Fifteen-year-old Robin was spending a sunny summer day practising his archery in the field behind his family's old-fashioned cottage. He was in training to be a Ranger, a hunting guide. Robin preferred the bow to any of the other long-range weaponry hunters used these days, so he was focusing on it. Besides, it required a great deal more practice.
These days, however, Robin found it hard to find the strength. His father hadn't brought home meat in weeks. Not because he wasn't capable, but because he hadn't had permission. Robin had only heard rumours of this sort of thing before; this was the first time it had started to affect his family.
Robin took a deep breath and drew back his knocked arrow, sighting down the shaft at the target one hundred metres away, just before the row of apple trees. His arm started to wobble almost immediately and when he let fly, his arrow barely touched the target.
At least this time it had hit the target.
Robin thought about putting down his new bow and practising with something else, but when he turned he saw his father pushing an anti-grav cart up their drive. What was on the cart was just a box, but it looked like the sort of box that his father would sometimes bring home from the butcher. Maybe it was good food at last?
Just as Robin had taken his first step, he noticed the sound of an approaching cruiser. He looked up as he walked; while unusual this close to the house, they were close enough to Loxley that they weren't an uncommon sight. But no, the roaring engines slowed and kicked up dirt and leaves as the vehicle landed on the drive near his father.
Curious, Robin continued walking.
“Robert of Loxley?” Robin couldn't see the speaker, but he saw four soldiers exiting the cruiser carrying plasma-cannons. The engines were still whirring just loud enough that he couldn't quite hear clearly.
Robin froze. Nothing like this had ever happened where he could see before.
Two men climbed down from the cruiser to stand behind the soldiers. Robin thought he recognized the obvious leader from his proud stance and uniform – the Sheriff of Nottingham. As to the second man, Robin thought he looked familiar, but couldn't recall his name. He instantly disliked the man, though, with his hunched stance, bowed head and hand-wringing. This sixth man just oozed sleaziness.
“Robert of Loxley, you are under arrest for poaching,” the Sheriff continued when the engines had quieted. Robin could see by his father's reaction he was surprised and confused.
“I beg your pardon? How so? As Warden of Loxley, it falls to me to determine who is or is not a poacher in this region.”
“And I suppose you have written permission to have slaughtered the beast from which the contents of that box have been carved?”
“A severely mutated deer. It was my duty to cull it from the herd before it could reproduce.”
“To destroy it, yes. But to butcher it, you required permission.”
“And I have been requesting permission to kill and butcher a more nutritious animal for months. While you haven't granted permission, your lack of response was not a denial, either. I know your office has received the requests. Meanwhile, my family and I have become increasingly malnourished and are now starting to starve.”
For some reason, all four soldiers raised their weapons at this. Robin could hear the hum of the plasma-cannons powering up from where he stood. There were four deadly weapons aimed at his father, and he didn't understand why. At an annoyed looking wave from the Sheriff, three of the soldiers lowered their weapons and allowed the charge to fade. However, the fourth continued to prime his, ignoring a second gesture from the Sheriff.
Robin didn't even realize he was acting until it was too late. He had knocked an arrow, drawn, and sighted on the offending weapon in a heartbeat. Before he could stop to think, he had already loosed. The arrow flew truer than any had for him in the last week, and the surprised soldier lost his grip on the weapon.
Before it left the soldier's hand, however, the plasma-cannon fired. To Robin's relief, the shot went wild and blasted a hole into a birch behind his father.
The Sheriff of Nottingham looked livid, but before he disciplined his soldier, he turned to look in Robin's direction. The soldier quickly retrieved his weapon and assumed the same stance as his comrades.
“Come here, boy,” the Sheriff yelled at him.
Robin reluctantly closed the remaining distance, heart hammering away in his chest. He no longer felt angry, now he only felt dread. Sweat was cold on his brow. It was becoming increasingly difficult to continue walking calmly; every instinct was telling him to run into the forest and never come back.
