It was two hours to midnight, and the sun was setting in the North. A blanket of thick fog was eddying around the high points of the Drashivan jungle, now obscuring the hills and now revealing them. Keldan was reminded of a bath house on Crek Prime and the sight of the fat balding aliens gliding in and out of the steam. He chuckled to himself, and ran a hand over his own receding hairline, removing the sweat that was gathering there. He rubbed his fingers together and peered once more into the sweltering jungle before returning to the relative shelter of the Fallingstar’s cave-like cargo bay, which was currently standing open to the humid air. His Flightmaster, a serious and level-headed Kollimarian, was deftly sorting a stack of papers with his long, alien fingers.
“San, who did you say the message was from?”
“There was no name, Captain. Just a request for urgent, immediate passage off this world. One passenger.”
“Was there a security code?”
“No. The inhabitants of this planet don’t use technology. It was likely a message delivered by hand. But the Drashiva City transit authority cleared the message as authentic.”
“Okay. We’ll wait until dark. Another hour at most, but I’d like to be off before total nightfall. I don’t trust the look of this place, and that red moon doesn’t cast much light.”
“I agree, Captain. We don’t have enough information about this planet to ensure The Fallingstar’s safety.”
Keldan nodded. They would leave before dark.
He turned his attention back to Drashiva City. An inapprorpriate name for the place. It was not really a city at all, just an area of jungle which had been razed and flattened to create a landing place for ships and a loitering place for travelers unfortunate enough to be on Drashiva. It was not populated by Drashivan natives, either, but a random assortment of alien merchants selling technology, trinkets, contraband chemicals. A few other ships of various sizes and origins were parked nearby, and The Fallingstar’s nearest neighbor was just getting ready to depart. Keldan stepped off the end of the cargo bay ramp, to observe its takeoff, his feet sank into the thick grass, and the jungle’s hot, noxious breath wafted over him. The sun was sinking low, casting a glow over the landscape that made everything seem, if possible, even hotter. Keldan squinted into the light. There was something there, at the edge of the plateau—something, or someone, was coming out of the jungle.
The person staggered and fell forward, and then struggled again to stand. San had seen it too, a dim shapeless silhouette emerging from the glowing mist. He came quietly to Keldan’s side. They watched as the figure regained its vertical and continued toward them. A few moments later its form became clearer and they could see it was a Drashivan female. Her face was partially wrapped in a cloth, despite the heat, and she was hurrying—or trying to hurry, as she was clearly too exhausted to move quickly. She tripped on something and down she went a second time. Instinctively, Keldan took a step forward.
“Wait a moment,” San said in a low voice, and caught Keldan’s arm.
A group of Drashivan men were coming out of the jungle. They emerged onto the plateau, following the same trajectory as the girl. They were walking at a steady pace, following rather than chasing her. One of them caught up to her, and dragged her to her feet by her upper left arm. With a rough shove, he pushed her forward. Keldan could hear the men goading her with their voices, in a language he could not understand.
“Is your translation device working, San?”
“I believe it is. But I cannot understand them. This dialect must not be in the databank.”
“Call Mirralu,” Keldan instructed.
San went over to the wall where he pulled a small lever, and spoke into the wall.
“Mirralu, can you join the Captain and me in the loading bay? Thank you.”
San returned to Keldan’s side. The procession of Drashivans had come nearer, and Keldan’s body flooded with adrenaline as he saw that his ship seemed to be their destination. The Drashivan men were tall, each with four lean and muscular arms, each with dark red skin and black eyes—completely black, with no white at all, like the eyes of insects. They wore clean, elegant robes and terrible, solemn expressions. The female was similar, but softer, smaller. Her plain, simple dress was stained with jungle clay and tied around the waist with a vine. Keldan frowned as they drew nearer, studying the bruises and welts, and cuts on her face and body. With one final shove, the young woman landed in a heap in the long grass several paces off the edge of the Fallingstar’s cargo bay ramp.
Keldan felt a hand on his back, and looked around. Mirralu was Drashivan, but had lived most of her life on Keldan’s planet, Vingos. The top of her head barely reached his shoulder.
“Oh dear,” she said, looking at the scene with concern. “What is this?”
“I don’t know. I was hoping you could explain. Can you understand what they’re saying?”
Two of the Drashivan males were standing over the female, involved in a discussion which was rapidly becoming an argument. One was holding a long, sharp spear, and the other was wearing a red sash across his chest. With a sudden movement that made Mirralu gasp, the spear was pointed at the exposed side of the girl, who lay trembling at their feet.
“What are they saying?” Keldan pressed.
“I cannot understand their meaning,” Mirralu muttered. “I hear a few familiar words, but the phrases are . . . ah, I don’t understand. The dialect is strange. They speak too fast.”
“What words do you hear?” San asked.
“Kayon. And Ordru. These are Drashivan deities. I also hear the word for whore. And law. I think that they are trying to decide on a punishment for her.”
“What has she done?”
“That is not clear to me.”
The argument had reached a breaking point. One of the males, the one with the spear, took another step towards the girl, and she began to cry out.
“She is calling to her god,” Mirralu whispered.
The girl’s cries seemed to enrage the group of men. A few placed their hands over their ears. Others nodded, and the one with the sash seemed now in agreement with his angry-eyed countrymen that the woman deserved death. He stepped back and stopped arguing with the man who held the spear. The spear-holder moved with grim intent and the girl continued to cry out in panic, her four arms wrapped around her head.
“Oh, mi karo!” Mirralu said, gripping Keldan’s arm. “We must do something!”
