By Taylor Knight
“Get out of there, Reggie!”
The large, emerald green beetle continued on its way through the interior of the pipeline, oblivious to the foreign noises of the man who was speaking to it. A single horn was jutting out the front of the creature’s armored skull as it crawled further along the pipe, until daylight suddenly glinted in its eyes. The pipe was sliced vertically across, cutting the beetle off from the rest of its adventure. Before it could react, a hand squeezed through the inside of the pipe and snatched it up.
“Gotcha!” the man cheered. He allowed the insect to crawl along his lightly haired arms and onto his broad shoulders, where it happily perched itself. The man stood at six foot four, with scraggly black hair shooting out of his scalp and a short, ragged beard covering the lower portion of his face. His personal hygiene was lacking, yet his face remained spotlessly tan, and his glowing hazel eyes seemed to constantly demand the attentiveness of others. He was wearing an ancient black Marine jumpsuit, one of the few items left to him from a distant past, and over top of the jumpsuit was light metallic armor customary of most space-faring travelers.
“Why do we still have that thing?!” a woman snapped from the rear of their ship. Stepping out from the shadows of their ship’s backside was a woman in her mid-twenties, with deep black hair flowing down to her shoulders. Dazzling blue eyes looked toward the man with a hint of fury, though the only other feature about her pale figure to suggest such a thing was her tone. The woman wore a slender outfit beneath her own set of light armor, of which its hue was gray. “Braxton, that thing’s causing more harm than good, and I thought I just heard…” she began to say, when her eyes caught sight of the severed pipeline. “The airflow link?! You cut the airflow link?!”
Braxton simply shrugged. “It only matters when we’re in space, Elenwen.”
Ellie rolled her eyes in disgust. “I hate it when you call me by my full name.”
“And I hate it when you insult our little Reggie!” Braxton snapped before looking back at the tiny creature on his shoulder. He immediately began to console the oblivious beetle by saying, “She didn’t mean to be so rude, my delightful little scarab.”
“Tell me again how you found that thing,” Ellie said as she stepped over to the dirt-covered food storage unit in the corner of the room. Upon opening its doors she found only the glazed remains of a milk jug in the refrigeration section, a half-eaten box of Space Os, and a slab of raw meat laying haphazardly about.
“They were selling these African scarabs at one of those markets on Tardegrin,” Braxton began to explain, pulling a small piece of food from his pocket to feed the scarab as he talked. “Never seen one before. Haven’t returned to Earth in sixty-five years, but I thought this gem would be a nice memory.”
“I thought you wanted to forget all about home,” Ellie replied, tossing the empty milk jug to the floor as she reached further inside the unit, hoping desperately that a drink of some sort laid deeper within.
Braxton’s once lively eyes dimmed, memories fading in and out of his mind like a poorly constructed dream. “You already know the story, Ellie.”
“Well tell it again. We’ve got time considering what you did to the ship.”
“Sixty years,” he uttered, wincing at the thought of his wasted life. Back when he had first signed on to the Marines, he and his family had expected him to guard Earth, her colonies, and nothing more. Then, secessionists from the Proxima Centauri rebelled, and he was dispatched to a war among the stars. “You know all about Faster Than Light systems, right?” Braxton abruptly asked Ellie.
“Yeah, and how your FTL drive malfunctioned,” Ellie answered, reluctantly pulling her arm out of the refrigeration unit when she came to the unfortunate realization nothing remained inside. She shifted over to check behind the Space Os for food while Braxton continued his story.
“Indeed it did,” he admitted. “Continuing our journey at sub-light speeds wasn’t exactly ideal. Even at fifty thousand miles an hour, it still took us sixty years to arrive.” The only fortunate part of his tale was how soldiers were ordered into cryogenic isolation pods when journeying to other star systems. Being frozen kept his body young while the world around him continued to age. He then told Ellie of their unceremonious welcome to a planet that had been returned to federal control for nearly fifty years by then.
“Still they gave you a ship, right? Is that what this rust bucket is?” Ellie asked as she looked around at the dump that was the Sky Runner. Once a marveled federal heavy gunship, now it was under the command of a petty gambler who wasted away his days attempting to bury the past.
