Book: Star Wanderers: The Jeremiah Chronicles (Omnibus I-IV)
Star Wanderers: The Jeremiah Chronicles
by Joe Vasicek
Copyright © 2013 Joseph Vasicek.
All rights reserved.
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.
Cover design by Libbie Grant.
Proofreading by Nathan Major and Kathleen Skovran.
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Table of Contents
Table of Contents
Part I: Outworlder
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5
Part II: Fidelity
6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10
Part III: Sacrifice
11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15
Part IV: Homeworld
16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21
Author’s Note | Acknowledgments
This omnibus edition contains the first four parts of the STAR WANDERERS series. Set on the Outworld frontier thousands of years after the exodus from Earth, it follows the story of starship pilot Jeremiah Edeni and his accidental bride, Noemi, as they wander the stars in search of a new homeworld.
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.
Part I: Outworlder
Jeremiah knew something was wrong the moment he stepped out of the Ariadne’s airlock and onto Megiddo Station. A variety of people milled about the tiny spaceport concourse, mostly in-system haulers and traders, as well as a few beggars and questionable women in the shadier passageways. The air smelled slightly of smoke, but that wasn’t too unusual; the settlement was certainly old enough, with ventilator fans that chugged and floor tiles that were grainy with wear. The locals, however, had an eerie look about them. Their faces were gaunt, their skin sagging. They stared at him as he passed by, as if sizing him up. When he returned their gaze, they turned suddenly away from him, as if afraid.
I just need to stay long enough to unload my cargo and make the trade, he thought anxiously to himself. Once I’ve gotten clearance, everything else should go smoothly.
The suppliers at the last system had warned him about this place almost a standard month ago. “You be careful,” they had told him in their peculiar Outworld creole. “We many see go, since six cycles not any come back.”
At the time, Jeremiah hadn’t thought much of it. Traders this far out didn’t follow any set routes, and the dozens of uncharted colonies and outposts always had problems of one sort or another. But from the hollow, expressionless faces he passed on his way spinward, an uneasy feeling told him he might have made a mistake.
Like many of the other doorways in the hallway, the entrance to the station master’s office had a miniature gilded image of a half-cyborg saint tacked above the lintel. Jeremiah keyed the chime and the door hissed open almost immediately.
“Come, come!” came a voice from inside, calling to him with urgency. Jeremiah stepped in, door shutting behind him.
“You Captain Jerem-ahra?”
The station master was short and balding, with a rotund face and a minor cybernetic implant in his left eye. He wore a simple blue jumpsuit with a black felt vest and an insignia on his arm that probably denoted his rank. That wasn’t too unusual; most of the settlements in the Outworlds tended to be hierarchical.
“Yes,” said Jeremiah, bowing in a universal gesture of greeting and respect. “Are you Master Korha?”
“Korha? Yes yes,” said the man, gesturing impatiently for him to come inside.
Jeremiah followed Master Korha from the rather sparse front office into a back room that appeared to be the apartment’s main living quarters. Mattresses lined the floor along the aging bulkheads, indicating a sizable family and not much living space. An ornate mosaic table sat on a dull blue rug in the center, with sticks of incense burning in a bowl off to one side. Except for the two of them, the place was empty.
“Sit, sit,” said the station master, motioning to a cushion across the table. It seemed like a strange way to conduct trade negotiations, but these were the Outworlds after all. Jeremiah took his seat and made himself comfortable.
“You young,” Master Korha observed, producing a thermos and two glasses. He poured them both a thick, white drink that had the consistency of syrup.
“Yes,” Jeremiah answered, taking a sip from his glass. The spicy sweetness hit him like a punch to the mouth, and he struggled to force it down.
“Far,” said Jeremiah, eyes watering. “Many parsecs.”
The station master nodded. “You trader?”
“Of a sort.”
“Man of fortune?”
“You could say that.”
“Searching woman?” he asked, looking Jeremiah in the eye. “Searching home place, find woman and make babies yes yes?”
“Is tradition, no?”
Jeremiah nodded slowly. “That’s right,” he said, mind racing as he tried to rethink his negotiating strategy. Did the station master expect him to settle down here? Was that why he’d called him to his private quarters? The thought made Jeremiah swallow.
“You young, you need woman.”
“Among other things, yes.”
“Not good to man is alone, no no.”
The station master looked off as if lost in thought. Jeremiah took advantage of the moment and cleared his throat.
“As much as I would love to find a wife and settle down, I have some coffee from the Chondarr system that I was hoping to trade, and since you insisted I meet you in person, I—”
“Listen,” Master Korha hissed, glancing over his shoulder before leaning forward to look Jeremiah in the eye. “You no stay here. Not safe.”
Jeremiah frowned. “Not safe? What do you mean?”
“Here is not safe—much is dying, yes yes. Accident since many cycles—no can food to eat. Station crowded, very. Stores run out since many days, many angry, dying much.”
A chill ran down the back of his neck. “You mean the starvation is so bad, the entire outpost is starving to death?”
“Yes yes! Smart young man. Have ship, yes. But cannot stay—very dangerous.”
The gleam in Master Korha’s eyes made him shift uncomfortably on his floor mat.
“Why are you telling me this?”
The station master took a long draft, draining almost half his glass. “You young man, you captain, you go places. Is good, yes. Have favor I ask you.”
He clapped his hands twice, making Jeremiah jump. A side door opened, and five girls lined up in the front of the room. They each wore a loose-fitting chemise made from cheap synthetic fabric that left the shoulders bare while barely stretching to the knees. As Jeremiah looked on, they stared at him with wide, nervous eyes.
“My daughters. You choose, yes yes.”
Jeremiah swallowed hard. “Choose one?”
“Choose one, choose two, choose all no matter. You go, take with. Is good, no?”
This can’t be happening, he thought to himself. His heart pounded in his chest as he glanced from Master Korha to his five daughters and back again.
“Look, let’s not be hasty. My ship doesn’t have any room for extra passengers, and—”
“Aiee!” a voice wailed from behind the door. Jeremiah leaped to his feet as a middle-aged woman barreled past him. Soon, both she and the station master were shouting at each other in their incomprehensible language.
What the hell is going on?
He glanced over at the girls, as if to apologize. The youngest stared at him with wide, frightened eyes; she couldn’t have been older than eight standard years. With her blond hair, she reminded Jeremiah of his younger sister.
“Choose!” Master Korha bellowed. Apparently defeated, his wife collapsed to the floor in tears.
Jeremiah tugged at the collar of his jumpsuit, sweat forming at the back of his neck. “What? Choose?”
“Yes yes—choose quickly, you take, you go!”
“But this is crazy; how can I—”
“If not take, will die. Choose!”
Jeremiah turned back nervously to the girls. The three youngest ones stared at him in absolute terror. The two oldest ones weren’t quite so frightened, but avoided meeting his gaze directly. They wore their long hair down with glistening sequined headbands across their foreheads, and the innocent looks on their faces cried out to him.
Should I take them both? If they were going to die otherwise, it seemed like the right thing to do—but he didn’t know if he could afford to take even one extra passenger on his ship. And besides, the whole situation had an eerily awkward feel to it, as if he were trading in people, not goods.
“You like? You like?” Master Korha asked, ambling to his side. He pulled the two girls forward to give Jeremiah a better look. One of them giggled nervously, while the other bit her lip almost apologetically.
“What the—how can I do this?” Jeremiah asked, raising his hands in protest. “They’re your daughters.”
Behind them, the wife let out an awful wail, but Master Korha waved his hand as if to say ‘pay no attention to her.’
“You choose one, must take, save her yes yes.”
Jeremiah looked into the desperate eyes of the daughters and realized, purely on a gut level, that their father was telling the truth.
“Her,” he said, pointing to the oldest of the two. Her eyes widened, and she covered her mouth in shock.
“Good! Good!” said Master Korha. He took Jeremiah by the wrists and had him clasp hands with the girl. Her fingers were cold, her palms clammy. Her arms stiffened and trembled, but she held on tight. Jeremiah almost pulled away from her, but her father held him in place, making the sign of the cross across his chest and muttering some arcane prayer in his native language.
All at once, everyone in the room was crying. The mother’s wails sounded above all the others, and she shoved Jeremiah aside, wrapping her arms around her daughter. The other girls soon surrounded them, tears streaking their faces, while Master Korha clucked impatiently and pushed them all away.
“Come, come,” he said, grabbing Jeremiah and the girl by their arms. A moment later, they were in his office, away from all the madness. “You take, you leave, must go now yes yes?”
“But—wait!” said Jeremiah, jerking himself free. “What about my mass allotment? My ship’s not built to carry passengers; I’ll have to recalcu—”
“No problem, no problem, she not bring anything,” said Master Korha. He palmed a console in the wall and a hidden door opened, revealing a long, empty maintenance corridor. “Must go now,” he said, ushering them in. “If not, others soon do bad things, yes yes.”
“Are you serious? What do you—”
As if in response, the sound of fists pounding on the front door echoed through the office. It started out innocently enough, but quickly grew louder, as if an entire mob was trying to break in.
“Come! Come!” said Master Korha, hissing as if to emphasize the point. Jeremiah glanced anxiously around the room and instinctively knew that if he didn’t comply, he would soon be in danger.
“Okay,” he muttered, ducking his head as he climbed into the narrow maintenance shaft. “Whatever you say, old man.”
* * * * *
Master Korha had been right to sneak them out. When they emerged from the maintenance corridor and began walking briskly toward the dockyards, heads immediately started turning. In no time, a gang of gaunt looking young men began to follow only a short distance behind them.
Jeremiah glanced nervously over his shoulder and quickened his pace. “What’s going on?” he asked. “What are they—”
“Go quick, yes yes.”
“Great,” he muttered, shaking his head. “Just great.”
Fortunately, the Ariadne wasn’t docked very far. A couple of beggars had settled down in front of the airlock, but they scampered off as Master Korha approached. After palming the door open, he ushered them both in: Jeremiah first, then the girl.
“Go now,” he said. “Go, and peace go with.”
The girl froze in the doorway, her face paling as she turned to face her father. They exchanged a few hastily muttered words, then gave each other a quick hug and several tender kisses on both cheeks.
The vagabonds who had followed them through the hallway formed a half circle just outside the airlock door. Before Jeremiah could say anything, Master Korha turned and left. The girl hesitated, and for a split second it seemed as if she would run after him. But then the vagabonds began to rush in, eyes wide with desperation.
Jeremiah hastily palmed the inner access panel, and the door hissed shut on their faces. The sound of muffled pounding on the other side told him he’d acted not a moment too soon.
“Stars,” he cursed, still in a daze. So much for conducting any trade at this port.
He turned to face the girl, and for the first time got a good look at her. She stood a couple of inches shorter than him, with light brown hair that reached just past her shoulders and smooth, white skin, not quite to the point of paleness. Her nose was short and round, and her eyes were a dark, rich green, like a pair of verdantly forested planets. Her chemise was yellow with little pink sequined flowers, and though the fabric was somewhat transparent, it fit her loosely enough to keep her decent. She was a lanky girl, with a narrow waist and a flat chest, but she seemed otherwise well-proportioned, though perhaps the chemise accentuated that.
“Uh, hi,” said Jeremiah, awkwardly extending his hand. She stared at it blankly for a moment, then folded her arms.
“Sorry,” he muttered, quickly slipping his hand back into his jumpsuit pocket. “Guess that’s not your custom. What’s your name?”
She stared at him without comprehending, lips pressed firmly shut, eyes wide with nervous apprehension. From the look on her face, she might as well have been alone with some sort of alien monster.
Jeremiah nodded and took a deep breath. “All right,” he said, “I guess you can’t understand a word I’m saying. Well, uh, don’t worry, we’ll get this all cleared out somehow.”
The pounding on the airlock had died down, but he knew it would be suicide to go out again. From the way her father had handed her over, he probably wouldn’t take her back even if they could get through.
Jeremiah sighed, pondering his options. He could drop her off at one of the many local mining ports, but all of those were so small and isolated, she’d probably end up as a slave. It was the same with the nearest stars, too; none of them had any settlements large enough to give her a chance at striking out on her own. The nearest suitable station was at Alpha Oriana, on the other side of the local star cluster, but that was nearly four and a half parsecs away—a three month journey.
“Here,” he said, “why don’t you come on board?” The airlock was starting to feel cramped anyways. He held up his wrist console and keyed open the main door. It hissed open slowly, revealing a short corridor leading to the narrow, windowless cabin that served as his home between stars.
The Ariadne was, for all intents and purposes, a one-man cargo hauler with just enough customizations to make her habitable for long-term interstellar voyages. Modular compartments lined the gray metal walls from floor to ceiling, while the periodic hand-holds served as a reminder not to take the artificial gravity for granted. The cabin itself was only a little wider than the corridor, so that when the cot was folded down from the wall, two people could only pass each other if one of them turned sideways. The helmet-like dream monitor sat in a half-closed ceiling compartment directly above the cot, with a control board and small display screen on the nearby wall.
The smell of old sweat and stale body odor made him blush; if he’d known he’d be bringing a girl on board, he would have cleaned up a bit first. He opened one of the larger wall compartments and hastily threw a pile of old clothes into the universal washer unit, then turned and unfolded the cot, trying not to think about the fact that there was only one bed between the two of them.
“Here,” he said, motioning for the girl to sit down. Her eyes widened with fear, and she hugged her chest a little tighter.
“No,” he said quickly, blood rising to his cheeks. “It’s not—no.” Stepping past her, he opened another compartment and pulled out a jumpsuit like the one he was wearing. “It might be a little large on you, but it’s all I’ve got.”
He held the jumpsuit out to her until she took it. While she tried to figure how to put it on, he ducked through the next doorway into the cockpit.
The wide forward window gave a magnificent view of the planet below: a blue ice giant with long, wind-carved cloud decks and a swirling dark spot at the equator, large enough to swallow a small world. Megiddo Station curved away overhead, its aging hull pocked from decades of micro-meteoroid impacts and exposure to cosmic radiation. A handful of small shuttles drifted past as the Ariadne spun with the station, but the scanners indicated that the local space was almost completely devoid of traffic.
Jeremiah relaxed as his body settled into the familiar contours of the pilot’s chair. He flipped a switch on the right armrest, and the three main screens at his station flickered on, displaying the Ariadne’s diagnostic and technical readouts. He keyed a series of other switches, and the various control boards and indicator panels hummed as they came to life.
The sound of soft footsteps made him turn. The girl stood behind him, his short-sleeved utility jumpsuit a little baggy on her thin body. Since there was no other place to sit in the cockpit besides the pilot’s chair, she stood in the doorway behind him, staring out the forward window.
“Uh, station control,” said Jeremiah, “this is the Ariadne, requesting permission to proceed to jump point alpha.”
He transmitted his flight plan data and began the warm up sequence for the main engine. The line buzzed with muffled static as the traffic controllers processed his request. For a gut-wrenching moment, he wondered what would happen if the controller ordered him to submit to boarding.
“Copy,” came a heavily accented voice on the other line, dispelling his doubts. “Proceed to alpha.”
Jeremiah breathed a sigh of relief and gripped the flight stick. The engines came alive with a soft, low purr that reverberated through the Ariadne’s bulkheads. The planet drifted lazily in the window as the station spun around, putting them into position for the maneuver. He nosed the flight stick forward as the coordinate map projected his flight path, then pulled down the lever to undock and separate from the station.
For a split second, a nauseous falling sensation gripped his stomach. Behind him, the girl gasped and staggered, hitting the wall with a loud thump.
“Oh stars—are you okay? Just—just hang on.”
He eased back on the stick to spin the Ariadne 180 degrees, trying to execute the maneuver as smoothly as possible. Despite his best efforts, however, the ship pulled some significant torque. Behind him, the girl collapsed to the hard metal floor, sliding to the base of the pilot’s chair.
“Sorry,” he muttered, cringing as she moaned. He wanted to get out and help her, but couldn’t do anything until the maneuver was complete.
The girl grabbed the armrest of his chair and pulled herself wearily to her knees as the arc of the station came back into view. Against the backdrop of the enormous planet, it looked so tiny—a double ring of human habitation in the midst of the foreboding blackness of space. She stopped moaning and froze, staring out the window as if entranced.
“Approaching jump point alpha,” Jeremiah announced over the radio. “Stand by.”
He checked the target coordinates and depressed the switch, holding his breath as he did so. The sounds of the engines and instruments around him faded, and the walls pressed in on him even as he felt his body shrink. His vision began to spin, and for an instant, it seemed as if the universe itself had turned inside out, leaving them stranded on the wrong side of reality. Then, as quickly as it had begun, everything returned to normal. The combined light of millions of stars replaced the station and planet, filling the cockpit with the soft, milky glow of deep space.
The girl responded by vomiting explosively across the floor.
“Here,” said Jeremiah, climbing quickly out of his chair. “Don’t worry—I’ve got it.” She gave him an embarrassed look as he helped her to her feet, then wiped her mouth and returned to the cabin, collapsing on the cot.
Jeremiah stepped past her to the bathroom unit and pulled out some disinfectant and a rag. The thick stench had already filled the ship, so he activated the odor scrubbers and began running the ventilation system at full power. The roar of the fans drowned out all other noise as the recycled air began to circulate.
“There,” he said, stepping back after cleaning the floor. “That wasn’t so bad.”
The girl sat on the cot with her back against the corner, hugging her knees against her chest. She stared off at the opposite wall, her expression blank. As the ventilators roared in the narrow cabin, the hard truth began to sink in. Jeremiah swallowed and glanced nervously around the room; he’d spent almost the last three years living in this confined space, but this was the first time he’d been here with a girl. It made the place feel more cramped than ever.
“Here,” he said, his gaze settling on the dream monitor overhead. “We’ve got some time—why don’t you hook up while I get things settled?”
The girl watched him with a mix of curiosity and apprehension as he pulled the device down from its compartment. It hung from a retractable stand, wires jutting out from a cluster of nodes in the back and feeding back into the control board overhead. She must have recognized its function, however, because she leaned forward and parted her hair to expose the neural socket in the back of her neck. He inclined the upper end of the cot to accommodate her before plugging her into the monitor and shutting the visor. She settled down with her hands in her lap, then relaxed and grew limp as the indicator lights on the monitor’s side began to flash green and red.
Jeremiah stood up and breathed a sigh of relief. With the dream monitor switched on, the girl might as well be in her own private quarters. At the very least, it would keep her occupied until he could figure out what to do next.
Three months—it was going to be a long voyage.
Delta Oriana, the Gaian Imperial catalog entry read. Class K dwarf; .68 standard solar masses; 3 planets, 8 major moons. Charted settlements:
Jeremiah’s mind drifted as he skimmed the article. Like most of the catalog entries, he suspected it was at least two or three decades out of date. The peer-to-peer database was even less reliable, however: communication lags between Outworld stars meant that updates were contradictory and frequently laced with political rhetoric and planetism.
Still, the official entry seemed pretty useful; it had a lot of good information on the founding of Megiddo Station and the people who had settled there. The most interesting part was that the original colonists hadn’t come from the Coreward Stars, but from a frontier system not far from his birth world at Edenia. Perhaps, at some point in the not too distant past, the two societies hadn’t been all that different.
“You’ll meet a lot of strange people on your journeys,” his father had told him. “Before I met your mother and settled here on Edenia, I saw my fair share of bizarre cultures. I once spent a year at a colony of third generation nudists, who thought I was indecent for wearing clothes.”
“You mean everyone was naked? No one wore any clothes at all?”
“No one. Though they had some mighty artistic tattoos.”
“What else is out there, Dad?”
Jeremiah still remembered how his father had smiled at his innocent question. “You’ll find out soon enough. When you’re of an age to wander the stars and make your fortune, the old Ariadne will be yours, and you’ll be free to explore all those worlds for yourself.”
At his father’s words, a lump had risen in Jeremiah’s throat. Free to explore, but never to see my home again.
“Is something the matter, son?”
“Nothing,” he had said, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. “I’m fine.”
“It’s the part about leaving home, is it?”
Afraid his voice would crack if he spoke, Jeremiah had only nodded.
“I know exactly how you feel. For the first month after I left my birth world behind, I felt as if I had died a hundred times over. But if I had never left, I never would have met your mother, and you never would have been born, would you?”
“It’s a hard tradition to follow, but it keeps our people strong. In my travels, I came across a few colonies that wouldn’t send out their sons to wander the stars—or more importantly, wouldn’t allow outsiders to marry their daughters. None of those colonies have survived—not one. They’ve all perished, either from disease or infighting or some other evil brought about by their own weakness. And that is why the traditions of our fathers are so important, even if they are hard to live by. It’s only through our traditions that the Outworlds remain strong.”
Jeremiah had said nothing, but sniffled a little as he thought about how difficult it would be to leave his birth world forever. His father knelt down and put an arm around his shoulder.
“Jeremiah, let me tell you something. Someday out there, you’ll meet a girl whose beauty will make the gardens of Edenia pale in comparison. Her smile will warm you in a way the stars never could, and your feelings for her will fill a void in your heart you never knew was there. When that day comes, you’ll know you’ve found your home.”
The noise of someone stirring in the cabin brought him back to the present. I wonder what Dad would have thought of this girl, he thought to himself as he rose from his chair. He probably would have told me to keep looking.
“What’s up?” he asked aloud as he walked into the cabin. “Had enough of the dream monitor?”
The girl stood next to the cot, one hand on the wall for support. She patted her stomach and gave him an apologetic look. Blood rushed to Jeremiah’s cheeks. You idiot, he chided himself, she’s probably starving.
“Here,” he said, squeezing quickly past her. “Let me get you something.”
Her eyes lit up as he activated the food synthesizer in the wall and pulled out a pair of bowls from the retractable dish rack. The growling of her stomach was so loud, he wondered for a moment if something on the Ariadne had malfunctioned. Her cheeks blushed deep red, as if she’d committed some horrible faux pas by failing to hide her own hunger.
“It’s all right,” he muttered, for himself as much as for her. “I’m sorry, I forgot about—stars, I’m an idiot.” Even though he knew she couldn’t understand him, he felt compelled to apologize somehow.
While the synthesizer went to work, he pulled out a jar of dehydrated fruit slices from a side compartment. “Here,” he said, motioning for her to hold out her hands. She hesitated, looking confused, so he took her hands and formed them into a cupping shape. They were cold, but surprisingly soft.
He filled them with a generous helping of the fruit. “There you go; that should be good for starters.”
Her eyes met his, and the look of pure gratitude on her face took him aback. His cheeks grew warm, and his heart beat a little bit harder. As she nibbled on the dried fruit, her lips turned up in the barest hint of a smile, and his breath nearly caught in his throat. Stars, he thought to himself, there’s a real live girl with me on this ship.
Few thoughts had ever filled him with so much terror.
* * * * *
When the synthesizer had finished, they sat cross-legged on the floor with their bowls, knees touching for lack of space. Jeremiah showed the girl how to crumble the dried fruit and mix it in with the tasteless gray synthmeal, stirring the pieces in until they reconstituted enough to make the food more palatable. It wasn’t the best, but she ate it ravenously, making him kick himself for forgetting to feed her earlier.
“Do you have a name?” he asked as she started on her second bowl. She glanced up at him and smiled blankly, only confirming that she didn’t understand a word he said.
“Here,” he tried again, pointing at his chest. “Jeremiah. Can you say it? Jeremiah.”
“Yes,” he said, “I am Jeremiah. Jeremiah.”
“Jerem-ahra,” she repeated, struggling with the pronunciation.
He shrugged. “Close enough, I guess. And you?”
She stared at him blankly.
“Jeremiah,” he repeated, pointing at himself before pointing at her.
Her eyes lit up as she caught on. “Noemi,” she said, pointing to herself. “Jerem-ahra, Noemi.”
“No-em-ee?” he asked. She nodded vigorously and pointed to herself again.
Interesting name, Jeremiah thought to himself. It reminded him of a girl on his birth world by the name of Naomi. The similarity between the two names seemed like a confirmation that she wasn’t all that different from him after all.
I wonder what all this is like for her, he thought to himself as she scarfed down the last of her food. With the baggy short-sleeve jumpsuit and her hair all tousled and uncombed, she looked like a refugee—which in many ways, she was.
“How old are you?” he asked, carefully enunciating his words. She set down her bowl and stared at him with her deep green eyes, not comprehending.
“Here,” he said, pointing to himself and flashing all ten of his fingers twice. “Twenty standard years. You?”
She bit her lip and pantomimed his actions. When he shook his head and pointed again at her, she smiled nervously and held her hands palm up as if to apologize.
Jeremiah shrugged. “Eh, forget about it.” She didn’t look to be much younger than him anyway—maybe eighteen or nineteen.
But that raised a host of other questions. If she was only nineteen, what did she think about leaving her home? Jeremiah had left on his eighteenth birthday, but at least he’d had time to prepare himself for it, while Noemi hadn’t even been able to gather any personal belongings or put on a decent change of clothes. Stuck on a deep space freighter barely larger than a simple hauler, subject to the whims of a man with whom she had no way to talk or communicate—-for all she knew, he was planning to take her to a slave market and sell her. He could get away with it, too.
“Don’t worry,” he muttered, “I would never do that.” She glanced at him for a few awkward moments, then stood up and returned to the cot. It wasn’t like there was anywhere else to go, after all.
“Here,” he said, rising to his feet to pull down the dream monitor. “Ready?”
She silently pulled back her hair to expose the socket in the back of her neck. He fit the monitor gently over her head and connected the neural jacks. The device hummed softly as it came to life, and her body grew limp.
Poor girl, Jeremiah thought to himself as he looked at her. After all she’d been through, the least he could do was help her escape into the solace of a virtual world.
He turned from her abruptly; it felt uncomfortably voyeuristic of him to stare at her when she was plugged in and unconscious. If he’d had a second monitor, he could jack in and interact with her through the virtual world, but the Ariadne was far too small for that. Better to leave her alone.
Still, before he left, he draped the blanket over her limp, unresponsive body.
* * * * *
As with virtually all Outworld societies in the north second quadrant, Jeremiah read, the communities at Delta Oriana have strict codes and social mores prohibiting extra-marital sexual relations. In particular, the older settlements place a high value on female virginity, considering it a major point of family honor. Several accounts document how visitors who violated this honor were hunted down and killed by jealous male relatives, in some cases as far away as the New Pleiades.
He stared at the words, trying to make sense of their meaning. The way Noemi’s father had handed her over, Jeremiah didn’t know whether she was supposed to be just another passenger or … something else. He remembered all too well how Master Korha had made them clasp hands, making the sign of the cross as if to marry them—but surely, if that had been his intent, he would have at least left his daughter with more than a skimpy chemise.
Through the bulkheads behind him, the sound of running water mingled with the hum of the ventilation system. That would be the shower unit; Noemi was probably getting ready for the sleeping shift. He didn’t blame her; it had been almost eight hours since leaving Megiddo Station, and the FTL drive was almost primed and ready for the second jump. He yawned and returned to the catalog.
Marriage celebrations often last for weeks, with extended family members gathering together across long distances. Weddings are always extravagant affairs, with the parents of the bride spending upwards of an entire year’s income on the event. Dowries can also be quite high, especially among the well-connected elites.
Jeremiah smiled to himself as he logged out of the catalog. That was it—Noemi was only a passenger on his ship, nothing more. Whatever her father had done before handing her off, it was certainly not a marriage. The realization made him breathe a little easier, knowing where the boundaries lay.
The shower shut off, and the bathroom door hissed open a few moments later. Noemi was probably getting ready for bed. In a little while, he’d have to deal with the awkwardness of the sleeping arrangements, but for the time being he could focus on more important things, like setting the target coordinates for their next jump.
The energy reserves had built up enough to allow a maximum safe distance of .2 light-years, but Jeremiah bet he could push that up to .4. Cosmic dust was sparse in the Oriana cluster, and most of the rogue planets and brown dwarfs were safely charted. Still, he had to be careful not to push too far: long jumps on low reserves resulted in poor jump accuracy, potentially putting them light-years off course.
With the target coordinates plugged into the nav-computer and the jump drive only at eighty percent, Jeremiah yawned again and rose groggily to his feet. The jump could wait until the next waking cycle; they were in no hurry. In the meantime, his exhausted body hungered for sleep.
“All right,” he said aloud as he stepped into the cabin. “Time to—”
He froze just inside the doorway. Noemi lay face-up on the cot, not a stitch of clothing on her body. Her gaze met his, and she gave him a nervous smile, making no effort whatsoever to cover herself.
Cold sweat broke out across the back of Jeremiah’s neck, while his cheeks burned as if on fire. His hands began to shake and his legs went weak, but he couldn’t take his eyes off of her. The rise and fall of her diminutive breasts, the subtle yet inviting curves of her hips—
“Stars and c-constellations of Earth,” he stammered.
The orange-yellow light of the Edenian sun cast speckled shadows through the leafy canopy as Jeremiah walked along the quiet garden pathway. The giant redwoods had been brought from Gaia Nova by the first settlers of Edenia II, almost eight generations ago. Legend held that their line was pure and unblemished by xenobiotic fusion, running straight back to Earth. In the lighter gravity of Edenia’s second world, they had grown to a towering height, almost brushing the top of the settlement’s dome. The trunks alone were as wide as pylons, and the cloven roots created dozens of dark, damp hiding places among the red-green ferns and wavy undergrowth.
Jeremiah closed his eyes and took in a deep breath of the thick, earthy air. The scent of mulch and humus filled his nose, while the warm moisture clung to his skin, refreshing his body with the purity of nature. It was a little piece of paradise—a seed of holy Earth, taking root among the stars.
At the sound of laughter, his eyes snapped open. A young blond girl smiled at him through the leafy ferns.
“Come and get me, Jeremy!”
With a grin, he spun around and gave chase. The girl squealed in delight and dashed through the undergrowth, running through the roots and around the massive trunks.
“You can’t run from me, Sarah—I’ll catch you!”
They ran to the edge of the dome, where the forest opened up to a grassy meadow before the giant glass wall. Beyond, the landscape turned to harsh, yellow wasteland. Dust and sand blew across the hazy yellow sky, while the craggy peaks at the rim of the crater stood like ancient sentinels. Jeremiah slowed, letting his sister escape while he stared at the timeless monoliths.
“Jeremy? What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” he said, looking out over the alien landscape. Strange, how so much barrenness surrounded even the tiniest sanctuary of life.
His sister slowed and walked over to him, peering out the glass to see what he saw. While she was distracted, he lunged and seized her by the waist. She shrieked and tried to get away, but he held on tight, laughing as they tumbled to the ground.
When they had finished playing, they lay on their backs to stare up at the Edenian sky. The orange sun dipped over the horizon, and the deep purple twilight faded until the stars came out in all their magnificent glory. Together, Jeremiah and his little sister picked out almost a dozen familiar constellations: Galileo, Armstrong, Sputnik, and Yuri, among others. High overhead, the New Pleiades shown brightly in the familiar sky, so close that he almost felt he could reach out and touch them.
“How much longer before you go out there?” she asked.
“I don’t know. A year, maybe two.”
“You shouldn’t go.”
He glaced over at her and frowned. “Sarah, you know I can’t—”
“I don’t care, Jeremy. I want you to stay.”
She sniffled to keep from crying, but her tears were irrepressible. They traced shimmering lines of moisture down her cheeks like fresh condensation on the inside of the dome.
“I don’t know,” he said, his body growing tense. “Dad is pretty set on me going. He wants me to take the Ariadne and—”
“Don’t go, Jeremy. Please don’t go.”
Her pleas cut deep into his heart. If he left Edenia to wander the stars, her chances of ever seeing him again were slim to none. Only deadbeats and failures returned to the stars of their birth; if he ever did come back, it would be a terrible admission of defeat. But to leave all of this behind—his family, his home, the beautiful, peaceful gardens of Edenia—he might as well cut out his heart and throw it into an incinerator, still beating.
At the same time, he couldn’t stay. Perhaps it was something in his blood, or some residual shred of the curiosity that had driven his ancestors from Gaia Nova, but deep down he knew that he would never be happy if he stayed. The stars were calling him, the same way they’d called the Patriarchs to leave the dying remains of Earth.
Did that make him unworthy, though? His mother had always taught him that the gardens were like a piece of heaven, an island of holiness in the void of outer darkness.
