An Asrian Skies Short Story
To Kate, for believing in me.
Katryn barely felt Kaz’s hand against her back in the crowd that wound through the main hallway to the lab’s greenhouse. Maybe it wasn’t quite a crush, but it certainly felt like one as the contingent of scientists, engineers, and technicians was herded forward at gunpoint by Imperial Haederan Army troops. Some cried—silently, of course—but most were quiet, overwhelmed by their swift change in fortune. Even on a planet located in the middle of the Haederans’ ongoing expansion, the Iythean Research Association had claimed they would be safe. Iythea was a barren planet with no infrastructure to speak of. The Haederans didn’t want it.
They’d been wrong.
There was no doubt in Katryn’s mind that the seizure of the Iythea station had been strategic. It had certainly been straightforward. There hadn’t been a battle over the only livable area on the sweltering planet. The Imperial Haederan Navy had merely swooped in hours earlier, depositing six squads of soldiers in space suits just outside the unarmed series of domes and modules. They’d rapidly overcome the meager security the Association had provided, and now the Iythean employees waited in line to be processed. Like meat.
Kaz coughed, then whispered in her ear. “It does them no good to keep us here, if they’re only after a strategic location. I bet they’re going to set up a base here. They’ll release us. They have to.”
Katryn doubted that. In any case, she couldn’t respond to him aloud, not without the Haederan corporal ten feet away seeing and hearing them. She answered Kaz with a quiver of her head, a disagreement and warning at the same time. Where would the Haederans repatriate them? Most of the researchers were citizens of Commonwealth worlds, and not likely to be sent back to their own planets. That included her own planet of Zarcron. Her brother, a Commonwealth Navy finance officer, would be horrified when he heard the news—not that there was anything Xan could do about it.
Her head swam as the line advanced until everyone was inside the greenhouse, pushed against the walls one by one. So it was to be a massacre. It was her greatest fear when the first words of the attack had come, and now it was happening. She only hoped it would be quick and painless.
No shots came though, and as her eyes flickered from side to side, a man in a green uniform pressed through the flood of Haederan soldiers in the center of the module. They parted when they recognized him. An important man, then.
Kaz whispered again. “Haederan Army colonel.”
She was grateful for the information, but would Kaz ever learn to shut up?
The colonel eyed them with something that might have been disgust before he spoke. “This research station now belongs to His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor of Haedera. If anyone would like to contest that claim, now is the time to speak up.”
Feet shuffled all around her, but Katryn wasn’t surprised that the unnerving silence continued.
“Good,” he said. “That will make everyone’s lives quite a bit easier. You’re still here to work. Perhaps not the work you signed on for, but work nonetheless—just for a different employer. You’ll be treated as humanely as possible”—in this dump, she imagined him adding in his mind—“but dissent and escape attempts will not be tolerated.”
There were murmurs through the crowd, and Kaz tried to choke down another cough. Not a massacre, but slave labor instead. Katryn wasn’t sure that was much better. After a shorter speech than she’d expected, the colonel gestured to a lieutenant with a tablet and walked to the end of the line of prisoners. The two moved from person to person, stopping every so often to talk to a few prisoners individually. She watched, trying to decipher a pattern. Darilin Cook, custodial department. Sawi Paxen, a biological scientist from her department. Ayan Tahr, geological engineer. Random selections, each from different planets. She held her breath as the two Haederans came closer, naming each prisoner and assigning them a number. One through five, as best she could determine. The numbers also appeared to be random selections. Rogg, on her right, received number three. She was desperate to know the meaning.
The colonel stopped in front of her and cast a glance at the lieutenant.
“Holt, Doctor Katryn,” the lieutenant said. “Biological research scientist. Zarcron.”
“Hmm.” The colonel sounded apathetic. “Group two.” He stepped to the side, stopping in front of Kaz.
“Two?” she blurted, before the lieutenant could give him Kaz’s information. “What’s group two?”
The colonel turned back to her, his eyes cold and surprised. Next to her, Kaz sucked in a sharp breath. Katryn stood firm, hands clenched at her sides.
“Group two is kitchen duty,” he said slowly. “But you know, I think I’ve had a sudden change of heart about you. You’re going to try your hand at mining, Doctor Holt.” His gaze slid to Kaz, and the first smile she’d seen from him appeared. “So is your whispering friend here.”
