Gallia found Keldan pacing in the grove outside King Vantoon’s palace.
“I can’t believe it,” he fumed as she approached. Gallia nodded and crossed both sets of arms, listening to the fallout of another argument between Keldan and his Flightmaster. The sweet-smelling wind passed by, and ruffled her dress around her legs. All around them, the fruit of the Horgalath hung peacefully from the branches of the trees, giving off a faint glow that reflected the moonlight. Keldan’s angry words came out quietly, like the argument of a man whose child is sleeping in the next room.
“Vantoon trusts us. He brought us here to help, didn’t he?”
“So we should help, right? I’m not crazy, am I?”
“Yes, I think we should try to help. I don’t think you are crazy.”
“You see this. Why doesn’t San see this?” Keldan shook his head in disbelief and then did a reasonably good San impression: “There’s no way to win, Captain. This planet is doomed, Captain. We should take off before they get here, Captain.”
“I think San just wants to do what’s best for the ship,” Gallia reasoned. “He’s just practical.”
“He annoys me.”
“I can understand that you’re frustrated, but. . .”
“This whole situation annoys me,” Keldan interrupted, still too angry to hear a rational argument. “Who are these Locust, anyway? What gives them the right to come to somebody else’s planet and take whatever they want?”
“Rights are hardly the issue. When the enemy is stronger, they. . .”
“They can do what they want. I know!” Keldan shouted. He turned his back and put both hands on his bald forehead.
Gallia contemplated the wisdom of a touch, to comfort him, and then decided against it. She was still unsure of social protocol with his race. In fact, she was unsure of a great many things. Everything was new—the ship, the aliens aboard it, her life. It was not the Drashivan way to display her lack of confidence, so she was doing everything possible to assimilate the new culture without complaint. But inwardly, she was complaining. Most difficult was the question of her place aboard The Fallingstar. It was first and foremost a labor transport. But as an artist on Drashiva, and the daughter of a wealthy and respected man, though she had been highly educated about history and science, music and philosophy, she had next to nothing in the way of practical skills. She had been helping out in the kitchens, and assisting some of the young mothers with their children, but it was hardly what she’d call employment. Most days she just wandered around the ship, feeling lost.
However, since they had landed on Horgus, she had found a strange new role. She had become a sort of listening post for the Captain, as well as several other crew members. Even Fedar had confided in her. It made sense, really, that they should need someone to talk to. This was a difficult problem they were facing. The passengers of The Fallingstar were frightened and conflicted. The Horgalath had been expectant at first, thinking that because The Fallingstar had advanced technology, it would be able to shield them from their enemy. Now, they were saddened and worried. The four pilots, who usually found themselves on the same side, were increasingly at odds. They all seemed to have different ideas about what to do, and Gallia had a sense that each one (even San) was motivated by something other than the plain reason of the situation.
Keldan turned again to face her, and let out a weary, frustrated sigh. “Gallia, I told Vantoon we could help them. I agreed with him—one man to another, one leader to another. And now I’m inadequate to carry out what I promised. It feels terrible.”
“Vantoon is at least partially responsible for the predicament you are in, Keldan. He asked us for manpower to help them build weapons. He did not reveal the full truth of the situation.”
“True. How could we know they were so primitive? No—that’s the wrong word, isn’t it? In some ways, they are highly advanced. Those orbs they use to communicate over long distances. I’ve never seen anything like that. And their culture is well. . . it’s. . .”
“Beautiful,” Gallia breathed. In the dim light, she could see Keldan set his jaw.
“I can’t bear to see this world destroyed,” he said. “There must be a solution.”
“Alright,” Gallia said, sitting cross-legged under the nearest tree. “Let’s go over it again. Who are The Locust? What are their weaknesses? What is it they want?”
Keldan came and stood near her, his eyes focused on one of the glowing bundles hanging from a tree branch above her head.
“They want resources. They want to harvest all the natural resources this planet has, and then . . . do what with those resources? Why do they need them?”
“Um. . . perhaps they have no home soil. Maybe they see the rest of the galaxy the way you or I would see a vegetable garden.”
Keldan gave her a wan smile. “Possible. Depressing, but very possible. So, okay. Let’s assume the Locust go around digging in other people’s worlds, looking for consumables. We still can’t talk them out of it, or make them see their mistake, because they won’t communicate with us. All we know is they’re coming. They’re harvesters, and they will do what they do: gather whatever they find growing on this world.”
“Making no distinction between the fruit of its fields and the fruit of its people.”
He turned his attention back to the teardrop-shaped bundle hanging from the tree branch above her head.
“It is astonishing, isn’t it? I have never in all my travels seen a procreation process quite like this one.”
Gallia got up from the ground and stood shoulder to shoulder with Keldan. She reached out a hand to touch the side of the Horgalath egg. It was warm, and translucent. Inside, a small partially-formed being could be seen resting comfortably.
“It’s a female, see the wings?”
“Yes,” Keldan murmured. “Pretty little thing, isn’t she?”
“I’ll never forget the look of shock on your face, Captain, when you met Queen Velmada!”
“Well, can you blame me? King Vantoon is almost twice my size. Then, he introduces us to his tiny, winged queen. It seemed impossible—a giant trying to mate with a pixie. Of course, I understand the process now—but for a Vingosi, it does seem very strange.”
“It does to my mind, too. It never even occurred to me that skin cells could be reproductive in nature.”
Keldan’s voice lowered and he leaned in a little.
“Queen Velmada told me the women take the skin cells from the shoulders of the men, and pollinate them with dust from their wings. Then they place them in the groves. So somehow, the trees themselves play a part in reproduction. Don’t ask me how that works.”
“Seems like a good system to me. Much easier than carrying a child inside one’s body.”
“Yes! It’s astonishing that our backwards planets have not yet adopted this system, Gallia.”
Gallia grinned. “We must carry this knowledge back to our worlds.”
Keldan chuckled and Gallia glanced sideways at the Captain. His normally serious face was delightfully changed when he was laughing. But as he stood looking at the unborn daughter of Horgalath, and considering the unpleasant reality of her likely fate, his smile faded rapidly.
“We have to help these people,” he said again.
“Okay,” Gallia said. “Let’s think through the problem again.”
“No. No, I’m done thinking. It’s time to act. I told them I would help them, and I am going to do everything I can.”