“The whole Earth was like this, once,” she had taught him as a little boy. “Green, pure, and full of life.”
“It was?” he had asked, eyes growing wide.
She nodded. “Yes. Earth was a holy place, but we defiled it, and so God cast us out.”
“Because we didn’t deserve it,” she had told him. “But even though He cast us out, He gave us a piece of it to take with us across the stars, so that when we found a place for that seed to take root and grow, we could build a New Earth like the one that we’d lost.”
A New Earth—and yet like a doomed star spiraling into a black hole, his heart still yearned for the lifeless void.
“Promise me you’ll stay, Jeremy,” begged his little sister. “Promise me you’ll never leave.”
“I don’t know, Sarah. Father—”
“Please, Jeremy? Ple-e-ease?”
“All right,” he whispered, knowing even as he said it that it was a lie.
With that, she scampered innocently off into the trees. A lump rose in Jeremiah’s throat, and guilt cut into him like a laser. One day, he would break his promise to her—and that would be the last day he’d ever see her.
And then he would truly be unworthy.
* * * * *
Jeremiah opened his groggy eyes to the hum of the cockpit instruments. He blinked and yawned, shuddering a little as he stretched his still-sore arms. Barely twenty four hours out, and the dreams had already begun. Usually, it took at least a week before they really began to set in. The loneliness came next, followed by the sheer terror from the realization that he was light-years away from the nearest human being.
Sometimes on the longer voyages, he wondered if he was the only human in all existence and all of his memories of other people were just inventions of his own imagination. The vastness of space could have that effect, especially on solitary starfarers such as himself. He’d once heard of a young man who’d decided to activate his distress beacon and wait for someone to come to his rescue. He’d been out so deep that it had taken almost two standard years before anyone had picked up his signal. When help had finally arrived, they’d found him a hopelessly undernourished wreck, curled up in the pilot’s chair and babbling incoherently. His ship still functioned perfectly, but his madness had progressed so far that he was no longer capable of piloting it. He’d spent the rest of his life in an Outworld asylum, a babbling wreck to the end of his days.
“That’s not going to be you,” Jeremiah said aloud, trying to reassure himself. “You can handle this—pull yourself together!” Of course, some would say that his habit of talking to himself was a sign that he was already starting to go. But if it kept him from falling into the abyss, so be it.
He rose to his feet and stretched, working out the kinks in his body from spending the night in the pilot’s chair. It wasn’t a very comfortable place for sleeping, but at least it was better than the hard metal floor. He groaned and yawned again, stepping into the cabin.
Noemi was still asleep on the cot. She slept on her back, with her hands curled up in cute little fists above her head. She’d wrapped the blanket around herself, but it had fallen halfway off during the sleep cycle.
Jeremiah tensed, and his cheeks burned as he remembered walking in on her just a few hours before. Moving carefully so as not to disturb her, he pulled up the blanket so that it covered her again. She moaned and turned her head a little, but soon fell back asleep.
I could have had sex with her, Jeremiah realized. I could go for it right now, and she’d probably let me. Chills shot down his spine, and his heart raced at the thought.
Some starfarers had girls waiting for them at every port, and spent their sleeping cycles doing anything but. In the past three years, however, Jeremiah had never worked up the nerve to take a girl. It wasn’t for lack of desire—God knew he dreamed of it in the long lonely shifts between stars—but he could never quite shake the feeling that he didn’t deserve it.
With a soft moan, Noemi began to stir. His blood turned to ice, but he stood rooted to the spot, unable to leave. She yawned and stretched a little, arcing her back. Then, she opened her eyes and saw him.
“Whoa,” he said, raising his palms as she started. For a moment, he expected her to cry out, but she recovered surprisingly fast. Holding the blanket to her chest with one hand, she pushed herself up with her other and slipped her legs over the edge of the cot. For a long, awkward moment they just stared at each other, both unsure what to do next.
“I should go wash up,” Jeremiah said aloud, mostly just to fill the silence. “Here, let me—”
Noemi reached out and took his hand, stopping him. She smiled, only a hint of apprehension left over from the previous day. As she pulled him gently towards her, his body stiffened and his heart hammered in his chest.
“No,” he said, pulling back. He thought back on the last time he’d held her hand, when her father had presumably married them. If he slept with her now, it would be the consummation of that marriage, at least in her eyes. She would think he was making a commitment to her, which would make it that much harder when he dropped her off at Alpha Oriana.
As he hesitated, Noemi’s smile slowly fell, and she gave him a look as if to ask why he was waiting. She tugged on his hand again, but Jeremiah freed himself and took a step back, cheeks burning.
“Look,” he said, “if we’re going to do this, you’ve to to understand that we aren’t married.” She looked puzzled, so he made the sign of the cross and clasped his hands together.
Her eyes lit up and she nodded vigorously, but Jeremiah shook his head and wagged his finger. “No,” he said, “not married. Understand?”
Noemi froze, and her smile quickly evaporated. She looked up at him with a deeply wounded expression on her face, as if he’d told her that her mother had just died.
“Look,” said Jeremiah, “if you want to have sex, that’s great, I’m all for it—just don’t get the wrong idea, okay? We’re not married—I never promised you anything. Not married. Understand?”
She stared blankly at him, holding the thin blanket to her chest while her bare legs dangled over the edge of the cot. He clenched his fists and groaned.
“Forget about it,” he said, cheeks burning as he hurried off to the bathroom. If she was going to take it as a sign of commitment, he wasn’t going to mislead her.
After all, even one lie was far too many.
* * * * *
After a long, cold shower, Jeremiah dressed and stepped back out into the cabin. To his relief, Noemi was fully clothed, wearing the gray utility jumpsuit he’d given her the day before. As the bathroom door hissed shut, she greeted him with a nervous smile.
“Morning,” he said. “Sleep well?” From the way her expression failed to change, it was clear that she didn’t understand him at all.
He turned to the food synthesizer and keyed it to make breakfast. Only then did he realize that she’d made the bed, with the sheets tucked and the blanket neatly folded. The wall hummed slightly, and he noticed that the universal washer was running, with her clothes from the day before inside.
“Smart girl,” he muttered.
They ate on the floor again, facing each other with their legs neatly crossed. Noemi was careful not to meet his gaze, but when he handed her a bowl of the colorless synthmeal, their hands touched for a moment and he realized she was watching him intently. He looked up at her, but she glanced quickly away. An awkward tension arose between them, so thick that he could almost taste it.
It’s about last night, he realized as she started to eat. She doesn’t know what to expect anymore, and she’s afraid that if I reject her, she’ll have nowhere to go.
“It’s okay,” he said aloud, even though he knew she wouldn’t understand him. “I’ll give you safe passage; it’s not like, uh …”
The way she stared at him, hanging onto his every word as if her very fate hung in the balance—why should so much depend on him? Dammit, he’d never asked for this!
“Look,” he said, “as far as I’m concerned, you’re just a passenger on my ship. I didn’t ask to marry you, and I certainly didn’t agree to it. I’ll take you as far as Alpha Oriana, but after that, you’re on your own.”
For several moments, she stared uncomprehending at him. The pitiable look on her face made him clench his fists; he stood up and walked into the cockpit just to get away from her.
A blinking red light on the main panel caught his eye. With a start, he remembered the jump drive; it had recharged in the night cycle, and was now fully primed with the target coordinates already set.
He took his seat and brought up the main display. A cursory check showed that everything was operating exactly as it should. Wasting no time, he brought up the target coordinates and warmed up the drive, flipping the switch the moment it was fully primed.
Only then did he remember it wasn’t a good idea to make a jump right after eating.
For himself, it wasn’t too bad. His stomach sank a little, giving him a brief moment of nausea, but it passed soon after returning to real-space.
Noemi, however, took it much harder. A loud thump made him glance over his shoulder; she’d collapsed on the floor, covering her mouth with her hands. Her skin was pale, and her stomach convulsed as if she were about to throw up.
“Whoa,” said Jeremiah, rising from the chair. “Are you—”
Without warning, she dashed over to the bathroom. It was probably just as well, because the door no sooner shut than the sound of coughing and retching met his ears.
“Sorry,” Jeremiah muttered, mentally kicking himself. He’d been out so long the jumps came as second nature, but she probably required some acclimation. Maybe they should cut down to shorter jumps, then. It would make the voyage a lot more tedious, but at least it would keep him busy.
“Are you okay?” he asked, leaning against the bathroom door. The sound of moaning met his ear, but it didn’t open, so he assumed she didn’t need his help. Besides, it was better to give her her privacy—God knew they didn’t have much to go around.
As he turned back to the cabin, his gaze fell on the dream monitor, dangling from its compartment in the ceiling. With Noemi busy and the jump out of the way, there wasn’t much else to do except plug into the virtual world for a few minutes. After all the stress of the past few hours, perhaps it would be good for him. Taking care not to upset the carefully made bed, he raised the upper half of the cot and lay back on it, pulling the dream monitor to his head. It took only a moment to fit the main pin into the neural socket at the base of his neck—
—and then he was on some sort of space station, walking along a wide, empty corridor.
He stopped and looked around. The clear glass ceiling revealed a black, starless sky, washed out by proximity to the system sun. The station circled around far above him, so that if he looked extra hard, he could see another corridor with skylights much the same, except upside down. The walls and ceiling were slightly off-white, yellowing with age, while grooves had been worn in the floor tiles from decades of foot traffic. The giant blue orb of Delta Oriana III, combined with the images on the door lintels and the faint smell of smoke, told him he was in a simulation of Megiddo Station.
He ran his hands along the aging wall tiles, admiring the level of detail in their grainy feel. Noemi must have put a lot of time and effort into crafting the dreamscape. He had never seen this part of the station before, yet it gave him a bittersweet longing much like homesickness. No doubt that was a residue of Noemi’s own emotional projections.
When creating a new simulation, the dream monitor stimulated the cortex to elicit feelings and impressions from deep within the subconscious. Most of the time, it was faster simply to let the monitor do the work, projecting the subconscious mind onto the artificial world. As a result, the simulations were full of subjective, emotional elements. That was why the station felt so familiar, even though he had only been there once before.
But Jeremiah didn’t want to explore Noemi’s world; he wanted to return to his own. He touched his thumb and middle finger twice in rapid succession to bring up the option screen, then swept his hand across his vision to wipe out the simulation and store it for her later use.
Using his other hand to scroll down a light blue menu, he carefully considered his options. Should he return to one of the methane ocean worlds he’d encountered on the other side of the Edenian dust lane? Or perhaps the casinos and resorts of Beta Oriana’s main planet?
As he skimmed the list, the last option on the menu stood out to him. It was a simulation of his own creation: the botanical gardens at Edenia II. He knew it was a bad idea—it was only the second day of the voyage, after all, with nearly three more months to go—but now that the dreams had begun, he couldn’t resist.
He took a deep breath and selected the last option. Moments later, he walked barefoot over the mulchy ground, running his fingers across the deep furrows in the mossy bark. The giant redwood trunks loomed around him like a wall of familiarity shielding him from the lonely void. As he took a deep breath of the warm, moist air, he imagined he could hear his sister’s laughter through the trees.
Jeremiah yawned and stretched before pulling himself wearily out of the pilot’s chair. Blotchy red marks had formed on his skin where the leather had pressed against his arms and cheek, and his muscles felt sore and cramped. He groaned and did his best to work out the kinks; barely a week had gone by since they’d left Megiddo Station, so it was only going to get worse. Better get used to it.
He peered around the edge of the doorway before stepping into the cabin, wary of invading Noemi’s privacy. To his surprise, he found her kneeling at her bedside, already dressed in his jumpsuit. A small jeweled cross glittered against the wall in front of her, dangling from a silver chain.
So she’s religious, he thought to himself, stepping into the cabin.
The moment his foot struck the floor, her eyes flashed open and she leaped to her feet, snatching the cross from the wall. “Whoa,” said Jeremiah, but she’d already hidden it behind her back.
“You don’t have to worry,” he said. “I was just curious.”
She bit her lip and stared at him with wide, frightened eyes.
“Look,” said Jeremiah, “you don’t have to be afraid; it’s not like I’m a militant humanist. What is that you were just praying to? Is it a cross?”
Noemi said nothing. He sighed, realizing it was all but futile to try to explain himself, but went on anyway.
“I’m just curious, that’s all. Understand? Curious. Most people in the Outworlds are pagans—oh hell, you probably think I’m pagan too. I’m actually a New Earther from Edenia—here.”
He walked past her to the wall compartments on the other side of the cabin, opening the highest one. His parents had given him something like that cross before he’d left: a pendant with a green leaf and a rocketship, the emblem of the New Earth movement. He’d stuffed it away and almost forgotten about it, but if it helped Noemi to see that he was religious too, then maybe it was worth pulling out.
“Here we go,” he said, pulling it out to show her. “See? This is to me what your cross is to you.”
She took the pendant gingerly from him, frowning as she examined it. He made the sign of the cross on his chest and pointed to it, to tell her what it was for. She looked from him to the pendant, then shook her head and handed it back to him.
“Huh? What’s the matter?”
She moved to the cot, as if to use the dream monitor. In the cramped space of the cabin, that was the only way to leave and be alone.
“No—wait,” said Jeremiah. He reached out and took her by the arm, stopping her. She gave him a look as if to say ‘let me go,’ but he held out his hand and gestured with his eyes at the cross that she held behind her back.
“Come on—let me see it. Don’t be shy.”
Her face paled a little, and she bit her lip, but when she saw that he wouldn’t relent, she reached out and tentatively placed the cross in his hand.
He held it up to examine it for a second. It was small, barely larger than his thumb, but the workmanship was quite exquisite. A bright blue jewel the color of Delta Oriana III lay in the center, with an ornate inscription circling it. The beams of the cross were made of titanium, inlaid with platinum. The silver chain was as thin as thread and smooth as silk, as finely made as the rest of the piece.
Noemi wrung her hands and shifted nervously on her feet. It was evident that the cross was her most prized possession, and not just because of the precious metals.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I’m not going to confiscate it.” He looked around for a suitable place on the wall to hang it and settled on the release handle for the cot, where Noemi had placed it before. When she saw that he wasn’t upset, she let out a long breath, and her body visibly relaxed.
Smiling to himself, he stepped over to return the New-Earther pendant to its compartment. Before he could, however, Noemi put a hand on his shoulder and stopped him. He turned around just as she held out her hand.
“Uh—” he started to protest, but she silenced him with a sharp glance and a firm command in her native language. Though the words were unintelligible, the meaning was clear.
Jeremiah drew in a deep breath and scratched the back of his head. He looked at the pendant in his hand for a moment, then gave it to her. As he expected, she hung it from the same handle as her own pendant, letting it dangle beside the cross.
Noemi turned and looked up at him as if to ask what he thought of it. He tried to return her smile, but it felt too forced; there were reasons, after all, why he’d kept his mother’s pendant out of sight. He glanced away quickly to avoid letting it show. When he tried to leave, however, she took his hand and gently pulled him over. Kneeling down in front of the religious emblems, she motioned for him to do the same.
“What is it this time?” he muttered under his breath.
Next to him, Noemi clasped her hands and bowed her head, concentrating on her unspoken prayer. Not wanting to seem out of place, Jeremiah did the same, trying in vain to think of something to pray for.
“God cast us out of paradise,” his mother had taught him. “We made ourselves unworthy by defiling our home, and so He sent us out to wander the cold, unforgiving universe.”
To wander the stars, he thought to himself, taking a sharp breath. I wasn’t worthy of paradise.
He stole a glance at Noemi and wondered what she was praying for. She looked so serene, with her head bowed and her hands curled up against her forehead. Was that how she managed each day without suffering a mental breakdown? It wasn’t like she had anything else left, after all—except perhaps him.
He turned back to the pendants dangling on the wall and closed his eyes. Please, God, he prayed, if you’re out there and you’re listening to me, please help me to take good care of this girl until she can find her way.
* * * * *
Sweat ran down Jeremiah’s face as he pulled the elastic exercise bands from the ceiling down to his waist. His muscles strained with exertion, already soft from the low artificial gravity on the Ariadne, but the workout had a calming effect on him, clearing his mind even more than the dream monitor. That was good, because the urge to revisit the simulation of his birth world haunted him like the itch of an unhealed scab.
Noemi sat on the cot just a hand’s breadth in front of him, her body limp and unconscious with the dream monitor covering her face. She seemed to spend most of her time in there, which was to be expected. That was what it was for, after all: an escape from the cramped narrow space of the cabin and the frightening depth of the starry void. Even if Jeremiah’s own thoughts were tortured, it gratified him to know that she, at least, was finding some comfort.
With a final grunt, he finished his reps and retracted the bands into their compartment in the ceiling. As he picked up a change of clothes for his shower, a soft whine caught his ear. He turned and frowned, listening intently. With how far they were out into deep space, things could go bad very quickly if anything started to break down.
The whining came again, followed by a whimper. He realized with a start that it wasn’t coming from the ship, but from Noemi.
He set down his clothes and crouched in front of her. She wore the same yellow chemise that she had on the first day, the blanket around her legs to keep them warm. Though she was still unconscious, her arms twitched and her bare shoulders trembled ever so slightly, the way they do when someone is having a bad dream. He hesitated for a moment, unsure what to do.
With both hands, Jeremiah carefully lifted the visor of the dream monitor to reveal her face. Tears dribbled down her smooth, pale cheeks, while the edges of her mouth were turned down, lips slightly parted. She looked so frail and vulnerable, he felt a sudden and surprising urge to go into the simulation and save her from whatever was causing her pain. Of course, that was impossible, but looking at her, he couldn’t help but feel that way.
He lifted a finger and gently wiped away her tears. Her cheeks were soft and smooth, and he lingered for a moment before pulling his hand away. A deep yearning stirred within him—a yearning he’d felt all too often in the long, lonely voyages where the stars gave cold comfort.
He wondered whether the voyage was starting to get to her too. Did she ever stare into the depths of space the way he did? Had she ever been consumed with terror at her own smallness in the face of the black, starry void? Or was the pain due to something else entirely?
Probably the latter. Driven out of her home without any money or possessions, left to the mercy of a stranger whose language she couldn’t speak—it was a wonder she hadn’t cracked already. Perhaps that was why she’d seemed so distraught when he had refused her that first night: her failure to satisfy a deep-seated yearning to know that she wasn’t alone. In that, perhaps they weren’t so different after all.
Back home, he used to spend a lot of time wondering about the girl he’d settle down with someday. All of the ones at the settlement had been related to him somehow, but every now and again he went with his father to the orbital stations to do business with the haulers and merchanters. From those excursions, he’d developed a few small crushes, one of them with a cute girl whose family ran the station. Compared with the other women in his life, she was positively exotic: long black hair, dark olive skin, a bluntly honest attitude that some men found off-putting, others intimidating. Perhaps if he’d rejected the traditions and chosen to stay in the Edenia system, they would have married and raised a family. But the call of the stars had proven too strong, and now he wandered the void alone.
He stroked Noemi’s cheek again. She drew in a sharp breath, lips parting ever so slightly as her muscles relaxed. The dream monitor beeped twice, and her eyes slowly opened, meeting his own.
“Uh, sorry,” he said, suddenly feeling quite foolish. He withdrew his hand and stood up, hesitating for a moment before heading for the cockpit.
He stopped in the doorway and turned slowly around. Noemi slipped the dream monitor off and bounded after him, her bare feet pattering on the metal floor. In two steps, she stood in front of him, arms by her side with fingers outstretched. She stared at him awkwardly for a moment, then reached up with one hand and gently stroked his cheek, the same way he had stroked hers only a moment before. He flinched a little at the touch, frowning at the look of pity on her face.
What’s going on here? he wondered. He was about to push her away, but before he could, she leaned in and gave him a hug.
The gesture caught him completely off guard. For several moments, all he could do was stand there. Something about her touch was reassuring, however—something that made his legs melt. He returned her embrace, and as he did so the room seemed a little brighter, the air a little fresher, the all too familiar cabin of the Ariadne like someplace new.
“Thanks,” he whispered. For several breathless moments, they held each other in silence.
As she let him go, her fingers traced their way down his arms until she was holding his hands. Eyes never leaving his, she stepped back and gently tugged at him, pulling him toward the bed. The expression on her face was one of nervous anticipation much like the first night, and yet there was also a degree of trust that hadn’t been there before.
Jeremiah knew what she wanted, but he held back, fighting the urge to follow her into the cabin. Her expression fell, and she looked vulnerable again—even more vulnerable than when she had been plugged into the dream monitor.
“I can’t,” he whispered. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
She tugged at him again, then bit her lip and let go, arms falling by her side. The way the chemise left her shoulders bare, she looked as if she were willing to give her soul to him, and die if he didn’t take it.
Do you have to refuse her? he couldn’t help but wonder. So what if it means making a commitment? It could still work out, you know.
He shook his head and put the idea out of his mind. It was a ludicrous thought—they didn’t even speak the same language, much less know anything about each other. And even if they did make it work, where would they go? Most Outworld settlements didn’t take kindly to strangers who didn’t have at least some stake in the society. They would accept starfaring young men who married into the community, but an already married couple would be shunned like outsiders. Since she couldn’t return to Megiddo Station, Noemi was all but an outcast—and he would be too, if he joined her.
But wasn’t he an outcast already?
“Snap out of it,” he told himself. Noemi gave him one last desperate look, but he turned away from her and stepped into the cockpit, leaving her alone.
* * * * *
Triangulation was the most important part of interstellar travel. The slightest miscalculation could put their next jump off course by as much as half a light-year, sending them into a nebula or a molecular cloud. Jumping into those regions was dangerous because the interstellar matter compromised structural integrity as the ship entered real-space. Jeremiah had heard tales of unfortunate starfarers whose ships had broken down in the high-density regions. Some of their distress beacons still broadcast faint signals, marking the derelict coffins of all those poor souls who had ventured too far past the rifts to be saved.
To triangulate his position, all a pilot had to do was pick three known stars and measure their angles in relation to one another. The Gaian Imperial catalog was rich with astronomical data, not only for the Coreward Stars but much of the Outworlds as well. So long as the jumps were short enough to ensure a high level of accuracy, it was almost impossible to get lost.
Which three stars to choose, however—that was the question. The standard convention was to choose the destination star first, but the other two points were completely up to the pilot.
Jeremiah’s father had taught him to always use the departure star, since it was closer than any of the others. For the final point, he usually chose Gaia Nova, mostly because it lay in a well-charted region of space and was easier to find, but also because it represented the spiritual and cultural center of all humanity. Jeremiah had never been there, but he’d heard stories from returning pilgrims of the Temple of a Thousand Suns, the holy shrine dedicated to the memory of Earth and the hope for humanity’s future. One day, he would probably make the pilgrimage himself, but for now it was just a point on a starmap, a faint yellow star drifting in the blackness of space.
For the Ariadne’s next jump, he selected Delta Oriana and Alpha Oriana as before, but he hesitated before choosing the third point. Perhaps it was because it was just too tedious to triangulate by Gaia Nova every time, calculating angles that changed by only a fraction of a degree with each consecutive jump. Or maybe it was because it didn’t feel satisfying on some other level. After all, many of the outworlders believed that the stars and planets were the dwelling places of mythical gods, who granted special blessings on the starfarers who triangulated by them. Jeremiah didn’t believe in such superstitions, but when he was out in the void with only the cold light of the stars for company, it was hard not to wonder if there wasn’t any truth to those old pagan beliefs.
Inevitably, he settled on Edenia as the third point. There was only a few degrees difference between it and Alpha Oriana, but it would do. As he stared at the orange-yellow point of light in the telescope, he wondered what Sarah was doing now—and whether she still missed him.
He was so absorbed in his own melancholy thoughts that he didn’t hear Noemi enter the cockpit. She tapped him on the shoulder, startling him. In her hands, she carried two bowls of synthmeal, dried fruit and flavoring already mixed in.
“Huh? Oh, thanks,” he said, taking the bowl she offered. It was warm, with a strange blend of spices that gave it a distinctly foreign aroma. How she’d figured out how to make it, he didn’t know; she must have taught herself, because this was the first time she’d made any food.
She knelt by the side of his chair and watched intently as he stirred his food. He glanced down at her for a moment, then lifted up a spoonful and tried it. It tasted delicious—not at all like the bland stuff he usually ate.
“Wow,” he said, nodding in approval. “That was … really good.”
She smiled and said something under her breath—probably like ‘yes!’ or ‘excellent!’ Funny how even though they couldn’t understand each other in some ways, in others they understood each other all too well. The thought made him laugh, probably because there was no one else to hear him except her.
“You sure are better company than the stars,” he said, eating another spoonful. She cocked her head inquisitively at him, and he pointed out the forward window.
“Stars,” she repeated.
“Yes, stars! Very good.”
“Very good,” she repeated. Her gaze wandered to the display screens, eyes lighting up as they fell on Delta Oriana. She pointed at it and uttered something in a questioning tone.
“That’s right,” said Jeremiah, surprised that she recognized it so quickly. “Delta Oriana, your home. Noemi’s home.”
She pointed to the screen showing Edenia and looked at him, asking the question with her eyes.
“That’s Edenia,” said Jeremiah. “My home.”
He nodded. “That’s right.”
She leaned forward and stared at the screen, as if to get a better look. He shifted uncomfortably, unsure what to do.
“Home,” she said, reaching up with her finger to gently touch the screen.
“Here,” said Jeremiah, toggling the main display to show a computer generated model of Delta Oriana. “Recognize this?” He zoomed onto the third planet, circling around it a few times before bringing the camera viewpoint into line with Megiddo Station.
Noemi gasped and squealed with delight. “Home!” she said. He smiled and zoomed in a little closer, revealing exterior details of the station’s gray hull.
Her face fell a little. “Not home,” she said, pointing to the hub. Jeremiah looked at it and realized that the model was missing a number of additions that had been added since the last time the database had been updated.
“No, it’s the same,” he reassured her. “The database is just a little old, that’s all.”
“Yes,” said Jeremiah. “Old.” She seemed to be picking up his language pretty well. Perhaps, given enough time, they could eventually learn to communicate.
“Jerem-ahra home,” said Noemi, leaning back and pointing at the holoscreen.
“No,” he said. “That’s your home. Noemi home.”
Noemi shook her head, then pointed from the screen to him and back again. “Jerem-ahra home.”
She wants me to show her my birth world, Jeremiah realized. He took in a deep breath, hesitating for a moment. It didn’t make sense to say no, but he felt almost as if she were asking him to open his journal and divulge something deeply private.
“Oh, all right,” he muttered, toggling the display. The planet and station disappeared, replaced by the orange sun of Edenia. Four concentric circles represented the orbits of the system’s planets. He zoomed into the second circle, arriving at a brownish-yellow world covered in a thick, yellow haze. Swallowing a little, he took the camera viewpoint down through the cloud cover, into the all too familiar crater. Next to him, Noemi oohed in wonder at the scene. He brought the camera just a few dozen meters above the multi-domed complex, giving a clear view of the botanical gardens down below.
Strangely, Noemi didn’t seem particularly surprised or excited by the gardens—or anything else under the domes, for that matter.
“Earth?” she asked, pointing to the gardens on the display screen as she turned and looked at him. He nodded.
“Yeah, those are from Earth,” said Jeremiah. “Some of them, at least. Want a closer look?”
She stared at him until he brought the camera down, through the glass ceiling and foliage below down to the footpath on the surface. The details were surprisingly good; the computer must have updated them from the dream monitor over the last couple of years. In fact, it was almost as if he were looking into the simulation through the window of the display screen.
Noemi pointed, and he wordlessly moved the camera down to follow the footpath. They passed through the giant redwood trunks until they arrived at the meadow.
Jeremiah stopped. He bit his lip and lifted his fingers from the keyboard, clenching his fists in indecision. Noemi sensed that something was wrong and glanced over at him.
“That’s my home,” he whispered. Looking at the main display screen, he could almost hear his sister calling from behind the trunks—
Abruptly, he shut down the program. The screen went black, replaced by the soft glow of the starfield outside. Noemi reached out to touch his arm, but he shrugged her off and rose to his feet, storming off to the bathroom for a moment of privacy. Strange, how after all these years of wandering alone, he didn’t know whether to shut her out or to let her in.
“Don’t go, Jeremy. Please don’t go.”
The deep, earthy scent of the forest seeped into Jeremiah’s bones as his sister’s face turned down in a picture of longing.
“I’m sorry,” he told her, his hands shaking. “I have to go.”
“But why? Why do you have to leave?”
“No!” she yelled, eyes red as tears streamed down her cheeks. “You promised me you’d stay! You promised!”
The desperation in his voice cut him to the core, making his heart leap into his mouth. He opened his arms to hug her, but she turned and fled from him, running blindly through the ancient, monolithic trunks.
“Sarah—wait! Come back!”
He tried to run after her, but his legs barely moved, as if they were caught in thick mud and the gravity had suddenly jumped to twice its normal level. He strained as hard as he could to move, but to no avail.
“Sarah! Come back!”
He was trapped now, caught in the darkening shadows of the unmoving trees. Beyond the dome, the purple haze of twilight faded into blackness, as if the Edenian sun was falling out of existence. The air became cold and clammy, and the rich scent of mulch and humus turned to mold and recycled air. His vision swirled, and he felt suddenly claustrophobic, as if the trees were caving in on him, leaving him nowhere to run.
He screamed a primal scream of terror, and the trees gave way to the infinite, unblinking void of space. The stars shone cold and distant all around him, offering no warmth. Here in the endless void between worlds, he could run all his life and still never escape.
Unworthy, a voice in his head told him. Cast out of paradise, doomed to wander—
“Sarah!” he screamed.
The stars were fading now, leaving him trapped in a universe of darkness. He tried to move his arms and legs, but they were utterly unresponsive.
* * * * *
Jeremiah woke in a cold sweat, his body stiff and sore from sleeping in the cockpit seat. As he moaned a little, he felt a hand on his shoulder—Noemi. He glanced up and saw her standing above him, wearing her loose yellow chemise. She looked down at him with her soft green eyes.
“Get back,” he said, pushing her away. To his surprise, she almost fell to the floor. He hadn’t intended to be so violent, but the way the room spun around him, it was as if he was fast losing his grip on reality.
The nightmares had never been this bad before. They’d come close a few months ago, but never to the point where he felt trapped in utter darkness. Even thinking about it gave him shivers—not two standard weeks into the voyage, and already he was breaking down. This was bad—very bad.
The cold sweat on his chest and forehead made his jumpsuit cling uncomfortably to his skin. He considered getting up to splash his face—maybe when Noemi was down again. After all, he didn’t want to—
He felt a sharp tug on his sleeve. Noemi said something in a chiding tone, making him glance up at her.
“What is it?” he barked.
Noemi fidgeted as if unsure of herself, then tugged at his shoulder again, harder this time.
“What?” Jeremiah said, sitting up.
Noemi was pointing through the doorway to the cabin. From the tone of her chattering and the energetic way in which she motioned for him to follow her, Jeremiah realized that she had something serious to show him.
“All right, all right,” he said, knowing full well she couldn’t understand him. “What’s going on?”
She took his sleeve again and tugged him some more, until he rose to his feet and followed her into the cabin.
“What is it?” he asked again. “There’s nothing in here. What do you want to show me?”
She brought him over to the cot and sat him down. Unable to stay in one place, he made as if to stand up, but a stern glance and a hand against his chest kept him down. With her free hand, she reached up and pulled down the dream monitor from its compartment.
“Yes, that’s the dream monitor,” he said. “It plugs you into a simulation so you don’t have to deal with this crapsack reality. Good job.”
Noemi gave him another look and shot back with a comment that could only mean ‘shut up and plug in.’
With a heavy sigh, Jeremiah fitted the monitor over his head and plugged the jacks into the socket at the back of his neck. Noemi spent a few moments configuring the simulation via the external datapad on the helmet’s side, leaning in so that her face was inches from his own. He glanced at her out of the corner of his eyes—
—and found himself standing among the towering redwoods of the Edenian gardens.
He walked barefoot across the mulchy earth, breathing the clean, fresh air. How did she get into this simulation? He must have left it on after he’d used it the first day. Everything, from the scent of the forest to the texture of the deeply furrowed bark was exactly as he remembered—and yet, he couldn’t help but notice a number of subtle differences. The sun, for example, was a little brighter—no, fuller, more yellow. The branches overhead rustled a little, and a cool breeze caressed his cheek. That was odd—he didn’t ever remember feeling much of a breeze in the enclosed space of the gardens.
