The Guardian - Chapter Five
Peter lasted a month alone at Lake Shima before he left.
After Cy's death, Peter tried to go on as usual, continuing his day-to-day routine as if nothing changed. Mentally,
he told himself this did not differ from those occasions when Cy went into town for supplies once he was old enough to be alone.
He woke in the morning and ate breakfast. After breakfast, he would spend time with the learning tapes Cy brought from town. Even if they were far away from civilisation, Cy was adamant about his education. After the study session was over, he was free to go into the forest to fish or explore as he liked to do.
The charade continued for a month. With single-minded determination, Peter forced himself to believe he wasn't alone in the world. In this place, life surrounded him even if they were forest animals. It was enough, he told himself, mindful of Cy's warning to remain out of 'their' hands, whoever they were.
It was the silence that broke him.
The forest sounds he always thought were soothing now appeared all too loud for his liking. He seemed capable of hearing everything. Birds chirped while the wolves howled. The rustle of leaves and the trilling of insects at night sounded like an orchestra playing a bombastic tune in his head. He felt faded as if all the noise and chatter was drowning him out of existence.
When his own voice startled him, the lie crumbled the walls of his fragile reality.
Peter stood in the front room of the cabin and wept. His body shook with loud, wracking sobs as he surrendered to the overwhelming anguish of losing his uncle. When Cy first passed, the strange light radiating from his decrepit shell imbued the moment with a sense of unreality Peter could cling to for weeks. He didn't even bury Cy, just collected his dry, withering husk and left it in the old man's room.
When his tears ended, he felt hollowed out as if someone scooped out his insides and left it raw. Exhausted, h
e crawled into bed and slept. For the first time in weeks, he slept well. He had things to do.
He needed to lay Cy to rest.
The burial took place in a glade close to the house. They encountered it during one of their walks and Peter remembered Cy admiring the clearing framed by a large shady tree. When the sun penetrated the thick canopy of their leaves, it gave life to a blanket of lavender-coloured flowers in spring. Peter imagined Cy would approve of his choice.
With the task completed, the finality of Cy's burial drove home how alone he was.
As he sat on the porch pondering his situation, one thought stood above the others. He couldn't stay. Even if this place offered him protection, he just couldn't remain isolated the way he'd been. Only a month had pas
sed since Cy's death, but his solitude felt years long.
Still, Peter did not ignore Cy's warning about what lay beyond Lake Shima. He spent his last breath telling Peter he could not fall into Citadel hands. Why would the Emperor want him dead? It seemed so outlandish, and why had it taken years for Cy to tell him the truth about his parents? As it was, he wasn't
even sure if Cy was his uncle.
It was easy to discount Cy's warning when so much of the truths Peter relied upon were lies. Besides, Cy had gone into town from time to time and never seemed worse for it. Maybe in his effort to protect Peter from the Citadel, he made up the story about children being abducted and taken away to faraway places to frighten him. Or they could be true. He was just lonely enough to risk finding out.
And once he made the conscious decision to leave, he couldn't turn back.
Peter's spirits soared with this new goal. There were preparations to make, and he didn't want to leave anything undone before he sailed away forever. His mind was swimming in daydreams of strange unknown lands and exciting adventures, all of which existed beyond the sphere of this empty land
Over the years, Peter had glimpsed ships flying overhead to destinations far away and wished, like all adolescent boys, he could join their voyage. He made up stories of who they might be, space pirates, smugglers or even secret operatives on their way to fulfil some top-secret mission to save the galaxy. In a night sky full of stars, each glint of light held endless possibilities.
It never occurred to him until too late, they could also deliver unbelievable cruelty.
On the day of his departure, Peter ventured into Cy's room for the last time.
A flood of memories washed over him when Peter stepped inside. Through the window, he admired the serenity of the lake with the occasional waterfowl taking a dive for a meal. The sun was not quite at noon, and the light breeze that rustled the tall grass told Peter it was a splendid day for travelling.
As he swept his gaze across the scant furniture and empty bed, Peter realised how little Cy left of himself even though they spent a decade here. There was a bed with tarnished metal bedposts, a bureau holding his personal toiletries and a trunk that sat at the foot of the bed. Cy always said he never needed much more than that and as a child Peter accepted, but now he had to wonder.