Keldan strode away through the grove and Gallia followed, matching his quick pace. They approached King Vantoon’s palace, where they were lodging. To get inside, they crossed a footbridge spanning a placid river that separated the palace from the grove. The palace was made mostly of stone, but its interior was richly furnished with all kinds of luxurious and exotic fabrics in colors and textures that were a feast for the senses. The halls were lit with small flames floating in glass orbs, suspended by a technology that was utterly foreign to theirs. In fact, everything on this planet—from the way things were lit to the propagation of the species to the way food was prepared— seemed to operate in some unexpected way, and the result was that the passengers and crew of The Fallingstar felt they were continually seeing magic done. Even the most logical among them had expressed amazement at something they had seen on Horgus. Every day, Gallia heard exclamations of “how does it do that?” and “where did that come from?”
Keldan turned a corner and burst into the room he was sharing with Mennosha. All three of Keldan’s fellow pilots were in this room, obviously right in the middle of talking things over. Mennosha was standing near the open door to the balcony, his arms folded, staring up at the sky. Fedar was pacing around the room. San was standing stock still, staring into space, the bulbous tips of his long green fingers pressed together in concentration. They all looked up when Keldan and Gallia entered.
“Where have you been?” San said, in an uncharacteristically sulky voice. Keldan ignored him. Gallia felt a palpable ripple of tension pass between them. They were all under a great deal of strain. There were only a few days left before The Locust entered the Horgalath star system, and despite their best efforts, they had not come up with any weapon or defense that would be adequate to protect Horgus from invasion. The Locust were too many, and their technology too advanced to be withstood. The best chance (San had pointed out) was for the Horgalath to replicate and improve on some of the Vingosi technology on The Fallingstar and then adapt it to create a planet wide defense. Unfortunately it would mean hundreds of men working tirelessly around the clock for several years.
Worst of all was their failure to speak to the advancing aliens. The Locust were completely incommunicative. Even the Horgalath, who were famous for their linguistic abilities, could not find a way to speak with them. It really did seem hopeless. Earlier that evening, King Vantoon stood before the whole assembly of his noblemen and conceded that there was nothing to be done. A sickening, silent pall had fallen over the entire assembly. Right afterward, Keldan had argued with San, and then stormed out into the grove. It looked like their argument was about to resume.
“I’ve decided to take Trina out to meet The Locust,” Keldan announced.
All three pilots responded to Keldan at once, and all in the negative. He held his hands up.
“I’ve decided. I’ve got to try and get through to them.”
San narrowed his orange eyes, walked over to the Captain and put his wide, flat nose right in Keldan’s face. “Let me make sure I’m understanding you. We all know that Trina is a two-man ship. Who, may I ask, will be your co-pilot?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think so,” San said, his voice sliding into its most dangerously polite tone. “I am not prepared to get into a two-man fighter and head out to meet an alien fleet. It’s suicide.”
Keldan glanced at Gallia and jerked his head toward San and said: “Told you he’s a coward.”
The big orange eyes closed in frustration and when they reopened they were twice as angry. “What you call courage, Captain, I call stupidity. What could you possibly hope to accomplish with this. . . this. . . stunt?”
“A dialogue with The Locust. I have to make them understand that they cannot simply harvest the offspring of this race. They don’t understand. This is a miscommunication, that’s all. There has to be a way to speak to them. And I’m going to stand between them and the Horgalath until I get my point across.”
“Foolish,” San growled under his breath.
“Foolish!” he said, louder, drawing himself up to full height. “I will not let you do this, Keldan.”
“You’re welcome to try and stop me!”
And suddenly they were at each other, fists flying and arms grappling. San’s lanky body was surprisingly strong and flexible and he soon had Keldan on the defensive. Then, Keldan threw a punch that knocked San back a full two steps, and when the Kollimarian looked up there was already a bruise welling on his green cheekbone.
“Stop!” Fedar shouted as San lunged toward the Captain again. She caught San by the arm and Mennosha put both arms around Keldan’s chest and they were dragged apart, both breathing heavily. San wrestled himself away from Fedar and stormed from the room. Keldan kicked over a chair, but then the chair immediately righted itself, distracting all of them for a moment from the conflict.
“How does it do that?” Mennosha muttered, approaching the chair to feel its sides and look beneath it.
“It doesn’t matter,” Keldan snarled. “From what we know of these aliens, the only chance the Horgalath have of surviving is to hide and allow The Locust to take their unborn children. But we know they won’t do that. They’ll stand and fight, and be killed, and this entire society, with all its wonders, will be destroyed. There is one solution left. To go out and meet these aliens and try one last time to communicate with them. But apparently none of my pilots are willing to go with me, and I can’t fly Trina alone. Mennosha. Please consider why I’m doing this. Come with me.”
Mennosha gave Keldan a tired look and then shook his head. “I hear you, Captain, and it’s a noble sentiment. But San is right. Flying Trina out to meet those aliens is a waste of time. We’ve already tried to communicate with The Locust and we’ve failed. Why would going out there to meet them make any difference?”
Keldan turned to Fedar, his eyes pleading.
“I’m sorry, Keldan. I know you want to save these people, but we can’t save them. And nothing is gained by sacrificing ourselves. I need some sleep, I’ll see you all in the morning. Maybe we can talk it over again then.”
Fedar left the room. Mennosha gave them a nod and then wandered off to his room and shut the door. Keldan’s face fell.
“Well, I guess that’s it,” he said. He walked out onto the balcony and leaned on the railing. Gallia followed. For a few moments, they stood side by side looking out over the groves, where the fruit of Horgalath slept peacefully, unknowingly, listening to the lullaby of the breeze.
“What does the co-pilot do?”
“You mean when I’m flying Trina?”
“Yes. Is it a difficult job?”
“It’s not what I’d call easy. But it’s not complicated. There are just certain systems that have to be constantly monitored, and one pilot can’t do all that and still handle the controls. The co-pilot is just there to keep things on track.”
“Is it. . . something I could learn to do?”
Keldan slowly turned his head to look at her. The light coming from inside the room behind them dawned over his face along with comprehension. His Fal-black eyes suddenly glittered with hope and excitement, and the impetuous arch of his eyebrows filled her with the same feelings.
“You’ll go with me?”
Her mind had no doubt that this plan was suicidal. But her heart knew that following him was the right thing to do—the only thing to do. She shrugged and gave him a shy smile.
“We have to try, right?”
Keldan grabbed her hand and squeezed it tightly.
“Come on,” he said, pulling her after him. “Time to teach you to fly.”
The Fallingstar was docked in a meadow just beyond the Horgalath nursery grove. The glowing eggs on the trees shed light on the path, so Keldan and Gallia made their way down the path easily and quickly. The night was very warm, and a fine and gentle rain was beginning to fall. The trees were still, their fat leaves dripping with condensed mist, and the whole grove seemed to brim with life. At first, Keldan had dragged Gallia through the palace by the hand, almost running in his haste to get to the ship. But now, as they walked through the grove, he had slowed to a relaxed, steady pace—though he was still holding her hand in his.