And that was another thing: far from driving him to madness, this place was practically soothing. He took a deep breath of the pure, clean air and felt the tension melt right out of him. Had she programmed it to do that? Was that what she wanted him to see? Even if it was unintentional, he had to admit it was profoundly calming.
Off in the distance, he heard the familiar laughter of a small girl. His muscles tensed; it was his little sister. Had Noemi uncovered even that secret part of him? Probably—but his subconscious was projecting onto the simulation as well. She would have seen only the shadow of a ghost, a trace of the memories that haunted him.
He followed the sound of the laughter, legs slowly breaking into a run. Up ahead, his sister darted out from behind a giant gnarled root, shrieking in delight as she saw him give chase. Something was different, though: she had a garland of pure white flowers in her hair, and wore a bright yellow dress that he couldn’t remember seeing before. Had Noemi tampered with this part of the simulation, too? If she had, she must have gone especially deep.
It’s some kind of message, he realized, feeling intuitively that it was true. A powerful urge to catch up to his sister overtook him, and he ran faster, his chest heaving as the sweet, clean air filled his lungs.
Sarah turned abruptly and dashed out into the open meadow by the edge of the glass. He followed her, and realized that the dome was gone. A small stone fence traced a path where it used to be, but beyond it the meadow extended all the way to the edge of the crater. On the rim high above, the craggy rocks jutted out from the undergrowth, covered in moss and lichen.
Jeremiah slowed to a walk and marveled at the sight. It was so beautiful—so full of life. White puffy clouds drifted across the pure blue sky, while birds chirped in the distance. A gust sent shimmering waves running across the verdant grass, while clumps of little blue and purple flowers danced in the gentle breeze. It was beautiful—more beautiful than anything he’d ever seen.
His sister stopped and turned to face him. Her eyes shone bright and innocent, but the expression on her face wasn’t one of pleading or desperation. Instead, she seemed much more serene, like a goddess—ten years old and yet a thousand at the same time.
“Sarah,” he said, running breathlessly up to her. “You’re—you’re here.”
“I’m sorry,” he stammered, a lump rising in his throat. “I didn’t mean to leave you—not like that. I should have—”
“No,” she said softly, reaching up to touch his arm. “I’m sorry for not letting you go. We all have to say goodbye sometime.”
Jeremiah’s lip began to quiver, and he drew in a shaky breath as tears burned in his eyes. The simulation felt so real, it couldn’t be just a message; it was something much greater, something he barely understood.
“Do you forgive me?” he whispered.
Sarah smiled. “Of course.”
They embraced. As he held his sister close, Jeremiah felt a new warmth spread through him; one of sadness bittersweet, but also of hope and joy.
“You know she needs you,” Sarah said.
She stepped back and pointed off to the right. He turned and saw Noemi in a pure white dress, standing in a patch of light blue flowers. Her light brown hair danced in the breeze, and as her deep green eyes met his own, his heart skipped a beat.
How did she get in here? he wondered—then, remembering that that was impossible, how did she program herself into the simulation? Even a simple image of a familiar face would have been almost impossible to construct so realistically—yet here in the dream world, she seemed as real to him as she ever had.
It’s because my subconscious is projecting her, he realized with a start. She’s here because my dream would be incomplete without her.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Sarah asked, the familiar laughter rising in her voice.
Jeremiah took a hesitant step forward, wondering what he should say. Noemi gave him a coy smile, and his cheeks burned with shyness. He felt as if he were fourteen again, new to the feelings and desires that had started to consume him. This is ridiculous, he thought to himself. She isn’t even real.
But he knew where to find her.
He turned to face his sister. Their eyes met, and the still-fresh emotions rose once again in his heart.
“Goodbye,” he said.
She smiled a kind, forgiving smile. “Goodbye.”
He lingered only a moment before jacking out.
* * * * *
Noemi—the real Noemi—watched intently as Jeremiah lifted the dream monitor from his head and slipped it into the compartment in the ceiling. She sat cross legged at the end of the cot, facing him with an anxious expression on her face. He smiled to set her at ease.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
She looked at him expectantly, her whole body tense with anticipation. He felt a sudden urge to hold her, to feel her lips against his and know that he wasn’t alone.
Slowly, tentatively, he reached up with his hand and began to stroke her cheek. She smiled and leaned in, as if to encourage him. “Noemi,” he said softly—and then, remembering that she couldn’t understand his language, gently pulled her towards him. For a moment, their hearts stopped, the tension between them almost electric—and then they were in each others arms, lips pressed together, their pent-up feelings released in a sudden flood of passion.
As his hands gravitated to her waist, she pulled down the zipper of his jumpsuit and slowly unclasped the belt around his waist. Though his heart pounded in his chest, he made no move to resist her.
You can’t follow through without making a commitment, he realized with some trepidation. She’ll be yours—your responsibility, your burden.
She pulled his jumpsuit down off of his bare shoulders, then reached down and pulled her chemise over her head, letting it fall to the floor. In her eyes, he saw a trace of the nervous anxiety that had possessed her the first night, but there was also the same trust as before—as well as a hunger that reflected his own.
Will this work? You don’t even speak the same language!
No, he told himself, but we can learn. We’ll make it work.
The feel of her body against his filled him with a warm vitality, gradually dispelling the long years of loneliness. His chest rose with hers, and her breath fell into sync with his own, giving him a sense of oneness with her. She gazed down at him and smiled, and he knew she felt the same way. They kissed again, tenderly this time, and he knew that he would no longer wander the stars alone.
Part II: Fidelity
The stars shone noticeably dimmer as Jeremiah negotiated the final approach to Oriana Station. Outside the cockpit window, the gas giant Madrigalna loomed large in the sky, its wide bands of white and yellow clouds churning with blood-red storms. Next to the enormous planet, the twin wheels of Oriana Station seemed pitifully small, even this far up the gravity well. After a three month voyage, though, any sign of human habitation stood out like a beacon in the starry deep.
“Ariadne, this is station control,” came the voice of the docking operator over the radio. “We are having difficulty finding a docking vector for your ship. Please maintain your current orbit and await further directions.”
“I copy,” said Jeremiah, adjusting his course. “Lots of traffic today, eh?”
The operator didn’t answer. That was the thing about the larger settlements—they lacked the personal touch that gave the more distant outposts character. Still, there were benefits to visiting such a large and well-developed station: prices tended to fluctuate less, and suppliers tended to be more diverse, especially for the manufactured goods that were in such high demand throughout the Outworlds. For a station as large as this one, though, it was unusual for them not to have room for a one-man freighter as small as the Ariadne.
Jeremiah skimmed over a handful of news forums on the local planetnet to see what was going on. The most prominent threads had to do with a major labor union deal; good for business, certainly, but it had little bearing on system traffic. Mirzana, the innermost planet, was experiencing a seasonal migration as its orbit grazed the sun. But Oriana Station was more of a way-point for starfarers than a major in-system hub. There had to be another reason for the delay.
The sound of soft footsteps made him turn and glance over his shoulder. Noemi stood in the cockpit doorway, slipping her arm through the sleeve of one of his jumpsuits. She pulled it over her bare shoulders and zipped it only halfway up, as if the clothing was little more than an afterthought. The gesture reminded him of the intimacy they’d shared over the past three months in deep space. Her tousled brown hair had grown a couple inches and now covered her slender shoulders, curling up a little at the ends.
As Jeremiah smiled back at her, she frowned and pointed out the forward window. He turned and caught his breath as an enormous starship passed between them and the station. It was flat and roughly diamond shaped, with a massive spherical protrusion in the back near its engines. Judging from the scanners, it must have been at least two kilometers long.
Only Gaian Imperial battleships were so large.
“Attention Ariadne,” cackled the operator’s voice. “You are cleared to dock at bay 27A. Please proceed.”
I guess that was the hold up, Jeremiah thought to himself as he eased forward on the controls. The battleship must have just undocked from the station’s central hub—not an easy feat for a ship that size.
But what were the Imperials doing this far out from the Coreward Stars? Had there been some kind of an invasion? Alpha Oriana was technically independent, but that didn’t mean it was strong enough to stand up to Imperial aggression. The lack of any real discussion on the news forums either meant that it wasn’t an issue, or that the authorities had silenced any public discussion.
Not that it made much of a difference. After refitting the Ariadne and making their trades, they’d soon be off to the next system.
“Jerem-ahra Noemi home?” Noemi asked, pointing to the massive twin wheels of Oriana Station as it grew steadily nearer. Her question puzzled him at first, until he realized she was asking if they were going to settle there.
“No, Noemi,” he said. “This isn’t our home.”
She frowned and pointed again. “No home?”
“No,” he said, pointing back through the doorway to the cabin. “The Ariadne is our home.”
From the way she scrunched her face, it was clear she did not approve.
“Don’t worry—I need some time to refit the drive systems and fix a few aging parts. We’ll stay here for at least a couple of weeks, perhaps longer.”
Noemi offered no sign that she’d understood him. He turned back to the controls, carefully negotiating the approach to the docking nodes along the outside rim of the station. Whatever she thought of the starfaring lifestyle, he’d have to deal with it later.
Something told him he didn’t have much time.
* * * * *
At the mention of his name, Jeremiah stopped and spun around to see who had called him. The station’s bustling business district teemed with people, nearly overwhelming him, but amid the flood of strangers he soon picked out a familiar face.
“Samson!” he shouted, running up to meet his old friend. Noemi followed close behind, holding tightly to his hand so as not to be swept away by the crowd.
Samson laughed heartily and gave him a friendly embrace. “Ah, Jeremiah, fancy meeting you here. I just sold a shipment of lumber for a tidy profit, and it made me think of those stories you used to tell me of your birth world. How goes the trading?”
At almost six and a half feet, with broad shoulders and a bright red beard, Samson easily stood out among the smaller dark-haired locals. But even if that weren’t the case, his loud voice and jovial demeanor were enough to set him apart almost anywhere.
“Well enough, I suppose,” said Jeremiah. “I’ve got no complaints.”
“I see. And who’s the girl?”
Samson gave Noemi a smile, but she shrank and took Jeremiah’s arm without saying a word.
“This is Noemi, my, ah—my girl. We got together only a short while ago.”
“Very nice, very nice. Care for a bite?”
He led them to a café just outside the district’s main square, where the overhead skylights gave them a magnificent view of space. After spending so much time in the narrow cabin of the Ariadne, it was a shock to be surrounded by so much wide, open space—not to mention all the people. The café was almost as busy as the square, but they managed to find a table in the back that was fairly secluded. Jeremiah let Noemi into the booth first, while Samson took the seat opposite from them.
“This place is pretty good,” said Samson, leaning heavily on the polished basalt tabletop. “I’ve closed a lot of deals here, and picked up a few passengers as well.”
“Interesting. I didn’t know the Starflight had that much room.”
“It didn’t. I sold her and bought an upgrade.”
Jeremaih blinked and did a double-take. “You did?”
“But—but wasn’t that your father’s ship?”
“Of course,” said Samson, “but can you blame me for wanting a new one? Not that the Starflight II is a luxury liner. Barely carries the same cargo load, with enough extra room for only a girl or two—but that’s room enough, right?”
He winked knowingly, making Jeremiah blush. From the earliest days they’d known each other, Samson had always had a way of saying things that made him feel slightly inadequate. His friend had originally been something of a peer mentor, back when he was just started out and didn’t know the first thing about making trades. That was all different now, of course, but there was still that tension—that sense that he didn’t have nearly as much knowledge or experience as his friend.
Fortunately, the waitress chose that moment to walk up to them, saving him from having to come up with a response.
“What’ll it be?” she asked in heavily accented Gaian.
“One coffee, extra black,” said Samson, “with a shot of Orianan vodka on the side.”
“An’ you?” she asked, turning to Jeremiah.
“Two fruit cocktails, virgin please.”
She nodded and walked off. Noemi watched her go, biting her lip as if unsure of this place. Under the table, Jeremiah put a hand on her knee to reassure her.
“You’re sure that’s what she wants?” Samson asked.
“I think so, yeah.”
“Not even going to ask?”
Jeremiah swallowed. “I, ah, can’t.”
“I don’t speak her language.”
Samson stared at him for a moment, a wide grin slowly spreading across his face.
“You finally got a girl, and you don’t even speak the same language? Oh, this is rich. Where did you pick her up?”
“Delta Oriana,” said Jeremiah. “There was a famine on Megiddo Station, and I, ah, rescued her from it.”
“Well that makes you a proper hero now, doesn’t it?”
The waitress came back with their drinks. Without a word, she set them down on the table and took off to help another customer. Samson took his vodka and poured it into the steaming hot coffee, stirring it in with his straw.
“So are you going to leave her here?”
“Leave her?” said Jeremiah, passing Noemi her fruit cocktail. She took it eagerly and began to eat it with her spoon.
“You heard me. Or do you plan on settling down?”
“Er, no,” said Jeremiah. “We’re not ready to settle down just yet.” He glanced at his cocktail. Chunks of pineapple, strawberry, mango, and some sort of white fruit indigenous to the Oriana cluster floated about in a thick yellow mix of icy juice. He lifted it to his lips and took a drink. Next to him, Noemi got a sheepish look on her face and set down her spoon to do the same.
“Exactly. So if you aren’t settling down, I imagine you’re planning to leave her here at Oriana Station while you make your next trade run.”
“Well—actually, I thought it might be better to take her with me.”
Samson raised an eyebrow. “On the Ariadne?”
“Are you serious? That starship isn’t big enough for a rat to stow away on, much less a girl.”
Jeremiah shifted nervously, unsure what to say. He wanted to object, but Samson seemed absolutely certain that it was a bad idea. And honestly, now that he and Noemi were in port for the first time since leaving Megiddo Station, he had no idea what he was supposed to do.
Samson set down his coffee and looked him in the eye. “Here’s what I think you should do: sell your cargo, then use the profits to buy your girl a nice apartment. It doesn’t have to be that expensive—you’re just starting out, after all—but once you’ve made a killing on a good trade, you’ll be able to give her an upgrade.”
“I don’t know,” said Jeremiah, remembering Noemi’s message to him through the dream simulator. “Something tells me she won’t be as happy here by herself.”
“Sure she will. I’ve got almost a dozen girls between here and the New Pleiades, and they’re all doing just fine.”
Jeremiah nearly choked. “A dozen girls?”
“How—how did you find them all?”
Samson threw back his head and laughed. “Ah, Jeremiah, you should see the look on your face right now. You always were a shy one around the ladies. If you would just open up and seize the day, though, you wouldn’t have any problems in that department—though it certainly helps when you’ve got a double bunk on your ship, with room on the bottom bunk for two.”
He laughed again and slapped the table, turning the heads of some of the nearby patrons. Noemi giggled, though it was clear from the blank expression on her face that she had no idea what they were talking about. Jeremiah managed a weak grin, but inwardly, his stomach did a nervous flip.
“Look,” said Samson, getting serious again. “I’m telling you, this is the best way to go. You’d be crazy to take her on the Ariadne—frankly, I’m surprised you’ve made it this far. And don’t worry about her missing you. She’s not a pet, after all—she can take care of herself.”
Jeremiah shifted uncomfortably and glanced over at Noemi. Not for the first time, he wished he could talk with her—both to explain things and to get her point of view. He wasn’t sure, but he didn’t think she’d like the idea of staying behind without him.
“I don’t know if I can do that.”
“Why not?” Samson asked, taking another sip of his spiked coffee.
Because she needs me.
“Well, for starters, she thinks we’re married—and after all that’s happened, we might as well be. If I left her now …” It would be too much like abandoning her.
Samson looked at him as if he’d grown a third arm in the middle of his forehead. “Married? Are you serious?”
Jeremiah took a deep breath and swallowed.
“How the hell did that happen?”
“It’s … a long story.”
“Look,” said Samson, “you can’t afford to let yourself get tied down to a woman like that. If you do, she’ll just want to possess you—to put limits on where you can go and what you can do.”
“But—but she needs me.” And I need her.
“Look, I’m not saying you should abandon her—I’m just saying you shouldn’t let yourself get tied down. You don’t have to be her husband to be her man.”
Jeremiah frowned. Next to him, Noemi set down her glass and gave him a funny look, as if to ask what was the matter. He wondered what she’d say if she knew what they were talking about.
“Doesn’t that seem … a bit unfaithful, though?”
Samson chuckled. “‘Unfaithful’—what does that word even mean? I take good care of my girls: I pay for their living space, I support them while I’m gone, and whenever I’m in port, I spend all my time exclusively with them. Does that mean I’m unfaithful if I take another girl at some faraway star?”
“No,” Jeremiah said automatically, shaking his head. The last thing he wanted was to get into a personal argument with his friend.
Samson finished off the last of the coffee and set down the cup with a flourish. “Some of my girls have the same misgivings that you do, and they like to play petty games whenever I’m with them. That’s just the way women are. Doesn’t bother me, so long as I can possess my own self in peace.”
Jeremiah didn’t know what to say to that. He glanced over at Noemi, who returned his attention with a smile. She seemed so innocent and trusting—not at all like the possessive kind of woman Samson had described. But then he remembered the look on her face when he’d told her that Oriana Station wasn’t going to be their home. What if his friend was right?
“Are you sure I can’t just take her with me?” he asked. “I mean, she doesn’t have a home anymore—she’s a wanderer too.”
“Doesn’t matter. All women want stability: that’s just how they’re hardwired. Eventually, the starfaring lifestyle will get to be too much for her.”
“But can’t we make it work out for just a little while longer?”
Samson groaned and shook his head. “Look, what do you really have to offer? Your ship is too small for the both of you, and you sure as hell don’t have room for a baby. You’re constantly on the move, wandering from star to star—the only way to give her any stability at all is to leave her at one.”
“But—but how can I leave her here when she doesn’t even speak the language?” Jeremiah asked, grasping for objections.
“No problem,” said Samson. “You said she’s Deltan? There are plenty of immigrant communities on the lower levels—it shouldn’t be hard to find someone from her home world who’s subletting. Leave her with them and she’ll feel right at home.”
Jeremiah’s heart sank. He tried to come up with a smart response, but had to admit that his friend had a point. Noemi had already been through so much, leaving her family and knowing that she’d never see them again. The way she’d been forced to surrender herself to the mercy of a complete stranger—even if it had worked out, she’d be far better off among her own people than she’d ever be with him.
“It’s all for the best, really,” said Samson, patting his arm. “She’ll still be your girl—and you’ll be free to come and go as you please.”
“Yeah. I guess.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re not abandoning her—lots of other star wanderers do it this way.”
“Sure. There’s nothing wrong with it. Just think of it as something you have to do—for her.”
“For her,” said Jeremiah. He glanced at Noemi as she finished off the last of her cocktail, totally oblivious to their conversation. “Maybe you’re right.”
* * * * *
Jeremiah’s heart beat a little faster as he led Noemi down the narrow, windowless corridor deep into the bowels of Oriana Station. The air down here was slightly thicker than the main concourse, the gravity stronger due to the increased distance from the hub. Noemi seemed to be taking it in stride, but she glanced at him questioningly every few minutes, making him wish that he had some way to tell her what was going on.
He reached into the pocket of his jumpsuit and absent-mindedly fingered the datachip with the credits from the recent sale of his cargo. He’d done surprisingly well, making more than enough from the Chondarrian coffee to refit the Ariadne and fill his hold with Alphan electronics. With the leftover cash, he could easily set Noemi up in a decent sublet for the next couple of months. How to explain that to her, though—that was the part that he dreaded.
“Are we even in the right place?” he asked aloud, reverting to his nervous habit of talking to himself. The corridor was surprisingly empty—the ceiling lights flickered a few yards away, and the air smelled faintly of bleach. Noemi put her hand on his arm as if to reassure him, but he ignored the gesture.
“583c—this is it,” he said, stepping up to a door with the number stenciled in black on its surface. He keyed the doorbell, and quick footsteps sounded through the thin metal door.
It soon hissed open, revealing a low-ceiling entryway with at least a dozen pairs of shoes lined up against the wall. A young girl with jet-black hair stood in front of him, dressed in dark pants and a sleeveless blouse. She was about Noemi’s age and height, though her figure was a bit more developed.
“Welcome!” she said, smiling cheerfully. “Please, come in!”
As Jeremiah stepped inside, the smell of incense exploded in his nose like a solar flare. He took a deep breath and followed the girl into a modest living room, with old, faded couches lining the wall. A stained-glass lamp, obviously an heirloom, hung from the ceiling, while an authentic wooden table sat on top of a colorful rug not unlike the one at Noemi’s home on Megiddo Station. A gilded icon hung prominently on the far wall, with half a dozen unlit candles on a table beneath it.
Noemi’s eyes lit up almost immediately. She posed a question to the black-haired girl, and a smile spread across her face as the girl answered in her native Deltan. Within moments, they were chatting as happily as long lost sisters.
The room quickly filled with people, no doubt most of them relatives of the family renting the apartment unit. Several of them were older, with wrinkled skin and gray hair. Two younger women both carried babies, one of them breastfeeding through an open blouse. About a half dozen small children wandered in, all of them wearing mismatched clothing that didn’t seem to fit right.
“Welcome to our home!” said the black-haired girl, giving Jeremiah an unexpected hug. “My name is Mariya, and this is Opa Jirgis and Oma Salome.”
She motioned to a balding man with a salt and pepper beard, and his elderly wife, who wore a floor-length dress with a black-and-white scarf over her head. They smiled and nodded in an exaggerated manner, but it was clear that neither of them spoke Gaian.
Jeremiah bowed and turned back to Mariya. “Are you all from Delta Oriana?”
“Oh yes,” she said, nodding vigorously. “We emigrated a couple years ago, before the famine got especially bad. Thankfully, the family’s all here now.”
“How many of you are there?”
“Well, let’s see,” she said, screwing her eyes up in thought. “Opa, Oma, my five aunts and their husbands, and all their kids—about twenty five. Not counting the grandsons who’ve already left for the stars, of course.”
“I’m an only daughter—I had two older brothers, but they left on the Medea almost as soon as we moved here. My father’s name is Jakob—he works in the dockyard, which is why he isn’t here right now. He’s the one who convinced us all to move.”
“Is there enough room for you all?” Jeremiah asked.
Mariya laughed. “It can be a tight squeeze, but we’ve been able to get along all right. Can I get you something to drink? Some tea, perhaps?”
Before he could object, one of the women hobbled over with a tray and two cups of tea. Noemi smiled and thanked her as she took one, and the woman pinched her good-naturedly on the cheek. Jeremiah took the other—it smelled delicious.
“Come,” said Mariya, touching him on the arm, “let me show you the room.”
As they followed her down the narrow hallway, Noemi slipped her hand into his own and squeezed. He stiffened a little and didn’t squeeze back. I’m making the right choice, he told himself. This is all for her.
The bedroom was small, even compared to the cabin of the Ariadne. It had probably served as a closet at one point; the ceiling was sloped, so that except for the space next to the door, he had to stoop. It looked tidy enough, though, with a homemade quilt folded on top of the bedspread. Noemi took to the place at once, testing out the bed as she chatted with Mariya.
I’ve never seen her so happy, Jeremiah thought to himself. A lump rose in his throat. It’s perfect.
“The room is private, of course,” said Mariya, her words nearly passing over him. “Aunt Marta does most of the cooking—but don’t worry, that’s included in the rent.”
“Can I pay for the next four months up front?”
Mariya gave him a funny look. “I suppose. Why would you want to do that, though?”
“The apartment’s not for me,” he said softly. “It’s for her.”
For a long, awkward moment, Mariya stared at him. She glanced down at Noemi, then looked back up, a frown creasing her girlish face.
“But I thought you said you both were married.”
Jeremiah shifted nervously on his feet. “We are, sort of. It’s—well, the thing is, my ship isn’t large enough for the both of us, and I need a place for her to stay while I’m gone. I’ll be back every few months, of course,” he added quickly.
“You mean you’re leaving her?”
He swallowed. It’s for the best, Samson’s words echoed in his mind. Just think of it as something you have to do—for her.
Noemi looked back and forth between the two of them as if to ask what was the matter. Her face slowly fell as she realized neither of them were smiling anymore.
“Does she know?”
Jeremiah blushed. “Well, ah—I don’t think so. Could you tell her for me?”
Mariya sighed and turned to explain things for her. As she spoke, Noemi’s eyes widened in horror. She looked up at Jeremiah with an expression that stabbed him in the heart.
“I’m not leaving her permanently,” he said quickly. “I just don’t see how—”
Noemi began talking rapidly, cutting him off. Mariya nodded and turned back to him.
“She wants to know if she did something wrong.”
“Not at all.”
“She says it’s not so bad,” said Mariya. “She’s used to living in tight spaces, and if her cooking isn’t good enough, she can—”
“No, no no,” said Jeremiah, waving his hand. “Can’t you see? It’s for her own good—she’ll be happier here, and I’ll still be able to take care of her. Can you tell her that for me?” Please, help her to understand.
Mariya shook her head, but she turned to Noemi and translated. As she did, Noemi’s face turned pale, and her eyes welled up with tears. A look of painful indecision crossed her face, making a lump rise in Jeremiah’s throat. She said only a few words, her voice soft and distant. Her eyes never left him as she spoke.
“She asks if you still need her,” Mariya translated.
Jeremiah bit his lip and struggled to choke down his rising emotions. “This isn’t about me—I only want to do what’s best for her.”
“But how will she be better off if you leave her?”
“She’ll be with her people,” he said softly. “She’ll have stability and security. Besides, I’ll be back from time to time. I’m not abandoning her.”
“But if the two of you are married, it—it just isn’t right for you to leave. Not to her, anyway.”
Jeremiah sighed. “Please, just tell her.”
As Mariya translated, strength returned to Noemi’s face, and she shook her head vigorously as she gave her answer.
“She says she wants to stay with you,” said Mariya.
“I stay,” said Noemi.
Jeremiah’s heart leaped in his chest, but he took in a sharp breath and raised both hands in the air. “Why?”
Noemi’s answer came almost immediately. “Because she belongs to you, and you to her, and that is the way it should be,” Mariya translated. “Even among her own people, she would be alone without you.”
Jeremiah didn’t know what to say to that. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but Noemi stepped up close and put her hand on his chest. When he looked into her eyes, he remembered their last voyage together, and how it felt to have someone to hold in the dark and lonely depths of space. She slipped her arms around him, and his resistance melted, like an icy comet melting to pieces as it grazed the fiery surface of a star. Before he knew it, he was holding her, lips locked tightly in a kiss that said so much more than mere words.
It’s her choice as much as mine, he thought to himself. If this is what she wants, who am I to refuse her?
After a long while, Noemi let go of him and stood by his side. With his arm around her waist, he turned to Mariya.
“I’m afraid there’s been a change of plans,” he told her. “I’ll pay for a month’s rent, since I have to refit my ship, but we’ll probably only stay for a couple of weeks.”
Mariya smiled. “Of course, of course. Here, let me get you your keys.”
Jeremiah followed her out of the private bedroom with legs so weak he felt as if he were floating. Noemi looked up at him as if to confirm that he wasn’t going to leave her, and he held her a little tighter. For a moment, he wondered what Samson would say, and then realized it didn’t matter.
“I stay,” Noemi whispered.
“Yes,” said Jeremiah. “You stay.”
“So you decided to take her with you?”
Samson sighed and shook his head. “I suppose it’s your decision. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Jeremiah leaned forward on the smooth marble bar top and stared into his drink. Almost a week had passed since they’d had drinks at the café; he’d put off meeting again until just before Samson was to leave. A steady electronic beat played softly overhead, while the sweet smell of hookah smoke and alcohol mingled together much like the burly starfarers and scantily clad station women. He wondered what Noemi would think of this place if she were here.
“And what if I want to settle down with her?” he asked.
“If that’s what you want, then go for it. But answer me this: is Alpha Oriana really the kind of place where you want to settle down?”
Jeremiah thought about it for a moment. He had to admit, other than the Deltan community, there wasn’t any compelling reason to choose this system over any other. But wasn’t that reason enough? If Noemi wanted to stay here, then perhaps this was the place.
“I haven’t decided yet,” he said truthfully. “Noemi seems happy enough here. Why shouldn’t this be the place where we settle down?”
“You haven’t been watching the news, have you?”
Jeremiah frowned. “What do you mean?”
Samson leaned forward and looked him in the eye. “I heard some rumors,” he said, his expression suddenly serious. “The Imperial force stationed here isn’t going to leave anytime soon. There’s been talk that the Gaian Empire is looking to colonize this system, and that’s bad news for all us outworlders.”
“Bad news? Come on, what’s the worst they can do?”
“Let’s just say that the Imperials want things to be a little more … settled. Once this place becomes part of the Empire, the Coreward trading companies will move in and take away all of our business—and that’s the least of it. Before you know, you won’t be able to do anything without getting a permit or paying a fee. Rates will go up, and you’ll be forced to sell your ship just to get by.”
Jeremiah’s eyes widened, and his stomach fell. “You really think so?”
“I know so,” said Samson. “That’s exactly what’s happened to every other system they’ve colonized. Trust me, my friend: this is no place to settle down.”
They sat together in a short, pensive silence. Jeremiah opened his mouth to say something, but thought better of it at the last second.
“We’re free men,” Samson elaborated, gesturing expansively with his hands. “We come and go as we please, and our boundaries are as limitless as the stars. A man can’t be free under the rule of other men—or women, for that matter.”
“The Ariadne’s almost completely refitted,” said Jeremiah, shifting nervously. “Once it’s finished, we’ll take off—probably in two or three days.”
“That’s good. I’d hate to see you get stuck here.”
“Until next time, then,” said Jeremiah, rising from his barstool.
Samson stood up and gave him a warm, brotherly embrace. “Until next time, friend. May the hidden stars of Earth continually align in your favor.”
“And yours as well.”
“Oh, and Jeremiah? Best of luck with your lady friend.”
From the way Samson winked as they parted ways, it seemed like his way of saying congratulations.
* * * * *
Jeremiah’s muscles unwound as he stepped through the airlock into the familiar cabin of the Ariadne. After living on the station with the Deltans for a week, it felt surprisingly good to be back in his own ship. The white paneled walls and smooth metal floor shone from the good hard scrubbing he’d given them, while the food synthesizer looked almost new. He turned to Noemi and took her hand, leading her inside.
“Look,” he said, pointing to the wall where the fold-out cot had been. “More space, eh?”
She frowned and looked up, giving him a puzzled look. The dream monitor was still overhead, but there didn’t seem to be any place to sit or lie down and use it.
“I thought we’d have more room if we went with chairs,” he said, pulling out two fold-out seats from the side walls facing each other. “See? Room for you and me both, with some space in the middle for a table.”
Noemi felt the false leather cushions and pulled out the footrest, nodding in approval.
“And for sleeping,” Jeremiah continued, “we have this.” He folded the chairs back into the side walls and pulled out a light blue hammock from an overhead compartment, stringing it across the open space. It was at least twice as wide as the cot had been, with plenty of room for them both.
The expression on Noemi’s face made him smile. “Here—want to try it out?” He stretched out across the soft felt surface and motioned for her to sit down next to him. As soon as her feet were off the floor, he grabbed her by the waist and playfully pulled her over. She shrieked and grabbed his shirt, laughing as the hammock swayed back and forth.
“There—isn’t that better?” She clung tightly to him as if afraid to let go, but he ran his fingers gently through her hair until she relaxed. His hand gravitated to her slender waist, and she rested her head against his chest.
As she settled down next to him, his mind began to drift off the way it had in the most intimate moments they’d shared together. He held her close and let the thoughts and memories wander freely, occasionally taking one up to examine it. All of them came down to the same thing: how remarkably things had changed since she’d come into his life, warming the dark, icy loneliness like a life-giving sun.
“Why did you settle down at Edenia instead of somewhere else?” he remembered asking his father only a year before leaving to seek his fortune among the stars.
“There were many reasons,” his father had answered, “but the biggest one was your mother.”
“How did you meet each other?”
His father had smiled, his eyes glossing over with the memory. “I came to Edenia II on a trade run from Tajjur, and the station master asked if I’d ever seen the gardens on the surface. I told him no, so he arranged for me to go down on the next supply shuttle. While wandering under the forest dome, I ran into your mother along the trail. The gardens were beautiful, certainly—but she was the one who captivated me.”
