Qer’ish of Nayr

[Note: I only wrote this scene very recently, so it might feel a bit raw. The scene takes place on Nayr’s qer’ish day, the day he passes into adulthood. He finds out that the man he’s called “father” all his life is not really his father at all.]

Nayr waved open the cabinet to the sparring weapons and thought, for a fleeting moment, if he’d be justified in using a sharpened qasfin today. He was seventeen years old today, his qer’ish day, and for every single day of those seventeen years the person he called Father had lied to him. And if Nayr was anything, he was honest, with himself and with others. He expected nothing less from those he loved.

Used to love.

He frowned and padded across the room, his soft-soled sparring boots gripping the glimmering wooden floor. Morning sun streamed through the window facing the bay and bounced off the floor, a king’s ransom worth of wood in this dry, rocky world.

He waved his hand to open the combat weapons cabinet, and asked himself if the world would notice if Nayr incapacitated Ahrik, the man he once called Father.

No liar deserves to rule the world.

Nayr examined the gleaming combat qasfina, the morning light catching their curved steel blades, laser sharpened to wicked tips. He lifted one off its rack and hefted its familiar weight, the leather-bound hilt creaking in his grip. So many years of training, and now today, his qer’ish day, he finally contemplated using one for real, against an enemy he never knew he had.

Someone must protect Mother, and the world, from Ahrik’s lies.

The door dissolved with a whoosh behind him, and he grabbed a cloth from the rack inside the cabinet.

“Hello, Son.”

His fath… Ahrik’s voice raked over his ears like teeth grinding ice, the word “son” a monument to Ahrik’s disloyalty. How had he commanded his ketel all these years while lying like that?

Ahrik pulled off his combat boots. “Sorry I’m late.”

Another lie. “No problem. I was just polishing the qasfina.”

Ahrik grunted as he slipped on his sparring shoes. “You know, the palace has servants to polish those.”

Nayr wondered what drove Ahrik to the lies. The power to rule a planet was surely an intoxicating drug, but was it worth selling one’s soul? Ahrik had to be stopped.

Nayr replaced the combat qasfin, and a twinge of doubt interrupted the action. Was now the right time? No, he decided. What would Mother think? No point incapacitating Ahrik if the Queen wouldn’t agree.

Nayr walked back across the room, nodding in acknowledgment of Ahrik’s comment about the servants. “A man dependent on others isn’t free. Isn’t that what you always say?”

Ahrik raised an eyebrow and stood to choose his weapon from the sparring cabinet. “What’s wrong, Son? Is it the talk you had with your mother?”

Nayr paused before reaching for his favorite sparring weapon, a qasfin with an oaken hilt and soft iron blade. The extra weight made him stronger, for when he’d need to wield a blade for real.

His thoughts wandered once again to the combat qasfina. He could have switched one out for a sparring blade. He and Ahrik sparred every week. Ahrik wouldn’t have noticed the switch until it was too late.

Will I regret my indecisiveness? He frowned. Ahrik would assume it was in response to his question.

“Don’t call me ‘Son’,” said Nayr, pulling on its sparring gloves.

Ahrik pulled on his own gloves, then looked away, as if in the throes of some inner turmoil. “So, she really told you.”

The old man was holding back. Nayr shook out his arms and legs, but narrowed his eyes at Ahrik. “What else are you keeping from me?”

“I… I ca…” Ahrik stood and pursed his lips, then bored his gaze into Nayr, yet another secret hidden behind his eyes. “Let’s spar.”

How long can the old man hide from the truth? Nayr’s wrist compiler chimed. He frowned. He’d forgotten to remove it. He looked down, though, and his head swam.

A message scrolled up the tiny screen, from Sheresh, his closest mentor and friend: Just arrested. Accused of crimes against the race. Order came from the palace.

Ahrik. Who else would have signed the order, but Sheresh’s oldest rival?

