Stanley H Tweedle, Junior, slunk into the room, hoping - uselessly - that the holographic tutor might be looking somewhere else. Some hope.........
       "Tweedle!!!" The grating mechanical voice lashed his ears almost as sharply as the electronic cane would lash his knuckles as soon as he sat down. He winced in anticipation and reluctantly raised his head.
       At the front of the small storage room that was currently serving duty as the local classroom, the towering image of the tutor glowered down at the boy.
       "Late again! Third time this week - and it's only day 2!! Ten demerits - and you'll stay after class to catch up on what you've missed. Now sit down!"
       Stanley sat. This time the shock came from underneath, and he nearly leapt out of his seat, biting back a screech, as a mild electric charge licked across his skinny backside. His desk-mate, a plump, freckled girl with a slight squint, giggled behind her hand.
       "Weedy Tweedle got it again....."
       He scowled at her. "It's not fair! It's not my fault the elevator stuck again and I had to walk......."
       She pinched his leg, stuck out her tongue, and ducked her head back down to the lesson on the desk-screen, leaving Stanley to fume under the tutor's beady gaze.....

       Later - much later - as Stanley slouched his way back home (the long way - even missing supper was preferable to spending any longer than absolutely necessary in the miasmic atmosphere of his parents' apartment) he muttered to himself under his breath.
       "Don't see why they can't send me to school on Radon 7. I mean, it's not fair. Why've I got to stay on this dung-heap?"
       From habit, he stuck out his lower lip in a somewhat less than attractive pout, and kicked at the rubbish littering the passage. It was no fun, being the latest in a long line of Tweedles. His father, like his father, and his father too, went under the title of "Recycling and Sanitation Consultant" - which was a grandiose way of saying he got sent to every secondary resource planet in turn, to sort out their sewerage problems. And, not seeing why he should suffer alone, he always took his wife and son with him........
       So all 10-year old Stanley Tweedle, Junior, had ever really known was the smell of decay, the livid colours of rotting offal, and the grim reality of knowing that, even amongst his peers, he was considered the lowest of the low. It wasn't much of a life for a young boy, and it's understandable that - even when he was supposed to be concentrating on important things like the education that might finally allow him to break free of the destiny his father had in mind for him - he spent so much of his time in daydreaming. Now, as he straggled slowly homewards, his mind spun heroic dreams behind his eyes......

       He'd heard of the Heretics, of course - they all had. And they all knew that Austral B was the headquarters of the most revolutionary group of all. Stanley had heard the other kids talking about them, in excited lowered voices, and wished with all his heart he knew one of them. Or someone who knew one of them. Or even someone whose friend's sister's second-cousin's husband knew one of them!! Just so he could claim a tiny, tiny bit of glory for himself. He imagined himself the centre of a breathless group of kids, all listening to his stories with bated breath: he imagined the prettiest of his classmates, Eve, whose ash-blonde braids were always slightly askew, and whose bright blue gaze usually skated over his face without registering he was there - ohhhhhh, the things he could imagine about Eve! Stanley may be young, but he'd spied on his parents on many occasions in the past, and had a fair idea that his 'equipment' was destined for more interesting uses than simply making patterns in the dust!
       Lost in youthful, hopeful daydreams, he hadn't realised quite where he'd been wandering. Cracking his shin - quite painfully - against a block of broken masonry brought him back to himself.
       "Owwww!!!" He hopped up and down for a moment, clutching the injured limb, then glared furiously at the obstacle. It was brightly coloured in purple and a sort of sunset-peach colour, with indecipherable script lightly painted on it in blue. It was pretty. It didn't belong on this grey, hopelessly dismal planet. Stanley sighed deeply, gritting his teeth and forcing back sudden, unexpected tears. He sat down on the alien obstruction and rubbed at his leg, then ran his hand over the surface of the block. Flakes of paint and powdery stone came away in his fingers. Someone had thrown away this pretty thing, and now it was dead. It was worthless now. Somehow, it typified everything his life was about.

       Stanley didn't know how long he sat there, fading dreams of glory battling with reality in his head. Finally, the hungry gurglings of his stomach distracted him, and he began to think of how he was to return home.....
       Actually, Stanley knew most of the complex in which he'd spent the last three years, and was able, with only two false turns, to find his way back to the main path fairly speedily. He sighed disconsolately as he recognised the tunnel that led home, and hesitated. If he hadn't been so hungry........ Notions of running away, stowing away on the next dumper-ship, making his own way to Austral B, churned through his mind. But his stomach was crying now, and he'd never really been brave..... And maybe his parents would miss him......And he had a project to finish for school..... He sniffled to himself. Any excuse!! If Stanley had known exactly what the word 'coward' had meant, he'd probably have said it to himself at this point.......

       As he walked slowly, reluctantly, along the dimly-lit passageway, he heard, very faintly, a scuffling in the darkness to one side, and a strange little sound. There were always strange little sounds along the passageways and tunnels of Grudgyun 2: they had their counterpart in the stranger, louder and altogether more threatening noises you heard on the surface. But this one was stranger than most, and Stanley, almost against his will, went to investigate. Though perhaps it was just another way to delay his return to the apartment.
       The noise was coming from a particularly dark and gloomy corner. As Stanley ignited his glow-stick, he just caught sight of a long-multiple-legged thing scuttling away into a deeper recess before his gaze was stopped dead by the thing that was stuck in the splidre's web. He frowned and peered more closely.
       He'd seen them at a distance, sometimes, hovering and darting above and around the stagnant, stinking pools that dotted the surface. Even then he'd wondered how something so...... jewel-bright, and delicate...... could survive here. But he'd never seen one close up until now.
       Huge, iridescent, facetted eyes stared into his - desperately, he thought - and enormous lacy wings twitched helplessly, trapped in the sticky web. The long, graceful body throbbed, as though panting helplessly, despairingly. Stanley reached for the bug, very, very gently, and began to pull the web carefully away from its frail form........
       It took him a long time. The bug must have somehow lost its way, and flown into the web well before suns'set, if the intricacy of its entanglement was anything to go by. But finally Stanley had freed it from the web.
       It had to perch on his forearm - it was far too big to fit on his hand. Slender legs preened at its still slightly sticky wings, and its eyes flickered and glowed in the glow-stick's gentle light. Stanley regarded it with some awe. The insect head inclined slightly, and the human boy smiled shyly.
       "You want me to take you above?" He hadn't really expected an answer, but the beautiful wings fluttered ever so slightly, which he took for a 'yes'. Stanley stood up, carefully, and even more carefully carried his bug out of the smelly complex, away from the grime and rubble and decay, out into the red-cloudy night and the thin wind that tried its best to bring a little freshness to the surface.......
       Stanley stumbled to the nearest dark pond, noticing - just in passing - that at night it bloomed with rainbow colours, sparkling faintly..... and held out his arm for the bug to fly free. The creature gazed at him for a long moment, as if memorising his face. Then it hummed faintly, vibrating its wings into a froth of silver and electric blue as it rose slowly and hovered above Stanley's head, then soared into the swirling sky, leaving a faintly shimmering trail behind it.

       Stanley sat on a man-made, man-discarded rock beside the pool, gazing into the sky after the bug. For once his mind was still.
       But there was, later, a shimmering, iridescent outline to his dreams.........

© Joules Taylor 1998

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