The Final Lesson

It must have been a trick of the light, but her eyes seemed to glow brighter than the wildlife around them, like miniature stars lighting up the darkness of the cave. When she smiled, the light from them diminished, but the brightness around him grew. How long had she been out of the vats? Two, three years? He’d known her for over a year, but still could have sworn she was made yesterday. Compare that to him, rugged and tired from fifteen years of natural life, and they were a galaxy apart.

‘You are staring, Ash.’

He let out a breath of laughter and let his cheek settle against her palm, turning his gaze to a patch of floor behind her waist so he didn’t blind himself.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘It’s just… It’s been so long. You can’t imagine how much I’ve missed you.’

‘Oh, I think I can.’

Soft, muted so they wouldn’t be overheard, she leant her own laughter to the air. Something caught at the back of it, though, like a silent hesitation at the end of a noise, so he took her hand in his and pulled it away, brushing his lips across her knuckles as he drew them past. He regarded her across the dark skin of her hand. Pale purple light washed across it from a flotilla of orb flies floating by above them.

‘What’s the matter?’ he asked.

Juuni frowned at him, muting the light in her eyes. ‘Nothing.’ She gave a little shake of her head to illustrate the point. ‘Not while you are here.’

A grin threatened to split the sides of his face. His heart beat against the cage of his ribs as it panicked under emotions he was so long unaccustomed to. He turned to look out across the vast depths of the underground sea. Bioluminescence coiled beneath its surface, painting aurorae over its glassy ripples as surely as the wildlife above leant its own radiance to the air. Somewhere far across it was a darker spot, and he let that thought tug his smile back into something more reserved.

Still, a curious, tingling hope surged through him when he looked back. The dark spot was so distant. He could almost pretend it didn’t exist, that he didn’t have to go back. And maybe he didn’t.

Turning, he took hold of Juuni’s other hand and held both out in front of him. He traced his thumbs over her palms as he turned the words over in his head – thinking, thinking, always thinking.

‘It looks like you are the one with something on your mind.’

He let the breath he’d been holding up escape him, then said, ‘Okay, hear me out.’ He looked back into her eyes again, searching for reassurance that he couldn’t quite find. ‘I can’t stay here. I can’t spend another year down in these rotting caves, let alone the rest of my life. Let’s go somewhere,’ he said, and squeezed her hands, ‘together.’

Juuni stood there smiling at him, white teeth glinting in statuesque stillness. For several seconds, that’s all she was – a statue, waiting to be brought to life – but then she blinked and stared back across the water where he’d looked moments before.

‘She won’t find me,’ he promised. ‘She doesn’t know I’m here, now. I’ve got good at going places without her noticing. She won’t find us.’

‘How, though? It is not as if you can fly us both out this second. You have no shuttle and even if you did, the fleet would shoot you down the second you made high orbit.’

He shook his head, closing his eyes for the motion. ‘Don’t worry about that. You’ll already be up there, like usual. I’ll handle getting myself to the spaceport.’ He shrugged. ‘All I need to do is hide myself in one of the supply shuttles. It’ll work.’

As he lifted a hand to cup her chin, she closed hers around it, held it tight.

‘You would be risking yourself for me.’ Her eyes were wide as she said it.

‘Risking it for us. Besides, I live in a cave where everything wants to eat me – including my mother, if we run out of food. I’m already risking my life just being here.’

Juuni stepped in close, letting go of his hand to reach for his face. When her fingers brushed against the scars over his brow and cheek, the implants buried like clawing vines beneath his skin, he flinched away instinctively. Once he’d caught his breath, though, he closed his eyes and tilted his head forwards to catch the touch. Where her skin met his, cold needles spread through his temples and down along his shoulders. The sensation followed the course of his implants, and he shivered. He felt like an animal baring its throat for another.

‘There is something you should know.’

He opened his eyes at the words, nodded for her to go ahead.

‘You know how the universe has a way of making things happen no matter what you do to stop them?’

Nodding, he shot her a quizzical look but let her draw his other hand away from him. She turned it, bringing it to rest palm-flat on her abdomen. The skin of his hand burned, and he felt as if he held it over the side of a furnace.

He blinked, understanding, unbelieving. ‘You’re…’

‘Yes.’ Her lips wobbled into an uncertain smile.

