--By Pauline West
Joh’s lifter whirred past the sandy Phyrnosian houses.
Hatchlings waved to him delightedly as they tried to catch the attention of his Gilahawks; adults ran into the street, wanting to buy a skin or bit of vine, but Joh wafted past as quickly as his lifter would go, staring straight ahead. Isela needed him. She had never really needed him before, never even asked him for anything. Joh had no hatchlings of his own, no living family—and neither had Isela. He was pleased she’d thought of him when she needed help.
One of his hawks crept forward to stick its head under his arm for reassurance. They didn’t often travel so fast, and the creature was unhappy. “Nearly there, old fellow,” he said, smoothing its skin. “If all goes well, tonight we’ll sleep under the open sky. You’ll like that, won’t you?” It huddled against him unhappily in response.
Isela’s house stood apart from all its neighbors. Most Phyrnosian houses were the color of meat or almonds, but Isela’s was a pale, shell-like blue. On a street of relatively stocky houses built deep into the ground and fortified over the centuries, the Greithing house was narrow and tall, reaching for the sun like a delicate spiral. Rather like one of Isela’s horns, Joh realized.
It was laced with windows, as all the Greithings loved to cultivate green life. Joh smiled, remembering storm-lit afternoons in the tower drinking homegrown with the Count. Raptor had felt the sessions were inappropriate to continue after Isela’s father was killed; it was unseemly, he said, for a trader to take tea with a Countess.
Joh brought his lifter in up to the threshold stylishly. He leapt to the ground and ran to the door. A small package was propped beside it, just as she’d said, but—should he knock? Then he heard a faint ringing. It was the thruscreen built into his lifter. His stud-hawks had gathered around it with interest. Joh hurried back.
It was Isela. She was standing in one of her gardens, half in darkness, and visibly shaken. “Joh,” she said, urgently. “Quickly—” she blurred, turning to look at something behind her. “He’s coming!”
The screen went black.
He ran back to her door and swept the tiny bundle up in his arms. It was even lighter than he’d expected, and warmly shifted in his hands—a girl, Isela had said. He’d never seen a human child before. Not up close.
The door flew open. Raptor erupted from the darkness, eyes flashing.
“You,” he said. He came forward, snapping his teeth. “Give it to me.”
The Gila-hawks came forward, spreading their wings, ready to launch at a word from Joh. But they would have been nothing to Raptor, who was one of the largest Phyrnosians ever born.
“It isn’t yours,” Joh said. He took a few steps back.
“There are Phyrnosians watching you, Commander. From every window. They’ve been wondering about the rumors, you know. About you and your men. You want to add fuel to that fire?” Joh stepped calmly up into his lifter and put Isela’s package down beside him. His heart was racing.
Raptor stood blinking. “You’ll never get her off this planet alive, trader,” he said.
“Perhaps not,” Joh said. His lifter whirred to life. “But perhaps so. Reason enough for an old trader to try.”
Raptor shrugged. “There are more practical purposes for a bag of flesh. You and Isela are like hatchlings, still playing with your food.”
“You want to destroy everything she’s ever loved! You think you can carve her world down to nothing, until she has nothing but you? You overestimate yourself, Commander—and you underestimate the galaxy.”
“I AM all she has. I am all she needs. Do you hear me, trader?” he spat.
“Yes. I hear you.” Joh spun his lifter neatly, and dashed down the block. It was a moment before Raptor went inside. He slammed the intricately carved door so hard it shattered.
Isela was there to pick up the pieces. He brushed past her, trailing his claws down her back. He pulled her upright to face him. “My Isela,” he whispered. “Look at you.”
She slid from his hands coolly, returning to the shatters. “I have to fix this, Raptor. Someone will get hurt.”
Joh pulled into an alley to disguise his lifter. At any moment Raptor’s men would be crawling all over the city to find him. He threw several large, dull-colored skins across his bins, taking care to cover up the Gila-hawks, too. Lastly, he bundled himself up in an old cloak. Then he sped through the streets, burning through his last store of precious Gemicene.
The houses spread farther and farther apart, becoming shacks and burrows as they reached the skirts of the city, and finally gave way to shifting sands. Only after he had cleared several large dunes did Joh dare to slow his lifter. And then, very cautiously, he unwrapped the girl.
She shot up next to him on the seat, her skin glossy pale in the darkness.
