Book: Desert Stars



Desert Stars

Desert Stars

by Joe Vasicek


Copyright © 2011 Joseph Vasicek.

All rights reserved.


Editing by Josh Leavitt.

Cover art by Lorenz Hideyoshi Ruwwe.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to actual persons, organizations, or events is purely coincidental.


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Table of Contents


Copyright Page

Table of Contents


Prologue

Book I: Dome and Desert

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10

Book II: Sand and Stars

11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22


Author’s Note | Acknowledgments

A TALE FROM THE FRINGES OF AN INTERSTELLAR EMPIRE THAT HAS FORGOTTEN ITS HOLIEST LEGEND: THE STORY OF EARTH.


He was the sole heir to the Najmi camp, a young man raised by tribesmen after falling to the desert from his home among the stars. She was the sheikh's most beautiful daughter, promised his hand in marriage—if she can convince him to stay.

Together, they must travel to a land where glass covers the sky and men traverse the stars as easily as tribesmen cross the desert. Here, at the ancient temple dedicated to the memory of Earth, they hope to find the answers that will show them the way home.

But when love and honor clash, how can they face their destiny when it threatens to tear them apart?

Prologue


The boy felt scared, more scared than he had ever yet been in his young life. It was because of the strange noises in the bulkheads and the way the walls and floor shook. But mostly it was because everyone around him—even his parents—were scared, and he didn’t know why.

The lights in the hallway flickered as he wandered out of his cabin, and the whine of the engine rose higher and higher. It wasn’t especially loud, but it didn’t sound right; the boy knew that much at least. On the other side of the corridor, a door hissed as it slid open. The boy turned and saw his uncle and three of his cousins come running out of the bridge, eyes wide with fear.

“She’s gonna blow,” shouted his uncle. “Let’s move!”

The boy stood rooted to the spot, his legs frozen in terror. He watched as the crew ran to the emergency escape chutes—the ones his parents had adamantly told him never to play in—and dove through.

A groaning noise came through the bulkheads—the terrible sound of metal on metal. He closed his eyes and covered his ears with his hands, and the floor itself dropped out from under him. For a frighteningly disorienting moment, gravity vanished, leaving him floating, weightless, in the corridor. The taste of vomit filled his mouth and he screamed in fright, but without gravity he could only kick his legs uselessly beneath him.

The moment passed, and he fell to the hard tile floor. Tears of terror clouded his vision, and his arms and legs shook so badly that he hardly noticed the floor shaking underneath him. The ship lurched, sending him sprawling on his hands and knees.

Hands grabbed him underneath his arms, lifting him up and carrying him away. He glanced up and recognized the face of his mother, pulling him towards the escape chutes.

“Mommy,” he cried, “I’m scared.”

“I know, dear,” she told him. “Mommy needs you to be extra brave right now, okay?”

The boy nodded. Though his mother tried to soothe him, he could tell that she was just as frightened as he was. That terrified him more than even the loss of gravity.

“Come on!” the boy’s father shouted, further down the corridor. “Any minute now, and—”

The lights flickered again, and an explosion sounded from deep within the bulkheads of the ship. A low hiss erupted behind them, and not from a door opening.

“Oh God,” the boy’s mother cried. “Is that—”

As if in answer, a mighty wind howled through the ship, filling the boy’s ears with its roar. It whipped at his hair and tugged at his clothes, sucking him away like a monster from the bottom of a giant drain. Somehow, he knew that in only a few moments, they would all be dead.

Hands grabbed him, lifting him up toward the escape chute. He screamed, but the roar of the wind was so loud he could barely hear his own voice. His mother slipped something around his neck, and suddenly he was falling through the chute, into darkness.

He came to a stop in a snug little space, closed in on all sides like a glove for his body. A holoscreen lay in front of him, with a pair of flight sticks and a miniature control board. The boy gripped the flight sticks with his hands and stared dumbly at the screen, barely able to process anything that was happening.

A distant puffing noise sounded through the ultra-soft walls, and then he was falling again—only this time, he couldn’t move his arms or legs. He was locked into position, cushioned on all sides and only able to use his hands.

Fighting back panic, he watched as the holoscreen flickered and came to life. It showed an image of space, the stars spinning wildly as noiseless flashes of light burst into being before fading into after-image amid the blackness of space. He squeezed the dual flight sticks and moved them like he was playing a computer game, but it was no use—he couldn’t stop the spinning.

“Mommy!” the boy cried. Panic swept over him, and his hands and arms began to shake. He screamed, but in the tightly enclosed space, there was no one to hear him.

The glowing orb of a planet came into view, filling the screen with its brilliant light. The boy squinted as the display adjusted, showing a brown and yellow landscape framed by a curved horizon. It danced with the spinning stars, moving so quickly that everything was a blur.

A red light started blinking in the corner of the screen, and words flashed across the display. The boy didn’t know how to read yet, but he knew it was something bad. He tried again with the flight sticks, but that only sent him spinning in a new direction.

Without warning, the screen switched off, and the entire capsule filled with thick, pink foam. The boy gasped and tried to shield himself with his hands, but before he could cover his face it hardened around his body, freezing him into position.

The foam covered his mouth and face, but was just porous enough to allow him to breathe—in short bursts, however, because his stomach was severely pinched. The spinning grew worse, until he wanted to throw up. As if from a great distance, he heard a muffled roar through the walls around him. His little capsule grew increasingly warm, until he began to sweat. He tried to open his mouth to cry out, but his jaw was locked too tightly in place—he couldn’t move anything, not even a finger.

Mommy! he mentally screamed. Where are you?

As if in answer, something popped behind him. Inertia threw him forward, but the foam held him in place, so that all he felt was a tremor through his body. Gravity returned, so that he felt as if he were dangling upside down from his feet. Blood rushed to his head, and he swooned, redness clouding his vision.

Then, like a punch to his face, the shock of impact hit him, causing his bones to shudder. He spun even faster than before, but the foam still held him. It felt as if someone had turned him inside out, though—as if his stomach had swollen and turned to mush.

As the spinning gradually came to a stop, tears streamed from the boy’s eyes. The roaring had died down, leaving him encased in near-absolute silence. That frightened him almost more than the noise.

A sharp hiss filled his ears as the foam grew sticky and gelatinous all around him. He thrashed against it, pulling his hands and arms free as the foam turned into a sticky, foul-smelling soup. Behind him, a hatch opened, and he struggled toward it, spitting to get the nasty taste out of his mouth.

He crawled out and rose to his feet, blinking in the harsh light of a foreign sun. The hot wind bit him as it blew in his face, stinging his face with sand. He raised a hand to his eyes and looked around him at the alien landscape.

A lonely, rust-red desert extended in all directions, with nothing but sand and rock and distant craggy peaks to meet his eye. The sky shone a hazy yellow, completely unlike the clean white light of his family’s ship. A new fear passed through the boy—the fear of being alone.

As he stared at the land around him, he reached down to see what his mother had slipped around his neck. It was a pendant with a little black case at the end. He felt it between his fingers and knew somehow that he would never see her again.

Tears clouded his eyes, and he screamed and wailed for someone, anyone—but in the harsh desert waste, there was no one to hear him.


Book I: Dome and Desert

Part I


Chapter 1


The desert wind howled across the barren, unforgiving landscape, threatening a magnificent sandstorm. All along the horizon, great craggy peaks towered like rows of misshapen fingers, thrusting upward from the rocky, lifeless ground toward the hazy yellow sky. From his perch atop the mountain overlook, Jalil scanned the rust-red desert with his binoculars. The hot desert wind pelted his face with sand and dust, making him pull his checkered headscarf tighter over his mouth and nose, but still he stood watch, searching for any sign of humanity—welcome or otherwise.

“Jalil!” called out his older sister from behind him. “What are you doing up there? Storm’s coming—let’s go!”

“What?” Jalil called back, still scanning the landscape.

“I said, Let’s go. Yallah!”

Jalil lowered his binoculars and glanced over his shoulder at Tiera. Her long black hair tossed wildly in the wind, tied back with a simple gray bandana. The lack of a veil or a headscarf made him a little uneasy, but she was not the kind of girl to cumber herself with such things when there was man’s work to be done. With a look of impatience, she squinted her eyes against the wind, one hand on her hip with the other clenched at her side.

“Just a little longer,” he said. “We’ve got time—they might still make it.”

“We need to break camp,” she shouted against the wind. “By Allah, we’ve been here for days, and with that storm bearing down on us we’ll be lucky not to spend another.”

“Ten minutes,” he said. “Just give me ten more minutes.”

Tiera clucked irritably and shook her head, but she offered no further protest. Jalil turned and resumed his watch while she climbed back down to the camp.

With his binoculars, he scanned the valley below, ignoring the numerous dust devils dancing across the sandy wash. The pass was just out of view on the right; anyone coming through the mountains in this direction would first have to pass over the wide open valley before him.

Inevitably, however, his gaze drifted to the horizon. On a clear day from this ridge, it was possible to see the wreckage of the starship that had brought him to this world. Desert tribesmen had long ago scrapped every useful piece of the derelict for parts, leaving only the sun-bleached hull. Jalil could see it in his mind even now, the wreckage jutting out from the desert like the fossilized ribs of some impossibly huge creature. Sometimes a trader passing through would ask him about it, and his answer was always the same: Only Allah knows.

And in some ways, perhaps that was true. He remembered precious little of his life before the desert, and what few memories he still possessed faded ever faster with each passing year. But in other ways, the wreckage proclaimed a truth that Jalil could not ignore. He sensed it in the way that men of other tribes eyed his too-fair skin and bright blond hair; the way that traders and overland merchants asked him where he was from, as if the desert were not his home. And indeed, that was the truth that the wreckage proclaimed—that he was not from this world.

Distracted by his idle thoughts, Jalil didn’t notice the rising column of dust until the first rover dashed out across the sandy wash.

A bolt of fear and excitement shot through him like an electric shock, and he dropped to his stomach, keeping his profile low across the ridge line. Another vehicle darted out from among the rocks—and another, and another after that. Together, they fanned out and began their climb toward the pass. Though the magnified field of vision danced before his view, he saw enough to identify the shapes as caravaneers—long range, micronuclear-powered dune buggies built to carry entire tribes across the desert.

Entire tribes—or roving bandit armies.

“Tiera!” Jalil called out loudly. “Someone’s down there!”

“What? Where?” In only a few seconds, she was at his side, panting slightly as she reached for the binoculars.

“Here,” he said, handing them to her and pointing at the rising dust columns. “See that? Down there.”

“How many are there?”

“I don’t know—at least four.”

Tiera grunted. “Probably more, though. You think they’re the Jabaliyn?”

“That, or bandits.”

She returned the binoculars. “Try to reach them on the shortwave. I’ll finish packing our supplies.”

“Right,” said Jalil, rising to his feet. Together, they raced down the rocky path to the narrow landing where they’d made camp.

“Storm, eh?” came the shaky voice of old Zeid as Jalil stepped inside the dusty, sun-faded camp tent. “Storm coming—feel it in my bones, I do.”

“Has anyone called over the shortwave, Uncle Zeid?” asked Jalil. Wrinkled, toothless, and half-blind, there wasn’t much old Zeid could do except listen for chatter on the radio—that, and act as their chaperone, which he did with all the vigor that his ancient body could muster.

“Shortwave?”

Jalil ignored him and grabbed the transmitter, crouching down on the old, tattered camp rug to adjust the receiver frequency. The wind made the fabric of the tent ripple with wild abandon, but the sound of static drowned out the wind as the green and red bars danced across the ancient equipment’s dusty interface.

“Hello?” Jalil called into the transmitter. “Hello? Who’s there?”

“—you hear me?”

“Yes,” said Jalil, fine tuning the receiver to get a clearer signal. “I am Jalil Ibn Sathi Al-Najmi.”

“And I am Abu Mahdi Hamza Al-Jabaliyn. May the peace of Earth be upon you.”

“And upon you as well,” said Jalil, reciting the traditional greeting of the desert.

“Are you on the pass?” Hamza’s voice cackled. “The storm is on our heels—we cannot make it to the Najmi camp without your guidance.”

“Forgive me, brother,” said Jalil, “but how do I know the truth of what you say?” In the deep desert, where strength was the only law and tribe the only universal bond, honesty was sometimes nothing more than a luxury between friends.

The wind howled as Tiera opened the tent door and stepped inside. Without a word, she picked up a pair of old, rusted camp chairs and hastily rolled up the stiff rug beneath them, hauling them out as she broke camp. She’d already packed the cots, mattresses, and stove—only two small chests remained, besides the shortwave and some other assorted electronics.

“What can we offer as proof?” Hamza’s voice came over the wind and static. “We have come to wed our son Mazhar Ibn Amr to your sister, Lena Bint Shira.”

“Indeed,” said Jalil. “And where is the tent you have prepared for her?”

“We have not prepared any tent,” said Hamza. “Mazhar is to stay in the Najmi camp, until the question of her father’s inheritance has been resolved.”

A smile broadened across Jalil’s face at Hamza’s words. Normally, the bride moved in with the family of her husband; however, because Sheikh Sathi of the Najmi camp had only daughters and nieces, special provisions had been made. Few things were normal in a camp without sons.

“Indeed,” said Jalil. “Wait for our signal on this frequency, brother. We’ll meet you on the other side of the pass.”

Tiera parted the tent door and stepped inside, letting in another gust of dusty wind. “Is it them?” she asked.

“Yes, it is,” he said, switching off the radio as he rose to his feet. “They’ll meet us on the other side of the ridge.”

“Well, let’s move then. Yallah!”

She closed the camp burner and hauled it out, leaving the tent door flapping in the wind. Jalil chuckled as he collapsed the antenna and packed the shortwave in its ornately painted tin box, fingering the pendant he always kept around his neck. Soon, he told himself, his grin widening with anticipation. Soon, and I’ll be on my way home.

Home—wherever that may be.


* * * * *


The wind picked up as they rode across the desert, blasting Jalil’s face with oppressive heat. The open-air caravaneer was more frame than solid metal, with dusty blue tassels dangling from the bar above the windshield and a sun-faded red arabesque rug stretched across the dash. Tiera drove hard and fast, making the cracked leather seats bounce and the tassels dance. As the rust-red landscape sped by, Jalil squinted against the wind and held onto an overhead bar. Nearly a dozen caravaneers from the Jabaliyn convoy followed behind them, racing the coming storm.

After nearly an hour of riding across the rocky plain, the camp gradually came into view. At first, it appeared as nothing more than a single bump on the horizon, surrounded by flat, empty desert. As they came nearer, though, the outline of familiar structures gradually took shape. First came the top of the camp’s windmill, the ten-foot blades spinning as fast as Jalil had ever seen. Next came the colorful tents; though the fabric was faded by the harsh desert sun and caked with dust, their fanciful white and red designs still stood out against the rust-red rock and dusty ground. Last of all came the low heaped-stone wall that circled the camp, with the small, portable gun emplacements in the corners. Nearly a dozen people hurried about covering the weapons with heavy tarps, their dark robes billowing in the wind.

With his headscarf wrapped around his mouth and nose to protect him from the dusty air, Jalil swung out of his seat and onto the caravaneer’s metal frame. Squinting against the wind as the ground rushed beneath him, he pulled out a small submachine gun and fired into the air. A barrage of fireworks and plasma bursts from the camp answered his salute, echoed from behind by a chorus of gunshots and ululating voices as the Jabaliyn tribe answered in turn. Like thunderheads swollen with moisture bursting into rain, the pent up excitement erupted all at once, filling the desert landscape with its joyous noise.

The entire Najmi tribe came out to welcome the Jabaliyn convoy. Sheikh Sathi stood at the head in his richest, most impressive clothes—an ornate ochre robe, with a gold-trimmed maroon vest and capped with a white-and-red checkered headscarf. His two wives, Zayne and Shira, stood at either side, veiled respectively in deep blue and brilliant red. Shira’s seven daughters had gathered with the older women, faces covered with the richest embroidered veils that they possessed. The sheikh’s two younger brothers, who led their own camps nearly a hundred kilometers away, were also present with their families—they must have arrived while Jalil and Tiera were gone.

As Tiera slowed the caravaneer to a crawl, Jalil leaped off and pushed through the crowd toward his adopted father. Ululating cries filled the air as friends and family pressed upon him, but he ignored them all until he had made it through.

“Jalil, my son!” said the sheikh, embracing him with open arms. “How are you? How is your health? How was your journey?”

“Very well, very well,” said Jalil, loosening his headscarf to kiss his father on both cheeks.

“The Lord of Earth and Heaven be praised,” Sathi exclaimed. “Now won’t you see to the unloading of our guests’ vehicles? Be quick!”

Jalil hesitated, but before he could say anything, Sheikh Amr of the Jabaliyn tribe stepped forward. Sathi’s face immediately lit up, and he embraced his guest as warmly as if they were long-lost brothers. With the opportunity to speak with his father gone, Jalil turned and headed for the garage complex. The sheikh had given him an order, and he knew what it would mean if that order wasn’t carried out.

He found the Jabaliyn caravaneers parked inside several wide tents next to the main shop. The Najmi vehicles were parked in an adobe shelter about a hundred yards away; Sathi had made sure to set them apart to keep their guests from seeing how small and run-down the Najmi fleet actually was. In the high desert, such a sign of weakness was better kept concealed.

Jalil slowed to a walk and pulled his headscarf tighter. The air was hot, and the wind was picking up—they didn’t have much time before the sandstorm hit the camp in full force. Inside the tents, the Jabaliyn tribesmen hurriedly unpacked their vehicles. From the looks of it, they were only taking what they absolutely needed for that night.

“Here,” called Jalil, “bring those chests out this way. These tents are connected to your quarters—we’ll get everything sorted once it’s all inside. Let’s move! Yallah!”

“Where was that girl who came with you?” one of the young Jabaliyn men asked.

Jalil cringed, but took pains not to show it. “What girl?”

“You know—the one who drove you here.”

“You must be mistaken; there was no girl with us.”

“But—”

Before the young man could continue, one of his elders tapped him on the shoulder and spoke with him in hushed tones. His face turned red, but he gave Jalil no further trouble.

Fool, Jalil thought to himself. Doesn’t he know better than to probe? Still, he would have greatly appreciated Tiera’s help right then. The fact that she couldn’t be out in public among the guests was a painful reminder that he was the only young man in the Najmi camp.

The thought fell over him like a shadow. They’ll get along all right without me, he thought to himself, fingering the pendant under his shirt. It was true; Lena’s marriage would secure the tribe a much needed alliance and settle the question of the inheritance. With another man around, he would no longer be needed.

Then why did he feel so guilty about leaving?


* * * * *


Within a short time, they finished unloading the last of the supplies from the Jabaliyn caravaneers, and Jalil showed the men to their quarters, the guest tents distinctly separate from the main compound.

He walked around the corner toward the family entrance and froze where he stood. A towering wall of brackish dust towered over the horizon like a giant crawling mountain. The nearest edge was only half a mile away, racing toward him with uncanny speed. The wind howled in his ears with savage ferocity, as if the storm were a living thing, a devouring beast of unparalleled ferocity.

Jalil ran up to the door flap marking the family entrance and reached in to pull it aside, but the fabric repelled his hand; the door was sealed. He fumbled unsuccessfully at the doorway and shouted for help, while behind him, the storm towered ever higher.

The door shook, and a pair of small hands parted the narrow opening. “Let me in!” he shouted, knocking someone over as he pushed his way inside.

“Hello?” came a little girl’s voice. Before answering, Jalil turned and sealed the tent door shut. Just as he fastened the last clasp behind the zip line, the entire wall shook as howling winds pelted the camp with sand.

With a sigh of relief, he turned back around, eyes slowly adjusting to the dim light of the glowlamps. The girl who had let him in was Rina, Shira’s youngest daughter. Barely seven primary lunar years old, she looked up at him with round, innocent eyes.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “Is anyone else still outside?”

She shrugged, then ran off giggling.

I’ll take that as a “no,” he decided. Still, he hung around for a moment, just in case.

As he stood by the sealed door, the loud wind shaking the tent walls as if to tear them down, he heard another girl’s voice as she approached from the inner corridor.

“What is it, Rina? Who did you—”

She rounded the corner and almost walked into him. It was Mira, the Najmi daughter closest to his own age, and by far the most beautiful. Her long brown hair spilled out over her small, feminine shoulders, her head uncovered. They both froze for a second, waiting for the other to speak.

Her eyes grew wide, and her cheeks blushed deep red, bringing out the hue of her gorgeous hazel eyes. “Oh!” she said, hastily wrapping her dark red headscarf around her unbound hair. Jalil laughed, breaking the tension of the moment; Mira’s smile was so genuine, even a veil couldn’t hide it.

“Sorry to disturb you,” he said, nodding to her, “but it seems the storm has cut me off.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” said Mira. She glanced down shyly.

“I’ve ended up in the women’s quarters, haven’t I?”

“Yes.”

“Ah. Well, would you warn the others that I’m coming?”

Mira nodded and hurried back the way she’d come while Jalil waited. Since he was one of the family, it wasn’t technically forbidden for him to be in the women’s quarters—but then again, there was a reason why old Zeid acted as chaperone whenever he and Tiera were out alone.

After a few moments, he stepped into the narrow annex and through an old brick doorway into the inner chamber. The noise of the wind outside grew fainter as he passed into a narrow vaulted tunnel, glowlamps casting a dim yellow light along the rough-hewn stone and adobe. Still, with the arabesque rugs spread over the dusty, uneven ground and the ornately embroidered wall hangings, the place felt far from barren.

Although the stone and adobe structures sheltered them so well from the storm, Jalil knew that the camp wasn’t designed to be permanent. The windmill at the center of the compound operated a pump that pulled up groundwater into a large cistern; when the stored water was depleted, the family would have to move to another site dozens of miles away. They’d lived at this camp for five primary lunar years, and the cistern was already getting low. After another year, they would be forced to move on, letting the wind-operated pump gradually replenish the cistern over the course of the next few decades.

Jalil ducked to step through another doorway and entered the small vaulted courtyard at the center of the women’s quarters. Shira’s older daughters sat clustered around one of the ragged mattress pads that ringed the room, chatting excitedly under the light of several dozen glowlamps. They glanced up at him as he came in, but soon resumed their conversations.

“Hello,” he said, nodding as he walked over to them. “Have any of you seen Tiera?”

Lena sat on a cushion in the center of the group, dressed in a richly embroidered black silk gown with gold coins dangling from the hem of her headscarf. Surayya, the largest of Shira’s daughters in spite of the fact that she was only the second oldest, rose to her feet as Jalil approached. She and Mira both had their heads covered, while Amina, the smallest and craftiest of the four, didn’t seem to care one way or the other.

“Tiera?” said Surayya. “I don’t know. Did any of you see her?”

“She’s here,” said Amina. “I saw her come in a few minutes ago.”

“Good,” said Jalil, glad to hear that she was safely in from the storm. “If you’ll excuse me—”

“Jalil!” A short, graying woman with an old, wizened face ran over from the far side of the room, arms outstretched. Jalil recognized his mother at once. Although Zayne was only his mother by adoption—and Tiera’s by birth—she loved him as fiercely as if she had borne him herself.

“Hello, Mother,” he said. They embraced and kissed each other warmly on both cheeks.

“Jalil, my son from the stars, welcome home! But my, how you stink! You smell even worse than Tiera.”

A flutter of giggles rose from the girls. Jalil’s cheeks burned with embarrassment.

“Mother!” he protested.

“Don’t ‘Mother’ me. Be a good boy now and wash up. Your father will be expecting you shortly.”

“All right, all right. I’m not a boy anymore, you know.”

Zayne smiled up at him, her wrinkled face beaming. “No, no, my son. To me, you will always be my little boy.”

Jalil inwardly cringed as he thought of his plans to leave the camp once the wedding was over. How would Zayne feel when he was gone—when Tiera was the only child of her own she had left? Even that wouldn’t last forever, though—as soon as Sathi found a suitable husband for her, Tiera would be gone.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” asked Zayne, one hand on her hip. “Off to the washing room with you!”

The girls laughed again as Zayne chased him from the courtyard, down the narrow hallway that separated the men’s quarters from the women’s. Jalil pulled aside the rug door and ducked into the narrow chamber that served as the camp’s washing room. A large, metal tank stood propped at an angle in the far corner; the rust-red dirt beneath it was stained dark from runoff. Two spigots in the wall opened to a sink jutting out of the wall, and in the corner next to the sink sat a flat water basin. A shower head jutted out over the basin at eye level, and a white plastic curtain hung from the ceiling, tied off against the wall.

“There,” said Zayne from the doorway. “I’ll lay your clothes out on the floor while you wash off.”

Jalil knew that there was no objecting, so he submitted without further protest and quickly undressed himself once she was gone. When he was down to his sand-worn trousers, he paused to carefully remove the thin chain that hung from his neck. At the end of this chain dangled his pendant—a black plasteel locket, rectangular in shape and no larger than his thumb. He handled it with great care, gently hanging it from a nail in the brick wall.



To anyone else, the little black locket might be just another electronic device, but to Jalil, it could not have been more valuable if it were made of pure, unblemished sapphire. His birth mother had given it to him shortly before he had crashed into the desert. He kept it on his person at all times, wearing it underneath his clothing, close to his heart. The long years had worn the exterior casing smooth, but it was intact, and that was all that mattered.

Not long now, Jalil told himself as he stroked the black plasteel casing. Not long before I uncover the secrets you hold.

Though his body was exhausted from the long ride, he resisted the temptation to savor the shower. Not that he could if he wanted to—the trickle from the spigot was barely sufficient to wash with. He scrubbed himself down with a chunk of spongerock, splashed the suds off of his body, then pulled down the vacuum to suck the spare moisture back into the fluid recycler.

Once he was fully dressed, he slipped the locket back underneath his shirt and returned to the courtyard of the women’s quarters. He no sooner stepped inside, however, than he felt as if he had entered a battlefield.

“How could you say such a thing?” Shira screamed at Tiera, her daughters standing timidly behind her. For her part, Tiera stood alone, arms folded defiantly across her chest, even as she faced the full brunt of Shira’s wrath.

Oh no, Jalil thought to himself. What is it this time?

“Majd asked why we don’t serve some of the strawberries to our guests now,” Tiera said in a cold voice. “I only said it was a good idea.”

“Don’t play games with me, you little brat. You meant a lot more than what you said, and I won’t stand for it—not on the eve of my daughter’s wedding!”

Shira’s face was a picture of fury. Creases of anger cut across her prematurely aged face, and her eyes blazed with murderous hatred. Mira, Surayya, and Amina stood behind her, while Majd, her second youngest, clung to Shira’s knees with tears streaking her innocent face. Lena stood by her mother’s side, aloof and yet in the very center of the fray.

“Wait, wait,” said Jalil, stepping between them all. “Please, let’s not start a fight over a misunderstanding.”

“It’s not a misunderstanding,” said Lena, her voice deadly cold.

“Yes!” Shira screeched, shaking her finger at Tiera. “That bitch openly insulted my daughter!”

“I did nothing of the sort,” said Tiera. Her voice, though calm, carried a sting as focused as a sniper’s sight.

“By Allah! What devil gave you such a liar’s tongue?”

Down by Shira’s knees, Majd began to wail.

“Please!” shouted Jalil, raising his hands. The room quieted somewhat, and in the brief lull, he turned to face Tiera.

“I don’t know what you did, but whatever it was, Lena feels insulted by it. Please, Tiera, apologize.”

She glared at him, then said in a hushed voice, “Why should I deny what we all know to be true?”

“You whore!” screamed Shira, lunging forward. Before she could strike, Jalil caught her and held her back.

At that moment, Zayne stepped into the room.

“What is—Aie! My daughter!” Zayne rushed to Tiera and hugged her close, as if to protect her from a dangerous beast.

“Your daughter is a puss-ridden whore,” said Shira. “Do you know what lies she said about my Lena? The gall!”

“Please, Shira,” said Jalil. “Get a hold of yourself; the guests will hear you.”

His words quieted her somewhat, but did nothing to lessen the evil in her eyes. Beside her, Lena’s lips curled upward in a snarl, as if preparing herself to strike.

Jalil turned to Tiera and gave her a furious look. Zayne was crying on her shoulder, and her previously stony expression had started to crack.

“There must be peace in this house, today of all days,” he said. “Tiera, apologize!”

Tiera’s lower jaw began to quiver—not a lot, but just enough to be noticeable. Her hands began to tremble as well.

“I’m sorry, Lena,” she said coldly. “I’m sorry to insult you on the eve of your wedding.”

“With a tongue like that,” said Shira to no one and everyone at once, “it’s no wonder that she isn’t married yet.”

Tiera pushed her mother away and screamed at the top of her lungs. Before anyone could stop her, she stormed red-faced out of the room.

Shira and her daughters were in an uproar.

“What did she do that for?”

“The guests—do you think they heard?”

“By the Lord of Earth and Heaven,” Shira said, “the next time I see that girl, I’ll wring her little neck!”

Zayne hurried after her daughter, while Majd’s wailing grew even louder.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Majd cried. “I didn’t mean it! I’m so sorry!”

“Hush, now, sister,” said Mira, crouching down to console her while the others continued to fuss. “You didn’t know.”

“What did she say?” asked Jalil.

Mira looked up at him, still hugging her younger sister. “She asked if we could serve the Jabaliyn tribe some of the strawberries Shira has been growing for the last few months.”

“Ah,” Jalil nodded. He crouched down and tousled Majd’s hair, ignoring the chatter of the infuriated women.

“It’s good that you want to share the best we have with our guests,” he told her. “Those strawberries are very special, and I know why you wanted to share them.”

Majd stopped crying and turned to him. “But why don’t we?”

“You’ll understand someday. They’re very important.” He smiled and glanced over at Mira.

“That’s right,” said Mira. “The strawberries aren’t just for eating, Majd—they show that Lena is a pure and honorable woman. Someday, when a handsome young man comes to the camp to marry you and take you off to his tribe, Mother will grow strawberries for your wedding.”

Jalil left them and walked towards the tent doors leading to the main chamber. The guests were certainly seated by now, and as Sathi’s only son, he would soon be expected to make an appearance. Besides, someone needed to explain Tiera’s scream—even with the storm buffeting the camp, the guests surely must have heard it. A scorpion in the women’s quarters, perhaps? Yes, that would work.

This is one thing I’m not going to miss when I’m gone, he reflected as he absently fingered the pendant underneath his shirt.


* * * * *


The sandstorm was fierce, but like so many summer storms, it blew over in little more than a day. The main brunt passed far to the south, sparing the camp from any damage. Still, it left the landscape noticeably changed, burying some small craters and outcroppings while uncovering others. The wall, however, protected the camp from the worst of the drifts, and only the windmill took any damage—damage which Jalil repaired before the morning was finished.

Lena Al-Sauliha Bint Shira Al-Najmi Saharat Al-Gharab Al-Gaiani Al-Jadida was wedded to Mazhar Al-Kariym Ibn Amr Al-Jabaliyn Saharat Mutli’ih Aliet Al-Gaiani Al-Jadida just after sundown. The festivities continued late into the night, long after the bride and groom had retired to their wedding suite. Jabaliyn and Najmi tribesmen danced around the roaring bonfire to the music of the drums and pipes, celebrating all night beneath the stars and satellites.

Jalil was the first to rise the next morning. Even so, he walked some distance from the camp to say his morning prayers, seeking the solitude that only the desert could give.

“In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate,” he began, kneeling on the stiff prayer rug in the midst of the rust-red sand. The compass laid before him pointed east by southeast, and as he pressed his forehead to ground, he visualized a pearly white spire surrounded by a sea of glass, reaching upward toward the starry sky. The image hung on the wall in the magnificently decorated front room of the camp, and depicted the Temple of a Thousand Suns, the Noble Shrine of Earth and the holiest place in all the settled worlds.

“Almighty Lord of Earth,” Jalil whispered, his face low to the ground, “Thou who led our fathers safely through the starry void and blessed them with the richness of Thy bounty, if it be not against Thy will, lead me to Thy holy temple, that I might discover the truth of who I am.”

The wind whispered across the rocky plain, stirring the dust and tickling his cheek with sand. Jalil closed his eyes and savored the silence, finding in it a peace that refreshed and edified his soul.

When he returned to the camp, the guests had already begun to gather in the lavish front room to drink the morning tea. Several of the Jabaliyn tribesmen eyed him as he entered, staring at his unusually blond hair and fair skin. He pretended to ignore them and joined the Najmi girls near the front, reclining on the cushioned floor between Tiera and Mira.

“Where were you?” Tiera whispered.

“Praying.”

“Ah.” She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “Why did you leave the camp to pray?”

“I’ll tell you later,” he whispered back, pouring himself a cup of tea. More than a dozen gold kettles littered the center of the room, ample evidence of the Najmi tribe’s hospitality.

Mazhar and Lena were the last to arrive. Lena entered wearing a black dress and veil lined with red embroidery, and Mazhar entered wearing his finest flowing robes, dyed in the green and blue colors of the Jabaliyn tribe. As they stepped into the chamber, everyone present rose to their feet to clap and cheer. Mazhar raised his rifle in the air and let out a great whoop, and the women let loose with their loud ululating cries.

After several moments, the chamber quieted down once again. The spirit of anticipation, however, did not leave them—breakfast had not yet been served. Jalil stretched out on his side, enjoying the moment.

“When are you going to marry?” Jalil asked Mira light-heartedly. “You’re the prime age for a bride!”

Mira blushed deeply, struggling to come up with an answer. Jalil smiled and winked, and she turned away quickly, hiding her face behind her headscarf.

She’s changed a lot since we’ve grown up, Jalil thought to himself. It was true; her eyes alone were gorgeous enough to disarm any man, and even in her loose black robes, her figure was very noticeably feminine. He wouldn’t be surprised if she were married off before the end of the year—with luck, she’d already caught the attention of one of the Jabaliyn boys.

Sheikh Sathi rose to his feet, and Shira led her three youngest daughters into the room: Rina, Majd, and Alia. The young girls carried a giant platter between them, piled high with hundreds of plump, juicy strawberries. A loud cheer erupted as the men raised their rifles in the air and the women filled the room again with their ululating cries.

After some time, the noise gradually died down, and Sathi motioned for everyone to have a seat. As they did, he cleared his throat with a magnanimous wave of his hand.

“Fellow tribesmen, both in law and in blood,” he began. “Here sits my flower, my daughter, Lena Bint Shira, whom we have given in marriage to your son Mazhar Ibn Amr Al-Jabaliyn. For many years, we have labored hard to cultivate and nurture her into an honorable woman, that she may become a noble wife. Indeed,” he said, taking a single strawberry from the platter and raising it in the air, “we have cultivated her as we cultivated this noble red fruit that you see before you now. Even as the strawberry requires shelter from the hot sun and nourishment with water and nutrients that the desert alone cannot provide, so too have we struggled these many years to raise our daughter pure and unsullied in this world of sin and corruption. But behold, our labors have not been in vain, for here before us stands a woman worthy to be called a daughter of the most holy Earth.”

Mazhar’s mother stepped forward and accepted a plate of the strawberries from Rina, the youngest daughter. She presented the plate to Shira, who smiled warmly as she offered it to Lena.

“And now,” Sathi bellowed, “may this union of our people be blessed with much fruit!”

The cheering and singing began anew as Lena hand-fed a juicy strawberry to her new husband. As the guests clapped and made music, Sathi took his seat next to Sheikh Amr, and Rina served them both with generous servings that Shira had spooned up. As the girls served the guests, lavishly dressed dancers from the Jabaliyn tribe moved to the center of the room to provide the entertainment.

“I wish I could dance like that,” said Mira. “Those women are beautiful.”

“You’re as beautiful as any of those girls,” said Jalil. “Besides, you’re a Najmi, and that makes you better than any two of them.”

“Truly?”

“Of course. It won’t be long before Sathi’s making some long-winded speech on your wedding morning, of that I’m sure.”

Mira smiled and blushed, quickly looking away. Strange, Jalil thought to himself—but then again, she always was the shy one.

Chapter 2


“So which of the Jabaliyn boys caught your eye?” asked Amina, eyes sparkling as she looked up from scrubbing one of the giant cooking pots. “My eyes are for Ozal—that man’s a beast.”

Ozal? Mira wondered quietly as she rinsed the last of the plates. Which one is he?

“Good Lord!” cried Surayya. “You’re much too young for him. Ozal is almost as old as Uncle Samir!”

“Eh, you’ll probably marry a blind old man,” Amina retorted, passing the pot on to Mira for rinsing. “Besides, I’m not too young to take a husband if I want to.”

“Oh yes, you are,” said Surayya, carefully drying one of the plates with a vacuum sponge. “Besides, Father isn’t going to marry you off until he finds a husband for Mira and me.”

Mira kept to herself as her sisters argued around her. She always felt awkward talking about boys, especially with sisters as gossipy as Amina and Surayya. It wasn’t that she never thought about the subject—far from it—but the way her sisters gossiped, to tell one of them was to broadcast it throughout the camp.

“Come on, Mira,” said Surayya, hands on her hips in impatience. “Can’t you do your job? You’re holding us all up.”

Mira jolted upright and nearly dropped the pot she was rinsing. “Oh,” she said, slowly regaining her composure. “Sorry.”

“Looks like Mira has someone on her mind,” said Amina, smiling mischievously.

“I do not,” said Mira, a little too quickly. She passed the cooking pot on to Surayya and fumbled about in the rinse water for the next plate.

“Sure,” said Amina, “and I’m secretly a man. Come on, Mira. What’s his name?”

Mira tried to think of something to say, but nothing came to her mind. Her knees began to feel weak, and she took a deep breath.

“Oh my,” said Surayya, her face lighting up. “You’re right, Amina; she’s got that dreamy-eyed look about her.”

Hot blood rushed to Mira’s cheeks, and she glanced quickly down in an attempt to hide her face.

“I knew it,” said Amina. “You’ve been up to something, haven’t you, girl?”

“Good Lord!” said Surayya, eyes widening as she covered her mouth with her hand. “You didn’t actually go into their tents last night, did you?”

“What?” said Mira. “No! Why would I—”

“I think we all know the answer to that,” said Amina, winking.

Mira’s hands became clammy, and she started shaking. She bit her lip, but her cheeks still burned with embarrassment.

“Don’t be shy, now,” said Surayya. “You have to tell us.”

“Is it Ozal?” Amina’s eyes were practically glowing with curiosity.

“No,” Mira whispered.

“Ezrom?”

“No.”

“Zeyd, then. It’s gotta be Zeyd.”

“No! It isn’t anybody.”

“Su-ure,” said Surayya, drawing out the word for emphasis. “Come on, Mira. You have to tell us.”

“Don’t worry,” said Amina. “We won’t tell anyone.”

Mira shuffled uneasily on her feet. “Well, he’s not one of the Jabaliyn boys.”

“One of our cousins, then?”

She shrugged.

“Ah!” said Amina, giving her a meaningful look. “So it’s our own Jalil you’ve got eyes for, eh?”

Mira froze where she stood. A wave of dizziness passed over her, and her heart started racing. For a terrible moment, all she wanted was to sink through the ground and disappear.

Surayya shrieked with delight. “Jalil? Lord of Earth!”

“Don’t tell,” Mira cried, grabbing her arm. “P-please, don’t tell anyone!”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Amina, stepping between them. “You could do a lot worse than Jalil. Besides, Father wants to marry him off to one of us—why shouldn’t it be you?”

Mira said nothing, but inwardly, her heart skipped a beat.

“But I thought Jalil was supposed to marry Tiera,” said Surayya. “She’s Mother Zayne’s oldest daughter—shouldn’t the inheritance fall to her?”

Mira’s stomach fell. She bit her lip.

“Not necessarily,” said Amina. “Tiera may be the oldest, but Jalil is Sathi’s only son, even if he is adopted. The inheritance falls to him, so long as he marries in the family.”

“Oh,” said Surayya, “but what about Lena? I thought—”

“Lena and Mazhar are only staying for insurance. If Jalil leaves—and I hear he has a mind to—Father’s agreed to pass the inheritance on to them. That’s why he wants to marry one of us off to Jalil as soon as possible.”

Mira’s heart leaped in her chest.

“You know,” said Amina, turning to face her, “I think you two would go well together. You should marry him.”

Mira’s cheeks flushed again, but she couldn’t suppress a smile. “You truly think so?” she asked.

“Truly.”

“But—but what about Tiera? Jalil spends all his time with her. Do you think—”

“Tiera hates all of us,” said Surayya, her lips turned down in contempt. “All she wants is to leave this place.”

“She does?”

“Sure. Can’t you see it in the way she acts?”

“Anyhow,” said Amina, “you don’t need to worry; Jalil doesn’t have eyes for her.”

Mira bit her lip while Amina stepped forward and put a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t be embarrassed. Jalil is quite a catch—you should talk with Mother and make it happen.”

Mira silently nodded, her heart still pounding in her chest. Ever since she was a little girl, the thought of leaving her home to marry a stranger had absolutely terrified her. To marry someone she loved, while staying in her father’s tent—it almost seemed like too much to hope for.

At that moment, the door to the cooking tent parted. The three girls turned just as Shira stepped inside.

“Girls, girls, girls!” their mother shouted as she waddled over to the washing table. “When are you ever going to be done with these dishes? Aie! The more of you I put on a job, the slower you work.”

“Sorry, Mother,” said Surayya, a bit sheepishly. “We were—”

“Stop yapping and get back to your chores! Our guests will be eating again in less than two hours, and I don’t want them choking on the remains of the last meal.”

She turned to Mira, hands at her hips. “Mira, dry off your hands and come with me.”

Mira looked uneasily at Amina and Surayya, but they had already returned to their chores. Her hands shook nervously, and she carefully wiped them down with the vacuum sponge, doing her best to reclaim as much water as she could.

“Why are you moving so slowly, girl?” Shira nagged. “I don’t have all day.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Where are you taking her?” Surayya asked, glancing up from her work.

“Mira and I are going to have a little chat,” their mother said. “It doesn’t concern you.”

“Is it about Jalil?” Amina asked. Mira suddenly wanted to die.

“I said it doesn’t concern you,” Shira bellowed. “Now see to your work—and be quick about it!”

It’s about Jalil, Mira thought woefully to herself. She was eavesdropping the whole time—she probably heard everything.

“Well,” Shira said, “are you ready or not?”

Mira carefully set the vacuum sponge back in its sheath and took a deep breath.

“Yes,” she said, her voice barely more than a whisper.


* * * * *


“You mind telling me what this is all about?” Tiera asked as she followed Jalil to the dirt embankment at the edge of the compound.

Jalil glanced over his shoulder and motioned for her to be quiet. “Shh! The others can’t know we’re here.”

Tiera rolled her eyes and followed him over the embankment to the other side, far enough away that no one could eavesdrop on their conversation. Together, they sat down in the shade, backs against the dusty slope so that they were hidden from view.

The sky overhead was cloudless and perfectly blue from horizon to horizon. A warm breeze blew across Jalil’s face, tickling his skin with a few stray grains of sand. The rust-red landscape had changed since the storm, but he still recognized the familiar line of the mountains on the horizon, as well as the wind-carved boulders and outcroppings that surrounded the camp: pillars of black and red stone, standing watch like ageless sentinels over a place that felt, almost, as if it could be his home.

Almost, but not quite.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before,” he began, “but I couldn’t risk letting anyone discover my plans until now.”

“What? That you want to leave the camp once the wedding is over?”

Jalil’s jaw dropped. “How—how did you—”

“It’s not too hard to figure out,” she said. “And honestly, you have been a bit more aloof than usual these last few days.”

He glanced over his shoulder again, just to make sure no one had overheard. “Well, promise not to tell anyone, okay?”

“Sure. Where do you plan on going, anyways?”

Jalil reached underneath his shirt and pulled out the pendant he wore around his neck. “Do you know what this is?” he asked, holding it out to Tiera.

She took it and examined it closely for a few moments. “Yeah,” she said. “That’s the necklace you had on you when Father found you out in the desert, isn’t it?”

“More than a necklace,” he said, taking it back. “It’s a memory chip full of data that I’ve never been able to access. Data from my home, Tiera—perhaps from my birth parents.”

“Great. How does that figure into you leaving?”

“Can’t you see?” he said, stuffing the pendant back under his shirt. “I have to know what’s on this memory chip, Tiera—I absolutely must. But no trader that’s passed through the camp has been able to read it. If I stay here, I’ll never uncover the truth.”

Tiera nodded. “So where do you plan to go?”

Jalil turned away from her and glanced out over the reddish brown horizon. His body stiffened, the way one stiffens in a dream just before coming back to the waking world. He hesitated for a moment, unsure whether to give voice to his true intentions—as if afraid that by naming them, they would somehow lose their power.

“Where are you going?” Tiera asked again. “You can trust me—I won’t tell.”

“To the temple,” he whispered.

Tiera frowned. “The temple?”

“Yes—the Temple of a Thousand Suns.”

She stared at him for a few moments, uncomprehending. When realization finally struck, her eyes grew wide and her jaw dropped open in shock.

“Are you serious?”

“Yes.”

“But—but that’s the holiest shrine in the known universe! It’s the Noble Sanctuary, the Center of All Creation, the—”

“I know.”

“But why?” she asked. “Some people spend their whole lives trying to make the pilgrimage—even Father hasn’t been there yet.”

He took a deep breath. “I don’t know if I’m worthy enough to make the pilgrimage, but I do know one thing: the Holy Archives are at the temple, and they contain all the knowledge and wisdom of Old Earth. If anyone can read the data stored in my pendant, it’s those who keep the Holy Archives.”

“But how do you know they’d help you? How do you know they’d even care?”

“The temple is dedicated to the memory of Earth,” he said, “but it’s also dedicated to the last great hope of the patriarchs, that their children would one day inhabit a thousand worlds and spread across the universe. I’m from one of those other worlds, Tiera, even if I don’t know which one. If the temple is still dedicated to that hope, then I know I’ll find someone to help me.”

Tiera stared at him for a moment, shock gradually giving way to admiration. “You would travel to the other side of the world just to find your home?”

“More than that,” Jalil said softly. “I would leave this world and travel to the stars.”

Tiera said nothing for several moments. The breeze idly tossed a strand of hair dangling from her hastily-tied bandana. Jalil shifted uneasily—he saw, in her eyes, a light that he hadn’t seen before, a light that he’d rarely seen in anyone.

“Take me with you,” she said. Her voice, though soft, was as fierce as Jalil had ever heard it.

“Take you?” he asked. “Away from the camp?”

“Yes. Wherever you go, I want to go, too.”

“But—but Tiera, they need you here.”

“Like hell they do,” she hissed. “I do twice the work of any of Shira’s daughters and have yet to get any thanks for it. I want nothing more than to get as far away from all of them as possible.”

“You mustn’t say that,” said Jalil. “Mother Shira and your half-sisters are good people.”

“I wish I could still believe that,” Tiera muttered as she glanced away.

“Besides,” Jalil continued, “we couldn’t do the pilgrimage by ourselves. What would the others think? When a boy and a girl are alone—”

“I know, I know. Satan is the third one with them. I don’t believe that for one second. We’re responsible enough to make our own decisions, aren’t we? We’re not fated to break the rules just because no one else is around to keep us in line.”

“I know, but what about our honor? If word got out—”

“What is honor, Jalil?” Tiera said. “Where does it come from?”

“I, uh,” Jalil stuttered. “It comes from, uh—”

“Right here,” she said, jabbing him in the chest. “It’s right here, and nowhere else. So what if the others gossip about us? Let them! We’ll both know the truth, and that’s honor enough for me.”

For a moment, neither of them said anything. Jalil swallowed and took a deep breath.

“I want to take you with me, Tiera—I really do. But—”

“But what?”

Jalil sighed. “What about Zayne? You’re her last surviving child; if we both left her, she would be devastated.”

Tiera opened her mouth as if to speak, but closed it again without saying anything.

“I need to leave the camp in good hands,” Jalil continued. “What will the others do when the windmill needs repairing, or the caravaneers need servicing? I can’t think of any better hands than yours.”

“Mazhar’s taking over soon,” Tiera muttered. “He’ll see to all that.”

“But Tiera, Mother needs you.

She bit her lip and looked up at him with pleading eyes. To his surprise, she seemed as if she would almost cry.

“There’s nothing left for me here,” she said. “Nothing.”

“Don’t worry,” he said, putting a hand on her arm. “You won’t be here forever. I’m sure Sathi will find you a—”

“A husband? Not if Shira has anything to do with it. She probably wants me to die an old maid. And even if he did, what makes you think I want to marry?”

Jalil didn’t know what to say. Tiera rubbed her eyes and looked out over the rocky desert plain, the wind toying with the hair that had spilled out of her loosely tied headscarf.

“I’m sorry, Tiera. I—”

“No,” she said, rising to her feet. “You do what you have to do. One way or another, I’ll get free of this place.”

“But not just yet,” Jalil said, rising hastily. “Please—not until things have settled down a bit. Promise me that.”

She turned toward him and narrowed her eyes, hands placed squarely on her hips. For a moment, Jalil worried she was upset with him, but a grin spread across her face, setting him at ease.

“Fair enough,” she said, “but just because I’m giving you a head start, don’t think you’ll be rid of me so easily. Wherever you go, I’m sure our paths will cross again someday.”

“God-willing,” said Jalil, clapping his hand on her shoulder. “God-willing.”


* * * * *


Mira’s mother led her through the darkened corridors of the camp, moving so quickly that she nearly had to run to keep up. The smell of roasting meat and vegetables mingled with the thick, stuffy humidity of the kitchen huts, making her clothes feel sticky.

“W-where are we going?” she asked.

“Somewhere private,” Shira answered, tightening the grip on her hand.

Please don’t let me be in trouble, Mira prayed. Please don’t let her be angry with me.

“Here,” said Shira, finally stopping in the back of an old brick storage cellar. “Now, my dear, let’s have a little chat.”

Mira swallowed. “What did I do?” she asked timidly.

Shira bellowed with laughter. “Oh honey,” she said, “you look as frightened as a mouse! There there, don’t be so upset—you’re not in trouble, dear.”

“I-I’m not?”

“No,” Shira chuckled. “Far from it.”

It’s about Jalil, Mira told herself, her heart pounding twice as hard as before. It’s got to be.

“What do you think of Jalil?” her mother asked, as if on cue.

“He’s nice,” Mira answered, blushing in the dark. “I-I like him a lot.” Oh Lord, I sound like an idiot.

“Good, good. Do you have any feelings for him?”

Yes!

“I, uh, I guess—”

“You guess, girl? Don’t play games with me. Do you or don’t you?”

Mira wished she could sink through the ground and disappear. Even if she could, though, her mother would just lift her back up again and scold her the more for it.

“Yes,” she whispered, staring down at her feet.



“Good! That’s very good.”

“Why?” Mira asked. The earnestness in her voice surprised her.

“Because your father and I want to marry you off to him as soon as we can.”

Mira’s stomach leaped into her mouth as a wave of adrenaline surged through her trembling body. For a moment, she couldn’t speak.

“Unfortunately,” her mother continued, “there seems to be something of a complication.”

“Complication?”

“Yes, dear. A complication. You see, rumor has it that Jalil wants to leave the camp, most likely on pilgrimage—and after that, well, who knows if he’ll ever come back.”

Mira’s stomach fell through the floor, and her legs turned to water. “Leave?”

“That’s right, dear. If that’s his plan, he’ll probably ask your father for his blessing sometime in the next two days and leave with the Jabaliyn convoy before the end of the week.”

“That—that’s terrible.”

“I know, dear. I know.” Shira glanced to either side and leaned intently forward. “That’s why we needed to talk.”

Oh no, Mira thought to herself. From her mother’s tone of voice, there was doubtlessly something devious on her mind.

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t want him to leave, do you?”

“Well, no—”

“And he’s been making eyes at you, hasn’t he?”

“I—I don’t know—”

“Oh, don’t be so modest. You’re just his age, and of all my daughters, you’re certainly the most beautiful.”

Where is this going? Mira wanted to ask. Instead, she kept silent.

“We need to keep Jalil from leaving,” her mother continued. “If he does, your father’s inheritance will pass to the Jabaliyn, and we’ll be completely at their mercy once he dies. You wouldn’t want to see your mother poor and destitute, would you?”

“No,” said Mira, shaking her head dutifully.

“That’s why we must keep Jalil from leaving us, no matter the cost.” Her eyes gleamed as she leaned in closer, her voice so low that Mira had to strain to hear.

“What is it, Mother?”

“Your father and I want you to go with him.”

Mira frowned. “Go with him? On the pilgrimage?”

“Yes.”

“Alone?”

“Of course,” her mother said, grinning mischievously in the dim light of the glowlamps. “We want you to get to know each other so well that he can’t help but fall in love with you, if you know what I mean.”

Mira closed her eyes for a moment and swallowed. Her heart raced as she considered the implications of what her mother was telling her. Jalil, fall in love with her—but how? He only ever saw her in passing around the camp, and never for very long. If he ever did notice her, it was only as his sister—never as anything more.

“I don’t know,” she said uneasily.

“You’re not a little girl anymore, dear,” said her mother. “Trust me, he’ll notice you—and when he does, you must convince him, one way or another, to come back and stay.”

“But how?”

Without warning, Shira reached up and pinched her breast—hard. Mira squealed and nearly doubled over from the pain.

“Why do you think Allah gave you these?” Shira said, a tone of contempt in her voice. “Jalil is a man of honor—find your way into his bed, and for honor’s sake, he’ll come back and marry you.”

The shock of her mother’s words hit Mira with all the subtlety of a rockslide. She leaned against the wall behind her for support.

“But—but that’s—”

“You want to marry him, don’t you, child? It’s not wrong if you marry each other afterward—and don’t worry about the strawberries at your wedding, I’ll take care of that.”

But I won’t deserve them.

“And one more thing,” Shira continued, leaning in to tower over her. “Your father and I have a lot riding on this. If you should fail—” She made a cutting motion across her throat. “Understand?”

Mira trembled where she stood against the wall, hugging her chest as she cowered under Shira’s fierce, imposing eyes.

“Y-yes, Mother.”

“Don’t be too concerned about it,” Shira said, turning to go as if the matter were already settled. “The temple is on the other side of the world; you’ll have plenty of time. When you’re both alone together, you’ll know what to do.”

Mira bit her lip and nodded, rubbing her chest where her mother had pinched her. The pain still throbbed, and an awful sinking feeling in her gut made her want to throw up.

This is wrong.

It wasn’t just the part about getting into Jalil’s bed—though Allah knew that was frightening enough. It was how manipulative and deceitful it seemed, to shame him into marrying her.

Maybe he’ll fall in love and change his mind on his own, she thought hopefully to herself. Maybe I won’t have to sleep with him just to get him to come back.

If he didn’t, though, she didn’t know what she’d do.

Chapter 3


Jalil stopped outside the doorway that led to Sathi’s private quarters. He hesitated for a moment, running through the monologue he’d practiced in his head nearly a hundred times. Hello, Father. With your blessing, I wish to leave with the Jabaliyn convoy. Yes, I’ve already spoken with Sheikh Amr about it. No, I don’t know when I’ll be back. No, I can’t promise I’ll return, but—

Before he could bring his hand up to knock, the door creaked open. “Jalil, my son!” boomed his father, making him jump. “Come in, come in. I’ve been expecting you.”

A little shaken, Jalil stepped into the private study. The room was well decorated, with purple silk hangings draped across the walls and a faded mosaic on the floor depicting a garden full of fruits and animals. A pair of highly ornamented ceremonial gold swords hung on the wall immediately opposite the door, crossed above the red and white banner of the Najmi tribe. An old, dusty computer sat in the corner, the hologram projector switched off to conserve energy. Illumination came from an enormous stain glass lamp that hung from the center of the vaulted brick ceiling.

Jalil swallowed and sat cross-legged on a small cushion near the center of the room, while his father stretched out on the couch.

“Some tea?” Sathi asked, motioning to a large golden kettle on the ornate wooden table between them.

“Yes, please.”

With his free hand, the sheikh took the kettle and poured the tea. Jalil leaned forward and accepted the second cup, taking a short sip before setting it down.

“So,” Sathi asked, pouring himself a cup, “have you been enjoying yourself these past few days?”

“Yes, I have,” Jalil answered. Small talk first, then the big stuff.

“Excellent. It’s not every year we have a wedding.”

“I know,” said Jalil, taking another sip of his tea. “But maybe this year, we’ll be blessed to have two.”

Sathi threw back his head and laughed. “Yes indeed! God-willing, perhaps we will.”

What did I say that was so funny?

“I’ve heard a lot of good things from the Jabaliyn tribe,” Jalil continued. “They won’t forget our hospitality.”

“Good, good—as well they shouldn’t.”

“Mazhar is with the camp to stay, then, is he?”

His father let out a tired sigh. “Perhaps. But it isn’t right for a man to stay in his father-in-law’s tent. I don’t know whether they’ll choose to stay—only Allah knows.”

They’ll stay, Jalil thought to himself. Lena was Sathi’s oldest daughter; the inheritance would pass to her, making her husband the next sheikh of the camp. No tribesman in his right mind would pass up that kind of wealth.

“Mazhar seems like a good man,” Jalil said. “God-willing, he’ll do well here.”

“God-willing,” muttered Sathi. He took a long sip of his tea.

Jalil set down his drink and coughed. “There is something I wanted to speak with you about, Father.”

“I know, my son.”

Jalil frowned. “You do?”

“Yes. You want to make the pilgrimage to the Temple of a Thousand Suns, don’t you?”

At his father’s words, Jalil’s stomach fell through the dusty mosaic floor. How does he know? he wondered. It was too late to stop now, though. There was nothing to do but press on.

“Yes,” he whispered.

“And why do you wish to do this?”

Jalil took a deep breath. “Because it is the duty of all believers to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lives. I’m young, I have no wife or family obligations, and—”

“Yes, yes, I know all that. But why go alone—why not wait until I make the pilgrimage, and go with me?”

Sathi looked at him expectantly, waiting for his answer. Jalil shifted where he sat.

“There are other reasons,” he said, without elaborating.

Sathi narrowed his eyes. “When can we expect you to return?”

Jalil squirmed, unsure how to answer. For a moment, he considered evading the question, but that would never do; it was now or never.

“I’m sorry, Father,” he said, casting his eyes down, “but I cannot promise I will return.”

For several moments, neither of them said anything. His father shifted uneasily.

“Why?”

“Because I must find out about my birth family,” Jalil answered, squirming a little.

“Ah,” said Sathi, leaning back. “So that’s what this is about, isn’t it?”

Jalil said nothing.

“Oh my son, my beloved from the stars, why do you feel that you must leave us? Are we not family enough for you? We who raised you from boyhood into a man?”

“Yes,” Jalil said quickly. “Yes, you are. You will always be my father, and Zayne will always be—”

“Then why must you chase after these shadows from the past—shadows that you may never grasp?”

Why does he have to make this so difficult?

“Because I need to know,” Jalil said as he nervously fingered the locket beneath his shirt. “I need to find out where I came from.”

“You are my son. Is that not enough?”

No, Jalil nearly said. It’s not. Instead, he looked away.

“Don’t leave us, son,” Sathi continued. “We need you here. I need you. Your sisters need you. What will we do when all of them are married off? Who will lead the camp?”

“I’m sorry, Father,” said Jalil, bowing his head. “But this is something I must do.”