“He will kill her, Captain,” San said, his quiet voice as taut as the strings of a galeharp.
Keldan stepped off the ramp and moved toward the huge Drashivan with the spear. He put his hands up, palms toward them. He hoped this would be perceived as a non-threatening gesture, but for all he knew it was some kind of insult on their world. But anything was better than standing by helplessly, watching an execution.
“Is that our passenger?” he asked. The Drashivans looked up, surprised, as if they had just noticed him.
Knowing they would not understand him, he tried to keep his voice level and calm.
“We’ll take her on board if she’s no longer welcome here. There’s no need to do her any harm.”
The Drashivan men looked at each other and the one with the spear stepped forward and cocked his head menacingly. The Drashivan warrior and the Captain stared at each other for a moment, and then the Drashivan bared his teeth and advanced toward Keldan, pointing the spear at him. San strode forward to join Keldan, to show his support and the Drashivans murmured and stepped back, startled by his alien appearance. They were used to seeing Keldan’s race, as many of the merchants in Drashiva City were from Keldan’s planet. But San was unfamiliar to them.
Taking advantage of this momentary distraction, Mirralu bustled forward and stood over the girl. Hands on her ample hips, she began to scold the young men in a loud voice.
“Pahreva!” she shrieked, pointing at the girl and then at the men. “Pahreva! Kayon ti pahreva. Vasa ti pahreva!”
The Drashivan men began to look around nervously, and a few stared down at their feet. The one with the red sash called to the spear-man. He hesitated, intent on carrying out his killing, but his leader checked him with another low warning. Growling, the warrior turned on his heel and stalked back to join the group, but before he left the girl, he sneered and spat at her. As soon as the spear-carrier joined the other men, the sash-wearer walked away and the others were obliged to follow.
Keldan and his friends watched in tense silence until the group of men reached the jungle’s edge and disappeared among the trees.
Mirralu knelt by the young woman and began to cluck and shush as the girl reached up and clung to her with all four arms, sobbing and uttering grateful sounds. The sun was now only a livid line on the horizon, and the chirps and chatterings of waking night animals could be heard in the valleys. Keldan and San stepped forward and helped Mirralu carry the half-conscious girl into the protective belly of the ship. Keldan gave the order to close the bay doors, and San called for Naleth, the ship’s medic. Mirralu continued to offer whatever comfort she could to the young woman, whose head was now resting on Mirralu’s wide breast, her thick black curly hair matted with blood and dirt. They stood around her, waiting for the medic and his attendants to arrive.
Keldan knelt by the two Drashivan women. “You’re a hero, Mirralu.”
“Yes,” San agreed. “What you did was very brave.”
The wounded girl whimpered. “Shh, now,” Mirralu cooed, and brushed the matted curls away from her face.
Naleth, the medic, came hurrying into the loading bay, followed by two attendants with a stretcher. He crouched down and gave the patient a cursory examination, and then instructed that she be lifted gently onto the stretcher and carried immediately to the medic’s bay. Intent on his job, he said nothing to San or Mirralu, and gave the Captain only a quick glance and a nod. As the attendants carried the Drashivan girl away, he followed in their wake, his pale blond hair shining under the harsh loading bay lights.
Just then, the Fallingstar’s hull creaked a little, and the lights flickered.
“Must be a storm on the way,” Keldan said. San nodded.
“Shall I return to the bridge, Captain?”
“Yes, alert the crew to take her up.”
San nodded and left the loading bay at a businesslike pace.
Keldan turned to Mirralu and offered her his arm, which she took. Her brave act had left her slightly out of breath but she was trying to hide it. Keldan slowed his pace accordingly and they strolled together through the cargo bay toward the aft corridor.
“What did you say to them, Mirra?”
“I asked them to have compassion. Pahreva is the word for pity. But I was lucky they understood me. There are many Drashivan dialects.”
“Why were they so angry with the girl?”
“I cannot tell you with certainty, but I can guess. Did you hear her call out to Ordru? That is blasphemy. Kayon is the legitimate god of the Drashivans, and Ordru is his enemy. I told them that Kayon has pity, and that they should also have pity.”
“How did you know that Kayon has compassion on his enemies?”
“I didn’t. I have not studied Drashivan theology, but I do know that mercy to an enemy is a highly-honored virtue among my people. And I have observed that a person’s gods are usually a reflection of themselves, and of their values. Again, I was lucky.”
Keldan refused to imagine what might have happened had that luck failed.
“So, what are you telling me? Is she a heretic? A servant of evil spirits?”
Mirralu gave Keldan a sidelong glance; she was used to his teasing.
“I will have to get to know the girl before I can answer you, Captain.”
“Well, I look forward to a full report immediately.”
“Perhaps immediately after she is feeling better?”
“More to the point, immediately after Naleth lets us into the medic’s bay.”
“We may be waiting a long time, mi karo. He put up another sign yesterday. Something about all non-patients giving him twelve hours’ notice before visiting.”
Grumbling, Keldan stepped to the intercom, jammed his thumb onto the com button.
“Fedar, are you there?”
“I’m here, Captain,” a woman’s voice replied.
“Go and remind Naleth that his signage is against ship’s policy.”
“Am I authorized to shoot him if he resists?”
Keldan heard the wry smile in the security officer’s voice and played along.
“I’ve been looking forward to trying out the new torture chamber we picked up on Katikan. Let’s start with that, alright?”
“And if it doesn’t work?”
“Then you can shoot him. Keldan out.”