Nayr’s blood boiled. He sensed this day would come. Years ago, Sheresh had been Ahrik’s first supervisor. In private, Ahrik accused Sheresh of starting the War of the Emerald Moon seventeen years ago, before Nayr was born, but Nayr had spoken with Sheresh at length. Nayr was sure: this was another one of Ahrik’s lies. And now he’d trumped up charges against the wisest man Nayr knew, and his closest friend.

Nayr threw his wrist compiler into his bag, strapped on his arm guards, and picked up his sparring qasfin. “Yes,” he said. “Let’s begin.”

No sooner had they crouched into their stances than Nayr flew at Ahrik, all fury and motion. Ahrik dodged and parried, sparks glancing off his arm guard when Nayr’s blade struck. Ahrik grunted with the effort, and Nayr caught a satisfying sheen of worry on his face.

They usually started slow, but Nayr was in no mood to go easy. Let the old man have a heart attack, for all he cared. It would save Nayr the trouble.

Ahrik regrouped and swung his blade, but Nayr dodged and leaned back to cut Ahrik’s legs out from under him with a kick to the back of the knees. Ahrik sprang out of the way, but Nayr relished the look of surprise on his face.

Nayr couldn’t understand why Ahrik had done it. Why lie about being his father for all these years? Why invent charges against his friend? Was he lying to Mother in order to consolidate his rule?

Ahrik launched a counterattack, but Nayr, smaller, quicker, and more fit, used Ahrik’s momentum against him. Nayr tucked into Ahrik’s attack and slammed an arm guard into his ribs, then as Ahrik’s blade rushed towards Nayr’s head, he slid out of the way, spun, and brought his own blade onto the small of Ahrik’s back.

Ahrik cried out in pain and crumpled into a roll away from Nayr, expelling air in pain. Bosonic springs under the floor cushioned most, but not all, of the fall, their subatomic hum groaning under Ahrik’s weight. Ahrik crouched on all fours, like a tiger ready to spring, but Nayr leaped first. Ahrik tried to dodge, but Nayr’s knee connected with Ahrik’s gut, along with a satisfying squelch and rush of air leaving Ahrik’s body.

Ahrik slumped onto his back, the fight gone out of him. He lay, his breath heaving, eyes stern, and examined the ceiling. “I… deserved… that.”

Nayr scoffed and threw his practice qasfin to the ground, furious enough still to ignore the basics of blade safety. He just didn’t care. One day his life was just like he wanted it, and the next he faced a different future, fraught with uncertainty and self-doubt. “Who decides what we deserve or don’t deserve?” he asked. “At least you had a choice.”

Ahrik sat up. “Now wait a minute, S… Nayr.”

Nayr ripped off his arm guards and gloves. “Why?”

Ahrik’s shoulders sank towards the floor. “You sure you don’t want to go another round? Settle your mind a bit?”

Nayr tore off his sparring boots. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I wanted to…” Ahrik looked off, avoided Nayr’s piercing glare, then focused on the floor. “It wouldn’t have changed the fact that your military blood isn’t pure.”

“You’re not my father. By law, I shouldn’t have 100,000 clones to command.” Nayr slammed a fist into his bag. “My life is built on a lie.”

“Your keteli clones are yours forever, because of your tendril link with them. No one can change that.” He set his own blade down and stood. He sighed a look at Nayr. “You’re the Queen’s son, and she has no daughters. You’re next in line. What worries you?”

Nayr guffawed, then shook his head. “You don’t get it.” He took his wrist compiler out of his bag and slapped it on his wrist, reminded once again why he was so furious. “Just because you’re obsessed with power doesn’t mean I am too. I care about my sons and serving my mother, not about ruling this rock.”

Ahrik started peeling off his gloves. “Those two are probably one and the same, Nayr. We’d hoped by now you’d realize that.”

Nayr sealed his bag shut with a ferocious swipe, thumb and forefinger pressed like a vice as he ran them across the two sides of the biomesh seam. “Don’t bring Mother into this.” He drilled his glare into Ahrik and took a step forward, thought about finishing what he’d started. “Your lust for power blinds you. You can’t see the evil you’ve sown.”