Seeing her hesitate brought his mind back into focus and he staggered forwards, an arm slipping around her waist to draw her closer. He pressed his lips against hers, trying to kiss the nerves away, feeling the softness of her skin against his, the warmth of her body where he held her. There was a secondary process running at the back of his thoughts, but he ignored it. They’d taken precautions. They hadn’t worked. He didn’t need to know the maths behind the fact.

When he pulled back, forehead still pressed against hers, Juuni seemed more relaxed in his arms. Now more than any time before, he just wanted to leave with her and strike off for some brighter horizon.

‘This doesn’t change anything,’ he said, then experienced a moment of doubt, ‘does it? I never… I didn’t ask if you wanted me to be with you, if you wanted me to leave here.’

‘Of course I do.’

He breathed out a sigh of relief. ‘Good, good. That’s great. I want to be there – for you both, now.’ The last point he illustrated by gesturing to her abdomen, but a tide of vertigo overtook him and he had to look away.

‘Then I will meet you at the spaceport, but when? How will I know you are there?’

Trying to think of options for somewhere he’d never been, he furrowed his brow. ‘Is there… somewhere people sit down to eat? Like the place in the treatment plant?’

‘The canteen?’

‘Yeah, sure, one of those.’ Embarrassed at never having to learn the word for it, he cleared his throat. ‘I’ll wait for you at one of the tables there, act normal. As for when…’ He sucked at his teeth. ‘A week from now, the next shuttle after that. I’ll be on it.’

‘Is that a promise?’

He let the grin steal back over his face. ‘Wouldn’t miss it for the world.’

Once Juuni had left, slipping back into the water treatment plant to continue her shift, Ferrash made his way down to the water’s edge. His heart felt like it could leap out of his chest and skip across the water before him, and his head whirled with the impact of what Juuni had told him. Suppressing his emotions, a task that usually came as easy to him as breathing, was impossible. So he took a moment to stand in front of the lapping waves. Water soaked through the toes of his boots and the cave’s permanent black backdrop soothed his closed eyes. He could sense the lights of animals moving through the sky behind the lids, but he couldn’t feel them, not like his mother wanted him to. He couldn’t reach out with his eyes shut and pluck them out of existence. No matter what it cost him, he was grateful for that.

‘Hey, kid.’

He whirled, knife practically jumping from his belt into his hand. A grey-haired woman sat further back from the shore, shadowed by an overhang of rock. Her face was disintegrating into craggy wrinkles and pulled skin, the way old vatborns’ always did. Depending on her base genetics, she could have been anywhere between forty and sixty, near the end of her working life. He hadn’t seen her. He cut off the blaze of anger that threatened to rise within him before it could form.

The woman cast an eye down to the knife in his hand. ‘Bit of a biter, huh?’

Ferrash just stared at her, eyes narrowed. Her hands were working at knots without her looking at them, rhythmically moving from one to the next.

‘You’re… fishing?’

‘Uh huh.’

‘…On Munab? In these caves? With these fish?’

‘What can I say?’ She shrugged. ‘I like ’em, big and nasty. In any case it’s none of your business. Now, I couldn’t help hearing your conversation back over there,’ she inclined her head back up to where he’d met Juuni, and the movement revealed a pistol holstered at her waist, ‘and I thought I couldn’t let you leave without giving you a little advice.’

Ferrash glanced between the woman and the meeting place. The two were a good five minutes’ walk apart – she shouldn’t have been able to hear their conversation from here, no matter how good her hearing was. He weighed up the chances of getting to her before she could draw her pistol, then couldn’t believe what he was thinking and let the knife fall to his side.

‘That’s none of your business, either,’ he said.

‘What can I say? I get a little tetchy all in here when I see people making mistakes.’ She tapped a finger over her heart. ‘So I consider it a little my business.’

Shaking his head, Ferrash turned away from her and walked further up the beach, crunching across the fine grey sand until he reached where he’d buried the anchor. Sand had been washed over the rope by the waves, so he shook it free as he pulled the anchor out.

‘She doesn’t love you.’

He stiffened. Then he swallowed his anger and followed the rope back to the tiny boat he kept to travel the waters of the cave.

‘She’s making a passable attempt at showing it,’ the woman continued, heedless of his silence, ‘but a blind man could see the cracks. Still, they say love makes us blind and dumb. Suppose that’s one of the reasons they tell us not to feel it.’

As he climbed over the side of the hull and got ready to push off, he paused, glancing back across the dark sand to where the woman sat regarding him.

