?” Sera’s voice cut through the hall. All eyes fell on her, more than one mouth curling up in a contemptuous smirk when they saw who it was. Meat Head shook his head at her as furiously as he could without drawing attention to himself. Leader stood frozen, staring at her in shock.
“Like,” she continued, “people gotta go visit their families if they want. You can't just--”
“You don’t get any say here,” Leader said coldly. “Nobody asked for your opinion about anything. You don’t even belong here, Killer.”
Sera flinched reflexively. “Takes one to know one,” she muttered without thinking.
The boy went ashen for a second, looking lost and sick like a wounded animal surrounded by carrion eaters. Sera blanched, wishing she could stuff the words back into her stupid mouth. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have--”
“I’m nothing like you,” Leader spat. “You live in a hole and eat dirt. Don’t even think to compare me to the likes of you.”
Stupid, fucking idiot. Shouldn’t have said anything. “You don’t have to deal with everything on your own, you know,” she said as gently as possible. “There are plenty of people who want to help and support you.”
The boy scoffed. “You mean like those adults down in that village that you’re so cozy with? The ones that push us around, make us say ‘yes, sir, no, sir’, bow and scrape for everything we get? Those adults?”
“They’re not that bad,” Sera said weakly over the snickers and grunts of approval from the crowd.
“They won’t be.” His smile turned thin and nasty. “I have a plan to deal with them.”
The older boys at his side grinned and jostled each other. Meat Head looked pale and worried.
“You mean like bombarding the village with garbage?” she said, her voice hard. “People’s friends and families are down there. Your mother is down there!”
The smile slipped from Leader’s face like water. “That’s none of your business.”
Fuck. “You, you can’t…” Sera searched for the right combination of words to make it right, to make him see reason. “You can’t just bombard your only agricultural center!”
“I said I don’t want to hear it!”
“You need to focus on the harvest!”
Demon snorted. Lazer Eyes followed his lead and guffawed at Sera’s suggestion. The other boys soon followed suit, their sniggering filling her hall. Leader tensed warily, uncertainty flickering across his face darkening to anger as control of the crowd was taken from him. Meat Head watched his friend, deep concern glowing in his eyes. He stepped forward, drawing attention to himself.
“How dare you?” he blustered impotently. “Do you really think we would trade--”
“I don’t care.” Leader’s face was hard, closed off. “Get out. You’re not welcome here.”
The crowd closed in around her, childish faces staring up at her, daring her to start something. Sera stumbled back, casting one last glance at the lonely, angry kid standing solitary and exposed on the dais, a cloud of hostility encircling him. Then she slipped out, heart aching.
Another sneeze exploded in her head, rattling her remaining eyeball and the bones of her skull. Sera threw an arm up belatedly to muffle the sound, groaning into the crook of her elbow as she thumped against the corridor wall. Fucking dust is going to kill me before the starvation does. She’d snuck back into the base via the back entrance into the ship at the moon’s core that Leader had shown her. None of the kids were likely to lend her a flyer now, not after her spectacularly, stupid, fucking performance. But she still needed one, so she was just going to take it. If she could just fucking find where they’d fucking moved them to! Soon. Soon. You’ll find them soon. She kicked open another door, fighting with the gunk-filled tracks until she could peek inside. How many conference rooms does a cargo ship need? Hopefully, the folks where she was headed wouldn’t mind a strange ship with no comms entering their atmosphere. Shit, Vani must be fucking behind with his history project by now. I’m gonna have to make it up to him somehow. She wrestled with the next door. Take him out to lunch or something. Is it holidays for him yet? The room was filled with uneventful darkness. She jerked her head out, ready to move on, find a flyer, get home in time for tea, then stuck it back in, curious. There was something, something was different about this room. She squeezed herself through, peering into the darkness. What was that smell? Sort of nail polish or synthetics? Some kind of metal? Shapes slowly made themselves known as her eye adjusted to the gloom, a massive jumble highlighted with thin smudges giving off the faintest glow imaginable. Brain clicking into action, she thumped her suit light until it flickered on, stuttering light illuminating the room.