Ahrik narrowed his eyes, but kept his demeanor calm, which Nayr trusted like a viper guarding a bird’s nest. Ahrik nodded in his direction. “I can help you, Nayr.”

Nayr shouldered his bag. “Help me what? Betray the Queen? Execute my mentor?”

“Ah,” said Ahrik. “So this is really about Sheresh.”

Nayr stepped to within an arm’s length of Ahrik, but Ahrik didn’t move a muscle. So arrogant. Nayr poked a finger into the older man’s chest. “Your lies are about to be exposed, Ahrik Jeber-li. Stay away from my friends and family.”

Nayr shouldered his bag and stormed out. As he did, he accessed his internal compiler, the one implanted in the base of his skull, the privilege of every ketel commander in the army. The internal compiler gave him the tendril link to communicate with, command, and control his clones, his sons.

But it also let him store vast amounts of information, accessible only to him and encrypted to his unique genetic code. He created a new file, named it “Revenge”, and put a single word in it: Ahrik.

Palace Coup

[Note: This scene is from the chapter called “Danger in War”, and the viewpoint character is working through a serious rebellion problem. Nayr is a young military commander over a unit of 100,000 clones, and he found out that his parents have been lying to him for his whole life about who he really is. He acts out his rebellion by overthrowing the government, but then finds out just how much danger this entails.]

Nayr brimmed with excitement. Dawn broke on his ketel’s monthly training exercise. Nayr couldn’t have asked for a more perfect morning. His atmospheric engineers had nanoseeded clouds for months, for just this eventuality. His engineers tripped the nanos yesterday, and now the fog rolled in deep and thick.

The dawn light shone dull as Nayr’s command transporter settled onto the floor of the valley. This valley, just north of Meran, seat of the planet’s power, had once been the domain of Ahrik.

Ahrik. Nayr simmered at the two minders, loitering next to the command transporter, listening to the decoy briefing from 4. Nayr learned last week about Ahrik’s secret order to dissolve the ketela, including Nayr’s ketel of 100,000.

He chuckled. Ahrik. The Usurper. The would-be King. The man that Nayr once called father, before Ahrik showed his true colors.

Nayr shook his head and leaped down from the transporter. After that debacle of a military tribunal, where Ahrik cast Nayr’s friend and mentor aside like an old rag, Ahrik and his mother scrambled to salvage the meager scraps of their legitimacy. Ever since, two of Ahrik’s men had shadowed the Ketel of Nayr, presumably to make sure Nayr and his sons didn’t step out of line before the army issued the dissolution order.

Nayr would be forced to watch his 100,000 sons scattered throughout the army, to languish under foreign commands, while His Highness, the Mighty Ahrik, could make his own clones his closest advisors. Breathing out in fury, Nayr lifted his combat gear from the deck of the transporter and glanced at 2, who prepared for combat next to him.

Nayr shivered at Ahrik’s hypocrisy. Soldier for soldier, Ahrik’s forces were still the best, even if his units mixed clones and normals, men and women. But the 100,000 of Nayr would own today. Nayr’s sons spread out across the valley. No longer would Nayr’s mother, the Queen, serve as Ahrik’s puppet.

The sound of transporters and interceptors priming their boson drives filled Nayr with an anticipation he’d never known. This was no simple training exercise. This was the real thing. His ketel would put an end to the Ahrik problem today. Ahrik and his minders had no clue what was coming.

“I live for danger, 2,” said Nayr, once the boson drives got too loud for the minders to overhear. “Only those who face danger win in the end.”

2 nodded and strapped on his distiller, qasfin, and shield cells. “We face danger all the time, Father.”

Nayr grinned. “All we do is win.”

Outside his command transporter, the boson drive humming with eagerness, Nayr locked in his own shield cells and synced his weapon systems to his internal compiler. Distiller arming and diagnostics. Tendril planning and execution. All-terrain cloaking. Seekerbot recon and targeting. “All systems go, 2,” he said. “Visual check.”