Katryn didn’t think she had ever been so hot, even on Iythea, where the temperature often hovered within five percent of the allowable limit for the permanent shelters. Ignoring the hostile stare of the Haederan guard just two feet away, she set the metal sampler down and pulled the clip out of her thick black hair, letting it fall to her shoulders. His hostility turned to confusion, and she almost laughed at his misperception—no one wanted hair on their neck down here. Her late husband had loved the stylish bob and Kaz did too, but it was anything but functional a hundred feet below the surface—long enough to be hot on her neck, but too short to be easily tamed. She wished she had the nerve to ask one of the Haederans for a pair of scissors or a knife to trim it, but they were just as likely to shave it off as they’d done with the men. She wouldn’t risk that shame. Resentfully, she re-braided it the best she could.
The bell rang as she picked the sampler back up, and she breathed a sigh of relief. It had been a longer fourteen hours than normal, but they all suspected the Haederans adjusted the clocks backward some days. Whether that was for a brief increase in productivity or torment, no one knew. Most assumed the latter, but Katryn was certain it was the former. The Haederan guards had to deal with the same miserable conditions beneath the temporary shelters, after all.
She handed the sampler back to the sergeant manning the checkpoint in front of the lift. She swallowed her disgust, as she always did, as he scanned the chip inserted under the skin of her upper arm. That demeaning process completed, he nodded at her, and she stepped onto the lift with a dozen—well, six months ago, she’d thought of them as colleagues, but now—fellow prisoners.
Katryn leaned against the wall and smiled at the thought of seeing Kaz in just over thirty seconds. She wished he had been placed on the same shift, but the Haederans weren’t stupid. It was too hard to hide their history as friends and occasional lovers, and even though she’d earned him this mining detail as punishment, they’d still been separated. Quick glances and smiles between shifts were all she’d seen of him for months now.
Sometimes she thought it was the only thing she had to live for anymore.
The lift seemed to move faster the closer they got to the surface, and her smile grew, more at the thought of his face than of her bed . . . although that was appealing too. She dreamed of Zarcron most nights, of her parents, of cool rivers and snow-covered mountains, and occasionally of Xan rescuing her from this mess. It was a silly notion to have of a finance officer. But tonight . . . tonight she would only dream of Kaz’s arms around her. It was hard to hide a smile at the thought.
But when the door opened and the night shift faces appeared in front of her, there was no Kaz.
Panic grabbed her. He’d always been waiting outside, every evening for over six months. There hadn’t been an execution since the first week of the Haederans’ occupation, but there was no other explanation for his absence. She glanced frantically around at the people who should have been familiar and now weren’t.
Her voice cut through the silence, and the Haederan corporal standing guard at the top of the lift shaft frowned at her.
“Is there a problem?”
Katryn’s eyes widened. She hadn’t realized she’d shouted his name out loud.
“No problem.” A huge problem.
“Then shut up and get moving.”
She complied, following the other ten miners through the temporary inflated tunnel that led to the permanent station. What she’d once seen as home. Maybe Kaz was already below. Maybe the Haederans had pulled him off on some other detail. He’d been coughing more and more lately—perhaps the Haederans had taken him out of the mine. Because he couldn’t be dead. What kind of deterrence was a secret execution?
Mulling over the possibilities, Katryn trudged into the smallest of the habitat’s three greenhouses, now used as barracks. Another slap in the face—the private quarters she’d been entitled to by virtue of her position had been taken over by the Haederans, leaving her to bunk with the rest of the prisoners in the open dome. No privacy. No modesty. Not even much comfort. The bleak landscape was all too visible through the glass.
She flopped onto her bunk on the end of the second row and put her hands over her eyes. Any other day she would be asleep ten seconds after hitting the bed, but tonight her mind raced with thoughts of Kaz. Sleep was out of the question.
“Hey! Get out of here!”
It was the new technician shouting—or he had been the new technician in their past life—but Katryn didn’t remember his name. He stood over his cot, hands on his hips, fury on his face. Ayan Tahr put a hand on his shoulder, but he shoved her away.
“Get out of here, Kaz. Not your turn.” The tech kicked at the cot.
