Kessa coughed dust into her hands, tears making slow tracks down her dirty face. Where were they?
The chains meant that they were never alone. Not even when they were scattered and without another soul. Kessa gazed at the silver lining her bare arms, tempted to strip it off and throw it into the wild wind. She couldn’t.
The chains were a part of her, just as they were a part of every one of the People who donned them.
Coughing and just barely managing to crawl, her throat dry and skin aching from the relentless wind, the grey sand, she moved until she couldn’t move any longer.
Then Kessa collapsed in a heap, black silk tearing around her, waiting to sleep and not caring if she woke up again.
Ren felt the familiar thunder as Karn pushed the ship into hyperspace. Confused, she headed to the cockpit.
Karn sat with her feet on the dashboard. Ren glanced to the windshield that showed the glaringly bright view of the hyperspace funnel, the spinning swirl of wormhole space that sent a ship to anywhere it wanted to go. She stared for a moment, and tore her gaze away.
The cockpit itself was impressive, too. It was one of Ren’s favorite spaces on the ship. Foot-thick plexiglass stretched in a dome around them, making up the walls and the floor and ceiling, ribbed with steel alloy every three feet. No blaster fire could ever take out that glass, Ren knew. The cockpit sat on top of the ship to the front, so Ren looked backwards and saw the flat roof of the ship, covered in generators and ventilation, lumps and jagged blocks shaped on the surface. Entrance hatches fore and aft were both latched down tight. To both sides of the cockpit, the wings swept out in front of the ship in a V pattern typical of over a hundred years ago.
Karn glanced at her, and read her confusion on her face.
“I thought we were sticking around the Yis system for a while?” Karn shrugged, and flicked her tail at the copilot seat, where Zane stared into the hyperspace funnel, grey eyes storm-dark.
“Not after that botch.” Karn scoffed, glaring at Zane. “They’ll be looking for someone who can jump onto a hovering ship from twenty feet.”
“Twenty feet?” Ren asked. She hadn’t known they’d been that high up. “Really?” Karn nodded. Ren whistled. Zane didn’t stir.
“Yeah. Well. It’s a bit of a problem. Not too many people can do that, no matter what species they are. They’ll be watching for us.” Karn said.
“The question is” Ren paused. “Why was it necessary?”
“Zane?” Karn asked pointedly.
Ren poked him on the shoulder, hard. “Zane!” Nothing.
Karn swung out of her high backed chair and flicked him with her tail on the cheek.
He started sharply, eyes flashing. “What?” He asked.
Karn smirked, dropping back onto her seat and hooking her feet over the arm of her massive black pilot chair. “Finally. Come back, have we?”
Zane shook his head, as if getting rid of extra thoughts. “If that’s how you want to put it.”
“Yeah, it is. I was asking Ren why she figured your leaping onto our ship, and consequentially putting virtually every trooper in the entire galaxy on our backs, was necessary.” Her voice rose and fell like a stacatto pianist in one of the space trucker bars.
“Why’d we even go there, Zane? It was entirely out of our way.” Ren asked. She’d flown with them so long, she was part of the command structure of the ship. Fifteen or not, she was second mate on the Decadia, when most other ships wouldn’t even give her a second glance.
“I needed to grab something. It’s really no big deal.”
“Zane” Karn hissed testily. “You almost got all of us killed, waiting for you. You almost got yourself killed!”
Ren tucked her hands into the pockets of her stained overalls. She got the feeling there was something important that no one in the crew knew just yet. Something big, important. Dangerous.
“I am asking you in no uncertain terms, Zane. What was in those vaults?”
Zane shot out of his chair at nearly terminal velocity. “What was that? I bet Keren just cracked the reactor shields again!” Even though reactor shields were something Karn could deal with from the cockpit, Zane brushed past Ren and the automatic door snapped upwards for him. He charged to the back of the ship, in the opposite direction of the reactor, reminding Ren of nothing more than a frightened rabbit running from a lunar landing.
Karn watched him go, annoyed. “Coward” She hissed, more to herself than anyone else. “Has it ever occurred to you, Ren, that Zane isn’t all that brave? Clever and smart and all, and a leader. You can see how Baz and Keren follow his order without question. Hell, even I’ll listen to him, and I don’t listen to many.” She smirked, showing pointed teeth. Ren nodded.
“But he’s a liar and a he’s bloody coward.” She spat on the ground.
Ren stared after Zane, wondering what exactly the man who’d convinced Karn to take her in when she was ten years old actually was. She didn’t quite believe Karn’s vicious view.
“And he’s a terrible shot.” Ren finished for her. Karn let out a hoot of laughter.
“You got that!” She laughed. “I wonder how he’s survived that long in this job without me.”
