Zak woke with a start, sweat beading his forehead. He might have screamed but he couldn’t be sure. Some people were looking at him as if he might have. He ignored their stares and reached for the small woven rope that encircled his wrist, as if to reassure himself it still existed. Goose bumps rippled his arm and neck as he shivered despite the crush of human bodies around him. Almost every inch of the cold metal floor was occupied by men, women, and children. Families huddled close while strangers eyed each other from across the room. He ignored them all and tried to find sleep again.
The small blanket was barely enough to cover his body, but along with the bracelet it was all he had left, except for maybe his dreams. Sleep was the one place he could escape, and in those dreams he was back home, a small town in Iowa with his family. They had been lucky, most of the war hadn’t touched their part of the world. The big cities like New York and Chicago had felt the brunt of the destruction, but not their small rural community. No, for them it was more about the drought.
He still remembered when his father had announced that they couldn’t stay. “Earth is dying. The powerful and the demagogues are fighting over what’s left and it’s people like us who are going to get caught in between,” said his father to his mother when he didn’t think Zak was listening. “I know this guy from the dockyards. He says there’s a ship leaving and we can get on it.”
“Leave Earth?” Zak’s mother began to cry. She tried to hide it like she did some times, but Zak knew. He always knew when his mother cried. “Where will we go?”
“The ship is bound for the Laan Consortium. Once we get into their space they have to take us. It’s their code or something, at least that’s what some of the guys were saying.” He put a comforting hand on his sobbing wife’s shoulder. “It’ll be okay. We can start a new life there, a new home.”
“But this is our home. I grew up here. I thought Zak would…” The tears cut short her words.
At the mention of his name their son ducked behind the corner before they noticed him, but not before he heard his father say “Maybe we can come back someday, once the war is over and the famine…”
That little house seemed so far away now. He tried to find sleep again, but it wouldn’t come. Zak’s eyes slid to the media players that were mounted on the walls beyond the energy shield, which separated the humans from the rest of the spaceport. The video feed itself was in Standard Laanish, but the media player translated it into all spoken languages including Terran English. Two creatures, one a dark hairy muscular beast and the other a hairless smooth pale creature with giant eyes sat talking as footage played in the background.
“These humans are scum,” said big eyes. “Their planet is a mess of war and pollution, and now they expect to come here? We don’t want their burden or their problems. We have enough of our own.”
“They are a sentient species, like every person in the Consortium,” said his hairy opponent.
“No, not at all like us. They are primitive and savage. They can’t even stop from killing one another, and now they are bringing their violence here. There are billions of them on that planet. Do you expect us to accept every single one?”
“There are plenty of worlds in the consortium that have already opened their doors to these poor creatures…”
“And look what happened to them. Look at the violence taking place in F’rag’hul’ja? Thirty Consortium citizens are dead because a few humans decided to build a bomb. Why? Because their god told them to?”
“Those were human extremists. Most of them were let into the Consortium on temporary passes. There was only one asylum seeker among them.”
“Isn’t one enough? Even if less than 1% of humans are criminals, isn’t that enough reason to condemn them all, especially if it keeps our people safe. They don’t deserve to come here and just take opportunities away from citizens of this Consortium. We built our worlds, and we can’t let savages like them tear them down.”
“You can’t judge all human on the actions of a few.
“They are either criminals or will be criminals. They can’t help it. Look at human history, look at their world. They can’t control themselves, they are all killers and deviants. They don’t even celebrate Shad’lat or speak Laanish, like any decent sentient being…” Zak had heard enough. When he turned his head away the sound automatically stopped .
He realized he was playing with his bracelet again, feeling every bump and scratch of the coarse braid against his skin.The colors were fading and the small strands of rope were fraying from time and wear, but it still held together. If only barely, in some spots. He moved his hand away for fear of stressing it more and walked toward the energy fence that encircled the small human enclave.
Running a dry tongue over cracked lips he held out his hands and uttered the Graakic word for water. It had been a while since his last drink, but two soldiers beyond the fence just growled something to one another in their guttural language before cackling in what he recognized as laughter. Then the lizard creatures walked away, never once looking back at him or his outstretched hands.
“I don’t think they’re going to help you, boy,” said a kindly older man sitting near the perimeter of the energy field.
“What did they say?” said Zak.
The man hesitated for a moment but translated. “Something about how we all smell so bad of dirt and piss that they could smell it even through the fence.” He shook his head and spoke into his chest. “Why did I ever leave Earth?”
No one had meant to land on Graak, a small planetoid on the outskirts of the Laan Consortium. They had always meant to keep going to Trimble IV or even Deshdo where humans were being welcomed, like the promised land. It hadn’t worked out. Their ship had never been very space worthy to begin with, and in the end it just couldn’t take the journey. They had spent two weeks adrift in the void before a Laan patrol had found them.
