Chapter 1: Starlight
His day was starting to get a little better.
Blue pushed the goggles and scarf off his face and breathed, deep and slow. The air quality up on the roof was good and he wanted to clear his lungs before exploring the carcass of the building he stood above. The sign on the overgrown lawn had long since rotted away and the few boarded windows kept the contents of the building a mystery. Blue liked a good mystery.
Climbing the roof was easy and whoever boarded the windows hadn't displayed the forethought to guard the skylight. Blue cracked a flare and let the sizzling light fall into the open space. When he saw what was illuminated in the fractured orange glow, relief thundered between his ears. The trip hadn't been in vain after all.
Blue's slender figure dropped through the broken skylight and kicked up an ancient layer of dust as he landed on the carpet. He battered the dust off his sun-scorched jacket and marveled at the space around him: shelves upon shelves of thick books, a sea of undiscovered literature. The smell of untouched paper intoxicated Blue like no other scent had before.
The last library in the zone, he thought as his lips curled to a smile. A paradise.
His boots echoed off the dark wood paneling that circled the walls. Blue's fingers hovered above the dusty tomes as he glided by. He didn't dare sully them with his touch, at least not until he finished scouring the building for the usual salvage.
Blue got to work upending every desk shelf, exposing every covered surface, and coercing every locked door with a handy game he called Crowbar, May I? The only supplies he found were a handful of batteries, and they were as good as dust unless he took them to a gearhead. He hated gearheads but pocketed the batteries anyway - compulsion winning over reason yet again.
Concluding that he had scoured every possible nook and cranny for liveables, Blue returned to the center of the library and gazed at the still-untouched bookshelves. "Work is over, boys. Time to play."
Blue couldn't really give you a picture - a definitive picture, anyway - of how others saw him. He'd heard all manner of things, none of them very kind. The other outliers in his zone certainly weren't shy about sharing their opinions about him. Too intense and worried (if you were catching him on the way to a new scavenge). Too aloof and distracted (if you ever saw him dragging loot back to his lighthouse while burying his nose in a book). Too soft (if you just so happened to be threatening him. And in Blue's zone, people often did).
His youth drew suspicion and ire no matter where he went. It was unusual for an outlier (he hated that reductive, catch-all term) to be young, and it was doubly unusual for someone as young as him to be by himself.
At 22 years old, Blue lived alone in a cliff-side lighthouse he found off the coast. Before the Crisis War, he learned that it was used as a beacon to guide oceanfarers in the night, and that there used to be many more like it before the Age of Tech made them obsolete. He deeply enjoyed living in the nook of a relic. It had the added benefit of being far away from the frontiers, away from the prying eyes of a Keeper and the glorified bullyhounds they called Aeons.
The top of the lighthouse greeted Blue as he hauled his stuffed-to-capacity messenger bag up the crest of a neighboring hill. He briefly lowered the novel from his face and let the familiar sight reassure him. The fact that people used to live in flat, square rooms above or below other people in flat, square rooms baffled Blue to his core. As a way of life, it seemed so suffocating.
Blue trudged up the spiral staircase that ran up the body of the tower and into the lantern room, the very top of the lighthouse he had spent four years calling home. The lantern room had no traditional walls to speak of, only a curved plane of thick storm glass that ran a full circle around a very large lens which hadn't worked in a long, long time. Blue quite happily spilled the contents of his messenger bag onto the floor. The shelves he built in his living quarters below the lantern room had several gaps that these newly acquired novels and textbooks would more than surely fill. But Blue was a sucker for tradition, and it was tradition for him to take his new salvage into the lantern room and thoroughly inspect them in the clear light of day. He chose the book with the most weathered and frayed cover and skimmed the premise on the inner flip (Astronauts... something about astronauts. The other books can wait!). Blue then settled into a makeshift seat atop the other books, opened the first page, and began a new adventure.