Kaz was still in bed? Katryn shot up and flew across the dome. Kaz lay in what was the tech’s bunk during the night shift, a sickly gray color fading every part of him. She knelt beside him, ignoring the tech’s glare. If she had to guess, most of his anger was fear, but at that moment she didn’t care what the Haederans thought.
“Kaz? Kaz, what’s wrong?”
Kaz only moaned and tried to roll toward her. He didn’t make it, and blinked up at her instead.
“Just leave me here.”
“Kaz, you can’t stay here. You know that. You need to get up.” Katryn hesitated. “Can you?”
He closed his eyes and moaned again. Tentatively, she shook his shoulder.
“What’s going on here?”
She sprang to her feet at the Haederan accent. Captain Minter, usually in charge of the barrack dome at night, stood behind her with a group of curious Iythean techs around him. She was relieved to see him instead of Corporal Royce, who probably would have dragged Kaz to the outside then and there, just to rid himself of the problem.
“He’s sick. Please—I know it’s his shift, but—”
Minter pushed past her and rolled Kaz over. His gray color had changed to an unhealthy yellow, incongruous with his normally tan skin.
“Fine. Take him to the infirmary and come right back.”
“Thank you. Thank you.” She put an arm under Kaz’s shoulder and lifted him up, stifling a groan as she stood under his weight.
“And be quick about it!” Minter shouted after her, but she was already into the next tunnel.
Kaz had been missing from the mining detail for two weeks now. At least Katryn thought it was two weeks. Without his smile to look forward to, she’d become numb, distant to everyone and everything. The dreams of home had become more frequent, and the wish that Xan would save her was at the front of her mind every day. Silly, innocent, impossible wishes.
Maybe that was why she didn’t care what might happen when she cornered Captain Minter just inside the barrack dome that night. A supply ship was on the way, so the miners had been released early for the evening to be locked down in the dome when it arrived. Even the Haederan officer was in a good mood. She hoped the anticipation of a new stock of liquor had made him cheery enough to answer her questions.
“Where is he?” Haederans didn’t deserve evening pleasantries.
Minter turned, eyebrows raised. “Excuse me?”
“Kaz Augus. The man I took to the infirmary two weeks ago. Why isn’t he back yet?”
“He’s still sick, I suppose. Do I look like the medic?” Minter shrugged and turned away to watch the other prisoners filter in.
“Then you didn’t—” Katryn vented a frustrated sigh at his dismissal.
“Didn’t what?” Irritation crossed his face when he realized she was still standing next to him. “I didn’t do anything to Augus. What’s he to you, anyway?”
Oh, no. So Minter wasn’t aware of their connection. It had to remain that way. Relationships were too easily used by the Haederans. “He’s a colleague. A colleague I’m worried about. You all don’t have the best reputation here, in case you aren’t aware.”
Minter gave a short chuckle at that. “Well aware.” His lip curled in annoyance. “You won’t leave me alone unless I let you see him, will you?”
She shook her head and held her breath, sensing an imminent change in heart.
“Fine. You’ve got twenty minutes. And no whining about being awake on time tomorrow either.”
She had to force herself to walk steadily to the infirmary instead of running. Resources meant everything since so few supply ships visited Iythea. A useless miner . . . a useless prisoner . . . she was surprised the Haederans hadn’t decided he was a waste of resources already. The Iythean medic was gone on whatever other menial duty she’d been assigned to, and Katryn was relieved to see Kaz alone in the infirmary. He didn’t lift his head when she walked in, but gave her a small smile.
“I’ve missed you.” He reached out his hand.
She put her hand over his. “I’ve missed you, too,” she whispered. “I’ve been so worried. What’s wrong?”
“Tumor in my liver. You’d have to ask the medic what kind, but it’s some genetic fluke. It feeds off the gas.” His eyes met hers, the sadness there broadcasting the rest of the prognosis.
Katryn’s heart sank. Everyone assigned to Iythea underwent extensive medical testing before arriving to prevent that very possibility. Even the permanent parts of the station couldn’t protect certain people from the toxic Iythean gas that made the atmosphere uninhabitable, but for humans with normal genetics, it was safe. It didn’t matter how he’d slipped through the screening, because with that broken gene, Kaz had no chance. There was only one thing to do.
