Coalberry


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Dalia's Hope wakes me and I roll into the shower to scrub off the ride while getting my first look at the system. It's a three planet deal. Intimidating gas giants spread evenly around a golden sun. Below me spins the only habitable moon. Little thing. Surface dark as a viper spit.

Can't see why Hope woke me. This place barely rates colony status. But, a customer's a customer.

"Hail, moon." I suit up. "Thirsty down there?"

A landing beacon flashes. "Hail, rider."

I orbit the moon on my descent. There's nothing but shadowy ridges and valleys. Never seen a moon reflect so little light. Atmosphere is passable, but there's nobody here. No roads, no city lights, nothing.

The beacon appears again below, flashing a staccato welcome from the roof of a sprawling plantation. There's a mansion on one end of a field full of workers and a cluster of low buildings on the other—barracks or storage. Looks like an agricultural startup. But the airstrip's packed.

"Hope?"

"Sir." The ship's voice sounds just like hers. My belly tightens. It's only been a flicker of subjective time since I left, but it's like my body knows how long its really been.

"Next time don't bother waking me if it's below class six pop. I was enjoying my dream."

"Sir, they broadcast a class eight population."

"No way this is even class three. False advertising."

"My apologies, sir. I'll reroute."

"Negative. We're here. Let's get rich." I always say that. Somehow we never do.

* * *

The air is gritty, but fresh. A relief after all that tight cabin recirc. A welcoming committee approaches the tarmac from the mansion. I've seen all kinds: delegations, celebrations, and indifference. This one is three tall men with pale skin and impeccable white robes. Dainty fingers and cold smiles. Two of them are suppressing laughter with the rims of martini glasses. Not your average farmer types.

The one who's not drinking steps ahead of the others.

"Smithson Cardak," I say. I hold out a hand to shake but he just stands there. My neck hairs bolt at the affront. If I were a cat my back would arch. Keep calm. They have different customs, that's all.

"Smuggling is a crime," he says. The other two exchange a snicker.

"It's just water." I slap Hope's hull and laugh at the misunderstanding. Hope only looks tough. Her exterior ceramics have been scored and chipped by a hundred atmospheres. But it isn't a stretch to imagine her fleeing a pack of vigilantes. It'd help slip the red tape if I got her fixed. But I probably won't; a mean-faced ship can tip a tough negotiation. "H-2-O to go. Check if you want. We're good here."

"We?" The man says.

"Me and Hope." I lean against my ship where the faded masthead fairly winks. Doesn't look much like her any more.

"Ah." He lifts his chin. Signaling to someone behind me. Old haggler's tactic to make me break eye contact and knock down my status half a step. I don't fall for it.

"Water would only be considered smuggling," I say, "in a restricted zone."

"This is a restricted zone—"

"Since when?" Hope would have mentioned it.

"—and you're in breech."

"Look, I came out of cryogenic long haul an hour ago." I shrug my most innocent and hold out a hundred Galactic Credits. One of the lackies snatches it and folds it into his robes. Greasing officials is such a bore. "Next time I'll know better. Since I'm here--"

"Next time? Next time we would shoot you down."

Guards armed with nothing more than whips surround me. So there was someone behind me after. So much for the old cynicism. Guess my instincts are off. A glint from the mansion's balcony tells me I'm in someone's scopes.

"But there will be no next time."

I'm unarmed. Wasn't expecting a wild frontier. Never should have landed. Next time I'll take Hope's advice. "Look, my mistake. You guys have your private business here. I won't say a word about it to any—"

"Your cargo is forfeit."

"That's robbery."

"Your vessel will be returned at the end of your sentence."

"Sentence? I could have ejected the cargo. I'm no smuggler."

"Twenty years hard labor."

"Years? Is this a joke? I need a lawyer."

"All your needs will be taken care of," he says. "So long as you do the work."

I dive under the ship. There's an access portal below.

A whip lash snaps around my ankle. I'm yanked back and they fall on me. When I stop kicking they lift me by the armpits. The patch that Dalia sewed on my breast, the one of Earth, the one the boys picked out, hangs loose. Torn. Underneath, the suit's material is dark as new.

