Edition 7: Unbound by Dan Hankner
Trapped on a strange planet by a cruel race of aliens, all Raleigh wants is to go home. He needs a plan, and an opportunity. Can he escape the confines of this prison and return to space, where he belongs? SY
Raleigh North wasn’t special, he was just a man, and men wanted to go home.
Six moons burned red against the night sky, illuminating the dust-swept fields. Savage gusts ripped across the hard-pan and over the bunkers where their captors huddled in fear of the brooding windstorm. Raleigh stood above ground, watching, waiting. He raised a hand to the galaxy, the rusty chains around his wrists lightly clinking like a perverse wind chime.
“It was my wish to travel those stars.”
Next to him, Cancer rubbed his wrist where his own chain dug. That’s what Raleigh called the old man; Cancer. His skin was the color of tar, and he had no face to go with his no-name; a blank mask of weathered wrinkles and forgotten dreams, if ever a man such as he could dream.
“Wish?” asked Cancer, in a voice both soft and sad. He held out his hands, as if they were something distributed. Even in the red glow, Raleigh could make out the scars curving down Cancer’s arms. Next to him, the idiot-boy showcased his own marks; slashes etched into his back. Of all the prisoners, these were the only two who spoke to him, or spoke at all. The rest were no more than husks.
Raleigh coughed into his fraying T-shirt. “We need to commandeer a frigate.”
“Frigate,” repeated Cancer with unusual clarity, until a cloud passed over his eyes, and whatever he had dredged up fell back into the pit of his mind.
“Yeah, a frigate. Tonight.” Raleigh glanced into the sky and thought back to the ship that stole two decades of his life swamping around the systems. He saw Claire and her grease-stained overalls; Hot-Johnny, the mechanic who couldn’t put down the harmonica; Bibs Barton with his darting eyes and wild theories; and the captain, Tom Doe. Tom’s cheeks were wide and puffy, and when he smiled, he looked like a biscuit.
The biscuit faded, and Raleigh saw the six moons—the last thing he saw before their ship got sucked down by the magnetic pull. When they awoke, the savages had clapped needle-like collars around their necks and chains on their wrists.
Raleigh looked down at the sad pair beside him; a reminder that he could put this off no longer, lest his captors suck his mind and leave him a rotting, withered shell.
He scratched at the patchwork hair on his face. “I’m leaving.”
The wind was picking up, scattering sand and dust. Cancer shuffled nervously. “The metal ghosts fly high,” he said, his dead eyes searching the air. The ships, Raleigh knew, were pulled down on the other side of the hill, past the mind-fence that kept them penned in like livestock. He had seen them on other nights like this, thrusters burning uselessly against the lock of the tractor beam, or gravity well, or fate.
“I’m leaving,” Raleigh repeated, and offered a kindness. “Come with me.”
Cancer shook his head and backed away. “No, nooo!” He kneaded the scars on his arms. The motion must have startled the idiot boy, for he rustled his chains and began to mutter. Cancer patted the idiot’s face with his cracked palms and cooed.
“For God’s sake, they’re sucking your souls!” Raleigh pictured them—those awful creatures with their chattering talk and long fingers. They were men, but they were more than men, or less.
Cancer sputtered, the idiot squawked, and Raleigh turned to leave. The boy grasped his wrist.
“Fly, fly away, so high that you never come back down.” His face took on intelligence, but only briefly. Tears moistened his eyes, then streamed. Cancer grabbed the boy’s hands and hummed soothingly.
Raleigh left them in the shadow of a dead pine.
He hurried along the cracked hard-pan, past tumbleweeds, crumbling tombstones, pipelines gleaming red in the moonlight. In the distance a refinery churned, smoke blowing wildly in the gusting winds. Raleigh stopped when he came to the riverbed. Chunks of alien quartz grew from the bank like boils on skin. How many days had he spent chiseling and hauling those very stones? Once, he had spotted Hot-Johnny and Tom Doe amongst the stones and slaves. He had called to them, and he was whipped for it. He never saw them again.
Now, the quarry was a ghost town. The rock was hauled away, the equipment and tools were locked behind rickety wooden shacks barred, chained, and padlocked. Raleigh scanned the area until he spotted a chunk of quartz that looked like a spire shooting out of the ground. He hurried to it and began digging up the loose sand around its base, flinging the granules back like a dog. His hand grasped something metal. He smiled to himself as he pulled the sheared stump of a cold chisel—the one that broke asunder during one of those long days in the sun. It wasn’t much – six inches of chipped, nicked, and scarred steel—but it was something. Raleigh dug for another minute until he produced a hard piece of quartz the size of a brick. He carried them to a chunk of river rock, laid his own rusty chain down, held the chisel with his left, and pounded with his right.
