His Narrow CageBy Red Leopard
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She pushed the floatchair out toward the green, away from the open hatch of
the shuttle, manoeuvring it around the broken concrete outcroppings, remnants
of the long abandoned building. She didn't bother locking the transport. It
was unlikely there was anyone still surviving here. The Federation had put a
scorched earth policy into practice before it had abandoned the planet. Not
enough to kill every living plant, but enough to kill every occupant they
could find, and take the land back to subsistance level. So many dead for a
piece of wasted earth no one wanted anymore. There was so little interest in
it that there wasn't even any control on who could land here.|
The sound of a songbird drifted up from behind her.
"Why don't you shut that damn thing up?"
To call or not to call.
"I'll do it in the morning."
It was an old argument, holding no meaning for either of them. Beside the Finch, habit was their only other friend on this long journey, comforting and warm.
There wasn't much effort required to finding the entrance. It was overgrown with a pink flowering weed, but right where the map told them it should be. She left Soolin to hover in her chair, while she cleared their way, then she made two trips down the shaft. Once to check the surface below was free from rubble, and once more to awkwardly tug the floatchair down the shaft with her as she descended. When they reached the floor, Soolin hit a switch on her chair, illuminating the area around them. As expected, 35 years of neglect had left the place in ruins. The thought pleased her.
They took several wrong turns, and some that were blocked by fallen walls or the roots of trees, before they found their target. The large chamber was damp, dripping with rust stained water, or maybe it was blood being washed off the walls. Dayna wouldn't have been surprised. Soolin swept the beam round, searching for something long gone; bodies maybe, ghosts most certainly. Whatever she needed to find here, she appeared satisfied. Eventually a grim nod indicated to Dayna that it was time to leave. Dayna took one last glance before setting back the way they had come.
It was late, and they were both tired, so by mutual unstated agreement they stayed planet bound for the night. Dayna finished checking the shuttle's logs, noting that their next hop would have to be short. They were running out of fuel again. She dimmed the lights in the cockpit to save energy, before heading over to Soolin, who sat staring at nothing in particular in the mirror.
The silver hairbrush felt cool and heavy in Dayna's hand. She had no idea where her friend had found it, and she was still, after all these years, a little afraid to ask. She had a feeling the original owner had not parted willingly with such an ornate antique. She undid the clasps that held up Soolin's hair, and gently began to stroke. Pig bristles susurrated through coarse grey hair, its pale length contrasting with her own, now age marked, hands. There was a time when she had not thought either of them would know what it was to be old, but she had long since learned that life took you in many unexpected directions, and usually you couldn't do anything to control the vector. Best then, just to let yourself embrace the change. She wasn't so sure that Soolin had ever come to terms with that, with not being in control.
"Where do you want to go next?" she asked.
"I don't know."
Dayna paused in mid stroke. For years now, it had been Soolin who set the pace, Soolin who decided the next place to go. Dayna didn't argue often, and it hadn't taken her long to figure it out: They were visiting all Soolin's old haunts, the places she hadn't let go of, or that hadn't let go of her. It made sense though, now that she thought about it, that Gauda Prime had been the last on the list. She had been waiting for it to come up, but hadn't let herself think about what else that might mean.
A jerk of Soolin's head told her that her client was getting impatient, so she resumed brushing.
"We could go to Panacea?"
"Sit rotting in five star luxury retirement suites surrounded by other decadent prunes?"
"It has a certain appeal."
"To you maybe."
Dayna continued brushing, and Soolin continued staring at nothing. Dayna wondered how many years they had spent doing this, if you counted up the hours. The first time, she had had to wash Vila's splattered brains out of the hair first. With both arms broken and bleeding, her face bruised beyond recognition, rancid in week old clothes leaching the smell of sweat, adrenalin, and fear, Soolin's first priority on their escape from the Federation, had still been her hair. Dayna smiled at the memory. It had taken her some time to understand that the one constant in Soolin's life had been her hair. To think of all that time Servalan had wasted on pointless scheming. All the torture the Federation could provide had done nothing to break her will. If they had only gone after the hair, the outcome would have been very different.
The bird began singing again.
"Why don't you shut that thing up?"
"I will in the morning."
Dayna finished plaiting Soolin's hair. Nothing fancy, but at least it would be able to be slept on. Yawning, she stretched, and then pulled out the blankets and pillow, tucking them in round the floatchair, which Soolin had flattened out into a bed. She flicked the lights out round the mirror, and then headed to her own bunk. It was a while before she slept.
Sunlight pouring through the portal woke her from vague nightmares of her dead comrades being throttled by the roots of underground plants. She sat groggily on the edge of the bunk, trying to shake the bone deep fear that came with bad dreams. Eventually, her heart rate settled enough that she could stagger through to the bathing room and splash some cold water on her face. She blinked and shook her head at the untidy reflection in the mirror.
"Up, up and away!" she called out as she headed to the cockpit. She was so engrossed in the pre-flight check that it took a while to register there had been no reply. Probably time to have coffee before they left, she figured. Wake them both up a bit.
The nut scented steam nearly scalded her arm as she juggled both mugs and the controls for the bulkhead door. She set the coffee down on the vanity desk, and then placed a hand on Soolin's ice cold shoulder to wake her up.
Dayna blinked. For the longest moment she felt unable to move; pinned down by gravity. Then she reached up and closed Soolin's eyes.
The floatchair had been easier to navigate this time, as if the lost weight of Soolin's soul was somehow a calculatable part of the momentum. When she reached the chamber where their friends had been shot down, she stood looking at the body for a while. She had a notion that maybe she should say something, hold some ceremony, but there was no one there but the two of them, and one of them wouldn't care, so she kept her silence. It seemed a fitting tribute to a life spent mostly on the run. She wondered what else she could do to mark the occasion. Soolin was already made up and dressed, as if she had gotten ready for the day, then remembered it was pointless and given up. Dayna eyed the long grey strands, still tight in their plait. With some difficulty, she pushed the stiff head around. Soolin can't have been dead too long, or the rigour mortis would have passed. She pulled out the bands that held the hair in place, and arranged it so the locks were spilling out over the edge of the bed, and finally repositioned the head. In death, the hair could be freed from constraint. She stood back to eye her handiwork. When the chill of the place began to creep into her clothes, she pulled the blanket up over her dead friend, and walked away, leaving the light on the palette to slowly run down as the chair itself ran out of life.
She could hear the sounds of the finch again. It was a persistent creature, singing no matter what happened. That was partly why she had bought it.
"Why don't you shut that thing up?"
She paused as she passed the plexiplass cage, then picked it up and took it outside. She set the cage down on one the concrete foundations, and opened the door.
"Go on then" she encouraged it. "Plenty of open space out here."
The Finch hopped out. She watched it jump round on the concrete a bit, waiting for it to fly off. It shook its wings, but seemed disinclined to go further.
It would probably die out here, she realised. There wasn't much on this planet to feed an exotic earth songbird. But at least it would be free. She waved her hand to scare it away, but it just hopped round her and back into the cage. She looked at it for a moment and it looked back at her. Then it sang again.
She sighed, closed the cage and took it back into the shuttle.
She was halfway through repeating the pre-flight check when it occurred to her that she didn't know where she was going.
For the first time in her life she was her own pilot, steering her own course. She could go anywhere she wanted, and she had no idea where that might be. It had been much easier to survive with some help. Less lonely too.
She looked back at the cage.
"Smart bird" she muttered, then hit the boosters and headed to the nearest planet listed as a fuel stop.
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