“Was she the first girl you’d met?”
“Far from it—I was actually planning to return to Tajjur with my wealth and marry a girl out there—but with your mother, it just felt right.”
“Felt right? How?”
“You’ll know, Jeremiah. When the time has come and you’ve found the right girl, you’ll know.”
Jeremiah smiled at Noemi as she lay curled up next to him in the gently swinging hammock. He wondered what his father would think to see him now.
“Here,” he said, standing up. “I’ve got something else to show you.”
He helped Noemi to her feet and dismantled the hammock, setting it aside in the corner. He then unfolded the two chairs again, angling the backs and footrests so that they reclined slightly. Noemi cocked her head and gave him a curious look until he opened the overhead compartment, showing her the second dream monitor.
“We?” she asked, pointing to the twin devices.
“Yes,” said Jeremiah. “Now we can share the same dream simulations.”
“Share,” she said, smiling at him.
She looked so happy, Jeremiah couldn’t help but put his arm around her. As he did so, however, her face paled, and she turned suddenly away.
“What is it?” he asked, frowning. “Are you all right?”
She moaned and staggered toward the bathroom, clutching at her stomach. He tried to help her, but she pushed him away and left him at the door.
“Noemi?” he asked, his heart racing. “Are you all right?”
The sound of muffled retching came through, followed by another sickly moan.
I’ve got to get her to a doctor, he thought to himself. Even if it meant postponing their departure, they weren’t going anywhere until he knew she was all right.
* * * * *
The foyer of the clinic was wide and empty, with clean white floor tiles and red-cushioned folding chairs that looked slightly out of place. A computer terminal and tablet kiosk sat in the corner, but Jeremiah was already busy watching the holoscreen embedded in the opposite wall. A newscast was playing, the volume turned so low he could barely hear it. Fortunately, the news ticker at the bottom was clearly visible.
STATION MASTER CEDES CONTROL TO NEW IMPERIAL VICEROY, it read. LOCAL ASSEMBLIES TO DISBAND PENDING FORMATION OF TRANSITIONAL COUNCIL.
“You’re worried about her, aren’t you?” Mariya asked from the seat next to him.
“Do you mind if I ask how you met each other?”
He paused. “It was a bit of surprise for both of us,” he began, choosing his words carefully. “Three months ago, I arrived at Megiddo Station to make some trades. It was a little off my usual route, but I figured it might be good to make a run to Delta Oriana, seeing how few starfarers were going there.”
“You’re a trader, then?”
“Of a sort. I left my birth world a couple standard years ago, and that seems like the best way for a star wanderer like me to make a living.”
“So how did you two meet each other?”
“Her father was the Station Master,” he said, remembering the events of that day with some wistfulness. “He called me into his office to conduct negotiations, but really, he wanted me to take one of his daughters to wife in order to rescue her from the famine.”
Mariya nodded, staring at him in rapt fascination. “What made you agree to it?”
Jeremiah took a deep breath and shifted under her gaze. “To be honest, I didn’t even know for certain that we were married. I just thought I should take Noemi to the nearest major settlement and let her off. But then, well … things changed.”
“I don’t know, exactly. We just made this connection, and I guess it felt right somehow.”
“Well of course it felt right,” she said, giggling. “You’re a man, after all, and men only want one thing.”
“No, no, no,” he said, blushing. “It wasn’t like that.”
“No,” he insisted. “She initiated everything—I was the one who kept saying no. But eventually, well, I changed my mind and decided to commit.”
“I see,” said Mariya. She smiled and put her hand on his arm. “You’re a good man—she’s very lucky to have you.”
At that moment, a nurse stepped out from the hallway behind the secretary’s desk. “Jeremiah Edeni?”
“Yes,” said Jeremiah, rising almost instantly to his feet.
“Come with me.”
He followed the nurse to a sparsely decorated examining room at the far end, Mariya tagging close behind. A row of cabinets lined one of the white walls, with a dormant computer terminal in the corner and a number of spindly robotic arms retracted partway into the ceiling. Noemi sat on the table in the center, wearing a patient’s gown that seemed at least two sizes too large. Her eyes lit up the moment he stepped through.
“Thank you, Nancy,” said the doctor, a thin man with dark olive skin and black hair wearing an immaculately clean hospital uniform. He turned to Jeremiah. “Are you the husband?”
“Yes,” said Jeremiah. “What’s wrong?”
The doctor chuckled and extended his hand. “The name’s Armin. You’re a very lucky man.” He turned to Mariya. “I take it you’re family?”
“Not exactly,” said Jeremiah. “She’s—”
“—part of the extended family,” said Mariya, thinking faster than him on her feet. “They’re staying with us while they’re here at the station.”
“Ah.” The doctor nodded and turned back to Jeremiah. “There’s no need to worry, sir. Your wife is perfectly healthy.”
“Absolutely. The nausea was a perfectly natural symptom of morning sickness. She’s about ten weeks pregnant and progressing quite well.”
The news hit Jeremiah like a meteor. “P-pregnant?”
Before the doctor could answer, Mariya let out a high-pitched squeal and threw her arms around Noemi. Within seconds, the girls were chattering wildly, oblivious to everything else around them.
“If you need a physician,” the doctor continued, “my secretary can help you schedule follow-up visits for the duration of the pregnancy. Our clinic specializes in treating uninsured non-station personnel, so our rates are quite affordable.”
“Y-yes,” said Jeremiah, still dazed. So much for leaving.
Doctor Armin glanced at the girls, then turned back to him and smiled. “I’ll give you some time alone. Congratulations to the both of you.”
It was all Jeremiah could do to nod and shake his hand.
The family room of the small below-decks apartment was packed from wall to wall with Mariya’s relatives, all chattering and doting over Noemi. The air smelled heavily of incense and stale body odor, while the fold-out tables on the side were filled with dumplings, yogurt balls, and other strange and foreign delicacies. Jeremiah stood in the doorway, greeting people as they came in. Mariya had told him that it was customary for the husband to do so at these events.
“How does it feel?” she asked, grinning from ear to ear as she squeezed her way to him through the guests. Somewhere in the overcrowded room, a baby wailed.
“A bit overwhelming,” he answered. Only three days had passed since the visit to the clinic, and he still felt dazed.
“Don’t worry about anything,” she said, patting him on the shoulder. “We’ll take good care of you both.”
You don’t understand, Jeremiah wanted to tell her. I can’t afford to stay. He’d already spent most of his profits on the Ariadne’s upgrades, and all those electronics he’d purchased weren’t making him anything while they sat in his cargo hold.
“What am I supposed to do for the next nine months?” he blurted. “I spent almost everything I had on refitting my ship.”
“If worst comes to worst, can’t you make a quick trade run to one of the nearby systems?”
“Not with the political situation the way it is. What if the Imperials shut me out? They’ve already got a full battle fleet in this system. What if something terrible happens while I’m gone?”
Mariya thought about it for a second and shrugged. “My father can probably help you to find a job. He has a good position in the dockyards—he’ll find you work for sure.”
“I hope so.”
“Cheer up,” she said, punching him in the arm. “We have a saying: a strong family shines brighter than all the stars. This is such a wonderful time for both of you—and I know things will only get better once the baby arrives.”
“Perhaps,” said Jeremiah. He had to admit that the thought of becoming a father made everything seem a little more vibrant. It also filled him with terror, but that was probably normal.
As he glanced over the room, Noemi’s eyes met his own. She smiled, and for the first time since leaving her home, she looked happy and fulfilled—completely at home, in a way that she never had been on the Ariadne.
“Why so gloomy?” Mariya asked. “Honestly, from the look on your face, you’d think that this was a funeral and not a housewarming party.”
“I’m sorry,” said Jeremiah softly, forcing a smile. “I suppose I shouldn’t let my worries get in the way of things.”
“Of course not. You’re as good as family now—so live a little!”
With that, she grinned and slipped back into the crowd, making her way back to Noemi. Someone in the corner had pulled out a strange musical instrument made up of several pipes jutting out of a green cloth bag, and the shrill noise of the music pierced even the cacophony of foreign voices.
Family, perhaps, Jeremiah thought to himself, but these are Noemi’s people, not mine.
* * * * *
“Jeremiah of Edenia,” said the dockyard foreman, a tall, heavyset man with dark hair and a black goatee. “Says here you’re a former starfarer—is that right?”
“Yes,” said Jeremiah, shifting on the hard metal folding chair. Papers and datachips covered the foreman’s desk, while the rumbling of heavy equipment sounded through the office’s thin walls.
“Jake here tells me you’re looking for work. What is it that brings you here to Alpha Oriana?”
“My wife, sir,” said Jeremiah. It sounded weird when he put it that way, but he supposed it was the truth.
The foreman nodded. “I see. And what sort of expertise do you bring with you?”
“I’ve run all the major trade routes between Oriana and the New Pleiades, as well as a handful of the ones running out toward Tajjur and the Good Hope Nebula. I’m also familiar with a wide variety of ship designs, and know how to unload them.”
“The outworlders pull starfarers to do stationers’ work?”
“From time to time,” said Jeremiah. “At the smaller outposts, everyone comes out to help.”
“Interesting,” said the foreman. He eyed the tablet with Jeremiah’s application. “Well, we’re short of men right now, and you seem to have what it takes. I’d love to put you on my crew.”
Jeremiah smiled and extended his hand. “Thank you, sir. I look forward to—”
“Hold on, there’s one more thing. You only just got here, so you probably don’t know about this yet, but the new colonial authority is making everyone sign up for a system-wide ID registry. If you don’t have your immigration documents in order, it’s technically illegal for you to work.”
Jeremiah frowned. “Documents?”
“Sure—residency, green card. I don’t suppose you have official citizenship in any of the Outworld systems, do you?”
“No,” he said. “I’m just a star wanderer.”
The foreman sighed. “That’s what I thought. In that case, I can’t hire you.”
A cold chill shot down Jeremiah’s back. “You can’t?”
“I’m afraid not. The Imperials aren’t handing out any new work permits for undocumented workers—something about population controls, or so I hear. It’s hard to know what to believe these days. Either way, there’s nothing I can do until you can get your immigration status squared away first.”
“How do I do that?”
“Well, full-fledged citizenship is probably beyond your reach, though you can certainly start working towards it. For a green card, you’ll need proof that you’ve lived on the station for at least six months.”
Jeremiah’s stomach sank. “But I only just got here. My wife is pregnant—I need the money now!”
“I don’t write the rules, son, I only live by them, same as everyone else. I’m sorry.”
Jeremiah leaned forward and rubbed his forehead with his fingertips. With Noemi’s health care costs, his funds wouldn’t last much longer than a week or two—he didn’t even have enough for next month’s rent. He could sell back the goods in his cargo hold, but then he’d have nothing to trade once they left this system.
“Why are they doing this?” he asked.
The foreman shrugged. “Rumor has it that the colonial authority wants to align Alpha Oriana with the Coreward Stars. If you ask me, it’s the first part of a wider plan to colonize this region of space.”
Jeremiah thought about it for a moment. If true, that explained why the Imperials had brought a full battle fleet out this far from Gaia Nova. But with Noemi’s pregnancy, he didn’t want to leave unless he knew they could find a Deltan community as supportive as this one, with a doctor who could speak her language. They’d been extremely fortunate to find Mariya and her family—if they left it all now for the Outworlds, he didn’t know if they’d be so lucky again.
“So what am I supposed to do?” he wondered aloud, more to himself than to anyone else.
“Look,” said the foreman, “if you just need something to pay the bills, you can always find a job in waste treatment. I know a couple of guys who can get you paid under the table—the station authorities don’t watch them too closely because they’re so desperate just to find anyone.”
Jeremiah’s heart leaped in his chest. “Really?”
“Sure. Of course, if you asked for my advice, I’d tell you to take your ship and go back to the Outworlds.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let’s just say, it isn’t pretty. Long hours, low pay, downright shitty work—it’s enough to suck the life right out of a man.”
He took a deep breath. “I’ve made long solo voyages across the deep. I can handle it.”
“You say that now,” said the foreman, shaking his head. He rose to his feet and keyed a message into the datapad on his desk. “Well, a job’s a job. I’ll get you in touch with the right people.”
“That would be great. Thank you.”
As Jeremiah followed the man out of his office, though, he couldn’t help but feel as if he were falling deeper and deeper into a gravity well, without the fuel to climb back out.
* * * * *
When Jeremiah returned to the apartment after his first week of work, his body ached and his clothes reeked of human waste. The stench was so bad that the Deltan incense smelled like sweet perfume. He stepped wearily through the door, his back hunched and his arms dangling limp by his side.
Noemi and Mariya sat in the family room, chatting with each other the way they always did. Noemi’s eyes lit up the moment he came in, and she rose up to greet him.
“Wait,” he said, holding up his hand. She stopped for a moment, puzzled, and then made a face as the stench hit her.
“Back from work?” asked Mariya, walking over. She made the same face and hastily plugged her nose.
“Yeah,” he said, shuffling toward the bathroom.
Noemi made a comment to Mariya, and the two of them giggled. Jeremiah was too exhausted to ask what she’d said; he entered the tiny bathroom and shed his filthy clothes before stepping into the shower unit.
After a long, tiring day at work, the shower felt like a life-giving balm. His knotted muscles unwound under the steaming hot water, and the stress of the last few days fell away like the layers of sweat and grime that covered his body. He scrubbed down his skin until it was practically red, then rubbed the soothing bath oils over himself until he felt like a new man. As the hot air blasted down on him during the drying cycle, he closed his eyes and imagined he was in a warm greenhouse glade, savoring the sweet renewal.
When he stepped back out, he found the girls waiting for him in the foyer. “We’re going for a walk,” said Mariya. “Care to join us?”
Jeremiah glanced at Noemi, who smiled as if to say come with us!
She slipped her hand into his as they followed Mariya down the winding corridor to the nearest station elevator. The lights above the door flickered and several floor tiles were missing, but like everything else in the poor immigrant neighborhood, the space was meticulously clean.
“I know of a garden on the first level,” said Mariya as she palmed the access pad for the elevator. “The gravity is a little stronger there, so we probably shouldn’t come after the baby gets too big, but for now it should be fine.”
The elevator bounced a little as it descended. When the doors opened, the three of them stepped out to a wide vaulted room, dimly lit with vines and flowering shrubs hanging from the ceiling. The trickle of running water masked the low hum of the ventilation system, ever-present in a station as large as this, while in little alcoves along the wall, miniature trees descended in cascading tiers.
But the most striking feature of the place was the large glass window running along the floor. Milky starlight shone up through the leaves, dancing across the ceiling as the starfield spun slowly by. Noemi stepped out over the looming crescent of Madrigalna and stared down as it passed beneath them. She glanced up at him and smiled, and he felt for a moment as if he’d wandered into a dream.
“These gardens are kept mostly by us immigrants,” said Mariya. “It’s something to keep the older ones busy.”
“They’ve done an amazing job,” said Jeremiah. Noemi squeezed his hand, and he squeezed back.
They walked in silence for a few minutes, admiring the flowers and the stars. Mariya wandered off to leave them alone with each other for a while. The sun came briefly into view, casting everything in dark golden hues through the self-tinting glass.
“Beautiful,” Jeremiah whispered, to no one in particular. “Reminds me of the Edenian gardens.”
Noemi coughed as if to clear her throat, making him glance over at her. Not for the first time, she seemed as if she had something she wanted to say.
She called to Mariya, who came over and spoke with her for a few moments. Jeremiah looked from one girl to the other, waiting for the translation.
“She wants to know whether you have a name picked out for the baby.”
“A name?” said Jeremiah. “No, I haven’t even thought about it yet.”
Noemi spoke again. Mariya nodded and turned back to him to translate.
“Among us Deltans, it’s traditional to name the first child after the grandparents. If it’s a daughter, then we name her after her mother’s mother; if it’s a son, then we name him after his father’s father.” Noemi spoke again, and Mariya nodded. “She wants to know what your father’s name was.”
“Fa-ther,” Noemi repeated.
“My father?” said Jeremiah. “His name was Isaiah.”
“Isha’rah,” said Noemi, sounding out each syllable. She nodded and smiled, then spoke to Mariya.
“She says it’s a good name.”
“What was her mother’s name?” Jeremiah asked.
A questioning look came across Noemi’s face. Mariya explained it to her.
“Rahel,” he said. “It’s good.”
“Yes,” he said, nodding. “Good.”
Noemi smiled again, but this time her expression was tinged with sadness. He remembered wiping the tears from her eyes as she sat beneath the dream monitor, and a similar longing welled up inside of him.
“Do you miss her?” he asked.
Noemi spoke quickly, and Mariya waited for several moments before trying to explain.
“She says yes, sometimes she does, but it isn’t your fault. She’s only sad because she knows that they’re probably all dead right now.”
“I know,” said Jeremiah. “I’m sorry.”
“Before you came, she expected that she would die with them, too, because she was too old for anyone to want to marry her.”
“Wait—too old? How old is she?”
The girls conferred with each other for a moment. Mariya nodded and turned back to him.
“Nineteen years by old Earth standard.”
“Nineteen? Only nineteen? How is that too old?”
Mariya covered her mouth to keep from laughing. “Among us, it’s considered old. I’m sixteen, but I’m already betrothed to my cousin, and he’s only waiting because we’re too poor to afford our own apartment.”
“But who in their right mind would turn her down just because she’s nineteen?”
Noemi blushed as Mariya translated for her. They conferred together for some time.
“To be honest,” said Mariya, “she’s not very pretty—not by our standards, at least. Most men at Megiddo Station prefer a girl who’s … a little more filled out, if you know what I mean.”
Jeremiah looked Noemi up and down. She certainly wasn’t as curvy as some women, but he’d never really given it much thought. Things like that didn’t matter while they were alone together—all that mattered was that she was his girl.
“I don’t care,” he said. “I think you’re beautiful.”
Noemi smiled as Mariya translated for her, but still seemed a bit distant.
For the next little while, they walked in silence through the starlit garden. The air was sweet and refreshing, and the view beneath their feet was absolutely breathtaking. Mariya walked silently behind them, waiting until she could be of service. It wasn’t long before Noemi motioned to her.
“She wants to know: did you ever think much about the girl you would marry?”
“Some,” Jeremiah answered. “To be honest, though, I didn’t think I’d find her until I found a place to settle down first.”
“What did you think she would be like?”
He paused. “I don’t know. I never really had any particular preference. I guess I always figured that when the time came, I would just know.”
Noemi listened with rapt attention as Mariya translated. She turned to him and replied.
“Do you know now?”
He stopped and took both of Noemi’s hands in his own. Her cheeks flushed, and she looked up at him in a way that made him yearn to take her in a tender embrace.
“Of course,” he whispered. He put his arms around her and pulled her gently close. As he leaned down to kiss her, she closed her eyes and lifted a hand to his cheek. The closeness they shared in that moment was stronger than words.
At length, she pulled back and turned to Mariya, her face beaming as she spoke.
“Do you want to stay here with us?” Mariya asked for her.
“Want stay?” Noemi said aloud, watching him intently.
Jeremiah took a deep breath. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe if I got a job as an in-system hauler—”
“Are you sure about that?” said Mariya. “Most of the freighters are rented out by the local mining companies—you’d have to sell your ship just to afford one.”
That’s what I was afraid of, he thought to himself. Upgrading the Ariadne wasn’t an option—even if he could afford the massive sublight engines he’d need for the long hauls, he didn’t have enough connections to get very far as an independent contractor. The Ariadne had belonged to his father, and his father’s father before that. Selling it instead of passing it on to the next generation would mean breaking away from a time-honored Outworld tradition. But if Alpha Oriana was truly becoming part of the Gaian Empire, then he was already abandoning the Outworlds by staying.
“Want stay?” Noemi asked again, then turned to Mariya to clarify.
“She says it’s not Oriana Station that she cares about, but her people,” Mariya translated. “Even if you both leave after the baby is born, would you eventually settle down in a community of Deltans like us?”
He glanced at Noemi, who eagerly awaited his answer. The way the starlight played across her face made him think of the time on the Ariadne when she’d asked him to show her his birth star. Her eyes shone with the same persistence.
“If that’s what you want, then of course I would.”
Noemi began to speak very quickly, but as she spoke, Mariya’s expression slowly fell. They talked with each other for a while, and from the tone of voice the discussion soon became heated.
“What’s the matter?” Jeremiah asked.
“I’m sorry,” said Mariya. “You must forgive her—she’s never been beyond Megiddo Station before, so of course she’s rather sheltered.”
Noemi spoke again, this time to Mariya and not to him. Their argument soon resumed, even more heated than before.
“Girls, please—what’s going on?”
Mariya looked at him for a moment, then sighed and shook her head. At the same time, Noemi reached under her shirt and pulled out the cross, pointing to it as she gave him a pleading look.
“She wants to know if you’d be willing to convert,” said Mariya. “I’m sorry—she’s very naive.”
“No, that’s all right,” said Jeremiah. “I’m not offended.”
“What’s your religion?”
He thought back to the pendant his own mother had given him: the green leaf and rocket ship, sacred symbols of New Earth. Unlike Noemi, though, he didn’t wear it around his neck—it was stowed on board the Ariadne, buried inside a compartment he rarely opened. Noemi had pulled it out once, but after a couple of days he’d put it back.
“I’m not really much of a believer,” he said. It reminds me too much of home.
Mariya frowned. “You’re an atheist, then?”
“Well, no, it’s not that. It’s just, religion isn’t a huge part of my life right now.”
“Ah,” she said, nodding. “You realize that Noemi is very devout, though?”
“Are you interested in learning more?
“Yes, of course.”
“Do you want to know just to know, or do you want to learn in order to convert?” She paused, her expression more serious than he’d ever seen. “If you do want to convert, it won’t be easy. A lot of people hate us because of our beliefs, especially here at Alpha Oriana.”
“I don’t know,” he said, shifting uncomfortably. “What will happen if I don’t?”
Mariya glanced over at Noemi before turning back to him. “I don’t think she would ever tell you, but it would break her heart.”
Jeremiah took a deep breath and nodded. She’ll just want to possess you, Samson’s words came to his mind. You shouldn’t let yourself get tied down.
But wasn’t that what his father had done when he’d settled at Edenia? Growing up, he’d always seemed aloof in matters of faith and religion. It was quite possible that Jeremiah’s mother had made a similar request.
He shrugged. “If it’s for her, then sure. What do you guys believe?”
Mariya hesitated, but Noemi went on undaunted. She started waving excitedly with her hands, as if to explain everything all at once. When Mariya refused to translate, though, her excitement quickly turned to frustration and anger. In just a few moments, the two girls fell into an argument.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” said Jeremiah, stepping between them. “What’s going on? Why all the fighting.”
“She just—I don’t know. It’s kind of a difficult subject.”
“Why? What’s the matter?”
“I’d rather not talk about it right now. Maybe sometime later?”
“Sure,” said Jeremiah. “That’s fine. We’ll just—I guess we’ll talk about it later.”
Noemi sighed, but he put an arm around her, hopefully making it better. It was clear that there was more she wanted to tell him, but if Mariya wasn’t willing to translate, there was nothing they could do about it.
* * * * *
The narrow station corridors seemed cramped and dreary after the visit to the starlit gardens. They passed an elderly couple on their way to the elevator, smiling in silent greeting. Noemi squeezed Jeremiah’s hand, making the place feel a little warmer.
When the door slid open, though, the sound of shouting and yelling met their ears. Mariya frowned and stepped in first, Jeremiah and Noemi following at a distance behind. In the front room, Jakob sat on the threadbare couch with his head in his hands, while his wife and half a dozen other relatives argued back and forth in their strange sounding language.
Jeremiah glanced at Noemi for some clue as to what was going on. From the look on her face, it didn’t seem good. He turned to Mariya, but she was already by her father’s side, hand on his shoulder as she tried to console him.
“Bad,” said Noemi. “Jakob—”
Mariya’s eyes widened, and her face paled. Behind her, Opa Jirgis threw his hands in the air and stormed out of the room, followed closely by his wife.
“What’s going on?” Jeremiah asked as the commotion started to die down.
“Bad news,” said Mariya. “Very bad news.”
“I’ve lost my job,” Jakob interjected. He clenched his fists. “Those dirty racist Alphans!”
“You lost your job?”
“Not just him,” Mariya explained. “The Imperials are shutting down half of the dockyard facilities, and laying off most of the workers.”
“Starting with the Deltans,” her father added. “At least the others get to work to the end of the quarter.”
Jeremiah frowned. “But why? I thought Oriana Station was a major trading hub.”
“The Imperial authorities are changing everything. They’re gutting the manufacturing sector and redirecting everything to mining. In a few months, just watch: they’ll raise taxes on all the outworlders who come through here, until this place is nothing but a ghost station.”
A terrible sinking feeling grew in Jeremiah’s gut. It made sense, in a perverse sort of way: if the Imperials wanted to align Alpha Oriana with the Coreward Stars, they’d want to cut out as much competition as they could, giving the Imperial trading companies a monopoly over the local markets. Since the new trade routes would all lead back to the Empire, Oriana Station’s manufacturing center was superfluous and perhaps even counterproductive. In only a standard year or two, the entire system would go from a major Outworld hub to a backwater frontier colony.
“It’s okay,” Mariya said, trying in vain to console her father. “I’m sure you can find other work—right?”
Her father snorted in disgust. “Only if the Alphans allow it. My guess is that they’ll drive us all out the first chance they get.”
Jeremiah looked to Noemi, whose face had started to pale. She patted her stomach as if afraid for their baby, and Jeremiah put his hand around her waist.
I’d hate to see you get stuck here, Samson’s words echoed in his mind. As he led Noemi away to the closet that served as their bedroom, he wondered if it was already too late.
When Jeremiah returned to the apartment after another long week of grueling work, he found the entire family gathered in the living room for a conference. Noemi was there too, watching with Mariya along the wall. He stepped carefully around the edge of the room and washed up quickly, knowing that they’d expect him to join them as soon as he could.
“We have no choice,” Jakob said as he came back into the room. “We can’t stay here with these Alphans any longer.” A moment later, Jakob reverted back into Deltan, words flying like bullets at the tightly-packed crowd.
“What’s he saying?” Jeremiah asked, leaning in toward Mariya. She paused for a second before answering.
“He says that we should strike out and find a different place to settle, perhaps in the New Pleiades. But Opa says we can’t all afford the transport, and besides, it’s better for us to stay together.”
“Are the rest of them staying?” Jeremiah looked to Opa Jirgis, the patriarch of the family. The old man sat back in the ancient couch with his eyes half closed, his forehead creased in serious thought.
“They’re planning to emigrate for the Coreward Stars,” said Mariya. “Father doesn’t want to go, though.”
“Of course not. He’s an outworlder at heart.”
“But he doesn’t have his ship anymore—my older brothers already left with it,” she explained. “Besides, I don’t want to leave Oriana Station. I like it here.”
Jeremiah sighed and clenched his fists in frustration. The waste treatment job wasn’t working out well for him—even with only Noemi to support, he was fast running out of resources. With his wife, daughter, and extended family, Jakob would never be able to live on that kind of work. Besides, the foreman had been right: it was enough to suck the life out of a man.
We have to go back to the Outworlds, he realized. There’s no other way.
The argument at the center of the room shifted, and the other family members started to chime in. Any semblance of order completely fell apart, and the meeting soon turned into a shouting match.
“Then go, for all I care!” Jakob yelled, walking past them. Mariya tried to stop him, but he shrugged her off and stormed out of the room.
“What’s going on now?” Jeremiah asked. Noemi came over and leaned against him, covering her ears for the noise. He put an arm around her to shield her.
“I don’t know,” said Mariya, her cheeks pale. “It’s bad—very bad. I don’t think we’ll be able to stay together.”
“And your father? What does he want to do?”
She took a deep breath, while one by one the rest of the family also left the room.
“He wants to take us back to the Outworlds, but the others aren’t willing to help him. They don’t have any money to spare, and no one wants to change their plans.”
“If you’re leaving, we can go with you,” said Jeremiah. “Noemi and I can’t raise a family in this place—not with the way the Imperials are changing everything. And we can’t go by ourselves, especially with the pregnancy. Without your help, I have no way to talk with her.”
“But how are we supposed to leave?” Mariya asked. “We aren’t rich—we can barely afford a transport, much less our own starship.”
Samson, Jeremiah realized. Samson has money. Or at least, his girl did—wherever she was.
“I have an idea,” he told her. “It’s a long shot, but it’s better than nothing.”
He hesitated for a moment, glancing around the room. These were poor people, but they were nothing if not fiercely self-sufficient. He doubted Mariya’s father would want him to ask anyone for favors—better to handle things on his own.
“I’d rather not discuss it now. Can you meet me out in the corridor in about an hour?”
“Sure,” said Mariya. “Where are we going?”
“To look up a friend of a friend,” he said. Something told him that it wasn’t a good idea to go alone.
* * * * *
The residential district of Oriana Station’s first quadrant was much more spacious than the immigrant apartments in the Deltan quarter. Verdant plants and decorative flowers hung from the awnings between doors, while the skylights along the vaulted ceiling offered a stunning view of the station’s twin wheels. Mariya seemed a little tense in such an upscale place, though. She tightened her grip on Jeremiah’s arm and walked at a quick pace, even though the thoroughfare was relatively empty. Overhead, a soundless magnetic train passed high above them.
“Thirty-five blue,” he said, stopping at a glass elevator that ran up the outside of the wall. “This should be it.” He palmed open the door and let Mariya in.
The elevator crawled at a leisurely pace up the canyon-like gap. Jeremiah smoothed out the front of his vest and checked his reflection as the elevator ascended. He wore a quaint handmade vest from Oma Salome, but it still looked more formal than most of his other clothes. Perhaps that was why Mariya seemed so nervous—she looked just as out of place as he did.
The floors and walls of the hallway were lined with polished basalt, while the paneled ceiling glowed with mellow light. They walked quickly arm and arm, past a small group of well-dressed men playing cards in a corner alcove. The heady scent of cigar smoke followed them down the corridor long after they’d passed.
“This is it,” he said, finally stopping in front of a door. Instead of metal, the face was made of wood, the long lines of grain cutting vertically down the center. He hit the door chime and stood with Mariya in front of it, rocking nervously on his feet.
They waited for nearly ten seconds before the door slid soundlessly open. A girl with blue-black hair stood on the other side, dressed in a tight smart-skirt and a black, form-fitting turtleneck. Even though her clothing covered just about everything except for her legs, her figure was so stunning that Jeremiah had a hard time keeping his thoughts straight.
“Hello,” he said, nodding to her in greeting. “My name is Jeremiah, and this is my friend Mariya. Are you Héloise?”
The girl looked him over from head to toe, as if sizing him up. From the supremely bored look on her face, she didn’t seem to like what she saw.
“Yes, I’m Héloise,” she said. “Please, come in.”
She led them into a spacious living room with dark leather couches on a light hardwood floor. The walls were a cream color, with black trim and almost a dozen wall-screens that cycled through breathtaking images of distant galaxies and nebulae. On the glass table in the center of the room, a single magnificent rose sat in a tall, black vase, its lush petals in full bloom. The brilliant colors of the flower contrasted sharply with the rest of the decor.
“Have a seat,” she said. “Can I get you anything?”
“No, thanks,” said Jeremiah, sitting down with Mariya on the main couch. Héloise sat back in the opposite chair, crossing her long, slender legs. She pulled out a cigarette and lit it with a modular extension of her wrist console.
“Do you smoke?” she asked.
“No, thanks,” said Jeremiah.
“Mind if I do?”
The question was moot, seeing as she already was. However, he shook his head and smiled politely.
They sat in an uncomfortable silence for a few moments as Héloise continued to examine him. Despite her disdainful attitude, there was something strangely inviting about her gaze, so that he didn’t know whether she was intrigued by him or whether she thought he was trash. He tried to think of something to say, but nothing came to mind, so he waited for her to break the silence.
“You’re one of Samson’s friends,” she said, letting out a puff of smoke. “Is this a friend of yours?”
“Yes,” said Jeremiah, turning to Mariya. “Well, more accurately, this is Mariya, a friend of my wife.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Mariya. She smiled and gave Héloise a nervous wave. From the half-bored, half-contemptuous look on their host’s face, it was clear that she wasn’t impressed.
