MOKU by Louisa Brann
I sit and wait by the door of my room. My escort will be here soon, and although I don’t want to go, I wish the leaving part was over. I look around at the place I have slept in since I was eight years old and try not to cry. I hear my parents through the wall to my right, my mother sobbing into my father’s shoulder, she thinks it’s unfair, there must be some mistake; my father is trying to control his thoughts, to hide his grief. It is the first day of my fifteenth lunar year, the year of the Moku: my coming of age. It is not how they imagined it.
I shouldn’t be able to hear them. I don’t want to. I move to the other side of my room, but it doesn’t make any difference. I wish I could go and comfort them, let them know I am okay, but the Governor’s rules are very clear. As a precaution we said our goodbyes last night before they went to their sleeping quarters. The orders are to leave everything, but I wear my mother’s gold ring pinned and hidden under my collar. She pressed it into my hands as she left, when I didn’t believe for a moment it mattered.
‘I don’t know why you’re worrying, mum. Mutation is a one in ten thousand chance. One in ten thousand. Nothing’s going to happen.’
‘Just in case, Ashira….’
She framed my face with her hands, as if to capture my image in her mind’s eye forever. It made me nervous.
‘My lovely girl, you are so beautiful. If the worst happens, promise me, please, that you won’t struggle like Kistran’s boy. I can’t bear the thought of you ending up in the Black Zone like he did.’
‘Better the Black Zone than locked up in a Sensa-tower.’
My mother let her hands waft downwards then, to grasp mine, and looked at me with pleading eyes. I relented.
‘Okay, I’ll do what they say. But you really shouldn’t worry so much. I’ll see you in the morning.’
Except when I woke, I knew even before the message had a chance to climb into my consciousness, that something was different. And then the voice appeared, a young boy’s toneless words tapping at my skull, telling me to report for duty at planet-rise, followed by the Governor herself offering congratulations on my new military grade status. There is no point in fighting it. Against all odds I have suffered a Moku-mutation. I will be housed in a Sensa-tower on the military base moon of Luna-5. Most likely, the conversation I had with my mother last night will be my last.
Strapped into a window seat of the transfer shuttle, I concentrate on keeping my emotions in check. I don’t want to show any weakness, not now, when escorts surround me and the shuttle is filled with soldiers on their way to the base. No one speaks, but the cacophony of voices attacking my mind is agonising. I am desperate to block it out, but anything I try seems to make it worse. I try to keep my head out of my hands despite the crushing noise that pulses from my eyes, my ears, from everywhere and nowhere. My body clutches and tenses and I feel sick from the effort of keeping still and sane, of keeping my promise to my mother.
My home moon of Cardea shrinks from view as we rise, and shoots away from us as if it has been tossed into space by some giant’s hand. I say a quiet goodbye and before my eyes can blur and give me away, I turn my attention to the view outside my window. I have never been into deep space before. As we carve our way through the night sky it soothes me, and the invasion of noise attacking my head dims a little as I begin to calm down.
I look to my left, and catch sight of huge wafts of gas whirling in pink fury around the giant planet of Scartan. It looks different from up here, violent and relentless in the dark – a far cry from the quiet crimson disc I barely notice at home. As we move closer I glimpse what I think are fuel ships darting back and forth, battling the frothy wisps of poisoned cloud to collect the precious H-gas in their giant hulls. I knew a reaper – that’s what they call the pilots – he was a friend of my father’s. He often ate at our table, and I remember I asked him, once, where he went when he was not with us.
‘I’m a reaper, Ashira,’ he replied.
I had never heard of such a thing. I was very young, but I felt the heaviness of his answer weigh on him like the great tomes of knowledge we sometimes studied in school.
‘What’s a reaper, Toscan?’
He glanced at my father, for his permission to tell me, I suppose. My father gave a nod.
‘Every year, before Old Solstice, a thousand or so reapers like me take our ships to dance with Scartan. We fill our tanks with gas, like royal bellies at a hunter’s feast, to keep the Governor happy and our families fed.’
‘Is it dangerous?’
