“Hello, brother,” Celia said to the man in the cage.
Marc turned toward her in the dark. His movement set the cage swinging on its pole, six feet off the ground in the main square. The cage was meant to hold animals, not men. But the colony on planet Magellan was so new that the colonists had yet to build a jail. They hadn’t thought to need one until now.
Celia wiped her eyes. Her pregnancy made her overemotional, but still she had promised herself she wouldn’t cry.
“Celia?” Marc’s voice was hoarse. Several days’ growth of beard shadowed his dirty, sunburned face. He reached through the bars. “Are you well?”
“Fine. It’s a boy.”
“What’s his name?”
“Robert wants to call him Brady. I want Nathaniel.” She shrugged. “Either way, I’ll love him just the same.”
“I’m happy for you.” He licked his cracked lips. “How did you get past the guard?”
“He let me pass. I’m sorry, but this isn’t a social visit. I’m here on business.”
She showed him the syringe.
He jerked back.
“Don’t be like that,” she said. “Don’t make this harder.”
“You killed Donny. You admitted it.”
“You hated Donny.”
No, not hate – fear. Even after she married Robert, Donny had watched her all the time, while she treated the sick and administered fertility treatments to the women. His hungry looks were like spiders crawling up her back.
But she hadn’t wanted him dead.
“The colony can’t afford to lose even one contributor to the genetic pool,” she said, repeating the well-known fact.
“So you’re here to collect my genetic material before I’m executed, is that it?”
Now she cried. Damn hormones. She was chief medic, a professional, but she couldn’t be professional with Marc. He was the only family she had left. Malfunctions in the cryo-pods on the long voyage to Magellan had killed their brother Peter, along with a third of the colonists. The losses had been a devastating personal blow for everyone, as well as putting the colony in the precarious situation of whether it could sustain and grow its numbers. She and Marc had clung to each other after that, even after her wedding, bereft without their older brother on this strange, new world. Now Marc was in a cage. Celia cried for the unfairness of it.
She turned to go. “I’m sorry. I should have sent someone else.”
“No, wait.” He leaned his forehead against the bars, the fight gone out of him. Several days in a cage would do that to anyone. “It’s not your fault.”
“You’ll let me do my job?”
Marc pressed his arm to a gap in the bars. She disinfected his skin, unwrapped the syringe from its protective covering and stuck the point into his vein.
“There won’t be an execution.” She whispered so the nearby guard wouldn’t overhear. “The council plans to leave you here.” She removed the syringe, now full of uncoagulated blood from which the ingredients for life would be distilled. “After you die of thirst or starvation or exposure, they’ll let you hang until you’re nothing but bones.”
“Why?” he rasped.
“You didn’t just kill Donny. You killed his future sons and daughters. You worsened the colony’s chances for survival, and they can’t let that go with a simple execution. They want to make an example of you.”
Marc gripped the bars. “Let me out.”
Tears again. “Anyone who helps you will hang beside you. They’d wait until the baby was born, but then …” She sniffled. “I can’t let him grow up without his mother.”
“I don’t want to die like an animal.”
“Why did you do it?”
He looked down. “I told the tribunal. They didn’t care. Murder is murder, they said.”
“Donny was going to hurt you. I heard him. He said he would have you one way or the other. I only meant to warn him off, or summon a peacekeeper if it came to that, but things happened so fast.” His voice trailed off.
He had done it for her.
Heartsick but resolved, she took a small pill from her pocket and pressed it into his palm. “No brother of mine will die like an animal.”
He closed his fingers over it. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” She kissed his hand. “I’m sorry.”
She walked away before she broke down completely. Tomorrow, the council would find their prisoner had died in the night. The autopsy would show nothing suspicious. His heart had stopped, that’s all. A natural death.
She curled a hand over her stomach. Her son would never know his uncle, but now she knew he would have something of Marc’s, nonetheless. His name.
Jennifer Campbell-Hicks‘ fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, 10Flash, Ray Gun Revival and other venues. She lives in Arvada, Colorado, where she finds time to write between her two full-time jobs as a journalist and a mother of three.