Episode 5: The Golden Gun (Part 1)

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. Irrationally, 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, and sat in the chair opposite Fedar. She stood, and so did he.

“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, covered with complex circuitry.

“Whoa, a cloaking device!” Mennosha 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 her guilt back out and deal with it later. If it didn’t succeed, it 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 about Mennosha. 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 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 residual thoughts, the strange impulses… well, everybody has them from time to time.

And then there was 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. Nothing at 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 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, Mr. Jacobsen. 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 in 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?”

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… well, the Captain has asked some of us to accompany him to a very popular restaurant in the region of Strix, and I wondered if you were going. It’s the first night after we arrive. 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 hands, her capacity for nervous expression 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?”

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 heart could have burst with rage. 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. She caught a glimpse of her face in the mirror hanging on the inside of the door and turned to get a closer look. She felt disgusted by what she saw. The lines in her face, and her sallow skin, were 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 she couldn’t blame them. She looked like she was forty, or perhaps older. The truth was, she was only 29. But nobody would have believed that, so she just let them think whatever they wanted to. 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 precisely: there was only enough fuel in the small ship to get into the region of Cygnus and then out again, and (hopefully) escape into the region of Gulo. If she left too early, she’d risk running out of fuel. But if she left after they crossed the atmosphere, San would easily catch her launching Trina from the docking bay.

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 the launch. San was very sharp, but if The Fallingstar had a weakness it was during 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 docking bay. And as soon as Trina had left the bay, the cloaking device would shield her from the sensors. 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 docking bay.

***

Naleth glanced at the clock on the wall. He could feel a tense anger growing behind his eyes. Mennosha had promised to come and help pack and prepare for the trip, but 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 before the chaos of travel began. Naleth looked up at the clock again; they were running out of time. He’d have to go retrieve his brother.

As Naleth left his cabin 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. “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. 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. Maybe she was just being aggressive. She does that sometimes.”

“She shouldn’t.”

“Why not?”

“It’s annoying. And disrespectful.”

“I don’t really mind it.”

“She doesn’t do it to you!”

“Exactly why it doesn’t bother me.”

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

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

“He’s in the docking bay, like I told you.” Keldan’s voice now had a definite edge, and Naleth felt wounded. This 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 his plans. He asked to 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. And I think 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.”

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. We’ll be entering the atmosphere soon and you need to be at your post. You will 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 for the landing sequence. 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?”

Fedar imagined the ship’s response to be a grudging yes. 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 gun from its cradle and cocked it, approached 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 golden gun.

“Yep, it’s me.” His voice sounded strange, tinged with uncharacteristic irony. He flipped on the lights in the cockpit, and Fedar was surprised to see that he was pointing a laser pistol at her. A desperate thought flashed through her mind, an instinct to raise her gun and fire. But she hesitated. Mennosha stood and snatched the golden gun from her hand. He threw it into an empty locker and slammed the door.

“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 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’m the Chief Engineer. 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.

“So, we’re actually going?”

“Of course we’re going. Keldan told me I could borrow Trina to travel to Equus. He knows I didn’t want to travel with Naleth. He’s nice that way. He said you might need a ride to Hyla, so that’s where I’m taking you.”

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

“I don’t want to go to Hyla.”

“I don’t care. You’re going to Hyla.”

“Why are you trying to control me?”

“Control you?” Mennosha shook his head, as if this made no sense to him. “You lied to me. And you tried to steal Keldan’s ship. I’m not going to let you do that to him.”

“I’m sorry I lied to you. But I have something to do in the region of Cygnus that I had to keep secret. Something important. I need Trina to get there and to get out again. I would have returned her after it was over.”

Mennosha gave her the side-eye. He was still holding the laser-pistol in one hand, pointing it at her as he went through the launch sequence checklist.

“Why didn’t you just ask Keldan to let you borrow Trina?”

Fedar didn’t have a good answer for this, so she stayed silent.

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 docking bay lit up like a furnace.

“Shields up,” Fedar said.

“Launch sequence beginning,” Mennosha said. “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. He entered the coordinates for the region of Hyla. 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.

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

“Decided not to shoot me?” Fedar said finally.

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.”

“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 you should offer to help me. Not the most solid plan I’ve ever heard, if I’m being honest.”

“I was right, wasn’t I?”

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?”

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

“Inexperienced help is better than no help.”

“That’s not true. You could ruin everything. I’ve waited too long, and planned this too carefully. I don’t need to introduce a random element at this point.”

“I want to help, Fedar. 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.”

“Oh. My sister. But I’m going to make up for that.”

“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.”

“And… were you…?”

“Yes, I was. But my sister should never have been involved in that life.”

“I don’t understand. How did… were you… forced to…?”

“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 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. 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, but I showed him mercy. I should have known better. 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 there was nothing I could do. I had no money, no power. No resources. So I ran. Running away from temple service is a crime, so I can’t return to Cygnus without fear of imprisonment. But I have to rescue Fanine from that man. She was innocent. She wasn’t prepared for what happened to her.”

It had all come tumbling out. 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.

“Sounds to me like you weren’t prepared either,” he said finally.

“No. But it was my fate. Not hers.”

Mennosha had no answer for this. He returned to his work on the beacon.

“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.”

“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 others 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 now there was depth. He seemed to her 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? Awesome!”

“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 threw his head back and laughed, making her smile again in spite of the seriousness of things. She felt both comforted by his presence and made desperate by it. They 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.”

***


Check back soon for the exciting conclusion to THE GOLDEN GUN.

 


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