The first time Zak saw the ship that his father had called the SS Alban, all he could think of was how gray it looked. It wasn’t like some of the cool looking military craft he had seen a few times, or even like one of the luxury spaceships that only the rich people could afford. No, the Alban was slate gray, as if it was still waiting to be painted something more exciting. It also wasn’t very big.
He was told the ship had been designed to hold fourteen people. They packed in twenty-seven and two babies. There had barely been a place to sit, let alone lie down. Even worse, the journey was slow. The FTL engine only did about .8 past the speed of light, and they felt every bump and whine as the Alban cruised through warped space.
More than a few people got sick from the motion of the trip, including Zak. He remembered retching up his small meals of bread and water. That was when his mother had made him the bracelet. She put it together from different pieces of rope and string she had collected from others on the Alban. He could still remember watching her as she wove each piece together, humming softly, a small smile turning up her lips.
“What if I don’t get better?” he had asked her as she tied the token around his wrist.
“Sometimes, you just need to have hope.” She kissed him on his head and it was true. Days later he recovered. It had only ever been nausea and space sickness. Unfortunately, others were not so lucky.
Zak and his family were fortunate enough to be closer to the front of the Alban. A few in the rear compartments had gotten very sick from a radiation leak in the engine. The crew eventually managed to fix it, but not before three people, including one of the infants died of FTL poisoning. The bodies had to be ejected into space, not just because of the radiation, but also because the ship had no place to store them. They had held what little ceremony they could for the dead, but it didn’t feel like enough, at least not to Zak.
Every fews day after those deaths his mother would take back his bracelet and add another strand of some piece of string or cloth that she collected from the ship. Maybe it was her way of reminding him that he was alive and every new moment should be cherished. Maybe it was her way of saying how they were all connected; they lived interwoven, like the braids on the bracelet; or maybe she just did it to keep busy, a way to keep her mind off the tragedies they had all witnessed. Unfortunately, the Alban was not done with tragedies.
Three weeks into the journey a small electrical fire broke out in one of the cargo compartments that housed some of the passengers. The doors on the ship sealed automatically and the people inside were trapped. Those that didn’t burn were killed by oxygen starvation. Five people died in a matter of minutes, including his mother. She had been in the compartment chatting with one of their old neighbors, possibly trying to get more strands to add to the bracelet. He was never certain. All he knew was that she would never see Earth again, dead or alive. As before, all the bodies had to be ejected into space. The Alban limped on, and so did Zak.
He could remember the sound when the engines finally died. He had thought they had already crossed into Consortium space, but he found out later that they were barely on the border. The FTL had been slowly growing fainter for more than two weeks, their speed ebbing away like a tired old man losing his fight against time. When the engines stopped completely all he had heard was quiet. It was like there was something missing, a familiar hum in the background that they had all grown accustomed to. It was like a mother’s touch, you never really noticed it till it was gone, and afterwards the world seem much lonelier and crueler.
That had been almost a year before. Zak was thirteen now, his birthday had come and gone, at least he thought it had. It was hard to keep track of the time of the year on a planetoid with a thirty-one hour day and only three quarters gravity. Everything was so alien, so different. He had grown up in the tundras of the American Midwest with wide expanses and fresh air. Now he was being held in the corner of a spaceport where the air was staler than the bowls of pudding-like substance they gave them to eat. It all happened while other beings, hundreds of thousands of light years away, debated if he and his people deserved the right to be free and happy, as if debating whether they were animals or people.
A small girl, with three eyes and a pretty face smiled at Zak from the distant side of the energy fence. He smiled back at her and she started to walk toward him before a restraining hand grabbed her and yanked her away. Her mother or father -Zak couldn’t really tell- was pulling her along and scolding her in a flute-like language. She looked back at him once more, this time in shock and with a new hint of fear. He couldn’t understand what her parent was saying but he had heard similar things enough times to make an educated guess. Fear and suspicion were higher than ever, especially after the attacks on F’rag’hul’ja. Everyone was on nerves and no one seemed to need look far for reasons to hate humans.
In the first camp they brought him to, Zak had met another boy, Peter. He had seemed nice enough, but pretty soon he started talking about everything he wanted to do to the people of the Laan Consortium. “Abominations against God,” he had called them and started reciting all these Bible verses. “It is the duty of humans to exterminate any creature that was not created in God’s image. The aliens of Laan are an affront to Jesus Christ.”
Zak didn’t see much of Peter again after that. There were never a lot of human extremists, but you found them here and there. Mostly it was just talk, old men venting about how it was in a world that they no longer walked on. His father had made sure to keep his son clear of people like that, but sometimes it was inevitable, and sometimes it was more than just talk. Sometimes it was far worse than just talk.
