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  • Linda Thackeray

The Guardian - Chapter Two

For another boy halfway across the galaxy, the past held no mystery.



For Marcus Rayner or Marc as he preferred to be called, there were no unanswered questions about his origins. Memories were of little use to him except as tools to help him navigate the present. There was no point lingering on what came before when right now, his most pressing concern was whether or not he would have a future at all.


Within the containment grid where he was imprisoned with several hundred other children of varying ages and species, Marc waited in grim silence for transportation to a slave ship. The freighter sat at the far end of the launch bay, hovering over the deck as the heat of its droning engines made the air shimmer in the narrow space between. A ramp extended outwards through the open doors of its cargo hold, like a huge mouth and tongue ready to swallow them whole.


From what he was able to overhear from the cargo crew loading supplies into the ship, Marc knew once on board, they were bound for Staryn, a planet in the heart of the Spacing Guild's Mineral Belt. Like most of the worlds in the cluster of star systems under Guild control, Staryn was rich in kantracite, the high energy ore used for most forms of space travel. Once there, he and the other children with him would be set to work in the mines, until they succumbed to exhaustion or radiation poisoning, whichever came first.


Since his capture, Marc made it his business to learn everything he could about where they were headed. Knowledge was power. For years, he'd survived on his own because he grasped the importance of this one fact. Endurance was far more reliable than hope, which he abandoned long ago. It was beaten out of him with all the power brutality could muster, and Marc learned the lesson well.


Those who encountered him often felt disconcerted by the child with the cold, unflinching eyes. They wondered why someone so young, would need to conceal everything he was behind an impregnable wall of control. It took great discipline to maintain, but Marc had lasted three years perfecting his. He knew no other way to live.


Sometimes, he wondered if his existence would always be a fight for survival. For three years, he stayed one step ahead of anyone who could harm him. Sadistic abuse and systematic degradation shattered his pliable innocence long ago, so he trusted no one or dared to put faith in them. His world was cruel, harsh and lacking in mercy or compassion of any kind.

He bore the scars to prove it.


At a time when most children his age were growing up and enjoying their childhood, Marc was simply trying to survive it.


Still, as adept as he was in fending for himself and avoiding the clutches of any would-be jailors, Marc's situation proved he was not completely infallible. Despite all his precautions, being in the wrong place at the wrong time saw him delivered to the Citadel. Now he was back in the same situation he found himself six years ago, stabled with other forgotten children, waiting to be shipped off to a planet most never escaped.


With bitterness, he recalled the first time he fell into the custody of the Citadel. During the brief period, he attended school, classmates would often scare each other with stories about orphans who were shipped into deep space in the cargo hold of slave ships. After the Citadel took him and placed him into Ward, Marc learned there worse things than being taken away on a slave ship.


Sometimes, a child could be fostered by couples genuinely wanting a family, or they could be bought by anyone willing to pay for the privilege under the guise of fosterage. In those days, he imagined being a part of a family again, being able to go to school, to be tucked in bed and loved.


When he was fostered the first time, Marc hoped for such a thing.


Now, he wondered how he could have ever been so stupid.


******


Hours later, after they'd spent most of the morning on the launch deck, being gawked at by station personnel or passersby; the slave ship was finally ready to accept its cargo. The grid was deactivated and Citadel guards, with weapons drawn, ushered the children out of their cage. Slowly, the frightened group shuffled towards the enormous ramp leading into the ship's cargo hold.


Marc studied his environment carefully, searching for the slightest possibility of an escape but the guards were vigilant, keeping a close eye on the cargo even if they were children. To his disappointment, they appeared fully prepared to deal with any attempts to escape, confirming his earlier observation at the impossibility of escape. Frustrated, he accepted he was just as trapped as the rest of his companions.


"GET A MOVE ON BRAT!" A loud, harsh voiced boomed before he was shoved roughly forward.

Marc shot the Citadel soldier a menacing glare. The dark man was tall and imposing, even more so in the dark Citadel uniform but Marc didn't flinch, maintaining eye contact.


"Don't touch me again." Marc's warning reeked of warning and a complete willingness to follow through whatever the consequences.


The guard wanted to react, but something inside him held him back. A glimpse of something dark and ferocious flashed in the boy's ice-cold blue eyes. The older man didn't know if he wanted to provoke it and decided after a moment it was too much trouble to pursue.


"Just keep moving!" He barked, hating the impotence but settling on the lesser of the two evils.


