Excerpt: Desert Journey

Kynn waved goodbye to the pilot of the small spacecraft, turned to regard his new home, and smiled. The first thing he noticed was the lack of noise—no din of thousands of conversations, no background hum of enormous ElectroBoxes, no sirens. The main sound was the low rumble of the spaceship’s engine, and soon even that would be gone.

He thought of Calixto, and his smile took a wry turn. His ex would take one look at this place and try to scramble back onto the ship.

Cal had ended up leaving him, in the end, because of Kynn’s penchant for inspecting planets like this. “If you’d act even a little interested in that promotion, you could get it,” he’d insisted. “Work in a nice office. Give other people assignments to these backward worlds instead of traveling yourself.”

When Kynn had declined his advice, Cal had decided that he wasn’t ambitious enough, that they “didn’t share the same life goals”, and had broken things off. Kynn felt like he should have been more heartbroken at that, but instead it had just felt like ripping off a band-aid: quickly taking care of something that both of them had known was coming.

Even if he’d shared his ex’s sentiments about new colonies, the assignment was only for three weeks. And for a good part of that time he’d be with Mireille. Kynn hadn’t seen his little sister in almost ten years; he’d be fine with staying in a sewer if it meant they could talk face-to-face again.

Still, it was a culture shock, albeit an appreciated one. He hadn’t been expecting the fine restaurants and expansive theaters of Base 17, but the brochures had made this place seem like a bustling city. Instead, the prison took up almost all the land he could see, with an enormous metal fence topped with razor wire around it stretching from one side of the sheltering mountain to the other. There was a break in the middle of the fence for a narrow gated aisle that led to the mountain, allowing people a way into the mountain itself that didn’t involve going into the open enclosure with the prisoners.

In the mountain’s shadow lay a small town, most of the buildings humble wooden structures. There was a fence around the town as well, not nearly as impressive as the one around the prison—wood rather than metal, at least three feet shorter—but it made Kynn wonder what might be wandering around out past the perimeter. They had landed inside the wooden fence, in a wide clearing set aside specifically for ships.

A sharp gust of wind blew pale brown dust into his face, stinging his eyes and coating his teeth with a fine layer of grit. He coughed and pulled out a handkerchief, and then glanced back as his shipmate, Jesleen, let out a shriek of joy. She was meeting her husband here. She bounded off the ship and flung herself into his arms, and Kynn smiled at the sight.

Penal Colony 37 didn’t look promising now, he knew—a prison complex with only about 3,000 settlers so far—but more and more colonists were signing up every day. Currently they were advertising for adventurers, old or young. Spouses were welcome, but it wasn’t encouraged to bring children yet.

Hopefully he’d be able to write up a good report about the progress here and encourage even more settlers to call this place home.

“You must be Kynn,” the woman who had been waiting with Jesleen’s husband at the edge of the clearing said, holding out her hand as she stopped in front of him. Jesleen, meanwhile, hurried with her husband toward the town, the pair of them talking and laughing.

“I am,” he said, taking her hand.

Her brown hair held a streak of lime green and was pulled back in a topknot, and she wore the standard white uniform that guards and other workers at the prison wore, only the sleeves of hers were rolled up to display that her right arm was covered with tattoos, the largest one being a half-sleeve portrait of two people he didn’t recognize. “My grandparents,” she said, noting his interest.

“It’s fantastic work.”

“Thank you. I got it done here.” At his startled expression, she smiled. “I know: tattoo artists aren’t the first ones you think of for necessary settlers. But Marzio’s parents were homesteaders on Colony 18. Taught him everything they learned. He could probably survive here by himself if he needed to. I’m Sophia Holt,” she continued. “I’m your tour guide.”

“You don’t look like a Sister of Mercy,” he said. They normally gave tours, especially on prison worlds, taking the opportunity to ask new settlers or tourists for donations.

“That’s because I have a working brain.”

He continued to smile affably as he adjusted his glasses. It was far from the first insult he’d heard about the organization his sister had chosen to devote her life to. The Sisters tended to get a lot of bad press for their aggressive fundraising tactics, but they did a lot of good work, championing prison reform and helping obtain retrials for those they felt had been wrongly convicted.

“I was told one of them would show me around.” Though he’d known the odds were slim, he’d actually been hoping for Mireille.

“Well, Mayor Collins said that since your visit was so important, he wanted someone who really knows the ins and outs of this place to guide you.”

“Because I’m sure the Head of a multimillion credit prison is completely unbiased?” His tone wasn’t sarcastic, just lightly teasing, and Sophia answered it with a roll of her eyes and a small smile.

“Come on. We’ll tour the prison first and then we’ll look around the town. Your luggage will be taken to the hotel. So, what happens if we get a bad review?” she asked as she headed toward the towering fence that surrounded the prison. “They shut down the facility and send us all to different Bases?”

“No, but funding will be cut. Or, depending on what type of problems I find, a Supervisory Team will be sent in to oversee changes.”

“Less credit and more red tape,” Sophia said, tone as dry as the surrounding desert. “Two things guaranteed to fix problems.”

“Then let’s hope there aren’t many problems to fix,” Kynn said. He waited as Sophia took out a ring of keys, twisting one in the aisle gate lock. It clicked, and a blue light shone above her. She pressed her index finger to a small panel beside the lock, the light shifted to green, and the gate opened.

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