by Joshua Colwell
Rieker dug around in an old pile of scrap, clawing his hands through interminable amounts of discarded metals until he found the exact piece he was looking for. The bolt was dirty. Grime from years of exposure was holding on for dear life as he wiped it clean on the front of his vest. The small transmitter gauntlet on the side of his wrist flashed a pulsing red light—a message from someone. Rieker pushed a few buttons and opened up the proper channel.
“There’s a dust storm headed your way. It’s about three miles away and moving fast. Better head home fast, tinman,” his sister said.
Tinman, the name all the other kids at the academy gave him years ago. He was always tinkering, building, and scrapping for parts in the junkyard. He didn’t remember who gave him the name, but for whatever reason it stuck—and Allie only called him that when she was serious.
“Gotcha. I’m done anyway; I’ll be there in thirty,” he said, still looking at the bolt in his hand. “Transmission ended.”
The light on the gauntlet shut down, receiving a signal from somewhere deep inside the circuit. He could see the storm Allie was talking about, it was crawling over the blood-stained desert, red from years of war and turmoil with outlying colonies. Times were hard on Javil-9, and no one knew that better than Rieker and Allie.
He stood up; putting all of his weight on his steel cane, then came to a full stand. His newly fashioned leg the Republic built for him was still not at full strength. The robotic leg was made of newly-crafted synthetic titanium; it was just as strong at half the price.
Rieker was out scavenging one day on the outskirts of Jorr, his home district, when he came across a large piece of Dark Metal. Dark Metal, being the rarest on the planet, was not something he could pass up. The piece was wedged between a hollowed-out shell of a space car and the trunk of the short-lived, and very useless, synthetic tree.
While trying to pry out the metal, the car collapsed on top of his leg, completely severing it. He barely had enough sense to send out a distress signal from his gauntlet before he lost consciousness. Allie told him it looked fine, that it was normal for people to have synthetic limbs and that it was nothing to be ashamed about.
Rieker knew better.
He limped over to his shuttle car, his titanium leg leaving a jagged line in the dirt where it slid. He still wasn’t used it. Limping around was hard; he oftentimes left a trail, as his body had still not fully accepted the leg as its own. He wondered if he would ever get used to lugging that hunk of metal around with him. It still ached when he walked, but the pain was worst when he had to stand. The meal cane he used provided little support, especially with the winds picking up as quickly as they were.
The swarm of dust was just peeking up over the farthest hill, the way small child might peek its head out from under a blanket. It was timid at first, but when it crested the hill it roared with such a thunderous cry that Rieker thought the entire universe might hear it.
He threw himself into the seat of his shuttlecar and fired up the engine. It puttered momentarily, and then howled to life in one brief instant. A high-pitched beep came from somewhere inside the engine. A bright yellow light flashed along the dashboard control. Rieker took his cane and slammed it on one of the panels.
“Damn check engine light,” he said to himself.
Rieker got home just before the storm. He sealed off all the windows and their door. The huge, two-foot thick hunk of metal was the only door to their cramped workshop area. Unfortunately for Reiker and Allie, this was home.
It wasn’t much, even for those on Javil-9. The small shop was originally where his father worked on his military projects. Rieker would stay up late and watch his father every night, pulling out every nugget of information he could. This was the only real time he and his father ever spent together. They only had one conversation while the two were down here together during all those nights, and Rieker couldn’t even remember it was about.
Allie spread herself out onto her cot. The material was starting to pour out the sides of it, but it was well enough to where she didn’t have to go scavenging for another. She was only thirteen, a few years younger than Rieker, but looked much older. Oftentimes he would look at her and for the briefest of seconds think it was his mother. But they both knew she wasn’t coming back, not after what happened.
“What do you want to eat?” she asked, curling up into a ball and pulling her knees into her chest.
“What do we have?”
“There’s not much. We ate most of it last night. There might still be some powdered chicken somewhere.”
