Gravity calmed Niya’s stomach. It wasn’t the same. Not as safe and familiar as home. But at least there was a “down.”
He stayed in his seat as other immigrants unbuckled their harnesses and stood. The man across from him moved into the aisle. He immediately lost his balance and started toppling backward. Niya reached out and steadied him before he tipped too far.
The man blushed, but his face was rigid. “Thanks,” he mumbled with a thick accent Niya didn’t recognize.
“Many logs cut before calluses gained.”
The man looked at him oddly, and then turned away.
“Perfect example. That’s the kind of cack you need to leave earthside.”
Niya turned to the woman sitting next to him. “You don’t use… idioms?” Niya wanted to congratulate himself for remembering that word.
“Everyone’s got slang, but home-country slang? That’s a good way to write ‘noob’ on your face.”
Perhaps, he had his own calluses to gain.
“If you want to take a few to acclimate to the lunar gravity, that’s cool, but I’m gonna slip out.”
Niya stood, clinging to the seat in front of him for balance. She got out behind him and moved down the aisle, dodging past people clumsily gathering their belongings. He hoped he could regain a fraction of that grace as he dropped himself back into his seat. He himself had nothing to gather. At fifteen hundred songi per kilogram of payload, the little bottle in his pocket was all his siblings could afford to send with him.
In another minute, he felt his vertigo had subsided enough to attempt standing. He locked his fingers on the headrest in front of him and took a step. He started to tip to the left, but corrected himself. He took another step. The hard, jointed, electromagnetic shoes felt surprisingly natural. It was the low gravity that made it feel like he was about to fall over at every moment. Still, he made it down the aisle without faceplanting, and that was a victory.
He followed the stream of immigrants into the dock, his hand on a railing that ran along the wall. A woman with two dark stripes running down the left arm of her pale gray exoskin directed them to the left. A peacekeeper, if he remembered the briefing correctly. He kept hold of the glass stanchions that steered the crowd into an airlock. Another peacekeeper was waving them onto a shuttle bus. Niya took a deep breath, let go of the glass, and crossed without support the few meters to the buggy-like vehicle.
The shuttle door slid closed behind the last of them. There was a buzz of excitement as they waited to leave the dock. Niya’s heart wanted to jump and sink at the same time. He closed his eyes.
Peace. Give me peace.
When the shuttle started moving, he opened his eyes.
In a few seconds they rolled out of the airlock. Niya — along with every other passenger — stared through the domed glass ceiling of the shuttle at the immaculate view of the Milky Way. Others soon turned their attention to the buildings going by, but Niya didn’t take his eyes off of the skyscape.
Look up at the sky and count the stars — if indeed you can count them.
They crossed a thoroughfare, and sunlight warmed the side of his face. He chuckled at the strange feeling he got being able to see stars in daylight. His view of them was interrupted periodically by skyways that crossed from building to building overhead. Still he continued to meditate on the countless points of light beyond the rooftops.
He only looked away when the shuttle pulled into an airlock at their destination. The door opened again. Everyone filed off of the shuttle and through an open sliding door into the hospital. They were directed down a hallway to a waiting room.
There was a TV on in an upper corner of the room. Niya sat facing away from it, back to back with several people who were already seated. He wasn’t paying much attention to the newscaster until he heard the name of his home country. Niya spun in his seat, watching the screen between the heads of the people sitting in front of him.
“… were neutralized, and the researchers within the lab have been taken to a secure location for questioning. A biohazard team has secured the building. They have not released an official statement about what has been found. However, some intelligence indicates that the facility may contain virus samples as dangerous as smallpox.”
Niya swallowed hard. Was his family safe?
The newscaster continued. “Several high-ranking Nakari government officials have been connected to the funding of these research activities. The President of Nakaristan claims that he was unaware…”
Niya cursed under his breath. Why did his country keep betraying its citizens?
One of the people in front of him glanced over her shoulder. Seeing his bearded face only centimeters from her own, she leapt out of her seat. The man sitting next to her looked around quickly. His eyes locked on Niya’s and narrowed in suspicion. He stood as well, taking the woman’s hand.
Niya stood, intending to apologize to them. They shied away from him as he rose from his chair, as did several others in nearby seats. The couple moved to the far side of the waiting room.
