Marnus didn’t know what to do. His mother had just died, and now he was supposed to meet with her lawyers the next day. He walked over to Tern’s house, hoping to get some advice.
“Hey man,” Marnus said. “I got a problem.”
Tern looked up from his dinner plate — a pile of leaves and dirt, drizzled with an unknown gooey dressing on top of it. It was the standard rations provided by the Gatoor City Council.
“What’s up?” Tern asked him.
“My mom died,” Marnus opened up. “And I’m supposed to go see a lawyer tomorrow to claim a million stars. The council has decreed it themselves to honour my mother’s service as a corporal of the Gatoorian navy- “
Tern quickly cut off his companion’s speech in his surprise. “You have a million stars?” Marnus nodded and has completely taken aback by his friend’s fixation.
“Do you know what we can do with that?,” Tern questioned excitedly.
Marnus knew he would probably get something like this one day, but now that it was happening for real and with no warning, he wasn’t sure how to deal with it. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with it,” he admitted to his friend.
“Come on!” Tern leaned in close, whispering conspiratorially. “We can use the money to get us out of here!”
“What?” Marnus asked. He looked around nervously, even though it was only the two of them at Tern’s house. “What do you mean?”
Tern coughed and the corners of his mouth twitched as if to say something, but he sat back and turned around, and reached for a dusty bottle on the shelf next to him. He then took an earthen cup from under the table.
“Some people would kill for a million stars.” Tern poured the clear liquid from the bottle into his cup and then raised it to his lips. He swished the contents around in his mouth and then swallowed with a loud gulp. Marnus watched as Tern’s eyes watered from the mouthwash he had just drunk.
“You have a million stars,” Tern said while taking another drink from his cup. Marnus couldn’t tell by the look on his face if this was a good thing or a bad thing.
“Yes, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with it,” Marnus added.
Tern laughed and filled his cup with the neon blue substance for the third time. “We can join the right people and get out of this hellhole!” He began coughing again. Tern smiled at him, his eyes watering from the swish of the bitter liquor. “Don’t worry about it.”
Tern turned around and began rummaging through the dusty shelf beside him. Marnus looked over Tern’s shoulder and saw his friend pull out a rusty metallic card. He then handed the card over to Marnus.
Tern shrugged. “It’s an invitation to the Skrend. You know, the smugglers I spoke with the other day?”
Marnus looked down at the rusty sheet of metal in his hand. It was old and faded, but the logo of a spaceship could still be seen stamped into the metal. He flipped it over and on the other side it read: “THE SKREND BRIGADEERS.”
“No.” Marnus gave the card back to Tern. “I’m not going with the Skrend.”
Tern shook his head in disbelief. “Why not? It’s a great opportunity!”
“No, Tern,” Marnus firmly rejected him. “They’re criminals! I don’t think the Skrend is the place to start.”
Tern forcefully placed the card back in Marnus’ hands. “You’d be a fool not to go.”
“No,” said Marnus, raising his voice. “Come to think of it, I’m going to invest in my social status here first. Maybe, if I achieved Tier 2 residency status, we could finally stop eating leaves and drinking mouthwash for booze.”
Tern shook his head once again. “You’re making a mistake, man! This is all a game. Nobody gets past Tier 7! Nobody!”
Marnus shoved the rusty sheet back to Tern. “You’re the one making a mistake by thinking I’m a criminal!”
Tern bolted forward suddenly. He seized Marnus by the neck and pulled him in a stranglehold. Marnus struggled, trying to break free from his friend’s forceful grip.
“Tern!” Marnus tried to reason with him, but to no avail. As soon as Marnus found an opening, he freed himself from Tern’s clutches and delivered a punch to his face. Tern staggered at the impact and wiped away the blood from his split lip.
He then grabbed Marnus by his shirt and lifted him off his feet, slamming him against the floor. Tern grappled him there, pushing his forehead against the wood and trash.
“Listen to me, you little shit!” Tern shouted. He was panting, his face red from the exertion of the struggle. “We need this. There’s no other way.”
Marnus tried to push him away, but Tern was too strong. Tern pressed his forearm into Marnus’ throat, cutting off the air supply to his lungs.
Marnus reached over for the broken crates they had just crashed into and picked up a jagged piece of wood that was sticking out from the rubble. He swung as hard as he could, landing a deep cut right under Tern’s eye. Blood trickled down his friend’s cheek. At this, Tern finally let go of Marnus, who was trying to stanch the bleeding with his hands.
“I’m sorry,” Marnus mumbled, his face red. “I didn’t mean to…” Marnus looked away, ashamed. He turned and bolted for the exit, leaving Tern alone with boiling rage and vengeful blood.
He run out trembling and began wondering what would come next in his life that would be so bad that it would drive them apart like this. Perhaps it was just another fight over their poverty-stricken lifestyle, something they’d been dealing with ever since they were children growing up together on Gatoor 9. His mother sacrifice was going to help him have a better life, but would it make sense if he couldn’t even get past a lower class Tier 7 lifestyle.
He thought about how the Skrend was going to take him away from this poverty-stricken planet, but they were criminals that had taken countless lives with them on their missions. He became consumed with thoughts of fear and ran towards the only place he could think of where he might feel safe—his home.
