A red sky over a cobblestone road that leads past alien plants toward a land of lava.

Parting

by

This time, they were too early.

Paessin had given them the location of the sally port and told them to be there on the fifth day at the third horn of gamma. What else were they going to do in the meantime? They still had the remainder of the rations with which they had been paid off by the ARU and they might as well eat them on the journey as anywhere else. After all, it was not as if they were going to be allowed to stay in the warm at the embassy and there was no point in going back to the favela. No one they knew there any more.

So they had collected Achates from the compound and set out there and then.

They had followed the inner road, the feeble glow of the red and static sun at first augmenting the light spilling out from the lower levels of the Redoubt. The road snaked and weaved through tumbled mounds of ore and endless piles of dismantled and rusting scaffolding. The abandoned shells of smelting works lined the way while the rough surface of the road itself was littered here and there with the mouldering detritus left by the centuries of construction.

It had been slow going, but the brothers feared to seek a less obstructed route further out on the abandoned highways. Here, hard by the foot of the Redoubt, there had been less chance of being jumped by a disgruntled gang of half-breeds or humpies. As they knew only too well, these days, some of the outcasts and excluded were wild enough to risk taking on even a Pioneer Dog if numbers were on their side and they felt sufficiently hungry.

The sally port was on the northeastern side of the Redoubt, near the eastern apex of the base, so they had followed a clockwise circuit from the embassy. Rounding the northern point, they moved into the shadow side of the Pyramid, where the static sun never shone and the frost was thick on the ground. Early for their meeting, there was now nothing for it but to stand around and wait, doing their best to ignore their hunger and stamping their feet in an attempt to keep warm.

Achates was uneasy. His head hung low, and he sniffed the ground with perfunctory interest. Staes patted his huge, shaggy flank, making soft, reassuring noises.

“Easy boy. Won’t be long now.”

He turned to his brother. “Do you think they’ll let us in?” he asked for the sixth or seventh time that day.

Laris shrugged, though the effect of the gesture was lost in the gloom. “How should I know? Paessin said that he’d put in a good word for us. We’ve just got to hope he’s kept his promise.”

“And that there’s room.”

“There’s room.”

Because they were trying hard to keep their hopes up and not to argue again about whose fault it was that they were there, their talk turned, as it often had of late, to the struggles of their forebears. They both knew the old stories well enough to touch on a tiny favourite detail and evoke thereby an entire episode.

“Do you remember Father telling us about…”

“What about that time they…”

They reminisced.

Of how their ancestors had laboured out among the Dwindling Stars. Of their lost ancestral homes among the now deserted worlds of far Sirius and long-dead Arcturus. Of the dry, hard centuries when the True Humans had fought a losing war to keep the Last Colonies. Of pitched battles with the Outsiders and the final alliance with the Aliens.

They loved these stories of people they had never known and places they had never seen. The legends helped them to understand their own identities and explained how they had come to be where they were.

Best of all, the stories were shot through with tales of the Pioneer Dogs, humanity’s last and most faithful companions. They told how hounds and humans had lived side by side and fought the common enemy in the irradiated snows and thinning air of the distant and long-gone Colonies. They recorded, too, the great names amongst the ancient animals, the founders of the famous breeds. These were the stories they had loved as children and which they were not ashamed to repeat as men: mighty Kasparine, digging his mistress out of the avalanche while the burning meteors fell all round, proud Mordolina, fighting off the ice bulls to save the people of Perdopolis. Faithful friends these dogs had proved, engineered for hardship, bred for intelligence, loved for loyalty.

“I thought I heard something.”

“No, it’s just the metal creaking. The building’s still settling.”

“It’s all right, Achates,” muttered Staes. “Not long to go now.”

When still there was no sound or sign of anyone come to open the door and let them in, the brothers’ talk turned to the slow retreat to ancient Earth. It had all happened so long ago, but once more they discussed the fierce and bloody battle for the refuelling station above Cassiopeia IV, and the treachery which had finally brought it to an end. Humans had betrayed humans, and many had been lost out there among the guttering stars.

After that old story was told anew, mulled over once more, and finished at last, their talk turned at length to more recent sorrows, and a tardy arrival which might yet cost them dear.

“How were we to know that they’d be finishing admissions so soon? They told us we had another year to go at least. On previous form that could easily have meant two.”

Laris crossed his arms and stuffed his frozen hands under his armpits. “I thought it did,” he replied, kicking at the ground. “I was absolutely sure. And I thought you and I were going to starve while we hung around waiting for our turn.”

“Perhaps one of us should have stayed, though,” argued Staes. “Then he could have gone and fetched the other when they finally got round to us.”

“Nonsense. Whoever stayed here would have died from lack of food.”

“Not if he’d been the one to keep Achates. Achates could have helped him forage.”

“Meanwhile, the other one would have been picked off as he travelled to or from the Lake. You know it wouldn’t have worked. We’ve only survived this far because we’ve all stuck together.”