I can't spend twenty years here. The family's cryo is synched with mine. They wake up when I get back. That's how we stay the same age. We get to discover what's become of the planet while they slept—together. I only age a little more than them when I surface to work. Helps me close the deals faster. I can't return to them as some old man they won't recognize.

"Water," I say through bloody, swollen lips. "It's only water."

"If you try to run, it's a hand. Run out of hands, it's a head."

* * *

I clap my ruined hands together.

The flesh of one hand seethes with the plantation's brand, famous initials I'm told. It's in a script I refuse to learn. My other hand isn't even a hand anymore. I haven't looked at the stump, not yet. The bandage wants changing. Dried blood smells like rust.

I grind my teeth and, because I'm not yet ready to lose the other hand—not this way—I clap. Vigorously along with the others.

Guards pace the perimeter of the field flexing barbed whips. Guard duty is a prized assignment. It’s reserved for those who've survived until the last year of their sentence. Average men, pilots, and sailors once, grizzled by a long diet of lean hope.

The masters settle into wicker chairs on the grand white balcony that overlooks the field where we slave every day. They raise their glasses. Ice tinkles above the applause of the prisoners.

With every clap, pain jags through my arm. The applause continues as long as the masters raise their glasses or there is hell to pay.

My wound reopens. Hot blood drips from my elbow to my cover-alls, to my boots, to the soot where it soaks in faster than a spider taking cover.

The masters lower their glasses.

I alone keep clapping.

Hand to stump, hand to stump. It makes a dull sound, like an old shutter knocking in the wind.

One master, the master of them all, the one who doesn't drink with the rest, displaces a thimbleful of air with the back of his hand. Like he's shooing a fly he has no intention of chasing. The prisoners to either side of me pull my arms down.

I don't resist.

The masters turn to each other and their laughter invades the field.

The prison lies behind us on the far end. On this side, where we start work every morning, sits the mansion. An airstrip runs along the eastern edge. It’s what I think of as east, anyway. It’s the sun-rising side. My ship stands there with many others. I’ve never yet seen one take off, though from time to time some new fool lands. On the western edge of the field, and all throughout the interminable valley, coalberry stalks grow. The whole moon is covered with them, far as I can tell.

The coalberry soot that we dig up must be useful to the masters in some way, as an energy source, a pharmaceutical ingredient, maybe, a narcotic. Maybe that's what they're drinking. Every day we clear the field with diamond tipped tools. We're never let out at night, but, come morning, a fresh layer is back again ready to be mined.

We take position at the head of our respective rows. To eat we must clear our row every day by nightfall.

It's been a year. My soft trader's belly has grown hard. Dalia would like that much--but my skin is grey, my eyes sting, and I hack up the most vile phlegm. It's the soot.

I can't imagine working for another year, let alone another nineteen. I have to get back to my family.

Yesterday, I ran. I dropped my hoe and bolted for the airfield. It didn't even make them angry. They expect it from a certain percentage of us. It's why the masters gather on the balcony. One of them shot off my hand while I ran. Should have kept going, maybe I could have made the ship, but instead I succumbed to shock and cowered, trembling.

The whistle blows and the line of prisoners jumps to life.

We prisoners—slaves—are by no means military stock, but when the order's given, while there isn't crispness, there is an impressive lack of hesitation. No one wants to risk it all over nothing with these madmen.

Diamond-tipped hoes rise and fall. The coalberry soot reluctantly gives way.

I cradle the hoe between my ribs and my good hand. It is wrong to call it my good hand, the brand has disfigured my grip. There is no good hand. There is only the hand. And the stump.

Slim and Creaky Tom work their rows to either side of me. Beyond them, hundreds of hoes strike hard soot.

No one acknowledges me—not that they ever do out on the field. But I expected something: a whisper, a look, a passing nod.

The hoes around me strike in rhythm.

I raise mine and yank the shaft down.

The blade deflects and the hoe clatters to the ground. A lance of pain traces my arm, igniting into tissue I have never felt before. Lightning plays up to my shoulder blade.

I shake my hand to get the feeling back.

My guard, Beater, cracks his whip. "Done work for the day, runner?"