‘I’ve got enough people telling me what to do already,’ he said, and thrust all his weight against the shoreline. The boat rocked forwards. When it was fully supported in the water, he turned the air jets on and sat at the prow, tiller in hand, putting as much distance between him and the woman as possible.

*        *        *

Their camp was empty when he got back, though judging by the fire’s embers – and the surveillance rig he’d set up – his mother hadn’t been gone for long. He was grateful for that. It meant he could let go of the tension he’d been carrying and stop expecting a surprise attack, another lesson to fail at. He’d retrieved the replacement filters from the boat and trudged over to their water filtration unit with one slung over each arm. Around halfway through the job of replacing them, with his arms stuck in a tangle of panels and tubes, pain twinged through the side of his face, coursing through the mesh. He gave himself a moment to make sure his emotions were in order – silence, despatched to ambivalence the moment they appeared – then pulled himself out from under the unit.

He turned off the torch he’d been using to see inside the mechanisms and blinked, adjusting to the darkness once more. The figure of his mother resolved a couple of metres away. The pain receded now she had his attention.

‘Good hunting?’ he asked. He could see two full bags hung over the side of her siggerith, the giant amphibious creature she’d ridden to battle in her youth, but he’d fallen into the trap of expecting conversation.

As usual, though, she ignored him. She jerked her chin towards the filtration unit. ‘What’s broken this time?’

‘Filters again,’ he said without hesitation. He was practiced at this, siphoning off any reaction that might give him away before she could sense anything. ‘I think there must be an overflow in the system somewhere; it’s working them harder than they need to be. I’m going to try rebooting it with this set and a few software mods, see how it goes.’

For a moment, he thought she was going to question him, but she eventually nodded and headed back to light the fire. Not for the first time, he wondered if it annoyed her, that she could make something living disintegrate at a glance but couldn’t so much as light a spark of natural flame without resorting to the same methods as everyone else.

The thought of what she could do was nothing to be laughed at, though. He shuffled back under the unit and got to work. Maybe he really would fix it, this time – he wasn’t going to be around much longer, after all.

*        *        *

That week was both the longest and the shortest he’d ever experienced. Time flew by, but it flew with loud wingbeats. He lived every moment of it in fear that his hope would shine through, his mother would sense it, and he would be discovered. But she’d taught him too well. All those lessons at mastering his own emotions and he was finally able to put them to use – to get away from her at last. That’s how he framed it. He didn’t let himself think of Juuni. He wasn’t sure that those were emotions he could tame. His mother hadn’t taught to identify or suppress love. It was one of the only emotions she hadn’t. But then, had Ayt Mannae ever felt love? He doubted it.

When the final day came, he set off across the waters again, dragging a lure through the air behind him in the pretence of catching leapfish. If he did catch one, he thought, he could always eat it as he waited for the shuttle at the other end.

He wondered if Juuni was already up at the spaceport, waiting for him. He hoped she’d found a copy of the shuttle schedule to work out what to wait for – she had access to more information than he did, that was for sure. If he didn’t show up, if this all went catastrophically wrong… she’d wait a while and realise he wasn’t coming. That was it. There would be no consequences for her, and that was exactly the way he wanted to keep it. If it came to the worst and he died trying to get up there, at least he’d died trying to be free.

As the jets pushed him near silently across the water, he watched a trail of lights shadow his path. It glinted evilly below him, and he willed it not to surface. There were very good reasons you only fished above the surface on Munab – you didn’t want to invite anything up from below. It left him alone, though, disappearing into the depths some twenty minutes before he reached the far shore. Almost as an afterthought, he shrugged out of his jacket and ripped a gash in it with the knife, slicing a deep line in his palm to add to the illusion. Then he threw it aboard the boat and set it adrift, jets running. He doubted it would throw her off the scent, but he felt it was right to try.

His feet tried to take him to the place he always met Juuni, but he forced himself past the spot, following pipes as wide as he was tall back to their point of origin. Soon enough, he arrived at the perimeter of the water treatment plant. He crouched behind a valve and peered around it.

The water treatment plant down here in the lower wilds served all the habitable areas of Munab, closer to the surface. It was also directly beneath the upper wilds’ nexite mines – a parched stretch of rocky desert veined through with the valuable crystal. Shuttles departed regularly with supplies and personnel. This close to the lift site, it was common enough to hear them roar in and out of the hole that led to the outside world. He could see it now: a thin strip of stars glinting with promise in a hazy night sky. The atmosphere between him and the stars was poisonous, but he had to get there. Any star would do.