Mirralu smiled and gave the Captain an affectionate pat on the shoulder. As she headed away toward her quarters, Keldan watched the old Drashivan lady, seeing her familiar alien shape with new eyes. He had known Mirralu for many years, but until today she was the only Drashivan he had ever met. Until today, he had unwittingly assumed the whole race to be rather small and squat. But now he knew that Mirralu was simply a bent, weathered example of a strong, beautiful people. Maybe she too had been beautiful in her youth.
Keldan turned up the corridor on his way back to the bridge of the ship, hands in his pockets as he walked. He was in no hurry—San and the other pilots were more than capable of handling the takeoff procedures. As the ship’s engines rumbled into life, The Fallingstar’s sides began to shudder and creak again under the strength of the sudden storm. Keldan climbed the stairs to the second level, and then the third, and walked out onto the third-level corridor, which was just above the engines. The third-level corridor was lined with wide viewing windows, and Keldan glanced outside as he walked. At first, what he was seeing didn’t register.
He stopped short. He turned and stared out at the jungle as another huge shudder passed through the ship. Under the clear night sky, the hills were at peace. The trees were not tossing, and the fog was still curling slowly in the humid air. Keldan’s eyes grew wide as the ship again shook and rocked, so violently that he thought her bolts would come loose. Whatever it was, it was not a storm.
“Captain,” San’s voice came crackling through the intercom. “I don’t know what’s affecting the ship, but it isn’t a weather system. It may be preventing takeoff. And The Fallingstar can’t take too many tremors like that last one.”
“I’ll be right there,” Keldan called back, and took off running toward the helm.
“What is it?” Keldan demanded as soon the bridge doors opened. He moved automatically to his station in the center of the circular bridge. His station was one of four podiums arranged in a ring, and outfitted with computer consoles. In the center of the four podiums was a holographic image of the ship.
All three of his fellow pilots were deep in study of the diagram rotating between them, and Flightmaster San was speaking into a headset, communicating with the engine crew. Another terrific tremor hit the ship.
“Someone answer me, now!” Keldan barked.
San was standing at the station to his right, station two. He pulled the headset from his ears. “Sorry, Captain, I was. . .”
“Stop apologizing and give me answers.”
“We have none, Captain,” San said, regarding Keldan with wide, unblinking eyes that despite his calm demeanor betrayed his distress—the pupils were dilated to alarming enormity, almost eclipsing the orange irises. “The engine crew says there is nothing wrong with the engine or any of the other systems. And there’s nothing going on outside the ship. No wind, no atmospheric or geological disturbances. . .”
“I’m getting reports of micro-fractures in the outer hull, Captain.”
This interruption came from Mennosha, the young Vingosi man who stood at station three, directly across from the Captain.
Another giant tremor shook the ship, and all four of them instinctively gripped the handrails on their consoles and braced their legs.
“Increase power to the structural field,” Keldan ordered, responding to Mennosha’s report.
“It’s already at full power, Captain.”
At the ship’s bow there was a circular viewport, half of which stood on the bridge level, like a setting sun frozen mid-set on a flat horizon. Keldan looked out the viewport, watching the peaceful jungle with narrowed eyes. “But there’s nothing out there,” he said.
“The hull’s not buckling on its own,” Mennosha argued.
“Could it be an energy-based life form?”
“Maybe. I’ll scan for it.” Mennosha’s fingers flew over the console.
“There is an energy disturbance of some kind, Captain,” he said, studying the computer’s readings. “But the Fallingstar doesn’t recognize it as anything specific.”
Wham! Something slammed into the side of the ship, half-lifting it from its landing. It felt like a gigantic angry animal was throwing its weight against the ship’s hull. A soft, sweet voice came into Keldan’s mind, pleading with him, giving him whispered instructions.
Keldan frowned, listening intently to the voice, and then suddenly began calling out to his crew.
“Shut everything down!” he ordered as he paced around the bridge. “Everything. All EM signatures. Engines.” San’s orange eyes widened in shock.
Keldan glared at him and set his jaw. “Trust me, this will work.” He glanced upward in the subtlest way possible, so that only San would see it. San responded with a nod of his head that was barely perceptible. Only San knew about her and Keldan wanted to keep it that way.
“Shut down all systems,” San ordered, through his headset. “Engines completely powered down. All cabin lights off. All personal computer stations off. Everything with an electrical signature must be turned off. All sections report to me when this is done. Mennosha, keep scanning for EM signatures and let me know our status. . .”
A voice came through the intercom. “I have a patient in stasis down here, San. Can we make an exception? Interrupting the healing cycle is not a good idea. Could send her into shock.”
“Naleth, there’s one EM dampener on board,” San said. “It’s in the locker on level two. Can you get there?”
“I can get there faster,” said Fedar, from the station on Keldan’s left.
“Go, quick,” Keldan said, nodding at her. She immediately turned and sprinted through the double doors. The ship was beginning to go dark as lights winked out around them. Keldan watched Mennosha’s face fade from sight as the floating holographic ship hovering between them lost power and disappeared into blackness.
Keldan felt his way over to the wall and pressed a panel there, which popped open. He took out a handful of bioluminescent emergency lamps, and gave one to San and one to Mennosha. The three of them stood waiting in silence, represented to one another only by three pale green orbs hovering in the pitch dark. After a moment or two, Naleth’s voice floated in.
“Fedar is here with the EM dampener. We’re setting it up over the stasis tube, stand by.”
A moment later: “Okay, we’ve got it.”
