Episode 5: The Golden Gun

Fedar drummed her slim fingers on her desk and stared into nowhere. It was regrettable that she would have to betray Keldan, but there was no way around that. Besides, his disappointment was a small price to pay for what she’d get in return.

The shapes of people hurrying back and forth in front of the security office were peripheral to her thoughts, like the rustling of leaves, or the shadows that moonlight casts on a wall. In less than a day The Fallingstar would land on Vingos, the home planet of most of the crew and passengers. They would all disembark in the region of Felis and some would go on to Equus or Gulo or Hyla, wherever they were from. Everyone was excited about the chance to go home. Almost everyone.

Fedar had spent several days filling out reports for Vingosi passengers: where they were going, when they planned to return to the ship, who they were visiting and why, contact information in case of emergency. She had filed her own report too. It said she was taking a trip to Hyla, to explore the forests there. But that report was falsified.

She did not want to bring anybody in on the actual plan. Circumstances were perfect. She had the device, acquired in secret at the Drashiva City ship yard. She had access to transportation–Keldan’s ship, Trina. And now that The Fallingstar was making a trip to Vingos, she finally had the opportunity to go back to the region of Cygnus. Everything was in place.

Problem was, somebody would need to install the damned thing, and she was no engineer. It was stupid, so frustrating to think of the plan falling apart because of her ineptitude as a ship’s mechanic. Martial skills she had. A vendetta too. And the guts to be a thief; that was proven. She’d even brushed up on her piloting skills while serving aboard The Fallingstar. But engineering skills had never seemed necessary. Until now. She couldn’t just walk into the region of Cygnus. She was prepared to steal the ship. But it had to be cloaked.

Mennosha could do it, of course. But he was so young, and had been so kind to her. She didn’t want to get him involved in criminal activity. Maybe she wouldn’t have to, though. Maybe there was a way to obtain his help without actually gaining his allegiance.

Before she could question herself, Fedar pushed the com button.

“Mennosha?”

A moment’s silence and then his voice came crackling through.

“Hey Fedar. Need something?”

“I’m interviewing everyone in preparation for our visit to Vingos. I don’t have your plans on file yet. Can you come into the security office for a few minutes? I just need you to answer a few basic questions.”

“I thought Naleth gave you my information during his interview.”

“He did. But I need you to sign off.”

“Ok. I’ll be right there.”

A few minutes later, Mennosha was at her door. Fedar felt instantly at ease. He seemed to have that effect on everyone, and especially on her. There was something innocent about him, something untroubled and transparent. His presence gave her the same feeling she’d had once while visiting the Sea of Hassarat in the region of Cygnus. The Sea of Hassarat was a gigantic, shallow body of water, perfectly clear to the bottom, with a floor of fine white sand. It had no marine life, no fish or plants. Just miles and miles of clear water above white sand, and the sun sparkling magnificently on the surface of the water like white jewels. She remembered walking and walking endlessly on that submerged white sand towards the flat horizon, her fingers sweeping through the water, soothed by the absence of twists and turns, by the lack of hidden things.

“Hi,” Mennosha said.

“Come with me, please,” she said. He followed her from her office and stayed close to her elbow.

“Where are we going?” He asked.

“You’ll see.”

They walked in silence together along the corridor, heading aft until they turned right and down a flight of stairs into the docking bay where Trina was kept. Fedar led Mennosha into the hull of the small ship and closed the door. They were standing behind the cockpit. It was cramped quarters. Mennosha’s broad shoulders looked extra wide in the narrow little ship. She stood facing him and pulled a flat piece of metal from her jacket. It was covered with complex circuitry. She put it in Mennosha’s hand.

“Whoa, a cloaking device!” He exclaimed.

“Yes. I need you to install this. And Mennosha—secrecy is paramount. Keldan doesn’t want anyone to know that Trina is outfitted with a cloak. You can’t mention it. Not even to him.”

Mennosha blinked a few times and looked directly at Fedar. His face went slightly blank. He turned the device over in his hands.

“Keldan wants this installed?”

Her heart began to pound. “That’s right.”

“Alright,” Mennosha said, with a shrug. “It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. It will be hard to keep a secret if anybody comes in here, though. There’s no mistaking what this thing is and if someone sees it…”

“I’ll stand watch.”

He nodded and she exited the ship, happy to be in the open air again. Lying was a lot harder than it used to be. She wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. It certainly was not a useful thing at present. There was a box in her mind that she used for the containment of unhelpful emotions. She put her guilt in the box and shut the lid. If the plan succeeded, she’d take it back out and deal with it later. And if the plan did not succeed, guilt wouldn’t matter because she would be dead. Or recaptured by the Cygnus Temple Authority, which amounted to the same thing.

Nobody needs a conscience in the grave.

***

Naleth shook his head, frustrated. Something would have to be done. It was fortunate—rather, it was a blessing from Equus—that the ship was headed back to Vingos at this time. He would have to take Mennosha back to the House of Equus to renew the vow. His brother’s immoral dalliance with the alien girl on Zharius would have to be confessed, of course. But the House Council could forgive if Mennosha was sufficiently repentant.

He chewed his fingernails, considering their return to the House of Equus. He could, of course, easily forgo any mention of his encounter with the energy being that called itself Kayon. Those events were not even worth mentioning, because after all he had not been in control. It had not really been him, doing those things. One might as well ask the Council to forgive Kayon. He himself had been out of his mind during that incident; he had felt the creature’s wounded rage and possessiveness as if it were his own, yes, but he’d never meant Gallia any harm. And the intrustive thoughts, the strange impulses… well, everybody has them from time to time.

It would be better to focus on his triumph—rather, Equus’s triumph—in San. His first convert. That joy need not be overshadowed by descriptions of moments of weakness that in the end amounted to nothing. After all, Kayon was gone, and he was never coming back.

Naleth stopped for a moment in front of the door to the docking bay and cleared his throat. Then, he stepped through the door. There was the woman, Fedar.

“Fedar, have you seen my brother?”

“Yes,” she said, raising her chin. Her cold eyes scanned him with what he felt was unfair disdain.

“Can you tell me where he is?”

“He’s in the ship,” Fedar said, “doing some maintenance. It’s sensitive work, so I’m here to make sure he isn’t disturbed.”

“Sensitive in what way?” Naleth peered over the woman’s shoulder towards Trina.

“The systems involved are volatile. The ship could be damaged if something goes wrong.”

“What could go wrong?”

“I’m not an engineer. I just know I need to ask you to stay out of the ship until he’s done.”

Naleth observed her, and had a sudden desire to violently overpower her. He shook the thought from his mind.

“Tell him to come and see me as soon as he’s done, will you?”

“It shouldn’t be too long. You can expect him within the hour.”

“Thank you.”

Naleth turned his back on her and left the bay. He felt a strange relief at being away from her, an exhaling of the spirit. There was no way to avoid her entirely, of course, but he always had to cleanse himself after working with her and it was a nuisance. Mennosha, in his typical undiscerning fashion, had chosen to befriend her. But then, he didn’t know what Naleth knew about the region of Cygnus. Only the priests of Equus were privy to that information.

He entered his medical bay and went into his private study. A smaller statue of Equus stood on a low table—this was his personal shrine, used only for personal matters. He lay a strip of red cloth across the statue’s arms and knelt before it with his own arms outstretched. He began the prayer of cleansing.

“Equus, I am your servant. I carry your burdens and I ask you to hear me. I ask for your purification. Today in the service of my Captain it was necessary that I speak with one of the whores of Cygnus.”

***

The last thing Fedar had to pack was in a box under her bed. Even though she was in the safety and privacy of her own cabin, she compulsively looked behind her, and above her, as if an assassin might be hanging, spider-like, from the ceiling. Her hands shook as she reached for the case, and she balled them into fists.

“No,” she said to herself. “If you’re afraid, he’s already won.”

She opened the case. Inside was a beautiful gold-plated laser hand-pistol with a long, shiny barrel. She took it into her hands and held it at arm’s length, feeling the strength in her muscles. The well-balanced sidearm felt good in her hand. She gazed down the barrel, imagining his face. If she’d only had the courage to do it the first time, she could have spared herself a lot of trouble. But he’d looked up at her with those liar’s eyes and begged for mercy. He’d promised her so faithfully that he’d never visit the temple again—if only she would spare his life. She should have known better. But very few young women really understand men.

There was a soft knock at her door, and Fedar jumped. She gingerly set the golden gun back in its box and slammed the lid shut.

“Yes?” She called.

Gallia pushed the door open and poked her face inside. She smiled sweetly. “May I come in?”

Fedar nodded. “Just for a minute. I’m in the middle of packing.”

“Oh, of course. I won’t stay. I just wanted to ask you… a question.”

Fedar raised her eyebrows at Gallia, encouraging her to get on with it.

“Well, here it is,” Gallia said. “Keldan… the Captain, I mean… has asked some of us to accompany him to a very popular restaurant in the region of Strix when we arrive on Vingos and I wondered if you were going. Did he invite you?”

“No, I didn’t get an invitation to dinner. But then, Keldan knows I’m heading straight to the forests in the region of Hyla. There’s a retreat center there I’d like to visit, and I’ll be leaving as soon as we land.”

“Oh. That sounds nice.”

“I hope so.”

Gallia dithered near the door. She was a refined creature, Fedar thought, with all the commensurate neuroses. And, having four arms and four hands, her capacity for nervous movement was extensive.

“So, do you know of anyone who was invited to dinner?”

Fedar smirked. “What did Keldan actually say when he invited you?”

“He said: ‘Gallia, I’m asking around to see if anyone is interested in going to dinner the night we arrive’ and then he asked me if I would go, and I said yes. But I haven’t found anyone else who is going. I’ve asked almost everyone.”

“It sounds to me like you’re the only one invited, Gallia.”

“What? But why?”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

“If he wanted to have dinner with me, wouldn’t he just ask?”

“That’s a good question.”

Gallia came further into the room and sat on Fedar’s bed. Fedar crossed her arms and tried to look as unwelcoming as possible, but the Drashivan girl was distracted by her own problem. Gallia leaned her two lower elbows on her knees and used the other two hands to press her fingertips against her eyes. She sighed.

“I’m so confused! First he seems to want to court me. And then he ignores me dayspan after dayspan. And now he’s asked me to dinner, apparently under pretense… what does he want with me? You know him, Fedar. Tell me what you think.”

She gazed up at Fedar with deep brown eyes and Fedar felt a sudden wave of affection. This girl was so innocent, so untouched—just like Fanine had once been. Suddenly, Fedar’s mind was swarmed with thoughts of her little sister, and what had happened to her, and who was responsible, and the thoughts buzzed and clamored until her mind was empty of everything but anger. She pressed her lips together until they turned white.

“Fedar? Are you alright?”

“I’m sorry, Gallia. I’m not really in the mood for company.”

“Oh no… I’m the one who should apologize. You are busy preparing for your trip… I shouldn’t have barged in.”

“I’m not that good at understanding people anyway. Maybe you should talk to Mennosha about Keldan.”

“Hmmm. Maybe I will try to find Mennosha. I looked for him earlier but nobody seemed to know where he was.”

Fedar guided the younger woman to the door. “Did you try his shop?”

“Yes. He wasn’t there. Or in his room. Or the bridge.”

Fedar began closing the door. “Good luck finding him. I’ll see you later.”

Gallia’s goodbyes were cut short as Fedar shut the door. As she turned back to her packing, she caught a glimpse of her face in the mirror hanging on the inside of the door. She stepped closer to get a better look at herself. The lines in her face, and her sallow skin, seemed even more pronounced after gazing at Gallia’s dewy loveliness. She sighed and touched the dark circles under her green eyes. The other day, she had overheard someone refer to her as ‘middle-aged’ and they were right to think so: she looked like she was at least forty, despite the fact that she was only 29. But nobody would believe that. They could think what they wanted. It didn’t matter anyway.

The rest of her packing was done quickly, but Fedar spent another two hours going over the details of her plan. It would have to be done with precise timing. The only way to get past San’s watchful eye was to use the distraction of The Fallingstar’s descent through the atmosphere to mask Trina’s launch from the docking bay. San was very sharp, but The Fallingstar had a weakness in her descent sequence—the engines had a tendency to cut out—and Fedar knew it always made San very nervous. During the descent, he would not be focused on the secondary systems. And as soon as Trina had left the bay, Fedar was relying on the cloaking device to shield her from the sensors. And then, hopefully, she’d be halfway to Cygnus before Trina was missed.