Niya wanted to drop to his knees right there to pray, but he guessed that it would only make the situation worse. He bit his lip and sat, head down, hands in his lap. He flinched each time the TV announcer spoke words that connected evil intended by people from his country with him. But what made his ears burn were those words that implicated his faith. His was not one of violence, but peace. At every moment, he had to stop himself from getting up and turning the TV off.
A peacekeeper stepped into the waiting room.
“Niya Perisov,” he said.
Niya got up. Niya’s face flushed as all eyes shifted onto him.
“Come with me, Mr. Perisov.”
He took a step. His felt he was losing his balance again, and he hesitated.
“Let’s go, Mr. Perisov.”
There was a collective sigh from the waiting room as the peacekeeper’s fingers dug into his arm. The peacekeeper escorted him to an examination room.
“Put that on.” The peacekeeper pointed to a hospital gown lying on the bed.
Niya picked it up, waiting a moment for his chaperone to leave.
The peacekeeper closed the door, staying inside.
He sat on the edge of the bed for balance as he pulled off his shirt and tied the gown on. Then he took off his shoes and pants. He folded the shirt and pants and placed them beside him on the bed. The peacekeeper immediately picked them up.
“Have caution,” Niya warned. “There is a bottle in the pocket of the pants.”
The peacekeeper quickly dug through the folded pants and found it. He shoved it into a hip pack he wore directly over his exoskin. A taser and pistol also hung from the waist band.
“Where are you taking them?”
“The bottle. It is just nard. It is a oil. A… perfume.”
The peacekeeper shrugged. “Where are the rest of your things?”
“I have no rest of my things. The bottle only.”
“This is all you brought.” It was more an accusation than a question.
“I could not pay for more.”
The peacekeeper eyed him, but didn’t object. “I need all of the clothes you brought with you.”
“For testing?” Niya asked as he stripped off his socks and underwear. He stood and handed them over.
“I need the shoes, too.”
Niya picked them up off the floor. “They gave them to me at launch.”
“You’ll get another pair when you get your exoskin.”
Niya handed them over, and the peacekeeper turned toward the door.
“Will I get the exoskin now?”
The peacekeeper just laughed, opening the door.
He felt lightheaded again, but this time he didn’t try to stay upright. He dropped to his knees on the steel floor, eyes closed. He heard the door shut and lock as the peacekeeper left him. He prayed.
It must have been an hour when he finally got to his feet, shaking from the cold of kneeling on the bare metal for so long in only the hospital gown. How long were they going to keep him here?
He reached up and felt his beard. When he did get his exoskin, he’d have to cut it short enough to fit in the helmet. There was a sink at the back of the room. He crossed to it, bouncing to the ceiling without the electromagnetic shoes to keep his feet on the floor. He tried the cabinets below. Locked. The cabinets above were unlocked. He said a prayer of thanks as his eyes landed on a box of safety razors inside.
He pulled one out and wetted it in the sink. He held it up, trying to still his shivering. Unnaturally large drops of water broke free of the razor and splashed into the sink and onto the counter. He ran the fingers of his other hand through his beard, an image of the couple’s scared and suspicious faces running through his mind.
Short would not be good enough.
He took a deep breath, and started taking the beard off down to the skin. As the pieces of hair came off, he threw them into the trashcan next to the sink. They drifted to the bottom reluctantly in the low gravity.
When he finished shaving, he went and sat on the bed. The room was cold in only the hospital gown. He pulled his knees up to his chest. How long ago had the peacekeeper left? There was no sense of the passage of time. What was going to happen to him? And what about his family? With the biohazard laboratory found near his hometown, were they safe? He felt his nerves rising, so he slipped off the bed and knelt on the floor again to pray.
After a time, his jaw began to shake from the cold. He got up off the floor and laid on the bare vinyl surface of the bed, curled into a ball. He rubbed his feet to warm them.
He woke with a start when the peacekeeper returned. The woman who entered with him was a peacekeeper as well, and the officer seemed to look at her as the ranking authority in the room.
Niya tried not to show his embarrassment at being in her presence in only a hospital gown.
“I’m Alpha Lyden, head of Peacekeeping. You are from Nakaristan, correct?”
“Is that not why I am here?”
Alpha Lyden looked at him.
“Yes, I am.”
“What brings you to the Colony?”
He hesitated. “Opportunity. There are not many jobs for doctorates in Nakaristan.”