They checked each other’s combat equipment. Distiller. Qasfin. Extra kall packs. Boson bombs. Survival gear.

Through the fog, Nayr heard a flight of interceptors lift into the morning gloom, bound for the far-flung outposts of Ahrik’s vaunted empire. A host of diversions for Ahrik to deal with.

One of the minders sauntered over, and Nayr narrowed his eyes. The minder was a clone of Ahrik, one of the two thousand or so remaining after the war Ahrik started to usurp women’s rule, some fourteen years ago. The minder’s uniform bore patches from a dozen campaigns. He was just over thirty years in age, but slivers of gray flecked his temples. His cold, hard stare told of the eight thousand of his fellow clones who’d preceded him to the grave.

Nayr couldn’t wait to help this minder find a grave of his own.

Nayr turned from the approaching minder and nodded to 2. “Tendril check.” Ketel of Nayr, he cast over the network to his 100,000, where only he and his clones could listen in. We are one. No matter the danger, and no matter who opposes us, we win. Do your job. Win.

The minder stopped about two meters away and saluted, but looked down on Nayr. Nayr saluted back, hiding his anger at the minder’s airs. When Nayr was fully grown, he would be taller than Ahrik and his clones, assuming any were left alive after Nayr was done with them.

For now, Nayr couldn’t let on that danger awaited the minders, so he saluted in return and asked, “Report, keteli?” To 23, head of his security detail, he cast, The moment he senses danger, do it.

Check, Father.

“Sir,” the minder said, “just confirming the plan. Airborne insertion south of Meran via the ocean, with supporting elements hitting points across the contin–”

Nayr threw his hand up. “I got the briefing already.” He pointed to the back of his skull, where his internal compiler was implanted. “Tendril network. Ahrik may use aural comms with his mixed ketel, but I don’t.” Nayr smiled. “Lift off in three.”

The minder pursed his lips, turned on his heels, and melted into the rush of men to confer with his fellow minder once again.

4 hurried through the bustle and saluted, Nayr’s ten-member personal security team close on his heels.

“Father, target is on the move.” He shifted his weight.

“Speak.” Nayr prided himself on knowing when his men had something on their minds.

“Father, I can arrange a larger detail for you.”

Nayr frowned. “Nope. We’re the main effort, but small and fast is better. You create enough diversions, there’s no way we can fail.”

“There’s danger in war, Father,” said 4, adjusting his distiller harness.

“That’s why you’re my intel chief, 4. Your pessimism keeps me honest.” Nayr held a hand out in expectation to 2. “But only those who face danger…”

2 spoke: “…win in the end.”

“Now,” said Nayr, double checking that his qasfin was secure, “patch me through the target feed, and I and my detail will take care of the rest. You two do your jobs. We’ll take care of Ahrik.”

“Check, Father,” 2 and 4 said in unison.

Nayr raised an eyebrow in 4’s direction. “And make sure I get both minders in my bird.”

4 nodded and hurried over to the minders, but then looked back and frowned. One of them insists he stay with me.

You know what needs to happen, 4. Nayr suppressed the worry that flashed into his mind, worry that his bookish intel chief wouldn’t be up to the task when the time came.

The minder came back and gave Nayr a cautious look. “Sir, my colleague will stay with your intel chief to monitor the operation.” He gestured towards the electromag in his hand, clicking the switch, as if bragging that his comm system could possibly be better than Nayr’s tendril network. “We’ll be in constant contact,” the minder said.

Nayr gave a sage nod. “A wise choice. Their Highnesses will want to know the outcome.” 23, he cast to his security detail lead, Be ready on my mark.

23 gave an almost imperceptible nod, then Nayr grinned at the minder and stepped through the shuttle’s bay door. As he planted his feet on the transporter deck, he gave the “move out” sign with his hand. His security detail filed onto the transporter behind him, followed by the minder. Nayr leaned out as the transporter pulled away. 2 and 4, Ahrik will never know what hit him. Then he whooped. “Win!”

