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by Steph Bennion

Prison was no place for Psyche to spend the first fourteen years of her life. When her mother passes away, she escapes to the mainland and finds sanctuary with a group of young miners. Meanwhile, Governor Malingee of Taotie has ambitions and nothing will stand in her way...

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THE ISLAND OF FENG DU was no fairy-tale land from her books. The craggy crescent remains of the ancient volcano squatted off the coast like a slumbering ogre, its arms outstretched as if ready to tear the lush tropical mainland in two. The island, neighbouring continent of Peng Lai and Matsu Sea were on a world humans had named Taotie; the sun blazing overhead was Epsilon Eridani, ten light years from Earth. It was the twenty-third century and the volcanic fires that forged the island were gone. Those who built the fortress carried a different flame. Feng Du was a prison; and not a very nice one at that.

Psyche put down her book. Her mother sat slumped in her chair by the window, staring past the rough bricks that framed the bars and glass. Psyche was fourteen years old by the calendar of Earth, a place that to her was as mythical as the fearsome knights, lovelorn maidens, clever detectives, fiendish villains and alien monsters of her books. The one thing the ancient tatty volumes the guards brought to their cell had not prepared her for was that people wore out and grew old themselves. Those she read about were never gone forever, no matter how many times the words passed her eyes. But her mother was growing frail, her hobbling walks around the cell a little shorter each day, her dark locks now grey. In books, time meant nothing when a flick of the wrist could take you back to page one.

“Mama, what’s wrong?” Psyche asked. “You seem so sad today.”

Her mother turned from the window and attempted a smile that fell away in a fit of coughing. Her worn prison overalls hung loosely from her wasting frame. Dabbing a rag to her lips, she beckoned for the girl to come closer.

Psyche went to her side. From the window she could see across the water to the mangrove forests of the mainland, a vibrant carpet of green that taunted the rocky gullies and concrete bunkers of their island home. Any plants or trees that dared to take root upon Feng Du’s grey shores were quickly destroyed by the robot sentries on patrol. Their abode was just as dreary inside, though her mother’s status as a political prisoner meant they had some basic comforts and a cell with a window. Other prisoners were not so lucky. Psyche was not even sure what being a political prisoner meant. She had never known another home.

“My dear Psyche,” her mother said softly. She tucked away the rag and gently ran her gnarled hands down Psyche’s dark locks. “My little angel! The daughter I long dreamed of, with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood and hair as black as ebony. When did the fairy tale become a nightmare?”

“Mama, you make me sound like a nasty vampire!” Psyche protested. Dracula was one of the books she had in the cell. “You said I was pretty.”

“The prettiest girl in the five systems,” her mother reassured her. “You are nature’s rose, pure and true. It is not right you were born in captivity, unable to bloom. I fear for what will happen to you when I am gone.”

Psyche’s face fell. She had not missed the specks of blood upon the rag, coughed up by her ailing mother. “You cannot leave me, mama!”

“It is not for me to decide. People grow old and die,” she said. “You remember Jean Valjean, do you not? I failed to escape those who sought to put me away. If you get a chance, my dear Psyche, you must run from here and not look back.”

Psyche frowned. Les Misérables was almost one of her favourites, but the story seemed to have more nasty people in it than nice ones. The first time she read it, the death of ex-convict Valjean had left her in tears. But he had escaped when all hope was lost and spent his life doing good. Psyche thought she could do that.

“We will run away together,” she declared with a defiant pout. “Steal from the rich and give to the poor, living in the forest like Robin Hood and his Merry Men.”

Her mother smiled. She began to cough and quickly raised a hand to her mouth. This time, her desperate hacking retorts dragged on for an age. Psyche watched with a sinking heart as her mother calmly wiped her bloodied fingers upon her prison overalls.

“I think they’ve poisoned me,” she said weakly, smiling. “It took them long enough. Make me proud, my little Psyche. Make your old mother proud.”

She took her daughter’s hand and pulled her close for one last loving kiss. Psyche’s tears fell thick and fast, not stopping even as her mother’s hand grew cold. A guard finally found her curled upon her dead mother’s lap, sobbing a lament for the end of her world.