There was a pause as they both silently acknowledged the truth of the situation. Then Staes asked, as he always did, “What are we going to do if they don’t let us in?”

“We’ll face that when we come to it. We’ll think of something.”

They had always been amongst the last to arrive.

It was their own Family, they knew, their own however-many-“greats” great-grandmothers and grandfathers who had taken the last vessel down to Earth. They had come all that way, only to find themselves among the desperate remnant stranded in orbit, within sight of their destination but unable to make the final, short descent because all the landing-capable ships had long been taken. The Family’s own decrepit starjumper Valiant Spark would never have survived descent into a gravity well.

The other survivors had pinned their hopes on refitting an ancient hulk they had discovered. They had collected together all the fuel that could be found but though they had braced, shielded and reinforced the hull, they had still lacked many of the critical components they needed to run the ship’s systems.

Seeing that they might be able to provide the missing items, the Family had bartered components stripped from their own vessel in exchange for the promise of places on the journey down to the surface. They had even ripped out the jump drive from the Valiant Spark so that it could be jury-rigged to provide internal power for the lander.

When the refit had finally been completed, however, it had become clear that the others had no intention of taking the Family with them, and there had been a pitched battle for possession of the flimsy craft. The Family had won, and the surviving members had taken possession of their prize: the remains of a nameless vessel whose registration had become part of the Family’s folklore: K93-4741. In her they had attempted to re-enter the thinned and chilling air of Earth.

It was a journey that such a craft should never have undertaken. Unwieldy and unsound, the superannuated ship had first scorched and scintillated through the attenuated upper air and then, her structural members creaking and her braking thrusters almost spent, wallowed and rolled and pitched and yawed her way down through the thickening layers of atmosphere until her crew could see the sea glinting beneath them.

It had been at that point that they had begun to suspect what their calculations soon confirmed, namely, that their rapid rate of descent and limited fuel meant that they were going to fall just short of the distant shore and the safe, dry lands beyond.

Lower they had sunk, and after all other possibilities had seemed exhausted, they had solemnly prepared themselves for the ditching they knew that none could ever survive.

But then the pilot had let out an unexpected cry of joy, for the radar had detected, and her own keen eye had located, the only piece of dry land in that entire expanse of frigid water: a small island, a mere sharpened tooth of rock, sticking steeply up out of the foaming deeps. Unhesitatingly, the pilot had aimed her failing craft at the exposed summit and kept it on course until its careering onward rush had almost cast them precipitately down upon it. Then she had flared the vessel sharply and expended every last drop of remaining fuel in a vectored blast designed to halt their steep descent and at the same time arrest their headlong forward progress.

Legend had it that you could actually hear the longerons buckling under the strain.

The flaming touch of the thrusters’ fiery breath had set the waters boiling beneath them and the craft had settled to the ground in a hissing cloud of smoke and steam. Right on the uppermost point of the island’s jagged peak they had landed, and the rock had knifed through the weakened hull, leaving the spacecraft spiked on the summit like a dying fish impaled on a hunter’s spear.

Had there been any more fuel aboard it would surely have gone up in flames and all might have perished there. Their meagre store of propulsive chemicals had been entirely spent, however, and though two of the Family perished in the landing, all the rest survived.

Alive and on the Earth at last, their danger had been by no means over. The tiny island where they had landed was nearly five miles from the shore and they had had neither boats to sail nor practical experience of how to cross any such wide expanse of water.

In the end, they had cannibalised the spacecraft for all its surviving air tanks and any such parts as might provide a degree of buoyancy. These they had bolted and lashed together to provide a crude and dangerous raft. The Family had stepped aboard and their four remaining Pioneer Dogs had entered the freezing water and begun to tow them to the shore. Last of the great hounds to return to their genetic home, brave Einir, bold Grettir, tireless Milla and indomitable Vildis had fought the waves and swum the chilling miles, pulling their humans to safety behind them. Staes and Laris honoured the memory of those faithful animals whose fates had been woven with those of the Family. They knew their names and remembered their story. Together, the two species had come home.

When the sally port did finally open, it almost took the brothers by surprise. Achates’s head suddenly came up, rising high above those of his companions, and he began to stare intently at the doorway. There was a softly muted clunk as the final locks and bolts withdrew and then the door itself swung quietly open, spilling a semicircle of yellow light onto the frosted ground. Out stepped a small detachment of guards, their visors down and their lances lowered. Each was clad in full-body armour and stood head and shoulders taller than either of the brothers. Achates growled, but Staes put a hand to his shoulder and the great beast quietened down.

The guards formed a defensive arc around the doorway, and then out stepped two other figures behind them. They both looked carefully round before stepping past the guards and walking towards the waiting pair. Staes and Laris straightened their shoulders and stood to an informal attention as they approached.

