Usually I would not tolerate a man beating senselessly on another. But today, I felt vindicated as Fat Leon smashed his massive fists in Zarukk‘s face. I watched at arm’s length, disgusted at this coward of such weak character. A dog on another’s leash. It almost felt like the pounding was justified: the red spot on his face belonged there. It marked his domination by a new master. I needed to make sure it was me.
I held my rage and put an end to the violence. We needed to curb our desire to exact vengeance, on him at least. Out of everyone on this ship, he was the one we needed if we were to get away from this planet. The only guy who knew how this piece of old tech worked. I wanted him on my side. I told him: “I promise that if you cooperate and tell us what we need, no one will do you harm.” I meant it. But Leon couldn’t help himself, the belligerent fool. He stopped tending to the wounded, got back in the cell and hit Zarukk in defiance, breaking the bond I was working so hard to create. It’s like he was doing it on purpose to spite me, the little fucker. I was going to have to make sure he got the memo about the leadership change.
Still, Zarukk was in a talkative mood. Of all places, we had crashed on Centralus, he divulged. The dead planet. Once, it was the overpopulated administrative center of the galaxy, a needy entity that depended on a dozen planets’ produce to survive. A regime that fell when the hand that fed it was severed. Now, the city-planet was left to decay, a footnote in history, its legacy reduced to a scary bedtime story. Rumor had it that the place was haunted, some kind of space magnet of death that engulfed ships like cupcakes. A superstitious belief that marked a regression to the medieval ages! Zarukk’s eyes betrayed his feelings about this. I knew the look: he was beyond scared, terrified. Poor naïve guy. There were no monsters. Man always personnifies and amplifies his fears of things unknown. But I knew better.
As I pressed the interrogation further, we heard sounds coming from the cargo bay. The backdoor was open. An anxious thought ran through my mind. The men were not ready for a fight. I had not achieved cohesion yet. I felt relief when we heard the hollers from the slaves that had escaped during our unbarring. Not a threat. But this event reminded me of the most pressing matter: Rastar‘s imminent return with his men and their guns. We were out of the cage, but between us and emancipation stood a war that would not see us alive if we weren’t ready. We needed control of this ship, who enters and who leaves. We needed to arm ourselves and mount a defense. Was I the only one who realised that fact?
My labor was slowly giving fruit. The answers were trickling in. We still didn’t know Rastar’s time of return, but he was only out for a perimeter scan. They could be on us in a couple of hours, we had to organize fast. As for the long term plan, Zarukk believed that the damage to the ship was significant. We were going to be stuck here for a while. Nothing I didn’t expect. Not that I liked it. I wished I was back on my home planet, hidden underground with my trusted men, outlawed even, I didn’t care anymore, as long as I was fighting for what I believed in and making the world a better place for it. Here, my reach was limited. We were fighting for courtesies. But it had to be done. I obtained the controls to the ship’s basic systems from Zarukk, allowing Kamenski to commandeer the control room and seal all the external doors. A wall between us and the enemy. I could finally breathe.
My respite would not be a long one. As I finished up here with Zarukk, Padouk barged in the conversation with a list of demands, as if he was owed something. He had been tended to by Fat Leon and had manifestly regained his petulance, seemingly unaffected by the recent altercation that fell him into unconciousness. The man had been prancing around the ship like a victor, believing he was the hero of the day. Truth is, he had done nothing but run like a fool and get shot. Twice. Me and my cellmates had gained the freedom of us all. We had brought him back on his feet. Yet somehow he was taking all the credit, and the sheepish slaves answered to him. He was tasking them left and right, shouting orders that were followed. What did he have that I did not? Aside from his bulging muscles, I saw no defining feature that proclaimed him a leader. “Get in line”, I thought to myself. Muscle is to be tempered by brains.
Padouk was shouting now, insistant as ever. He wanted to take charge of the prisoner, he wanted to get off this planet now! Couldn’t wait for his turn. He was seriously getting on my nerves. I was done here with Zarukk, I could’ve left. But the man knew not respect. There was no way I would let that pass. As we vented our frustrations at each other, I caught myself wishing the beast had stayed down. Freedom had transformed our past inspiration into a relentless problem of moronic proportions. The qualities that endeared him to us during our captivity; his crass defiance of authority, his persistant displays of power, his unstoppable rage; they were not adapted to the life of interdependance we had before us. He knew nothing of living in society. One step outside bars, and all that was left was an inexorable nuisance. Something had to be done.