“Only a friend?” she said, raising an eyebrow. “Why isn’t your wife with you instead?”
“She, ah, wasn’t feeling very well,” said Jeremiah, fishing for an answer. “She’s actually twelve weeks pregnant.”
Héloise took another puff, and then hit a button to extend an ashtray from the armrest of her chair. She casually ground out her half-smoked cigarette and retracted the ashtray back into its compartment.
“Did you come here looking for Samson, or did you want to see me?”
“Both, actually,” said Jeremiah. “Since you and Samson are, well, partners, it would be best to speak with both of you together. Seeing as he’s gone, however—”
“You want something from me, don’t you?” She uncrossed her legs and leaned forward, her eyes fixated on him.
“Uh, yes, that’s right.”
“Is it something only I can give you?”
Jeremiah swallowed. From the intensity of her gaze, it seemed as if the question was some sort of test, with a right answer and a wrong answer. He glanced at Mariya, who seemed just as much at a loss as him, then turned back to Héloise.
“Yes,” he answered.
Her eyes narrowed, but her lips turned up at the edges, indicating that he’d passed. “Oh?” she said, a hint of playfulness in her voice. “And what is it you want?”
“Well, my request is a bit unusual,” he began. “And I apologize if it sounds a bit desperate. You see, my wife and I are about to leave the station, but—”
“You and your wife? You’re taking her with you?”
“Yes,” said Jeremiah, a little shaken. “We, ah, we can’t stay, because the changes that the Imperials have made are, well, making it impossible for either of us—or Mariya’s family, for that matter—to live here. The only trouble is, we want to stay together—with Mariya and her family, that is—but my ship is too small for all of us, and—”
“Where will you go?”
“We don’t know yet,” he admitted. “Back to the Outworlds, I suppose—wherever fortune takes us.”
Her eyes lit up at the word ‘fortune.’ She rose gracefully to her feet and wandered about the room, as if admiring the wall-screens with their gorgeous celestial views.
“So you want me to help you get a starship for your friends—your wife’s friends,” she said, her smart-skirt drawing his gaze to the curvature of her hips. “But if I had a starship, what makes you think that I’d stay here?”
“I-I don’t know,” said Jeremiah. “I’d assumed, since—”
“Do you always assume things about the women you meet?”
He tried to think of an answer, but none came to mind. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I’m sorry.”
Héloise glanced at him out of the corner of her eye before turning back to the wall. She’s not going to help us, he thought to himself. From the uneasy look on Mariya’s face, she seemed to be thinking the same thing.
“I have a friend who might be able to help you,” Héloise said, breaking the uneasy silence. “Not with a starship, of course, but with passage out of the system—and possibly more.”
“You—you do?” said Jeremiah, his heart skipping a beat.
“He’s the captain of a colony expedition,” she explained. “He stopped accepting applications almost a month ago, but I might be able to convince him to sign on a few extras. How many of you are there?”
“Just three,” said Mariya. “My parents and myself.”
Héloise nodded. “It shouldn’t be too difficult.”
“Thank you so much,” said Jeremiah, rising to his feet. “I—”
“Not so fast,” she said, turning to him with one hand on her chin, the other arm folded across her chest. “You said you wanted something from me, but you never asked if there was anything I wanted from you.”
He glanced at Mariya, who eyed him uncertainly, then back to Héloise.
She walked slowly around him, her hips swinging seductively with each step. “I’m not a married woman,” she said in a sultry voice. “I have a lover, but he comes and goes, and I have to share him with half a dozen other women whom I’ll never meet. You, on the other hand, are totally devoted to your wife—so much so that you’d take her with you across the stars.” After making a full circle, she stopped and turned to face him. “That seems so … so fascinating.”
Jeremiah swallowed, and his knees went weak. She gave him a sly, mischievous grin, and he knew exactly what she wanted.
“No,” said Mariya, stepping quickly between them. “Jeremiah is—it’s not right to expect that from him. We don’t want—”
“This isn’t about what you want, dear,” said Héloise, lifting her nose in disdain. “It’s about what he wants—and how much he really wants it.”
She ran her hand down Jeremiah’s chest, ignoring Mariya’s objections. Jeremiah’s heartbeat quickened as she undid the buttons of his vest, tracing her fingers down to his waist.
“I don’t know about this,” he said, unsure whether to pull back. “It … wouldn’t be very faithful of me.”
“Faithful?” said Héloise, toying with him. “It’s only once. She never has to know.”
He looked into her eyes, and saw something more than just desire. Beneath the carefully cultivated veneer of boredom and contempt, she was jealous of him—or, more accurately, of Noemi.
“But—but we’re committed to each other,” he stammered. “She wouldn’t want me to do this.”
“Then tell me: how much do you really love her?”
She looked him in the eye, dominating him with her stance. He shifted uneasily and fidgeted with his hands, unsure how to answer. Anything less than the truth would be insufficient—but whether that would soften her heart or fuel her petty jealousy, he didn’t know.
“I’ve committed myself to her,” he said, deciding to risk an honest answer. “I’ve refitted my ship for the both of us and promised not to leave her. When we learned that she was pregnant, I took a shitty job and worked long hours just to support the both of us. Isn’t that love?”
“Perhaps,” said Héloise, “but is it passion?”
She stepped right up to him, so that their bodies almost touched. Out of the corner of his eye, Mariya cover her mouth, her eyes wide with a mixture of shock and horror.
“I love her,” said Jeremiah, his voice soft but firm. “Please, don’t ask me to betray her.”
Héloise stared at him for a moment, then turned and walked away. “I wouldn’t ask you to make love with me, of course,” she said, as if the thought bored her. “That would be … too banal. Besides, I doubt you’re as good a lover as Samson.”
“Yes,” Jeremiah said with relief. “I’m probably not.”
“However,” she said, turning sharply, “there is something else you can give me.”
A lump rose in his throat, making him swallow. “What is it?”
“It’s just a small favor—a very harmless one. Something not difficult at all.” She licked her lips and tilted her chin down, giving him a playful look. “I want you to give me a kiss.”
“A kiss?” shrieked Mariya. “But—but Noemi—”
“Just a kiss?” he asked. “That’s all?”
“Yes,” said Héloise. “But you must kiss me like you would kiss her.”
He frowned. “Kiss you how?”
She tossed her hair back and sighed. “It cannot be just an ordinary kiss—you must make me believe that when you leave this place, you would take me with you, just as you have chosen to take her. You must make me feel that I am her.”
Jeremiah bit his lip and took in a deep breath. Off to the side, Mariya shook her head.
“Don’t do it,” she said softly. “We can find another way.”
“It’s just a kiss,” he told her. “If it’s the only way to get us back to the Outworlds …”
Héloise put her hand on his arm, pulling him to her. She looked up at him with eager anticipation, her eyes lit with the frenzy of passion.
“All right,” he said, taking her by the waist. “Like you’re her.”
He closed his eyes and leaned forward, trying to picture Noemi in his mind. Their lips touched, and the bitter taste of cigarettes shattered that illusion—but Héloise's body melded so perfectly to his that it felt only natural to continue. He reached up and gently ran his fingers through her hair, thinking of the first time he’d seen Noemi, dressed in the yellow chemise with the bare shoulders. This is for her, he told himself, and opened his mouth ever so slightly to let her in. His breath stopped, and for several moments the pounding of his heart and the sensation of Héloise’s tongue against his own drowned out everything else around him. Time slowed, and if he tried very hard, he could almost imagine that it was Noemi—a Noemi with so much experience in love and pleasure that he felt inadequate beside her.
With great reluctance, Héloise pulled back and released him. He took a deep breath and let her go, opening his eyes and blinking deliriously. She drew a finger across his lips and grinned.
“There now, that wasn’t so bad. Was it?”
Jeremiah said nothing.
“Come with me,” she said, leading them out of the front room. Mariya gave him a look of shocked disbelief, but beneath that there was something else—something that he couldn’t quite read.
“It was only a kiss,” he whispered as they walked together, following Héloise’s shimmering smart-skirt. “If it means—”
“Shh,” said Mariya. “Talk later.” From the tone of her voice, he had no doubt that they would.
* * * * *
Jeremiah turned sideways in the aisle to let Mariya step past him to the window seat. The windows on the magnetic train extended all the way up the ceiling, though, so it made little difference where either of them sat. Like all the other passengers around them, he pulled down the large shoulder restraints and secured them over his body.
“Next stop: yellow sector,” came an automated female voice over the speakers. The windows around the other passengers tinted to display targeted advertisements for cybernetic enhancements and other specialty goods, but since he and Mariya weren’t on the grid, their window remained clear. He turned and stared out at the monotonous cityscape as it passed by them, curving upward as it followed the arc of the station wheel.
“That was … a strange visit,” he said aloud, trying to draw her out. She stared out the window, unwilling to meet his eyes.
“Yeah. I guess it was.”
“At least we have a way out of the system now. I hope your parents are willing to agree to it.”
“I think they will,” she said softly.
“Warning: entering low gravity zone,” said the automated voice. “Please remain in your seats and secure your shoulder restraints. Estimated time to station hub … fif-teen minutes.”
The train slowed to a crawl, then nosed up along an incline so that Jeremiah felt as if he were lying on his back. He gripped his shoulder restraints as the train picked up speed, taking off almost vertically from the carefully manicured cityscape of blue sector. Within seconds, they passed through the overhead dome, and then they were shooting through a tube along one of the gigantic spokes of the station.
“Do you think I shouldn’t have kissed her?” he asked, glancing at Mariya for any sign of a response.
She hesitated for a moment, staring out the window without meeting his eyes. “I don’t know,” she said. “It was—I don’t know.”
“It’s not like I was going to sleep with her,” he said, gripping his restraints a little tighter. “If it had come down to that, I would have said no.”
Mariya nodded, but said nothing. Outside the window, the swirling reddish-pink mass of Madrigalna loomed high overhead, disorienting him as the train reached cruising speed and the sensation of gravity rapidly faded.
“Are you going to tell Noemi about this?” he asked.
She didn’t answer right away. He wondered if he should ask again, but when he opened his mouth, she turned to face him.
“Do you want me to tell her?”
“No,” he admitted. “Please don’t. I—I don’t want her to take it the wrong way.” I did it for her, after all.
She bit her lip and nodded, as if he were asking her to be the custodian of some great secret. He looked away, and his eyes strayed to an advertisement for a dream monitor enhancement that claimed to give women a superior sexual experience. The ad made him shake his head and stare at the back of the seat in front of him.
“I won’t tell her,” Mariya whispered.
They said nothing else for the rest of the ride.
“How is she?”
“Doing very well,” said Doctor Armin, looking up from his tablet. “She’s just starting the second trimester, and everything looks good. We should be able to tell the gender of the baby in a few weeks.”
Jeremiah held Noemi’s hand and squeezed. It’s a shame we can’t stay long enough to find out. On the examining table, Noemi glanced up and gave him a smile. Though it was hard to tell through the loose fabric of the patient’s gown, her belly was just starting to grow rounder.
“So there aren’t any problems?” he asked. “No complications that you’re expecting?”
“At the moment, no,” said the doctor, replacing the tablet in its socket on the room’s computer terminal. “It’s impossible to say for sure, of course, but her gene-scan looks fairly clean. If she eats healthy and takes good care of herself, I expect this pregnancy to progress quite well.”
Jeremiah nodded. I hope you’re right.
“In that case, there’s something you should probably know.”
He glanced at Noemi, who squeezed his hand and nodded. He took a deep breath and turned back to the doctor.
“We won’t be staying at Oriana Station much longer. The economic situation has gotten too difficult for us, and we’ve both decided it would be better to move on.”
Doctor Armin frowned. “Move on? To where?”
“Our family friends are joining a colony expedition to the Zarmina system, about ten parsecs from here. We plan to make a few trade runs and meet them along the way.”
The doctor folded his arms, his expression serious. “Does your ship have adequate medical equipment to monitor the baby’s progress? Complications can quickly become serious if you aren’t seeing a doctor at least every three weeks.”
“I know,” said Jeremiah. “We’ll make the last stage of the voyage on board the colony ship—they have everything we need to take care of her. Is there anything else we should do in the meantime?”
“Are you asking for my advice? If you are, I’d strongly urge you to stay here at Oriana Station until at least six weeks after birth. Long-term spaceflight can have many detrimental effects on a pregnancy, including miscarriage. Even if there aren’t any serious complications, without frequent checkups with a trained medical professional, anything could go wrong.”
Noemi frowned, as if to ask what was the matter. As Doctor Armin translated for her, her lips pursed, and her muscles tensed. Jeremiah put his arm around her waist to comfort her, and was gratified when she shook her head and rejected the doctor’s advice. They’d had a long discussion with Mariya’s help before coming to the checkup, and she agreed with him completely.
“There’s no way around it,” he said. “I wish we could stay, but it’s just too difficult for us. Please understand—we have to go.”
Doctor Armin let out a long breath and shook his head. “I can’t force you to stay, of course. You have every right to make this decision on your own. But if you must go, then please at least get a medibot to monitor the pregnancy.”
But we can’t afford it right now.
“We’ll get one at the next port,” said Jeremiah. “Can we go for four weeks without one?”
The doctor sighed. “I suppose. But be sure to pack plenty of fruits and vegetables—synthetics alone just won’t cut it.”
“And keep the artificial gravity set to at least three quarters of a standard Earth-gee. Any less could retard fetal development.”
Noemi leaned up against Jeremiah and put her arm around his shoulder. He gently helped her down off the examining table, keeping his hand on her waist. Her belly was already starting to bulge a little, though the change was only slight. In a few months, though, he had no doubt it would be much bigger.
“Thank you so much for your help,” he said. “We appreciate everything you’ve done for us.”
Doctor Armin smiled and nodded. “You’re very welcome. Good luck to you both, and to your child as well.”
“Thanks,” said Jeremiah, patting Noemi’s belly. He had a feeling that they were going to need it.
* * * * *
The Hope of Oriana wasn’t a pretty ship, but to Jeremiah she seemed magnificent all the same. At a little over two hundred meters long and pulling almost fifteen hundred astral tonnes before loading, she was just barely under Oriana Station’s limit for rim docking. If she’d been any larger, she would have had to dock with the Imperial battleships at the hub. Her hull was a dark brownish-gray, with a diamond-shaped cross-section that came to a blunt end at the bridge. The massive sublight engines at the rear were dwarfed by two half-dome reactors protruding from the ship’s mid-section. No doubt they helped to push back the center of mass, making the ship slightly more maneuverable than other freighters of her class. Rows of miniature portholes along the station-facing side offered a limited view of the interior: dozens of tiny bunk rooms, a shiny new mess hall, and a large rec room near the center.
Jeremiah stared down from the long, narrow windows lining the rim-side docking terminals. As the stars passed slowly outside, dozens of automated tug-bots ran supply containers to the open loading bay near the ship’s rear, while large tubes transferred water and fuel directly from the station. It wasn’t an Outworld ship, that was for sure—he wouldn’t be surprised if it used almost a thousand times more energy per jump than the Ariadne. Still, it was ships like this one that had brought his ancestors out across the starry frontier, founding settlements at forbidding alien worlds with no guarantee of even basic survival. They’d made a lot of progress since those early days, but he still couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like to live back then, when the stars were barely mapped and each new world was full of unexplored mysteries.
“Quite a ship, eh?” said Captain Elijah, a stout old man with a snowy white beard and a face carved from granite. “She might not be much to look at, but by Sol, Earth, and Luna, you won’t find any more reliable.”
“Where are the cryo-tanks?” Jeremiah asked. “Wouldn’t it be more efficient to put the colonists in suspended animation, rather than keep them awake?”
“Yes and no,” said the captain. “Cryo is good for mass transport between established settlements, but when you’re building up a place from scratch, your people need the temporary living space that a larger starship can provide.”
Jeremiah nodded. “I see. Have you done this before?”
“Colonized a new star.”
Captain Elijah nodded. “Only twice—it takes time, settling a new system. I expect this time’ll be my last.”
And my first and only.
“How long will it take to get there?” Jeremiah asked.
“Our current flight plan puts the arrival date a little more than five standard months from now. We’ll make resupply stops at Beta, Gamma, and Zeta Oriana before venturing out of the star cluster and making a straight line for the Zarmina system.”
“Can I get the detailed schedule? I plan to take the Ariadne on a couple of quick trade runs before we arrive.”
“Sure. I don’t see why that should be a problem.”
“And as for the medical facilities,” said Jeremiah, the tension evident in his voice, “do you think they’ll be enough to deliver my wife safely, or—”
Captain Elijah laughed and slapped him on the back. “Of course, of course! It’ll be our good luck baby—the first one born in the new world.”
“Our facilities are completely at your disposal,” he added. “Our chief doctor doesn’t speak Deltan, but we have a couple of midwives who do. Of course, if you prefer to run solo and meet us at Zeta Oriana for the final stretch, that should be fine too.”
“No,” said Jeremiah, “I think we’ll spend a lot of time on board with you. We’ll probably meet up at either Beta or Gamma Oriana, depending on the schedule.”
“Fair enough,” said the captain. “While you’re out there, be sure to spread the word about our new settlement. We could use as much merchant traffic as we can get.”
Captain Elijah slapped Jeremiah on the back and smiled. “There’s nothing quite like the thrill you get before setting out on a long voyage across the stars, is there?”
“No, there isn’t.”
He laughed. “Well, I’d best be getting to my post. Can’t leave without the captain, eh?”
Jeremiah grinned. “I suppose not. Take care.”
“And you too, son. We’ll see you across the heavens.”
Jeremiah watched the old starship captain walk down the terminal to his ship. He turned back to the window, staring out at the massive starship that would take them to the new world. The man is right, he thought to himself. There really isn’t anything like the thrill before setting out across the stars.
The sound of footsteps on the smooth tile floor made him turn. Mariya and Noemi walked up to him, arm in arm. As Noemi’s eyes met his own, her lips turned up in a warm smile.
“Jerem-ahra,” she said, letting go of Mariya to give him a hug. He slipped his hand around her waist and pulled her close. After a brief but tender kiss, they turned to face Mariya.
“My parents are loading the last of our belongings now,” she said, her eyes a little red. “We’ve said all our goodbyes—this is it.”
“Good. We’ll make a couple of trade runs and meet back up with you in a few weeks, probably at Gamma Oriana.”
She nodded, her body tense. “You’re going to stay with us the rest of the way?”
“Probably. Is something the matter?”
“I’m fine,” she said, looking away quickly. “It’s just—I’m never going to see this place again, am I?”
Jeremiah shook his head. Mariya bit her lip and drew in a sharp breath.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “If it’s any consolation, I know how it feels to leave everything behind.”
Noemi stepped forward and put her arms around her in a warm, sisterly hug. They exchanged softly spoken words, while tears slowly traced their lines down Mariya’s cheeks. She stepped back and wiped them away, a tremulous smile on her face.
“Did you tell her we won’t be going with you for the first part of the voyage?” Jeremiah asked.
“Yes, she knows. Until we meet again, then.”
They gave each other a quick parting hug. Mariya hesitated for a moment, and then walked quickly down the corridor toward the docking terminal. Noemi tensed a little as she watched her go, but when Jeremiah put his arm around her, she soon relaxed.
It’s just the two of us now, he realized, just like old times. As he thought a little more about it, he realized that the captain was wrong—there were some thrills even greater than setting out across the stars.
* * * * *
The lights on the Ariadne flickered and came to life as Jeremiah stepped into the old, familiar cabin of his ship. He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath, savoring the smell he knew so well. Even with the changes he’d made, he felt more at home here than at any place on Oriana Station—or anywhere else, for that matter.
Noemi walked past him and folded out one of the seats from the wall. He helped her in, fastening the restraints around her shoulders and waist. Before heading up to the cockpit, he leaned forward and gave her a quick kiss.
His heart raced as he lowered himself into the familiar contours of the pilot’s chair. The display screens, the switches and instrument panels running along the walls and ceiling, and the forward window, with its magnificent view of the swirling gas giant outside—it felt so gloriously invigorating to be back on his own ship, in his own chair. Truly, this was freedom. He leaned back and savored the moment, made all the better for knowing that he wouldn’t be making this voyage alone.
The displays and instrument panels slowly came to life as he powered up the navigational systems. The low hum reverberated through the bulkheads, telling him that the jump drive was charged and ready. Only a few minutes now, and they’d be gone from Oriana Station forever. It almost made him feel wistful—almost, but not quite.
“Attention station control,” he said, speaking into the ship’s transceiver. “This is the Ariadne, requesting permission to undock and proceed to jump point alpha.”
It took a few seconds before he received the station’s response. He gripped the flight stick and held his breath.
“Ariadne, this is station control. You are cleared to undock. Proceed to jump point alpha along the designated course.”
“Copy, station control,” he said, pulling down the docking lever. “Proceeding now.”
His stomach fell as the Ariadne detached from the station, causing the outside view to turn and spin. In the cabin, Noemi gasped in surprise, but otherwise seemed all right. Taking care to be gentle, he nosed the ship down and engaged the sublight engines. A deep rumble sounded through the bulkheads, and an invisible hand pressed him gently against his seat as they accelerated.
This is it, he thought to himself, heart racing. After checking the target coordinates, he reached over and flicked the switch to initiate jump.
A great, expansive feeling swept through him, sending chills up and down his spine. Outside, the stars seemed to swim away from him—or perhaps toward him, it was difficult to tell. In the cabin, Noemi gasped again, much louder this time. He didn’t blame her—after living on the station for so long, he’d almost forgotten how it felt. But then, the feeling passed, the starfield recrystallized, and he was back in the cockpit of the Ariadne, surrounded by all the familiar controls.
For a brief moment as he stared out at the shimmering starfield of deep space, fear stabbed at him. Noemi, Mariya, the long stay at Oriana Station—what if it had all been a dream? What if none of it had been real?
He tore off the seat restraints and scrambled back into the cabin, his heart beating like a nuclear engine in his chest. When his eyes fell on Noemi, however, sitting in her loose-fitting jumpsuit and vest, relief turned his legs to water. She looked up and gave him a quizzical smile, as if to ask what was the matter.
“Thank the stars, you’re here,” he said, helping her out of the chair. He wrapped his arms around her and gave her another kiss—firmer this time, as if to confirm that she was still real. She ran her fingers through his hair and laughed a little, making him blush and feel silly.
After a few moments, she walked past him and stepped into the cockpit. He followed her, standing by her side as she gazed out at the myriad stars.
“Home,” she said, pointing out the window. He smiled and slipped his hand around her waist, pulling her close.
“Yes,” he said, pointing with her. “Home.”
Part III: Sacrifice
The dome of Ebitha City stretched overhead like a shimmering ceiling, held up by giant pylons of steel. The dim red sun shone down through the rippling surface of the planet’s hydrosphere, only twenty meters above the glass. For a water world, the ocean was fairly shallow, especially on the vast underwater shelf where most of the settlements were located. Blue-green glowlamps lined the city’s wide boulevards, giving the place a warm, inviting feel, but the lack of vegetation put Jeremiah on edge.
This colony isn’t at all like Edenia, he thought to himself. Even though only a few standard years had passed since he’d left the domed gardens of his birth world to seek his fortune among the stars, it took an extra effort to remember the tall, shady redwoods that he’d left behind forever. He hadn’t realized that such things were a rarity in the rest of the universe—that most people lived out their lives without seeing a single tree or setting foot on a natural surface.
His wife, Noemi, held tightly to his hand as they walked down the crowded thoroughfare. Her stomach had swollen considerably in the past few weeks, indicating that her pregnancy was already well into the second trimester. She pulled back a strand of light brown hair behind her ear, glancing nervously over her shoulder at the strangely dressed men and women all around them. It was clear she felt uneasy, so he squeezed her hand and walked a little faster.
“Sa’ad m’divart?” she asked. Where are we going?
He tried to answer in her language but couldn’t find the words. “Don’t worry,” he told her. “You’ll see.”
At length, he found what he was looking for: a multipurpose robotics shop. Inside, bots of all shapes and sizes hung on racks, their polished surfaces gleaming in the warm fluorescent light. With their spindly arms and probes splayed out, they looked like crabs at the city’s bustling fish market.
“Bot,” said Noemi in her charmingly foreign accent, staring wide-eyed around her. “Many bot.”
“Yes,” said Jeremiah. “I’m getting one for you.”
“For me?” she asked, giving him a puzzled look.
“Yes, for you.”
He patted her belly, but comprehension failed to dawn on her face. She smiled curiously at him, then turned back to browsing all the high tech gear around them.
“May I help you?”
Jeremiah turned and saw a middle-aged man with an apron around his waist—no doubt one of the salesmen.
“Yes,” said Jeremiah. “We’re looking for a good compact medibot for my wife. She’s about twenty weeks pregnant.”
“A medibot, eh?” said the salesman. He turned down the aisle and motioned for them to come with him. Noemi seemed a bit reluctant, but Jeremiah put his arm around her waist and she came along.
“That’s right. What do you have?”
“You’re in luck—we received a shipment of medibots from a Coreward trader not three standard days ago. I think we have just what you’re looking for.”
He held out a smooth white disk a little wider than his hand, with a bulbous protrusion underneath it in the center. As Jeremiah reached out to lift it, the device whirred and hovered above his hand, unfolding three spindly arms. It pointed its robotic eye at Noemi, and she jumped back in fright.
“It’s okay,” he said, reassuring her with a squeeze. “It’s just a medibot.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head vigorously. “No want.”
He frowned. “You don’t want it?”
“It might look a little scary, but it’s perfectly safe,” said the salesman. He took hold of the medibot from behind, and the arms retracted as quickly as they’d appeared. Still, Noemi crossed her arms tight against her chest and shook her head.
“Noemi, we need this,” Jeremiah tried to explain. “The bot will help keep you and the baby healthy while we’re traveling in deep space. Do you understand? Healthy.”
“But Noemi, you need this.”
She shook her head, as firm and unyielding as ever. From the look in her eyes, it was clear that his words had passed right over her.
“I’m sorry,” he said, turning back to the salesman. “We, ah, need some time to discuss this in private.”
“I understand,” he said. “We’re closing in a few hours for the festival of Logan, but we should be open the dayshift after tomorrow.”
That’s too late, Jeremiah thought. By then, we’ll already be gone.
“Thank you,” he said again, leading Noemi hastily out the door. She gave him an uncertain look, as if to ask if he was angry, but he ignored it.
Outside, the steady pulse of electronic music echoed across the city. Multicolored lasers mingled with the red sunlight shining down through the glass overhead. A large crowd had gathered in a nearby square, apparently for the festival. On half a dozen pillars and stands, scantily clad priests and priestesses spun glowing balls in mesmerizing patterns, their eyes closed in religious ecstasy. The music shifted, and a large crowd began to gather in the streets, swaying rhythmically to the beat.
“Noemi,” said Jeremiah, putting both hands on her shoulders. “What’s wrong?”
“Wrong?” she asked, giving him a puzzled look.
“Bad,” he said—then, reverting to what little he knew of her language, “Ra tsudat? Aravitisi ratom—”
She shook her head vigorously. “Ara ara—no bad, no bad.”
“Then why don’t you—I mean, ratom araginda …” he gestured to the robotics shop.
Her eyes lit up with understanding. “No need,” she said. “No need, no want.”
The electronic beat picked up, making Jeremiah’s head pound. “Are you sure?” he asked, rubbing his forehead with his fingertips. “When we leave this port, it won’t be another four weeks until we get to the next one. I don’t—”
“Doctor?” she asked. “I see doctor here?”
He paused for a moment to think. “Yes, we have an appointment at the clinic later today. You still want to go, right?”
“Yes. Shen ginda?”
“Ki, ki,” she said, nodding. Yes.
He sighed and took her hand. “Very well—let’s go.”
At least she’s still willing to go in for a checkup, he thought as he led her through the crowded streets toward Ebitha City’s spaceport. Four solid weeks of travel through deep space before they reached Gamma Oriana—if there were any complications in the pregnancy, he wouldn’t be able to help her until after they arrived. That was enough to make the voyage positively nerve-racking.
The music rose in pitch, the electronic beat pulsating throughout the city of glass and steel. Noemi stayed close to Jeremiah as he navigated the crowd of worshipers swaying in a trance-like euphoria. With the blood red sun and the laser-lights shimmering all around them, he felt as far from home as he ever had.
* * * * *
Thick, red clouds covered the sunward hemisphere of New Ebitha, with a monstrous hurricane at its center. The storm covered almost half the planet, churning the boundless sea with thunderheads that towered more than twenty kilometers above the water’s surface. From the cockpit of the Ariadne, however, it looked as peaceful and as tranquil as any other view from space.
Jeremiah checked the clock in the corner of his display: a little over six hours to departure. He glanced up through the ceiling porthole at the dark gray hull of Ebitha Station, only a handful of meters from his ship. The station here was much smaller than the one at Alpha Oriana, so that the only docking space lay along a perpendicular pair of arms that extended from the hub.
I’m not going to miss this place, he thought as he cycled through the Ariadne’s diagnostics. It didn’t much seem that Noemi would either. The doctor’s visit had gone fairly well, though they’d needed a translator bot to communicate. Of course, the bot’s Deltan database was hopelessly inaccurate, so Jeremiah had been pulled in to help. Eventually, they’d had to resort to hand gestures to get the information across. At least Noemi was still healthy—he didn’t know what they’d have done if the doctor had found a problem.
Sighing, he rose to his feet and ducked through the cockpit doorway, absently running his hands along the instrument panels in the wall. She needs to be among her own people, he thought as he entered the cabin.
With the hammock stowed overhead, the space was barely wide enough for two people to sit comfortably across from each other. Noemi had unfolded a chair from the wall and sat with one of the helmet-like dream monitors on her head. Her chest rose and fell rhythmically with each breath, her slender arms limp against the armrests.
She looked so peaceful and untroubled—completely unlike him. As much as he worried about caring for her and the baby, she seemed to have an unwavering confidence that everything would turn out all right. Maybe that was because she’d already been forced to sacrifice everything, while he hadn’t.
He chuckled as he remembered how terrified she’d been when she’d first come onto the Ariadne. A famine had struck her home station, and her father had married them off just to save her life. As two complete strangers, they hadn’t even been able to speak the same language. How much all that had changed in the last five months! With all the feelings that they now shared for each other, it was safe to say that things had worked out pretty well for them both.
He reached up and pulled the second dream monitor down from the ceiling compartment. After unfolding the second chair and sitting down, he slipped it over his head and inserted the neural jacks into the socket at the base of his neck. As the machine hummed to life, he settled back into the chair with his hands in his lap—
—and then he was in a wide open meadow, with a blue sky overhead and thick green grass that came nearly up to his waist.
“Noemi?” he shouted, peering around the verdant landscape of the simulation. He found her sitting on a cluster of boulders about a hundred meters away, leaning back with her feet dangling over the edge. She wore a white, flowing dress with a light blue sash around her waist and a garland of flowers across her brow. Her stomach was swollen several times larger than in real life, indicating just how much she was looking forward to the baby.
“Noemi,” he said, walking up to her. She smiled radiantly at him, and for a moment he forgot all about Ebitha City and her refusal of the medibot. But then, she patted her pregnant belly, reminding him.
“We can’t go on like this,” he said, running his fingers through her hair.
She gazed up at him with her deep green eyes, but it was clear that she didn’t understand what he was talking about. Sighing, he held out his hand and concentrated on the image of the medibot from his memory. A short while later, it hovered above his outstretched fingers, its spidery arms extended.
Noemi frowned and shook her head. “No,” she said, waving her hand. “No need—no want.” The medibot vanished like a puff of smoke in the breeze.
“Ratom?” Jeremiah asked. “You need something. How else am I supposed to take care of you?”
Noemi closed her eyes and took a deep breath. For a brief moment, the meadow around them changed to the robotics shop on the surface of New Ebitha, the deep red sunlight shining through the glass dome overhead. Jeremiah turned his head and saw himself and Noemi, standing next to the salesman. The medibot hovered in the air between them and extended its three spindly arms, and the image of Noemi shrieked and pushed it away, much as she had in real life. A bolt of fear shot through him—fear of having his body invaded by insects, or by spiders. Moments later, the image disappeared, and they were back in the grassy meadow with the open blue sky all around them.