Refocussing his attention on the plant, he scanned for any signs of activity. There were some workers moving about between the equipment to his left, but as far as he could see, the way to the shuttles was free.  He’d heard one arrive an hour ago as he’d been making his way across the sea, so any initial activity must have died down, pending the hours before it needed to take off.

After another quick scan, he darted from cover, slipping between the shadows of the pipes until he made it to the wall of the living quarters. Then he skirted around the edge of the wall until he hit a corner. The shuttle pad was separated from the rest of the plant by around two hundred metres of empty space. He could make out two – no, three – security cameras covering the area. Their lenses and housing were invisible, but the conduits leading away from them belied something was there. Further along the wall, the conduits converged on a piece of equipment, their single point of contact with the rest of the grid. Knocking it out would be easy enough, but it would draw attention. He dismissed the idea, cursing himself for not asking Juuni about the plant’s security measures.

Still, the plant was in its night cycle. The floodlights that usually lit the pad were dimmed to minimise interference with the workers’ sleep patterns. There was just enough darkness that the cameras might struggle to distinguish any features, so that left him with one obvious solution. He straightened up, brushed himself down and walked right up to it across the two-hundred-metre gap.

It worked. Or at least, if he’d triggered any alarms, no one was coming to check on him. So he just kept going, straight up the ramp to the cargo bay, then keyed the door controls. The upper section of the door, which joined with the ramp to make a double-thick seal when both were retracted, had apparently been left unlocked to make it easier to load any remaining supplies. It wasn’t exactly like anyone would try to steal a ship down here. Very few people knew he and his mother lived in the wilds and those who guessed it from the odd sighting here and there didn’t pay them much heed. The upper door was closed simply to keep out the wildlife. Now, though, it was sliding upwards, opening the way into its hold.

Ferrash stepped through, closed the door behind him and chose a spot behind some crates to wait.

*        *        *

‘Everything loaded?’

Ferrash rocked awake, nearly slamming his forehead into the crate in front of him. There were voices on the other side of the bulkhead, footsteps moving around behind the insulated metal wall. He resisted the urge to stretch out his cramping muscles, aware that any noise he made now could scupper his escape attempt. He checked the time in his implants. It had only been an hour – his mother wouldn’t be missing him yet. Although ‘missing’ might be too generous a term.

‘Good,’ the voice came again. Ferrash was momentarily thrown out of place, frowning, trying to put a face to the accent, until he made the connection:  it was the old vatborn from the beach. She was on the shuttle. He bit at his lip. It was just a coincidence; there was no reason to suspect anything else. He only had one enemy in the caves, and she wasn’t here.

‘Hang onto your seat.’

Even though the words weren’t directed at him, Ferrash crept his arms forwards until he had a grip on the straps tying down the crate in front of him. Depending on how good their inertial dampeners were, he might need to keep hold of something.

Five seconds later, the engines kicked at the floor beneath him. An insistent drumbeat thrummed through his knees and up into his hips, shaking the flesh over his bones. He gritted his teeth, clenching his hands into fists around the straps. He’d flown beatwings through the caves before – another of his lessons – but this was something different. The ship’s latent energy pounded him flat against the deck. As it rose from the ground, it became impossible for him to move against it. Belatedly, he realised cargo didn’t care so much about inertial dampening unless it was alive, and he wasn’t on the manifest. He couldn’t even see outside to tell when it was going to be over and the incessant roar meant he couldn’t hear what the woman was saying in the cockpit.

He closed his eyes and dreamed of the stars. He tried to picture other worlds, what the sky – true sky – might look like, how many shades and colours an atmosphere could paint. Somewhere out there was snow, sand, forest, ocean; mountains reaching up into the sky, canyons trying to break the crust; animals that weren’t poisonous and didn’t want to kill him. But his imagination was bounded by the walls of the cave, by the limits of what he’d been taught and allowed to know. The dreams kept spiralling into nonsense and grey noise. Too late, he noticed the chill seeping through his muscles, the frost limning the edges around him. Everything faded to black.

*        *        *

He woke shivering, his breath coming in pained gasps, hands scrabbling without feeling at the side of the crate as if he could claw some warmth from it. Tears pricked the corners of his eyes. When at last his sense came trudging back into his mind, he curled up into a ball and stuck his hands under his armpits to conserve as much body heat as possible. His implants registered the temperature was increasing, though, and he couldn’t hear the engines anymore.