Rieker limped over to the kitchen his father had built into the shop, still relying on his cane far more than they both knew he should. He fumbled through some of the old supply canisters but didn’t find anything.
“Looks like a lean week, Allie.”
Allie rolled over and positioned herself next to the wall. “Looks like a lean year,” she said as she fought back tears.
“Look,” Rieker said, as he shuffled toward her. “I know I’m not dad, and I’m certainly not mom; but I’m doing the best I can.”
“All you do is build that stupid machine all day. You’re never here, Rieker. You’re never here,” she said, still facing the wall.
He looked over at the machine, at his most important possession. It had taken him years to find all the necessary parts for it. He combed through dozens of scrap yards and put in countless hours, but it was all worth it. He had everything he needed.
“I found the last piece, Allie. I can finally get this thing running. I can finally get us help.”
“You’ve said that before.”
“This time I’m sure. This bolt is the exact fit I need.”
Allie pulled the blanket up over her shoulder. “Just leave me alone,” she said, her voice trailing off.
The dust storm crashed into the shop as the muted, dull boom was the only thing to fill the silence.
The slam of the door shutting woke Rieker. Curled up awkwardly, he rolled over and plopped onto the floor with a thud. The sound of his leg echoed through the shop.
“Allie?” he called out, only half-expecting a response.
His cane was a few feet away, well out of arms reach. It must have rolled over there when he fell off his bed.
“Allie? Allie, where are you?” he yelled louder this time. He stretched his arm out, twisted his shoulder every way to gain every inch he could, but it didn’t matter. He couldn’t get to the cane.
“Allie!” he shouted over and over. Tears fell down from the corners of his eyes; they cut trails through the dust that had caked onto his cheeks.
Rieker looked at his leg that cursed piece of machinery that he drug along with him everywhere he went. His leg throbbed. Phantom pains, the doctor called it. The doctor didn’t tell Rieker that when the pain worsened his body would literally shut down. Something about bio-mechanics that were built into the limbs, the body rejected them and wouldn’t respond the way they should. He said it would go away eventually, but eventually couldn’t come soon enough. It always ached when he was upset. It started at his “toes” and coiled itself all the way up like a snake until it got the where the bone met the metal. That’s where the burning started. Rieker could feel the heat from a blowtorch, a searing, burning feeling that made him want to lose the leg all over again.
“Allie, Allie!” he screamed from the top of his lungs, his voice carried like fire, scorching every last wall, surface and crack.
He grabbed at the leg with shaking hands and pulled on it. He pulled and scraped his fingers against the metal until they bled. He cursed under his breath; his face curled into odd shapes when he dug his fingernails into the cold concrete floor.
He wished he was dead.
But he knew that was only a dream, the reason he didn’t want to sleep at night. Dying felt too real. Slipping away quietly into the darkness was something he wished for. Maybe out into the deepest part of space, where the stars fell every night and no one was hungry and dying.
He wrapped his bloodied fingers and found the locks connecting the metal to the bolts that were implanted in his flesh. He slowly unhinged the locks around his leg, disconnecting the leg the way a dead fish’s head might severed from its body.
Slowly, he crawled over to the cane. Inch by inch he came closer. His bloody fingers slipped along the floor, working their way into every crack they could find. It was only a few inches out of his reach now; he could feel his heart pulse through his chest. His brow dripped sweat, leaving a trail across the shop. He could almost reach it now, almost…
His eyes adjusted to the fluorescent lighting around the room. He felt a cool, damp cloth being wiped over his forehead.
“Just calm down, tinman. You could have killed yourself.”
“Allie? Where am I?”
“You’re on the floor. I had to drag you back over to your leg. You’re good as new, though, and your cane is right beside you.”
Rieker felt around and wrapped his bandaged fingers around the cool metal.
“Thank you, Allie,” he got out, his voice felt like it was on fire.
“Drink this.” Allie propped up his head and gave him sips of water from a dirty bottle she found while scavenging.