“They gave me the ship, sure,” Braxton admitted. “What did it matter? My parents were dead, and my sister… well, I don’t know.” He failed to stifle a laugh as he reminisced on his chaotic relationship with his sibling. “We always did hate one another, up until the final week before I set sail. That was the one time she seemed to open up to me, and the only time I didn’t want to throw her across the ocean just to get rid of her.”
“You still think you should be saying those things about her?” Ellie questioned, finally giving up her efforts for food as she turned to face her partner.
Braxton reluctantly shook his head. “Guess not, though I think it hardly matters now. She was twenty when I left home. She’d be eighty-five now, but there are a million diseases that could’ve just as easily gotten her before that.”
“Ever thought of praying to that god of yours?”
Braxton laughed. “I’m sure he can do a great many things, but bringing someone back from the dead would be new trick.”
Ellie glared at the man with a dumbfounded expression plastered against her face. “I never can understand you sometimes.”
“No?” Braxton replied. “That makes two of us, but I know he’s real.”
Braxton outstretched his arms. “I’m still standing here, aren’t I? After everything I’ve been through, everything we’ve been through, I’d say there’s gotta be someone watching out for us.”
Ellie crossed her arms, an eyebrow cocked. “Got any examples?”
“For starters,” Braxton began, “my company never should have survived our voyage. Dropping out of such fast speeds so suddenly would ordinarily be fatal, but not for us. Second, coming out of cryogenic sleep after sixty years should have been fatal, as ice crystals form in cells from prolonged exposure, but I made it out just fine. Most of us did. Then there was the matter of being provided a ship. Not everyone got one, you know,” he reminded her. “And thanks to the ship, I was able to save you from those raiders after stopping by Faron for a pitstop.”
“Then explain this!” Ellie said, gesturing to the tattered ship around them. “Because of your poor gambling habits, we have nothing!”
“We have Reggie,” Braxton smiled.
“Enough about the scarab!” Ellie snapped, jabbing her finger in the man’s direction. “We have no food, no water, no jobs, little ammo for the pistols, and no fuel for this busted old gunship.”
“Did you not see the half-filled box of Space Os in there?” Braxton cocked an eyebrow toward the woman.
“I saw it half empty,” Ellie glared at him.
Braxton raised his arms in defeat. “Alright, alright. Then let’s see if we can fix this bucket of bolts and get ourselves off to the next planet.”
Pleasantly surprised by his reaction, a bright smile appeared on Ellie’s face as she remarked, “Can’t believe I got you off your rear!” She then reached for their pistols on the small, two-person dining table beside her.
Braxton shrugged. “Sometimes a man’s gotta do some work around here. Lord knows a god isn’t gonna do everything for him.”
“We evolved, Braxton,” Ellie argued. “That’s the logical explanation.”
Braxton simply laughed. “Then why do morals exist?”
“What?” Ellie questioned, caught off guard.
“Logically speaking, we’ve got no control over our actions if we’re just an evolved set of nerves shooting random signals across a flesh-coated piece of matter,” Braxton explained. He then extended his hand in the woman’s direction as a sign he was ready for his weapon. “Scientifically speaking, morality shouldn’t exist, but it does. Someone made us, Elenwen. I hope you’ll see that someday.”
“You’re impossible,” Ellie rolled her eyes as she tossed the man his pistol. She missed her throw, and the ivory-carved weapon with a crimson barrel crashed against the ground, causing it to fire. A round of plasma cut violently into the hull of the ship.
“Great!” Braxton groaned, grabbing at his hair in agony. “Now we gotta fix the hole you just made on top of everything else.” Yet, despite his frustration, the man’s demeanor quickly mellowed as he reached down for his weapon and turned toward the ship’s exit, leaving Reggie behind to guard their prized hunk of junk.
Upon stepping into the light of day, the pair crossed the thin bridge connecting their ship to the outer walls of Boraxium City, a cylindrically designed commerce center that stretched high into the clouds. They had landed within the cloud districts to gain easy access to the higher paying employers, though it had not occurred to Braxton how fearful he was of heights until he stepped out onto the platform. There were no railings to be found along the sand colored bridge they crossed, just the plummet to the world below if either of them missed a step. Once inside the circular streets of the city, however, Braxton found his tense body relaxing. Shops and banking centers sprawled in all directions, with dozens of gravity lifts at the center of the region acting as elevators to other levels.