“Then we have to get you off this planet. It might slow the tumor down enough, at least until you can get real medical care. It certainly wouldn’t hurt. I’ll beg them. I’ll do anything. Minter let me come see you tonight, I’m sure he might—”
“Katryn.” Kaz squeezed her hand. “You know none of us are allowed to leave. We’re going to be here forever. I don’t know what they’re up to here, but they are not going to take the chance that someone will figure it out and talk off-world. This is it for me.” And for you, she read in his expression.
“No.” Her denial was fierce. “I won’t accept that.”
“I’m going to die. Soon. There’s nothing you or anyone else can do about that now.” Kaz closed his eyes. “I only wish . . . ”
He was silent for so long she shook his shoulder, terrified she’d just heard his last words, that he was already gone. “What, Kaz? You only wish what?”
He opened his eyes and smiled at her.
“That I wouldn’t die here.”
Katryn watched his shallow breathing as she held her own. What should have been a difficult decision came all too easily.
“Then you’re not going to die here.”
“I always thought you were crazy,” Kaz said, “but you normally show it in other ways. Ways I certainly do miss.”
As did she. It had been so long . . .
“I’m not crazy. Listen to me, Kaz. They let us off early tonight because there’s a supply ship coming in. We can get you out on it when it leaves.”
“Tell me you aren’t serious.” He coughed and looked at her with pity. It was loving, but pity nonetheless.
“Why not?” It made sense to her. It wasn’t as though they needed to get him to safety. Just off Iythea.
“Because for one thing, I don’t think being executed when they find me stowing away is a better solution to this problem!”
“But it wouldn’t be on Iythea. That’s what you want most, right? It’s the only way.” She hadn’t realized how much she shared Kaz’s wish until he’d spoken it out loud.
You have time. Kaz’s time is running out.
“No. It wouldn’t be on Iythea.” He closed his eyes again, a grimace on his face, and Katryn wondered if he would even be able to walk to the hangar dome, or if he would live long enough to get there. “A supply ship, you say? Then yes,” he said after a long pause, and she wondered what he was thinking. But Kaz would never tell. Never had. “If you have a plan to get me to it, let’s do this.”
“I—I think I can come up with something. If you can sit up.”
With great effort he did, and Katryn had second thoughts about his ability to make the short walk. There had to be another way. She scoured the small infirmary for something, anything that would help. A cane, perhaps. Ludrocin would be useful. The drug could make a heavily stunned man run like he was fifteen years old again, but it wasn’t surprising the Haederans had taken all of that medication. Katryn sat on the edge of the cot and rubbed her eyes. There was no way to sneak him out. None. Not on short notice.
“Hold on,” Kaz said.
Her eyes questioned him, but he had addressed a man pushing the cargo cube down the hallway, an Association cook she’d seen in the past, but had never met.
“Yeah, you,” Kaz said as the cook paused at his order. “What’s in the box?”
“Plant experiments for the shuttle. Who knows why the Haederans want them.”
“That cube’s shielded?” Katryn asked, as Kaz’s idea grew evident.
“Yeah. Gas would kill the plants if it wasn’t.”
She exchanged a nervous glance with Kaz. “What if I wanted to deliver that cargo to the hangar dome instead of you? What would it take for you to want to switch jobs for the night?”
He grinned. “From you, Doctor?”
Katryn grimaced inside. “From me.” She pushed Kaz’s concerned hand away from her shoulder. “Whatever you want. When I get back,” she hastily added. It was a flippant suggestion. Nothing like that was tolerated on Iythea anymore. Not between the prisoners, at least.
“Then you’ve just bought yourself a box full of plants.” The cook pushed the cube inside the room and walked off, hands in his pockets, whistling.
“You aren’t really going to . . . ” Kaz sounded dubious and jealous at the same time.
“With Minter watching everything that goes on in the barracks? Hardly. Now get in.”
It was a tight squeeze between the cartons of arrowroot and bittercress—grown on Iythea in an attempt to dispel the effects of the gas—but Kaz fit. Somehow the green surrounding him—the purple flowers of the bittercress especially—made him look a little less ill. She pressed her lips to his, then backed away to close the cover.
“Wait.” Kaz grabbed her arm. “How many Haederans do you think are on that ship?”
Did it really matter once he was discovered? “I don’t know. A dozen?”
Kaz mused over that for a minute. “Second drawer from the left. There’s a small box. Get it for me, will you?”
She rolled her eyes at the delay and did what he wanted. The white box was sealed and heavier than its size suggested. “What is it?”