He has never actually hurt me before—gave me a deck of cards in my first week, used to be a cryo-trader like me—but he may have new orders now that I've run. Under his leathers, he's one of us. All the guards are. Under the eyes of the masters they'll be merciless.

I have to get out of here. Today I'll try again. Beater won't be expecting it. He's a bruiser, to be sure. But he thinks I'm too tired, too afraid. His mistake.

I grasp the hoe and struggle to lift it. One handed, the leverage is all wrong.

Beater scratches the side of his nose with the butt of his lash. He has some kind of nasal infection, poor bastard. Been here nineteen and a half years out of twenty and there's nothing he won't do for them now to get out and go free. I wonder if he'll even bother going home. Beneath the rough cut leather mask his face glows red. He's already sweating. It's going to be a scorcher. He scratches again, jamming the butt of his whip up under the nose guard.

I'll time my run with one of those scratches. Not yet. Let them all relax into the routine.

Creaky Tom scatters soot on my row.

It would be insignificant on a normal day, but there wouldn't be any more normal days. Having to clear my row with one hand is going to be impossible enough without having to deal with his back scatter, too.

I can't tell if he's messing with me or sending me a message.

I concentrate on handling the hoe. It wobbles, but this time I use my stump to steady my aim and ignore the pain.

This time the hoe's glittering tip breaks coalberry loose.

I haul the blade towards me, but what comes up is nothing more than surface soot. I need to get deeper.

Hoeing this row with one hand is going to take everything I've got. I probably don't stand a chance of finishing the row by sunset; but I've got to try. They don't leave you out to freeze, but dinner is at sundown and there's no second course. Don't finish your row and you're beaten pretty bad. Makes the next day that much harder. I've seen three runners perish to this cycle of fatigue.

I lean against my hoe to wipe off sweat.

Creaky Tom looks over, and away. For an instant his stump shines. That's right . . . he was a runner, too. His arm has healed well, though it looks as hot and red as Beater's swollen nose. Creaky Tom never stops to scratch, though. He's got grit.

He was brought in years before I even shipped out to this forsaken system with my hold full of ice. He comes in late every day from the field, shivering. He's penalized meal credits for that—but he's never beaten. He's found a sustainable equilibrium.

I look over at him, too quickly.

Beater straightens with a grunt of leather, lashes me, and scratches himself like a dog.

I bite my lip and somehow manage not to pitch forward.

Blood from the lash's cut drips down my arm, to my elbow, and down the hoe’s shaft. The hoe slips.

Beater raises his lash.

I scoop the hoe with my foot and kick it into my hand.

Beater returns to his scratching.

After an hour of struggling along, Creaky Tom signals me with a flash of his stump.

Is he trying to warn me or help me? Could he want to get me beaten? Because that's what's coming if I'm not careful.

I let my hair fall before my eyes and study him. I’ve never actually seen his style of working—I’m usually too far ahead.

Creaky Tom steps, leaning, in a lilting rhythm that lifts his hoe when it falls on his thigh. He propels the shaft with his hand and guides its sweep with his stump. A slow, but steady method. It works.

Hope. He's giving me hope. If I can repeat the trick I might make it in tonight. It's worth a try.

My bandage grows red with fresh blood as I work out Creaky Tom's method.

I worry that I must look a shambling fool, then chide myself. Who thinks like that, of their image, in a situation like this? A true fool. It was those damned masters under their parasols that made self-consciousness flare.

Creaky Tom, I want to say. Thanks. Good idea. Bet it took him years to develop that way of working. He's been steady all the time I've been here. So steady I never noticed. Seems like his style. What other tricks do you have, old man?

I feel like I'm about to be recruited by the underground railroad any moment, but Creaky Tom makes no other contact and shambles past me down his row. Everyone passes me.

So, I fall in to a rhythm, clumsy as it is. Hitch, thrust, swing strike, hitch, yank, and back. It reminds me of something. The movements of the ablution prayer—another thing I can never do now. Never again. I wonder if the big G will hold that against me.

I continue my variation on Creaky's swing. It's the motion of the prayer, I'm certain now. The only difference is that instead of turning at the wrists, you turn at the elbows.

The top layer of coalberry soot comes away like shrapnel.