“Let’s make sure we find an actual employer this time,” Ellie reminded Braxton.
“Sure, sure,” he replied, though in reality he forgot her words almost immediately. Braxton was more focused on the flashing signs and unique, rugged architectures of the city. “Can you believe all this even exists?” he exclaimed. “The galaxy was well colonized in my time, but this far away from Earth?! Not even the weapon I’m holding would have seemed possible sixty years ago,” he added, looking down at the plasma-infused firearm he wielded. After a few weary glances from the city guards, he was quick to holster the weapon.
“I still can’t believe how old you are,” Ellie said.
“Ninety years old,” Braxton proudly stated. “Yet I don’t look a day over thirty.” He would have continued talking about himself if not for his eyes suddenly honing in on the prize he had been seeking.
“What is it?” Ellie asked, trying to figure out what made the man frozen as a statue.
“Fuel,” Braxton answered, tilting his head toward the depot across the way.
“Doesn’t look like an actual shop to me,” Ellie replied, prepared to look elsewhere when Braxton began walking toward the building. “Braxton, it’s not fuel we can purchase,” she tried to reason.
“We’ll see about that,” Braxton said with a flash of his alluring smile before continuing down the street. He was up against the fence leading to the fuel canisters a moment later, his cunning mind scheming a way to acquire the resources he needed. Not a minute later, a figure was standing several meters away, eyeing Braxton like a predator would prey.
“Got your eyes on something?” came the deep voice of a heavy set figure. Upon glancing over, Braxton quickly made out a heavily armored, round faced man who had hideous stubble growing around his jawline. Wicked green eyes stared down at Braxton as if already scheming to take advantage of him.
“This your shop?” Braxton asked inquisitively.
“Not a shop,” the man corrected. “City’s run by the Andar Corporation. I’m contracted to supply them all the fuel I can pump out of the planet’s mines.”
“So there’s no way I can buy any off you?” Braxton asked.
The man bellowed a thunderous laugh as he doubled over. “I doubt a scavenger like you would have enough coins to purchase such.” The man was about to chastise Braxton for daring to approach his fence when he spotted the shining sidearm at the man’s hip. “Actually,” he began to say, “I might be willing to trade a canister for that pistol of yours.”
“A canister’s not enough,” Braxton replied. “And either way, this is a rare X19. No way I’m trading it.”
The large man sighed. “Have it your way, but you will find no better deal in this city.” His guards were approaching to escort Braxton away when the wanderer suddenly spoke up again.
Braxton held up a finger to the guards as he proposed they make another deal. A wager of sorts. He was in the process of divulging more when Ellie arrived. The woman felt relieved she had arrived just in time to stop Braxton from making another poor gambling decision.
“Braxton,” Ellie growled, fearing what the man would do if left unsupervised. However, when Braxton turned to look her in the eyes, she felt herself melting apart. Though she knew how bad his gambling habits were, there was something about his confident demeanor that seemed to put her at ease when stressful situations presented themselves.
“Everything’s gonna be fine,” Braxton flashed a brimming smile in Ellie’s direction, holding off her protests long enough for him to make his deal with the fuel supplier.
It was a fairly simple deal. A challenge of sorts, really. Braxton pointed out the pistol the man had holstered on his person, to which the man replied, “I was once the best gunslinger in this city.”
“Got a name?” Braxton asked.
“Harvey Relicus,” the large man replied.
“What would you say to a duel?”
“Hah!” Harvey laughed. He doubted Braxton was worth his time, but the wanderer proved very persuasive. If they set their weapons to a low charge, enough for the shields of their armor to handle, they could see who was faster on the draw without causing any real injury. If Braxton won, he would be given all the fuel he needed, and if Harvey won, Braxton would hand over his ship. Braxton appeared to be enjoying himself as he eyed his opponent, even calling for Harvey’s men to place their bets on the duel, figuring he could gain even from his win than mere fuel.