As they walked, neither of them spoke. Gallia felt off balance. It was unusual for her to hold hands with someone who only had two arms. Also, she wondered what hand-holding meant in Vingosi culture. She wondered if Keldan knew that Drashivans considered it a romantic gesture.
When they were almost through, Keldan slowed somewhat. Then he dropped her hand and shoved his hands in his jacket pockets. They were at the opening between the trees which marked the edge of the meadow. Keldan’s face went blank as he stared ahead at the huge bulk of The Fallingstar silhouetted against the rising moon. Gallia was sure he was reconsidering the plan, and had an argument ready. But when he spoke, it was not what she had expected.
“I’ll go get Trina and meet you. . . on the other side of the palace. There’s another meadow like this one on the opposite side.”
“But. . . don’t you need a co-pilot?”
“It’s just a short flight within atmosphere. I can handle that on my own.”
The questions were still forming in Gallia’s mind, but Keldan was already walking away. He called back over his shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. It’s just easier this way. Meet me on the other side, okay?”
Gallia watched him disappear between the trees, and soon the darkness of the empty meadow enveloped his frame. She turned and walked back toward the palace, puzzled by his behavior. Why would he lead her all the way through the grove just to ask her to turn around and meet him on the other side? And there was something else, too. A sudden change in demeanor. A Drashivan man would never act like that. Suddenly she felt a strong inclination to return to her own people, and then a pang of sorrow knowing it was impossible. She entered the palace, and began to cross the courtyard toward the other side. There was the sound of hurried footsteps behind her, and when she turned she was grateful to see Mirralu.
“I was just thinking of you, Auntie.” Mirralu caught her arm and looked up into her face with gentle concern.
“Oh, Gallia, is it true you will fly out to meet them, with Keldan?”
“How did you find that out so quickly?”
“Mennosha heard you talking, from his bedroom window. He came to me, because he was afraid for you. What has brought you to this decision, my daughter?”
They came to the steps on the opposite side of the palace courtyard and Gallia took a step down and turned so her face was nearly level with Mirralu’s.
“I am not sure, Auntie. I just know this is the right thing to do.”
Mirralu nodded slowly. “I see that you are resolved.”
“Thank you. I find I need to explain myself to the Vingosi more often than I’d like.”
“Yes, that is a failing. They never say quite what they mean. And they argue about everything! I’ve gotten used to it over the years, but I must admit, talking with you is a relief. May I walk with you?”
Gallia raised an arm to help Mirralu off of the last stone step and onto the path. They continued, arm-in-arm, into the grove.
“Auntie, may I ask you a question?”
“You want to know why I live among Vingosi?”
“Yes. Forgive me, but I am curious.”
“My parents were scientists. I was just a little girl, but they took me with them and we traveled from planet to planet gathering data about flora and fauna, and examining things under their microscopes. I saw it all through a child’s eye, and to be honest I don’t know exactly what they were trying to discover. One night, while I slept, a heard a siren or an alarm sounding. I suppose the ship suffered a malfunction of some kind. The next thing I knew my father had placed me in an escape pod. He told me to stay where I was. Then, he ran away, I think to find my mother. But it was too late. Moments later the escape pod closed and shot away from the ship, with only myself aboard. And then, from the window of the pod, I saw the ship burst apart in space.”
Gallia gasped. “Oh, Mirralu! Your parents?”
“Oh, dead. Certainly dead. I still don’t know how it happened. I think that my father probably knew what was about to happen and ejected the pod just in time. Well, a few days later a Vingosi vessel found me, and took me back to Vingos, where I was placed in an orphanage in the region of Gulo.”
“Gulo is one of the six animal gods?”
“Yes. Gulo is the poorest of the regions. I think the Captain of that ship meant for me to eventually return to Drashiva, but it never happened. And nobody who lives in Gulo has the money for space travel. I entered into service; I was a good cook, and I went to work for a family who had a daughter named Trina, who was near my age.”
“Trina is the name of Keldan’s ship!”
“Yes, that’s right, she later became Keldan’s mother. He named the ship after her. She was such a sweet, funny creature, and so kind to me. We became good friends, and when she married I followed her to her new home. I suppose I was her servant, in a way, but not unwillingly. She never was much of a cook, and I had nowhere else to go. And I loved her, and her little boy. The man she married was Varlan Green. He was Keldan’s father, and. . . ”
Mirralu’s voice trailed into silence.
“Forgive me, Gallia. I am speaking of such old things. There is something about this place that draws the words from my soul. But it is enough now. Listen!”
The muffled grumble of an engine could be heard directly overhead; a small ship was passing above their heads.
“Do you remember the night-gliders, Auntie?”
“Ah!” Mirralu said, her eyes lighting up. “I have not thought of those birds in many, many years. I used to see them in the trees when I was a child. I believe I found them frightening.”
“They are very ugly! But graceful and silent in flight. I used to draw them. On many occasions they approached me to take berries from my hand. The ship. . . Trina. . . reminds me of them.”
“It does, now that you bring it to mind. It really does.”
Bright lights flashed as Keldan set the small ship down in the meadow. Mirralu stopped.
“I think I will go back to the palace now, daughter. I will see you both before you leave, I trust.”
“I believe Keldan will announce our plan tomorrow evening at dinner.”
Mirralu bobbed her head and waved as she turned and tottered back down the path. Gallia raised her chin and walked out into the meadow. Trina’s white landing lights were casting a harsh glow on the meadow grass, draining it of color. Trina was nothing like The Fallingstar. She was small and light, with a long pointed nose, slim, sleek wings that curved back toward her tail, and an arsenal of weaponry hanging from her belly. Built for both fight and flight. Keldan emerged from beneath the wing and grinned.
“What do you think?”
“Hello, Trina,” Gallia said, patting the ship on its silver side. “She’s beautiful.”
“I named her after a particularly lovely woman I knew back on Vingos,” Keldan said, with a wink. “Go on, Gallia, up the steps. You sit in the co-pilot’s seat, there. I’ll sit here. Now. . .”
Captain Keldan was a good teacher; he relentlessly drilled Gallia’s understanding of all the ship’s systems. He made her repeat the takeoff and landing sequences what seemed like hundreds of times. She was required to find all the buttons on the control panel, and correctly name them and their functions, and then do it all again with her eyes shut. Before she knew it, dawn was coming over the tops of the trees toward them, like a glittering ocean wave advancing upon the sand. When the wave hit them, Keldan sat back in the pilot’s seat and stretched his arms over his head with a yawn. Gallia leaned her head back and closed her eyes, enjoying the warm sunlight on her face.