Ren smiled as Karn flicked her with her tail. “Zane might be a coward, but he did right with you, you know? You don’t say much, but when you do, you’re pretty damn funny.”
Kessa slept for hours. When she did wake up, the storm had faded. She sat up slowly, rubbing her aching shoulders, and looked around.
She’d collapsed in a rock wadi, a space where craggy rocks made a tiny shelter. Just enough shelter, Kessa figured, for her not to have died buried in grey sand. She shoved herself out of the little pit, climbing through piles of grey sand buried up against the opening.
Outside for the first time, she stood and stared around her.
Nothing but grey sand, as far as she could see. Nothing at all. Even her footprints had been washed away by the impossible wind, hours before.
There was nothing out here, no living creature on the entire planet. There was nothing, nothing, anywhere!
She was going to die out here.
She felt panic welling up in her chest, bursting in one long, loud scream.
“You are a lake” Her master had told her. “A silent stone, dropping to the bottom of the lake. There is no air, but breath. There is no sight, so see. There is no sound, so listen.”
She couldn’t listen. How could she listen when she was so alone?
Kessa let go. Her silk cloak slipped off her shoulders and hit the sand. She was going to die out here. She was going to be okay with that.
She was going to die. Going to die. To die. Die.
Something broke through her shield, broke into her listening ears. Kessa’s nose twitched slightly. It was a sound, a faint, trickling, whispering sound.
A running sound.
Kessa’s eyes shot open wide. Running water! Kessa scrabbled upwards from where she had sat in the sand. Running water- where?
As soon as she shot upwards, the sound had faded. Kessa shut her eyes, although she wanted to run, to search for the water. Her tongue was swollen in her mouth, her throat sandpaper dry. She settled into that silent place again, a sinking stone in clear water.
There it was. Without losing that quiet place, she pinpointed the sound. Behind her- in the wadi.
Her eyes sprang open and Kessa slid down into her shelter with a new energy, searching around her in the darkness of the tiny cave. But it couldn’t be that small.
Kessa felt for the back wall of the cave, then the left. Then the right, but she couldn’t find it. Moving feet first, she pushed herself farther and farther into the cave, heart hammering as the walls closed in around her. But the rushing sound was getting louder, and louder. She was in the narrow tunnel for a quarter of an hour, maybe longer.
And she edged herself into a wide, open space. Light hit the back of her closed eyelids. Startled, she opened them in the light, bright after so long in the tunnel.
Kessa stared around her in wonder. The dying pale sun shone down onto an open pit, meters below the planet’s surface. The ground was solid stone underfoot, the walls towering, angled stone. She’d stumbled into an old mining quarry. And none too soon. A pool sat in the middle, with a thin stream running through it. A scraggly tree sat, with it’s roots dipping into the water. Purple fruit hung from it’s branches.
Kessa fell by the water, only with enough presence of mind to taste it first, before gulping mouthfuls of the clean, clear water. She thought, then, that she might be able to survive, for a while at least.
Baz slammed his fist against the door. Ren, who had almost walked right into his powerful swing, jumped back. His fist had just brushed her puffy hair. Ren held up her hands in surrender.
“Woah!” She said. “What’s wrong?”
Baz turned away from her and growled. “We’ve left the Yis system. I might not be much for a pilot, but even I can hear a hyperdrive kicking in.” In some ships, Ren figured, it would be easy to miss jumping into hyperspace. But when Decadia clunkered and groaned louder than her aunt in a wet spring, despite all Ren’s best efforts, it was certainly easy to tell.
“Yeah. Zane’s stunt has every Trooper on our tail. We’ll have to stay away from Yis for a while.” Baz growled again.
Ren reached out to touch his shoulder, tentatively. “What’s wrong?”
“My family... They live in the jungle colony on Yis 4.” He admitted. “I suppose you didn’t know. I figured...” He trailed off uncomfortably. She hadn’t imagined Baz had a mate, much less a family. But then, she hadn’t known him long at all. He’d only signed on a few months ago.
The massive creature dropped heavily onto a crate they had just loaded. “I miss them.” He whispered. Ren, very touched, drew a crate up next to him, rubbing his purple-furred back. “Every single day, I miss them all.”
“Hey.” She whispered. “You’ll see them again soon. I promise.”
Just as Ren looked up, Zane walked past the open door into the corridor they sat in, and glanced at her. Ren fixed him with a cold stare. It was his fault. His stunt to get back onto the ship, of course, but he never would’ve needed to do something that drastic if he hadn’t put them into port at a military base they never would’ve stolen from originally. Too well armed, too well prepared.