Whoa, Jeremiah thought to himself. The user-generated image had looked so real, and yet Noemi didn’t even have to go into creative mode to build it. The fear he’d felt had been hers—she’d conveyed it directly to him through the simulation.
“You angry?” Noemi asked, giving him an apologetic look. He sighed and shook his head, coming back to the present.
“No,” he said. “I’m not angry. I’m just worried.”
She laughed innocently, smiling at him with her eyes as she dangled her legs over the edge of the rock. “Afraid? Ratom?”
He sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m just being stupid. You know how to take care of yourself, right? Shen vitis rogor vard, uh—vard magari, ki?”
“Ki, ki,” she said. “Jerem-ahra no afraid—I be strong.”
“But what if there’s a problem? What if I can’t help you?”
“Help no far. See doctor here, see doctor there, if need can go. Find home soon, yes?”
He shook his head and paced the ground in front of her. “Home?” he muttered. “Soon—yes, soon.”
She leaned forward and slipped down from her perch on the boulder, one hand under her belly for support. He helped her down, and she stepped a short distance away before turning and looking him in the eye.
“No … no afraid,” she said, struggling for words. “Look—home.”
A stiff breeze blew between them, tossing her hair, and the landscape shifted. Instead of a meadow, they now sat at the base of a large crater, with shrubs growing all along the edges. Behind them, a forest of giant redwood trees loomed like ancient sentinels, silent witnesses to the passage of generations and ages. A flood of barely suppressed emotion flooded through him—hers as well as his own.
“Home,” he said, closing his eyes and raising his hand. He tried very hard to focus on an image of Noemi’s birthplace, but the memories were hard to catch.
“Home?” she asked, and with that one word the simulation shifted to an old, musty corridor packed to the walls with people. She took his hand and led him past a long row of doors, each with a smoldering stick of incense and an icon of some saint on the lintel. Together, they walked over to a wide observation window that ran along the other side.
Jeremiah recognized the place at once: Megiddo Station, the main settlement at the Delta Oriana system where they had met. Though Noemi was smiling, a residue of sadness accentuated the mold in the ventilation ducts and the cracks in the walls and floor. Even though she had grown up here, she would never be able to go back.
Just like him.
“Home,” she said again, pointing out the window at the night side of a virgin terrestrial world. As he watched, the yellow sun crept up over the horizon, shining through the upper atmosphere in rich hues of red and orange. He squinted as the twilight crescent gave way to the brilliant light of day. Below, giant snow capped mountains gave way to rolling foothills and rich green plains. Long blue tendrils of meandering rivers stretched hundreds of kilometers to the ocean. Speckled clouds covered the verdant landscape, catching his breath with their beauty. For a brief moment he felt as if he’d stepped out of the simulation and into a dreamlike reality.
“Home?” Noemi asked again, looking up at him expectantly.
“Yes,” he said softly. “One can only hope.”
“Hope,” she repeated, patting her belly. From the potent mix of emotions that filled the simulation, it was clear that she knew the meaning of the word.
* * * * *
As Noemi slept gently in his arms, Jeremiah lay back, trying in vain to fall asleep. He shifted, rocking the hammock a little, but his thoughts still kept him awake.
It was clear that they couldn’t go on like this forever. They’d both made some progress in learning each others’ language, but it wasn’t enough, and he didn’t know how to teach himself any more. Deltan was one of the more obscure Outworld dialects, and the auto-translate database was only of limited help. When it had just been the two of them, it hadn’t been much of a problem, but now with a baby on the way, they were going to have to find a better way to communicate.
He thought on the voyage they had ahead of them. Gamma Oriana was only four light-years away, but it would take at least twenty standard days to cross that distance, pushing the Ariadne to the limit. They would have to be fast, though, if they were to rendezvous with the Hope of Oriana before it departed for Zeta Oriana. Their Deltan friends would help Noemi through the final stages of her pregnancy and teach him some more of her language. Until then, it was just the two of them.
Noemi moaned and shifted beside him. Without thinking, Jeremiah stroked her back until she sighed and settled down again, nestling her head on his chest. Language barrier or not, there was a closeness they shared that didn’t require words—an understanding that came through intimacy alone. In the vast, lonely void between stars, the Ariadne became an island in the midst of a starry sea, where all of the petty ugliness of human society seemed distant and far removed. Without any eyes to judge them, was it any wonder that they had come to share such a bond? And yet, with the baby on the way, even that wasn’t going to be enough.
Noemi’s chest rose and fell against his own, calming his troubled thoughts somewhat. He stroked her back again and ran his other hand across her stomach. When he thought of the changes that would soon come into their lives, he felt as if they were jumping into uncharted space, with no reliable way to triangulate their position. Despite her quiet confidence that everything would be all right, he wasn’t quite so sure.
Jeremiah closed his eyes as the Ariadne made the final jump to the Gamma Oriana system. As the ship passed through jumpspace, a mildly disorienting wave of nausea swept over him. For a moment, he felt as if the universe were collapsing on a point at the center of his chest. He gripped the armrests of his chair and squeezed, but just as the pressure reached a breaking point, his stomach flipped and the feeling passed.
He opened his eyes and squinted to avoid staring directly into the orange light of Gamma Oriana, a K-class star. Off to starboard, a yellow crescent gas giant shone bright in the light of its sun, framed by a magnificent set of rings. According to the Gaian Imperial catalog, the planet was Chronos, and the rings were shepherded by three major moons, one large enough to support an atmosphere of methane and carbon dioxide. Known to the locals as B’tum, it was home to one of the most thriving settlements in the Oriana star cluster.
Jeremiah had never been to the surface, but as a young boy, he’d learned all about the terraforming project started hundreds of years ago by a band of New Earthers from Gaia Nova. It reminded him of his birth world at Edenia, where a similar project had failed. To think that this one might succeed and create a new Earth—not just a botanical garden, but an entire world of lush, green life—it almost made him want to settle down and give up the starfaring life forever. Of course, the world would never blossom in his lifetime, though perhaps one of his sons would live to see it.
One of his sons—the thought was truly staggering.
As he checked the scanners to triangulate his position relative to the planet’s navigational beacons, Noemi stepped in from the cabin. With one hand on her belly, she stared out the window at the planetary vista outside.
“Attention, starfarer vessel. This is Chronos port authority,” came a scratchy voice over the radio. “Your signal identifies you as the light freighter Ariadne, arriving from Beta Oriana. Is this correct?”
“Affirmative, port authority,” said Jeremiah, leaning into the microphone. “We’re looking for the Hope of Oriana. Have they arrived yet?”
Pause. He stared at the crescent world outside the forward window, while Noemi put a hand on his shoulder.
“Copy, Ariadne,” came the voice. “We have a ship by that name docked at the L2 station not far from your current position. Would you like us to direct you there?”
“Yes, I would.”
“Copy. Stand by while we calculate your flight plan.”
Jeremiah sighed in relief and leaned back in his chair, waiting for the port authority to transmit the orbital flight plan. Next to him, Noemi pointed out the window.
“Friends?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “We’re going to see our friends soon.”
Her eyes lit up. “See friends good.”
“Yes,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it too.”
* * * * *
The Hope of Oriana was an old colony ship on the final voyage of a long and tired career. Her durasteel hull was darkened from long exposure to cosmic radiation and pocked from countless micro-meteorite impacts. The sublight engines and half-dome reactors took up most of the ship’s massive bulk, leaving barely enough living space for the two hundred some-odd colonists bound for the new world. As Jeremiah brought the Ariadne up to dock with the aging ship, he caught glimpses of the newly refurbished interior through the long rows of portholes. It looked comfortable enough, but crowded—every room was occupied.
Noemi waited eagerly by the airlock as they docked, beaming with excitement. He shuffled sideways past her and palmed the door open, leading the way through.
Jeremiah stepped aside as a dark-haired girl about Noemi’s age ran past him and gave her half a dozen kisses on the cheek.
“It’s good to see you, Mariya.”
“You too,” she said, breaking away from Noemi to greet him with a hug. Moments later, the two girls were chatting in Deltan as eagerly as if it had been years instead of weeks since they’d last seen each other.
Jeremiah turned to Mariya’s father, who waited for them by the wall. A tall, middle-aged man with sharp features and a clean-shaven face, he nodded as he extended his hand.
“Glad to see you made it.”
“Thanks, Jakob,” said Jeremiah, giving him a handshake that soon turned into a shoulder hug. “It’s good to see you too.”
“Had a good trade run?”
“Yeah, the Betan market for electronics is still as hot as ever. You wouldn’t happen to know the local price of fish, would you?”
Jakob shook his head and smiled. “Sorry, friend—it’s been years since I gave up the starfaring life. But seeing you sure brings back memories.”
“Quite right—quite right!” came a booming voice from out in the corridor. A stout old man with a white beard and a sharp gray uniform ducked his head through the hatchway.
“Captain Elijah?” said Jeremiah, frowning in surprise. “What are you doing here?”
“You didn’t think I’d let you both onto my ship without coming down to welcome you aboard, did you?” the captain said, slapping him heartily on the back. “I know you’re anxious to get to B’tum Station and unload your cargo, but before you do, I thought I’d come down and give you a quick tour of the ship.”
Jeremiah glanced at Noemi and Mariya, who nodded. “Sure,” he said. “That would be great.” If the Hope of Oriana was going to be their home for the next few months, why not?
“Of course, of course,” said Elijah. “Right this way.”
He ducked back through the hatchway and set off down the corridor at a brisk pace, forcing the rest of them to hustle. Jakob kept to the rear, while Mariya took Noemi’s arm and walked past Jeremiah, shooting him a quick smile.
“The Hope of Oriana was originally built as an old Imperial freighter,” Captain Elijah explained, “though before she was decommissioned and sold, she was operating as a third class passenger liner in the frontier stars. When she came to us, we refurbished her to serve as a private colony ship.”
They passed a small group of crew members in the hallway, three young men and one young woman, all wearing identical navy-blue jumpsuits. Space was tight, so they had to turn sideways to get past each other. Jeremiah grabbed a handhold on the wall and noticed that the floors were slightly wider than the ceiling. It was an older design, more common in the stars closer to the Imperial core.
“Normally, we try to keep the crew and passengers from getting too cozy,” said the captain. “Since this is the Hope’s final voyage, though, the separation isn’t too rigorously enforced. I’ve set up a biweekly post rotation to give the chartered crew a chance to mingle a bit, as well as give the colonists some training in case it becomes necessary for them to fill in.”
“I just came off of communications,” Mariya interjected. “It was fun!”
Jeremiah nodded. As an Outworlder, he’d never been on a ship large enough to take on more than a couple dozen people, so the distinction between crew and passengers felt disorienting. It was like being on a station with dim lights and unusually narrow corridors.
They stepped through another hatchway into a control room. Almost two dozen chairs faced an array of instruments that stretched from floor to ceiling. When full, it would have been a tight squeeze to get through, but the only other people in the room were two women taking instructions from a young crewman. He stood up from his chair and saluted.
“Good upshift, Captain.”
“Good upshift to you, Corporal Sanders,” said Elijah, stopping for a moment. “Everything going well?”
“Very well, sir. I was just finishing up with our training session before mess.”
“Good, good. Carry on.”
The women were young, about Jeremiah’s age. They eyed him and Noemi curiously, but he didn’t recognize either of them. Besides Mariya and her parents, Captain Elijah was the only one on the Hope of Oriana whom he actually knew. He nodded to the trainees, trying hard not to feel out of place.
“We run a tight ship,” said the captain as he led them through another hatchway. “We have to, seeing how many people we have to support. The treatment and recycling systems alone are enough to keep ten men busy both shifts.”
“Both shifts?” Jeremiah asked.
“That’s right: we’re on a two twelve-hour schedule, with 92 percent of the bunks filled to capacity at any given time. The lounges and rec hall have a maximum capacity of about thirty each, which is barely enough to service anyone who isn’t on duty.”
Not a lot of personal space.
“This is the mess hall,” the captain continued, motioning to the room on the other side of the next hatchway. “It’s the main gathering place on the ship, as well as where we take our meals. I prefer to keep the meal shifts as large as possible—helps to build camaraderie and boost morale.”
Compared to everything else they’d seen so far, the mess hall was positively gigantic. Three rows of stainless steel benches lined either side, each large enough for at least ten or fifteen people. Portholes in the walls gave enough of a view to make the place feel roomy, while bright LEDs kept the space well-lit. Two crew members with white aprons wiped down the tables in preparation for the next meal, while two others set out stacks of trays at the head of a buffet-style serving line.
“Is the food here synthesized?” Jeremiah asked.
“Most of it,” said Elijah, “though we plan to build a hydroponics farm as soon as we arrive at Zarmina. Until then, it’s just stores and sythmeal.”
We’d better stock up at B’tum while we can, then, Jeremiah thought to himself.
Captain Elijah led them out the back end of the mess hall and into another long corridor, this one with people dressed mostly in simple civilian clothes. Just a few steps from the hatchway, they stopped at a door marked with a large white cross within a red heart—the universal symbol for medicine. Noemi gave Jeremiah a glance as the captain palmed the door open.
“This is our medical bay,” he said, ushering them all inside. “It’s not exactly state of the art, but it’s stocked with just about everything you might need—and what we don’t have, we can fabricate or synthesize easily enough on our own.”
The bay was a lot smaller than a typical station-side clinic, but the facilities were clean and well-organized. An examining table lay folded up on the right, while rows of cabinets and compartments filled the wall on the far side. It wasn’t much, but it was definitely more than what they had on the Ariadne.
The doctor was a tall, thin man, with short black hair and an impeccably clean lab-coat. He stood from his computer terminal at the far end of the room as they entered.
“Good upshift, Captain,” he said. “How may I be of service?”
“Don’t mind me, doctor—I’m just showing our newest passengers around the ship.”
“Hi,” said Jeremiah, extending his hand. “My name is Jeremiah, and this is my wife, Noemi.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said the doctor, smiling graciously as they shook hands. “I’m Doctor Andreson, but you may call me Ian.”
“Thanks.” Noemi nodded in greeting as Mariya translated for her.
“My wife is pregnant,” Jeremiah explained. “She’s due just before we arrive at Zarmina. Can you take care of her?”
Doctor Andreson smiled. “Of course! This is a colony ship, after all. There are six nurses aboard the ship, and two of them are trained midwives. Between the seven of us, I’m sure we’ll be able to take care of her.”
“What if there are complications?”
“I assure you, Mr. Jeremiah, we are trained professionals who are thoroughly prepared for any contingency. I’ve delivered more than two hundred healthy babies on half a dozen worlds in the course of my career, many of them under much more trying circumstances than what we have here. Trust me—your wife is in good hands on this ship.”
“I have every confidence in Doctor Andreson,” said the captain, putting a hand on Jeremiah’s shoulder. “This is the second voyage he’s been with us, and I must say he’s one of the best I’ve seen.”
Jeremiah let out a long breath and nodded. He felt as if a heavy burden had been lifted from his shoulders, leaving him a little lightheaded.
“In any case, on to the rest of the ship!”
Noemi gave Jeremiah a reassuring smile as they stepped back into the corridor. For the first time in months, her quiet confidence now seemed justified.
“You’ll find engineering and recycling back near the reactors,” said the captain. “Those are the only crew posts south of this part of the ship. Everything else is passenger quarters—bunk rooms, dream center, wash and shower units, even an observation deck. But first, the rec hall.”
He led them into a small gymnasium where a group of young men were playing a game of rocketball. Judging from the way the players bounded off the walls for some truly stunning leaps, the artificial gravity was different here than the rest of the ship. The system sun shone dimly through one of the many windows on the ceiling, peppered like skylights to make the place feel more open than it really was.
“The younger kids like to use the hall for sports and games,” said Elijah. “They’ve even organized a tournament. But when they haven’t scheduled the place, we have plenty of other equipment you can use: treadmills, bikes, and weight machines. Everyone is required to spend thirty minutes per dayshift in some form of exercise. Those who skip get assigned to recycling.”
“Does it have to be strenuous?” asked Jeremiah. “I mean, what if Noemi’s pregnancy makes it difficult?”
The captain waved his hand as if to brush the question away. “If the doctor advises it, I’m sure we can make an exception in your case. I may run a tight ship, but I don’t expect you to act like robots.”
“Besides,” said Mariya, “walks during a pregnancy are healthy and good, and not a problem unless she’s bedridden by doctor’s orders.”
Right, thought Jeremiah, shrinking back a little. What do I know? Apparently, when it came to pregnancy, not that much. He looked sheepishly at Noemi, who shrugged.
“Next up, the dream center,” said the captain. He led them across the hall to a room almost as large as the gymnasium, except without the windows. Inside, ergonomic reclining chairs radiated outward from half a dozen cylindrical computer cores. All but a few of the chairs were filled, some with children who couldn’t be much older than ten. Wires hung like tinsel from the ceiling, while only the hum of the ventilation system broke the silence.
“This is where most of us come during our off time,” Captain Elijah explained. “We’re required to do at least three hours a day, but most of us do more than that. Helps keep us sane, you know.”
“Yes,” said Jeremiah. After spending almost a year flying solo across the lonely void between stars, he knew all too well.
Noemi began speaking quickly, and Mariya raised her hand to catch the captain’s attention. “She wants to know the model and specifications of the simulators.”
He frowned. “To be honest, I don’t exactly know. We installed most of them at the Tajjur system, but that was almost twenty standard years ago. If you’d like, I can get you in touch with the officer on duty.”
Noemi nodded as Mariya translated, then spoke again. “She wants to know what sort of neural augmentations the simulators support, and whether there’s enough free memory to support large-scale rewriting of the simulations.”
“The answer to the last one is no,” said the captain. “With over two hundred crew and passengers, we just don’t have enough capacity to justify that. However, our simulators support every major sub-neural OS, so if you have the drivers, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
“You need?” said Noemi. She opened her mouth to speak, then turned to Mariya to clarify.
“She wants to know if you need another programmer,” Mariya translated.
Jeremiah frowned, while Captain Elijah shrugged. “I don’t see why not. As long as the doctor clears it, I’m sure we can work something out.”
That means we’re going to have a lot less time together, Jeremiah thought. Not that that was a bad thing—there certainly wasn’t much for her to do on the Ariadne, so the change was probably for the best. Still, in this strange place crowded with people he didn’t know, he couldn’t help but worry that things would get lonely without her.
One of the nearby women sat up from her chair and yawned as she took off her dream monitor. It took a second for him to recognize her, but when Jakob walked over and helped her to her feet, he realized that she was Salome, Mariya’s mother.
Jakob greeted her in Deltan and helped her to her feet. She was a short, plump woman, with jet black hair and a large, round nose. Her face, which had probably once been pretty, was creased and worn from hard work. Still, her smile was not unpleasant.
“Hello,” she said, pronouncing the foreign word with some difficulty. Mariya gave her a warm hug, while Noemi, a little shy, waited for Jeremiah to greet her before doing the same. The four of them were soon chatting merrily in Deltan, kissing each other on the cheeks and putting their arms around each other.
“Some family, eh?” said Captain Elijah. “You know what those Deltans say—a strong family shines brighter than all the stars.”
“Yes,” said Jeremiah. “Though I guess after this voyage, we’ll all be family in one sense or another.”
Elijah laughed. “Quite right,” he said, slapping Jeremiah heartily on the back. “Where we’re going, it’s not just blood that makes a family.”
* * * * *
Jeremiah watched from the doorway of the bunk room as the three women chatted while making up the beds. The bureaucratic hassles with the Gamman customs office had kept him busy all day, and he felt more than ready for some rest. Fortunately, the two young couples that shared the room had just barely left for the downshift cycle. Sharing the bunks felt a little odd, but Noemi didn’t seem to have a problem with it. It would be better for her here than on the Ariadne, and Jeremiah didn’t want to spend the nightshifts on his own ship alone.
“Here,” said Jakob from behind. “Do you need help carrying anything out from the Ariadne?”
“Not really,” said Jeremiah, turning around. “We’ve just got a few personal belongings. I can get it myself.”
Jakob laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently. “Well, let me help you anyway. I insist.” He said something to the women in Deltan, and all three of them nodded in assent, especially Mariya.
Once in the hallway, Jeremiah turned to Jakob and gave him a puzzled look. The sound of the women quickly faded, while passengers and crew slipped past them.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“We need to talk,” said Jakob, motioning for him to lead the way.
Jeremiah’s heart sank as they stepped through the hatchway toward the crew section and docking bays. His mind raced, trying to figure out what Jakob wanted to talk with him about. Had he acted inappropriately toward Mariya? Violated some Deltan norm that he didn’t yet know about? He mentally retraced his steps since arriving at the Hope of Oriana, but couldn’t think of anything that would warrant a private reprimand. Of course, that only made him worry all the more.
They walked in silence through the mess hall and control rooms, stopping at the airlock that led to the Ariadne. He punched the password code on the access panel and led the way through. Once inside, the door hissed shut behind them, cutting them off from the others.
“Is anything the matter?” he asked, stepping into the cabin of his starship. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No, not at all,” said Jakob. “Please, have a seat.”
It seemed a bit odd for a guest to offer up the seats like he owned the place. Jeremiah unfolded the chair on the far end of the cabin, while Jakob unfolded the other and sat down facing him.
“Nice place,” he said, taking some time to admire the ship. “A bit cozy, but not much more than the Hope of Oriana. I see you’ve dismantled whatever cot used to be here.”
“I took it out to make more room,” Jeremiah said quickly. “We sleep on a hammock now—it’s stowed in one of the upper compartments.”
Jakob nodded in admiration. “Clever. A very practical solution, given the limitations.”
What’s he trying to get at? Jeremiah wondered to himself.
“I try my best,” he said. “It’s hard sometimes, but Noemi and I understand each other well enough to get by.”
“That’s very good. You’re a good man.”
Jakob touched his fingertips together and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, looking Jeremiah in the eye.
Here it comes.
“You and I both know what it means to be starfarers,” he began. “We shouldn’t have much difficulty understanding each other. It takes a certain degree of toughness to live between the stars—a knowledge of one’s duty and a willingness to make sacrifices for the good of the whole.”
“I suppose so,” said Jeremiah, shifting uneasily. “Thankfully, things haven’t been too difficult.”
“On the contrary—you’ve had quite a few challenges and have risen to them admirably. Take Noemi, for example. A lesser man would have abandoned her, or sold her into slavery, or done any of a hundred other unspeakable things. There is no law in the Outworlds, after all: only the promises we make with each other.”
“Where are you going with this?” Jeremiah blurted. “I’m sorry, I—”
“No no, that’s quite all right,” said Jakob, patting him on the knee. “I can see you’re nervous, so I’ll get right to the point.”
He paused for a moment and glanced away, clearly finding it difficult to breach the subject.
“It’s about my daughter,” he said. “I love her very much, and I want only the best for her. More than anything else, she deserves a good man who knows how to appreciate her.”
Jeremiah frowned. “Appreciate her?”
“Yes. When we lived at Alpha Oriana with the rest of the family, she was engaged to a distant relative of her mother’s. Now that they’ve all gone Coreward, though, all that has changed. Here on the Hope of Oriana, her prospects don’t look good—and even if they did, I don’t know if I’d trust her with any of these young men anyway.”
“So wait,” said Jeremiah, waving his hand for a time out. “You want me to—what? Marry your daughter?”
Jakob smiled. “That is precisely what I want.”
“But I’m already married!”
“My friend,” he said, patting Jeremiah on the knee again, “I am sure you have heard how, in the old days when our forefathers left the Coreward Stars, it fell upon certain upstanding men to care for more than one woman. Are we not in the same position now? Pioneers, traveling to a virgin world on the edge of settled space?”
“How does Mariya feel about this?”
“Very well. She actually approached me first about it, before I could suggest it to her.”
Jeremiah swallowed as flashbacks of the fateful meeting with Noemi’s father raced across his mind. It was happening to him all over again—stumbling into a marriage without hardly knowing how it had happened. A wave of nausea rose up in his stomach, and he felt as if the walls were closing in on him. Just when everything seemed to be coming together, it all had to spin back out of his control.
“What if I say no?”
Jakob’s face darkened briefly, eclipsed by a look of desperation—or perhaps anger. He took a deep breath and let it out as a sigh.
“Would you really refuse her? Surely you understand how isolated we’ll be at Zarmina, once we settle there.”
That’s true, Jeremiah thought as he fidgeted nervously. Not only was that bad for Mariya, it was bad for him and Noemi. There weren’t any other Deltans on the colony expedition—if his refusal caused a rift between them and Mariya’s family, the resulting animosity could be poisonous.
“Besides,” Jakob continued, “why wouldn’t you want to marry my daughter? Your wife and she are practically best friends already, and she’d certainly be able to help with your language issues. It’s best for everyone, really.
“Noemi and I can speak with each other just fine,” Jeremiah said under his breath. It was a weak objection, one that he knew wasn’t true. From the face Jakob made as he raised his eyebrow, he clearly didn’t believe it either.
“Please try not to be selfish. It might seem like a difficult thing to you now, but I promise my daughter will be good to you both.”
What’s that supposed to mean? Jeremiah almost asked. Instead, he took a deep breath and said nothing. As much as he wanted to object, he didn’t want to turn the discussion into an argument. That wouldn’t help anyone.
Jakob grunted and rose to his feet. “I don’t expect you to give me your answer right now, of course. We’ve still got time—we’re not at Zarmina yet.”
“No, we’re not.”
“I do hope you’ll consider it seriously, though. If you do, I think you’ll see that the circumstances here aren’t so different from the ones that led you to your first wife.”
But I have feelings for Noemi that I don’t for Mariya, Jeremiah wanted to say. Though he had to admit, those feelings had only come with time. Perhaps—
No. Even thinking about it felt like a betrayal.
“Until you do get back to me,” Jakob asked, “what do you want me to tell Mariya?”
Jeremiah blinked and came back to the present. “Tell her?”
“Tell her … tell her I—”
“Tell her that I’ll talk with her myself,” said Jeremiah. After I’ve had some time to figure out what to say.
Jakob smiled. “Very good. I’ll tell her to expect your answer soon.” He took Jeremiah’s hand and gave him a firm handshake, as if they’d just made a deal.
Wait! Jeremiah wanted to say. I didn’t say that I’d tell her yes. But even if he gave voice to his concerns, he doubted that Jakob was going to take no for an answer.
The walls and floors of B’tum station bent sharply upward, creating the illusion of a giant bowl. The smell of leather hung thick in the air, while traders on all sides haggled with customers and shouted out the merits of their wares. Space was at a premium, so every square meter was filled with booths and stalls, vendors hanging their goods from floor to ceiling even in the main thoroughfare.
Jeremiah drifted alone in the crowd, scoping out the market as he fingered the data chit from the sale of his Betan fish. Only a couple of days before the Hope of Oriana left for Zarmina—he had to choose his purchases wisely, since it would be a long while before they came to another thriving settlement like this. Most of the stalls were filled with produce: brightly colored fruit and vegetables from the terraformed surface, and large, bloody carcasses dangling from hooks in the ceiling. Others carried leather products, such as boots, belts, and other articles of clothing. Here and there, he caught sight of the larger booths that catered in bulk to starfarers and free traders, but for the first time since he’d left Edenia, they held little interest for him. He was on a colony expedition now, not a trade run—there was no need to maximize his profits or speculate on prices at other stars.
As he walked downspin along the unnaturally steep curvature of the station walkway, a familiar face flashed briefly into view amid the crowd. Cropped black hair, a small round nose, lips curled up at the edges—where did he know that face? He froze where he stood, nearly causing a collision behind him. A name was on the tip of his tongue—
“Amos!” he shouted.
Heads around him turned, but none of them was anyone he recognized. For a moment, he wondered if he’d made a fool of himself for nothing. But then, the familiar face came back into view, eyes lighting up almost immediately.
“Jeremiah! Is that really you?”
“Of course it’s me!”
The two of them embraced, heedless of the crowd of strangers around them. Jeremiah was so happy, he didn’t even care. He hadn’t seen his old friend since they had both been children, back on their birth world at Edenia. Almost five standard years had passed since Amos had set out across the stars, but he didn’t look any different than the day he’d left. From the broad smile on his face, Jeremiah could tell he was glad to see him too.
“Where have you been?” Amos asked, slapping him on the back.
“Where have I been? Where have you been?”
“Where haven’t I been—that’s the real question. But come on, let’s go someplace where we can talk.”
Jeremiah followed him through the crowded marketplace to a small hole-in-the-bulkhead cantina. Two old men played chess on a flickering holoboard, while an old woman in a shawl sat in the doorway, staring off at nothing in particular. Amos and Jeremiah squeezed past her into a hazy, smoke-filled establishment, taking their seats at the bar.
“Two glasses and a bottle of Terran Red,” said Amos, slapping down his credit chit. “And make it your finest.”
“Wine?” said Jeremiah. “I don’t know—”
“Hey, it’s not every day that you run into an old friend halfway across the Outworlds. Besides, this particular vintage is a Gamman specialty—you really should try it.”
Jeremiah nodded, while the man behind the counter took the credit chit and went into a small alcove. Moments later, he came out with a dark glass bottle and two ceramic glasses. Amos sat down at the bar and poured the wine with a flourish, while Jeremiah took a seat in the corner next to him.
“This blend is from the Kavkaz Mountains, back on old Earth,” said Amos. “If the legends are true, it’s one of the oldest varieties in existence. Of course, here at B’tum, we grow it pure—no xenobiotic fusion. Try some.”
Jeremiah took the glass and lifted it to his lips. The alcohol was strong—so strong, it felt like a fire in his mouth. But the taste was absolutely delicious. He rolled it around on his tongue for as long as he could bear, blinking long after he’d swallowed.
“Wow,” he said. “That’s some good stuff.”
“Yeah—I could really get used to it.”
Amos laughed and slapped him on the back. “So could I, my friend. In fact, you could say that I already have.”
“Yeah,” said Amos. He took a long drink and sighed as he set down his glass. “You know about the local terraforming project?”
“A little,” said Jeremiah. “I heard it’s going pretty well.”
“More than that—it’s one of the most successful projects of its kind this side of Gaia Nova. Engineers from as far away as Tajjur and Karduna are coming to study what we’ve accomplished—and that’s not the least of it. With the main phase less than a hundred years from completion, there’s been a huge influx of New Earthers from all across the Outworlds. They’re even talking about building a second temple here!”
Jeremiah smiled at the excitement in his friend’s eyes. Inwardly, though, he found it difficult to share the same enthusiasm. Edenia II had shown much of the same promise before the ecological collapse. Even though the disaster had happened well before he was born, he still remembered the priests and priestesses giving long sermons about how the project had failed because of the sins of the planet’s inhabitants.
“That’s great,” he said, taking another sip. “So I take it you’ve decided to settle down here?”
Amos nodded and leaned forward. “This world is amazing, Jeremiah. You really should stay long enough for me to show you around. We’re building a new Eden—we really are.”
“Have you found a girl to settle down with? Any plans to start a family?”
“Not yet,” said Amos, “but I’m sure that will come. How about yourself? Has any girl from the Oriana Cluster caught your eye?”
Jeremiah chuckled. “You could say that. She’s actually here with me—we’re expecting a baby in just a few months.”
“Really?” said Amos. He slapped the bar in surprise, drawing glances from across the room. “How did that happen?”
“It’s … a long story.”
“So tell me! I’ve got as much time as you.”
Jeremiah was a little hesitant at first, but his friend was so eager that it soon came spilling out of him. He started with the fateful run to Delta Oriana—how the station master at Megiddo Station had begged him to choose one of his daughters in order to save her life. Before he’d known what was happening, he and Noemi had been married off. Since neither of them spoke the same language, things had been awkward at first, but once they’d warmed up to each other, it was hard to remember how he’d ever lived without her. He then told Amos about their stay at Oriana Station, how they’d met Mariya and her family, and how they’d learned a short time later that Noemi was pregnant. Things hadn’t worked out for them there, so after arranging passage for their friends on the Hope of Oriana, they’d set out again, making a few trades before rendezvousing at Gamma Oriana.
“Amazing,” said Amos, snapping his fingers in delight. “I didn’t think you had it in you. Well done, my friend—very well done.”
“So what are your plans now?”
