Guardian - Chapter One
It was a good morning for fishing.
The day was ideal for it. The sun blazed down on ten-year-old Peter with all its brilliance, attracting fish mesmerized by the light bouncing off the surface of the lake. The sun warmed his face as he breathed in the salty smell of caught fish baking on the deck of his small boat. On a day like this, one could do nothing but be content by the pure joy of being young and alive.
Perfect days like this were typical of the summers here, and Peter was determined to take advantage of it for as long as it lasted. He left early this morning to fish because he was older now, and it was his responsibility to start providing for himself and his Uncle Cy, who was not as young as he used to be.
At ten, he sported a head of dark hair that was in bad need of cutting, and his brown eyes were becoming lighter, almost hazel. Cy said he was handsome like his father, but with no pictures to show him, it meant little to Peter. He was tall for his age, and his frame was lean and wiry in keeping with a boy approaching adolescence.
In the years to come, every facet of this day would be committed to memory, although at this moment, he wouldn't be able to imagine why. Nevertheless, life would educate him soon enough because until now he'd lived in blissful ignorance of the monsters lurking at the edges of his life.
Today he would feel their teeth.
Filled with pride at the day's catch, Peter returned to the cabin he'd spent all his life as evening approached. It sat on the crest of a gentle slope, surrounded by tall, splendid trees with sprawling branches and thick grass. Taking the familiar beaten dirt path leading to the porch, Peter saw his uncle sitting in his favourite chair, soaking in the evening sun. It was Cy's habit to smoke his pipe and admire dusk's approach over the wide expanse of the Taram Ranges in the distance.
Peter was a baby when they first came to this peaceful sanctuary on the banks of Lake Shima. Other than his uncle, he'd grown up in this forested paradise without ever laying eyes on another human being. Sometimes Peter wondered if the outside world existed or was it a story made up for his benefit. Still, like any child, he was eager to explore it and embark on adventures to faraway places. Cy warned him the world outside had nothing but misery.
Unfortunately, Peter was too young to take him on his word.
"Hello, Uncle Cy!" Peter waved at Cy as he ran up the steps of the porch.
Cy rewarded his charge with a smile when the boy came into view. Lounging in his favourite chair, Cy's height was concealed by his seated position. His face, increasingly creased with age, was hidden by a neatly groomed beard, more prone to grey these days. His blue eyes, however, retained its youthful mischief.
"Nicely done boy, I see you've made a good catch." Cy praised, observing the half a dozen fish Peter was dangling from a hook.
"Yeah," Peter smiled bashfully, trying not to appear too smug at his success. "They're easy to catch in the summer. I thought we could have them for supper."
"I don't see why not." Cy rose from his chair to lead Peter into the house when he swayed suddenly with a wave of fatigue. For a few seconds, the world spun uncontrollably, and his limbs felt heavy and unresponsive. Strength drained out of him, and he was forced to sit back in his chair with a heavy thud, unable to remain on his feet.
When the moment passed, Cy saw Peter staring silently at him, fear in his eyes.
Cy cursed softly under his breath because until now, he managed to hide these spells from Peter. But they were coming more frequently these days without warning. Now, no amount of clever evasion was going to satisfy the boy after what he just witnessed.
With a loud exhale of resignation, Cy conceded it was perhaps time Peter knew the truth.
"Sit down, Peter," he motioned to the stool next to the chair.
Peter looked at him apprehensively and took a moment to string up his catch on the porch railing before taking the seat he often occupied when he sat out here with his uncle.
"Are you sick?" Peter's fists were clenched as he tried to control the fear building up inside him.
Cy didn't answer straight away. Instead, he took a deep puff from his pipe and leaned back into his chair, exhaling the smoke in wispy curls that rose into the air.
The answer impacted like a physical blow. Face white, Peter's jaw dropped open, and his breath grew shallow.
"Can you be fixed?"
The desperate hope in his voice stabbed Cy in the heart like a knife. For an instant, the old man regretted bringing any of this up, but it was too late now. The words were spoken and could not be taken back. What was going to happen would happen, and the greater sin would be to leave Peter unprepared for it.
The single word crushed Peter's fragile hopes, and Cy saw his shoulders slouch in defeat.
"It is beyond help now. It has been for a very long time. I was hoping I could last until you were older, but I was wrong. The time is drawing close, Peter. I am sorry".
Peter's clamped his eyes shut, hoping it would do the same for the impending doom about to befall his life.
Losing the only person in his world was more than he could bear.
Cy understood the boy's terror and wished there was some way he could assuage those fears, but it was impossible. His fate and Peter's were sealed long ago.
"I know this frightens you, Peter," Cy raised Peter's chin so they could look each other in the eye.
"But for the moment, I am still here, and we have a bit of time."
Although how much time was unclear to Cy and this was what worried him most. The truth he needed to tell the boy could not merely be blurted out during a fireside chat in one sitting. This was a talk he intended to have when Peter was at least eighteen years old. Not now, when Peter was only ten, facing the prospect of spending the next decade alone after he was gone.
This misjudgement was going to cost Peter dearly.