“No EM signatures present, Captain,” Mennosha confirmed. He paced over to the viewport window and knelt to make a small adjustment to an electrical panel there. The silhouette of his ponytailed profile was barely visible against the dim circle of moonlight outside. All was quiet.
Keldan scowled, waiting for the next tremor.
“It’s been a full five minutes since the last episode, Captain,” Mennosha reported. “Up until now the tremors were less than four minutes apart.”
“I’m going to take a look around,” Keldan said. “San. . .”
“I’ll keep an eye on things here, Captain.”
Keldan nodded and left the bridge. Holding the bioluminescent lamp out in front of his face, he headed for the corridor he knew was just a few feet in front of him. The Fallingstar was a roughly spherical ship, with two hulls, one nested inside the other. The outer hull contained the bridge, the engineering section, and most of the storage compartments. The inner section held the passenger cabins, the medic’s bay, the dining hall and the recreation rooms. Between the outer and inner sections there was a churning layer of water which rotated swiftly between the two hulls, contributing centrifugal force to the ship’s artificial gravity system. A series of tunnels called “links” passed through the water like tunnels so that crew and passengers could get easily from one to the other. Keldan entered one of the links, heading for the innermost section of the ship, the passenger cabins and medic’s bay. Usually the links were lit, and the water was visible through the thick transparent walls, but now he walked through in total darkness. He could hear the quiet sound of rushing water.
He passed through the dark tunnel and emerged into the passenger section of the ship, an open courtyard surrounded by five levels of passenger cabins. Above the courtyard was another round viewport, many times larger than the one on the bow. The ship was still sitting on the planet, and it was nighttime, so the courtyard was flooded with sultry Drashivan moonlight. Candles had also been lit, and could be seen glowing in cabin windows on all five levels. Keldan stashed his bioluminescent lamp and descended another flight of stairs to the first level. As he passed the medic’s bay, he slowed down and looked in. Several candles were burning, and Naleth was kneeling in front of a large stone statue of Equus, one of the six Vingosi gods worshipped by the six Vingosi tribes. Naleth’s eyes were closed, and his palms were open toward the statue, his lips moving soundlessly.
Naleth and Mennosha were brothers, and had both come from the tribe of Equus on the planet Vingos. Keldan was also from Vingos, but he came from a tribe called Gulo. Vingosi history told of six animal spirits which led a small group of people away from their previous home, during a great war. Much of the history of that previous world had been lost, but they knew that it was on the brink of its destruction when their ancestors fled. And they knew its name: Earth.
The Captain glanced away from the praying medic and noticed the Drashivan girl lying in her stasis tube, unconscious. He took a few steps toward her, and gazed at her battered face. The bruises and welts were already looking less severe than they had an hour ago. Her dark curly hair was arranged like a halo around her face.
“She’s going to be alright, Captain,” Naleth said. Rising from his place in front of the statue, he smiled and came over to stand next to the Captain. Naleth was much more educated and confident than his younger brother, but Keldan preferred Mennosha’s face, and his company, to the medic’s.
“Are you going to credit Equus for her health?”
“Of course. Equus knows I carry his burdens, and he hears me.”
Keldan looked down at the girl lying peaceful and unaware in her stasis tube and a thought occurred to him. “Naleth, you were a priest or something, right?”
“I was a servant in the temple of Equus.”
“Okay. So, you know about gods.”
“I don’t know if any man really knows about gods. But I have made a study of Vingosi theology and the history of our deities.”
“Has Equus. . . or Gulo or Cygnus or any of the other gods on Vingos. . . ever attacked a ship?”
“There are some very ancient stories of the gods bringing weather or plagues of insects or illness against men who displeased them. But to be honest, I have never personally seen a god interfere with men, nor have any of the other priests I know. Why do you ask?”
“I just wondered if a god might attack a ship.”
“Why would a god be displeased with a ship?”
“Maybe the god was angry with something the ship’s captain did.”
Naleth moved closer and placed his hand on Keldan’s shoulder, and out of politeness Keldan restrained the urge to move away. “Are you talking about Gulo?”
“I don’t worship Gulo. I never did. I don’t think the Vingosi gods really exist.”
“Then why worry about angering them?”
“It’s not them I’m worried about. This Drashivan girl was left here by her tribe. She was calling out to a god or a demon or something. The men who brought her here seemed genuinely afraid of her, or maybe they were afraid of this being, I don’t know. They were going to end her life, but I interfered. And now the ship is in danger from some kind of energy disturbance and I can’t shake the feeling it’s. . . I don’t know. I guess I get the feeling someone or something doesn’t want her to leave the planet.”
“An energy being is not necessarily a god,” Naleth said.
“I’m not saying it has to be a real god, if there is such a thing. I’m just saying that maybe energy beings exist and people call them gods.”
“Maybe gods exist and we call them energy beings.”
“Whatever it is, I think it’s angry with me.”
“You called me a priest, so I will give you a priest’s answer: if this god is your god, you must find a way to appease him. If he is not your god, you must hope that your god is strong enough to protect you.”
“What if I don’t have a god?”
“Then you must hope that whoever or whatever you trust is strong enough to protect you.”
Keldan looked out into the dark corridor where a hundred or so tiny lights were flickering in the windows of the passenger cabins, representing the hundred or so people living there. They were trusting him, waiting for him to make the right decision, waiting for him to protect them. He liked taking care of them. He didn’t need gifts or appeasing. This was why he didn’t believe in gods. They always wanted something before they would help you.
“I’m going to take a walk and check on the status of our passengers,” Keldan said. “Keep me informed about the patient. I’d like to speak with her when she wakes up.”