“You ready to take her up?”
“Well, yeah. We don’t want tomorrow to be the first flight. We should shake the bugs out now.”
He pressed a button on the control panel and the engines roared to life with a throbbing whine that sent a jolt through Gallia’s nervous system. Her heart began to race. Suddenly it all seemed much more real than she was prepared for. But whether she was prepared or not, it was happening.
“Wait!” she cried.
“I’m. . . I don’t know if I can do this. . .”
Keldan’s eyes sparkled, and he suppressed a smile. “Of course you can. You have four hands. That means you’re twice as capable.”
“That’s not how it works!”
“Takeoff sequence, co-pilot,” Keldan said. “In 3. . .2. . .1. . .”
Gallia pressed the buttons in the order that had been drilled into her mind for the last five hours, Keldan pulled back on the thrust lever, and Trina shot into the air. Gallia screamed and Keldan laughed out loud.
“Wooooo!” he called as the ship pierced the lower atmosphere and gained speed.
“Drashiva’s moon!” Gallia gasped, pressing all four hands against her heart, which was hammering against her ribs. She felt like she might be dying, but it was a lot of fun. She looked over at Keldan, her eyes wide, and then started laughing.
“You seem to be enjoying yourself, Miss Gallia,” Keldan said as they leveled out and came into orbit around the planet. She put a hand on the window and peered out into space.
“It’s incredible. . .”
“Watch your levels,” he cautioned. She put her attention back on the control panels.
“Let’s do one orbit around Horgus and then we’ll go through the landing sequence.”
“This is a good chance for you to practice monitoring all the systems. You’ll need to maintain a steady distance from the atmosphere, and use the dampeners to control our speed.”
Gallia pointed to the inertial dampener, and Keldan nodded. “That’s right. And keep an eye on the horizon line. And that’s all you really need to pay attention to. You just watch those things, and report to me when anything out of the ordinary occurs. That’s important. If you see something odd, don’t try to fix it. Don’t panic. Just report. Okay?”
He settled back into his seat and leaned his head back. “We’re pretty much on autopilot for a maneuver like this. We will both have to be much more engaged when we are going out to meet The Locust.”
Gallia felt a spasm of nervous energy pass through her body. Keldan, seeing the look on her face and reading it correctly, reached out his hand and took one of hers again.
“Don’t worry, alright? I have every intention of surviving this mission, and bringing us back safely. I would never have allowed you to join me if I didn’t think it was possible to get back alive. I’m not sure we can help the Horgalath, but we’re not going to die out here.”
“The other pilots seemed to think it was suicide…”
Keldan tilted his head back and smiled; his eyes were teasing.
“And yet you still came with me. Are you that unhappy living with us on The Fallingstar?”
“No, not at all! I enjoy it. It’s an adjustment. . . but I’m content. I just think that we should do everything we can to help the Horgalath, like you said.”
“Look,” Keldan said, taking his hand away from hers, and pointing down at the planet. “We’re on the other side now. See how the land is dark? It’s night on this side.”
A blip on the sensors showed Gallia that this side of the planet was also inhabited.
“Does Vantoon rule the entire planet?”
“He does. He has noblemen in place who watch over distant regions and report back to him, but it is all under his rule. He told me his line has ruled Horgus for as long as any can remember. Good king after good king, extending all the way back to their origins. They’ve never had a war. No wonder they were unprepared for invasion.”
“Does Vingos have war?”
“Not what I’d call war. But in the past there were savage disputes between the regions. Because of that, the regional leaders decided it was best to exist separately, and that basically solved the problem. Now we just operate within our own regions and cultures. We have very little to do with one another. Trade is not allowed. We’re not allowed to move to another region, or even visit.”
“But Mennosha and Fedar are from other regions from yours.”
“Travel is okay. You can leave your region to go to another world, like we have. But if I go back to Vingos, I have to go back to Gulo. Likewise, Fedar must return to Cygnus, and Mennosha and Naleth must return to Equus. The only exceptions are Felis and Strix. . . those two allow travel between regions, but because none of the other cults allow it, they can only travel between one another. They’ve integrated their societies fairly successfully, and they’re always petitioning the other four regions to join them.”
“Has there been any progress?”
“Not really. Gulo’s population is poorly educated and stubborn about change. The tribe of Equus believes that their god is the only real god, so they are hesitant to become enmeshed with so-called pagan regions. And Cygnus is a total mystery. They have not communicated with outsiders for centuries and nobody knows what goes on there.”
“So that’s Equus, Cygnus, Gulo. . . Felis and Strix. . . what is the sixth region?”
“What is their opinion? Are they interested in integration?”
“Hyla is an odd case. Their region is heavily forested and has certain medicinal resources that the others don’t have but everyone needs. Nobody can afford to alienate them, so they have good relations with all other five regions. But they don’t want integration because they sell to the other five regions and don’t want to lose that income.”
“It sounds like a fascinating place. Don’t you ever want to go back?”
“I have been back on occasion, to Felis and Strix. But not to Gulo. And no, I don’t want to go back there.”
“Mirralu told me she knew your family.”
Keldan nodded and changed the subject. “We’re coming back into the daylight now.”
He fell silent, and Gallia let the matter drop. Soon they were approaching their landing site, and Keldan gave her instructions to begin the landing sequence, which she did with ease. Her heart rate went up again as they passed through the atmosphere, and flames began to jump around the shields, but it was a safe re-entry and soon they were gliding over the trees and villages. Keldan carefully set Trina down in the same meadow, and turned to Gallia.
“You can get out here,” he said. “I’ll take Trina back to The Fallingstar.”
“Thank you, Keldan. Will you meet me back at the palace for something to eat?”
“No. I need to go get some sleep. You should too, if you can.”
His tone had changed, just like before; he seemed impatient for her to leave. Gallia stood, ducking a little in the cramped cockpit, and left the ship. Once she was standing again on the grass, a safe distance from the engines, Keldan took off and made his way to the opposite meadow, leaving Gallia to wander down the path back to Vantoon’s palace alone.
Gallia was lying in bed in complete comfort, two hands behind her head. Eyes half-closed, she played with a strand of her hair, thinking about the previous night’s flight. The slant of sunlight falling on her bed covers told her it was afternoon. The farewell banquet was only a few hours away, and then they would fly off to meet the enemy, but it seemed very far away. The window was open, allowing a light breeze to touch her face, and she reluctantly untangled herself from her covers and stood, gazing at the idyllic vista outside the window. A haze was hovering over the landscape, diffusing the light so that the whole forest seemed to glow. At the same time, the breeze made the treetops flutter. She took a deep breath; the sweet green scent of the trees was mixed with the fresh smell of dry summer grass. It was hard to accept the fact that such a peaceful place was on the brink of destruction.