Fedar looked at the clock, and figured she had under an hour until that moment arrived. She slung her satchel over her shoulder and stashed the golden gun length-ways in a holster strapped against the tense muscles of her back. Then she left her cabin, walking casually toward the aft of the ship.

***

Naleth glanced at the clock on the wall. He could feel a tense anger growing behind his eyes. Mennosha had promised to meet up with them to prepare for the trip, and naturally he was late. He was probably still on the bridge, helping Keldan prepare the ship for landing. As if there weren’t other people who could do that. As if they hadn’t landed the ship a thousand times. Mennosha knew very well that they needed to have a talk before going back home. Some things needed to be cleared up. There were things to discuss. Naleth looked up at the clock again; they were running out of time. He’d have to go retrieve his brother.

As Naleth left the medic’s bay he saw Fedar Cygnus coming up the corridor in his direction. He resolved not to say anything to her. Just a polite nod would suffice. Another cleansing would not be required unless they actually spoke. He stood aside, hands behind his back, and waited for her to pass by. Naleth waited until she was close enough and then he looked up, attempting eye contact and a nod, as planned.

But Fedar went by without a word or a glance in his direction. Naleth narrowed his eyes at her retreating form and then headed off toward the bridge, ruminating on the chain of command. Technically, he was Fedar’s superior—the ship’s medic outranks the ship’s security chief. She should have acknowledged him. And if she failed to, there should be repercussions. It would be so much easier if everybody knew their place. It would be that way on a normal ship. Naleth did not approve of Keldan’s loose management style, nor of his tendency to favor his friends. It was unprofessional. Naleth wondered if he should sit the Captain down and let him know how his actions were perceived.

When he entered the bridge, Naleth was surprised to see that Mennosha was not there. He cleared his throat.

“Captain Keldan, where is my brother?”

Keldan did not look up from his console. He and San were both busy preparing the ship for landing. Two other crewmen were standing in for Mennosha and Fedar, which Naleth thought was strange.

“Not sure, Naleth. Did you use the com?”

“He’s not answering.”

“Well, he’s probably on his way to the docking bay. That’s where he should be.”

“The docking bay? Is there something wrong with Trina again?”

Keldan looked up. “What do you mean?”

“Mennosha was working down there yesterday. Some kind of system failure. I wasn’t allowed to go into the docking bay. Fedar kept me out.”

Keldan gave San a puzzled glance. San shrugged his bony shoulders.

“I think Fedar must have been teasing you, Naleth,” San said. “There hasn’t been any maintenance scheduled on Trina for several dayspans.”

“I fail to understand how lying to me about such a thing could be considered a joke.”

“Well, maybe it wasn’t a joke,” Keldan said. “Maybe she was just being aggressive. She does that sometimes.”

“She shouldn’t.”

“Why not?”

“It’s annoying. And disrespectful.”

Keldan chuckled. “I don’t really mind it,” he said.

“She doesn’t do it to you!”

“Exactly why it doesn’t bother me.”

Naleth said nothing. He just glared at Keldan. The man was being ridiculous. Finally, the Captain turned and stared at him as if wondering why he was still standing there.

“I still need to find my brother,” Naleth said.

“He’s still in the docking bay, like I told you.” Keldan’s voice now had a definite edge. His impatience was unjustified. But (Naleth reminded himself) Keldan was irreligious, and irreligious people tend to be intolerant of those who uphold morality.

“Why is Mennosha in the docking bay, if not to repair Trina?”

“He didn’t tell you?”

“No. Tell me what?”

Keldan frowned. “Well, no wonder we’re having trouble communicating. Listen, Naleth… Mennosha assured me that you knew about this… He asked me yesterday if he could borrow Trina to fly to Equus ahead of you. He said he wanted to visit some friends while you were visiting your wife and children and that you would meet up together after to visit your parents. At least I think that’s what he said. And he offered to give Fedar a ride to Hyla on the way. They should be disembarking right after we enter the atmosphere.”

Naleth could feel his face growing hot.

“I knew nothing of this.”

“I’m surprised he didn’t tell you. It’s not like him to be untruthful.”

“On the contrary. It’s absolutely like him, which is something you would know if you actually knew him. You had no right to give him permission to leave the ship without explicit agreement from me.”

“I’m sorry, but I had every right. I’m his Captain.”

Naleth raised his voice. He couldn’t help it.

“You may be the Captain of this ship, Keldan, but I am the authority in my family. From now on, I expect you to ask me before giving him leave of this kind.”

A hush fell over the bridge. Throughout this conversation, Keldan had been watching Naleth’s face, giving him his full attention. Now he returned his attention to the console.

“Return to the medic’s bay, Mr. Jacobsen. Remain there until we land.”

“But. . .”

“That’s an order.”

Naleth looked at San, who gave him a sympathetic glance but was unable to help in any other way. Both knew that Equus required total submission to one’s superiors. Naleth turned on his heel and stalked off the bridge. There was no way for him to stop his brother now. So be it. Apparently it was the will of Equus that Mennosha be allowed to defy him. Perhaps Equus no longer considered Mennosha worthy to be Naleth’s companion.

And if Naleth was honest (and he always was) that was fine by him.

***

When Fedar entered the docking bay, it was all in shadow. The lights had been lowered to reserve power as The Fallingstar began her descent. Trina was sitting at the end of the bay, like a giant black animal, hiding in a cave. Fedar almost expected the ship to growl at her like a cornered jungle cat. She didn’t believe, as Keldan had often whimsically suggested, that a ship could have a soul. But she did feel rather guilty about stealing Trina, knowing the sentimental attachment Keldan had to her. She approached the ship and put a hand on Trina’s wing.

“I promise if you get me through this, I’ll leave you somewhere he can find you. Alright?”

She opened the port side hatch and went inside. She dropped her satchel on the floor and reached up to make sure the golden gun was still in its holster. Then she stopped, her hand on the gun. Her skin prickled: someone else was here. It was the smell—very faint. There was the smell of another person’s breath in the air; the smell of their skin. Her past had taught her this skill. She had become like an animal, seeking out places of isolation, sterile places where there was no memory of a touch.

Silently, she drew the golden gun from its holster and raised it, approaching the cockpit on velvet feet. A voice startled her.

“Just in time,” he said. “I was afraid I might have to come looking for you.”

“Mennosha?” She lowered the gun.

Suddenly there was a bright light in her eyes and before she could recover, Mennosha stood and snatched the golden gun from her hand. He threw it into an empty locker and slammed the door. When the spots left her vision she saw he was pointing a laser pistol at her.

“Show me your ankles and your belt,” he ordered. She obeyed, showing him that there were no other weapons present. Mennosha was smart enough to stay some distance away from her. They had sparred, for practice, several times, and despite his size, Mennosha was not trained in martial arts and he knew she could overpower him if they got into a physical fight. He clutched the laser pistol and gestured to the co-pilot’s seat.

“Sit down,” he said.

Fedar sat in the co-pilot’s seat, feeling numb. She knew she had to do something, but this experience had triggered a sense of helplessness, of being dominated. She needed a moment to return to reality.

“You were going to steal the ship,” he said. It was not a question.

“How did you know?”

“I know Keldan’s policies, and I know for a fact that he doesn’t want cloaking devices installed on either Trina or The Fallingstar. I knew you were lying as soon as you told me to install the device. Now come on, tell me the truth. What are you up to?”

Mennosha fired up the launch sequence, and Fedar glanced over at him and automatically began the co-pilot’s checklist.

“Where are we going?”

“You tell me.”

“You’re not coming with me!” She shouted.

“Like hell I’m not,” he said, raising the pistol to remind her it was there. “We both go, or this ends here.”

The Fallingstar was shuddering. The entry through the atmosphere had begun.

“There’s not much time,” he warned.

“Mennosha, listen, I’m sorry I lied to you. But I have something to do in the region of Cygnus that I have to keep secret. Something important. I need Trina to get there and to get out again. I can’t take you along.”

Flames began to lick the Fallingstar’s outer hull. They were almost through the atmosphere. It was time to go. Slowly the docking bay door opened, and the inside of the bay was flooded with light. Fedar reached for the launch controls and Mennosha sent a stun shot toward her hand, and she yanked it back. 

“We go together, or not at all,” he repeated.

“Fine!” Fedar shouted. “But we have to go now!”

“Launch sequence beginning,” Mennosha said, quickly handling the controls. “5…4…3…2…1…”

Trina blasted from the docking bay, and shook madly in the turbulent eddies around the Fallingstar’s hull. Mennosha pulled hard on the throttle and Trina did a barrel roll and shot straight down through the flames and into the upper atmosphere of Vingos.

Mennosha held a high altitude and leveled the ship out. Fedar glanced at the sensors. The Fallingstar was still in range, but on a divergent course, and in a lower altitude. Slowly, she began to drop further away. Fedar breathed a sigh of relief.

“Looks like they didn’t see us,” she said.

“Of course they saw us,” Mennosha said. “Keldan knew we were going. The cloak isn’t even activated.”

“What?”

“I told him I was borrowing Trina and would give you a ride to the region of Hyla. He said he was fine with it. He was probably a bit surprised that we launched during the entry sequence, but… I needed to do that for your sake.”

Fedar glared at him. “You shouldn’t have involved yourself in this.”

“I disagree. When I realized you’d lied to Keldan and to me, well… it seemed like maybe you were in trouble.”

“So that’s why you’re here? To help me?”

“Yeah.”

“Touching. But I don’t need your help.”

“I think you do. Smart move trying to leave the ship secretly during the entry sequence, but not smart enough. San would have caught you easily.”

“I don’t think so. During an entry, he’s too busy making sure the ship stays in one piece.”

“He’s smarter than that, and you know it. You must be desperate to attempt something so risky.”

“So, you’re here on the off chance that I was attempting something risky involving an illegal cloaking device and might be in trouble and, not knowing any other details, you decided to force me to take you along, at gunpoint. Not the most solid plan I’ve ever heard, if I’m being honest.”

“I was right, wasn’t I?”

They sat silently for a few moments. Mennosha put the laser pistol under his seat.

“Decided not to shoot me?” Fedar asked.

Mennosha rolled his eyes. “I was never going to shoot you. I just needed to keep you from knocking me out and leaving me on the floor of the docking bay.”

They sat for a while in silence again. The planet spun quietly far below them.

“So what are we really up to?” Mennosha asked.

We aren’t up to anything. I’m dropping you home and then the rest is my business.”

“Come on. You wouldn’t even have gotten this far without me.”

“Fine. Maybe that’s true. Thank you. But this is where it ends.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re inexperienced. You’re a liability.”

“I’m inexperienced? You don’t even know how to use a cloaking device!”

She ignored this, and shook her head stubbornly. “No. I’ve waited too long, and planned this too carefully. I don’t need to introduce a random element at this point.”

“I just want to help, Fedar. If you’re putting yourself in danger, it must be important. Let me help you. Just use me, however you want to. Even if you just need me to pilot the ship and help you get away after you do… whatever it is you’re trying to do… can’t I help in that way?”

Fedar finally looked over at her friend, and their eyes met. She appreciated his loyalty. But he was too trusting.

“Mennosha, it’s too dangerous. I’m not doubting your courage. But I don’t want you to get hurt. That’s why I tried to do this alone. There’s something I have to do. And yes, it’s dangerous. But I don’t want anyone else to get hurt because of me. There is one thing you can do for me, though.”

“What?”

“Set up a beacon on Trina so Keldan can find her.”

“I can do that, yeah. But what about you? You won’t be with the ship?”

“I might be. I might not be. But either way, I’d like to make sure Keldan gets his ship back.”

“Okay, I’ll set that up right now.” Mennosha reached up and pulled a small box out of the panel above their heads, and then reached under his seat for some tools. Fedar leaned her head back and closed her eyes. He worked for a while in silence, before he spoke again.

“Who got hurt before?”

Fedar kept her eyes closed.

“When?”

“You said somebody got hurt.”

Fedar hesitated. “My sister. I’m going to fix it though.”

“Is that why you need the cloak? Are you going to break her out of prison or something?”