“I will, Captain.”
Keldan left the medic’s bay and crossed the courtyard, heading for the passenger cabins on the opposite side. As he walked over the soft lawn, he heard giggling behind him and turned to find two small alien children watching him with curiosity. They were from Brinalya, a world the Fallingstar had visited a few dayspans back. Like most of Keldan’s passengers, the Brinalyans had come aboard looking for employment. Work shortages were common in this sector, and sometimes the only recourse people had was to travel to other worlds. Labor transports like The Fallingstar were fairly common.
The Brinalyan children stood in the shadow of a tree. Their eyes were yellow, their faces furry and and sleek like the face of Felis. They showed their tiny fangs as they smiled at him, and he knelt down, encouraging them to approach. They ran over, and laughed as they touched his hairless forehead and cheeks with their soft hands, fascinated by the feel of his bare skin.
“I’m Captain Keldan,” he said.
“Hi,” said the boy alien. The translation device altered the boy’s language, but his small voice kept a distinctly animal-like quality, and Keldan was reminded of the chirps and calls of his childhood pet, a stray feline that had shown up on the doorstep of his parents’ farmhouse on Vingos.
“I like your uniform,” said the girl, touching the brass buttons on the shoulder of Keldan’s dark blue jacket.
“Why are we using candles tonight?” the boy asked.
“We’re. . . playing a game,” Keldan said. The girl ran off to smell a patch of flowers nearby. The boy stayed to pursue his line of questioning.
“How do we win?”
“Well, we’re hiding for now. Hiding from our opponent. He’s playing with us, making us stay on the ground. We win when we’re able to get back into the sky.”
“What’s his name?”
Just then, there came a sudden noise—the unmistakable rumbling sound of the engines in their pre-launch sequence. Keldan stood, frowning. He had not ordered a takeoff.
“What’s his name, Captain Keldan?” the little Brinalyan boy asked again.
Ignoring the child, Keldan moved quickly to an intercom station at the base of a tree. The alien girl joined her brother and they both trotted after him, watching intently. He pressed the button on the com.
“San, what’s going on?”
The Flightmaster did not answer him.
The boy alien tugged on Keldan’s jacket. “Captain Keldan, what’s our opponent’s name? In the game! What’s his name?”
Keldan felt a surge of irrational anger and he snapped at the child.
“His name is Kayon!” He did not know why he had spoken the name of the Drashivans’ god, but he somehow knew without a doubt it was the right answer. His name is Kayon.
The children gasped, looked at each other with wide eyes and then scampered off, giggling and pretending to be terrified. But Keldan’s heart was pounding with real, adult fear as the Fallingstar lifted straight up from the ground, moving toward space with insane speed and under a foreign power.
“Captain, are you there?”
Keldan was not able to answer immediately—the shocking speed of the ship’s takeoff had divested him of breath. Fedar repeated her question.
“Yes. . . yes, I’m here.”
“I just returned to the bridge and found San unconscious on the floor, and Kanak at the controls. He was at your station, Captain. He ordered the takeoff.”
“Kanak?” Keldan scrunched his brow, trying to remember the name.
“Yes, he’s on the maintenance crew.”
“Oh. What was he doing on the bridge?”
“I suppose he went up there after we left San alone. He wouldn’t relinquish control. I shot him, sir.”
“Good for you.”
“Is the ship back under our control?”
“We’re stuck on autopilot. I can’t alter the flight heading.”
“Where are we headed?
“Straight toward the Drashivan sun, sir.”
“I guess Kanak likes the heat.”
“He says he doesn’t remember doing any of it.”
“Kanak can explain himself later. How long until we enter the corona?”
“At this speed we will reach the corona in twenty minutes.”
“Right. Keep doing what you can from there. I’ll find Mennosha.”
Moments ago, Keldan had been sure that some kind of demon had overtaken his ship; now, the idea seemed ludicrous. He shook his head, scolding himself inwardly. It had been a person taking over the controls. Why hadn’t he automatically assumed that explanation? He chalked it up to the darkness and the candles and the children playing their game. The lights were coming back on slowly, but the medic’s bay was still shrouded in darkness.
Keldan could hear Mennosha’s voice coming from inside.
“Naleth, I had to be at my station. I have a job to do.”
“Mennosha, I understand that you are concerned about your duty. I think that’s a good quality. But we agreed when we came on board that our duties to Equus would come first. And I need to know that in a crisis I can depend on you to be here, with me, in prayer. Or do you no longer believe?”
“I was in prayer. At my station.”
“Your attention was divided. And you were not kneeling before him.”
Mennosha bowed his head, and put a hand up nervously to touch his long hair where it was tied at the base of his skull. He muttered something inaudible. Naleth put out his hand and roughly lifted his brother’s chin.
“I think Equus hears us no matter where we are.”
“You think he does, do you? And what do you base that on?”
Mennosha shrugged and shoved his hands in his pockets. He was only an inch shorter than Naleth, with a stronger, broader frame, but he seemed to shrink when Naleth spoke to him.
“Well, why wouldn’t he hear me?”
“I’m not going to argue with you, Mennosha. You know what’s right.”
From the doorway, Keldan cleared his throat and walked into the room as if he had heard nothing.
“Mennosha, I need you. We have a problem.”
“Of course, Captain. Naleth, can we talk later?”
Naleth didn’t respond to his brother. He had turned his back and was facing the statue again. The statue of Equus was the figure of a man with a horse’s head, and its arms were extended out from its body as if prepared to catch someone who was falling from above.