“Are you crazy?!” Ellie roared, grabbing hold of Braxton’s upper arm as tightly as she could. “The ship isn’t much, but it’s all we’ve got.”
Braxton turned to her with sympathetic eyes, knowing how little faith she must have had for him in that moment. His mind was unwavering, however, as he saw that they had more to gain from this gamble than lose. Before stepping up to the duel, he pulled Ellie close and whispered, “Do you truly doubt me that much?”
“You’re a good shot,” Ellie admitted. “A real gunslinger, but you know nothing about this guy. What if he cheats?”
“What’ve we to lose but a rusty ship?” Braxton replied charismatically before turning back to Harvey.
Ellie crossed her arms in irritation as the man walked off to his fate, knowing deep down there was deceit afoot. “It’s not the ship I’m worried about,” she whispered to herself.
Harvey sneered in the Braxton’s direction. The deal appeared to favor him in every sense, even more so because of his magnetic gloves. The gloves, when activated, would call his pistol to his hand in an instant, ensuring he would win without trouble. The thought of a new ship had him frothing at the mouth, but still his greed knew no bounds. Seeing the shiny X19 at Braxton’s hip, he knew the weapon would fetch a hefty price. Because of this fact, he deliberately neglected to lower the power output of his firearm.
The pair of gunslingers stood silently, brows revealing hints of sweat as the men focused on one thought: react. Yet neither dared reach for their weapon immediately. Even Harvey was cautious about his next action. Their eyes narrowed as a light sheen of sweat dripped from the palms of their hands. Braxton had not dueled in years, yet he had something his opponent did not: hope. Someone was watching out for him, he thought.
That was, until Braxton noticed the shimmering magnetic glows Harvey wore. In an instant, his demeanor collapsed. In his mind, there was no chance he could outduel a cheat such as Harvey. His heart began to race, his brain pounding against the walls of his skull as he began to panic internally. Then, he saw Harvey lower his hand half an inch.
Harvey’s magnetic glove sent his pistol into his grip within a micro-second, and he raised it to Braxton, who hadn’t even grabbed his pistol yet. Harvey smiled inwardly as he aimed his pistol, knowing its full charge would drop his opponent in a heartbeat. Brang! Plasma splattered across his armor, and he stumbled backward onto the hard ground.
Braxton had fired from the hip, his hand to his weapon faster than most eyes could witness. A stunned smirk was across his face as he watched Harvey’s men go wide-eyed. He then looked to the sky, wondering how he could have possibly reacted that fast. After patting himself on the back, he confidently approached Harvey and his men. “Pay up, boys,” he beamed, outstretching his free hand so the guards could give him all they had bet. None expected him to be victor, and all paid a substantial amount. “Now, about…” Braxton began to say, when he noticed the setting on Harvey’s weapon. His eyes went cold as he realized the added treachery his opponent had planned for him.
“What a pain,” Harvey groaned as he put a hand to his head in the vain hopes it would help with the throbbing headache he had procured.
Braxton changed the setting on his pistol. “You’ll give me all the fuel in that depot, as compensation for your attempted murder,” he declared.
Harvey went wide-eyed, but with the barrel of a gun to his head, he reluctantly agreed. Within the hour, the entire stock of the depot was loaded onto the Sky Runner. With the payouts from the guards, Ellie was also able to purchase food and water for their next trip along with repairs to the ship. As repairs were being made, the woman stood amidst a mixture of astonishment and bewilderment at Braxton’s success. The man could have just been a very good shot, but to Ellie, the idea of a god somehow seemed easier to believe than that of Braxton being as quick on the draw as he was.
While Ellie toiled with the affairs of the ship, Braxton ventured into one of the local restaurants for a quick meal. He even saved a seat for his partner directly across from him for when she finished up business at the landing pad. There he sat, drinking down what the locals passed for soda, when another person came and sat down across from him.
Not knowing what to do in such a unique circumstance, Braxton awkwardly swirled his drink before saying, “Do I know you?”