“Pills. Just in case. I wasn’t ready before, but now . . . depending on what happens . . . Katryn, I’m afraid of what they’ll do to me.” His voice cracked.
This was for real, then, and there was nothing she could do to stop it. She handed him the case, and the tears started to fall as their fingers touched. A joke—she had to make a joke to cover up this nameless emotion. “Poison pills aren’t exactly an engineer’s expertise, Kaz. Are you sure you’re not really a spy or something?” A bad joke. Kaz loved her bad jokes. She wiped the tears away.
He smiled and gestured for her to close the cube. Katryn pushed the button and engaged the levitation before guiding it out the door with a finger.
The marked cargo cube allowed her open access to the hangar dome. A Haederan corporal opened the last door for her and scanned the box. He moved aside to let her by when it came up clean, but she was certain the thirty seconds it had taken him to search the shielded container took thirty years off her life.
“We’ve been waiting on this one,” he said. “Hurry up and get it out there.” She looked toward the center of the dome at his instruction, and her forehead creased in confusion at what lay in front of her. The expected cargo ship was there, oh yes, but an unmarked courier ship sat next to it.
The Haederans wouldn’t be having such a rousing party with their newest delivery of alcohol, not with whoever had just arrived on that courier ship. Lighter at the thought, she plodded toward the ship with the open cargo door, the cube floating effortlessly beside her.
One tech at the end of the ship’s ramp nodded at her while the other worked the box’s controls to lower it onto the ramp. Removing her hand from the cube was the hardest thing she’d ever done, and she forced back tears as she watched the conveyer belt start, moving Kaz up the ramp and into the ship.
“You’re done here. Back inside.” The tech jerked his head back toward the door.
Katryn hadn’t realized she was still standing there. “Oh. Sorry.”
The ship’s engines screeched, and the tears fell as she walked back across the ramp, unable to believe how much she felt Kaz’s absence on Iythea already. The corporal opened the outer door for her—more out of expedience than courtesy—and when he pulled his mask down and turned back to watch the ships, she stopped in front of the viewing window behind him.
She would watch Kaz leave before she went back to the barrack. She would say one last goodbye. The dome roof opened, and the cargo ship lifted off silently, leaving the lone courier ship below.
The emptiness was physically painful.
“What are you doing?”
Ice rushed through her, an unfamiliar feeing on Iythea, and she spun around at Minter’s voice. “Watching the ship leave . . . wishing I was on it.”
Minter narrowed his eyes at her. She could tell the precise moment he realized he’d been had, because those narrowed eyes snapped open as round as the coins they still used on Zarcron. He shoved her against the wall and swung the door to the hangar dome open, heedless of the fact he wore no mask. “Corporal! Call that ship back!”
The corporal stared at him in bewilderment as the roof closed, sealing the dome again. “It’s—it’s too late, sir. They’re already in the gas, and they’ll be in comm blackout once they exit. It’ll be weeks before we can get a message to them.”
Minter swore as he stormed back inside. “Did you think this would accomplish anything, Doctor? That you saved him? All you’ve bought him is a little more time and a ghastly death when he’s discovered.”
“I bought him everything, you—”
She didn’t hear the explosion through the heavy glass of the dome, but the flash caught everyone’s eye, brilliant fireworks of yellow and orange that only died down when each fiery piece had fallen, mixing into the red of Iythea’s surface. For a moment, Katryn wasn’t the only one who stood there stunned. The corporal recovered first and ducked past her and Minter, shouting instructions into his handheld radio.
The case. It hadn’t been full of suicide pills after all. Kaz probably hadn’t even been an engineer, or at least, not only an engineer. He had fooled everyone. Katryn began to laugh, a feverish, high-pitched cry of understanding.
She only wished she’d seen Minter’s stun pistol sooner.
“I thought my request was clear, sir. She was to be handed over to us unharmed. Was there anything vague about that desire in my transmission this morning?”
The words were a blur in the headache that seemed to have taken over Katryn’s entire body, the voice an unfamiliar Haederan one.
“You didn’t see the explosion, Captain Linden?” It was the horrid colonel in charge of the habitat on Iythea, and his voice made Katryn’s stomach churn. “I’m not sure you could have missed it. Thirty of my men were on that ship. This woman was involved in the sabotage, and she’ll be held responsible for it. I can’t begin to imagine what interest the Imperial Security Command has in her, anyway.”