“You…you haven’t any skin!”
She looked down at her clothes. “Uh-yes I do. It's just not all leather and scales, like you lizard people have on.” She flicked his side. Joh rippled his hide defensively. “Flesh bags, that’s what the monster called us, isn’t that right? But we try to make up for it with our great big brains.”
“You are not a… a flesh bag. He is uncivilized.”
“Yeah. It's ok. Listen, thanks for saving me. You did save me, right?” She looked at him severely.
“Me? Oh, yes, yes, I suppose I did save you,” he said. He was hypnotized by the softness, the silkiness of her. “I—”
“My name’s Cat Starless,” she said. “Who are you?”
His Gila-hawks were easing out from beneath their coverings, curious about their thin-skinned passenger. He shooed them away, worried they would peck at her. “I’m called Collison,” he said. “I’m an old friend of Isela’s.”
“So what’s the plan? When are you going to feed me?”
“Mm? Feed you? Ah--in a moment I’ll send the hawks out to hunt for us. But let’s get a little farther from the city first. Raptor’s men will be looking for us.”
She looked at him closely. “Did I mess things up for you?”
“Not at all,” he said, quickly. “I usually leave Phayara this time of year, anyway. In fact, I was planning a trip when Isela called. So you needn’t fret.”
“Oh,” she said. “Well.”
They both were quiet then, watching the sands scroll past. “It’s never the same place twice,” he said. “See now, how the tops are changing?”
She didn’t, at first. She moved to the edge of the lifter, and stared out. It was a moment before she could see it—the way the dunes stretched themselves softly, unrolling and folding, sliding in waves. “It’s an ocean,” she said, quietly.
He laughed. “I don't know that word. But my father always liked to tell me that 'arid lands can keep no secrets."" The sand is always turning back on itself, bringing to light what was thought long buried. Skeletons, shipwrecks, artifacts. Treasure. It is a wondrous place. But you must be cautious here, Cat Starless, as on all places of Phyrnos—this is hungry country.
He looked at her, and found the small white face staring up at him gravely. He smiled.
Starless did not.
Joh stopped to make camp. He checked the collar of each of his hawks to make sure the silk vine was snug, and then threw them one by one into the air to hunt. Then he unrolled poles from the side of his lifter, quickly constructing the frame for a tent, which he draped with skins. Starless watched him with fascination.
“What if there’s a sandstorm, though? Wouldn’t the weight of the sand collapse the skins on us?”
“Clever girl,” he said. He licked his finger and held it to the wind. She did the same. “There’s not much wind, tonight. But if there was, we’d sleep in the lifter. It has a hard cover I can put up. It’s not as sturdy as it could be, but it would help. I’ve camped here for years without problems. Here,” he said, patting the space next to him. “Sit with me, and tell me your story.”
“Oh. Do I have to?”
“You can sing for your supper instead, if you’d rather.” Joh was kidding, but the girl nodded and looked up at the sky. She began to sing in a clear, thin voice. Her song had no words. It rose and fell in a way that made Joh’s blood run cold. Somehow it meant something—he knew it meant something—it was some sort of history, some sort of—guidance— and the moons were bright, and the long shadows of his hawks swept back and forth as if counting time. Starless sang on. When one of the hawks came back, carrying a large Insect that looked to Starless like a cross between an enormous black cricket and a shrimp, she stopped abruptly and sat down to be fed.
“Is that the end?” he said, startled. He pulled apart the Uquelycra, revealing moist, apple-white flesh beneath the jet-colored armament.
“I don’t know the ending,” she said. “I would have just gone on and on.”
“Oh.” He sat holding one of the creature’s large haunches, perplexed.
“Is that for me?” she asked.
“That’s for the hawk,” he said. “See, I loosen his ties, so he can swallow it—like so—and then tighten it up again. Off you go! Now he’ll fly away and find more food for us, so he can be fed again.”
“Why don’t they tear off their collars?” she said.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. But aren’t you glad they don’t? Here—this is for you.” He handed her the thorax. “You scoop out the insides,” he said.
“I can do it myself,” she said, waving his hands away.
“Don’t eat too close to the shell—it’s not as tasty, and we have plenty to eat—”
“I know, I know,” she said, although they both knew she didn’t. She lifted out a palm-sized portion of the pale white flesh, and was surprised at the springy consistency. Joh watched her stare at the food in her hands while he wolfed down the rest of his Insect and then licked his claws.
