The Guardian - Chapter Six
Staryn was one of nine planets orbiting two white stars. For half the year, the heat from the binary sisters baked the planet and all the life on it. The clouds evaporated in the warm sky and rain ceased to fall, turning what vegetation there was to dust. For this reason, it remained uninhabited save for the Mining Guild's operations.
When Staryn was at its most distant point from its twin suns, the weather changed. For six months the rains came as if the heavens opened up on the tortured ground. Precipitation on Staryn came with cyclone ferocity. As the rainfall lashed the world mercilessly, dormant spores in the mud-baked soil flowered despite the gale-force conditions.
If not for its one redeeming thing of value, everyone would have abandoned Staryn and its unforgiving climate long ago.
The planet was rich in katracite. The high-energy ore used for interstellar travel was one of the most valuable substances in the galaxy. Although production spread across several systems throughout the Mining Guild, quantities were never abundant on any one planet. On Staryn, the abundance of katracite meant veins could be detected with ease, making it one of the most prosperous jewel in the Citadel crown.
When Marc arrived, the planet was experiencing its seasonal heatwave, with soaring temperatures during the day and plunging ones at night. They took Marc and the rest of the child slaves into the Badlands, where the wealthiest katracite fields and the worst climate on the entire planet existed.
Constructed next to the spaceport built to facilitate ore distribution across the galaxy, the camps stood a scant distance from the mines and the ore processing station. Harsh desert surrounded both facilities, stretching across hundreds of miles, providing the perfect deterrent for escape.
Because it would be suicide.
Work began as soon as the children arrived. The day started at the crack of dawn and ended well after dark. Breakfast comprised unappetizing protein gruel with high-energy bars to sustain them until noon, with lunch being a repeat of the same meal. Once the twin suns disappeared behind the horizon, the children returned to camp and fed before the start of the nightly curfew.
There was no doubt in Marc's mind most of the children would perish in a matter of weeks. This insane workload served the Citadel's own brand of selective breeding. The object of the exercise was to cut down the numbers of orphan and ease the government responsibility to care for them.
Despite the impossibility of escape, the thought was never far from Marc's mind. He would have to bide his time and find another way when the opportunity presented itself. When possible, Marc studied everything he could about the camp, paying particular attention to the outgoing transports leaving the ore processing ports. If he could stow away onboard one of those transports, perhaps he could reach an outbound ship. Anything had to be better than where he was.
He committed to memory the routines of all supply ships and ore carriers entering the port or leaving the processing centre. Strict security measures were in place at many points in the distribution process to reduce escape attempts. With disappointment, Marc soon learned the Citadel was efficient with the task, conducting scans and spot checks to prevent any successful escape. It didn't matter. Marc planned on finding a way through their net.
He just needed patience.
After giving himself a routine just as ruthless as the one imposed on him and the other captives by their jailors, Marc followed it with almost military discipline. Fosterage accustomed him to hard work, so Marc knew how to pace himself in the mines. When he returned to camp, he still had the energy to go exploring. When he finished his evening meal, Marc spent his time testing the limits of his new prison.
During these nocturnal expeditions, Marc learned the focus of Citadel security was on the safety of the ore they were transporting off-world. It made sense. After if the children failed to escape on a transport, where else could go but the desert? The punishing terrain of the Badlands was a far more effective security device than any they had in their possession. From some other children, Marc learned the punishment for escapees was exile to a dangerous place called the Quagmire, a treacherous region at Staryn's southern pole, never to return.
Staryn's Commandant had no mercy for trouble makers.
Two weeks after Marc's arrival on Staryn, Marc realized if he didn't escape Staryn, he would not survive the year.
It wasn't his intention to eavesdrop on the two Citadel guards that night.
Citadel guards, like those assigned to the Guild, were usually lifers sent to such backwaters for being discipline problems or poor performers. Marc had sense enough not to antagonize any of them. He ran into the duo while attempting to sneak back into his barracks and had no choice but to stay put until they passed. The window he used to climb in was within their sight, and the was no way he could sneak past them. Curfew was fast approaching, and Marc didn't intend to get caught. His chances of escape would be better if he continued beneath anyone's notice.
"Another load?" A Citadel soldier asked of his companion.
"Yes sir," the older man replied and made Marc wondered how come seniority didn't come with rank. "We're going through them faster than a comet through Rias. It's a damn shame the katracite burns them out so quickly or else we could get a lot more mileage out of these brats."
"Six months is plenty, although they slow down after the fourth."
"I supposed," the older man shrugged before they strode away into the darkness.
Marc didn't waste time after they left, scrambling through the window and dropping into the floor of the supply closet within the building. Once there, his mind reeled with what he'd heard.