At the end of an incomprehensible dream of flight, space, and stars of every imaginable color, Blue heard a low, mournful sound. He catapulted up from his blanket of books, alarmed then groggy, groggy then annoyed. Had he dreamed the sound? Blue blinked the fading images from his mind and recognized the orange-pink sunrise that greeted him beyond the sea. Morning. He hadn't remembered falling asleep.
Blue stumbled toward the radio console, which naturally did not work, but restoring it had been something of an ongoing project for him. He'd spent the better part of a year gleaning information from blurry manuals to get the lighthouse radio in some sort of working order, but an abrupt scream of crackling white noise followed by a quickly depleted generator was the closest he'd gotten. Blue replaced the generator but he couldn't bring himself to try the radio again, lest he continue to disappoint himself with his lack of mechanical prowess.
He took a great swig of water from an old jug and sat on the console seat. Dumb piece of junk, Blue thought bitterly. He traced a finger along the confusing valleys of old knobs, buttons, switches, and then sighed. Blue had read, in pre-Crisis War civilization, that people actually used radios to talk to each other, listen to stories, to discover and learn. He wasn't sure why he had been so invested in fixing the stupid thing. After all, he'd be the only one listening in on the dead airwaves.
But what if... he used to think to himself, I finally heard a voice on the other end?
The low, mournful sound returned to interrupt his thoughts. It hadn't been from his dreams. It was real. Blue stood straight up, knocking his seat to the floor. It sounded like a horn. A ship horn, from the sea. Blue walked onto the observation catwalk and clung to the handrails. Off in the distance he saw a geartrade ship, a grey box on the boiling green water, heading toward a dock a mile down the coast.
"Shit!" he cried out loud as he ran, clumsy with panic, down the steps to his bedroom. Magister Spark's ship came around to his zone's dock every six months, a schedule Blue had down like clockwork, or so he thought. He pulled on an okay-ish pair of pants and hastily buttoned the only shirt he had that wasn't currently smudged with dirt or oil. He'd just have to deal with being late. Blue knew his chances at convincing Magister Spark to give him a spot at the vendor outpost would improve considerably if he took the time to dress like a gentleman.
Or something approaching one.
Magister Spark took off her captain's hat, pulled her long, grey hair into a ponytail, and frowned. She'd only docked her ship five minutes ago and the dock was already swarmed with outliers jockeying for her attention.
"Magister! Magister!" one called out. He nervously adjusted a red, striped tie as he spoke. "I-I have wrenches, tools. All of them clean, tradeable."
She nodded, allowing the outlier a cry of relief before he ran toward one of her crew members for a vendor table. She continued through the crowd, her lithe figure navigating through them with authoritative focus.
"Magister Spark!" A woman tugged at her arm, wearing what looked like a blouse stitched together from other blouses. "My sister and I. We have kindling and lumber, bundles and bundles of it."
"That is fine," Spark said. The woman lept for joy and took a vendor table.
The entire day was like this - Spark trying to supervise the setup of the geartrade outpost while outliers groveled for her validation, begging for a chance to be seen and heard, to put their wares on display for a chance at nabbing that one good trade to last them the rest of the year. In truth, Spark had no discerning eye, she said yes to everyone until her crew ran out of vendor tables to give out. She was ready retire back to the ship for a quick nap when a young man came running up to her on the dock.
"Excuse me," he said, wheezing and out of breath. The young man had wavy brown hair that wasn't yet long but would soon need a trim. He had the sort of face that seemed young and old all at once - boyish and bright, yet he possessed a haunted quality, especially in his eyes, which were a vivid green and seemed to be set in a state of constant yearning.
"Yes, lad? Can I help you?" Spark couldn't help but notice an inconsistency with his outfit. "Er, your buttons are mis-aligned, my dear."
The young man went bright red and put both hands to his shirt. "I- oh, sorry. I'm really sorry, Magister. I thought- I- this was my only good shirt- I was in a hurry-"
Spark raised a hand and tried to stop herself from grinning. "The effort was appreciated. Mister, er...?"