She put it in her mouth and chewed slowly. It was slightly nutty, and tasted surprisingly like crab. “It’s good,” she said.
“There’s more,” he said.
The hawks came back with Insect after Insect until carcasses were piled outside their tent. Each hawk was fed sparingly, hooded, and then put into the lifter—except for one, which he perched above their tent to act as watcher. Joh patted the animal’s head. “He’ll get extra food in the morning to make up for it,” he said.
They lay back. The night was so temperate and still that there was no need to pull a flap down over the door. They could sleep with the starlight and fresh air on their faces.
“Satisfied?” Starless said.
“Oh yes. A good dinner, a great haul. These Insects will fetch a great deal at a market, should we find one—and if we don’t, we can always eat them ourselves.”
“Why would anyone pay for an Insect? They were easy for you to catch.”
“They only get this big deep in the desert, Starless,” he said, gently, “and few of us can afford to have a Gila-hawk. They’re rare, you know. I’ve had to work a long time to buy these hawks.”
“I want one,” she said, suddenly. She jumped up and stood to peer more closely at the silent, leathery creature perched above their tent.
“Starless! Be careful—their bite is poisonous!”
Joh crawled out cautiously, doing his best not to startle the hawk. At any moment he expected to hear a scream, a flurry of wings. Instead he heard a gentle cooing.
Starless had found the winged lizard’s sweet spot. It stretched its wings with pleasure, leaning into her touch. “I think he likes me, Joh,” she said.
“I’ll be damned,” Joh said, leaning back on his heels. “I believe he does! You’ve got an uncommon touch, kid.”
“Thanks,” she said, shyly. “Well,” she said to the Gila-hawk, “I guess we better go to bed. See you in the morning.”
It cried at her until Joh scolded it. When they lay down, Joh found he was unable to sleep. The cool air felt alive against his skin, and the sound of the skins gently moving in the quiet breeze made him feel happy, brisk, and very free. He lay awake with his arms behind his head, listening to Starless breathe, and remembering her song.
Then it was morning. He woke with a start—he’d fallen asleep after all—and realized Starless wasn’t beside him. “No…no…no.!” he said, flailing around groggily. He crawled out and looked around. The sky was full of shadows.
“Gila-hawks,” Starless said, walking up to him. “Didn’t you tell me they were rare?”
“Very rare,” he said, hitching up his pants and adjusting his belt. What if she had disappeared? What if he had woken up, and she was nowhere to be found? What would he have done then?
“Let’s catch them,” she said.
“They’re—Gila-hawks, Starless, we can’t just go catch them. That requires nets, and a big team, and preparation. They’re wild, extremely dangerous creatures. Hardly worth the bother. When they reach full maturity, as those birds have, they’re next to impossible to gentle. And didn’t I tell you they’re poisonous? One lop from their beak, and you’d be lucky to lose just your arm. Anyway, we need to cross the desert. I know some sympathizers on the other side, who can get you to—”
“Joh,” she said, patiently, “you’re not thinking clearly. They’re worth a fortune, right?”
“Come on! They’re attracted to your hawks. We’ll just set yours out there and let the flocks blend. When yours come back to get fed, the wild ones will want to get fed, too. You can gentle them that way. It’ll be slow, but it might work…”
He stared at her.
Starless shrugged. “My great-grandfather was a cowboy. Granddad used to tell me stories about the way he handled horses. Horses, you know? Four legs? Eats grass? Not ringing any bells, am I?”
He shook his head. “I’m afraid not.”
“Anyway. Let’s get them! What can it hurt? We’ve got plenty of food, plenty of time—and we can cross the desert while they fly around us, can’t we?”
“I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to try,” he said, slowly. He un-cloaked his birds and threw them to the air. They shot immediately towards the wild hawks, calling eagerly. “They don’t get to see new tribes very often,” he explained. “There’s no need for them to be territorial, you know. Plenty of Uquelycra to eat around here.”
After tearing down camp and stacking their glistening catch in the lifter, they set off at a crawl. It wasn’t long before his hawks came swooping in with fresh kills, wanting to be fed. And sure enough, they brought wild ones back with them. Joh and Starless threw out scraps of flesh for the wild ones to eat, luring them ever closer to the lifter. By lunch, Starless had one of them nearly eating from her hand.
