The Golden Gun (Part 3)

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 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, 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 around the outside. On the inside of the courtyard was a recessed area in the stone, and 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.

“Come,” Fedar commanded him and 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 suit with a red insignia. Do you see him?”

Mennosha cautiously glanced at the gate.

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

“No,” Fedar said, 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 tunic and 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, 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. Her face looked fierce and ashamed at the same time.

“We have to avoid being heard,” she said.

“I understand. What is 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.”

Her eyes were passionate, determined. He nodded.

“Okay. How?”

“You’re going to approach Harlo for me. He won’t recognize you. Tell him you are here with your master, and 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?”

“Fanine will follow you. Lead her to me. I’ll be waiting here.”

Mennosha nodded and left her in the enclosure. Once outside, 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.

The man 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, who 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.

Harlo 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. Then he 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 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 stayed a step behind them, glancing over his shoulder repeatedly. He thought he saw something dark move across the path behind him, like a shadow. They continued on, and 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 no-one was there.

“Let’s go,” Fedar said. But just as she was about to move, she flinched backward. Harlo was standing right in front of them. The hooded young woman was there too, standing to the side, drawing the hood over her face.

“Hello Fedar,” Harlo said. 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.”

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

“But hate is only love that has lost its way,” Harlo cooed. He laughed softly and shook his head. “Can’t you see, 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 hatred, fear, guilt, and all this darkness that drives you? Come back to Cygnus. Come back to his love, to my love, my darling F…”

Suddenly Harlo’s eyes crossed and he crumpled to the ground. He’d been struck on the head from behind.

Harlo’s Brinalyan servant was standing there, holding one of the long metal candlesticks from the altar of Cygnus. He looked at the wide-eyed Fedar, still holding the gun, and the rest of them standing around in shock.

“Right, that’s done,” he said, stuffing the candlestick into the belt of his tunic. “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?” He raised his eyebrows at the hooded woman, who nodded vigorously and dropped her hood, revealing a sweet, girlish face with huge blue eyes.

“Oh, absolutely. I am, I am!” 

“Well then. We should hurry off before this filth comes to.”

He poked Harlo’s body with his furry foot.

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

“Let’s go,” 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?”

“I think so. And, my name is Mennosha.”

“Glad to meet you,” said the confident alien. “I’m Nyashu. And this may be inappropriate to say, given the circumstances, Mennosha, 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. 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 not doing anything yet. Just going to take a look.”

They drove up a hill that overlooked 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. Mennosha gently untangled himself from Juris and left her in the speeder. He followed Nyashu to the wall and looked over. Nyashu pointed down into the temple courtyard.

“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.

“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 the guards around the pool would respond in kind and then it would be over. 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.”

“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 clung to Fedar so that 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. Her mind began to return to reality. Where was her sister?

“Fanine,” she murmured.

“She’s on board,” a voice spoke in her ear. “Just hold on tight.”

The furry someone held on tight as the rope was pulled upward and 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 told you,” Fedar said. “I told you he’d come.”

“Hang on!” Mennosha shouted from the pilot’s chair.

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

“What was that?” Fedar shouted. She jumped up and got into the co-pilot’s seat.

“The Cygnus perimeter defense force!” Nyashu said. “They’re shooting at us!”

“Uh oh…” Fedar heard Mennosha say, and then another huge blast sent Trina into a barrel roll. When they righted again, a sickening whine was coming from the engines.

“Not good,” Mennosha shouted above the din. “I’ve got a breach in the starboard engine wall. And we’re leaking fuel. I 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 said.

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

“Just a bit more…” Mennosha said. “Yes! There’s the border. We’re in Equus!” He turned and shouted over his shoulder. “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 in a field, and began to slide, taking out trees, churning up the soil and leaving a burnt track through the green grass. Finally she slowed to a stop and her systems went dark. Fedar opened her eyes. 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. “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?” Tixa said. Naleth’s three children were now awake and had wandered into the hall. 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. Quiet 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 woman’s shoulders and helped Mennosha carry her to the bed while Fedar trailed behind. Gallia stood at the door way 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. Suddenly a horrible, grieving wail came from downstairs, and the little girl jumped 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, slamming 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 temple 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 temple as soon as possible. Tell them it is an urgent matter.”

Naleth left the house and paced up the street toward the temple. His head was throbbing, and there was a tense feeling behind the eyes. Mennosha had gone too far. Bringing such women into his house, 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. All of those things Naleth might have been able to forgive. But now, Mennosha had sided with that whore, against his own brother, and against the god he’d sworn to serve. It was intolerable. It called for a swift judgment.

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

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 temple, which was a round, warmly-lit room with wood-paneled walls, with the statue of Equus standing at its very center. The temple 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 in the temple. Several of the other priests had gotten the message from Tixa and were now surveying the scene, murmuring and gesturing at the destruction. He 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 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 darkened. 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 said. “I’m ashamed of you.”

Naleth’s heart was at first a blank canvas, and then slowly the colors of 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, priest of Equus and carrier of his burdens, took you 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, wondering what he was going to say. 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. Mennosha was on his way back to the ship, coming across the field. San saw him, and pointed to Keldan, where he was waiting under the tree. Mennosha walked toward him and stood with his hands behind his back.

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

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

“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, before they passed out into space toward the outer 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–Keldan, standing with his back to her–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. And 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. “You know I missed you too.”

Gallia’s stomach dropped as Keldan took a step nearer to the girl. He reached out suddenly 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, as if out of curiosity. “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 and then he clenched his fists and cried out in wordless frustration. Gallia took a step back, stunned, 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 warmth of the ship, like a presence all around, observing her with a kind of distant curiosity.

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