Everyone had memorabilia, trinkets or souvenirs of a place and time, treasured. Peter thought of the hunting knife Cy had given him, and how he always kept it close because it meant so much to him. He valued it even more so, now that Cy was dead. But now, the absence seemed odd.
Peter always took Cy's words at face value, it never occurred to him to ask about Cy's background. For years, he believed Cy to be his father's brother or was it his mother's? He felt ashamed for never asking, and now he would never know. Still, where was his uncle from? Was he ever married? Did he have a family of his own? What did Cy leave behind to care for Peter?
Taught never to intrude on Cy's privacy, Peter saw no reason he couldn't try to break that taboo now Cy was gone. Besides, he wanted to learn something about his uncle's origins. After a few minutes of searching, he found a folded map leading to Sandy Creek, the town where most of their supplies originated and some Citadel credit chips.
But there was nothing else.
Cyrus Axym took his secrets to the grave, and with him, they would stay. Abandoning his fruitless search, Peter took the map and the chips and decided this would have to satisfy.
Gripped by the urge to get away, Peter closed the door behind him. There was a mystery about his entire life here. A secret Peter did not know if he wanted to be unlocked. What happened after Cy had died troubled him, that strange white light capable of wiping out his memories of what came next.
He paid a last visit to Cy's grave on the day of his departure.
After days of gathering enough provisions for an extended journey downriver, Peter knew it was time to go. The ground had settled as Peter stood at the foot of the fresh grave. A profound sadness fell over him at the sight of this one mound of earth and a wooden marker. It didn't seem to be enough for someone who meant so much to him.
He remained long enough to pay his respects to his uncle, uttering a few meaningless words that could not even describe the sorrow of his loss. When he finished, Peter headed towards the lake and climbed into his boat, a small but sturdy dinghy with an engine and sail, before casting off for destinations unknown.
Peter sailed for three days.
Leaving Lake Shima, he travelled up the tributary flowing from the Narara River. It amazed him just how far away from civilisation he and Cy had truly been. Beyond the forests of Lake Shima, the woods stretched all th
way to the majestic Narara Range running across the land like the spine of some enormous beast at sleep. When he sailed by it, Peter almost felt like he needed to sneak past to avoid it.
The world around him was an unknown and Peter became lost in it. There were no boundaries and more space than he could imagine. The mountains stretched into forever, declaring with great exaltation their absolute mastery over this land. Their peaks disappeared into the clouds, the green trees replaced by snow the higher the mountain reached.
Through the long hours of travel, he thought about the future. Against Cy's warnings, he'd ventured into the unknown world or rather galaxy, and there were so many things he wanted to see and do. He would meet unfamiliar people, humans and aliens alike! After being accustomed only to Cy, Peter could hardly wait.
At this moment, Cy's warnings were the farthest things from his mind. What civilised society would tolerat
e the theft of children? Cy claimed it was dangerous for children to be alone in the world. Perhaps it was true if the child was an innocent, unknowing in the customs and laws of an unknown place.
Peter was no fool. Cy saw to it he knew something of the galaxy and his education was thorough in all fields: history, mathematics, geography and the sciences. During his years of isolation, Peter had little to occupy his time other than his studies, so he learned them well. Besides, how much could have changed to make those studies obsolete?
Even if the Commonwealth fell, Peter knew this was nothing unusual. Governments rose and fell all the time. There was always something to replace what had come before. The Citadel ruled, so it wasn't a complete mess. Maybe Cy didn't like it because it wasn't like the Commonwealth. Besides, Peter knew even if what Cy had said about his family was right, Peter would not use his family name in case anyone was paying attention.
Still, he wished
he knew more about the Citadel and the Emperor. Cy said the men surrounding the Emperor wanted him dead, but not the Emperor himself. Why should they care if he didn't?
Other times, he wondered about the bright light and searing pain that rendered him unconscious the night Cy died. Was it just a dream? Had it happened? The memory of the pain prickled at his skin when he thought about it, so Peter knew it was real. Something had happened to him that night.
When he tried to remember, dread rose inside of him, thick and strangulating. Its intensity was more than Peter could withstand, and he shrunk away, too afraid to make another attempt. Each time he tried, the nameless terror forced him back from that night, shrivelling up his resolve until it became weaker and weaker.