* * *

Governor Malingee’s wry smile grew upon seeing Agent Kedesh, her nervous young security advisor, crossing the courtyard below. The Que Qiao Corporation’s freighter launch ramps of Yao Chi spaceport loomed defiantly above the sprawling government complex, a constant reminder of the importance of Taotie’s capital city. Malingee’s thoughts however were on Feng Du, far away to the south. Kedesh was undoubtedly coming to report the death of the prisoner, unaware that the governor already knew.

Moving from the window, Malingee turned to the large holovid screen on the wall. A three-dimensional ballet of muted news reports drifted above the ghostly reflection in the backing glass of her own blond features. Malingee was young to be a governor, barely thirty in Terran years. Yet life on Taotie was harsh; gravity alone, one and half times that of Earth, had added years to her appearance. Five years ago, she had left Brisbane as a headstrong, golden-tanned new recruit to Que Qiao’s business school. She had worked hard to keep trim, harder still to ingratiate herself with whoever could boost her up the greasy pole of management. Ten months ago, a food poisoning outbreak in Yao Chi’s top restaurant had decimated the corporation’s managerial team on Taotie. Her promotion to acting-governor had quickly followed.

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall,” she murmured. “Who is the fairest of them all?”

It was a stupid pass-phrase but it appealed to her vanity. Minutes from the Que Qiao Board’s last meeting instantly appeared on screen, showing the approval ratings for herself and her fellow governors in Epsilon Eridani. Governor Kourete, who ran the terraformed moon of Yuanshi orbiting the gas giant Shennong, topped the list following his firm action in the face of civil unrest. Maharaja Kashyap, the self-proclaimed leader of Indian settlements on Yuanshi, had been assassinated and his widow and young son were on the run. On Taotie, successes were rather less dramatic, but Malingee was pleased to see she had crept above Governor Atman of Daode, another moon of Shennong. She was now second on the list.

A knock at her door told her that Kedesh had arrived. Malingee reset the holovid to the latest five-system news feeds, went to her desk and sat down.

“Come in,” she called.

Her assistant, an arrogant Chinese woman from downtown Yao Chi, showed the agent into the office and left the room. Kedesh was a tall English woman, barely twenty with pale skin and rather square features, who upon recently joining Que Qiao had been unlucky to be posted straight to Taotie. Malingee had taken an instant disliking to the woman. Her spies had uncovered a rumour that Kedesh had been contacted by a secret organisation called the Grand Priory whilst at university. Regrettably, this was not enough for Malingee to fire her.

“Governor Malingee,” Kedesh greeted. “I have a report from Feng Du.”

“The hero of the workers is dead,” Malingee told her, with some satisfaction. “Not that many remembered her. It’s been fourteen years since the corporation crushed her troublesome trade union.”

“Short innings on Taotie,” mused Kedesh. “Though legends can linger.”

Malingee scowled. “Is that what she was? A legend?”

“She had links to the Dhusarian Church. I heard that your predecessor thought incarceration was preferable to pulling stumps on her and risk creating a martyr,” said Kedesh, then paused. “What will become of the daughter? Psyche, is it?”

“Deal with her,” said Malingee. “I want no reminders of the past. Is that clear?”

“Yes ma’am.” Kedesh frowned. “The report says the coffin is to be brought to the mainland for disposal. Young Psyche will want to pay her last respects. I dare say it’s easy to get caught out down there in the jungle.”

“I’m sure it is,” said Malingee. “Go to Feng Du and see to it personally.”

Kedesh nodded. “At once, ma’am.”

Malingee scowled as she watched Kedesh leave. She wondered if any of her staff were really up to the job. The previous governor and his team too had been weak. Malingee thought back to how she had bribed a down-trodden kitchen assistant to add a little something to the food molecularisor at their favourite restaurant. Taotie needed a firm hand.

* * *

Days on Taotie were short, lasting just over sixteen Terran hours. For young Psyche, those that followed the passing of her mother dragged into eternity. Her mother was gone, her body taken away by silent medics in white coats. Psyche was left alone in the cell for two days and two nights, sobbing silently on her bed with no one to talk to and no visitors other than the sour-faced guard who brought her food. When she could cry no more she went to her mother’s chair by the window and stared across the water, her own blank future mirrored in the endless forest of Peng Lai. At night she saw the bright flares of rockets rise into the sky, freighters taking the riches of Taotie to other worlds. Psyche had nowhere to go.