Marc broke the stare then, turning his attention back to the ship and the journey to Staryn.


******

Marc was born on the Folina Prime, the only inhabited world of the Folina star system. His mother Erin, what little he remembered of her, was Accran and fled the homeworld following the collapse of the Commonwealth. Her husband, a Commonwealth officer, had not survived the purges and her family, much to Erin's disgust, swore fealty to the new regime.


Keeping her family name to avoid any difficulties with the Citadel, Erin renamed her month old son after his father and used her small inheritance to settle on Folina Prime. Despite its distance from the seat of the new Citadel government, its proximity to the main space lanes made it a thriving commercial centre. It was the ideal place for a fresh start.


The first months were challenging for a young woman who spent much of her life at expensive boarding schools and was unaccustomed to living within a set financial budget. Especially now, she was alone and caring for an infant. Still, with astonishing adaptability, a characteristic her son would someday inherit, Erin overcame her grief for her lost love and the life they were going to build together. Instead, she focussed on the one she was going to provide for her child.


He was a healthy baby, with dark gold hair and his mother's features. His eyes were very much his father's. They were an icy blue, so vivid and intense Erin was sure he could see through her. Sometimes when he stared at her, she would burst into tears because the memory of the man she loved and lost was so vivid it was overwhelming.


Eventually, she found employment as a public servant in a dull but steady job. It paid just enough to ensure she would be able to support herself and the baby when her inheritance exhausted itself. Nevertheless, Marc remembered every facet of their life together because it had been warm and happy.


He clung to those memories because after she was gone, it was all he had left.


******


Marc squinted.


The thin beams of light sneaking through ceiling revealed the grating above their heads. The metal deck ensured the footsteps walking above echoed through their prison as loud clanging. With the cell shrouded in near-perpetual darkness, it was difficult to keep track of time. Logically, Marc knew only two days had passed since they were ushered into this dungeon, but it still felt like weeks.


He stood up, stretching limbs stiff from the cramped surroundings. A whiff of clean, ventilated air seeped through the grating and Marc breathed in greedily like a man dying of thirst. Inside the cargo hold itself, it was near fetid. There was one utility among thirty of them in this section, and it did not surprise Marc that their needs outweighed its ability.


Marc returned to his corner of the cargo hold shortly after, almost slipping on a scrap of food on the dirty floor. The guards simply emptied containers of cooking over an opening in the ceiling. It was probably amusing for them to see the children scrambling for food like a pack of hungry animals.

He felt sweat on his brow from the hot and humid air, resulting from too many bodies crammed into such close proximity. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he sat down in the darkened corner, rested his head against the wall, and tried to get some sleep.


A few minutes later, he lifted his head up again, abandoning the idea. It was too hot, and he couldn't get the sound of crying out of his head. Didn't they know anything? What was crying going to get them? Nothing! All they were doing was wasting what strength they had. Didn't they know surviving this trip was going to take all the energy they had? The reason for this nightmare was to weed out the weaker kids before they arrived at Staryn.


Marc voiced none of these opinions to the others. Why should he? He was going to survive, one way or another. What did it matter to him if the others died because of their own stupidity? What had it to do with him? Why should he care about them when they did not care about themselves?

Look at them, he thought, studying the children with him. They came in all types, human, reptilian, arthropods and others too exotic to name. The youngest, Marc noticed, was a six-year-old human, who had not stopped crying since he was brought on board. Marc was younger than that when he first entered the system.


Leaning back, his head bumped the wall behind him as he remembered life before the Ward and the Citadel. A lot of his memories were faded, but some were as clear as day and concentrating allowed him to relive them. Marc often retreated to the ones of his mother. Closing his eyes, he could picture the violets she loved, the tang of salty air in his lung when they walked on the beach where their house sat.


Erin died when he was five.


She had been run down by a skimmer on her way to work. The news was delivered to him by seemingly sympathetic Citadel trooper who in the same breath, explained to him he was to be sent to the Ward because he had no other family. Through the numbness of his pain, a female trooper packed his things and took him into custody before the evening was out. He didn't even know where they buried her.


Everything happened so fast, there was barely time to register their explanations. Too young to understand what it meant to be dead, Marc only knew she was gone, and he was being banished to the Ward as for some unknown sin. Despaired and frightened, Marc thought it couldn't get any worse, even with the ugly grey walls of the Ward around him.


He was wrong.

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