But his father was facing ridiculous accusations.
So Robin made it to within a few feet of the Sheriff and his men.
“Do you know what the penalty for assaulting one of my men is, boy?”
“I believe it is now death, Sheriff.”
“And yet you did?”
“Not so, Sheriff. I struck his weapon. I believe the penalty for one of your men disobeying a direct order from you is also death. Am I correct, Sheriff?”
“I gave no orders, boy.”
Robin closed his mouth before he could say anything to get himself in more trouble. His neck was straining with tension; he was very much angry again. His grip on his bow tightened.
“Fancy yourself an archer, boy? I'll make you a deal. Put three arrows in the blast of that birch, and I will believe you did not mean my man any harm.”
Suddenly Robin was filled with dread once more. He bowed his head and squeezed his eyes shut, counting his heartbeats to control his breathing in an attempt to force himself to calm. He heard the Sheriff speak.
“Well? What will it be, boy? I'm waiting.”
In another flash of anger, Robin had one arrow loosed and another one knocked before seeing how true the first was flying. He loosed the second and knocked a third before the first struck. As he loosed the third, it registered that the first had struck dead centre.
Robin held his breath for the few seconds it took for the other two arrows to make their flight, and it felt like an eternity. To Robin's surprise, the second slid down the left side of the first, and the third down the right. He had never made such a display.
The Sheriff of Nottingham snorted. “Not bad, boy. But I see no evidence of your starvation. Robert of Loxley, you and your family are being taken into custody and will be brought to Nottingham for trial. Osmundus, you are now Warden of Loxley, at least until I determine the most suitable candidate.”
Two of the soldiers approached Robin's father, grabbing a shoulder each to drag him into the cruiser. A third roughly guided his mother, and the Sheriff himself grabbed Robin's arm. The fourth soldier quietly boarded the cruiser, not wanting to worsen his standing with his commander.
What Robin was too in shock to acknowledge was that the newly-appointed Warden Osmundus of Loxley was being left behind with the anti-grav cart of deer meat and the unlocked home of Robin's family.
Robin was shoved into a seat with a clear view outside and strapped in place. Feeling numb, he stared at the cottage he had lived in as long as he could remember. The engines roared to life, and they lifted off the ground. It wasn't a comfortable feeling for Robin. It was the first time in his life riding in a cruiser. As his home rapidly disappeared from view, Robin fought the urge to cry.
To Robin's surprise, the trip to Loxley took mere minutes in a cruiser. He had grown up believing it to be so far away; it took all day to walk there! But he didn't understand why they were landing in Loxley. The Sheriff had said they were going to Nottingham. Surely Nottingham couldn't be much further at the speed this cruiser could travel?
But no, he was being dragged from the cruiser toward a much larger transport. Robin hadn't paid much attention to various vehicle types, but he was pretty sure this transport was the sort capable of exiting the atmosphere and could withstand re-entry.
He was strapped in even more securely this time, and could see nothing from the chamber they were in. It was a rather uncomfortable way to spend the minutes or hours it took to prepare for take-off. But his suspicions about the nature of the craft were confirmed shortly after it started moving: a crushing force as they travelled up, so powerful he blacked out.
When Robin regained consciousness, he had that bizarre feeling in his stomach he remembered from the time he had tried to ride one of the draft beasts and been thrown. But he was stuck at the apex of the arc; he wasn't falling no matter how much his body told him he was about to come plummeting down to the ground.
Eventually Robin managed to calm himself down and relax, but that queasy feeling and the nagging thought that gravity could return any second wouldn't leave him alone. His father looked sad but completely comfortable with the experience when he spoke to Robin.
“Son, your education has been woefully inadequate for what is going on. Do you understand where we are?”
“Above Huntington. Outside the atmosphere. There is no gravity. Is Nottingham a space station? I always thought it was just another town further away.”