I pick up speed. I might even be gaining on Tom, but he's still way ahead.

The masters pace on the balcony entertaining one another in the shade while we prisoners harvest their dark moon. They are probably placing bets on how long until the next one of us runs or on how long it will be until I fall unconscious from exhaustion.

Then again, probably not. I'm as good as invisible to them.

Always one of them holds a rifle trained on the field. Its lens blinks in my direction.

The field beyond the mansion sways with stalks of coalberry in full bloom. The stalks are easily twice my height. Be simple to get lost in there.

If I can make it into the stalks at sundown the sun will blind anyone following me. They'll expect me to run to the airstrip, not the stalks. I can hide out in the coalberry and skirt around to my ship. Blessed Dalia’s Hope. Then, if I can override their docklock, I'll be in another system before they hear the rumble of takeoff.

First I'll have to survive the night. And not get shot. Maybe I'd better rethink this.

I pause to loosen my shredded shirt.

Beater sends out a stinging lash.

I shrug the shirt off all the way. If I can tie the hoe to my stumped hand the motion will be closer to the prayer, my aim will be truer.

The lash comes down again. I take the blows, saying nothing. Beater advances. "No resting here."

Instead of raising my hoe again, I hold it against my stump above the elbow. Another lash stings my back. Three more lashes and the hoe is tied in place.

Flickers of movement, subtle anomalies, let me know that they are all watching, slaves and masters alike. They must want to know what I had to do so bad I would ignore a beating.

I raise the hoe and make the first movement of the ablution prayer. It is a small motion when done with the hand, but I make it one joint back, with my elbow. Prayer, Dalina used to tease, is all in the wrist.

I lunge.

The movement is wide, distorted, exaggerated, yet for all that, immensely familiar and even, despite the pain, comforting.

Give me strength. You led me to this trap. You love freedom, don't you? Give me the strength to survive. Or end it.

My hand and stump work together to hold and guide the shaft. The motion sweeps wide, arching. The ground splits.

It's taking all my concentration, but the reward is sweet. I'm still young enough and strong enough. I can do this. Shouldn't have doubted.

Ripples of surprise spread around me as other prisoners see my sudden progress.

"Back in line," Beater says. "Back to work, worms."

I pass Creaky Tom. I pass Slim. I pass them all.

Beater grunts in annoyance at having to stay apace with me.

I no longer pay attention to his scratching, but it can only have gotten worse. The sun is relentless. I'm going faster than I ever have before. Chips of coalberry fly around me at every stroke.

I finish the row before the bells rings. Might be a record.

I'll have my supper. I won't be beaten. I'll survive another day—for what?

A slow clap comes from across the field. The masters are standing. They think they've brought me in line. The master with the rifle has pulled his eye from the scope to make a comment. The other masters laugh.

The sun catches low across the tips of the coalberry stalks to the west. Mid scratch, the sun hits Beater in the eyes. He winces. This is my chance.

I step back and let the hoe swing.

The tip strikes Beater below the mask. He crumples clutching his face.

I drop the hoe, bunch my shirt around my stump, and race over the rows that lie between me and the coalberry stalks while prisoners on all sides dive to the ground. I keep my good hand against my thigh, hidden from the rifleman on the balcony.

Something rips the shirt off my stump. A rifle report echoes. The shot would have taken off my hand, if it had been there. The shooter mistook the shirt for my good hand. Lucky. Wouldn’t work a second time.

My thighs burn as I race across the barren stretch of field and dive over the half-fence, smashing into the line of stalks.

I’m a solid guy running as fast as I can, yet the stalks don't even give and I crash to the ground, winded and bruised.

A cry rises behind me. Bullets flicker into the leaves.

Sucking air, I roll up and dodge between the stalks as far and as fast as I can. It's impossible to tell how far I've gone or in which direction. There's no sign of pursuit. The only sound is the chill wind rattling the stalks. The sun drops low.

They're going to let me freeze. Good.

I rub my arms and chest and contemplate the stupidity of my plan. I keep moving but it’s not enough to warm me. The stars are up. Wish I knew how to read them. These stars are strangers. Can't even pick out my own.