Somewhere nearby, someone was singing. Gallia’s bedroom was high above the ground, but and the song was floating in from outside. She walked to the window and pushed it open, leaning out, looking for the source of the sound. To the left, and one floor below, was a balcony. Fedar was there, sitting on the edge of the railing. At first, Gallia did not recognize her, because she was dressed in a gauzy white dress, very different from her usual uniform, and her thick blonde hair was out of its usual braid. As she sang, she was casually combing the ends of it with her fingers, looking off into the distance. The lines that usually creased her forehead and mouth were smoothed. Her voice had a soft, sisterly quality, and the melody of the song made Gallia feel suddenly homesick. She backed away from the window and hurried to the closet to get dressed.
A few moments later, she was headed down the hallway toward the kitchens, where she knew that she could find something to eat, even between meals. Since she and Keldan had been up until dawn, she had slept half the day and now it was well past the midday meal. As soon as she left her bedroom, the peaceful haze dissipated. Her mind was now uncomfortably clear. As she went on her way from her bedroom to the kitchens, she repeated the flight lesson in her mind, reciting all the steps from takeoff sequence to landing sequence. Focusing on the steps of the flight plan seemed to calm the nervous energy jumping through her body.
The kitchens were empty of Horgalath except for one old man, seated in a chair near an open window, taking an afternoon nap. Gallia tiptoed to a bowl of fruit and pastries, took a few items and retreated.
As she ate, she walked through the palace, looking at the art on the walls, observing the orb-lights that floated above her, and nodding her head at the few people she passed. The Horgalath men were all very tall and strong, with broad, muscular shoulders. Keldan was not exaggerating when he had said that King Vantoon, who was easily the largest of the Horgalath males, was twice his size. Even the smaller males were still much larger than any Drashivan or Vingosi she had seen. The females were the opposite; if one were to stand next to Gallia, her head would have reached Gallia’s knee. They were slight and pixie-ish, with large transparent wings and glittering jewels on their skin. It was unclear whether these jewels were ornamentation or a part of their bodies. Gallia had thought it would be impolite to ask.
Despite the vast variances in the appearance of the genders, the Horgalath men and women were uniformly cheerful and open-hearted. At least, they had been cheerful until two days ago when King Vantoon had announced that the crew of The Fallingstar was unable to help them stop the Locust. San’s research on The Locust had not revealed much, but he had learned one important thing: The Locust were happy to take the natural resources of a planet and leave its people alone. Unless the people resisted them. San had gotten in touch with a textiles trader from a now-uninhabited planet in a nearby galaxy who said his people had put up a fight when The Locust appeared. He had been off-world at the time of the attack, and as far as he knew, he was the only one of his race left. But, the trader had said, another planet in his system whose people were pacifists had gotten away with only a broken eco-system. Despite San’s warning, King Vantoon had made it clear that the Horgalath would defend their unborn young. What else could they do?
Gallia felt a pang of sorrow and horror, which she quickly pushed away. It was too much. She had to concentrate on their one last hopeful attempt, and at doing her best to make it succeed. She began to go over the flight lesson in her mind again.
Just then, Naleth and Mennosha appeared, coming down a long staircase perpendicular to the hall she was in. She made no attempt to hide her presence from them but they were embroiled in an argument and did not notice her.
“I’m not interested in leaving The Fallingstar,” Mennosha was saying. The two brothers came to the end of the stairs and stood facing each other so that Gallia saw them in profile. Mennosha looked refreshed and energetic, and seemed to be standing straighter than normal. Naleth looked the opposite–drawn and darkened as if he had not slept well.
“I am the elder brother, and you have vowed to follow me and protect me as my companion in Equus,” he said. “Why are you are always challenging my authority? What good does it serve?”
Mennosha raised his eyebrows in surprise. “You’re reading too much into what I said. I’m not saying I won’t follow you. I’m simply expressing my feelings about leaving the ship. I don’t want to. I’d rather not. That’s all.”
Naleth took a deep breath and pressed his fingers against his eyes.
“Forgive me. This planet makes me feel very strange.”
“Really? I love it here.”
“Why do you always have to do that?” Naleth said, firing up again.
“Contradict me. Always! You have to do and say and think exactly the opposite of me.”
“I don’t know, Naleth, I don’t mean to. . . oh, look at this!” Mennosha said, suddenly distracted. He crouched down, examining something on the bannister railing. Naleth stood apart, his arms crossed. He seemed ready to crawl out of his skin with impatience. Gallia considered the doctor. He had a fine figure, piercing blue eyes and hair that was so blonde it was almost white. He wasn’t quite what she would call handsome, but there was something arresting about the way he stood and walked and moved around. Something graceful and powerful about him. Most of the time he was also calm, confident and professional. Except when he wasn’t. There were these odd flashes of some disparate mood, some dark opposite to the doctor’s calm demeanor. He seemed disturbed somehow and it was disturbing to witness. It was like admiring a tall, beautiful building and then discovering it was structurally unsound and about to be demolished. Oblivious to Naleth’s distress, Mennosha stood and walked down the hall, feeling the stones as he went.
“I wish I could figure this place out,” he murmured to himself.
Naleth gave up. He shook his head and walked away. Gallia approached Mennosha.
“What are you looking at?”
Mennosha glanced up in surprise at Gallia and then looked around for his brother. His face broke into a smile that was half sorry and half amused. He shook his head.
“He’s frustrated with me. But. . . you know. . . it’s so odd but I can’t seem to feel bad about it. Or about anything,” he said. “Ever since I got to this planet, I’ve felt so happy. Fighting with Naleth, bad memories . . . nothing changes my good mood. And there’s something to it, I’m sure of it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. But is it normal to feel so. . . good? And everything here seems alive, doesn’t it? The walls, the chairs. I don’t mean they’re aware of us, but. . . they’re growing, somehow. They don’t seem like regular objects.”
Gallia crinkled her brow. “I don’t know about the objects, but I have noticed that people are different here.”
“Really? Different how?”
“Every one of us seems altered slightly. Each in their own different way.”
“Yes! Yes, I think that’s true.”
They stared at each other for a minute. “I wish I could explain it better,” she said. “There has to be an explanation,” he said, at the same time.
He went back to examining the walls and paintings; Gallia touched his arm and wandered off down the hall. She was struck by what he had said. There was something almost living about the planet and all its objects, as if the palace had sprung up out of the ground one day like a flower or a tree, rather than being constructed. Furthermore, she felt connected to the place, as if she was growing along with it, as if she was one of those eggs on the trees, and some small form inside her was increasing in strength and being knit together by an unseen energy.