The man sitting across from him was rather short at only five foot ten. He appeared young, in his early twenties, with golden crewcut hair atop his head. A light beard surrounded a bright smile that never seemed to fade from his face. His eyes shined a sparkling blue, though from certain angles Braxton could have sworn they were green, brown, and even gold. The man’s tanned skin appeared to radiate comfort, and he wore no armor upon his muscled frame. Instead, he wore a silky white shirt and jean pants. By all accounts, the man was attractive, even more so than Braxton would have liked to admit.
“Have you ever been to Boraxium City before?” the man answered Braxton’s question with a question.
“No,” Braxton answered, crossing his arms as he leaned back in his seat.
The man let out a gentle laugh. “Then no, I reckon you do not know me.”
Braxton looked to the person as if he was supposed to say more. When the man said nothing more, Braxton replied, “Then why are you sitting here?”
“You are not from here,” the man answered. It seemed he knew Braxton had an interesting narrative to tell, and longed to hear it. Braxton replied simply that he was a wanderer, but let it slip that he was trying to get as far from Earth as possible. “Well, you have made it very far indeed,” the man admitted, gesturing to the city around them. “This is quite the remote system, far from Terran control.” After saying as much, the man suddenly leaned toward Braxton. “If you do not mind me asking, why are you trying to journey so far from Earth?”
Braxton shook his head at the distant memories, and was initially prepared to keep his mouth shut, but realized there was no harm in telling a man he would never see again. “My family lived there. I don’t know what’s become of them. It’s been so long.”
“Sixty-five years,” Braxton answered, grinning ear to ear as he hoped the man would think he was a loon and leave. He did not.
“That is a long time,” the man admitted, not phased in the slightest by Braxton’s thirty-year-old appearance.
“Anyway,” Braxton continued, slightly annoyed he had not driven the man away, “I know my parents are dead, but I have no clue what has happened to my sister. She may be alive or dead. She may have had children, or she may have not.”
“This seems to bother you,” the man speculated.
“How so?” Braxton questioned, his eyebrows pointing inward as he became irritated by the therapy session he was receiving.
“You talk with such uncertainty,” the man explained calmly, noting how important it was to have certainty in a person’s life. To know right from wrong. True from false.
“Your point?” Braxton asked.
“My point is that, perhaps, you should stop running from your fears,” the man spoke. “This uncertainty of family, of home, and I theorize, by extension, belief in the divine, seems to be consuming you, and I fear it will continue to do so until the day you die. Therefore, go to Earth. Find the truth for yourself, and then you will finally be at ease,” the man stated.
Braxton pondered the stranger’s words for a long while. How could he return home? Where would he even begin to look? As he thought on the subject, he quickly realized he was indeed scared. He knew his parents were dead, for no one could survive so long, but by being away from home he was able to avoid the subject. These uncertainties were chewing him up inside, and he eventually nodded his head toward the stranger. “Maybe you’re right.”
“I know,” the man smiled, though there was a hint of sadness behind his eyes. “You need answers, but I would also be weary. Earth is no longer your home. If you find you cannot return, I would not take drastic measures to find the truth. Your home is among the stars, seeker.” With that, the man rose to leave.
“Hey!” Braxton called after him. “Who are you?”
The man turned, a smile persisting on his face. “I am who I am,” he replied with a gentle laugh before finally leaving Braxton to his own business.
“Weird guy,” Braxton remarked with a huff before sipping down the remainder of his soda. His food had just arrived when he spotted Ellie climbing over the fence to the outer dining area. “Ever heard of using the door?” he smirked.
“Climbing the fence was easier,” Ellie said without much thought.
“No, it wasn’t,” Braxton laughed. “But get over here, my faithful companion. I saved a seat just for you.”
Ellie thanked him for the reserved spot as she took a seat, but was quick to note how little faith she had unfortunately given him during his earlier encounter with Harvey.
“No worries, Ellie,” Braxton said. “I must admit, even I lost faith in myself when I saw the man’s magnetic gloves.”
“Yet you still won,” Ellie added.
“Yeah,” Braxton replied, but his eyes appeared dead. He knew how close he had come to death, and the thought deeply disturbed him. A chill shot across his spine, as if he needed further reminding of the end that had almost come, when his eyes suddenly glimpsed the figure he had spoken with only a minute ago. It was then that he relaxed, and a spark of life returned to his hazel eyes.