‘It is an intricate dance we do, Ashira, and it brings us great favour from the Governor if we succeed. But Scartan is unforgiving, and our ships are getting old. Until there is peace and we can trade again there is no way to replace them. Cardea, Melaina – all the Scartan moons and their people depend on the fuel we harvest.’
My father leans in and speaks in a hushed voice. ‘Then let us hope we are freed before the Governor’s love of her own power plunges us all into darkness.’
The surviving fuel ships are tiny, but visible, glinting against the black void of space. There are eighty of them now, and the darkness my father spoke of is falling fast over Cardea, leaving hollow cheeks and dull spirits in its wake. As the memory of their words mingles with the thoughts of the soldiers sitting around me, I think of Toscan and my father, and realise with horror that I am being sent to defend the very person I wish to fight.
We begin our descent towards Luna-5. The drag tunnel weaves upwards like a serpent from the surface and the pilot steers our ship until we are sucked in, and down to dock outside the oppressive station base. My escorts release my harness and I am marched outside. A warm wind whips my hair into a swirling mass of white, like images I have seen of vapour clouds on our neighbouring moon of Melaina. There are no clouds here. Scartan hangs low and dull on the horizon and the sun is nowhere to be seen, hidden behind a foggy mask of sickly yellow sky. The air is hot and sand rises in miniature tornadoes from the bare ground under my feet. Beyond the base, I can see dunes of dust rising in majestic silhouettes across the horizon. From my escort’s thoughts I know that my destination lies unseen beyond the grainy ridge.
A battered and bruised hoverskit pulls up and I climb into the passenger pod. The driver positions a helmet over my head and its aluminium lining gives me the mental respite I have been praying for. The choir of voices are gone and my body sags in relief. The driver throws a black kitbag by my feet and sets off, rising and sinking on the hot air that ruptures from the ground beneath. I slump back in my seat, exhausted.
Later, when Scartan has set and the sun is not far behind, we reach a greener belt of land, bush and scrub making way to fields of pale grass. I can see the towers now too: grey hulks planted on stick legs, crouched like bugs across the base of the barren mountains spread before us. There are forty, maybe fifty of them staggered across the foothills. A fine sweat of panic creeps over me as I realise the true extent of my isolation.
The hoverskit sinks to a standstill outside a tower on the outer edge of the group. I take this as my cue to alight, and grab my bag. I remove my helmet as another escort appears. I hear her cool clipped tones slicing through the silence of my mind. Her words are kind, but emotionless, like the boy’s. How can someone think with no feeling? Is she even human? I stop, remembering that maybe she is like me, and can hear me too.
‘Welcome, Ashira. Please make yourself comfortable. You will have some time to familiarise yourself with your quarters before training begins at planet rise tomorrow. Please proceed.’
She motions me to stand on a platform at the foot of the tower, and I look up to my new home. I feel dizzy and stop to steady myself, before gasping in surprise as walls shoot up from the platform perimeter. A transparent door unpeels from behind my head and slides down, sealing me inside.
‘Wait a minute, I just wanted to ask if my parents – ’ I put my hands to the door of the rising lift, but it’s too late. The escort is far below me before I have chance to finish my question. My mother and father would have been taken by now, to ensure they are compliant and will continue operating as good Cardean citizens in my absence. My mother is weak and I worry that my father will be angry. I hope they do not suffer.
The lift stops and the door opens. I am released into the tower room. I turn and watch as the wall seals shut, leaving no trace of a crack, no hope of escape. I put down my bag and helmet and look around.
A window wraps the room and a reclining, revolving chair sits near the centre. Mounted over the chair is an adjustable arm housing a holoscreen, and a pair of sensaphones. I turn away and see my sleeping quarters are to the right. Twelve hours on, twelve hours off and a shift change every lunar month. I notice a terminal by the bed; for entertainment purposes, I assume. Further round the room is a small sub-pod for bathing, and beyond that a food station and wastepod. Three hundred and sixty degrees complete. I turn back to the chair and see a green light blinking on the holoscreen. Time to get acquainted.