The rising hum of boson drives filled the valley. Through the mist, Nayr saw transporters and interceptors form into pods and break off for different targets in Meran and across the Eshel. Everywhere Ahrik had a concentration of forces.

Nayr had filed the exercise with Ahrik’s Global Command Center as a rapid reaction exercise, after his source had tipped him off about the order to disband his ketel. Nayr checked his internal compiler. The target was on route from the Global Command Center, outside Meran, to the port area.

The seekerbot feed told him that Ahrik and Mother were alone. But Ahrik might have a trick or two up his sleeve. He always did, but Nayr had the ultimate insurance policy. Mother. Ahrik would do anything for Mother.

Knowing your enemy’s weakness reduces danger in war.

The command transporter peeled off from the main pod making for Meran and headed out over the ocean. At a raised eyebrow from the minder, Nayr shouted over the boson drive’s hum, “We need some separation for our delayed approach to the landing zone.”

Nayr gave a reassuring smile, then watched the minder with care. The minder toggled on his electromag and said something unintelligible to his comrade on the other end.

Nayr cast: 4, get ready. 23, as soon as he toggles off the electromag.

The minder cut the line, and 23 moved like quicksilver. His qasfin slashed into the minder’s cortex, disabling the minder’s internal compiler. 23’s distiller primed and gave a brief and intense crackle, then the minder gasped, and his head lolled forward as he lost his grip on the handhold. Before his legs buckled, the distiller discharged, opening up a crisp hole in the minder’s chest and spitting elemental slurry out of the open bay door.

Nayr heard a thump, and 23’s boot appeared where the minder’s back had been. As the minder fell out the door, his body turned and Nayr saw his eyes, wide with surprise, laced with hate.

The tang of human flesh turned to carbon slime reached Nayr’s nostrils. 4, he cast, Now.

No response. Nayr shivered.

4? Nayr cast again, brow furrowed.

“Father?” asked 23.

Nayr gripped the handhold a bit tighter. “I—”

Dan… ger… 4’s tendril link winked out in Nayr’s mind.

Nayr peered at 23, grim. His heart pounded. This was his only chance, but there was nothing for it now, even if 4 had blown their surprise. “Proceed to the objective.”

Nayr paused, to calm his breathing, then cast: 2, we need to go in hot.

Confirmed, Father, cast 2. Instructing all units to engage post-haste.

23 sidled over and gripped the handhold next to Nayr. Will this work, Father?

Nayr fixed him with a fierce glare, an act that took a force of will Nayr was sure he could only have achieved on the brink of combat. “We win, keteli. Remember that.” The steadiness in his own voice surprised him. He checked the seekerbot feed. To the pilot, he shouted: “Go in fast. My mother’s estate.” To his security detail: “Trust your comrades. Follow my lead. Win.”

2: Father, units have engaged across the western Eshel, but resistance is stiff.

I don’t need you to defeat Ahrik everywhere, just pin his forces down so I can deal with him in person.

As the command transporter approached the Tameri estate from the direction of the port complex, Nayr checked the seekerbot feed. Ahrik and Mother were still alone. The command transporter touched down, fluttering the trees and bushes with sub-atomic wash. Nayr jumped out and headed towards the main entrance. 23, he cast, on me.

The rest of the security detail fanned out to secure the compound, padding over the soft, green turf to take positions at the main gate and along the walls. Nayr launched himself up the steps then turned to 23. This, the most delicate piece of the whole operation, would be between him, Ahrik, and Mother. “Wait for me in the entryway. Intervene only if they make a move on me.”

“Yes, Father.”

Nayr turned to the door, then froze. It stood ajar, like the maw of a crocodile waiting for some unsuspecting creature to alight. Nayr reached to push open the door all the way, then saw his hand shake. He reached for his qasfin, flexing his fingers on the grip and wiping his other hand on the pant leg of his uniform. Even though the cloud cover was thick that morning, the light dimmer than usual outside, the mansion stood dark, the air silent and still.

