Austin’s Playground – Summer 2565
“Take a good long look at the planet. You’ll never see it from space again,” came the pilot’s voice from the speakers in each corner of the shuttle’s passenger deck.
Aben sunk further into the contoured seat until the safety harness cut into his waist and crotch. He shifted to relieve the discomfort, keeping his eyes from the view of Austin’s Playground provided by the transparent dome of the shuttle. But still he couldn’t block the growing blue and white ball from his vision. It looked so like Earth which glowed bright through the agricultural bio-dome on Luna — Earth’s large moon. He’d always wanted to go to Earth, but this was not Earth.
He closed his eyes. He didn’t want to see it. He didn’t want to go there. He didn’t want to be trapped on a watery world whose scant land masses supported the greatest bio-engineered nightmare ever designed — Hansell’s Dragon.
Aben glanced at his mother. Her face was animated with excitement, and she bent her blonde head to his six year old sister, pointing up through the dome to the planet, now blocking out all the blackness of space. “There’s our new home, Mia. Isn’t it beautiful?”
Aben gritted his teeth to keep from protesting. Sure the place looked good from space. But reality would soon disillusion his sister. From the start his parents had tried to make it all a big adventure for her, but Aben had no such illusions. This planet was a prison, and his parents had chosen to take him and his sister with them to prison. There would be no pilot’s school or commission with the Planetary Protection Corps now. If he’d just been a year older, he might have been able to convince someone to allow him to work his way through the Corps’ Military Academy. But now he’d be stuck forever on this backward world with man eating dragons, because he’d just turned fifteen instead of sixteen.
He didn’t look at his step-father, Frank Little, sitting on the other side of his sister. Aben knew it was his fault although his mother claimed they had both decided to give lower grade stones and a lower quality gold in their jewelry than their customers paid for. And they both claimed it was for them — him and his sister, so that they could have a brighter future, so they could go to college on Earth or at Centauri Research University.
But that would never happen now. Now he was stuck here. The man across the aisle watched him sympathetically. They’d spoken once in the guard station’s cafeteria, and he’d listened to Aben’s frustration. Aben managed a weak smile. Maybe they’d get to live near that man. He was young, and although the planet was reportedly to keep the families of non-violent criminals together, this man had joined them in the Centauri Star System with no family. Aben wished he knew his name.
When they landed though, each person grabbed their pack with all their belongings, and the families filed off the shuttle into bright sunlight, as bright as the sunlight coming through the agricultural dome back home. When his eyes adjusted he noted the fence surrounding the shuttle’s landing field. His stepfather touched his shoulder to get him to follow the other families through the building. They didn’t stop inside the dark building, but rather gathered on the other side.
“Horses!” his sister squealed. “Look at all the horses!”
“And smell all their waste.” Aben wrinkled his nose as the sun baked the new droppings of the horses waiting to draw wagons. Other horses carrying riders or pulling small carts, trucks or open wagons rattled by on the road. He saw one man with a small cart shoveling up the street waste and glanced at Frank. That was a convict’s job if he ever saw one. He wished Frank had gotten that job, but according to the paper they’d received on the orbiting guard station they were going to a farm in New Haven.
Aben watched his friend from the cafeteria walk away from the group, ignoring the men calling out from their wagons. “Ride to your new home? Ten silver.”
Aben took a few steps after his friend, but his stepfather’s hand was again on his shoulder. “We wait over here. This is Capitol. We’re going to New Haven. We have a ways to go yet.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Three days later they were finally huddled out of their small room as the sun rose. “Rise and shine,” his mother said cheerfully. “Today we head out for our new home.”
They gathered with fourteen other families and walked to the edge of the city with a guide. A wagon rumbled before them, but his mother explained that they’d only bought two seats, so they’d have to take turns riding and walking. “Besides we need to toughen up before we get to our new homes.”
They stopped at a large inverted pit. The guide stood at the front of the wagon. “Note the execution pit. We don’t shuffle criminals off to another planet here. You try any of your old ways, you’ll be thrown in the pit until the dragons eat you. We don’t tolerate thieves.” He sat down and slapped the reins on the back of the horse.
Aben felt the chill down his sweat-drenched back as he gave his parents a quick sideways glance. They’d talked about eventually opening another jewelry shop after their seven year probation. Would they tempt death as they’d tempted exile back home? But in seven years, he’d be almost twenty-two and his little sister… she’d only be thirteen. She’d need him. He wondered if they executed children with the parents, and he felt his body shiver. He tried to stop it, to think of something else.