The chain showed little wear at first, but soon Raleigh found his rhythm and a tiny nick appeared, which turned into a sliver, and that to a gouge. He was more than halfway through the ringlet when the piece of quartz shattered in his hand. The force rammed the chisel into his palm and through flesh. Raleigh cried out and tumbled over as blood began to flow down his wrist. He growled as he staggered to the water to wash the wound. The cut was superficial, but throbbed. Even if he had another chunk of quartz, he’d never be able hold it. He sunk to his knees and contemplated returning to the others when another thought occurred to him.
Raleigh moved to the spire of quartz, followed the rock down with his eyes until he spotted a particularly pointy curve. Stretching his arms out, he began to rub his cuffs back and forth. He didn’t know if it would work, but the river was too swift to cross chained; he would break his shackles, or he would die trying.
His wrists were rubbed raw and bleeding, and after a while began to overtake the throbbing pain in his hand. At last the chain snapped and Raleigh fell forward with a cry of relief. When he had caught his breath—and his senses—he staggered to the river and jumped in. The chill sent a shockwave through his body and cold needles to his wounds. He swam feverishly.
The winds were howling and thunder grumbling by the time he splashed his way to shore. He lay on the rocky beach gasping for air when he noticed the tools. Wheelbarrows, shovels, chains and chisels lay scattered like dead men after a battle. They were rusty and rotting and hadn’t been used in years. Behind them, gleaming through the dead foliage, Raleigh spotted the mind-fence, its boundaries draping down like a golden blanket of light. Back on the frigate, Bibs Barton had warned him about mind-machines far into the black of the galaxy.
A sense of urgency overtook Raleigh and he hurried to the fence. He looked at it, examined it, and stuck his finger through. Nothing happened. He tried his fist with the same result, then his arm, then his entire body…
Raleigh found himself lying on the ground, smoke curling from his throbbing skull. He smelled the sulfur odor of burnt hair and realized the collar around his neck was pulsing.
What else had Bibs said? Raleigh rifled through his memory until he came to a conversation they once had in the reactor, where Bibs claimed that mind-machines welded their power to the weaker-willed, but to the strong, it was more like glue.
He laid his head back and looked into the sky. Something about the atmosphere kept the visual signs of the storm at bay, despite their impending danger. The clouds were few and scattered, allowing Raleigh to see straight into the frightening brilliance of the moons. The galaxy was alive with blue stars and the green shimmer of comet dust. Closer to home, the vibrant gold teeth of the mind-fence faded to a breath as they stretched to the sky, like fingers of slaves reaching out for freedom.
Raleigh got an idea.
He returned to the abandoned quarry, uprooting equipment and turning over rotting plywood boards until he spotted an old steel step ladder. The rungs were cracked and the back half was missing, but he thought it was still useable. He hauled the ladder back to the mind-fence and propped it against the skeleton of a dried-up conifer. The rungs creaked under his weight as he climbed to the top.
Rain droplets began to dust the ground as he contemplated his next move. A frightening thought occurred to him; Raleigh suspected that it was something in the air of this awful planet that eroded the human mind. He assumed he wasn’t affected only because he hadn’t been here as long, but what if he was wrong? What if the real reason was that the others had already tried to escape?
A strong gust of wind shifted the ladder and threatened to send Raleigh crashing down. He sucked in a breath and glanced at the mind-fence, and for just a second thought it was beautiful, thought that it reminded him a bit of northern lights.
He didn’t remember hitting the ground—only the pain, pain that was wild and profound, awful in its hurt and sinister in its shame. He cried out, vomited, convulsed. His muscles contracted, drew him mechanically to his knees; appendages curled, fists tightened, his head yanked back and his jaw locked. Every ounce of his being screamed at him to turn back, flee, save yourself!
Then his collar exploded.
His muscles unlocked, and he collapsed. Steam wafted off his body, the pain began to drain, and he breathed. Within minutes his senses returned and he felt his throat, rubbed the chaffed skin, touched his face, his eyes, his hair. He choked out a laugh as he struggled to his feet. The laughter faded, and he wept. His body felt stuck somewhere between damned and redeemed, but his mind was still intact, still whole.