Sathi shook his head. “If you leave, this camp will turn to the Jabaliyn tribe before I die. I had to significantly increase Lena’s dowry for Sheikh Amr to agree for his son to move into our camp. Unless Mazhar divorces Lena and returns to his father’s tent, my debts will be nearly impossible to repay. No, son, I’m afraid I cannot give you permission to go. I need your help here.”

Jalil fidgeted nervously. He had hoped that it wouldn’t come to this, but now that it had, he saw no choice.

“I’m sorry, Father—truly sorry—but I didn’t come here to ask for your permission. I came to ask for your blessing.”

“What?” Sathi asked, his eyes narrowing.

“I’ve already made the arrangements with Sheikh Amr. I’m leaving with the convoy tomorrow.”

Silence. Jalil held his breath.

“I see you’ve gone behind my back on this,” Sathi muttered. “And I suppose there’s nothing I can do to stop you?”

Jalil bit his lip and fidgeted nervously with his fingers. His father closed his eyes and let out a long, deep sigh.

“I should have seen this. Of course.”

To Jalil’s surprise, his father sat up and brought out a thermos of coffee from the side of the couch. From a side drawer, he produced two tiny ceramic cups and set them on the table.

“So it’s my blessing you want, is it?” he asked, filling both cups with the thick, black liquid. He pushed one of them across the table.

“Yes,” said Jalil, accepting the glass with shaky hands. The coffee would seal their meeting, but until the sheikh drank from his cup, there was no agreement, no understanding. No deal.

“As much as it pains me to see you leave,” Sathi continued, “your decision comes at an auspicious moment.”

“What do you mean?”

Sathi lifted the cup of coffee to eye level and stared casually at it. “My daughter, Mira, approached me not a month ago, expressing her desire to make the pilgrimage. She has experienced something of a religious awakening recently, and wishes to go now, before she marries. Of course, I told her that it would be better to wait—that it’s customary for a woman to wait to make the pilgrimage with her husband—but when I told her this, she broke down into tears.”

Jalil frowned. “Why?”

“Because she’s afraid she’ll never marry.”

At those words, Jalil sat upright.

“What? How is that possible? Mira is a wonderful, beautiful girl—anyone would be lucky to marry her.”

“I know,” said Sathi, “but who would want to marry their sons into a tribe as weak as ours? They would certainly gain no advantage by it. And since most of her cousins are either married or gone to the domes, her chances of finding a husband in the desert are very slim indeed.”

Jalil was dumbstruck. He’d never thought Mira would have a problem finding a husband—but now that his father mentioned it, he had to admit that the outlook was worse than he’d thought.

“What are you getting at?” he asked.

“Can’t you see, my son? If my beloved daughter is to make the pilgrimage, now may be her only opportunity. Few convoys come out this far, and without a husband to escort her, I would never think of sending her alone.” He swirled the coffee in his cup, eying it meaningfully.

“Wait,” said Jalil, realization slowly dawning on him. “You want to send her with me?”

Sathi smiled wide. “That’s right.”

Jalil swallowed. “But who would be our chaperone? The temple is on the other side of the world—it might take us months to get there.”

Sathi laughed. “Chaperone! My dear boy, what makes you think I could spare a chaperone for that long?”

“But—just the two of us? Alone?”

“Don’t worry; I know I can trust her with you. You are a man of honor, after all.”

“But what will the other tribes think?”

“As far as they know, you’re brother and sister. They won’t think it unusual for you to travel together.”

Jalil paused to work through all the implications of his father’s request. “But if I’m leaving the camp for good, how will she get back?”

“I have a wealthy aunt who lives in one of the domes next to the temple,” said his father. “She can afford to fly her to the spaceport in the east desert, and I will make arrangements with the Jabaliyn to bring her the rest of the way. Speaking of which, how much have you saved up for the journey?”

“Uh, about eight hundred credits.”

Sathi clucked his tongue and shook his head. “Not nearly enough. Agree to escort Mira, and I’ll give you triple that.”

“Twenty-four hundred?” Jalil asked, blinking in surprise. “You would give me that much?”

“For my own flesh and blood? Of course.”

Jalil glanced down at the cup of coffee in his hand and nervously fingered his locket. Twenty-four hundred Gaian credits was a lot of money; it would be foolish to refuse his father’s support. Still, something felt wrong about the offer.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s just—”

“Please, son—think of Mira. The greatest desire of her heart is to make the pilgrimage. You asked for my blessing, knowing full well I would never give you my permission, but how can I give you my blessing if you refuse to take my daughter?”

“I just don’t know, Father,” said Jalil, stumbling over his words. “Are you saying that if I agree to escort her, you’ll give me your blessing?”

“Precisely.”

“And the money?”

“Only if you take her with you.”

Jalil shifted uneasily. Mira might be his sister by adoption, but that didn’t mean she was off-limits. After all, in the desert, first cousins often married—even first cousins who’d grown up in the same camp. For him and Mira to travel so far together, without a chaperone—

But wasn’t that what Tiera had asked of him? He had no doubt that her intentions had been honorable. If he could trust Tiera, who only wanted to set out on her own, why should he trust Mira any less? Especially if her greatest desire was to make the pilgrimage, as Sathi had said.

Besides, Jalil needed the money—badly. The temple lay on the other side world, and though eight hundred credits would take him far, he doubted it would take him the entire way.

“All right,” he said. “I agree.”

“Excellent!” boomed Sathi. With a flourish of his hand, he downed the coffee in one gulp. Jalil grinned and drank his own, relief flooding through him. After they’d both finished, they rose to their feet and embraced.

“Good luck, my boy,” said Jalil’s father as he pulled him close. “May Allah go with you both.”


* * * * *


“Mira? You’re leaving?”

Mira looked up from her packing to see Rina standing in the doorway to the older girls’ tent. Amina and Surayya were probably out doing chores—or seeing off the Jabaliyn men, which was more likely. Either way, she was alone with her little sister.

“Yes,” said Mira, packing her last set of clothes. “I’m going away for a while.” Sunlight filtered in through the coarse weave of the dark tent fabric, the only indication in the dimly lit room that it was day outside.

“Where?”

Mira gave her a reassuring smile. They’d always been the quiet ones in the family, and with a mother and sisters as vocal as theirs, that had given them a bond that the others couldn’t understand. I’m going to miss her, Mira realized as she contemplated the long journey ahead of her.

“Do you know the picture in the front hall? The one with the pretty white tower surrounded by a landscape of glass?”

Rina’s eyes widened. “You’re going there?”

Mira nodded. As she closed the canvas duffel bag and rose from the stiff mattress pad that had served as her bed for most of her life, her little sister ran up and hugged her knees, as if to never let go.

“Oh, Rina!” she laughed. “Don’t be sad. I’m not going to be gone forever.”

Rina sniffed and looked up with her wide, innocent eyes. “When will you be back?”

The question made Mira think back to the conversation with Shira the day before in the darkened cellar. If you fail…

“God-willing, not long.”

Rina’s shoulders shook as she quietly began to sob. Mira dropped her bag and knelt down, touching a hand to her face.

“Rina? What’s wrong?”

“When Mother says ‘God-willing,’ it always means ‘no.’”

Mira wrapped her arms around her little sister and held her in a warm embrace. “I’ll come back,” she whispered. “I promise.”

She held Rina tight until her sobbing stopped. Outside, the shouts of the Jabaliyn men and the starting of engines sounded through the fabric of the tent.

“I have to leave now,” she said, letting Rina go as she rose to her feet. “Be good now.”

Rina nodded and rubbed her nose with the back of her hand, her eyes still filled with the sadness of goodbye.

Mira slipped on her headscarf with one hand and lifted her duffel bag with the other. Strange to think it contained nearly all of her worldly belongings: a few changes of clothes, some headscarves, a set of prayer beads, and a pretty stone that Rina had found in the desert and given to her. The rest—mostly some old pieces of jewelry, including some copper-gold bracelets and a pair of garnet earrings—she wore on her person.

Smiling one last time at her little sister, she walked down the outer corridor toward the side entrance. Rina watched her go, but didn’t follow.

The glaring light of the sun made Mira squint and lift a hand to cover her eyes. It was already late afternoon, and the heat of the day had reached its peak only an hour before. Several of the young men loading the caravaneers had foreheads streaked with sweat, while perspiration pooled in their robes under their arms.

Practically the entire camp had come out to see the Jabaliyn convoy off. Shira stood by Mira’s father, arms folded across her finest embroidered red and black robes. Little Majd and Alia stood by her knees, looking on with wide, wonderstruck eyes. Zayne embraced Jalil at the door of one of the caravaneers, Tiera standing aloof a few paces behind her.

Mira stopped and turned around to look back at her home one last time. The tents from the wedding were still up, their once bright colors faded from exposure to sun and sand. Beside them stood the reddish-brown adobe huts of the camp, the ancient windmill outlined sharply against the deep blue sky. Her eyes lingered on the faded brown tent that had served as the bedroom for her and her older sisters since childhood. She imagined Rina watching through the peephole and gave a weak smile. Beyond, the dusty plain stretched out in all directions toward the seemingly infinite horizon. Surrounded on all sides by harsh, unforgiving desert, the camp seemed like the only safe place in the world—and she was leaving it.

“Mira!” came Shira’s voice from behind her. “What are you waiting for, girl? The convoy’s leaving!”

With a heavy heart, Mira swung her bag around and hauled it toward the waiting convoy. The warm exhaust from the rumbling engines licked at her face and caused the air to ripple.

Jalil ran to meet her. “Here,” he said, “let me take that for you.” Before she could object, he snatched the bag from her hand and threw it onto the caravaneer.

Sathi and Shira walked forward. As Zayne stepped back to join them, Shira took her husband’s arm and held onto him possessively, the way she always did when Zayne was around.

“Jalil, my son,” said Sathi. “I have something for you.”

“Yes?” said Jalil. “What’s that?” He jumped down from the caravaneer and went to see his father.

Sathi reached into his light tan robes and pulled out the gift. At the sight of it, Mira gasped—it was her father’s gold- and bronze-plated sniper rifle, a priceless family heirloom.

“What?” said Jalil, eyes widening. “Father, I can’t—”

“Please take it, I beg of you. Take it to remember us by.”

“But—but that’s your grandfather’s rifle. I can’t possibly accept it.”

Shira clucked in disapproval, making Mira cringe.

“You would refuse my parting gift?” Sathi asked, a wounded expression on his face. “Please, my son—take it. I would be honored.”

Jalil hesitated for a moment, torn with indecision. Mira knew, of course, what her father was trying to do. Any extra reason for Jalil to return would work in the sheikh’s favor. The pre-emptive guilt written across Jalil’s face showed that the ploy was working.

“Very well,” he finally said, taking it carefully with both hands. “Thank you, Father.”

A broad grin spread across Sathi’s face, and they embraced and kissed on both cheeks. As they did, Shira turned and gave Mira a sharp glance.

“Make sure he returns,” she hissed under her breath. “Don’t come back without him.”

Mira shuddered. Her mother’s face was veiled, but the look in her eyes was enough to tell Mira that she was deadly serious.

“Goodbye, Shira,” said Jalil, coming between them. “I’ll miss you.”

“As will I,” said Shira. The fierceness had evaporated instantly from her face, and she sniffled for effect. Mira stiffened as her mother embraced Jalil, then turned back to embrace her.

“I mean it,” she whispered menacingly in Mira’s ear. “Don’t fail me.”

The other goodbyes passed as if in a daze. By the time it was over, Mira wanted nothing more than to curl up by herself into a little ball.

“All right,” said Jalil as the others returned to the camp. “You ready to go?”

Mira hesitated for a moment, staring off at the camp. Her knees grew weak, while behind her, an engine revved, and the first of the caravaneers rode off across the dusty plain.

“Mira?” said Jalil.

“I’m coming,” she whispered. Before she could say no, she climbed into the back of the waiting caravaneer.


* * * * *


Jalil watched from the back seat as the twilit desert raced by. His checkered headscarf fluttered in the wind, and he squinted against the dust kicked up from the caravaneers ahead of them. Thankfully, Hamza, their driver, kept far enough out on the convoy’s flank that the billowing cloud didn’t obstruct Jalil’s view. The mountains, once almost on the horizon, now loomed close enough to make out the crooked lines of strata running along the ridge. While shadows filled the canyons and darkened the rocky foothills, the craggy peaks still shone from the light of the setting sun. The sky overhead turned orange and red; soon, it would fade to purple and black as the stars and satellites came out overhead.

A strange, unfamiliar longing stirred in Jalil’s heart as he watched the land he knew so well pass by. Not far from here was the site of the first camp, the one he’d come to as a boy shortly after Sathi had found him lost in the desert. He felt much the same way as he had when they’d moved away from that site, out into the middle of the plains. Though he’d come back periodically with Tiera to check on the cistern and make sure no one was squatting, it never felt quite the same. All those abandoned stone and adobe structures, devoid of life except for the ants and an occasional lizard—it felt too empty to have ever been his home.

Is that how I’ll feel about the Najmi camp someday? he wondered as the caravaneer began the climb to the pass. The thought filled him with fear, until he remembered the sun-bleached ruins of the derelict spaceship—the one that had brought him to this world. If he’d made it through that, surely he could live through this.

As the incessant hum of the engines reverberated in his ears, he turned and glanced over at Mira, fast asleep in the seat next to him. Her dusty black robes and headscarf covered all but her slender hands, fingers curled near her face. Of all the strange requests Sathi could have made—but it made sense that Mira would want to make the pilgrimage with him, even if coming alone with him was questionable. When a boy and a girl are alone together…

Nothing will happen, Jalil told himself. His father trusted him to be a man of honor, and he wasn’t about to betray that trust. Besides, Mira was nothing more than a sister to him; a stunningly beautiful sister, but a sister nonetheless.

His fingers reached for the pendant under his robes, and he stroked it gently, his thoughts drifting back to the voyage ahead. The darkening sky faded to black, and the stars and satellites began their nightly dance as the faint, cloudy mass of the Good Hope Nebula rose with the crescent moon before them. The arc of the galaxy shone down softly, tracing a path through the heavens like a bridge to far away worlds. Down below, the craggy peaks stood like sentinels, watching over the lonely desert land that Jalil knew so well. But he knew it wasn’t the land that held his destiny—it was the stars above.

Part II


Chapter 4


Jalil cracked open his eyes, head swimming as he woke from the half-sleep of the past several hours. The caravaneer continued to jolt him from side to side as it raced across the landscape, the roar of the engine filling his newly awakened ears. Yawning, he glanced out at the rust-red desert around them. Although nearly two weeks had passed since they’d set out from the Najmi camp, the landscape wasn’t much different than when they’d started.

Without warning, a high-pitched scream split the air like the cry of some unholy beast. Mira cried out next to him and covered her ears, while Jalil grabbed his father’s rifle and climbed onto his seat. Wrapping his arm around the caravaneer’s frame for support, he sighted the rifle and scanned the barren landscape behind them for a target.

He saw it just as it passed over the horizon—a tiny black dot, high in the clear blue sky. It moved with the speed of a shooting star, disappearing from sight only seconds later.

“Ha!” laughed Hamza from the forward seat. “Frightened a bit easily, are we?” He glanced up at Jalil over his shoulder, his thick black beard revealing a portly smile.

“Watch your driving,” Jalil muttered as he slipped back down into his seat, keeping his rifle on his lap. To his right, Mira turned and looked at him, eyes wide beneath her dusty veil. The caravaneer was more of an escort vehicle than a long range carrier, with the back seats slightly elevated and empty sockets for a pair of miniguns set on a crossbar running in front of them. Because of its smaller size, they sat close enough that their knees touched.

“I suppose you’re wondering what that was,” said Hamza. The driver’s seat rode practically on the ground, so that Jalil had a clear view of the dirty checkered headscarf wrapped around Hamza’s balding head.

“Yes. What was that thing?”

“A carrier bird. Space taxi. The devil’s caravaneer. The people of Babylon use those things to fly themselves up to the heavens; only Allah knows what they do there.”

Jalil turned and looked to the sky behind them, nervously fingering the pendant around his neck as he did so. Next to him, Mira shifted uncomfortably.

“You called them the people of Babylon. Why?”

Hamza coughed and spat. “A long time ago, in the days of Earth, the people of Bab-el thought to rival Allah and built a tower to reach the heavens. Allah became angry and smote them for their wickedness, scattering them to the four corners of the planet. In our day, man does the opposite. He thinks to dig a cave deep enough to hide him from his Creator. That, my friends, is our Babylon. In only a few moments, you will see it with your own eyes.”

Mira frowned, her face creased with concern as she scanned the landscape ahead of them. “I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about,” said Jalil, low enough that Hamza couldn’t hear. She nodded, but her eyes were still filled with worry.

A change in the rhythm of their ride marked a shift onto new terrain. The ground in front of them now sloped upward at a surprisingly sharp angle, with nothing but open sky above them. Hamza slowed as they approached the edge of the ridge and rode parallel to it.

“Oh my,” said Mira, the first to see what lay on the other side. She leaned forward over the crossbar to get a better view.

Hamza stopped the caravaneer at the edge of the cliff. “Behold the caves of Babylon.”

Jalil’s eyes widened as he took in the sight. Only a few dozen miles beyond their position rose the strangest mountain he’d ever seen. It was as smooth as glass and stretched from one end of the horizon to the other, rising at a shallow angle so that the topmost part was almost out of sight. Under the hot sun, the air above it shimmered and rippled, causing mirages to dance like invisible flames.

“What is that?” asked Jalil. “Is it natural?”

Hamza laughed again—a dry, nasal sound that resembled a cough more than anything else. “That, my friends, is Aliet Dome: an entire world in a bottle.”

“A world?”

“That’s right; a world as unlike the desert as any you’ll ever see. To get to the Temple of a Thousand Suns, you must pass nearly five thousand miles through domes such as these, one world in a bottle after another.”

“What’s inside?” Mira asked.

Hamza’s eyes narrowed as he glanced at her over his shoulder, making her shudder.

“Babylon.”

Jalil frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Heh,” Hamza chuckled, throwing the engine back in gear. “You’ll see soon enough, my friends. You’ll see.”


* * * * *


As they rode down the ridge, skirting the edge of the cliff, Mira couldn’t take her eyes off of the strange glass mountain. Even after they’d turned out again toward the plain, the shimmering air above the top was still visible, reminding her of the world in a bottle just over the horizon.

The next hour of the drive passed in silence, but it was a different kind of silence—awake and anticipatory. Mira could feel it, as surely as she knew that Jalil could feel it. She stole quick glances at him from time to time, but he always faced forward, peering at the route ahead.

I wonder what he’s thinking about.

As the late afternoon sun drifted low in the sky, the path turned right toward the ridge and the coming night. Off in the distance, lines of giant windmills shone brightly in the deepening yellow light, while clusters of white stone buildings spilled out across the plain like puddles of milk. As they drew closer to the city, Mira saw that the buildings were much larger than the adobe huts back at the camp. Some towered as many as three and four stories high, with thick metal beams and rebar jutting out from unfinished roofs. Large crowds and strange-looking vehicles traversed the shadow-filled lanes, while half a dozen kites hung in the deepening sky as if suspended there.

Hamza slowed and pulled the caravaneer up to a garage on the edge of the town, next to a field of windmills at least five times as tall as the one back home. Jalil stared in awe until they came to a stop in front of the long white building.

“This is as far as I go,” said Hamza. “The town center is about two miles down that road.”

“Right,” said Jalil, jumping off to stretch his legs. Mira waited for him to come around and help her down, but when he went to unpack their bags instead, she quietly climbed to the ground by herself.

“What is this place?” she asked in a timid voice.

“New Amman,” said Hamza, leaning forward with one hand draped over the steering wheel. “The largest settlement this side of Aliet Dome, and the only spaceport within five hundred miles. Lots of traders come through here on their way to the domes—some tribesmen too, from what I hear.”

“That’s right,” Jalil called out from the back. “Quite a few Najmi tribesmen have settled here over the years, Cousin Sarah among them.”

“Are you all set, then?”

Jalil came around with both their bags in his arms and Sathi’s rifle strapped across his back. He dropped the bags and stepped up to the driver’s seat.

“All set, brother. Many thanks for the ride.”

“Of course,” said Hamza, getting out to give him a parting embrace. “May the peace of Earth be upon you.”

“And upon you be the peace of Earth as well.”

With that last goodbye, Hamza climbed back into the caravaneer and drove it into one of the waiting bays. The corrugated steel door slid shut after him, leaving Jalil and Mira standing alone in the empty lot.

“Well,” he said, “we’d better go.”

“Right.”

She bent down to pick up her bag, but Jalil took it first. “Here, let me get that for you.”

Together, they walked out the gate and down the dusty road. The windmills spun lazily behind them, and Mira loosened her headscarf a little to take advantage of the refreshing breeze. Although the town was bustling in the cool of the coming evening, they were still a good half-mile out, and traffic along the road was light.

“I thought Cousin Sarah was the only Najmi living here,” she said once they were out of earshot of the garage.

“She is,” said Jalil, “but we don’t want the Jabaliyn knowing that, do we?”

She nodded in understanding. They walked in silence a little longer.

As they approached the edge of town, a number of caravaneers and sleek, open-air hovercraft passed them on the road, kicking up dust and making her cough. Jalil noticed and switched places with her, so that she was on the outside edge of the road, away from the vehicles. It didn’t do much to help, but Mira smiled in appreciation at the gesture.

Now that we’re not riding in the back of a caravaneer, maybe he’ll start to notice me. The thought lifted her spirits and made her heart beat a little faster, even if the strangeness of the place filled her with a deep yearning for her desert home.

“So many people,” she said softly as they passed a crowd waiting beside a stony field. Though a few of them wore the robes of the deep desert, most of their clothes were utterly unfamiliar to her; high black boots, dark pants and colorful shirts, tan ponchos and strange looking hats. Few if any of the women in the crowd wore headscarves, and the sight of their uncovered hair made Mira tense, though what she was afraid of she didn’t quite know. She took care to avoid meeting anyone’s eyes as they passed.

“Stay close,” said Jalil. “I don’t want us to get separated.”

Mira was all too happy to oblige.

Inside the town, the tall white buildings cast long shadows that shrouded the ground in cool darkness. The road, now paved with a strange black substance, was only wide enough for two or three caravaneers to pass abreast, and that only if the way was clear. With all the people walking back and forth, the vehicles had to slow down or wait for them to pass.

Mira tensed at the uncomfortable closeness of the place, and she kept close to Jalil, careful not to lose him. Although she wanted to slip her arm in his, she hesitated, not sure if it would be too forward.

With each passing step, the road became more and more crowded. Soon, she was bumping shoulders, more people around her than she had ever seen in her life. The rumble of hundreds of myriad conversations filled her ears, along with the whine of the passing hovercraft. Up ahead, the road widened, and the noise and bustle got significantly louder.

“What’s that?” Mira asked.

“What?”

“That,” she said louder, pointing as she pressed against Jalil to keep from getting swept away by the crowd.

“That must be the town center,” he answered, practically shouting over the noise. “It looks like some kind of open-air market. A bit packed, isn’t it?”

She nodded mutely.

He stopped and hefted both bags over one shoulder, holding on with one hand. “Here,” he said, “better take my hand so you don’t get lost.”

Mira slipped her hand into his, interspersing her fingers and squeezing tightly as she followed him into the busy market. The feel of his touch gave her a secret thrill; she wondered if he felt it as well.

With the cool of the evening quickly coming on, the marketplace bustled with activity. Merchants beneath wide red awnings sold dates and almonds, plump juicy peaches and plums, and watermelons almost as long as Mira’s arm. Others sold exotic spices from giant burlap sacks, the contents piled into tall cones of brilliant saffron, deep crimson, and a dozen other shades of dazzling color. One particularly large booth sold computer circuits and data chips, their green and blue boards contrasting starkly with the dusty clay urns that held them. Local merchants dressed in tan and white bartered with the traders in their high boots and leather vests, while children in colorful clothes ran about playing games beneath the feet of passersby.

“Masha’allah,” Mira whispered. She squeezed Jalil’s hand, and he squeezed back.

A fountain bubbled with water in the center of the square, with a large globe of polished granite in the center. As they came closer, she made out a number of geographic details carved in relief across it, with unfamiliar writing etched in gold and copper. A little ways off, a tall, white clock tower rose above the bustling mass of humanity, the topmost part shining deep yellow in the light of the evening sun.

“This is where Sarah agreed to meet us,” said Jalil, letting go of Mira’s hand and dropping their bags at the base of the fountain. A few beggars huddled on the concrete steps a short distance from them, but the crowd here was otherwise sparse.

“Do you know what she looks like?”

Jalil shook his head. “I hope she recognizes us.”

Mira settled down on the lip of the fountain and ran her fingers through the clear water. Hundreds of sparkling coins shone up at her through the rippling surface, while the spray felt pleasantly cool against her cheek.

When she looked up, a short middle-aged woman in a maroon dress and white blouse approached them from out of the crowd. With her narrow face, thin build, and keen eyes, she looked a little like Amina. Though she wore a red-and-white checkered bandana over her head, her long dark hair spilling out over her shoulders, unencumbered by any headscarf.

“Jalil Ibn Sathi? Mira Bint Shira?” the woman asked.

“That’s us,” said Jalil.

“Habibi!”

The woman threw her arms around him and kissed him several times on each cheek. Jalil tensed a little at first, but soon returned the greeting.

“Welcome, welcome! I’m your cousin, Sarah. We spoke this morning over the shortwave—and you must be Mira.”

“Yes,” said Mira, smiling as she rose to embrace her distant cousin. After passing through so many crowds of strangers, the presence of family felt wonderfully reassuring, even if this was their first time meeting in person.

“What a beautiful young woman you are! Your parents must have gotten it from my side of the family. But come, what are we waiting for? Follow me.”

With that, Sarah grabbed one of the bags and started off into the crowd. Before Mira knew what was happening, she was holding Jalil’s hand again, struggling to keep up as they followed her old cousin away from the marketplace, into the narrow, winding streets of New Amman.


* * * * *


Jalil leaned back in his chair and gazed out at the valley from where he sat on the roof of Sarah’s white stone house. The last rays of the sun had already faded behind them, and the beautifully clear twilight sky was fast changing from yellow to orange to purple. The house was perched on the edge of a cliff, giving them a magnificent view of the glass mountain, only a few miles away. A stiff, cool breeze blew up across the ridge, while behind them, the call to prayer sounded from half a dozen worship halls, carried on the wind.

It was glorious—but still, it wasn’t home.

“I’m happy to hear that old Sathi is doing so well,” said Sarah, taking her seat after pouring Mira some tea. “I haven’t seen him for so long; it almost feels like half a lifetime.”

“Do you miss him?” Mira asked.

“Occasionally,” Sarah admitted. “But I hear about him often enough, as well as the rest of the family. It isn’t easy being a widow in this town, but Allah has been good to me.”

Jalil nodded. Off to his right, fireworks exploded over the white stone buildings, while the beat of music carried softly on the wind.

“Is there a wedding?” he asked.

Sarah chuckled. “More than one; this is the season for them, after all.”

Mira glanced from Sarah to Jalil and blushed. He didn’t think much of it—she was that kind of girl, after all.

“Is every night like this?”

“But of course,” said Sarah. She glanced down at his cup. “I’m sorry; can I get you some more tea?”

“Yes, thank you,” said Jalil. He held out his cup as she filled it from her ornately carved plasteel thermos; steam wafted up before dissipating in the cool evening breeze.

“Thank you so much for letting us stay with you,” said Jalil. “We greatly appreciate your hospitality.”

“Certainly, certainly,” said Sarah, nodding to them both. “It’s always good to hear from my old cousins—and such a pleasure to meet their children! I’d heard many things about you, Jalil, but I didn’t realize your hair was so blond. Wherever did you come from?”

I don’t know, Jalil thought to himself, resisting the urge to finger his birth mother’s pendant. That’s what I want to find out.

“From the stars,” he offered instead. “My parents’ ship—my real parents’ ship—crashed in the desert when I was just a boy. If it wasn’t for Sathi—”

“Yes, yes,” said Sarah in her chatty voice. “I’m sure Zayne was overjoyed to have a son to replace her Asi. Not to mention the old man’s happiness at having an heir again. Can you believe it? Two wives and eight daughters? Aie! What a blessed dilemma.”

The conversation soon turned to lighter subjects, such as Lena’s recent marriage and other matters of immediate interest to the Najmi family. The camp was doing very well: several new merchants had negotiated routes through Najmi lands, and with the newfound alliance with the Jabaliyn, they could expect to benefit greatly from the increased trade. Yes, water was as scarce as ever, but God-willing, the Faleh Basin site would be ready for habitation within a year.

As the twilight sky turned from purple to black, dim yellow lights began to shine from deep within the glass mountain, casting a warm glow across the rocky valley. Sarah served them a third round of tea, followed by a fourth. The breeze grew cooler, while overhead, the stars and satellites shone like jewels set on rich velvet.

“So you’re both on the pilgrimage to the Temple of a Thousand Suns,” said Sarah, leaning back in her chair. “And such a young couple—it’s good to see that old Sathi is finding husbands for his beautiful daughters.”

Jalil shifted nervously. “Actually, we’re not married.”

“Oh?” Sarah perked up immediately, her eyes gleaming with interest.

“No,” he said. “I’m her brother.”

“Now don’t try to pull one over on me,” said Sarah. “I might not have seen Sathi in ages, but I’m not a fool.”

“It’s true,” said Mira, abruptly joining in. “He’s, well, as good as my brother.”

“Of course, of course,” said Sarah, smiling meaningfully. “As good or better.”

Jalil didn’t know how to respond to that, so he said nothing.

“So now that you’re on the pilgrimage,” Sarah continued, “how do you plan to get there?”

“I don’t know,” he said, “but I’m sure that Allah will provide.”

“Allah helps those who help themselves,” Sarah said, shaking her head good-naturedly. “Do you have enough money for a sub-orbital shuttle? Tickets run upward of twenty-five hundred for a direct flight.”

Jalil lifted his bag and poured out all of their cash datachips onto the coffee table. In a few moments, he had them all counted.

“Just over thirty-two hundred,” he said, heart sinking. “That’s only enough for one flight, isn’t it?”

Sarah nodded. “Sorry, dear.”

“Is there no way to earn the difference?”

“Well, you could always try to hire yourself out as a day laborer,” said Sarah. “But I hear work has been rather sparse these days; at the going rate, it’ll probably take a good six months to earn enough for two tickets.”

Jalil’s stomach fell. “Six months?”

“That’s right, dear.”

I can’t sit around here for six months, Jalil thought to himself. I’ll go mad.

“Is there anything else we can do?” he asked.

“Of course,” said Sarah. “You could always try the overland route; I hear it’s not too expensive, so long you stay at pilgrims’ hostels and travel by night train.”

Jalil’s heart leaped in his chest. He sat up in his chair and leaned forward.

“How long does it take?”

“Not too long, though the route is a bit complicated. You’ll have to pass through Aliet, Raya, Terra 12—almost half a dozen domes. But it’ll only take a day or two to pass through each one—that is, if your money doesn’t run out.”

“Great! When can we start?”

“I’m afraid it’s not that easy,” she said. “Before you can go, you’ll have to get all your documents in order.”

“Documents?”

Sarah sighed and set her cup down next to the pile of datachips. On the other side of the table, Mira pulled her headscarf tighter against the chill night air.

“In order to pass through the domes,” Sarah explained, “you’ll need special identifying documents, as well as visas and travel permits.”

Jalil frowned. “What for?”

“To pass through customs, of course. A dome is like a giant camp—not anyone can just walk in.”

“But what about guests?” he asked. “Are you saying that the domers have no sense of hospitality?”

“No, no, no,” she said, shaking her head vigorously. “That’s not at all what I’m saying. They just need to know that you’re authorized—that you aren’t bandits or robbers or bad people. Because they can’t keep track of everyone personally, they require you to have the proper documents.”

“What kind of documents?”

“Well, it depends on the dome. Here at Aliet Dome, most people keep them on personal storage drives. In some of the domes, however, they use special identity chips embedded in their bodies.”

“In their bodies?” Mira asked, eyes widening. Jalil shuddered; the idea of embedding any kind of electronics inside him made his skin crawl.

“Yes,” said Sarah. “But don’t worry, you don’t need any of that; a standard handheld datachip should be fine.”

“How do we get these documents?” Jalil asked, barely disguising his relief.

“Well, since you’re only applying for a pilgrim’s visa, it shouldn’t be too hard. First, we’ll have to go down to the embassy to get a blood sample—”

“Blood?”

“Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe. They’ll take your biological data, combine it with your birth year and your tribe, and issue you passport datachips after inputting all that into the main district registry. Even though you’re both old enough to be considered independent, you’ll need my signature as next of kin to verify your tribal affiliation.”

“So you’ll help us do all this?” Jalil asked. His head was swimming with all the convoluted instructions—if he had to do all this himself for him and Mira, he’d be totally lost.

“Of course! Besides, I know some people who can help speed up the process.”

“How long will it take?”

Sarah touched her chin and looked up in thought. “Oh, maybe two or three weeks,” she answered. “There’s no way to know for sure.”

Jalil’s stomach fell. Two or three weeks, he thought to himself. In that much time, they could easily drive another four thousand miles across the desert.

“Is there any way to make it go faster?”

“Not without paying a lot of extra money. Understand: without my friends, you’d have to wait almost twice as long; that’s standard for most tribesmen. And I understand you’re carrying a firearm?”

“That’s right,” said Jalil. He picked up his father’s rifle from the floor and laid it across the table.

“Hmm,” said Sarah, frowning. “This complicates things. It’s Sathi’s personal heirloom, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Jalil, nervously tapping his foot on the floor.

“I know that Aliet Dome will let you take it so long as it’s unloaded and you have a ceremonial license. I’m not sure about the other domes, though. We’ll have to check that on the planetnet.”

“What will they do?”

“Worst case scenario, they’ll confiscate it.”

Jalil perked up at once. “Confiscate it? You mean, take it from me?”

“I’m afraid so,” said Sarah. “But don’t worry—we’ll make sure to keep that from happening.”

“God-willing,” he muttered. Blood rushed to his cheeks, and he gripped his father’s rifle tightly with both hands, as if afraid someone would immediately climb up to the rooftop and seize it from him.

“I’d be surprised if you didn’t find a way to get it through, though.” She leaned forward and opened the thermos. “More tea?”

“No, thank you,” said Jalil.

“I’ll have some,” Mira said softly.

Sarah nodded and filled her cup. As Mira gingerly lifted it to her lips, Sarah filled her own and replaced the thermos on the table, steam lifting up a few inches before wafting away on the cool night breeze.

“There is one more thing,” she said, setting her cup in her lap. “Mira, I’m afraid you won’t be able to wear your headscarf in Aliet Dome.”

Jalil frowned, and he turned quickly to glance at Mira. Though the twilight had long faded into darkness, he could tell by the dim light of the streetlamps in the lane that she was blushing.

“Why?” she asked.

“It’s the law here,” Sarah answered. “You’re allowed to wear a headband like mine, but you cannot completely cover your hair or your head.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Jalil, clenching his fists in frustration. “How can they make her do such a thing?”

“I’m afraid that’s just the way things are done in there. The secularists make the laws, and they feel that headscarves are too overtly religious to be a part of public life.”

That explains why you’re not wearing one, Jalil almost blurted out. Instead, he rose to his feet and started pacing across the rooftop.

“But—but what about her honor? There will be strange men everywhere. What are we supposed to do?”

“Keep the law,” said Sarah. “I know it seems immoral, but if you try to defy it, you’ll only draw attention to yourselves—and trust me, you don’t want that.”

“How many people are in the dome?” Mira whispered. She seemed suddenly fragile, as if a single glance could shatter her.

“Thousands, perhaps millions. But don’t worry,” said Sarah, putting her hand on Mira’s shoulder. “You’ll be fine. No one will mistreat you just because your head is uncovered.”

“Is there no way around it?” Jalil asked, gripping the back of Mira’s chair as he stood over her.

“I’m afraid not,” said Sarah. “In any case, you don’t have to worry about it yet. We’ve still got to take care of your documents, and that’s going to take at least a few weeks.”

Babylon, Jalil thought bitterly to himself as he remembered Hamza’s words. We’re going into Babylon, all right.


* * * * *


That night, Mira couldn’t sleep. The wind roared past the window in her room, making an eerie whistling noise as it shook the windowpanes. That wasn’t all, though. Perhaps it was the woody, foreign smell of the room, or the perfect straightness of the walls, or the uncomfortable softness of the bed. Whatever it was, she tossed and turned for what felt like hours, trying to find some firmness that would let her sleep. Eventually, she gave up and lay on her back, staring at the ceiling.

The stars, she thought to herself. If only I could see them, maybe I could forget how far I am from home.

She quietly rose from the bed and threw her cloak over her shift. The sound of the wind made her shiver, and she stepped carefully in the darkness, groping her way through the room until she came to the door. Once out, the stairwell was only a short distance down the hall. The night air was cold, the breeze stiff. The familiar stars and satellites stared down at her from the sky, though with all the light from the streetlamps, they were noticeably muted.

Wrapping her arms around herself for warmth, she made her way to the edge and stared out across the valley at the glass mountain—the world in a bottle. White and yellow lights shone through the glass, too fuzzy to make out with any clarity. It was a strange sight, and Mira stared at it for some time.

“You couldn’t sleep either?”

The sound of Jalil’s voice gave her a start. She turned quickly and saw him sitting on an old, weathered couch facing the valley. The upholstery was torn, and stuffing was falling out in places.

“Oh,” she said softly. “I—I didn’t see you.”

“That’s all right; I could use some company. Here, have a seat.”

He scooted over and made some room for her. When she sat down, the couch gave way underneath her until she was practically sitting on the ground. The wind picked up, and Mira shivered.

“Are you all right?” Jalil asked. “You look cold—here, take this blanket.”

He leaned forward and pulled off the blanket that he’d brought up from his bed.

“That’s okay,” she said. “You don’t have to—”

“No, here,” he said. “You need it more than I do.”

Mira tried to protest, but Jalil draped the blanket over her shoulders without another word. She had to admit, the added warmth felt surprisingly good against the chill night air.

The breeze from the cliff played with her hair, and she realized with a start that her head was uncovered; she’d left her headscarf in her room. She glanced nervously at Jalil, and their eyes met.

“Something wrong?” he asked.

“My—my headscarf,” she whispered.

He paused for a moment before giving her a shrug. “That’s fine. It’s only us up here, and besides, it’s not as if we aren’t family.”

She nodded and turned back to the view off the edge of the cliff. He was right; for the first time since setting out from the Najmi camp, they were completely alone together.

Mother would want me to take advantage of this moment, she thought nervously to herself. Her heart beat a little faster, and she shifted uneasily on the couch.

“Jalil?” she asked, her voice weak. “Do you—do you want to share the blanket?”

“No, I’m fine.” From the way his shoulder’s shook, however, she knew he was shivering.

“Are you sure?”

He hesitated for a long moment. “Well, I suppose.”

His body seemed tense as he scooted close to her. Taking care not to touch, he pulled the blanket over toward his side of the couch. However, it soon became apparent that they would both have to squeeze together in order to fit beneath it. Moving tentatively, they came together until the sides of their legs and arms were touching.

Shivers ran up and down Mira’s back, and not from the cold. Her heart pounded like a nuclear engine as she contemplated what to do next. Now was the time to make her move, but what exactly was she supposed to do? Lean on his chest as she pretended to fall asleep? Slip her arms around his waist?

No, she decided. It just felt wrong. Besides, they still had a long road ahead of them; maybe Jalil would come around on his own, without any manipulation on her part. Better to give it time and let things develop naturally.

She took in a deep breath and tried to calm her trembling body, but he turned to her before she could do so.

“Are you cold?” he asked.

“No,” Mira said; then, “well, maybe a little.”

“Don’t worry; I’m sure we’ll be warm in a minute.”

That was true enough, what with the way they were snuggled up close to each other. She wondered what her sisters would think if they could see her—what sort of scandal it would raise across the camp. She half expected a wave of guilt to sweep over her, but instead, all she felt was a soft, delicious warmth, and not only from the blanket.

She remembered the day Jalil had first come to the camp. A strange object had fallen from the sky a few nights before, lighting the sky as it fell. Her father and uncle had driven out to investigate. To everyone’s surprise, they’d returned to the camp a few days later with a small, blond boy.

Mira had been seven years old at the time. The sight of the golden-haired boy had filled her with fear, and she’d hidden behind her mother’s robe. When she’d peeked around the hem, however, she was surprised to see that the boy looked just as frightened as she felt.

“We found the remains of a fallen starship,” her father had said. “There were no survivors in the wreckage, but we found this boy in a small pod not far from the crash site.”

At that moment the boy’s eyes had met hers. He smiled weakly at her, sending her scurrying behind her mother’s legs.

“Zayne,” her father had said, “I know that this boy won’t replace our son Asi—may Allah have mercy upon him—but I want you to raise him as one of our own.”

Many years later, after the camp had moved from the foothills to the wide desert plain, Mira remembered how Jalil had returned from a particularly long scouting expedition. Mira had always kept her distance from him, like the reluctant little girl who had hidden behind the hem of her mother’s robe. But the young man was not a little boy anymore—and the little girl had long since grown to become a young woman. By then, it was no secret that Sheikh Sathi wanted to find a bride for his son.

Mira had watched from a tiny hole in one of the side tents as Jalil’s caravaneer rushed home across the plain, kicking up a long cloud of dust. The caravaneer rolled into the main compound and skidded to a stop, sand and gravel crunching underneath the oversized tires. Jalil climbed out and greeted the tribesmen who had come to help him unpack.

Sathi stepped out to greet him, dressed in his imposing gold-trimmed robes. Mira watched intently from her hiding place as Jalil broke away from his countrymen to embrace his father and kiss him on both cheeks.

“Habibi,” said the sheikh, kissing his adopted son. “How are you? How was your health? How was your journey?”

“Very well, Father, very well,” said Jalil. “But where is my mother? I haven’t seen her for over a month.”

“Zayne? She’s inside. Why don’t you—”

But Jalil was already running for the door. He passed only a few feet from Mira’s hiding place, making her catch her breath. A few moments later, he was inside, hurrying through the women’s quarters. Mira slipped out of the tent and discreetly followed him.

She found Jalil in the courtyard, clutching his adopted mother in a warm embrace. Tears ran down both of their cheeks, though more especially on Zayne’s.

“Jalil, my son!” she had cried. “I missed you so much!”

“I know, Mother,” Jalil had said, not ashamed to hold his mother close. “I’m back now—you don’t have to worry.”

“Did you take care of yourself?”

“Of course! I would feel terrible if you lost another son.”

Mira stood off to the side, watching both of them in silence. As she recalled Zayne’s anxious worrying on his behalf from the past weeks, she choked up a little herself. Jalil had never been gone so long; it was telling that the first person he sought out was his mother.

In that moment, Mira had known that she loved him.

“What do you think of the headscarf ban in Aliet Dome?” Jalil asked, his question bringing her back to the present.

“The ban?” she said. “I don’t know.”

“We don’t have to go this way, you know. We can go around Aliet Dome and get in somewhere else, if you’d rather.”

“But what about the documents?” she asked.

“That doesn’t matter. We’ll find a way.”

He turned and glanced at her, his face illuminated by the soft yellow glow of the mountain of glass across the valley. Mira paused for a second, unsure what to say. Going around would give them more time together—time that she’d need, if she was to convince him to stay—but it would be such an inconvenience for him.

“I’ll be fine,” she whispered.

“Are you sure?” he asked, a look of concern on his face. “There are going to be a lot of strange men in there. I don’t like the thought of them staring at you.”

“At least I won’t be alone.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “That’s true, I suppose.”

They stared for several moments at the giant glass mountain across the valley. It filled nearly half of the horizon, casting an eerie yellow glow against the rocks and boulders near its base. Overhead, the stars and satellites shone down in their familiar patterns and constellations.

“Are you scared?” Mira asked. Coming from her own lips, the question surprised her.

“Scared? No. Why should I be?”

“I don’t know,” she said, blushing a little. “It’s just—everything seems so strange, so unlike home.”

“Are you scared?”

“Maybe a little.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll look after you. We’ll get to the temple all right.”

She leaned a little closer into him. His body felt so warm under the blanket, especially with the biting wind off of the cliffs. He put his arm around her, shielding her from the cold. In her drowsy state, the feel of his touch on her shoulders made her muscles turn to water.

I could marry him, she thought to herself as she closed her eyes. I could spend the rest of my life with him and be happy.

But could he?

Chapter 5


“Earth, the Hidden Paradise, the Fled World, is within each of us,” said the man at the head of the multitude. “It is hidden in our hearts like a godly seed, waiting to sprout and shine forth with its divine light.”

What’s this about? Jalil wondered to himself as he and Mira walked along the outskirts of New Amman. Mira had wanted to get away from the city for a while, and since Jalil had nothing else to do while they waited for their documents to be processed, he had agreed to go with her. Beyond the giant windmills, the desert plain stretched all the way to the horizon, broken only by the dusty road and an occasional structure. But closer to the ridge, where the rust-red landscape gave way to the bustling streets and white stone buildings of New Amman, a sizable crowd upwards of a thousand people had gathered. At the center of a rocky field stood a short, balding man, evidently a preacher of some kind.

Jalil shrugged and turned to go, but Mira lingered as if she wanted to stay. Since they didn’t have anywhere else to be, he followed her to the edge of the crowd.

“Each of us carries a piece of Earth with us,” the preacher continued, “for we are all children of Earth. Though we wander the stars as strangers in a strange land, that sacred memory—that spark of divinity—lies deep within our hearts.”

“Who is this man?” Jalil wondered aloud, to no one in particular.

“The Master Rumiya,” said an old toothless man in threadbare robes beside him. “Have you heard of him, son?”

“No. Should I have?”

The man put a bony, trembling hand on Jalil’s shoulder and pointed with his other. “Watch and learn, for there stands a holy man of God!”

Jalil squinted as he peered over the heads of the crowd. The “master” was a short man, dressed in a simple white robe. Though his head was balding, he wore a thick black beard that stretched from his ears across his mouth and face. The most striking thing, however, was the passion that he exuded. Everything about him, from the way he gestured with his hands to the fervent timbre of his voice, seemed to be filled with energy.

“Has he been preaching for long?” Jalil asked

The old man chuckled. “Longer than you’ve been alive, son.”

I only meant for the day, Jalil thought to himself, but figured it was better not to mention it. Mira stared at the master as if entranced, and Jalil edged protectively closer to her.

“Some of you are pilgrims on your way to the Noble Shrine,” the master continued, “and that is commendable. But what do you hope to find there? An answer to an urgent prayer? A closer connection with those you love? The peace and holiness of Earth?”

A few scattered shouts arose in the affirmative, but Rumiya waved his hand downward as if to cast them away.

“No!” he shouted. “Why do you feel you must search outside yourselves for these things? Is a man merely the sum of his flesh? Or is the mind merely an elaborate machine, marching down a path as inevitable as computer circuitry? No—Allah is within us; Earth is within us. I am the Truth, you are the Truth—we are all, each of us, the Truth. Whatever it is that you seek, it is not to be found at the Temple, but in the act of the pilgrimage, for the Truth already lies within you.”

Jalil tensed as he fingered the pendant under his shirt. A low murmur arose from the crowd—a murmur that reflected his own uneasiness. How could the answers he was seeking for not lie at the end of his journey?

“Perhaps you say that I speak blasphemy,” Rumiya continued. “I teach that each of us possesses the divine spark, but, you wonder, is that not to say that Allah dwells in vessels of sin? For all of us have sinned, have we not? Our flesh hungers for evil, the way a pig hungers for the refuse in its trough. All of us are sinners; all of us fall short of Allah’s perfection.

“But friends—is it not written that there must be an opposition in all things? Light would not be light if there were no darkness, neither could there be happiness without sorrow. Was the Earth of legend perfect?”

“Yes,” Jalil muttered, “of course it was.” He didn’t realize he’d spoken until Mira glanced over her shoulder at him.

The master paced across the podium, completely caught up in the passion of his speech. “No!” he shouted. “I tell you, it was not. It was a place of great evil—yet in the fullness of times, it was caught away into Paradise. And why? Because even when it was evil, the glory of Allah was within it.”

Jalil shifted uneasily. He noticed that several of the people in the crowd didn’t seem very happy with Rumiya’s preaching. Most of the townspeople stood with their arms folded, frowning and shaking their heads.

“Even so, each of you carries a piece of Earth within you—the fullness of both evil and godliness. And even as the Earth was caught away and became the celestial dwelling place, so each of you, no matter how lost in the evils of this universe, has the power to rise above and see the very face of Allah.”

“Let’s go,” said Jalil. He tugged at Mira’s arm, and she reluctantly came away with him.


* * * * *


The twilight had all but faded, and the desert air was starting to cool when Mira climbed out of her bedroom window and into the dimly lit alley. She pulled her cloak tightly around her and hurried off before anyone saw her leave.

It had been two weeks since their arrival at Cousin Sarah’s and every day was proving more difficult than the last. Every time she went out, she felt assaulted on all sides by unfamiliar sights and sounds. The never-ending crowd of strangers in the central square pressed in so close that no matter where she went, she felt as if she were drowning. And yet, to stay alone inside, with nothing to do but pine for home—that was even worse. More than anything, she missed the company of her sisters: Lena, with her smooth and balanced grace; Surayya, with her hilariously exaggerated mannerisms; Amina, with her shrewd, witty banter; clumsy Alia and emotional Majd, with shy Rina, the youngest and yet the closest to her. The craggy mountains and rust-red landscape seemed almost to call to her, pulling her back to the only place where she belonged.

And yet, when she thought on her mother’s last words, terror gripped her so tightly she almost felt as if she would choke. Don’t come back without him. Shira had never given a threat she couldn’t make good on, and Mira didn’t doubt that this one was as real as the others.

She walked quickly through the half-empty streets until she was at the outskirts of town, where the wind blew stiffly off the ridge and the windmills cut silently through the air. All she wanted was to get away for a little while—just a little while. She’d be back before they knew she was gone.

As she walked, she couldn’t help but think about the preacher she and Jalil had heard the other day. She’d learned from Sarah that he was a Sufi Master from the inner domes nearest to the temple. He’d come to the desert on a sort of reverse pilgrimage, to seek inspiration in the barren wastes far from the distractions of “civilized” society. Now that he’d returned, he was spending some time in and around Aliet Dome to share his teachings. He had created something of an uproar; so much, in fact, that a few extremist factions were calling for his death. Because his disciples feared for his life, he would be taking a suborbital shuttle back to the temple in a couple of days.

Unconsciously, she wandered in the direction of the field where she’d heard him preach. The ridge gave her a magnificent view of the valley and the giant glass mountain, while behind her, the giant windmills turned in perfect unison. Overhead, the stars and satellites slowly came out as the twilight deepened, while by her feet, a few stunted shrubs clung to the rocks the way her heart still clung to her desert home.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” came a man’s voice to her right. “Would you believe that under the domes, the nights are starless?”

Mira jumped and turned to see a short, balding man in white robes walking beside her. She’d been so caught up in her own thoughts that she hadn’t heard him approach.

“I’m sorry,” he said, giving her a friendly smile. “I was just out for a little walk. Mind if I join you?”

The thought of walking alone with a man seemed a bit odd, but he seemed as harmless as Old Zeid. She shook her head.

“No, not at all.”

“Good,” said the old man, falling into step with her. He had a light in his eye that looked familiar, though she couldn’t quite place it.

“Are you from the desert?” she asked.

“No, my dear; I’m actually from a small town not far from here.”

“In Aliet Dome?”

“Yes, in Aliet Dome.” He sighed. “It’s been so long since I’ve been back. Too long.”

Mira realized with a start that the man was Master Rumiya.

“Oh!” she blurted. “I’m sorry, I didn’t—”

“Sorry?” Master Rumiya asked, smiling at her. “Sorry for what? You’ve done nothing to apologize for.”

“I know, I just—I didn’t know who you were.”

“And now that you do, does it make any difference?”

Mira didn’t know how to respond. She considered dropping to her knees to bow to the holy man, but somehow that didn’t seem appropriate.

“It doesn’t, you know,” Rumiya continued. “I’m no greater than you. Whatever holiness you see in me, you can certainly find it in yourself.”

Mira nodded. God-willing.

They fell back into step, walking along a path that led to the edge of the ridge. Up ahead, the glass mountain rose to a distant plateau, unnaturally high and flat. The air above it still rippled and shimmered with the heat of the day, making the stars appear to dance on the edge of the horizon.

“You know,” said Rumiya, “I was only a boy when I left this place.”

“A boy?”

“Yes—about your age, in fact. Strange, how little things have changed.”

“Why did you leave?” Mira asked.

Rumiya sighed. “Why does anyone leave the place of their birth? I felt that something in my life was missing. I searched all over this world and across the stars for the thing that would make me feel whole, but never found it until I looked in my own heart.”

For some reason, his comments made her think of Jalil. As she thought of how he wanted to return to his home across the stars, her hands began to shake.

“Then why did you ever leave?”

“No place in this universe is great enough to contain a man’s soul. We are all strangers in this mortal plane, searching for something we cannot find until we are called back to the Earth of Paradise.”

“But what about your family?” Mira asked, arguing as much with herself as with Rumiya. “Didn’t you have someone else to live for? Some reason to stay with those you loved?”

“Oh, I’m sure I did,” he said, “but how can one truly know himself without leaving home?”

Mira took a deep breath to calm herself. Her heart pounded in her chest as she considered her words.

“Is that the only way to find it, then?”

“An excellent question,” said Rumiya, “one which my colleagues at the temple never tire of debating. We all have our separate answers, but I believe it comes to this: each of us lives in the world of our own choosing.”

Mira frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Most of us go about our lives believing that we are not in control—that some outside force in our lives directs our fate. And yet this is never so.”

“But how?”

Master Rumiya smiled. “Because each of us sees the world as part of a story—a story in which each of us is the hero. It may be a tragedy, or a drama, or even a comedy, but whatever it is, the meaning of that story is no more or less than what we have chosen to make of it.”

Even in the darkness, his eyes gleamed with a noticeable passion. Mira remained silent, not wanting to interrupt him.

“To truly understand the holiness that is within you,” he continued, “you must understand and accept the deepest desires of your heart. Do not deny them; they are not unholy, for you are a child of Earth, and the Truth of Allah dwells within you.”

“But what about the people I love?” she asked softly. “What if they leave me?”

What if Jalil leaves me?

Master Rumiya put both hands on her shoulders and looked her straight in the eye. “Few truly understand the deepest desires of their hearts,” he said. “They chase after empty dreams, not realizing that such things will only bring them misery. Deep within your heart, what is it you truly desire? To live out your days at home with your family? To marry the boy you love? Or do you hunger for something that remains to be revealed?”

“I don’t know!” Mira cried out, surprising herself with the forcefulness of her own voice. “I don’t know what I want. What should I do?”

“Seek out the desires of your heart, child. And when you find them, have the inner strength to follow them, no matter what the dictates and wishes of others may be. Then will you find your truth—the Truth that is in you. Your Earth, your home, your paradise.”

Mira opened her mouth to say something, but she stopped short. Her head was spinning, and she didn’t know what to think anymore.

Sarah and Jalil have probably realized that I sneaked out by now, she realized. I need to get back before they get worried.

“Thank you for your advice,” she said, “but I have to go.”

“I understand.”

“Will we meet again?” she asked hopefully.

Rumiya sighed and shook his head. “I’m afraid today was my last sermon. Persecution has forced me to move on.”

“But I’m on the pilgrimage—maybe we’ll see each other along the way?”

His face lit up. “Perhaps. Let it be as Allah wills it.”

“Yes,” said Mira. She turned and started back down the path towards the town. “Goodbye.”

“Goodbye, child. And remember—you are the Truth!”


* * * * *


The days could not pass quickly enough for Jalil. Granted, it wasn’t uncommon for travelers in the desert to spend weeks—sometimes even months—at a time as guests in a foreign place. If the only thing keeping them near Aliet Dome was respect for their cousin’s hospitality, he could have borne it without complaint. But this matter of acquiring documents—of needing someone else’s permission to go about his business—that he could not stand. It seemed like such a needless obstacle, when all he wanted was to leave this world for his true home out among the stars.

Eventually, however, the documents were processed, and the day of departure arrived. That morning, Sarah saw them off as far as the edge of the ridge, where the main highway descended the rocky cliffs in a series of hairpin turns before crossing the valley to the enormous black mass of Aliet Dome. She didn’t have a vehicle to carry them, and even though it was several miles to the border, Jalil had had decided it would be cheaper to walk than to take the over-priced shuttle to the border crossing.

“Farewell,” said Sarah, embracing Jalil and kissing him on both cheeks. “May Allah bless and keep you both.”

“And you as well,” said Jalil. “Thank you so much for everything.”

She smiled and turned to Mira. “Goodbye, my darling,” she said as they embraced. “It was so wonderful to see you—may Allah bless you on your journey.”

“And may Allah keep you as well,” Mira said, embracing her cousin.

Sarah leaned in close and whispered something in Mira’s ear that Jalil couldn’t quite catch. Mira’s cheeks flushed red, and Sarah laughed.

“What was that?” Jalil asked Mira once they were out of earshot.

“Nothing,” she said quickly. “Nothing at all.”


* * * * *


We all live in the world of our own choosing, Mira thought to herself as she and Jalil made the long and circuitous descent to the valley. If she could have her choice, she would rather be safe at home, surrounded by family and familiarity. But then she thought about Jalil leaving the camp and realized that without him, her dream would be empty. Father would marry her off one day, after all, and unless she married Jalil, she would most likely be forced to leave her home forever. If that was true, the only way to follow the desires of her heart was to endure as best she could and make Jalil fall in love with her.

Several large vehicles passed them on the way down: massive cargo trucks and oversized hovercars, kicking up dust as they rushed past them. By the time they reached the valley floor, the sun was already well above the lip of the glass mountain. Mira pulled her headscarf tighter around her head for protection, while Jalil raised his hand to block the sunlight.

Ahead of them stood the vast bulk of the glass mountain, rising almost vertically from the rocky ground until it filled their view. Its face was black and unnaturally smooth, unlike anything that Mira had ever seen. Sunlight reflecting off its face cast strange patterns of shimmering light all around them, giving the place an otherworldly feel.

“What’s on your mind?” he asked as they walked along the dusty roadside.

“I don’t know,” she said. “What the world in the bottle looks like on the inside, I guess.”

“Hamza called it Babylon,” he said, looking off into the distance.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked.

Jalil turned to face her again. “Have you ever seen pictures of the temple?”

“Only the one in the camp. It looks very pretty.”

“It’s enormous, too. I hear you can see it from space.”

“Truly?”

“Yes,” he said, eyes lit with excitement. “Every couple hundred years, they add a new layer to the structure. Since it’s surrounded on all sides by glass mountains, the only way to build is up.”

“That’s fascinating.”

“The oldest layers are at the bottom, though. That’s where the Holy Archives are.”

“Of course.”

They walked for a little while in silence.

“Why do you want to make the pilgrimage so badly?” Jalil asked.

The question caught Mira completely off guard. She hesitated, unsure what to say.

“I-I’ve always wanted to,” she said. “Since I was little.”