He crept forward. He smelled a house little lived in, air and dust settled into a space much larger than necessary, a mausoleum to past lives, as if the building itself knew the work of death that Nayr’s sons sowed across the Eshel.

As his eyes adjusted to the crepuscular entryway, he made out the grand staircase ahead of him and the hollow darkness of the ballroom to the left. Then he stopped short, mid-creep. Two figures stood at the base of the stairway, wrapped in darkness. By the way she stood, he could tell which one was his mother. The outline of Ahrik’s qasfin and distiller on the other figure were just visible in the murk.

His mother cleared her throat. “I’m so glad you came alone, Son. Less messy that way.”

“I—” Nayr’s voice shook, and he paused to take a breath. “I’m sorry, Mother. It’s over.”

Ahrik chuckled, but a motion from Mother cut him off. “Choose carefully your next words, Son,” she said. “I don’t take kindly to threats.”

Nayr took a cautious step forward. “Mother—”

The hum of a distiller charging cut Nayr off. “Stop, Nayr,” said Ahrik.

23’s distiller primed in answer, threatening a standoff, but Nayr waved 23 off. He gestured at Ahrik. “Mother, don’t let this madman deceive you anymore.”

Ahrik gave a threatening grumble, but Mother cut Ahrik off once again. Ahrik’s distiller died down as well.

Mother sighed. “This is about you, Son, not him.”

“The rule of Ahrik is finished, Mother.”

“Was he ever really in charge? What, you think you’ll replace him?”

Nayr took another step forward. If he could just get close enough to his mother, then he could turn the odds in his favor. He shook his head. “No, Mother, you bear some of the blame for all this, as much as it pains me to say it.”

Ahrik hissed. “Enough of these games, Nayr.”

“Ah’ke,” said Mother, warning in her voice.

“No, Zhe’le.” Ahrik took a step towards Nayr. “You’re wrong about him. He doesn’t care about the people of the Eshel, much less about women’s rule. Even now, his 100,000 are spreading out over the globe like a virus. He has the blood of two of my best men on his hands.”

Nayr scoffed. So 4 had killed his minder, after all. “If you know me so well, why didn’t you see this coming?”

Ahrik cried out in anger and leaped towards Nayr, but whether to intimidate or attack, Nayr couldn’t tell. 23 gasped behind him, and two distillers primed and went off. Pain lanced up Nayr’s arm, but he bit it back. Behind him, he heard 23’s body fall to the ground with a thud, followed by the clatter of his distiller on the polished stone floor. 23 hadn’t gotten his shields up in time. Danger in war.

“Ah’ke!” screamed Mother. Nayr looked up and saw Mother restraining Ahrik. “Don’t make this worse.”

Ahrik wrenched himself free of her grasp and stepped back. “How many good men and women must die for his little charade, Zhe’le?”

Nayr rubbed his arm gingerly. Surface wound. “Well now, Ahrik,” he said. “That depends on you, doesn’t it?”

Mother planted herself between them. “Enough, both of you.” She fixed Nayr with an icy glare. “We know why you’re here, and we know you’ll get what you want in the end. The question is, what price will you exact from those who love you?”

Mother’s look transformed from aloofness to pity. The corners of her eyes sagged and her shoulders slumped. Her look cut Nayr to his core. It sparked a tinder of long-suppressed brimstone in his heart, and a pure, animal hate surged inside him. He sprang towards his mother and whipped his qasfin from its leather sheath.

In an instant, he had his mother’s neck pinned between his left forearm and his blade. He meant her no ill, but he had to make his point. “Mother, I want you to say it, to tell me it’s mine. The Eshel. The Kereu. The ocean, the sky, the Moon. Say it’s mine, all of—”

His demand stilled in his throat. He peered around in the dark. “Where’s Ahrik?”

Mother took a long, slow breath, utterly fearless, powerful. “He’s gone. You won’t find him.”

