Frank’s stomach rumbled as he flushed the john. “Crap,” he said clutching his stomach and quickly undoing his pants. He sat back down on the small, warm metallic seat with a huff and tried to concentrate.
The bathroom rattled as the train flew along the track. Frank held his face in his hands. Through them, he looked out of the small porthole in the room and to the red-tinted barrens beyond.
Ships, still red-hot from their descent through the atmosphere, were starting to land in the docking ports. Their jets blew up huge plumes of dust in the distance that choked out the sunlight. This was it. They were leaving, but he more like cargo than an evacuee.
A knock at the door shook him out of his stupor.
“C’mon, we’re waiting out here!” a voice said as a hand pounded on the door.
“Hold on!” Frank yelled. “Ass,” he whispered cautiously.
He did his best to clean himself up and regain what little composure his bowels had left him with. The month-long journey to the landing site had played hell with his body.
Outside, a line of humans extended far down the cabin and into the next.
The man, with thinning hair and a gaunt face who had slammed his fist on the door, looked down at his feet as Frank walked past. Whispers followed him all the way down until he passed through the hatch at the end of the hall.
Frank struggled to keep his balance as he stumbled back toward his room. The faces of the people waiting for the bathroom were a tapestry of the suffering they had gone through over the last two solar years. He smiled at a few people he recognized, but mostly kept his eyes to the floor.
A woman, sick from malnutrition, moaned inside the cabin next to their own. Her family stood huddled around her in prayer hoping that someone, something would help.
Frank watched for a moment through a crack in the sliding door before sidling into his own cabin, which was built for two, but housed eight.
On the floor sat Charlotte, his wife, was tending to their child. Frank eased himself onto the floor next to them and rested his head on his knees.
“Feel any better?” Charlotte asked, not looking up from the baby.
“No,” Frank said. “It’s gotten a lot worse, but it looks like we’re almost there.”
He caught a glimpse of his reflection in the long window inside the cabin and looked away. He was as barebones as the woman next door. All of their rations went to Christopher, their child.
Charlotte caressed Frank’s face with a gentle hand still smooth despite the all the callouses.
He nuzzled her hand and opened his eyes. Charlotte smiled and went back to taking care of Christopher who coughed gently in his blanket.
Frank edged his way toward the window and looked out. The colonist flotilla in their sky-blue ships was landing now. It would be a nine-month journey to the next habitable planet in those hulking mechanical crafts. Things couldn’t get any worse than they already were, but his mind wandered.
Hours later, the train ground to a halt in the station. Thousands upon thousands of humans streamed out from all of the exits trying to be the first in line for the next leg of the journey.
Frank and Charlotte didn’t hurry. They watched as panic erupted in the crowds and the flotilla guards urged for calm by pointing their rifles, which was probably the worst way of going about it.
Charlotte’s mouth was set in a tense frown as they navigated the travelers. She clutched Christopher because his life depended on her. Frank walked ahead of them pushing away anyone who couldn’t or wouldn’t move from their spot.
A gust of wind blew a cloud of red dust into the air, but Charlotte had already covered her child’s face. From her pocket, she pulled out a small respirator and sucked on it for a few moments as did everyone else around them.
The dust was said to be poisonous even though there was never any proof, but it caused enough worry to ensure everyone had one.
A structure in the distance was their end goal, a base of operations for the flotilla. They would want to speak to Frank, although he didn’t exactly want to speak to them.
As they pushed their way into the building, a man in dusty overalls pushed past them and slammed a package onto the small, plastic desk inside. A man with a pointed nose, large glasses, and an officer’s uniform regarded the small parcel with disdain.
“What the hell is this?” the man asked both hands now on the table and quaking with anger.
“It’s a pack of rations,” the other man said. “What of it, George?”
George ripped open the package and spilled the contents onto the table. A few pellets, a blanket, and a single packet of water were all that was inside.
“Where’s the medicine? The food? We’re supposed to survive on these ships for nine months on meal nibs and a single ration of water?” George stood up and raised his arms plaintively; the shirt sleeves were loose on his body.
The man at the desk removed his glasses and covered his eyes with a weary hand. George turned round to see Frank standing in the doorway with his wife.
“Frank,” George said tersely. “Do something about this, eh? Try to get it right this time.”
George stormed out of the room leaving an uncomfortable silence in his wake.
