Scene 6 - Mercy in the Shadows III

Sage lifted her head from the family desk, awakened by familiar soft footsteps just outside. A deep clank sounded when the new arrival used keys on the lock, about to enter the Mustang family quarters.

The home consisted of a small den, a smaller bedroom, and an alcove of a miniature restroom with nothing but an old curtain between it and the bedroom. Everything was sized for a single factory worker, not a family of four. Everything had the same steel walls, floor, and ceiling as every other room in the Solvang. The only furniture was a frail metal desk and two folding chairs in the den, and a pair of dressers in the bedroom. Rugs in the den, blankets on the bedroom floor, a small radio on the desk, and a few scattered small items were the only belongings in the quarters. The bedroom light was broken, and the den light was dim like it was ready to burn out.

Sage stood and patted her hands against her face to wake herself up. She ran her fingers through her hair and ruffled her gray clothes to negate any sign she had fallen asleep. Not that any of her family would judge her, but she was ashamed that she couldn't remain awake until the late hours when they returned.

The lock clanked and the door swung open. The cool outside air rushed in, mixing the exterior scents of grease and ionized gases with the home's smells of old fabric and dust. Slow footsteps pattered across the threshold before Sage's grandmother came into the den. She was tall and thin, with her gray hair tied into a tight bun. She grinned at the sight of her granddaughter, but her face remained in a guarded expression, a look made more effective by her gray-green eyes and square face. Her permanent expression was that of a woman who had experienced terrible losses. Though the woman looked so much like Sage's father, the shielded demeanor always reminded Sage of her mother, except her mother was even more defensive.

"Good evening, Gran." Sage tensed up for a second.

Gran's lips curled a bit, exaggerating the wrinkles on her face. "Good morning, little one." She pointed to her bare wrist, something the elders did to communicate time. "My shift ended at two." She gave her granddaughter a light hug, and staggered when the girl wouldn't let go.

Sage tightened her embrace on the old woman. "Gran, I have something important to tell you. And Mother, and Father." She let out a shake-ridden sigh. "Do you know when they'll be home?"

"They'll be back in a few days." Gran patted Sage on the top of her head, then she returned the strong hug. "They were ordered to help another ship."

Sage shot her terrified eyes up at Gran. "I won't get to see them before I go!?"

"Go where?" Gran squeezed Sage before releasing her to walk to one of the desk's folding chairs. She groaned as she slammed her thin frame down into the seat. "What's so important that you can't wait a few days? They're only on the Britannic. Something about its plumbing needing emergency repair."

Sage wanted to cry. Her grandmother was having another one of her episodes. The Britannic assignment was ten years ago, and was the reason they were able to afford a radio at the time. The very radio which sat on the desk next to Gran. "Do you remember my league finals in volleyball?"

Gran's eyes widened in astonishment. "You play volleyball?" She pursed her lips like she was scolding Sage. "You should've said something about it if you've made it to the finals. You might be able to be Champion!"

"We won the finals." Sage sat in the second chair and wrapped her arms around her grandmother. "And Gran, I am Champion. That's what's so important. I wanted you, and Mother, and Father, to know."

Gran's face went rigid, then she scowled at her granddaughter. "Don't let them fool you into becoming Champion. They send girls down to the Void to die. It's a trick! There's no honor in it."

Sage shifted to take both of her grandmother's hands in her own and rest them on her knees. "Gran, look at me. I. Am. Champion."

"Don't treat me like I'm senile." Gran pulled her hands free and turned her head away from Sage. "I heard you before. You're the Champion." She turned her head further away, but failed to hide the fact she was crying. "It's a rotten system, you know? Selecting one girl to go down there, all alone. And using sports to figure out who's the best qualified? That's just evil."

Sage wiped the tears off her grandmother's face. "Don't be sad, Gran. I'm coming back from my ordeal."

Gran bolted up from her seat and stormed off to the bedroom. It was an easy transition with no door or curtain between the two rooms. She changed out of her gray work uniform and shuffled around in her gray pajamas for a moment, reviewing ideas in her head while muttering partial words. She eventually wandered past the desk and saw Sage watching her. "I'm not sad. Everyone has to die, someday. Even little ones, like you." She shuffled back to the bedroom and laid down on the floor, taking the nicest bedding, a pair of hand-made quilts from Earth, for herself.

Sage hung her head in sorrow for a long while, until she summoned the energy to push the issue. "Gran, where are Mother and Father?"

"I told you, little one." Gran rolled over and groaned as she found a comfortable position. "They were called away mid-shift to go help the Juno. They're installing hydroponic systems and need help with the filter adjustments. Or something like that."

Sage reviewed the ship name and assignment. It was a new one. "Gran, are you sure they're on the Juno for hydroponics?"

"That's what I said, twice now." Gran covered her head with a loose blanket, as if it would help drown out noise. "Sage. Are. You. Listening?"

Sage sighed.

"I hope I can finally get some sleep before my shift at six." Gran thrashed to express her anger. "You should get to sleep, too. Even if you don't have class anymore, being Champion and all."

"You're the last family member I get to see, Gran." Sage stood and paced around the small den. "I just want to hear your voice for a while. Could you tell me again what Father was like when he was my age? Or what owning your cat was like?"

Gran let out an angry hiss. "I'm only going to get three hours of sleep, if I'm lucky. Besides, there's no point in thinking about Earth or why it's gone." She rolled around and grumbled in thought. "I used to have three sons; now I have one. Cats were great pets; now they're extinct." She sighed. "This rotten fleet is our world, now."

Sage turned off the light and wandered into the bedroom to lay on the floor across from her grandmother. "Good night, Gran."

"Good night, little one." Gran huffed in thought for almost a minute. "I want you standing over my casket, saying pretty things at my funeral. Not the other way around. Got it?"

"I'm coming back from my ordeal." Sage grinned in the darkness.

"Your parents will be glad to know that." Gran groaned before her breaths shifted into slow, light snores.

Sage stayed awake, wondering if she should attempt to fight guilt-fueled insomnia, or wander around the ship to drain her energy. All she could do laying in the darkness was consider when her parents would learn the news, or who would tell them. She was heartbroken that she didn't have the chance to tell them, herself.