The Guardian - Chapter Seven
Peter finally gave up and surrendered to his situation after shouting himself hoarse and concluding no one out there was listening,
He resigned himself to his position with a shrug of his shoulders, looking away from the grate where slivers of light provided the only illumination in this rank, smelly place. With bitterness, Peter thought how he always wanted to meet other children, and now he would, under the worse situation imaginable.
The dim light allowed him to see only silhouettes of huddled bodies, pressed up against the walls of the hold, hugging the cold steel for comfort because it existed nowhere else. The crying he heard came from smaller children, the ones who were far too young to be anywhere but with their families.
The smell in the place was suffocating. Peter's nose wrinkled up in disgust as he identified the stench as being not too dissimilar from the animal spoor he sometimes encountered in the woods. As he examined his prison, he noted only one privy in the corner to service at least twenty of them, with no consideration for privacy.
There were no beds, but there were blankets. Tiny insects scurried across the floor, stowaways feasting on the crumbs of food left behind. How were the prisoners fed? Peter didn't see any tables for dining and realised with dismay, the slavers would empty the food through the grate in the ceiling.
It was a way to make them feel less than human, a way to break them. Some were already there. They barely lifted their chins to give attention to the commotion he'd made. He was just another face in a sea of misery. How long would it take for his will to break?
"Hello," he greeted them.
No one answered, and Peter felt embarrassed at his earlier outburst, even if it was a very understandable one in his opinion.
"I'm Peter," he tried again. All those times he wanted to meet other children, he never imagined fate would be cruel enough to let it happen under these circumstances.
"No one cares," came a reply through the darkness.
"Don't be mean," someone else retaliated just as quickly.
In the darkness, Peter saw someone getting to their feet to approach him. The dim light made it difficult to make out any features except the person stood a little shorter, had a slender build and long hair. Girls had long hair, he thought.
A crack of light across her face showed him one green eye.
"I'm Arielle. Is this the first time you got taken?"
Peter nodded, still stinging from the gullibility landing him here.
"Yeah, me too," she retreated to the space she'd claim for her own at the wall with Peter following her as he listened. "I got separated from my dad during the Harvest Festival, and these slavers took me away, thinking I was an orphan."
"What about the others?" His tone dropped an octave as he asked, not wanting to appear rude as he joined her on the floor. Next to them, the other children shrank away as if their speaking was an infectious disease.
"Oh, they're from the Ward," her voice matched his whisper.
He couldn't see in the dark, but he imagined her eyes widened in surprise.
"It's where they take you if you don't have anyone to look after you. They put this code on your arm and then send you to work. I don't have one because the people on this ship just took me. They didn’t care where I came from."
"Same here," Peter admitted, rubbing his arm for a mark that wasn't there. If he went to the Ward like the others, he would have received one too. "I just lost my uncle."
She touched his arm, "I'm sorry."
The contact was brief but welcomed. It was the first time Peter touched another person since Cy's death, not counting the shove into the hold by Kellar.
"Will your dad find you? "
Arielle nodded. Her hope reflected in her eyes. "I think so. He's a Praetorian Guard and pretty important. They'll put an alert out to all the camps and find me when I get to Staryn."
The optimism in her voice made him hope for her sake, her father would find her. How he wished there was someone at the end of this voyage to claim him, but he knew better.
Peter had no memories of his parents. All he had of them were the stories Cy told him. His father was someone of importance in the Commonwealth, one of many killed in the purges when the regime collapsed. They were kind people, Cy had said, parents anyone would have been proud to call their own. They sacrificed themselves to ensure his survival, and Peter wished he repaid them better than being caught by the first slaver who happened along.
Belatedly, he understood the reason for Cy's need to keep him hidden, and it was too late.
His first intergalactic flight was a nightmare of fear and unbearable living conditions.
They remained crammed in the cargo hold of the Quandiara, a craft not designed to carry livestock, for the duration of the journey. When Peter coaxed the other children in captivity into talking, he learned they came from the Ward, as Arielle stated. A younger boy named Grev showed him the barcode branded on the forearms of all workhouse children. Peter cringed in horror because he understood it was for more than just identification. The brands stripped away their freedom and turned them into nameless pieces of property.
The Quandiara's crew treated them like cattle, feeding them through the grates on the ceiling, with food splattering across the floor if you weren't quick enough to catch it. They provided water in disposable canisters, but not enough to wash. The air inside their prison was already foul when Peter entered the hold, but by the time they reached Staryn, it was fetid. For some children, it was too much, and at least three of them died, their bodies left to rot in the hold.