Tired of the bickering, I shut him up, stating the undeniably obvious: we had to know the status of the ship and the resources at our disposal before we did anything else. “We’re going to the control room, with or without you”, I told him. I knew this was what he wanted all along, but I had to show him who was boss. This quarrel had been about control. Break or be broken. I had the last word: to do what he wanted meant to follow my lead. The trap was set. An invisible bond, thin and fragile, but when reinforced… Slowly, Padouk would fall into my net. He followed us to the control room. His will was not his own.
Our analysis of the data from the control room’s screens didn’t tell us much more than what we assumed. Turned out our pilot here didn’t even know half of what he was doing. Just pushing buttons as taught and ordered. It looked to me like Zarukk built his life on this type of relationship. A whole existence subservient, dominated. I felt sorry for the sad bastard. “I guess there must be men like him so they could be lead by men like me”, I thought with an inch of guilt. Why did I feel shame to take what was rightfully mine? Zarukk was useless. All he could be sure of was that the main internal systems seemed fine. The hull had suffered the most, he assured. I could’ve guessed that from the bumpy landing.
Disinterested, I set out to explore the ship with the crew. To my despair, everyone split, hurrying to the section they thought had the better loot. There was no stopping them. It was a free-for-all. Finders keepers. “So be it”, I thought, resigned. For a second, I stood there, spectator to the plunder. Leon was already rummaging through the cargo for some tasty food as per his habit, finding only bag upon bag of nutritive powder, barrels of water and the occasional bandage. Kamenski had stayed in the control room with the gadgets, wishing to examine Zarukk’s home-made-never-gonna-work robot further. Meanwhile, the ex-slaves had been wiping the slavers’ quarters clean. They were hoarding all the weapons, I thought, bitter, as they came out of the room with a conqueror’s smile etched on their faces. There was only one compartment left: Rastar’s room. I was surprised no one went there first. Its contents were mine.
The room didn’t hide a lot, much to my disappointment. My belongings were nowhere to be found. No cigar. Instead, I was left with a smoked sausage, a fine suit and a locked safe. The meat, despite being a rare luxury around here, was nothing I cared for. My interests were all turned towards the suit. I gazed at its hefty fabric, its strong cut and silver buttons. It was just lying here, like it was waiting for me. I hastily discarded my old rags and wielded the suit’s authoritary power. If I was to lead these men, I would look good doing it! Satisfied of my newfound dignity, my curiosity went to the contents of the strongbox. Unfortunately, I would not be able to uncover them until later. The lack of appropriate tools and my basic lockpicking skills were not working in my favor. I had only started experimenting with the locking mechanism when Leon made a bursting appearance. His insatiable appetite had led him to my sausage. “Give it to me!” he cried out. He had the tact of a baboon in rut.
This was a delicate situation, I tought. I could gain an ally, or end up loosing a valuable bargaining chip for nothing. I maneuvered strategically. “Half the sausage in exchange for your help in fortifying our defenses”, I offered. I did not want to appear overly generous. Give a little, and he would come back for more, I reasoned. Give it all, and I would never be able to bargain on an even footage with him again. He would expect me to part with my belongings out of the goodness of my heart. I needed to set a precedent. Establish a working relationship. His help seemed acquired, but than buffon still demanded the full sausage for the service. To sweeten the deal, I promised him the rest in return for later services. He would have none of it now. He left me for the sausage of another.
Eventually, he would come around, I anticipated. I resumed my probing of the safe, but was soon interrupted by Padouk. This guy again. I had no patience. Would no one leave me in peace? Condescending as usual, he shouted something akin to: “While you waste time on petty things, we men are making an exit to see the damage the ship sustained!” I had no will to quarrel again. He was somewhat right, my attention was all directed towards this magic box that held any number of wondrous possibilities. I imagined it filled with my box of cigars, my hat, and some strong alcohol. Yet my conscience told me I had to do my share in this time of crisis. I cast my reverie aside. Even Leon was getting ready. I reluctantly set out to do the same. Moments later, I was filling my lungs with fresh air from the jungle-like surroundings. I centered myself. Only then did I realise I had been guilted into following.
Blood. Blood was spattered everywhere on the grass. I felt my own rush through my veins. This was just supposed to be a routine exit from the ship, I thought concerned. Me and Leon were going to dump the dead guard’s body down a ravine in the vicinity of the ship. Couldn’t let it fester where we slept. We had just finished examining the hull, which, as expected, was breached in multiple spots and would require considerable materials to repair. A damned waste of time. As we dropped our load, I saw the signs of a struggle nearby. Flattened grass, twisted leaves, droplets of blood, those were my clues. I followed the tracks with Leon. Much to our dismay, the trail of blood was getting stronger. Someone had suffered a grievous wound. He could not be very far.