She wondered how it would feel to be separated from Horgus, to have that connection terminated.
When Gallia returned to her room she was surprised to see that the door was open. Voices were coming from inside, and when she entered she found several Horgalath women going through her closet. One of them approached Gallia and grabbed one of her lower hands in both of her tiny ones.
“Come, you have nothing to wear. Join us in the Queen’s antechamber and we will find you a gown.”
Gallia followed mutely and was led to a large room where she found all the other female passengers from The Fallingstar (over a hundred women total) being waited on by the fairy-like females of Horgalath. Their bright wings and jeweled skin made the scene look like a garden full of bright spring flowers. Gallia was led through the chamber where she found Velmada, the beautiful dark-eyed Horgalath Queen, personally overseeing the total transformation of Fedar Cygnus. Fedar was dressed in a flowing gown the color of the sunrise, and her golden hair was cascading over her shoulders in waves and graced with white flowers. Her green eyes were touched with gold and her lips were pink.
Fedar turned to Gallia and beamed at her. “You’re next,” she said.
An hour later a procession of women, Horgalath, Vingosi, Drashivan and all the other races from The Fallingstar, ascended the stairs into the royal hall where the banquet was to take place. Gallia felt a little conspicuous; she was already tall and the only woman with red skin and four arms, and Velmada had insisted on piling her curly hair high up on top of her head. The dress she wore was cream-colored and shimmery, and green leaves had been twisted into her towering hairdo. To make matters worse, Queen Velmada was by her side, and kept gesturing to her, evidently very proud of her handiwork.
The women filed into the royal hall and gathered on the right side of the long room, standing across from the men who were already assembled on the left. Queen Velmada took her place next to King Vantoon. Gallia looked across the room, searching for the faces of the men she knew. They were standing among the giant Horgalath males, and had been similarly transformed for the ceremony. All were bare-chested and covered in tattoos like those of their hosts.
“Ha ha!” King Vantoon laughed. “Welcome! I am pleased to see everyone dressed for this wonderful occasion. You may ask why I refer to the last banquet of the Horgalath as a wonderful occasion. I know you have been in sorrow for days, O my people! But all of that is over now. I now ask Captain Keldan and his co-pilot Gallia to please come and speak to us.”
Keldan stepped from the crowd of men and waited for Gallia to join him. She held her head up and stepped from the line of women into the center of the grand hall. Being the daughter of a Chieftan, she was used to this kind of ceremony and was not bothered by the eyes of the crowd. But something about the way Keldan looked at her made her feel nervous and uncertain. She stepped to his side and they approached the throne.
“What is this about?” Gallia whispered.
“I have no idea,” Keldan replied. Vantoon’s voice boomed out once again.
“Now Keldan, my friend and my brother! Tell my people what you told me this morning. Tell them of your plan to meet our enemy in the air. About how you will save them!”
“King Vantoon,” Keldan began, his voice ringing out in a crisp tenor contrast to Vantoon’s booming bass, “as I told you this morning, my plan is to fly a small ship, along with Gallia as my co-pilot, and make one more effort to communicate with the alien race, The Locust, which threatens your world. But I must tell you all that I have little hope of success. Up until now, The Locust has shown no interest in our attempts to communicate. It is very likely that they will simply ignore us and continue on toward your planet.”
“Keldan my brother, they will not ignore you. They will kill you. And you know this. You said so this morning. Do not hide your courage. I know it is there. You are taking a great risk.”
“I’m afraid you are right, King Vantoon.”
Gallia’s heart skipped a beat. Keldan had been lying to her yesterday. He had never meant for them to return from this mission.
“And yet you are determined to go?” Vantoon said.
“I must fulfill my promise to you, King. If there is even a slight chance that by my action I can prevent the destruction of your world, I will not be stopped from taking action.”
“And Gallia agrees? She is also willing to go, despite the risk?”
Keldan turned and waited. Gallia felt angry with Keldan for lying to her, but she knew herself. She turned and met his gaze boldly. “I am willing to take any risk that the Captain takes. And my promise is as good as his.”
Vantoon sighed with relief. “See!” he called out to his people. “Did I not tell you they were an advanced race! They put themselves in harm’s way for us. We are saved!”
The Horgalath men and women cheered.
“Ha ha! Ha!” Vantoon laughed, his big mouth opened in glee. His people laughed along with him and whooped with joy. Confused, Gallia glanced over at Keldan, who frowned back at her. What was the celebration for? King Vantoon clearly did not understand.
Finally, Vantoon raised his thick hands and called for quiet.
“The Locust will arrive in the early morning. Until then, we feast and dance. They will be surprised by what they find here! We are saved! Our offspring will be born and grown and thrive and the Horgalath will continue.”
The hall erupted with cheers once more and music began playing. The men and women met each other in the middle of the hall and began to dance.
Gallia rounded on Keldan. “Why did you lie to me?”
“I didn’t lie, not exactly.”
“You told me we were coming back! That we would come back alive!”
“You seemed ready for that eventuality.”
“I am! But I like to know when my life is in danger!”
“Your life was never in danger because you were never coming with me. You are leaving on the Fallingstar with the others.”
“I don’t understand. Who will be your co-pilot?”
“I can fly Trina alone.”
“What do you mean? You asked all the other pilots to come with you!”
“Yes, and when they refused me I knew they were right. So I determined to go alone. The only part of the flight that is impossible for the pilot to do alone is the re-entry sequence. And I won’t need to re-enter the atmosphere, so it doesn’t matter.”
“Then why agree to bring me? Why spend the whole night teaching me to fly? Why deceive me?”
Keldan just looked at her and said nothing. He turned his face to the throne and raised his voice over the din.
“Yes, Keldan!” the King said, stepping down off his podium so that he and Keldan could hear one another.
“My passengers will need to return to The Fallingstar and prepare for departure before morning. I understand that you and your people have decided to stay here, with your offspring. But my passengers will want to leave this planet before The Locust arrive. Gallia and I must also prepare to fly out and meet them well before the sunrise. We are honored by your hospitality, and will stay as long as possible, but if we are to leave before dawn I am afraid that we cannot spend the entire night feasting with you and your worthy subjects.”
“Ha ha! I think you are making a joke, Keldan. I like you but I do not understand your humor.” He waved a giant hand and smiled down at them in a friendly and sincere manner.
“King,” Keldan said, stepping forward in earnest. “I am not joking. We must depart before the morning.”
