Mars shot by so quickly I barely noticed it. I thought for a moment I had shaken off the pursuit but, looking behind me, I saw their leading lights closing in fast. Drawing up energy again, I sped towards the asteroid that was crossing my path. It was unfamiliar – nothing more than a tumbling lump of basalt about the size of a small mountain. I squeezed into a fissure on its dark side, the dead stone rough and cold beneath my hands.
There were one or two other rocks floating in the vicinity and I saw my pursuers flitting amongst them. A little further still, Ceres, the largest asteroid in the belt, was moving slowly across Jupiter’s glow. Its familiar contours reminded me of the times my grandfather had taken me there. It’s strange to name a dwarf planet after the Roman harvest goddess but, as we watched Mars rising and the faint sunlight picking out the ice forests, it made sense.
When the coast seemed clear, I emerged cautiously from my cave. But they were waiting. Dark shapes rose around me and a sharp blow to the back of my skull sent the stars wheeling.
My head throbbed, as if in the grip of an angry giant. Crawling forwards, I encountered the bars of energy that sealed my cage and was thrown back with a jolt to lie retching on the asteroid’s cold surface. I saw one of my captors keeping watch on a ridge; her tall thin figure was silhouetted against the stars, the crest running down her back marking her out as a middle-rank detachment commander. She seemed impatient and I could guess why – they’d been hunting me for months.
Ceres had already set and Jupiter was only just visible above the horizon. I remembered training there with my grandfather: that thrill of diving into its swirling outer mantle, the exhilarating sucking gravity, the moment of terror when you feel you are about to be crushed, the skill (hard to master) of holding your nerve as you pass just beyond pain before the subtle change of trajectory that accelerates you out and away again at ten times your original speed. “Riding the sling-shot” they used to call it.
My guard’s shape stiffened as bright lights appeared above the ridge. She waved her hand and the prison ship eased itself down close by.
My fellow prisoner glanced up at me from her corner of the holding cell, her eyes dark and impenetrable, her skin bone-white under the flickering arc lamp. The prison ship’s hull shuddered beneath us.
“So how long were you running?” she asked in a faintly mocking tone. When I told her, she laughed. “Poor boy! You don’t know where to hide.”
I began a retort but she waved it aside. “Don’t be so sensitive. I’m sure you did your best.”
“What about you?” I asked and the laughter left her, as if a cloud had passed over.
“I’ve been hiding so long, they’ve forgotten they’re looking for me,” she murmured. When I asked how she was caught, she shrugged. “I don’t belong here – this close to the sun. I should never have come in.”
“They’ll be taking us home, to Earth…” I began, but then noticed that she was smiling again.
“I’ve got other plans.” She made a slight movement of her hand and there was a flash of blinding white light. When I recovered my eyesight, most of the floor was a gaping hole.
“Hurry up!” she called, climbing through. The ship hissed and crumpled behind us. No one survived.
Of all the places my grandfather took me, Rhea was the most beautiful – the distant sun setting, Saturn’s disc filling half the sky, its warm sandy colors reflecting off the ice fields. I longed to see it again and it seemed the obvious place to make for after our narrow escape from the prison ship. But I should have stayed well away. I certainly should never have brought her there.
She called herself Lily – not her true name I’m sure, but appropriate enough as she was indeed as pale as that flower of the valley and every bit as poisonous. Her eyes were deadliest of all; looking into them it was almost impossible not follow her to the world’s end. But all of this I only realised when it was too late.
As we landed on Rhea, the folk there welcomed us warmly enough. Some of the older ones remembered me from my grandfather’s days. But thinking back, I should have paid more attention to their troubled expressions when Lily flew in behind me. With the younger ones it was different – in their eyes you could see them preparing for war, readying themselves to die for any old worthless cause.
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