"Blue," the young man blurted, as if it was a secret he couldn't help but spill. "No 'mister', just Blue. Like the color."
"Shame we don't have enough of that around this zone," Spark said as she eyed the sludgy waters she had just voyaged in from. "If you're here for the geartrade, you'll have to wait in the line until the vendors are finished setting up."
"Actually, I was hoping if I could be a vendor."
"I'm sorry, Blue, but all the tables have been given out."
Blue's face fell. "Oh. Are you sure?"
"Quite sure. I take no pleasure in disappointing a young man, but you should have been a smite earlier." Spark offered Blue a conciliatory but curt pat on the shoulder and started toward her docked ship. "You're free to stay for the celebration afterward."
"Celebration? For what?"
Spark pinned him with a confused glower. "For what? Dear boy, for the passing of Captain Starlight's Comet tonight. Only comes around the sky once every fifty years. Honestly, don't you ever read?"
Blue, as he always did in the rare times he found himself around large groups of people, spent the night feeling incredibly stupid and out of place. It was bad enough he'd arrived at the geartrade too late to nab a vendor table, but now he had to lug around the sack of books he'd intended to sell.
The outpost itself was a series of a couple of dozen vendor tables where outliers from all over the zone hawked tools and trinkets that ranged from practical to sentimentally useless. No one seemed particularly enthusiastic about his collection of pre-Crisis War literature and the lack of interest went both ways. Blue was stuck milling around bustling crowds in an awkward pantomime, pretending to look engaged and present but failing quite miserably.
He was ready to pack it all home - Comet-related afterparty be damned - when an old woman at a nearby vendor table pointed a bony finger at him and yelled, "Boy!" Blue turned in her direction as she held up a poster, yellowed with age and secured in a dusty glass frame.
"Boy," she repeated and he came closer. "You're too young to remember the Crisis War."
"Well, so are you," Blue replied, then said under his breath, "I think."
The old woman threw her head back and laughed into the night sky. "Honey tongue. But listen to me, boy. Every child needs to learn how the world was unmade. To pay tribute to the ones who tried to stop it."
Blue observed the framed poster she held before him. It was vintage, no doubt about that, with faded colors and drooping lines that were once bold and bracing. The poster depicted the five Guardians, three men and two women, their muscular bodies clad in colorful tight outfits, flowing capes, and masks. Superheroes. The man in the center was the boldest and bravest of all, with the squarest jaw, largest cape, biggest muscles, and most effervescent blond hair.
"Captain Starlight," Blue said under his breath.
"Captain Starlight and the Guardians of Liberty," the old woman corrected as she tapped a red shellacked fingernail against the glass. "The greatest superheroes to ever protect the Earth."
Blue's voice lowered until it escaped in a sad, grim tone. "And the last."
The old woman tisked. "Have a little respect, boy."
"I don't have anything to trade for it, but thank you," Blue said politely. He hefted his giant bag of books over his shoulders and started to walk away.
"Captain Starlight's Comet passes by in an hour!" the old woman called to him. "How will you pay tribute?"
Blue ignored her and kept walking. Frankly, he always found the worship of Captain Starlight and all the fallen superheroes to be a little morbid. Celebrating victory was one thing, but Blue wasn't living in an age of victory. If anything, it was an age of defeat and ruin. By the end of the Crisis War, the Earth had been destroyed in the crossfire. And every man and woman with powers, abilities, gifts - whatever you wanted to call it - had died in battle. The real miracle, Blue thought, was how the rest of humanity managed to live on and rebuild in the devastation and loss of infrastructure.
Why couldn't they celebrate that?
Everyone needs a fairytale to help them sleep at night, Blue thought a little bitterly. He was certainly guilty of this, having nodded off to the exploits of mystical adventurers and swashbuckling bandits more times than he could count. But Blue knew he was reading make believe. The real Earth (his Earth) and those trying to survive had a history that was painful, tragic, real - and everyone wanted it painted and glossed over with a pretty, romantic narrative. Blue wanted no part of that.