The lie made her cringe.

“Really?”

“Yes,” she said, looking away. “It’s like what Master Rumiya said—we all have a piece of Earth in us.”

“And what is that supposed to mean?”

He sees right through me, Mira thought fearfully to herself. Sweat clung to the back of her neck, and she struggled in vain to think of some reply.

“I’m sorry,” Jalil said, noticing her discomfort. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“That’s all right,” she whispered. Perhaps not.

They walked on in silence until they came to an enormous door at the base of the mountain. A long line of vehicles had formed in front of it, and a steady stream of traffic drove out, heading back the way they had come.

“What now?” she asked.

“I suppose we wait.”


* * * * *


The wait took the better part of the morning, until the air was hot and both of them were covered in sweat and dust. Jalil could hardly stand it. Was there no end to the delays these people seemed determined to make him endure?

Eventually, however, they came to the gate outside the door, where a man with a gun directed them to a small stone building with barred windows. He eyed Jalil’s rifle with a half-interested glance but otherwise seemed supremely bored.

Inside the building, several men sat behind a handful of desks with built-in computer terminals. They wore creased, button-up white uniforms, and each kept a plasma pistol at his belt. Jalil and Mira passed through a long line of travelers, until one of the officials became available.

“Passport datachip,” said the man without looking up from his computer. He spoke the desert tongue with a thick, foreign accent, slurring several of his words. Jalil handed over his passport, as Sarah had instructed him.

The man squinted as he examined it. “Name?”

“Jalil Al-Shadiyd Ibn Sathi Ibn Yusif Al-Najoumi Saharat Al-Gharab Al-Gaiani Al-Jadida.”

The man looked up from the screen and raised his eyebrows. “Jalil, eh? Is that the name you go by?”

Jalil scowled. “Yes, that will suffice.”

“Very well, Jalil. Please place your baggage on the platform and step this way.”

He motioned with his hand to a white circle on the floor. Jalil put down his duffel bag and walked onto the circle.

As soon as he had walked away, a smooth, ring shaped device about half his size came out of the wall and floated just over his duffel bag. Nearly a dozen long, spindly arms jutted out from the machine’s underside and began prodding at the bag with a myriad of unrecognizable instruments.

“What’s going on?” asked Jalil, more than a little unnerved.

“Security check,” said the man, this time in New Gaian. “Raise your hands over your head, please.”

Reluctantly, Jalil complied.

A low humming came from the ground immediately under his feet. He looked down and saw another one of the doughnut shaped machines encircling his ankles. He tried to step away from it, but before he could move, a guard laid a firm hand on his shoulder.

What is this? Jalil wondered nervously as the machine slowly rose. It passed his knees, then his waist, then rose up above his chest and face. When the machine rose above his head, it stopped, allowing him to lower his hands.

“Very good,” said the man. “You’re free to go.

Jalil breathed out in relief as the machine went back down into a slot in the floor. When he turned to retrieve his bag, however, one of the guards was already rummaging through it. He pulled out Jalil’s rifle and held it up for examination.

“Don’t touch that!” Jalil shouted, running over and snatching the gun from the man’s hand. The guard cried out and drew the pistol from his belt.

“Hold! Hold!” the uniformed man behind the desk shouted, standing up and waving with his hands. “What is that?”

“It’s my father’s heirloom rifle,” said Jalil, looking it over quickly. “How dare you touch it!”

“Unauthorized weapons are not permitted,” said the man. “You must leave it with us.”

What? Jalil wondered in disbelief. He shook his head.

“No.”

“If it is a non-functioning ceremonial emblem, you may keep it,” said the man, his cheeks reddening with anger. “But I must see some form of authorization.”

The license! Jalil realized. In his haste to get through the checkpoint, he’d completely forgotten.

“It’s in my bag,” said Jalil. “I forgot to take it out.”

The man turned to the guard and said something incomprehensible. Mira stared wide eyed from the end of the line, as if terrified.

“Everything’s fine,” Jalil said softly in the desert tongue. “Just a misunderstanding—we’ll get it cleared up soon.”

Instead of handing over the bag, the guard lowered his gun and searched through it himself. Jalil bit his lip, but made no move to stop him. After nearly a minute, the guard pulled out the license and handed it to the uniformed man, who nodded in approval.

“Very well,” he said. “But you are not permitted to keep it loaded at any time. Failure to comply may lead to criminal prosecution for disturbance of the peace.”

The guard made as if to take the weapon from him, but before he could, Jalil opened the chamber and held it upside down to show that it was empty. The guard scowled, but he nodded his approval. Without another word, Jalil slung his rifle onto his back, snatched his duffel bag and papers, and walked over to the doorway on the other side.

Mira didn’t take nearly as long as him to pass through the security charade. She handed another bored-looking officer her documents and let the scanner pass over her. Satisfied, he motioned for her to pass.

“Wait,” said the guard, stopping her with his hand. “No headscarves.”

“Get your damn hands off of her,” Jalil spat, pushing the man away. He turned to Mira and nodded. “Your headscarf,” he said softly. “Better take it off.”

She hesitated for a moment, as if afraid to expose herself to so many strange men in this alien place. After taking a deep breath, however, she slipped it off, letting her hair fall to her shoulders. She blushed a little, and in that moment she looked so vulnerable that Jalil felt an insuppressible urge to shield her from anything that might hurt her. Don’t worry, he thought. I promised your father that I would protect you, and that’s what I’m going to do.

He picked up her bags and they were off again, away from the crowds and the noise and the uniformed men and women who made the place so miserable. They stepped into a long, cavernous tube toward a door on the other side. The walls were slightly transparent, so that the sun shone through the cloudy glass, giving the place a strange whitish-blue color. As they walked, a strange sense of deja vu swept Jalil, and he stared up at the ceiling and walls as if looking for some forgotten memory.

“What is it?” Mira asked.

“This place,” he said. “It feels familiar, somehow.”

Mira glanced around a bit, but said nothing more. The moment soon passed, and they walked through the doors at the far end of the hall.

As soon as they stepped out onto the other side, Jalil gasped.

Rich green fields stretched out in long rows all the way to the horizon. Blue vehicles like miniature caravaneers wound their way down orderly rows of crops, while white arcs of water spurted across dark, cultivated soil. High overhead, wispy white clouds drifted across the clear blue sky, underneath the cloudy glass canopy that stretched so high that he could barely see it.

“A world in a bottle,” Mira whispered, her eyes wide. “It’s—it’s beautiful.”

Beautiful, yes, Jalil thought to himself. But it isn’t home.

Chapter 6


Jalil pulled the seatback tray table down over his lap and let the cash datachips spill from his hand onto the smooth plasteel surface. On the darkened night train, the only illumination came from the soft yellow LED lights rimming the tray. Next to him, Mira stirred in her sleep, curled up with her head against the armrest. Her dark brown hair spilled out over her black desert robes, while outside the window shadows raced past a starless night sky.

Twenty-six hundred and twelve, he counted, organizing the datachips into neat little piles. The vibrations of the train threatened to knock them over, so he stacked them no higher than three at a time. The tickets for the night train through Aliet Dome had cost them nearly five hundred, and according to Sarah’s map, they had five more domes to pass through. With food and lodging, plus visas and processing fees, they would definitely have to make the money stretch.

Jalil gently swept the datachips back into his bag and replaced the folding tray table. Strange to think that something so small and insubstantial as money could stop them worse than a sandstorm or a tire blowout.

A creaking noise sounded through the floor beneath them, and the train began to slow. Mira yawned and stretched, glancing out the window as she sat up. A bluish-magenta glow was barely visible on the horizon, outlining the silhouettes of trees. Dawn was coming, and with it, the end of the line.

“Did you sleep well?” he asked. Mira blinked and moaned, and an audible groan arose from her stomach. “Hungry?” She nodded.

Twenty-six hundred, Jalil thought to himself. Outside, the dark blue of the predawn sky gave way to the harsh yellow lights of the approaching city. Through the window, Jalil saw broken concrete walls and jagged steel overpasses covered in sharp, swirling graffiti. A group of hooded transients huddled around a fire, while others prowled just inside the shadows. They passed from view in a matter of seconds, yet Jalil knew they were still there.

He looked back at Mira, who yawned again and rubbed her eyes. She looked so fragile without her headscarf, naked and vulnerable, especially in a place like this. The moment they stepped off of the train, Jalil knew that every man they passed would stare at her. The thought made him bristle.

While she wasn’t looking, he slipped couple of bullets out of his breast pocket and pulled out the heirloom rifle. Glancing over his shoulder to make sure no one was watching, he hastily loaded the shells into the magazine and replaced the weapon under his seat. Sarah had been adamant about keeping the rifle unloaded, but Jalil didn’t trust the people in this place. Besides, it wasn’t as if anyone could tell that it was loaded just by looking at it. Better to be safe, in any case.

The harsh city lights passed more and more infrequently as the train gradually came to a stop. Jalil stepped out into the aisle and slung the rifle across his back.

“All right,” he said, rising to his feet and offering his hand. “Let’s go.”


* * * * *


Mira stayed close to Jalil as they stepped off of the train and onto the platform. Graffiti covered the rusted steel pillars, and rotting garbage lay scattered about the concrete-covered ground. A scampering noise in the corner made her jump, and a cat dashed out in front of them. A handful of passengers left the train as well, but they all walked off in different directions, until she and Jalil were alone.

“Hang on,” he said, squinting as he read one of the signs hanging from the ceiling. They were written in a foreign language, probably New Gaian—at least, she hoped it was New Gaian, because that was the only other language that Jalil knew.

A hissing noise sounded from the tracks, and the train began to crawl away. It moved slowly at first, but it soon picked up speed, its sleek metallic sides cutting through the air with a low whoosh. Mira watched the people in the windows and wondered what they were thinking right now. Their world seemed almost unreal, the same way the outside had seemed unreal to her when she had been on the train.

But that wasn’t true any longer, and she couldn’t ignore it. Even though it was night, the sky was utterly devoid of stars, giving her the feeling that she was deep underground. The air felt sticky and humid against her skin, thick with the smell of garbage, oil, and tomatoes. Beyond the platform, rows of identical buildings sat crammed beneath ponderously tall silos and giant sheet metal buildings. Pipes, ducts, and catwalks ran between the structures, making the town look more like a machine than a place to live. The harsh yellow streetlamps gave scant illumination, but the dark silhouettes became increasingly clear against the lightening predawn sky.

“This way,” said Jalil, heading off into the street. Mira struggled to keep up; she guessed he hadn’t been able to read the signs.

“Where are we going?” she asked, glancing periodically over her shoulder.

“To the nearest hostel,” he said. “The cheapest train doesn’t leave for another fourteen hours, so I figured we’d find something to eat and get some rest.”

Mira nodded; it would be nice to get some real sleep for a change. Her body felt weak from hunger and exhaustion, and her eyes struggled to stay open as she followed him onto the road.

Traffic was light, but threadbare beggars watched them from the shadowy alleys—at least, Mira thought they were beggars. From the way they silently eyed her, she wasn’t so sure. She automatically reached up to pull her headscarf tight, but it wasn’t there; her head was uncovered. The realization made her cringe, and she made sure to stay even closer to Jalil.

How much farther? she wondered quietly to herself.

“Here,” said Jalil, stopping in front of an old brick building with peeling paint. “This should be as good as any.”

Mira didn’t see anything that indicated the place was a hostel, but the sign in the front must have tipped him off. It was just as well; she was starting to feel anxious about their decision to stop at this town.

A row of lockers lined the wall inside, illumination coming from a pair of flickering fluorescent lights. Exposed pipes ran along the ceiling, while depressions in the white linoleum floor marked years of traffic and wear. The stench of mildew was strong enough to make her cover her mouth and breathe through the front of her robe.

Jalil talked with the man behind the desk for some time. Towards the end, his voice became so raised she half expected him to storm out. Instead, he shook his head and accepted a key, leading her up the stairs.

“We won’t be able to get food for a few hours,” he said.

“That’s okay,” said Mira, even though her stomach practically screamed at her in hunger. The stairwell was unusually steep, and she felt so tired each step was a struggle.

“Also, we’ll have to share the same room. There’s only one bed, so I’ll sleep on the floor.”

“Are you sure? I—”

“No, don’t worry about it. I’ve slept on desert rocks before. This flooring shouldn’t be any worse.”

She nodded. They reached the second floor and walked some distance down a long, dimly lit hallway with graffiti spray-painted over old, peeling wallpaper.

“Here,” said Jalil, inserting the key into a wooden door. He turned the knob, and it creaked open, revealing a tiny windowless room with a brass bed in the middle. A single yellow light bulb dangled from the ceiling, while a dark stain on the bedspread made Mira wonder whether the sheets were actually clean. She hesitated in the doorway, unsure of what to do.

Jalil clucked his tongue and shook his head. “Good Lord, what a dump. Here, I’ll pull off the bedsheets for you. We should probably sleep in our clothes, but if you want to change, there’s a public restroom down the hall. If you want, I can watch the door for you.”

“No, thanks. I’ll be fine.”

He shrugged and went to work stripping down the bed. Mira felt too tired to change, so once he was finished, she curled up on the bare mattress with her face to the wall.

“Don’t worry,” he said, covering her with a blanket from his pack. “I’m here for you. I’ll protect you.”

The words stabbed her with guilt, but she closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep. Jalil sat beside her for a while before arranging a place for himself on the musty floor.

I won’t betray your trust, she inwardly thought as the line between dreams and reality slowly blurred. Not unless I have to.


* * * * *


The sun was setting when Jalil and Mira left the hostel and headed back out into the streets. Jalil’s body ached from sleeping on the hard floor, and his clothes smelled slightly of mildew. They still had a few hours before their train arrived, but if they stayed any longer, they would have to pay for another full night.

Sunset under the dome was a strange affair. The glass ceiling stood so high that it was invisible for most of the day. Towards the evening, however, the glass skewed the sunlight in strange ways, making the sky appear much redder than normal. As the sun set, a reflection off the glass to the east made it look as if a second sun had appeared; the double shadows gave the cityscape an eerie, otherworldly feel.

Jalil led them to a small cafe to wait until the train arrived. It seemed as good a place as any, and the food was cheap. A few heads turned to glance at their long desert robes, but he had only to stare at them and narrow his eyes to make them look away.

“How much longer before we leave?” Mira asked in a hushed voice. The desert tongue sounded oddly refreshing after hearing nothing but New Gaian for most of the day.

“Not long,” he said, watching the street through the cafe windows. “An hour, maybe.”

Only minutes after sunset, night descended upon the city like a black shroud. The sky was utterly starless, and the moons, though visible, were noticeably blurred through the glass. The only light came from the street lamps, spaced far enough apart to cast more shadows than they dispelled. If Jalil had known that the night would come so fast, he would have led them to the platform earlier.

“Come on,” he said, slinging his rifle over his back as he rose to his feet. “Let’s go.”

Mira kept close to him as he walked down the darkened streets. A few hovercars passed them on the way, but the city was mostly silent except for the rumbling of factory machinery and the occasional buzzing street lamp.

After a few hundred yards, the street turned in a direction Jalil hadn’t anticipated. He knew they were close to the platform, but in the darkness of the night, everything looked strange and unfamiliar.

“Do you remember this place?” he asked. Mira shook her head. He peered into one of the darkened alleys, fingering the rifle strap with his free hand. Garbage littered the ground, but the place seemed empty. Still, anyone could be hiding in those shadows; better not to risk it.

He backtracked for a while and tried another side street, narrower than the first but still relatively well lit. It led them down a row of identical three story apartments that looked vaguely familiar, but went down a hill a little further out, so he knew it wasn’t right.

“Are we lost?” Mira whispered. She took his arm and clung to him in the starless dark.

“No,” he said, hefting their bags as he spun on his feet. “We’re doing fine. Besides, we’ve got at least an hour until the train shows up. We’ll be all right.”

He backtracked to the main street and followed it down a little further, past the bend and toward the factory at the center of the town. The stench of tomatoes here was almost overwhelming, so that definitely wasn’t right. He tried another side street, but like the others, it turned back in the wrong direction after only a hundred yards.

The whistle of a coming train echoed through the empty streets, confirming at the very least that they were heading in the right direction. What’s more, it didn’t sound very far. Perhaps if they cut through one of the alleys, they could find their way faster. It would certainly be a lot faster than backtracking.

At least, so he hoped.

“Here,” he said to Mira, “keep your hand on my arm, and do your best to keep up.”

“What?”

“Just stay close. We’re going to take a shortcut.”

Her eyes widened a bit, but she kept hold of his arm as he led them down one of the side alleys. The stench of the garbage mingled with that of tomatoes from the factory to produce a hideous smell, but he held his breath and stepped quickly, keeping his eyes focused on the light from the opening up ahead. They passed a few sleeping beggars, but got through without any problems.

To Jalil’s dismay, the alley ended in a courtyard, not a street. A couple of large trees stood at the far end, while the brick walls of apartment buildings towered all around them. A single lamp post stood in the center, illuminating the open area.

Another alley led out of the courtyard on the other side, heading the same direction. Undaunted, Jalil pushed forward; this one was longer than the other, but the train had sounded so close he had no doubt—

Midway through the alley, something stirred in the shadows. Mira gasped, and Jalil turned to see three dark figures silhouetted by the light from the courtyard, following them.

“Run,” he said. Mira did not need to be told twice.

The men behind them shouted and gave chase. The alley came to a wall and turned abruptly, but it opened up a few dozen yards down. If they could reach the street before—

Three more figures stepped out from a doorway, blocking their path. Two of them pulled out knives and held them as if ready to dart forward and attack. The silvery blades glittered in the darkness, reflecting one of the streetlamps not ten yards away.

Jalil stopped and dropped his bags, making ready to unsling his rifle. Before he could, Mira let out a muffled yelp; the men behind them had caught up, and one of them now held her with one hand covering her mouth. As she kicked and struggled against her captor’s grip, a knife blade flashed near her throat.

“Stay where you are,” came a rough voice. Mira stopped struggling, her eyes wide with terror.

“Drop the gun.”

Jalil spun around, looking for an opening, but he was surrounded. A tall, skinny man stepped forward, his bedraggled face partially covered in shadow. He reached out and took hold of the rifle. At first, Jalil refused to let it go, but hands grabbed him from behind, and someone pressed the edge of a blade against his neck. He drew a deep breath and released it.

“Impressive,” said the robber, running his filthy hands over the weapon. “It’s not every day you see something like this, eh?”

“Let us go,” Jalil hissed.

“Why?” said the man. He glanced up and grinned, revealing a set of grimy teeth. From the deference that the others gave him, Jalil guessed he was the leader.

“What do you want from us?”

“That depends entirely on what you have.” The man flicked his wrist, and two of the robbers stepped forward with the bags. As Jalil watched, they opened them and began to spill their contents on the filthy ground.

Mira whimpered, and Jalil turned to catch sight of her out of the corner of his eye. Her captor held her with both arms twisted painfully behind her back, his other hand covering her mouth. Thankfully, the knife was no longer at her throat, but Jalil’s blood still boiled to see her treated so roughly. He clenched his hands behind him into fists, but suppressed his rage; if he fought back now, one of them might be killed.

“Well, what have we here?” said the leader. A horrible sinking feeling formed in Jalil’s gut as the man pulled out the bag with the cash datachips and poured them into one hand. The others crowded around like a flock of vultures.

“Not bad,” said the leader, ignoring Jalil’s furious glare. “Not bad at all.” He set the rifle down and spent a few moments distributing the datachips among his men, then turned to Mira.

Blood rushed to Jalil’s cheeks as the man reached out with his filthy hands and stroked her neck. Mira whimpered and grew tense as he stared hungrily at her uncovered face.

“Let’s make this fast,” said the leader, unbuckling his belt. “Everyone gets a turn, starting with me. As for the—”

Something inside of Jalil snapped. He shouted with rage and tore himself free, knocking aside his captor’s knife with his elbow. The man hesitated for an instant, just long enough for Jalil to spin around and face him.

Adrenaline surged through his body like lightning, and time slowed to a crawl. The man lunged forward to strike with his knife, but Jalil caught his hand and redirected it into his stomach. The would-be attacker’s eyes grew wide with shock; in the dim light of the distant street lamp, Jalil could clearly make out every bit of stubble on his chin, the droplets of sweat on his furrowed brow, the half-rotted teeth in his now gaping mouth—everything. He took hold of the knife and ripped it out across the man’s belly, slicing through his flesh as if he were just a dumb animal. Blood spurted from his wounds, and he fell silently to the ground, clutching at his midsection as his intestines spilled out across the broken concrete.

Jalil spun around with the knife in his hand, expecting the robbers to jump on him at any second. To his surprise, they stood as still as statues, mouths gaping wide. A knife clattered to the ground, and one of the men turned and ran back toward the courtyard. The one holding Mira dropped her and joined him, while the other two did the same, fleeing in the opposite direction.

“Wait!” shouted the leader, his voice tinged with fear. “Don’t—” his eyes met Jalil’s and widened in terror, the hunter becoming the hunted.

Jalil screamed and lunged forward, but the man snatched the rifle from the ground and blocked his attack, knocking him aside. For an instant, it looked as if he would attack, but instead he dropped the rifle and grabbed Mira, holding her in front of him like a shield. From his belt, he produced a long curved knife, which he pressed against her neck.

“Don’t move!” he screamed. “Don’t move, or I’ll—”

In one smooth motion, Jalil retrieved his rifle and sighted it between the man’s eyes. The sharp crack of the gunshot echoed through the alley as the kick of the recoil rammed against his shoulder. The man arced up into the air, and for a moment he seemed to float there, a thin line of blood trailing from the middle of his forehead. A moment later, he fell to the concrete with a sickening splat.

“Oh Lord!” Mira gasped, running to Jalil and throwing her arms around him in fright. He lowered the rifle and held her with one arm to comfort her. As the adrenaline high of the last few moments wore off, exhaustion swept over him, leaving his knees weak and his head dizzy. He blinked and stared at the aftermath of the fight: two men down, both lying in pools of their own blood, both unmoving.

He took a deep breath and shouldered his rifle. Mira had fallen to her knees and was now sobbing, her whole body trembling from shock at the fight. A little bit of blood had gotten on the hem of her robes, but other than that she was uninjured. Jalil’s hand was bloody from the man he’d disembowled; he tore off a piece of the leader’s shirt and used it to wipe himself off.

It had all happened so fast, with no time to think. Jalil had expected the men to put up more of a fight; the way they’d fled, it was as if they had no shame, no honor.

He looked to the bags, their contents spilled across the ground, and his pounding heart skipped a beat. The money—where was it? Kneeling over the dead leader, he hastily searched through the man’s pockets, but only came up with three cash datachips—three, out of what had once been over a dozen.

He unslung the rifle and for a moment thought about going after the robbers, but Mira’s quiet sobbing made him stop. He shouldered his rifle and returned to her.

“Are you all right?” he asked, offering her his hand. She nodded mutely and took it, and he helped her to her feet.

“We’d better get moving again,” he muttered. “They’ll be back before long.”

He glanced down at the two bodies as she bent over to retrieve their bags. Killing them had been so easy—so frighteningly easy. Still, he told himself, Mira was alive and well—that was the important thing.

And the money? He fingered the remaining three datachips in his pocket. God-willing, things would work out somehow.

God-willing.


* * * * *


Mira stole a glance at Jalil from the window seat of the night train. He sat with his head bowed over his chest, his hand on the dimly lit tray table in front of him. His fingers grasped the few datachips they’d managed to recover, clutching them as if afraid someone would take them. After the events of the last few hours, that possibility seemed all too real.

She shuddered as the attack in the alleyway played over and over in her mind’s eye. Heart pounding as the men chased them through the narrow space. Hands clutching her from behind, holding her captive. The leader, eying her with a frightening look of perverse hunger as he unbuckled his belt. And finally, Jalil scooping up the rifle and leveling it almost right at her. She could still hear the sharp crack of the gunshot, echoing in her ears even after the terrible moment had passed.

It had all happened in such a blur. She could only remember a few brief fragments; the rest was blackness. Her mind must have blocked out the worst of it, which was just as well. But more than anything, she remembered the look on Jalil’s face as he picked up the rifle and made to shoot. She’d never seen such determination in anyone before—such total commitment, as if he would die if anything happened to her.

He saved me, she thought to herself as the gentle rumbling of the train slowly lulled her back to sleep. He said he’d protect me, and he really meant it.

But then she remembered the blood on his hands, and the two bodies they’d left in the dirty alleyway. Those men would be alive now if Jalil hadn’t killed them. He had taken their lives without hesitation, as easily as if he were slaughtering cattle.

He was a killer.

Yes, but he saved me, she tried to reason with herself. He only killed because he had to. Perhaps there was some truth in that; but even if there was, it didn’t change the fact that the attack had robbed them both of their innocence.

She glanced over at Jalil one last time as sleep began to overtake her. He wasn’t the pure, young boy she’d fallen in love with as a little girl; he was something darker, something much more dangerous.

Strangely, she almost liked that even more.

Chapter 7


Mira stood beside the massive stone pillar and tried very hard to be invisible. The vaulted marble ceiling of the train station rose nearly a hundred feet over her head, but she still felt as if she were trapped inside a cave. Vast crowds of strangely dressed people pressed in from all sides, and several of them eyed her, especially the men in their strange, black suits. Their stares made her feel as if she were naked—and without her headscarf, perhaps she was.

Jalil argued with the agent behind the window, his voice steadily growing louder and more agitated. Ever since they’d crossed over the border into Raya Dome, it had been like this: delay after delay. Mira didn’t mind so much, except that with nothing to do and no one to speak with, she was left alone with her troubled thoughts.

By Earth and all her stars, how she longed to go home! Almost a month had passed since she’d seen her mother or talked with her sisters. Never before had she been away from them for so long. Without them, she felt as if she were dying.

Make sure he returns, her mother’s voice hissed in her mind. Don’t come back without him.

“Let’s go,” said Jalil, taking her by the hand and hefting their bags with his other. He led her through the crowd across a polished stone floor so smooth she could see her reflection in it.

She followed him silently, trying to ignore the less than innocent glances from several of the men in the concourse. Jalil, of course, was oblivious to all that. She could tell that his conversation with the man behind the desk had put him in a foul mood.

“I don’t know how we’re going to get through,” he muttered. “It’s going to cost us almost everything we’ve got just for the next train.”

“That’s not so bad,” she said. “I’m sure we’ll make it.”

“How? Without money, we can’t go anywhere.”

“Well… I’m sure Allah will provide.”

“God-willing,” Jalil muttered, leading her into a long, vaulted passageway. Gates to the various trains lined the walls on either side, with benches full of people waiting to board them. Through the glass ceiling overhead, the fading twilight sky was dark and starless.

“So what will we do?” she asked.

Jalil shrugged. “Go as far as we can. One thing’s for certain; there’s no turning back.”

Three young men with slick black hair and tight muscle shirts leaned against the nearest wall, watching them. Mira cringed as she saw the hunger in their eyes, remembering the men from the alleyway in Aliet Dome. There is holiness within you, she told herself, trying desperately to believe it.

Lord of Earth, how she wanted to go home.


* * * * *


Jalil paused briefly in the door of the train, staring at the parallel rows of lights running down the dark blue carpet. The place felt oddly familiar, like something out of a dream. Perhaps it was the way he and Mira had to step sideways through the narrow aisle, or perhaps it was the way the walls of the cabin curved naturally into the ceiling and floor. It brought back a memory of him staring out a window at a glowing blue horizon, with the sky dark and starless overhead.

It’s almost as if this isn’t a train, he thought to himself as he threw their bags into an overhead storage compartment. More like… something from my childhood. Something meant to travel in the sky, not on the ground.

Mira took the window seat while he took the one next to her, placing himself on the aisle, between her and the other passengers—just as he had done in Aliet Dome. Raya Dome had the same ban on the headscarf, and so it seemed only prudent to take the same precautions.

“According to the schedule,” he told her, “we should reach the next station in just under two hours. Are you hungry?”

“Just a little,” she mumbled, smiling weakly. If she was anywhere near as hungry as he was, she must have been absolutely famished.

Her smile was surprisingly disarming, especially with her long, dark hair falling over her shoulders. For a moment, Jalil felt almost as if he were back in the living quarters of the Najmi camp, surrounded by his adopted sisters as they shared all the details of their lives with each other. Most of the time, the conversations were frivolous—talk about which cousin secretly liked who, which relative was about to have a baby, what kind of a man they hoped to marry. Now that he’d been away from it all for over a month, however, Jalil realized he missed it more than he’d thought he would.

Mira turned and looked out the window. “Oh wow!” she exclaimed, bringing Jalil back to the present.

“What is it?” he asked. She pointed mutely out the window.

He squinted and leaned over her lap, staring outside. In spite of the darkened sky, he could just make out the black silhouettes of buildings, pocked with thousands of lighted windows. They rose straight up from the ground, towering almost out of sight. Between them danced hundreds of floating lights like little glowing bugs. Those lights, he realized with a shock, were actually flying cars. It was as unlike the desert as anything he’d seen.

Before he could say anything, a beeping noise interrupted his thoughts. He looked up and saw a blinking light above their heads.

“What’s that?” Mira wondered, a look of fear on her face.

Across the aisle, Jalil saw the other passengers pulling down straps across their shoulders from the tops of their seats. An image from his memory flashed into his mind—a row of people seated in front of myriad displays, strapping themselves into their seats as explosions out the window lit the spinning sky. Jalil trembled, though he wasn’t sure why.

“Attention passengers,” came an airy female voice from some unseen speaker over their heads. “Please fasten your seat restraints, located on the top of your chair. Pull both straps down over your shoulders to the clip by your waist, and fasten the connecting harness across your chest.”

“What is she saying?” Mira asked. Jalil shushed her and strained to listen.

“For your safety, seat restraints must be worn at all times while in transit,” the voice continued. “In the unlikely case of an accident, your seatbacks may be used as an emergency parachute. Simply press and hold the button underneath your right armrest to disengage.”

Parachute? Why a parachute?

“What is she saying?” Mira asked again.

“Strap yourself in,” said Jalil. “This could be dangerous.”

After playing with the restraints for a while, he figured out how they worked and strapped himself in. Mira, however, had some trouble. As leaned over to help her, a terrible flashback popped into his head—his birth mother, putting the locket around his neck before pushing him down the chute to the escape pod. A lump rose in his throat, and his hands began to shake.

“What’s the matter?” Mira asked, a look of concern on her face. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Jalil said, hastily strapping her in.

“On behalf of all of us,” the voice said, “thank you for choosing Raya Skyways. We hope you have a pleasant ride!”

Skyways? Jalil wondered to himself. I thought this was a train.

As if in answer, the train shuddered and lurched. A low whining noise sounded through the walls, and an invisible force pushed him flat against his seat. Next to him, Mira cried out in terror, but across the aisle the passengers all seemed unconcerned, as if nothing could be more natural.

Jalil gripped his armrests and leaned back against his chair, turning to glance out the window. The lights outside fell away, leaving nothing but the faded purple twilight.

“What do you see?” he asked Mira. Her face was pale, but her eyes were glued to the window.

“I see—I see lights. Buildings, or maybe mountains—no, buildings. But they’re falling away—oh Lord, we must be more than a thousand feet up.”

“Wait,” said Jalil, tilting his head to get a better look. “Out there. What’s that?”

Something was definitely moving up there—and moving fast. It was hard to make out in the darkness, but it seemed to fill the sky.

“I don’t know,” said Mira. “It looks like—latticework?”

The ceiling of the dome, Jalil realized. We’re up against the inside wall of the glass mountain. No wonder the voice called it a “skyway.”

“I think I’m going to be sick,” said Mira. Her breathing came in short gasps, and her face was rapidly changing color.

“Here,” Jalil said, taking hold of her hand. “Close your eyes and try not to think about anything. Nothing’s wrong; you’re perfectly safe. Take a deep breath—in, out. In, out.”

She gripped his hand and breathed deeply. The train soon leveled out, and her natural color returned to her face. Still, she continued to hold onto his hand as if for dear life.

As she gradually calmed down, Jalil leaned over her and looked out the window. A curious sight met his eyes; above, the sky turned to darkness, still obscured by the thick glass of the dome. Out on the horizon, however, the lights of the endless cityscape stretched out like a carpet made of stars.

“Masha’allah,” he whispered.

Above them, a second train hurried by on another rail, much like a satellite. With a little imagination, he could almost believe he was flying upside down, with the ground overhead and the sky below. It was beautiful.

Beautiful, yes, he told himself, but it still isn’t home.


* * * * *


The skyway ended at the top of a giant pylon that towered almost five miles above the cityscape below. A dense fog had arisen beneath them, partially shrouding the city lights, but the pylon rose out of the midst of it like a tower reaching up to heaven.

Like the tower of Bab-el, Jalil thought to himself as he and Mira rode an exterior elevator from the train station down to the mid-levels, where food was supposed to be cheaper. Though it was still night, the view of the endless cityscape was fantastic. The tops of the highest towers poked up through the fog, while the lights from below created an eerie reddish-yellow glow that reflected faintly off of the glass ceiling above.

The elevator came to a jolting stop, and Mira grabbed his arm in fright. He patted her hand for reassurance and picked up the bags, squinting in the dim light at the display panel next to the door.

“Level 3015,” he read. “This should be it.”

The door hissed open, and he and Mira both stepped out into a wide but windowless corridor. The ceiling was low, and the only lights hung along the center, leaving the edges in shadow. Several of them flickered, as if in need of repair. Jalil thought he saw someone staring at them from the shadows to his right, but when he turned, he realized it was just another pile of garbage.

“Let’s move quickly,” he said, remembering the robbers in Aliet Dome. His stomach growled like a roaring beast, and he hurried forward into the darkness, Mira close behind him.

The cantina was right where the station attendant had told them it would be: at the end of the corridor. A handful of dusty, long-abandoned booths stood in front of the cantina doorway, while all the other shops along the wall were caged or boarded up. A bead curtain hung from the doorjamb; above it, a neon sign flickered on and off, written in a language that Jalil couldn’t understand.

“Heyyou!” muttered a scruffy drunkard, lying next to the door. Mira froze, but Jalil quickly parted the beads and led them in before the man could make any trouble.

The air inside reeked with the sweet smell of hookah smoke and flavored cigarettes. Red-tinted glowlamps illuminated the room in the color of blood, while rhythmic electronic music pounded out a steady pulse like a heartbeat. Almost every table in the room was full, and every seat at the bar was occupied. A few heads turned as he and Mira entered, their eyes bloodshot and vacant.

Jalil knew at once that he didn’t like the place.

He led Mira through the crowd to the last empty table. It was a little large, but sat up against the corner, where he could keep an eye on the rest of the room. He dropped his bags and unslung his rifle before sitting down, making way for Mira to sit on the far side.

“Anything particular you want?” he asked.

“Maybe some beans and flatbread, if they have any.”

Jalil glanced up at the menu on the wall, written in New Gaian; he didn’t see it listed, but figured it wouldn’t be hard to get something similar.

As he opened the rifle’s chamber, he became aware that someone at the bar was staring at him. Without looking up, he loaded three bullets and rose to his feet, snapping the chamber shut. A few people at one of the nearby tables raised their eyebrows, but most of the cantina’s patrons paid him no mind. That was fine by him, so long as they knew he wasn’t defenseless.

Keeping Mira in the corner of his eye, he slung the rifle over his shoulder and walked up to the food counter. “A platter of beans and flatbread,” he told the small boy at the front, pulling out the last cash datachip. “Enough for two.”

“Four credits,” said the boy. He turned to the portly cook and shouted something in a language Jalil didn’t understand.

Not sure whether to wait or to sit back down, Jalil glanced casually around the room. There didn’t seem to be any waiters in the place; only the boy, the cook, and a very busy bartender. Keeping one eye on Mira back in the corner, he leaned over the counter to wait.

“I’m telling you, that’s not possible,” said one of the men at the bar, speaking in New Gaian. Though his voice mingled with the others, he sat close enough that Jalil could just pick out his voice from the background noise.

“Believe what you want,” said his companion, “but that’s what the survivors told us.”

“How did they know?”

“Simple. They answered the summons to the council at Tenguri but refused to join forces. A few months later, a fleet of Hameji warships jumped into their home system and massacred everyone. No prisoners, and damn few survivors.”

Hameji? Jalil wondered, his curiosity piqued. He didn’t know why, but that word sounded strangely familiar.

“We’ve all heard stories about the Hameji atrocities,” said another man. “What makes this any different?”

“Easy,” said the first. “You ever been to the Outer Reaches? It’s a hardy breed that lives beyond the civilized worlds—a New Gaian battle group wouldn’t last six months out there, let me tell you that.”

“Your point being?”

“According to what the survivors told us, they’d put together a tribal alliance nearly three times larger than the Hameji war fleet. Three times larger—and all of them warrior captains. Should have been an easy victory, right?”

The men were silent. Jalil shifted so that he could hear them better.

“They didn’t have a chance. The Hameji fleet was too coordinated—met them like a hive of drones, all thinking with the same mind.”

“I still think it’s impossible. Those survivors must have been deluded.”

“Their ship’s log backed up what they were saying. The details of the stories matched. Yeah, they might have been a bit skittish when we picked them up, but they certainly were in their right minds when they wrote up the log, I can tell you that.”

“Here you go,” said the boy, sliding the steaming hot platter across the countertop to Jalil. The beans were mixed with an assortment of strange herbs, but smelled palatable enough. He thanked the boy and took the platter back to his table, leaving the men to their strange conversation.

He and Mira ate ravenously, not bothering to talk. They were both too tired for that anyway. In a few minutes, they were wiping the last of the beans from the bottom of the platter with the last few pieces of bread.

As they finished off the simple but satisfying meal, the lights in the cantina grew dim, while off to the side, three large, tubular showcase windows lit up with warm, yellow light. Jalil didn’t know why he hadn’t noticed them before; perhaps he’d been too preoccupied.

As the electronic music grew louder, a man in a long, dark coat stood up from the bar and strode over to their table. Jalil realized it was the man who’d been staring at them earlier. He tensed and gripped the rifle in his lap.

“Good morning,” said the man, pulling up a chair across from him and Mira. “Mind if I take a seat?”

“Yes,” said Jalil. “This table is occupied.”

“The peace of Earth be upon you too, brother.”

Mira gasped, and Jalil struggled to hide his surprise. The man knew the language of the high desert.

“Who are you, and what do you want?”

“My name is Gregor Luczak,” the man answered, still speaking the desert tongue. “I am what you could call a businessman. I wish to speak with you because I believe we are both in a position to provide something that the other needs.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Jalil saw a girl step into the central showcase. She was about Mira’s age, with long black hair that stretched to her waist, and wore a provocative red dress that revealed more than it covered. Though his eyes were naturally drawn to her slender, feminine figure, he forced his attention back to the man sitting across the table.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Gregor gave him a sly, calculating smile. “You’re pilgrims from the high desert, are you not?” he asked, reverting to New Gaian. “Looking for a way to the temple, but running low on funds—so low that you can only afford to take the night trains. And, being from the high desert, I expect that you have a certain set of skills that most people in these parts lack.” He eyed the heirloom rifle meaningfully. “Am I right?”

Jalil stared at him without answering. On the stage, two girls stepped into the other showcases, their bodies swaying to the steady electronic beat.

“What are you proposing?”

“Simply this, my friend: passage through Etilan Dome in exchange for your services on my convoy.”

Jalil tried to focus, but the dancing cantina girls made it all but impossible. The sensuous way they moved their hips and slid their hands across their bodies made his cheeks blanch and his heart pound. He’d never seen so much uncovered skin on a woman before, and it was hard not to stare.

“Huh?” said Jalil. “Our route goes through Waszik Dome, not Etilan.”

“Ah, that is where most pilgrims make their mistake,” said Gregor, pulling out a cigar as he leaned back in his chair. “The Temple of a Thousand Suns is surrounded by a number of smaller ancient domes, each about four hundred miles in diameter. If you continued through Waszik Dome, you would have to pass through five of these smaller ones to reach your destination. But Etilan Dome is significantly larger, with its furthest border only eight hundred miles from the temple. Once through Etilan, you will only need to pass through two more.”

The woman in the center showcase slowly unwrapped a long stretch of cloth from her waist, revealing a wide stretch of midriff. Intricate henna tattoos circled her navel, undulating seductively with the movement of her belly. Jalil swallowed, and cold sweat began to form on the back of his neck.

“And what do you want from us?” he asked.

Gregor put the cigar in his mouth and lit it with an ornate silver lighter from his breast pocket. The foul-smelling smoke rose around the edges of his mouth, momentarily obscuring his face.

“I have a small convoy carrying several valuable goods that need protection. Your duty would be to ensure our safe passage from Raya Dome to Terra 4 Dome, a journey of less than twenty-five hundred miles. Once we reach our destination, you’d be free to go—and generously compensated for your trouble.”

“How much?”

“Five thousand credits.”

Jalil’s eyes widened, and he failed to suppress a gasp. Five thousand credits—that was more than enough to get them to the temple. There might even be enough left over for offworld passage.

“That’s all we have to do?” he asked. “Escort your convoy twenty-five hundred miles?”

“Yes. Care for a cigar?”

“Not so fast—what’s the catch? What do you need your convoy guarded from?”

Gregor Luczak grinned. “I see you are a cautious man. Etilan Dome has been mired in civil war for several years. That will not be a problem; the cease-fire between the rebels and the government shows no sign of breaking, at least in the next few weeks. However, a number of warlords and bandits have risen to power in the border territories. Our convoy guard is more than adequate to deal with this threat, but we have need of an advance scout. Your experience in the desert makes you perfect for the job.”

Jalil frowned. “I don’t know…”

Gregor bit on his cigar and reached into his vest, pulling out a cash datachip. “I’ll pay you two thousand up front, with the other three thousand on arrival.”

He tossed the chip across the table to Jalil, who picked it up and examined it. It looked real enough, though he’d have to plug it into a kiosk to make sure it had the full two thousand credits. Still, it seemed Gregor was telling the truth.

“Any conditions for the other three thousand?”

“So long as at least three-quarters of my cargo gets through safely, I’ll pay you in full. And if we arrive with the full hundred percent, I’ll give you an extra two thousand on top of that.”

Seven thousand credits, Jalil thought to himself, his heart pounding. That’s more than enough to get us to the temple—I could even pay for Mira’s flight back home.

Regardless, they weren’t in a position to say no.

Jalil glanced up and froze in his chair. The black haired girl in the central showcase stood with her back to the audience, arms wrapped around her body so that it looked as if someone was embracing her. Swaying erotically, she hiked up the top half of her dress and slipped it over her head. He stared wide-eyed at the sight; had she really—

She turned around to face the audience, baring her naked breasts for all to see. Catcalls filled the air, and a drunk man lunged forward, hitting the glass with a solid thud that made the other cantina-goers roar with laughter.

Jalil stared as if transfixed. His heart pounded in his chest like a caged animal, and his breathing came short and quick while his hands slackened and went clammy.

“Jalil?”

It was Mira; he started at the sound of her voice.

“What?” he asked, turning to face her. He blinked and swallowed, sweat pooling behind his ears and on his forehead.

“What are you two talking about?” she asked softly, glancing past him at the girls in the showcases.

Jalil’s cheeks turned red as a wave of guilt and embarrassment washed over him. “We’re, ah, discussing a matter of business,” he stuttered, trying in vain to recall any of Gregor’s words. “This man, he wants to, ah, pay us, and, um…”

“Pay us?”

For half a second, Jalil clenched his eyes shut, but the image of the half-naked girl would not flee his mind. Her breasts stared up at him like a grotesque pair of sightless eyes, the henna tattoo around her navel an open maw. The headiness of his arousal made him feel dirty and ashamed.

“Well?” asked Gregor, speaking the desert tongue. “Is it a deal or isn’t it?”

“What deal?” asked Mira.

In that moment, the girl in the showcase slipped out of her dress, spreading her legs as she arched her back erotically. The others girls followed suit, stripping off the last of their clothes until all three of them were naked.

Jalil felt trapped, as if the walls were closing in on him. He should never have come here, never have brought Mira to this evil place. They needed to get out—now.

“Yes,” he said, reverting unconsciously to the desert tongue. “We’ll take your offer.”

Gregor leaned back in his chair and smiled. “We leave in ten hours for the border,” he said, smoke curling around the edges of his mouth. “Meet us at gate twelve.”

“Good,” said Jalil, awash in dizziness as he rose to his feet. “We’ll see you at twelve then.”


* * * * *


Mira stared in mesmerized shock at the three cantina girls dancing in the showcases. The way they moved, undulating their bodies to the rhythm of the beat, pulsating with such raw, unabashed sexuality—it made her feel profoundly ugly.

“Come on,” said Jalil, standing over her. “Let’s go.”

His cheeks were flushed, his body tense. She rose and took his hand, only to find it warm and clammy. It’s because of the girls, she realized with a start. The thought simultaneously repulsed and frightened her.

There is holiness within you. Even though she wanted to believe it, there was no way she could anymore. She’d naively thought that with time, Jalil would come to notice her, fall in love with her. But those whores had caught his attention—stolen his attention from her—in only minutes! Perhaps her mother was right; perhaps the only way to convince him not to leave was to get into his bed.

When you’re alone together, you’ll know what to do.

Part III


Chapter 8


Mira squinted as she stepped out into the bright, clear sunlight of Etilan Dome. The sky was blue and the land was green, but the air smelled slightly of smoke—not clean campfire smoke, or biting gunpowder smoke, but the sticky smell of burning oil. It was so faint that she would probably get used to it, but still, it made her nose tingle with each breath.

“Well, that checkpoint was easy enough,” said Jalil. He set down her bag as if expecting her to comb through it, and gave her a puzzled look when she made no move to do so.

“What is it?” she asked, trying to sound as innocent as possible.

“Well… the headscarf isn’t forbidden here,” said Jalil. “I thought you might, ah…”

Mira swallowed nervously. She remembered the cantina girls, and how Jalil couldn’t stop staring at them.

“I thought it would be better if I didn’t wear it,” she said softly. “None of the domer women do, and I don’t want to seem too out of place. Besides,” she said, tossing back her hair, “it’s such a beautiful day, I thought it might be nice to keep it off for a while.”

Jalil frowned, but his eyes lingered on her for a half second before he bent down to retrieve the bag.

They walked a short distance from the border checkpoint to join a growing group of mercenary soldiers. One was missing an eye; his head was shaven, with strange geometric lines and patterns crisscrossing his scalp. Another had a prosthetic arm made of metal—he made a big show of sharpening a curved knife on its surface. All of them carried guns.

“What now?” she asked softly.

“We wait for Lucien,” said Jalil. “He’s Gregor’s second-in-command.”

As if on cue, a tall, muscular man stepped out of a passing hovercar and began barking orders. He had deep-set eyes, pure black hair, and a carefully trimmed beard. The soldiers quickly formed a line and began marching down the hill; Mira didn’t know what else to do, so she stayed with Jalil, walking alongside him.

At the base of the hill, they marched past a concrete wall and through a small checkpoint with a tall metal guard tower next to it. The guards at the gate all carried heavy assault rifles, and the tower housed some kind of larger gun, probably a plasma turret. Mira was used to seeing fortifications in the desert, but this was the first time she’d seen any since they had started their trip at Aliet Dome. It made her worry that they were in danger.

The landscape beyond the wall was half-covered in forests, with checkered farmland and scattered settlements breaking the deep green carpet. A dusty road led from the checkpoint to a large town full of peaked red roofs. Though the town was much bigger than any of the settlements they’d seen in Aliet Dome, most of the buildings were no more than three or four stories high. It reminded her of New Amman, except that the buildings were red and gray instead of white.

“Look over there,” Jalil said, motioning with his gaze since both his hands were occupied with carrying their baggage.

“Where?”

“Down the hill. Look!”

It took Mira a second to see it, but when she did, her breath caught in her throat. A cluster of burned out, half-destroyed buildings stood by the side of the road, amid a clump of wild bushes. Across the dusty side street, the other buildings bore scorch marks and bullet holes.

“Listen,” said Jalil, as if he sensed her growing fear. “Gregor hired me to fight for him, but my first obligation is to take care of you. They’ll probably try to keep you with the main convoy and send me out in the advance guard, but I think we should stick together. I don’t trust any of these men.”

Mira nodded. She’d been thinking much the same thing herself. The wind blew a strand of hair across her face, and she pulled it back behind her ear.

“So you’re for it?” Jalil asked, looking her in the eye.

“Yes, of course.”

“Then promise me that you’ll be careful. Stay low and keep close to me at all times. Do you understand?”

The light in his eyes reminded her how he’d fought off the thieves in Aliet Dome. Her cheeks flushed and her heart beat a little harder.

“Yes,” she said. “I’ll be careful.”

“Good. I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”

She had no doubt that he was sincere.

A small hovercraft with an open truck bed in the back roared into view from the other side of the road, coming to a stop in front of them. Lucien climbed on board and motioned for the others to do the same. As the others joined Lucien in the hovercraft, Jalil tossed their bags onto the truck bed, then helped Mira climb up. There was only one seat left, and he let her have it, holding onto the railing instead.

With a lurch and a loud whine, the hovercraft took off, tearing across the empty road and turning off into a fallow field. Lucien, who stood at the front next to the driver, shouted above the roaring of the engine so that all the others could hear. Mira couldn’t understand what he said, but from the way Jalil paid rapt attention to him, she knew it was important.

Before Lucien finished, they slowed down and entered a walled compound. Inside, Mira saw dozens of vehicles, most of them hovercraft. Some were small, with armor-plated sides and plasma turrets mounted above the narrow cabins, while others were much larger, obviously built to carry freight. They came to a stop in front of about fifty armed men and began to dismount.

“What did he say?” Mira asked as Jalil helped her down.

“We’re splitting into teams. He put us on the advance guard; one of the recon squads is short a man, and he wants me to cover.”

A large, wide-faced man stepped up and clasped Jalil on the shoulder. “Looking for your crew, brother?” he asked in the language of the high desert.

Mira’s eyes widened. With his long, white robes, leather gunbelt on his hip, and chains of heavy ammunition strapped across his chest, he was definitely a fellow tribesman.

“Yes,” Jalil answered, smiling. “The peace of Earth be upon you.”

“And upon you as well, brother.”

Two other men stepped forward, one short with a full beard, the other tall and red-haired, dressed in black and gold.

“I am Kariym, and this is Abu Hassan and Ashraf,” said the first man, introducing them to the other two. Abu Hussan—the short one—smiled and lifted his hand, while Ashraf merely looked on.

“I am Jalil,” said Jalil.

“What’s your tribe?” Ashraf asked, his eyes narrowing.

Mira cringed. She couldn’t place any of them, and a wrong answer might turn their newfound friends into bloodthirsty enemies.

“We are Najmi,” Jalil answered truthfully.

“Excellent!” bellowed Kariym, slapping him on the back. “Abu Hussan and I are Tarsene. Ashraf is Sarahiyn.”

She sighed in relief. Thank goodness he didn’t mention that Lena’s husband is Jabaliyn, she thought to herself. The Jabaliyn and Sarahiyn tribes had been locked in a vicious blood feud for the last hundred years.

“Who is this traveling with you?” Kariym asked, pointing to Mira. “Your wife?”

All four men turned and looked at her, making her blush. Her headscarf—why had she refused to wear her headscarf? It seemed like such a foolish decision now, with the full weight of the men’s eyes on her.

Jalil hesitated only a fraction of a second before answering. “Yes,” he said. “That’s Mira, my wife.”

Her heart surged. Did he just say that?

“Why isn’t she covered?” Abu Hussan asked.

Before Jalil could answer, Kariym let out an explosive guffaw.

“Oh, that’s a good one!” he said. “And I suppose every woman you’ve taken in the last month has been covered too?”

“No, but none of them were my wives.”

“And are your wives any more discreet?”

“They have to be; they’re ugly.”

The men roared with laughter while Jalil and Mira looked uneasily on. Jalil’s face turned red, and he seemed on the verge of starting a fight, but she took his arm and shook her head.

Off to the side, Lucien barked an order. The crowd split up as the various crews headed to their vehicles, while the whine of hovercraft engines began to fill the air.

Kariym turned to Jalil. “Are you ready?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Say goodbye to your wife and send her with the main convoy. Our hovercraft is number five.”

“Wait,” said Jalil. “I would rather my wife stay with me. I don’t want to leave her among… strange men.”

Abu Hussan nodded, while Kariym touched his hand to his chin.

“We don’t usually take women,” said Kariym. “There’s not much room, and recon is a dangerous position. Still—”

“Can she cook?” asked Abu Hussan, butting in.

Before Mira could answer, Jalil spread his hands, palms outward, in an expression of mock offense. “What kind of a fool question is that? Najmi daughters are jewels among women—of course she can cook!”

Mira smiled and blushed, while the others laughed. “It’s a deal, then,” said Kariym, slapping Jalil on the back. “Welcome aboard, brother.”


* * * * *


Once they were loaded, Jalil took the gunner’s position on the top deck, manning the hovercraft’s main plasma turret. Ashraf and Abu Hussan sat in the cockpit, behind the long, narrow slit of a windshield. Mira and Kariym seated themselves in the cabin, but that was fine; Jalil wanted some time alone.

They skirted the edge of town, riding along a lightly trafficked major road. Craters littered the nearby fields, but they were all overgrown with grass; whatever battle had been fought in this place, it had happened long ago.

Once past the town, they came to a river wider than any body of water Jalil had ever seen. In the desert, flash floods occasionally dropped enough rain to fill the gorges that cut deep into the mountainsides. The mighty torrents raged for a few days, sometimes even for weeks or months. Inevitably, however, they vomited forth their muddy contents into the great sandy washes, where the water quickly evaporated or sunk deep down into the rocky earth. Here, however, the water was smooth and placid, not like the harsh, violent rapids in the desert. The far bank stretched out almost a full mile away, thick with trees and brush that obscured the ground. Jalil didn’t know how deep the river was, but for the hovercraft, that hardly mattered. The surface of the water created the perfect road for their convoy, and soon they were racing ahead at full speed, kicking up a thick white spray behind them.

The weather was perfect, neither too hot nor too cool. Upset by the sound of their passing, flocks of pretty white birds took to the air like noisy, low-flying clouds. Down in the cabin, Kariym began to sing a lilting ballad about a young boy in love with his brother’s betrothed. His deep bass voice bellowed over the roar of the engine, lifting Jalil’s spirits. It was a good day to be alive.

They rode upstream over the river for the next few hours, leaving the main body of the convoy far behind as they took the recon position for the advance guard. They passed a number of bridges, magnificent works of steel and stone that spanned the entire river. Most of the land, however, was empty and unsettled—nothing but long, straight stretches of thick green bush, with the occasional rocky outcropping to break the monotony.

To pass the time, Jalil squinted into the wind and wondered how he would plan an attack if he were the enemy. The river provided excellent defense: the banks were too thickly wooded to allow easy access, and any artillery bombardment would risk sinking the convoy into the river, losing the precious cargo. With only the occasional sand bar or rocky outcropping to hide an ambush, the exercise soon grew tedious and boring.

Inevitably, his thoughts drifted back to the girls in the cantina. Images flashed across his mind’s eye: the black-haired girl swaying sensually to the rhythm of the beat as she hiked up her top and let it fall to the side. His mind swam in a heady rush, followed by a wave of almost unbearable guilt. He bit his lip and tried to put the image out of his mind, but no matter what he did, he couldn’t make it stop.

The sound of footsteps on the ladder snapped him back to the present. He turned and saw Kariym behind him, hanging off the railing with his robes billowing in the wet breeze.

“Are you here to relieve me?” Jalil asked.

“Not yet,” said Kariym. “I just wanted to enjoy the scenery.”

Jalil nodded and returned to his watch. He was grateful for the company; it helped him push the cantina girls out of his mind.

“So you’re on the pilgrimage, eh?” Kariym said, breaking the silence between them. “Headed for the Noble Sanctuary, am I right?”

“Yes,” said Jalil, cringing with shame for entertaining such dirty thoughts while journeying to a place so holy.

“You’re both pretty young for pilgrims. And tell me, since when do Najmi boys have blond hair and fair white skin?”

“I wasn’t born Najmi,” he answered softly. “I was adopted.”

“Ah, I see. But if that’s true, where are you from?”

“I don’t know; that’s what I’m trying to find out.”

“By making the pilgrimage?” From the tone of Kariym’s voice, it seemed he had raised an eyebrow.

“Yes,” said Jalil. “By consulting with the priests in the Holy Archives. I’m hoping that they will give me the help I need.” Without thinking, he fingered the locket underneath his shirt.

“Ah,” said Kariym. “Well, I suppose a little spiritual help could do us all good. Can you do us a favor?”

“Whatever you ask.”

Kariym leaned forward, his expression serious. “Pray for us when you get there.”

They drove on for a while without talking. The river curved slightly to the right, and the hovercraft turned with it.

“What can you tell me about the war?” Jalil asked. “Are we in danger?”

Kariym threw back his head and laughed. “Son, I’ve been working this job for almost two years. I’ve seen firefights that would make your blood freeze in your veins. Right now, we’ve got all our magnetic shields angled to the front of our ship, with false heat sensor relays all online. Anyone fool enough to attack would have to be damn lucky to hit us from the front. The only real danger is that someone will try to chase us, but we’re going so fast right now that we could easily lose them.”

“What’s the likelihood of an attack?”

“Almost none,” said Kariym. “Ever since the peace talks started up again last month, this convoy run has been a cakewalk. The petty bandits won’t bother us because we’re so heavily armed, and the rogue warlords won’t attack us for fear of drawing attention from the peacekeepers. I wouldn’t be surprised if we made it through without firing a shot.”

Jalil nodded, then frowned. “But if the run is so easy, why was Gregor so eager to hire us?”

“Cheap labor,” said Kariym. “Let me guess, he only offered you ten thousand?”

“No—five.”

Kariym laughed bitterly, and Jalil’s cheeks burned red with shame and anger. “You mean—”

“That’s right,” said Kariym. “Gregor earns millions with this run. The regulars get paid twenty-five.”

“This is outrageous!” shouted Jalil, lifting his fist in the air as he turned to face Kariym. “I should—”

“Whoa there, brother,” Kariym said, putting a hand on Jalil’s shoulder to calm him down. “When the hired guns start causing problems, Lucien has been known to leave them stranded. You and your little woman wouldn’t want that, would you?”

Jalil gritted his teeth and shook his head. “No,” he muttered.

“I didn’t think so.”

It wasn’t the low pay that angered Jalil; it was the fact that he’d been duped so easily. He felt like a complete idiot for failing to drive a bargain. But then again, with the cantina girls distracting him, was it any wonder that things had worked out as disastrously as they had?

“How does he earn so much?” he asked, returning to the present. “What are we carrying that’s so valuable?”

“Gregor is a smuggler. Most of the stuff we’re hauling is contraband.”

“Contraband?”

“Yes—drugs, weapons, maybe a few slaves.”

Jalil’s cheeks blanched. “Slaves?”

“You heard me. Though I don’t think we’ve got too many of those this time.”

Jalil shook his head in disbelief as a wave of dizziness came over him. “By all the stars of Earth…”

“Like I asked before, brother, when you get to the temple, pray for us. Allah knows, we’re all pilgrims—but some of us are a little more lost than others.”

You and me both, brother, Jalil thought bitterly to himself.