It was… It was a junkyard. A mound of wrecked ships and speeders, components and cables spilling out of them like entrails, all tangled together in what Sera guessed was one of the holds. Made sense. The kids had to get the parts for the flyers somehow. She’d just presumed they’d cannibalised what vehicles there’d been on the planet. She picked her way over the mound, careful to not snag her suit on the knots of twisted metal that made her claustrophobia queasy, marveling at just how much wire a ship needed to run. The shape of an idea formed in her head, making her quiver with anticipation. The odd smell intensified. Sera’s gaze fell on the distended belly of a hyperdrive, a thin line of reactive materials leaking out of the ruptured casing. She held a hand over her mouth, trying to breathe as little of the stuff in as possible as she scurried to find where she’d left her helmet.
Her mouth was watering again by the time she got back, acid clawing its way up her gullet looking for something to digest. She grabbed a hunk of the rags swaddling her between her teeth and chewed, hoping to con her stomach into tranquility. Soon. I’ll be able to eat what I fucking want. She fell on the accumulated junk with fevered vigour, digging through the mangled parts with energy she didn’t have to spare. A decent size pile began to form, anything that looked remotely useful tossed onto the heap with the rest. She worked and worked as though she could trade exertion for salvation. Sweat rolled down her body, her lips growing dry and chapped, her bladder of water forgotten. Tired clumsiness finally forced her to stop, an ignition coil clanging noisily down the pile of junk and across the floor as it slipped numbly from her fingers. Whatever. Should be enough for now. She forced herself to her feet, feeling like a puppet whose strings had been cut. A vague throbbing made itself known between her eye sockets. She turned and tripped, pitching forward down the slope of wire and metal. One foot fell in front of the other, trying to regain her balance as she hurtled towards the pitch black floor below. The peeling yellow paint of a thick metal upright shone bright in the flickering light from her suit. She tilted her body towards it, regretting her decision in the split second of clarity before the impact knocked the wind out of her lungs. Her foot slipped, ankle-destroying clutter giving way to empty nothingness. She clutched the upright, hugging it like it was her girlfriend. Not the floor. Cargo elevator. Her heart thudded in her ears, adrenaline pushing back her weariness. Experimentally, she kicked a broken tail light off the edge, watching it tumble endlessly down into the blackness.
Sera prised herself off the beautiful, angelic metal upright, clinging to the nearby wall as she climbed slowly and very carefully back up the mound. She plopped herself onto her makeshift sled, the sheared off chassis of a family speeder loaded up with all her crap. The sled dipped, the bottom of the chassis crunching into the floor. She groaned, the groan threatening to turn into a wail as exhaustion beat her over the head. She clenched her jaw shut, beating her fists against the hyperdrive she’d collapsed on top of until she got herself under control. It’s just a tiny setback. Don’t fuck everything up now because things didn’t go your way! We’re so close, so close! With what felt like the effort needed to lift the sun, Sera rolled a steering column off the top of the pile. The sled bobbed up, sliding with soapy smoothness away from the fallen part. Sera let out a croaky cheer, manoeuvering the sled with a length of broken communication ducting out the door, whooping as it sped down the corridor with ease.
It was all completely useless. All of it. Not a single part was of any use to her at all.
Sera gripped her skull between her hands, curling her fingers into claws until her nails bit into her flesh. She wanted to rip something apart. Herself, if possible. She couldn’t make a flyer or any other vehicle, for that matter. There weren’t enough parts. There just weren’t. She could maybe get something up into space and she could definitely accelerate something into hyperspace along a pre-planned course, it just couldn’t be a living creature. The thrusters she’d salvaged were too weak to get her and a hyperdrive out of the moon’s gravity and she had no fucking hull to stop herself being catapulted into the depths of space if she tried to move at any kind of fucking reasonable speed. It made sense. Of course, it fucking did! The kids wouldn’t be riding three, four to a flyer if they could make more of the fucking things. It was, it was just… She wished she were a grenade so she could just explode in a single, cathartic blast.