The two didn’t move for a long while. Rieker lay in his sister’s arms, just like he did when he was with his mother. His mother would pick him up and sing to him, mostly sweet, foreign songs from distant worlds that sounded like honey. He couldn’t remember the words anymore, not even where they came from. All he remembered was his mother’s voice; the way she sang to him, rocked him in her arms and most of all, the way looked at him with so much love that he wasn’t afraid anymore.
He heart sunk.
Allie turned her head to side and brushed a few loose strands of hair away from her face. He saw something he hadn’t before; she had a bruise on her temple that wrapped itself around the bottom part of her eye.
“What happened to you?” He ran his hand over the purple mark that now looked like a ripe plum.
“It was nothing. I fell.” Allie turned her head away and absentmindedly wrung out the damp washcloth.
“Allie, talk to me,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper.
Allie stood up and walked over to her cot. She straightened the blanket and tried tucking in some of the stuffing from a newly formed hole in the side.
“Allie.” Rieker sat up and grabbed his cane, using it for support as he stood up. “Did someone do that to you?”
She just continued to tuck away at the stuffing. She started to cry, but it wasn’t the cry of a child. This was a cry of someone who had seen too much, who was tired, who wanted nothing more to curl up into a ball and never come out again.
Rieker limped over, even more so than usual, his leg still throbbing.
“Give me a name.”
“Give me a name, Allie.”
“Tep, junkyard Tep? He hit you?”
“He…he was going to…” her voice trailed off. She buried her face in her hands. “I got away though, that’s how I found you. I ran back here and locked the door.”
“You stay here, alright. You stay here and don’t open the door for anyone. I’m going to go find him.”
“Rieker, please, he’ll kill you.”
He got up and hobbled over to the tool chest. He sifted through several drawers until he found a large wrench used to snap bolts off of shuttle cars. He walked over the door and left without saying another word, the humming of his mother’s songs playing in the back of his mind.
The road to the junkyard was littered with so much discarded waste one could almost say it was an extension of the yard itself. Rusted-out space cars and small shuttle cruisers jutted out of the ground like tombstones. They were a constant reminder of what this planet was. If you hadn’t lived there your whole life you might not remember what if used to look like, back before it all went to hell.
Rieker got to the junkyard just as the sun was at its peak. The road was hot and dry and the air he took in almost burned his lungs. Tep was walking around the entrance, rifle slung over his shoulder. Tep saw Rieker coming from a distance, and moved the rifle from his shoulder to his hands.
“Thought I heard you scraping your way out here,” Tep said, spitting into the ground.
Tep was bastard. He was a filthy rotten bastard that would take anything from anyone if he thought it would make him money. He was several years older than Rieker was, and the difference in size showed. He was more than a head taller than Rieker, and his lean muscles bulged out of his tight blue jumpsuit.
Tep just smiled at him with his stupid, toothy grin.
“Allie came home with a pretty bad bruise yesterday. Said it happened here. You know anything about it?”
Tep scratched his patchy facial hair and spit again.
“Nope, don’t even remember seein’ her around here. It can be pretty dangerous when you’re out here alone,” he said, tightening the grip on his rifle. “Especially if you’re lookin’ for trouble.”
Rieker took a few steps forward; they were now a foot away from each other.
“Did you do that to Allie?” Rieker asked, the grip on his wrench tightened.
“What if I did? You think you’re gonna do somethin’ with that wrench?” he said, nodding to his hand, “If somethin’ did happen to poor Allie it was because she had a smart mouth—just like her mother, and she got what she deserved, didn’t she?”
Rieker took a step forward and swung the wrench into Tep’s ribcage. Tep’s ribs cracked and he fell to a knee, gasping for breath. Rieker swung again, but missed, thrown off by the heaviness of the wrench and the pain in his leg. Tep leaped forward and tackled him into the dirt. He took the butt of his rifle and smashed into Rieker’s face, breaking his nose and knocking out several teeth.