* * * * *


Mira peered over the railing as the hovercraft skirted the riverbank. The pleasant spray from the river quickly dissipated as they sped over a wide stretch of open grassland. She stared in wonder at the landscape around her; the purple mountains and golden-green sea of grass were so unlike the rust-red hills and rocky desert of her home. And yet as different as it was, she did not feel out of place—not with Jalil and the other tribesmen. These were her people, and Jalil was her man.

The grassland stretched almost to the mountains on the horizon, broken only by scattered clusters of black rocky outcroppings. As they drew nearer to one, however, she saw that they weren’t actually rocks, but burned-out vehicles. The realization made her gasp; suddenly, the scenery didn’t seem quite so harmless.

Still, it wasn’t much different from her life in the desert. The Najmi camp had its own fortifications, and at least one person was always on watch duty, even if it was only old Zeid. Tribal wars had ravaged the land before, and some of the family’s campsites were built on top of ruins spoiled from their enemies. Mira had never seen such things for herself, but Jalil and Tiera had told her stories.

They drove for the better part of the day. The sun slowly diffused as it dipped lower in the sky, and the men finally stopped at a lone hill to make camp.

Abu Hussan looked at her and grinned. “Now we’ll see if your husband is right about the Najmi women and their cooking.”

“Oh, you’ll see all right,” said Mira, leaping nimbly to the ground.

She immediately busied herself setting up the portable stoves and hauling out the food supplies. While Ashraf and Kariym set up the long range radar on the top of a collapsible pole, Jalil sat down next to the hovercraft, taking a rest. Mira smiled at him, and he nodded.

“Need some help?” he asked.

“No, not at all,” said Mira. “Just relax—I’ll have dinner ready before you know it.”

She hummed as she worked, thinking of the times she used to cook with her mother when she was a little girl. The kitchen was Shira’s domain, and she ruled it like a queen; men were forbidden to enter, and nothing happened without her knowing about it. But when it was just the two of them, she opened up and taught Mira all her secrets: how to cook the beans and lentils just right, how to boil tough meat in yoghurt until it was tender, what combinations of spices yielded the best flavors, etc. By the time Mira was fourteen, her mother claimed that she was the best cook of all her daughters—a claim that never failed to make Mira blush, though secretly she held onto it as one of the best compliments her mother had ever given her. Now, with three burly tribesmen and the man she loved waiting on her, she threw her heart into it, putting together a meal worthy of her mother’s approval.

“Mmm!” said Kariym, strolling over. “That smells absolutely delicious. I knew it was a good idea to bring you along.” He nudged her with his elbow and laughed.

“Not so fast,” said Abu Hussan. “We haven’t got the proof yet—and if we don’t get it soon, I might just have to fill my roaring stomach with stones.”

“Oh, you’ll get your proof soon enough,” said Mira, smiling at Jalil from the corner of her eye. “If patience is bitter, its fruit is sweet. And if my cooking doesn’t bring back memories of your own mother, you can cook me up and eat me instead.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” said Kariym. “Your young husband would have a debt of honor to settle if we tried.”

Mira laughed and turned to Jalil, but he stared off, a strangely morose expression on his face. We can’t have that, she thought to herself.

“That’s right!” she said, hands on her hips. “My husband is a force to be reckoned with. He’s the eldest son of a mighty Najmi sheikh, and has the skill of at least five sharpshooters.” Her eyes glimmered with satisfaction as Jalil glanced up at her.

“Ho ho!” said Abu Hussan. “I doubt anyone here can outshoot Ashraf. No one in Gregor’s convoy is a better sniper.”

“Is that so?” Mira said. She turned to Jalil. “That sounds like a challenge, my love.”

He stared at her without saying anything. She cringed a little; perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to banter so openly with these men, even if they were her own countrymen. But then, a familiar grin spread across his face.

“Indeed it does,” he said, winking at her. “It looks like yet another Sarahiyn sharpshooter is about to be outdone by a Najmi.”

Kariym threw back his head and laughed. “That remains to be seen, my friend. But if you’re really as good as your young wife claims, let’s have some fun before dinner. You up for it, Ashraf?”

Ashraf was already checking the chamber of his rifle. “I’m ready,” he said, not bothering to look up. His rifle was not nearly as ornate as the one Jalil carried, but it was a good half-meter longer.

“All right,” said Kariym, turning to Jalil with a sly grin. “Since you offered the challenge, Ashraf goes first. Give him a target.”

“No,” interrupted Ashraf. “He’s still young; I’ll give the first target.”

Jalil folded his arms and stood in mock indignity. “Oh, is that so?” he said. “Then choose, but choose nobly. I won’t have you complaining later that you made things too easy.”

Ashraf shrugged impassively. “As you wish.”

Whatever target he chooses, Jalil will hit it, Mira thought to herself. She felt like a princess in one of her childhood stories, where all she needed was to believe in her man and he would overcome anything set before him. Indeed, with the endless fields of golden-green grass and rolling purple hills on the horizon, it felt as if they were in a fairy tale world.

Ashraf looked out over the hill in silence for some time, finally pointing to a relatively treeless part of the plain. “There,” he said. “See that trunk?”

Jalil strained for nearly a minute to see it. Mira shielded her eyes from the sun and peered in the direction Ashraf had pointed, but all she saw was grass.

“Yes,” said Jalil. “I see it.”

“There’s a branch jutting out on one side. Shoot off the branch without damaging the trunk itself.”

Kariym whistled, while Abu Hussan shook his head. Let them doubt, Mira thought to herself. I know he’ll make it.

“All right,” said Jalil, the barest shadow of misgiving on his face. He unslung his rifle and walked to a fairly level part of the ground. Mira held her breath.

He lay on his stomach and brought his gun to bear, toggling his sight to zoom in on the subject. For several moments, all was still—even the birds in the distant trees grew silent. Then, with a tremendous crack that seemed to shake the world, he fired. Mira jumped in surprise, her heart pounding.

Did he make it?

As if in answer, the men cheered. Mira let out a wild ululating cry, and for a brief moment, she forgot the pilgrimage and her homesickness. Here, with her people, she was home.

“That was one hell of a shot, kid,” said Kariym, helping Jalil back to his feet. The instant he was up, Mira ran up and threw her arms around him.

“I knew you’d make it.” For a split second, she almost gave him a kiss, but he blushed deep red and quickly glanced down to check his rifle. Rebuffed, she felt her own cheeks flush and turned away to hide it.

What’s come over me? she wondered to herself. Perhaps she’d gotten a little too carried away—she hoped it hadn’t driven Jalil further from her.

“Well, aren’t you going to give the man a target?” asked Abu Hussan.

“What? Oh, yes, of course.”

Jalil stepped away, his back turned to the others as he scanned the plains below. As he did, Mira backed off a short distance, away from the center of attention.

“There,” he said, pointing to some distant target. “Shoot off the branch jutting straight up from that dead trunk over there.”

Ashraf clucked with his tongue and shook his head. “No,” he said, “that’s much too easy. I’ll aim for the tree growing out of the boulder on the other side of the creek.”

What tree? Mira wanted to ask. Instead, she folded her arms and kept quiet.

As Jalil peered into the distance, Ashraf lowered himself to his stomach, bringing his gun to bear. A few moments later, they heard the crack of the shot. It seemed almost to split the sky in half, it was so loud.

Kariym and Abu Hussan frowned and squinted, and Jalil brought his scope back up to his eyes. Mira waited; sure enough, a ragged cheer soon erupted from the men. Jalil walked over to her, whistling under his breath.

“Did he make it?” whispered Mira.

“Yes.” He turned to Ashraf and clasped arms with him. “An excellent shot—twice as good as my own.”

Kariym slapped them both on the back. “Care for another round?”

Jalil laughed. “No, I’m not a fool. Ashraf’s clearly the better of us.”

Not to me.

“That may be true,” said Kariym as he patted Jalil on the back, “but all the same, it’s damn good to have you with us.”

A short popping noise sounded in the distance. Mira froze where she stood.

“What’s that?” she asked.

The three men immediately stopped to listen. Only the boiling pot by the hovercraft and the wind rustling the yellow grass broke the silence—that, and the distant sound of explosions.

“Abu Hussan,” said Kariym, his voice deathly serious, “power up the hovercraft and check the radar. Ashraf and Jalil, come with me.”

“What should I do?” asked Mira, unable to keep the fear from her voice.

“Pack up your stew and break camp. Whatever is going on, we won’t be staying here much longer.”


* * * * *


Jalil followed Kariym and Ashraf to other side of the hill, keeping low to the ground as gunshots sounded in the distance. He peered forward and saw flashes of artillery and plasma fire in the vicinity of one of the local villages.

Kariym and Ashraf crouched in the high grass, and Jalil followed suit. They drew up close to each other, and Kariym pulled out a pair of binoculars.

“Exactly as I thought,” said Kariym. “The warlords are on the move.” He handed the binoculars to Ashraf. “Do you see any gunboats coming our way?”

Ashraf looked on in silence for several moments. Jalil felt his heart beat faster.

“No,” Ashraf said as he handed the binoculars back.

“Good. No doubt they’ve seen us, though.”

“What’s going on?” asked Jalil.

“Here,” said Kariym, handing him the binoculars. “Take a look.”

Jalil zoomed in on the valley below, where smoke was rising from a few small buildings on the outskirts of the village. Flames had already engulfed two of the structures and were starting to fan out across the grassland. Upwind, about five hovercraft gunboats slowly advanced, firing constant streams of plasma into the settlement. Dozens of people swarmed out of the houses. Some carried bags, others simply fled empty-handed. Jalil saw a few women carrying babies, while others ran with young children trailing behind, desperately trying to keep up.

The gunboats broke formation and fell on the fleeing crowd. In less than a minute, they were scorched and blasted to pieces; only those who fell back into the burning buildings escaped the onslaught. The sight made Jalil sick to his stomach.

“What’s going on?”

“A massacre,” said Kariym grimly. “The village must have done something to anger the local warlord.”

One of the gunboats stopped, and a squad of armed soldiers jumped out. From his vantage point, Jalil saw two of the villagers waiting behind the nearest structure with shovels in their hands. When the first gunman rounded the corner, they jumped out and clubbed him down with their improvised weapons. Within seconds, the other soldiers came to their comrade’s support, firing at point blank. The villagers’ bloody innards splattered across the wall as they slumped to the ground.

Jalil’s cheeks grew warm with rage, and his grip on the binoculars tightened. “Where are the village’s warriors?” he asked. “Why is no one trying to stop this?”

“The soldiers are their warriors,” Kariym said softly.

“What?” said Jalil, looking up in horror. In the desert, it was forbidden to slay women and children of any tribe, much less one’s own. He put down the binoculars and eyed the other men carefully.

“Is that true?”

“More or less,” said Ashraf, his face expressionless. “The warlord owns this territory, and everyone in it. If he wants to slaughter them, that’s his own affair.”

Jalil’s muscles stiffened. “How is that possible?” he asked. “How could someone turn so savagely on his own people?”

“They aren’t his people,” said Kariym as he took back the binoculars. “Tribal loyalties don’t exist here—just the factions and those who fight for them. Now come, let’s move on.”

Kariym and Ashraf stood up and started walking back towards their camp. Jalil joined them, but his feet felt heavy. He glanced back at the rising smoke plume and clenched his fists.

“We’ve got to stop it,” he said, his heart racing. “We’ve got to—”

“No,” said Kariym, turning to face him. “We’re mercenaries, not peacekeepers. So long as the warlords let us pass, we have no business interfering in their affairs.”

“But this is wrong!” Jalil cried out. “Are you just going to let those people die? This is shameful!”

“And what would you propose, boy?” Kariym asked, his usual jovial expression replaced by hot anger. “Would you risk all our lives in an attack that would almost certainly fail?”

“No,” Jalil said, suddenly feeling helpless. “I would—I would—”

“You would what?”

“I don’t know, but I would do something.

“You don’t think I am?” Kariym said loudly. “I’m getting us all to safety. There’s no shame in running from a fight we know we can’t win—no shame at all.”

“We could radio for backup.”

Kariym let out a harsh laugh. “Radio for backup? Ha! Do you really think Lucien cares what happens to those people? He would dock our pay just for telling him about it.”

Jalil opened his mouth to protest, but found he had nothing to say. His arms hung limp by his sides as a feeling of utter powerlessness swept over him, tempering his indignation.

“Come,” said Kariym, turning back toward the camp. “Let’s head out.”

Kariym walked off, but Jalil lingered for a moment, fists still clenched by his sides. As he hung his head and followed the others back to the camp, Ashraf walked up alongside him and put an arm around his shoulder.

“At least we run because we cannot stand,” he said, “not because we are cowards.”

Ashraf’s words gave Jalil little comfort. The image of the villagers’ bloody entrails smeared across the wall came back to his mind, and he shivered in horror.

“It’s not right,” he muttered, to no one in particular.

“Few things are,” said Ashraf.

When they reached the camp, Abu Hassan and Mira were loading the last of the supplies. In less than five minutes, they were on the move, a plume of fresh smoke rising in the sky to their rear.

Chapter 9


“Naz-mi,” Lucien called out in his loud monotone voice. Jalil stepped forward through the crowd of mercenaries, leaving his bags with Mira.

It’s Najmi, he wanted to say. By the time he reached the front, however, the master sergeant was already calling out someone else’s name. He nodded to Jalil and motioned with his eyes to the desk behind him, where Gregor’s team of accountants issued the payments.

“Name and rank,” said the man behind the desk, not bothering to look up from his computer. He was thin and lanky, with pale skin and an orange goattee.

“Jalil Najmi, private.”

The man struck a few keys, his face expressionless. Jalil shifted on his feet and glanced back at Mira. She stood behind the crowd, next to the row of parked hovercraft. Their eyes met across the distance, and she smiled nervously at him.

“Datachip,” said the man. Jalil blinked and turned to face the desk.

“What?”

“Do you have a cash datachip or don’t you?”

Jalil fumbled in the pockets of his robes. “I don’t have them with me. Just a moment, I’ll run and—”

“Don’t bother.” With a scowl, the man pulled out an oddly shaped chip from a socket in the computer’s side. “Here,” he said. “That should have it all.”

“Thank you,” said Jalil. He held the datachip tightly in his hand as he shouldered his way back through the crowd. Ashraf sat on a cinderblock, cleaning his rifle, while Kariym leaned against the side of the parked hovercraft, enjoying a cigarette. The smoke mingled with the oily aftertaste in the air and made Jalil’s nose twitch.

“How much did you get?” Mira asked, holding onto her arm behind her back. She smiled at Jalil as he walked over to her.

“I don’t know,” he said, examining the datachip. “I’ve never seen this particular style. All I can say is it’d better be the five thousand they owe us.”

“Let me see it,” said Kariym.

Jalil handed it over, and Kariym squinted as he held it up to his face. Ashraf paused in his work and glanced up at the three of them. A frown spread across Kariym’s broad face, making Jalil’s stomach sink.

“It says there’s only forty-eight hundred and twelve Gaian credits loaded.”

Jalil’s arms tensed, and blood rushed to his cheeks. He snatched the datachip from Kariym’s hands and turned on his heel, headed back for the desk.

“Whoa, there!” said Kariym, clapping a hand on his shoulder. Jalil tried to shake it off, but Kariym’s grip held him fast.

“Let me go!” he shouted. “They think they can cheat us twice?”

“And risk losing it all? Think, man—this is Gregor’s camp, and you’re far from home. If you start a fight, who will stand by you?”

“But he robbed us!”

“No, he didn’t,” said Ashraf. “Those two hundred credits were for food and provisions. If you read your contract, you’ll see that it’s all included.”

“The man’s right,” said Kariym. “Be happy with what you’ve got.”

Jalil fumed with rage, but he held his temper. He took a sharp breath and walked over to Mira, bending over to pick up their bags.

“Come on, let’s go.”

“At least the flights to the temple are pretty cheap here,” said Ashraf. “You could probably both get a ticket for five hundred, perhaps less.”

“What?” Mira exclaimed. Jalil stopped and turned back around.

“That’s right,” said Kariym. He tossed his cigarette butt to the dirt and ground it out with his foot. “We’re only about eight hundred miles from the temple. You wouldn’t even need a sub-orbital shuttle to get there; just a normal jetplane.”

“Truly?” said Jalil. “And how long should that take us?”

“Not long; perhaps three or four hours. If you catch a flight today, you can make it to the temple by tomorrow.”

An electric shock shot down Jalil’s spine, extending through his arms to the tips of his fingers. The news brightened his mood like a cool evening breeze after a blindingly hot day.

“The spaceport’s not far from here either,” said Kariym. “There’s a train line that connects to it direct from the border crossing. Ask around, and you should find it.”

“Thank you,” said Jalil. An irrepressible grin spread across his face, and his heart began to beat faster with anticipation.

“Don’t mention it. Just remember to pray for us.”

“I will. Believe me, I will.”

“Then may the peace of Earth be upon you, brother.”

“And upon you, as well.”

Jalil turned to Mira. “Are you ready?”

“Yes,” she whispered. For some reason, she seemed a little upset—but Jalil was so excited, he hardly noticed.


* * * * *


Tomorrow, Mira thought to herself as she followed Jalil down the wide, skylit corridor of the spaceport terminal. Tomorrow, Jalil leaves forever.

“Here’s our gate,” said Jalil. He stopped at a row of empty benches and dropped their bags as he sat down.

“How long before we board?” Mira asked, her voice barely louder than a whisper. She took her seat next to him, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees.

He squinted and looked off to a screen on the opposite wall. “One hour and fifteen minutes.”

Mira nodded and swallowed. Even though the sun shone harshly in a dark blue sky, the cloudy overhead windows diffused its light, illuminating the terminal in a bright but softened glow. It felt a little bit unreal, like something out of a dream—a dream where everything was slipping out of her control.

Jalil turned and smiled at her, his muscular arms spread out casually over the back of the bench. Her heart pounded in her chest as she realized that this might be one of the last times she would be alone with him without anything to interrupt them. If she was ever to make a move, it would have to be now.

“Are you all right?” he asked. “You look pale all of a sudden.”

“It’s—it’s nothing,” she said, casting her eyes down. When she glanced back up at him, a troubled expression clouded his face—a look of genuine concern. He gently touched her arm, and she bit her lip and began to tremble.

“Mira?” he said, his voice soft. “What’s wrong?”

She took in a deep breath. “I was just thinking: when we arrive at the temple, and the journey’s over…” Her voice trailed off.

His deep blue eyes met hers, and all the unfamiliar sights and sounds in the lightly trafficked terminal faded, leaving just the two of them. For the first time that day, she realized she wasn’t wearing her headscarf—yet somehow that no longer bothered her. In his presence, she felt whole, as if they’d shared a lifetime together.

“Are you going miss us?” she asked.

“Of course I’ll miss you,” Jalil said. “But how can I spend the rest of my life not knowing who I am or where I’m from? I’ve got to find out, Mira, no matter what it takes.”

“But does that mean you have to leave us?”

“If it means finding my home, then yes.”

His answer shattered her. She felt as if her heart had dropped through the floor, leaving a terrible wound in her chest.

“Will you miss me?” she whispered.

He blinked, and his body grew suddenly tense. “Of—of course,” he stuttered.

Adrenaline surged through her body as she put her hand on his knee. His eyes widened a little, but he gave no resistance as she moved closer to him.

“Do you love me?”

He opened his mouth as if to speak, but said nothing. Mira leaned forward until their lips were almost touching. Her breath caught in her throat, and for a gut-wrenching moment she feared he would push her away.

But he didn’t. Instead, his mouth parted ever so slightly, and he leaned forward to meet her. She closed her eyes and tilted her head back, and their lips touched, sending shivers down her spine. Her body tensed for a fraction of a second—just a tiny fraction—before turning to water in his arms.

It was exactly as she’d imagined.

But then without warning, Jalil’s body stiffened and tensed. Before she could react, he pushed her away and rose hastily to his feet.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, fear seizing her. “What did I—”

“Nothing, nothing,” he said, his cheeks blushing bright red. “Are you hungry?”

An awful sinking feeling grew in Mira’s gut. She looked into Jalil’s eyes, but saw no recognition of the moment they’d just shared—no acknowledgment that anything had changed between them.

“Hungry?” she whispered.

“Yes, hungry. It’s been a while since we’ve eaten, and I don’t know about you, but I’m famished.”

Don’t let him go!

“But what about—”

“Stay here with the bags. I’ll be back in a minute.” Before Mira could protest, he was already walking away down the terminal.

She leaned forward and buried her head in her hands. Tears stung her eyes, and she wished more than anything that she could hide behind her headscarf. True, she still had one in her bag, but now wasn’t the time to put it on—not at all.

Mother was right, she thought to herself, hugging her chest. Why do you think God gave you these? Her breath came short and fast, and her head swam with dizziness. More than anything, she felt small—small, powerless, and hopelessly inexperienced. But if it was the only way…

When you’re alone together, you’ll know what to do.


* * * * *


Jalil couldn’t stop thinking about the kiss. It haunted his thoughts the entire flight, though Mira barely spoke a word. He glanced at her frequently from out of the corner of his eye, but she seemed strangely melancholy, absorbed in her thoughts.

They flew low over a flat, featureless landscape—an unbroken sea of glass. The plane barely skimmed the surface, relying on its jets as much as its wings to stay aloft. The atmosphere above the domes was so thin, the sky was dark even in the middle of the day. The harsh sunlight glinted off of the reflective surface, causing the autotinted windows to dim as they landed in the late afternoon.

The kiss still preoccupied him as he found a place for them to spend the night. The memory of her lips pressed against his shook him to his core in a way that nothing else ever had. It was as if he’d lived his whole life in black and white, and only now could see color. A host of new emotions swelled within him, ones that he’d felt on occasion but never truly understood.

The hotel he found for them stood on the edge of the spaceport compound. The rates were a bit pricey, but here above the world it was the cheapest place he could find. Their room sat on the edge of the sprawling complex, with an unobstructed view of the endless sea of glass. When they first entered, the sun was low over the horizon, reflecting in brilliant shades of orange and red. It soon set, however, transforming the sky into cascading shades of purple and black. The stars and satellites came out soon after, shining so brilliantly that Jalil almost felt he could reach out and take them in his hand.

He spread out his bedding on the floor as usual, but took a moment to lie face up on top of the bed while Mira was getting ready for the night. The skylight window filled almost the entire ceiling, giving him an unobstructed view of space. As he pondered the events of the day, Mira came out from the bathroom and sat down next to him, taking a moment to share the view.

Two months ago, Jalil thought, I would have cringed at the thought of spending the night in the same room as Mira. Now, he barely gave it a second thought.

Without a word, Mira reached over and ran her fingers through his hair. Jalil tensed a little, but made no move to stop her. The soft starlight illuminated her face and gave her a dreamy beauty. They stared silently into each others’ eyes for some time, savoring the moment.

What’s this? he wondered. Another kiss?

His heart beat a little faster as she continued to stroke his hair. Her touch was surprisingly pleasant, and he let out a long breath as his body relaxed. With her other hand, she gently undid his belt. He considered stopping her, but felt too tired to offer any resistance.

She paused for a moment to unbutton the front of his robes, leaving his chest bare. He shifted warily as if to sit up, but she bent down and pressed her lips against his, sending tingles down his spine. His head swam with dizziness, and the tension melted right out of him.

As they kissed, she climbed up until she was straddling him. Something told him that they were about to cross a line, but he felt like a spectator in his own body, unable to do anything but watch.

They kissed again. Her breath felt warm against his cheek, and his own breath started to come a little heavier. He felt a powerful urge to hold her, to reach his own hands around her body, stroke her hair, her shoulders, her hips. A primal hunger opened deep within him, coloring his feelings and desires until they lost all coherence.

Mira pulled away from him and sat up, reaching down to her waist with crossed arms. In one smooth motion, she pulled her shirt over her head, letting it fall to the floor. The glow of the stars illuminated her skin in a soft, diffuse light, playing off of her shoulders and breasts.

Jalil drew in a sharp breath and began to sweat as Mira leaned forward and started rubbing his chest. Is this wrong? It reminded him of the girls at the cantina, though that seemed like such a distant memory. He hesitated, imprisoned in a tangled web of conflicting thoughts and feelings, but the urge to hold her was too great. As he reached his hands around Mira’s back and drew her closer to him, she leaned forward and pressed her lips against his in a kiss more vigorous than the first. The lust in his body pulsed and burned until it threatened to tear him apart.

As he undid the sash around her waist, however, he felt her grow tense for a fraction of a second. A wave of shame washed over him, and his arms and hands trembled with revulsion as he realized what he was doing. He felt as if he were covered in human excrement—covered so deep he was swimming in it. He pushed Mira off of him and tumbled to the floor.

“Jalil?”

He ignored her and stumbled through the door to the bathroom. The ceiling here was opaque; a dim yellow light switched on automatically as he entered. He found a sink and splashed cold water across his face, trying to cool his sweaty, trembling body.

“Jalil, what’s wrong?” came Mira’s voice behind him. He felt her hand on his shoulder.

“Get away,” he practically screamed. She hesitated by the door for a moment before leaving, the sound of her bare feet pattering against the floor.

He stood over the sink for a long time, cold water dripping down his chest as his breath came short and ragged. Gradually, the fire in his body died down, leaving him little more than a cold, burned-out shell.

When he returned to the bedroom, he found Mira sitting on the bed, still only partially dressed. She watched him with anxious eyes, as if fearful that he would strike her.

“Jalil?” she asked in a trembling voice. “What’s wrong?”

“We can’t do this,” he said. “It’s wrong.”

“What do you mean? I—I love you.”

“This isn’t love. It’s something else.”

“But—but please, don’t you—I mean—”

Her voice cracked, and she started to break down into tears. Jalil found himself at a total loss.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“Don’t you think I’m beautiful? Don’t you think I’m good enough for you?”

This isn’t the Mira I know, he realized. Something else is going on here.

Mira rose to her feet and walked over to him. With shaky, nervous hands, she tried to undo the sash around his waist, but he took her firmly by the wrists and stopped her.

“Mira, what’s going on? Tell me.”

She collapsed to her knees by his feet and started to sob uncontrollably. “But we have to—we have to,” she repeated over and over again. Confused, Jalil gently helped her to her feet and sat down next to her on the bed.

“What are you saying?” he asked.

“Can’t you see?” she cried. “You have to come back to the camp—you have to. Mother told me to do anything, even…”

Jalil froze where he stood, his blood turning to ice. “What do you mean?”

Mira stopped crying long enough to pull herself together. “It was my parents,” she said. “They—they told me to do anything to get you to come back. Even this.” She looked down at the ground, tears still streaming down her cheeks. “I’m sorry, Jalil—I’m so sorry.”

The blood drained out of Jalil’s face, leaving him feeling numb. He stood and braced himself against the wall for support. Sathi didn’t trust me to keep his daughter’s honor, he thought in horror to himself. He trusted me not to run away after I dishonored her.

He felt dirty all over. Dirty, and full of rage—at the world, at his father, but most of all at himself.

“Please don’t be angry,” Mira pleaded. “I—I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

What did you mean, then? Jalil wondered, clenching his fists. You lied to me!

He stumbled to the other side of the room, feeling as if the floor were giving way beneath him. If Sathi and Shira had conspired to do this, everything they’d ever taught him was a lie. A sham. They were no more honorable than Gregor, or Lucien, or the cantina girls.

With a gut-wrenching scream, he slammed his fist against the wall. He punched it over and over, until his fists were numb and bloody. When all his energy was spent, he sat on the floor, hands covering his face. The room was eerily silent.

“I’m sorry,” Mira whispered.

“I know,” said Jalil.

A minute passed. Mira stood up and walked quietly over to him. Tentatively, she put a hand on his shoulder.

“Can’t you just come back with me?” she asked. “Even if—”

She drew back as Jalil rose to his feet. He turned to face her, blood still oozing from his battered knuckles.

“Is that the price your parents sold you for?”

“I didn’t—I mean—they told me we’d be married when we got back,” she said, stuttering. “If you’re the only man I ever, well—they said I could still have strawberries at my wedding.”

Jalil inwardly recoiled in horror, but kept his expression stoic. “And you agreed to this?” he asked.

Mira opened her mouth, but words failed her. She hung her head and avoided his gaze.

“I’m sorry.”

“So am I,” said Jalil, “but I can’t go back with you.”

She collapsed on the bed and wept into one of the pillows. Without a word, Jalil took one of the blankets from the foot of the bed and laid it out across the floor.

“I’m sorry, Mira. Goodnight.”

She was still crying when he fell asleep.

Chapter 10


Jalil woke nearly an hour before dawn to say his morning prayers. The light of the unborn sunrise dimmed the stars as it shone down into the room, casting everything in shades of blue and gray. He kept the light off as he dressed, so as not to disturb Mira. She lay on top of the covers with her face still buried in the pillow.

He paused at the bedside and looked down at her. She looked so young and innocent, sleeping peacefully on the pure white bedsheets. As he stared, though, the memory of last night filled him with an overwhelming sense of shame and confusion.

I can never go back, he realized, picking up his things as he turned to leave. There is nothing left for me on this world.

He walked down the hallway to the hotel’s tiny prayer hall and spent the next half-hour meditating in silence. It calmed him to watch the uniform horizon as the sky gradually grew lighter. The landscape looked so clean and pure—a sea of glass, so close to the sky that he felt he could step outside and walk among the stars.

A handful of other guests trickled silently into the room. Jalil did not see Mira among them.

As the patrons bowed silently to whisper their morning prayers, Jalil reached underneath his shirt and pulled out his mother’s pendant. This was what had brought him across such a long distance—the compass that pointed to his destiny, the key that would unlock the door to his new life. He held tenderly it in his hands as he bowed his head.

In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate, he prayed silently. I may not be sinless, but I’ve tried to do your will as best as I know how. Please bless the priests of the Holy Archives to read the data in this pendant and show me where you would have me go.


* * * * *


Mira wanted nothing more than to run away. After last night, just the thought of being in the same room as Jalil filled her with shame and embarrassment. Fortunately, when she awoke, he was already gone. She cried a little as she got ready for the day, but composed herself with little trouble.

He returned to their hotel room shortly after morning prayers.

“The next train leaves for the temple in forty-five minutes,” he said. “Will you be ready to go?”

“Yes,” Mira whispered, too ashamed to meet his eyes.

She put on her headscarf before leaving the room, wrapping it tightly around her face so that only her eyes were visible. After so many days with her head uncovered, it felt strange to be wearing it again. Certainly, if it was meant to protect her modesty and shield her from the sinfulness of the world, it had utterly failed. Now, it was only good for hiding her filthiness from others.

Jalil said nothing as they left the dorms and boarded the train. The silence felt painfully awkward, but Mira wasn’t about to break it.

The train to the temple was smaller than the others, with windows that stretched across both walls and partway up the ceiling. They gave her a magnificent view of the dark-blue sky and the featureless glassy landscape that stretched in all directions to the horizon. Except for the lack of wind in her face, it felt as if she were in a caravaneer, with nothing over her head except the bars of the roll cage.

After nearly an hour, the ground began to slope downwards. The other passengers craned their necks and stared anxiously ahead. Jalil was among them; he leaned forward in his seat and stood up halfway, trying to see over the others. For her part, though, Mira shrunk down in her seat and tried to make herself invisible.

A chorus of oohs and ahhs rippled through the train. The buzz of breathless conversations filled her ears, and she covered them with her hands to block out the noise. To her dismay, Jalil nudged her arm excitedly.

“Mira, look!” he said, pointing out the window on her side of the car. “You can see it!”

Mira sighed and lifted her head. When she caught sight of the temple, however, her eyes widened in awe.

The four oldest domes on Gaia Nova met at a rounded corner, tapering gradually at first before dropping sharply like a giant whirlpool or sinkhole. From the center of the hole, a giant, ivory-white tower spiraled into the sky, stretching upward into the dark blue heavens. It reminded her of a seashell that a trader had once brought to the camp, thicker at the base with smaller towers jutting out at regular intervals like knobs. Flying buttresses connected it to the four domes, and along these a steady stream of traffic ran up to the main structure, trains so small that they looked almost like tiny insects climbing the stem of an enormous plant.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Jalil exclaimed.

“I guess.”

He looked at her and frowned. She didn’t meet his eyes.

“Aren’t you happy to finally be here?”

“I suppose.”

He looked at her long and hard. She flinched under his gaze.

“You never wanted to come for the temple,” he said at last, his voice as serious as death. “You only came because your parents made you.”

She bit her lip to keep herself from trembling.

“Yes.”

“I suppose there’s no point in going through with the pilgrimage, then.”

“No,” she whispered. “There isn’t.”

He nodded. “We’ll go straight to the Holy Archives. After that, I’ll drop you off with your cousin; she should help you get back to the desert.”

She closed her eyes and took in a sharp breath, trying to fight back her tears. Her shoulders shook, betraying her, but Jalil did not reach out to comfort her. It was just as well; she knew she didn’t deserve it.


* * * * *


From the train station, they took an aerial transport to the main spire. Jalil stared out the window as they flew between the flying buttresses, marveling at the size and beauty of the ancient structure. This is where our first fathers settled when they came from Holy Earth over three thousand years ago, he told himself. This is where history began.

After landing on a pad somewhere near the base of the structure, they walked towards a security checkpoint at the door. YOU ARE ENTERING A NON-SECTARIAN ZONE, read a sign in bright red letters. ALL GUNS, KNIVES, UNAPPROVED CHEMICAL SUBSTANCES, CIGARETTES, AND IMMODEST CLOTHING ARE FORBIDDEN. ALL PROSELYTING IS ALSO FORBIDDEN. LEAVE BAGS WITH SECURITY.

“Hold it,” said a guard as they approached. “You can’t bring that into the temple. You’d better check it here.”

Jalil frowned in confusion until he remembered the rifle strapped to his back. A false gift from his false father—he almost wanted to cast it away and never see it again. Still, honor compelled him to hold onto it, at least long enough to give it to Mira.

“Will I get it back?”

“Yes, yes, of course,” the guard said, gesturing impatiently.

Jalil handed him the rifle, and the guard gave him a slip of paper after he passed through the metal detector. “Show this at the main gate on level 1505,” he said. “That’s where they’ll be holding it.”

Jalil took the slip and hid it in his shirt pocket, securing the button so that nobody would steal his receipt. “Come on,” he said to Mira. She followed him without a word.

They got on a crowded elevator and took it to the ground level. The ride took almost half an hour, even at speeds that made them both swoon with dizziness.

When they stepped out, the scent of burning incense hit Jalil’s nose like a brick wall. He blinked a couple of times but followed the crowd as it swept them forward, down an ancient, decorated hall lined with gold-trimmed images.

The Holy Archives were located deep in the heart of the temple. Without any windows or sunlight, the only illumination came from a few ancient lamps and chandeliers. Another security checkpoint sat just outside the main entrance, with a long line in front of it.

Jalil tapped his foot impatiently on the stone floor, worn smooth by the passage of millions of worshipers. The air was hot, and sweat soon formed on the back of his neck. He glanced back at Mira, but she didn’t look up at him.

The man behind them lifted a small mechanical device to his eye. It looked like a camera.

“Hey,” said Jalil. “What are you doing?”

“Taking pictures, of course,” said the man, a little petulant. “What’s it to you?”

“Dear,” said a woman behind him. “Please.”

“Why are you taking pictures?” Jalil asked, unfazed. “This is a holy place.”

The man scowled. “There’s nothing in the rules against photography. Now mind your own business, will you?”

“I’m sorry,” said the woman. “You’ll have to excuse my husband; he doesn’t do well in crowds.”

Jalil frowned as he looked them over. They weren’t dressed like pilgrims at all; the woman wore a brown leather jacket over what appeared to be a tank top, while the man wore a green button-up shirt with frilly embroidery on the front.

“Why are you here?”

“Oh, we’re just tourists,” said the woman, smiling and waving her hand as if it were nothing. “Don’t mind us.”

Tourists? Jalil wondered, perplexed. What are tourists doing at such a holy site? He knew people who had sacrificed almost everything to come to this place—what had these tourists sacrificed?

After nearly an hour, they made it through security and entered the ancient hall. Lamps, icons, images, and gilded decorations covered the walls. Smoke and incense filled the air, making Mira cough. In the center of the room sat a small metal structure, shaped almost like the wreckage of the ship that had brought Jalil to this world. His heart beat a little faster, but the noisy crowd had formed yet another line that completely circled the small building. Priests dressed in rich, ornate vestments guarded the structure and managed the crowd.

“Is this it?” asked Mira. “The source of all human knowledge?”

“The repository of all the wisdom of Earth,” he said, correcting her.

“It looks—kind of small.”

Jalil opened his mouth to reply, but didn’t know what to say. He had to admit that it wasn’t at all like he’d expected it to be.

The line moved excruciatingly slowly; if it weren’t for the sacredness of the place, Jalil would have cursed the wait. Instead, he swallowed his frustration as best he could. He’d traveled nearly nine thousand miles in the past month to come here; he could wait a little longer.

After what felt like an eternity, they made it to the door of the ancient repository.

“Is this the Holy Archives?” he asked one of the priests.

The man gave him a look of annoyance. “Yes. Move along.”

Before Jalil could pull out his pendant, he ushered them into the small building.

The incense was twice as strong here, and the light significantly dimmer. When Jalil’s eyes had adjusted, he squinted and frowned at the strangeness of the sight before him.

The inside of the building was one small room, with twenty cylindrical pillars scattered about in the middle. Each pillar was about three feet in diameter and ten feet high. Though they were clearly made of metal, the sheen had long since worn smooth. Worshipers knelt or prostrated themselves in prayer, while others closed their eyes and placed their hands on the pillars as if in some kind of trance. Some even kissed the objects, leaving sloppy wet marks on the surface.

What’s going on? Jalil wondered. He found a priest and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Excuse me,” he asked, “what are—”

“Shh!” hushed the priest. “Don’t you know where you are?”

Jalil frowned. “The Holy Archives?”

“Yes. Be respectful of the venerators.”

Am I not a venerator myself?

“What are the pillars?” he asked.

The priest hissed in displeasure. “The memory databanks of the holy archive,” he whispered. “The data storage units that the forefathers brought with them from Earth. Are you sure you know where you are?”

I thought I did, Jalil thought silently to himself. He hesitated for a moment before pulling out his pendant. If he was going to ask, now was the time.

“Excuse me,” he whispered. “I have a question.”

The priest raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”

“My mother left me this pendant before she—well, it’s a long story. I need to unlock the data that’s inside, but no one I’ve met has ever been able to do so. I came here because I knew that if anyone could do it, it would be the priests of the Holy Archives. Please, can you help me?”

The priest took the pendant and looked it over. After a few brief seconds, he handed it back to Jalil.

“Where are you from, son?”

“I’m a tribesman from the deserts.”

The priest whistled softly. “That explains it. Son, you can take this to any data storage dealer in any city. It’s an offworld design, but it doesn’t look all that unusual.”

Jalil’s legs went weak, and a wave of dizziness swept over him. “But—but this is the source of all Earthly knowledge and wisdom. I thought—”

“I’m sorry,” said the priest, putting his hand on Jalil’s shoulder. “You mustn’t take that literally. Three thousand years ago, these storage banks carried the sum total of all Earthly knowledge, but they stopped working ages ago. The data they carried can be found in any of the universities, libraries, and other repositories across the empire. These empty shells are holy artifacts—nothing more.”

Jalil didn’t know what to say. The room suddenly felt hot and cramped.

“Thank you,” he mumbled. He took Mira by the hand and left before the priest could answer.

“What did he say?” she asked.

“He said he can’t help me.”

“What does that mean?”

Jalil’s cheeks felt hot with anger and embarrassment. “It means that I’ve wasted my time. I’ve wasted your time. This whole trip—it was all a big, damn waste of our lives.”

“Oh.”

They left the domed chamber and walked briskly down the vaulted hallway, back toward the elevator. Along the way, they passed a group of tourists taking pictures of one of the gold-framed images in the hall. The sight made Jalil want to scream, but he stormed past them in silence.

“So this is it?” asked Mira.

“Yes.”

“This is goodbye?”

Jalil didn’t dignify her remark with an answer.


* * * * *


The ride to Nawal’s house felt surreal, like something from a dream. Mira stared out the window the entire time, watching as the ivory white tower of the temple grew steadily smaller behind them. They passed through the glass of Terra 2 Dome, and the featureless ground became a ceiling far above the clouds. She caught her breath at the sight and gripped her chair in alarm, but Jalil made no move to comfort her or ask if she was all right. Part of her felt relieved to be left to herself, while the rest of her wanted to cry.

Terra 2 Dome was completely unlike any other dome that Mira had yet seen. The landscape below was a giant ocean, stretching from the base of the glass wall to the edge of the horizon. Her eyes widened at the sight, and she pressed her face up against the window to get a better view. Here was more water than she’d seen in her entire life—more than she’d ever thought could exist. As they descended, the surface rippled in the golden light of the sun, diffused by the glass and clouds.

The train didn’t slow at all, but raced at full speed down towards the water’s surface. Mira gasped and covered her eyes as they passed through; the hum of the wind outside the window jumped in pitch, but she felt no shock. When she opened her eyes again, she found that they were traveling through a long glass tunnel, giving her a view of the ocean floor. To her surprise, the underwater scene was teeming with life and color. Craggy red and white formations reached up toward the wavy blue surface above, while creatures of all shapes and sizes floated about in the midst of the surreal aquatic landscape. A cloud passed overhead, and Mira caught sight of it long enough to tell that it was actually a flock of tiny blue-green creatures all swimming in sync with each other. Though everything passed in a blur, she stared out in wonder at it all, turning her head from side to side to catch fragmentary glimpses.

Look! she wanted to say to Jalil. Isn’t it beautiful? Instead, she held her tongue. It was easier than trying to bridge the wall that had come between them—easier, and yet infinitely harder.

Like the seascape before her, time passed in a blur. Eventually, however, the ground rose and the train broke out to skim the surface of the ocean. It slowed as they approached an island of rust-colored rock and lush green forest, interspersed with picturesque red stone buildings. Perhaps, Mira mused, if an ocean of water covered the desert, leaving only the highest mountain crags poking through, it would one day look like this. Oddly enough, for that reason alone the sight reminded her more of her home than anything she had yet seen.

The train came to a gradual stop at a station built of red shale and sandstone. Mira and Jalil were the only ones to disembark. The salty sea air blew across her face as she stepped out, pleasantly cool and moist. She loosened her headscarf and breathed it in, fresh and clean.

With a hum, the train left the platform and descended once more beneath the sea, leaving a peaceful silence broken only by the cries of the large white birds in the sky and the breaking of the waves on the beach. It was like a tiny piece of heaven.

A heaven which she did not deserve.

She followed Jalil wordlessly down the black cobblestone avenues of the beautiful village. A few miniature hovercars passed them by, but most of the people here walked rather than drove. Small, eclectic shops lined the main street, with tables beneath colorful awnings to display their various wares. It reminded her a little of the open-air market in New Amman. A small girl in a pretty blue dress stood behind a cart full of beautiful flowers, selling them to passersby. A young boy in a leather vest and checkered cap sold delicious-smelling pastries outside of a small brick shop. Everyone here seemed so happy and content, smiling as they talked with each other.

As Mira’s mind wandered, she imagined spending the rest of her life with Jalil in a place like this. Everything seemed so simple and peaceful here; no warlords or bombings, blood feuds or tribal jealousies. The land and sea were rich and full of life, the air cool and deliciously wet against her skin. With relatives such as Nawal nearby, she could settle in this place and be happy.

The thought brought bitter tears to her eyes as she realized it would never happen. Even so, she held on to them, as if her fantasies could offer some meager substitute for the awful reality she faced.

At length, they arrived at Nawal’s house. Jalil knocked on the old wooden door, while down by their feet a brown cat eyed them before returning to licking its paws. After a few moments, the door swung open, revealing a short, middle aged woman with graying hair.

“Eh?” she said, frowning. “Who are you?”

“Jalil Ibn Sathi Al-Najmi. Are you Nawal?”

Recognition dawned on her face. “Ah, yes—come in, come in.” Mira started to step inside, but Jalil remained at the door.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “but I must be going.”

At his words, Mira’s stomach fell.

“What?” Nawal exclaimed. “But you’ve only just arrived!”

“Take this back to your father,” said Jalil, handing the heirloom rifle to Mira. She was about to protest, but the cold expression on his face cut her short. She accepted it without a word.

“What nonsense is this?” Nawal exclaimed. “Please, come in—I’ve made some dinner, and there’s more than enough for both of you.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Jalil, “but I can’t stay. The last train leaves in twenty minutes.”

“But you’re more than welcome to—”

“I really should be going,” he said adamantly. “I wish I could stay, but I have a prior engagement.”

What prior engagement? Mira wondered, cringing at Jalil’s blatant rudeness. He didn’t sound like himself at all.

Nawal argued with him for a few minutes, but Jalil refused to give, and in the end she was forced to concede. With her hands on her hips, Nawal clucked and stepped inside.

“All right, dear,” she said to Mira. “Come along.”

“Wait!” cried Mira, running after Jalil. He was already heading down the street, about to leave without saying goodbye.

He stopped and looked up at her.

“Yes?”

Her hands trembled, and her eyes were blurry with tears. “So this is it,” she said quietly. “This is goodbye.”

“Yes,” said Jalil. He didn’t say anything else.

Before he could stop her, she flung her arms around his neck and gave him a parting hug. He hesitated for a moment, but he did put his arms around her—weakly, as if holding her at a distance. She bit her lip to keep from shaking.

“I’m so sorry,” she cried, surprised by the forcefulness in her voice. “I’m sorry for everything. Please, Jalil—please forgive me!”

“Of course I forgive you,” he said. “But I have to go now.”

No, she wanted to scream. You don’t have to leave. We can work things out—we can make everything work out.

Instead, she said nothing.

“Take these,” he said as he dropped several cash datachips into her hand.

“What’s this?”

“Two thousand credits,” he said. “It should help you with the return journey. Nawal will supply the rest, I’m sure.”

She looked up at him with teary eyes. They stared at each other in silence for a few more moments before he turned and left the way they had come.

Mira watched him until he turned the corner and was gone. You didn’t really forgive me, she thought to herself. Tears burned in her eyes, and her legs felt weak. You think you did, but you didn’t.

But then again, how could she expect him to forgive her when she couldn’t even forgive herself?


* * * * *


“Is this what you’re looking for?” asked the bald, overweight man at the specialty data store.

“Yes,” said Jalil. His heart leaped in his chest as the data from his locket appeared in raw binary code on the screen.

“Looks like a fairly standard encryption,” the man muttered. “This should resolve it—here.”

The numbers flashed away, revealing the image of an ID card. The right column contained critical information, such as age, height, and nationality, while the left column contained writing in a language that Jalil couldn’t read. In the upper left corner of the screen, the picture of a surprisingly young woman smiled down at him.

Jalil drew in a sharp breath. The woman in the picture was his mother.

She looked almost nothing like he’d remembered. Her face was too round, her nose too wide, and her skin too blotchy. The only thing he felt he genuinely recognized was the expression. There was something in her eyes that looked vaguely like the mother he’d remembered, but just barely. Otherwise, she could have been a complete stranger.

“Is this the data you’re looking for?” the man asked.

“Yes. That’s it.”

“Identification card for a missus—” he turned and squinted at the screen. “—a missus Dierdre Farland?”

Dierdre Farland, Jalil thought, his heart racing. That’s my mother’s name.

“Yes,” he said in a trembling voice. “That’s the one.”

The man pursed his lips and nodded “Hardy looking chip. You had it for a while?”

“All my life,” Jalil whispered.

“Long time to be carrying something like this, son. You say you want to know where it comes from?”

“Yes, please.”

“Let’s see,” said the man, yanking out the locket from the computer. Jalil winced as the screen went blank. “From the design, it probably came from one of the frontier worlds, out near the Good Hope Nebula. We don’t get these too often.”

“Can you read the rest of the data?”

“Certainly. Cracking the code was easy—the difficult part is always the hardware.”

“How much for a printed copy?”

“Of what you have here? Besides the missus’s picture, there’s not much else except her vital statistics and a short personal history. All told, looks like it comes to twenty-four pages.”

“How much will it cost?”

“Oh, let’s see—five credits base price, another two to get it in a bound copy.”

“I’ll get it bound, thanks,” said Jalil. He paused. “Can you tell me what planet she’s from?”

“What’s that?”

“Her homeworld. Planet of origin. What does it say?”

The man turned back to the computer and plugged in the locket. The monitor came back to life, displaying the information again.

“Karduna,” he said, evidently pleased with himself. “One of the frontier systems, just as I suspected. Looks like she’s from the third—no, wait, a mining colony near the third planet. Station K-3 L5b.”

K-3 L5b, Jalil thought. It sounded like some kind of vehicle specification, not a place where people lived.

“One more thing,” said Jalil, his heart racing. “You said there was a family history. Is there any information about children?”

The man frowned. “Children?”

“Yes.”

“Hold on a second, son,” the man said, turning back to the screen. “Let me see…” He scrolled down the data, moving painfully slow. Jalil tapped his foot impatiently on the floor.

“Yes,” he said after nearly a minute. “Looks like she was married to a mister Scott Farland, of the same system, with one child.”

“Yes, yes, I know. What is the boy’s name?”

The man made a funny face and turned back. “The name they’ve got for you is Gavin—Gavin Farland.”

Gavin Farland, Jalil thought, his heart pounding like a nuclear engine in his chest. That’s my name—Gavin Farland.

“Will that be all, son?”

“Yes,” said Jalil, coming back to the present. “Thank you.”

“I’ll have your print job done in a few minutes. Until then, feel free to shop around.”

Karduna, Jalil thought to himself as the man hobbled behind the counter. My name is Gavin Farland and I’m from the star known as Karduna. My family is from a place called Station K-3 L5b.

It didn’t sound at all like home.


Book II: Sand and Stars

Part IV


Chapter 11


“Headed for Karduna, eh?” said the gaunt, black-haired man seated on the bar stool next to Jalil. “You looking to sign up for the war effort?” He took another puff of his foul-smelling cigar, the smoke mingling with the haze of a dozen other cigarettes in the cramped spaceport cantina.

“What?” said Jalil. “No, I only want passage.”

“Oh, I hear you, lad, I hear you. Only a fool would sign up with the Gaian Imperial Marines at this point, eh? Those Hameji are a right nasty bunch—believe me, I know. You wouldn’t want to end up as cannon fodder for them, eh?” He gave Jalil a meaningful nod.

I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about, Jalil wanted to say. These “Hameji”—why was everyone talking about them? He sighed.

“All I’m looking for is passage to Karduna.”

“Of course,” said the man, folding his hands together on the bar top and glancing quickly to either side. “Then let me put it to you this way: I know a private military company that’s looking to take on a few extra soldiers. A young man such as yourself could do well with them.”

Jalil frowned. The man with the cigar reminded him too much of Gregor Luczak with his meaningful glances and smooth talking.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t think you can help me.”

“Right, right—I understand,” said the man, fishing for something in his pocket as he rose from his seat. “But if you change your mind, here’s my card.” He handed Jalil a small datachip device. “The password is ‘starrider,’ with two r’s. I’ll be planetside here at GN-2 for another two weeks; you’ve got until then to change your mind.”

Jalil took the chip and nodded wordlessly. ‘GN-2,’ he’d learned, meant Gaia Nova II—the Imperial name for the planet on which he stood. The designation still sounded odd to him, but it seemed to get bantered around a lot in the cantinas around the spaceport.

Feeling a little disappointed, he turned his head to glance around the establishment. Aside from a few other patrons at the bar, the place was empty. A nearby cyborg returned his stare; his red eyes and expressionless, circuit-embedded face made Jalil cringe and shudder. He turned back around and leaned heavily across the bar top.

“What’ll it be?” the bartender asked, polishing glasses with the end of his apron.

“I’ll have some more coffee,” said Jalil. “Black, with no sugar.”

“You sure you don’t want anything harder?” The bartender gestured to the colorful array of liquor behind him. A large fishtank was embedded in the wall, giving the illusion that the fish inside were swimming lazily from bottle to bottle.

“No,” said Jalil. He had been raised to never drink alcohol, and had no desire to start now.

The bartender shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

He set down a ceramic mug on the table and filled it from a simple plastic thermos. Jalil picked it up and swirled it halfheartedly before drinking. The coffee here wasn’t of the best quality, but at least it was better than nothing. He took a quick sip before placing it back down on the table.

“I don’t suppose you’ve heard anything new in the last couple of days, have you?”

The bartender shook his head. “Sorry, mate. Not many merchanters headed out on the GN-K route these days.”

“Why is that?”

“Probably the wars out in the frontier worlds. Ever since the Hameji took Tajjur and Belarius, the Imperial Navy has been real skittish. There’s even been talk of a temporary alliance with Karduna until the fighting settles down.”

Jalil nodded, taking another sip of his coffee. Most of the astropolitics went over his head, but he pretended to know what the man was talking about—after all, he didn’t want to look like an idiot.

“Of course, that’s probably just a political stunt,” the bartender continued. “The Hameji battle fleets are too far away to pose an immediate threat, but Gaian merchanters don’t want to leave the protection of the Gaian Imperial Navy while there’s still a war going on. ”

“You’re forgetting something, Bill,” came a man’s voice from the doorway. “A lot of loyal Kardunasian merchanters are willing to take the risk—and this time, there’s no embargo to stop us.”

Jalil turned and watched as a tall, well-built man strode into the cantina. He wore a light gray jumpsuit with a thick belt and a brown leather vest. His salt-and-pepper beard was short and trim, and his eyes were bright blue, the color of the sky in the open desert. With his silvery black hair, he seemed as old as Jalil’s father—and from the confident, self-assured way he carried himself, he looked to be a man of some authority.

“Ah, Mark,” said the bartender in a warm voice. “I heard you were planetside. Care for a drink?”

“The usual,” said the man, taking a seat at the bar next to Jalil. He glanced around the room before leaning forward on one arm. “Things seem a little quiet around here, don’t they?”

“That they are,” said the bartender, filling up a glass with a heady amber-colored drink from the tap. “Much too quiet. You just come in from another trade run?”

“Sure did,” said the man. “Sold my cargo for a tidy profit, too; the boys are topside unloading it right now. Thought I’d stop by while I was in the neighborhood.”

He seems friendly enough, Jalil thought, looking for a chance to introduce himself. He didn’t have to wait long.

“I don’t believe I’ve seen you here before,” the man said, turning and looking Jalil in the eye. “Where do you hail from?”

“From the desert,” said Jalil without thinking. “That is, uh, most recently.”

“I see. The name’s Mark—Mark Stewart.” He extended his hand, and Jalil took it. “What’s your name?”

“Jalil Ibn—I mean, Gavin Farland.”

Mark’s eyes narrowed inquisitively. “Farland, huh? Where did you say you were from?”

“The boy’s looking for passage to Karduna,” said the bartender, interrupting before Jalil could answer. “You wouldn’t happen to be looking to take on crew, would you?”

“Not particularly,” said Mark, turning back to the bar to take another drink from his glass.

“I’m from Karduna, sir,” Jalil blurted. “At least, that’s where I’m from originally.”

“And how did you end up in the desert?”

“It’s actually kind of a long story. I was raised in the desert, but—”

“I can certainly see that,” said Mark, eying Jalil’s clothes. Jalil blushed; not only had his desert robes become ragged during his journey, but they made him stand out in the spaceport just like his fair skin and blond hair made him look out of place among the tribesmen.

“And why do you want go to Karduna?”

Jalil swallowed. “All I want is to go home, sir.”

Mark stared at Jalil for several moments, not saying anything. Jalil fidgeted a little in his seat, but he met the man’s gaze without flinching.

“I see. Well, if all you want is passage, why don’t you take one of the passenger liners?”

“Because I don’t have the money, sir,” said Jalil, deciding it would be best to be honest. “That’s why I’m trying to sign on and work. Are you a starship captain?”

Mark smiled. “Yes, you could say that. My ship is the Bridgette.

Jalil nodded, his heart beating a little faster. “And I don’t suppose I could, well, sign on with you?”

“That depends. We usually limit our crews to family and close friends of family. That’s what you’ll find with most interstellar outfits on the frontier worlds.”

Jalil’s stomach fell.

“Still, another hand might be useful. Do you have any experience working on interstellar freighters?”

“No.”

“How about in-system carriers?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Do you have any piloting skills at all?”

Jalil drew in a sharp breath. “No, not really.”

“Navigation experience? Mechanical experience?”

“I used to work on caravaneers out in the desert,” Jalil said eagerly. “I’ve rebuilt whole vehicles from the ground up, including the micronuclear cores.”

Mark leaned back and stroked his beard. The expression on his face didn’t look very promising.

“You said you were one of the Farlands?”

“That’s right, sir.”

For a few moments, neither of them said anything. Outside, a transport took off, momentarily filling the room with its roar. Jalil shifted nervously where he sat.

“Well,” said Mark, “I can’t pay you much, but I can give you passage—if you’re willing to work hard enough to earn it.”

Jalil’s heart skipped a beat. He could hardly believe his luck.

“Well, what do you say?”

“Thank you, sir!”

Mark smiled. “Meet me at gate 23A this afternoon, sixteen hundred local. I’ll have your contract ready at the shuttle.”


* * * * *


Jalil arrived at gate 23A nearly half an hour early. The concourse was filled with people, all hurrying from place to place. Most of them wore gray or navy blue jumpsuits, marking them as starship pilots or crew members—not passengers. The walls, too, were a utilitarian gray, devoid of the flashy advertisements so prominent in other areas of the spaceport.

At first, he wondered if he’d come to the right place. The gate was little more than a simple, windowless door; if it weren’t for the giant blue 23A painted above it, he would have left. Instead, he stood awkwardly outside.

When the clock across the hall read “1548,” a young woman approached the door from the main hallway. She had short blond hair and wore a loose-fitting, short-sleeve jumpsuit with a utility belt strapped around her waist. As she came closer, Jalil saw that her clothes were covered in grease stains and dark smudges.

She saw him standing next to the door and stopped. “You lost?”

“This is gate 23A, right?” asked Jalil.

“Yeah,” said the girl.

“Then I guess not.”

She frowned and cocked her head. “What are you looking for?”

“A man by the name of Mark Stewart.”

The girl only looked more puzzled than ever. “That’s my father,” she said. “How do you know him?”

Jalil shifted nervously from foot to foot. “I met him in a cantina earlier. He said he wanted to hire me, and told me to meet him here.”

“Oh yeah? Huh, that’s interesting. What’s your name?”

“Gavin,” said Jalil. “Gavin Farland.”

The girl’s eyes lit up, and she brought a hand to her chin. “Farland? Where’re you from?”

How do you know that name?

“Karduna,” he said, “but I grew up in the desert. Is your father here?”

“Oh yeah,” said the girl. “Sorry.” She produced a card from her chest pocket and held it in front of the access panel; the door hissed open, revealing a narrow corridor.

“Come with me,” she said, glancing at him over her shoulder as she went on ahead. “Dad’ll be here soon. The name’s Michelle, by the way.”

“Nice to meet you.”

Jalil stiffened a bit as he followed her into the narrow space. Michelle was not much older than Mira, and he didn’t feel comfortable being alone with her.

“Sorry to be rude,” said Michelle, stopping in front of the second door. “It’s just that we don’t generally take on new crew in foreign ports. We’re mostly a family operation, you see.”