Arielle was the only thing that made the journey bearable. Despite the circumstances of their meeting, she was the first person his own age he'd ever befriended, and they passed the long hours in the hold talking. He told her about Lake Shima and Cy while she spoke of her father. Xander Lujan was a former soldier of the Commonwealth, now serving the Emperor.
Cy was careful to limit Peter's knowledge of the Citadel, so he listened with interest when Arielle told him what she knew of it. A product of a first-class education, she shed much light on his confusion. Since the disbandment of the Galactic Council, the governors who reported to the Emperor managed the Citadel. Arielle's father was a high-ranking officer in the Imperial Navy and a member of the Emperor's inner circle, called the Praetorian Guard.
What did Cy say to him that night? I made sure you're beyond the Emperor's reach, but those loyal to him will kill you if they know you exist.
Why did it matter if they knew about him? His parents had been one of many slaughtered in the purges, and he was just a kid, now a slave. Bound for the mines of Staryn, he'd die like these others around him, worked to death.
Even though Arielle bore her captivity with the same misery as the other children in the hold, she held steadfast to the belief someone would rescue her from this fate. Still, her guilt at being liberated while all of them languished appeared genuine. As they drew closer to Staryn and their friendship deepened, Peter saw Arielle’s fears for him reflected every time they spoke.
Peter didn't blame her for being born into more fortunate circumstances. The other children weren't so forgiving, hurling abuse and taunts at her in punishment for her inevitable release. Before his arrival, she'd borne their hatred alone, but now Peter stood up for her when he could. Still, by the time they reached Staryn, no one had any stomach left for hostility.
His first glimpse of Staryn was under the twilight.
Captain Dermurna and his crew wanted to be done with the cargo and shuffled them onto the hangar deck of the spaceport as swiftly as possible. Unlike the one at Sandy Creek, where Peter saw a bright assortment of travellers rushing to their ships, this one was dour and grey. A dozen Citadel guards were standing by to take possession of them.
So this was the Citadel, Peter thought. He studied the guards in their black-grey uniforms with red trimming, their features concealed by the full-face visors of their helmets. Most were carrying rifles and blasters, others carried hand-held scanning devices he did not recognise.
With Arielle's hand clutched in his, Peter smiled at her with encouragement even though they would separate her from the group once they discovered who she was. Now they were out of the hold, he could see her clearly under the light. She was younger than him and shorter. Her hair, hanging off her head in greasy tangles, was a deep reddish-brown and her eyes were green.
She was pretty, he thought, even unbathed and filthy.
"Peter," she whispered as they marched away from the ship. "When they scan me... they'll know I've got family. They'll take me away."
"Good," he offered her a smile, trying not to make her feel worse than she already appeared.
"You'll be safe with your dad."
"But you..." she couldn't say the words.
"It's okay," he shrugged as they emerged into another part of the spaceport.
In one corner of the large room was a communal shower, with tiles and showerheads hanging from pipes overhead. Near the tiled space, a long table covered in folded up bundles of grey fabric. In another corner, a large, black drop cloth covered the floor near the disintegrator, used to destroy rubbish and unwanted material.
The Citadel guards were now circulating through the children, using the scanning devices to read the barcode on their forearms. As they did so, Arielle gave him another anguished look.
"I'll tell my father to take you when he comes for me. I promise."
It was a sweet sentiment, but Peter didn't hold much hope of it becoming reality. Besides, Cy's words to stay away from the men who served the Emperor were nothing to ignore. He'd already dismissed one of Cy's warnings and met with disaster. Peter would not make the same mistake a second time.
"It's okay, Ari," he squeezed her hand tighter, absolving her.
Once scanned, the children were told to strip off their filthy clothes. Peter bit down his indignation at seeing others stripped down to bare skin, before being marched to the showers.
He was still holding Arielle's hand when a guard reached them.
"Where's your code?" The man demanded, searching her bare forearm, his grip firm. Peter saw Arielle wince.
"You're hurting her!"
"Shut up, boy!" The guard barked, silencing Peter with a sharp glare. Arielle shook her head, telling him she did not want him to get into trouble for her.
"I don't have one. My father is Xander Lujan of the Praetorian Guard. Those men snatched me and put me in the hold. He's looking for me!"
"Yeah, yeah, and my father is the Emperor."