“She’s not in prison, technically. But she needs rescuing. I need to get into the main city of Cygnus, and get near the temple.”

“The temple? Of Cygnus? Whoa.”

“Still want to help me?”

“Yes! But, the temple of Cygnus! I mean, pretty intimidating, right? Nobody from the other regions even knows what goes on there. There are rumors of course, in Equus, and I suppose the other regions have guessed things, but…”

“It’s prostitution,” Fedar said. “That’s what goes on there.”

Mennosha got very quiet. Finally he spoke again.

“Is… your sister…?”

“Yes.”

“God. Were you…?”

“Yes, I was too. But I was supposed to be. My sister should never have been involved in that life. She was only conscripted because I escaped.”

“I don’t understand,” he said. Fedar took a deep breath, and then it all came out.

“In my home region, every girl born on the ninth day of the month is considered holy to Cygnus and taken to be his servant. I was born on the ninth day of the third month, so I was one of the girls raised in the temple, which is why my last name is now Cygnus. I began working there, officially, when I was 15. Then, when I was about your age, a wealthy and powerful man bought me from the temple. I lived with him for four years, and then I escaped. He was… unpleasant, to say the least. While I was trying to escape, he caught me, but I had stolen his priceless golden gun and I turned it on him. I could have killed him that night. I should have. But I showed him mercy. I should have known better.”

“Compassion is not something to regret,” Mennosha put in.

“In this case, it is,” Fedar said. “His ego was wounded by my escape, and to punish me he convinced the temple authorities to conscript my little sister, Fanine, into temple service. And then, he bought her just as he’d bought me. I heard about it after I’d left Vingos. But by then there was nothing I could do. I had no money, no power. No resources. I can’t return to Cygnus without fear of imprisonment. So I ran away, and swore I’d figure out a way to rescue Fanine from that man someday. And this is my chance.”

Fedar stopped speaking and stared out the window at the landscape far below. Mennosha said nothing for a long time. Fedar’s throat began to burn. She was not usually so affected, but Mennosha was innocent and respectable and it stung to think he was probably disgusted by what she’d told him.

“I know how the people of Equus feel about people like me,” Fedar said. “I’m sorry you had to find out. I’ll drop you off in your home region and you don’t have to tell anyone you ever knew me.”

Mennosha shook his head.

“Are you kidding? I feel privileged to have such a brave person as a friend. And there’s no way I’m backing out now.”

Fedar frowned over at Mennosha. “Why should you care? It’s not your problem.”

“It could be my problem. If I’d been born in your region, it could have been me.”

“Cygnus favors the male,” Fedar said. “It would never have been you.”

“But, I mean, what if it was my sister?

“You would have taken pride in her. In her service to the god. All the men of my region think that way. My brothers. My father.”

Mennosha let out a long sigh.

“That’s not right. It’s not. I don’t care what anybody says. I don’t even think Equus or Cygnus or any of the other gods exist. I think all religion is just a way for some people to control other people. Naleth would say I’m evil for saying that, or even thinking it. But if there is a deity somewhere, I think he or she would be good, kind, a friend. Forgiving. Benevolent. Uninterested in people’s sacrifices.”

Mennosha’s voice trembled slightly as he spoke. Not with weakness, or fear, or even sadness, but with passionate feeling. He noticed Fedar watching him and shrugged.

“I just don’t like the idea of anyone being forced to do what hurts them, especially in the service of a god. It doesn’t make sense to me. That’s all.”

Fedar considered this speech for a moment, and realized that before now she had not really known Mennosha. He’d always seemed so sheltered and naive, barely an adult, awkward and shy, interested only in working on machines and chasing girls. But there was depth there. He seemed to her now more like a man, capable of making his own decisions. More than that, a good man, with principles. The water was perhaps not as clear as before, but it was still as pure.

“If you want to help me do this, I would appreciate it,” she said.

He grinned at her, suddenly looking like an adolescent again. “Really? Great!”

“But you have to let me lead. You don’t know anything about Cygnus. It has its own rules. Any misstep could get us both imprisoned or killed, and ruin our chances to save Fanine.”

“I understand. You’re the Captain from now on, Captain.”

Fedar smiled. “Alright, I guess you’re my Flightmaster then.”

“Flightmaster Mennosha. Doesn’t sound quite as official as Flightmaster San.”

“Nobody could ever be as official as Flightmaster San.”

He laughed, and she smiled again in spite of the seriousness of things. She felt both comforted by his presence and made desperate by it. Now they simply had to succeed. They had to. Now it really mattered. There was no option of failure now, or of resigning to die. All three of them had to get out of this alive. She knew Mennosha would not leave her behind, and she could not bear to think of his spirit being snuffed out in a Cygnine prison.

As usual, Mennosha was above worry. He leaned back in the pilot’s chair, the traces of laughter still visible in his face.

“The beacon’s set up, and the flight plan to Cygnus is set. Now all that’s left is to save your sister and get back to Equus before Naleth realizes I’m missing.”

“Shouldn’t be a problem,” Fedar said.

“Nope,” Mennosha replied. “No problem at all.”

***

The region of Felis is the technological center of Vingos,” Keldan said, sounding like a tour guide. He was leading a small group of them through the bustling streets of a city called Absinthe and was obviously very proud of his knowledge of the place. Gallia walked a few steps behind the group, taking in her surroundings. She’d always been more interested in the visual details of a place, as opposed to its historical or political data, and she was only half-listening to the conversation going on between Keldan and the others. They were walking through Absinthe’s main business district. The buildings here were tall and impressive, and the shops were clean and modern. It was near the end of the day and in the buildings high above, some windows began to darken as people left their work behind to head home.

“…and Absinthe is the cultural center of Felis, but not the political capital,” Keldan continued. He turned to Naleth. “These people prize their independence and they take a minimalist approach to government. Politics are not the center of things. It’s refreshing, if you ask me.”

“There must be downsides to that,” Naleth said. “Smaller government usually means a decrease in social programs.”

“Yes, that’s very true,” said Benai, Captain of the Michigan, the ship the Fallingstar had rescued a few dayspans earlier. Benai and his crew had invited them to Felis for shore leave, to express gratefulness for their assistance. “But you’ll find that people in this region are very aware of their neighbors. Despite our independent spirit, we’ve learned how to care for one another. That’s not to say we don’t have problems, of course.”

“Felis is a paradise compared to Gulo,” Keldan said, shaking his head. “Gulo’s government is powerful, but there’s so much conflict that nothing gets done. They tax heavily, supposedly to eliminate poverty, but somehow everyone is still poor.”

“That’s basic economics, isn’t it?” Benai said. “The more a people is taxed, the less they are motivated to thrive.”

“Not always,” Naleth argued. “Large government works very well in Equus. Our people pay 50% of their wages in taxes, and everyone is cared for. There’s no poverty. Everyone has medical care.”

Benai nodded and gave Naleth a thoughtful frown. “I didn’t know that. That’s very interesting. I wonder what makes the difference.”

“It has to do with values,” Naleth said. “The people of Equus value collective success more than they value the success of the individual.”

“If that’s true, it would explain why it didn’t work here in Felis,” Benai said.

“What’s important is that you found a system that does work with your values,” Naleth said. “What do you think, Keldan? What do the people of Gulo value? Maybe that’s the key to finding a solution to your government’s problems.”

“The people of Gulo value pugilism,” Keldan said. “And strong liquor.”

Benai and Naleth both laughed, and Keldan turned around to smile at them. He had his hands stuck casually in his pants pockets, and his uniform jacket was unbuttoned, accentuating his square shoulders. His normally serious face and demeanor was relaxed tonight. His rare smile drew Gallia’s eye—and heart.

“Here’s the restaurant,” Keldan said, pointing to a brightly lit sign just ahead. They headed to the door, and Keldan opened it for the others. “Sorry I can’t give a serious answer, Naleth,” he said. “But it’s not my government anymore. I’m never going back there.”

“You’re always welcome here, my friend,” Benai said, grasping Keldan’s arm in a friendly manner as he passed through the door. Gallia was last to go through, and as she went past, she felt Keldan’s hand on the small of her back. He leaned in and spoke quietly in her ear.

“How are you doing?”

“I’m doing well, Captain,” she said. “How are you?”

Keldan chuckled. “I’ll be fine as soon as you stop calling me Captain.”

Gallia moved away from his hand and did not reply. His touch was upsetting. She’d spent the better part of a month wishing for his attention, and she felt that such a casual flirtation after such lengthy and obvious disregard was, at this point, disrespectful. Her mind presented her with the usual arguments about being polite and kind, and giving others the benefit of the doubt, but her heart was not convinced. The memory of four dayspans full of worries and sleeplessness and insecurity rose up like a chorus and shouted down her normally pleasant attitudes. A waiter led them up some stairs. They were given to a table near a wide picture window. Gallia chose a chair away from Keldan, between Captain Benai and Naleth. The medic inclined his head and smiled as she sat down.

“How are you this evening, Gallia?”

It was fascinating how two men could ask the same question and give you a completely different feeling. “I’m doing very well, Naleth, thank you.” In the corner of her eye, Gallia saw Keldan shift in his seat. He was watching them, and Gallia could tell that her informal tone toward Naleth bothered Keldan. She touched Naleth’s arm in a friendly way.

“I expect you are looking forward to seeing your family,” she asked. “When do you go back to Equus?”

“Tomorrow,” Naleth said. “It will be lovely to see them, yes. Especially my youngest daughter. She will have grown from an infant to a little girl in the time I’ve been away.”

“How sweet. I just love little children.”

“As do I.”

The menus came. Naleth, Keldan, Gallia and Mirralu were all from other regions and were unfamiliar with the foods offered, so Benai ordered for everyone. Mirralu engaged Benai in conversation about the cuisine of the region, and Keldan pretended to be listening. Naleth turned back to Gallia, and put his arm across the back of her chair. She looked up into his face; under the dim, warm restaurant lights his blond hair and blue eyes looked seductively handsome.

“Gallia, this may be presumptuous, but you are welcome to visit us while you’re here. San is coming with me tomorrow to Equus. You could accompany us.”

Keldan’s head turned. Gallia could feel his attention on them. She could feel him waiting for her answer.

“That is very kind,” she said. “I would like to see as much of Vingos as I can while I’m here.”

“You haven’t even seen Felis yet,” Keldan put in.

“I can always see it on the way back,” Gallia said. “Besides, from what I’ve heard, Equus is a beautiful place.”

“Oh, it is,” Naleth said, smiling brightly. “It has forests and lakes, and meadows. Its cities are nothing like what you’ll see in Felis or Strix, but…”

“I don’t care about cities, much,” Gallia said. “I grew up in a jungle. Natural beauty will be a welcome change after being aboard ship for all these months.”

“It’s settled then,” Naleth said.

“Wait a minute,” Keldan protested. “You’re all going? You and San and Gallia? What will I do?”

“You’re welcome to come along of course,” Naleth said, taking a sip of wine. Gallia glanced at his face. There was a challenge in his eyes as he gazed across the table at his Captain. Naleth knew very well that Keldan could not enter Equus. The region was closed to Vingosi from other regions. Keldan glared back across the table at the medic and said nothing.

“Oh, that’s right,” Naleth said, snapping his fingers. “You’re sort of stuck here, aren’t you? Well, it can’t be helped. You’ll have Benai, and Mirralu. Unless Mirralu feels like coming to Equus too?”

Mirralu shook her head and put up her four hands as if to ward off the idea. “Not me. I’m quite content to stay here. Benai and his friends have offered to take me to the culinary institute here in Absinthe. I want to pick up some new equipment for my kitchen. You are welcome to spend your shore leave with us, Keldan!”

“Yes, of course,” Benai said. “We can tour the whole city. There are plenty of interesting places to explore right here in Felis. And then we can visit Strix, too, if you wish.”

“Oh. Sure. That sounds fun,” Keldan said, nodding politely at Benai.

“We’re all sorted out, then,” Naleth said.

Gallia snuck a glance at Keldan, who was now gazing out the window. He seemed genuinely hurt, and part of her felt sorry for leaving him behind. But another part felt vindicated. During their time on Horgus, they had developed a friendship, but as soon as they boarded the Fallingstar again, he had begun to ignore her. Now he wanted her attention again, and she was not in the mood to give it.