“Ah, Frank,” the man at the desk said putting his glasses back on. “Commander Bellic,” he said standing up and extending a plump hand. “Any chance of bringing some calm to the situation?”
Frank ushered his wife into the room and sat her down at a desk. She unwrapped Christopher from his blanket and put a respirator into his mouth.
Frank eyed a guest in the room who was clicking its proboscis impatiently. “Don’t think we’re going to be able to bring any calm soon,” Frank said. “Give a day though and people will settle down on their own.” A gurgle could be heard from his stomach, but Frank stood resolute unwilling to show any sign of discomfort.
Bellic grunted and sat back down. “As former mayor of New Porthaven—”
“—Current mayor,” Frank interrupted.
“—you have to sign the decrees giving back the land back to its rightful owners the Skrill,” Bellic said not missing a beat. “Your people will then be evacuated off planet to the nearest inhabitable system.”
“And be put into another camp like lepers,” Frank said shortly. “I think a lot of people would rather stay and die protecting our own here, but I don’t see that we have a lot of choice.”
“You don’t,” the Skrill in the room said through its translator. The insect spat out a small stream of brown fluid into a container and leaned back in its chair.
Frank’s eyes narrowed.
“We’re doing this for your own safety,” the voice synthesizer said without a hint of sarcasm.
The bug unfurled its long legs and arms in the small room. He looked down at the humans inside through his multi-faceted eyes with a cool scorn.
As he passed, he placed a kind talon on Frank’s shoulder, squeezed, and left the room without another word his back appendages closing the door after him.
“Stop calling it that!” Frank said a little more confident now that the Skrill was out of the room. “You and I both know what this is and it’s bullshit!”
“If your people hadn’t attacked the bugs, we wouldn’t be evacuating you right now!”
“Not all of us are responsible!”
Charlotte cooed gently as Christopher hiccuped in his blanket, a sure sign that he was about to cry due to the raised voices.
“You don’t have a choice,” Bellic said desperation entering into his voice. “We tried peace and that failed, we tried war and that failed, and now we’re forced to retreat into our own space or lose everything! They were our allies, and now they’re not.” The commander opened a small folder on the table and pushed it over to Frank. “We’re urging community leaders to understand the facts and help people accept what’s happening to them before it’s too late.”
On the list were the causalities from all of the inhabited planets within Skrill territory. The deaths numbered in the thousands in places, typically where the large humans centres once were. They were a thorough species.
“I can’t tell my— the people to just accept they’re going to lose everything they’ve worked for,” Frank said a little more calmly and looking to his son. “Some are scared about the journey to the next planet, some just want to stay and face the bugs, and others… didn’t make it this far.”
“We have our orders and the evacuation stands,” Bellic said. The commander thrust the evacuation papers in front of Frank. “Your signature makes it official.”
Frank and Charlotte left the building in silence. The hustle and bustle outside was still tinged with panic as families tried to stick together. A tent had been set up in the distance and what remained of the village council would be there.
Frank passed by the tent looking on as the council prepared to leave, but a glint of gunmetal grey caught his eye. Charlotte could see it too and caught up with Frank as he ducked into a smaller tent.
George was tending to a wounded woman whose arm was now in a sling. Far from the intimidating figure he was before, George stood and looked the couple with his mouth askew.
“Broke her arm when leaving the cargo train,” George said cleaning his hands with an antiseptic wipe. “More people like her to come. Learn anything from the ‘commander’?”
“Nothing new,” Frank said.
“Nothing good,” Charlotte echoed putting down Christopher into a little cot.
“The order to evacuate stands and we’re in for a nine month journey to the next inhabited terran system,” Frank said. He paused. “Have you heard anything from the council? Do you know what they’re planning to do?”
“Armed resistance,” George said. “Of course they won’t get very far with the flotilla on one side and the bugs on the other. They’ll end up getting a lot of people hurt, or worse killed just like they did back at the settlement.”
“Damned if we do, damned if we don’t,” Frank said as he sat down. “You wouldn’t happen to have anything for an upset stomach, would you?”
“All I have are kind words and a bucket for that,” George said with a shrug. “Medical supplies are tight and only the neediest get what we have left.”
George left the tent with his medical. Frank couldn’t help but feel just a little thankful he was around. He was one of the good eggs.
Christopher began to cry and Frank walked over to his son.