The wind shrieked and blasted bits of sand into Raleigh’s eyes as he staggered up the hill, over crusty earth and dry grass. He shielded his eyes and pressed on, fighting past the exhaustion and overwhelming desire to lie down, give up, and die. Breathing became heavy and difficult. The air was polluted by sand and dust and God knew what else, but Raleigh wouldn’t quit.
At last the uphill climb straightened out and Raleigh stopped at the edge of a cliff. He looked out across the valley, and what he saw was not the giant gravity well he anticipated, or some monstrous tractor beam. What he saw were ships—hundreds of them, thousands of them—huddled together like figures from a child’s forgotten toy box.
Raleigh glanced into the sky, expecting to see some new prey blazing through the atmosphere. All he saw were scattered clouds, scattered stars, and six glowing moons that formed a three dimensional slide in the galaxy.
And everything made sense.
The monsters that ensnared him weren’t brilliant, weren’t superior, or even advanced; they were primitive savages that captured ships they could never command with technology they could never create. Their only handiwork was a glorified fence, if that was even their creation at all. Raleigh’s frigate had crashed here because of a freak of nature, of six moons aligned in their own gravity dump—a dump that grew to a junkyard.
A flash of red lightning ripped the darkness, the sound as hard and startling as a gunshot. The droplets turned to a heavy downpour, soaking Raleigh as he limped down the slope against the punishing winds. He made his way through mounds of scrap metal, broken wings, junked drives, hulls, cockpits. He climbed through ancient, hollowed out frigates, fighters stripped to the bone, smashed and broken shuttles centuries old, and decimated ships half buried in the ground like dinosaur fossils. Wading through this archaic wasteland, he reached the bay door of a weathered scout that, although he didn’t recognize it, still looked intact. The airlock was rusted and shut – he fumbled with the cover, hit the release, waited, tapped, and smashed it with his fist.
A dim yellow light above the door winked on.
For the second time in a very long time, Raleigh laughed. The hatch popped open and he fell into the cockpit just as rocks and pebbles and hail began pounding the hull. Shutting the hatch, he wiped his eyes and examined the controls. A blanket of dust and cobwebs as thick as a dense fog covered everything. He peeled back the webs and blew on the controls, revealing looping signs and interlocking hieroglyphs of a language he didn’t recognize.
“Great,” he muttered, flicking back his wet hair. He racked his mind for any fragment of memory that would help him understand the glyphs, but nothing came. For a second he wondered if he could command the controls by instinct, but he knew that was suicide.
Glancing over his shoulder, Raleigh peered through the little glass window on the hatch door, expecting to see a band of those awful creatures pouring down the valley with torches and whips. He saw nothing, nothing but storms and darkness. He breathed a sigh and laid his head on the control panel.
“God help me.”
There was a chirrup noise, and all the signs and glyphs melted away. Raleigh reeled back in his seat, fearing he had somehow killed whatever power had been stored in the scout. He understood a moment later, when all the glyphs and signs were replaced by letters and numbers, what had happened. The panel was digital, and on top of that, language adjusting through a voice box at the base of the controls.
Raleigh went to work, checking diagnostics, running parameters, cycling through the initiation set. When all system checks had run their course, the yellow dome light above his head flickered to green, and he slammed the launch sequence. Thrusters coughed and ignited, wings unfurled. There was a crackling sound and a great jerk, and the vessel lifted off.
The junkyard grew small, the plantation faded to a blur. The atmosphere gripped the scout with noisy, shaky fire, but it was over in seconds. The darkness of the galaxy swallowed Raleigh as he watched the planet shrivel to a dot of red black. He looked ahead and saw the moons whose gravity slide would suck him back down if he approached. He stared at them as he angled away, and in their glowing orbs he saw images—not the hallucinatory nightmares of his captors, but the faces of Cancer, and the idiot boy, and the faces of his crew.
And in that moment he understood that even if he were too late, he would come back for them—not because they were special, but because they were men.
And men wanted to go home.
At age 18, after his educational rap video for parents who don’t know how to discipline their kids, “Holla Atch’ya Boyz”, fell through, Dan Hankner decided to take up writing. Now a grandly mature 27, Dan is on a quest to rid the world of poor writing and get filthy rich by doing it. What a guy, huh? Dan’s story In This Small Town was published in Downstate Story in December 2011. His story A Song For Sansa will be published in Words On Fire Anthology in 2013.