She read his grey eyes, and she could tell that Zane wouldn’t ever take his Decadia back to the Yis system. Baz wouldn’t see his mate again for a long, long time.
Why? Why was this all necessary? It made no sense. The only thing that could possibly be a connecting piece was whatever Zane took out of the vault.
It had to be small. She hadn’t seen him carrying it on his headlong charge back to the ship. It had to be on the ship somewhere, because why would he go to all the trouble just to stash it somewhere?
Ren left the hunched furry form on the crate in the corridor to follow Zane, but by the time she reached the end of the corridor, he was nowhere in sight.
“I’m sorry, my lord.” Laressa shook her head. “But I cannot do as you ask.”
“This is an opportunity.”
She shook her head. “I won’t be able to do this. You overestimate me.”
“You learned from the best.”
“I loved the best. It doesn’t mean I learned from him.” The bitterness in her voice made it apparent that she knew the real reason behind the proposed assignment. Her need for revenge would have her pursuing the thief undyingly, to the edges of the very galaxy. Laressa didn’t blame him for thinking it; it was true. She could feel herself pulled towards the urge for revenge.
She wouldn’t do it. She would not lead, for the fear of horrific revenge. She would not fail her people by doing what she could not do.
Timoth arrived late.
The black surface of the planet stretched in front of him. The sway-backed camel creature he rode was slow, far too slow. He’d gotten the invitation late, and he hadn’t been able to leave until later.
The camel’s hooves clacked on the rock as the beast stumbled and Timoth slid from the saddle. It had been four days since the call had gone out for the Gathering. Two since he’d left Castello Riviera, the great city. The trip here had been nothing short of hell.
Timoth. Have you arrived?
Yes, my lord. The Provost’s voice was one he had grown up hearing. His mother worked in government, fifty years ago. Timoth remembered going to work with her in the mornings, watching the long legs of important people pass him by. The Provost would always ruffle his head and make sparks pop in the air above his head in an almost grandfatherly way.
I have a special task for you. You are to lead a Team.
Timoth didn’t react. He’d expected as much. His mother had been a supreme commander, and it was obvious he’d inherited all of her skill. They are on their way to the ships now. You will hunt the thief.
Ren slipped into Zane’s room when everyone was asleep. Zane himself, she knew, was still in the cockpit, taking the chance to watch his ship while Karn was too tired to corner him.
The door shot upwards, making Ren jump. She’d seen Zane’s room before, of course she had. But she’d never seen it like this.
Foreboding, dark. Shadows rose up in every corner, and everywhere she saw accusing eyes, staring her down. Ren shivered. It was because she wasn’t supposed to be there, and because she knew it. She’d searched every corner of the ship, deliberately leaving his room for last. She hated to intrude, but she had to. The curiosity and confusion of the last few days had turned to downright suspicion as she searched. Karn had looked in on her on a few occasions, and turned a blind eye. She had hardly seen Zane in the past few days. He avoided both her and Karn like the plague. She had to admit, it took skill. Decadia was not a large ship.
Karn took a more direct approach, cornering Zane every single chance she got. Ren had overhead only a few conversations, but she knew that there had probably been more.
“What’s the matter with you, Zane?” Ren had heard Karn’s voice echoing around the corner. “You’re sneaking around on your own ship. You’re not telling me something, I know you’re not.” Ren got close enough to the corner to see Zane slumped, and Karn’s tail whipping back and forth across the metal grating of the floor.
“I-I” Zane stammered. Ren had never heard him stammer before.
“I don’t care if you can’t tell the rest of them. You can tell me. I know how you pick your crew. You pick anyone who doesn’t seem curious. Anyone who won’t ask questions.” Ren bridled at Karn’s argument. She was too curios. She was proud of it, and she certainly wasn’t the blind follower that Karn was painting her as. But her next statement put it out of Ren’s mind.
“Baz, Keren. Neither of them have been around for very long. They’re a bit in awe of what we do still.” Neither Baz nor Keren had ever served on a mercenary ship before. Raiders or smugglers, yes, but no one who took paying jobs that involved pyrotechnics or death tolls.
“Even Ren wouldn’t ever question you. You saved her life, you gave her a place! She’s a bright girl, but she cares too much about you to ever question you. You’re like an older brother to her.” Ren, pressed flat against the wall, couldn’t explain the tears that pricked her eyes. But then, she realized that she could.
It had been a week since the disastrous attack on the Base. Since then, they’d dropped from hyperspace three times only, to refuel and resupply themselves. And away they’d go again.