Nayr spat on the gleaming stone floor and released his grip. He had to find Ahrik. He checked the seekerbot feed. Nothing. Target lost. He began pacing back and forth in front of the staircase, peeling off his gear: boson bombs, survival gear, shield cells, kall pack. He couldn’t win until Ahrik was dead. He had Mother captive, and he could declare victory, but everything rode now on finding Ahrik. Ahrik threatened Nayr’s rule. His breathing became shallow and vapid, and he stopped to rest his hands on his knees, head down.

Then an even more sickening realization flooded over him.  “I… I’m sorry, Mother, I don’t know what came over me. I could have killed you.”

He realized his qasfin was still in his hand, the grip sweaty, his forearm aching from the tension. Eyes wide, he flung it away and it clattered against the staircase.

Mother placed a reassuring hand on his back. “There there, Son. I knew you wouldn’t kill me.”

Mother crouched down and held his chin, their eyes on a level. She squeezed a bit harder than she should have, but he didn’t care about that now. Wracking remorse had begun to take hold, to sink its claws into his heart. Tears welled in his eyes at what he had almost done, at the exhausted tension of combat, and at what he had ordered done that morning. How many dead? How much destruction?

“Look at me, Nayr,” said Mother. “Remember this.”

Confusion took hold on his face. “Remember what?”

She smiled with a tenderness that only a jilted mother can. “This is what winning feels like.”

Attack on the Emerald Moon

[This is the first scene in the book, but not the first one I wrote. I wanted to have a clear idea of what drove Anda, the main character in the novel, before I wrote this scene. I meet people all the time who deal with stifling challenges on a day-to-day basis, but who smile despite it all. This scene, and the novel as a whole, is a study of determination and happiness in the face of challenges more intense than most of us will ever experience.]

 

 

The pitter-patter of feet stopped Anda, his hand poised to cycle the airlock. With a smile, he turned and knelt down to gather his daughter in an embrace. “Up already, Cera?”

She coughed, then hugged her stuffed dubbi tight. “I can’t sleep, Abbi.”

She rarely slept well anymore, and Anda was less and less surprised to see her up before he headed out to the tanks.

“Can you go to Imma’s bed?” He stroked Cera’s long auburn hair and smiled, but inwardly he steeled himself for another fit of coughing.

He and Esh’a had tried everything they could to help Cera fight this mysterious illness, but months of doctors and treatments had done nothing. Cera still suffered from coughing fits and fainting spells. Anda gritted his teeth. Why can’t I help her?

Cera shook her head and gave him a stern look. “Not back to bed. Story.”

Anda sighed. “Quickly. I have to check the algae before Homerise.”

He sat on the heated stone floor and pulled Cera onto his lap. “Do you know the story of Marin and Yov?”

Cera shook her head, then yawned and cuddled into the crook of his arm.

Anda squeezed Cera close, and the little girl clutched her buddi to her chest.

“Many, many years ago, Marin and Yov loved each other very much,” he said.

“Was this on Moon, Abbi?”

“No, Cerit, this was on Home.”

Cera looked up at Anda with sleepy eyes. “I’ll go there someday.”

Anda pursed his lips. “Home is not a good place now. Many people die there.” He shifted Cera on his lap. “Marin and Yov lived through war and dying on Home, too, but Yov was lost in the war and Marin was very sad.”

“Did he die, Abbi?”

“No, Yov didn’t die, but Marin searched for years and years to find him. She faced hunger and cold and sickness and fatigue. When she found him, he was weak and nearly dead.”

“That’s a sad story, Abbi.”

“No, Cerit. Over the years Marin grew strong from her trials. Then she gave her strength to Yov, and he lived.”

Footsteps shuffled towards them from the bedroom, and Esh’a stopped in the entryway. Her bloodshot eyes told Anda that she had not slept well either. She shivered and pulled her nightgown close, then glowered. “She died, Anda. Tell Cera that.”

Anda pled with his eyes, but Esh’a met his gaze with cold despair. Have hope, he wanted to say, but he worried that they would lose Cera, and then afterwards Esh’a would succumb to the mercilessness of loss and fate.

When was the last time we kissed each other good morning?