We shortly came to a clearing, where the trail morphed into a pool of blood. Among it were bits and pieces of unrecongisable flesh and guts, scattered, as if thrown with violence. The struggle had not been long, I thought. A ravenous animal had chosen this place to feast on its prey, dragging the body on the way. I observed on high alert, gun in hand, but the danger was long gone, the beast satiated. I crouched to get a better view of the remains, making sure not to soil my suit. Immersed in the blood were rags I recognised all too well. Only this morning I had worn ones just like them. Our man came from the ship, I concluded, a fellow slave that escaped and never looked back. Something had tasted his freedom in his stead.
I examined the grisly scene further, wondering what kind of creature would delect in such gore. There were prints in the blood, distinctively canine, but I had never seen ones with such a size. Giant man-eating wolves. What next had this planet in store for us? I looked at the tracks. The creature had not eaten the whole meal right there, I deduced, noticing that the blood spotted path continued in the forest. It had kept a chunck of the prize for another day.
Finally, adventure! The thrill of the hunt was punching in my chest. I urged Leon on. I felt propulsed forward, my curiosity enhanced tenfolds by the danger the venture held. I was most in my element standing at the edge, risking everything. I felt alive, away from all the squabbles of this morning. Leon not so much. “You know this trail leads to the creature’s lair?”, he noted. The man was hiding his cowardness behind reason. I called him on it. “If the blood makes you squeel like a woman, feel free to get back to the ship”. I was taunting him. He wasn’t really going to back down to a man half his weight, I believed. He muttered something about being cautious, but I didn’t hear all of it. I was back on track, a man of action, a vanguard, the man in front.
The sun descended below the tree line. Soon, it would be nightfall. Had it really been that long? I heard howling in the forest, freezing the air. My trailing was going nowhere. It was time I got back to the ship. As I turned around, I realised that Leon had already left. On my own. I had better hurry if I didn’t want to end up as dinner. As I strode back to safety, I heard multiple gunshots coming from far away, muted. A group of armed men was having a go at it. Had Rastar and his men been hunted out by a pack of those creatures and met their end? Better not. “Nobody kills Rastar but me”, I thought. I have too many things left undone with this man to have him die just before I got my hands on him. But what else could it be? I could think of one other thing. There were other armed men on this wretched planet.
Back on the ship, there wasn’t much to do. I took the chance to work on the safe some more. I requisitioned the help of Kamenski and his tools. Before long, the container was cracked open, its fruits ready for the picking. I passed my hand inside. There were two stimpacks, bullets for a gun Rastar took with him, and a thick roll of money. I gave the bullets to Kamenski as thanks for his help. A bit low, but the guy had a piqued interest in technology. He might’ve found value there where I didn’t. The money, I planned, was going to be useful in motivating the men in the beginning. Until they realised, like me, that it was worthless on this planet. Currency fell apart without the economy and infrastructure to support it. In times of survival, goods are king.
My man Leon knew this all too well. If a safe was cracked, he had to have part of the spoils. He was standing in what I felt comfortable to call my room. Rastar was not coming back tonight. I pondered for a while how I could play Leon’s greed in my favor. I found myself with no heart for manipulation at this time. I extend my hand with a stimpack towards him. A leap of faith. He could have it, I reasoned. If I wanted to advance my ideas here, I needed support, I needed to trust someone. “When danger approaches, can I count on you by my side?”, I inquired. His answer would have to stand the test of time.
WIP. MIGHT GET BETTER
Later that night, as each man of the crew appropriated a place to sleep, I proposed that we instore a turn of duty. Danger was afoot, I argued. We needed to be aware of it. But the crew didn’t care at all. Even Padouk ignored the call. I was baffled. Did they not want to survive through the night? Did they not care about their very own hides? I guessed they would not know the necessity of this until the walls were breached and damage was done. Me and my cellmates split the duty amgonst ourselves.
My turn. I stood watch in front of the sensor screens, my only eyes into our surroundings. The ship had no windows, no observation hatch or anything of the sort. It was pretty quiet here, except for Zarukk’s snoring – the control room was his permanent home. I made myself comfortable, taking advantage of my time to think things over, in peace. But it was not to be. My screen showed a red dot bleeping slowly towards the cargo door at the rear of the ship. Friend or foe?
I jumped from my chair. It was time for action. For a moment I considered waking up help, but there was no need, I judged. At the pace he was going, the individual was most likely wounded and unable to defend himself. For all other cases, I had my gun at the ready. I rushed to the door, playing the scenario through my head. If the man was wounded, he might’ve had the wolves after him. It was a risk I was willing to take. I was not the kind of person to turn my back on a man in need. He drawed near the door. I prepared myself mentally: open, grab, drag, close. I was efficient, but not fast enough. As I pressed the button to shut the door with all my strength, I felt my grasp on my fellow escapee falter. A powerful impact projected me to the ground as the door closed. The beast was in.