The meal was excellent, and after dessert and more wine, it was a short train ride from the restaurant to Benai’s home, where they were all staying the night. He lived in a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of Absinthe, in a large one-level house surrounded by a grove of fruit trees. Keldan was very quiet during the journey. When they were all inside Benai’s house, he led each of them to a cozy bedroom of their own.

Knowing she had to get up early to catch the transport to Equus, Gallia went directly to bed. She woke up several hours later feeling very thirsty, and went to find a glass of water. She tip-toed down the dark hallway toward a dim light coming from the kitchen. Thankfully, someone had left a lamp on in the living area, which was adjacent to the kitchen. She got a glass from the cupboard and turned on the tap.

“Gallia?”

The voice startled her and she dropped the glass. It shattered in the stone sink. She swore in Drashivan.

“Vasath!”

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.” Keldan got up from the couch where he had been sitting, slouched down so that Gallia hadn’t noticed him. He came to her side.

“Are you hurt?”

“No, I don’t think so,” she said, examining her hand. She began gathering the shards. “I didn’t realize you were sleeping out here. Didn’t Benai give you a room?”

“He did. But I couldn’t sleep.”

Gallia glanced at him and saw that he was still dressed, and holding half a glass of some kind of amber liquor. A scruff of beard was beginning to grow on his jaw. “It looks like you haven’t even been to bed yet,” she scolded. “It’s very late. You should try to sleep.”

Keldan’s eyes were darkened with fatigue. They flitted over the simple white nightgown she was wearing and raised his eyebrows. “That’s pretty,” he said.

“It’s what I wear to bed,” she said.

“I figured,” he said. He took a step nearer to her and reached his arm up to the cupboard above her to pull down another glass. Warmth radiated from his body; he smelled like soap and liquor. He filled the glass with water and handed it to her.

“Enjoy your time in Equus,” he said. “I have heard it’s a beautiful region.”

“I will, thank you.” She took a sip and set the glass down on the counter.

There was a moment of silence. He was standing too close. She looked up at him. The gentle look in his dark eyes disturbed her, pleased her, and then made her angry. She turned to walk away.

“Gallia…”

“Yes?”

“Listen… I want you to be careful with Naleth.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. It’s just a gut feeling. I don’t trust him. He’s… mercurial. Changeable. It’s like he’s hiding something.”

Gallia’s eyebrows shot up. Naleth was changeable? Was he kidding?

“I think I can handle it,” she snapped, and turned and left him standing there. Keldan spoke again but she was already halfway down the hall and didn’t hear what he said. She got to her room and yanked the door open. It was all she could do not to slam it behind her.

It was only after she was back in her room that she realized she’d forgotten her glass of water.

“Vasath,” she swore again.

***

“That’s not going to work, Fedar,” Mennosha said for the fifteenth time. “They’ll see us.”

“We’ll be cloaked!” she argued back, again for the fifteenth time. “What’s the point of a cloak if we can’t land unseen?”

Mennosha buried his head in his hands and scrubbed at his hair in frustration. Why could she not understand?

“You have to trust me,” he said. “As long as we stay above the city, they won’t see us. But as soon as we land, they will.”

“Why?”

They were both sitting cross-legged in a small open space just behind the cockpit. All of Fedar’s plans and maps were strewn on the floor between them. Mennosha stared her, not sure how to answer her question.

“Why can’t we land?” she repeated.

“Because the ship will make contact with the ground.”

“Why should that matter?”

“It just does,” Mennosha said. “That’s how cloaking technology works.”

She crossed her arms. “Explain.”

“Ugh,” Mennosha said, leaning his head back so it banged against the hull. “How am I supposed to explain to you in an hour what took me five years to learn? There’s too many basic principles you’d have to know before you’d even halfway understand what I’m talking about!”

“Fine!” Fedar shouted. “If you don’t care about this mission, I don’t know why you even came along!”

Mennosha let out a long breath. He was trying to be patient but Fedar was being very difficult. They’d always gotten along so well, but it seemed that ever since she’d revealed her past to him, things had changed. She was very sensitive to any hint of his taking control of any aspect of the mission. He would gladly have given her the control she wanted, but he was the better pilot, and the only one who knew how the cloak operated. For the sake of the mission, and ultimately for Fedar’s sake, he had to remain at least partially in control. Most frustrating of all, despite the fact that he knew she understood this, she still insisted on challenging everything he said. She was not usually irrational, and he suddenly felt like he didn’t really know her. Maybe it was just the stress of the situation getting the best of her. He glanced over at her and saw the worried look on her face.

“Listen,” he said. “I do know how important this mission is. And you know I’m a good engineer. And you know I’m on your side. So, can you trust me? Just a little?”

She looked over and met his gaze with narrowed eyes.

“I suppose it’s easier than tying you up and locking you in the aft compartment.”

“Easier on me, for sure.”

She shrugged. “Alright then. If we can’t land, what can we do?”

“We can land, just not inside the city. They won’t waste time putting sensors outside the city walls. They will be relying on the sensors at the gate to keep unwelcome visitors out. Is there any way to get through the gate?”

Fedar thought for a minute.

“Maybe we could disguise ourselves. Sometimes men come from other towns, outside the city, to buy women from the temple. My husband came from a town near the Sea of Hassarat. Later we moved to the city, but that is where he originally took me after he bought me.”

“What is the system of identification? Could I pass for one of these men?”

“Can you act cruel and arrogant, and completely disrespect me?”

Mennosha grimaced. “I guess so.”

Fedar narrowed her eyes again. “Prove it.”

“What?”

“If you can’t convince me, now, when it’s just us, how are you going to convince the guards?”

“Um. Ok.” He clambered to his feet. “Stand up, I guess.”

“You guess?”

“Stand up,” he commanded.

She stood, and hung her head submissively. The dark circles under her eyes, the slump of her shoulders, and the suggestive way she stood… all gave Mennosha a picture of what her life must have once been. Instinctively, he reached out a hand and touched her shoulder.

“Hey, I’m sorry, are you okay?”

She grabbed his hand and twisted it and when he yelped in pain she growled in frustration.

“This will never work! You’re too nice.”

“Maybe you should be the one buying slaves then,” he muttered, rubbing his hand.

Her eyes lit up suddenly.

“Yes! That’s it! I mean, no… women don’t buy men in Cygnus. But rich wives do come to the city to buy other things. Jewelry, for example, or artwork. I could pass as a wife… and you could pretend to be my servant, accompanying me.”

“Okay,” Mennosha said, nodding. “But won’t we need identification?”

“I will have to fake a name and address. You won’t need one, if you’re with me. I’ll say I forgot my ID card, and if they press me I’ll prove I’m a citizen by giving them the stolen access code.”

“And this is the first time I’m hearing about a stolen access code,” Mennosha said, rolling his eyes.

“So? You weren’t even supposed to be here, remember?”

“Well, I’m here now, so maybe just make me aware of these things. Where did you get the code?”

“I got it from a guy on the Michigan. Had to pay 85 Fal coins for it, actually. I checked it out using the Fallingstar’s computer and it looks like the code is up-to-date.”

“It looks like the code is up-to-date? So, you’re not sure?”

“The risk is marginal,” she rationalized. “They probably won’t even ask for ID, anyway. Getting in will be easy. It’s getting out we should be worrying about. Assuming we manage to get in, find Fanine and take her out of the house without being seen, we will still have to get back through the city and across open space to get back to the ship without being caught.”

“Maybe we should just land inside the city,” Mennosha said. Fedar gave him a murderous look and he put his hands up in surrender.

“I’m kidding! Kidding…”

Fedar reached into her satchel and pulled out a couple of neatly folded maps. She spread them out on the floor and she and Mennosha knelt together to look at them.

“Here’s the city gate,” she said, pointing. “So we should land somewhere here, on the salt flats. And we should walk from the direction of Hassarat, which is the largest town outside of the main city.”

“Does the main city have a name?”

“Cygnus.”

“Oh. Right. Go on.”

“My husband’s house is here, right next to the temple. If he still follows his pattern, he will go to the temple just after the sun rises to its apex, and he will spend several hours there.”

“He goes to the temple every day? To do what?”

“A variety of things. He may talk to other businessmen, or go to the bath house. Or buy a girl for the purpose of worship. The temple is the hub of all the city’s social activity. It isn’t unusual for a wealthy man to go there every day.”

Mennosha shook his head in disbelief. “Your culture is very different from mine. We go to the temple once a week, if that, and only to offer sacrifices. And then we leave as soon as possible. Are you sure he’ll be there?”

“Oh yes,” Fedar said. “Harlo will be there. He loves to be seen in the temple. I propose we go into the temple marketplace, and look at the jewelry and art and other things for sale and watch for him. Once we see him, we can go to his house and find Fanine, and then hopefully get out of the city before he comes home and realizes she’s gone.”

“Is there any way to ensure that Harlo stays at the temple longer than usual that day?”

“I don’t see how.”

“Maybe I could stay behind and try to stall him.”

“Too dangerous. He knows everyone, and it won’t take him long to figure out you’re a fraud. No, you stick with me.”

“Do you have the key to the house?”

“I know how to pick a lock.”

Mennosha sat back and gazed at Fedar, trying to think of any holes in the plan, or anything they’d failed to consider. She stared back, obviously thinking the same thing.

“I guess we’re ready,” he said. But he didn’t feel ready. He felt incredibly nervous. She nodded and went back to studying the map. She pointed again at a spot outside the gate, halfway between the city of Cygnus and the town of Hassarat. It was a wide, white patch next to a blue blotch labeled Sea of Hassarat.

“The salt flats are here. Once you enter the coordinates, Trina should get us there by tomorrow just before sunrise. We can enter the gate in the morning and walk through the city in time to see Harlo enter the temple at midday.”

Mennosha got up and returned to the pilot’s seat. He entered the coordinates Fedar had indicated and Trina turned smoothly in the direction he had chosen. He closed his eyes, leaned his head back and tried not to think about the fact that in less than a day, he would either be dead, or a criminal. 

***

The journey to Equus began with a rail-car. Rail-cars were a sort of luxury transport dreamed up by the governments of Felis and Strix to promote intra-regional tourism. Naleth had booked one for them, as a treat. They would cross Felis, into Strix, and from there they would catch a small passenger ship across the plains to the region of Equus.

Gallia smiled as she approached the shiny, economically-sized cars parked in the small stop-station alongside the railway, waiting in line for departure. Naleth and San were already there, loading luggage into the car they’d been assigned, and they waved happily to her as she approached. Naleth helped her climb inside. The rail-car was self-driving, and had a domed roof and four luxurious plush seats: arranged facing one another so that passengers could talk to each other during the journey. Since there were only three of them their luggage was given the seat next to San in the backward-facing seats. Naleth and Gallia sat together, across from San and the luggage, in the forward-facing seats.

“Watch this,” Naleth said, and pressed a button next to his seat. The roof of the rail-car retracted to let in the sunshine and breeze of a beautiful early summer day. Naleth squinted up at the sky, and San rested his head on the back of his seat and put a long-fingered hand up to push his cap over his eyes.

There was a chiming sound and then a feminine voice spoke to them from the rail-car’s speakers:

“Welcome to the Felis-Strix rail-car network. Your rail-car will be departing shortly. Please make sure everyone is securely inside the vehicle. Take care to keep feet and luggage clear of the rails at all times. Enjoy your journey through the beautiful regions of Felis and Strix.”

Moments later, the rail-car moved smoothly forward and, with a clunk, engaged the main railway. It picked up speed and glided off through the woods at a comfortable pace. Occasionally, the rails crossed a river or went through a meadow, but for the most part the journey was as peaceful as could be. None of them spoke for quite a while.

“It’s a very smooth ride,” San commented at one point, tilting his hat back again, exposing his large unblinking eyes. “Is it a magnetic system?”

“Partly, yes,” Naleth responded. “They use magnets in the stabilizers.”

“Hnh,” San said, nodding thoughtfully.

Both men fell into contented silence again and Gallia smiled to herself, thinking of her brothers and their continual project of building a river-speeder. The masculine fascination with the function of vehicles was apparently a cross-cultural phenomenon.

“Pleasant thoughts?” Naleth asked, glancing over at her.

“Just thinking of home.”

“Tell us about it. What is Drashiva like?”

“Didn’t you see any of it while the Fallingstar was docked at Drashiva City?”