He kept his gaze on the brick paved road until it became rutted dirt. Another group joined them, and they continued northeast as the sun rose bright and hot. Only a breeze, stronger than any created by the wind turbines in Luna’s domes, gave him any relief. The houses and buildings had given way to trees and shrubs on both sides of the road, trees taller than anything he had seen in Luna’s parks. Occasionally they passed a farm house and fields with crops. Birds flew overhead, bright blues and oranges reflecting off their wings.
“Look at the pretty grey horse!” his sister said. She was riding on the wagon with their mother, while Aben and his stepfather walked beside it.
“Yes. It’s a pretty grey.”
Aben shifted his pack on his shoulder and rolled his eyes. He wondered when Mia would get tired of pointing out every horse they saw. Although once she’d pointed out a horse, and it turned out to be a huge winged elk or moose — a wingdeer, a condescending native had told them, a rare and expensive animal. She’d also been the first to spot the little flying cats — the kittle. But they’d had kittles and cats on Luna. Aben glanced where his sister pointed, just in case she’d spied something as interesting as the wingdeer.
His friend from the cafeteria sat astride the grey horse. Aben waved. The man waved back, his short sandy brown hair disheveled in the wind.
Aben jogged to catch up with him. “Stay with the group,” he heard his stepfather caution.
The man dismounted and led his horse when Aben approached. “How’s it going so far?” he asked in that quiet, sympathetic voice which had caused Aben to unload his frustration back in the cafeteria of the orbiting guard station.
Aben shrugged. “Nice horse. I didn’t know we could get one of these.”
“You might not. I have a friend who’s been here for a few years.”
“Oh. Are you going to New Haven?”
“Nope. Just Alexandria.”
Aben kicked a mid-sized stone as hard as he could. It shot up and hit a man twenty feet ahead of them on the back of his thigh. He whirled around. “Keep your son in line, Mister.”
“Won’t happen again,” Aben’s friend said, and then grinned when the man ahead of them faced forward and continued walking. “It won’t, will it?”
“Wish I was your son.”
The man laughed again. “I was probably ten when you were born… or rather nine.”
Aben couldn’t help responding with a smile. “I do wish you were coming. I could use a friend.”
He placed his hand on Aben’s shoulder in that sympathetic way and his smile left. “Wish I could help you, Ben.”
“What’s your name? Maybe we’ll see each other again.”
His mouth lifted at the corner. “Maybe. I’m Michael Jamel.”
“Where’s your family?”
“Left me at Frontier Base 28.”
Aben opened his mouth to protest, but then hesitated. Frontier Base 28 was the last stop before the guard station, and Aben was sure he saw him board weeks before with no family. But he wouldn’t challenge him. It wasn’t worth it. He wished it didn’t sting so much though. He’d told the man all his troubles, and here he lied to him. He probably even lied about his name.
Aben jogged back to his stepfather and avoided looking toward Michael Jamel and his dappled grey horse even when they stopped for the noon meal and then for the evening meal and a room for the night. He hated this place, and he had no friends.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The next morning Aben could hardly move, stiff from walking and carrying his pack. When he had complained about the weight yesterday, his stepfather had unsympathetically suggested that he leave some of his belongings behind.
“Why can’t I leave it on the wagon sometimes?”
“It belongs with you. Your sister and mother need those wagon seats.”
After breakfast, Aben lifted his pack to rest on his left shoulder and began walking beside the wagon. They stopped briefly for lunch, and then as Aben trudged along, he fell behind. Not too far behind, as he wasn’t going to be alone for those dragons to pick off, but his legs, back and butt ached, and he wished for relief.
The sound of hooves coming up behind him startled him. Then he saw Michael’s grey horse. Michael swung out of the saddle. “Want to hook your pack to the horse for a while? You look sore.”
“Why? So you can steal it?”
Michael smiled. “You’re right about that. My friend told me we need to watch our packs with our lives. But I promise I won’t steal it.”
“Yeah. Like I believe a liar like you. You had no family when you joined us at CentiOne. They didn’t leave you at Frontier Base 28.”
Michael shrugged as they continued walking. “You’re right. I lied. I’m sorry. It happened that way to a friend of mine though.”
“The friend you got the horse from?”