The next morning, Marnus woke up early. He got dressed and grabbed the only thing he couldn’t leave behind—the old, worn-out star card from his deceased mother. The logo for “Gatoorian Navy” was stamped in its center. He wandered around the slums of Gatoor 9, looking to buy a ticket off-planet with a few credits he had.
There wasn’t a line at the station when he arrived, so he quickly bought a seat on the next departure towards Xurupita, capital of Gatoor 2, where he thought he could have the better life he planned. He planned to make a run for it once he transferred his million stars from the lawyer, and just start over.
The events of the previous day flooded over him again. His mind raced through all the possibilities of what might happen between Tern and him. Is this where they part ways? After years of growing up together? Will he ever be able to look Tern in the eye again without knowing if he was truly right about never escaping this life?
A deep voice startled him at first, but he spun around to see who was talking to him. A tall man addressed him, wearing a black trench coat and thick-rimmed black glasses obscured his eyes.
“What?” Marnus replied, taken aback by the man’s sudden appearance. He had never seen him around before, so he couldn’t think of any reason the man would know his name.
“We have requested your presence at Mercaria for a trial,” The man said, holding up a star-shaped badge with the insignia of the Gatoorian Navy (GN). “You are to be tested under our laws.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Marnus said after he had regained his composure. “But I cannot miss my departure to Xurupita.”
“You will not be missed. The trial will only take a few hours and if you pass, your star card will be returned to you as well as receive 500 stars as a reward for helping us with our investigation.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t have the time,” Marnus said. He knew it had something to do with Tern. Did he report it to set him up?
He began walking away from the man who was blocking him in. “If you can just get me on another ship-”
“We are giving you an order, Lorraine!” The man barked, his voice echoing through the station. Only Marnus could hear him, but he knew everyone else had to be staring at them. “We’re taking you in no matter if it is on your own terms or through force.”
Suddenly, he heard loud explosions in the distance.
The man collapsed to the ground, bleeding from a gaping wound at the side of his head.
Marnus looked down and saw what looked like blood pouring from his stomach. It splashed on the ground beneath him and he fell to his knees. He could faintly hear noise coming from other parts of the station. Screams. More explosions. Gunfire. Shouting. And then, silence.
He looked down at his chest and witnessed his own blood seeping through his shirt.
Tern, who was accompanied by the Skrend smugglers, emerged from the dark alleyway. They were all pointing their guns at Marnus. “Your million stars are now mine,” Tern declared as he took one more step forward.
However, out of nowhere, another shot was heard echoing loudly through the air. This bullet hit Tern square in the chest and everyone fell silent as all parties were caught in surprise. The silence didn’t last long, as several gunshots were fired mercilessly a few seconds later. The Skrend smugglers all fell to the ground almost instantaneously. They twitched on the ground, drowning in the pool of their own blood.
“Tern!” Marnus cried in anguish, watching the body of his once lifelong friend on the floor. “Why is this happening?” But before anyone could respond, he saw a shadow emerge from behind. The person was tall and lean. Her long black hair flowed behind her like a cloak. She wore an old-fashioned dress made entirely of white linen.
“No inheritance should be passed on if no one is alive to accept it. Your one million stars shall now remain with the government. We are in a time of great need. As one soldier dies, we need additional funds to hire more.” It was none other than Marnus’ lawyer, whom he had planned to visit to receive his death gratuity.
Marnus watched helplessly as she raised a gun to his head.
“I don’t want to die,” he pleaded desperately. “Just take my stars, it’s not worth it!”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Lorraine, it doesn’t work that way. I’ll need you dead now.”
Marnus closed his eyes.
Suddenly, he heard a few shots and a body falling limp to the ground.
Marnus opened his eyes, surprised to see he was still with the living.
He watched Tern on the ground holding a gun weakly in his hands with the smell of smoke from the barrel filling the air. He turned to see the lawyer lying on the ground next to him, blood seeping and staining her white garments through the holes in her chest. She twitched for a few moments before she went still.
“Marnus,” Tern said weakly, still holding the gun in his hands. “I might have wanted that money, but I sure as hell wouldn’t let that two cents lawyer take it from you.”
“Tern!” Marnus screamed, hobbling over to his friend. He fell to his knees, cradling Tern’s head. “I’m sorry I didn’t listen.”
“It’s ok,” he said with frailty, with a voice so pale it was almost non-existent. “I did what I had to do. And now you know what you have to do.”
“But- “, Marnus began tearing up.
“I got a med-pill in my jacket. Take it and get on that ship.” He smiled weakly as he reached for Marnus’ hand. “We’ve seen some great days together.”
Marnus watched helplessly as Tern’s eyes rolled to the back of his head and his smile turned into a final grimace before taking his last breath.
“Tern…” Marnus said tearfully before he closed his eyes and rested his head on the lifeless body of his friend.
Marnus knew he had to get out of there, and fast. He popped the slow healing med-pill and hoped he could get on the ship before he passed out.
He didn’t receive his inheritance that day. The Gatoor Government, whom his mother selflessly served in the navy, tried to kill him for the price of a million stars. Perhaps there are simply too many stars in the sky that one can simply die unnoticed.
Marnus swore as he ran they would pay for everything they’d done to him and his family,
All with a million-star cost.
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