Tep stood over him; the strong breeze blew sand into Rieker’s eyes. He tried to cover them, but it already felt like bits of glass were cutting at them.
“You ever come back here again, I’ll kill you. I don’t give a damn how old you or your sister are.”
Tep spit in Rieker’s face and picked the wrench up off the ground.
“This here’s mine now.”
The only thing Rieker could see through his bloodied, blurred vision the silhouette of the biggest bastard he ever met.
The walk back home took longer; his injuries prevented him from walking at any kind of pace. His leg ached even more now, dragging scars through the dirt. His cane could barely keep him up, and his eyelids were heavy and the sun was starting to set. It would be dark soon, and no one wanted to be out after dark. No one.
Allie was standing by the door when Rieker arrived home. Her eyes were filled with worry, the kind only a younger sister could know, the kind that makes you think twice about ever doing something like that again.
She hurried him inside and screamed things that one might expect to hear from a younger sister during a time like this. She got hot water and a cloth to wipe him off not because she wanted to, but because if she didn’t he would probably get an infection and neither of them had the money to go to the medical ward. The insurance they got from their parents was used up on Rieker’s leg, and the government had seized the Dark Metal Rieker had found last year .They had nothing left, they were dried up like the desert sands.
Rieker just laid there; barely aware of what she was saying, but could tell by her tone she wasn’t happy.
“You’re just like dad.” Rieker laughed as he spit up a little blood.
“What did you say?” Allie turned to him, fire burning in her eyes.
“Dad was the same way when he was angry. Paced around just like you and everything.”
Allie put her hand to her mouth and held back a muffled cry.
“Don’t you ever compare me him. You think Dad would have bandaged you up like I did? You think Dad would have sat up with you every night because you were in too much pain to go to sleep? Do you think Dad…” Her voice trailed off.
Rieker looked to the floor. He knew she was right. She would never have done what their father did. Most people wouldn’t. The old man always did have a screw loose.
Rieker’s face lit up. Rieker dug around in the bottom of his pocket and pulled out the bolt. This was the missing piece. This would get him and Allie off the planet for good.
“I’m sorry, Allie, but I have to get to work. We’ll talk more in the morning,” Rieker said as he stood up. His head throbbed; his leg felt like it was going to fall off. The spaces in his mouth where he lost his teeth were beginning to swell.
“Rieker, are you serious?” Allie stood there, hands out in the air. “Fine, do what you have to. Just don’t bother me if you fall again.”
That was the last thing Allie said to him for the rest of the night.
Rieker got straight to work. His hands weren’t as steady as they normally were, but the suit was almost finished. He turned the cold, steel bolt back and forth in his hands. This was the last piece he needed to complete the suit. By putting the bolt in through the rear console panel he would be able to stabilize the part of the suit that powered the “re-entry shield.” This was crucial when re-entering the atmosphere, otherwise you would burn up in a matter of seconds.
He took a drill and tightened the bolt into place. He tugged on the panel a few times to make certain it was secure, and then pressed in the activation code on his gauntlet.
The machine came to life. In one brief moment the room was filled with light. Rieker’s eyes tears up and his hands shook against his sides. It wasn’t the prettiest of things; the colors were mismatched and the left arm was noticeably bigger than the right. But it worked, and that was all that mattered in that moment.
“Allie, do you see this?”
Allie didn’t respond, she just pulled the blanket up over her head and continued to face the wall.
Rieker got up into the cockpit. The controls felt foreign to him. He cautiously slid his arms into place first, fitting his fingers into the gauntlets. Then he slid his leg down into the boot, he heard the sound of the hinges locking together. His mechanical leg was sealed where the metal met the bone, making sure to keep all the oxygen in. The wide glass helmet closed over his head, and the torso closed around his body, sealing off the outside world.
Numbers and letters scrolled down in front of his eye. The V.I. interface rang in.
“Power levels at 100 percent,” the robotic voice said.