She grinned at Joh. “Say thank you, and I won’t say I told you so,” she said.
“….I told you so.”
It was mid-afternoon. Sleepy with sun, stuffed with more Insect than she cared to remember, Starless jumped down from the lifter to stretch her legs. “Where are you going?” Joh called.
“Just for a walk. I’ll stay within sight of the lifter, don’t worry.”
She strolled along the dunes, keeping an eye on the lifter, as she had promised. She was also following one of the wild hawks, hoping it might drop down out of the sky and let her scratch its wings again. This one was her favorite so far, in part because it was so friendly, and also because it had peculiar markings on its wings. The markings looked almost like handwriting. She squinted up at the bird, trying to see its markings better, and stumbled.
She fell, scratching her hand on something sharp and white. She brushed the sand away, revealing--
a skull. A human skull, staring up at her with empty sockets. The forehead was crushed, deeply rutted with marks. Something had gnawed on the body…or…some very large, Phyrnosian-sized, thing had just picked the person up by his head and… crushed him.
She looked around. Suddenly, the Gila-hawk and Joh’s lifter were nowhere to be seen. She was alone. Quickly she stifled the urge to scream. Frantic thoughts filled her mind:
Don’t waste water.
Then the thoughts settled, and she felt exhausted. Dull, tired. How could any of this really be happening? It was all suddenly… too much. She began trudging in the same direction she’d last seen the lifter headed. At least, she thought it was the right direction.
After a while, things began to look different. Huge, flat rocks rose up from the sands. She passed one after another, and finally came upon three enormous ones that formed a kind of natural arena.
She heard voices. Perhaps Joh had run into someone…. but then, she didn’t hear Joh talking. She moved as quietly as she could, keeping low to the ground as she crested the dune. She’d better wait to reveal herself, just in case—
she peeped over the rise, only daring to look with half her face. She didn’t want to cast a visible shadow.
People were everywhere. With armed Phyrnosians. Soldiers, it looked like. And ships. Large ones, small ones, arranged all helter-skelter around the valley, and every one gleamed with malevolence. She heard the whirr and clack of the Phyrnosian language, but mainly both parties spoke English, and she understood them plainly enough.
A clump of men dressed in black played a card game nearby, gambling for something contained in a small velvet sack. The Phyrnosians all seemed impatient, restless—on their guard. Waiting for something. But the men were relaxed and laughing.
Starless took all this in as quickly and easily as a bird lighting on a branch. Where were the leaders? she wondered. They must be deciding something… there, in that ship with the guards by the entrance. Six lizard-soldiers, and a dozen men. And over there, more men guarding something—their stash. They were here to sell something to the soldiers. But what? And why here, in the middle of the Ni-chee desert, where no one in their right mind…
would ever see?
Starless realized with a sinking heart that if she were seen she would be murdered on the spot. And she’d been so excited to see other people.
Where was Joh?! She had to warn him. They had to get out of here.
There was a bustling in the deciding place. Suddenly men and soldiers in full regalia flooded out into the bright light, laughing and shaking hands. One man held himself slightly apart, and was treated with grave respect by men and soldiers alike. He had a false eye— unabashedly false. It was made from dark metal that rolled easily in its greased socket, daring you to meet his stare. He was handsome, wearing boots, riding pants and a leather jacket. He was riveting.
Starless nearly forgot herself as she watched him lead the Phyrnosians to his cache and initiate the trade off. More handshakes, more self-satisfied laughter. Even the men gambling nearest her stopped what they were doing to watch the man with the metal eye.
“That sly dago,” one of them said. “What’s his name again?”
A man with a face like a closed fist looked up angrily. “Boss knows his own name well enough. You think you should know everything?”
“That’s Howl Johnson,” said a third. “He’s all right. That’s more than I can say for Valdon. Valdon’s spilt so much blood he could float you to hell and back.”
“And maybe he will,” said the fist-faced man.
“Howl, is it?” the first man said. He laid down his cards. The others groaned. “Sorry, boys. Winner takes all, that’s what we said, right?” He sat back, and poured the contents of the sack into his hand. “Well, as for me, I’ll take the lizards any day over a crime boss. Everything’s laid out, fair and square. I got regular hours… I don’t have to worry about who’s in power all the time…”
“You’re a slave,” the third man said, flatly.