“Yes, that is ... good. I hadn't realized you had picked up enough to piece it together.”
Robert looked like he had more he wanted to say, but he looked to the Sheriff's men and fell silent.
It could only have been another hour before they docked with Nottingham Station and soldiers in heavy boots that made loud thunks with each step dragged a free-floating Robin to a cell where he was deposited with his parents. The door slammed shut and they were left in dim light with the strange sounds of a space station echoing through the structure.
“Robin, I must tell you something. I have no idea what is going on or what will happen. None of this would have been tolerated in the days of King Richard's leadership, but when he went away to fight in the Crusade, he left Prince John in charge. Prince John ... he doesn't seem to have the same ... character.” Robert's eyes were not focused on anything in the cell, and he looked even sadder than he had earlier.
Robin had expected something more from his father's tone, but he left him to whatever thoughts were plaguing him. Instead Robin spent the time trying to remember everything he had ever heard or read about space, drifting about the room until he bumped into a wall and flinched and was launched into a new flight.
Eventually he got tired of it and braced himself, trying to control his movement. Before he was successful the door slid open with a grinding noise.
“Haven't figured out zero-g yet?” The voice came from a silhouette in the doorway; the light outside the cell was significantly brighter. Robin stared, trying to make out a distinguishing feature. “Here, I'll help,” the man said, waving his arm and letting a rope uncoil. With a flick, the rope whipped toward Robin and wrapped itself around his leg, then he was violently yanked toward the door. The figure in the doorway merely stepped aside and let his acceleration continue right up until he crashed into the wall opposite the door.
Before Robin recovered, his father floated through the door under his own power, towing his mother by the hand.
Robin could hardly be sure, but he suspected that the rope-wielding man was the soldier whose weapon he had attacked earlier. Glancing around him, Robin saw five other soldiers, standing on the walls and ceiling as well as behind him on what he thought of as the floor. Robin wasn't sure which was really the floor and which the ceiling.
One soldier gestured toward an open doorway at the end of the hall, and Robin's father nudged him in that direction. Pushing off of something solid helped, but Robin still wasn't very good at moving in zero-g when they arrived in a waiting room.
The soldiers on the other hand merely walked along.
“They are wearing magnetic boots; they stick to the metal surfaces with about the same amount of force as gravity would hold us to the ground on Huntington,” his father whispered at one point when they were close enough together for the communication.
It was only then that Robin noticed that none of the soldiers carried the ubiquitous plasma-cannons they had every other time Robin had seen them. While he was curious, Robin decided he would rather not discover what weapons they were armed with.
After several minutes in the waiting room, Robin slowly began to notice something changing. He was moving toward the 'floor' and starting to feel the weightlessness fade. He looked at his father who said “This chamber is a lift. Parts of the station spin, and the further from the centre you go, the stronger the centrifugal force gets. Centrifugal forces push you against the outer wall of the chamber much like gravity pulls you to the ground on a planet's surface. I would recommend taking a seat now.”
Since he felt normal again, Robin took a step toward a chair – and launched himself nearly to the ceiling before falling back down in a slow somersault. He was more careful manoeuvring himself into a sitting position, and gravity increased substantially over the next few minutes. Now the upward movement was causing an uncomfortable feeling in his stomach. He just couldn't win today.
As gravity had returned – essentially – Robin felt the lift stop. Their guards moved to flank each of them and they were not quite forcibly marched down another series of hallways to another room where they stood waiting once more.
Doors opened, and they were ushered out onto a stage. More people than Robin had ever met in his entire life were crowded below the stage – more people than Robin could have imagined being alive. The noise was incredibly overwhelming as he was roughly nudged into place.
In the centre of the stage stood the Sheriff of Nottingham behind a podium. At the push of a button, a hologram of a sour looking individual flickered to life behind the Sheriff. The crowd cheered loudly.