Through all attempts, Peter understood one thing, it was being done for his own good. He just didn't know why.
Peter arrived at the town of Sandy Creek three days after leaving home. As he approached the settlement, he saw small scatterings of buildings and people. His heart leapt with excitement as he saw them, and he wished the boat would move faster so he would reach the shore more quickly.
The town was big. So big it took almost an hour to reach the main pier. When Peter saw the number of boats already anchored there, he realised just how many people lived on the banks of the Narara. Hundreds, even thousands, he thought, and the number almost overwhelmed him after being isolated for so long.
After Rysta's colonisation, Sandy Creek was the first settlement built on the shores of the Narara River. Due to its location on a major waterway, the settlement soon grew into a sizeable township. In recent years, the establishment of a spaceport ensured it was now the commercial hub of all Rystan trade.
From the moment Peter stepped off his boat, he swallowed by a new world. Peter disappeared into the crowds as he made his way into town. He never imagined so many people living in one place together. Why had Cy kept him away from all this? There were so many things for him to absorb. From the peddlers selling their wares on the jetty to the transcars zooming up and down the crowded streets.
Everything fascinated him.
After leaving the pier, he wandered the streets for hours, trying to see everything in one day, feeding his curious young mind as much as possible. He browsed in shops and spied the transcars, which appeared to be the primary form of terrestrial travel in Sandy Creek. He gawked at the people in their strange clothing, human and alien, including the beautiful women he had never seen before today.
It was the best day of his life, and he hoped this voyage of discovery would never end.
Several hours after his arrival, Peter got hungry and looked around for a place where he could get something to eat. He saw a local inn and checked his finances. He had a hundred Citadel chips. It was probably not a lot and hoped it was enough to get him a meal. Otherwise, he would have to go back to his boat for the food rations he still had left.
The inn, like the rest of Sandy Creek, was filled with people. He slipped into an empty booth, scanning the place with interest while trying to fade into the background. Around him, Peter stared at the different races o people chatting, eating exotic food and downing even more exotic drinks.
"Well, hello to you. What can I get you?"
Peter was a little startled by the young woman but took a second to recover. She was Almarian. Like all of her people, her skin was a vibrant blue. While her arms were humanoid in their construction, tentacles protruded from either side of her waist and seemed to change colours. Her eyes were black, and when she smiled at him, her teeth looked like gums.
She looked like an exotic sea creature, Peter thought before he averted his gaze. It was rude to stare.
"I don't know what I want."
"Fair enough," she laughed. "I tell you what I'll wait until your parents get here and then I'll come back." She turned away.
"I don't have any parents. I'm here alone. This is my first time in Sandy Creek."
She spun around abruptly, her tentacles swinging with her and the iridescent colour turned dark. "You must be crazy coming in here and saying that! Do you want them to take you away?"
"Take me away?" Peter stammered, the wonder of the last few hours diminishing instantly. Wide-eyed, Peter stared at the girl. "Who's going to take me away? I… I haven't done anything wrong!"
"Quiet!" Her voice was sharp. "Look, wherever you came from, go back there now. Don't talk to anybody, don't go anywhere else. They take orphan children to awful places. Trust me, you don't want them to take you."
If she was trying to frighten him, she was doing an excellent job at it and Peter would not argue with her. Cy's warnings echoed in his mind like an alarm bell. He could sense the urgency in her words and realised her fear for him was genuine. It was enough to get him moving.
"Go now!" She repeated when he didn't move fast enough for her liking.
Peter almost fell out of the booth, in a mad frenzy to get out of the place. He had to get back to his boat, so he could go home to the safety of Lake Shima. Only hours ago, this town had been a place of wonders, with fascinating sights, sounds and experiences. Now as he hurried out the inn and made his way back to the pier, everyone and everything terrified him.
Cy had been telling the truth! He hadn't lied! Why had Peter thought Cy would lie about something like this?
Because you wanted to leave so badly, a tiny voice inside his head sneered.
No wonder Cy wanted him to stay where he was. Cy knew this was what the Citadel did to orphaned children. Peter discarded Cy's words as hysterics because he was so desperate to leave Lake Shima. Without seeing where he was going, Peter ran straight into someone and fell backwards, landing on his rump on the path.