“Well, yes. I saw the landscape. But I’m curious about the people. The culture.”

“Mirralu told me once that Drashiva has no central government,” San put in. “Is that true?”

“The social structure is divided into villages,” Gallia explained. “Each village is ruled by a chieftain, and grouped into clans. The chieftains of the clan meet every new moon to discuss and decide upon governance. Unless there is a dispute of some kind, in which case they are called at the black moon.”

“Black moon?”

“Drashiva’s moon disappears for a few days every four dayspans. We call it a black moon.”

“What causes it? Is it an eclipse of some kind?”

“I’ve honestly never thought about it,” Gallia said, with a laugh.

“Never thought about it?” San said, frowning. “How is that possible?”

“I’m sure it seems strange to you. But my people are not astronomers. The sky is Kayon’s realm. Because of that, scientific inquiry about the skies is discouraged. My people are rather good engineers, though, especially with river craft, and hunting weapons. My youngest brother was especially gifted in that regard. He built a laser-guided fishing harpoon that most of the men in my clan use now.”

San frowned. “But the men who accompanied you to the ship were dressed in what I would call primitive clothing. And carrying simple spears. Are you saying you retain those things though you have advanced technologies?”

Gallia shook her head. “That was a ritual. Their garb and weapons were of an ancient design, but only because it is required for the banishment ceremony.”

“The injuries you sustained that day were very serious,” Naleth said in a solemn tone.

“That was a terrible day,” San agreed, shaking his head. “I thought they were going to kill you.”

“If Mirralu and Keldan had not intervened, they would have,” Gallia said in a matter-of-fact tone. “It is up to the banishment party whether to allow the banishment or to kill the prisoner. Most choose to kill. It is considered kinder. My brothers were ready to take that course, as you observed. But when strangers became involved, it seemed best to them to let me go rather than risk a conflict with off-worlders.”

“Forgive me, Gallia, but you are such a kind person,” Naleth said. “I’m curious what you possibly could have to done to deserve banishment?”

“I had created some artworks that were considered heresy. As you know, we have a deity called Kayon. And his enemy is the god, Ordru. I had a vision of Ordru, and it was very meaningful to me. During the vision I went into a sort of trance, and I painted the face and form of Ordru. I had many drawings of him.”

Naleth was listening with rapt attention. “Were you allowed to keep the paintings?”

“No,” Gallia said. “They were burned. But I have some sketches, drawings I’ve done since I came aboard. Would you like to see them?”

“Very much,” Naleth said. San nodded, too.

Gallia brought a small sketch pad from her satchel and flipped it open to a particularly well-rendered sketch of Ordru and handed it to Naleth. The medic’s mouth dropped open.

“Astonishing,” he said, handing the sketchpad to San. “Look familiar?”

“But… this is Equus,” San said, looking from the drawing to Naleth and then to Gallia.

“No, no,” Gallia said. “Not Equus. Ordru.”

“Haven’t you seen the statue in the medical bay?” San asked. “This is Equus. Look at the face! It’s the same.”

“I’ll admit I have not been back to the medic’s bay since my first visit there. Is the resemblance between Equus and Ordru really that strong?”

“Well… the body is different,” San said. “Equus stands on two legs, like a man. While Ordru is shown on four, here, like a beast of burden.”

“Yes,” Gallia said. “He made himself known to me as a burden carrier.”

“Another similarity,” Naleth said. “We often say that we carry the burdens of Equus. It is a very common expression in my region.”

“You carry his burdens?” Gallia said. “I don’t understand. How can a man carry the burdens of a god?”

“It’s figurative,” Naleth said. “It means that we do his will, and accomplish his goals.”

“And in return, he renders blessing,” San added, handing Gallia her sketchpad.

She looked down at the painting of Ordru, feeling suddenly uneasy. Was she really worshiping a foreign Vingosi god? She had always imagined him the true creator of the Drashivan people. Had he created other peoples, too? It was the first time she had questioned her belief in Ordru. He had protected her, carried her so faithfully ever since she’d seen the first vision of him, ever since his presence had made itself known to her. Ordru had brought Keldan and the others to save her from death, and she had thought ever since that day that her life must hold some special purpose. What could it mean that her god was the same as this one–a god worshiped by aliens?

“I’m not sure it’s the same thing,” she reasoned. “He carries me, and in turn I serve him and wait for him. I do not see how I could carry his burdens.”

“But you do. In your service to him,” Naleth said. “And your service to him came first, did it not? Your decision to follow him was the first thing that occurred. And then he protected you, because you are his. It is the same with Equus. Different semantics, but the same concept.”

“Well… I suppose it could be…”

“There,” Naleth said, slapping his knee. “We’ve established a similar appearance and a similar theological structure! I wonder very much about the history of this connection. Gallia, were there ever any Vingosi travelers to Drashiva? Perhaps my people brought the knowledge of Equus to your world.”

“I have not heard any such history. But I do know that Ordru has always been considered a demon to the worshipers of Kayon. Perhaps he is simply a foreign god…”

“We will take you to the Temple of Equus and consult the other priests,” Naleth said. “Perhaps there is something in the Vingosi histories about it. My peers will be fascinated to find such a connection to Equus in another culture. I wonder, what does the word “Ordru” mean, in your language?”

Gallia was beginning to feel slightly ill. She wished they could change the conversation.

“I think it’s just a name,” she said.

“No, no, it can’t be that simple,” Naleth said. “Everything has meaning. And the connection can’t be denied. San, what do you think?”

Naleth and San began to talk about the potential theological ramifications of Ordru and Equus being connected. It seemed not to bother them in the least, but Gallia was disturbed. It was like discovering that her own father had fathered another family elsewhere, under a different name, and with a different woman. She gazed out over the beautiful landscape speeding by. For the first time since leaving Drashiva, she felt utterly homesick and alone.

***

Fedar and Mennosha reached the Sea of Hassarat in the middle of the night. They took a slight detour and Fedar used her pick-lock skills to borrow some clothing from an obligingly empty house in a town on the salt flats before guiding Trina to the agreed upon landing spot. Mennosha went outside to change and Fedar used a small mirror inside the ship.

It had been years since she’d applied the rich, ornate makeup, and since she’d worn clothes of this kind—soft, silky materials and jewels. Putting on the disguise made her heart beat faster with some unnamed emotion. When she stepped out of the ship she was more dressed up than usual, but somehow she felt naked. It was a comfort to know that Mennosha could not see her in the darkness.

“This way,” she said.

They left Trina, hidden from sight in her cloak, and struck out across the salt flats toward a large dark shape on the horizon which Fedar knew was the city of Cygnus.

In the dark, Mennosha was singing softly to himself. Their feet made a crunching sound on the salty soil. Their silk garments made no noise at all. Fedar’s nostrils were filled with the smell of the sea, and she felt slightly suffocated—as if the flood of memories associated with that smell might rise up and drown her.

After they’d walked for a few hours, the sky began to grow lighter and then the sun suddenly rose and revealed the city—white and glorious in the dawn. The city was enclosed within a circular wall, and sloped upward towards a plateau where the temple stood, massive and white as sugarstone, with many spires that seemed to touch the clouds. Mennosha slowed to a stop, his mouth gaping open.

“Unbelievable,” he breathed.

Fedar turned and looked at him. His blond hair looked like gold in the sunlight, and his muscles were shining with sweat under the silk servant’s vest she’d stolen for him. He glanced at her clothing but he said nothing about her appearance. She returned the favor.

“Cygnus is beautiful,” Mennosha said as they continued walking. “So beautiful. I had no idea.”

“From a distance, I suppose it is,” Fedar said.

Up ahead was a road made of the same white stone as the temple, and there were already people walking along it, or approaching it just as they were, from the salt flats.

“There’s the road to the main gate. Stop. Mennosha, look at me.”

He stopped and looked at her.

“There’s very little chance this will end well for either of us. You can go back, if you want to.”

“I don’t want to go back,” he said.

She nodded and they looked into each other’s eyes. An unspoken moment of affection passed between them and then they both silently turned back to the road.

As they approached the gate, Fedar tried to imagine herself as she used to be, the wealthy wife of a wealthy man, his property, leading another of his property, on the way to buy more property for his rich, opulent home. A crowd was forming around the entrance to the gate, and soon they were surrounded by other wives, and other slaves, some carrying burdens or pulling carts, some laughing and some serious about their task, all coming and going with textiles, spices, idols, and people, all to be bought and sold in the belly of the great city.

***

Mennosha and Fedar reached the temple just as the sun was rising to its apex. He followed her from place to place, waiting, watching.

Mennosha was raised in the region of Equus, where everything was wholesome. Families strolled together down the riverwalk, young men played sports on the town green, and lovely young women in long dresses sat together under the trees. After that life, The Fallingstar seemed exotic. His experience on the planet Zharius even more so. Despite his naive mistake regarding Midya, he’d found Zharius exciting; he’d felt freedom there. But the region of Cygnus was something completely different.

Where the night clubs and camtan rides in Zharius had been exhilarating, the streets and shops of Cygnus were stifling. Everything seemed to be layered in gold and silk. Every person he saw on the street was tall, beautiful and well-dressed. But the place made his skin crawl. There was something both sterile and rotten about it, like a perfumed garment on a corpse. The most striking thing was the silence, the reverence of the place. Even here in the temple courtyard, where the people milled around choosing from an assortment of beauties—wives running their hands freely through bins of sparkling jewels, men picking through the young women as if they were fresh fruit—there was very little joy. Cygnus took its pleasures very seriously.

He spoke quietly in Fedar’s ear as she glanced over a tray of necklaces.

“Have you seen him yet?”

“Not yet. Just be patient. The sun is almost at the top of the sky. He will be here soon.”

She gazed around the temple courtyard in an unhurried way and then brought her attention back to the tray.

“How much for this one?”

“Seventeen Fal coins,” said the merchant.

“Thank you, but no,” Fedar said in a bored tone, and set the jewel down in the tray again. She moved to the next stand. Mennosha followed her with his head bowed. He took a careful look around the courtyard. Merchants displayed their wares in rows of neat stalls, arranged all around the courtyard’s perimeter. On the inside of the courtyard was a recessed area in the stone, and there was a large pool with a wading end and a deep end. On a lawn near the farthest side of the deep end, a single chair stood empty. At the shallow end, women and men both dipped their feet or took languid strolls in the clear water. Steps rose on either side of the courtyard leading into the temple itself. High above, the temple spires towered and cast long shadows on the town.

“Come,” Fedar commanded him and they walked a short distance away from the merchant stalls. Mennosha followed, keeping his head down.

“He’s here,” Fedar said. “He just entered the gate. He’s in a grey tunic with a red insignia. Do you see him?”

Mennosha cautiously glanced at the gate.

“I think so. An older gentleman with three servants?”

Fedar shook her head, looking puzzled. “He should be alone.”

She turned and also took a careful glance. Her face went slightly pale but she remained composed.

“She’s with him. Fanine. I don’t know why he would bring her here. I’ve never known him to do that.”

“Who are the other two?” Mennosha asked.

“I don’t know. Servants.”

“One of them is Brinalyan.”

“Yes. Brinalyan slaves are a kind of status symbol here. A husband will pay a fortune to own one. Bounty hunters chase them around the galaxy trying to capture them and bring them here to be sold.”

“What is so special about Brinalyans?”

“In ancient times on Vingos, it was said that the gods Cygnus and Felis were mortal enemies. As a result, because of their feline appearance, Brinalyan slaves are viewed by the people of Cygnus as a symbol of power and the blessing of Cygnus on a household. They are of course very expensive, and very ill-treated.”

“He looks like he wants to tear Harlo’s head off.”

“I know how he feels.”

Mennosha glanced again at the four figures near the entrance to the temple courtyard. Fanine looked very much like Fedar, except younger. The other, shorter woman was wearing a hood that obscured her face. The Brinalyan had black fur and was wearing a sort of wrap around his lower half. He was carrying a bundle of towels. It looked like they planned to go wading. In any case, the plan to break into Harlo’s house and rescue Fanine was not going to work anymore.

Mennosha leaned in and spoke low in Fedar’s ear. “What are we going to do now?”

Fedar stood silent and still for such a long time that Mennosha thought she hadn’t heard his question. Then suddenly she seemed to decide.

“Follow me,” she said.