"Another game, you bilkin' quirleys!"
The rough, tough voice snapped Blue out of his own thoughts. He was on the outer edge of the outpost, just about ready to hit the road. A gang of five cigar-smoking men commandeered a vendor table. One of them shuffled cards. What caught Blue's attention was their manner of dress. Magister Spark preferred all geartrade attendants in clean, pressed, proper clothing. Even the roughest of outliers obeyed that informal rule. But these men were unapologetically clad in long, dirty jackets, wrinkled western shirts, soiled handkerchiefs around their necks, and scorched jeans with scuffed boots and spurs. Each head was adorned with an old Stetson hat.
Cowboys, Blue thought. They look like... cowboys. All the way out here? Must be from the dust zone.
The most rugged man at the table raised his piercing grey eyes at Blue. "You there. Starin'."
Blue felt his face heat up. "I'm sorry. I was about to leave."
"Nah," the cowboy waved. "You can stay. If you like what you see." His fellow tablemates guffawed.
"No, really, I was just-"
"Distracted?" the oldest man at the table finished for him. "Lotta boys and girls get distracted by Ellis here."
The rugged man, Ellis, sighed in a way that wasn't all that sincere. "What can I say? I been cursed."
"Not how I'd put it," the card dealer next to him spat. Another round of guffaws.
Blue looked at the ground and started back toward the road. Ellis stood up and approached him, offering an apologetic hand.
"Hey, come on now. Was just foolin'. Name's Ellis."
Blue looked at his hand, and then up, and up, and up, toward Ellis' face. Close up, the man was tall, tanned and chiseled, with a sharp jaw hidden behind a week's worth of dark stubble. Looked to be about 30. A nice wave of midnight black hair fell below the rim of his Stetson. It had been a good long while since Blue saw a face this nice to look at.
"You're, uh," Ellis scratched the back of his head. "You're starin' again."
Feeling his face grow even warmer, Blue shook Ellis' hand, which was calloused and rough. "My name's Blue."
"Well, well." Ellis ran a hand under his stubbly chin. "Guess what just became my favorite color?"
"I really didn't mean to interrupt your game. I'm on my way home."
Blue gestured to the road. "About a mile up the coast."
Ellis eyed the younger man's lumpy canvas book bag. "You gonna lug that heavy thing the whole way?"
"I've walked longer with heavier. Trust me."
"All by yourself?"
Blue shrugged. "That's all I really need."
Ellis rested his hands on his hips, affording Blue a view of the twin gun holsters hanging off both sides of his belt. "It's almost midnight, Blue. Wouldn't be very gentlemanly of me if I didn't offer to help you in any way I can."
Blue raised an eyebrow, and with it came the corner of his lips. "You're a gentleman?"
"When I choose to be."
Blue set his book bag back onto the ground and feigned resignation. "Alright, then. What do you propose?"
"Me and the guys are playin' a round of blackjack. If you help me win, I'll use the credits to rent an airscooter from Magister Spark. Then I can safely drive you home."
Blue frowned. "What do you mean, 'if I help you win'?"
Ellis' handsome face lit up with a sideways grin. "Got a foolproof method. Lemme show you." He took Blue's hand raised it to his lips. "All you gotta do is let me kiss your hand. Then you use that hand to pick the cards I play."
Blue locked eyes with the tall man and froze.
"What do you think?" Ellis asked.
"I think..." Blue started to feel the strain in his neck from staring up at him for so long. "I think you're too tall to talk to."
Ellis chuckled and Blue found, despite himself, that he rather liked making this man laugh. "Just one quick kiss, Blue. On your hand. You don't even have to look while I'm doin' it." Ellis pointed a thumb toward the table. "Me and the guys already put our credits in the pot. It's ours to take. If you help me win."
Blue thought for a moment. "But what happens if I make you lose?"
"Still got to kiss your hand," Ellis shrugged.