“That’s what your father told me.”

“Farland, though—are you related to the Farlands from Kardunash III, by any chance?”

Jalil’s heart leaped in his chest. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Maybe?” She gave him a funny look. “I thought you said you were from Karduna.”

“Yes,” he said, “but… it’s a long story.”

“We’ve got some time to kill. Care to tell me?”

She looked at him expectantly, hands in her back pockets. In spite of her baggy jumpsuit, she had a strikingly attractive figure. Jalil blushed.

“Maybe later?”

She shrugged. “Suit yourself. It’s probably better to wait ‘til we’re topside anyway.”

She reached up with one hand to a keypad on the wall next to the door. Her nimble fingers danced across the keys and the door hissed open, revealing a small, dimly lit room.

“Watch your head.”

Jalil ducked as he followed her into a narrow room barely larger than a closet. The door slid shut behind them, and for a second, Jalil felt a wave of claustrophobia wash over him. He turned around and banged his head.

“Ow!” he said, looking up to see what he’d hit. It was a metal handhold.

What the hell is a handhold doing on the ceiling?

“Sorry about that,” said Michelle as she opened yet another door. “The shuttle’s a bit cozy, but at least this way we don’t have to pay for the ferry.”

What ferry? Jalil nearly asked. Not wanting to sound like an idiot, though, he followed her inside without saying anything.

The first thing he noticed were the pipes and conduits running along the ceiling. Once again, he ducked his head, and this time nearly tripped over a false-leather chair embedded in the floor. It was one of eight; two in front, three in the middle, and three more in back. Various metal cabinets and compartments lined the walls, while a series of panels and displays formed a semicircle around the two seats in the front. The forward window was wide but narrow, and looked out over the flat horizon that marked the top of Terra 2 Dome. Outside, a starship passed noisily overhead; inside the cabin, however, it was remarkably quiet.

“You like it?” Michelle asked, wiping her hands on a rag.

“Sure,” he said, taking a seat. The fact that they were alone together made him nervous—it reminded him too much of that night with Mira.

“Well, what do you think?”

“It… looks good, I guess.”

“Not the decorating, you idiot, the functionality,” Michelle said, rolling her eyes. “I installed a twenty-five hundred kilowatt micronuclear drive and hooked up a second CPU to the shuttle’s mainframe to cut down the system startup time. I’ve souped up the engines to give extra turbo thrust, and tripled the capacity of the chemical fuel tanks. If we needed to, we could take this baby to either of Gaia Nova’s moons and back again.”

She beamed as she patted her hand against the nearest metal duct, clearly proud of her work.

“You’re a mechanic?” Jalil asked.

“More an engineer, but yeah, pretty much.”

“I used to repair micronuclear engines in the desert.”

Michelle’s eyes lit up at once. “Really?”

“All the time,” said Jalil. “Though to be honest, I was more of a handyman than a mechanic.”

“What the hell did you need micronuclear engines for? I thought those were just for low orbit spacecraft.”

“We put them on our caravaneers—er, our long-range vehicles. A good one could ride for four thousand miles without refueling and still power a small camp.”

“I’ll bet,” she said, nodding appreciatively. “So what do you think of what I’ve done here?”

Jalil stood up and walked over to the micronuclear device embedded in the back wall. “Well,” he said, “it looks like you got a newer model here. Wiring looks fine, power transfer looks good—but you’ve got a problem with the central gauge.”

“What kind of a problem?” she asked, already by his side.

“It only goes up to two-fifty, but this drive model should run up around three hundred.” He stepped back to let her look. “Seems like whoever sold you this unit cobbled the gauge together from spare parts.”

“Damn, you’re right. Do you think I should reconfigure it?”

Jalil shrugged. “It shouldn’t be a major problem, but your readings are going to be a couple of marks off until you do.”

Michelle swore again. Before he could answer, the door hissed open and Mark stepped through.

“Hello, sir!” said Jalil, standing up at once.

“Oh, hi there,” said Mark, completely unconcerned to see him alone with his daughter. “I see you’ve met ‘Chelle.”

“Yes, I have. But don’t—”

“Daddy!” said Michelle, giving her father a hug.

“It’s good to see you, dear,” said Mark, hugging her back. “Did you have fun these past couple of days?”

“Oh yeah! The snorkling trip was awesome—you really should have been there.”

Mark chuckled. “Believe me, I wish I could have come. I’m glad you had a good time, though.”

He allows her to go out by herself, Jalil realized. Either he doesn’t care what she does with men, or he knows that she can be trusted. Either way, Jalil was off the hook.

“Well, let’s get ready for launch. I’ll get Gavin his contract.”

While Michelle went up to the front of the shuttle, Mark produced a datapad and brought it to Jalil.

“Here’s your contract,” he said, handing it over. “We can’t pay much and we don’t have much extra living space, but if passage to Karduna is all you’re looking for, we can hire you on for two hundred New Gaian credits per week, plus room and board.”

Jalil took the datapad and looked briefly over the contract. “Where do I sign?” he asked.

Mark laughed. “Whoa there! I haven’t finished yet.”

Jalil blushed. A low humming sounded through the walls as the shuttle powered up.

“The contract also includes six months’ labor at our warehouse on K-4,” Mark continued. “We don’t have much work for you to do while we’re en route, but we do have need for you when we get back. Wages are the same, though we can provide temporary housing for you at a discounted price. If we’re satisfied with your work, we may be willing to hire you on full-time at more than double the contract rate.”

Jalil thought about it. Six months seemed like a long time—but if it meant passage to Karduna, that was a small price to pay for the chance to finally return home.

“Great,” he said. “Where do I sign?”

“Just making sure,” said Mark. “Before you sign, though, I need to see your passport. The port authority at Karduna is pretty liberal about immigration, but we’ll need to get all your documents in order.”

Jalil reached into his pocket and pulled out the passport datachip. He handed it to Mark, who took it to the computer terminal next to Michelle.

“Ah,” he said, “I forgot about this Gaia Novan design. ‘Chelle, got a port converter?”

“Yeah,” said Michelle, opening one of the side cabinets and pulling out a small conversion device. The male end was identical in shape to the one on Jalil’s locket.

Mark plugged it in and looked over the data readout for half a minute. The humming from the walls became louder, and a series of lights on the ceiling came to life.

“Looks good,” he said, unplugging the chip and handing it back to Jalil. “Once you’ve signed the contract, I’ll upload a copy for your own records.”

“Great,” said Jalil. “Uh, what do I sign with?”

“Oh, sorry,” said Mark. He reached over and pulled out a stylus from a slot in the datapad. “Use this.”

Jalil took the stylus and glanced back down at the contract.

Here goes nothing.

He marked an ’x’ on the line at the bottom of the screen and handed back the pad and stylus.

“Excellent,” said Mark. He smiled and offered Jalil his hand. “It’s good to have you with us, Gavin.”


* * * * *


Twenty minutes later, they were airborne. Jalil sat in the second row, just behind Mark and Michelle who sat in the pilot’s and copilot’s seats. The engines hummed as the smooth, glassy landscape passed beneath them, reflecting the deep blue tint of the cloudless sky overhead.

“Attention orbital control,” said Mark, speaking into a transmitting device. “This is Bridgette One requesting permission for orbital insertion.”

“Copy,” came a voice over the speaker. “Taxi into position and await further instructions.”

Michelle looked over her shoulder at Jalil. “Make sure you’re fastened in nice and tight. This next part’ll be a bit rocky.”

Jalil ran his hands over the enormous seat restraints around his waist and shoulders, making sure they were secure. His heart beat a little faster as he looked out the forward window at the sea of glass before them.

There are clouds under that glass, he thought to himself. We’re flying almost a mile above the clouds.

“Roger, Bridgette One,” came the controller’s voice. “You are cleared for orbital insertion. Proceed to escape velocity at present altitude.”

“Copy,” said Mark. “How are we looking, ‘Chelle?”

“Everything’s good to go.”

“Great. Let’s fly this bird home.”

The shuttle banked hard to the right, giving Jalil a clear view of Terra 2 Dome. The sun reflected hard off of the glassy surface, making him squint, but where the glare of the sun wasn’t so bright, he thought he could see the outlines of clouds above the ocean. He looked a little harder, and realized that he could see the islands as well. From high up in the air, they looked almost like boulders sitting in the midst of a sandy wash, as seen from the top of a high mountain.

Mira is probably on one of those islands, he realized. A lump welled up in his throat as images from the past few months flashed across his memory. The two of them chatting at Lena’s wedding; the night at Sarah’s, sharing the blanket in the chill night under the light of the stars and satellites. He remembered her warm smile as she cooked for him and the others under Etilan Dome, and a deep yearning welled up inside of him—a yearning that made him wonder if he wasn’t making a mistake to leave her. It was bizarre: only a few months ago, she had been just another sister—a beautiful sister, but a sister nonetheless. Now, what was she to him? He didn’t know exactly, but it was clear she was something more.

As his thoughts wandered, memories of the night at the spaceport came to him, stabbing him like a knife to the chest. He cringed as he remembered how she’d straddled him, slipping off her clothes like the whores at the cantina. How close he’d come to defiling her that night—to defiling himself. And to think that her parents had set it all up—if that was true, what did it make all the other moments that they’d shared? Was it all just a lie?

He clenched his fists and stared out the window at the flat horizon, putting those thoughts out of his head. Whatever had happened before, it was over now. He had a new life ahead of him—a life far from the Najmi family.

The shuttle leveled off again. “Beginning stage one acceleration,” said Michelle. “Stand by.”

The pitch of the engines shifted up two or three octaves. The roar increased steadily until it drowned out everything else. Jalil covered his ears with his hands and felt the force of the acceleration press him back against his chair.

“We’re at mach three,” said Michelle. “Engaging ramjets.”

The roar of the engine died suddenly, replaced by a lower, quieter sound. The pressure against Jalil’s chest, however, increased steadily. He glanced out the window from where he sat, but all he could see was the sky, lighter on the horizon and darkening rapidly above their heads.

“Mach five,” said Michelle. “Engaging scramjets in three, two, one…”

A mighty roar sounded beneath them, and the whole shuttle began to shake. Jalil grabbed his armrests as the invisible hand pressed him against his seat with double, then triple, then more than quadruple the force as before. His cheeks pulled back against his face, exposing his cheeks and gums, and it seemed for a moment as if he were lying on his back, traveling straight up. It was the strangest sensation he’d yet felt, and it disoriented him so much that he had to stare at the horizon ahead to keep from panicking.

As he did so, the shuttle nosed suddenly up, and he felt as if his bowels had dropped out from underneath him. For a few frightening seconds, the world went black. Gradually, his sight returned and his bodily sensations returned to normal.

After a little over a minute, the roar slowly faded into silence. Outside, the familiar blueness of the sky had completely disappeared, replaced by a blackness deeper than night.

He took in a deep breath and wiped his forehead, but when he relaxed his arm, it didn’t fall back to the armrest. He glanced up at Michelle and saw that her hair was waving lazily, as if she were submerged in water.

He looked out the forward window and gasped. The horizon traced a bowed arc, glowing bright blue where it met the black velvet of the starless night sky. Clouds of white gathered in swirls across the deep red backdrop of the desert, while seemingly miniature mountain ranges traced their way from the horizon to the blue-black domes that covered half the planet. Above them, the sun shone like a brilliant yellow orb.

“Orbital insertion complete,” said Michelle. “Switching to extra-planetary propulsion.”

“Good work,” said Mark. “‘Chelle, do you have a bearing on the Bridgette?

“Yup. She’s just up ahead, bearing two degrees. We’ll intercept in about twenty minutes.”

“Excellent,” said Mark. “Hail the boys and prepare to dock.”

Jalil looked out past the domes at the bare red desert below. Somewhere down there was the Najmi camp—and with it, the wreckage of the ship that had brought him to this world. He scanned the landscape long and hard, but nothing looked familiar—not from this distance.

A movement caught his eye. He twisted his head—carefully, in the weightlessness of space—and saw a small speck against the shimmering backdrop of the planetary domes.

That’s another starship, he realized, not sure how he knew it. We’re flying parallel to it—otherwise, it would rush past us so fast we wouldn’t even see it.

As he watched, the shuttle gradually drew close enough to make out more details. The starship was shaped like a short, slightly flattened rifle barrel, tapering towards the front and widening towards the back. Its hull was a light gray color, with a line of dark, narrow windows running down the top.

“Attention, Bridgette. This is Bridgette One,” said Michelle. “Open the docking bay, if you’d be so kind.”

“Copy,” came a boy’s voice over the intercom. “How are you doing, ‘Chelle?”

“Doing great,” said Michelle. “We’ve picked up an extra crewman for you to train.”

“What the—are you serious? Who is he?”

Mark laughed. “We’ll chat once we’re all on board.”

“Right on, right on. The bay’s open; syncing now.”

The ship drew closer, filling their view. The open bay was at the rear of the ship, near the engines.

The puffing sound of small jets broke the silence as Michelle maneuvered them in. Gradually, they inched forward until they were inside. Jalil gripped his armrests, and the sound of metal scraping against metal rung softly through the walls.

I’ve heard that sound before, he realized.

“Docking complete,” said Michelle as she and Mark unfastened their seat restraints.

“Copy,” came the voice. “Airlocks engaged; beginning decompression.”

Mark turned to Jalil and offered his hand. “Welcome to the Bridgette.

Chapter 12


“Here we are—do you need a little help with that, dear?”

“Yes, please,” Mira whispered, handing the heavier of her two bags to Nawal. Her aunt had filled it with gifts almost to the point of bursting: a tin full of sweets and jams, a bag full of new clothes, seashells for her sisters, and a pair of swords with fine coral handles for her father. Nawal grunted as she hefted it up and led the way through the glass doors into the spaceport.

Mira was too absorbed in her own melancholy thoughts to pay much attention to the sights around her. The past few days had passed in a teary-eyed blur, leaving her empty and numb. The only thing she felt was the weight of the heirloom rifle strapped across her back—the gift from her father that Jalil had rejected; just like he had rejected her. Part of her wanted to throw it away, but honor demanded that she bring it home—the same honor that she’d sacrificed to snare the man she loved.

In time, they arrived at the ticketing kiosk. Attendants put the bags and the rifle on a conveyor belt, while Nawal pulled out a cash datachip from her purse.

“It’s okay,” said Mira. “You don’t have to pay; I can—”

“Nonsense, dear; I’m not so poor I can’t help my own family. Besides, you’re much too young to spend all your money on something as boring as a spaceplane ticket.”

Mira nodded, and her eyes started to tear up again. Nawal lived so far from the rest of the tribe, she probably only saw family whenever someone made the pilgrimage. This might be the last time they ever saw each other.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, leaning forward to give her aunt a hug.

“There, there,” said Nawal. “Don’t apologize. I know how you feel—I was once a young girl too, you know.”

I’ve botched everything, Mira wanted to say. Instead, she nodded and dried her eyes.

The kiosk spat out a plastic card with a magnetic strip. A strange logo graced the other side, one with stars and planets.

“Take care, dear,” said Nawal. “May the peace of Earth be upon you.”

“And upon you as well,” Mira whispered. Even if it never graces me.

She stepped into the checkpoint and raised her arms as the security scanners cleared her. It took a moment for them to check the heirloom rifle, but they returned it to her without any trouble. When she was through, she glanced back one last time at her aunt before picking up her carry-on bag and proceeding through the concourse to her gate.

The noise of the bustling crowds mingled with announcements from the loudspeaker, all in a foreign language that Mira couldn’t understand. She pulled her headscarf tight as the crowds buffeted her like the waters of the ocean buffeting the island shore.

Just as she found her gate, she noticed a group of white-robed holy men on the opposite side of the terminal. She almost turned away without giving it another thought, but a familiar bald head caught her eye. For a moment she stood frozen to the spot, but then she was walking across the hall, her feet carrying her forward almost against her will.

“Master Rumiya?” she said, her voice trembling.

The old sufi master turned to face her, and his eyes lit up almost immediately. “Why, hello, my child! You’ve come a long way since last we met.”

Mira nodded silently.

“It makes me happy to see you again. Did you find on your pilgrimage the thing you were seeking?”

No.

He eyed her for a moment, as if listening to her thoughts. “You seem troubled,” he said softly.

You lied to me, she wanted to say. You told me that we all get to choose the world we live in, but I never chose for Jalil to leave me.

“Your teachings aren’t true,” she blurted. Blood rushed to her cheeks, but her words hung in the air and she was unable to retract them.

Rumiya paused for a moment, while heads began to turn in their direction. “How do we know anything is true?” he answered cryptically.

“It’s—it’s not possible,” she stammered, heart pounding. “How can we all live in the world we want?”

“Ah,” he said, giving her a knowing smile. “I see you have misunderstood me. I never said we live in the world we desire—only that we live in the world of our own choosing.”

“What’s the difference?”

A small crowd began to gather around them, making Mira wish she’d never said anything.

“Consider the prisoner who refuses to submit to his imprisonment. Is he truly a prisoner? So long as he opposes his captors, they will never own his spirit.”

But he still isn’t free.

“My child,” Rumiya continued, “there is no choice without sacrifice. In order to obtain one thing, we must give up another.”

“But what if we don’t obtain what we choose?” Mira whispered.

“I never said that we would—only that the world we live in is inevitably the world of our own choosing. Put differently, you could say that life is the sum of our sacrifices.”

A sinking feeling grew in Mira’s stomach, and her breath came short and quick. The sum of our sacrifices. What had she sacrificed to be with Jalil? Her honor? But no, that was what had driven him away. If only I hadn’t obeyed Mother—

Realization struck her like a knife in the gut. Lord of Earth, she thought to herself, arms trembling as her vision blurred. Why didn’t I go with him?

“Is everything all right, my child? You look as pale as a ghost.”

Mira blinked and shook her head until her mind cleared. “It’s fine,” she said softly. “I’m—I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” She took a moment to compose herself, all too conscious of the growing crowd around her.

“What if we make the wrong choice?”

Master Rumiya’s face grew solemn, and he put a hand on her shoulder. “It is never too late,” he said. “Remember, the Truth is within you—though some things may be lost, you can always choose again. No prisoner is beyond redemption.”

How? she wondered, feeling twice as ashamed as before. How can I choose again, now that he’s gone?


* * * * *


The desert sun shone bright in Mira’s eyes, making her squint as she disembarked from the spaceplane. A warm wind blew over her face, and sweat began to form on her forehead. She pulled her headscarf a little tighter to shield herself from the desert heat and boarded the bus to the port.

Tin-roofed hangars lay scattered across the concrete launching pads of the New Amman spaceport, while the giant glass mountain of Aliet Dome loomed high on the horizon. Inside the terminal, dozens of desert tribesmen mingled in the crowded corridors, their flowing robes and checkered headscarves reminding Mira that she was not that far from home. Instead of comforting her, however, the thought made her hands shake.

“Mira!” came a familiar voice as she arrived at the baggage claim belt. She turned and saw Hamza, the Jabaliyn driver, shouldering his way through the crowd to greet her.

“A thousand welcomes,” he said as he took her carry-on bag from her. “How was your journey?”

Terrible.

“Long,” she admitted. “But God-willing, soon it will be over.”

“God-willing,” said Hamza, nodding in agreement. “Had enough of Babylon, eh?”

For some reason, his comment made Mira think of the wide oceans of Terra 2 Dome, stretching in all directions toward the nearly unbroken horizon. She remembered staring out across the water, the breeze in her hair, and found herself at a loss for words.

“Never mind,” he said. “Praise Allah, you are back.”

They retrieved her other bags and left the air-conditioned spaceport for the sun-baked desert. Though dozens of officials manned the busy desks and metal detectors guarding the way in, no lines or checkpoints obstructed the way out.

“That is as it should be,” Hamza muttered, as if reading her thoughts. “A man can only be free under the open sky.”

As they walked down the dusty concrete road toward the stone wall separating the spaceport from a wide parking lot full of caravaneers, two girls in black robes and headscarves came around the corner to meet them.

“Mira!” shouted Surayya, running towards her with open arms. “Praise Allah, you’re back!”

Mira smiled and laughed as her sister wrapped her arms around her and kissed her almost a dozen times on both cheeks. Mira returned the embrace.

“It’s so good to see you again, Surayya.”

“May the peace of Earth be upon you.” said the other girl. It was Tiera. She stood with folded arms, looking on from a distance. She wore her headscarf loose, with strands of hair blowing in the hot wind. Her face was unreadable.

“Hello, Tiera,” said Mira, embracing her half-sister. “It’s good to see you.”

“And you,” said Tiera, hugging her back a little stiffly. “You look like you’ve had a long journey.”

“And there’s plenty more of it left, girls,” said Hamza. “Better get a move on it—the sun won’t be up forever.”

“Thank Allah for that,” muttered Surayya, wiping her brow. “It’s so hot.”

“Yes,” said Mira. She’d forgotten how hot it could get in the desert.

While Hamza carried Mira’s bags toward the waiting caravaneer, Surayya hesitated and looked back toward the spaceport.

“Where’s Jalil?” she asked.

Mira’s cheeks blushed deep red. “He, ah, he’s not with me.”

“What do you mean?”

“She means he didn’t come back with her,” said Tiera. “Now let’s go.”

Surayya’s face instantly fell. “Good Lord—he didn’t—”

“It’s all right,” said Mira, giving her a fake smile.

“Let’s move, girls!” shouted Hamza. He was already in the driver’s seat of the waiting Jabaliyn caravaneer.

Surayya leaned in close. “That stupid man,” she hissed. “When we get the chance, you’ll have to tell me everything.”

Mira cringed. That was what she was afraid of.


* * * * *


They drove all that day and long into the twilight, until the light of dusk had completely faded and the stars and satellites shone brightly in the night sky. Hamza set up camp in a sandy niche between two giant boulders; from the tire tracks across the ground, the spot seemed to be a popular stopping point among the local tribesmen. Sheltered in their tent from the cold breeze of the desert night, the girls quickly fell asleep.

Except for Mira.

After laying there for almost an hour, she decided to get out and stretch her legs for a bit. Careful not to disrupt her sisters, she rose from her cot and slipped on her robes. She didn’t bother with the headscarf, however—the four of them were the only people for miles, and the steady snoring from the other tent told her that Hamza was already fast asleep.

Outside, the air was surprisingly chill. She folded her arms and walked barefoot across the sandy ground, still warm from the day’s sun. The sky was moonless, but the familiar stars and satellites shone bright enough to light her way. It had been too long since she had seen them—ages, it seemed. The last time had been the awful night with Jalil, when she’d—

No, she told herself, a host of destructive emotions swelling up again within her. Don’t think about that.

She walked some distance from the camp, to a slight rise about a hundred yards away. The surface there was a mixture of sand and crusty gravel that cut her feet, so she stopped and lay down, staring up at the night as her body absorbed the warmth radiating from the ground.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” came a voice from behind her.

Her heart skipped a beat, and she quickly sat up. It was only Tiera, though. Relieved, she caught her breath and clutched at her chest.

“Oh, Tiera,” she said. “You surprised me.”

Her half-sister shrugged and sat down across from her, hair tossing a bit in the chill night breeze.

“I don’t suppose you’ve seen the stars in a long time,” Tiera said simply.

“No,” said Mira. “I haven’t.”

An awkward silence fell between them. Mira shifted uncomfortably.

“How have things been back home?” she asked.

“Decent,” said Tiera. “Lena and Mazhar are fitting in well with the rest of the camp. Shira is trying to marry off Surayya. Nothing much has changed—nothing ever changes.”

Except that Jalil isn’t going to be there anymore.

“What are people saying about me?” Mira asked.

Tiera turned and looked her in the eye. “To be honest, there are a lot of rumors about you. The fact that Jalil isn’t coming back is only going to hurt you.”

An uncomfortable silence descended on them. Mira tensed a little, afraid of what Tiera wasn’t saying. She and Jalil had shared a close relationship—much closer than he and Mira ever had.

“I’m sorry,” Mira said abruptly, surprising them both.

“For what?” Tiera asked.

“For trying to—well, for coming between you,” she said. “I don’t know what went on between you and him, but—”

“‘Between’ us?” Tiera asked, frowning. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you always spent a lot of time together, and I thought that maybe—”

“That maybe we had feelings for each other?”

“Well, yeah.”

Tiera threw back her head and laughed. “You thought we had something romantic going on? That’s hilarious. Mira, Jalil is my brother. Nothing more.”

“Ah,” said Mira, relaxing considerably. “So you weren’t upset when I left for the temple with him.”

“Not because of any feelings for him, no. But yes, I wish I’d been the one to go—and frankly, if you had any feelings for him at all, I’m surprised that you didn’t leave with him.”

Mira cringed. I wish that I had.

“I don’t know,” she said softly. “I guess I hoped—”

“Hoped what?”

She swallowed. “Hoped that he would choose to stay.”

Tiera’s gaze turned harsh. Even in the darkness of the night, Mira could feel it.

“So that’s why you left,” said Tiera. “You wanted to seduce him, didn’t you?”

Mira hesitated. Guilt stabbed her.

“Yes,” she admitted.

For several moments, neither of them said anything. The wind whistled softly as it blew across the desert, the only sound breaking the hostile silence.

Tiera rose to her feet. “So the rumors are true,” she said, her voice low and full of contempt. “You manipulative little whore.”

Without another word, she walked back to the camp. A lump rose in Mira’s throat, but the tears would not come. Though she longed to cry, her eyes were as dry and empty as the lonely wastes around her.

Chapter 13


Jalil watched as Mark and Michelle both unbuckled their seat restraints and floated up to the ceiling. With her hair waving about like wisps of sand in the wind, Michelle looked like an otherworldly being. He tried to imagine what Mira would look like; her hair was almost three times as long.

“What are you waiting for?” Michelle asked, giving him a funny look. “Aren’t you coming with us?”

“Uh, sure,” said Jalil. He hesitated for a moment before unbuckling his seat restraints, but when he did, the once-heavy belts floated easily aside, as if they were made of air. A jolt of panic surged through him as he realized that he, too, was floating. Instinctively, he grabbed a handhold on the ceiling and steadied himself.

“Well, come on,” said Michelle. Behind her, Mark keyed the door; it opened with a hiss and a burst of cool air.

“Insulation still needs work,” he muttered. Michelle cursed under her breath.

Jalil took a deep breath and pushed off with his hands. Even with such a gentle thrust, however, he soon drifted off course. His feet caught in the row of seats ahead of him, and he banged his head on the wall.

“Ouch!” he said, rubbing his head as he floated back up. Michelle laughed.

“Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it.”

She led him through the first and second doorways, into another closet-like chamber. This one, however, had the second door embedded in the floor—or was it the ceiling? Without gravity to orient him, Jalil didn’t know.

Michelle grabbed a handhold in first doorway and spun herself around so that she was upside down, heading feet first through the hatch. Without batting an eye, she caught the railing of a ladder and pushed herself up.

Puzzled, Jalil pulled himself beneath the hatchway and looked up. To his surprise, Michelle was standing on the ceiling on the other side. Although she was upside down, her hair hung down by her shoulders as if she were on solid ground. She tilted her head back and looked down at him.

“This way,” she said. “Watch yourself—it’s a little tricky.”

Tricky? Jalil thought to himself, a little irked at her condescension. It’s not too tricky—I can do this. While she looked down at him from above, he kicked off from the floor and sped towards the open hatchway.

Michelle’s eyes widened, and she reached up with her hands as if to shield herself. “No, wait—whoa!”

As Jalil passed through the hatchway, an invisible force grabbed his body and pulled him up. Before he knew what was happening, he was falling straight towards her. She shrieked and ducked, but it was too late. They collapsed in a heap on the hard metal floor.

“Ow!” she said. “Take it easy!”

“Sorry,” said Jalil, blood rushing to his cheeks. His shoulder stung a little, but her body had softened the worst of the fall.

“Well, what have we here?” a boy’s voice said, clearly amused. A pair of hands lifted Jalil by the arm and pulled him to his feet.

“‘Chelle?” came a second voice. “Are you all right?”

Jalil glanced up to see a strikingly tall young man with wavy blond hair—blond hair, much like his own. Although he was clean-shaven, he had to be at least five years older; the look of concern on his face only added to that impression.

“I’m fine, Nash,” said Michelle, groaning a bit as he helped her to her feet. They embraced, but didn’t kiss on the cheek—a strange greeting, if that was all it was supposed to be.

“You all right?” the first voice said. Jalil looked over and saw a boy about his own age standing apart from the others. His mouth was curled up in a lopsided grin, and he had a friendly look in his eyes. Like Nash, his face was clean-shaven, and his dark hair was cut short.

“Yes. Thank you,” said Jalil.

“The name’s Lars,” said the boy, extending his hand. “Lars Stewart.”

“Gavin Farland,” said Jalil, taking it. “Is Michelle your—”

“Sister? Yep. Our dad’s the owner and captain.”

“So this is the new guy?” said Nash in a voice noticeably deeper that Lars’s. Jalil turned to him and bowed.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, apologizing profusely. “I didn’t mean to—”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Michelle. “Gavin, this is Nash. Nash, Gavin.”

“Welcome aboard,” said Nash, shaking Jalil’s hand. His grip was much firmer than Lars’s, and though he wasn’t unfriendly, he did not smile.

“Nash is our copilot,” Michelle continued. “He goes on when Dad takes his sleep shift. You’ll probably be bunkmates.”

“And cram the three of us in the same room?” Lars interjected. “Sheesh, it’ll be like the academy all over again.”

“Oh, so that’s why you dropped out,” said Michelle, putting her hands on her hips.

Lars shrugged. “Eh, classes were boring.”

“Lars is going on your sleep shift, ‘Chelle,” said Mark, entering the corridor from a doorway at the far end. “Nash and Jalil will go on the other.”

“Are you serious?” said Michelle. The tone of her voice made it abundantly clear she how annoyed she was.

“Three is too many for the bunkroom at one time,” said her father, “and it doesn’t make sense for us to start up a third sleep shift with only one crewman. Besides, I need to spend more time training Lars.”

“Why couldn’t we have picked up another girl?” Michelle muttered as she stormed off down the narrow corridor. Nash watched her for a moment before turning to face Jalil.

“Looks like we’re bunkmates,” he said. “Have you ever flown a starship before?”

“Uh, no,” said Jalil, thoroughly confused. “I used to drive buggies in the desert, but…” his voice trailed off.

Nash stared past him for an uncomfortable moment before answering. “Well, I’m fairly certain I can pilot the ship on my own. I hope you’re a fast learner, though.”

“Of course,” said Jalil. “I—”

But Nash had already left to follow Michelle.

“Here,” said Lars, putting a friendly hand on his shoulder. “Let me show you around the ship.”

“Good idea,” said Mark. “Stow his gear while you’re at it. We’re scheduled to jump out in a little under an hour.”

“Gotcha,” said Lars. With a nod, Mark slipped through a nearby hatch, leaving the two of them alone.

“Did I do something wrong?” Jalil asked. “With Michelle, I—”

“Don’t worry about it. Here, let me help you with that.”

Before Jalil could object, Lars picked up his bag and headed down the corridor.

“It’s a good thing you didn’t bring much stuff with you,” Lars said. “We don’t have many free compartments in the bunk room. There should be enough space for this, though.”

He palmed a keypad on the wall, and a narrow door hissed open. Jalil followed him inside. “This is the bunk room,” said Lars, dropping the bag on the floor.

The room was tiny: barely ten feet long, and so narrow that the two of them had to turn sideways in order to slip past each other. On the left, two bunks jutted out of the wall, while almost a dozen locker compartments took up most of the space on the right. The bunks had less than three feet of clearance in which to sleep, and barely enough room to stretch out.

“Who sleeps in this room?” Jalil asked.

“All of us.”

“All of you?” He looked around for another set of bunks, but the two on the left were the only ones visible.

“Well, not all at the same time,” said Lars. “You and Nash will take the first shift, me and ‘Chelle the second.”

“Michelle sleeps in here?”

“Of course! Where else would she?”

Jalil’s cheeks flushed red as he remembered the night with Mira from the spaceport. An awful sinking feeling welled up in his gut, and he opened his mouth to speak, but all he could do was stutter.

Lars laughed. “Don’t worry; the sleep shift lasts a good eight hours. She won’t catch you naked or anything.”

He winked, and Jalil blushed a little harder. Fortunately, Lars turned his attention to the compartments, opening one while Jalil recomposed himself.

“I’m putting all your stuff in compartment 3C. It’s open access right now, but if you want to program a lock, that’s up to you. The rest of us just trust each other to keep out.”

“That’s fine,” said Jalil. It wasn’t as if he had anything valuable anyway—besides the locket around his neck.

“Good. Then let me show you the rest of the ship.”

Lars led him back into the corridor, which was empty. Through the bulkheads, however, he heard Nash and Michelle talking in another room.

“The space in here is used for storage,” said Lars, pointing to a closed hatchway directly across from the door to the bunkroom. “The captain’s quarters—where Dad sleeps—are down there,” he said, pointing to the second door to the right, “and the bathroom is right here.” He palmed a keypad on the wall between the captain’s quarters and the bunkroom, and the door hissed open.

“It looks… cozy,” said Jalil, peering in. Although the porcelain equipment looked much nicer than anything he’d had out in the desert, it was all crammed in about a quarter of the space. With barely enough room for a person to stand, he wondered how anyone used the place.

“Most of the ship is like that,” said Lars. “We’re a small, family-owned cargo hauling operation, not a luxury liner—unfortunately.”

“No, no, that’s perfectly fine,” said Jalil, worried that Lars had taken offense. “I like it better this way.”

“Yeah, yeah. We’ll see if you’re still saying that nine months out. Come on; let me show you the bridge.”

Though Lars’s comment seemed good-natured enough, Jalil wanted to object—at first, simply to be a good guest, but then because he realized it was true. Even though everything was packed into such a narrow living space, he was perfectly fine with it—in fact, it felt natural.

Eerily so.

“Those hatches lead up to the shuttle airlock and down to the cargo bays,” said Lars, pointing to a ladder running along a niche in the wall; hatches led to rooms above and below, while the corridor ended in a narrow door. “Engineering is further back that way—you’ll spend most of your time with ‘Chelle in that half of the ship.”

“I see.”

“Down this way is the bridge, the mess, and the lounge,” Lars continued, leading him down the corridor past the captain’s quarters. They passed a pair of long, narrow windows on either side of the corridor. Through the one on his right, Jalil’s eyes were drawn to the face of the planet below. The rusty red desert spread out below them. With the sun nearing the horizon, the shadows made small wavy lines, tracing patterns like the waves of an ocean. The mountains, with their sharp ravines and jagged peaks, looked like the discarded bones of ancient animals, their long vertebrae stretching across a landscape the color of old blood.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said Lars. “We’re in no rush; take your time.”

“Thank you.”

As Jalil watched, they passed over to the night side of the planet. The rust-red desert landscape turned to pure black, unbroken by the lights of cities or domes.

I’m crossing the sky on one of the satellites right now, he realized, a lump forming in his throat. If Mira’s down there, she can probably see me.

The thought filled him with a strange, insatiable yearning, one that he couldn’t quite put out of his mind.


* * * * *


Mira was the first to see the camp. In the harsh, rocky desert, it stood out like the last surviving bastion of humanity in the midst of a barren wasteland. The colorful tents from Lena’s wedding were all gone, and the camp seemed almost abandoned. The adobe huts and sun-faded tents could have been a cluster of ancient ruins, and the rusty old windmill jutted up into the sky as if defying its own inevitable decay.

As the caravaneer raced across the desert in the early morning light, she stared at the dismal scene and wondered at how small and insignificant it seemed. Compared to the mighty pylon cities in Raya Dome, or the nearly endless expanse of the sea in Terra 2 Dome, the Najmi camp was a mud-hole in the midst of a waste. After all she’d seen on the pilgrimage, it felt strange to think that this was her childhood home.

“That’s strange,” said Surayya, perking up as Hamza pulled into the dusty open space of the compound. “Where is everyone?”

They’re too ashamed to acknowledge my return, Mira thought to herself. She grew tense under her headscarf as Hamza drove up next to the garage and parked the Jabaliyn caravaneer. Once he shut off the engine, the only sounds came from the creaking of the windmill and the low whistling of the desert breeze.

“Everybody bring something in,” Hamza ordered as he disembarked. Wordlessly, Tiera and Surayya complied. Mira picked up the camp stove and cooking supplies, hauling them in as she followed the others.

Her mother was waiting for her just inside the tent door.

“Leave those there,” said Shira, her voice cold. Mira hesitated for a moment of uncertainty before setting them down on the dusty carpet floor.

“Come with me.”

A chill shot down Mira’s neck as she followed her mother inside. She glanced down at the old peephole and saw a pair of eyes staring out at her from the shadows. How many times had she spied on her father’s guests from that same hole as a little girl? Now her sisters were peeking out at her, as if she were a stranger, an outcast.

Perhaps that wasn’t too far from the truth.

Her mother led her through the tents and into the kitchen, a short ways off from the living quarters. It was unlikely that anyone would overhear them through the thick adobe walls, but Mira knew that the rumors would spread either way.

“So,” her mother started, letting the rug door fall shut behind them. “Where is Jalil?”

Mira swallowed. With the only illumination coming from the small vent in the ceiling, she could barely see anything.

“He left when we got to the temple,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“Left? What do you mean ‘left’? Why did he leave?”

Mira cringed at the harshness of her mother’s voice. “Because—”

“Didn’t I tell you not to come back without him? What about that didn’t you understand?”

“I—I did understand, Mother, and honestly, I—”

“Heaven save me!” her mother shrieked, throwing her hands up in the air. “Why was I cursed with seven daughters and no sons? Disobedient daughters, no less! Wala!”

Mira swallowed and blushed. She didn’t know what to say.

“Look at me,” Shira continued, grabbing her forcibly by the chin to direct her gaze. “Look at your mother. I’m an old woman; not long now, and I’ll go the way of the Earth. Do you want me to spend the last few years of my life watching my husband’s inheritance parceled out to strangers and foreigners? Do you?”

“No.”

Her mother slapped her across the face—hard.

“Then why didn’t you bring back Jalil as I ordered you to?”

“I—I tried,” Mira stuttered, rubbing her cheek. “I did my best, but he—he didn’t want me.”

Her mother’s eyes narrowed. “That’s a lie. Of all my daughters, you are the most beautiful. No man could resist you.”

Guilty memories of her last night with Jalil flashed across her mind. Her heart had pounded with fear as much as passion—fear that Jalil would never forgive her. Was that why she had frozen up at the last moment? In any case, it made little difference; she was left now to carry all the shame herself. After what had happened, she didn’t doubt that she deserved it.

“Do you have any idea how important this was?” her mother continued, practically screaming. “Without a son, Sathi will take another wife—or heaven help us, the inheritance will go to the Jabaliyn and all of us will starve!”

“I’m sorry,” Mira whispered.

“Sorry? Is that all you are?”

Another slap landed hard against her face, sending her sprawling across the floor.

“Don’t play games with me, girl,” her mother hissed. “I won’t stand for it.”

But I’m not lying!

“What am I ever going to do with you? Your disobedience has brought shame upon us all. If you had come back with him, we could have married you both quickly and forestalled the worst of it—but no, it had to come to this.”

But I never slept with him, Mira wanted to protest. Instead, she hung her head and said nothing.

“If it were up to me, I would cast you out for dishonoring the family name. Fortunately for you, your father has a plan to restore at least a fragment of honor to this family. He’s expecting you in his quarters; I suggest you see him at once.”

“My father?” Mira asked. Her stomach fell through the floor.

“Yes, your father. Who else, stupid girl? Now go, before I take you there myself.”

Mira didn’t wait to be told a second time. Pulling her headscarf tight to hide her face from her spying sisters, she hurried out into the blinding sunlight. She could feel her mother’s unforgiving stare bearing down on her until the door flap swung shut behind her.


* * * * *


A few moments later, Mira stopped in front of the tall metal door that led to her father’s private study. Of all the rooms of the camp, this was one of the few that she’d never entered. Timidly, she lifted her hand and knocked on the steel door frame embedded in the adobe wall.

“Come in,” her father boomed from the other side.

She hesitated for a moment before opening the door and stepping through. Her cheeks still stung from where her mother had struck her, but she did her best to hide it.

“Ah, Mira,” her father said, gesturing to the pile of blankets and cushions next to his bed. “Please sit.”

Sathi looked imposing in his immaculate white robes, his red and white checkered headscarf set on his head with a golden agal. He followed her with his eyes as she sat down across from him, glancing down at the carpeted floor to avoid his gaze.

“I’m sorry, Father,” she began, heart pounding. “With Jalil, I—”

“Yes, yes,” he said, waving his hand. “I’m sorry, too. The entire affair has been a terrible tragedy for us all.”

Mira nodded silently.

“I put a great deal of trust in Jalil,” he continued, his expression grave. “He betrayed me just as much as you. However, all is not lost; there are ways to lift the burden of shame from this family and restore a degree of honor. That is why I’ve arranged for you to meet your cousin Ibrahim next week.”

“Ibrahim? Why?”

“To begin the marriage negotiations, of course.”

Mira’s stomach dropped out from underneath her. “That’s—wonderful,” she stuttered. “When does he arrive?”

“Any day now,” her father answered. “Don’t worry, Mira dear—we’ll do our best to clear your honor.”

He thinks that I’m pregnant with Jalil’s child, Mira realized, her head spinning. He’s going to do everything he can to marry me off as quickly as possible.

That was the last thing she needed right now.

“I didn’t sleep with Jalil,” she said, her voice barely louder than a whisper. There’s no reason to rush me into this marriage.

Sathi gave her a sad, fatherly look. “There is nothing to be afraid of,” he told her. “Your mother and I will never tell anyone otherwise.”

But I’m telling the truth.

“Can’t I—can’t I have some time?” she asked, sweat forming on her forehead. “Everything’s happening so fast, I—”

“Mira, my daughter—think of the family honor. This shameful affair has blacked our name more than we can afford to ignore. If we don’t take care of this now, I’m afraid I’ll have no choice but to cast you out.”

Mira swallowed nervously. To be cast out—homeless, nameless, forced to wander and beg for her food—that was the worst fate that could befall anyone in her situation. The very thought of it made her stomach sink and her knees go weak.

“Don’t be afraid, my girl,” her father continued. “Ibrahim is a perfectly respectable young man. I have no doubts that he will be a wonderful husband for you.”

Why didn’t I go with Jalil? Mira wondered despairingly to herself. Faced with the choice between exile and a forced marriage, she wished now more than ever that she’d left for the stars with him and never come home.

Like it or not, though, Jalil was gone—possibly forever.


* * * * *


Jalil followed Lars onto the bridge, where the others were already waiting for them. The forward window stretched across the front of the room, while switches and indicator panels covered the walls from floor to ceiling. As soon as he stepped in, the doors hissed shut behind him.

“Here,” said Michelle, “you can sit in the back.” She unfolded a seat from the rear wall, next to the door.

“Right,” he said, settling in. The seat restraints were nearly as big as the chair itself; it reminded him of the skytrain at Raya Dome. He almost turned to see how Mira was doing before remembering that she wasn’t there.

Mark, Nash, and Lars were already in their seats, practically surrounded by myriad keypads and monitors. Out the forward window, the dark silhouette of the planet stood out against the black void of space. Jalil could barely make out clusters of city lights. The glass domes obscured most of them, though, giving the night landscape a dull yellow sheen.

“All stations report,” said Mark from his seat in the center of the room.

“Astrogation is go,” said Lars from his station immediately to Mark’s right. “Target destination plotted and set at forty-six-point-seven LM.”

“Communication is go,” said Nash. “The port authority has given us clearance to leave as scheduled.”

“Engineering is go,” said Michelle, her eyes glued to the computer monitor as she settled into her seat. “Drives charged and ready.”

“Excellent,” said Mark. “Prepare for jump.”

As he hit a series of keys on the controls at his station, a low hum sounded from the back of the room. The wall behind Jalil began to vibrate.

I’ve been through this before, he realized with a start. Memories rushed back to him, of shaking with terror in a chair not unlike this one while the whole ship vibrated and roared with energy. He remembered his mother sitting next to him, holding his hand, squeezing to make the fear go away.

“Five seconds and counting,” said Mark. “four, three…”

What does he mean by “jump”? Jalil wondered. The hum jumped sharply in pitch and volume.

Without warning, his stomach flipped inside out, and his heart leaped into his mouth. A wave of nausea struck him like a meteor, and the walls and ceiling shrunk until he wasn’t sure whether he was looking at the room from the inside out or the outside in. He gasped for breath as the room swam all around him.

As suddenly as it had begun, he was back in the bridge, sitting in his chair. Sweat dripped down his forehead, and he lifted a weak hand to wipe it away.

What the hell was that?

Outside the forward window, the normally black sky was filled with the light of stars—thousands and thousands of them, brighter even than the night sky in the deep desert. His eyes grew wide with wonder as he stared at the sight.

“Jump complete,” said Mark, leaning back in his chair. “Nash, try to get a hold of the port authority at the system node. I want to be in the starlane before my sleep shift, if possible.”

“Yes, sir,” said Nash. He busied himself at his computer.

“What just happened?” Jalil asked.

“We jumped about forty-five light-minutes from GN-2,” said Michelle. “Once our energy reserves build up again—probably an hour—we’ll jump to the system node and enter the starlane.”

“But—but it was so strange,” said Jalil, still sweating.

“Feel a little woozy, huh?” Lars asked. “Don’t worry—it’s perfectly normal.”

“We just skipped across millions of kilometers by creating a dimensional rift in space,” Michelle explained. “It’s the only possible way to travel between stars.”

“You’ll get used to it,” said Lars.

“Right,” said Jalil. God-willing.

He stared out the window at the brilliant starfield. The milky band of the galaxy streaked across his view, with the dim red cloud of the Good Hope Nebula glowing brightly to the left.

“Where’s Karduna?”

“Out there,” said Michelle, pointing toward the nebula. “But it’s too far away to make out from the other stars.”

Jalil stared anyways, hoping to catch a glimpse of anything familiar. Somewhere out there was his home—his first home. He clenched his fists and repeated the thought over and over in his mind. But try as he might, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was going away instead of coming back.

Chapter 14


“Why so glum?” Amina asked as she brushed Mira’s hair. “You should be happy—I certainly would be if I were in your position.”

“I know,” said Mira, sighing inwardly.

“Don’t be so harsh, Amina,” said Surayya, parting the tent door as she stepped into the dressing room. “She’s been through a lot. Ever since Jalil—”

“I know, I know. But at least you got to sleep with him before he left, right?”

“What?” said Mira, frowning as she turned to face her younger sister.

Amina grinned mischievously. “Oh, don’t be so modest.”

“I never slept with him. Never!”

“Right…” said Amina, drawing out the word with a wink and a meaningful nod. “You never did. We understand.”

Mira’s cheeks burned, but she swallowed the urge to argue with her sisters. It doesn’t matter what I say, she thought to herself. They wouldn’t believe me anyway.

Surayya clucked her tongue and shook her head at Amina. “Is your heart made of stone? Can’t you see you’re hurting her? Only a few months ago, she thought she was going to marry Jalil. Wouldn’t you be upset?”

“Not if the groom were Ibrahim. I hear he’s quite a beast.”

“Amina!”

“Well, if Jalil was the kind of guy who would abandon her anyway, why shouldn’t she be happy he’s gone? Better to drop him and move on, that’s what I say.”

Mira soon lost track of the argument. It was clear they weren’t truly interested in her feelings, just in proving themselves right. Those arguments were always the worst kind.

The tent door parted, and her sisters both stopped talking. Mira looked over her shoulder and saw Tiera standing in the doorway. Her clothes were soiled from riding in the desert, and her uncovered hair was tangled and unkempt, as usual. She stared at each of them in turn with cold, emotionless eyes.

“I need to speak with Mira alone.”

Amina and Surayya both laughed.

“What? You think you can just order us out?”

“Don’t boss us around, Tiera.”

For her part, Tiera said nothing. The laughter died down, replaced by a tense silence.

“Oh, come on,” said Surayya, taking Amina by the arm. “We need to pick out Mira’s outfit anyway.”

“Yeah. Besides, I’m sure Tiera doesn’t have anything interesting to say.”

“Amina!”

Tiera ignored the last comment and waited until both girls had left the room. When they were gone, she lowered herself to the rug-covered dirt floor and sat down. Mira shifted uneasily and gave her a halfhearted smile.

“I came to apologize,” said Tiera, looking Mira squarely in the eyes. “What I said back in the convoy was wrong.”

“Apologize?”

“Yes. I misjudged you; I thought it was your idea to seduce Jalil into returning to the camp. I didn’t realize that Shira was behind it all.”

Mira swallowed nervously. She glanced down at the floor to avoid Tiera’s gaze.

“There’s no point denying it. I don’t blame you for what happened, not if you were set up.”

“How do you know all this?” Mira asked. Though she already knew the answer, she didn’t like the idea of people spying on her without her knowing.

“I overheard your conversation with her in the kitchen,” Tiera confessed. “I swear, I was already outside working at the time. I didn’t start the rumors either; some of the other girls must have been eavesdropping.”

Mira sighed. With the insular nature of the camp, it was inevitable that news of her mother’s rebuke would come out sooner or later. She wouldn’t be surprised if Surayya and Amina were gossiping about it right then.

“You aren’t angry at me?”

“No,” said Mira. “No one has any secrets around here.”

“Still,” said Tiera, “you may want to touch up your cheek with some makeup before you go in to see Ibrahim.”

Mira brought her hands to her cheeks and blushed deep red. “Is it that obvious?”

“Yes.”

She lifted up the hand mirror and stared into it. Through the cracked and faded glass, her bruises were more visible than she’d thought.

“Oh my goodness—thanks for telling me.”

“It’s nothing.”

She set down the mirror on the carpet by her side. “So you believe me when I say I didn’t—”

“Yes,” said Tiera. “I believe you.”

Mira hesitated for a moment before leaning forward and throwing her arms around her half-sister. “Thank you,” she whispered, her voice shaking. “Thank you for believing me.”

Tiera patted her on the back, returning the embrace. “I guess I’m the only one, then.”

“Yes,” said Mira. She bit her lip, fighting back tears.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” said Tiera, her voice bitter. “Let me give you a bit of advice: Father and Shira may try to force you to marry Ibrahim, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to. They’ll bring you in to meet him, but if either of you decides not to follow through, it doesn’t matter what they say—you don’t have to marry him. That’s your right.”

“But—but what about my honor? The family’s honor?”

Tiera looked her in the eye. “You didn’t sleep with Jalil, did you?”

“Well, no—”

“So your honor is perfectly intact. You don’t have anything to be ashamed of.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course!” said Tiera. “Honor isn’t something that others can give or take away. If you didn’t do anything wrong, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.”

Mira swallowed and took a deep breath. “I don’t know,” she said softly “Father threatened—”

“Threatened what?”

“He threatened to banish me from the camp if I didn’t agree to the marriage.”

Tiera cursed under her breath. “I’d forgotten about that.”

Then what am I supposed to do?

“Your best option is probably to stall,” she said, as if reading Mira’s mind. “Once the worst of it blows over and they see that you aren’t pregnant, there’s a good chance that they won’t live up to that threat. You still have options.”

“Are you sure?” Mira asked. She rubbed her cheek where her mother had struck her—the memory of it still made her shudder.

Tiera sighed and shook her head. “Mira, you’ve got to learn how to have a little backbone.”

“But—but what if Ibrahim isn’t that bad?”

“If you think the marriage will make you happy, then by all means, go for it. It’s your life, and only you can live it. But Mira, live it. Don’t let anyone push you around.”

Mira nodded silently.

Tiera paused for a second more, a look of genuine concern on her face. Without a word, she passed through the rug door, letting it fall shut behind her and leaving Mira alone.


* * * * *


“So where are you from?” Michelle asked.

Jalil shifted uncomfortably on the hard steel bench, leaning heavily on the table. The fabric of his new jumpsuit felt too slippery, as if it were coated in a light sheen of oil. Across from him, Michelle looked up from her bowl of porridge, while Lars walked over from the tiny kitchenette in the corner and took a seat next to her.

“Here you go,” said Lars, setting a bowl out in front of him. “It might not look too appetizing, but it’s not that bad once you get used to it.”

Jalil glanced down at the gray goop in his bowl and bit his lip. It was hard to decide whether it looked more like wet cement or colorless human waste. Not wanting to be impolite, he lifted his spoon and downed a mouthful of the stuff, trying hard to swallow without gagging. Fortunately, it was as tasteless as it was colorless.

“Don’t eat it straight,” said Michelle. She pulled out a tall, thin bottle with a miniature spigot on the end. “Here, try some of this—it’ll add flavor.”

Jalil held out his bowl, and she squirted some of the stuff into his gray porridge. It was bright orange and bubbled when it hit the stuff.

“What is it?”

“Condensed meat flavoring, mixed with spices. Try it.”

Jalil did. If he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine that the porridge tasted like day-old meat, ground and pulverized until it had the consistency of mucous. His throat tightened as he swallowed; he decided to keep the orange stuff in one side of his bowl. Whatever this gray slop was, it was better unflavored.

“So how long do we have until we arrive?” he asked.

“Well,” said Lars, “we’re scheduled to jump to the K-GN system node in three hours. Traffic on the starlane is light, so we should reach Karduna in less than a week. We’ll unload our cargo at K-4 and spend a few days there, possibly more, before heading out to the Colony. All told, I’d say about two weeks, give or take.”

Jalil’s stomach fell. Even after traveling for so many months, two weeks seemed like an unbearable time to wait. Still, if it meant returning to his home—his true home—it would be worth it. He’d just have to do his best to get used to the food in the meantime.

“You never answered my question,” said Michelle, pointing at him with her spoon. “Where are you from?”

“Yeah,” said Lars. “Tell us.”

“Well,” Jalil said, unconsciously fingering his pendant, “it’s kind of a long story.”

“We’ve got time,” said Michelle.

Jalil leaned back and took a deep breath. “I remember when I was a young boy, probably three or four, that I was on a starship a lot like this one. I was looking for my parents when lights began to flash outside the window. The next thing I knew, alarms went off, explosions sounded, and everyone started running around in a panic.”

“Sounds like a space battle,” Lars mused. “You’re about sixteen, so that must have been about twelve standard years ago, during the uprising against Emperor Faulkensteyn III.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” said Michelle. “Get on with the story.”

Jalil took in a deep breath; for some reason, his heart was pounding in his chest. He pushed his feelings aside, however, and went on.

“Before the ship blew apart,” he continued, “my mother threw me down a chute into a small pod, which detached from the ship. The next I remember, I was in the middle of a vast, red desert. I didn’t know anything about what had happened; all I knew was that I was alone.”

“So who picked you up?” asked Michelle.

“A band of desert tribesmen,” said Jalil. “They saw the starship fall from the sky, and came to investigate. That’s how I met my adopted father, Sheikh Sathi Abu Ari of the Najmi tribe.”

“They took you in and raised you as their son?”

“Yes.”

Michelle nodded with newfound respect, while Lars frowned.

“So if you grew up in the middle of the desert, how did you come here?” he asked.

Jalil reached under his shirt and showed them his pendant. “Before my mother threw me in the pod, she put this around my neck. No one in the desert could read the data chip embedded inside, so I went to the Temple of a Thousand Suns to find someone who could unlock it for me.”

Lars whistled. “That’s quite a journey. You must have traveled—what, a couple thousand miles?”

“More,” Jalil said softly. More than I ever should have.

Michelle leaned forward, interlocking her fingers under her chin. “So when you read the data, what did you find?”

“Who I am,” said Jalil. “That my name is Gavin Farland, and I was born in a place called ‘Station K-3 L5b.’”

Lars and Michelle’s eyes both lit up. “Where did you say you were born?” Michelle asked.

“Station K-3 L5b,” said Jalil. “Why? Have you heard of it?”

“Of course we have,” said Lars. “That’s our home.”

Jalil perked up at once. “Your home? What do you mean?”

“‘Station K-3 L5b’ is another name for the Colony,” said Michelle. “That’s the Bridgette’s port of call. If you were born there, you must be one of us.”

A chill ran down Jalil’s spine, all the way to his fingers. He leaned forward, heart racing as a hundred questions sped through his mind.

“Where is it? What is it like? Who—”

“Whoa there,” said Lars, laughing. “There’ll be plenty of time to answer all your questions. But first, you said your name was Farland. I have a friend by the name of Will Farland—do you think you might be related?”

Jalil’s head spun. “God-willing,” he said, switching for a brief moment back to the desert tongue. “What was his name again?”

“Will,” said Lars. “Will Farland. But I don’t suppose—”

“When can I meet him?”

“I’m not sure. Last I heard, he was scheduled to make a run on the Giselle out to the New Pleiades, but if we get back soon enough, we’ll probably catch him before he leaves.”

Masha’allah!

“If at all possible, I must speak with this man,” said Jalil. Chills shot from the back of his neck all the way to his fingertips.

“Of course, of course,” said Lars, chuckling.

“But what about this ‘Colony’?” Jalil continued, undeterred. “What can you tell me about it?”

“That depends,” said Michelle, swallowing another bite of her porridge. “What do you want to know?”

Everything.

“Well,” she said, “for starters, it’s nothing like the Gaia Nova desert.”

Jalil frowned. “What do you mean?”

“It’s a space station.”

“A space station?”

“Yeah,” said Lars. “It used to be a deep space mining facility, but we converted it into a comfortable little outpost. The max population capacity is only twenty thousand, but most of us in the younger generation are joining up with the various merchanter families as crew so overcrowding isn’t much of a problem.”

“What he means,” said Michelle, “is that the Colony is a space station.”

Jalil blinked. “So it’s like a dome, then?”

“Kind of,” said Lars, “except ten thousand times smaller. The Colony was originally a mining outpost for an interstellar corporation. All that changed, though, when we won our independence.”

“Independence?” said Jalil. “What do you mean?”

Lars pushed his half-empty bowl aside and leaned forward, looking Jalil in the eye. “Almost a hundred years ago, the Karduna system was a part of the New Gaian Empire. Under their rule, the corporations sucked us dry. They exploited our labor and natural resources, then sold us the finished goods at inflated prices.”

“Thanks for the history lesson, mister flunked-all-his-classes,” said Michelle, rolling her eyes.

“I didn’t flunk history,” Lars snapped at her. “Anyhow, when Karduna seceded from the empire, we threw off our corporate overlords and established a democracy. Things were tough for a while, but together with the Confederation of Kardunasian States, we won our independence.”

“I see,” said Jalil. “Is that how my parents died?”

“No, no, no,” said Lars. “All that happened generations ago. Your parents got tangled up in some Imperial mess that had nothing to do with us. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Right, Jalil thought to himself, gritting his teeth. The wrong place at the wrong time.

“So what about the Colony? Can you describe it to me?”

Lars smiled, and his eyes lit up with a passion that reminded Jalil, strangely enough, of Master Rumiya.

“The Colony is the most perfect democracy in all of settled space,” he said, radiating obvious pride. “It’s nothing less than the last bastion of hope for the free stars.”

“Oh, come on,” said Michelle. “The Gaians aren’t that bad.”

“Not that bad?” said Lars. “What about that crackdown in the Tajjur system a few years back?”

“The Tajjis were terrorists.”

“Some would call them freedom fighters.”