“What are you saying? You have saved us! There is no need to leave now. Besides, your ship is already gone. No, no, you must stay with us and watch the destruction of The Locust!”
“Gone!?” Keldan shouted.
“Oh yes!” Vantoon replied. “Your ship is gone. But you will not need your ship.” He raised his voice and shouted over the heads of the crowd. “And now, no more talk! Musicians, play! There is no more discussion necessary. No more talk. Bring out the feast!”
Keldan set his jaw and strode to the window. Gallia followed him. From the royal hall, they could see the entire landscape. It was as lovely as ever in the twilight, but the meadow where The Fallingstar had been docked was now empty. Both the ship, and Trina, had disappeared.
A lively song began to play and the Horgalath laughed and cheered. King Vantoon returned to his seat beside the Queen and the rest of the Horgalath flooded into the center of the hall, dancing and talking. Keldan and Gallia just looked at one another, stunned. Gallia felt dizzy and instinctively reached out to Keldan to steady herself. Her palms were sweating with sudden fright; her touch smeared the tattoos drawn on his shoulders.
“We’re trapped,” she said.
He supported her gently under one arm. “I’ll get you out of here. I promised.” He turned and headed into the crowd, pushing people aside and calling out for San.
“San! Where is my Flightmaster?”
Gallia followed, not knowing what else to do. And then, without warning, something hit her from behind. It was like an ocean wave of warm energy, and the feeling was like being suddenly hit and overwhelmed by sleep. She lost consciousness, crumpling to the floor in the fetal position. When she next opened her eyes, she thought she was completely alone. There was no noise or movement in the royal hall. But when the blurry shapes around her came into focus she realized that all the people were still there, but all frozen: as still as statues.
Gallia clambered to her feet, feeling dazed, and looked around. King Vantoon was there on his throne, his wide mouth frozen open in a laugh. Queen Velmada sat at his side, placid and beautiful, but equally motionless. All the Horgalath were standing completely still, in various poses, one right in the middle of a conversation, others mid-dance. It was as if time had stopped.
What had knocked her out? Why was she the only person still moving? She spotted Keldan’s blue uniform jacket a few paces away, and approached his position. He was just as motionless as the others, but unlike the Horgalath, Keldan was surrounded by a transparent bubble of some kind. Inside the bubble with him was a slender young woman. Her body and the simple white dress she wore had the appearance of a cloud, partially transparent or somehow unsubstantial. Her face was pretty, but somber, and she gave off a glowing blue aura. Their hands were raised toward one another, clearly attempting to touch, but Keldan’s hand was solid and passed through hers. Was she a ghost? Gallia peered at her, trying to figure out her race. She looked like a Vingosi, but her hair and skin and clothes were shades of blue and white. Keldan’s face was full of frustration, his curved eyebrows bunched together in a scowl that was more sad than angry. The girl’s expression was rather blank, and her eyes seemed to look through him. Gallia backed away, disturbed by the image, and noticed another bubble standing nearby. She turned around and surveyed the great hall. There were a large number of bubbles scattered among the frozen figures of the Horgalath men and women. Each bubble contained a member of the Fallingstar’s crew, or one of her passengers.
A few paces away from Keldan were two bubbles close together. As Gallia got closer she saw that one was San, and the other Mennosha. Perhaps they had been in conversation before the mysterious wave hit them. San’s bubble seemed to be filled with water, and he was under the water reaching upward like a drowning man, his orange eyes were wide, staring at the water’s surface. Mennosha’s bubble was a very different image. It gave the illusion of a wide open space, perhaps a desert or plain of some kind, on a bright sunny day. Mennosha himself was kneeling down among a group of children who were gathered around him, some holding his hands, others touching his long hair, all gazing up at him lovingly. They were mostly Vingosi children, but there were also several black-eyed alien children of a race that Gallia had never seen.
Suddenly she was startled by a voice.
“Gallia, thank goodness!”
It was Mirralu. Gallia reached out all four hands towards her.
“Auntie! What is happening? Are you and I the only ones not affected by this phenomenon?”
“It must be because we are Drashivan.”
“Why should that matter?”
“I do not know, my dear. What do you make of these strange scenes?”
Mirralu gestured to Mennosha and the children inside the bubble.
“I can’t make sense of it at all,” Gallia said. “He looks older. See the gray in his hair and beard?”
“And his strange clothing. Is this a representation of the future?”
“I don’t know if it could be. Keldan and San look exactly the same.”
“So does Naleth. At least in terms of age.”
Gallia peered around, looking for the doctor. She saw him a few paces away and her mouth opened in wonder as she approached his bubble. He seemed to be standing on a high balcony, dressed in fine clothing. Hanging from his shoulders was pale blue robe, fastened at his throat with a gold circle. But most startling was his face: the skin on his cheeks and forehead seemed to shimmer with iridescent pale gold like the scales of a river eel. On his face was an expression of fierce joy or pleasure. His hands were raised in the air as if he was addressing a crowd.
Mirralu came to her side. “What can it mean?”
“I do not know. But where is Fedar?”
They searched and finally found a much-younger version of the security officer encased in a bubble near the doorway to the royal hall. If Mennosha’s bubble showed his future, this clearly showed Fedar’s past. The Fedar in the bubble was barely an adult. She stood holding a golden gun, a laser pistol of some kind, up in the air, pointing it at some unseen attacker. Tears were streaming down her face and her green eyes were wide with fear.
Gallia suddenly noticed a glint of sunlight on the wall behind Fedar’s bubble.
“Auntie, what time is it?”
“It is nearly dawn.”
“The Locust! Come quickly!” Gallia said, and hurried away from the royal hall with Mirralu bustling along behind her as fast as she could go. Gallia knew where the Horgalath communications console was kept, in a tower above the royal hall. She ascended the steps. Thankfully the door was unlocked (though she could not remember ever finding a locked door on Horgus) and she stepped to the console. The sensors showed an alien fleet hovering above the planet. The computer showed that the fleet had been sitting in space for almost an hour.
“There!” she said. “Auntie, look. They are in orbit!”
“Why have they not attacked?”
As they watched, the sensor screen refreshed itself, and several ships disappeared. Another moment passed, and more ships were gone. Finally, the entire fleet had gone away. Whether they had retreated to their own space or simply dissolved into the ether, there was no way to know. Just then, a loud sound came from below stairs. It was the sound of hundreds of people talking and laughing.
“They have unfrozen!” Mirralu said.
The two Drashivan women ran back down the steps and into the royal hall, where they found a crowd gathering around the throne. Keldan was red-faced and shouting up at King Vantoon. Vantoon was staring down at Keldan with wide eyes and an expression of complete shock.