“Greetings, gentlemen,” began the officer. His tone was brisk, his face unsmiling. “It’s all right, you can stand easy. Sergeant Paessin, are these the two men you told me about?”

“Yes, sir. Staes and Laris Farson.”

“Farson? Ah, you’re from an offworlder family. Interesting. My sergeant here tells me that you did a good job as part of the security militia during the construction and now want to join us inside. May I ask why you didn’t present yourself within the specified time when we issued the role call?”

Staes looked at Laris, and Laris spoke up.

“We were working for the Archival Retrieval Unit, sir. They were excavating a ruined library over in the City by the Lake of Bronze and needed labourers. We’d been told that the admissions office wouldn’t get round to offworlder families for at least another twelve months and we needed the work.”

“I see. Well, if you like digging, I may be able to accommodate you. We’re still short of workers for the underground expansion project and it’s not as if there are many more True Humans left out here to recruit. If your blood is pure and you don’t mind hard labour, then we’ll be pleased to have you. Have you got proof of identity?”

The officer took out a torch and scanned the identity cards and gene certificates that the brothers produced.

“All right, these seem to be in order,” he told them, handing back the documents. “Now, you understand the procedure, don’t you? We’re going to put you in quarantine for a month and we’ll use that time to run all the usual tests. It’s what everyone else went through, so don’t feel hard done by. Provided we don’t find any abnormalities, you’ll then be assigned to one of my work gangs, where you’ll be on twelve months’ probation. Any nonsense from either of you during that time and you’ll be back here outside before you can count to ten. Oh yes, and one more thing.”

He lowered his voice and waved a finger in each of their faces.

“You’re not to say a word about this to anyone. If someone asks, you joined as part of the offworlder tranche six months ago and got behind with your processing because you had to spend time in the infirmary. Understood? Good. We’re officially sealed now and no one else is supposed to be coming in or out. This lot,” he inclined his head slightly to indicate the guards standing behind him, “are loyal to me, and if they find out you’ve been talking out of turn, they’ll make sure that I know all about it.

“Now then,” he spoke louder once more, “all that remains is to sort out what you’re going to do with your friend here.”

At first, neither of them understood what he meant. Seeing their puzzled expressions, he continued, “Are you going to let him go, or do you want us to shoot him for you? You can do it yourselves if you’d prefer.”

Staes was the first to find words to reply. “What do you mean?” he stammered.

“Well, we can’t take him inside, you know that. He’s too big, he’s too dangerous, and anyway, we don’t allow animals inside the Redoubt.”

“No, we didn’t know that. Didn’t Paessin tell you that the dog works with us? He’ll do what we tell him to. We’re dog handlers. That’s what we do.”

“He’s a great worker,” contributed Laris. “He can be trained to dig or pull vehicles or carry away spoil, anything you want. He’s very intelligent. He’ll earn his keep ten times over if you give him the chance.”

“Gentlemen, you don’t seem to be listening. We don’t allow animals in the Redoubt. If you can’t bear to leave him then you’ve been wasting my time and I have no more to say to you. If you’re coming along, then you’d better do so now, because I’m not standing around here waiting while you two dither and make up your minds.”

With that, he turned on his heels and returned within the ring of guards. Paessin glanced back once as he followed his commander but said nothing.

The brothers looked at each other.

“We’ll starve if we stay out here,” said Staes.

“I don’t care, I’m not leaving Achates,” replied Laris.

“Well, are you coming?” called the officer.

“We’ve got to go,” insisted Staes.

“It’s all right, you go. I’m staying put.”

The officer returned back inside the sally port, followed by the guards in single file, until only Paessin remained.

“Laris, don’t be a fool. Please come with me. Achates can survive out here but we can’t.”

Laris placed his hand on the Pioneer Dog’s lowered head.

“I’ll be all right. You said it yourself, Achates will help me forage for food. Now go on, before they close that door.”

“It’s your last chance, boys. I’m going to have to lock up now,” Paessin called.

Staes looked towards the sergeant, then back to his brother. “I’ve got to get inside, Laris. I can’t stand this darkness and cold any more.”

“I know. Go on, before it’s too late.”

“I’ll miss you both,” Staes said, though the words were whispered and indistinct. Laris nodded. They shook hands briefly, embraced, and then Staes ran to the door, where Paessin was waiting for him.

His brother watched him go. The figures disappeared inside and the door swung silently closed behind them, extinguishing the light.

Achates whined mournfully and trotted over to sniff round the sally port and the ground where one of his masters had last stood. Laris let him be for a minute, then walked over and stood by him, resting his head against the animal’s powerful shoulder. He could feel its warmth, smell the old, familiar scent of its fur.

“Come on,” he said. “There’s nothing for us here.”

Together, they turned their back on the Redoubt and walked off into the darkness.


Related story: Red Twilight, by Keran Parizek.

© 2015 by Nigel Price.
Image © 2015 by Kate Coady.