I risked a look in its direction while I regained my steadiness and aimed my weapon. The canine looked like an oversized husky, almost as tall as a man. I was not scared, but waken up in force to the reality of the situation, alert. What were winterish creatures doing in what looked like a tropical forest, I puzzled. Its malicious red eyes glanced at me before homing in on the man at its feet. It sniffed him for an instant, and then, without hesitation, the creature plunged its menacing teeth in his throat, gobbeling up the chunk it ripped off right then and there. I watched horrified at my failure to save a man within my reach. He took his knowledge to his grave.
I quickly rose to my feet and shot my gun in the general direction of the wolf’s head. The was no time for careful aiming. At the very least, the sound must have woken up the crew on the ship, I hoped. I was not fool enough to forget that this beast could rip me in half with one bite. I retreated while I discharged my pistol on it. The damned thing wouldn’t shoot straight! I looked behind my shoulder. The beast was closing in, I could not outrun it. There was nowhere to go.
I turned around, facing the advancing ball of white fur and fangs, defiant but uncertain of what I was doing. Adrenaline was coursing through me. I had nothing to lose. I pointed the gun, squeezing some warning shots as I growled all the air I had in my lungs at the approaching beast. I could only wish this gesture of power and confidence would give it pause until my mates got here. I could hear them shouting in their quarters, hurrying to their weapons. To my astonishment, the creature hesitated, its charge cut short. I stumbled to evade its weakened blows. Somehow, its claws could not touch me.
Backup was coming. I was relieved and apprehensive at the same time. All it took was one bullet, one well aimed shot, and I would become a credible leader in the crew’s eyes. To command the respect of all, a legend, so close from my reach. But there’s no hero without proof. I was determined. I held my ground, finding the beast’s eyes with my own. I carefully took aim. Right between the eyes. It was mine. Bang! The wolf let out a whimper. The bullet had taken a chunk of its visage, leaving a bloodly gaping hole that bared his menacing canines. I had not pulled the trigger.
The struggle was over. There would be no hero tonight, I reflected, peeved. Padouk and Kamenski had stolen my one chance to prove my worth, striking down the beast right before my eyes. It lay on the side now, bloody but alive, rendered unconscious by the numbing grasp of the stungun. I put down my boot on the lavish fur that covered its neck, giving the creature a last long look before I did her in. Meat for all the family. Everyone rejoice! For me, the kill was a nothing but a consolation prize.
I took a breath to cool off from all the commotion, as the crew babbled with emotion. All this to save one man. I sat to his side, holding his gushing wound. So much blood. He was not going to make it. His torso was scarred by multiple of those little burns distinctive of stungun shots. But what had my mind racing were the two holes in his stomach. The flesh around was burned where the bullets had teared in. Someone had shot him.
Had he fallen in the hands of Rastar and his men, I asked myself. Or did he encounter someone else with similar technology to ours? Twice today I was put in front of the possibility of other inhabitants on this planet. If true, we knew they were armed now. Made sense, with the kind of wildlife in these parts. I wanted to put this question to rest, know once and for all. It was essential to our survival. We had to know if we had a band of maurauders nearby that would raid our ship if given a chance. Yet I didn’t really believe that. Where there were men, there was always a way to reach their empathic hearts and reveal their humanity, especially when united against a constant threat. One small gesture was all that was required to turn a foe into an ally. We would be worse off if were alone, left to our own devices in this unnerving forest.
I devised a plan to answer my concerns. Tomorrow, we were going to shoot our guns into our sadly desceased comrade. No rest for the dead. It was the only way to compare the bullets from our guns to the ones in his body. See if they crushed the same, felt the same without the casing. We were no forensics team.
Everyone had gone back to sleep. Not me. My turn of duty wasn’t over. I was back in the control room, eyes fixed on the monitor. I could not let go. In front of me stood what waited for us tomorrow. Surrounding the ship, the radar showed, were dozens of lurking red dots. They came to the smell of blood. The walls suddenly felt thin. I could not hold my own against one of those creatures, I admitted with regret, now that I was alone. What was I to do against an army of beasts meant on devouring our flesh?
I curled up in my chair, trying not to worry too much about the siege situation we had going. The pack would starve before we did, I calculated. I closed my eyes, finding comfort in the safety our ship offered. We had done well not to leave. I never thought I would say this, but the Triglote II, setting to our prolonged enslavement, had become an unlikely home in a hostile land.