It took ten minutes for him to warm to the point he could move again. In that time, he heard nothing. There were no voices on the other side of the bulkhead, so he had no idea where they were, but he knew no one had been to clear out the supplies yet. Were they in the upper wilds or on the spaceport? There was only one way to find out.

Placing a hand atop one of the crates, he hauled himself back upright, wincing as every joint in his body popped and clicked in concert. After a moment to gain his balance, he shuffled forwards, searching for the door controls in the dark. He found them, pressed for it to open. When it did, light lanced through the widening gap to blind him. He squinted, blinking rapidly. Even when the door was fully open, he felt like he couldn’t resolve anything in front of him. It was like staring into the heart of a star.

He staggered out down the ramp. What had seemed to be nothing but glare was just a blank wall reflecting the harsh light of illumination panels above it. Now he was down, he could see he was in a massive room full of ships. Dozens of people scurried about between tasks, hauling cargo in and out of the room, onto and off ships. He darted behind a landing strut the second he saw them.

None of them had noticed him, though. They were preoccupied with their own tasks, their own ships. The old woman was nowhere to be seen.

Eventually, he worked up the courage to move. Again, he chose to walk in plain sight, and he made it through the door unmolested. It opened up into a wide corridor and he almost jumped back when he stepped into it, but stopped himself just in time. There were hundreds of people making their way along it, walking in a contraflow with their heads straight ahead, faces purposeful. He mirrored the expression on his own face, but his eyes flicked all around him. He’d never seen this many people in one place before. For a moment, his heart sank – how could he ever find Juuni here? But he had the plan, she knew what it was, and there was no way he could ever miss her.

That didn’t mean he knew his way around, though. Ferrash chose the only path he could think of and inhaled, breathing deep of stale, recycled air and there, to the left, the smell of cooked food. He followed his stomach.

There was a queue for the canteen, as it turned out. He joined it with a few others, arms folded across his chest. No one else was talking, which suited him just fine, and the queue was moving along fast enough that he didn’t have time to regret joining it. Briefly, he wondered what was at the other end of the queue and how he’d pay for anything considering he had no currency, but he needn’t have worried. As each of them passed the counter inside, they picked up bowls and held them under a dispenser to receive a portion of something grey and unidentifiable. No one else was paying for it, so he assumed it was free and resisted the urge to sniff it. He copied the others in picking up a mug of steaming liquid from the end of the counter and filtered into the larger room until he found a seat, where he stopped to wait for Juuni.

To his disappointment, she wasn’t already here. He’d half imagined meeting her eyes over the rim of his mug, trying not to smile across the crowded room, but when he scanned around, it was all bright-coloured clothes and sombre faces. So he waited. He sipped at his mug, scalding his tongue, and pondered the bowl of sludge. At length, he realised it would be even more disgusting cold and gave it a try to find it tasted of nothing in particular. The texture was one best forgotten, but it could have been worse.

An hour later, with the empty bowl before him on the table, he was beginning to attract curious looks from passers-by. Apparently, staying seated after you’d finished your meal wasn’t the done thing on the spaceport and him being the odd one out made him the object of immediate attention to anyone who got close enough to see.

Still no sign of Juuni. Reluctantly, he got to his feet and took the empty utensils to the conveyor. As they vanished behind a membrane hatch in the wall, he abandoned the room and left his meeting spot behind. Juuni had to be on the spaceport somewhere. He’d have known if she was still in the plant on Munab and she’d agreed to be here, but what if her work had called her away somewhere else? What if they didn’t need so many workers at the plant anymore and she’d been reassigned?

Ferrash let himself be pulled by the crowds, in and out of each room, barely paying attention to what was in them, just scanning the faces.  Every now and then, his heart started at the sight of someone who looked almost like her, but turned out just to be from the same base genetics. Juuni wasn’t there. He reckoned he must have been around the station two full times by now, but he was completely lost. Everything was artificial, straight lines and identical sections of panelling. Prefabricated rooms passed by one after the other and merged into each other, wreaking havoc on his sense of direction.

Could she have passed him by? Was she looking for him, too, adrift in a sea of unfamiliar faces?

On the third pass, sense kicked in. He waited until he found an empty section – some twenty minutes later – and ducked into it before venturing down a maintenance corridor. Somewhere on this station, there must be a security system. There had to be some way to see who had been on board and when. He had to find it.