"Be still my heart," Blue said as flatly as possible.
"You in or you out? Your choice, Blue."
"Well. It wouldn't be right to deny a supposed gentleman a chance to be chivalrous, I guess."
Ellis smiled again and lowered himself until he was on his knees.
"What are you doing?" Blue's heart skipped a beat.
"You said I was too tall to talk to," Ellis explained. "Just givin' your neck a break." The scruffy cowboy bent down and kissed the back of Blue's hand. It was not a sensation Blue was used to and it sent an electric shiver up his arms and through his back until his entire body bloomed with a warmth that momentarily stopped his breathing.
Their eyes found each other and for a moment, Blue could have sworn the only thing he heard were the stars above them.
"Alright then." Ellis returned to standing and dusted off his knees. "Let's win ourselves some credits."
The first cowboy, that old one from before, drew two cards from the dealer's deck. A four and a three. The next cowboy, a skittish looking one with sandy red hair, drew a five and a six.
Oh, come on, Blue thought. Is anyone at this table going to give me and Ellis something to actually worry about? Cocky, yes, but being around a table of cowboys had that weird affect on him.
The third cowboy, a massive tub of a man with a handlebar mustache turned over a ten and a nine. The whole table ooooooooooohed at the so far highest hand.
"Was startin' to think y'all were just givin' your credits away for fun," Ellis snorted. Blue stood behind him and had one hand on the seat. He thought about touching Ellis's shoulder or arm, you know, for good luck, but he'd never been that forward, well, ever.
The mustache cowboy cackled. "Try besting THAT hand, ya damn ticks."
"Hobble your lip," the old cowboy said. "Besides, Ellis here's got prettyboy as a good luck charm."
Blue's eyes went wide, realizing they were talking about him.
"Pretty or not," the mustache cowboy rapped a knuckle on the dirty plastic table, "You'd need a damn near divine in'nervention to beat a 19."
Ellis had the last turn. The dealer spread the remaining deck in front of him. He considered something for a moment, then Ellis turned and found Blue's eyes nervously darting from him to the table. "Whataya say, prettyboy? Got something holy up your sleeve?"
Blue swallowed a lump in his throat. "So I choose your two cards?"
"With the very same hand I blessed with a kiss, yes sir."
"19 is a really good hand," Blue stalled. "Like, really, really good."
Ellis playfully stroked one of the fingers Blue had clenched to the arm of his chair. That shiver ran through the younger man again.
"I like your hand better," Ellis said.
The other cowboys exchanged glances with each other, rolling their eyes. Blue studied their faces - they'd seen this sort of flirty behavior from Ellis before, obviously. He tried not to let his nerves take over as he pulled two cards at random from the deck.
All eyes went to Ellis as he flipped the first card. A ten.
"This could go both ways," the mustache cowboy warned.
"Yeah, just like Ellis there," the redheaded cowboy said.
Ellis just smiled, not letting the barking laughter of his tablemates get to him. "Gentlemen, prepare to eat your hats." He turned the second card over.
Jaws around the table dropped. Blue's face screwed in confusion. "How much is a King?"
The dealer sighed, "Ten. That means your hand..." Ellis vaulted up from his seat and shouted a yodeling cry of victory. "...wins." the dealer concluded.
Ellis wrapped his big strong arms around Blue and lifted him off the ground. Before Blue even knew what was happening, Ellis planted a big, wet kiss on his lips.
"Oh!" Blue fell back to his feet, stunned, as Ellis continued his victory cry.
"You bilked us, the both of ya!" The mustache cowboy stood up and put a hand to one of his holstered guns. "This was a set up!"
"Aw, shut your big bazoo, ya sore loser." Ellis took the Stetson hat full of credits from the table. "Well then. I invite y'all to enjoy the rest of your night. I know I will." He took the still-astounded Blue by the hand and left the rest of the cowboys to eat his dust.