She slumped forward, resting her forehead against the rotting silicon surface of her compute module.
“Doesn’t matter. None of it fucking matters…”
She pushed herself back up with difficulty, reaching through the sludge weighing her down to drag her keyboard in front of her. It didn’t matter. She’d figure something out. She just had to. Even if she had to fucking strap herself to the hyperdrive with wire and hope someone picked her up before she hit atmosphere, she just, she just had to.
The keyboard flexed under her fingers, rubbery membrane depressing switches feeding raw astronomical data into the hyperdrive, gorging it on stars and gravitational waves and radiation. Numbers flashed in the dim puddle of the screen, fading to nothing as the drive swallowed them whole. Key switches snapped with each press, tiny bones trapped beneath the dead-flesh shroud of the keys, sacrificing themselves for her hunger and ambition. The compute unit screamed as it connected to her telescope, bright, hellish smudges flickering around the edges of the screen, clawing at the inside of the glass, baying for her blood as the baleful eye of the universe brought its weight down on her.
She rolled to her knees, hands sinking into a quagmire of blood and vomit as she forced herself up, forced herself forward. Wading through limbs and organs, dead hands clutching at her flesh, a familiar curve of pale neck, skull brutally ripped off its column, bones crunching beneath her boots, she swept a burnt out droid head from the telescope’s main console and typed in a series of commands, flinching at the infernal chattering exploding into the room. She had to hide. She had to cover her face or they would see her, they would know what was inside. She pulled the flayed skin off the butchered corpse of a woman with short dark hair and drew the wretched thing over her face, hiding herself from the world. Grabbing a thick, coiling cable with quaking hands, she trudged out into the frigid nothingness, breath like duracrete in her lungs. The stolen face was tight, squeezing her skull, wrapping around her throat. She wanted to tear it off, she wanted to rip the flesh right off her skull.
Her limbs felt completely dead, drained of energy she didn’t realise she still had. Her cheek was wet with cooling tears. Why was she on the floor?
“Oh, thank fuck you’re not dead!”
Sera swiveled her head to find the source of the voice, groaning as her neck creaked like a rusty hinge. Her tongue felt like she’d taken all her frustration out on it again. She brought her hand up to soothe her throbbing face, smacking into the transparisteel of her helmet. There were two large strips of industrial tape running across its centre in a cross pattern, not quite blocking what was left of her field of vision.
“Don’t!” Her hand was swatted brusquely away. “I don’t know if the tape will hold and I don’t know if I even got to you in time and… Just don’t.”
She turned in the direction of the swatting arm, gaze falling on the heavy frame of The Bomb, the kid who had been there when she first woke up.
“You fell!” He was hunched over on an overturned bucket, face pale and drawn. “I came to warn you… And you, you just…! I put the tape over the hole but you were thrashing and…!”
He stopped, clutching his head, his shoulders shaking. His breath rang ragged in Sera’s ears as she struggled in vain against her exhausted body to sit upright, heels churning up a puddle of liquid filth, splashing garbage everywhere. The boy knelt at her side and helped her into a sitting position. She sagged limply against her knees, tired muscle of her heart beating frantically from the exertion.
“You can’t…” He swallowed. “Please, please don’t strain yourself. I can’t carry you to safety,” he said urgently. “And I don’t know how to keep you alive.”
Sera grunted noncommittally, turning her hand over in front of her eye, observing the mundanity of the heavy glove, dust and grime permanently fused into every scratch and dent in the thick synthetic material. Back to normal at least.
