The hiss of the doors snapped colonel Brady awake. It had been a long hitch, and the ship had come in fast and hot. Too much speed and the mag brakes would rip the ship into pieces. And there was no telling which piece you'd be in when that happened. Sheer grit, luck and steady hands were all that had brought him home this time. After an exhausting debriefing session, he was drained and ready to drop. He dragged himself to his private quarters and stepped over the softly illuminated threshold into the arms of his radiant wife, Chrystina.
"Oh, I'm so glad you're home!" She breathed into his ear. "You've been away too long this time. I'll not let you go back. They can't have you."
His fingers traced the gentle curve of her cheek. The ethereal sound of their song softly filled the air between them, the tattoos in his fingers responding to those in place in her skin. Though invisible, they sounded with music when the two of them were in physical contact, growing louder as pressure was increased, playing longer as the touch lingered on.
A romantic gesture, perhaps, but a necessary one. Deadhands were incapable of full sensation in their hands, having undergone a specialized surgery to sever most of the nerves. This allowed their hands to remain perfectly still, not subject to minor tremors that would have proven fatal upon re-entry to planet-side. As it stood, the musical tattoos ensured that he would be aware of the effect of his touch on the tender, delicate skin of his wife's body.
"Look what I brought you!" Brady exclaimed, pulling a small metal canteen from his pocket.
"What is this?" Chrystina asked, taking the flask and unscrewing the lid.
"Real yogurt? I've only had it once, at my sister's wedding. How on Earth did you get this?"
"I can't go into details. Let's just say never take a 36 hour flight with 20 goats. They kick. I thought the metal hull was going to give. I almost jettisoned them, but at least now Vindhya will have a steady supply of milk soon. We just have to get their numbers up."
"Well I'll serve some of this tonight! It will be beautiful with the curry."
Brady allowed himself to be led into the dining area. The lights brightened, revealing the table, set for three.
"Where's Ben?" Brady questioned.
"Practicing piano." Chrystina responded. "I'll go get him, he can't hear me call."
As Brady sat at the table sipping cold water he reflected on his long journey. What he would not tell his wife, would never tell his wife, is that his flight was 72 hours, not 36. He was not a simple island hopper. The cargo he carried came from off-world. From Skylara, a place most people on Earth had no idea existed. She could never know that the goats were a clever, if obnoxious, cover for the load of inkstone concealed within the belly of his craft.
His wife and son appeared, Ben still peeling the keyboard sticker from his forearm. 12 now, he was getting taller each time Brady left and returned home again.
"Hey, Dad!" Ben said, throwing his arms around his father. "Lemme put this down and we can eat. Are you hungry? Mom made curry potatoes and naan. She said you got yogurt, too! What's it taste like?"
"Slow down, just try some. How's school?" Brady laughed.
"Oh. Well, I got my grades back for last season two weeks ago." Ben said, piling potatoes onto his plate. Grabbing a dollop of yogurt he spooned a big bite into his mouth. "Yuck! This stuff is awful. Why is it so expensive? You guys can have it." With that, he began tearing at a piece of bread.
"Wait, don't change the subject, Ben. Tell your father what happened." Chrystina admonished.
"Oh." Ben dropped his naan to his plate. "I had a surprise exam in History, and I failed. It tanked my grade, Dad. One test."
"So you're taking it again? You can't get into Junior Corps if you don't meet your History requirement by next year." Brady said, tucking into the meal. Their family was lucky. Brady's station as a Deadhand meant that his family ate from the limited stores of food provided by the indoor farms. Most other families in Vindhya ate re-purposed algae, printed, processed and flavored from a dispenser in the wall. This exceptional treatment was payment for the Deadhands' service and silence, placing themselves in danger each hitch.
After the meal, as Brady helped his wife clear the plates, his mind couldn't help but wander to the extra danger that his family faced. A danger they neither knew about nor were rewarded for. Brady had grown up on the other side of the world, in a military installation for the nation of Terra Firma. He was a double agent. Trained from a very young age to be an elite pilot, he had infiltrated the ranks of the sea-faring pirates and from there had worked his way up to be chosen as a "Deadhand" for the nation of Vindhya. The Deadhands were chosen from the leagues of pirates to keep the knowledge of the desert world that existed in the skies above their planet a secret. They were given elevated status and many luxuries not afforded to any other people in their settlement. They were also given a very short life expectancy. Piloting the ship into a small crevasse opening in the side of a mountaintop just rising from the ocean was a skill that few possessed, and none could accomplish without the Deadhand surgery. The mag brakes lining the entry tunnel could rip a ship into pieces- pieces that could be welded back together. Pilots were not so mendable.
If his deception were discovered he, his wife, and his son would be killed.
As a boy, Brady had lived a carefree existence on a satellite island of Terra Firma. When Brady was six years old, pirates had captured the island, to a person, except for Brady and his grandfather, out on the ocean in a fishing boat. No one ever saw the islanders again. When Terra Firma had learned that the pirates were being manipulated by Waalid, the leader of the nation of Vindhya, Brady had sworn to get answers...and revenge.