“Gran, we’re leaving.”
Bright eyes wrapped in wrinkles stared up at Freya. The lines carved in her jowls lifted for a moment, then Gran’s face fell.
“Freya, I can’t.” Gran’s watery eyes followed the wires monitoring her progress in the epithelial regeneration tank. After two hundred and forty six years, Gran’s body wasn’t recovering at the rate it once had. But this was 3479, malignant neoplasia no longer had to be a death sentence.
Freya sat on the edge of the tank and lifted Gran’s hand out of the viscous fluid, clutching it between her fingers. “Gran, I spoke with Dr. Maxwell. The trip was her idea.” She’d actually said the tank wasn’t working, which happened sometimes with the elderly. Gran had maybe two weeks before her organs failed. And, the doctor would look the other way if Freya wanted to sneak her off Excelsior Station so she could spend her last few weeks someplace special.
The doctor even arranged a portable tank to be delivered to the Kestrel. “Have her sleep in it,” she had suggested. “Every once in a while, something sparks their spirit, and the tank can do its job.”
This trip had to work. Freya couldn’t give her company the attention it needed when Gran’s life hung by a thread. “Gran, remember when I was a girl and you told me about Kigalia Reserve.”
“I always wanted to take you.” Gran’s eyes grew distant.
“Come with me now.”
With a scowl Gran yanked her hand underneath the gooey blue fluid. “We’d never get a permit. I’ve had my name in the lottery since you were born, but they only allow eighty thousand people into the wilderness each year. We never had a chance.”
“You were there for a year?”
Her face lit up. “I fixed transports and spent my leave exploring.” Gran lifted her hands and let the citrusy goo drain through her fingers. “Once, I climbed a pile of sand taller than a freighter-class hopper.” The sand dune story was one of Gran’s favorites. “It was soft and coated my skin as it slipped through my fingers, but not like this. The sand felt cool, and it was red.”
“I can take us there.”
Gran pursed her lips, her hard eyes boring into Freya. “Promise me we’ll land someplace with sand.” She peeled the monitor patch off of her chest and laid it on the side of the tank.
“I’ve found just the place.”
Freya had thought that convincing Gran to sneak out of the regeneration ward would be the hardest part of their late night adventure, but she had underestimated the difficulty of singlehandedly showering and dressing a frail old woman. Almost an hour passed, before she guided the air-chair carrying her Gran through the Kestrel’s main hatch.
“You’re late.” Gannon spun around in the pilot’s seat. “Zee can only block the launch sensors until 4am. We’re cutting it close.”
“I know how much you love a challenge.” Freya smirked and kissed him.
Gannon pushed her away, his eyes twinkling. “We don’t have time for that, wench.”
Freya forced the air-chair sideways into the narrow between Gannon and the bulkhead before plopping into the co-pilots seat. Facing sideways, Gran would have to turn her head to see the view screen, but she probably wouldn’t mind. She hadn’t spoken since they left the ward.
“Launch at 3:59.” Freya glanced at the clock as they pushed out of the hanger deck. “How fast can we get out of sensor range?”
Gannon pushed the Kestrel to full throttle, looping the gassy orange planet. “Even at maximum, a full five minutes.”
Their true origin point would contradict the permit. No one from the Confederation of M-Class Stations had won an entry permit for The Reserve in two hundred years. Gannon flipped the Kestrel around and spun up the FTL drive.
Gran gritted her teeth. Her skin had grown ashen since she left the tank. Freya adjusted the controls on the air-chair and Gran sank deeper into its supportive cushions.
“Her compensators are out of alignment,” Gran muttered. “I spent too many years as a freighter mechanic to not recognize that vibration. She’s growling at you, young man.”
“Only, when I push her beyond her specs, ma’am.”
“You always push her beyond her specs,” Freya muttered.
“Only when I’m avoiding a patrol.”
“So every day.” Freya raised an eyebrow at him.
Gannon kept his eyes on the controls, his broad grin only slightly hidden.
Gran’s breaths came in shallow gasps, but her eyes twinkled. “My Freya’s got herself a smuggler.” Her voice could barely be heard over the hum of the FTL.
“Only occasionally, ma’am.”
“Don’t call me ma’am.” The tips of Gran’s lips arched upwards. “My name is Merta.”
Her name? Gran liked him.
“Nice to meet you.” Gannon slid his finger across the synchronizer screen. “Freya told me you once rode the Star Dancer.”
Gran stared straight ahead. She never discussed her time with the planet finders.
The console’s beeping broke the silence. Stars reformed and a pearly blue sphere popped onto the view screen.
“Here we go.” Gannon punched a sequence of numbers through to the Reserve’s tower. “I called in a lot of favors to get these codes. Let’s see if Zee’s contact is as good as he says.”
The com unit sprang to life. “Welcome to Kigalia Intergalactic Planetary Reserve.” The gray-haired man on the holo-screen wore a round, felt hat with a brown band and a wide, flat brim. “Please transmit your landing codes and visitation permit.”
Minutes ticked by as the rangers processed their codes.
“Kestrel.” The ranger appeared again on the holo-screen. “Your docket’s dropped your origination data.”
Relief washed through Freya.
Gannon’s eyes widened. “Seriously.” He smacked the control panel. “Sorry about that. Kestrel’s an old ship; she glitches.” His fingers danced across the control screen. “Did you get them now?”
“That’s affirmative, Captain Hastings is it? From Getty Prime?”