Naleth was busy placing strips of fabric and flowers on its outstretched arms.
Mennosha left the medic’s bay with Keldan and they hurried toward the bridge. Keldan glanced over at his fellow pilot. Mennosha’s round blue eyes were staring straight ahead, but his mind was obviously very far away.
“What was Naleth doing?” Keldan asked.
“To the statue. What was he putting on its arms?”
Keldan couldn’t think of a good response to this, so he launched into an explanation of the problem they were facing on the bridge, and Mennosha nodded solemnly as he listened. They stopped at the entrance to the link, which was now relit and glowing its usual blue, the swirling water visible through the thick transparent walls of the tunnel.
“It sounds like Kanak rerouted the controls through a sub-system,” Mennosha said. “I can fix that. How much time do we have?”
“Twenty minutes. More like fifteen, now.”
Mennosha smiled. “That’s an eternity!”
Keldan followed Mennosha through the link and they emerged onto the bridge, where Fedar stood silently staring at the diagram of the ship which was once again hovering above the pilots’ stations. San was lying on the floor with his hands on his head. Mennosha went directly to his station and began working. Keldan knelt by the Flightmaster. San tried to get up, but fell back down, clutching his head.
“He stunned you?”
“Yes. I’m very dizzy.”
“The dizziness will pass. It always does.”
“But I can’t help you,” San growled, trying to get up again.
“Take it easy,” Keldan said, putting a hand on San’s bony shoulder. “You can help me now by recovering quickly, and you can only do that if you rest.”
San grudgingly agreed and lay back down.
“All done, Captain,” Mennosha said. “Entering a new flight plan now.” The ship began to slowly change headings. Keldan stood and smiled at Mennosha.
“I’m glad you’re here, Mennosha.”
Mennosha nodded, and a light came into his shy young face at the encouraging words. Keldan glanced over at Fedar, feeling proud of his crew. They had escaped. Everyone was alive. Drashiva was behind them, and open space ahead.
Then a breathless, frightened voice came through the intercom. It was Mirralu.
“Captain! Mr. San! Oh someone come quickly. Oh he’s gone insane!”
Keldan touched the intercom button on his station. “Mirra, what’s the matter?”
“Come quickly, Captain!”
“Where are you?”
He heard Mirralu breathing heavily with fear. And then she cried out and began shouting at someone. “Stop! Stop it!”
“Mennosha, trace the signal!” Keldan commanded. “Where is she calling from?”
“She’s on the rear viewing deck near the escape hatches.”
“Mennosha, come with me. Fedar, stay here and guard the bridge.”
Keldan sprinted through the corridor along the outer hull, Mennosha’s footsteps pounding close at his heels. He reached down and touched the antique energy pistol on his hip, assuring its dial was on stun. The adrenaline flowing through him spurred his confidence, but there was a nagging voice urging caution. They were going into a completely unknown situation, and Keldan had to work to resist the impulse to go in firing. They stopped at the entrance to the rear viewing deck and hid behind the wall. They could hear Mirralu crying out, begging someone to stop whatever it was they were doing. Keldan poked his head out to survey the scene, and this is what he saw:
Along the rear viewing deck were five circular escape hatches, no longer in use. The escape pods had been stolen a few years back by a group of fugitive Cadrians who had booked passage to get away from an oppressive Cadrian faction—it was a long story—and Keldan had not yet had the money to replace the pods. So, the hatches were empty, and functioned now only as windows into space. The hatches were about twice the height of a man, and three times as wide. On each hatch was an inner door and an outer door where the pod should have been. The inner doors were there to protect the viewing deck from the vaccuum that was created when the outer hatches were opened. Inside one of the hatches, between the inner and outer doors, stood Naleth, holding the unconscious Drashivan girl in his arms. Mirralu was standing by the inner door, on the viewing deck side, pounding her four red hands against the glass and shouting at Naleth to stop. Keldan forgot about his pistol and ran out onto the viewing deck. In a flash, Mennosha passed him, running at full speed toward his brother.
“Naleth!” he shouted in panic. “What are you doing?”
Something about Naleth’s expression and bearing sent a shiver down Keldan’s back. He was standing so still—as still as the statue of Equus, his arms just as rigid, his legs braced and strong, the girl draped over his arms like a broken flower. His voice echoed in the space between the inner and outer door.
“I only want the girl. She belongs to me. The rest of you may leave.”
Mennosha was shouting at his brother, Mirralu was crying and frantic, but Keldan felt only that cold, calm purpose that he always felt when the danger became extreme. In times like this he was hyper-aware of his fascination with death, and with all the blind causes that led toward that final, inevitable effect.
“Who are you?” he asked Naleth.
“I only want the girl. She belongs to me; she is mine.”
“Who am I speaking to?”
Naleth was silent.
“If the girl belongs to you, take her,” Keldan said. “But you can’t have my medic. He belongs to me.”
“You are wrong. This vessel belongs to me now. This vessel is willing. He is mine.”
“Why him?” Mennosha shouted. “Let him go!”
“The larger vessel was not willing. The smaller vessels are weak, but this one knows.”
“What does he know?”
“The struggle of heart against bone. The disaster of bodies, of stars. The longing for freedom, for power. He knows. He is willing.”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Keldan said, scowling into the pale face that no longer recognized him. “But I can guarantee you he’s not willing to die, and neither is she.”
“Their wills are of no consequence. She deserves death. And he is my servant. The sentence will be carried.”
