* Winner of the 2019 Story of the Year Award *
Long, long ago, at the time of the grievous slaughter when great oaks were hewn to build King Philip’s ships, we fell.
We were ripe and ready, our silky skins darkening to chestnut brown as we nestled in our prickly cocoon. Barely had we settled on Mother Earth when strong fingers took us up and cracked open the green wrapping that held us together. Calluses scarred the palm of a human hand as hard as father’s bark, with wrinkles and deep chasms cutting across the thickened skin.
Fingers plucked me from the soft white of my casing, tossed me in the air, and caught me. I would be his lucky chestnut, the man said to his companions, keeping him safe on his long voyage, and bringing him riches beyond imagination. Then he stuffed me inside a pouch and all was darkness, smelling of tar and tobacco and sweat.
Hidden from the life-giving sun and the kiss of the warm Spanish breeze, I could see little but the quilted lining of my sailor’s pocket, so I can only tell of my own adventures.
The watcher was back, an unseen presence that sent prickles of warning racing across Eilish’s skin. The horse fidgeted and snatched at the bit until Eilish soothed her with a hand on her neck.
‘Easy, Lady. It’s just me being silly.’ She glanced at her wristwatch and turned for home with a slight shiver.
The girl had the look of his Eithne: creases at the corners of eyes that easily smiled, and the toss of a head that cared not for convention. The watcher’s earth-chained spirit had felt no warmth or cold for three hundred years, but loneliness? Yes, he felt that.
Dark blood flowed into the sand, a sluggish trail from the throat of a man in desert clothing. An unforgiving sun blazed in the sky, scavenger birds silhouetted as they circled over the body. Sitting her horse at the top of a dune, Iriyan suspected a trap, although nothing moved all around and the horse didn’t seem anxious. She had learned to trust him — his instincts had prevented her from riding into an ambush more than once.
With a sigh, she touched her heel to the big stallion and he plunged downhill, sliding on his rump. The man didn’t move, but blood flowed, so surely life had not yet fled. With a snort to rid himself of sand in his nostrils, the horse halted near the body and Iriyan slid to the ground to kneel by the injured man’s side.
His grasp on life was tenuous. Someone had done a poor job of slitting his throat, but by rights he should be dead. Nothing I can do for him, she thought. No point in wasting water. As she stood, his eyes snapped open, trapping her with the intensity of his stare.
“Princess.” The word came on a breath from between cracked lips. She paused. No one here knew who she was.
We were not alone.
I’d the sense not to speak my thoughts aloud this time. One more word and I would be disciplined at best, demoted at worst. Spencer had no patience with my hunches.
When the screaming started, I was the only one to drop to the ground, pulling Spencer with me.
“What the f–?” He began. I clamped a hand over his mouth.
All around us our fellow scientists, my friends, were being snatched.
Only a few feet away, someone was hauled past us, yanked along by an unseen force. Odd socks identified her as Georgie, our xenobiologist. The bags of cuttings we’d collected still swung from her belt. I moved to grab her as she flashed past.
Spencer pulled me back. He gripped my wrist, glaring into my eyes, silently ordering me to stay put. He knew I’d gladly lay down my life for her. She was my best friend on this expedition. My lover.
The screams faded into the distance. I couldn’t leave the little rat to follow her – he’d die by himself. I had to get him back first. Spencer’s face had turned a sickly yellow.
Not for the first time, I wondered why a man like this had been put in charge of an exploratory expedition. ‘No sentient beings on this planet,’ my arse. Continue reading
Pain erupted as the ibulex burned through my veins. Accelerating when it reached my heart, the drug fired into my arteries like a sling shot; an inferno deep inside my chest. When the agony subsided I saw from the deep impressions left by the restraints that my body had fought on even when my mind was helpless.
Now I sagged, drained. The fire still burned, banked coals throughout my body which could be blown to life at the slightest touch. Even in the warm release-chamber sweat cooled on my skin, leaving a trail of goosebumps behind. Breathing gradually became easier, each breath reassuring me that the worst was over, at least for now.
Voices in the background, a drone which slowly resolved itself into the magistrate reading out the conditions of my release. My exhausted mind wondered if it had been worth it.
I was given civilian clothing, the sort a tramp from the ‘forties might have owned. It had been worn before and came with its own ecosystem of lice and fleas, its own atmosphere of stale body odour. I told myself it was better than being naked and my flight suit had been damaged beyond repair during my capture.
The walk from the detention block to the main gate was an exercise in endurance; cat calls from every shielded window as the entire prison population poured their hatred out at me. I was being released while they still served life sentences, but it wasn’t jealousy that drove them: I had been the most hated prisoner in the facility, in solitary confinement for the last seven years just to keep me alive. Even then there had been attempts on my life. I smiled.