Lost. Going to die frozen on this moon. Should have kept my head down and worked the field. At least I’d have come out of it weathered and gritty with stories to tell. Maybe they'd have forgiven for coming back old. Old's better than dead.

The cold nips at me and I wish I hadn't lost my shirt, but not even that would do much good against the gnawing cold. At least I hadn't lost the other hand. My stump throbs.

The air is granular, sooty. No wonder no one escapes this way. No wonder they don't pursue. There's something wrong here.

With the last light, spores erupt from the coalberry and rain down on me from every direction.

They fill my nose and mouth. I double over to cough them out. They keep falling. I thrash for a useless eternity then stop. The spores may kill me, but the cold would have, anyway. No point in freaking out and dying badly. I can picture Dalina peacefully sleeping. How long will they let her sleep before concluding I'm gone? I can't remember. A long time.

Spores continue to fall. They float on unseen eddies, tiny airborne acrobats.

I wheeze. My eyes puff nearly shut.

At least I'm dying a free man. I crawl forward, lost in a sensory cloud.

The world numbs. The pain of my stump numbs, too.

I grab a stalk and pull myself to standing. I'm blind, but press slowly forward, forcing myself to be calm. I have to keep trying.

The spores actually taste good. Imagine that. They are motile, not passive in the wind. I’d never seen them before, but this must be what hardens into coalberry soot. I’d only ever seen them after they'd landed on the field, inert and baked into the topsoil. The puzzle of it awakens my mind and feels like hope.

The spores have an appetite of their own. They drift on to my hand, bloating with my blood. The next wave of spores turn on them like cannibals.

Interesting. My blood turns the spores on each other. Useless knowledge now. I unwind the gauze from my stump. It’s ugly. Half-cauterized, bruised with livid veins.

Spores flock to the wound. My arm grows heavy with their weight. At least this clears the air so I can breath.

I hold my stump before my face and move into the clear pocket before me.

The spores cluster, fighting amongst themselves.

Mustn’t panic. I wave my arms in the motions of the prayer. Ablution: to cleanse. I run, pushing off stalks with praying arms. My eyes clear in the rush of fresh air.

I reach the center of a small, soot covered clearing. Spores cover the ruin of my hand. It's a bloated feasting. I collapse. This is as far as I can go. I pray the cold takes me first.

* * *

I wake, sweating. It's still night. I should be frozen, but instead I'm sweltering. At first I think I'm burning up with fever, but no. I am pinned to the ground by something. Not something, many small things. Furry and wriggling. They cover me completely. Didn't know anything but coalberry lived on this moon—but of course, where there's life, there's an ecosystem.

I roll and pry myself loose. No luck. I am pinned by these animals, but it is too dark to see what they are. They snuffle along my body moving toward my stump. They are eating it.

I thrash off the ground and rise, screaming.

Tiny furry bodies fall away from me. I'm hit with crippling cold. They weren't eating me, but the coalberry spores. The furries had cleaned my stump. The sporelings are gone from the air as well, as far as I can tell.

I try to coax the furries back, for their warmth. Without them I would have frozen. I click my tongue like I used to call my cats.

They stay in their holes, eyes glinting.

The clearing swims in blackness, nothing reflecting but little eyes. Coalberry stalks rise on every side. The stars are fading. Dawn is close enough that some color begins to seep into this gray world.

I kneel and hold out my hand. I'm shaking so hard I'm afraid I'll scare them away, but a furry comes close and leans into me as I pet it. Another comes, and another. Then they all come, covering me with warmth.

* * *

I spend two more days and nights in the clearing. The furries are starting to like me. They follow me and come when I whistle. I'm rough with thirst, but I'm alive. The furries help me keep clean of coalberry, but there is a strange dark crust building around my stump. I try not to imagine what a coalberry infection might be like. The masters must think I'm dead by now. I almost am.

On the third night I circle back. A cluster of furries rides with me, feasting off the coalberry which feasts on me. I’ve had to reopen my wound to feed this cycle. I lose a lot of blood, but by dawn I'm at the airfield.

It's unguarded. The furries don’t like it here. They slough away a moment before I walk into it: the invisible docklock. I trip back, stunned. The sudden drop in temperature from losing my furries makes me shiver uncontrollably. I can't take much more of this cold.