“Who ain't a slave? And that's straight from Melville, boys-o. Anyway, slave or not, I got heaven in my pocket. Now, if you’ll excuse me while I blow my mind…” he uncapped a dropper and smirked at them. He flips down his lower lip in an exagerrated pout--revealing a tattoo inside his lips which reads, "SAD DAY". He laughs and aims the dropper beneath his tongue, squirting lavishly.
His eyes rolled back. His skin quivered.
The gangsters shook their heads. “That juice will be the story of you…”
Tipping an imaginary hat, the slave-or-not sauntered down the dune to a cluster of Phyrnosian soldiers. The third man watched him go. "Now, that's just unnatural," he concluded, spitting a stream of brown juice into the sand. "Rot gut is one thing. Sucking down Gemicene-juice is another."
Gemicene, Starless thought. Wasn’t that made from the stuff Joh used to fuel his lifter?
She felt something cool and rough press against her skin. Fear slid along her veins like an ice-cold blade, but she didn’t scream. She turned coolly to look her aggressor in the face. Her father had not raised her to die in disgrace.
It was Joh. Gentle Joh!
She was dizzy with relief.
He grabbed her shoulders. “Starless,” he hissed, “I thought you were dead! You promised me you wouldn’t… you wouldn’t wander off!”
They scuttled backwards down the dune, both speaking at once. “How did you find me?” she said.
“The Gila-hawks knew,” he said. “Starless!”
“I’ve found Gemicene for your lifter, Joh,” she said. “And… I’ve found a way to get me out of here!”
“No,” he said.
“You’re welcome, Joh,” she said, smiling sweetly.
“This isn’t the answer—you’ll just get us both killed!”
“Listen. Wasn’t I right about the hawks?”
“Well, yes, but—”
“And didn’t you tell me that was impossible at first?”
“I rest my case,” she said. “So, your countrymen have what they came for. Any moment now, they’ll be leaving. It’ll get dark, and then we make our move…”
They were back at the lifter. Joh stared at the Insect in his hands. Somehow, he’d lost his appetite. But Starless tore away at hers merrily. “You gonna eat that?” she said, her mouth full.
How could such a tiny, seemingly defenseless little thing be so incredibly persuasive? Joh liked his days to be regular and orderly, each one exactly like the day before it. He hated chaos. And yet this little spitfire had steamrolled his routines, and, like a hatchling taking to sand, she’d even shown him several improved ways to do things, despite the fact that she’d never visited Phyrnos before. He thought again of her song.
“You must be some kind of witch, Starless,”' he said.
“Have you heard one word I’ve said? Fine, we’ll go over it again.”
Darkness fell over the desert while she talked and talked.
They watched as the Phyrnosians lifted off, just as Starless had predicted. It was good she’d asked to make their camp by the base of one of the rocks, where the darkness of his lifter would be less apparent against the sand.
They crept back towards the arena.
The mobsters were celebrating. Reflections of bonfires flickered against the rocks, and loud, raucous music filled the air. While most of the men had seemingly arrived in big-bellied ships, some had come in single-seaters, and these were parked showily with their cockpits ajar, music blasting from within.
Although Starless had noticed no women earlier, now she saw several dancing with abandon among the men. Everyone seemed to be singing, dancing, playing instruments, passing flasks. Only one man still seemed sober.
He walked among his men, talking with them. They flushed under his attentions, and were quiet when he spoke.
Joh shook his head. “Thugs,” he said.
“I don’t know,” Starless said. "“I think they're romantic. Look at the way they act with him—like he’s some kind of--god.”
“Change in plans, Joh. I’m going in.”
He grabbed her arm. “Are you mad?”
She shook him off. “How else can I make sure we get you plenty of Gemicene? There’s no guarantee any of these ships have enough in their hold—just leave it to me. Remember the signal!”
“Starless!” he hissed.
But the girl had already slipped his grasp.
Starless understood how to blend into a crowd. She had watched the people, paid attention to their way of moving, and now she took care to walk the same way—relaxed and cocky—so that she would not draw immediate attention. It wouldn’t do to ask the wrong person for help. She went up to a tall woman who stood smiling beside a fire.
“Excuse me, Mistress?” she said. “I—I’ve—may I have some water to drink?”
The woman’s face lit up with surprise. “Little one! Where have you come from?”