The kid grasped her arm gently with both hands. “The King noticed that someone had been into the parts store. Nobody can prove it but everybody is very ready to believe that it was you. Please, whatever it is that you’re doing, whatever thing it is you might be testing, just stop.”
“Mm.” Sera stared unseeingly at the ground, kicking apathetically at the exposed corner of an old shipping container.
“It doesn’t have to be for forever,” he promised. “The King is in a very unstable mood right now with the… with everything. If he thinks you’re trying to get off this place without his permission, he, he might do something he’ll regret and none of us want that. You just have to be patient.”
“Mhmm.” Bitterness roiled in her gut. She kicked savagely at the container as it bobbed up to meet her foot.
The boy was quiet for a few moments. “Listen,” he said carefully. “You don’t think you shouldn’t maybe come stay at the base for a bit?”
She said nothing.
“It’s just,” he pressed, “you’re not exactly… you know… and I don’t think you should be out here on your own. Not when everyone is busy with, with other things and none of us are going to be able to check on you and make sure you don’t… It’ll be fine! We can make a space for you in my office and, uh, it has a lockable door, so Demon and his cohorts shouldn’t be able to bother you and, uh…” He trailed off. “When we have time we can get you down to the surface!” he tried again. “I’m sure my dad won’t mind taking you in. Or Jawbone’s parents! They like you, right? They can find you someplace warm and get you something to eat… Oh. Uh, well…”
Sera kicked at the container as he flailed, everything left within her burned to dry and lifeless ash. The container dipped beneath the surface of the murky puddle, then rose, sending ripples of liquified refuse splashing against the tumbled shore on which they sat. Sera stared. Slowly, almost tentatively, she pushed the container down, feeling the stained plasteel struggle against the ungainly, oversized boot encasing her foot. Her ankle turned and the container broke free, surging away from her into an unseen obstacle beneath the oily surface.
“--even if we can’t make everything right, that doesn’t mean you should--”
Her breath came quick and unsteady in her chest, making dark spots bloom in her vision. Some unknown instinct seized ahold of her tired mind, contorting her face into the frozen aspect of a saint, perfect and serene. Don’t let them see! Don’t let them know what you’re feeling! “It’s fine!” Gotta clear all this crap away, come back with the sled, get it back with the rest. “After some rest, it’ll all shake out in the end!” Fit the boosters, weld the sled to the bottom, drag it over to the mound. Fuck, will the hyperdrive even fit? Stuff it full of boxes, pack in some spare parts. Need to remember my datapad.
The Bomb was staring at her, she realized, eyes wide and filled with something that looked not unlike dread. Need to get him out of here. He’ll stop me if he knows!
“I’m just a bit tired, so I’m going to head off and take a nap,” she said, face stiff from holding it in a mask of false calmness. Need to check the weight, check the heat, check the angle of descent. “Thanks for stopping by though!”
Each word sapped the colour from his cheeks and deepened the helpless alarm glowing in the boy’s eyes. Sera didn’t notice. The all-consuming blaze of hope was already burning too brightly in her mind.