“Wait. Fedar…”

But Fedar was already several steps ahead of him and he had to jog to catch up to her. Once they got inside the temple building he grabbed her arm and spoke in her ear.

“What are you doing? This is not be a good time to be impulsive!”

She pressed her fingers to her lips and shook her head. He allowed her to lead him deeper into the candlelit depths of the temple, through a vast maze of stone columns and curtained enclosures. Silk drapery and long ropes of beads and jewels were hanging from a ceiling high above, the height of which was obscured by the gloom. Gently throbbing music seemed to come from all around. They passed into a row of enclosures, where gaps between the curtains revealed the curves and movements of flesh, and pauses in the sultry music exposed the low groans and gasps of the worshipers.

Fedar pulled Mennosha into one of the empty enclosures. Mennosha blinked and gazed around the little enclosure, which was equipped with a low bed and silk cushions. He didn’t want to look at Fedar. He focused on a small tear in the carpet and kicked at it with his toe.

“I’m sorry to have to bring you here,” she said.

“I know,” he said. “What’s your plan?”

“We’re going to attempt the rescue now. Right now.”

“Wouldn’t it be safer to just come back tomorrow?”

“I don’t think so. For all I know this might be Harlo’s daily routine now. He may bring his wife and servants with him to the temple every day. There’s no way to know. We have to attempt the rescue now, or never.”

He finally looked up at her. Her eyes were passionate, determined. 

“Okay. How?”

“You’re going to approach Harlo for me. He won’t recognize you. That will need explaining. Just tell him you are here with your master, who has recently inherited a large fortune. Tell him it is his master’s first visit to temple society. Say that your master admires him, and admires his possessions. Tell him your master is willing to pay 200 Fal coins for the chance to gaze at the beauty of his wife, the lovely Fanine. Harlo is very proud, and very greedy. He will not refuse the compliment, or the coin.”

“And then?”

“He will dismiss Fanine, and she will follow you. Lead her to me. I’ll be waiting here.”

Mennosha nodded. Outside the enclosure, he glanced around to get his bearings. He grabbed the tail of one of the curtains and tied it in a quick knot at the bottom so he could find Fedar again, and then hurried from the temple. He rehearsed what he was supposed to say, in his mind, as he crossed the courtyard. His palms were sweating.

Harlo was standing near the wading pool with the Brinalyan slave. The two women had dipped their feet into the pool and did not look up when he approached.

“Excuse me, Harlo?” Mennosha said, feeling that even this greeting marked him as a fraud. He should have asked Fedar for the man’s full name.

Harlo looked up. He was in middle to late life, balding and greying, with a kind and rather blank expression. He tilted his head in a friendly way and stepped nearer to Mennosha.

“Yes? Can I help you?”

“I’m traveling with my master. It is our first visit to the temple. He has heard of your great wealth and admires your position in the city. He wishes to pay you a compliment. He would like to pay you 200 Fal coins for a chance to look upon the beauty of your wife, the lovely Fanine.”

Harlo looked directly into Mennosha’s eyes as if trying to read his thoughts.

“What is your master’s name?”

“Keldan Green,” Mennosha said. It was the first name that occurred to him.

“I am not familiar with that name.”

“My master has recently inherited a large fortune. Perhaps you will help him gain recognition as well?”

It was improvised, but apparently it worked because Harlo smiled. He turned and glanced back at the wading pool. “Fanine, my sweetheart,” he called.

Fanine glided through the water like a swan, and Mennosha stood for a moment mesmerized by her long neck and graceful form—an elegant, ultra-feminine version of Fedar. She came up from the pool and stood demurely next to Harlo. He turned and gazed lovingly into her eyes, and she turned her face up to his, showing off the long curve of her white neck. Harlo touched her cheek and gave her a simpering smile.

“I love your face,” he said.

Nearby, the Brinalyan shifted his weight slightly, and scowled.

“Fanine, I wish you to go with this man. You are to meet his master, Keldan Green, a good man who wishes only to pay us a compliment. Return to me with the money when you have finished.”

Harlo smiled politely at Mennosha and then turned his back. Fanine did not look at Mennosha but hung her head and came silently to his side, waiting. Mennosha stole a glance at the Brinalyan, and their eyes met. It was only a moment, but both recognized a mutual anger and disgust at these proceedings. The Brinalyan gave Mennosha an almost imperceptible nod of respect. Mennosha walked away, and the girl trailed behind him.

They ascended the steps and took a winding path through the enclosures, finally reaching the one with the knotted curtain where Fedar was waiting. Before Mennosha opened the curtain for Fanine, he stopped her with a polite touch to her shoulder. She turned and stood listening.

“You must be very quiet when you see my master,” Mennosha said. “It will be a shock to you but you must be silent or all will be lost.”

Fanine’s brow crinkled, but she nodded.

“There’s nothing to fear,” he said. “Now go in.”

Mennosha followed Fanine inside, and observed her total transformation as she realized that she was not there to please a man, but instead to see her long-missed sister. The two women put their hands over their mouths and embraced each other, silently weeping. Mennosha peeked around the curtain and checked outside. He felt unsettled, as if someone was watching them.

“Fedar, my love, my love,” Fanine kept repeating.

“Shh,” Fedar whispered into her hair.

“I’ve missed you so much,” Fanine was finally able to say. “How did you get here?”

“It’s a long story,” Fedar said. “And we don’t have time now. We have to hurry if we’re going to escape.”

“Escape!” Fanine said, amazed.

“Yes, I’m here to take you away from him. We have a ship, cloaked outside the city.”

Fanine just blinked and then shook her head. “We’ll be caught for sure!”

“Not if we hurry,” Fedar said. “Harlo will expect you to be gone for a few more minutes. But we must go, now.”

Fanine seemed paralyzed for a moment but then she nodded and followed Fedar from the tent. Mennosha followed, staying a step behind them, glancing over his shoulder repeatedly. Once he thought he saw something dark move across the path behind him, like a shadow. They continued on, and finally came to the rear of the temple, where there was a small access door and a flight of stairs leading out. They hovered at the edge of the row of enclosures, looking around to make sure nobody was there. The way was clear.

“Let’s go,” Fedar said. But just as she was about to move, she flinched backward. Harlo stepped out from behind a nearby column and blocked their way. The hooded young woman was there too, standing to the side, drawing the hood over her face.

“Hello Fedar,” Harlo said. She stood as if frozen.

He smiled and sighed like a jilted lover, like a man who sees a woman who betrayed him but loves her too much to hate her. Given the context, it made Mennosha’s stomach twist unpleasantly. Was he unhinged, or just toying with them? Which would make him more dangerous?

“It’s nice to see you,” Harlo said, in the same sentimental tone.

In answer, Fedar drew the golden gun from its holster and pointed it in his face. Mennosha was close enough to tell she was trembling from head to foot.

“Get out of the way,” she growled.

“Oh,” he said, a look of profound hurt entering his eyes. “I see I was mistaken. I had thought… I had hoped against hope that you had returned to me. We had a love like no other, my darling Fedar.”

“You’re delusional,” Fedar spat. “I hate you!”

“Hate is only love that has lost its way,” Harlo cooed. He laughed softly and shook his head. “Can’t you see that, my stubborn girl? The only reason you hate me so much is that you can’t stand the fact that you love me. Your hatred is proof that your love still burns for me. You never could resist me. Ah! Do you remember the nights we had, Fedar?”

Fedar shook her head like someone trying to shake off an insect. She redoubled her grasp on the gun.

“I remember,” she said. Her teeth were chattering with rage. Harlo’s eyes registered wariness as he stared down the barrel of the gun, but not fear.

“And we’ve been here before, too,” he said, nodding. His expression was one of benevolent pity. “You are not a killer, Fedar. You are only a beautiful flower that has been damaged by too many storms. Won’t you come back to my garden? Won’t you allow our love to grow again? Or will you give in to this hatred, fear, guilt… all this darkness that drives you? Come back to Cygnus. Come back to his love, to my love, my darling F…”

Suddenly Harlo was struck on the head from behind, and crumpled to the ground, unconscious.

The Brinalyan servant was standing there, holding one of the long metal candlesticks from the altar of Cygnus. He looked at the rest of them standing around in shock.

“Right, that’s done,” he said, and shoved the candlestick into the belt of his tunic with a flourish. “Shall we go?”

“You… you want to come with us?” Fedar stammered.

“I’ll forgo commenting on the stupidity of that question for now, since you’re clearly upset,” he drawled. “But yes, I do. And I assume Juris is of the same opinion?” The question had been directed to the hooded woman, who nodded vigorously and dropped her hood, revealing a sweet, girlish face with huge, round blue eyes.

“Oh, absolutely. I am, I am!” 

“Well then,” he said, poking Harlo’s body with his furry foot. “We should hurry off before this filth comes to.”

Fedar scowled down at Harlo once more before stowing the golden gun.

“Agreed,” she said.

All five of them broke across the space of empty hall between the enclosures and the door, and ran down the stairs into the light. Fedar stopped at the bottom of the stairs and slowly cracked open the door that led outside. She looked around carefully and then beckoned to the others.

“This way,” Fedar said. They had come out into an alley. A few people were milling around but nobody took notice of them.

“Slowly,” the Brinalyan warned. “Just walk casually.”

Mennosha was a few steps behind the three girls, who were walking together arm in arm. The Brinalyan was walking in front, swiveling his sleek head from side to side, looking for any potential threat. They left the temple area and began walking down the street. Nobody stopped them. Mennosha took a deep breath and noticed that his hands were shaking. He turned around and took one last look at the temple.

A man was following them. Or maybe he was just walking behind them. He made eye contact. Mennosha turned around and pretended to ignore him.

“Hey!” The man called. Mennosha looked back again. Now there were two men. No, three. Now they were running.

“Go!” He shouted to the others, and all five of them started to run. Juris, the smallest of the three women, stumbled and fell. Mennosha stopped and pulled her to her feet and they took off running again, Mennosha dragging Juris by the arm. The Brinalyan ducked to the right and Mennosha automatically followed him, pulling Juris along behind him. After a few moments he noticed that there were no longer any footsteps behind them and slowed. When he glanced back, Fedar and Fanine were gone.

“Oh no,” he said, and began running back toward the street. The Brinalyan caught up to him and pulled him back.

“Stop. Stop! You won’t help them by getting caught yourself. We’ll go back for them but we need to find a better getaway. Here…”

He pointed to a small two-seat speeder parked near a storefront. Without preamble, he walked up to the speeder and jumped in it.

“Get in,” he said. Mennosha jumped in the passenger seat and Juris climbed in and sat on his lap. She pulled her hood over her face again and turned her face to Mennosha’s shoulder like a frightened child. Mennosha looked at the Brinalyan.

“Is this your speeder?”

“It’s mine now,” the Brinalyan said, and revved the engine.

They sped off toward the temple.

“I don’t think we should go back,” Juris said. “We can’t help them now.”

“We have to try,” the Brinalyan said. “Don’t we, friend?”

“Yes, I think we do. And, my name is Mennosha.”

“Glad to meet you,” said the confident alien. “I’m Nyashu. And this may be inappropriate to say, Mennosha, given the circumstances, but this is the most fun I’ve had in years.” He laughed.

Juris disappeared again under her hood and began to cry hysterically.

“Don’t go back, Shu, please. You know what they do to women who do wrong.”

“Yes, I do,” he scolded. “Do you want that to happen to Fedar and Fanine?”

“No…” she whimpered. “But I’m scared.”

“Relax,” Nyashu said, expertly navigating the speeder up an alley with one hand on the wheel. “We’re just going to take a look.”

They drove up a hill near the temple and slowed to a stop. Nyashu hopped from the speeder and paced over to a long wall that separated the temple grounds from the residential neighborhood they were now in. From their vantage point, they could see directly down into the courtyard. Mennosha gently untangled himself from Juris and left her in the speeder. He followed Nyashu to the wall and looked over. Nyashu pointed.

“It’s bad. It’s as I thought. Look there, at the pool.”

A crowd had gathered around the pool in the center of the courtyard near the temple. A man wearing a large, black hat and white robes was now sitting in the chair at the deep end of the pool. Two women were standing, hand in hand at the other end, in the shallow water—Fedar and Fanine.

“It’s them!” Mennosha said. “What’s going on?”