After a few minutes of tickling, cooing, and whispering, the child was on his way to sleep. Of the family, he was probably the most healthy, which was a godsend given the health of other children around.
“What do we tell him when he gets older?” Charlotte asked.
“I don’t know,” Frank replied. “The good stories about the settlement. About the farm we had and the friends we made. Maybe he’ll be able to come back one day and see past the barrens like we did.”
“Some of the other parents with kids Christopher’s age say that we shouldn’t tell them anything. They say in nine months the only thing that’ll matter is what we make on the next planet.”
“Somehow I think he’ll want to know.”
“If only we had been able to save some of the albums and computers, we’d have pictures to show him.”
“Yeah,” Frank said brushing a hand through his son’s hair.
“So I guess that’s it, we’re leaving,” Charlotte said crestfallen. The stress of the last month had landed on her shoulders and she bit her lip. She put her head onto her husband’s shoulder and closed her eyes.
Frank put a hand on her shoulder and rested in the small tent. He pulled out his only possession he able to keep with him through the various interment camps they stayed in: a small book of poetry. He read from it quietly.
As the faintest traces of sleep crept up on them, an explosion shook the couple awake.
The flotilla’s men ran through the camp with their rifles at the ready. At the epicentre of the explosion were the remains of a tent, which housed supplies for the trip to the next planet.
Human remains were strewn about the area and injured men, women, and children screamed trying to get away from the smoking hole.
Stretchers were brought out and the injured were carried away. The men surveyed the rest of the bodies while others pushed the lookers-on back. Standard procedure was to incinerate the dead bodies and the men were already getting that underway.
Frank pushed through the crowds and ran to impact crate. A man stood dazed near to the hole holding something in a blanket. Frank guided him back toward the crowd of people and into the arms of a few concerned people.
“George, have you seen him?” he asked the bystanders urgently.
“He was in there,” a woman said through tears. “He’s gone.”
Frank looked to the crater and the black stains on the earth where the bodies once lay. The flotilla men had already cleaned up most of the remains. He clutched his fists, but his anger was short lived.
A series of explosions lit up the camp sending people running and debris into the air. Frank’s eyes narrowed as the smoke began to rise, but his tent was safe. He took off in a run.
Back in the tent, Charlotte had already packed up their belongings and was ready to make for the flotilla ships. At least in there they would be safe. Frank bit his tongue when it came to the news about George and said that the supplies were the only victims.
Panic had taken hold outside as the men from the flotilla fought back the crowds trying to get on the ships. Above the din of the stampede was Bellic’s voice over a loud speaker giving frenzied instructions to his men.
“Women and children first!” he yelled in a hoarse voice.
Frank pushed his wife forward through the crowds. People were being trampled on, but strong souls were picking them up and ferrying them over to the ships.
As they reached the gates, a solider from the flotilla raised his rifle into the air and fire a bolt of energy into the sky.
“Women and children first,” he said pointing the rifle directly at Frank.
The soldier grabbed Charlotte and pulled her past. Frank grabbed after his wife, but found another rifle stuck in his face. He backed off.
“I’ll be there!” Frank yelled above the din as the next family, sans the men, were pulled through to the ships.
He ran off in the direction of the Bellic’s shack. The camp was a mess and men were gathering in small groups. Some of them had managed to sneak in some weapons in and were probably planning to seize the ships if they could.
Frank was about to see to them when someone called out for help.
A man with a camera, a journalist named Naser, who worked for the settlement’s paper was struggling to lift some debris off of man trapped beneath. Frank raised some men and managed to lift the debris, but it looked too late for the man.
Naser wiped away some sweat from his brow and shook off some dust from his clothes.
“Follow me,” Frank said.
“Where’re we going, Frank?” Naser asked replacing the battery in his camera and trying to keep up.
“We’ve got to talk to Bellic, we need to get this situation under control before it’s too late. Take photos, show the colonies what’s happening here, and that some of us tried to keep the peace.”
Frank burst into the shack and held up his arms as the men inside surrounded him. Bellic waved them away and grabbed Frank by the arm. He led him over to the communication system and sat him down.
“They’ve taken two of the ships and they’re threatening to use them against the Skrill settlements. They mean to crash-land them. We can’t let that happen.”
“I know what to do,” Frank said before Bellic could tell him what to do.
The speakers outside swelled to life as a loud ringing filled the lamp. Frank had tapped into the ships systems as well amplifying the sound until the din was drowned out.