Sera shook the latch one last time to make sure it wouldn’t break free, metal components blurring as her eye fought to slide shut. She shook her head, sucking in deep lungfuls of air to convince her brain to push through and stay awake for a little while longer. Soon, soon! She ran her fingers over the release mechanism, testing for any stiffness or unexpected obstruction when it was put under strain. The well-oiled parts moved smoothly against each other, leaving a greasy film on her gloved fingers. Getting her helmet as close to flush with the surface as possible, she eyed the length of the track she’d built, looking for any flaw or deviation that might send her careening off into a ditch. Straight and clear and directly where her telescope was pointed. Perfect! She trudged back up the mound, fresh agony racing up her spine as she exited the rogue pocket of gravity hidden beneath the trash and the pressure was released from her vertebrae. She stood back once she reached the top and surveyed the entire setup, rolling her shoulders to ease the pain. The thick wire cabling down to her counterweight seemed to be holding up just fine, no fraying, no tangling, anything that would indicate a point of failure. The catch welded to the main support frame of the shipping container looked good, unlikely to sheer off from stresses placed on it or fail to release the cable when the time was right. Excellent. There was nothing for it. Sera stepped up to the container, remembered and shut her gravity belt off with shaking hand. Instantly, she felt lighter, her feet threatening to launch her into the air with the slightest twitch. Careful not to brain herself against the doorframe, she lowered herself into the upended container, sinking into a sea of crushed boxes and salvaged packing materials. She flicked all her ships parts on one by one, waiting for them all to return status green before pulling the lever and sealing herself into the container. The packing material settled around her like a heavy blanket, holding her body on all sides. She took a deep breath. Only the control panel bolted overhead provided any illumination in the enclosed space but that would just have to do. She wriggled around in her spot wedged behind the hyperdrive, trying to find the one perfect spot that would make it not feel like she was buried alive, only managing to encase herself further in cardboard and polystyrene foam. Didn’t matter! It was just one jump and she could just fucking deal with it until it was over!
“Here we go.” A giggle bubbled up from some frozen and ossified place in her soul. This was it. She was really going home. No, no! Need to focus. We can freak out later. She shook her hands out, trying to smooth the smile from her face, the inertial damper buzzing unpleasantly everytime she moved. But she couldn’t suppress the lightness in her chest that she hadn’t felt in such a long time. She flexed her hand to settle her fingers more securely into her glove and depressed the release button.
In the distance, the emergency hatch gave way, dropping her counterweight into the elevator shaft. The container pulled forward down the slope, picking up speed as Sera engaged the boosters. They hit the rogue gravity pocket with a punch, the inertial damper struggling to keep up as the moon rocketed the container towards its center. Sera felt a gigantic hand pressing her back into the hyperdrive, her limbs growing heavy as blood was forced down to her feet. Sweat rolled down her brow. Shit, this thing gonna survive all this? She felt the cable release as they hit the bottom of the curve, separating the container from the counterweight. Shockwaves vibrated through her bones. The moon shook as the crumpled speeder stuffed full of hyperdrives and sublight engine blocks slammed into the bottom of the elevator shaft. Bet that got their attention. Her heart pounded. The feeling of pressure increased. Had the quake knocked her off her track? Was she going fast enough to escape the moon’s gravity? Everything went black.
Red light flashed through her eyelid. Sera rolled her head forward, groaning as her neck muscles ached and cramped from the weird angle they’d been forced into. She brought a hand up to massage the back of her neck, wincing at the bright flaring light from the console. She squinted through a barely open eye at the console. The proximity alarm was flashing. Above, the scanner pulsed dimly, showing the container in the thick static of the debris field and the solid mass of the moon far below her.
Sera whooped, kicking the boxes and packing materials hugging her. She’d done it! She’d actually fucking done it and not killed herself! And in a damned, piece of shit, million year old fucking shipping container! Sera clutched her helmet, laughing with manic glee into the solitude of her suit. Laughter turned to alarmed squawking as the transparisteel flexed and bent around the taped patch across her face and Sera ripped her hands away from her head, patting and smoothing the patch back into proper shape. She let out an amused snort at her own stupidity. Let’s blow this joint. She pressed the buttons to engage the boosters, nudging the container through the debris field. A group of brighter dots swam onto the scanner, circling through the debris. Leader had sent his patrol out. But they didn’t seem to know where she was yet. Sera split her attention between the boosters and the scanner, sweat rolling down into the neck of her suit as she felt her way blindly through the dense cloud of dumped waste choking the system, watching the proximity alarm for any sign she was clear. The tiny flyers had no problem navigating the field, dancing nimbly through space, almost too fast for the old scanner to track. The proximity alarm blinked off. Sera cut the rear boosters, using the forward boosters to bring the container to a full stop. She fumbled for her navigational guide, a hand-etched sheet of plastic cut from the discarded packaging of a child’s toy and clamped to the top of the console, etchings darkened with her own blood. She held the guide down, clamping it firmly against the screen of the scanner while she tweaked the lateral and vertical boosters, hand shaking at the idea of swinging the container around too far. Two of the bright dots peeled off from the rest, converging on her position. The scanner’s image lined up with the etchings. Sera scrambled through crushed boxes for the hyperdrive switch, fighting to get the stiff mechanism into the on position. The dots drew closer. Sera swore she could hear the roar of their engines bearing down on her. The switch engaged with a heavy click that felt like her thumb snapping. There was a jolt. Everything rattled. The scanner image turned to meaningless noise.