A man was staring down at him with concern.
"Are you all right down there?"
Peter scrambled to his feet, frightened out of his wits. He nodded and tried to rush past, but the man placed his hand on Peter's shoulders, halting him.
"You sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine." Peter nodded. "I've really got to go."
The man studied Peter from head to toe." You're an orphan, aren't you?"
Peter was about to bolt, but the man spoke again. "It's okay, kid. I'm no slaver. I won't sell you to the Citadel."
Peter looked up at him. He was tall, with a scraggly beard, and dark, sun-baked skin. He didn't look old, and Peter wanted very much to believe this man would not harm him.
When Peter relaxed, he continued. "You still shouldn't be out here on your own. I'm not a slaver, but the next man might be."
"They take orphans away to be slaves? I didn't know that! I didn't know anything until a few minutes ago. The girl in the inn said I ought to go home now."
"She was right, but you can't be out here alone. Someone is bound to catch up to you. I tell you what, my name is Tar Demurna, Captain of the Quandiara, in port right now. We need a cabin boy on my crew, and you look like you need a job and a safe place to hold. What do you think? Are you interested?"
"Sure, I am!" Peter was so excited by the prospect of being on an actual spaceship, he forgot about his current situation. Isn't that why he came to Sandy Creek in the first place, to visit faraway places? "That would be neat!"
"Well, good." Tar smiled, showing Peter a glint from one of his gold teeth. "I think this is just going to work out fine."
Peter felt more at ease as he walked through the streets in the company of an adult. At least he wouldn't have to worry about slavers, and he would get to fly in a spaceship! He could not believe his luck meeting someone as nice as Tar Demurna.
The spaceport was a kaleidoscope of sights and colour. Travellers came here from every corner of the galaxy, embarking or disembarking for other destinations. Peter stared at the sentients in every biological classification. The reptilians of Boralis, the water dwellers of Jofa and even the insect people of Jugurta. It was an observation that did not escape Tar.
"Never seen off-worlders before, huh?"
"Not till today, sir," Peter studied the people as they passed by. "Until today, I've never seen anyone except my uncle."
Tar regarded this information with a nod but did not question Peter any further. They reached the berth where Tar docked his ship.
The Quandiara was an enormous ship. She occupied almost every inch of space within her berth. Its size awed Peter and followed Tar like a puppy following a child. The Quandiara's crew were conducting last-minute preparations before they departed from this world. They were coarse, tough-looking men who made Peter think of the pirates he used to read about in his adventure stories.
"Kellar," Tar called to a huge, burly man just as unshaven as the others, and smelled terrible too. When he approached, Peter took a cautious step back. "This is our new cabin boy," he introduced Peter. "Show him to his quarters."
He motioned Peter along, his grin revealing several rotting teeth. Peter glanced at Tar with apprehension in his eyes.
"Don't worry, Kellar ain't gonna hurt you. He always looks like he's in a nasty mood. Go on."
"All right, sir," Peter nodded and turned to follow the man, hesitating in his steps as they went up the rampway into the ship.
Once inside, the ship lost much of its grandeur. The interior of the Quandiara was dark and grimy, making Peter shiver as he followed Kellar. Their footsteps clanged hard against the metal floor.
"Where are we going?" Peter asked though he didn't expect Kellar to reply.
Surprisingly enough, the enormous man turned around and responded with a deep brittle voice. "Staryn, we have cargo to deliver."
As he said that, Kellar halted in front of a huge metal hatch on the floor. When he pulled it open, sound rushed up to greet Peter.
It was crying.
It took him but a second to realise the trap he was so led into, thanks to his extreme gullibility. He attempted to run, but Kellar was already expecting it. A massive arm shot out and grabbed Peter's neck with a vise-like grip. The struggle to break free was futile. Kellar was strong and not about to release his captain's latest acquisition.
Hauled off his feet, there was a moment of disorientation before Peter was falling through the mouth of the hatch. Falling into the darkness, Peter landed on the floor hard and heard the door slam shut above him. His nostrils flared as the fetid stench of sweat and feces bombarded him.
After his eyes adjusted themselves to the dim light, Peter understood his situation. Around him were the forlorn faces of the Quandiara's cargo.
Orphaned children who were slaves. Like he now was.