Six months. No one lasted six months. It took four months before it showed, whatever it was. Then another two to die. Marc felt a sliver of ice run down his spine and crushed the horror threatening to overwhelm him.
He had four months to escape or die.
For two months, Marc kept vigil, searching for a way to escape, but to no avail. Aware of what fate awaited him and the others, he noted the frequency of new arrivals and the absences of those already here when he arrived. They disappeared, and the guards explained their departure as transfers to another mine.
Marc had always been realistic about his chances for a successful escape. He could never sneak past the Citadel troops and sensors surrounding the camp. If by some miracle he got through, he would face the same obstacles at the spaceport. Worse yet, the scanners there were far more efficient than those at the camp, programmed for decontamination on the microscopic level.
How could he hope to circumvent that?
With growing anxiety, Marc was aware he was approaching the third month of his incarceration at the camp. The fourth month loomed on the horizon, like some hungry beast waiting to tear him apart. If he didn't come up with a plan, he would disappear like the others.
He needed a third alternative, and one night, it came to him.
The air shuddered with frost when Marc snuck out of the barracks after curfew.
Marc pulled his jacket around his body and took cover against a darkened corner of a wall when a duo of guards happened along. Until they passed, he remained in the shadows until left before proceeding. He moved from hut to hut, using the structures for concealment as he crossed the camp stealthily.
The jacket hung heavy against his body, thanks to the objects he'd sewn in the lining. Over the last two weeks, he'd been secretly collecting an assortment of items. A folded knife, a capsule flame lighter, a few sheaves of flame-retardant foil and even a tube of dermal sealant. They were small objects whose loss went unnoticed and capable of fitting comfortably into the lining without appearing obvious.
If everything went according to plan, these treasures would be the difference between life or death.
Marc reached the hydro storage plan to see several water transports were being emptied to replenish the camp's dwindling water supplies. The process was loud, and the technicians carrying out the task were busy checking instruments and gauges, monitoring the water intake and conversing amongst themselves. They were oblivious to his approach.
With their focus on the tanks and intake process, Marc used the cover of the plant's machinery to reach one of the empty containers sitting on transport. The night gave him an added advantage, and he scrambled up the rungs against the vehicle unto the platform holding the tank. He crammed his body into the narrow space between the container and the wall, he waited for them to finish so they could leave the area.
"Hey, I see you! Get down from there!"
The order came from a sentry who spotted Marc in his hiding place. Marc pushed himself out from behind the tank, making a run for it, but the sentry's cry brought others. Two more of them ran out of the adjacent building and quickly surrounded the transport. Marc tried to get past the sentry who'd been the first to see him, but the man grabbed him by the ankle. Almost tumbling off the edge of the platform, Marc kicked hard, sending him sprawling.
By the time he landed on the ground, the alarm had sounded throughout the facility. Three Citadel guards closed in on him as everyone became alerted to the escape attempt. Klaxons blared, their shrill cry cutting into the peace of the night air. They converged on him like a pack of wolves.
Someone struck Marc down by the butt of a plasma rifle to the face. White-hot pain seared across his skull, and he tumbled to the ground hard. When his head scraped the dirt, blood was running down his face from the ruptured skin of his temple.
Someone was yelling at him.
"You stupid brat!"
It took a moment for him to focus because the pain was dizzying, and he had to see through the swollen flesh around his eye.
The guard standing over him shook his head in disappointment and annoyance. "You stupid bastard, you never had a chance."
Shortly after, Marc found himself in the Commandant's office.
It was in the restricted part of the camp Marc never attempted to breach. Unlike the guard's barracks, this building came equipped with all the conveniences, with filtered air and cooling units to make its occupants comfortable. Even the man's office seemed out of place against the camp's functional aesthetic. In a place was water was precious indoors plants seemed profane.
He wondered what sort of man was in charge of a slaving camp and decided he wouldn't have long to wait before finding out.
Commandant Huri, when he appeared through the door on the far side of the room, was a thin-featured man, resembling one of Marc's earlier masters. Out of uniform, wearing a sour look on his face, his expression showed he was unimpressed with being awakened by a failed escape attempt. He pulled his robe closer around him as he strode towards Marc.
"What's your name, boy?"
"I don't have a name, just a number."
The guard behind Marc struck him on the back of his head, causing him to stumble forward slightly.
"Check him." Huri was unperturbed by Marc's show of defiance.
A guard grabbed Marc's arm and rolled up his sleeve roughly. Branded on Marc's forearm was the barcode he received when he was first handed over to the Ward. Another guard produced an identity scanner and ran its sensor over the barcode. It beeped softly once it received the data.