“Where is my ship, King Vantoon? You had no right to take her from me! I was willing to give myself. But not my ship! The ship must be allowed to leave the planet. I demand that you let The Fallingstar leave, along with her crew, before The Locust arrive. In good faith, you must do this for me.”
Gallia stepped in front of Keldan, trying to get his attention.
“Captain. Captain! Stop! Listen! The Locust are gone. They have gone. We are safe.”
It took Keldan a minute to focus. He looked at Gallia as if he hardly recognized her.
“What? What are you saying?”
“The Locust. They have disappeared. I just saw it in the communications room. Everyone was frozen. Mirralu and I weren’t. . . I don’t know why. . . but everyone else was. And then The Locust disappeared. They were in orbit, but. . . now they are gone.”
“That is correct, Keldan my brother,” Vantoon said, stepping toward them. His face was solemn and wise as only a king’s face can be.
“King Vantoon. Please explain what is going on. Where is my ship? Why did The Locust leave?”
“Forgive me, I see now that there are some things you do not understand. It was my error. We are isolated here, and it is too easy to believe that every advanced world is the same, with the same knowledge. Your ship is in the meadow, where it has always been. It was merely hidden for a time. When you offered to stand before The Locust, despite certain defeat and death, you initiated the vrantan.”
San had joined them, and now he spoke.
“I read about the vrantan in your histories, King. But I thought it was a myth.”
“No, Mr. San. Ha ha! It is not a myth. It does not happen often, because we do not often have need of it. And we do not usually have visitors. But when The Locust were detected, we knew that we needed someone to come and help us create the vrantan.”
“I’m still confused,” Keldan said. King Vantoon shook his head and held up his large, strong hands in an apologetic gesture.
“Allow me to explain,” he said. “As you have no doubt noticed, our planet is full of wonders. It responds to our actions and our emotions. It has a living relationship with us, its people. The first Horgalath King was a friend to Horgus. He knew its moods. He wrote down all the things that he knew so that future Kings would benefit from his wisdom. The books of wisdom tell us that if a stranger is willing to risk his own life to protect Horgus, the planet will honor him and create the vrantan. It is a shield of energy that hides us from detection.”
“But how did you know that we would be willing to risk our lives to save you?”
“We saw your ship, and heard your conversations. We read the records in your database. You seemed to us an advanced species. Peaceful, concerned about life.”
Captain Keldan shook his head. “Advanced species! We thought you wanted our technology. Our weaponry!”
“Is not a shield a weapon?”
“Yes, King. I’d say a shield is the best weapon there is.”
Vantoon held out his giant hand and Keldan grasped it.
“Now that you understand, we must celebrate! You and your crew will stay with us a few more days, I hope?”
“We would be happy to. I think we could all use some rest.”
“Our home is yours. Please enjoy and rest as long as you like!”
With another booming laugh, he turned away from them to embrace some of his countrymen in the joy of their victory and safety. Keldan, Gallia, San and Mirralu were joined by Naleth, Mennosha and Fedar. The seven of them stood in a circle for a moment, each lost in his or her own thoughts.
Finally Mennosha spoke. “The other day I ran a few tests on a stone I picked up in the palace. It seems that everything on this planet is made of different stuff.”
“Different stuff?” Keldan asked. “What does that mean?”
“You know that on our worlds there are minerals, vegetables and animals. Well, on this world, there seem to be different categories. Combinations of the ones we know. Animal-mineral, animal-vegetable. And a totally unfamiliar category that seems to combine matter and energy in a new way. It’s almost like the stones of this place have as much life as the people.”
“If that is true, it would explain how the planet could respond to a symbolic gesture like the one made by Captain Keldan,” Fedar said.
“Yes,” San agreed, nodding. “Some animals on Kollimar can shroud themselves when they see danger approaching. Perhaps this is similar.”
“A sentient planet?” Mirralu said. “That is strange indeed.”
Keldan turned to Gallia, his face puzzled.
“There’s one thing I don’t understand. How did you know that The Locust were gone?”
“When the planet became shrouded, Mirralu and I were unaffected. It protected us. But we were not frozen.”
“Were we frozen?” Fedar asked.
“Yes, everyone was motionless for at least an hour. Perhaps more. I was knocked out at first. . .”
“So was I,” Mirralu added.
“. . . but when we awoke, we found all of you as still as statues.”
Mirralu and Gallia glanced at one another and an unspoken resolution passed between them. Neither would mention the bubbles or the strange scenes they contained.
After another pensive silence, San stepped forward and held out his hand to the Captain. “I must apologize, Captain. You were correct.”
“No apology is necessary, San. I was just desperate to do something to help. Anything. I had no idea that things would turn out this way.”
“Nevertheless, it seems there is more value in bravery than in cowardice.”
Keldan’s face fell. “I never really meant that, San.”
San nodded, and his orange eyes closed halfway in contentment. He and the Captain walked away together to continue their conversation.
“How long have they known one another?” Gallia asked Mirralu.
“A long time. At first it was just the Captain and myself. San was the first passenger we took aboard. We met him in a pilot’s bar near the docking station on Kollimar, and he asked for passage.”
“Do you know why he wanted to leave Kollimar?”
“He just said he wanted to travel. He never talks about home.”
Gallia was convinced there was more to that story. But she was too tired to think about it. Her eyes wandered over and found Keldan. The image of the blue, ghostly girl floated into her mind. Perhaps, she thought, the scenes in the bubbles were not pictures of the future or the past or anything so concrete. Maybe they were more like dreams, simply a symbolic manifestation of the person’s subconscious thoughts. Keldan met her gaze and smiled. He left San’s side and approached her.
“I am going to take a walk in the grove,” he said. “Join me?”
She agreed and they left the grand hall together. When they left the palace, the sounds of exuberant celebration were replaced by the quiet breathing of the forest. They walked through the trees for a while. Keldan took Gallia’s hand again and turned her to face him. She looked away, her heart racing.
“Listen, I’m sorry I lied to you,” he said. “I didn’t intend any harm. I was trying to protect you. And I was certain I would die up there, alone in space. Or worse, be captured by some horrible alien race. I think I just wanted something beautiful to remember.”
“It was a nice flight,” Gallia said.
“Yes,” Keldan agreed. “And nice company.”
A light breeze ruffled the trees above them. Keldan was quiet, as if waiting. He brushed his thumb across the skin of her palm. Gallia wanted to look up into his face but she couldn’t find the courage for it. Dying at his side seemed easier. She gently pulled her hand away.
“It’s a lovely night. Let’s keep walking.”
Keldan put his hands in his pockets and smiled. “Good idea.”