“They’ve been sentenced for their betrayal. It’s the way Cygnus punishes women. They’re forced into the deep end of the pool. A man could simply grab the edge and pull himself up from the water. But the wall is too high for a woman. They lack the strength.”

“So… what happens?”

“They tread water until their strength is gone, and then they drown.”

Mennosha was speechless for a moment.

“What can we do?”

“Nothing,” Nyashu said, with a shrug. “I was hoping we could get down there and create a distraction before they were actually brought to the Drowning Pool. Sometimes they require a trial before sentencing. But it looks like they have chosen to proceed without trial in this case: probably because Harlo witnessed the whole thing himself, and the magistrate isn’t going to doubt his testimony. In any case, it’s too late.”

“No. I can’t accept that.” Mennosha said. “There has to be a way.” He looked at the timepiece sewn into his jacket. “How long do we have?”

“I’ve seen this ceremony many times. The average woman lasts about an hour in the pool. Some more, some less.”

“I have a ship outside the city. It’s cloaked out on the salt flats. If we take the speeder there’s a change we can get to it in time and get back to the pool before the girls get too tired.”

“Right,” Nyashu said. “I’ll drive.”

They jumped up and ran to the speeder. Nyashu took the wheel again and they sped away through the city at a terrific pace. Nyashu was an expert driver with quick reflexes, but the city was large and full of pedestrians and it took a long while to get to the gate. Juris hid her face through most of the journey but when they finally left the city she looked up.

“We’re out,” she murmured, as if talking to herself. “I don’t believe it. We’re actually out. I kept waiting and waiting for them to catch us. I was sure they would catch us.”

Unhindered by obstacles, the speeder flew over the salt flats.

“How long has it been?” Nyashu asked, glancing at Mennosha.

“Exactly one hour by Vingosi time,” Mennosha said.

“Is the ship far away?”

“Another few minutes,” Mennosha said. The Brinalyan gave him a dark look.

“Fanine will not make it,” he said. Juris began to cry softly again.

“She’ll make it,” Mennosha said, patting her on the back. “They’ll both make it. You’ll see. We can get there in time. They both have a lot of courage.” But secretly he had doubts. Both women were young and he knew that at least Fedar had the physical strength to stay afloat for longer than an hour. But he also knew that the despair and fear of the situation would be overwhelming and would sap their strength. He pounded on the dash of the speeder with his hand.

“Come on! Can’t this thing go any faster?”

Nyashu frowned and shook his head. “I’m at full speed.”

The minutes crawled by. Mennosha stared ahead, making sure to keep them on track so that they would not lose time. He tried not to think of Fedar’s head going under the water. It wouldn’t happen. It could not happen. Finally they approached the position of the ship, and Mennosha spotted the small flag he’d set in the salty earth to mark Trina’s location.

“There! There it is!”

Nyashu slammed on the brakes. They all tumbled out of the speeder and raced for the ship. Mennosha tore open the hatch and the three of them piled in. He did not wait for them to get settled. He did not do the warmup sequence. Trina’s engine whined as he forced her into the sky, pointed her nose toward the temple and pushed the throttle to the maximum.

***

“I’m so tired,” Fanine whispered. Her chin dipped below the water and she sputtered slightly.

“Don’t focus on that,” Fedar said, treading water nearby. “You’d be surprised what the body can do when the mind is strong enough. Just focus on staying up. Mennosha will be trying to do something to help us. We need to give him every chance. Okay?”

“Okay. I’ll try.”

Fedar focused her eyes on Harlo, who was now standing near the magistrate’s chair, watching the ceremony. He met her gaze with something like triumph in his eyes; the perverse climax of his lust for control. Your gloating is premature, Fedar thought, turning her will to steel. She wanted to scream at him, to use her last ounce of energy to pull the golden gun from the holster on her back and shoot him right in his arrogant face. But she knew if she even reached for her weapon, the guards around the pool would respond in kind and then it would be over and Fanine would be lost. She had to hold on. She had to hope that something could yet be done to save them.

Fanine’s head dipped below the water again.

“No,” Fedar said, her voice sharp with fear. “Keep moving. Stay up.”

“Okay,” Fanine, breathless. “For you, I can do this. You came to get me, and I can stay up, for you.”

Fedar’s eyes filled with tears and she blinked them away. Focus, she told herself. Emotion would sap their strength. They needed a distraction.

“Fanine, tell me about the other two servants.”

“The Brinalyan is called Nyashu,” Fanine said, spitting a little water out as she spoke. “He’s very protective of us, and hates Harlo. He’s very rude sometimes, but his heart is kind. He’s taken a beating for me more than once.”

“There was a Brinnie in the household when I was wife,” Fedar said. “A female named Inasha. Very pretty and kind, and a good friend to me. Is she still there?”

“No,” Fanine said, dropping her gaze. “She’s… I don’t know what happened to her.”

Fedar did not want to know.

“What about the other woman?”

“Juris. She’s very new. She’s his second wife. Harlo is very taken with her, and comes after her constantly. It’s nice because he leaves me alone, but I do feel sorry for her. I hear her crying at night. Nyashu brings her olives and candied fruit from the kitchens just like he used to do for me.”

“Fanine… I never told you how it has haunted me, knowing that my departure sentenced you to this life. You were not meant for it. I’m so sorry.”

“Please don’t apologize,” Fanine said. “I’m happy you got away. And, there’s a purpose in all of it, I’m sure there is.”

“How can you be sure of such a thing?”

“You’ll think I’m crazy,” Fanine said, sputtering a little again. “Ugh, my arms ache so!”

“Why, Fanine? Why would I think you’re crazy? Keep talking to me.”

“About a year ago I had a dream. A strange dream. In my dream I was near a beautiful house, a home… there were children all around. A voice spoke to me, right into my mind. It said wonderful things… I can’t remember the words, but the feeling was wonderful. I woke up feeling just for a moment like… like there was hope. And ever since, and that hope has been like a shield around me.”

“That’s not crazy,” Fedar said, the strain apparent in her voice. Her arms were aching terribly too. “It’s beautiful. You don’t remember anything it said to you?”

“No. Just one word. I think it was a name. Ordru.”

Fedar glanced at her sister. “That’s very odd,” she said.

“Why?”

“Too complicated. I’ll tell you later, once we’re out,” she said.

“Fedar, I don’t think we’re getting out.” Fanine’s head bobbed down again.

“Stop that! Don’t give up! Do you hear me?”

“I can’t anymore,” Fanine said. “I love you. Thank you… don’t feel sorry… I’m happy.”

And she went under the water.

Fedar took a deep breath and dove down after her. She wrapped her arms around Fanine and struggled to drag her back to the surface. Fedar’s lungs felt like they were going to burst. She kicked and fought to return to the surface of the pool, but the air seemed so far away. At any moment she would be too far down. Terror gripped her. Fanine felt it too, and suddenly clung to Fedar and they both continued to sink.

In her darkening view, Fedar saw a shape; something black was in the pool with them. Then there were arms around her. They were rushing toward the surface at an incredible speed. They broke the surface and continued upward into the sky. They were flying.

I’m dead, Fedar thought. I’m being taken by spirits.

She was clinging to something furry and wet, someone with bony shoulders. There was a rope. It was all very confusing. They seemed to be pitching up and down in the air, and the air was rushing into her mouth. Her mind began to return to reality. Where was her sister?

“Fanine,” she murmured.

“She’s fine,” a voice spoke in her ear. “Just keep hanging on.”

The furry someone held onto her tightly as they were pulled upward. She blinked and squinted, her eyes were dazzled as if she were staring directly into the sun. A pair of strong, familiar arms lifted her into a ship. Trina. Mennosha!

The hatch door slammed shut and Fedar collapsed on the floor next to the soaking wet Brinalyan and they both lay there gasping for a moment. Fanine was also nearby, choking and coughing up water. Fedar reached for her and they clung to each other.

“I knew it,” Fedar said. “I knew he’d come.” She sighed and lay her head back on the floor. Just then the ship swerved and then swiftly gained altitude.

“We have company!” Mennosha shouted from the pilot’s chair. Fedar forced her exhausted body into a standing position and stumbled forward into the the co-pilot’s seat. She took a glance around and saw the city of Cygnus dropping away on their starboard side. Fluffy white clouds were drifting above them and the Sea of Hassarat was glimmering below them as they
sped in the direction of the border. 

A blast hit Trina on the port side and the ship swung sideways. Mennosha wrestled the controls and brought her steady.

“What was that?” Fedar shouted. 

“The Cygnus perimeter defense force!” Nyashu said. He had squeezed himself into the space behind Fedar’s chair, and was standing so close that his whiskers were tickling her ear. “Yow! They’re gonna shoot us down!”

“Hang on!” Mennosha shouted, and then another huge blast sent Trina into a barrel roll. When they righted again, a sickening whine was coming from the starboard engine. Trina was quickly losing altitude.

“Not good,” Mennosha shouted above the din. “I’ve got a breach in the starboard engine wall. And we’re leaking fuel. I’m going to have to put her down. But we can’t land in Cygnus or we’re all dead. I think I can get across the border into Equus if I dump the engine core and glide in.”

“Do it!” Fedar shouted.

The core was dumped and Trina buoyed up into the sky. Mennosha pulled on the throttle and evened Trina into a glide. The ground was still steadily rushing toward them. 

“Just a bit more…” Mennosha said. “Yes! There’s the border.” Fedar glanced out the window and saw the Cygnus perimeter defense ships turning back toward the city. A moment later Mennosha yelled out: “We’re in Equus!” Then he turned and called over his shoulder. “Everyone hold on to something!”

Fedar squeezed her eyes shut and put her arms over her head as she’d been trained to. Mennosha did the same. The ground got closer and closer and then WHAM—Trina hit the ground and began to slide, taking out trees, churning up the soil and leaving a burnt track behind her through the green grass. After several minutes of ear-splitting noise, Trina finally slowed to a stop, her engines dead and her systems dark. Fedar opened her eyes and lifted her head. They’d made it. In the near distance, lights twinkled. Everyone was breathing heavily. Nyashu let out a little laugh of relief.

Fedar saw Mennosha’s silhouette stand and open the escape hatch above the pilot’s staion. He got up on the seat and put the top half of his body out into the air. His voice floated down through the darkness.

“I know this place. Tailor’s Meadow. It’s not far from where I grew up.”

“Fedar!” Nyashu suddenly called from the rear of the ship, his voice urgent. “Come quickly. Fanine is injured.”

***

Gallia woke suddenly from a deep sleep. Someone was pounding on the door downstairs. She sprang from her bed, pulled aside the curtain on the window, and looked down into the street. A carriage had arrived, and several people were milling around in the gloom below. The pounding on the door resumed. What was going on? She quickly left her bedroom just as Naleth and his wife were emerging from theirs, sleepy and disoriented. Naleth hurried down the stairs to answer the door.

“Who could that be at this hour?” Naleth’s wife, Tixa, grumbled. Their three children were now also awake and had wandered into the hall rubbing their eyes. Tixa went to comfort them and shoo them back into their beds. San emerged from his room, blinking his wide orange eyes.

“What is going on?”

“I don’t know,” Gallia said. The door had been opened and voices were coming from downstairs. Naleth reappeared at the bottom of the staircase.

“San, I need your help,” he said. San went down the stairs and Gallia followed. She was surprised to see Mennosha and Fedar, carrying another woman that Gallia did not recognize. And there were two other strangers.

“Take her into the spare room,” Naleth instructed, and ran for his medical kit. San took the injured woman’s shoulders and helped Mennosha carry her to the bed while Fedar trailed behind. Gallia stood at the doorway and watched as Naleth rushed back in and went to the patient’s head. A cloth had been applied to the forehead, and Naleth peeled it away, revealing a large, ugly gash.

“Tixa! Can I have some hot water, and towels…” Naleth’s wife nodded her head and hurried away to the kitchen.

“Who is she?” Naleth asked, pulling back Fanine’s eyelid to check her pupils.

“My sister,” Fedar said.

“She’s from Cygnus?”

“Yes, she is.”

Naleth’s face became harder, and he shook his head slightly. “She’s in bad shape. What caused this wound?”

“We don’t really know,” Mennosha said. “It happened in the crash.”

“You crashed Trina?” San asked. Gallia had never seen his eyes stretch so wide.