Naser stood in the background snapping photos unseen and taking video over his headset. The journalist stuck in a pair of earplugs.
In moments, it was dead silent outside as the ringing faded.
“Our fathers and their fathers flew across the stars like pollen on the wind, and where they landed they flourished. It took time to grow these settlements that sprouted from the ground no matter how barren the earth was below our feet. Even though we have to leave this place of ours, let us not burn so brightly that we lose the seeds that helped us make paradise. Where we go, fortune shall follow. Where we go, we will plough the fields. Where we go, we will endure. Where we leave, our roots will always be. Let us leave this place a capsule in time. We shall tell of this place to our children and our calm resolve to leave with dignity rather than struggle against one another. Women and children to the ships first, followed by the men. We will make it through this together.”
Silence spread throughout the small shack as the communication system died out across the camp. Naser turned off his recording device and returned outside before the guards noticed him. Frank sat on the desk with his face in his hands waiting for the silence to continue or fighting to break out again.
The silence continued and he was finally allowed a moment to grieve for his lost friend
Outside of the shack, people regarded Frank with a solemn acknowledgement. The village council had been rounded up and their guns, explosives, and weapons had been confiscated. They were as scared as the rest, but that didn’t excuse what they had done. People died because of their rabble rousing.
A few bugs entered into the camp from the far side of the cargo train. Their exoskeletons glinted in the light and their eyelids clicked away brushing the dust off of the protective lids.
The Skrill from before sidled up to Frank as he overlooked the calm that had befallen the camp.
“A rousing speech,” the Skrill said through its synthesizer. “If only all humans could simply accept their fates and move on like you have.”
“I haven’t moved on,” Frank said.
“Back on Earth, I was a radio broadcaster. Oftentimes we worked to a script, but sometimes we had to make things up on the fly when the script didn’t fit the story at hand. I had a tendency… to say too much to my listeners, to be too honest with them in my reporting. I was told to put a lid on it more times than I can count, but people still understood what I had to say. It got me fired, eventually.”
“And your point being?”
“Sometimes you have to know when to censor yourself, but I always managed to sneak in a few things here or there in my broadcasts.”
“Forgive me, but I fail to see your point.” The Skrill clicked its jaws impatiently.
Frank smiled and walked away.
“Keep the place warm for us while we’re gone,” he said
Inside the ship, Charlotte had gotten most of the sick and the elderly settled in and into makeshift shelters. The cargo bay was huge in scale, but it had its limits and they were about bursting.
Space travel also meant that everything had to be recycled, so every raw material had to be accounted for before the men were allowed onto the ship.
She and the others onboard filled rooms with water, medicine, clothing, and food, but also barricaded several other rooms with extra supplies. People had a funny way of taking some off the top if supplies were left unguarded.
She busied herself only to keep her mind off of the chaos outside, which had quieted since Frank’s speech. He’d get a big, sloppy kiss once he boarded for the words he said.
Charlotte ordered a few more tasks to be done before reaching the flotilla guards. They eyed her cautiously, but let her through into the captain’s quarters.
“We’re ready to open,” she said.
“Ok,” the captain replied nodding to one of his men.
The ship’s cargo doors opened and the men filed in. Some were injured from the stampedes and the fights, but most were quick to find their loved ones.
These were colonists brought to the very edge, but now they had a chance to survive although the going would be hard over the next nine months.
Frank walked into the ship and into Charlotte who punched him on the shoulder before hugging him. With first dibs on the quarters, she had managed to find private quarters for them and for Christopher, which was a big improvement from the train.
After a few private moments inside, Frank stepped out to find Naser strolling past with his datapad open.
“Don’t worry, I hear these door are very soundproof,” he said with a grin. “Thought you’d like to know your little speech is getting quite a play on the news. Seems like Earth is starting to rally behind us aliens stuck behind enemy lines.”
“Does that mean they’ll let us settle in the gold ring?”
“Doubt it, but some people are calling on the military to intervene or even invade Skrillak.”
Frank’s stomach churned at the thought. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” he said. “All we have to do is survive and make it to the next planet in one piece. Then we can figure out what to do next.”
“And what do you think is the first step?”
Frank paused a moment to think. Anger still bubbled deep within him over the loss of the settlement, the death of his friends, and the inhumanity of it all, but he knew something still had to change.