Michelle let out an exasperated breath. “Whatever.”

“Anyways,” said Lars, turning back to Jalil, “at the Colony, the government is run directly by the people. Any citizen can propose a bill or an amendment, and provided it has enough support, it goes on to the General Assembly. Voting is conducted on a peer-to-peer network of personal devices, so any citizen within a couple light-hours can participate in the civic process.”

“If they want to,” said Michelle, stirring her food absent-mindedly. “Some of us think it’s just an enormous headache.”

“A headache?” Lars said, turning on her. “Liberty doesn’t come without responsibilities, ‘Chelle. The obligation to vote is a small price to pay in exchange for personal freedom.”

“Now you sound just like Dad,” she muttered under her breath.

“One of these days,” Lars told her, “you’re going to see how fragile our freedoms really are. When that day comes, I hope you have the good sense not to take them for granted.”

Jalil looked awkwardly from one sibling to the other. Lars’s face was red, his hands clenched into fists, and his eyes shone with a fervor that was almost religious.

At that moment, someone climbed down the ladder and dropped to the floor. It was Nash.

“Your father’s going to need you in a minute,” he said, looking at Lars. “He’s about to make the final jump calibrations.”

“Fine,” said Lars. He rose from his seat and slapped Jalil on the back. “We’ll talk more later, ‘kay?” After shooting Michelle a dirty look, he turned and climbed up the ladder.

“What was that all about?” Nash asked, taking a seat next to Michelle.

“Oh, nothing,” said Michelle, looking away. “It’s just Lars, getting into another of his fits.”

Did I say something? Jalil wondered to himself. The fight had flared up so quickly, he hardly knew what had happened.

“That’s okay,” said Nash. “I’m sure he’ll be fine once he calms down.”

He reached behind Michelle and started to massage her back. As he did, Michelle leaned into him, the tension evaporating from her body. Jalil tensed; for some reason, the gesture reminded him of Mira. A vague longing rose like a lump in his throat, but he forced it out of his mind by reaching down and rubbing the pendant underneath his shirt.

I’m not abandoning her, he told himself. I’m going home. Try as he might, however, he couldn’t quite believe it.


* * * * *


Mira stood still as Surayya and Amina dressed her in flowing black robes, ornately embroidered with red and purple cross stitching. Gold-plated copper coins dangled from the hem and from the silky red headscarf she wore. Though the fabric covered her hair, it was just thin enough to give a suggestive hint of what lay beneath.

“Wala!” said Amina, snapping her fingers with a flick of her hand. “You look gorgeous!”

Mira smiled; even though she disagreed, she appreciated the thought.

Rina and Majd joined them as they walked down the dusty hall to the front room. Through the walls, Mira heard the low tones of conversation—her father talking with her uncle Nazar and her cousin Ibrahim. The men laughed suddenly at an unheard joke, making Majd gasp. Amina started giggling, but Surayya hurriedly shushed her.

Mira’s heart sped up as they neared the tent door. The weave of the fabric was wide enough that she could make out the profiles of the men, reclining on their luxurious couches. A large female figure walked in—Shira, no doubt—and placed a tray on the table in front of them.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” Amina hissed. “Go on!”

Mira swallowed and parted the door just a crack. Her mother looked up and smiled broadly. “Mira is here,” she announced. “Come in, come in!”

The three men stood up as she entered the room. Her father was dressed in his richest red-and-gold trimmed robes, while Nazar—a thin, lanky man with a full black beard and a deeply furrowed brow—wore a brown cloak with a dark green vest.

Ibrahim, however, stood out from them both. Tall and muscular, with strong arms and clear olive skin, he wore a pure white robe with a golden circlet over his red-and-white checkered headscarf. Brown leather straps stretched across his broad, well-built chest to the ammunition belt at his waist. A carefully trimmed beard ringed his mouth and came to a point at his chin. His cheekbones were high and sharp, and his eyes were a deep, mesmerizing blue—the color of the endless sky above the sea of glass.

“Mira, my cousin,” he said, bowing graciously. “It is an honor and a pleasure to be in your presence.”

“And yours as well,” she said, returning the greeting as best as she could manage. As she sat down, Ibrahim spread himself out on his side like a regal prince.

“Ibrahim, this is my daughter Mira Al-Jamiyla,” said her father. “I believe you two have met before?”

“Yes,” said Ibrahim, “though it was many years ago. Your daughter has grown so beautiful, I must confess I hardly recognized her.”

Mira blushed deep red and glanced demurely at the floor.

“Indeed,” said Nazar. “The last time was when we were camped just twenty miles to the southeast. We used to visit often, before our well dried up and we had to move on.”

“Do you remember?” Ibrahim asked.

“Yes,” Mira said softly, memories from her earliest childhood coming back to her as she met her cousin’s eyes. “You look—different.”

Sathi and Nazar burst into uproarious laughter. “Yes,” said her father. “A lot has changed, certainly.” He glanced up at Shira, who nodded. “Why don’t we leave you two alone to get reacquainted?”

Sathi and Nazar walked out the front door, while Shira set down a platter of green grapes on the table before leaving them alone together.

“Your father is a great man,” said Ibrahim after the others were gone. “It takes a special kind of person to lead a camp out here in the deep desert for as long as he has.”

“Yes,” said Mira, her heart racing now that she was alone with Ibrahim. Doubtless her mother was listening in through the tent walls—not to mention all of her sisters—but until the meeting was over, none of them would interfere.

“I don’t know if you remember me all that well,” said Ibrahim, “but I remember you. You used to spend a lot of time playing with your older sisters, looking for strange rocks while the men dug up the walls around the compound. I came once with a shard of black obsidian from the hills near my father’s camp. When I gave it to you, your eyes lit up, and all your sisters wanted to take turns playing with it.”

“Yes,” Mira said, “I remember. Although—I’m sorry, I think I lost the rock.”

Ibrahim laughed—a clear, pleasant sound. “That’s all right,” he said, “It was just a child’s gift. But we’re certainly not children anymore.”

Mira blushed again, but didn’t look to the ground this time. “No,” she said, “we’re not.”

Ibrahim smiled and leaned forward to pick a few grapes from the platter. He looked nothing like the young, shy boy who had given her the shiny black rock so many years ago. Now, he was very much a man. His every movement was confident and precise, and he exuded an air of strength that reminded her of Jalil.

“It’s been a long time,” she whispered.

“Yes. Well, things have certainly changed.” He popped a couple of grapes into his mouth and chewed quietly. “My brothers have all established themselves, and I understand it’s my time to do the same. I have a mind to start a new camp, up in the mountains where the air is clean and free of sand.”

“Wouldn’t it be difficult to find water there?” Mira asked.

“Not if you know where to look. I’ve helped my father build three new wells on our borders with those murderous Sarahiyn. The rain in the Hamir Mountains flows quickly over the stony ground, but it catches in clefts and reservoirs hidden from most eyes. Have you ever seen the Hamir Mountains?”

Mira thought of the sea of glass at the top of the world, near the towering ivory pillar that was the Temple of a Thousand Suns. She thought of the islands in Terra 2 Dome, surrounded by the calm blue ocean that stretched from horizon to horizon.

“No,” she said. “I haven’t.”

“Ah, then you should come and see them with your own eyes. The air is clean and pure, and the breeze is cool on your face.”

“Like the ocean?” Mira asked, a little absent-mindedly.

“Ocean?” Ibrahim asked, frowning. “Where in this desert is there any ocean?”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Mira. “I was thinking of—of a place under the domes.”

“In Babylon, eh?” Ibrahim asked, grinning mischievously. “I’d forgotten you’d been there.”

Something about his grin made her a little uneasy. “Yes,” she said. “Have you?”

“Only once or twice, and never any further than Aliet Dome. At least, that’s what I tell my parents.” He gave her a meaningful wink.

Mira was confused until she remembered the cantina girls, bearing their bodies for all to see. She remembered how Jalil had become so unbalanced by it all, and wondered how Ibrahim would have reacted. Probably very differently.

“And how did you enjoy your stay in Babylon?” he asked.

“I—” Mira tried to think of something to say, but words failed her. Ever since returning home, she hadn’t had a chance to clear her thoughts. Strange how throughout her travels, all she could think of was the desert—now that she had returned, even her own home felt alien to her.

“I don’t know,” she said, biting her lip and looking down.

To her surprise, he laughed—not in a demeaning way, but in a way that told her he understood perfectly.

“Nothing is the same anymore, is it?” he asked. “Everything feels empty somehow, as if something or someone important is missing. Your sisters try to help, but they just don’t understand you—am I right?”

“Yes,” said Mira, looking up at him. “That’s exactly how I feel. How did you know?”

“Because I feel the same way.”

He looked away for a moment, then turned and looked her in the eye.

“Mira, I’m looking for someone who feels the way I feel. Whatever you did, or whatever you’ve been through, you can leave it all behind and not look back. I don’t care about any of it. I can offer you a new life in a new place.”

The earnestness in his voice took her aback. His deep blue eyes stared at her with such intensity that she felt as if he were staring into her soul. She drew in a sharp breath, but met his gaze without flinching.

“I need to think about it,” she said. “I—I don’t know if I can decide right now.”

“Of course, of course,” said Ibrahim, waving his hand. “My father and I expected to stay here for some time—perhaps we’ll get to know each other a little better in the meantime?”

He grinned at her. She couldn’t help but smile.

“Yes,” she said. “I hope we do.”


* * * * *


Jalil drifted in and out of a restless sleep. Time became fluid, and images from the past few months flashed across his mind in frightening caricatures. He struggled to find some sense of order to it all, but soon felt lost in a nightmare over which he had no control.

He dreamed he was with Mira again, walking through the trash-ridden corridor of the pylon city. A flickering neon light hung over a doorway curtained by amber beads; the sweet smell of hookah smoke wafted through, mingled with the stench of alcohol. Jalil parted the bead curtain, and the two of them entered the hazy, smoke-filled cantina.

As they sat down at the empty table against the wall, the lights slowly dimmed. Jalil’s heart began to pound, and his palms began to sweat. He knew that he needed to get out, but his legs would not obey him.

Across the room, the three showcase windows lit up with a warm, mellow light. Sure enough, three half-naked girls stepped into the showcase windows. Their skin was smooth and inviting, their bodies full and voluptuous. An electronic beat began to pulse, and the girls swayed sensually, making Jalil’s cheeks flush and his heart pound faster.

This is wrong, he thought frantically to himself. This is shameful! He tried desperately to break free, but the dream would not allow him.

The girl on the left turned to face him. He recognized her immediately: Tiera, his adopted sister. She wore a skimpy bedlah gown of semi-transparent silk and jingling gold coins.

Jalil’s arms tensed, and his breath caught in his throat. He’d seen her without her headscarf before, but never like this.

He wrenched himself free long enough to face the showcase on the right. The second girl turned around and smiled—it was Michelle. Her hands slowly undid the clasp holding up her dress.

No, he inwardly screamed. Not her! He exerted all his strength to turn away, succeeding at the last possible second.

He found himself staring at the center showcase, his heart racing so fast he felt it would explode. The last girl had her back to him, hands wrapped seductively around her torso. With her body swaying provocatively to the beat, she pulled her top over her head and let it fall to the floor.

His arms and legs tensed as he stared at her naked back, but once again he was frozen in place, unable to break free. In only a few moments, she would turn to face him, showing more of herself than was right for him to see. Time slowed, and his breathing came short and fast as the moment of truth drew inevitably closer.

With her elbows lifted daintily above her head, she turned around to face him. To Jalil’s horror, he realized it was Mira. Guilt swept over him, but there was nothing he could do but stare.

As her eyes met his, however, he saw that she wasn’t smiling. Instead, she looked distressed—and afraid.

Help me, her eyes pleaded with him through the glass. Please, Jalil. Save me.

Unseen hands drew her back into the darkness—hands, Jalil somehow knew, of evil men. Something within him snapped, and suddenly he was free. He screamed and ran forward, pounding on the glass with his fists until his hands were numb and his knuckles bloody. Hands grabbed at him, pulling him back, but he fought them off and kept pounding with all his strength. A crack appeared, splitting into another, and without warning the glass shattered, sending him falling, falling—

He hit the metal floor of the bunkroom with a thud, hands and elbows throbbing. He moaned and tried to get up, but his legs were tangled in the bedsheets. Overhead, someone flipped a switch, and cold white light flooded the room, making him squint.

“What’s going on?” Nash said from the top bunk. “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” Jalil mumbled, struggling to sit up. His arms were still sore, and bruises had begun to form on his elbows.

“Having a nightmare?”

Jalil only groaned.

“Well, try to keep it down. Our shift begins in a couple of hours, and I need to get some sleep.”

With that, Nash switched off the light and rolled back over. Jalil pulled himself onto the bunk and collapsed.

Images still flashed through his mind, however—images he couldn’t forget, no matter how much he tried. Tiera and Michelle, swaying seductively to the beat, with Mira standing half-naked before him—

Save me.

The two words brought a flood of emotions so strong that it all but overwhelmed him. More than anything, he longed to be with her, to know that she was safe—

But then, he remembered that awful night when she’d straddled him below the starry skylight of the spaceport hotel. A wave of guilt swept over him as he remembered the feel of her body against his hands. He buried his face in the pillow, trying in vain to put the shameful memories out of his mind.

Save me.

Had he made a mistake? Should he have stayed with her? Was there some meaning to the dream that he didn’t quite understand?

He bit his lip as he pulled the covers over his head. In the darkness, only the low purr of the ship’s ventilation system interrupted his troubled thoughts. Gradually, exhaustion overtook him, and he drifted back into the void of sleep.

Save me.

Part V


Chapter 15


“Well?” said Surayya, practically beaming with excitement. “What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” said Mira. The coins on her headscarf jingled as she took it off, safe in the women’s quarters.

“He’s a beast,” said Amina. “You are so lucky.”

“Maybe,” said Mira. She thought of what Ibrahim had said about taking her away from her past life—from everyone around her who judged her wrongly, from her controlling mother and distant father, from her sisters who didn’t understand her. She had to admit, his offer was tempting. Besides, Ibrahim was certainly an attractive man—surprisingly attractive.

“You shouldn’t marry him,” said Tiera, ducking her head as she stepped inside. Her clothes were dusty and soiled from a hard day of work, and when she slipped off her headscarf, her hair was sun-bleached and uncombed.

“What?” Surayya exclaimed. Amina said nothing, but from the venomous look on her face, it was clear she disagreed.

“I said you shouldn’t marry him,” said Tiera, looking straight at Mira. “If I were you, I’d refuse to give my consent.”

“Why?” asked Amina.

“Because he’s not what he seems to be,” Tiera answered. “I used the shortwave to talk with some of the people who know him, and everything I’ve heard tells me this marriage is a bad idea.”

“Oh, come on,” said Amina, hands on her hips.

“Yeah,” said Surayya. “What could you have possibly heard?”

Please don’t fight, Mira thought silently to herself. She hated it when her sisters fought.

“Some strange things have been happening in Nazar’s camp,” said Tiera. “In the last two years, three young women have been married off suspiciously fast.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Amina, rolling her eyes. “Nazar probably has twenty young men living in his camp. The girls could have slept with any of them.”

“Perhaps, but the brother of the last one challenged Ibrahim to a duel to defend his sister’s honor.”

“That proves nothing,” said Surayya. “We don’t know the full story. How can we judge him based on that?”

“Mira needs to judge him, if she’s going to decide whether he’s worthy of her hand.”

“What happened to him?” Mira asked. All three girls turned their heads at her question.

“Who?” Tiera asked.

“The brother,” said Mira, her voice barely a whisper. “What happened to him?”

“Ibrahim killed him.”

Mira felt a chill run down her back. Ibrahim has killed someone, she thought to herself. He’s a murderer.

But wasn’t Jalil a murderer, too? She remembered the fire in his eyes as he’d brought the gun to his shoulder, the complete lack of hesitation as he’d shot her captor right between the eyes. Had that stopped her from loving him?

“Well of course Ibrahim killed him!” said Amina, waving her hand as if to dismiss the whole story. “The boy challenged his honor and insulted his good name. What was he supposed to do, stand aside and let the kid get away with it?”

Tiera shrugged. “Perhaps if he hadn’t slept with the boy’s sister—”

“You don’t know that,” said Surayya, her anger spilling over. “How can you judge him without knowing all the facts? You weren’t there!”

He told me he wanted to get away from everything and start a new life, Mira thought quietly to herself. Now she knew why.

“Mira,” said Tiera, ignoring the others for a moment. “You don’t have to marry him if you don’t want to. I’m advising you, as your older sister, to—”

“And I’m advising you as your full sister that you shouldn’t listen to her,” Surayya yelled, cutting Tiera off. “She doesn’t know the whole story, and even if she did, who is she to boss you around?”

“Yeah,” said Amina. “If Tiera knew what she was talking about, she’d be married by now.”

Tiera’s cheeks turned bright red, and without another word, she turned and left.

“Pssh,” said Amina, making a face at the door after Tiera had gone. “Self-righteous little bitch. What does she know about men?”

“Please don’t say that,” said Mira. She shuddered and turned away.

“She’s right,” said Surayya. “That was low, Amina.”

“Maybe it was, but Tiera started it, not me.”

Please just stop fighting, Mira wanted to scream. Instead, she rose to her feet.

Surayya frowned. “Where are you going?”

“Outside,” said Mira, stumbling for the door. “I—I need some fresh air.”

She left before either of her sisters could object.


* * * * *


Lena and Mazhar’s tent stood nearly a hundred yards from the main camp, at the base of a small mesa. The wall that surrounded the compound had not yet been extended to include their household, but two of the plasma turrets had been moved to include them in the camp’s defenses. They stood like silent statues, their dusty, age-worn barrels pointing up into the hot desert sky.

Mira walked alone to her older sister’s tent. Before the pilgrimage, she might have considered the long walk a bit of an ordeal; now, it was nothing. She entered without knocking and loosened her headscarf, letting her hair spill out over her shoulders. Mazhar was out on a scouting expedition, so there was no danger of running into him here.

“Lena?” she called out, taking off her shoes as she stepped over the green-carpeted threshold. Green was a Jabaliyn color—the rug must have come from Mazhar’s family.

“Mira!” came Lena’s excited voice from the back of the tent. Within seconds she appeared in the hallway, arms outstretched.

“Welcome, welcome!” she cried, embracing Mira and kissing her nearly half a dozen times on both cheeks. “How are you? How is your health? It’s so good to see you, my darling sister!”

“Very well, praise Allah, and to you as well,” said Mira, returning the warm welcome in kind. As she leaned forward to kiss Lena’s cheek, however, she was careful not to bump into her swollen stomach. Lena was only a few months pregnant, but it had already started to show.

“Please, come in!” said Lena, leading her into the front room. In spite of their humble circumstances, a gold-embroidered carpet covered the dusty floor, while an ornate stained glass chandelier cast a dim but sufficient light. Mira took her seat on one of two reclining couches, while Lena hurried out of the room, no doubt to get some refreshments.

“Would you like coffee or tea?” she called out.

“Oh, please, I couldn’t—”

“No, I insist! What will it be?”

“Perhaps a little tea,” said Mira. “Not too hot, of course.”

“Of course.”

Mira glanced around the room while Lena prepared their drinks. She and Mazhar certainly hadn’t lost any time in decorating the place. A stuffed falcon perched on an end table in the corner, its magnificent wings outstretched with its beak open in a silent yet eternal shriek. Silken flags and religious banners draped the walls, while an image of the Temple of a Thousand Suns hung prominently at the head of the room, carved from ivory and inlaid with silver. The image was so realistic that it caught Mira off guard for a moment, giving her flashbacks of the final leg of her journey there with Jalil. She swallowed and tried to keep her memories of the place bottled up, with little success.

“Here you are,” said Lena, bringing out a tray with two ceramic white cups and a tea kettle, as well as a plate of dry biscuits. She set the tray on the floor and poured the tea, handing Mira the first cup before taking her own.

“It’s been so long since I last saw you,” Lena said, taking her seat on the other couch. “How have you been?”

“Well enough, praise Allah,” said Mira, sipping her tea. It was perfect—full of flavor, yet not too thick or too warm.

“Praise Allah,” Lena concurred. “Do you like the blend?”

“It’s absolutely delicious.”

Lena beamed. “Mazhar says it was grown in a place called Aliet Dome,” she said. “I understand you passed through there on your way to the temple.”

“Yes, we—I did.”

“What was it like?”

Mira paused, wondering where to start. For some reason, all she could think about was the night with Jalil on the balcony of Sarah’s house, huddled together for warmth as the light from the dome mingled with that of the stars and satellites.

“It’s—big,” she said softly. “As big as a world. And the landscape is completely green, like this carpet.”

Lena laughed. “Green ground? How can that be?”

“Not the ground, but the plants. They grow so thick, you can’t see the ground except where it’s rocky. And in some places, there’s water—as much water as we can hold in our cistern, and more. The air is so wet and cool, it never feels dry, even with the sun beating down on it all day.”

“It sounds exotic,” said Lena. “I should like to go there some day.” She smiled and nodded, but from the look on her face, Mira’s words had clearly gone over her head.

“It’s beautiful,” said Mira, giving up on any further attempt at explanation. She took a biscuit and ate it slowly.

“Of course,” Lena added, “I wouldn’t want to live there. In that regard, things worked out very well for me, praise Allah—though I wish I could say the same for you.”

Mira recognized the veiled reference to Jalil. “Yes,” she said, “though things could certainly be worse.”

“Yes, they could,” said Lena. “You’re fortunate that Sathi arranged for you to marry Ibrahim so quickly.” She gave a meaningful look at Mira’s stomach.

Why does everyone assume that I’m pregnant with Jalil’s child? Mira wondered with some consternation. Why is Tiera the only one who believes me when I say I never slept with him?

“I don’t know,” Mira said softly. She bit her lip, wondering how to broach the subject.

“Don’t know? What could possibly be left to wonder about?”

“Well, Tiera told me—”

“Oh Tiera, always up to some mischief,” said Lena, rolling her eyes. “She almost ruined my wedding day, you know. Don’t let her ruin yours.”

“I don’t think she wants to,” said Mira. “She seems to mean well, and—”

“If she truly meant well, she wouldn’t discourage you from this marriage. Ibrahim may have his flaws, but he’s a wealthy cousin with an honorable reputation. If you turn him down, you may never get another chance like this, especially how—and pardon me for putting it so bluntly—tainted your honor is.”

“I don’t know,” Mira said.

Lena gave her a puzzled look. “Are you sure it’s safe to wait? Children grow quickly, Mira—not long, and your belly will look like mine.”

“No, it won’t,” Mira whispered. “I’m—I’m not pregnant.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

Lena stared at her, but not in disbelief. “Then do you mind me asking you some frank questions, sister to sister?”

Mira took a deep breath. “No, not at all.”

Lena glanced in either direction before leaning forward so that her mouth was only a few feet from Mira’s ear.

“What exactly happened between you and Jalil?” she asked. “Did you share the same bed?”

“Only once, but—”

“Once is enough,” she said, patting her swollen stomach. “Believe me.”

“I know,” said Mira, her cheeks blushing. “But we never, well—”

“You never made love?”

“No,” Mira whispered. “We didn’t.”

Lena nodded. “I see.”

“You believe me?”

“Yes.”

Mira’s heart leaped in her chest. “You do?”

“Yes.” Lena sank on her couch, sprawling out comfortably on her side. “I never thought Jalil was the kind of man to run away from a girl after shaming her. No, I believe you.”

“Oh, thank you!” Mira exclaimed.

“Of course, you should still marry Ibrahim.”

Mira’s smile fell.

“What? Why?”

“Because even if you and I know the truth of what happened, people aren’t going to believe it. After all, when a boy and a girl are alone together, Satan is the third one with them.”

“But—but that’s not fair!” Mira cried. “Jalil and I never—I’ve still got my honor. I—”

“Not in the eyes of the camp, you don’t,” said Lena. “Pardon my bluntness, but for all intents and purposes, you’re spoiled goods.”

Mira’s stomach fell out from under her. She bit her lip, trying to hold back her tears.

“So you’re saying I won’t get strawberries at my wedding?”

“I’m afraid not, Mira. I’m sorry.”

Mira didn’t know what to say to that. They sat in silence together for a few moments.

“Of course, that’s not the end of the world,” said Lena. “Ibrahim is a good man—he’ll make an excellent husband for you. Tiera doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure. That girl could look at a carving of pure ivory and find a blemish the width of a hair.”

“Maybe…” Mira’s voice drifted off.

“Listen,” said Lena, “it sounds as if your only real problem is that you’re having second thoughts. If that’s the case, I can help you out.”

“How?”

Lena leaned forward and grinned mischievously. “By giving you and Ibrahim a chance to find out if you’re compatible.”

Mira frowned. “Compatible? I don’t—”

“Oh, don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it. Ibrahim is quite the catch, and I’ve got a couple of private rooms in my tent, far away from any prying eyes…”

Mira’s eyes widened as she realized what her sister was suggesting.

“I—I don’t—”

“Oh, come on,” said Lena. “It’s not that big of a deal. Everyone does it.”

“Everyone?”

“Sure.”

“I don’t think—”

Lena laughed. “Oh, don’t pretend like you don’t know. Amina’s a year younger than you, and she’s already slept with half a dozen men. Surayya—”

Mira’s jaw dropped. “She has?”

“Yes. Didn’t you know?”

“No!” Half a dozen men? Lord of Earth!

“Well, it’s true. Surayya’s had a couple of secret boyfriends, now—she’s hoping to get one of them to marry her soon. And as for me and Mazhar—”

“You and Mazhar?” Mira said incredulously. “You slept with Mazhar before you were married?”

Lena nodded. “Of course we did! What’s wrong with that?”

“But—where do you find all these men?”

Lena threw back her head and laughed. “Oh, Mira—where have you been? Men aren’t hard to find; the desert isn’t completely empty. Most of them live less than a hundred miles away. We arranged all our meetings by radio or planetnet; the most exciting part was sneaking out to see them. Of course, I think Mother always knew, but Father…”

You had strawberries at your wedding, even though you slept with Mazhar long before your wedding night, Mira thought to herself. I never actually slept with Jalil, but because everyone thinks I have, I’ll never have that honor.

“But—but isn’t that wrong?”

Lena rolled her eyes. “Wrong? Let me tell you something, Mira: everybody acts as if fornication is a horrible, dishonorable thing, but nobody actually believes it. It’s just a rule we follow for society’s sake, so if people tell little white lies about it, it’s no big deal.”

It was to Jalil, Mira wanted to say.

Lena put a hand on her shoulder, as if to console her. “I know you’re nervous,” she said, “but trust me, there’s nothing to worry about. I’ll take care of everything.”

“I don’t know—”

“You and your second thoughts—will you give it a rest already? You’ve been a virgin for far too long, Mira; you don’t know what you’re missing.”

Mira opened her mouth, but found herself at a complete loss for words. So many thoughts and emotions were running through her, she felt completely paralyzed.

“Trust me—it’ll be fine,” Lena said again. “I’ll call for you when everything’s ready. Is that all right?”

No!

“I, I—”

“Excellent! I’ll see you soon, then.”

Before Mira knew what was happening, Lena was escorting her to the door. A moment later, she stood outside under the hot desert sun, as lost and confused as ever.


* * * * *


Jalil walked lightly down the main corridor and stopped at the door at the end, hesitating for a moment before stepping through.

The bridge was unusually quiet; only the hum of the ventilation system broke the silence. The lights were off, but the stars outside were easily bright enough to illuminate the room with their soft glow. Indicator lights along the walls and ceiling blinked on and off, their yellow and orange hues mingling with the milky blue glow of the starfield.

From the pilot’s seat in front of him, Nash glanced over his shoulder and nodded. “Hello there.”

“Hello,” said Jalil. He walked over and sat down in the astrogator’s chair.

“Bored?”

“A little,” Jalil admitted. “I’m afraid I’m not very useful.”

“Don’t worry about it. While we’re in the starlane, there’s not much for any of us to do.”

Jalil nodded, turning to gaze out the window at the stars. Next to him, Nash resumed his work.

“What makes the stars so bright?”

“Distance,” said Nash. “We’re in deep space now, so there isn’t anything bright enough to drown them out.”

“It’s amazing,” said Jalil. “I’ve never seen so many at once.”

Nash glanced up at the window. “I hardly notice them anymore. Places change you the longer you live in them, I guess. This ship feels as familiar to me as my parents’ home.”

Jalil nodded. “Why did you decide to join the crew?”

Nash shrugged. “I suppose I wanted to get away, see the rest of the universe. I never had much of a plan, but this feels right, being a merchanter. If I can, I’d like to get my own ship and make a living this way.”

Just like my parents, Jalil realized.

“How does a merchanter settle down and have a family?” he asked.

“It depends,” said Nash. “A lot of family businesses start out with a single ship, usually bought with borrowed money. The ship becomes your home, since living on board is cheaper than paying for an apartment you hardly ever use. After you pay off your ship, the next thing is to establish a home port and start building a fleet.”

“How do you find a wife?” asked Jalil. “Do your parents arrange for you to marry?”

Nash chuckled. “No, not usually. We do things a bit differently than they do in the Gaian desert.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, usually it’s up to a young man to find his own wife. He spends some time courting young women, until he finds a girl he likes who seems willing to take a chance on him. He asks for her hand, and if she says yes, they get married. If not, well, he finds someone else and tries again.”

Jalil nodded. “And have you chosen someone?”

“Yes.”

“Who?”

Nash paused for a moment. “Can you keep a secret?”

“My lips are sealed.”

“It’s Michelle.”

“I see,” said Jalil. “She is… very spirited.”

“Yes, and not a bad engineer, either.”

“I admit, I’ve never seen a woman so good at that. She will make an excellent wife for you.”

Nash chuckled. “I hope so. I plan to ask her when we get to Kardunash IV in a couple days.”

“God-willing,” said Jalil. “God-willing, my brother.”

At that moment, a gentle pinging noise sounded over the ship’s loudspeakers. Jalil braced himself—the sound meant that they were going to make another jump. He clenched his teeth and gripped the nearest handhold as his stomach fell out from underneath him. It wasn’t as bad as the first few times, but it still jarred him something awful. He opened his eyes and took in a deep breath, sweat clinging to his forehead.

“How many more jumps are we going to make?” he asked, leaning against the wall for support as he rose to his feet.

“About two dozen,” said Nash. “After a while, you get used to it.”

God-willing, thought Jalil, doubting he ever would.

Set against the starry backdrop out the forward window, he saw a giant, spherical object in the distance. It looked almost like a planet, except that it was dark gray, with a squarish platform jutting out of the middle on one side.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“What?” Nash said, looking up from his console. “Oh, that. It’s a jump station—a waypoint along the starlane. Their drives are what propel us from point to point, so that we can travel much faster than our ship could alone.”

“I see,” said Jalil. “And how far do we have to go?”

Nash shrugged. “Twenty light-years, perhaps less.”

“Light-year?”

“Yes. Karduna is almost eighty light-years from Gaia Nova, which means that if we accelerated our ship to just below the speed of light, it would take over eighty years to get there.”

Jalil frowned. “Light has a speed?”

“Of course—that’s why it takes several hours for a signal to travel from one end of a star system to another. The stars are so far apart that the light from them has traveled for years and years, sometimes even centuries, to reach us. When we look out at the starfield, we’re not only looking back across space, but also across time.”

“What?” exclaimed Jalil. “You’re saying that we can actually look backwards in time, by looking at something from far away?”

Nash shrugged. “Sure—why not? It would take one hell of a telescope, though.”

One hell of a telescope, Jalil thought to himself as he stared out at the myriad stars. The thought of looking backwards in time filled his mind with wondrous possibilities. What would he see, if he could look back far enough? Would he see his parents crash land their ship on Gaia Nova? Would he see himself growing up in the desert, driving across the mountains and sand dunes in his tiny little caravaneer? And what about Karduna? Was he staring at an image of the star as it appeared while his parents were still children? Before they were even born? Was it possible, even if only in theory, that he could see himself as a baby, with his real mother watching over him?

“If it’s possible to look back in time, is it possible to send a message?” he asked aloud, half to himself.

Nash chuckled. “I don’t think so, but honestly, who knows? It took our forefathers almost a thousand years to invent the jump drive. Until then, they thought that faster-than-light travel was impossible.”

Jalil nodded, caught up in his own thoughts. If he could send a message back in time, what would he say? Would he tell his parents not to go to Gaia Nova? Would he save them from crashing into the desert, and keep himself from being separated from them?

Strangely, he didn’t know if he would. Yes, if his parents had never crashed, he would still be with them—but what kind of a person would he be without the Najmi tribe? The thought filled him with fear, from the pit of his stomach to the ends of his fingers.

And what about Mira? What if he’d never met her, or shared that time with her on the pilgrimage? The thought of living his life without ever knowing her filled him with a surprisingly poignant sadness.

“Gavin?” came Nash’s voice. “Gavin, are you all right?”

Jalil blinked and came back to the present. “Uh, yes,” he said. “I’m fine.”

“Are you sure? You seemed a little distraught.”

“No, I’m fine. I was just… thinking.”

“Well, don’t think too hard. The universe can be a mind-boggling place.”

“Yes,” Jalil said softly. “It can.”


* * * * *


“Why so gloomy?” Surayya asked as she helped Mira hang the laundry. “You should be happy—you’ve got a suitor, after all.”

“I know,” said Mira, trying not to look as glum as she felt. She opened the creaky hatch of the laundry compressor and pulled out a wad of garments, clumped tightly together. Though the compressor had sucked out most of the water, it was still slightly moist to the touch—enough that she held it at arm’s length as she shook it out.

“So why the sad look?” Surayya asked, opening the hatch to pull out a tangled clump of colorful headscarves. “I mean, I know you’re still getting over Jalil, but he left almost a month ago. You’ve got to move on sometime.”

Mira bit her lip as she clipped the laundry to the line. The dusty wind whistled overhead, but surrounded on all sides by the tents and adobe walls of the camp, the laundry was safe from the sand.

“I don’t know,” she said, reaching into the compressor to pull out another misshapen lump. She didn’t know why, but it felt wrong to forget Jalil so quickly.

“What do you mean, you don’t know?” said Surayya, putting her hands on her hips to give her a stern, sisterly look. “Ibrahim is your first cousin—if anything, he’s the one who has claim on you, not Jalil.”

“I know,” Mira said, not meeting her sister’s eyes. “If it weren’t for Jalil, I’d probably be marrying Ibrahim anyway. But—”

“But what?” asked Surayya. “Jalil abandoned you, Mira. I know you had feelings for him, but you can’t let those get in the way, especially now.”

“So that’s why you think I should marry Ibrahim?” Mira asked, her body trembling. “Because you don’t think I’ll ever get anyone else?”

“Of course,” said Surayya. “You do realize what will happen if you refuse, don’t you?”

Mira stared at the ground, her fists clenched in frustration by her side. Surayya set down the laundry and put a hand on her shoulder.

“I know this must be hard, but if you don’t marry Ibrahim, Father’s going to have to banish you. There’s no other way to preserve the family honor.”

Honor? Mira screamed inwardly. What honor? The “family honor” is all a lie!

Before Mira could answer, however, Amina slipped into the courtyard. “Hello, sisters,” she said.

“Hello,” said Surayya. Mira remained silent.

“I’ve got a message,” Amina said, giving Mira a mischievous wink. “It’s from you-know-who.”

Mira frowned. “Who?”

“Oh, come on,” said Amina, rolling her eyes. “Who do you think?”

Ibrahim.

“What does he say?” she asked.

Amina glanced both ways before gleefully stepping closer. Surayya leaned in so that she could hear.

“He wants you to meet him at Lena’s tent,” Amina whispered. “Just after dinner.”

“Aiiee!” cried Surayya.

Mira’s legs went weak, and her hands started to shake. “Are you sure?”

“One hundred percent,” said Amina, still grinning. “He told me to bring you this.”

She pulled out an apple—old and somewhat wrinkled, but still bright. Surayya clapped both hands over her mouth, while Mira numbly took the gift. It reminded her of the strawberries at Lena’s wedding—the strawberries she would never have.

So it’s come to this, she thought to herself, swallowing hard as she bit her lip.

“You’re so lucky,” said Surayya, barely holding back the squeal in her voice. “Not only does he want to marry you, but he actually likes you, too!”

“Well, can you blame him?” said Amina. “Mother always said she was the prettiest.” She glanced at Mira and winked.

What am I supposed to do? Mira wondered. After Tiera’s warning, she didn’t know what to think of him anymore.

“Mira?” said Surayya, concern flooding her voice. “Mira, are you all right? Your face is as pale as a sheet.”

“Nervous, huh?” said Amina. “Don’t worry. Ibrahim might be a beast, but when he bites, you’ll like it.”

Jalil would never push me like this, Mira thought to herself. He would never use my own sisters against me.

In that moment, she knew her answer.

“I—I can’t,” she whispered. “I, uh, have some chores to do this evening.”

“Oh, Lord of Earth,” Surayya muttered. “You’re not thinking of running away from him, are you?”

“She’s not running away,” said Amina. “She’s just playing hard to get. Right?”

“Right,” Mira whispered.

“As long as you know you can’t do that forever.”

Mira’s head swam; that was what she was afraid of.

Chapter 16


Jalil stared out the forward window at the speckled blue orb of the planet below. White clouds stretched across the atmosphere like blemishes in a marble, while the boundless oceans spread out to the curvature of the horizon. The greenery where land met water reminded him of the cultivated fields and forests of Aliet Dome. Instead of the rust-red desert and craggy mountains of Gaia Nova, rivers stretched like veins from the gentle, rolling hills down to the deltas along the abundant coastline.

Here and there, Jalil picked out the large black structures of planetary domes, but they seemed smaller than the ones at Gaia Nova—smaller and more interspersed. Instead of dominating one hemisphere of the planet like an unsightly plague, they grew out of the landscape like natural landforms. If they weren’t so uniform, he almost would have thought that they were natural.

“Receiving a transmission,” said Nash, leaning forward in his chair. “Port authority has cleared us to dock at terminal AE-2.”

“Copy,” said Lars. “Feeding data to the autodocking routine. Stand by.”

Michelle leaned back and ran her fingers through her blond hair. “Man, it’s been so long,” she said. “I can’t wait to go planetside.”

Jalil glanced over at Nash, and for the briefest moment, their eyes met. A smile came to his lips as he remembered their conversation the previous day. Godspeed, brother.

“We’re not through yet,” said Mark. “There’s still the unloading to do.” He turned and motioned to Jalil. “Since the work is relatively straightforward, I think you shouldn’t have any problems with it. Am I right?”

“Yes, sir,” said Jalil. Out of the corner of his eye, Michelle pumped her arm and silently mouthed the word “yes.”

“Will you need any of us to stay behind as well?” asked Nash.

“I’ll stay,” said Lars. “Looks like some major legislation is slated to come to the General Assembly in a few hours.”

“Then thank goodness I’ll be gone,” said Michelle. Lars shot her a dirty look, but she ignored it.

“In that case, Lars, I’ll have you shadow Gavin on the crane,” Mark said. “‘Chelle, why don’t you help him get suited up?”

“Sure thing.”

She rose to her feet and motioned for Jalil to follow. “Where are we going?” he asked, hurrying to keep up with her.

“EVA racks,” she said, palming a keypad midway down the corridor. A hatch opened onto a ladder, and she stepped inside and started climbing down.

“Ee-vee-ay? What’s that?”

“Extra-Vehicular Activity. It means you’re going out into space.”

Jalil’s face paled as they reached the dimly lit room at the bottom of the ladder. Half a dozen bright orange full-body suits hung in niches along the opposite wall, their thick skins and stiff outer casings making them look like oversized eggs with legs and arms.

“Well, don’t stand there all day. Climb in.”

Jalil stepped forward, only to find that the gravity in this part of the ship was significantly weaker. Before he could stop himself, he bounded into the wall face-first.

“Ow!”

“Easy does it. Use the handholds on the ceiling.”

Blushing a little from embarrassment, Jalil gently lowered his feet into the nearest suit. He half expected it to be loose and baggy, but it actually felt quite snug.

“There,” said Michelle, fastening some clips around his waist. “Raise your hands, and I’ll pull down the top half.”

Jalil raised his hands and closed his eyes, and Michelle slipped the top half down over his arms and torso. She reached behind him and pulled up an elastic hood, which fastened tightly over his hair.

“Is it dangerous outside?”

“Yeah,” said Michelle, fitting a pair of gloves to the arms of his suit and securing them at the wrists. “But don’t worry. You’ll be in the cargo bay the whole time, operating the crane. As long as you’ve got your lifeline tied in, you’ll be fine.”

“And if I don’t?”

She shrugged. “Worst case scenario, you’ll drift off and burn up in the atmosphere. But that won’t happen. Here, hold still while I tighten your helmet.”

“Wait—burn up? What do you—”

“Don’t worry about it. You’ll be fine.”


* * * * *


The EVA work wasn’t too difficult. Jalil spent most of the time tethered to the operating board of a large crane, manipulating a joystick to guide the claw around the hold. The machinery moved at the mind-numbingly slow rate of three inches per second, hauling the massive crates from their berths in the cargo bay to a point where the station’s equipment could pick them up. The only thing that kept him from dozing off from boredom was the ever-present green-blue vista of the world below him—a grim reminder of the constant danger of working in space.

I fell once from a place like this, Jalil thought to himself as he stared at the white-speckled planetscape. I don’t want to fall again.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” asked Lars via the shortwave. Unlike Jalil, he had no qualms about drifting halfway out the bay in his EVA suit to get a better view.

“Yes,” said Jalil. “It’s very different from Gaia Nova.”

“I’ve always wondered why the Patriarchs settled on Gaia Nova,” said Lars, turning himself around with the maneuvering jets on his wrist. “When they left Earth, why didn’t they find a more hospitable place to settle? Compared to Kardunash IV, that world is just a desert.”

A beautiful desert, Jalil wanted to say. Instead, he focused his attention on his work and said nothing.

“Ah, no matter,” said Lars. “I guess it turned out all right in the end—that is, if history has an end.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

Lars laughed. “Then I guess there’s only people.”

“How goes the work, boys?” Mark asked over the comm channel.

“Good,” said Jalil. “We’ve only got three crates left.”

“Great. Keep it up, and you might catch the next ferry shuttle to the surface.”

“I doubt that,” said Lars. “The station registry is showing that it left almost twenty minutes ago.”

“Oh,” said Mark. Static faded to silence.

A thought occurred to Jalil, and he perked up. “What about Will Farland? Is he here yet?”

“Hang on, let me check,” said Lars. He was silent for a few moments. “No, he’s not showing up in the registry.”

“Did we miss him?”

“Probably not; he’d show up if we did. Either way, he should be headed to the Colony; we’ll meet him there if not before.”

Jalil nodded, which amounted to little more than moving his head within his oversized helmet. The crane reached the designated end point thirty meters outside the cargo bay, and he brought it to a gradual stop.

“What the—” said Lars. “Did you see that?”

“See what?”

“Some kind of flash—there it is again. It’s almost as if… but no, that can’t be.”

“What can’t be?”

Silence. Jalil frowned.

“Oh my God,” Mark said through the comm. “Boys, get back inside right now.”


* * * * *


“What’s going on?” Lars asked as they hurried onto the bridge.

“I just got a message from the port authority,” Mark said, his face pale. “A massive fleet just jumped into orbit on the far side of the planet and attacked the planetary defense network.”

“What? Are you kidding?”

“No, son, I’m not.”

“But who—”

“The Hameji,” said Mark, looking up at him with grim eyes. “They’re here.”

An awful silence fell between them. Outside the forward window, a small explosion flashed near the horizon of the planet, like a distant bolt of lightning.

“Better jettison the rest of the cargo,” said Mark. “I’ll undock with the station and prepare for jump.”

“But wait,” said Lars, his hands shaking. “What about ‘Chelle and Nash? They’re still down there!”

“What do you want me to do?” Mark asked, spinning in his chair to face them both. His forehead was creased, a frown of deep concern on his normally smiling face. “If we don’t move, and fast, we’re going to orbit right into the middle of that battle.”

“We need to make contact with them,” said Lars. He sat down at Nash’s chair and quickly brought up the computer display.

“I already tried, son. All the lines are jammed—”

“Then try a private line. The Bridgette’s long range comm dish can be adjusted for shorter frequencies, and we’re already in orbit. If we can just—”

“Lars, New Stockholm is on the other side of the planet. We’ll never reach them in time to escape.”

“Never say never,” said Lars, his eyes focused on the screen. “By now, I’m sure they’ve gotten the news, and are doing everything they can to take off from the surface. If we can’t get a direct line of sight, we’ll just have to bounce the signal off of another source—there.”

Mark sighed and shook his head. “Your signal will be too weak for them to pick up, broadcasting that far. I’m telling you, there’s already too much—”

“Are you charging the jump drive?”

“Of course I am.”

“Good—then all we need is to hold out until we make contact. We can do this, Dad!”

Mark hesitated, clearly torn. His eyes had already reddened and begun to fill with moisture.

“Can I help?” asked Jalil.

“Not yet,” said Lars, “but once I adjust this—there. Put these on.”

He held out a pair of oversized headphones. Jalil took them and stared at them for a second.

“Have a seat. I need you to listen for a quick beeping noise. When you hear it, let me know right away. Got it?”

“Yes,” said Jalil. He sat down and put the headphones up to his right ear, but all he heard was static.

“Listening for an audio signal across a datalink band?” said Mark. “It’s not going to work.”

“It’ll work,” said Lars, rising swiftly to his feet. “When ‘Chelle gets the connection error message, she’ll pull up the band and recognize the signal by sight. It’ll work.”

Lars sat back down at the navigator’s chair, while his father sighed and turned back to his screen. Jalil took a moment to fasten his seat restraints across his waist; he had a feeling things were about to get rough.

“The port authority won’t give us clearance,” said Lars. “I’m assuming we override that?”

“Yes.”

“And what about our trajectory? I can put us in an orbit that’ll bring us over New Stockholm in twenty minutes.”

Mark took a deep breath and brought his hand to his forehead. Jalil watched as concern on the man’s face turned to agitation, while the static continued to crackle in his ear.

“If we don’t at least try, Dad…”

“All right,” said Mark, sitting up straight as he fastened his own restraints. “Let’s go for it.”

Lars grinned and turned with renewed vigor to his work. Mark gripped the piloting stick and began punching buttons on his control panel.

“Departing station,” he said. “Stand by.”

A series of popping noises sounded through the wall, followed by a low rumble that vibrated through the floor. Outside the window, the station slowly moved away, spinning as the Bridgette banked and turned.

“Got a rough trajectory plotted,” said Lars. “I’ll fine tune it in a second.”

“Beginning engine burn,” said Mark. “Hold on.”

An invisible hand pressed Jalil against his seat as the rumbling in the walls turned to a muffled roar. The whole ship began to shake, while outside, the blue-green world grew steadily larger.

Lord of Earth, Jalil thought to himself, holding onto his armrest with a white-knuckled grip. Please don’t let us fall.

At that moment, a weak but distinct beeping noise came through over the static.

“Lars!” he yelled. “I’ve got something.”

Lars nodded and punched a series of commands on his computer. “Rerouting to my station and putting on loudspeaker,” he said. “Just a second.”

The headphones went silent, while the sound of static filled the bridge. Outside, the glowing arc of the horizon turned deep red as they passed into the night.

“Hello?” said Lars, speaking into a microphone. “‘Chelle? Nash? Are you there? Do you copy?”

Only static answered him. Through the window, the city lights sprang up across the darkened planet like lines on a grid.

“‘Chelle? Nash? Do you copy? Answer me!”

A bright pink flare outside sent the static up a few notches, making Jalil jump. Mark quickly looked up, his old eyes full of concern and anxiety.

“What was that?” asked Jalil.

“Nuclear warheads,” said Mark. “The battle—we’re headed right into it.”

Battle? Jalil thought to himself. I can’t see anything.

As if in answer, several ships sped over them on a diagonal orbit. They moved too fast for Jalil to see them clearly, but he could tell that they were much, much larger than the Bridgette. Tracer rounds from their cannons streaked across the blackness of space, thin yellow lines that converged to form an eerie, slow-growing mesh overhead before curling back toward the planet’s surface.

“The blasts are interfering with our signal,” said Mark. “We can’t—”

“—ars? Lars, is that you?”

Michelle’s voice was barely audible over the roar of the static, but it was unmistakably her.

“‘Chelle? Yes! Yes, it’s me—listen, we’re coming around your position on a low orbit, bearing—”

“—eaking up, I ca—”

The static flared again as bright white light filled the bridge. Jalil hurriedly covered his eyes as flashbacks from his childhood came rushing back to him: the blaring of alarms, the sound of screaming and feet pounding the floor, the awful rushing noise as his mother sent him down the chute—

“‘Chelle? ‘Chelle!”

“It’s no use,” yelled Mark. “We’re in the middle of the battle—switch off the comm dish before it fries!”

Silent explosions flared all around them, some distant, some disturbingly close. The lights on the bridge dimmed and flickered, while the roar of the static was so loud that Jalil could barely think.

Lars shut it off and turned to face them. “At least they know we’re here,” he said. “If they’re already in the air, we still have a chance.”

“But they don’t have our trajectory,” said Mark. “Without the data, they could be hundreds of kilometers off course.”

“That’s just the risk we’ll have to take.”

Jalil cowered in his chair, his whole body shaking as he broke out in a cold sweat. The battle, the explosions—he’d seen this terrible scene before. This was how his parents had died—how he had nearly died. How they might die right now—

Pull yourself out of it! he told himself. With some effort, he took a deep breath and recomposed himself.

“We’ll be coming around in ten minutes,” said Lars. “We should have line of sight by then. If ‘Chelle and Nash are wise, they’ll stay in the upper atmosphere until we connect. It will make it easier for them to change their course.”

“Assuming they’re flying roughly parallel to us,” said Mark. “Even then, it’s a shot in the dark. To match our speed and position, and do it before—”

“They’ll do it,” said Lars. “I know they will.”

Seconds turned to minutes, and the explosions slowly diminished behind them. The time passed in a tense, almost apocalyptic silence. Jalil didn’t know what was happening, but he could feel the danger like the threat of a coming sandstorm.

Slowly, an arc of reddish orange light ringed the arc of the planet. In less than a minute, the brilliant orb of the sun rose above the horizon, tinting the window glass until nothing else was visible. It traced a line up to the ceiling, passing overhead as the window cleared. The reddish-orange circle turned into a rapidly expanding crescent of blue and green as they passed from night into day.

“Nearing line of sight,” said Lars. “Acquiring signal…”

Instead of static, a low beeping noise sounded from Lars’s computer. Several previously blank monitors switched on.

“Got it!”

“Hello? Hello?” came Michelle’s voice, loud and clear.

“‘Chelle!” said Lars. “Are you in the air?”

“We are. What’s going on? The last we heard—”

“There’s no time—we’re transmitting our orbital data right now. Can you get to us?”

Silence. Jalil glanced over at Mark, who was frowning and checking a monitor on the side of his station.

“I think so,” said Michelle.

“We’ve got to move,” said Mark. “Hameji warships are jumping into our sector.”

For a few moments, no one said anything. Jalil glanced back and forth, trying to read the situation.

“We’ll have to shut down,” said Lars. “Make us look like a derelict. No transmissions, no orbital corrections—nothing.”

“But how are we going to make the rendezvous?” asked Michelle. The fear in her voice was evident, even through the static.

“Sight,” said Lars. “And really, really good calculations.”

“But—”

“He’s right,” said Mark, forestalling any further discussion. “Lars, power down everything but the jump drive.”

“Everything?”

“Everything. With luck, they’ll think we’re just a chunk of space debris from the battle.”

Lars nodded grimly and began hitting a series of buttons on his panel. The computers switched off, followed by the ventilators and lights. Jalil felt his stomach flip and realized that the gravity was off as well.

“Everything’s off,” said Lars. “All computers except piloting are on standby mode. All controls are manual.”

Jalil looked out the window at the deceptively peaceful planet below. Angelic white clouds drifted over vast swaths of green land, the small black domes interspersed naturally among the various landforms. If it weren’t for the events of the last twenty minutes, he would have guessed that everything was normal.

As the world passed peacefully beneath them, Jalil became aware of the all encompassing silence on board the ship. Even in the empty desert, there had always been the whistling of the wind or the quiet shifting of the sand. With all of the ship’s systems shut down, he felt as if they were locked in a tomb, about to fall to their deaths and burn up in the atmosphere.

In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate, he prayed. Please, Lord, have mercy on us.

The nerve-wracking seconds ticked away, gradually turning into minutes. Jalil kept his eyes on the horizon, watching out the viewport as if his life depended on it. Far in the distance, he occasionally saw small flashes—little blips of light. Those, he knew by now, were Hameji starships jumping into orbit. Any second, one could arrive at their position—and then what? Jalil didn’t know, but he knew it would be bad, very bad.

As they watched, an enormous ship jumped into position off to port. It was shaped like a long red tube—or perhaps a giant cannon—with three massive engines clustered around the stern. With its nose pointed straight down, the ship looked as if it were about to dive into the planet.

“What is that?” Lars asked, speaking to no one in particular as they drifted past. “Is it—oh no. Stars, no!”

“What?” asked Jalil. He leaned forward to get a better look.

As he watched, the ship’s engines flared, and it began to accelerate towards the cloudy skies below. Before it could fall through the atmosphere, however, something pushed it back—hard. A spinning piece of gray space rock shot out of the end like a slow-moving bullet, heading straight for the planet. In a matter of seconds, the rock became a fiery comet and slammed into the surface. The soundless collision sent a shock wave rippling through the atmosphere, followed by an enormous plume of black and gray. Cracks of fire spread out like living tendrils across the surface, but were soon obscured by a fast growing wall of ash and debris.

“What’s going on?” asked Jalil.

Lars coughed and collapsed on the floor, clutching his stomach. Mark got up from his seat and knelt down beside his son.

“The—the Hameji—just like Tajjur—”

“What’s going on?” Jalil asked again. A growing sense of nausea clawed at him.

“Those are mass accelerators,” Mark said, his face grim. “The Hameji use them to slag the worlds they conquer. Before the end of the day, everyone on that planet—”

“Will be dead,” Lars moaned. He rose to his feet and leaned heavily on his father, coughing.

“Dead?” said Jalil, chills running down his back. “You mean, the whole planet—”

“Will be smashed into oblivion.”

“Hang in there,” said his father. “Easy does it, easy does it. ‘Chelle and Nash made it out in time. We can do this, son—hang in there!”

“I’ll be fine,” said Lars. “Just… just give me a second.”

Jalil stared at the monstrous Hameji ship as they slowly orbited by. As he watched, it lurched and fired again, sending another rock hurtling to the surface. The plume of gray-black debris from the impact mingled with that of the first, tapering into a teardrop shape as it hit the upper atmosphere.

This is sickening, Jalil thought to himself. What kind of monsters would murder an entire world?

A few moments later, he saw something just beneath the horizon. A slight glimmer, like a fragment of metal glistening in the sunlight. It was a spaceship, climbing up from the lower reaches of the atmosphere.

“There’s something down there,” he said. “It looks like a shuttle.”

“What?” said Mark. “Where?”

“There,” said Jalil, pointing.

Mark and Lars both peered forward to get a better look. It took them a second, but when they saw it, they both let out a cheer.

“Yes!” said Lars. “I knew that they could do it!”

“Pull up the shortwave,” said Mark, hurrying to his seat. Soon, the bridge was filled with static.

“‘Chelle? Nash? Is that you?”

“It’s us,” came Michelle’s voice over the crackle of the radio. “Let’s dock and get the hell out of here.”

At that moment, Jalil noticed a brief flash off to their starboard side. It was a ship jumping in, but much closer than any of the others. As he squinted to get a better look, something glimmered in the sunlight—

His stomach instantly fell out from under him. “The Hameji,” he said. “I think they’re here.”

“What?” cried Lars. “Not now; they can’t be—”

“Power up all systems and strap yourselves in,” said Mark.

For a moment, Lars looked as if he would say something, but instead he turned to his control board and began hitting buttons. The screens and instruments instantly came to life, while the lights blinked on and the gravity slowly returned.

“Give me a direct angle on Bridgette One,” said Mark. “Collision course.”

“Collision? But—”

“The jump drive creates a field that extends for one meter from anything touching the ship. If we time our impact right, we can jump out with ‘Chelle and Nash before the Hameji get to us.”

Lars bit his lip and turned to his computer. A moment later, the view out the window spun, and a muffled roar came from the back of the ship. Jalil gripped the bottom of his seat with both hands and hung on for dear life.

“Did you hear that, ‘Chelle?” Mark spoke into the shortwave. “We’re coming in to make physical contact. Try to match our velocity as close as you can so we don’t just smash into you.”

“Copy, Dad,” said Michelle. “It’s just—oh shit, they’re launching fighter drones!”

“Hang in there, ‘Chelle. Lars, how are we looking?”

“Fifteen hundred meters and closing fast. At this rate, collision in… twenty-three seconds.”

As if in answer, the lights turned red and an alarm began to blare. Jalil reached up to cover his ears, grabbing his chair again as a jolt threw him against his seat restraints.

“Get ready to activate the jump drives manually,” said Mark. “Ready?”

Lars flipped open a compartment and put his index finger on a switch inside. “Ready,” he said.

Jalil closed his eyes and tried to ignore the blaring alarms. He was sweating again, as the flashbacks returned in full force. His father, shouting orders as the crew dashed everywhere. His mother, grabbing him in the midst of the chaos and slipping the pendant around his neck. The scream of the wind as the air was sucked out into space, the darkness of the chute, falling, falling—

He reached for the pendant with his sweaty hands and fingered it through his shirt. Lord of Earth, he prayed silently. Please, save us.

“Ten seconds,” said Lars. “They’re accelerating—matching velocity. Hang on!”

An explosion rocked the ship, reverberating through the walls. The taste of vomit filled Jalil’s mouth, and he suppressed the urge to scream. In a few moments, the awful sucking noise would come, but this time, his mother wouldn’t be here to save him.

“Hold!” shouted Mark.

Something on the bridge shorted, giving off the acrid smell of an electrical fire. Jalil glanced over and saw smoke rising from one of the panels.

“Four seconds,” said Lars. “Come on, ‘Chelle, easy does it, easy—”

Out the forward window, the shuttle came careening towards them. The ship lurched backward, throwing Jalil against his seat restraints.

“NOW!”

As he opened his mouth to scream, the floor dropped out from beneath him. His voice became muted, as if he were screaming into a pillow. He became acutely aware of the pounding of his heart, the pulse of his blood as it raced through his arteries, the adrenaline giving it an extra push. Time slowed, and everything became incredibly bright—so bright that he closed his eyes and covered them with his hands.

And then they were through.

Jalil opened his eyes and stared out the window. The planet was gone, replaced by a glowing starfield. No more flashes—no more explosions. His muscles turned to water and he sank into his seat, while beside him Mark and Lars began to cheer.

“We did it! We did it!”

“Are you all right, ‘Chelle? Do you copy?”

“I copy,” came Michelle’s voice, noticeably shaken even over the crackle of the static. “We’re alive.”

“Haha! We did it!”

“Praise Allah,” said Jalil, unstrapping himself and rising unsteadily to his feet. “Praise Allah.” In spite of his weak stomach, he managed a smile.