Starless lowered her eyes. “From Phayara Khado, Mistress. I slipped a trader.”
“My stars and garters, and crossed the desert alone? All this way? That's scarcely possible!”
“It wasn’t so very far, Mistress. About that water…”
“Oh dear, I apologize. Come with me.”
She took Starless to one of the larger crafts and led her inside. Although the ship was spotlessly clean, it was shopworn and felt homey to Starless, who had spent most of her life in such a ship. The woman gestured for her to sit, and Starless sat. She looked around wonderingly. Everything had been lovingly decorated—lanterns in the shape of bells and stars hung fixed from the ceiling, and colorful velvets were thrown across the backs of chairs. A few small bags were pinned above the sink, like the one the gamblers had traded earlier. Gemicene.
Music trickled in from the open door. “Your home is beautiful,” Starless said.
The woman placed a clay mug and carafe of hissing water before her. “It’s sparkling,” she said. “Don’t drink too quickly. It's a little sharp.”
Starless coughed on it. “It’s good,” she said.
“A little sharp,” the woman said again, smiling. Her skin was the color of almonds, and her hair was liquid and black, falling over her bare shoulders like a veil of dark water. A man called from the threshold, a little down the hall.
“Martine?” he said. “Who’s that with you?”
“A girl,” Martine said. “Fetch Howl, will you please, Jacques?”
Jacques grunted and went away.
“Howl is in charge of things here, more or less,” Martine explained. “What is your name?”
“Cat,” Starless said.
“I had a cat once. You must drink, Cat. He will be here soon, and he will have many questions.” And then the woman brought a small tray of carefully folded pastries, and lit a candle between them.
Howl came through the door. Starless did not turn to look at him, but knew he was there. He took his hat off and held it in his large hands.
“Martine,” he said.
Martine, who had been busying herself at the sink, flew to him. “Thank you for coming, I’m sorry to take you from the party--”
He smiled and sat across from Starless. His metal eye glinted in the lamplight at her. She met his stare. “A foundling from Phyrnos, have we, now?”
“You're Howl Johnson,” Starless said, cutting him off. She didn't feel comfortable with small talk.
He raised an eyebrow. “I do be so.”
She extended her hand. “I’m Cat Starless, and I thank you for the water.”
“Little one, the pleasure is ours. And may I ask how you found us here, with so much sand betwixt us and pernicious Phayara, and all by your sorrowful self?”
“You must disregard my name, sir. I do have a lucky star out there somewhere.”
“Aye. Especially if it carries you to such a beauty as Martine, whose cookery is unrivaled anywhere. Tell me of your travels, kitten, that I might see what you have seen.”
“I am no great teller of tales, sir…” she said.
But to her surprise the words came anyway. She told him, haltingly at first, of her grandfather’s death and how she’d floated alone among the stars for a time, mistrustful of other ships, preferring to bide her time. She spoke of the thin man she’d met when she finally docked at a trading station, and how he kidnapped her and sold her to Phyrnosian soldiers. Howl frowned, and asked her for details about the man, the soldiers and the trade, but Starless had been frightened. She could not remember.
“I am sorry for it, love,” he said, gravely. “The gods may have countenanced it, but I shall not. I would have the lizards all cut into ounces, if it were my wish.”
Martine nodded. “We are gathering strength to end such travesties, Cat.”
“But there are good lizards,” Starless said. She told them about Isela, but lied, saying the good lizard had set her free in the desert. She did not mention Joh.
“Ah, that does not jive with the rest of your tale, my kitten,” Howl said, “but I'll not press you. Mayhap sands cannot keep secrets, but ladies may.” Startling them both, he reached across the table to touch her hair. She held very still, electrified by his touch. “Me mother had hair like yours. Bonny and the color of blood, it was. Papa called her his bad penny.”
“His bad penny…?”
He withdrew. “That was in another country, my love. I hope you recognize my meaning.” He put on his hat. “I trust you will be happy here. We will not rest long. You may travel with us if it pleases you. You will pull your own weight, of course…”
“There’s that, then. Martine will find you a fit. Now, it’s sweet dreams I’ll be wishing you both, ladies. Good night.”
“Good night,” they chorused.
He tipped his hat and was gone.
“Well!” Martine said. “May I make you a bed?”