Keldan continued to argue, Mennosha continued to shout, but apparently the conversation was over. Naleth turned and faced the outer door. He reached out his hand toward the lever which would release the outer hatch and send himself and the Drashivan girl to a sudden, frozen death. As if the air had been sucked from their lungs, Mennosha, Keldan and Mirralu all fell quiet at the same time. They watched in silent horror from the outer door as Naleth grasped the lever and pulled.
But instead of the outer hatch door opening, the inner door opened. Without thinking or caring why, Keldan stumbled forward and pried the Drashivan girl from Naleth’s arms as Mennosha grabbed his brother around the neck. They dragged the girl and the medic from the hatch and it inexplicably closed behind them. Naleth struck Mennosha across the face, knocking him down, and turned on Keldan. Quickly drawing the pistol, Keldan shot Naleth in the chest and he fell against the wall of the viewing deck.
The shot should have rendered him unconscious immediately. But as Keldan watched, Naleth reached his hand up and touched the wall, as tenderly and reverently as if he thought he was touching the face of another person. He smiled at it through half-closed eyes.
“This vessel was not willing,” he said, and then slid onto the ground, senseless.
A few days after the incident on the viewing deck, Keldan was strolling along the inner corridors, deep in thought. He could hear voices coming from within the passenger cabins; some of the cabin doors were standing open, offering him a glimpse of domestic life. They were en route to a planet called Zharius, which was currently in the middle of a building project and in need of manual laborers. Zharius was a peaceful world with mild weather, and the pay was good, so everyone was in a good mood. He heard laughter coming from the courtyard below.
Keldan stopped and leaned on a pillar, looking down into the garden. Mirralu and the Drashivan girl were there, with the two Brinalyan children. Mirralu was resting on the grass and the younger woman was playing a game with the children. She would sit with her eyes closed and her arms at rest, completely still. The curious children would come closer and closer, and suddenly she would wake and grab at them with all four arms. If they got too close and were captured, they giggled and screamed.
Keldan had discovered through Mirralu that the girl’s name was Gallia, but he had not been formally introduced. Supposing now was as good a time as any, he headed down the stairs into the courtyard.
The old lady waved and smiled as Keldan approached, beaming at him with a set of beautifully straight teeth, radiantly white against the dark red of her skin. Gallia stood and crossed both pairs of hands behind her back. She was dressed in traditional Drashivan garb: a flowing skirt and a cloth wrapped around her torso like a decorative bandage, over and under her arms, fastened invisibly, showing off a slender, graceful figure.
Mirralu had been put in charge of the girl’s care, being the only passenger who spoke her language, until Mennosha finished constructing a new translator.
“How is she?” Keldan asked, nodding at Gallia.
“Doing very well, I think. We are just waiting to meet Mennosha here. He says the translator is ready.”
“What have you learned about her?”
“I haven’t been able to talk to her about anything much. We know a lot of the same nouns and verbs, but the dialect she speaks has a different logic to it. I’m looking forward to being able to speak with her.”
“As am I. How is she recovering after her ordeal?”
“I’m not sure. It seems she doesn’t remember anything about it. I believe she may have slept through the entire incident.”
“I can’t say I’m sorry to hear that.”
Mirralu shook her head and shuddered. “I wish I could have slept through it myself. Have you spoken with Naleth, Captain?”
Just then, Mennosha appeared and saved Keldan having to respond to this question. The young, ponytailed pilot held out his hand, palm outstretched. A tiny piece of electronic hardware was glinting silvery blue like a small oasis in the desert of Mennosha’s palm. Keldan carefully pressed a finger to the translator and picked it up to examine it.
“I had to make a few small modifications in the circuitry,” Mennosha explained. “I didn’t have the standard metals used in the construction of these kinds of devices. But the replacement metals should work fine.”
Keldan gingerly dropped the translator back into Mennosha’s hand. The engineer’s normally clean-shaven face had two days of growth, and there were dark circles beneath his eyes, but he looked happier than normal, and his face was full of sheepish pride as he gazed down again at his shiny little accomplishment.
“No reason to wait,” Keldan said, and with an encouraging glance at Gallia, headed toward the medic’s bay. She and Mirralu followed, and Mennosha trailed behind them. They found Naleth sitting in a chair, with his feet up on another chair and his long fingers pressed together, gazing steadily at the statue of Equus. He didn’t notice them enter. The medic’s bay was uncharacteristically cluttered and its inhabitant unusually disheveled. Keldan cleared his throat and Naleth jumped up. He straightened his hair and tried to smile.
“Forgive me, Captain. I didn’t see you.”
Naleth and Keldan didn’t quite meet one another’s eyes.
“We’re just here to get this translator implanted so our Drashivan friend can finally speak to us.”
Naleth’s face whitened so that a constellation of normally undetectable freckles across his nose became suddenly visible. But whatever he was feeling did nothing to decrease his professionalism. He gestured to the nearest bed.
“Of course. Lie down here, please. Lie on your right side.”
Mirralu managed to make it clear to Gallia what was required of her. She lay down on her side as instructed, and closed her eyes. Naleth took the translator from Mennosha and put it in a Petri dish. He brushed Gallia’s thick curls away from her ear, administered a local anesthetic, and began surgery. Once the translator was safely implanted, he asked Gallia to sit up and she immediately complied. With the realization she had understood Naleth’s words, her face lit up in a wide grin, which quickly spread to everybody in the room—except the medic, whose face wore only an expression of clinical curiosity.
“Can you understand me?” he asked.
“Yes,” Gallia responded, and then: “Do you understand my words?”
They all nodded, and affirmed that they could. Gallia sighed happily, and then began to laugh with relief.