“How bad does the damage look out there, ‘Chelle?” Lars asked.

“Pretty bad,” she answered. “But not more than we can handle. Stars of Earth, I can’t believe we made it.”

“Bring the shuttle into the bay,” said Mark. “We’ll take a look at her there.” Without another word, he collapsed exhausted into his chair.

Praise Allah, Jalil thought to himself. They were alive—they’d made it. But the initial exhilaration quickly wore off, leaving a horrible emptiness in the pit of his stomach. Images of the debris plumes spreading across the beautiful blue-green planetscape flashed across his mind. Yes, they had made it—but behind them, an entire world had died.

Chapter 17


“So,” Amina asked, “when are you going to give Ibrahim your answer?”

Mira sighed as she picked another cucumber from the hydroponic trough and dropped it into the basket at her hip. A bead of sweat dripped down the side of her face, and she reached up to wipe it away. The warm humidity of the greenhouse tent tortured her only slightly less than her younger sister. Even though Amina hated tending to the crops, she’d somehow been there waiting for Mira to come inside.

“Well?”

“I don’t know,” said Mira, pulling off another cucumber and dropping it into her basket.

Amina gave her a sly grin. “Still playing hard to get, are you?”

Mira stopped and looked up at her. “Are you here to work or to gossip?”

“A little of both. I don’t need my mouth to pick vegetables.”

“Apparently you don’t need your hands, either.” Mira glanced meaningfully at her sister’s empty basket.

Amina shrugged. “What can I say? You work so hard that there’s hardly anything left to do. Besides, how much time does it take to pick two rows of cucumbers?”

“With you helping me, it might take all day.”

Amina threw back her head and laughed. “I like the attitude,” she said, nudging Mira with her elbow. “It’s like you’re finally learning how to speak up for yourself.”

Mira ignored her and returned to her work, pulling out a particularly large cucumber and tossing it forcibly into her basket.

“Anyway, I’ve got to go. Be back in a few.”

Without any further explanation, Amina half-walked, half-ran to the door. Mira was about to ask where she was going, but before she could get the words out, Amina was gone.

That’s strange, Mira thought to herself. With her sister gone, she turned her full attention to the work in front of her. The cucumber patch wasn’t very large, but after she was finished there she still had the beans and nuts to pick, which were a lot more time consuming. Better to get the easy work out of the way, so at least she could feel she was making progress.

On the other side of the greenhouse tent, a small patch of strawberries was just starting to ripen. The tinge of red caught Mira’s eye, and a lump rose in her throat as she realized that they were probably meant for her. To have come along so far, they had to have been planted soon after she had left—soon after her mother had told her to come back with Jalil by any means necessary. In other words, the strawberries were a lie. But was that any different than with Mira’s other sisters? No, Mira realized bitterly, it wasn’t.

Behind her, the tent door zipped open. Must be Amina, she thought to herself. Hastily wiping her eyes, she turned to face her sister.

“Here,” she said, “why don’t you take this basket out to the kitchen? It’s practically fu—”

Mira froze, and an electric chill shot down her spine. It wasn’t Amina who had entered the tent—it was Ibrahim.

“Good afternoon, my love,” he said, stepping casually toward her with a sly grin on his face. The door quietly fell shut behind him, and his pure white robes swayed over the ground as he walked. With his dagger hanging from the brown leather ammunition belt at his waist, he cut a striking figure.

“I-Ibrahim!” said Mira, nearly dropping her basket. She knelt to set it on the ground, before slipping on her headscarf. “It’s—it’s quite a surprise to see you.”

“Is it, though?”

His hands migrated to his belt, undoing the buckle as he continued to approach. Mira frowned.

“Why are you here?”

“I think we both know,” he said, his voice soft with the barest hint of an edge to it. “You certainly know how to lead a man on.”

He undid the clasp to his belt and let it drop to the ground. Mira swallowed nervously.

“L-lead you on?” she said uncertainly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Ibrahim threw back his head and laughed. “Don’t be so modest. I know you’ve received my many invitations. Lucky for you, I don’t mind having our little tryst right here.”

You don’t know anything, Mira wanted to say, her heart pounding as she slowly backed away. If anything, though, that only made him approach faster.

“Wait,” she said, her voice barely louder than a raspy whisper. “We need to talk. I—”

“Shh, shh, shh,” he said, touching his finger to her lips. “Don’t waste your breath.”

He took her by the waist, his grip firm and unyielding. A shudder passed through her body, and Ibrahim used his other hand to pull at her headscarf. The cloth fell to her shoulders, leaving her hair uncovered.

“Stop that,” she said, her voice shaking. He only grinned wider.

“Why?” he asked, smirking.

“Because—because we need to talk first.”

“Not now, my love. Later.”

With an urgency born of lust, he pressed his lips against hers, his hands slipping down to her hips. Her heart surged with fear, but she couldn’t push him away—not without risking offense.

“Stop!” she cried weakly as they collapsed together onto the dusty ground. He was on top of her now, his mouth on her neck as his hands hungrily sought their way beneath her robes. Flashbacks from the horrible night with Jalil flooded to her mind, and she started thrashing about, trying to throw Ibrahim off of her. Though she wasn’t able to move him, he took notice and stopped for a moment.

“Gently, gently,” he said, smiling the same sly grin. “Unless that’s how you like it.”

“What? No! Ibrahim, please—”

“Shh. Trust me; you’ll enjoy this.”

In that instant, she realized that there was no gentle way to turn him down anymore. She had to do something or he was going to rape her.

He took her by the wrists, but before he could pin her down, she wrenched herself free and kicked him in the chest. He fell to his side and laughed.

“Feisty, are we?” he said. “I like it.”

“If you don’t stop,” said Mira, “I’m going to scream. I mean it.”

He lunged for her, knocking over the tray of hydroponic strawberries. They fell across the dirt floor, the bright red fruit getting covered with dust and mud.

Mira scrambled to get away, but before she could, Ibrahim turned her over onto her back. The top of his robe had come undone, revealing his muscular chest. He took her by her wrists again, this time pinning her down.

“You wouldn’t.”

“Yes, I would,” she whispered.

The smile on his face started to fade. “If you do,” he said, “your family will throw you out.”

“Please,” she said, “please get off of me.”

He ignored her, letting go of one hand to undo the buttons on the front of her robe. His fingers worked deftly, running right between her breasts without any hesitation. Sweat dripped from his forehead onto her chest.

We all live in the world of our own choosing, Master Rumiya’s words echoed in her mind. You are the Truth.

She took in a deep breath. It was now or never.

As Ibrahim slipped his hand underneath her robe, she screamed loud enough to make her ears shake. He hurriedly covered her mouth, but by then it was too late.

“You bitch!” hissed Ibrahim, squeezing her jaw until pain shot through her cheeks. “You’ll pay for this.”

He let go of her mouth and raised his hand to strike her, but before he could, the door flap swung open.

“Mira? What’s wrong?” Tiera asked from across the room. The sound of her voice brought tears of relief to Mira’s eyes.

“Help!” she screamed. “He’s raping me!” Instantly, Ibrahim leaped to his feet.

“Is that true?” Tiera asked.

“Of course not,” said Ibrahim, hastily buttoning his shirt. “This was all just a misunderstanding.”

“He tried to rape me,” Mira said again, pointing a shaky finger at him as she sat up. “I was doing my chores, when he came in and—”

With rage in his eyes, Ibrahim turned to strike her, but before he could Tiera stepped between them, wielding a dagger in one hand.

“I’ll kill you if you touch her,” she said, her voice low and dangerous.

Ibrahim regarded her for a moment, then lowered his fist and scowled. “Why would I? There are whores who look better than that bitch.”

The insult would have stung more if Mira’s other sisters hadn’t already gathered by the door. From the way they stared, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, the balance of power had clearly shifted in Mira’s favor. Still, Ibrahim walked past them nonchalantly, as if nothing was wrong—as if raping his intended fiancée in her own camp was perfectly normal.

Tiera turned and helped Mira to her feet. “Are you all right?”

Mira didn’t know. Her legs were weak, and her heart pounded in her chest, making her dizzy. It seemed as if she were waking up from some sort of dream, only to find herself lost in another.

“Come on,” said Tiera. “Let’s get you somewhere safe.”

Mira hastily rebuttoned her robe. As they walked through the door, Surayya stared at her with her hands over her mouth, while Amina folded her arms and shook her head. Mira could hear her now: You made a mistake, girl. You should have gone along with it.

“Let me out of here,” she cried, shrugging Tiera off as she ran from their judgmental stares. She ran blindly through the camp and away across the desert. Their voices followed her for a while, but the sound soon faded away into the hot wind. Only when she was out of earshot did she fall to her knees and bury her head in her hands.

It didn’t change anything that had happened—or anything that would happen, for that matter. But at least for that brief moment, alone in the desert, she knew that she was free.


* * * * *


Jalil ate his tasteless gray porridge in silence, just as he had for the past few days. Neither Michelle nor Nash said anything, either. It had been this way ever since they’d arrived at the jump station half a light-year outside of Karduna. Though he no longer had to deal with the gut-wrenching sensation of jumpspace every hour, this waiting almost felt worse.

“How long do you think we’ll be stuck here?” Michelle asked. The sound of her voice broke the silence like a rifle shot.

“Don’t know,” said Nash. “The paperwork is going to be a nightmare, though. Two million refugees in the first seventy-two hours alone…”

“Damn.”

The silence returned. For nearly a minute, no one said anything.

“You know,” said Michelle, her voice noticeably softer, “you don’t have to stay, Nash. You’re an imperial citizen—you could easily take a transport back to Gaia Nova and get out of this whole mess.”

“And abandon you?” he said, setting down his spoon. For several moments, they both stared at each other.

“At least you’d be safe,” said Michelle, turning away. She covered her face with her hand and took a long breath.

“‘Chelle,” said Nash, taking her other hand in both of his own. “‘Chelle, look at me. It’s okay—we’ll get through this. I promise.”

Jalil rose from his seat and quietly climbed the ladder to the main corridor. Even though his meal was unfinished, something told him they needed to be alone.

He reached the main corridor and palmed the keypad to the bridge. Lars was the only one inside; Jalil walked in and took a seat at the station next to him.

“Oh, hi,” said Lars. “Feeling a little bored?”

“Maybe,” said Jalil, turning to the window. Outside, the swarm of refugee ships glittered lazily around the enormous bulk of the jump station. A few moved back and forth between the long docking arm and the rest of the swarm, but most of them remained stationary, suspended in the weightlessness of space.

“Where’s Mark?”

“Dad? Oh, he took the shuttle to the administration office to try and get us clearance. Thought it would be better to try things face-to-face than by transmission.” He shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe it’ll work.”

He doesn’t seem like himself, Jalil mused. Ever since the invasion, Lars had been a lot more pensive. Even now, he stared out the window at the stars, an uncharacteristically serious expression on his face. Not that Jalil blamed him.

“At least the danger is behind us.”

“I wouldn’t speak so quickly,” said Lars. “The way this war is going, I wouldn’t be surprised if Gaia Nova is the next system to fall.”

Jalil frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Think about it. Where’s the next Imperial garrison between here and Gaia Nova? All the major bases are on the Tajjur side of the Empire, to guard their access to the New Pleiades. The Hameji took Karduna because it gives them a straight shot at the Imperial capital.”

Jalil’s stomach fell as he remembered the mass accelerators, slagging Kardunash IV into oblivion. He thought of Mira, looking up at the sky as a ball of fire sped towards her, bringing death and destruction in its wake. The thought made his whole body shake.

“Do you truly believe Gaia Nova will fall?” he asked, his voice barely a whisper.

“Yes,” said Lars. “Unless the Imperials launch a decisive counterattack in the next couple of days, that’s how it looks.”

Save me.

Lars put a hand on his shoulder and gave him a halfhearted grin. “Hey, don’t take it so hard. No one really knows what’s going to happen next. Besides, this might cheer you up: I found Will Farland.”

“You did? How?”

“On the localnet. He escaped with a group of refugees seeking passage into the Empire like us. I’m going to meet with him after my sleep cycle—care to join me?”

“Sure,” said Jalil, his heart pounding. What with the way events were cascading all around him, he didn’t know whether to be ecstatic, mournful, or frantic.

At that moment, a chime announced an incoming transmission. Lars hit the button and leaned forward to speak into the microphone at his station.

“Hello?”

“Lars, son,” came Mark’s voice over the intercom. “I’ve got some good news.”

“Oh, yeah? What’s that?”

“I found your mother.”

Lars perked up at once.

“Really? Where is she?”

“She’s with me on the shuttle. We’re about ten minutes away, if you’ll give us clearance to dock.”

“Of course,” said Lars. “How did you find her? What happened? How did she escape?”

Mark’s chuckle mingled with the static of the transmission. “She came out on the Genevieve, along with a few family friends. It’s a long story—she’ll tell you herself once we’ve made it on board.”

“Right, right—starting the autodocking sequence now.”

He hit a few keys on the instrument panel before sprinting from his seat at a dead run toward the door. “‘Chelle!” he shouted. “Mom’s alive!”


* * * * *


A few minutes later, Jalil gathered with the others in the corridor below the airlock. The hatch opened, and everyone started talking at once.

“Mom!”

“‘Chelle! Lars!”

Michelle lunged forward and threw her arms around her mother, Ellen Stewart, the moment she stepped from the ladder. Lars soon followed, with Nash standing to the side with arms folded. Mark climbed down last, smiling broadly as he wrapped his arms around them all.

Not sure what to do, Jalil stood off with Nash and watched the happy reunion. Mother, father, daughter, and son laughed and cried, holding each other tight as if they would never let go. A lump rose in Jalil’s throat at the sight.

“Mom, we’ve been worried sick about you! Ever since the invasion—”

“How did you escape? Did they hurt you?”

“Have they attacked the Colony? What’s going on back home?”

“Hold on, guys,” Mark said, pushing the others back. “Give your mother some space.”

“Thanks, honey,” Ellen said.

As the others stepped back, Jalil got a better view of her. She was a slim, middle-aged woman, with blond hair and pearly-white skin. Though she smiled, she had a sad look on her face, as if still in shock from the things she’d been through.

“I left before the Hameji arrived at the Colony,” she said. “They had already gotten to Kardunash III, though. I don’t know what they did there, but I’m sure…” Her voice faded out.

Mark stepped forward and put his arm around her. “Fortunately, our home was spared from the worst of it. Last I heard, the Hameji have taken a few hostages, but have agreed not to leave a garrison in exchange for tribute.”

“More importantly,” said Ellen, “they’re allowing civilians to return.”

Lars nodded. “Then we have to go back.”

“What?” said Michelle, spinning around to face him. “Go back? Are you crazy?”

“It’s true,” said Mark, his expression gravely serious. “Your mother and I have talked about this, and we’ve decided that’s what we need to do.”

“But—but the Hameji,” said Michelle. “How can we live under them? Remember what they did to K-4!”

“Which is exactly why we need to go,” said Lars. “Can’t you see? Our fathers established the Colony as a bastion of democracy in a universe of kings and emperors. As long as I’m still alive, I’m not going to let that dream die.”

Watching Lars, Jalil realized that something within the young man had changed. It was as evident as the light in his eyes, and the newfound confidence that quickened his step. A month ago, he had still been just a boy; now, he talked and acted as if he’d matured beyond his years.

Michelle looked from her father to her brother and back again, biting her lip as if to hold back a flood of emotions.

Mark put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry, ‘Chelle,” he said. Then, turning to Nash, “I don’t expect you to come with us, and I don’t want to force you two apart. We’ll be leaving in three days on the Genevieve; if you’d like to come with us, you’re more than welcome, but if not—”

“How could you do this?” Michelle screamed, pushing him off. “And just after we’re all together again, too!”

Neither Mark nor Lars nor anyone else said anything. Jalil shifted uncomfortably as Michelle screamed again and stormed off towards the mess hall. Nash turned as if to follow her, then stopped and looked sheepishly back at Mark.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “‘Chelle—”

“Let her go,” said Mark. “She needs some time alone to process all this. Besides, I see you have something on your finger there.”

Nash glanced at his hand and blushed, but when he looked back up again, an insuppressible grin spread across his face.

“Oh my God,” said Ellen, her eyes widening. “Is that a ring?”

“Yes,” said Nash. “Michelle and I… we’re engaged to be married.”

Ellen shrieked with delight and ran up to embrace her future son-in-law. Mark stayed back, arms folded across his chest, but a broad smile slowly spread from ear to ear.

“When did this happen? How did you propose? When are you getting married?” Ellen asked, one question blurring into the next. As she rattled on, Lars stepped forward and put a hand on Nash’s shoulder.

“Congratulations,” he said simply. Their eyes met, and they both nodded.

As Jalil stood by and watched them talk, his mind began to wander. All this talk of marriage made him think of Mira, for some reason. He imagined what it would have happened had he returned to the camp to marry her, rather than coming out to Karduna. Was that the better choice? Was he foolish to have left the only home he had known? But if he hadn’t come out to Karduna, he never would have found out that he was a citizen of the Colony. And what about Will Farland? Here was a chance to finally meet someone in his family—his real family. None of those opportunities would have come to him if he’d gone back to the Najmi camp with Mira.

Besides, if he’d stayed on Gaia Nova, he would be oblivious to the Hameji and the danger they posed. To think of them bringing their mass accelerators into position above the rust-red desert, pummeling the surface into oblivion—

Save me.

“So what’s the plan?” asked Lars. “The Genevieve is leaving in three standard days; I take it we’re leaving with it?”

“That’s right,” said Mark. He turned to Jalil. “You’re welcome to come with us, you know.”

Jalil opened his mouth, but didn’t know what to say. He looked from Mark to Nash and back again, trying to come up with a response.

Nash beat him to it. “What about the Bridgette?” he asked. “Why don’t you just take it?”

“Good question,” said Mark. He put a fatherly hand on Nash’s shoulder. “You’ve been a loyal, hardworking crewman, but I know it’s not fair to expect you to come with us. You’re a citizen of the Empire; the Colony isn’t your home, and I don’t expect you to feel the same sense of patriotism that we do.”

“Yes,” said Nash, “but ‘Chelle, she—”

“She doesn’t deserve to have us decide the course of her life. Ever since she was a little girl, she wanted to travel the stars. The Bridgette is more of a home to her than the Colony ever will be. It saddens all of us to say goodbye, but I know she’ll never be happy if we make her come with us.”

“But what about the wedding?”

Mark sighed. “It doesn’t look like we’ll be able to be there for that. The best we can do is wish you both luck.”

Nash nodded, his face unreadable.

“As for the Bridgette,” Mark continued, “since you’ll both need her more than we will, it’s only fitting that we give you the ship as our wedding present.”

Nash’s jaw dropped, and his eyes widened. “Leave us with the Bridgette? Are you sure?”

“I am,” said Mark, smiling. “You’ll make a fine captain, Nash. I’m sure you and Michelle will be very happy together.”

“Th-thank you, sir!” Nash exclaimed. He took Mark’s hand and shook it with both of his own. “How can I ever repay you?”

“Take care of my daughter. And later, after this war blows over, come back and find us. No matter how bleak things look now, I’m sure this goodbye won’t be forever.”

God-willing, Jalil thought to himself. He wondered whether he could say the same thing of his goodbye to Mira.


* * * * *


Mira watched as Nazar’s caravaneer drove away across the desert, kicking up a plume of dust visible for miles. The early morning landscape was cool and almost perfectly tranquil; with the sun still low on the horizon, long shadows still covered the sleeping desert. The peacefulness calmed her somewhat, but it didn’t reflect the feelings in her heart.

“There he goes,” muttered Surayya, her voice as serious as if someone in the family had died. She turned to Mira and gave her a mournful stare.

“At least we have a couple of weeks before the next merchant convoy comes through,” said Amina, trying to be helpful. “Who knows? Maybe in that time you can convince Father not to throw you out.”

I doubt it, Mira thought to herself. Mother would never allow it. Once Shira had reason to hold a grudge, she would die before letting it go—even if those it hurt were her own flesh and blood.

Well, so be it. Mira had known the risks, she’d made her choice, and now things were set in motion that no one could turn back. The dissipating dust plume was evidence enough of that.

The door flap behind them parted, and Tiera walked over to join them. Surayya shot her a dirty look before leaving quickly with Amina. It was just as well; Mira didn’t know if she could handle another fight between her sisters right then.

“So he’s gone?” said Tiera, looking out over the desert as she stood beside her.

“Yes.”

Tiera nodded. “You did the right thing.”

“Did I?”

“Ask yourself and see what the answer is.”

Mira pondered it for a moment, and realized Tiera was right. Her world was about to be shattered forever, yet she felt no guilt or regret for anything she had done. Was that what true honor felt like? Tiera would probably think so, and Mira didn’t disagree with her.

“Still,” she said softly, “what am I supposed to do now?”

“The same as any of us. Make the most with what you’re given.”

That’s not a whole lot, Mira thought to herself. Still, Tiera was right. God-willing, she’d manage.

God-willing.

Chapter 18


That night during his sleep shift, Jalil had the nightmare again.

He watched himself walk into the seedy, smoke-filled cantina and take a seat facing the stage. Though he knew full well what would happen next, the dream played across his mind like a holovid, leaving him powerless to change anything. Within a few tense moments, the stage lit up and three girls stepped into the showcases, swaying voluptuously to the heavy electronic beat.

Sweat streaked Jalil’s forehead, and his heart pounded as if it would burst. One by one, the girls turned to face the audience.

Tiera was first, her tall, thin body moving back and forth like a snake. Her skimpy outfit showed more of her skin than Jalil had ever seen, and his knees went weak as she began to pull it off. Their eyes met, and she gave him a smile that was utterly unlike her.

Just before she slipped out of her top, his view shifted, and he was staring at Michelle. With the electronic beat pulsating all around her, she closed her eyes and arched her back with her arms behind her head, as if in the throes of ecstasy. Her breasts practically bulged out at him, her tight-fitting clothes revealing far more than they hid. As her hands slipped down her exposed midriff and began to undo the clasp at her waist, sweat began to run down Jalil’s forehead. A wave of guilt swept over him for staring, but try as he might, he couldn’t avert his eyes.

Before Michelle undid the clasp, his vision shifted again, and he was staring at Mira in the center showcase. While the other two girls were certainly beautiful, Mira blew them all away. Every part of her hourglass body was perfectly proportioned, her hair long and luscious, her skin smooth and clear. The way she swayed to the heavy dance beat evoked an almost animal urge within him, melting his legs to water and filling him with a throbbing, pulsating desire.

As Mira danced, the room filled with catcalls and cheers. Hot blood rose to Jalil’s cheeks, but he sat frozen to the spot. He struggled to free himself, but his body would not obey him. The deep-seated hunger the girls had aroused within him nearly overwhelmed his better nature, but he fought back against it, knowing that this spectacle was wrong.

Before she began to disrobe, her eyes met his own. The expression of fear and sadness he saw there made him gasp as a tremor of shock passed through him.

Save me.

Without a word, she turned her back to the crowd and wrapped her arms around her body, slowly hiking up her top. The catcalls grew louder, and the men started to throw gold coins at the foot of the showcase.

Something inside of Jalil snapped, and he lunged forward with all his might, breaking the spell that bound him. Within moments he was at the window, pounding on the glass barrier between him and Mira. The cheers turned to shouts of anger, and hands tried to tear him away, but he shook them off and struck the glass with all the force he could manage.

Within the showcase, a door opened in the wall behind the stage. A man with a shrouded face took Mira by the arm, leading her away to the evil men who waited for her in the darkness. As he pulled her offstage, she glanced frantically at Jalil, screaming for help with her eyes.

Save me!

The hands pulled him back, all but overpowering him. He thrashed about, but the man with the shrouded face took Mira away.

“NO!”

With a hair-raising shout, Jalil pulled himself free and lunged headfirst at the showcase.

The showcase window shattered on impact, sending him sprawling. With the crowd of angry men close behind him, he climbed over the broken glass and smashed down the door on the other side.

“Mira!”

For a few moments, he was surrounded by nothing but darkness. Slowly, however, the space lightened until he could see clearly.

To his surprise, he was out in the open desert. The sky overhead was deep blue, filled with puffy white clouds that beckoned with the promise of moisture. The air was clear and clean, devoid of the smog that had filled Raya Dome. The sun shone unobstructed overhead, its rays pleasant and warm on his face.

He walked a little ways and realized that he wasn’t in the desert, but a rich, brown land of golden-green grass and verdant forests. Fields of untended grain stretched to the horizon, a land of plenty untainted by man or machine.

Jalil felt as if he were returning from a long and tiresome journey. His body was exhausted, but a profound sense of peace filled him. For the first time since setting out for the Temple of a Thousand Suns, he finally felt as if he had found his home.

Mira, he wondered to himself. Where is she? Somehow, he knew that she was near, and that he had saved her.

As he walked, he neared what appeared to be the Najmi camp. He saw the central windmill jutting above the horizon, the steamy hydroponics greenhouse, the main hall and front room, and the women’s quarters. Unlike the Najmi camp, however, these tents weren’t sun-faded or dusty, but clean and shimmering, as if new.

As he approached the camp, everyone came out to greet him. Sheikh Sathi, bedecked in his finest robes, stood at the head of the welcoming crowd, with Zayne and Shira on either side. Neither they nor any of the women wore the veil—Jalil, after all, was family. He saw Lena and her husband; they had nearly a dozen children, but Lena looked only a few years older and not any less beautiful than when he’d left. Mira’s other sisters were there as well, all of them with husbands and children. Jalil smiled to see Tiera with a magnificent, princely man, and three strong sons at her feet. Even little Rina, who was now a beautiful young woman, had a handsome husband by her side. It filled him with joy to see them all so happy.

His eyes fell on Mira last of all. She was a mature woman now, a few years short of middle age, but had lost none of her younger beauty. If anything, maturity had only enhanced it. She carried a young infant in her arms, with five other children by her side. The oldest of these was a strong little boy, with fair white skin and golden hair.

“Thank you for saving me,” she said, smiling up at him.

“You’re welcome,” Jalil stammered.

She glanced coyly at the ground, and in that moment, Jalil felt an overwhelming urge to take her in his arms and hold her—not out of some shameful, animal hunger, but out of something much deeper. More than anything, he wanted just to be with her—to know that they would always be together.

“Look!” shouted Tiera, and everyone turned. A figure in the distance made his way towards them, walking through the golden-green fields of grass. Jalil squinted, but the late afternoon sun shone low in the sky and kept him from making out the figure’s face.

“Daddy!” Mira’s fair-haired son cried with delight, running out to meet him. Mira followed with her other children, the rest of the family laughing with joy as they ran beside her.

The man swept up his young son and kissed him on the cheeks. As Mira approached, he set the boy down and embraced his wife. As they stood there in each others’ arms, Jalil came closer, peering to get a better look at him.

When Jalil finally caught sight of the man’s face, he gasped in shock. It was his own.

And then he was the man, returning home from a long and tiring journey. He took his youngest child from Mira’s tired arms, the others tugging playfully at his robes. They looked so strong and beautiful—strong like their father, and beautiful like their mother.

He glanced up and met Mira’s gaze. Her rich, hazel eyes seemed to beckon to him. Welcome home, they seemed to say. Welcome home to your family.

The feelings of shame and guilt from the cantina were swept away by an overwhelming sense of peace, and he knew that the nightmare would no longer torment him. Tears filled his eyes as he looked at Mira and realized that he’d found what he’d been searching for all his life.

Home.


* * * * *


“Disobedient girl! Why must you insult our guests and disgrace the family name?”

Does it matter to you that he nearly raped me? Mira wanted to scream. She held her tongue, though—her father’s study was no place to be petty, especially now.

“Calm down, dear,” said her father, putting a hand on Shira’s shoulder. She angrily shrugged it off.

“No, I will not be calm! This little whore who calls herself my daughter has sullied the family honor and rejected every attempt to clear her name. No daughter of mine would do such a thing—she deserves to be thrown out of the camp for her insolence!”

The family honor is a sham and you know it, Mira thought bitterly to herself. But her mother’s words stung more than she’d thought possible; her hands began to tremble, so she clasped them in front of her, trying to ignore the growing numbness in her legs.

“Now, now, dear,” said Sathi. “We mustn’t condemn her out of anger. Wrath is no true friend to justice.”

Relief swept through Mira’s body like a calming ocean wave. If her father was inclined to support her, then maybe—

“However,” her father said, giving her a stern glance, “your mother’s words, though spoken in the heat of anger, still stand true.”

Mira’s stomach sank, and she felt as if the ground had opened up beneath her.

“You have rejected every effort of ours to clear your good name,” her father continued. “Rejected our kindness and longsuffering in restoring your honor. But now, we can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to your actions.”

“And what are those actions?” Mira whispered.

Her mother glared, but Sathi raised his hand and she held her peace.

“You left alone for the temple with Jalil and spent more than a month alone with him. Do I need to explain why this would bring dishonor upon us all?”

No. But you’re wrong.

“And if that weren’t enough,” shot her mother, “you’ve insulted our guests—your own cousin, even—by turning down his generous marriage request.”

“He tried to rape me,” Mira muttered, her heart pounding.

“What?” said her father.

“He tried to rape me,” she said, a little louder this time. “Ask Tiera. I was in the greenhouse picking cucumbers when Ibrahim tried to force himself on me.”

Her father shook his head. “I’m sorry, dear, but we can’t prove any of that. And even if we could, Ibrahim and Nazar are our flesh and blood; it would be dangerous to accuse them. A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

But it still happened! she wanted to scream. Does that even matter to you?

“Therefore,” Sathi continued, “you leave us with no choice. We must cast you out of the camp and disown you as our daughter.”

Mira swallowed and took a deep breath as the weight of her father’s words threatened to crush her. Everything around her seemed to blur, like something from a dream.

A thought came into her mind like a shining ray of hope. “If I’m going to be exiled, can I go to Terra 2 Dome?” she asked. “To live with Aunt Nawal?”

Shira gave a short laugh. “If you can afford it.”

“But—but what am I to do then?”

Her mother sneered. “You should have thought of that before you insulted your cousin.”

“We’ll permit you to stay at the camp until the next merchant convoy passes through,” her father said. “Once you leave, where you choose to go and what you choose to do is your own affair.”

Mira nodded. “I understand,” she whispered.

“Good. Now, while honor may require us to cast you out, it does not require us to cast you out empty handed. We can pay for passage to the nearest settlement, and leave you with enough spending money to—”

“Leave her with money?” Shira screeched. “After all she’s done?”

The money, Mira realized with a start, remembering the cash datachips that Jalil had left with her. They still remained in her bag—she’d forgotten to tell her parents about them. If she could use the money to buy passage to New Amman, perhaps she could stay with her cousin Sarah until she earned enough for passage to Terra 2 Dome. All wasn’t lost—she could find a way to get through this and build a better life for herself. She could do this.

“… doesn’t deserve even an empty datachip from us,” her mother continued, face red with anger. “She disgraced us by sleeping with Jalil, she disobeyed us by letting him get away, and she dishonored us by rejecting Ibrahim’s more than generous offer to—”

“That’s enough,” Mira said softly.

A deathly silence fell across the room. Both her father and her mother stopped and turned to her.

“What did you say?” her mother asked, eyes narrowing.

A wave of fear shot down Mira’s spine. Her hands trembled and her legs felt weak, but she clenched the hem of her robe and repeated her words.

“I said, that’s enough.”

“How—how dare you!”

“No,” Mira said, “how dare you? I haven’t done anything wrong, and you know it.”

The boldness of her words shocked her almost as much as her mother. Adrenaline surged through her body as she realized she no longer had anything to lose.

“The family honor is a sham,” she continued, her heart pounding. “You only sent me on the pilgrimage to sleep with Jalil and shame him into marrying me. Well, I didn’t. That’s right, I didn’t. You falsely accuse me of the very thing you—”

Her mother’s hand struck her hard on the cheek, sending her into the carpeted dirt floor. “Silence!” Shira screamed. “I won’t hear any more of this!”

“Dear! Please—”

Mira rubbed her cheek where her mother had struck her. The blow stung something terrible, but a smile slowly spread across her face as she turned and sat up. If she was to be exiled, that meant that her mother no longer owned her. The fact that Shira had to resort to violence to control her only confirmed that fact—confirmed it with a dizzying wave of exhilaration.

Outcast or not, Mira was finally free.


* * * * *


Jalil’s legs felt weak as he followed Lars through the crowd at the jump station’s food court. Even the high vaulted ceiling and stars in the windows overhead couldn’t allay the tension in his nerves.

This is the moment of truth, he thought to himself. In just a little while, I’ll have the knowledge that I came out here for.

Why, then, did the prospect terrify him?

“Lars!” called out a voice from behind them. They turned, and a tall young man stepped out of the crowd to give Lars a firm handshake, which soon turned to a shoulder hug. “It’s so good to see you.”

“You too, Will,” said Lars, smiling. “How are things?”

“Shitty, same as for everyone. This is Gavin?”

“Yes,” said Lars, stepping back to include Jalil in the conversation. “Gavin, this is Will Farland.”

Jalil hesitated a moment before accepting his hand and shaking it. Will Farland was perhaps five or ten years older than him, with pale skin, tousled blond hair, high cheekbones, and dark blue eyes. He felt a strange sense of deja vu at their meeting—as if he was meeting a version of himself from the future.

“I’m sorry, Will” said Lars, “but I’ve got some business to take care of. I’ll be back in about half an hour.”

“Sounds good. See you then.”

Once Lars was gone, Will turned and gave Jalil a polite smile. “Well, shall we have a seat?”

“Yes,” Jalil whispered. “Let’s do that.”

The food court sat at the intersection of two major thoroughfares, with hundreds of tables clustered in the center. High overhead, the starfield shone through giant glass windows, dimmed a little by the bright halogen lights around the edge of the ceiling but still quite magnificent.

Even though almost all the tables were full, few people seemed to be eating. Jalil glanced over at the restaurants and noticed that most of them were caged up. Squads of armed security guards patrolled the perimeter, no less than three per group with weapons in hand. Most of the people in the crowd seemed fairly harmless, but their frightened eyes and quick, scattered glances betrayed a collective anxiety—one that reflected the feelings of his own heart.

“Here, have a seat,” Will said, directing them to a small table against the wall. Jalil sat down on the molded plasteel chair, and Will took the chair across from him, folding his hands on the table.

“I’m sorry I don’t have any food to offer you,” he said. “Most of the employees here have fled, and it looks like there’s going to be a major shortage on the station.”

“That’s fine—I didn’t expect anything,” said Jalil, a little taken aback.

“Good. It’s generally a bad idea to expect charity from anyone these days.” Will glanced in either direction before looking him in the eye. “So I understand you’re Gavin Farland?”

Jalil took a deep breath and nodded. “Yes. At least, that was my birth name.”

“And you’ve come from Gaia Nova to search out your family?”

“Yes.”

Will reached down and unstrapped the small console on his wrist, connecting the device to a dock on the side of the table. The tabletop blinked as an image appeared on it. Jalil pulled back his hands in surprise, staring at the glowing image before him. It displayed a series of names, ordered by column and connected by lines, so that from left to right the first column had one name, the second had two, the third had four, and so on.

“What is that?”

“A pedigree chart of the Farland family,” said Will. “The name at the head is your own, with the parents listed as Scott and Dierdre. Do either of those names ring a bell?”

Jalil’s eyes widened. “Dierdre—that’s my mother.”

“And Scott is your father?”

“I—I guess so, yes.”

“You guess? How do you know that Dierdre is your mother?”

Jalil reached inside of his shirt and pulled out the pendant. “Because of this.”

“May I see that?”

Jalil handed it to him. Will held it up to the light and examined it for a moment.

“A standard Kardunasian ID chip,” he said. “Let’s see what it says.”

He plugged it into a port next to the wrist console, letting the lanyard dangle over the edge of the table. The pedigree chart faded into the tabletop and another image popped into view—the same image of his mother that Jalil had seen in the specialty shop in Gaia Nova.

“Yup,” said Will, “that’s Dierdre all right—the same one that married Uncle Scott. Birth and marriage dates match, though I see the death date’s missing.”

“She gave it to me just before she died,” Jalil said softly.

Will grunted, nodding his head. His fingers danced across the table’s surface, and the pedigree chart returned—this time branching out laterally above his name.

“That makes us second cousins once removed.”

Jalil’s heart leaped in his chest. “Cousins? Are you sure?”

“If what you say is true, then yes.”

Jalil looked up at Will, hands shaking under the table. The noise and bustle of the crowd faded away, as if he were in a tunnel and Will was at the other end. His cousin—his own flesh-and-blood cousin. Distant, perhaps, but still family.

Will raised an eyebrow. “Is something wrong?”

“No, nothing’s wrong. It’s just, I’ve come such a long way to find my family. I don’t know what to say.”

Will shrugged. “I guess I should ask if you have any questions.”

Yes, Jalil thought to himself, barely able to contain himself. He had nothing but questions—but where to start?

“Do you know what happened to my mother and father?” he blurted out.

Will’s expression turned serious. “I’m afraid they both passed away over Gaia Nova,” he said. “They were caught in the crossfire from the military uprising against the emperor twelve years ago. I’m sorry.”

Jalil nodded solemnly, but the news came as no surprise. “Do I have any brothers and sisters? Any immediate family still alive?”

“Not really,” said Will. “It looks like you were Scott and Dierdre’s only son. Uncle Scott had several brothers and sisters, but they’re all interstellar merchanters, gone most of the time on some voyage or another. It’s only by random chance that you met me here.”

Chance? Jalil wondered. More like the will of Allah.

“What about my grandparents?” he asked, tapping his foot nervously against the floor.

“Scott’s parents have both passed away. Dierdre’s parents are both alive, I think—no, wait, just her mother.”

Jalil began to feel a sinking feeling in his stomach, much as he had at the Temple of a Thousand Suns. He feared that this part of his quest would end up no different.

“So who’s still at Karduna?”

“Your grandmother, Jan, for sure, but I’d be surprised if the rest of Dierdre’s family is still around. I haven’t seen them among the refugees here, but there are half a dozen other starlane ports they could have fled to.”

“You mean most of them are gone?”

“I’m afraid so.”

So maybe it was a waste to come here.

Jalil took a deep breath. “That’s okay. Thank you.”

His birth family was dead or scattered. His ancestral home lay under the iron yoke of a brutal occupier. Even if he did manage to get through, what awaited him on the other side? A world of clean, white tiles and gray metal floors, probably—as unfamiliar to him as anything under the glass mountains of Babylon.

“Look,” said Will, “I don’t want to sound rude, but if you’ve got an Imperial passport, you should do yourself a favor and get out of here. I know you’ve come a long way to find your family, but things are going to get ugly real soon. Whatever you do, you don’t want to stick around here.”

“You’re saying that my coming here was a waste of time?” Jalil asked, his voice weak.

“I don’t know about that,” said Will. “But I do think you should go back. I mean, what more can you do?”

At those words, Jalil felt as if a heavy weight had been lifted from his chest. He’s right, he thought to himself. I did everything within my power to seek out my family, and now I have all the answers I need. My debt of honor to them is paid.

I’m free.

“Don’t take it too hard,” said Will, his brow creasing with concern. “I mean, I’m sorry to break it to you, but—”

“No,” said Jalil, smiling. “Thank you. Thank you very much.”


* * * * *


The Bridgette had already docked with the Genevieve by the time Lars and Jalil returned. Against the milky backdrop of stars and nebulae, with the twinkle of traffic coming to and from the jump station, the two paired starships brought back memories of Jalil’s childhood. Sights such as this had once been commonplace to him—but those days were over, and the emptiness left by their passing had already been filled. As his mind wandered back to memories of his desert upbringing, he fingered his mother’s pendant and felt a peace so profound it almost brought him to tears.

“Looks like they’re already loading up to go,” said Lars, breaking the silence. “Will you be coming with us?”

“No,” Jalil whispered.

“What was that?”

“No.”

Lars turned and gave him a funny look. “Are you sure? We have plenty of room, and if you can prove your birth it’ll be easy to obtain citizenship.”

“Thank you,” Jalil said, “but…”

Words utterly failed him. How could he convey the significance of what he had learned? His quest was at an end; his duty fulfilled. He could return now to his desert home with a clear conscience and no regrets. How could he adequately express that?

“I think I’d rather stay on the Bridgette,” he said instead.

Lars shrugged. “Suit yourself. But if you ever change your mind, look me up; I can help get you settled.”

“Thanks. I’ll remember that.”

The docking procedure passed in a blur. The groan of the docking clamps, the hiss as the airlock opened, the disorienting climb down the ladder upside down—Jalil was too absorbed in his own thoughts to notice any of it. Only when his booted feet hit the deck did he return to the present.

“So what did you learn?” Nash asked him as he stepped away from the ladder.

“What?”

“Will Farland—what did he tell you?”

“Oh.” Jalil blinked and shook his head. “I learned that he’s my second cousin.”

“And your family?”

While Lars walked around them toward the bridge, Michelle stepped out of the sleeping quarters and leaned up against Nash. He responded by putting his arm around her waist and pulling her close.

“My family?” said Jalil. “They’re… gone, I suppose. Only one grandmother’s still alive, and as for aunts, uncles, and cousins, most of them have fled the system.”

“Oh wow,” said Michelle, her voice subdued. “I’m so sorry.”

Jalil shrugged. “There’s no need to be. They may be my flesh and blood, but I never truly knew them.”

“So your real family’s on Gaia Nova?”

Her comment brought back an image of his dream—of the Najmi camp, surrounded by verdant prosperity, and Mira waiting for him to return. He took a deep breath and swallowed as long-buried emotions flooded back to him. Welcome home—welcome home to your family.

“Yes,” he whispered. “You could say that.”

“Then you should come with us,” said Nash. “That’s where we’re headed.”

Jalil’s heart skipped a beat, but before he could say anything, Lars walked over to them.

“I wouldn’t spend much time there,” Lars said, his voice grave. “News reports show that the Hameji are on the move—a sizable fleet just slipped past the Gaian blockade. Nine to ten says they attack Gaia Nova in less than a standard month.”

An awful sinking feeling grabbed hold of Jalil’s gut. He remembered the slagging of Kardunash IV and knew intuitively that Lars was right.

“Are you sure?” Nash asked. “The Gaian Imperial Navy is pulling their fleets back in from all corners of the Empire. Do you think the Hameji can beat them?”

“They haven’t been defeated yet.”

Save me, Mira’s words came rushing to Jalil’s mind. Her desperate pleading from his dream cut him to the core.

“We have to go back,” he said, clenching his fists in determination.

Everyone in the corridor stopped and turned to look at him. “What do you mean?” Nash asked.

“My family—my real family—they’re still out in the Gaian Desert. If the Hameji slag that world like they did K-4…”

His voice trailed off as his voice caught in his throat. The others said nothing.

“Please,” he continued, “I can’t save them without your help. I don’t know how I could ever repay you, but if we do nothing, my family is going to die!”

Nash looked down at Michelle, who nodded. He turned back to Jalil.

“Sure, we can help you. It shouldn’t be too hard. ‘Chelle can take you down on the shuttle while I take care of my own business from orbit.”

“Besides,” said Michelle with a small smile, “you’re one of us now.”

Jalil felt so giddy with excitement he was almost ready to fly to Gaia Nova on his own.

“Thank you,” he said. “A thousand times, thank you.”

Nash shrugged. “Don’t mention it. It’s the least we could do.”

“It’s also the most you could do.”

They all laughed at that. Lars slapped Jalil on the back. “Well, I suppose that settles things. It’s been good knowing you, friend; I wish you the best of luck.”

“God-willing,” Jalil muttered as he took Lars’s offered hand and shook it. Even so, he could think of nothing other than Mira and the desperation written on her face in his dream.

Save me.

Part VI


Chapter 19


As Mira finished packing the last of her meager belongings, Rina peeked in through the shrouded doorway. Her eyes widened, and she hesitated only a moment before coming inside.

“Are you going to leave now?” she asked.

“I’m afraid so.”

“But—but where are you going?”

Mira smiled to hide—or perhaps deny—her growing anxiety. “Far away,” she said, putting a hand on her sister’s shoulder. “Do you remember the temple?”

Rina nodded wordlessly.

“There’s a giant glass mountain next to it, where the land is covered in water. Aunt Nawal lives there, on a mountain surrounded by the sea. That’s where I’m going.”

“But when will you come back?”

A lump rose in Mira’s throat. Rina’s young eyes pleaded with her to stay, but after all that had happened, she knew that it would be impossible.

“I’m not coming back, Rina,” she whispered. “I can’t.”

Rina’s face scrunched up as if she would burst out crying at any moment. Instead, she buried her head in Mira’s shoulder. Mira wrapped her arms around her and held her close, consoling her without words.

“I’m going to miss you,” Rina said, her voice thick with unshed tears.

“Me, too.”

After a long while, Rina let go and stood back. “Majd says you did something evil. She says you’re leaving because Mother and Father are ashamed of you.”

Mira rose to her feet, trying in vain to quell the bitterness in her heart. She hefted her bags and looked Rina in the eye.

“You’re going to hear a lot of bad things about me when I’m gone. None of them are true.”

Rina nodded. “I know. I don’t believe them.”

They looked at each other for a moment before she clamped onto Mira’s knees. “Please don’t go,” she cried. “I don’t want you to go—please don’t!”

Mira reached down and ran her fingers through Rina’s hair. “This isn’t goodbye forever,” she said softly. “When you make the pilgrimage, come visit me. I’ll be there.”

“I will—I will!”

“Mira!” came Shira’s harsh voice from around the corner. “Get a move on—we don’t have all day!”

“Coming, Mother.”

“I’m not your mother anymore, you worthless bitch!”

Mira sighed. Shira’s insults no longer stung, but they did fill her heart with an awful hollowness. She gently ushered Rina aside and stepped out into the corridor.

The predawn sky glowed with the promise of day. Outside, the merchants loaded the last of the supplies onto their hovercraft and checked the vehicles’ gun turrets in the chill morning air. Shira waited next to the door with Sathi, her arms folded. No one else had come to see Mira off, though she had no doubt they were watching her through the peephole.

Her father nodded and gave her a sad smile, while her mother stared ahead impassively. Mira almost stared at the ground as she walked past them, but decided instead to lift her gaze and meet their eyes, unflinching. Rina might be watching, after all, and she wanted her sister to know that she wasn’t ashamed.

“Is the convoy loaded?” she asked, her voice soft. Her father nodded slowly. Shira said nothing.

Mira turned and looked over the camp that had been her home for so long. Strange to think how it had once been her entire world; after all she had seen and been through, it seemed little more than a ramshackle settlement on the edge of nowhere.

Perhaps it was for the best that she was leaving. She’d already arranged (in secret, of course) for the convoy to take her to New Amman. Even if news of her exile had spread that far, her cousin Sarah was a city dweller and was far removed from the tribal politics of the deep desert. Mira could already imagine the cool evening breeze blowing in off the cliff as the yellow lights inside of Aliet Dome gave the glass mountain its soft, starlike glow. And even if Sarah didn’t take her in, Mira would find a way. That much was clear to her now—whatever happened, she would find a way.

We all live in the world of our own choosing.

As she crossed the dusty compound, a movement out by the horizon caught her eye. It seemed almost like one of the birds from Etilan Dome—but no, that was impossible; there were no birds in the desert. Still, she turned her head to get a better look.

What she saw made her stop cold in her steps.

A tiny black dot circled around the nearest mesa and approached the camp with a speed hundreds of times that of any caravaneer. As it drew closer, the men of the merchant convoy scattered and ran for their guns, yelling in New Gaian as they prepared for an attack. Sathi turned and sprinted toward the front entryway, shouting orders.

Mira barely noticed any of that, however. She stood transfixed as the shuttle approached, heart pounding in her chest for reasons she couldn’t understand. It was close enough for her to make out the wings now, much like the plane that had taken her from Terra 2 Dome to the New Amman spaceport. As it came within a hundred yards, the jets on the bottom of the craft angled to slow it down, the blast of hot exhaust making the air shimmer and ripple. The merchants swung their gun turrets toward the shuttle, but held off firing as it slowly touched down not twenty feet from where Mira stood.

As the dust settled and the roar of the jets slowly died down, the sound of shouting came from behind her. She hardly noticed, however; the still-humming shuttle seemed so alien and out of place, here on the edge of nowhere.

“Mira! Mira, what are you doing?” a voice called out from the tents. It was her father.

She turned and saw that the whole camp had been raised. Surayya and Amina, Tiera and Zayne, Shira and the younger girls—even old Zeid came hobbling out to get a better look. They all had the same incredulous expressions on their faces—an expression that Mira herself no doubt shared.

She turned and squinted against the sun, lifting her hand to block out the blinding light of the dawning sun. A single figure stepped out from around the back of the shuttle, brilliant rays of light shining from behind him. Mira frowned, but as the figure drew closer, her heart skipped a beat and her legs went weak. Even though she couldn’t make out his face, from the way he walked, she knew him immediately.

It was Jalil.


* * * * *


“Mira?”

Jalil’s breath caught in his throat, and his heart leaped in his chest. Even in her headscarf, with her hand partially obscuring her face for the sunlight, he knew that it was her.

He started forward toward her, but Sathi intercepted him, arms wide with a smile quickly spreading across his face.

“Jalil, my son! My son from the stars! Habibi!”

Within moments, Jalil found himself locked in a warm embrace. He stuttered and fumbled his greetings, but the rest of the family soon swarmed him, driving him even further away from Mira.

“Jalil? Is that you?”

“How did you—”

“My baby!”

Zayne pushed her way through the others and threw her arms around him, tears streaming down her cheeks. Jalil almost cried himself, the emotion on her face was so palpable.

Away from the crowd, Sathi and Shira conferred quietly with each other. His father nodded to Mira, who picked up her bags and headed back for the camp—but not before stealing a hurried glance at him. Their eyes met, and for all the bustle and activity around him, nothing else mattered.

But why was she carrying bags out here? He looked over his shoulder at the merchant convoy, now rumbling off. These weren’t people they knew—it just didn’t make sense.

“And who’s this?”

His mother’s question brought him back to the more immediate present. Michelle had disembarked from the shuttle, and now stood a short distance away from the others, arms folded.

“This?” said Jalil. “Oh—this is Michelle.”

“And who is she?”

“My blood sister,” he lied, knowing full well the ramifications of bringing home a girl who wasn’t family. “Michelle,” he said in New Gaian, “this is Zayne, my mother, and Sathi, my father.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Michelle said, smiling as she extended her hand. Both Sathi and Zayne stared at it uncomprehending.

“Er, we don’t shake hands in the desert.”

“Oh.” Michelle blushed and gave a short bow.

“Where is her headscarf?” Surayya asked aloud. “And why is she dressed in such awfully dirty clothes?”

“And this,” Jalil continued, his cheeks turning red, “this is the rest of my family: Surayya, Amina, and Tiera my sisters; Shira, my half-mother; and the rest of my sisters, Majd, Alia, and Rina.”

For some unknown reason, Shira narrowed her eyes and glared at him. He knew that expression all too well; it was the one she took when she was on the warpath. Something serious had happened here—something completely over his head. Rather than making it into an issue, though, he chose to ignore it for the time being.

“Michelle, is it?” Tiera asked, shocking Jalil and everyone else by asking the question in New Gaian.

Michelle smiled. “Yes. You’re Tiera, right?”

“I am. It’s good to meet you.”

Jalil received his second shock as they shook hands. “How did you learn to speak New Gaian?” he asked his sister.

“Traders,” she told him, reverting back to the tribal dialect. “And the shortwave. What, you think I’ve been idle these last few months?” She turned to Michelle and smiled. “I am sorry,” she said, stuttering a little. “My Gaian is not so good.”

“No problem—I’d be happy to help you learn.”

“Thank you.” She glanced longingly at the shuttle. “Could you perhaps show me—”

“Of course,” said Michelle, offering Tiera her arm. She glanced at Jalil. “Do you think it would be all right?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

Zayne frowned in concern as they walked off. “Where is that girl taking my daughter?”

“Don’t worry,” Jalil told her. “She’s just taking Tiera to see the ship. They’ll be back before—”

“Well, what are we standing around out here for?” Sathi bellowed. “Come inside, come inside!”


* * * * *


A short while later, Jalil found himself at the seat of honor in the camp’s dining hall, surrounded by a flurry of activity that showed no sign of settling down. Sathi sat to his right, trying to entertain him with what had happened in the camp while he’d been gone. His sisters set the groundcloth while others brought in the hastily prepared breakfast—beans and flatbread, with an assortment of vegetables and sweetened crackers. Every time the door flap parted, he turned, half expecting to see Mira, but she never entered.

Michelle came in and sat by his left, smiling at him.

“Your sister is quite a character,” she said as Tiera took a seat on her other side. “No offense, but I think she’d make a much better mechanic than you.”

“None taken,” Jalil said absent-mindedly, turning as Zayne and Shira took their seats on the other side of his father. Zayne sat closest to Jalil, while Shira sat the furthest away; as their eyes briefly met, her lips turned upward in what could almost have been a sneer.

“Well, are we ready to eat?” Sathi said loudly. The statement was more of an order than a question.

The girls quickly took their places around the groundcloth. The door flap swung open one final time, and Mira slipped in behind them, her headscarf pulled back to reveal her gorgeous hair. Jalil’s heart leaped in his chest, and he longed to rush to her side, but this was not the place. She took her seat on the opposite side of the room, barely glancing his way.

The breakfast passed with little conversation—except between Tiera and Michelle, who chattered almost incessantly. Since the others couldn’t speak New Gaian, however, they confined their questions to Jalil.

“So did you find your family?”

“Yes, praise Allah,” he said.

“And where are they?”

He opened his mouth to speak, but stopped short; how could he possibly hope to explain all that he had learned?

“Unfortunately, most of them have passed away. Michelle—she was one of the few I could find.”

“May Allah have mercy upon them.”

An awkward silence fell across the room. Mira broke it by asking the next question.

“Why did you come back?”

Every head in the tent turned to face him; even Tiera’s. Jalil finished chewing his food and nodded to Michelle.

There’s no better time than now.

“This might be hard for you to hear,” he began, “but I know no better way to say it than this. All of you are in danger. This world is about to be destroyed. If you don’t leave for the stars with me, all of you are going to die.”

He took in a deep breath and looked around the room, stealing only a brief glance in Mira’s direction. Perhaps he’d waited too long; the remains of the impromptu feast lay sprawled out on the groundcloth before them, and some of the people were starting to drift off into their own conversations. In the back, old Zeid was already snoring.

Sathi frowned. “What are you talking about?”

“When I was among the stars, I saw a terrible enemy,” Jalil said, loud enough that all could hear. “Warriors who destroy entire planets. And they will not stop until they have destroyed our world.”

Again, no one said anything. Silence descended on them all, made worse by all the eyes staring blankly at him.

“Here,” said Jalil, “let me show you.” He stood up and walked over to the dusty computer terminal in the corner, swiveling the screen so that it faced the room.

“What are you doing?” Shira asked.

“I’m about to show you something important.” He turned to Michelle. “Can you help me with this?”

As they fumbled with the clunky old machine, he became dimly aware of hushed voices behind him. His hands began to tremble.

“Are you telling us we need to move the camp?” Zayne asked from her seat next to Sathi.

“Yes,” said Jalil over his shoulder. “And not only from this campsite. We’ll need to leave this world. That’s why I came back: to save you.”

“So you’re going to leave us again?” Shira asked, folding her arms.

“No, I want to stay with you, but we can’t stay here in the desert. We have to leave for the stars. Otherwise, all of us are going to die.”

The hushed whispers only grew in intensity. Jalil’s cheeks flushed, and he returned to the machine with renewed vigor.

“Damn piece of junk,” Michelle cursed, slamming her fist on the top of the display. The screen flipped on, displaying a cloud-speckled world of wide brown land and sparkling blue seas. Jalil nodded in satisfaction and turned to face the room.

“Look here,” he said, pointing to the screen. “This is an image of a planet called Tajjur V, before these terrible warriors—the Hameji—got there. If you’ll watch—”

“Tajjur five?” Surayya asked. “What is that?”

“It’s a world,” said Jalil. “A world, not unlike our own. As you can—”

“Where are the deserts?”

“They’re down there, but you can’t see them from this angle. They’re on the other—”

“That’s supposed to be a world?” Amina asked. “It sure doesn’t look like one.”

“Nonsense,” said Zayne. “It looks very beautiful, Jalil.”

Jalil sighed. “Just watch.”

A series of flashes blinked above the planet’s curved horizon. The people in the back of the room squinted and leaned forward, and Jalil realized with dismay that the screen was too small for them to see the footage clearly.

“What’s that?” Tiera asked, pointing to a bright blue glow in the black sky. It flared, and seconds later a tiny plume of muddy brown rose up through the planet’s speckled white cloud cover.

“It’s called a ‘mass accelerator,’” said Jalil. “It just threw a rock the size of a mountain at the planet’s surface. Everyone caught beneath that plume of debris and smoke is now dead.”

Sathi frowned, but didn’t seem concerned. On the screen, hundreds of gray-brown plumes rose above the clouds, forming teardrop shapes above the blue oceans. In a matter of minutes, the once verdant planet was completely shrouded in gray.

“There,” said Jalil, switching it off. “That’s what they did to Tajjur V, and that’s what they’re going to do to us once they get there.”

“You say that’s what our world looks like from space?” Surayya asked. “It looks… small.”

“Yes, but it’s very beautiful,” said Zayne, making it clear that she supported her son.

“Can’t you see?” Jalil shouted. “That entire world was destroyed! Everything, everyone—dead! They did it to Tajjur V, they did it to Kardunash IV, and in less than a month, they’ll do it here, too!”

“So what do you suggest we do?” Tiera asked.

“We need to get out of here. That’s why I came back—to take you away from the danger. The Hameji are coming; if we—”

“Oh, so that’s why you came back,” said Amina, nodding sarcastically.

Jalil’s cheeks reddened. “Have I ever lied to any of you?”

Silence fell on the camp. Jalil clenched his fists in frustration, wanting nothing more than to grab each one of them and shake them.

“I’m telling you,” he continued, “if you stay here, you will all die. We need to—”

“What you ask is a hard thing, my son,” said his father. “Where would we go? You speak of leaving as if it were as easy as breaking camp and setting it up again somewhere in the sky. How can we do that when our home is here, in the desert?”

“We could find a way. Michelle has friends, and there are other worlds—”

“Yes, but our home is here. You would have us abandon it because of a picture on a computer screen?”

Jalil bit his lip and stole a glance at Mira. Her face was devoid of disbelief, but it was clear that she understood him no better than any of the others.

“We must leave, Father. If we stay, we will die,” he said softly. “All of us. No exception.”

“Why are you trying to frighten us?” Shira asked, her voice noticeably bitter.

“I’m not trying to frighten you,” Jalil pleaded. “Can’t you see? I came back to warn you—to save you.”

“We don’t need you to save us,” she hissed. “You’re an unwelcome guest in this camp.”

What are you talking about? Before he could ask, Sathi turned and rebuked her.

“How could you be so rude, woman? Jalil is our son, and he’s come back to take our daughter Mira’s hand in marriage. Haven’t you, my boy?”

Sweat began to form on Jalil’s forehead, but an idea quickly took shape in his mind.

“If I marry Mira and assume leadership of the camp, will you listen to me?”

