“Mythos, old wives’ tales, fables…I would have thought we were beyond this.” Malcolm said, gently thumbing through the first pages of the first actual paper document he’d ever touched. He spoke dismissively, but there was an oddly tender undercurrent to his voice.
“Didn’t take you for the sentimental type.” I replied, quietly hoping I’d get to lay claim to the book next.
“I’m not.” Malcolm said just a bit too sharply. “Yet…there’s something comforting about it. Maybe it’s just an unexplored part of human DNA to want to anthologize.”
“Storytelling was such an important thing in some ancient cultures that it was a whole job. People would gather around for communal dinner and just listen to the older folks tell stories.” I replied.
“Was? Clearly still is, since I’m fool enough to buy a copy. Me and millions of others across humankind, where ever we are in the stars.” Malcolm half-grinned, and the faint cracks of light that pierced through the walls of the warehouse lit up the greys and whites of his poorly maintained beard.
I said nothing. I knew if Malcolm and I talked too much, we would bond, and bonding was dangerous in our profession. The Emperor, President, General, or anyone with more stripes on their coat than Malcolm could call in an order and demand him dead at any moment, and I could very well be the one to pull the trigger. Colony life was exceptionally rough. Malcolm was a straight shooter, to be sure, hadn’t given any cause to displease the authorities that I knew of, but I’d seen it happen before. There was no jury, no court martial in the Emperor’s service. Just a swift execution.
Malcolm began reading, and the occasional hint of a smile touched his lips. I shifted uncomfortably on the barrel I was using as a seat and waited.
“There’s something…” Malcolm started, then stopped.
“What?” I asked, grabbing my stasis rifle.
“No, I was talking about the book. Nothing outside.”
“Oh.” I moved to relax again, but found the ridge on the barrel too much this time, for whatever reason. I stood.
“I’m gonna do rounds.” I said, and Malcolm’s eyes barely flicked up to meet mine. His skin, a rich dark brown, blended slightly in the dark of the warehouse, but I could see him well enough.
As I walked, I thought about what that book meant. Why I was suddenly feeling a bit tense. I was a soldier– well, I was really more like an enlisted security guard these days, but I had seen hard battle. Malcolm had seen more than his fair share. Stories had a way of…peeling back the layers you put around yourself, if they’re good. People like us couldn’t really afford that luxury.
Here we were, an unknown number of light years away from Earth (as the Emperor thought knowing our exact location could prove a liability), on a nearly barren rock. It was hurtling through space, attached to a massive moon which was attached to an even larger planet. We had an artificial atmosphere installed around it, and Malcolm and I were just there as an assurance. If a military vessel ran out of supplies, we were a convenient pit-stop, but most Quartermasters knew how to properly provision and that left Malcolm and I alone in our post. There were other humans a while away, hence the term ‘colony’, but Malcolm and I could only go out once a week.
Then there were the dangers. As a military resupply, we were a target. As a human colony, we were a target. As non-indigenous lifeforms, we were absolutely a target.
Despite the monotony of our lives, Malcolm and I were high strung. That book…maybe I shouldn’t read it after all.
I finished my rounds, checking every lock for the thousandth time that day. Slowly, I plodded my way back to the primary warehouse to fill out my reports.
When I returned, I heard an unusual noise. It didn’t take me long to identify it. Malcolm was crying. Not slight shuddering breaths, but deep and unsteady sobs.
I considered leaving it be for half a moment, then figured…fuck it. I’m a human, and I’m going to behave as such. I approached Malcolm, whose tears were staining the pages of the New Brothers Grimm.
“You alright, big man?” I asked.
“When’s the last time–” he managed between sobs, “I ate a goddamn fruit? Slept with both eyes closed? Talked to my daughters?”
I bit the inside of my cheek, trying to keep my layers intact.
“If I left today, within the hour, I don’t think I’d reach Earth in time to even have my own funeral. I’d be a rotten mess before I touched soil. They’d probably just toss me out the airlock and report me missing.”
“Our life in service to the Emperor.” I said bitterly.
“We’re meant to see the sun, Allan.” Malcolm said. “Grab a couple fish from the river, chat and listen to music. Dance. I’ve had vertigo nearly every day since leaving home, that was nearly forty years ago!”
“And the…the people I’ve.” Malcolm stopped himself.
“This isn’t living, Allan. It’s always dark. We eat the same nutrient brick and disinfected water every day. No one in the colony even looks at us when we visit, because we’re military. We’re scum to them. I can’t take it anymore. I miss home.”
“Guess the book was good, huh?” I asked.
“Read this passage.” Malcolm handed me the book.
I grabbed the book and began to read. It was a story about a colony wherein the local lifeforms were friendly, sentient, and generous. When the humans arrived, the locals gifted them baskets of produce, warm drinks that were reminiscent of human cider, and helped them establish shelter. The story went on in some kind of parable about biting the hand that feeds you, but Malcolm’s point was made.
“I can’t stay, Allan.”
“You said it yourself, if you leave you won’t reach Earth for another, I don’t know, twenty years I’d guess, even if it was a straight shot. The Emperor won’t sponsor you a trip back, so it’s civilian tech all the way, and theirs is much slower.”
“I know. But I can’t take another night of staring at the steel-grey of the bottom bunk with nothin’ to think about except what’s missing, because it’s a lot. I’ll find a damn way back, Allan. Even if I die before I get there.”
I nodded, but in every one of Malcolm’s words I heard three things– that he was right, that I wanted the same thing, and that the Emperor would hunt us down and kill us for abandoning our post.