He handed the device to Huri, who read it before regarding Marc again.
"Marcus Rayner. Reference Number 213243B."
Marc said nothing, hiding just how much he detested that brand. It stripped him of his identity, condensed his entire life into a number. It was humiliating, and he hated it, resolving to burn it off his flesh someday.
"Well Mr Rayner, you've caused us a great deal of inconvenience this evening. What do you have to say for yourself?"
"I say you're a maggot who's only got this job because the Citadel could not find a garbage scow big enough to stick your useless ass."
Huri's eyes widened in surprise and rage, and Marc unknowingly earned the respect of the three guards standing behind him.
Huri cleared his throat and exhaled, hiding his anger.
"Well Mr Rayner, you're quite the rebel aren't you? I intended to throw you in detention for a few days, but I see that you have an attitude problem we here find unacceptable. I have no patience with troublemakers, and I will not tolerate them in my camp."
He looked away from Marc and faced his guard.
"At first light, take Mr Rayner to the Quagmire."
At daybreak, when the other children were being loaded into the carriers to begin their day at the mines, Marc started a different journey.
It took several hours to cross the surface of Staryn to reach its southern pole. Once they left the Badlands behind, Marc saw Staryn's seasonal vegetation appearing through the window. He felt the wind rushing through his hair as the bi-lander transport skimmed the surface of the planet. No one spoke to him during the trip, although he heard their chatter and smiled to himself when he heard them discussing his stupidity.
To his surprise, the vegetation on Staryn's surface grew lusher and more pronounced the closer they reached the pole. There was water on the ground and trees so tall and thick, they were spires reaching into the sky. Marc realized the Quagmire was true to its name. It was a vast marshland.
"Don't fool yourself brat," one guard said snidely when he spotted Marc leaning over the edge of the craft, staring at the swamp. "It may look pretty now, but no one comes back from here."
Marc risked a question. "Why not?"
"Because it's full of things that can eat you a dozen ways before the sun goes down. If you survive that, then storms will still wipe you off the planet like a nasty stain."
"When do they come?" He feigned terror.
"Oh, you've got a few months yet," the guard shrugged. "You're just not going to live long enough to see it."
The bi-lander was slowing down, telling Marc they were not long from wherever they intended to discard him. The craft was fast and maneuverable, but the trees stood too close together for the ship to navigate through them without risk. Beneath him, there was water, miles and miles of marshland, no doubt filled with the monsters the guard claimed would be the death of him.
Marc threw a sidelong glance at the guard and then at the sidearm against the man's hip. He'd taken a chance to get this far, he needed to take another gamble to survive in the Quagmire. In Metro, one of the first things he'd learned to do, was how to pickpockets and fleece travellers of their credits. With no warning, his hand shot out, snatching the man's sidearm and pulling it free of its holster.
"GIVE THAT BACK!"
Marc didn't stay to listen. Instead, he leapt like a coiled spring onto the railing, pulling himself over it before the guard could reach him. He didn't think as he jumped off the bi-lander, didn't want to hear them shouting after him indignantly. All of Marc's concentration was fixed on keeping a tight grip on the blaster he'd stolen because it would be his only defence in the Quagmire.
As he plunged through the air, he looked down to see the murky water of the swamp rushing up at him. His eyes clamped shut, Marc plunged into the black waters as the drone of bi-landers engines became distant. He knew they would turn back, but stopping the craft and coming back to this exact spot would take time. He intended to be well-hidden by then.
The water was icy, and the swamp water was deep enough to let him able to sink to the bottom. He couldn't see very well in the murkiness, but he felt the sway of rotting foliage and mud swirling around him. Holding his breath, he saw the faint shape of the bi-lander above him, blocking out the sun.
Marc didn't know how long the bi-lander hovered in place above the swamp, but it felt like forever. His lungs were bursting, and he knew if he didn't surface soon, he'd drown. He still clutched the weapon tight, his mind filled with the guard's taunts that there were things here that could kill him before the day's end.
Just as his ability to hold out waned, the bi-lander finally moved on. The rhythmic hum of its engines reverberating through the water diminished as it left the area. Either the guards believed him dead or didn't care enough to continue searching for him. Besides, it wasn't as if they hadn't completed their duty. They delivered him to the Quagmire as ordered.
Breaking surface, he gasped loudly and saw the bi-lander in the distance, speeding back to the camp, leaving him behind. As Marc caught his breath, he lifted his hand and took a moment to study the blaster before scanning the area. A broken stump of a tree was sitting on a mound of mud nearby, and Marc swam towards it. He didn't know what was in the water here, but he suspected he was safer on solid ground.
His escape attempt might have failed, but his punishment was going very well.