“Braxton?” Ellie spoke up, waving her hand in front of his face to get his attention.
“Sorry,” Braxton replied. When he tried to find the man from earlier among the other patrons, he found the man was gone. “Earth,” Braxton suddenly blurted out.
“What about it?” Ellie asked, feeling the man was just trying to confuse her by this point.
“I gotta go back,” Braxton stated. “I gotta go home.”
Ellie could not believe what he was saying. They had journeyed across the entire galaxy just to get away from there, and now Braxton wanted to go back? “That’s not exactly an easy trip to make,” she remarked, taking a piece of food from Braxton’s plate as he stared off into the distance.
“I just…” Braxton began, resting his head on his hand as he pondered his earlier conversation. “I have to know what happened to her. My sister, I mean. I’ve been running from my fears for so long that they’re chewing me up inside. I thought they’d dissipate if given time, but uncertainty seems to multiply my problems rather than solve them.”
Ellie lowered her head to meet his gaze, her eyes wielding the rare ability to calm Braxton down when his mind was racing, which did not happen often. “Okay, okay,” she said. “If that’s what you have to do, let’s do it.”
Braxton’s mind was put at ease by her reaction. “Thanks Ellie.”
The pair sat for a while longer to finish the food on Braxton’s plate before they finally returned to their ship. To Braxton’s surprise, Sky Runner appeared as it had the day it first came off the assembly line. He nearly commented on the sight of such a marvel when his partner beat him to it.
“I can’t believe it,” Ellie remarked, wide-eyed as she looked up at the former wreck of a ship that now appeared in pristine condition. “It looks, I mean, wow.”
“I shot a guy today who held every advantage against me, and still this is unbelievable to you?” Braxton said, raising an eyebrow to her before gesturing for them to climb in. Once inside, Braxton hopped into the pilot’s seat while Ellie claimed shotgun.
As Braxton was strapping in, however, Ellie posed a question he had not expected from her. “Why do you feel you have to do this, Braxton? I get the need to know, but is that it?”
Braxton released a deep sigh before looking back to Ellie in the seat behind him. “Valora and I had our differences. Many, in fact, but being around one another forced us to learn something important: the value of family. The only people who seemed to value me for the longest time.”
Ellie attempted to say that simply could not be true, but the unnerving sensation of tiny legs crawling up her arm stifled her voice. Looking down, she realized it was Reggie looking for a perch to rest on.
“I wasn’t much of a hit in school, and the Marines didn’t seem to like me either,” Braxton claimed, leaning back in his seat as unpleasant memories flooded into his mind. “My very own brothers in arms somehow failed to invite me to the party they were holding the evening we were unfrozen.”
Ellie tried to reason that it was just a simple party, but her words failed to help the hurting Braxton.
“It wasn’t about the party. It was about the importance of me, the individual. They held no value toward me if I was that forgettable to them,” Braxton explained. His heart ached at the memory of that day. If his comrades, men and women he was to give his life for did not value him, then who could?
“You are valued, Braxton,” Ellie said, putting a hand on his shoulder as he ignited the ship’s engines.
“By whom? My sister?” Braxton asked, causing Ellie’s eyes to ignite with frustration.
Ellie wondered how Braxton could have possibly misinterpreted her meaning, but the needlelike legs of Reggie coming to rest on her shoulder forced her to divert her gaze from the man.
Shrugging off Ellie’s prior comment, Braxton sent the Sky Runner shooting off the landing pad and into the puffy clouds of the atmosphere. They continued to push higher and higher through the planet’s atmosphere until they were safely in orbit around the world. After checking to make sure Ellie was ready to go, he ignited the Sky Runner’s FTL drive and held on tightly to his seat while the vessel shuddered under the force of the refueled engines. As the ship readied itself for faster than light speed, Braxton muttered under his breath, “This is going to be such a long journey.”
“But we can handle it,” Ellie remarked, a smile on her face as her blue eyes once again calmed Braxton’s nerves.
Braxton gave a gentle nod to her, but was suddenly struck by a thought that kept him thinking during their transit to the next system. Braxton had always known those he valued; it was not a long list. But it did make him wonder what his craftsman above valued. “Could it really be me?” Braxton thought.