Others thought differently. On the morning of the third day, Psyche was awoken by two guards at her cell door, who brought her a clean pair of blue prison overalls and a bag for whatever belongings she wished to take. Psyche could fit just two books inside, choosing The Hobbit and Red Mars, both of which she loved for different reasons. Ten minutes later, she was led through the door and out of her cell, never to return.

The prison was a gloomy confusing labyrinth of concrete tunnels, narrow stairways and stern doorways, a warren of stale odours and faint disturbing cries. Winding steps took them down from one level to the next until they finally emerged into a huge open courtyard amidst the towering prison walls. Psyche wanted to run away and hide, feeling suddenly vulnerable beneath the bright morning sun. A guard grabbed her hand and pulled her across the gravel yard. Ahead, the huge gatehouse of Feng Du was open.

More guards stood at the gate, this time wearing armour and carrying guns. Beyond, a road twisted down the rocky shoreline to a large rusty barge moored at a wooden jetty. A young woman, dressed androgynously in black, watched their approach from the bow. On the deck behind lay a long wooden box. Psyche stared at the coffin and burst into tears.

The guard pulled her onwards through the gate and down to the jetty. Releasing her hand, he gestured wordlessly to the barge and nudged her forward. Psyche blinked away her tears and looked back at the towering prison on the rocks behind, then warily stepped across the gangplank onto the boat. The woman in black awaited her on deck. She looked very out of place alongside the scruffy Chinese crew manning the boat.

“Psyche?” the woman asked.

Psyche wiped her nose with the back of her hand and nodded.

“I am Agent Kedesh,” she said gently. Her cap did a poor job of hiding the long brown hair bundled beneath. “I’m to take you and your mother to the mainland.”

“Mama is dead,” Psyche told her sullenly.

“I know,” she said. “Fate bowled googly. I’m sorry for your loss.”

Psyche scrutinised the young agent. Her voice was soft but deep and she moved with an odd clumsy grace. Psyche looked into the young woman’s mournful gaze.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” she asked.

Kedesh froze, then smiled. “You’re very astute,” she said reluctantly. “I was once labelled a boy. Stepped up to the crease as a girl. You can call me Marion.”

Psyche thought about this. “Marion is a nice name,” she decided. “Maid Marian in Robin Hood had red hair,” she added, glancing to the woman’s hidden locks.

“I was thinking of changing the colour,” Kedesh admitted. She offered a sympathetic smile and held out her hand. “You’re a good girl, Psyche.”

Psyche took Kedesh’s hand and allowed herself to be led to a bench in the ship’s bow. The deck shuddered as the engines of the barge came to life. Black smoke belched from the rusty funnel above their heads.

The barge heaved itself out to sea. Psyche’s gaze lingered briefly upon the concrete towers of Feng Du as the island slipped away, then looked back at the coffin on the deck. The world had become very big and scary. It took a great deal of will to turn her head towards the mainland and her thoughts to whatever lay ahead.

“What will happen to me?” she asked Kedesh, who had sat down next to her.

She saw the woman stiffen, then frown. Psyche had seen enough interactions between her mother and the prison guards to know that meant bad news.

“Everything will be fine,” Kedesh reassured her, not entirely convincingly. “Would you like a drink? There must be something other than foul coffee aboard this rusty heap.”

Psyche shrugged. Kedesh sighed, stood up and started up the deck towards the wheelhouse at the stern. Psyche found herself alone in her gloom once more.

The strait between Feng Du and the mainland was not wide. The barge picked up speed and surged onwards, bringing the mangrove forests ever closer until she could make out individual trees at the water’s edge. Psyche remembered her mother’s warning that she must run if given the chance and thought of Les Misérables and Jean Valjean’s escape from the dock. No one would follow if they thought she was dead. She glanced across the deck to see if any of the crew were watching. Psyche looked at her mother’s coffin one last time.

“Goodbye mama,” she whispered, the tears welling once more. “I love you.”

She hoped the bag containing her books was waterproof. Pulling the shoulder strap tight, Psyche shuffled to the gunwale and silently heaved herself overboard into the warm tropical waters of the Matsu Sea.

* * *

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All content is copyright Steph Bennion, WyrdStar and Danse Macabre 2007-2017.