“Your Highness,” the Sheriff said with a bow. “We have Robert of Loxley, caught poaching red-handed on the Huntington Game Preservation. He was even one of your Wardens.” Robin felt his skin heat up as the anger rushed back, and he could sense his father struggling not to make some sort of outburst at the lies.
“Who are the others, Sheriff?” The hologram, which Robin assumed was meant to be a real-time projection of Prince John, was looking in a direction other than at Robin and his family. He was probably seeing the scene from a different vantage point, Robin decided.
“His wife and son, Your Highness,” the Sheriff replied.
There was a bit of a delay. “Are you proposing we execute the whole family?” The crowd cheered at this, but the Sheriff looked horrified. Robin thought that the Sheriff was afraid that the Prince might think him too bloodthirsty, though, as he had certainly seemed ready to kill them all back at the cottage.
“No, Your Highness. Though the boy did disarm one of my men.”
There was jeering from the crowd, and the Sheriff turned to hush them while they waited for a response from the Prince.
“That scrawny runt? Very well, we shall try him as well.” Prince John sounded bored and annoyed at the inconvenience. “Someone will have to pay for the man's cybernetic limb,” he muttered. A confused look came over the Sheriff's face, and the guards gave slight glances to one another as if sharing a joke. Nobody said anything though.
For a moment the Prince seemed to stare off at nothing, but then he started speaking again in a more officious manner. “Robert of Loxley, do you have anything to say in your defence?”
“Your Highness,” Robin's father began with a bow. “I have been requesting permission to kill another beast to stock my freezer for months. They were never denied, just ignored. My family was down to less than one proper meal a day. I chose to interpret the ignoring of my requests as the Sheriff's indifference to whether or not I did so.”
Prince John mumbled something and reached for a device that didn't appear in the hologram. After a minute or two of this, he turned his attention back to those waiting. “And you, boy? What is your name?”
“R-Robin, Your Highness.” Robin was surprised at how weak he sounded, but then, he was also shocked at having to address Prince John.
“And how did you, Robin, manage to remove a trained soldier's arm?” Robin assumed he misheard the question and answered the one he thought made sense.
“I-I knocked the plasma-cannon from his hands with an arrow, Your Highness.”
“Why would you even attempt to do so?” Prince John seemed more curious in Robin than he had in Robert.
“He ... Your Highness, he was about to fire on my father with no order from the Sheriff to do so. My training as a Ranger is far enough along that I reacted without thinking when I recognized the threat to my father.”
After a delay, Prince John looked mildly surprised. “Oh. Indeed. Execute the poacher, the boy can serve on one of the salvage rigs for five years.” The bored tone had returned mid sentencing, and the hologram flickered out without waiting for acknowledgement.
Robin's heart was pounding. Execute the poacher? He had believed the Sheriff's lies? Not that Robin's father had had much of an opportunity to defend himself. Robin wasn't sure what had just happened. His father was dragged to the centre of the stage, where a big wheel had been brought out.
Now the crowd was chanting in anticipation. The Sheriff gave the wheel a spin, and it seemed to take forever to come to a stop. When it finally did, the Sheriff yelled “Fire Diggers!” and the crowd erupted into cheering.
Robert was bound by wrists and ankles, hung spread-eagle. A glass bucket full of squirming reddish creatures was produced from somewhere and belted around his waist before the lid was removed. Robin watched all this in growing horror. It was only seconds before his father was screaming in agony, but minutes before Robin realized that the reason was that these 'Fire Diggers' were burrowing into Robert's abdomen while he was still alive.
Robin found he had trouble breathing. Someone was holding him up. He noticed his mother was crying. He was crying too, now. His throat felt sore. Was he screaming? Someone was screaming. There was thunderous applause coming from the audience. Why were they cheering for this? Sound retreated until he could only hear an echoing roar. His pounding heart and constricting chest were the last things he noticed before the edges of his vision faded to black while the centre became a star-burst of blinding white.
Pain soon overcame him and he lost consciousness for the second time that day.