“Unfortunately,” Mennosha said, with a grimace. “It couldn’t be helped. But I don’t think the ship is permanently damaged, San.”

“Yes. Well. Excuse me,” San said. “I have a communication to send.” He walked away.

Suddenly Fanine’s body convulsed. Naleth began shouting instructions to Mennosha, who was doing his best to play the nurse, dashing back and forth, handing his brother medical tools and syringes from a cupboard near the bed. Fedar was holding her sister’s hand and speaking to her in fervent tones. Gallia could not hear the words.

Naleth’s youngest child, Freysen, appeared at the bottom of the stairs, rubbing her eyes. Gallia went to her and scooped her up.

“Where’s daddy?” The little girl asked.

“He’s helping a lady get well,” Gallia whispered. “Shh, let’s get you back to bed, okay?”

Gallia carried Freysen up the stairs and placed her in the bed. She brushed the child’s golden hair away from her forehead and began to tuck her in. Suddenly a horrible, grieving wail came from downstairs, and the little girl jumped up and twined her arms around Gallia’s neck, hiding her face in Gallia’s thick curly hair. Gallia hugged the child back, her heart racing. Holding the child, Gallia crept to the doorway, listening. Voices were raised downstairs, the brothers were arguing. Then someone ran from the house, and slammed the door behind them.

***

“Fedar!”

Mennosha ran from the house, following Fedar, calling after her. Naleth stepped out into the night and observed their course. She was ahead of him, heading up the street in the direction of the House of Equus. Naleth put his head back inside the house.

“Tixa,” he called. His wife hurried to his side. “Contact the other priests. Tell them to meet me at the House of Equus as soon as possible. Tell them it is an urgent matter.”

Naleth left his home and paced up the street toward the House of Equus. His head was throbbing, and there was a tense feeling behind the eyes. Mennosha had gone too far. Bringing such women into his home, where his wife and children slept, was bad enough. Not to mention the original lie he’d told, plus his decision to help Fedar steal Trina, and all the embarrassment that had caused. If it were just a matter of personal insult, Naleth felt he could forgive. But now, Mennosha had sided with that whore, not only against his own brother, but against the god he’d sworn to serve. And, as a priest, Naleth could not overlook an affront to Equus. 

Up ahead, Naleth saw Fedar run up the steps of the House, with Mennosha close behind her. Naleth clenched his fists thinking of the words his brother had said to him back in the sickroom.

You drown your heart and call it worship. 

A ridiculous emotional nonsensical statement. Was it not right for him, as a priest, to speak the truth? To simply point out the plain truth of the situation? Fanine’s death was the will of Equus. How could it be otherwise? Mennosha’s actions were clearly an affront to Equus, and now the god had taken for himself a sacrifice. For the sacred writings are clear: To the one who carries his burdens, Equus is ever faithful, but sacrifices will be required from the unfaithful and the pagan.

Naleth entered the House, a round, warmly-lit room with wood-paneled walls, with the statue of Equus standing at its very center. The House stood empty most of the time, except when weekly services were being performed, or the priests were meeting together to offer sacrifices. Fedar was facing the huge form of Equus, gazing up at him. The god stood with its arms stretched out as if waiting for someone to fall from above, and its solemn face seemed to gaze past Fedar, offering no explanation and showing no recognition.

Suddenly, Fedar drew the golden gun from its holster, and pointed it at the statue. The gun went off over and over again, blasting giant holes in the statue’s face, sending chunks of stone flying. The flowers and bits of fabric draped over the statue’s arms fell in a shower at its feet. Naleth stood transfixed, horrified by what he was seeing. Now the gun was empty, but Fedar kept on pulling the trigger, over and over again, though nothing came out but a clicking sound. Mennosha slowly stepped up behind her and put his hand over hers on the gun. She collapsed against him, sobbing.

A crowd was gathering behind them. Several of the other priests had gotten the message from Tixa and were now surveying the scene, murmuring and gesturing at the destruction. Naleth took several quick strides and grabbed Mennosha roughly by the arm. As he hauled his brother away from the woman, Fedar stumbled and fell to her hands and knees.

Mennosha shook Naleth off and returned to Fedar, kneeling next to her on the floor of the temple. Naleth could have hidden Fedar’s identity, but he felt the priests had a right to know. They would want to know. He pointed at Fedar, who was now lying on the floor, her head in Mennosha’s lap.

“This woman is from the region of Cygnus. She is a woman of the temple!”

The other priests registered the correct level of shock. A few turned their heads away. Naleth turned to his brother.

“Don’t you have any shame?” he spat.

Mennosha’s eyes flashed. He got to his feet and pulled Fedar along with him, half-supporting her as she leaned against him, insensible with grief.

“Yes I do,” he growled. “I’m ashamed of you!”

Naleth’s heart was at first a blank canvas, and then slowly the colors of cold rage appeared. He moved to the altar and pulled the book of sacred texts from its place. He flipped it open and began to read. 

“I, Naleth, priest of Equus and carrier of his burdens, took you, Mennosha my brother, to my side to share the work. But you, my companion, have disgraced me. Therefore I say your vow is worthless, and I denounce you as my companion. No longer will we walk side by side, no longer will our goals be one. In the eyes of Equus I now hereby relinquish my responsibility for you, and I take away your privileges as my companion.”

Then he turned his back on his brother and placed the book back on the altar. A stark silence fell.

“You keep drowning your heart,” Mennosha finally said. “And someday you’ll succeed.”

Naleth did not turn around, but only listened to the echoes in the temple behind him. Mennosha must have led the woman away, because the sound of Fedar’s crying slowly faded, and was replaced by the murmuring voices of the priests.

***

Keldan was standing beneath a tree in the meadow where Trina had crashed, hands on his hips. His beloved ship was lying damaged in a field, a grim metaphor for the damaged trust between himself and his two co-pilots. He’d brought a team of engineers from The Fallingstar, and repair efforts were underway. San was in the lead, directing people here and there. The authorities in Equus had been very solicitous; they understood that these things happen, that ships sometimes go down in foreign territories, and their Captains must be allowed to oversee things. He’d been given a temporary pass into the region.

It was a warm day so he’d taken off his jacket and hung it on a branch. He was waiting to have a conversation with Mennosha, who was currently being interviewed by the authorities. He was unsure what to say, or how to say it. He only felt a burning sensation in his chest. He was angry about the ship, of course, but the worst part was knowing he’d been lied to. He took a deep breath and blew it out. A moment later he saw Mennosha on his way back to the ship, coming across the field. San met him, and pointed at Keldan, where he was waiting under the tree. Mennosha walked toward his Captain and stood with his hands behind his back.

Keldan looked into the younger man’s eyes and did not see remorse, but there was no defiance there either. It was a good start.

“I read your report. I know you had a reason for what you did,” Keldan said.

“Yes, Sir.”

“Why didn’t you come to me and ask for help?”

“I’m sorry, Captain. There wasn’t time. We…”

Keldan’s eyebrows shot up.

“You didn’t have a radio? Trina’s communication system was broken, was it?”

“No, Sir, but…”

“But you didn’t trust me. You chose to lie. Why?”

“I don’t know, Sir. I didn’t think.”

“That’s obvious. Your loyalty to Fedar is noted. But I’m your Captain and I can’t let this go without consequence. You’ll retain your engineering duties, but you are no longer a pilot on The Fallingstar. And if you ever go over my head again, or do something behind my back, or go anywhere near Trina, I will leave you on the nearest planet. Am I making myself understood?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Fine. Dismissed.”

Mennosha turned and walked away.

“Mennosha,” Keldan called. The young man turned.

“I was sorry to hear about the young woman. I think what you did to save her was commendable.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

“That’ll be all.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Mennosha walked away, his head hung down slightly. Keldan closed his eyes and ran a hand over his cropped black hair. He was not looking forward to speaking with Fedar. But it was at least something he could postpone. She was grieving and had not yet filed her report. He headed back to the crash site. San was now talking to one of their new passengers—the Brinalyan.

“Captain,” San said as Keldan approached. “This is Nyashu. He tells me he has some skill as a pilot.”

“Is that right?” Keldan asked.

“I used to be a good pilot,” Nyashu said, with a friendly smile. “I have not had much chance to practice lately. Crashed on a moon near Katikan and got captured, and sold here on Vingos as a labor slave, and that’s been my life for the last four years.”

“Let’s do a training run when we get back to the ship. I’ll evaluate your skills, and see if there’s a position for you.”

“Thank you, Captain Keldan!” Nyashu offered a sleek, furry hand and shook Keldan’s vigorously. “I’m so grateful. I can’t wait to see The Fallingstar. From what San has told me, she’s quite a ship.”

“She’s the best ship in the galaxy,” Keldan said with a wink.

And she has the best crew, he thought.

***

The Fallingstar left Vingos a few days later, minus about thirty of its passengers, all of whom had been offered full time work in the region of Strix. Gallia could not sleep. The events of the past dayspan had unsettled her, and her mind would not stop attempting to process what she’d experienced. With a sigh she got out of bed, put a long sweater over her nightdress and slipped her feet into a pair of sandals. Maybe if she walked around the ship a few times she’d be tired enough to rest.

The ship was always peaceful at night. The lights were dimmed, and the hum of the engine was like a presence—like the warmth of a friend standing nearby. Gallia passed through one of the links, and stopped partway through to admire the engineering of the artificial gravity system, of the water swirling through the ship’s body like a sort of lifeblood. The links were transparent here in the inner hull, and the water was lit with a blue light. Gallia continued on and passed through the long, outer link, which had no windows. It was lit from within, a long tunnel reinforced with many layers of strong metals, the ship’s skeleton, holding everything in place.

She reached the outer corridor on the starboard side and began walking aft, toward the viewing deck and navigation room. She meant to simply walk past and continue down the corridor, but when she approached the viewing deck, she heard voices. Two people, in conversation. She peeked in carefully, not wanting to startle them. But when she saw who it was she shrank back into the shadow.

“I think this next world could contain what we’re looking for.”

It was a woman’s voice. Not one that Gallia recognized. She could see Keldan’s profile, but she could not see the woman.

“But it’s uninhabited,” he said. “How do I convince the crew to stop there?”

He didn’t sound irritated or argumentative. The question was matter-of-fact, as if it was a topic very commonly discussed between them. The female came into Gallia’s line of sight. She was slender, with a pale face. Her age and race were difficult to tell. She appeared to be Vingosi, but there was something odd about her appearance. Gallia narrowed her eyes, trying to discern the color of the girl’s eyes and hair. She seemed somehow colorless. If anything, there seemed to be a faint bluish tinge to her features. Who was she? Was she a new passenger? If so, why was she giving Keldan orders?

“It won’t be a long stop,” the girl said. “Just tell them you need to land for repair.”

“What are we repairing? I can’t have the engineers repairing nothing, they’ll get suspicious.”

“I’ll arrange for a small malfunction. Nothing dangerous, just something that will keep them occupied long enough.”

Keldan nodded. They stood looking at each other for a moment, and then he spoke again.

“How have you been feeling? I’m sorry the detour to Vingos took longer than expected.”

“I’m fine. But I missed you.”

“I’m sorry,” he apologized again. “I missed you too.”

Gallia’s stomach dropped as Keldan took a step nearer to the girl. He reached out as if to take her by the waist and draw her closer, but when he touched her, his hands went through her body. Gallia put her hand over her mouth to keep from screaming. The girl was insubtantial. She looked real and grounded. But she was transparent. Was she a projection? A spirit?

Keldan’s hands returned to his hips and he looked away from the girl, embarrassed.

“Why do you keep trying?” The girl said, in a calm, cool voice. “You know it will never be like that.”

“I can’t help it,” he said, and reached out his hand again, just to touch her face. But there was nothing to touch. And then the girl just disappeared, dissolving into the air like a wisp of cloud.

“I’m sorry,” came the barely audible whisper of her voice as she left him.

Keldan stood alone, quiet for a moment. His eyes were like two black lines, staring straight ahead at the empty space where the girl had been. Then suddenly, without warning, he clenched his fists and cried out in wordless frustration. Gallia took a step back, stunned at the sound of his emotion, and then turned and ran back down the corridor as fast as she could, through the link, and back to her room. And as she ran, she felt again the presence of the ship, all around her, observing her with a kind of distant curiosity.

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