Before long Starless was settled in a soft, quiet bunk. She stared out at the fires and the men on the sand. It would be easy to stay. Again she had the feeling that these people were good, and had a larger cause than the simple buying and selling of Gemicene.
But she hoped Joh was waiting. She was anxious to return to space, and her independence. If she stayed, she would be no better than a scullery maid, hoping for scraps of attention from Howl. She wondered what Joh must think. Perhaps he was frightened, worried she had betrayed him. Wondering if any moment men would come searching for him, murderous and drunk, with guns in their hands. She lay very still, impatiently waiting for Martine to fall asleep.
The ship and the sands outside it were quiet. Starless slipped quietly from her bunk, and moved lightly to the kitchen, where she stood on her toes to reach bag after bad of Gemicene, stuffing each into the deep pockets of the shroud Isela had purchased for her. She pulled its hood up over her head, and slowly opened the door to the outside.
The night was quiet. Fires crackled low, and men lay about, sleeping under the stars. She could see a few watchers posted outside the camp, but in this valley of the arena, everyone seemed to be asleep. She moved in the shadows of the ships, scurrying quickly to a small single seater set a little ways from the others. When she had reached it, and seen that no one was inside, she whistled lowly to Joh.
The camp was still. Her heart sank. And then, miracle of miracles—she saw him, a darkness moving over the sands.
He came quickly. He seemed older than she remembered, his face dusty and patient. He smiled at her, and they hugged. “Sorry for the radio silence. But I have Gemicene for you, Joh,” she said. She filled his pockets.
“Quickly, child, we must leave.”
She kissed his cheek. “You’ve come so far with me, my friend, and risked so much. I can go on alone.”
He was speechless. “I… don’t understand…”
“I can pilot this ship. I’ve been alone in space before, Joh, I know--”
“And look where it landed you!” he whispered. “You’ll carry yourself astray, little witch. I’ve set my hawks free. I’m coming with you. Quickly! Let’s go!” He lifted her into the ship, and pulled the cockpit down around them. It was a snug fit, as the little ship was designed for a single man, but Starless made herself comfortable on the floor boards among the rations for travel. The ship came to life around them, its electronic whine at first barely perceptible, then crescendoing slowly until its anxious vibration sang into Starless' heart and sucked at her ribs, her spine, her brain. She decided to sit up with her back against his seat instead.
“Hang on to your skin!” he grinned. They shot into space.
Howl watched them go. He was sitting with one of the watchers, who had dozed to sleep. He nudged the man playfully. “Eh, man, you mark that?” he said.
“Nuh? My gods! Someone’s stolen a ship!” The watcher jumped to his feet and ran in a small circle, yelling. “On your feet, men!” The sleeping forms leapt to life, smashing into each other in confusion. Howl counted the seconds. The little girl made from milk and flame would have herself healthy head start, now.
“Arriva-fuckin-derci, kitten,” he said, softly. He wondered where it was she wanted to go. “My mother had hair like that,” he said, again, to no one in particular. Four of his ships shot into the sky, pursuing the retreating light. He threw away his cigarette.
“What a beautiful ship!” Joh shouted, over the roar.
“Is it?” Starless said.
“Feel her go! Oh, the world is full of wonders. Whoo-ee!”
“Faster—they’re coming after us, Joh!” She pressed her face to the cool, vibrating Glaspex.
“Your people are lousy pilots,” Joh said.
“They’re drunk, I think,” she said.
“What’s this button do, I wonder?” he said, mischievously. “If memory serves me...”
But the mobsters seemed to be fixed in place behind them, as if tied to their tail. “Look there,” Starless said-- “Is that a beacon?”
Sure enough, the distinctive orange-and-white beacon for a push point blinked not far ahead. They looked at each other.
“Might be our best chance,” Joh said.
She gritted her teeth. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s hope it’s to somewhere good.”
But red letters began to scroll across the screen. “What does that say?” Joh said.
“Oh, no, Joh, we have to turn around!” The ship tugged to one side. “What are you doing?” she yelled.
“Doing nothing!” he answered. The pretty ship keened. “We’re—something is pulling us! What do the letters say?”
She felt her stomach drop. The hot lights of their pursuers became faint, became red. “It's taking us into a black hole!” she said. The silence roared. “It’s a black hole,” she screamed. “We’re going in!”
Time yawned, and they went spiraling inside.