No. No, it was Kaz.
Kaz. Her head hurt even more at the thought of him. Or was it her heart?
“With all due respect, sir, I’d suggest you stop worrying about her and start worrying about your lack of perimeter security. Our interest in this prisoner isn’t your business.” The new voice sounded bored, even smug.
There was a long pause, and Katryn wished she could lift her head. “Then take her and get off my station.”
Multiple hands lifted her from the hard ground and dragged her up a ramp into what she assumed was the courier ship. Katryn didn’t fight them. She would go willingly with anyone who didn’t seem like they intended to put a bullet in her head. They dropped her onto a seat, more comfortable than anything she’d sat on in months, and she opened her eyes. The muscle weakness slowly ebbed away—the headache did not.
“Post-stun headaches are nasty. It’ll go away faster if you don’t move, though it seems you may have deserved this one. Colonel Ellicot certainly thought so, at least.”
The man who spoke was no older than her, perhaps even younger, with sandy brown hair and dark eyes that could have belonged to anyone from a half dozen Commonwealth worlds. The uniform, though . . . it didn’t quite appear to be a Haederan Army one, but he was certainly no one friendly to her cause. Not with that accent. Katryn rubbed the side of her head and stared at him.
“Rhys Linden.” He leaned toward her with an outstretched hand, and then pulled it back, as though he’d realized the absurdity of shaking hands with a woman he’d just saved from probable execution.
“You’re not Haederan Army.” A ridiculous statement, since he’d all but ordered the station colonel to release her to him. Of course he wasn’t. “Haederan intelligence?” she guessed wildly. How she wished Kaz was here. He would know. Or Xan. Xan could fix anything, even this. Whatever this was.
“You might say that.”
His evasiveness was both exasperating and telling. “What do you want with me?”
“I don’t want you, not really.” He tilted his head toward her and didn’t lean away. “When was the last time you talked to your brother?”
“My—my brother? Xan?”
“Cute nickname. He’s Commonwealth Navy, is he not?”
Something was wrong. Terribly wrong. Why was he asking questions about Xan? Xan wasn’t intel. He had the most boring job in existence, an accountant by any other name. She’d always made fun of him for it. Xan couldn’t mean anything to this Haederan. “He’s—yes, but he’s not even on a ship.” Her gut told her there was no point in remaining quiet, that he knew everything already. “He’s just an accountant.”
“Is that what he told you he does?” Linden smiled as the courier ship lifted off. “Interesting cover. An accountant . . . it fits him.” He chuckled a bit at that assessment.
“Cover?” Fear made one stupid, it seemed. She gathered her wits enough to ask the silly question. “Xan’s a . . . spy?”
Linden laughed, and Katryn hated the sound, because it was charming and attractive and reminded her of Kaz. “Commonwealth Special Operations Forces, if you want to be exact,” he said. “That’s his first job. His second is even more clandestine.”
Even through her blinding headache, his meaning couldn’t have been clearer. “Xan’s no traitor,” she whispered. It wasn’t possible.
“That’s a harsh word, don’t you think? If it makes you feel any better, it wasn’t his idea.” He shrugged. “You might be right, though. Your brother has become less and less helpful since the attack on Iythea, and finally disappeared altogether six weeks ago. I hope a little encouragement will be enough to get him back on track.”
“And I’m the encouragement.”
Linden nodded once, cautiously, like he didn’t want to offend her.
His implication was too terrifying for her to ask him anything else. Katryn glanced out the window, but the view was blocked by pale scarlet gas as Iythea disappeared below the fog, and then was gone. Forever. She’d been wrong before, and being wrong had never been such a relief.
However this ended, Xan had already saved her.
© 2017 Catherine Wheeler
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Katryn Holt scarcely remembers what life at the research station on Iythea was like before the Haederans arrivedâ€”but she canâ€™t forget what life is like now. Between the forced labor and nights spent dreaming of a home sheâ€™ll never see again, quick glimpses of her sometimes lover Kaz are the only bright spot. But now Kaz is dying, and the thing he wants most is the one thing Katryn canâ€™t give himâ€¦freedom. "Forever's End" is an approximately 5000-word short story prequel to Asrian Skies.