“Thank you! How can I thank you? You have saved me. What are your names? There is so much I want to say to you all but especially that I am so grateful. Your kindness. . .”
Tears came into her dark eyes. She placed her hand on Naleth’s and gave him a sweet smile. He pulled his hand away and turned his back. Muttering something about needing to clean his instruments he disappeared into the next room. Keldan quickly stepped in.
“I’m Keldan, I’m the Captain of the Fallingstar.”
“Captain! Oh, I guessed you were the Captain. What is the Fallingstar? This vessel?”
When Gallia used the word vessel, Keldan experienced a flash of insight. Naleth—or whoever it had been—had said “this vessel was not willing” and of course he had been talking about the ship. After all, The Fallingstar was a type of body, and it housed a type of spirit. Keldan knew her. San knew of her. It must have been she who opened the wrong hatch door.
It had not occurred to him before, because it was out of character for her to interfere; she was usually so secretive, so remote, making contact with none but him. She would not like to be exposed. But if they were both very lucky, nobody would ask questions. Keldan glanced at the doorway leading to the back room, where Naleth could be heard, sanitizing and putting away his instruments. How much did Naleth remember from that night?
Gallia was watching him, and he became aware that he had not yet answered her question.
“Yes. . . this vessel is. . .The Fallingstar is the name of this ship. And she is your home as long as you need her to be.”
“This is more than I could have dreamed, Captain Keldan. Thank you for what you have done. It is such a gift. And my new translator works wonderfully! I think this man is responsible.” She beamed at Mennosha, whose face went scarlet. His mouth opened but no sound came out. Keldan put a hand on his shoulder.
“Mennosha is our third pilot. And he is brilliant with machinery. He’s indispensable to me.”
“I’m certain of it,” Gallia said, with another kind smile at the young engineer. She then turned to Mirralu.
“I also must thank you, Auntie, for your kindness and courage. My brothers are fierce, but you were not afraid of them.”
“I was afraid, my daughter. Believe me.”
“Then what you did was all the more brave.”
Gallia’s face became serious. “Captain, I am grateful for your assistance, but I am sure you have many questions. And I want you to know everything about my situation. If at that time you feel that you would rather not have me on your ship, I will accept your decision and disembark immediately.”
“Thank you. There is a woman on the ship, her name is Fedar, and she is in charge of security. I would like her to be present for that discussion. I will speak with her, and then we will find a time to talk.”
“I understand. I will return to my cabin now. Please thank the doctor for me.”
Gallia got up from the bed and glided toward the door, her colorful skirts brushing against her ankles, one arm around Mirralu tottering along at her side. Mennosha and Keldan both smiled at the pleasant scene.
“If you don’t mind, Captain, I’m going back to my cabin too. I need to get a few hours’ sleep.”
“I don’t mind a bit. Well done.”
The Captain left the medic’s bay and pointed himself towards the bridge. His mind was tossing up a dozen questions. Who was Kayon? Was he gone for good? He felt responsible for Gallia’s safety, but if she was involved in some kind of ongoing conflict with this being, it was going to be a threat to the whole ship and he couldn’t allow that. But how could he stop it? He felt totally out of control of the entire situation and it was unsettling. He was halfway down the corridor at a quick pace when he heard Naleth calling after him.
“Keldan, wait. . .”
Naleth’s voice sounded strained and unhappy. Keldan turned around and went back.
“What is it, Naleth?”
“I need you to know it wasn’t me. On the viewing deck.”
“I know. It was Kayon.”
Naleth looked away. “Who is that?”
Keldan narrowed his eyes and crossed his arms.
“Don’t you know?”
“I just know there was some other being in control,” Naleth said, with a shrug. “I heard everything, but I was . . . I was locked away somewhere. I don’t know how to describe it. I had no power. No control.”
“I assumed as much.”
“I just wanted to make sure you understand it wasn’t me. The voice. . . the thing. . . he said I was willing, a willing vessel, but that isn’t true. It’s not true.”
“Of course it’s not. Don’t worry about it anymore, alright? It’s in the past. Nobody holds you responsible for what happened. How could we? It clearly wasn’t you.”
“It wasn’t. It really wasn’t.”
Naleth shook his head emphatically. Keldan tried to arrange his face to hide his skepticism. He had no reason to doubt what Naleth was saying. Except for the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“Well. I need to get back to the bridge.”
Keldan nodded and turned to go, but Naleth spoke again.
Keldan stopped and rolled his eyes before looking back with a polite smile.
“Mennosha did well today, didn’t he? The translator works well.”
“Very well. He’s a talented engineer.”
“Yes. . .”
Naleth glanced back into the medic’s bay, and Keldan got the distinct impression that he was afraid to be alone.
“Will you be alright?”
“Of course. Everything is fine now.”
“Good. I’ll talk to you later then.”
“Yes. Thank you, Captain.”
When Keldan got to the bridge, he stood at his station for a long time before he said anything to anyone. They passed a large blue planet, a nebula, and hundreds of stars before he spoke. He looked around at his fellow pilots; they were each engrossed in their work. Because they all looked to him, followed him, most of the time he felt like he really was in control. Only San knew the truth. Only San knew who made their flight plan. Keldan’s mouth twisted in an ironic smile.
I must be the only ship’s Captain in this galaxy who doesn’t know where he’s going.
Finally, he took a deep breath and let the air rush from his lungs. The stars continued to shine in the black depths of space. It was very peaceful, and Keldan closed his eyes, listening to the thrumming engine, listening to her heartbeat.