“I have to go check the tanks,” he said, nudging Cera towards Esh’a and unfolding himself from the floor. We have to pay for these treatments somehow.

He stepped to the airlock once again, but Cera tugged on the thigh pocket of his exosuit. “Abbi, will I die, like Marin?”

A lump formed in Anda’s throat. He bent down to look Cera in her pale eyes, red-rimmed and weary from pain and illness. Anda stroked her hair once again. “Not if I can help it, Cerit.”

He didn’t dare look at Esh’a before cycling out through the airlock. He knew he would see only scorn and bitterness in her face. He did not begrudge his wife her pain, her longing for what should have been, but Cera needed hope now more than ever.

The doctor told them yesterday that there was nothing more he could do. “They’re starting a new trial next week at Kalevo. Treatments every month. I can’t guarantee anything, but I’ll see if I can get her in.” The doctor had given them a grim look. “But even if she gets in, I don’t know if it’ll work.”

Anda bounded out to the algae tanks in Moon’s lowgrav. With every leap, he screamed into his helmet, frustration and anguish boiling over. How can I pay to go to Kalevo every month? How do I give my wife hope? How can I save my daughter?

Homerise over the horizon fed his anger. On Home, Cera would be cured by now. But he and Esh’a couldn’t go Home. They were marked. They’d be hunted, probably executed. What good would it do Cera to have her health, but no parents?

The tanks came into view, seven squat cylinders of dull steel, each twenty meters across. The algae they cultivated served two purposes. The gasses the algae emitted made Moon’s thin atmosphere more breathable, but, more important, the algae helped feed Moon’s population, over two million now. They said the atmosphere would be breathable in less than twenty years, but Anda only cared about today.

Homerise cast its blue-gray pall over the broken landscape. Moss grew thick on rocks and boulders. The wispy haze of clouds tinted Homerise a hundred shades of green.

Anda used to love this time of morning. No matter his problems, he could lope out here and find peace, peace of recognizing how small he was to the cosmos, and of sensing the presence of some greater plan.

But that was gone, faded into an unreachable past. Without my family, I am nothing. He wanted to believe that the universe had a plan for him and his family, but he felt like he was staring into blackest night.

At least he had his algae crop. That’s something.

He made one final leap and wrapped gloved fingers over the rim of the first tank, three meters from the base, his feet jammed in footholds with practiced skill. He pulled himself up and peered over the side.

He froze.

Instead of a deep green, the surface was pale, almost blue. Black rimmed the inside of the tank. He checked the water temperature reading on his helmet display. Normal. He synced his onboard compiler to the tank’s system and checked bosonic heaters, acidity, gas proportions, radiation retention. All readings normal. Except biological activity, which sat at sixteen percent, too low to sustain life.

How? Algae production was the oldest form of agriculture on the Emerald Moon. Tanks didn’t fail like this.

He scrambled down from the rim of the tank. Nervousness climbed up his chest. If one tank failed, could others? Everything I own is here, in these tanks.

Anda bounded to the next tank, leaped up, and pulled himself to the rim. His heart sank. The surface of the second tank was paler than the first. Anda checked the readings. Bioactivity at nine percent.

Frantic, he leaped to the ground and bounded to the next tank, and the next, and the next. Every one, dead. At the last tank he crumpled to the ground, a vacant husk of despair.

What was I supposed to do?

Despair turned to frustration, and frustration to fury. He balled his fist and slammed it into the ground, over and over and over again, until his suit sounded the oxygen alarm. Rupture in right glove, the display read. Oxygen levels at twenty-eight percent.

Anda took in a deep breath. It wouldn’t take that long.

Twenty-seven percent.

He took in another breath and searched for a reason to smile. Home cleared the horizon.

Twenty-five percent.

He pushed himself off the moondirt and took a single bound towards home, then another, and another. He could almost feel the oxygen leaving his exosuit.

Fifteen percent.

Oxygen levels stood at zero when he cycled through the airlock and felt the artigrav kick in. When Cera ran up to throw her arms around him, he smiled. He couldn’t help it.