For a second, Peter saw Arielle facing the possibility she might be in the same situation as he. Throughout their time on the Quandiara, she clung to the hope of rescue. While he'd miss her dearly, Peter didn't want to see that hope dashed. He wanted her away from this place.
The vehemence of the girl's statement made the guard think twice, and he looked her over. Sure, she was filthy like the rest of them, but she didn't look malnourished like the other children, and she didn't have the tattoo. The guard reasoned silently if the girl's father was who she claimed, there might even be a reward in it for him. Confirming her story would only take a few seconds.
"Well, if that's true, the scanner will prove it." He adjusted the device and scanned her again, this time pressing the machine against her skin.
After a few seconds, it flashed green. "Genetic match."
The man's eyes widened, and he looked at the girl, "there's an alert out for you Missy. Seems your father has been tearing the quadrant apart looking for you."
Relief flooded in Arielle's eyes until she realised their separation was imminent.
"You just wait here a minute," the guard told her before turning his attention to Peter. "All right, let's see it."
"I don't have a code." The words left him with bitterness, even though it made no difference to the adult.
"Another one," the man grumbled. "You have important family too?"
"No, sir," he shook his head, his eyes still fixed on Arielle.
Elsewhere, the children stripped of their filthy clothes continued to the showers, where they would wash away the stink from weeks of captivity.
When the man moved to scan him, Peter almost pulled back because he didn't wish to be identified. What if they traced him back to his dead parents and the men Cy claimed were hunting him?
Peter stared at him in stark terror.
Cy was right. There were hunting for him. Now they knew he was here!
"But no one's claiming you boy," the guard declared, unable to understand why the boy was staring at him that way. "You'll be put in the system, if they want you, they'll know where to find you. Get to processing." He shoved Peter towards the disintegrator where the last of the children were disrobing.
"Peter!" Arielle stared at him with a stricken expression.
"Come on, girl," the guard placed a hand on her shoulder. "There's nothing you can do for him. You're getting out. Consider yourself lucky." He did not spare a glance at Peter.
"It's okay," Peter smiled at her assuring as he fell in line with the others. "I'll be fine. Find your dad."
Peter continued walking, but he didn't have to look over his shoulder to know she was crying.
Processing finished at dawn, and the children disinfected, clad in clean grey overalls, travelled to the camp in a large, open-air barge. He kept the satchel he'd brought with him from home as the guards were only interested in burning the clothes soiled from weeks of travel. Peter hid his knife in the satchel's lining without discovery. He suspected even if the guards noticed, they probably didn't think a boy with a hunting knife could pose much of a threat to soldiers armed with blasters.
Out in the open at least, Peter took greedy gulps of fresh air, even if it was dry and hot. After being in the cargo hold for weeks, anything that didn't reek like an animal's stall was blissful.
Fresh air or not, Staryn was a planet of extremes. The Badlands where their camp was located was a desolate place full of craggy hills and endless desert. Peter, who accustomed to forests filled with tall trees and miles of grass-covered meadows, could not believe a world like this could exist.
The camp was situated a short distance from the spaceport when travelling by transport. Peter's first glimpse of the place revealed a military-style facility with barracks more appropriate for soldiers instead of children. Dull grey buildings or huts as the guards called them, with few windows and heavy doors was now their home. Once in the camp, the new arrivals scattered across the remaining huts, so the only familiar face belonged to Grev.
Sitting on his bunk bed, Peter studied the faces in the room. A feeling of dread rose inside him, knowing some were in captivity so long they wore their hopelessness like a second skin. Grev, who took up the next bunk, received his coding as an infant and knew no other life before the Ward. Even if he feared being found by Emperor's agents trying to kill him, Peter knew he could not stay here.
"It's not so bad," Grev said from the next bunk, watching him. "Here's a lot better than some other places. At least the guards don't beat you up every night. I worked in a place where we had to be in the fields every day, and if we didn't pick enough fruit, the big boss would hit you."
Peter stared at him in horror, not because Grev's story of cruelty was terrible but because a boy no older than eight, could make such a measured comparison.
"I'm not staying here," Peter stated, not looking at Grev as his mind fixed on the image of a cabin by a lake. "I'm getting out of here and going home."
"Okay," Grev shrugged and said no more.
Peter didn't need to read his mind to know what he was thinking. No doubt this wasn't the first time Grev heard someone making such a boast and failing to carry it out. The young boy fully expected Peter's attempt to end with capture. Then he would suffer punishment like all the others who tried and failed.