“Did that work?” Sera froze, listening. For all the good that would do in the void of space. Nothing came, no explosion, no disaster. “Huh.” She leaned back against the vibrating hyperdrive with a relieved sigh. “Thank fuck that’s over with!”
Her stomach rumbled uncomfortably. “Soon, soon,” she reassured it, patting her midriff soothingly. “We’ll get you something good soon. A big plate of veg strips. With plenty of sauce. Every planet has those, right? Mmm, a nice, hot brownie. Shit, with a massive scoop of ice cream on top, all dripping and melting into the brownie. Oh, fuck!” She squeezed her eye shut and drummed her heels on the container floor, sucking at the stale water in her suit’s bladder. “And as much caf as I can drink. Never want to taste this fucking, bullshit piss ever again. Fucking sick of it!”
She sat, gnawing on the end of the straw. The container rattled around her, an even, monotonous hum of packing materials jostling her and plasteel vibrating the bones of her ass. Sighing, she reached for her datapad, stretching to feel behind the control console and under all the boxes.
“Fuck!” It was sitting on top of the nest of pamphlets she slept on. She’d left it in the observatory. “Fuck.” She had nothing to do for the whole trip. She couldn’t even finish reading the book she’d… No, no. That was her other datapad, at home. This one only had a shitty block game on it. “Damn it.”
She tapped her fingers inside her gloves, feeling the way the material bunched and squeaked differently with each digit, exploring the texture of the inner lining. She clicked her tongue in time to the rhythm of her fingers, rocking her head back and forth. She pulled a bony arm into her suit, scratching at a rash she seemed to have picked up from somewhere. She poked and prodded her skin, counting her ribs, pressing her nails into her flesh to see how the nerve ending would react. The rattling droned on and on, blurring together with the static of the scanner and the dull, unblinking light of the console until it was everywhere and nowhere, blank and empty and insistent all at once. She blinked, her eye dry and crusty. Had she been sleeping? Was she still? Shapes morphed and pulsed in the darkness, faces and figures she couldn’t quite make out. Everything turned to sand, grainy and separated, as though she could see the individual atoms that made up the universe if she stared long enough. She could feel herself flying, floating weightlessly through the void, up and up and--
She crashed forward, lights flashing everywhere. The scanner flashed urgently. A planet rapidly approaching, the momentum from their jump carrying them on a collision course for the ground. Sera grabbed the console, stabbing the booster control to get them up into even a remotely decent angle for atmospheric entry. Everything grew hot. Several lights on the console blinked out. Sera’s heart thudded in her ears like a jackhammer. The walls of the container began to glow, dim at first, then a molten, cherry red. The heat shield was failing. Sera felt a moment of blind, frozen panic seizing. She grabbed it, forming into a sharp hook to drag up every scrap of strength left within her. She pushed outwards, the heat slippery and intangible in her grasp, slithering away from her and threatening to burn every trace of her from the universe. It was like juggling eels. Her brain felt like it was splitting in two. The suit grew heavy around her shoulders, her hands pressing into the console. Was she going too fast? Which was going to kill her first, the heat or the speed at which the container was going to turn into a decorative smear on the ground? She pressed her finger into the button for the retro-boosters until it went numb, sweat down her body in rivulets, blood pounding in her skull. Smoke curled up from the materials cushioning her. She pushed the heat harder, her head a raw nerve pummeled by a hammer. There was a sharp crack and she was thrown forward, the scalding packing materials crushing beneath her. Her concentration broke and a spark flared to life. The container juddered, a rain of impacts showering the makeshift vehicle as it crashed into the planet’s surface. Sera fought to regain control of the heat, pushing it in every direction that wasn’t her. The container tipped, then turned. The top of the container ripped off, hot plasteel tearing like flimsi. Cool air rushed in. Fire crackled around her. The container skidded and stopped. Sera kicked herself through burning cardboard and polystyrene, tumbling out of the container onto wet dirt and rocks. She tore at her suit, ripping the flaming material away from her body. The components bolted into the container popped and sizzled, filling the night air with the sharp smell of burning wire and metal polymers. Sera stumbled away from the blaze, feet clumsy in the heavy planetary gravity. The ground sloped away from her. The burning container illuminated moss covered trees, branches tangling high above her head.