She looked closely at him, and a muffled voice spoke in her helmet. “You’re not telling me everything.”
Niya squirmed under her gaze. At all times, but especially since leaving his country, he was an ambassador for his family, his culture, and most of all his faith. He chose his words carefully. “I also want to live in the Colony because it is… prestigious. The people on earth, they look at the people here as examples. I want to be a good one.”
There was a pause as Alpha Lyden weighed his response. She nodded. “And you accepted a position with the power division of the Infrastructure Department?”
“I’m afraid your appointment has been cancelled.”
He pursed his lips. “What does that mean?”
“You’re going home, Mr. Perisov.”
His heart sunk. He could not go back. Not now. Not after his brothers had foregone their own education to send him through university. Not after eight years of twelve-hour days to become a leading expert in wireless power distribution. Not after his sisters had spent all they could spare to send with him that tiny bottle of nard. They had given everything for him — even spending what could have bought their way out of the city they knew harbored violent men — to get him here.
“I cannot go home.” Niya said. “People are scared, because of the news. I understand if I cannot work in the Infrastructure Department. Can I work another place?”
Alpha Lyden shook her head. “Even if there were an opening for you, you simply represent too much risk.” She turned toward the door.
“I am also scared of the bad people in my country, in my city. My family is still there. I am scared for them, too.” This oversimplified the situation, but he couldn’t explain to her his other motivations.
“Why didn’t you cite that as a reason for coming to the Colony in the first place?”
His heart sunk. She disbelieved that his fear was genuine. “I… I could have fled to many places, but I came here. Maybe I came to the Colony for esteem, but I left my country for fear. Do not send me back. Please.”
“I’m sorry,” Lyden said over her shoulder. “There’s nothing I can do.”
She left the room followed by the peacekeeper. A nurse stepped in and laid on the bed a clear plastic bag containing his clothes and the bottle of nard. Then he stepped out again and closed the door behind him.
Niya stumbled to the bed, pulling out the nard. He unscrewed the lid and inhaled the strong scent.
His father was kneeling in front of him, holding a bottle like this, the scent of nard filling the room. His father poured just a drop of the oil onto his head and rubbed it into his hair, scalp, and forehead. He looked intently into Niya’s eyes, and shared his prophetic dream. That Niya, the youngest among his brothers and sisters, would go to live in a shining city, and become a great man, a champion and ambassador for their faith. His family had rallied behind this vision. It was this dream that had propelled him here.
Shivers racked Niya’s body as he crumpled to the cold metal floor. His clothes were up on the bed. He could have stood up and put them on. But his family — his father — he had let them down.
The door of the hospital room opened, and Alpha Lyden entered again carrying a tablet. Niya hurriedly wiped tears from his face.
“I’ve been authorized to grant you asylum, as a refugee.”
“I… Thank you!” he said, bowing a little. He forced back a new wave of tears.
“There are conditions to maintaining refugee status.” She handed the tablet over to him. On it was a long document. “First and foremost, you will not be allowed contact with anyone from a list of sanctioned countries, Nakaristan included.”
“I can talk to my family, yes?”
She shook her head.
Niya hesitated. Could he manage that? He swallowed hard. “What else?”
“In order to ensure that you abide by the first condition, we retain the right to maintain and review transcripts from all of your digital communications.”
If he could live with the first, he could live with the second. If anything, this condition would show him to be above reproach in every regard, and thus win respect for himself and his faith.
“Finally, you will not be allowed to work in the Infrastructure Department or in any capacity that would allow you access to privileged information that could be used to harm the Colony in any way.”
“What jobs can I do?”
“Primarily skilled labor and customer service.”
He sighed. He was here, in the Colony. So close to all that he and his family had been working toward.
“Can I ever be a citizen?”
“The Board intends to draw up a process for naturalization of refugees, but since you’re currently the only one, I wouldn’t hold your breath.”
Niya also couldn’t count on his country getting off of the sanctioned list. He cursed silently. But he was still young. Sooner or later, he would prove to them how useful he could be, and he would get his job in Infrastructure. If it took the Board eight years to get around to it, he could wait.
He scrolled to the bottom of the document on the tablet and signed with his finger. He handed it back to Alpha Lyden.
“Welcome to the moon, Mr. Perisov.”
Read the next chapter: Lyden