“Yes, yes, of course,” said Sathi, waving his hand as if the question was resolved before Jalil had even asked it. “Whatever you wish. You’re my son.”

Jalil glanced across the room at Mira; to his surprise, her face had fallen. She rose to her feet and excused herself, hurrying out the door before their eyes could meet.

Jalil frowned. What the hell is going on around here?


* * * * *


“Why must you be upset over this?” said Sathi. “Jalil is back—isn’t that what you wanted?”

“By Allah,” said Mira’s mother, “aren’t you the least bit suspicious of his timing? And by all the strange demands that he’s made? Wala! To think it would come to such foolishness!”

Mira sat quietly against the wall of her father’s study while her parents argued back and forth. Just this morning, she’d expected to find herself in a caravaneer crossing the desert. The fact that she was still here, still within the sound of her mother’s voice, put her nerves on edge and filled her with unease. It was almost as if fate had passed her by, leaving her in limbo.

“You’re chasing ghosts, woman,” her father said, his voice carrying just enough of an edge to keep Shira from shouting. “We sent Mira on the pilgrimage with Jalil to persuade him to return and marry her. She returned without him, but now he has come back, and has offered to marry her. What more could we possibly ask?”

“It’s not that simple anymore,” Shira said, her voice dangerously soft. “If he had returned with her at first, we could have married them off quietly. Now, there’s the family honor to consider.”

What honor? Mira thought bitterly to herself.

“But this absolves the family honor,” her father said, spreading his hands palm up in front of him. “How can it not? And even you must admit, our daughter accomplished exactly what we set her out to do.”

Shira’s eyes narrowed, and she shot a poisonous glance at Mira. She is not my daughter, the expression on her face seemed to say.

“It would be one thing if he returned solely to marry the girl, but what is all this nonsense about the end of the world? If I were you—”

“But you are not me, woman,” Sathi said forcibly.

“Forgive my impudence,” Shira said quickly. “Nonetheless, I think we should refuse to marry them unless we receive certain assurances of Jalil’s good will.”

“Such as?”

“Such as insisting that this girl he’s brought with him depart, and take her demonic sky-caravaneer with her.”

Shira’s last statement was enough to make even Mira sit up and voice her indignation.

“How could you even suggest such a thing?” she said, her arms quivering with anger as much as nervous energy. “That girl is his own sister! To throw her out so rudely—”

“Silence!”

“No. Mira’s right,” said her father. “To cast out Jalil’s blood sister on the day of his wedding—I cannot think of a more shameful way to violate our hospitality.”

“Yes, but if we don’t, what is there to keep Jalil and Mira from simply running away on us?”

Weren’t you the one who tried to throw me out?

“Besides, how do we know that this girl is Jalil’s sister?” Shira continued. “How do we know that he isn’t lying? He shamed us once by abandoning our daughter; what’s to say that he isn’t simply playing two women at once?”

At those words, something inside of Mira snapped.

“No,” she said, clenching her fists as she rose to her feet. “Jalil isn’t that kind of man. You don’t understand—you’ve never understood!”

Her mother’s face turned red with exasperation. Before they fell into a shouting match, however, Sathi cut them both short by stepping between them.

“Enough!” he bellowed. “Shira, you’ve made a good point; we’ll continue this conversation in private. Mira?”

“Yes?” she said, her whole body trembling.

“Mira, dear, I think we owe you an apology for the way we’ve treated you. Please, forgive us.”

Her father’s words blindsided her so fully, she didn’t know what to say.

“I want you and Jalil to marry sooner rather than later, and not just for honor’s sake. Now that he’s returned, we must do all we can to keep him here before he changes his mind. Do you understand?”

She blinked, barely comprehending. It was all she could do to nod.

“Good. Then let’s sit down and drink our coffee.”

But what if I don’t want to marry him? Mira thought silently to herself. As she gently pressed the coffee to her lips, she realized that she didn’t know what she felt anymore.

Chapter 20


“I don’t get it,” said Jalil, pacing the narrow cabin of the Bridgette One. “Why is everything going so wrong?” He kicked an open panel in the wall, slamming it shut.

“Watch it,” said Michelle, not bothering to look over her shoulder. Her full attention was focused on the instruments in front of her.

Jalil sighed and sank into the seat behind her, resigning himself to wait until she was finished. The Bridgette’s low planetary orbit brought them into contact range every ninety minutes or so, but only for a brief period of time, and all the satellite bands were too expensive for them.

“Hello? Bridgette, this is Bridgette One, can you hear me?”

“… ear you,” came a voice over the static. “… an yo… ear me?”

“Nash! Hold on a sec, let me make some adjustments.”

Outside the narrow cockpit window, the cloudless sky shone a deep purple as the sun set in brilliant shades of orange. The craggy, rust-red mountains quickly turned to silhouettes against the burning horizon, and the tents and adobe huts of the Najmi camp cast long shadows across the rocky ground. Overhead, the stars and satellites began to come out, their light filling the void left by the sun’s swift departure. It was a beautiful scene; if Jalil weren’t so uptight from the events of that day, he might have even enjoyed it.

“… any news from Karduna?” Michelle asked, oblivious to him as she wrapped up her radio conversation.

“Sorry,” came Nash’s garbled voice. “I haven’t heard anything new, dear. I’ll keep an ear out, though.”

“What about the Hameji? Are they any closer?”

“Right now, it’s anyone’s guess. A few thousand people have left the system, but the authorities are discouraging any mass evacuations. They claim to have things under control.”

“Sure they do,” Michelle muttered.

“In any case, I’m passing out of line of sight soon. I love you, dear.”

“I know. I love you, too.”

The static grew louder on the other line.

“How much… onger will you be down there?” Nash asked.

Michelle smiled. “Miss me already, huh?”

“of… ourse.”

“It shouldn’t be more than a few days. I’ll be back as soon as I can—I promise.”

Only a few days, Jalil thought anxiously to himself. God-willing, it would only take that long.

“All right,” said Michelle, switching off the transmitter as she turned to face him. “What’s up?”

Jalil sighed. “Nothing is going the way it’s supposed to. No one believes me. They must think I’m crazy or something.”

“Are you sure?” asked Michelle. “Everyone seemed super nice to me. Especially that one girl—what’s her name?”

“Tiera?”

“Yeah, that’s the one.”

“You don’t understand my people. They’ll be polite and put on a good show of hospitality to your face, but beneath the smile, they won’t pay attention to a word you say.”

Michelle frowned. “Okay. So what do we do?”

“I don’t know,” said Jalil, shaking his head as he leaned forward. “I never expected it would be this difficult. They’re treating me like an outsider—a foreigner.”

“Well, did you leave them on bad terms?” Michelle asked. “Maybe if it’s because of something you did before, we can figure out what it is and set it right.”

“God-willing.”

“So what could it be?”

Jalil leaned back in his chair, pausing for a moment to think. “I didn’t leave the camp on bad terms, but later…”

“Later?”

“There was… something.”

“Like what?”

Jalil hesitated for a moment, unsure how to explain. He hadn’t told Michelle about Mira yet—hadn’t told anybody, in fact.

“It’s, uh—”

“Is it about a girl?”

As he began to blush, Michelle’s face lit up. Apparently, that was answer enough.

“It is! Do tell,” she said, resting her chin on her arms as she leaned forward against her seat-back.

“I don’t know…”

Michelle laughed. “Gavin, you should see the look on your face. But don’t worry; I won’t tell anyone. I promise.”

Jalil’s cheeks burned with embarrassment, but he went ahead anyway. “Before I left the camp, the family wanted me to marry one of their daughters.”

“I see,” said Michelle, listening with rapt attention.

“They, ah, went to some pretty extreme measures to set us up together. I felt manipulated—both of us did, I think. I never wanted to hurt her, but—”

“Is it Tiera?”

“Tiera?” he said, frowning. “No, of course not.”

“Then who?”

He swallowed. “It was Mira.”

“Ah, the quiet brown-haired girl,” said Michelle, nodding in a knowing way. “Tiera pointed her out to me during the feast. She’s quite a cutie.”

Jalil blushed even redder. “You could say that.”

“So you’re afraid that you hurt her feelings?”

“Yes. Except… it’s more complicated than that.”

“Complicated how?”

“Well, it has to do with the family honor. Adopted or not, I’m the only living son who has a right to lead the camp, so—”

“But this girl,” said Michelle, cutting him off. “How do you feel about her?

“I don’t know. After being away for so long—I don’t even know how to describe it.”

“Do you love her?”

Jalil froze up, not sure what to say. Part of him wondered whether the question was even relevant—after all, had Lena loved Mazhar before she’d married him? Had they even known each other at all?

“What do you mean?”

Michelle sighed and rolled her eyes. “Do I really have to explain it to you? Love isn’t something you have to think about—it’s something you feel, something you can’t deny. So tell me—do you love her?”

“I suppose. If—”

“Look,” said Michelle, stopping him with her hand. “If you really love her, you can’t possibly imagine living without her. If you love her, she’s such a part of your life that being separated from her feels like, like—”

“Like being cut off from home?”

“Exactly,” she said, snapping her fingers. “So tell me, do you love her?”

Sweat formed on Jalil’s forehead, and his heart began to beat a little faster. The image from his dream came back to him—of Mira as a mother, surrounded by their children. A lump rose in his throat, and he realized that Michelle was right—he couldn’t possibly imagine life without Mira. The very notion was abhorrent to him. And the more he thought on it, the more he realized that he’d always felt this way, perhaps even before the pilgrimage.

“Yes,” he said softly. “I do.”

Michelle smiled. “I think you’d make a good couple.”

“But that’s the problem,” said Jalil, waving his hand. “I offered to marry her at the feast. You know what she did?”

“She walked out on you,” said Michelle. “I was there, I saw it. And honestly, I’m not surprised.”

“Not surprised? But—”

“You just said that you hurt her feelings. You really think that you could just go back to the way things were and ignore everything else that had happened?” said Michelle, folding her arms. “That’s not going to work.”

“Why not?”

“Because you can’t ignore it. You have to acknowledge all the pain between you and move on as best you can. Trust me—pretending that this problem doesn’t exist won’t make it go away.”

Once again, part of Jalil wondered why his feelings even mattered. But deep down, he knew Michelle was right.

“So what do I do?”

“Apologize. Meet with her in private and talk things out.”

“Talk things out?” said Jalil, frowning. “How does that solve anything?”

“Just trust me. If she’s got any feelings for you at all, I think you’ll be surprised.”

Jalil nodded, more than a little nervous. “God-willing,” he said. “God-willing.”


* * * * *


“Mira?” Tiera whispered from the other side of the door flap. “Mira, are you there?”

“I’m here,” said Mira, sitting up from her mattress. “Come in.”

Tiera pulled the flap aside and slipped in, glancing around the room to make sure they were alone. Satisfied, she walked over and knelt by Mira’s side.

“I came to tell you that Jalil wants to see you in private,” she said.

“In private? You don’t think he wants to—”

“No, no,” said Tiera, laughing softly. “It’s not at all like that. He wants to have a talk—that’s all.”

Mira nodded and swallowed, her body suddenly feeling a little stiff. She wondered what Jalil had thought of her yesterday morning when she’d walked out of breakfast—whether he’d taken it the wrong way. It wasn’t that she hated him, just that things had changed so much since last they’d said goodbye. Being near him was confusing—and more than a little painful.

“Where does he want to meet?” she asked, rising to her feet.

“Out behind the mesa,” said Tiera. “Here, I’ll show you.”

They took care not to be seen, creeping along the edge of the walls and underneath half-opened tent doors. Once outside, they ran for the edge of the compound, panting in the warm evening air.

“That way,” said Tiera. She pointed to a single set of footprints in the dusty ground; they led around the base of the rust-red mesa to the sunward side, out of the shadows that now partially shrouded the camp.

Mira’s heart still pounded long after she’d caught her breath. The hot desert sun had passed its zenith hours earlier, and now it hovered on the horizon, painting the desert landscape in shades of red and gold. She spotted Jalil about a hundred yards away, dressed in his ivory-colored desert robes and red-checkered headscarf—the very same clothes that he’d worn the day they’d last parted, there on the island surrounded by the sea. As his head turned and their eyes met, she could almost hear the waves crashing against the shore. Her heart fluttered as they approached each other, him swiftly, her only a little slower. The face that she knew so well gazed on her with an unmistakable longing, unhidden now that the two of them were alone.

They came up to each other and stopped short of embracing. Mira stood awkwardly, not sure what to do.

“You came,” said Jalil.

“Yes.”

He smiled, making her stomach flutter even more.

“It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

“Yes,” Mira said softly.

“Has anything changed?”

Everything, she thought, then said it.

“Everything.”

Jalil waited patiently for her to speak.

“After you left,” she said, “Mother and Father were convinced I had disgraced the family honor. They tried to force me into marrying cousin Ibrahim, and when I told them I wouldn’t, they almost threw me out.”

The smile on Jalil’s face quickly evaporated. “They did? But we never—”

“When a boy and a girl are alone together, remember? I tried to tell them the truth, but they wouldn’t listen.”

“Mira… I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

She looked into his eyes and realized that his apology was real. Her anger from the day before died almost immediately.

“What about you?” she asked softly. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

“In a way, I suppose. I found an old cousin of mine who told me the story of my family. My birth mother and birth father are both dead, and all my other blood relatives are scattered across the stars.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

He shrugged. “It’s just as well. I never knew them anyway—not in the way I know all of you.”

As he talked, they fell into step, walking around the base of the dusty mesa. The sun dipped halfway down the horizon, casting long shadows from the distant craggy mountains.

“It’s funny, though,” he concluded. “I left the camp to find my home, only later to realize that my home is here.”

Mira’s heart skipped a beat. “Here? In the desert?”

“No. Here with you.”

He stopped and glanced over at her as if waiting for an answer. Her breath caught in her throat, and a shiver ran down the back of her neck like electricity.

“Mira, I wanted this chance to talk with you because I feel I need to apologize. When I left you at Nawal’s doorstep, I know it wasn’t on the best of terms. It seems the family’s put you through hell for that, and I know it must have hurt personally as well. So Mira, all I wanted to say is, I’m sorry.”

A lump rose in Mira’s chest, and any residual anger in her heart shattered and dissipated, as if it had never been. She looked at the sincere, earnest expression on his face, and knew that she’d forgiven him.

But at the same time, an awful sinking dread welled up in her stomach. She knew he wasn’t the only one at fault for what had happened—not in the least. Memories of that awful night flooded back to her, making her cheeks burn. It all seemed so long ago, yet all the guilt came back in full force, threatening to crush her under its weight.

“I forgive you,” she said softly. “And Jalil?”

“Yes.”

“I—I’m sorry too.”

He looked at her for a moment, blinking. After all he’d shared with her, the simple one line apology seemed woefully insufficient, but to open herself completely to him, with no secrets or boundaries… it filled her with a fear sharper than any she’d ever felt. And yet, she knew that ultimately, nothing else would set her free.

We all live in the world of our own choosing.

“What I did was wrong,” she said, her emotions gushing. “Everything. That last night, in the glass-roofed hotel—”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“But I was the one who made it happen. I was the one who acted shamefully. I was the one who shattered your trust, and Jalil—I’m sorry. So, so sorry.”

Before she knew what was happening, she was in Jalil’s arms, uncontrollable tears streaming down her face.

“It wasn’t your fault,” he repeated, rubbing her back. “Your parents were behind it all. They put you up to it.”

“But I chose to listen to them. I chose to follow through with their shameful plan.”

“It doesn’t matter. Whatever happened, whatever we did, it’s all behind us now.”

Neither of them said anything for a few moments. She started to sob as Jalil held onto her, his touch saying so much more than words.

“Do you still love me, Mira?”

The question caught her a little off guard, but as the guilt of the past few months slowly cleared from her mind and heart, she realized that she did.

“Yes,” she answered, barely a whisper. “I’ve loved you ever since we were young.”

“Since we were children?”

“Yes.”

“I love you, too,” he said softly. “Ever since we were young. I didn’t realize it until after I’d left, but it was the same for me.”

As Mira cried, her tears turned from tears of guilt and sorrow to tears of joy. She didn’t know how to describe it, except that she felt clean—cleaner than she had since she and Jalil had left for the Temple of a Thousand Suns. If it hadn’t been for Jalil holding her, she would have collapsed from dizziness. And yet, nothing had ever felt so right.

“They’re going to marry us soon,” Jalil said. “Is that what you want?”

She looked up at him and smiled through her rapidly fading tears.

“Yes.” Oh yes!

“And afterward, I’ll take you away from this place, and we can build a new life together, somewhere among the stars.”

Suddenly, he was leaning in toward her, with her head tilted back. He leaned in a little further, and their lips touched. Shivers ran like bolts of electricity through her arms and fingers, and as they kissed, all their worries and cares seemed to fade into the distance.

“Masha’allah,” she whispered.

“Yes,” said Jalil. “Masha’allah.”

They gazed at each other for a few minutes before he let her go.

“So they’re going to marry us,” he said. “And after that—Mira, you have to help me get them away. Every moment we stay on this planet, we’re all in danger.”

She nodded silently, not sure what to say.

“I know this must sound crazy,” he continued. “I don’t expect you to understand what I’m saying—hell, even two months ago I wouldn’t have believed it. But you must believe me—you must.

“I believe you,” she said softly.

“You do?”

“Yes.”

A grin spread across his face, and he took her hand and squeezed it.

“I love you.”

They came together and kissed again, this time with more confidence. Mira ran her fingers through Jalil’s hair beneath his red-checkered headscarf, and he gently rubbed her back, turning her muscles to water. Yet for all their passion, it didn’t feel wrong—far from it.

“Masha’allah,” she whispered, pausing to catch her breath.

“Yes,” he said, smiling. “Whatever Allah wills.”


* * * * *


Jalil walked hand in hand with Mira back to the camp. The sun had set, and the stars and satellites were already starting to come out across the purple twilight sky. A soft breeze slowly dissipated the heat of the day, pleasant on his skin. With Mira by his side, the rocky desert landscape seemed renewed, and he looked on it with new eyes, noticing all the familiar details as if for the first time. Mira squeezed his hand, and he smiled.

At that moment, a deep rumbling noise came from the camp. Jalil frowned; it sounded like a caravaneer, except almost ten times louder. But that would only make sense if—

As realization dawned on him, the Bridgette One made its vertical ascent, hovering for a few seconds over the ground before shooting off across the sky.

“No!” he shouted.

But it was too late. As the shuttle disappeared into the fading twilight, a horrible sinking feeling grew in his stomach.

“What’s wrong?” said Mira. “Jalil—Jalil!”

“Why?” he shouted into the sky, as if demanding an answer of the universe.

“Was that Michelle? Was she not supposed to go?”

“No,” he said, collapsing to his knees. “She—she was supposed to—”

“It must have been Mother,” said Mira, her face reflecting Jalil’s apprehension. “She’d said something about trying to convince Michelle to go.”

Then we’re stranded, Jalil thought despondently to himself. The world is about to end, and we’re stranded on it.

Chapter 21


As a little girl, Mira had often wondered what her wedding day would be like. She’d imagined herself wearing a finely embroidered black dress, with gold and silver coins dangling from her hems, jingling as she walked. She’d imagined her father and mother and all her sisters, dressed in their finest clothes, ululating with wild, thrilling cries as she came forward to meet the groom. He would be a princely man, dressed in robes of pure white with a magnificent sword at his belt and a gold plated rifle strapped to his back. Before exchanging vows, their eyes would meet, and it would be like eternity reflecting upon itself.

She never imagined it would be like this.

The day dawned with a few small convoys of close relatives riding into the compound, cheering and ululating as they fired their rifles into the air. The wuft wuft of the camp’s plasma cannons answered, shots arcing high across the sky before falling to the ground miles away and turning the sand to glass.

All that was to be expected, of course. But inside the tents, everything seemed to be going wrong. The sun was barely a full hand over the horizon, and her sisters were helping her put on her wedding robes—the same ones that Lena had worn. In their haste to prepare for the wedding, her parents obviously hadn’t had time to make special ones for her.

“It looks fine,” said Amina, rolling her eyes as Surayya made another adjustment to the fabric at Mira’s waist.

“Oh, hush,” Surayya shot back. “This is Mira’s special day. Everything has to be perfect.”

“Stars of Earth, you act like you’re her mother.”

The comment made Mira cringe, though Amina hardly seemed to notice. If this were a normal wedding, her mother would be the one helping her with the dress.

The door behind them parted, and Tiera stepped inside. Out in the corridor, Jalil’s voice carried as he shouted with their father.

“What did you tell her? Just tell me!” he yelled.

“What are you doing here?” Amina asked as the tent flap fell shut. Tiera returned her impassive gaze without flinching.

“I’m sorry; last time I checked, I was still a member of this family.”

Mira sighed. “Please don’t fight.”

“Right,” said Amina. “Well, you all seem to be doing well here; I’ll check up on the work in the kitchen.”

“That seems like a great idea,” said Tiera.

Amina glared at her before parting the tent flap and storming out. Surayya shook her head and put her hands on her hips.

“You two—”

“Are we finished yet?” Mira asked.

“Just a moment,” said Surayya, returning to her work.

“You’ve done a great job with the dress,” said Tiera, admiring her half-sister’s work. “Mira, you look gorgeous.”

“Thank you. But what’s going on outside? Was that Jalil screaming?”

Tiera nodded. “He’s still upset about Michelle.”

“Offworlders,” Surayya muttered, not looking up from her work. “You’d expect Jalil’s own blood sister to at least stay for his wedding.”

“When will she be back?” Mira asked.

“I don’t know,” said Tiera. “Father probably convinced her that the wedding would go faster if she was gone.”

“And he’s right,” said Surayya. “It’s barely been a week since Jalil proposed.”

“Yes,” said Tiera, “but I doubt he told her that we were moving the camp immediately afterward.”

Mira’s stomach fell. “What? We’re moving the camp?”

“That’s right,” said Tiera, nodding grimly. “Half the things are already packed. As soon as the ceremony’s over, the plan is to load up the caravaneers and take off.”

“But—but why?”

“I don’t know, but I suspect Shira is behind it.”

Mira bit her lip and nodded. She sensed intuitively that Tiera was right.

“Oh, Mother’s not such a monster as you make her out to be,” said Surayya, looking up from her work. “Even if she was behind it, I’m sure there was a good reason.”

“She doesn’t want Jalil and me to run off again,” Mira whispered. “They want to keep us here, at the camp.”

“Well, that makes sense, what with all the crazy things he told us about the world coming to an end.”

“Do you believe him?” Tiera asked, looking Mira straight in the eye.

“I do.”

“Oh, come on,” said Surayya, putting her hands to her hips as she stood up again. “How could you possibly believe all that?”

Because Jalil has never lied to me.

“If what he says is true,” said Tiera, “then we’re all in grave danger.”

“Do you believe it?” Mira asked.

“Of course I do.”

Surayya threw up her hands in desperation. “Can’t you pay attention to what’s important here? In less than two hours, Mira is going to be a married woman.”

Less than two hours, Mira thought to herself. She didn’t know what felt more unreal—the fact that she was getting married, or the thought that at any moment, the world as she knew it might end.


* * * * *


Jalil’s mind raced, and not with thoughts of the marriage. How could you send her away? he wondered. Why won’t you let me raise her on the radio?

It all felt so surreal, staring at the crowd of guests and family. In true desert fashion, they’d decked him out in the finest silk robes with a golden sword by his side and the heirloom rifle on his back. From the looks of awe in the eyes of all the guests, he must have made an impressive figure. Yet at the same time, he felt utterly and completely powerless, knowing that the Hameji could strike at any moment.

The door flap on the far side of the room parted, and Mira entered. Jalil’s breath caught in his throat, and a rousing cry of cheers and ululating voices arose from the crowd of guests. She was absolutely stunning in her wedding dress—more beautiful than he could have ever imagined. Rather than hiding her face, the ornately embroidered headscarf drew out her gorgeous eyes, making her smile shine all the brighter through the veil. He’d known in his mind that they were to be married this day, but until this moment he hadn’t truly felt it. Now, with his heart pounding and his legs shaking, he realized for the first time that it was actually happening.

Mira walked down the aisle and took her place by his side. Together, they faced the crowd, waiting several minutes for the cries of jubilation to die down.

“My fellow tribesmen, both in law and in blood,” Sheikh Sathi began, “we have come together to witness the happy and auspicious marriage of my beloved daughter, Mira Al-Jamiyla, to my son from the stars, Jalil Al-Shadiyd. Though Heaven, Earth, and Hell conspired endlessly to force them apart, they have come together now to seal that union which, God-willing, shall last the duration of this life and into the next.”

Come on, Jalil thought to himself, nervously tapping his foot. Let’s get on with it.

“Though voluminous tales could be told of their exploits,” Sathi continued, “I do not wish to delay the celebrations with my longwinded tongue.” He smiled, and his joke met with scattered laughter. “But if you will spare me a few words, I wish to express my deepest love for my daughter and my son.

“For the past sixteen years, I have watched Mira blossom like a flower in the desert, growing from baby to girl to the young woman you see before us now. Though shy of nature, I can testify that she possesses a strength of spirit greater than many here. I consider it one of the greatest blessings of Allah to have been her father.”

Jalil glanced over at Mira and saw her eyes begin to glisten. He reached down and took her hand—an audacious move in the eyes of some, but that hardly seemed to matter. She squeezed his fingers gratefully.

“And Jalil, my beloved, my son from the stars,” Sathi continued. “What a supreme blessing it has been to be counted a father to such a boy! He came to us as an answer to prayer, in the dark days after the death of my firstborn. But praise be to Allah, who rules the heavens from his throne on the Earth of Paradise. Though not of the desert by birth, over the years he has grown into a fine son and a worthy tribesman, and it pleases me on this day to name him my successor, both in name and inheritance. When I go the way of all men, may my son, Jalil Al-Shadiyd, lead this camp in the paths of wisdom, that the Merciful and the Compassionate may grant His blessings upon all who dwell therein!”

A mighty cheer erupted from the crowd, and a dozen ululating cries shook the walls of the camp. Jalil swallowed as a host of unsettled emotions rose in his chest. Next to him, Mira squeezed his hand as if to reassure him.

“And now,” Sathi shouted over the crowd, “let us witness the bride and groom exchange their vows!”

As the cheering gradually died down, Jalil turned to Mira and took a deep breath. The words, though practiced several times at the insistence of his mother, refused to come. She waited patiently for him to clear his throat, her smile radiating through the veil of gold and silver coins.

“Mira Al-Jamiyla Bint Shira Saharat Al-Gharab Al-Gaiani Al-Jadida,” he said, looking into her beautiful hazel eyes, “do you promise before Allah and these witnesses to be my wife?”

“Yes,” she said, her voice soft and clear. “Jalil Al-Shadiyd Ibn Sathi Al-Najmi Saharat Al-Gharab Al-Gaiani Al-Jadida, do you promise before Allah and these witnesses to—”

A noiseless flash from outside briefly filled the room with an eerie pinkish light, causing a rumble of confusion to pass through the crowd. Jalil’s stomach fell through the floor.

“What was that?”

“A flare? Could it be—”

Ignoring the shocked look on Shira’s face, he ran down from the stand and out to the side door, his nerves so tight he felt he would snap.

What he saw outside confirmed his worst fears. A series of bright orange lights flashed on the horizon, casting long, eerie shadows across the land. Bright yellow tracers arced hundreds of miles in the sky toward unseen targets, falling with deceptive slowness to the ground.

This was it—the Hameji assault had begun.

“Jalil!” came his father’s voice behind him. “What are you doing? Don’t you—”

“Look,” said Jalil, pointing with a shaking finger at the signs of battle high overhead. “Do you see that?”

Sathi looked up and frowned. A soundless explosion briefly outshone the light of the sun, casting strange shadows across the barren desert landscape.

“By the stars of Earth,” he said. “Is that—”

“I need to contact Michelle,” Jalil said. “Please, Father, let me do this.”

Sathi hesitated for a moment, his cheeks pale. He nodded slowly.

“What is the meaning of this!” Shira screeched as Jalil ran past her. “How dare you—”

“Step aside,” said Jalil. He sprinted down the dimly lit corridors to his private study.

Tiera joined him as he entered. The noise in the halls grew increasingly loud as the crowd spilled out of the front room. Ignoring them, Jalil flipped the switch to activate the shortwave.

Nothing happened.

He flipped the switch again, with no response. Overhead, the glowlamps in the stained glass chandelier flickered ominously, no doubt from the electromagnetic pulse.

Jalil swore and slammed his fist against the dusty equipment.

“It’s dead,” he said. “All dead.”

“Have you tried—”

Jalil’s head swam, and he wanted nothing more than to get out of this confined space—to get out in the fresh air, one last time. He ran past his father, shouldering his way through the crowd that now filled the corridors and out the first door into the desert.

The unearthly fireworks continued, casting strange shadows across the desert landscape. As the guests scattered—some to their caravaneers, others to the camp’s adobe shelters—the sky changed from blue to white to pink, then gradually back to blue. The surreal sight sent chills down his back and made his stomach go weak.

It was the end of the world.

“Jalil!” came Mira’s voice behind him. He spun around in time to take her in his arms, holding her as she trembled from fear.

“Is this it?” she asked. “Is this the end?”

Shouts of panic and confusion sounded all around them. One caravaneer took off across the desert, followed by another.

“Yes.”

She looked up at him and nodded. “Then let’s at least finish what we came for.”

He looked into her eyes and realized she was talking about the wedding. Though her face was filled with fear, she possessed an earnestness that could not be shaken.

“Very well,” he said, taking both her hands in his own. “Mira, do you promise to be my wife?”

“Yes,” she said. “Jalil, do you promise to be my husband?”

In that moment, all the noise and lights and confusion seemed to fade into the background. It felt almost like a dream—not a dream of terror, but one of such power and raw emotion that it would not fade, not even after waking. Jalil squeezed her hands and leaned forward—there was nothing but the two of them now.

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I do!”

Mira pulled off her veil and wrapped her arms around him, pulling him down for one last kiss, here at the end of the world. Overhead, the sky exploded in pink and orange and red, while shadows of the mountains danced across the desert plains.

“Look!” came Tiera’s voice, rising above the din of the departing caravaneers.

Jalil looked up, and his heart skipped a beat. Out on the horizon, a small black dot raced across the sky. It circled the camp, approaching nearer with each pass. As it drew closer, the whine of starship engines drowned out all other noise, until the shuttle made a hard landing on the dusty ground before them.

Joy and relief washed over him like a warm summer rain. It was the Bridgette One.


* * * * *


Mira reached up and covered her mouth, squinting against the dust kicked up by the returning starship. Behind her, Shira coughed, while Lena and her husband squinted and waved the air in front of their faces.

Jalil practically sprinted to the ship, reaching it just as the hatchway opened and Michelle stepped out. He turned back to them, eyes lit with an urgency born of desperation.

“Everybody in!” he shouted, beckoning to them. “There’s no time to lose!”

Mira glanced over her shoulder at the rest of her family. To her surprise, they stood completely still, staring in confusion. Overhead, another flare lit the sky, bathing them in pink and white light.

“Did you hear me?” Jalil shouted. “The world is ending—we have to leave!”

“We’re not going anywhere in the devil’s caravaneer,” said Shira, putting her hands obstinately on her hips. Mira’s stomach fell, and her legs went weak.

“There’s no time to argue,” said Tiera, running forward. “Come on, let’s go!”

All eyes turned to her father, but Sathi glanced sheepishly at Shira, as if looking for some direction. No, Mira thought to herself. Please, not now.

“What are you waiting for?” Jalil shouted. “There’s no time; we’ve got less than ten minutes before—”

“We’re staying right here,” said Shira. “This is our home, and no tricks from you are going to get us to abandon it. Right, girls?”

Mira took a step forward, feeling as if someone else were controlling her body. She took a deep breath and broke into a run.

“Hey!” her mother screamed. “Mira! Come back here!”

Before Shira could stop her, she was back in Jalil’s arms, trembling with fear and joy and a hundred other racing emotions.

“Jalil! How dare you steal my daughter! Mira, come back at once!”

“Mother!” Tiera shouted from the hatchway, ignoring the others. “Come on!”

Zayne looked from Tiera to Sathi and back again, hesitant to be the next to step forward.

“Zayne!” Jalil cried, letting go of Mira. “Mother, please! Let’s go!”

With tears in her eyes, Zayne came forward, stumbling over the rocky earth. Tiera ran forward and helped her to the shuttle, while Shira shook her head and clucked disapprovingly.

“We don’t have any more time,” Jalil shouted, his voice growing hoarse. “Can’t you see? Everyone who stays behind is going to die!”

Mira glanced desperately from face to face. Her eyes met Rina’s, and her sister ran forward into her waiting arms. Surayya came next, but at a shout from their mother, she stopped and hesitated midway.

“No!” Mira cried. “Surayya, don’t—”

“Come back at once, young woman!” Shira screamed, anger screwing her face into an ugly sneer.

Surayya glanced over her shoulder at the camp before giving Mira a sheepish look. “I’m sorry,” she said running back to the rest of the family.

“No!” Jalil shouted, slamming his fist against the shuttle with a fury that made Mira take a step back. “No no no!”

“Rina,” Shira yelled. “You get back here right this instant!”

“No,” Mira said, holding onto her little sister as if to never let go. “Don’t leave, Rina. Please don’t leave me.” Rina tensed, but she made no move to run away.

As Jalil continued to shout, Mira looked up and bit her lip to keep the tears from welling up in her eyes. Her family stood motionless by the camp—Mother, Father, her sisters. Another silent explosion filled the sky, making their shadows dance even as they stood as still as statues. The two younger ones, Majd and Alia, glanced from her to Mother and back again, confused and scared. Shira, however, shot her a look as cold and unyielding as any that she’d ever seen. Come back to me, her expression said, or you are not my daughter.

Mira’s hands shook and her legs felt weak, but she stayed with Jalil. This was her decision—a decision, she realized with some surprise, that she’d made a long time ago.

“Please,” Jalil pleaded, his whole body shaking. “Won’t you let me save you?”

“No,” said Sathi, his eyes large and sad. “This is our place, Jalil—our home. If you cannot understand that, then you are not my son.”

Jalil bit his lip and nodded, tears spilling out of his eyes. “Then this is goodbye,” he whispered.

He turned his back to them and helped Mira climb up the ladder. She stopped midway to look one last time at her family, knowing somehow that she would never see them again. Surayya was crying now, while Amina looked on with folded arms, shaking her head. Alia and Majd hugged their mother’s knees in fear, while Sathi stared on with an unreadable expression on his face. And Shira—she didn’t dare look her mother in the eyes. I’m sorry, she wanted to call out, but she knew it wouldn’t do any good.

She climbed through the open hatchway and into the narrow passageway beyond. As she stepped into the cabin, her vision clouded over and she fell to her knees. The floor rocked underneath her as the shuttle lifted off, and Tiera helped her up and strapped her into a seat. The faces of those left behind flashed across her minds eye, burning their last expressions into her memory. She knew that they’d haunt her forever.

She closed her eyes and gripped her armrests as her stomach lurched under the terrifying pressure of the acceleration. Through the walls, the whine of the engine filled her ears, but that wasn’t important; it would pass. Jalil had come for her, and from now on, they would be together. That was all that she had anymore—that was all that mattered.


* * * * *


“There’s a lot of debris in orbit,” said Michelle, all her attention focused on her instruments. “We’ll be lucky if we make it out of this alive.”

“Just do your best,” said Jalil, staring out the forward window as they climbed into orbit. Below, the rust-red desert gave way to an unending sea of dark glass—the domes. A few explosions still occasionally flared in the distance, but immediately around them the sky seemed blessedly clear.

“Nash, are you there? Nash, do you copy?”

“I copy.” Nash’s voice came over the radio, distant and fuzzy. “Establ… ing data link.”

Michelle nodded and hit a series of keys on her computer. Though her face was pale, she kept at her work without faltering.

“Anything I can do?” asked Jalil.

“Nope,” she said. “Just hang in there.”

He nodded and glanced over his shoulder at Mira and Rina, Zayne and Tiera. With the other seats unoccupied, the cabin felt horribly empty. Sathi, his father; Shira, his half-mother; Surayya and Lena, his older sisters; the two little girls with the looks of terror on their faces—he’d reached out to them, and they’d rejected his help, even with the world burning all around them.

Why?

He bit his lip and turned back around. The shuttle dropped for a second, making the women cry out in terror.

“Don’t worry,” said Michelle, making some adjustments to the controls. “Everything’s fine—just give me a few minutes.”

Jalil nodded. Outside, the arc of the horizon glowed dark red as they passed into the night.

“I’ve established line of sight,” Nash’s voice came over the speakers, clearer than before. “Course is good—watch for debris, though. There’s a lot out here.”

Jalil looked towards the surface and saw the wreckage of a spaceship light up as it fell through the atmosphere towards the domes below. As the flames engulfed the derelict craft, the pieces crumbled and split apart, streaking brilliant white against the darkness.

“Hameji forces are moving in,” said Nash. “We’ll have to pull the same stunt we did at Karduna. You copy?”

“I copy,” said Michelle. She gripped her control stick a little tighter.

Above them, a ship flashed into existence as it jumped into orbit. Jalil caught his breath; it was a Hameji mass accelerator. The engines came to life as the giant machine of death prepared to slag the planet below.

“What’s going on?” asked Tiera. She peered over Jalil’s shoulder at the scene out the window. “Is that one of the Hameji ships?”

“Yes,” said Jalil, his legs turning to water. Outside, the engines on the mass accelerator began to flare.

“No. No. No!” Tiera screamed, pounding her fists against the back of Jalil’s chair. Together, they watched as the mass accelerator fired. The asteroid burst into flames as it hit the atmosphere, smashing into the black expanse of a dome seconds later. As the blast exploded upwards, it sent up a giant plume of debris that ripped through the underside of the sea of glass, shattering it into a million shimmering pieces.

Jalil’s breath caught in his throat. He thought of Raya Dome, billions upon billions of people crammed into a city that stretched from horizon to horizon and up through the pillars that held up the sky. All of those people, dead. The thought made him sick.

“You’re coming in too low,” said Nash. “Hold your velocity—I’ll slow down to compensate.”

Off in the distance, Jalil caught sight of the Bridgette. It was angled nose upward, with the shuttle bay facing them. Judging from her size, the ship was perhaps half a kilometer away, growing closer with every second.

“Coming in,” said Michelle, every muscle in her body tense. “Steady, Nash—we’ve only got one shot at this.”

“I hear you, ‘Chelle. You’re doing a fine job. Just bring her in a little more to port—”

Tiera cried out again. Another giant meteor shot past them, smashing silently into the sea of glass. Shards and splinters twinkled and glittered as they broke apart, the shockwave extending like a giant ripple out towards the horizon. As Jalil stared in horrified fascination, the entire structure broke apart and collapsed, falling in on the bottled world inside.

“What’s going on?” Mira’s voice came from behind him. Jalil looked up and saw her floating in midair, gripping the edge of the cockpit partition in fear with her hair and clothes adrift in the weightlessness. She stared at the scene before them with wide, frightened eyes. Jalil unfastened himself from his chair to help her back down.

“It’s the end of the world,” he said softly. “The destruction of the world by fire.”

“Babylon,” Mira whispered.

“Almost there,” came Nash’s voice over the intercom. “Less than a hundred meters to go.”

“I see you. Steady…”

“Look!” said Tiera, pointing excitedly. “Is that—Lord of Earth!”

Jalil glanced in the direction that Tiera was pointing. Out on the horizon, a giant white spire jutted out of a gap between domes. He recognized the ivory tower at once—the Holy Place, the Sacred Shrine, the Memory of Earth, the Temple of a Thousand Suns. All around it, clouds of grimy brown and gray spilled out of the wounded landscape, gushing out of the shattered domes like blood from a hundred severed arteries.

As they watched, a flaming black meteor shot through the sky, crashing into the base of the temple. Mira gasped, and Tiera cried out in horror. For a heart-wrenching moment, time slowed to a stop, as if history itself had come to an end. As the shock wave rippled across the landscape, the tallest spire of the temple shuddered and collapsed into the cloud of death. Within moments, the plume completely engulfed the temple, blasting the holiest shrine of mankind into dust and ashes.

“Almost there—now!”

Jalil’s stomach lurched, and the walls seemed to collapse in on him. For an instant, he lost all sense of orientation as the universe inverted itself and reality flipped inside out. He closed his eyes and gasped for breath, pulling Mira close.

A moment later, he opened his eyes and found himself staring at the magnificent starfield of deep space.

“Wh-what happened?” Mira asked, holding onto him for dear life.

“We’re through,” Jalil whispered, letting out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. “It’s over—we’re safe.”

Chapter 22


“We owe you our lives,” Jalil said, giving Nash a trembling handshake that soon turned into a brotherly hug. “We can never repay you.”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Nash, clapping a hand on his shoulder.

Jalil returned the gesture and smiled. He glanced over at Michelle.

“You too,” he said, nodding to her. “If you hadn’t come back, we would all be dead right now.”

Michelle smiled at him with sad eyes. “Yeah,” she said, her voice distant. “Anytime.”

“This isn’t the end—I refuse to believe that it is.”

“No,” said Nash, “it’s not the end.” He put his arm around Michelle’s waist, pulling her close in a reassuring embrace. “For us, it’s the beginning.”

“God-willing,” said Jalil, smiling at Mira. “God-willing.”


* * * * *


Jalil found Tiera in the engine room of the Bridgette, chatting with Michelle. As the door hissed open and he stepped through, she glanced up and rose to her feet.

“Jalil,” she said, smiling broadly. “You’ll never believe the news—Michelle and Nash have agreed to take me on as one of their crew!”

“That’s—that’s great,” said Jalil, a little surprised by her enthusiasm. He wished he could share it, but recent events had left him feeling as if a heavy weight had been placed on his chest.

“Are you all right?” Tiera asked, a look of concern coming over her.

Jalil sighed. “To be honest, I don’t know.”

“I’ll leave you two alone,” said Michelle. She smiled at him before heading out the door, shutting it behind her. Once she was gone, Jalil and Tiera both sat down on the floor.

“It’s about the others, isn’t it?” Tiera asked.

Jalil nodded. “I just—I wish I could have saved them!”

Tiera reached up and put an arm around his shoulder. In some ways, the feel of her touch did more to comfort him than words ever could.

“You did all you could,” she said. “You showed them the way and they made their choice. There was nothing you or I could have done.”

“That’s what’s so frustrating,” said Jalil. “Why wouldn’t they come? Why would they choose to die?”

“The camp was their world. They never would have left it, not for anything. It’s enough that you came back and tried.”

“I suppose.”

“Besides, you were able to save some of us, right? We’d all be gone if it weren’t for you.”

Jalil nodded. As Tiera rubbed his back, the tears slowly trickled out—tears of pain, tears of healing.

“So you’re going to stay on the Bridgette?” Jalil asked.

“Yeah,” said Tiera. “Michelle says she can take you and the others as far as you need to go, though.”

“That’s kind of them. Now that our home is gone, though, I don’t—”

“What are you talking about?”

He looked up and saw Tiera frowning as if to scold him.

“Our—our home,” he said. “The desert, Gaia Nova—”

“That’s not our home,” she said, jabbing her finger at Jalil’s chest. “Home is right here—it’s you and me. Home isn’t a place; it’s family. Am I right?”

Jalil smiled. “Yes,” he said. “I think you are.”


* * * * *


The moment Jalil stepped through the door, Mira leaped to her feet and threw her arms around him. For several moments, they just held each other, saying nothing. Mira closed her eyes and let the comfort of Jalil’s touch soothe her pain and sorrow.

“It’s just us now,” she whispered.

“I know,” said Jalil.

“What will we do?”

“Nash is setting a course for New Rigel,” he said. “All the other refugees have fled that direction, so it might take us a while to get past them, but God-willing the Hameji won’t follow.”

His talk of war and refugees, of names like “New Rigel” and “Hameji” made little sense to her.

“But what will we do once we get there?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said softly. “Find another world, settle down, start over.”

She nodded. “Do we know where yet?”

“No, but we’ll find something. For the time being, we’ll stay here on the Bridgette—she’s a little cramped, but she should be enough of a home until we can find a more permanent place to live.”

Mira smiled. “You mean build a new camp? Start a new family?”

“Yes,” said Jalil, giving her a worried look. “That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”

“Of course,” she said, stepping forward and putting her arms around him again. Their lips softly met, and she melted in his embrace.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, his mouth close to her ear. “I’m sorry about the others.”

“I know,” she said, feeling the tears return to her eyes.

“Are you afraid?”

Jalil’s arms felt warm and comforting, like a well-made cloak in the cold desert night. She thought back to the night they’d shared the blanket on Sarah’s balcony, beneath the light of the stars and satellites.

I could spend the rest of my life with him, and be happy.

“No,” she answered. “Not as long as you’re with me.”

Jalil looked down at her and smiled. Somehow, she knew she’d said exactly the right thing.

Outside the observation window, the stars shone ten times brighter than Mira had ever seen them. Their soft light illuminated Jalil’s face, making him glow like an angel.

“Strange,” he said. “The stars seem somehow… empty.”

“What do you mean?”

Jalil sighed. “I don’t know. Perhaps it’s just me. But whenever I see them, I can’t stop thinking of the Temple of a Thousand Suns. To think that the holiest shrine in all the universe is gone now—it’s as if Earth itself has somehow been destroyed.”

“Perhaps,” said Mira. “But isn’t it true that there is holiness within us?”

He glanced down at her and smiled. “Perhaps.”

As he leaned into her, she lifted her chin to meet his lips. They closed their eyes and kissed again, bathed in the light of countless stars.


Author’s Note


This book was a long time in coming. Even though the first draft started to take shape in the fall of 2008, I feel as if it really began in late 2005, when I came home from my mission.

From 2003 to 2005, I volunteered as a full-time missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as “the Mormons”). For two years, I spent almost every day focused on religious service and spiritual things. The missionary program handled all of our housing and transportation, and periodically dispensed money from our families so we didn’t need to work or really even keep much of a budget. I’d already been accepted to Brigham Young University, and the school had deferred my enrollment for two years, so I didn’t have to worry about that either. In fact, I was so focused on the missionary work that even though I served in Silicon Valley, I didn’t know what a flash drive was until I came home.

Soon after coming back, I began to re-immerse myself in my favorite works of science fiction & fantasy. For a couple of months, however, I felt really depressed, because none of these fictional universes had room for my religious beliefs. I was a little bit like Dan Wells in season 1 episode 27 of Writing Excuses (World Building Religion), who said he didn’t like Ender’s Game as a boy because the mother was Mormon in a world in which Mormonism, as he knew it, couldn’t be true. It wasn’t that any of these stories were actively anti-religious, or that I was disappointed because they didn’t explicitly vindicate my beliefs. I was just looking for a secondary world where I could immerse myself without having to set aside the religious part of my life that I’d come to cherish. After a couple of months, I found a balance and got over it, but the experience gave me a desire to write something that countered that trend.

This isn’t as much of a problem in fantasy, but in most science fiction and space opera, the universe is actually our own universe fast forwarded some two or three thousand years. The trouble with this is that most religions, especially Western religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, have at their core a story about Earth: its creation and beginnings, its relationship with God as a dwelling place for humanity, and its future destruction and millennial rebirth. Of course, mainstream science fiction cannot incorporate any aspect of this religious cosmology and remain mainstream—the moment it does, it simply becomes religious fiction. However, by presenting a far-future universe in which the Earth has not been transformed, mainstream science fiction almost gives us a universe in which none of these religions can be true. I wanted to find a way to do both: to present an acceptably mainstream far-future universe in which no religion was explicitly true, but any of them could be.

I proceeded in 2006 to attempt such a task, but the novel turned out so badly that I abandoned it unfinished and never picked it up again. A couple of years went by, in which I wrote a generic far-future space opera that didn’t bother with any of these issues, and trunked it as well.

Then, in 2008, I had the spark that became Desert Stars. I was in Amman at the time, participating in an Arabic study abroad program through BYU. I was walking from the University of Jordan down Queen Rania street, toward my home-stay at Al-Dustour, when the phrase “Temple of a Thousand Suns” came to my mind. Perhaps it was some combination of the weather (sunny and hot, like most days in the Middle East) and the story ideas that were bouncing around my head at the time. In any case, the phrase immediately stuck out to me, and I began to wonder what kind of a place this temple was. Of course, it would be a place dedicated to humanity’s future out among the stars—but also, it would be a place dedicated to the memory of Earth, a place that now existed only in legend and fable. And therein lay the answer to my conundrum. By transplanting humanity far enough away from Earth so that they had lost all contact, the major religions in my universe would be free to believe that the Earth had passed through the prophesied end times, while I as an author would be free to leave such questions sufficiently open-ended.

That was how the Gaia Nova universe began to take shape. I spent the next few months working out the details: how the first colonists of Gaia Nova came from Earth after spending millennia frozen in cryo, and that the universe had changed so much that it was impossible to locate the old Earth. I imagined that these colonists, living on a harsh world not quite as habitable as Earth, would do everything they could to preserve the environment, and thus enclose their settlements in giant domes which would eventually become as large as continents. I imagined that a handful of people would rebel against this form of enclosure, and thus establish a culture far away from the confines of civilization, out in the desert wastes. And from my experiences with the Bedouin in Jordan, I began to world-build that culture, which immediately began to suggest the characters and conflicts that featured in the novel.

Jalil’s storyline came quite naturally, but Mira’s gave me a lot of trouble. In the first couple of drafts, I actually didn’t see her as a love interest—I only included her because I wanted to give Jalil that horrible moment of disillusionment where he realizes that there’s nothing left for him on Gaia Nova. But as the story began to take shape, so did Mira’s character and their relationship with each other, and despite all of my best efforts they began to fall in love with each other.

I’m something of a discovery writer, which means that my creative process works better when I don’t know how things are going to end, rather than when I have a firm outline to follow. However, I’d written myself into something of a hole, and this question of Jalil and Mira’s relationship had me completely stumped. Instead of writing through it, however, I ended up putting the project on hold for a year and a half while I wrote Bringing Stella Home. Taking a break to work on other things ended up being the best thing I could have done. I learned a lot more about Jalil’s parents’ background, as well as the merchanters who eventually took him in, but more importantly I learned how the book needed to end: with the destruction of Gaia Nova and the Temple of a Thousand Suns.

Lois McMaster Bujold made an interesting comment on a science fiction romance panel at Worldcon in 2011: she said that when women write romance, they write about love and life, whereas when men write romance, they write about love and death. Maybe that’s why things clicked for me when I realized that everyone was going to die. It also gave me an excellent character arc for Mira, building up to that moment when she has to choose between staying with her family on a doomed planet, or leaving everything she’s known behind in order to be with Jalil. I tend to be discovery writer, but I also work best when I have some idea of how the story will ultimately end. Once I had that, the story came much easier.

I still didn’t know how Jalil’s story was going to end, however. For the second draft, I threw in a subplot in the latter half of the book where he leaves the camp to raise the desert, Lawrence of Arabia style, and launch an attack on New Amman in order to capture the spaceport and save his people. That turned out horribly, but it gave me the motivation to finish the draft, and once I had a finished manuscript to work with, it was a lot easier to make the changes. I decided to take out the whole save-the-world angle and focus on the deeply personal stories of Jalil and Mira.

I finished the last major revision in mid-July of 2011, and was much more satisfied with it than with the previous ones. The story had largely taken its final shape, and while my second round of first readers pointed out a couple of things that needed to be fixed, none of those took a major overhaul. By this time, I’d already ventured into indie publishing, so I didn’t bother sending out queries or looking for representation to sell my book. The digital revolution has opened up a world of new options for writers, and I knew that I wanted to epublish first, and do it myself, while waiting to see how things shake out in the rest of the publishing world.

So that’s how this book has come into your hands. I hope you enjoyed it! If you did, the best thing you could do is blog or tweet about it, share it with a friend, or post a review. To follow me online, be sure to check out my writing blog: One Thousand and One Parsecs (onelowerlight.com/writing). I blog pretty regularly about my books, as well as other books that I like, and writing and life in general. There you can also sign up for my email list, where I share the news on my latest releases and do periodic giveaways. My email is [email protected], if you’d like to reach me that way. You can also find me on Twitter (@onelowerlight), and Goodreads. So many ways to stay connected—feel free to take your pick!

Finally, I want to thank you for taking the time to read this book and make this story come alive. Stories don’t actually exist until they are read—before that, they’re just scribbles on a page, or switches on a disk. Literature in particular is a highly collaborative art, where the reader’s imagination fills in all the details of the landscape, and the writer is more of a guide to the story than its actual creator. No matter what other accolades we writers receive, the greatest honor is just to be read, and for that, I thank you.

That’s all for now, but I hope you’ll stay in touch! I have a lot of other ideas for novels in the Gaia Nova universe, including a few with the characters in Desert Stars, so this certainly won’t be the last time you see Jalil, Mira, Tiera, Rina, Lars, Michelle, and the others. In the meantime, don’t be a stranger! Take care, and I hope to see you again soon!


Acknowledgments


This novel has been in the making for so long, it’s hard to thank everyone who helped make it possible, and I apologize if I forget anyone. First, I’d like to thank Dil Parkinson, Kirk Belnap, and Spencer and Karina Scoville for organizing and running the 2008 BYU Jordan study abroad program, which was so influential in the genesis of this book. I would also like to thank my first round of first readers: Laura Christensen, Mykle Law, Caitlin Wall, Charlie Holmberg, Megan Hutchins, Kindal Debenham, Emma Penrod, Logan Kearsley, and Angela Felsted; and my second round of first readers: Jason Housely, Liel Boyce, and Evan Witt. Both Kindal’s writing group and the Quark writing group at BYU were also very helpful. I’d also like to thank everyone who made a pledge for the short-lived kickstarter campaign: Caitlin Wall, Evan Witt, Mark and Sharon Vasicek (thanks, Mom & Dad!) Lauren Astle Cowles, Alysha Rogers Whiting, Gini Richards, Christopher Sterner, Laura Christensen, and Andrea Brokaw. The campaign didn’t work out, but thanks for being willing to help fund it. Finally, I would like to thank Lorenz Hideyoshi Ruwwe for the cover art, Josh Leavitt for the editing assistance, and my mentor Brandon Sanderson for teaching me so much through his English 318R class at BYU. Thanks so much for your help and support! You’ve all made the journey truly worthwhile.

Thousands of years after mankind’s exodus from Earth, a young starship pilot and his accidental bride wander the stars in search of a homeworld in Star Wanderers: The Jeremiah Chronicles (Omnibus I-IV).


Desert Stars



PART I: OUTWORLDER


When Jeremiah arrived at Megiddo Station, all he wanted was to make some trades and resupply his starship. He never thought he'd come away with a wife.

Before he knows it, he's back on his ship, alone with his accidental bride. Since neither of them speak the same language, he has no way to tell her that there's been a terrible mistake. And because of the deadly famine ravaging her home, there's no going back. She's entirely at his mercy, and that terrifies him more than anything.

Jeremiah isn't ready to take responsibility for anyone. He's a star wanderer, roaming the Outworld frontier in search of his fortune. Someday he'll settle down, but for now, he just wants to drop the girl off at the next port and move on.

As he soon finds out, though, she has other plans.



PART II: FIDELITY


Oriana Station: a bustling frontier settlement between the Outworlds and the Coreward Stars. A popular port-of-call for free traders and independent starfarers alike—and the latest target in the aggressively expansionist plans of the Gaian Empire.

Life was simple for Jeremiah and Noemi before they arrived. Though neither of them speak the same language, they've reached an understanding that goes beyond words. But when the colonial authorities make them into second-class citizens of a fractured empire, even that might not be enough.

Their newfound friends in the immigrant community can only do so much. With Noemi and her people depending on him, Jeremiah must find a way back to the Outworlds—before they lose everything that they came for.


PART III: SACRIFICE


When Jeremiah found himself alone on his starship with an accidental bride, he had no idea how much his life would soon change. Now, with Noemi's quiet confidence supporting him as she carries their first child, it's hard to imagine life without her.

But life in the Outworlds isn't so simple. Good men are hard to come by, and Noemi's friends expect her to share. As part of a colony mission bound for an unsettled star, Jeremiah can't say no without causing a rift in the community. But if he says yes, his new-found happiness may soon come to an end. One way or another, he will have to make a sacrifice—one that could tear their starbound family apart.



PART IV: HOMEWORLD


For years, Jeremiah has wandered the stars in search of a home. With his wife Noemi about to have a baby, he thinks he's finally found a place to settle down. The Zarmina system lies on the edge of the Outworld frontier, but together with their friends, they hope to establish a thriving new colony. The only problem is that the system is already inhabited—by pirates.

The colonists no sooner arrive than they fall prisoner to Captain Helena and her band of rogues from the New Pleiades. She gives them an ultimatum: live like slaves on the planet's surface, or breathe vacuum. With all their dreams about to be shattered, they have to find a way to fight back. But to do so may endanger everything—including the lives of the ones they love most.


CLICK HERE TO BUY STAR WANDERERS: THE JEREMIAH CHRONICLES (OMNIBUS I-IV)

A coming of age sci-fi romance from the author of Desert Stars.


Desert Stars


THE ULTIMATE VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY ENDS WHEN YOU LEARN THE TRUTH ABOUT YOURSELF.


Michael Anderson never thought he would set foot on a world like Earth. Born and raised in a colony of scientists on the farthest edge of the solar system, he only studied planets from afar. But when his parents build mankind's first wormhole and discover a world emitting a mysterious artificial signal, Michael is the only qualified planetologist young enough to travel to the alien star.

He is not alone on this voyage of discovery. Terra, his sole mission partner, is no more an adult than he is. Soon after their arrival, however, she begins acting strangely—as if she's keeping secrets from him. And her darkest secret is one that Michael already knows.

Twenty light-years from the nearest human being, they must learn to work together if they're ever going to survive. And what they discover on the alien planet forces them to re-examine their deepest, most unquestioned beliefs about the universe—and about what it means to be human.


CLICK HERE TO BUY GENESIS EARTH

The saga of Gaia Nova continues in Stars of Blood and Glory!


Desert Stars


THE ONLY HOPE FOR THE LAST FREE STARS NOW LIES ON THE PATH OF BLOOD AND GLORY.


The princess of Shinihon could not have picked a worse time to run away. The largest Hameji battle fleet ever gathered threatens to overrun the last of the free stars. To make matters worse, a rogue assassin from an unknown faction has killed the high admiral of the Federation. Without clear leadership, the war may be lost before she can be found.

But Danica Nova and her band of Tajji mercenaries are no strangers to lost causes. They've fought the Hameji before, and they'll fight them again—not for honor, or for glory, but simply for the pay. War has been their way of life ever since the diaspora from the homeworld.

Master Sergeant Roman Krikoryan is one of the few remaining mercenaries still old enough to remember the homeworld. But he's an old cyborg, and his humanity is fading. Death is a mercy he doesn't expect to find on this mission.

They aren't the only ones after the princess, however. Hungry for glory and eager to make a name for himself, Sholpan's son Abaqa seeks to make the girl his slave. Though only a boy, he'll stop at nothing to prove himself to his Hameji brethren.

With the Federation in disarray, the bloody end of the war may come too soon for some of them. But one thing is certain—not all of them will live to see it.


CLICK HERE TO BUY STARS OF BLOOD AND GLORY


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