“The friend I stayed with for a couple days.” He reached for Aben’s pack, and Aben let him take it. All he had were clothes, blankets, and several spacecraft manuals. Security had taken his book on how to actually pilot shuttles. The books he had left were of pictures and dimensions of the different spacecraft currently designed for commercial, private, and military use. He’d had all the information on a hand held computer, but when they disallowed that, he was able to purchase the four books for the price the guards had given him for his computer. Now he had three books — three heavy books that he would not give up.
Michael hooked the pack to his horse’s saddle, and they kept walking.
“So what’d you do?” Aben finally asked.
“Don’t ask if you don’t want lies.”
Aben rolled his eyes again.
“Look, Ben, I’m sorry,” Michael whispered. “All I can do is be your friend until we reach Alexandria, and then I’ll probably never see you again. Do you want a friend or not?”
Aben took a deep breath. He did like Michael. And his back was finally starting to unkink a little now that the weight of his pack had been lifted from it. “Sure.”
He spent the rest of the day and all of the next with Michael, even eating with him. Michael told him not to call the planet Austin’s Playground. Most citizens called it Aussie. They talked about the wingdeer. “Maybe someday you’ll be able to buy one,” Michael said. “You may still get into the air.”
“It’s not the same as being a pilot.”
“No. It’s not.”
They also talked about the dragons that they’d been briefed about back on the guard station. They fed at night, and they were the biggest cause of death. “But they’re beautiful,” Michael said. “Never saw such a beautiful creature.”
Aben remembered the image of the glistening bronze beast. Up to thirty feet long, the woman had said. And all Aben could think of was flying on the back of it. “Think they can be tamed?”
Michael shook his head. “Don’t kill yourself. I’m sure someone would have succeeded before now if they could.”
When they stopped for lunch on the last day, Aben asked, “What’d you do before? Or what did you want to do? Or won’t you tell me.”
Michael shrugged. “Worked in artificial intelligence. Don’t really know that I wanted to do anything in particular.”
“You programmed nanochips?”
“Yeah. And did some engineering work before that. My father is a warp drive engineer.”
“Oh, man. There’s none of that here. You must be dying to give it up.”
Michael gripped Aben’s shoulder briefly. Then he smiled and opened the smaller of his two packs, the one he always removed from his horse Twilight. He pulled out a flexible portfolio and handed it to Aben. “I’m going to be an artist,” he said with a grin.
Surprised Aben glanced through the pictures without speaking. Michael could paint. When he looked up, Michael was sketching. The guide called back that they were moving on. Michael kept sketching. “We’ll catch up,” he mumbled. The others walked past them, until everyone was moving. Michael handed the picture to Aben. “It’s not much, but….” he shrugged.
Aben smiled, as he saw himself astride one of the huge wingdeer. Tiny trees and houses lined the bottom edge of the paper.
“If I had time, I’d paint it for you.”
“This is great.” He knew Michael was trying to give him hope — something to look forward to. He stood to pull his largest book from his pack so that he could place the picture between the pages for safe keeping.
Michael grabbed his own pack, stuffing his artwork into the bag. It didn’t fit easily, and when he closed the bag and stood, a small object fell to the ground.
Aben grabbed the black plastic rectangle. “You have a computer!” he whispered.
Michael whirled back toward him and grabbed the computer from his hands, quickly glancing toward the group which was moving away from them. Then he gazed into Aben’s eyes.
Aben waited, unsure of the panic he sensed in Michael’s manner. Then Michael relaxed a bit. “You won’t tell anyone, will you?” He pulled a gold badge from his front shirt pocket. Below a star were the words “Executive Sheriff”. “I’m actually a spy. The government hired me to find any illegal technology. My friend warned me this badge could get me killed, though.”
“I won’t tell,” Aben promised.
They began walking again, trailing after the group. “Take me with you. Please. All I’m going to do there is farm work. I don’t even know anything about a farm.”
“I’m sorry, Ben. I know nothing about what I’m doing either. I could be killed. You’ll be safer with your parents.”
“He’s not my parent. I told you that. He’s Mia’s dad.”
Michael gripped his shoulder again. “I don’t know what I can do, Ben, but if I don’t die here, I promise to petition to get some of the restrictions lifted, and maybe someday you’ll be able to leave. Just try to stay out of trouble here, or you’ll never have a chance to plead your case.”
And then they were in Alexandria. Michael handed him his pack, climbed on Twilight’s back and was gone.
Go to Chapter 2
© 2013, 2000 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.