Despite getting very little sleep the night before, Peter woke early the next morning. Sleep was impossible when he spent the night replaying Cy's words in his mind. What would become of him when Cy was gone? It shamed him to think he cared more about being alone than the impending death of his beloved uncle. He'd never even seen another being in his life or ever left this place. What lay outside this paradise, beyond Cy's warning? Could he remain here and not find out?
That thought kept him awake for most of the night until finally, the morning birds lulled him into a restless sleep,
Hours later, Peter stood on the edge of the porch, exhausted and depressed as he stared into the horizon, waiting for Cy to appear. Cy promised to tell him more this morning. There were matters, the old man claimed, of great importance to be discussed. What else could there be after being told Cy was going to die?
He didn't have long to wait because Cy stepped onto the porch behind him. Peter studied his uncle carefully, paying attention to the signs he'd ignored these past few weeks. Cy's steps were almost leaden as if the illness was sapping away his strength with each breath he took. It pained Peter to see his uncle this way when in better days Cy always felt larger than life. Seeing him so depleted made Peter feel ashamed for being so oblivious.
"Come sit by me," Cy patted the stool again.
Peter sad down obediently and Cy smiled warmly as he stared into the boy's face, holding eyes filled with sorrow. Except for his mate Elia, Peter was the only thing he ever loved. The ferocity of that love startled Cy because he never intended to get too attached to the boy. It was astonishing how caring for a child from infancy could change him in ways he never imagined.
Remembering that small, warm bundle of tears and innocence sent a surge of love through his heart. How quickly humanity's years rushed by, ten years felt like the blink of an eye. In a heartbeat, Peter went from being a helpless, needy baby to a boy on the verge of becoming a man, far sooner than Cy would have liked, more so because he was the cause of it.
"You remember what I told you about why we came here?" Cy asked.
Not understanding what this had to do with anything, Peter obliged his uncle with an answer anyway. "You said my mother and father were killed when the ship coming here, malfunctioned."
Cy cleared his throat, immediately implying the possibility of a lie. "There's more to it than that. You remember the Commonwealth?"
Once again, Peter questioned the relevance of the question but his conditioning to obey Cy made him answer.
"The Commonwealth is an interstellar alliance made up of ten thousand planets."
"Very good," Cy nodded with approval. Even though they were isolated from civilization, Cy ensured Peter was educated. With a computer laden with study tapes, Peter knew something of the world outside even if he'd never been there himself. "The Commonwealth upheld the Charter of Freedom for billions of people. It was a government enforcing the law and the rights of all citizens, whatever the species."
Peter's brow furrowed wondering what this had to do with them now. He'd studied the Commonwealth and its history. From the declaration of freedom on Accra and after, when the wars were done, and the Charter was written.
"What's this got to do with my mother and father, Uncle Cy?"
What indeed, Cy thought silently. "Peter," Cy leaned forward. "The Commonwealth is gone. It is no more."
This actually shocked Peter. Even if he couldn't understand why this was being brought up now, he recognized the significance of such news. "Gone? How can it be gone? How are things run?"
"It runs because there is a new master," Cy said grimly. "It is called the Citadel."
"I told you your parents were killed on the journey here."
Peter nodded, trying not to grow impatient at Cy's digression into a history lesson.
"That is true, but what I didn't tell you was that they were running from the Citadel."
Blinking in shock, Peter's brow furrowed, and it occurred to him at that moment, everything he knew about his parents came only from Cy. For the first time in his life, suspicion crept into his mind, making him wonder just what Cy had been hiding from him all these years. Is that why they couldn't leave here?
"Why?" Peter looked at Cy suspiciously. "Why were they running?"
"I wanted to tell you about them when you were older when it would be easier for you to hear. Since we both know that I won't live to see you become a man, I must tell you the truth now. These are very adult things, Peter, and you must hear them like an adult."
Peter nodded silently, not knowing what else to say.
"You were only a few weeks away from being born when the Commonwealth collapsed. As it happens when an old regime dies, purges are carried out by the one taking its place. Those who were loyal to the Commonwealth were targeted for extermination, them and their families. Your parents, like many other loyalists, tried to flee Accra. Your father never left the planet, but your mother escaped. Shortly after you were born, we were on the verge of capture. Your mother sacrificed herself so I could escape with you."
Peter's head swam with the information, but he forced himself to listen, mesmerized by his own history.
"Before your mother's ship was destroyed, she told me to come here. This land was a part of your father's private estate. He bought it as a gift for her. It was their plan for her to come to this planet and raise you. Your father believed both of you would be safe here, and he was right. Rysta is barely inhabited. It sits in the wilderness of the Rim and has very little to do with the Citadel."
Peter's mind reeled, trying to process Cy's words. It was hard to imagine a conspiracy to escape, fleeing a civilization in ruins, and a child to be kept safe at all costs. It was like one of those adventures he read in his data tapes, except this was happening to him and it was real.
Even though he never knew them, Peter felt tears forming in his eyes. He wiped them away hastily, not wanting to cry in front of Cy like a baby. Years ago, when he was old enough to understand his orphan state, Peter had mourned his parents and what they should have been to his life. Learning this new truth made him experience the pain all over again.
Cy made no comment on Peter's tears, deciding the boy would prefer he not, by how quickly he wiped them away. Instead, Cy would let Peter mull over what he'd learned today. There was only so much truth a child could handle in one day, and there were greater secrets to tell.