Jeremiah shrugged. “My wife’s friends are going with the other colonists to Zarmina, so that’s where we’re going as well. I expect we’ll settle down there with them.”
“Why Zarmina? Why not here?”
He blinked and frowned. The thought had already occurred to him, but until that moment, it hadn’t really seemed like a possibility.
“I don’t know. Do you have any doctors or midwives here who could help with the pregnancy?”
“Of course we do! We’re not a ghost station, after all. And there’s plenty of room for your friends as well.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Jeremiah. “They’re going to Zarmina—”
But what if they didn’t? What if they all left the Hope of Oriana and settled down at B’tum instead? There were a lot more people here at Gamma Oriana than were bound for Zarmina—lots of single young men for Mariya to choose from.
“Is there a Deltan community in this system?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said Amos, stiffening a little. “Most of us are New Earthers from out near the Coreward Stars. I don’t share all their prejudices, of course—” he put his arm around Jeremiah’s shoulder, “—but if your friends are willing to convert, there shouldn’t be any problems at all!”
So there’s just as much animosity towards Deltans here as there was at Alpha Oriana, Jeremiah thought to himself. The wine seemed to clear his head and make him think faster, though his friend was already starting to get tipsy.
“Well, I don’t know if it’s fair to ask them to do that,” he said, remembering the cross that Noemi always wore. “My wife’s pretty devout, and—”
“What do you mean, it isn’t fair? Aren’t you still a believer?”
“Of course,” he said, more to avoid an argument than anything else. “In any case—”
“God our Father goes by many names,” said Amos, quoting the New Earth Bible, “but our Mother is Holy Earth. For six thousand years, she nurtured us in the midst of the starry deep, until we betrayed and defiled her. For this terrible sin, the Father cast us out of paradise.”
“I know, I know.” And that’s why all of us who wander the stars are unworthy.
Amos pulled out a pendant from beneath his shirt—the green leaf and rocket ship, emblems of New Earth. He held it to his lips and kissed it, closing his eyes in worshipful veneration. For several uncomfortable seconds, he sat as still as a statue, oblivious to everything around him. Jeremiah thought about putting a hand on his arm, but before he could, his friend let out a long breath and let the pendant fall to his chest.
“Listen to me,” said Amos, leaning forward. “Up here, we’re all crammed together with barely enough space to breathe. But down there,” he gestured expansively with his hand, “down on the surface, there’s plenty of space for everyone. You don’t like your neighbors? Fine—go to the next valley, or over the next mountain, or up the river and start your own settlement. This isn’t the Empire—on B’tum, everyone is free.”
“Right,” said Jeremiah. But that still left the problem of finding Mariya a husband.
“Say,” he asked, “you wouldn’t be looking for a girl, would you?”
Amos smiled. “Is she pretty?”
“Yeah, she’s pretty.”
“Is she young?”
“Is she a devout New Earther?”
Jeremiah’s face fell. “Ah—”
“You pirate!” said Amos, slapping him on the back. “Are you trying to set me up with one of your Deltan friends?”
“I might be, yeah.”
“Wow! I remember when you were that quiet little boy who was afraid to talk with anyone. To be honest, I didn’t think you’d last a year as a star wanderer.”
“Thanks.” I guess.
“So why are you trying to set me up with this girl?”
“Honestly,” said Jeremiah, his head spinning a little from the wine. “Honestly, I think she wants to marry me, and I need a way to get rid of her.”
“Yeah. But I’m already married, so—”
Amos burst out laughing and punched him in the arm, nearly knocking him over. “A second wife? Oh, that’s rich! How do you do it?”
“Do what—what you’re doing. I mean, look at you! Barely out a year, and the women are flocking to you like comets to a gravity well.”
“It’s—it’s not like that,” said Jeremiah, glancing around the room in embarrassment. Fortunately, the two old men seemed more interested in their game, and the woman by the door had already left.
“Oh? What’s there not to like?”
“It’s just—it’s complicated.”
“No, it’s not,” said Amos, stabbing his chest a little clumsily with his index finger. “One girl is better than no girl, so two girls is better than one. It’s simple mathematics.”
Jeremiah frowned. “I don’t think you understand—”
Understand how I feel, he wanted to say. How things had changed for him since Noemi had come into his life, and how he cared more about her now than he did for himself. To take another woman, after all that they’d been through together—it felt like the worst kind of betrayal. But how to explain that to someone who was still single—
“Listen,” said Amos, putting an arm around him. “About your wife—you said she can’t speak your language, yes?”
“And this Deltan girl—she can help to translate for you, right?”
“Exactly. So the way I sees it, you’re as good as married already, whether you like it or not. Why not make it official and claim all the benefits?”
“I don’t need her that badly,” said Jeremiah. “Even without her, we can get along all right. Besides—”
“Fine,” said Amos, raising his hands. “Then tell her no.”
“If you don’t want to marry her, tell her that you don’t want to marry her. It’s that simple.”
“I don’t know,” said Jeremiah, shifting uncomfortably. “I just—I don’t want to offend her.”
“Why not? If you’re staying here and she’s going to Zarmina, what does it matter?”
“But—but I don’t want to leave her. She’s really good friends with my wife. And anyway, what if—”
“Listen,” said Amos, suddenly becoming serious. “I know you, Jeremiah. I know what you’re like. A man could put a gun to your head, and you still wouldn’t be able to come to a decision.”
“Well, maybe,” Jeremiah stammered. “I don’t know, I—”
“You can’t keep on doing that. If you do, you’ll only get pushed around by everyone. You’ve got to make a decision—you’ve got to take a stand.”
“Maybe,” said Amos, jabbing a finger in his chest. “But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”
Jeremiah opened his mouth to speak, but realized he didn’t have an answer. Maybe his friend was right—maybe it would be better to put his foot down. It wasn’t like he owed Mariya or her family anything. Still, how would Noemi take it? She and Mariya were practically best friends by now.
“First, you tell me to take the girl. Then, you tell me to leave her,” he said. “Which is it going to be? I can’t do both, you know.”
Amos threw back his head and laughed. “Ah, Jeremiah, it’s good to be with you again. Tell me you’ll stay forever.”
“Well, I’ll stay at least until the bottle is finished.”
“Good, good—then I’ll order another one!”
Jeremiah finished off his glass and put an arm around his old friend, as much out of closeness as to keep him from doing anything rash. As they turned to more lighthearted topics, though, he couldn’t stop thinking about what he should do. If Mariya didn’t back down, it seemed that he’d either have to leave her or marry her.
Though neither option seemed all that great for Noemi.
* * * * *
“Not khe,” said Mariya, making a gravelly noise deep within her throat. “Qkhe. Khe, qkhe. Again.”
“Tskhaleh,” said Jeremiah, trying his best to reproduce the sounds coming out of her mouth. On the floor next to him, Noemi giggled uncontrollably.
“No, no, no,” said Mariya, throwing up her hands. “Ts’qkhaleh. Ts’qkhaleh. The hard qkhe. Try it again.”
Jeremiah sighed. “Can we just move on to something else?”
“But it’s an important letter. What are you going to do—skip all the words that use it?”
“I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head in frustration. “Why does your language have to be so hard, anyway?”
“The more you think like that, the longer it’s going to take for you to learn,” she said, imitating the nagging tone of her mother. From the playful look in her eyes, though, it was clear that she was having fun.
Noemi asked a question, and for a few moments, the two girls spoke over him as if he were a piece of furniture. Jeremiah rose to his feet, taking advantage of the moment to stretch himself out. The cabin of the Ariadne felt cramped with all three of them, but between the overcrowded Hope of Oriana and the ever-present bustle of B’tum Station, it was the only place where they could be alone.
“Noemi wants to stop for a while,” said Mariya. “Is that all right?”
“Yes, of course,” said Jeremiah. He ducked through the walkway and stepped into the cockpit, glancing down at the blue-gray crescent moon below them. Nestled among the rings of Chronos, B’tum was quite a breathtaking sight. To settle down on an Earth-like world where the rings ran like a golden road across the sky—he had to admit, the idea was tempting. But then he thought of Noemi, separated from her own people, possibly forever. She’d already given up so much to be with him—her home, her family, everything familiar. How could he ask her to give it all up again?
I have to talk Mariya out of this awkward marriage, he thought to himself. If he could get her to see things from his point of view, surely she wouldn’t push him into this. Not like her father, anyway. At least, that was the hope.
He lingered a few moments before returning to the cabin. When he got there, he found Noemi in one of the folding wall chairs, the dream monitor fitted over her head. Mariya stood over her as if keeping watch, but turned to face him as soon as he stepped through the doorway.
“Hello, Noe—I mean, Mariya.”
“Hello,” said Mariya, smiling.
“You didn’t want to plug in?”
“No,” she said, a little shyly. The nagging tone from before was completely gone.
Jeremiah paused, unsure what to say next. Mariya beat him to it.
“I really like your starship,” she said eagerly—perhaps a bit more than she’d intended. “What’s it called?”
“That’s a really pretty name. Where did it come from?”
Why is she asking me this? he wondered. But then he realized that with Noemi plugged into the dream monitor, they were practically alone. Perhaps that was why she was nervous.
“My great-grandfather was the one who built it. His birth world was in the New Pleiades, where the people still worship the stars. I think he named it after one of the pagan constellations, or maybe a legend from Earth.”
“That’s fascinating,” said Mariya, moving a little closer to him. “My father’s ship was the Medea—I think his grandfather also came from the New Pleiades. Maybe they knew each other.”
She hesitated. For an awkward moment, neither of them knew what to say.
Here goes nothing.
“Your father spoke with me earlier,” he said, shifting a little. “He, ah, asked about—”
“About—well, he asked if I was willing to take you as a second wife.”
To his dismay, her face immediately lit up.
“He spoke with you already? Great! What do you think?”
“I—” he stopped short, carefully considering his words. He felt as if he were poised above a dangerous black hole, with no way to calculate his trajectory.
“I don’t know,” he said. “To be honest, it seems like a strange thing to ask.”
Because I’m already married, and I barely even know you.
“Well … you’re young, you’re outgoing, you’re pretty—” her eyes shone especially at that, “—I just don’t understand why you’re in such a hurry. I mean, there’s lots of single guys out there—”
“Not on the Hope of Oriana,” she said.
“Yeah, but there are lots of single starfarers in the Outworlds—thousands, if not hundreds of thousands—and a few of them are bound to come to Zarmina before long. It’s not like we’re going to be cut off forever. Besides, you’re still young—time is on your side.”
Her face fell, and she looked away. “That’s what they told me when I was still betrothed.”
“You mean back at Oriana Station?”
“Yeah. One day, we had our lives planned out to the names of all our children. The next, he was on a Coreward starship, and I was on the Hope of Oriana headed to the middle of nowhere.”
Her voice trailed off. Jeremiah folded his arms.
“Look,” she said quickly, “I know you probably think this is crazy—we barely even know each other, after all—but when you married Noemi, you didn’t know her either. You didn’t even speak the same language, and yet it still worked out for you. Why can’t it work out for us?”
“But Mariya, I have feelings for Noemi.”
“And I’m not asking you to give those up—not at all. In fact, I think this will help you to be even closer to her.”
Jeremiah took a deep breath as his head began to spin. He raised a hand to his forehead, but Mariya pressed on undaunted.
“We’re practically best friends, and you need me to help you learn the language. If we’re already this connected, why shouldn’t we all be tied together through marriage? It would make everything so much simpler.”
It’s because her life was shattered when we left Oriana Station, he realized. She lost everything that she took for granted, and she’s afraid of losing it again—that’s why she wants this so badly.
“I know you feel really insecure right now,” he said, “and I want to help you—really, I do. But marry you? Noemi and I have already been through so much—it feels like betraying her just to consider it.”
“It’s not a betrayal,” she said, edging even closer. “Besides, I know you’re capable of sharing your feelings with more than one woman.”
He frowned. “How?”
“Don’t you remember that girl on Oriana Station? You know, the one you kissed to get us on this ship?”
Héloise. His veins turned to ice.
“That was different,” he said, but even as the words left his mouth, he knew she had a point. The girl Héloise—had it been a mistake to kiss her? At the time, it had seemed like such a harmless request. All he’d wanted was to get Mariya and her family a spot on the Hope of Oriana, so that they could all leave for the Outworlds together. Without Héloise’s connections, Mariya and her family would just be another band of poor, starving immigrants bound for the Coreward Stars.
“I know,” said Mariya, “and I’m not judging you for that. Really, I’m not. It’s just …” Her voice trailed off as her cheeks turned red.
“Just—if you’re capable of sharing that part of yourself, even for a moment, then maybe … I mean, can’t we just give it a chance?”
He looked into her eyes and saw, for the briefest of moments, a reflection of the fear that had sometimes threatened to take him on the long solo voyages in the midst of the starry deep. To stare into the face of the dark unknown and plunge all alone into the infinite abyss—yes, he knew how that felt. He knew all too well.
“You really are serious about this, aren’t you?”
She bit her lip again and nodded, her round, shimmering eyes never leaving him.
“If I said yes, are you sure you wouldn’t come to regret it? That when things are a little more settled and we’ve established ourselves on the new world, that you won’t ever resent having to share a man with another woman?”
“No—it’s not like that at all,” she said quickly. “Noemi and I are like sisters—there wouldn’t be any jealousy between us. In fact, I think this would make us even closer. It couldn’t be more perfect—it really couldn’t.”
Do you have any idea what you’re talking about? Jeremiah wanted to ask. Instead, he turned away from her and shook his head.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I seriously doubt that.”
“But it’s true! I’ve already talked with her about it, and she agrees.”
A cold chill shot down Jeremiah’s back.
“I talked with her,” said Mariya, “and she told me she’s open to the idea. We’re already so close, I’m sure we could make it work.”
Jeremiah clenched his fists as blood rushed to his cheeks. “When did you talk with her?”
“Just a day or two ago—probably when my father was talking with you about the very same thing. I—”
But before she could finish, he pulled down the second dream monitor and unfolded the empty chair. Noemi lay opposite him in a deep state of artificial sleep, her face covered by the visor of the helmet-like dream monitor.
“Wait!” Mariya yelled. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going to talk with my wife,” said Jeremiah. He parted the hair in the back of his head to reveal his neural socket. With his other hand, he pulled down the dream monitor and slipped it over his head.
“But—but don’t you want me to translate for you?”
“No,” he said. Not for this.
Without another word, he jacked himself into the shared simulation.
* * * * *
The dark yellow sun shone low on the horizon as Jeremiah climbed up the grassy hill to the rocky outcropping. The trees at the edges of the meadow had turned brilliant shades of orange and red, as if some godlike hand had dipped them upside down in paint. Overhead, the magnificent cloudscape shone white and purple against the deep blue evening sky.
“Noemi!” Jeremiah shouted, shivering as a chill breeze nipped at his skin. The grass crunched under his feet, now little more than golden-brown stalks. The once-blue flowers had wilted and fallen to the earth, while the yellow ones now cast puffy white seed pods into the wind. A cluster of dried, shriveled leaves blew past him on a bone-chilling wind.
It was as if the land itself was dying.
His heart pounding, he ran up to the rocks where she’d always been before. He found her on the other side, staring at the rapidly setting sun as if watching the world come to an end. Her long brown hair danced in the wind, while the tattered hem of her dress fluttered against her knees. Her feet and ankles were bare, and her dress was too thin to offer any protection against the worsening weather. With both hands she held her swollen belly, which was now so round that it almost seemed like a world—one waiting to be born while the universe around her ran headlong to its own inevitable death and oblivion.
“Noemi,” he shouted, running up to her side and putting his arms around her. Her skin was cold to the touch, and she seemed so frail that he immediately let go for fear of hurting her. She looked up at him and gave him a sad smile, one that seemed lost somewhere between hello and goodbye.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, frowning. Above them, the clouds shone pink and red as the sun continued its unstoppable descent.
Noemi looked away and waved her hand as if to say that nothing was the matter. Of course, the gesture did nothing to reassure him. With both hands, he gently took her by the shoulders and turned her around to face him. The breeze whipped her hair in front of her face, but he ignored that as he looked into her eyes.
“Is it Mariya?” he asked, his hands quivering. “Did she tell you about—about—” His voice cracked, and a sudden rage came over him, filling him with a desire to rip to shreds anyone or anything that came between them.
“No,” said Noemi, putting a hand on his chest. “No. Mariya friend.”
“What did she tell you—that you would have to share me with her? Is that why everything in the simulation is dying?”
“Dai-ying?” she asked, looking at him with uncomprehending eyes.
“Listen,” he said, “I don’t know what she told you, but I don’t want anyone or anything to come between us. Do you understand? Nothing!”
Noemi made a soft shushing noise and put a finger on his lips. His rage ebbed and subsided, leaving him emotionally drained. The sky exploded with colors as the sun rapidly set, then turned from red to purple to black. Time flowed like water as the clouds parted and the timeless stars came out, the milky band of the galaxy illuminating the moonless sky.
And then they were in the cabin of the Ariadne, alone in the starry deep with eons of space and time separating them from the rest of civilization. Noemi smiled again, and the sight brought tears to Jeremiah’s eyes, though he didn’t know why. She put her arms around him and held him close as he began to sob.
“I love you, Noemi,” he said softly. “I don’t want to lose you.”
“I stay,” she said, rubbing his back. “Jerem-ahra no afraid—I stay.”
He sniffed and nodded. “That’s good.”
She took his hand and led him through the doorway to the cockpit. Even though he knew they were still in the simulation, the sheer realism of it all made him stop and take pause. Every detail had been reproduced almost perfectly, down to the scuff marks on the floor and the scratches on the instrument panels. The way that Noemi had seamlessly transitioned from one simulated world to another showed an unprecedented level of skill.
She pointed out the window at a distant starship, and Jeremiah somehow knew that Mariya was on it. “We go,” she said, and squeezed his hand as if to assure him that wherever he went, she would go with him.
He tensed. The simulation reminded him of the end of their first long voyage together, when they’d arrived at Alpha Oriana and found themselves again swept up in the cares and concerns of human society. In a small way, he always felt as if some part of him died every time he put into port. That feeling had extended to Noemi, and he felt it again now—the sense that something irretrievable was about to be lost. Through the simulator, Noemi seemed to be telling him that there was nothing they could do about it. It was inevitable.
All of this Jeremiah felt intuitively as the starship crept closer. And yet, even though it made perfect sense, he knew it was only the logic of dreams, fluid and ephemeral. The fact that he recognized this told him that Noemi wasn’t trying to manipulate him, but that she was trying to tell him something.
“No,” he told her. “We don’t have to do this. It doesn’t have to be this way.”
“Don’t afraid,” she said softly. “I love you.”
“But—but it’s not right,” he said. “She can’t expect this much of us. It’s just not right.”
“Don’t afraid,” she said again. “I—”
But before she could finish, he jacked himself out.
* * * * *
Jeremiah opened his eyes and pulled back the visor of the dream monitor. His heart still pounded from the intensity of the simulation, and his breath came in surprisingly short gasps. As he glanced around the cabin of the Ariadne, it took him a few seconds to realize that he was back in the real world.
“Mariya?” he called out, rising to his feet. He ducked his head into the cockpit, but she wasn’t there either. Apparently, she’d returned to the Hope of Oriana while he was jacked in. With his head swimming and his anger still hot, it was probably a good thing that she’d left.
He stared at Noemi, her body limp and her eyes covered by the gray visor of the dream monitor. Her arms twitched a little and her mouth parted slightly, but she didn’t jack out right away. He opened the visor and gently patted her shoulder, then reached behind her head and switched it off manually.
Noemi blinked and stared off for a moment before coming to the present. He gently helped her to her feet, taking care not to jostle her stomach. She gave him a look so filled with longing that he couldn’t help but choke up with emotion. He put his arms around her, and for several moments they held each other in silence.
“Don’t be sad,” he whispered hoarsely in her ear. “I’m not going to let anyone come between us.”
“Sad?” she asked. “Why sad?”
“You’re sad,” he said, remembering the strange vision of death from the simulation. “But you don’t have to be. Whatever Mariya told you, whatever she tried to make you believe—it isn’t true.”
He drew in a sharp breath and fought back his anger. “No,” he said, “no Mariya. Not anymore. Just us—chven ertat.”
As he held her in his arms, he realized that things would never be the same between the three of them. For better or worse, Mariya was no longer a friend—and that meant that they couldn’t stay on the Hope of Oriana.
Which meant that they were free to leave.
“Don’t worry,” he said softly in her ear. “This is a good place. We can leave the others and settle down here to make our home.”
“Yes,” he whispered. “Home.”
The control rooms leading up to the bridge of the Hope of Oriana were mostly empty as Jeremiah walked past them. Row after row of screens lay blank, the tiny booth-like chairs unoccupied. For a moment, he wondered if the bridge would be empty as well. But when he palmed open the door and stepped inside, the control panels and indicator lights glowed all along the walls and ceiling. The five plush command chairs were empty, but Captain Elijah stood on the far side of the narrow room, consulting with two of his senior officers. All three of them turned their heads as Jeremiah entered.
“Ah, Jeremiah Edeni,” said Captain Elijah. He extended his hand. “What can I do for you, sir?”
“Am I interrupting anything?” Jeremiah asked. He looked from face to face to gauge whether he should apologize and leave.
“Of course not,” said Elijah, putting a hand on his shoulder as they shook hands. “We were just discussing some of the finer details of the upcoming voyage, but that can wait. How may I help you?”
“Can we, ah, take this to your quarters? I’d rather discuss this in private.”
Elijah raised an eyebrow. “Of course, of course. Right this way.”
The senior officers eyed them as they left the room, making Jeremiah nervous. Rumors were bound to spread on a ship as tightly packed as the Hope of Oriana, and he didn’t want to do anything to feed them. Fortunately, the corridors were all but empty—most of the colonists were probably planetside, spending their short stay on the surface of B’tum.
Captain Elijah’s quarters were located just before the mess hall. He punched in the access code to unlock the door and stepped aside to let Jeremiah in first. Though the room was only half the size of the bunk rooms, it felt luxuriously spacious compared to the rest of the ship. A blue and white rug covered the floor, while a pair of digital wall-screens cycled through stunning orbital planetscapes that reminded him of the magnificent storms above New Ebitha. The rest of the room was surprisingly sparse, with a perfectly made bed, an uncluttered desk, and a tidy computer terminal that retracted almost completely into the far right corner.
“Have a seat,” said Elijah as the door hissed shut behind him. He motioned to the bed and sat down at the desk.
“Thanks,” said Jeremiah, sitting down. He fidgeted a little with his hands, then stopped.
“So what do you want to tell me?”
“It’s about the colony mission, sir,” he began. “Some, ah, issues have come up, and I’ve decided to take my wife and stay here at B’tum instead of going on to Zarmina.”
Captain Elijah frowned. “You’re backing out?”
“That’s right, sir.”
For a few brief moments, neither of them said anything. The wall-screens shifted from the massive swirling clouds of a gas giant planet to the bluish-orange horizon of a cloudless desert.
“Well, I can’t stop you,” said Elijah. “You’ve got your own starship, and unlike the others, you don’t have a contractual stake in the mission. But even so, it saddens me to see you go. Is there anything I can do to help you change your mind?”
“I don’t think so,” said Jeremiah. “This is a personal issue between us and the other Deltans.”
“A dispute? Some sort of misunderstanding?”
“It’s not a misunderstanding. I—”
“Are you absolutely sure about that?” asked Elijah, looking him straight in the eye. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all my travels, it’s that no culture sees the universe quite the same as another. You might be part of their culture through marriage, but you’re not one of them—not yet.”
Jeremiah thought back to the dying world in Noemi’s simulation and clenched his fists. “I’m sure,” he said softly.
“Are you sure it can’t be resolved? I’d be more than happy to mediate.”
“Thanks, but I don’t think that would help.”
Captain Elijah grunted and rose to his feet. “Well, if there’s nothing I can do to dissuade you, I suppose I should wish you luck.”
“Thank you,” said Jeremiah, sighing in relief. He stood up and shook Elijah’s hand.
“If you decide to make any trade runs, could you do us a favor and spread the word that we’re out there? The first few years of any colony are always the toughest, and I’m sure we’ll need everything we can possibly trade for.”
“Of course. I’ll do my best.”
“Good,” said Elijah. He gave Jeremiah a friendly smile and palmed open the door.
“May Sol, Earth, and Luna keep you, then.”
“And you as well,” said Jeremiah, stepping into the corridor.
* * * * *
The narrow bulkheads shook violently with the rest of the cabin as the ferry shuttle made re-entry. Jeremiah gripped the armrests of his chair while outside the window orange flames burned around the edges of the shuttle’s heat shield. The roar of descent reminded him of the trips he used to make with his father to Edenia II’s orbital station as a little boy. He still remembered the first time he’d come down to the surface on a ferry not unlike this one, and how terrified he had been of the reentry.
“Just like old times, eh?” Amos shouted next to him. In spite of the gee forces pressing them both against their seat restraints, he was grinning from ear to ear.
“Yeah,” said Jeremiah. He stared straight ahead at the dozen or so seats in front of them. Off to the left, a baby wailed inconsolably. Gradually, though, the roaring quieted, the flames died down, and the gee forces subsided.
“How long has it been since you’ve come planetside?” Amos asked.
“Not since I left Edenia,” Jeremiah said softly. Far too long.
“Eh? What was that?”
“I said, not for a while.”
Amos nodded. “Well, look outside!”
Jeremiah leaned over and peered out the tiny cabin window. The landscape was gray and rocky, pocked with hundreds of craters. Everywhere he looked, though, he saw little splotches of red, with muddy rivers winding out from the long mountain ridges and splashes of green at the bottom of the deepest basins.
“What’s all that red stuff?” he asked.
“Lichen and cyanobacteria,” said Amos. “There’s not a whole lot of water, but we’ve been using mass accelerators to send a handful of icy comets in from the outer system. The first one should arrive in about twelve years.”
“Where did you get the mass accelerators?”
“From the Gaians.”
“The Imperials?” Jeremiah asked, frowning. “They’ve come out this far?”
“Just their engineers. They’ve got almost a dozen terraforming projects of their own and wanted to learn from ours. Don’t worry, though—the Imperials don’t have their eyes on this system and probably won’t for a long while.”
As they came in closer, Jeremiah saw that the red spots were actually speckled with tufts of green. The vegetation was thickest at the base of the craters, where little wisps of clouds wove in and out of the peaks along the ridge. A couple of rivers fed into one of the larger ones, creating a circular lake at the bottom.
The shuttle began to descend for the landing. From the cabin window, Jeremiah couldn’t see any settlements, but he did notice hundreds of rover tracks all converging at a point somewhere ahead of them. They slowed down until they were almost at a hover, then descended to a flat landing pad rimmed with red and blue lights.
“Welcome to the new Eden,” said Amos as the shuttle touched down on the surface. The grin on his face couldn’t have been wider.
After about a ten-minute wait, the ‘fasten seat restraints’ sign went off and the other passengers began to make their way to the front. The airlock doors opened to a large inflatable tunnel, evidently put in place only just after they’d landed. There were no windows, but from the way the walls billowed, Jeremiah could tell that it was the only thing shielding them from the planet’s atmosphere.
“The outside climate hasn’t quite stabilized yet,” Amos explained. “But it will.”
“Is the air toxic?”
“No, but you won’t survive long without breathing assistance. Not enough oxygen, and still a lot of methane.”
They reached the end of the tunnel and stepped into the spaceport. The place was fairly simple, with three rows of collapsible metal chairs and a computer terminal next to a unisex public restroom. The ceilings were almost six meters high, and vaulted with a clear glass roof. Wispy clouds raced across the greenish-blue sky, but the walls were solid enough that the wind was only a whisper.
“The city itself is mostly underground,” said Amos. “There are only about five hundred people living permanently on the surface, so space isn’t too tight. When we need to expand, we can always build up.”
“I take it the domes are used for farming and cattle grazing, then?”
Amos closed his eyes and ran his fingers against the wall as the wind made the skylights creak.
“It’s kind of like Edenia, isn’t it? Not the sky, of course, but the sound of the wind.”
“It was the wind that I missed the most,” Amos continued, leading them down the main hallway. “I didn’t even know that until I came here, though. Funny, what we take for granted.”
“But it wasn’t until I set foot under the domes that I knew that this would be my home. Here, let me show you.”
They turned the corner and stepped into a large glass atrium. Outside, a sea of golden-green grass stretched outward across the rocky land, with clumps of trees and herds of cattle in the distance. Jeremiah looked up, expecting to see the geodesic frame of the dome, but instead he saw a clear plastic sheet, ribbed for support.
“Why are you still using inflatable bubble domes?” he asked. “Aren’t those supposed to be temporary?”
Amos chuckled. “They are. Look higher.”
Jeremiah lifted his gaze and gasped. A magnificent superstructure towered almost half a kilometer overhead, bending only ten or twenty degrees for all its height. It looked like the frame of a dome that was still under construction, but it was at least two or three orders of magnitude larger than any he’d ever seen.
“What is that?” he asked. “Is it—”
“A planetary arcology,” said Amos, “just like the ones at Gaia Nova. It’ll probably be a decade or two before it’s finished, but when it is, it’ll be about sixty-five hundred meters high and spread out across more than five hundred square kilometers of land.”
“Wow,” said Jeremiah. “That’s—that’s a big dome.”
“It has to be, if we’re all going to live in it.”
He frowned. “But I thought this planet was almost terraformed. What’s the point of living in a dome if the whole surface is habitable?”
Amos looked at him as if he’d spoken blasphemy. “And pollute our new Eden, just like we polluted Earth? No—we need the dome, not to keep the world out, but to keep ourselves in.”
Of course, Jeremiah thought. It was us who defiled the Earth, after all. He chastised himself for forgetting one of the basic tenets of his mother’s faith. Perhaps he really was unworthy of this place after all.
He walked to the edge of the atrium, where the doors opened up to the grassy plain. About a dozen rovers and hovercraft were parked to his right, but there was no concrete, glass, or steel beyond those doors—just a long stretch of Earthlike nature. He stared out across the grass and felt a weird sense of reverse claustrophobia—the fear of being in a place that was too open. When had he ever seen such a wide open space? Even at Edenia, the gardens had sat at the base of a crater, where the ridge gave some sense of confinement. Certainly, no space station he’d seen had ever been so large.
But then, he thought of the mountain meadow in Noemi’s dream world. It wasn’t the same, of course, but the similarities were unmistakable. The grass was almost knee-high, and though the bubble dome was too small to facilitate any wind, it didn’t take much to imagine a pleasant breeze. There was even a cluster of boulders in the distance, just like the ones from the simulator. And beyond that—
His eyes widened as he pressed his face against the glass. Real trees, not the carefully pruned saplings at some of the larger stations. These ones were oak, by the looks of it, and they were tall—almost twenty meters high, with gnarly moss-covered bark and thick, leafy foliage. They weren’t the redwoods of his birth world, but they were the first real trees he’d seen since leaving.
“The land out there has been cultivated for almost a hundred and fifty standard Earth years,” said Amos behind him. “The soil under the domes is rich, and those forests you see are over a hundred years old.”
“Almost as old as the gardens of Edenia,” Jeremiah mused.
“Will they still be here after the big dome is finished?”
Amos nodded. “If anything, they’ll only spread further.”
A world of plains and forests, with domes large enough to cover a small world, Jeremiah thought to himself. After wandering the stars for so long, the realization that he could settle down here almost frightened him. And yet, of all the places he’d seen, nowhere else felt so much like home.
“Is there a clinic here that can take care of my wife?”
“Of course,” said Amos. “She won’t be the first one to give birth on this world—or the last.”
“The medical facilities are pretty good, then?”
“As good as any you’ll find in the Oriana Cluster. It’s a great place to settle down and raise a family.”
Jeremiah nodded. “Yes. It’s perfect.”
* * * * *
After visiting the surface of B’tum, the Hope of Oriana felt hopelessly narrow and cramped. Jeremiah cringed as he stepped into the corridor that ran the length of the ship. How he ever thought he could spend four months in this place, crammed with almost two hundred people, he didn’t know.
I’ve got to find Noemi, he thought, walking quickly. I’ve got to find her and get her out of here as quietly as possible.
The control rooms were empty, but lunch was being served in the mess hall, and the place was completely full. Fortunately, Mariya and her family were on the alternate meal schedule—they wouldn’t eat for another half hour. Even so, he kept to the middle of the aisle and did his best not to make eye contact with anyone.