Ren had never travelled this far from the Yis system before. They’d spent longer in different systems, of course, but most of the time they always returned to Yis as a kind of home base. Probably, Ren thought, because Zane had connections there. Most normal people avoided Yis, for the same reasons that the crew of the Decadia kept returning. It was a magnet for nasties, criminals of every kind, and the kind of people who’d pay to have something stolen, destroyed or massively inconvienced in any way.
It had been a week of Zane avoiding both her and Karn, of him slipping around like a ghost. Ren realized during the week that she missed him.
“I’ve been with you long enough I know not to ask questions. That’s the unwritten first rule of this ship.” Karn continued their secret conversation, still unaware of Ren’s listening ears. “Not about you, your past. I don’t care, not that much.” She said. “God knows, I have enough skeletons in my own closet, I don’t care about anyone else’s. But I’m asking now. You put us all in danger. We deserve to know why.”
Ren didn’t stay to hear Zane’s answer. He’d avoid the question, for as long as he possibly could. Ren slipped away from the hallway and down the ladder to the crew’s quarters. She was heading towards her own room, when she saw the door to Zane’s wide open.
“You put us all in danger to get whatever that was you got.” Karn had said. “We should know what it is.” She was right, Ren thought. They deserved an explanation of some kind.
Ren started at the back, searching in sectors just as Zane had taught her how, when she was looking for something small. She checked in cubbies in the walls, under the mattress and the storage boxes and inside them as well, stuffing her hands into the dark spaces and peering into them with eyes long since adjusted to the dark. There was nothing, nothing unusual or out of the ordinary. She tossed aside clothes, shoes, a silver -framed picture of a woman with long dark hair, and found nothing interesting save the picture. Ren took it and held it in the light for a moment, before remembering that it wasn’t what she was looking for.
The woman was tall and slender, with a long face and glamorous dark hair. She was smiling, Ren decided, but it was still too dark to tell everything about her.
She was just about to admit defeat when her eye caught on an odd piece of lighter metal on one wall. It was just a flaw in the ship, Ren figured. A bit of off-work metal.
But Decadia, old as she was, was in as close to perfect condition as both Zane and Ren could get her. A flaw like this wouldn’t be over looked. Ren crossed over to it and tentatively poked it.
She jumped backwards as a panel snapped aside with a hiss of hydraulics. The inside was dark and small, just an indent in the wall, nothing that could be noticed from the outside. She reached in, wondering if something was about to bite her.
Nothing did. Instead, she touched a long piece of metal, about the size of a pencil. Slim, unmarked... No. Not unmarked. Tiny scratches ran the length of the metal, but she couldn’t tell what they were. Careful, still unsure if something would bite her, Ren brought it out to stare at it.
It was just like she’d felt it. Long and slim, about the length of a pencil but dull at both ends. It radiated a power, something Ren had never felt before- save once.
Her, Zane and Karn had been flying alone, in search of extra crew members. Ren had been twelve. They’d landed on an empty planet, one that Ren had thought was a long time dead.
A massive stone structure rose in front of them, crumbling masonry and great blocks of grey stone. Tarnished marble sculptures were dropped heavy and covered in dust. Ancient symbols were carved onto the columns, their tops broken off and lying in the shadows before the structure.
Zane and Karn went on with halting steps. Ren stayed behind, scared witless. That temple radiated an ancient power that Ren had never felt before, and never wanted to feel again. It terrified her, right to her very core. Even though science had explained that magic should be impossible, that spirits did not exist, that temple made her doubt every single thing that science had proved. She was content to stay outside.
Ren remembered scuffing the ground with her boot, and hitting stone under sand. Carefully, curiously, she scuffed more of the sand away. There was something under it, a symbol. Just the corner of one.
One point of a star. While Zane and Karn were inside the temple, she cleaned away the entire thing, drawn by a manic desire to uncover the rest of it.
When Zane and Karn had returned, Ren was standing in the centre of the circle, transfixed by what she saw. A seven pointed star, staring back at her. A symbol she couldn’t read and didn’t understand had hypnotized her.
Half of that same seven pointed star stared at Ren from the centre of the strange cylinder, imposed over other, fainter scratches. She turned the strange item over, expecting the other half inscribed on the other side, but didn’t find it. Ren puzzled over the strange thing in darkness. Half of a pair, perhaps? Was their another something in the hidden hole in the wall? Surely this was what Zane stole out of those vaults. Easily small enough to fit in a pocket, no one would’ve noticed them as he broke out.
Ren reached back into the hole, much bolder this time around, and patted the metal cubby. It went farther back than she’d imagined, and she groped up to her elbow in the dark before she found it.
Another symbol. The same faint, worn-away markings and the other half of the seven-pointed star adorned the short length of metal as well.
Ren held one in each hand, and watched in awe as they lit the room with a ghostly glow.
It was that moment that the door shot open.
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