Gannon smiled into the view screen. “Yup, that’s home.”
“I visited there once. Is the sky still that gorgeous aqua marine color, or did the terraforming ever turn it blue?”
Freya’s stomach dropped.
Gannon shot her a desperate glance as he pretended to adjust the perfectly tuned holo-screen. “Can you repeat that question, you’re cutting out.”
“Light teal,” Gran whispered.
Gannon froze, holding back a smirk as the ranger repeated his question.
“It ended up more of a light teal, but it’s the most amazing sky in the ‘verse.”
The ranger nodded. “Kestrel you are cleared for passage into Reserve airspace. You’re authorized for a single landing sequence, with lift off scheduled after three standard rotations.”
The moment the com blinked off, Freya let out a whoop. The codes worked.
Gannon flipped the ship towards the large northern continent. “Freya, are you sure about this? We’re only legal three days, after that they’ll confiscate our assets. You could lose your company.”
She glanced at Gran. “That’ll never happen. We’re not landing at the permit coordinates. After we shut down Kestrel’s engines, It’ll take months to find us, even with extraplanetary scans. Kigalia’s a big planet.”
Gran’s eyes fixated on the crisp blue sky and pristine forest filling the viewscreen, the grin on her face larger than Freya had ever seen it.
By the time they reached the wide beach at the bottom of the steep rocky gorge Freya had selected, Gran was fidgeting enough to unlock her air-chair. She had it halfway to the hatch before Gannon completed the landing sequence, forcing Freya to invent a pressurization issue to give the dust time to settle.
When the door opened, Gran escaped.
“Gran,” Freya shouted, chasing her onto the beach.
Gran steered her chair to the edge of the churning river.
Freya froze, awash in sensation. Her skin tingled as moving air brushed against it, smelling sweet with moisture and spices. The anticipated silence was filled with song. Insects and birds screamed their presence to the world. Empty blue sky stretched above the canyon walls. The sand shifted beneath her feet.
Freya dropped to the ground, her fingers sinking into soft sand. It was cool to the touch, the way Gran remembered. Freya had never truly believed her.
She had no idea how long the tickling grains entranced her before Gannon rested his hand on her back.
“You’ve never been planetside?”
She shook her head.
“Hell of a place to kiss the dirt.” He helped her back to her feet and walked her to the edge of the river. “I’ve never smelled sweeter air.”
Gran’s face glistened with tears. “Freya, help me out this chair, I want to touch the river.”
Gannon set her frail body on the bank, so her feet rested in the water.
“Gran, it’s as amazing as your stories. Did you really spend an entire year here?”
Gran nodded. They sat in silence until well after sunset.
Freya and Gannon slept on a tarp on the beach, night song lulling them to sleep. Gran slept in the portable regeneration tank. The next morning, her blood chemistry showed remarkable improvement. Leaning on Freya, she walked across the beach to the river towards the shelter Gannon erected and they spent the day wiggling their toes in the soft, cool sand.
“I could watch it for hours.” Freya stared at the river, sitting on the ground next to Gran.
Gran nodded. “It helps you forget.”
Freya jolted upright. It had been more than a day since she checked her company’s standings on the lists. She never ignored the lists. She sighed as the river sang to her. Why had she bothered?
On their third day, Gran walked the length of the beach. Freya held Gannon’s hand as they followed her. She loved him. Why should she care what other people thought about their relationship? Was the social position of her company really worth denying her feelings?
On their sixth day, Gran joined them on a hike to the canyon rim. They laughed and sang silly songs as they walked. That evening, Gannon moved the regeneration tank out of the ship so Gran could watch the moonlight flit across the canyon wall as she fell asleep.
On the tenth day, they danced on the beach, Gran as spry as Freya.
“We should go soon,” Gannon said. The campfire crackled at their feet, sending wisps of smoke into the clear night sky. “There’s only three more days of food. More than four and we’ll have to fire up the ship to power the regen tank.”
“Yeah.” She had always known they would eventually have to return to the station, that their respite would come to an end. Still, she didn’t want to face it.
Gran hugged her. “Never forget this. Hundreds of years from now, your time here will be more important to you than all the things you ever see, interstellar travel, miraculous nebulas, the birth of your children.
Remembering the peace you found here, will carry you through.”
Had remembering her time on Kigalia Reserve helped Gran survive the Founding Wars? Freya suspected it had.
The next afternoon, the rumble of engines echoed along the canyon walls.
“Gran, the rangers. We need to leave.” Freya shouted, tossing belongings into the ship.
Gran collected a pack from the airlock and walked to the edge of the river. “No.”
“We’ve exceeded our permit. They’ll take Gannon’s ship.” She grabbed Gran’s hand, tugging her towards the ship. “We’ve got to go.”
Gran tilted her head. “No dear. You’ve got to go.” Gran wrapped her arms around her, enveloping her in a tight embrace. “I died a long time before I ever got into that tank. But now that I remember what it means to be alive, I can’t go back. I’d rather only live a week here, than another hundred years on that station.”
She let Freya go and hugged Gannon. “Take care of her.”
“No,” Freya screamed.
“I will.” Gannon grabbed Freya shoulders, dragging her back to the ship.
Freya ran the view screen, resting her hand on the image of Gran’s face as she waved goodbye. In seconds, the beach grew too small to see. The river disappeared. Freya’s eyes filled with tears as they cleared the atmosphere and Gannon spun up the FTL. “I love you, Gran.”