“Hello!” Her voice came out thin and weak, ground down by exhaustion and sickness. She moved downhill, away from the crackling fire. “Hello! I need assistance!”
The night was still, the only sound her laboured breathing and her boots crashing through the underbrush. She stopped, straining her ears. Was that running water? She clambered through the forest, clutching at damp branches, sinking up to her ankles in leaves and mud. A fine drizzle rained on her skin. The scent of earth and decomposing foliage wrapped around her, heady and shocking after the chemical grey lifelessness of the village and the trash moon. Vines caught at her limbs, crushed leaves staining her hands and shins green.
The trees thinned out. Sera could hear a river nearby, could barely see it if she squinted. A worm of trepidation wriggled in her gut. Strange shapes stood silhouetted against the dark grey clouds painting the sky, large and confusing on the horizon. Everything was black, not a single light in sight, not a single sign of civilization.
“Hello?” She sounded small, frightened. Something was squeezing all the air out of her lungs. She pushed herself to move forward, feeling her way across craggy ground with legs that felt feeble and insubstantial.
The clouds broke. A sliver of moonlight hit the water, showing a broad, flat edge running across it. A bridge? She walked across it. The surface was pitted, crumbling. A great mound stood at the other end, the spindly frame of a radio tower rising out of its top. Lifeless, dark. A wide, rectangular door stood open, big enough for several speeders to drive through side by side. Across its length ran a channel for a door to slide in, interlock, shut securely. It was full to the brim of leaves and twigs, decaying and rotting, weeds sprouting out of the corpses of the past. Sera stepped over it, feeling not quite connected to her body. It was dark inside. It smelled like dust.
“Is anybody here?”
There was nothing. Her voice bounced off the walls and fell flat at her feet. Moonlight poured in from behind her. There were desks. A shelf with spaces for notices, parcels. Posters peeled off the walls, bleached white from exposure. Sera stumbled out. Her head felt light. Did I miscalculate? Did I put the numbers in wrong? Did I hit the wrong planet? She couldn’t breathe. What had she done? What the fuck had she done? The ramp, the counterweight. It must have thrown me off course, it must have… But it was all the same, wasn’t it? It didn’t matter what she’d done wrong. It was all her fault. This is punishment, isn’t it? For who I am, for what I’ve done. But punishment implied intent, meddling. She didn’t need that, did she? She didn’t need any help fucking up and fucking up the lives of those around her. Everything that had happened, the container ship, Wes, running from Bastila, being her, being Revan, all of it could be laid solely at the feet of herself and all the stupid choices she'd ever made. And this is what it came to. This is where it all led. Lost on an empty planet in the middle of nowhere, far from everything she loved. Her knees gave way. Her body fell to the ground. A broken, shattered wail howled into the night.
Oh god. Now I need to start Part 8.