I am going to get out of here, and then I'm going home, Peter thought. There has to be a way, and I'm going to find it.
The next day Peter, with the rest of the Quandiara's captives, arrived at the mines.
A girl named Sarah, who was there longer than most, played an unofficial guide as she led the new arrivals in her hut to the transport carriers. The camps were built close to the mines, and the journey across the dry and rocky terrain didn't take long. Peter strained over the railing to get the lay of the land and felt his heart sink. It was desert in every direction. No wonder they let him keep his satchel and everything in it. Where could he go if he escaped?
They travelled across the rough flat plain covered by rocks and sand until they reached an unforgiving steep slope. At the top, Peter looked down to see they were at the rim of an enormous bowl-shaped crater composed of hard rock. Circular terraces in the walls of the canyon revealed the progress of the mining operation, layer by layer. Each terraced step revealed the bored tunnels.
It was no wonder why the Citadel used children to do this work. The tunnels created were barely wide enough to fit a child through, let alone an adult. With their smaller frames, children removed the need to drill more extensive tunnels, saving time and expense. No doubt the crevices and grooves where the ore clusters were located, were also too small for large machinery but ideal for children with hand-held tools.
Once they reached the bottom of the crater, the guards ushered them out of the transport. The mining camp was little more than a few buildings, paying court to the giant ore harvester at the crater's peak. The harvester was a hulking beast of a machine, waiting for ore deposits in the gaping maw of its hopper. Large bins next to the mine's many entrances held the tools they would need for the work.
"All right, you know what to do!" The guard Peter recognised as the one who scanned him the day before, gestured them towards the bins. "Get in there and put in a good day's work or we'll leave you out here to starve!"
His bark set the crowd of children moving towards the shaft.
"Try not to do too much at once," Sarah advised them as they approached it. "It's really hot in there so if you try too hard, you'll wear yourself out. They let us have plenty of water, so make sure you remember to drink often."
"Thanks," Peter said and moved with the flow of bodies to begin the day's work.
Sarah was right, the temperature was unbearable.
Outside, the desert heat was cutting, but within the shafts, it was oppressive. Along with the ever-present mist of mining dust in the air, it was almost a struggle to breathe. The narrow walls and low ceilings of the tunnels forced the older children to hunch their backs to keep their heads from scraping the roof. Illuminated by lengths of glow cable, the passage led to the network of fissures and nooks where the kantracite veins existed.
Once they occupied the tunnels, the heat became worse. At least their captors understood their workforce would be no good to them without some concessions. At the mines, the food was better and with ample water provided. Some children were water bearers, and they patrolled the tunnels carrying water to those who needed it.
Peter, like everyone else, crawled into the large fissures in the rock and went to work.
By the afternoon, his hands were so sore he could scarcely hold the rock axe he was using to chip away at the mineral. Every joint in his body ached, and the heat pressed down on him like a boot against his spine. Peter wanted to cry in frustration every time he wiped the sweat from his brow, not because of his situation but the foolishness leading to it.
"Are you all right?"
Peter looked up and saw Sarah crouching at the mouth of the fissure he'd been working in. She gestured one of the water bearers to bring Peter something to drink.
"Yeah, I'm okay." He wasn't, but he felt some uncontrollable need not to admit that to a girl. "Just never had to work so hard."
Sarah shrugged as she took a cup of water from a water bearer and handed it to him. "It was like that when we first get here. You'll get used to it after a while."
Peter didn't want to get used to this, now or later. He wanted to get back to that beautiful cabin on the banks of Lake Shima.
"Has anyone ever escaped from here?"
Her expression darkened, and she looked around to see if anyone heard him before she replied, her tone a harsh whisper. "You mustn't talk like that. It's impossible!"
"There's gotta be a way," Peter insisted, refusing to believe anything else. "You can come with me."
She let out an exasperated groan.
"So we can die out there? Even if you get past the sensors on the fence, there's no way to go. There's nothing out there but miles and miles of desert. You'd never cross it."
"We've got to try Sarah." Peter didn't like her or Grev languishing in this place forever. "We'll die working here. Don't you want to get out of here?"
"Of course, I do! But no one makes it. The last boy who tried to escape was really smart, but he still didn't get past the gates, and they sent him away to the Quagmire."
"The Quagmire is where they send troublemakers. They sent Marc there, and he never came back."
At that, Peter kept any further talk of escape to himself until he came up with a workable plan. There was no point trying to convince anyone of escaping when he had no idea how he was going to do it.
Until it was time to go, that is...