Something electric was in the air. That's the only explanation Ellis had for the night he was having. Parked right outside the geartrade outpost, he leaned against the refurbished airscooter and counted his remaining credits. Still had a good chunk of change, maybe even enough to get him through the rest of the week.
Ellis helped Blue lift his ridiculously oversized sack of books into the sidecar. "You're gonna have to ride in the backrest behind me, if that's alright with you."
Blue nodded, shrugged. "Whatever."
Ellis reached into the back compartment and handed Blue the only helmet. The younger man took it with some hesitation. "Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," Ellis nodded. He watched Blue fit it over his head. "Much as it shames me to see that face all hidden away."
Blue lifted the visor shield off his eyes, which were searching him skeptically. "You're really gonna drive me up the coast?"
Ellis took the driver's seat and cranked the engine. With a great, rushing whine, the airscooter lifted off the ground by a foot and half. "Man of my word. At least when it comes to someone as lucky as you," he said.
"Is that so."
"You don't gotta look at me all cock-eyed like that."
Blue leaned into the airscooter, which hummed with warmth beneath his fingers. "In my experience, people don't normally follow through."
"Then you're not friendly with the right people."
"I'm not friendly with any people."
Ellis just shook his head. "You gettin' on or not?"
Blue took a breath - "I guess I am" - and climbed onto the airscooter. He slid into the seat behind Ellis and tightened his helmet's straps.
"Where am I taking you, again?" Ellis asked.
Blue focused on the road ahead. "A mile north, along the coast. It's a lighthouse, white tower with a red stripe."
Ellis hit a couple of switches and a moment later, they began acceleration. Ellis removed the Stetson from his head and tied it around the gearshift. His dark hair flapped wildly in the wind. "You sure your old man won't be mad some other fella's bringin' you home?"
"There's no old man," Blue explained, his tone sardonic. "Just me."
"Just you?" Ellis frowned.
Blue glanced up at the sky. Twinkling pinpricks of light dotted the dark blanket of night. A harmonious, cosmic display. Just for him. "Who else would there be?" Blue answered.
"Family?" Ellis asked, but he didn't have to turn around to know that Blue shook his head. "What do you do, then?" He hoped he didn't sound nosy, he was sincerely curious. Blue was such an odd creature to him. Odd, but quite alluring.
Blue sighed. "I read. I work on this ridiculous, ancient, broken radio that I should probably just give up on. I search. I scavenge. I sleep, I wake up, I do it all over again."
Ellis' eyes were trained to the road, but his mind felt particularly heavy at that moment. "Ever want anything more than that?"
Blue hung on as Ellis navigated the airscooter through the dead highway. Below them sat a sea of rusted cars, long abandoned by their owners, frozen forever in a tableau of endless gridlock. Blue didn't say anything. He just held on to the ride.
Something electric certainly was in the air that night. But that was simplifying it - whatever it was. The whole sky burned with this intangible feeling, which lingered like smoke bellowing from millions of candle wicks.
Captain Starlight's Comet - named after its resemblance to old footage of Captain Starlight himself flying through the sky at the speed of sound - passed hundreds of miles above Blue's lighthouse at exactly midnight.
If Blue had been present inside the lantern room at that exact moment, and not clinging to Ellis' back on an airscooter several minutes away, he'd have seen just how electric the air was that night. He wouldn't have been able to put a name to it, but the events would have given him pause all the same: the flickering lights, the simultaneous shudder of birds circling the tower, the subtle shift in equilibrium.
And then the radio.
The by-all-accounts dead radio that Blue spent the better part of a year taking apart and tinkering with suddenly screamed with static, so loud and troubling it drove the birds temporarily insane. Within that sea of aural dead space, a voice spoke. A man who said only one word.
As quickly as it all happened, it mostly all went away. The electricity vanished into the night. The lights hummed to a steady glow. The birds dispersed, having regained their bearings. Captain Starlight's Comet followed its natural arc through the dark sky and disappeared.
The only thing that didn't return to normal was the radio.
It was dead no longer.