He took one last look at Allie, who was still covered in her blanket. He wanted to tell her so many things. He wanted her to know how much he looked like their mother, how grateful he was to have her around, but most of all; he wanted her to know that what happened wasn’t her fault.
The sky was deep and black. He gazed up at the stars, the same stars he and Allie used to watch during the warm nights when the wind didn’t howl and he had two good legs. They used to give them names, as though they were people who watched over them. Rieker and Allie knew they would come back every night to see them off to sleep. Those memories were almost as far away as the stars themselves, lost in part of Rieker that would never come back.
He was going to be one of those stars tonight.
The thrusters lit up and shot him off into the sky. The machine rattled at first, but Rieker adjusted a few calculations and balanced it out. Everything was as it should be. A trail of smoke bled out into the night, coiling and making vicious patterns that filled the horizon.
Rieker passed over several of the old, dilapidated buildings that dotted the landscape. One by one he took note in his mind that he would never see these homes again, nor the people that he rarely, if ever, had any sort of contact with. Rieker lips curled up into the biggest smile he had in quite some time.
He saw Tep lying on top of a rusted-out space cruiser. His body was sprawled out and his hat rested over his face. Rieker landed a few feet in front of the car, startling Tep.
“Hey, Tep,” Reiker said as he raised his large mechanical arm. He picked up the wrench and pointed it toward Tep. “This here’s mine.” With one quick movement Rieker was on top of Tep, the wrench buried in his skull.
“Computer, set a course for the nearest planet,” Rieker said, his voice echoed inside of his helmet.
“Computing results. Sensors indicate nearest planet will take 5 hours, 57 minutes to reach. Power levels at 99 percent.”
The stars looked like Rieker imagined, but it was still a shock to him. Their bright, entrancing shapes wove an intricate dance, shining light on all the planets he could see far off in the distance. Those were planets people like Rieker and Allie would probably never see, he thought. He wondered which of those worlds produced the songs his mother sang to him.
Rieker’s eyes shined like black pearls as he soaked in the vastness of it all. All his vitals were good, and the V.I calculated he would arrive in less than ten minutes.
“Power levels at 15 percent.”
“Good, that’s just enough to get me through the atmosphere,” he thought.
“My sensors indicate a malfunction in the hardware. Rear Quarter Panel is overheating. Must eject to preserve power.”
“No! If you eject the quarter panel I’ll fry up, I’ll never make it!”
“Power level 10 percent.”
Rieker scrambled and started putting different configurations into his gauntlet.
“Damn this thing,” he grumbled under his breath.
“Power level at 5 percent. Sensors indicate probability of surviving impact is 0.003 percent.”
Rieker’s eyes welled up. He felt his skin getting hot, sweat poured off his face and his visor fogged. His breathing became forced and heavy as each breath was harder than the last. He clawed at the chest plate with his metal gauntlets. A piece from the shoulder guard broke off and flew out into the distance. The stars seemed so close now. He reached out to grab one, as if it were just within reach.
“Power level at 1 percent. Probability of survival is…”
The machine shut down. Rieker picked up speed as he descended. More of the arm guard broke away, and the wiring started to burn and caught fire. He thought it smelled like honey.
Rieker watched helplessly as more and more parts began to break away. He looked back out into the distance, back toward Javil-9. He wondered if Allie was awake, and if she was, could she see her brother burning up into the atmosphere, like nothing more than a falling star.
Far below, down on the surface, two children sat on the roof of their house and watched the night sky as galaxies swirled mysteriously above them. One boy held a model space cruiser as his brother made the sound of its thrusters with pursed lips. They looked up to see something crashing out of the sky right into their yard. The boys jumped down and ran over to the crater left in the ground. The scent of burning metal filled the air. They saw the silhouette of a person deep inside the hole, and a visor open up.
Josh Colwell is a senior at YSU, where he studies Professional and Technical writing. He currently works as a Submissions Editor for Apex Magazine and has been published in more than a dozen magazines.