Cover art by Erik Elliott
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A short story, about 3500 words.
Donte is a veteran and a colonist on a struggling new world under a hot young flare star. For most of the colonists, the struggle is in coaxing crops out of the alien soil and avoiding the radiation of the flares. But for Donte, he must also deal with the lingering trauma of war — and a body that feels skinned alive without the armor he once wore in the army.
The preview, about 30% or 1100 words:
Donte Barnes pilots the tractor through long shadows as the blue sun lowers itself toward the horizon. His hands are gloved even though the day is hot; they itch incessantly. He grinds his teeth and resists the urge to scratch. Every day is an endless series of resistances like this one. Experience tells him that scratching will only make the pain worse, so he carries on, finishes plowing the row he was working on and pulls up to the farmhouse.
The farm is a co-op, huge and sprawling and subdivided into thirty plots for thirty different crops. The homes of ambitiously-named First City, more of a village, stretch around it in a narrow ring. If you were to see it from the air—and Donte had, when he first arrived—you’d swear it was about to break.
Jorgen Samuelssen ventures out onto the covered porch to meet Donte as he comes in from the tractor. Jobs normally rotate in the co-op, but Jorgen is always in the kitchen. Yes, cooking is what he does best, but he is also safest inside, out of the punishing deluge of ultraviolet Sapphire pours down upon Cradle. Jorgen is the only person other than Donte on the south side of First City who covers himself completely when he goes outside, and unlike Jorgen, Donte insists upon working outside—the unofficial uniform of the colony is tank top, shorts, and dark skin, the darker the better. Pale-skinned applicants like Jorgen are discouraged from immigrating, to minimize casualties from sunburn and skin cancer.
But Cradle is not a popular destination, and Jorgen was the first qualified chef to apply, and it took only a little convincing for the colony managers to clear him to immigrate. Standing on the porch, Jorgen wears the same covering as a conservative Islamic woman might, but his head covering thrown back in the shelter of the porch.
Donte wears the same covering, day and night, out and in; the sun is not why he goes covered. Covered, he itches; uncovered, the pain demands so much medication he might as well never leave his bed.
“In for the day?” Jorgen asks, holding a bottle of local banana beer out to Donte.
“No,” Donte says, but he takes the beer. “Got one more row left. But the itching…” he lets his voice trail off and takes a sip of the beer. It’s cool and light; the way they brew it hardly develops enough alcohol content to notice. It also doesn’t demand much more than bananas and water to make, two things the colony has in abundance.
“Itching’s bad today?”
“Driving me crazy.”
“As long as it’s still driving and you haven’t got there yet,” Jorgen says, and opens his own beer. Donte looks over at him, frowning, but the other man is sipping his beer and doesn’t notice. He probably didn’t mean anything by it, Donte thinks. But I’m so damn tired of the crazy war vet stereotype.
What makes it so annoying to Donte is that the stereotype almost fits. The itching does drive him crazy sometimes; there are days he doesn’t leave his house, but instead stays in and takes enough medication to reduce himself to a stupor. His Veterans Administration paperwork declares him disabled, but the frequent appearance therein of the word ‘psychosomatic’ follows him like a doom, a curse that barred him from the many colony worlds he’d have chosen over this one. Cradle is undermanned, desperate for people; five years out of the six it has existed, its population growth has lagged sorely behind projections. Few people want to go to a young planet circling a young star, to deal with heavy UV and vulcanism and flares. There are nicer worlds to break ground on. The very fact that Cradle was and is unpopular, however, had made them willing to take a chance on a crazy vet with phantom pain syndrome, yet no amputations.
“No, I haven’t gotten there yet, Jorgen,” Donte says with a sigh, and drains half the remaining beer in a gulp. “You’re safe from me.”
“You know I didn’t mean it like that, Donte,” Jorgen says. “In fact, I was hoping you’d talk about your troubles a bit. Talking about anything makes bearing it a little easier.”
“What’s to talk about?” Donte says. “I damn near lived in my armor for two years in the war. And when I was wounded, they took it from me. When I developed this phantom pain thing, they wouldn’t give it back.” He dangles the beer bottle over the side of the porch rail by its neck, wondering if it would break if he dropped it on the hard earth.
“And so you feel as if you’ve been skinned, all these years.”
“All these years.” The two men finish their beers in silence.
“One more row, Samuelssen,” Donte says. “Tell someone to open up the garage. I’ll bring the tractor in, in fifteen minutes.”
Jorgen watches Donte’s draped and veiled form climb back up into the tractor’s seat, lifting his hem to avoid stepping on it.
“You’ll have to tell me more than that one day,” he says to the sunset, once the tractor’s engine is running and he’s sure Donte won’t hear.
The next afternoon brings a flare warning. The volatile Sapphire is ringed with monitor satellites orbiting close in, almost skimming the fusion fire. When early signs of a brewing flare erupt, the signal races to Cradle and the warning sirens sound; those who are outside have only minutes to find shelter. At the call of the sirens, Donte is close to one of the shelters in a field of rice near First Landing River. The door of the shack is standing open and he climbs down the steep steel staircase behind it, into the cool. There are only a few other people in it when he arrives. They trade hellos gingerly; everyone knows he goes covered but most of them still feel it’s strange. Donte does his best to ignore it (like the itching, it follows him everywhere) and pours himself a cup of water from the hand pump near the chemical toilets. He picks a spot far from the door and sits down on the concrete floor to wait. Most flares last only an hour or two.
As with all flares, many people are caught farther from shelter than others. The ones still out when the flare hits don’t drop dead, they make it to shelter also; they’ve just had a dose of radiation, maybe a torso X-ray per minute’s worth. More people straggle in to the shelter Donte has found, a few of them carrying bits of metal or wood they’ve used to attempt to shield their genitals from the invisible shower of charged particles. Hope I didn’t catch a mutant out there, they say almost invariably, as common a cliché as how about that weather or hold my beer and watch this.
One of the latecomers, covered and veiled like him, wanders over to Donte, begins to turn to sit, hesitates…