Before that, though, he crouched down, back against the wall, and caught his breath. The floor was too smooth, too flat – solid beneath his feet but in enough motion that it put him off balance. For the first time, he wished for some of what his mother had. He wished he could look inwards and outwards, searching for a unique sense of Juuni that didn’t care about walls or conventional line of sight. But he couldn’t. He’d never been able to do that.

He followed the trail of maintenance corridors until they seemed to converge, then paused to examine a door set into that junction. There was no one guarding it and for all he knew it could just be a supply cupboard, but it could also be full of soldiers. Drawing the knife from his belt, he crept forwards.

The door slid open noiselessly as he approached, revealing a room crowded with wires and monitors. A man sat on a reclining chair in the centre, staring up at the monitors in front of him with his back to Ferrash. Pausing, chewing his lip, he flipped his grip on the knife so the end of the handle faced outwards. Step by step, he made his way across the space between them. At the last second, when he was close enough that he was sure the man would be able to hear his heartbeat, he drew the knife back over his left shoulder and brought the handle smashing down against the side of the man’s head. He didn’t cry out. He just slumped to the floor, unconscious.

Ferrash hauled him out of the chair and lowered his body to the floor before taking his place. His hands hovered over the controls – he had no idea what any of them meant, so he tried to interface with the machines directly, but there was nothing his implants could connect to. Frustrated, he tried to access the station’s network to see if there were instructions or examples of something similar. The network only contained basic information about arrivals and departures, though, and wasn’t connected to any kind of galactic network. He was cut off. Alone. And that meant it all boiled down to trial and error.

Using the knife to tear strips from the man’s clothes, he bound his mouth and limbs. He’d be here for a while, and he couldn’t have him waking up to stop him.

*        *        *

Leave nothing to chance – that’s what a life in the cave had taught him. Expect everything. Analyse everything. Plan for anything. So that’s what he did now. He set his implants running through every avenue of attack he found, testing out ways he could get in on mock-ups of the system which existed solely in his head. It was more miss than hit, though. He’d only ever had to deal with systems he’d created. This was alien to him, set up in a way he couldn’t quite fathom. The system seemed to learn as it went along, but slowly, and there were whole swathes of its logic that seemed redundant and bloated. Sometimes his routines got stuck going round in circles, other times they just tripped over code they couldn’t reach and came plunging to a halt.

Now and again, he glanced to the man on the floor, willing him to stir at the same time as willing him to stay down. He didn’t move.

Half an hour in and he finally got a result. He jolted forwards in his chair and got ready to manipulate the controls, hesitating. If his judgement was even a little bit off, this could set alarms off all over the station. But unless he found Juuni, there was nowhere he could go – no quiet return if he went back down to the planet, no point leaving for the stars.

He punched the controls and the screens lit up with a range of options. He punched the air in elation.

Then that same elation slipped away, draining like dropped water down the edge of a slope to be lost to darkness. His mind scrabbled for it. It clawed, blinking into empty space as if he’d walked into a room but forgotten what he’d gone in there for. It was a familiar feeling. Sobering. Ice trickled down the side of his skull in anticipation.

When the pain kicked in, it was worse than he’d ever felt before and he couldn’t take it. He collapsed forwards from where he’d been leaning out of the seat, no longer able to support his own weight, to sprawl against the base of the monitors. In the process, his body turned halfway to facing the door. He couldn’t see who was there – it felt like someone had dug a blade into his temple and started ratcheting it up and down to pry his skull apart, and the pain blinded him – but he knew who it was.

‘Nice… to see you too, mother,’ he bit out between gasps.

The pain broke away. For the next few seconds – or minutes, or hours – he sat there with his back against the wall, trying to piece his thoughts back together as they danced around him. Finally, though, shapes came back into his vision: the floor, the chair, the man. And behind them all, standing framed by the door, Ayt Mannae. The sick yellow eyes of a predator stared out at him from that familiar face, set into skin marred by a pain mesh more extensive than his own.

She said nothing.

Ferrash licked his lips, swallowing to try to get some moisture back in his mouth. Shivering, he waited for her to speak. There was a solid ball of grief lodged in the pit of his stomach, and his heart skirted around it.

‘Looking for someone?’ she said at last.

He tilted his chin up in defiance and earned another stab of pain for it.