I whistle to the furries and they climb back over me. I find my ship's shadow against the stars. Dalina’s Hope. There’s something wrong with the hull. Before I can investigate further, I’ll have to override the docklock. If only I could dig under it. I can't, but the furries could. If only we could communicate.

I point and whistle. I shake my arms. I tell them to pass under the docklock through their tunnels and come up on the other side. And then what? As the sky lightens, more and more of the furries slide off me. They hate the sun and scurry for tiny holes in the soot's crust. Soon the field will be full of slaves, the balcony full of masters. I don't have much time.

The tool shed is close and never locked. I take the best diamond pick I can find and position myself as close to Dalina's Hope as the invisible barrier lets me get. I start to dig, swinging wide with the ablutions of the prayer. I wish I could clean this all away. I don't care how much noise it makes. I don't care if they see my pick swinging. It's a fool's hope to make a tunnel my size anyway. But it's this or nothing.

Hitch, thrust, swing strike, hitch, yank, and back.

I sink to my knees to clear out my hole. Barely a foot down and almost dawn. That's when I see them watching me with their glittering eyes. I whistle and, despite the growing warmth of day, they come. Their sharp teeth set to work. Tunneling is, apparently, the universal language.

They chip the coalberry away easily—and far faster than all my pounding with the diamond pick ever could. They must have evolved to chew through hardened coalberry soot. Made of the stuff, after all.

I crawled into the narrow tunnel behind them, my arms pinned. I urge them on with whistles. They seemed to want to continue going down, but once I judged we were under the docklock, I fumbled, awkwardly, upward. They followed my lead.

I burst through the last of the crust on my own into a pool of morning sun. The furries cower away from the growing light as I pull myself up. I whistle down to them, only wanting only to show my thanks. But one comes forward. When the light touches it, it stiffens and falls. Another furry pulls it to the shadows, stiffening, too. It's a terrible way to pay them back. I'm sorry, I tell them. Thanks.

I crawl to my ship, unlock the bottom portal, and steal inside. It's good to be home. I kiss Dalina's picture on the dash, strap into my seat, and hit the launch sequence like it was yesterday—then cancel it, remembering the misshapen hull. I scramble to the hold.

The ice must have melted and frozen so many times since I'd landed that my hull cracked. I can still fly, maybe a little slower, but the cargo is spoiled. All this way for so many kinds of ruin. A fortune gone. But, I'm alive. Other fortunes await.

Through my viewport the slaves are lining up. Beater and the other guards pace before them. The masters arrange themselves on the balcony for another day of what passes for life.

Creaky Tom and the rest of them, even Beater, must have family sleeping away waiting for their return. Once I get out of this system I can report the situation, but it would take years for authorities to arrive in force.

My ship isn't fitted with weapons. There's not much I can do. Sure, I could ram into the mansion's balustrade and take out a few of the masters. An empty gesture. I wouldn't even live to appreciate it.

I prep the hull to eject its cargo as I take off. No need to carry it around now. The weight of it is all wrong. It's not just water and ice in my hold. It's full of soot. On the outside of the hull, where the sun hits, the coalberry has solidified, but inside the tank is full of motile coalberry.

No wonder the furries don't like the sun: it solidifies the coalberry soot. The dust they are covered with would form a tomblike casing around them. They'd be buried alive.

Buried alive. An idea forms in my mind.

I adjust my launch trajectory to pass directly over the balcony.

By the time I'm ready, it's midday and the masters are laughing over a lavish meal.

I launch, rumbling over the balcony, and dump the coalberry soot over them all.

A shot from below penetrates the hull. Doesn't matter. It's busted anyway.

I swing the ship back around. The field is in uproar. Guards are falling back. Slaves stream for the mansion, their tools thrown aside. Creaky Tom raises his hoe in salute. The long white balcony is black-splattered with hardened coalberry soot. The masters are encased, half-risen from their chairs, falling, twisted, arms thrown back in frozen disbelief.

I could land and help with the revolt, maybe salvage a load of coalberry soot. People back home would pay a lot for it. Maybe too much. I initiate the cryogenic shell. As blue ice takes to my veins I whisper to Hope, "Take me home."