A Graakic month after they arrived a few humans attacked a Graak humanitarian worker. There was a fight and the Graak died along with one of the humans. It was Peter. Most people just shook their head and said how sad it was, or that Peter had been a hothead and he got what he deserved. Most of the people he knew in the camp felt bad over what had happened. “That’s no way for a human to behave,” said Mr. Glenrose. “That’s no way to repay the hospitality of these people.”
Unfortunately, the Graak weren’t satisfied with the remorse of humans, or maybe they didn’t believe it. A group of armed and angry Graakic citizen attacked the camp. They burned down tents and the make-shift barrack houses. They beat anyone they found near to death, calling them all “dirtlings,” and yelling how humans should go home. Mr. Glenrose and four other people died in the attack, and hundreds more were badly injured, including Zak’s father.
He had stood up to some of the Graak when they came, protecting his son. Zak could still remember his screams as they kicked him and beat him with clubs, but he refused to move. He refused to leave his son at the mercy of the mob. After that they took him to a hospital somewhere, but that was the last Zak saw of him. A few weeks later they transferred all the humans to different camps, and no Graak, Desh, Trim, or any alien who spoke Terran seemed to be able to tell him what had happened to his only parent.
He looked again at the fading braid on his wrist. The night of the attacks it had been nearly torn off, but it had held. Zak examined the bracelet and picked at the fraying ends of the weaker parts. It was as if he could not stop digging at it, like touching at a raw nerve in hope or disbelief. His memories were like that too. Sometimes, no matter how much he tried not to, he found himself seeing his mother’s body; hearing the cries of his father; or feeling the raw gut pain that came when he thought of the poor baby that did not make it to Graak. Part of him wanted to forget, but part of him also wanted to know why it was all happening to them. So he picked at his memories, at his pain, and at the small memento that sat on his arm.
“We are receiving word now,” said the blue-skinned newscaster on the media player, “that because of the attacks on F’rag’hul’ja,” the Consortium council has been forced to deport several hundred refugees back to Earth, for their own safety.” The video changed to show footage of attacks on human aid centers all across the Consortium. Fires burned and people of all types were fighting with fists, weapons, claws, and tentacles. “Officials have told us that those being moved are currently in the highest risk zones for anti-migrant violence. This decision also comes after the leaders of many worlds have begun openly refusing to accept any humans, saying that they pose too high of a risk to their native populations.”
A mummer went up from the people around Zak as more and more people were suddenly paying attention to the news feed.
“Humans in detention centers on parts of F’rag’hul’ja, Rangul, and Yulide are already being put onto ships for the return trip to their own homeworld of Earth. Consortium officials believed it was best to keep this secret for fear of further reprisals against the human migrants as they were transported to launch sites.” The video feed changed again to show lines of humans with armed guards surrounding them. Men, women, and children shuffled forward as they were loaded back onto waiting ships that seemed no sturdier than the Alban.
“That’s a death sentence,” said the older gentleman sitting beside him. “Half the warring factions on Earth will shoot any approaching ship out of orbit, and the other half will take them hostage to try and use as leverage.”
Zak just looked at him and twisted his braid nervously on his wrist, before returning his attention back to the distant media player. That was when he saw it. One of the shuffling figures. His shoulders were back and his head was down. He looked at the camera only once, but that was enough. It was enough for Zak to recognize his own father. He looked older and thinner than his son could remember. It was as if something had broken inside of him, as if he no longer cared.
“The Consortium Council is still trying to decide what they will do with the rest of the humans still currently being held in temporary detention centers, but more deportations could be expected. Experts are trying to determine how much of a threat the humans are to the the security of Laan and its member worlds. There is also a debate among many people of the Consortium of how deserving these creatures are of the same rights as every citizen of Laan, with many polls showing that a majority of Laan now believe that humans are less than sentient.
Zak felt the tension release before he heard the final snap. When he looked down his mother’s bracelet was in his hand. One of the ends had finally broken under his nervous tugging. Part of him wanted to cry, but the rest of his body didn’t have enough water to allow it to happen. So he just stood there, watching the live feed as the ship holding his father blasted off into the dark violet skies of some alien world. The camera held for a second longer as the fast moving ship disappeared from sight, leaving only a small trail of smoke behind it.
In 75% Earth’s gravity the braided rope took longer to find the floor than Zak would have anticipated. He closed his hand around the nothingness that replaced it and watched the bracelet for a long moment, debating whether to pick it up again. Maybe it could be fixed. Maybe it could be made whole again. Instead, he just stepped over it and walked away finding that someone had already stolen his blanket. So he just laid down on the cold floor shivering, feeling suddenly less than who he had been, maybe even less than he would ever be again.