‘I imagine you thought you were clever, didn’t you? Scampering over to the treatment plant all the time, giving me excuses, thinking I wouldn’t notice. I was watching you all along,’ she said, and her face remained impassive. ‘You led me right to her. I was wondering when you’d try something like this. Tell me, do you love her?’

‘You tell me.’

‘That is not the lesson.’

He closed his eyes, the room suddenly spinning around him. This wasn’t just another lesson. This was something real, and his mother was twisting it to her own purposes, trying to take something away to teach him another understanding he could never do anything with.

‘Do you want to know where she is?’ his mother’s voice came again.

‘Don’t.’ He shook his head, screwing his eyes tighter shut as if by doing so he could blank himself out of existence. ‘Don’t say it. Don’t you dare.’

‘She’s dead.’

Ferrash wanted to feel something. He wanted to scream and shout, to rush at his mother with the knife and lose himself in rage and anguish. Juuni’s face floated through his mind, every feature marked out in stark detail. The smell of her, the touch of her, the taste of her… all of it lingered in his memories. His mother could take that too, if she wanted. She could take everything. He thought about that speck of life he’d unknowingly helped create, dashed against the rocks of an uncaring cosmos, lost and lifeless as the one who had borne it.

He just felt tired, and old. With a shudder, he leaned his head back against the wall, letting the impact thunk through his skull.

‘Get up.’

He could only muster a whisper. ‘No.’


Without wanting to, his muscles screamed upright. His emotions dipped again, the pain reappearing as they did so – his mother was forcing him to stand, leeching off his own energies to do so.

Let her. Let her work for it. I won’t move a muscle for her again.

Someone cleared their throat. ‘Not interrupting anything, am I?’

Dropped mid-haul, Ferrash staggered sideways, bracing himself against a wall so he didn’t topple over. There, in the doorway behind his mother, stood the woman from the beach, the woman from the shuttle. She had her hands on her hips, unthreatening in itself, but dangerously close to her holstered pistol.

‘This is Keeper business,’ said his mother.

‘Is it?’ The woman raised an eyebrow and tilted her chin towards Ferrash. ‘He doesn’t look a Keeper to me, or he’d be fighting back. And I couldn’t help hearing talk about lessons. Why are you trying to teach who can’t be taught?’

‘I fail to see how the matter concerns you.’

Ferrash shook his head at the woman, pleading with his eyes for her to leave and save herself, but she ignored him.

‘I’ve taken an interest, you could say. Went down to Munab for other business, happened upon this. Who’s the kid to you, your son?’ She didn’t give his mother any time to reply, nodding to herself instead as she continued, ‘You realise he’s been pretty resourceful in getting up here, right? Snuck on board a shuttle, got all the way here, got into the system?’

To his surprise, his mother stayed silent, listening, though her face was dark.

‘So here’s the thing: I’m requisitioning him.’

That provoked a response; his mother stalked forwards, one fist clenched with green light beginning to flicker around it.

‘Hey, easy there.’ The woman raised her hands and took a step back, but of all things, she had a smile on her face. ‘I’m a free agent. It’s one of the perks of the job – you can’t zap me for it. Well, you can, but I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t.’


The woman dropped one of her hands out in front of her and his mother reached out to grasp it. There was a pause as she read her genetic ID, then she drew her hand back.

‘You’re unsanctioned,’ his mother said.

The woman shrugged. ‘Doesn’t really matter for free agents.’


‘Look, way I see it, you have two options: you take your son here back down to the caves and keep frying his brains until he’s a vegetable or whatever. Option two is you let me leave here with him, I train him as a free agent and he actually gets to do some use for the Protectorate. You know, for the people and all that.’

By his mother’s hand, the light grew more intense, sending shoots of viridian creeping up her arm. For a moment, Ferrash was certain she would rip the woman apart, but eventually the light died down and she turned to look at him over her shoulder. He blinked up at her, unsure as ever as to what was going on behind the mirrored lenses of her eyes. Then she rolled her shoulders back and nodded to the woman.

‘Take him,’ she said. ‘He’s no use to me.’

And just like that, she was gone.

Ferrash stared after her, his chest rising and falling, the aftertaste of his emotions coming back to haunt him now that her influence was falling away. After about a minute, he let himself turn to face the woman – the free agent – who was regarding him with a kind but guarded smile. He’d exchanged life under the rule of one person to life under the rule of another, and he was all the poorer for the exchange.

‘You ready, kid?’

He shrugged, a shroud settling down over his soul. ‘Hit me.’

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