“Forgiveness,” he said.
Even when he was mayor, the people around him didn’t regard him like they did now. The council had been deposed, but in their wake they sought a leader who could help ensure the flotilla remained a place of calm as it travelled across the empty void.
Frank was the first choice, but Charlotte stepped forward. She had a way of making sure conflicts were resolved from a kind of diplomacy developed from living on a barren desert world. Frank stayed in the background trying to keep to himself and ignore the repeated broadcast of his words.
People were riled up by the injustice they had suffered and the Skrill were furious at the Intergalactic Council came down on them for their treatment of their once allies.
“What goes around comes around,” Frank said dryly as he looked at the data screen in the cargo bay’s makeshift canteen. A few people laughed at the news, but a potent sadness still rose to the surface.
Later that night, Frank sat in his cabin with his wife and Christopher. From the small porthole, they watched the star zip past.
“You’re quiet,” Charlotte said.
“Hmmm,” Frank replied.
“Not to be too cliché, but you know you can talk to me about anything.”
“Sometimes it’s better to have these things out in the open rather than shut it away.”
Frank looked to his son who lay asleep in his blanket. “Lucky bastard,” he said with a smile as Charlotte playfully swatted at Frank’s head. “He won’t remember any of this and might even grow up in peace.”
“We can tell him about it when he gets older.”
“He should know what happened and who knows like you said we might one day return to our home. We might even be able to restart farm and the mine.”
“Somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen. A little bit of demagoguery goes a long way, but he might be better of not knowing that the Skrill are far from our friends. It’s a big galaxy with lots of people we haven’t even met yet, why start of his life with fear and anger?”
“Would you tell him we were ‘evacuated’ from the planet for our own good?”
“Of course not!”
“You told me once upon a time that all it takes it one lie, one instance of withholding for the truth to spiral out of control.”
“I did say that.”
“So why didn’t you tell me about George?”
Frank sighed. “I didn’t think it was important at the time,” he said. “I mean, there was so much going on.”
“When were you going to tell me?”
“I wasn’t,” Frank said.
“So you would rather I remain ignorant that the doctor who delivered our baby was dead?”
Frank opened his mouth to speak and then closed it. “I should have told you,” he said.
“People died to make sure we had a chance to live,” Charlotte said cogently. “We’ll tell their story to Christopher when he’s old enough to hear it and we’ll let him decide what to do.”
Nine months passed.
The flotilla landed on that had been recently obtained by the Earth Federation. Rolling hills of blue grass sprawled out in all directions and as far as the eye could see. It was a decidedly different landscape than most were used to, but Christopher seemed to like it just fine.
His light-brown eyes played across the alien landscape eagerly taking in the scenery, as did Chelsie, his newly-born sister, who Frank was wrestling to keep a hold of in her sling pouch.
A newly formed council regrouped on the ground and began to look at the specifications the survey teams had sent to them about possible settlement locations.
Frank and Charlotte took their kids on a stroll atop a nearby hill that overlooked the valley beyond. It was a truly strange landscape to behold.
Naser snuck up behind the couple and snapped a few shots, but the shutter caught Frank’s attention.
“Quite a different planet,” the journalist said with a smile. “Mind if I get a quote for the next transmission?”
Frank’s brow furled in thought. “It’s a beautiful planet,” he said. “But my blood still runs red.”
“I hear there’s some talk of you running for a seat in the Galatic Senate, any comment you’d like to make on that?”
“None, thank you.”
Frank and Charlotte returned to camp and helped unload the elderly passengers. Most of them complained of the colour of the planet despite having long been able to survey it using the maps provided by the flotilla officers.
It was the start of a new life on a strange planet. They had travelled long and hard to get here, and they had much on the journey.
They watched as Christopher stumbled around playing with the daycare workers who had set up a temporary shelter for the kids. Chelsie was still slung to his back and gurgled still trying to escape the bonds that kept her strapped in.
Maybe in time they would come to love this place, but they would hear the tales of the world they had been born on and maybe something would drive them to get it back.
Frank took one last look at the cargo bay before stepping off the ramp and watching the gigantic metallic structure close.
Charlotte – with Christopher similarly strapped in – grabbed up Frank’s arm and walked with him back to camp.
“Read me a poem?” she asked.
“How about we make one up?” he said with a smile.
Featured image courtesy: Nasa