The Exile of Ballastar
By Gray Winsler
Art by Nick Flook
Published Issue 121, January 2024
Some days I wish they had killed me, rather than banish me to this desolate, snake infested rock. But the cowards don’t have the courage to commit such an act. They’d rather me languish here for an eternity than make a martyr out of me. They will have spread lies amongst the people, told them that after decades of service I yearned for a life of peaceful retirement. Nothing could be further from the truth, but people so rarely question the comforting lies fed to them. And so I must find my way off of this planet and reclaim what is mine.
This morning I set off for the southern cliffs. My hope is to find the remains of some wreckage that may furnish the means of my escape. What I found instead was a fox-like creature muzzle-deep in the carcass of an antelope. I called to her, and in an instant she snapped her head toward me. Her eyes were sharp, cunning. She surveyed me the way I may survey a battlefield, in search of my strengths and weaknesses. She seemed a veteran of this planet, light scars marking her nose, and it occurred to me she may make a useful companion in my quest for escape.
I spent the following days studying her. She is a ruthless hunter, a beast after my own heart. From the cliffs I glassed her movements as she hunted down her prey. She is quiet and swift, but what I admired most was her patience. She lay for hours, sometimes days, with her nose fixed on the scent of a gazelle, betraying not so much as a twitch as she waited for her moment. And when the moment came, she allowed her prey a mere instant of recognition before dealing the killing blow.
These creatures shouldn’t even be here. It was one of man’s greatest disappointments, to venture out into the cosmos and find it, against all odds, void of life. As a species, we are always lonely, and always in search of ways to make ourselves feel less alone. And so we sent life out into the universe, the way one may cast a beam of light into an empty abyss. I suppose I should consider myself lucky, else I’d be truly alone on this world.
She kept me at a distance for a time. It took months of careful study and gradual endearments to earn her trust. I would bring her food from the cache left for me, scraps of bacon and steak, entreating her to come closer. Eventually, she came to trust me enough to eat the scraps straight from my palm. I remember that first time, the way her whiskers tickled my hand. It made me chuckle, something I’m not sure I’ve done since I was a kid.
She has been my sole companion in this world since that day. Together we have explored what little this planet has to offer. We have trekked up to its highest cliffs, ventured down into its deepest ravines — and we have found nothing. Not so much as a scrap. It seems I am condemned to this place. And yet, I cannot say that prospect weighs on me as it did when I first arrived. I will not give up my search, but I will also continue to savor the joy of the hunt with Freya. Together, we have tracked down antelope side by side, and in the evenings sat by the firelight together enjoying the rewards of our hunt. It is a primitive life, one I never thought I’d live, yet alone find fulfillment in. But it has given me a peace I have never known.
In my life before exile there were few moments of rest. I thrived on the inertia, the endless complications on the road to power. But I confess I have come to enjoy merely sitting on a couch, watching the moons rise with Freya. She loves a good scratch behind the ears, and it gives me no small amount of joy to scratch them for her. Before, I would have dismissed such pleasures as little more than distractions for the feckless masses. But I suppose it is one of the great artifacts of mankind, that we can always recalibrate our expectations and, in our best moments, find joy in the little things.
And despite all this time together, she still finds ways to surprise me. There was a time I fell ill, taken by some brutal parasite born from god knows what crevice. I spent days able to do little more than lie as a corpse, trembling at the slightest breeze. I expected Freya to take leave of me, to see the state I was in and, confident in my demise, venture out on her own again. But for days she kept to my side, her warmth the solitary comfort I felt. Even as I wretched and moaned she showed no desire to leave. I have never been loved in this way, so … unconditionally. I can’t say there is a man is this world I would place as much trust in as her.
I once heard an ancient general reflect that he always admits when he is wrong, it is simply that he never is. I find these to be the words of a dolt. The true tactician never ceases to find their mistakes and to root them out with fervor. I have no one to blame for my exile but myself. I betrayed my master, I bit the hand that feeds. And once you bite the hand, you have mere moments to devour the whole before the hand slips from your jaws and smacks you back into place. I was impatient and slow, and I have learned from Freya these are not the traits of a huntress. Still, this was not my gravest mistake.
Freya and I went on an expedition this evening — through one of the few remaining canyons we’d yet to search. She kept to my side as we wound through the smooth, reddened cliffs. But suddenly, she picked up a scent and in an instant started off after it. I shouted after her, but there can be nothing to stop a predator once it’s caught the scent of its prey. I gave chase, ducking into a small cave carved out from the rock. When I found her, she was snarling at a snake of crimson red scales. Its head reared back, and from it came a menacing hiss that prickled the hairs on my neck. I called to her, I begged her to come. But she could not hear. She was in another world, fixed on her prey.
I edged closer, hoping I might be able to bash the vile serpent myself. I was slow, delicate, careful not to break the brittle tension that hung between the two. But I was too slow. Freya snarled, and the serpent lunged at her, burying its fangs in her leg as she yelped. Heedless now I leapt forward and ripped the thing off her, slamming its head violently against the now blood-smeared rocks of the cave until it writhed no more.
When I turned back to Freya she was already stiff, on her side, breath shallow. I cradled her into my arms and sprinted back to our shelter. “Stay with me girl,” I whispered. “You are strong. You are the greatest huntress I have ever known.” In all the battles I have fought, all the people I have lost, I have never known a fear like I did in this moment.
By the time we made it back, she was already gone. I held her close to my chest and walked to our couch, so that we may watch one last moonrise together. And as the moons rose, I scratched her ears one last time, and whispered, “Goodnight, my huntress.”
Gray Winsler is the first ginger to be published in Birdy Magazine, Issue 091. He loved living in Denver despite his allergy to the sun and is now based in Ithaca, NY. He spends his mornings with his dog Indy by his side, writing as much as possible before his 9-to-5. If you’re curious about Normal, IL or why TacoBell is bomb, you can find more on his site.
Nick Flook aka Flooko is “the O.G astronaut painter” and takes his fans on adventures through original acrylic paintings and animations. This Toronto-based artist specializes in surrealism, space-themed work and impressionistic city and landscapes. See more of his work on his site and follow him on Instagram for more work.