The corridor outside the bunkrooms wasn’t quite as empty as the front half of the ship. Seven or eight people milled about, chatting among themselves. Jeremiah risked a glance and saw, to his immense relief, that Mariya and Jakob weren’t among them. A few of them glanced his way as he walked by, but a smile and a nod was all it took to get by.
He stopped at the door to the dream center and paused to catch his breath. With luck, Noemi, Mariya, and Jakob would all be in there, plugged in and unconscious. He could wake up Noemi, get their belongings from the bunk room, and slip out before anyone noticed they were gone. Once they were on B’tum, he could contact Jakob over the planetnet without having to confront him or Mariya directly.
But when he stepped into the dream center, he found the place almost completely empty. Only three of the reclining chairs were occupied, two of them with people he didn’t recognize.
The third one, of course, was Noemi.
He took a moment to check the display above her. She’d been on for almost five hours, working on creative mode. When she came out, she was bound to be hungry—but that would make sense if she expected to go straight from the simulator to lunch. He cursed himself for forgetting to grab something for her to eat, but they didn’t have any time. She would have to wait until they were on the Ariadne.
He glanced nervously over his shoulder. Compared to the rest of the ship, the dream center felt eerily quiet. Only the humming of the computer cores and the ever-present whisper of the ventilation system filled the large, empty space. Down in the corridor, someone called out, making him jump. Was that Mariya?
He turned back to the display and keyed the emergency override. Noemi stirred and stretched her arms. He helped her remove the dream monitor from her head and rolled the chair forward to let her sit up. She blinked and rubbed her eyes, dazed from the sudden return to reality.
“Sorry to jack you out,” he told her, knowing even as the words left his mouth that most of them would probably go over her head. “I had to, because, uh—we need to go.”
“Go?” she said, rubbing her forehead.
“Yes, to the Ariadne. We go—chven m’divart.”
He took a deep breath and extended his hand. “Our new home.”
“Home?” she said, frowning. “Where home?”
“Just—just trust me, Noemi. Everything’s going to be fine.”
She hesitated for a moment, but took his hand and rose to her feet. Her first steps were a little unsteady, so he put his arm around her waist and let her lean on him.
“Easy does it,” he said. “I know you’re still dazed, but we have to get out of here as soon as we—”
He looked up and froze. Mariya stood in the doorway, blocking their path.
“There you are,” she said. “I’ve been looking all over for you. Where have you been?”
“Uh, nowhere,” he lied. “Why were you looking for me?”
“Because I heard you went down to the surface,” she said, giving him a puzzled look. “Why?”
“Oh, that. Nothing, really. Just meeting up with an old friend.”
He tried to walk past, but Jakob stood in the corridor behind her. His heart leaped in his chest, and his stomach fell through the floor. In that moment, all his hopes of getting away without a confrontation were smashed.
“Jeremiah,” said Jakob, folding his arms. “What’s this I hear about you leaving the colony mission without us?”
Jeremiah’s jaw dropped. “Who—who told you—”
“Never mind that. I can guess what you’ve been up to, meeting with the captain and stealing away planetside. You haven’t given my daughter your answer yet, have you?”
“N-no, sir, I—”
“I expected more of you, Jeremiah, I really did. I never thought you would stoop to this—and right when your wife is expecting, too. Does she even know where you’re taking her?”
Jeremiah clenched his fists, even as his whole body began to shake.
“It’s okay, father,” said Mariya, putting a hand on his arm. “Jeremiah’s a New Earther, so it’s only natural that he’d want to settle down here. And if that’s what he wants, we can go with him—can’t we?”
She turned to him with an expectant look in her eyes. Noemi looked over at him in confusion, and Amos’s words suddenly came to mind. You’ve got to take a stand.
“I’m sorry, Mariya,” he said, his legs numb. “I—I can’t marry you.”
Her expression fell slowly, like a natural satellite spiraling into a gravity well. “What do you mean?” she asked, letting out a nervous laugh. “I’m sure we can—”
“What I mean is, I won’t marry you. I don’t want there to be any hard feelings, and I wish you the best of luck, but Noemi and I are staying at B’tum, and we don’t want you to come with us.”
A stunned silence fell over them all. The background hum of the computer cores seemed unbearably loud, like a buzzing in Jeremiah’s ear. He took a deep breath and looked from Jakob to Mariya and back to Jakob again.
“Well,” said Jakob, “I suppose this is where we say goodbye, then.”
“But—but—” Mariya stammered. She turned to Noemi and began talking rapidly in Deltan.
“That’s enough,” said Jeremiah, stepping between them. “Goodbye, Mar—”
“No want go,” said Noemi, looking at him in horror. “No want—we stay, we stay!”
He frowned. “What? Noemi—”
“Araginda!” she shouted, running past him to throw her arms around Mariya. “Araginda m’divart—no want go!”
“You didn’t even consult with her, did you?” said Jakob. “Just up and made the decision, without any thought to ask her?”
“No, I—” Jeremiah opened his mouth to speak, but the words stopped short in his throat. He looked at Noemi, holding tightly to Mariya, and realized with a terrible, gut-wrenching sensation that he’d made a mess of everything.
“No want, no want,” Noemi said over and over again. “We stay—we stay.”
“All right,” said Jeremiah, collapsing on the chair in the cabin of the Ariadne. “Let’s talk.”
Mariya moved awkwardly aside to let Noemi unfold the second chair, but Noemi shook her head and motioned for her to take the chair instead. After going back and forth for a few moments, they decided instead to sit on the floor. Of course, this made things awkward for Jeremiah, so he stood up and folded his chair back in the wall, joining them at their level.
Just please get this over with, he thought, his breath coming short and fast. He felt as if the bulkheads of his own ship were collapsing in on him, the same as he’d felt on the Hope of Oriana.
“Right,” said Mariya. “So, Noemi doesn’t want to leave.”
“Why?” Jeremiah asked—then, turning to Noemi directly, “ratom?”
She went off on a long explanation, of which he caught only a few words. From the look on her face, it seemed as if she were on the verge of a breakdown. I should have asked her first, he thought, mentally beating himself. We should have talked things over before—stars, I’m an idiot.
“She says she doesn’t want to disrespect your authority, but she absolutely does not want to leave the Hope of Oriana right now. Unless—”
Mariya hesitated. “Unless the rest of us can come with you too. It’s the pregnancy—she just wants to be with her own people.”
Of course, you fool. Why couldn’t you see that before?
Noemi put a hand on Mariya’s knee, and he realized he’d completely misread her reaction in the dream simulator. He vividly remembered the chill autumn wind scattering the dead brown leaves and tossing her tattered dress. When he looked into her eyes, he still saw the same melancholy reflected there—and yet, there was also a closeness that she and Mariya shared in spite of it.
“But why …”
“Why what?” Mariya asked softly.
Why does she still want to be with you, when you’re the one who’s hurting her? he wanted to say. But of course, he couldn’t say that aloud. Instead, he took a deep breath and glanced away.
“I just don’t understand,” he said.
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
You can accept that I don’t want to marry you and stop trying to make me change my mind. Instead, he shook his head.
“Just tell her I’m sorry. It was stupid of me to make a decision without her. If she doesn’t want to leave, then that’s fine—we’ll stay on with you to Zarmina.”
Mariya nodded and translated for him. Noemi listened quietly and put a hand on his knee to reassure him. The feel of her touch made him tremble.
“Jerem-ahra no sad,” she said. “Is sorry, is good. Noemi no angry.”
But you should be, he thought to himself. I’ve gone and made a mess of everything. When he thought of what he’d said to Mariya back on the Hope of Oriana, he wished he could melt through the floor.
“And Mariya,” he said, his heart pounding. “I—”
He bit his lip and glanced at Noemi. With one hand under her belly, she put the other on Mariya’s shoulder and leaned against her for support. It was almost as if she needed Mariya more than she needed him. With the pregnancy coming to term in just a few short months, perhaps that was true.
“What is it, Jeremiah?”
“I … I shouldn’t have said what I did back there.”
Mariya’s eyes lit up, though her body still remained tense. “And the marriage?” she asked nervously. “What about that?”
Jeremiah took a deep breath and swallowed. “I’ll consider it,” he lied—then, more truthfully, “I don’t know.”
“I’ll do my best to help Noemi,” she said. “It’ll be good for everyone—honest. Besides, we’ve been through a lot together, haven’t we? And at Zarmina, we’ll go through even more.”
“But Mariya,” he asked softly, “what if my answer is no?”
Mariya stared at him for a moment as if dumbfounded. Noemi looked from him to her and back again, her forehead creasing in a frown. He wondered how she would react if she knew what they were talking about right now. A sinking feeling told him that she would accept it with the same quiet resignation that she seemed to accept everything, no matter how much it hurt her.
“Why would you say that?” Mariya asked.
Jeremiah’s chest constricted, and he felt as if he were suffocating. Did he really have to spell everything out for her? No—that would only get them into an argument and make things worse. She only wanted to hear one thing: yes.
But that was the one thing he absolutely could not tell her.
An idea came to him, one that sent chills down his arms and made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. At first, his heart skipped a beat as he realized he’d found a solution—but then, as the implications began to sink in, his stomach fell and his knees went weak.
“Here’s an idea,” he said aloud. “What if I left by myself on the Ariadne and met up with you again at Zarmina?”
Mariya frowned. “Why would you want to do that?”
To stop you from forcing me into a second marriage that neither I nor Noemi wants. To give you time to cool off and change your mind. To keep the pressure from building until it devastates all three of us.
“Captain Elijah asked me to spread the word about the new colony at Zarmina. The more people know we’re out there, the more traders will come through with goods that we’ll need.”
“I suppose,” said Mariya. “But what about Noemi?”
Jeremiah swallowed. “It’ll be a sacrifice, but in the long run, I think it will make us all better off. Besides, I’ll be back—it’s only for a few months.”
It’s not like I’m abandoning her.
Mariya nodded, though she still seemed a bit confused. She translated for Noemi, whose eyes widened almost immediately.
“Jerem-ahra go?” she said, cutting Mariya off. “No go—stay.”
“I’m sorry, Noemi, but this is something I must do.”
Tears came to her eyes, and she bit her lip and shook her head. “No want you go. You go no see long time—baby no see.”
“I’ll come back in time for the baby,” he said. “And you’ll be in good hands while I’m gone. Right?”
“Right,” said Mariya, smiling. “Everything will be fine—don’t worry.”
Noemi buried her head in her hands and quietly began to sob. The sight stabbed Jeremiah in the heart and made him wish there was a better way. But short of conceding to a marriage he didn’t want, there didn’t seem to be one.
“Can we have some time alone together?” he asked Mariya.
“Of course,” she said, rising to her feet. “I’ll go tell my father.”
He nodded and saw her out. As the airlock door hissed shut behind her, he stepped back into the cabin and put an arm around Noemi.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Everything will be okay—here, let me show you.”
He pulled down the dream monitor from its compartment in the ceiling. She made no resistance as he helped her into the chair and fitted the dream monitor over her head. Her body tensed for a moment as the neural jacks slid into the socket in the back of her neck, then went limp.
What have I done? he wondered as he prepared to join her. He felt dizzy and lightheaded, as if waking up from a bad dream. Before the doubts seized hold of him, he fit the helmet-like monitor over his head and plugged in.
* * * * *
The hills and meadows were gone, replaced by a boundless expanse of flat, dry earth. A yellow-white sun beat down from the cloudless sky, sucking the ground dry of moisture. The horizon stretched out in every direction, and not a sign of life could be seen anywhere. Off in the distance, a solitary dust devil stood like a ghostly pillar, the only break in the monotonous wasteland.
“Noemi?” Jeremiah shouted, cupping his hands around his mouth. “Noemi, are you there?”
He found her a short distance away, lying flat on the sun-baked ground. Her hair spilled out like water, but her cheeks were cracked where her tears had dried.
“Noemi,” he said, sitting down on the dusty earth next to her. “Noemi, I’m sorry.”
“Why?” she asked, her eyes the only spot of green in the simulation. “Why you need go?”
“I only want what’s best for us,” he explained. “If I stay, Mariya’s family will make our lives miserable until I agree to marry her. That’s why I have to leave.”
“Mariya no wife?”
“No,” he said, putting an arm around her shoulder. “I will not take a second wife. Only you.”
“Why no Mariya wife?” she asked.
“Because I don’t want, and because you don’t want. Ki?”
“Ki,” she said, shrugging. “But—”
“If you don’t want it, I don’t want you to make that kind of sacrifice. It isn’t right—it will not make our family strong.”
She looked at him with glistening eyes. “But no want you leave too.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s only for a little while. See?”
He took her hand and pointed to the horizon. By focusing all his energy, he imagined a beautiful oasis, with large, leafy trees and clear blue water, shade from the merciless sun, and a deliciously cool breeze. He reached out with his hand as if to grasp it, and Noemi sat up next to him, straining to see.
Gradually, the oasis took shape and came into focus. In the vast desert that echoed their sense of loss, it was like a beacon of hope, a symbol of all the things they had to look forward to. Noemi patted her belly and took hold of the image, turning it into a world of lush green forests and meandering rivers set beneath magnificent snow capped mountains.
“Home?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Jeremiah, pulling her close. “And we’ll be together again—just the two of us.”
A warm breeze blew across his skin, and the image vanished like a shimmering mirage. The sun now hung low on the horizon, turning the sky into rich shades of orange and purple. All around them, the desert seemed to sigh as the heat of the day gave way to the coolness of night. A few stars began to glimmer in the sky, but the land all around them was empty—as empty as the starry void.
“Don’t be sad,” he said, running his fingers through her hair. “It’s not forever—just a few short months.”
“But Jerem-ahra be alone again.”
A lump rose in his throat, but he choked it down as best he could. “I’ll be fine,” he said. “Don’t worry about me.”
“Yes worry,” she said. “I love you.”
“And I love you too.” That was why it was so hard.
She looked up and pointed to the sky. “Remember, home. You and me, family strong, yes?”
“Yes,” he said. A strong family shines brighter than all the stars.
“Remember, I love you. Come home see me together, ki?”
She smiled and ran her fingers along his cheek. “Goodbye,” she whispered.
“Yes,” he said, his body trembling. “Goodbye.”
* * * * *
The Hope of Oriana was little more than a speck of light against the murky backdrop of space, just a few degrees above the purplish-blue line of B’tum’s horizon. Jeremiah watched the colony ship approach the jump point with the strangest mix of emotions that he’d ever felt in his life. For the first time in months, he was alone again, a fact which cut his heart like a laser.
“Attention port authority, this is the Hope again,” came Captain Elijah’s voice over the radio. “We’re coming up on jump point alpha within moments. May I just say it’s been a pleasure doing business here.”
“The pleasure is ours,” came the voice of the traffic dispatcher. “Best of luck in the new world.”
Jeremiah tried to imagine Elijah and his senior officers, seated around the bridge as they prepared to make the jump. Instead, all he could think about was Noemi, down in the fishbowl windows of the observation deck, watching the station drift away with one hand on the glass.
Don’t go! a part of him wanted to scream. But there was nothing he could do now—his decision had been made.
As he watched, the speck that was the Hope of Oriana flickered briefly, rippling like a hologram. There was a brief flash of light, no brighter than a small meteor, and then the speck was gone.
He drew in a sharp breath and switched off the transceiver radio. It was done—there was no going back.
He was alone.
Down below, the landscape of B’tum stretched out like a new Earth waiting to be born. Rivers ran like cracks in an eggshell while hints of green around the edges of the largest craters bore testament to the budding new Eden. A not insignificant part of him yearned to stay. But he knew that without Noemi, he would never be happy.
“To Zarmina, then,” he said aloud, reverting to his old habit of talking to himself. It didn’t fill the emptiness, though—without her, nothing ever would. With trembling hands, he turned to the nav-computer and set the target coordinates for the jump that would take him back into the starry void.
Part IV: Homeworld
“Hi, Noemi,” said Jeremiah, smiling as he spoke to the holoscreen monitor. “It’s me, Jerem-ahra. Long time no see, huh? I—” Feeling suddenly stupid, he switched off the recorder and threw himself back against the oversized command chair. The instrument panels of the Ariadne hummed softly in the silence, while outside, the deep space starfield shone through the cockpit window with the soft light of countless millions of stars. It all felt empty, though—empty and cold, so far from the warmth of human company.
He sighed and rechecked the coordinates on the nav-computer. Zeta Oriana was little more than a tenth of a light-year away—close enough that the bluish-white star shone much brighter than all the others. But to accurately pinpoint his exit from jumpspace, he had to let the Ariadne’s energy reserves build for another hour. Until then, there was nothing to do but sit and wait, alone.
That was always the hardest part.
After almost a minute, he leaned forward and switched the recording device on again. This time, there were no smiles or cheerful hand waves. He let the device run for a few seconds before looking into the camera.
“Hi, Noemi,” he said, nodding. “I hope this message finds you well. I’ll try to speak clearly for the auto-translator, though no doubt you’ll need Mariya’s help as well. Then again, maybe you’ve learned enough Gaian by now to understand it on your own. I’m sure that whatever you’ve learned, it will come as a pleasant surprise.”
He paused for a moment to find his words. “By the time you get this message, I will be well on my way to one of the other stars in this local sector. I hope you won’t be upset that I didn’t wait for you—I want to make sure that as many people know about our new colony as possible, so that we won’t become too isolated. Once we’ve settled down at Zarmina, we’ll need all the outside connections we can get.”
Of course, that wasn’t the only reason he was going—or even the most important. But Noemi wouldn’t be the only one to hear this message, and he didn’t want to stir that conflict.
“I wish I could be there with you, though—I wish to all the stars I could see you.” He smiled. “Is the baby coming along well? I know you’re in good hands on the Hope of Oriana. I’ll join you again at Zarmina, just in time to see the baby, I hope. And then, I promise that whatever happens, we’ll always be together.”
He looked straight into the camera, imagining Noemi’s face with her girlish cheeks, her long brown hair, and her deep green eyes. A lump rose in his throat, and he took a deep breath as he choked it back down.
“I love you,” he said softly. “I miss you very much. Take good care of yourself, and until we meet again … goodbye.”
He switched off the recorder and stared out at the starfield. Zeta Oriana shone like a beacon in the midst of the starry deep, but it was still just as cold as all the others. Without his wife, no place held any warmth for him.
* * * * *
“Jeremiah, my friend!”
Those words greeted Jeremiah almost the moment he stepped into the bare metal corridors of Rift Station. He turned and saw a wrinkled and familiar face grinning at him: Thomas, the station master of Zeta Oriana’s only settlement. The lanky old man clasped Jeremiah’s arm and gave it a firm shake.
“It’s good to see you too, Thomas.”
“Been a little while, hasn’t it? Thought you might have gone and settled down by now.”
Jeremiah chuckled. “Well, don’t speak too soon—there may be more truth in that than you know.”
“Oh?” said Thomas, raising an eyebrow. “Well, I hope you’ve got a full hold, because we’ve got plenty of ore to trade. Come, let’s talk about it over a beer.”
The gravity on the station was lighter than Jeremiah remembered. He had to hold onto the handrails just to keep from lunging forward. A long, narrow window to his right showed the pocked and cratered surface of the asteroid on which the station had been built. Of course, most of the gravity was artificial—the asteroid itself was so small that even the Ariadne had no trouble lifting off from its surface.
“Still haven’t built those extra reactors, I see,” he remarked. “When are you going to get around to that?”
Thomas shrugged. “Eh, the miners prefer the gravity a little light—makes it easier when they come in from a haul. You get used to it after a while.”
Perhaps, Jeremiah thought to himself. But keeping it this low can’t be good for pregnancy.
Not that Noemi would be staying long. The station was much too small to accommodate all the colonists: besides the warehouse, smelters, and processing plant, there was just the dockyard, two sets of dormitories, a small hydroponics farm, and an old cantina bar attached to a small lounge. Living space in the Outworlds was tight, especially this far from the Coreward stars.
“We’re expanding into some of the old mines,” said Thomas as if he’d read his mind. “Building some private apartments, a community center—that sort of thing. In a few years, we’ll be more than just a mining outpost.”
They stepped through a hatchway into the cantina. About half a dozen miners and starfarers huddled around the bar, while maybe as many as fifteen others sat in booths along the edge of the dimly lit room. The air smelled of hookah smoke and cooking spices, mingled with a light scent of mildew that could always be found on the older ships and stations. A few heads turned as they stepped into the room, but most of the people paid Jeremiah little mind.
“Here, have a seat,” said Thomas, directing him to the bar. Overhead, the tinny speakers began to play an old pop song from Alpha Oriana, about five or six standard years out of date.
“I’ll take a plate of synthmeal and beans,” Jeremiah told the bartender. “And a pint of your local beer to wash it down.”
“A pint for me, too, Judith” said Thomas.
The bartender, a rather stocky middle-aged woman, nodded and turned to pour their drinks. A moment later, she set two dented metal mugs in front of them, both overflowing with a light amber foam. Jeremiah drank with relish—it had been a long time since he’d had a decent beer. One thing could be said about the Far Outworlds: the people sure knew how to make a good homegrown brew.
“So what have you brought us?” Thomas asked.
Jeremiah set his mug down and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Gamman beef,” he said. “Straight from B’tum. Cryogenically frozen, of course.”
“Any cut, you name it. I’ve got five astral tonnes of the stuff, and I’m looking to offload it all if I can.”
“Ah, Jeremiah,” said Thomas, slapping him on the back, “you sure know how to treat us right. We’ll happily take it off your hands. Anything else we can do for you?”
The bartender set down a steaming platter of dark brown mush in front of Jeremiah, along with a fork. He leaned forward and took a bite of the stuff—bland, but not too bad. The beer would wash it down nicely.
“Not much,” he said. “I only ask a small favor.”
He pulled out the datachip with the recording for Noemi and placed it on the counter top. “There’s a colony ship called the Hope of Oriana coming through here in a few weeks, and I want you to give this to them.”
“I see,” said Thomas. He picked up the chip. “What’s in it?”
“Just some personal messages. My wife is on that ship, and I wanted to let her know that I’m thinking of her.”
Thomas raised an eyebrow. “Your wife?”
“Yeah. We’re headed for the Zarmina system, where we hope to settle down and start a new colony.”
“Interesting. Where did you pick her up?”
“Delta Oriana,” said Jeremiah, taking another bite. “It’s kind of a long story.”
“Right.” Thomas pocketed the datachip and rose to his feet. “Well, I don’t mean to pry. I’ll leave you to your meal and see to offloading your cargo. When you’re done, come see me in my office and we’ll negotiate the trade.”
“Thanks,” said Jeremiah.
He took a swig from his mug and glanced around the room as Thomas left. A few people eyed him from one of the back tables, though most of them looked away as if to mind their own business. One of them, however, kept staring even after their eyes met. He had short, black hair, beady eyes, and a narrow, boxlike face. He didn’t keep a beard, but from the dark, shadowy scruff on his face, it didn’t look like he’d shaved in a while. Jeremiah smiled and nodded to him, but the man made no acknowledgment of the gesture.
“So you are going to Zarmina?” came a voice to Jeremiah’s left. He blinked and turned in time to see an outstretched hand, belonging to a young man who couldn’t be much older than him.
“The name is Lucca,” said the young man. “May I sit?”
“Of course,” said Jeremiah. They shook hands, and he motioned to the seat next to him.
From the way Lucca dressed, it was obvious he was another star wanderer. He wore a dark gray jumpsuit and a worn leather vest, devoid of any insignia or other marks of rank or status. He had light blond hair and a round, clean-shaven face, with brown eyes and a quirky grin. Jeremiah liked him from the moment he saw him.
Lucca sat down and leaned forward with his hands on the counter top. “You say there will be new colony soon at Zarmina?”
“That’s right,” said Jeremiah. “There’s about two hundred of us, on a private colony mission from Alpha Oriana. If all goes well, we’ll rendezvous there in eight weeks.”
“Where in this system do you plan to build colony?”
“We haven’t decided for sure, but probably somewhere on the fourth planet. It’s just on the edge of the habitable zone and shows some signs of carbon-arsenic based life. Surface gravity is about point eight old-Earth standard, and the rotational period is almost exactly twenty six hours.”
“Sounds like good place.”
“Yeah,” said Jeremiah. “From what I understand, the system is fairly rich in radioactives, too: uranium, radon, the kind of stuff that’s in high demand throughout the Oriana Cluster. Once we’ve arrived, we’ll be willing to trade for just about anything, so it’s a real opportunity. What kind of routes do you usually frequent?”
Lucca glanced away and lifted a hand to his chin. “To be honest, I am new to this sector. My birth world was in Tajjur system, on other side of New Pleiades.”
“So you’re a star wanderer, then?”
Jeremiah finished his beer and pushed the empty mug toward the bartender. “I’ll take another,” he said. “And one for my friend here, too.”
“Please, it is not—”
“No, I insist. We outworlders need to stick together, after all.”
The bartender took Jeremiah’s mug and pulled another one down from the ceiling. Lucca shifted a little, though he didn’t seem too out of place in the cantina. Certainly, he carried himself with a lot more confidence than Jeremiah had when he’d first started out.
“So you’re from Tajjur, then,” Jeremiah remarked. “That’s a long ways away from here.”
“Yes, it is. But I always say it is better to see stars up close than from far away.”
He chuckled. “That’s the spirit. Zeta Oriana’s a pretty far place, even for the Outworlds.”
“I have strong passion for faraway places,” said Lucca, his eyes lighting up like distant novae. “I tell all my friends I will be at New Rigel in one year. They say New Rigel has most beautiful girls in whole Outworlds.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“I hear there is planet in that system with clear blue skies and giant world-ocean,” he mused. “Of course, I have since become sidetracked, as you may have guessed.”
The bartender came with their drinks, and Jeremiah handed her the comm-chip from his wrist console as an ID for payment. The tab would go to his station account, payable against whatever he negotiated later with Thomas for the Gamman beef. Whatever it came to, it wasn’t going to be a problem—he already had a positive balance from his last run to this system. That would come in handy when they needed raw materials for the colony at Zarmina.
“Do you plan on making any more trade runs in the local sector?” Jeremiah asked.
“Possibly,” said Lucca. He took a swig of the station-brewed beer. “I do not know where I will go next, but I hope to be in Oriana cluster for some time.”
“In that case, could you do me a favor and spread the word about our colony? Once we settle down, we’re going to need all the supplies we can get.”
“Of course. I take it this system is listed in Imperial catalog?”
“Yeah. It carries the same name in most Outworld databases as well. Just mention ‘Zarmina,’ and everyone should know what you’re talking about.”
Lucca grunted. “If so, it is surprising that there is not settlement there already.”
Jeremiah shrugged. “I don’t know. These are the Far Outworlds, after all.”
The others in the cantina still eyed him from the shadows, but that didn’t bother him at all. The more people overheard the news about Zarmina, the less isolated they’d be once they arrived. And if there was one thing he feared, it was becoming too isolated.
* * * * *
From space, Rift Station looked like a couple of shacks on a lumpy asteroid. Of course, the complex extended a good distance underground, but none of that was visible from the Ariadne as Jeremiah took off from the surface. The asteroid’s gravity well was so small, only nav-beacons could safely orbit it. Without the complex interplay of ships docking and undocking in orbit, the place felt as empty and lifeless as any other rock in the midst of space.
Jeremiah checked the coordinates on the nav-computer. In just a few minutes, he’d be the better part of a light-year away. As lonely as he felt now, out in deep space, it would be infinitely worse. Even if another starship left at the same time and followed the exact same route, the distances were so vast that they would never even detect each other until they converged on their destination point.
He glanced back at the rock that was Rift Station and contemplated staying for a while. It would only be a couple of weeks before the Hope of Oriana arrived. If he stayed, he’d be able to see Noemi in person. His hands shook a little, and his breath came short just thinking about it. With her by his side, it hardly mattered how deep into the void they ventured.
But then he remembered the misunderstanding that had forced him to leave. Noemi’s best friend Mariya had somehow gotten it into her mind that the only way to secure her happiness was to become his second wife. Such arrangements were not uncommon in the far Outworlds, where a settlement with only fifty inhabitants was large enough to warrant a special entry in the Imperial catalog. But for Jeremiah, the very thought of sharing himself with another woman was repulsive. Every effort to dissuade her had failed, so he’d left on the Ariadne to avoid a confrontation. Later, when Noemi’s pregnancy had come to term and she wasn’t so dependent on her friends, they could work something out. But to wait for her would only risk bringing up so much bad blood, and for what? So that they could spend a few hours together before the Hope of Oriana refueled and took off for Zarmina? No, that would be foolish.
And yet he still found himself trembling as he reached for the switch that would send him into the starry void.
“Station control, this is the Ariadne,” he announced shakily over the comm. “I’m approaching jump point Alpha and preparing to depart.”
“Copy that, Ariadne. You are cleared for departure. May the stars of Earth keep you on your voyage.”
“And you as well,” he said softly. Without another word, he flicked the switch.
A sinking feeling grew in the pit of his stomach, contracting like a cramp until it spread to his arms and legs. The bulkheads of the Ariadne seemed to close in on him even as his body shrank toward a single point. He took a deep breath and held it, closing his eyes as the pressure reached a breaking point. Then, in a sudden release, the ship passed through jumpspace and the sensation passed like a bad memory.
He opened his eyes and found himself staring into the milky starfield of deep space. It was done—until the rendezvous at Zarmina, he was alone.
The stars shone cold through the long forward window of the Ariadne, mingling with the soft light of the cockpit view screen. Jeremiah sat unmoving in the pilot’s chair, staring into the void as the hours passed like a never-ending bad dream.
How long had he been a wanderer? Long—far too long. By old-Earth standards, it had only been a few years, but that hardly meant anything here. To the stars, it made no difference. They offered cold company, but at least they were always there.
Not like people. Not like him.
The sound of an alert tone snapped him out of his thoughts. He frowned and leaned forward, toggling the main display. The starmap showed a blinking dot about five light hours away—inside the Zarmina system. His eyes narrowed. It was an energy signal consistent with the emergence of a large starship from jumpspace. The signal was faint, due to the long distance, but strong enough for the instruments to calculate the ship’s mass at about fifteen hundred astral tonnes.
“So they’re finally here,” he said, smiling to himself as he booted up the Ariadne’s astrogational systems. The indicator lights and control panels blinked as they came online, while behind him the engine began to hum and purr through the bulkheads. He cracked his knuckles and stretched out his arms, relieved to have something to do. The jump coordinates were already plugged into the nav-computer, but he double-checked them just in case.
The signal had come from the fifth Lagrange point of Zarmina’s fourth planet. That was the spot designated for the rendezvous. Captain Elijah had deemed it best to survey the world from a distance before settling on any particular site for the colony. No sense jumping into the bottom of a gravity well, after all. If they did decide to settle at the planet, it would take at least ten days of sub-light travel to get there, but that hardly mattered. There was only one face in the universe that Jeremiah wanted to see, and now he knew exactly where to find it.
“I’m coming, Noemi,” he muttered as he fired up the jump drive. “Hang on.”
The purr tuned to a high-pitched whine as the engines calibrated. He closed his eyes as the cockpit began to spin. A sinking feeling rose in his gut, while his skin seemed to shrink around his body. He held his breath, then let it out as the Ariadne passed out of jumpspace.
“Attention unidentified vessel,” came a female voice over the loudspeaker. “State your name and intentions.”
“This is Jeremiah of the Ariadne,” said Jeremiah. “I’m here to rendezvous with …” he frowned. “Captain Elijah? Is that you?”
He glanced down at the scanners and froze. Not one, but two starships sat just eight hundred kilometers off the Ariadne’s bow. One of them must have been waiting at the Lagrange point long before the other had jumped in. But that only made sense if—
“Ariadne, this is Helena of the starship Revenge,” came the voice again. “We have our particle beams fully charged and trained on your position. If you value your life, power down and submit to boarding.”
Jeremiah’s stomach fell. Noemi—is she all right?
“Who are you? What are you doing in this system? What do you—”
“I hardly think you’re in a position to ask questions, Ariadne. You have ten seconds to comply before we sterilize your ship.”
A hundred protests rose to his lips, but an invisible hand held him back, telling him that this was not the best way to help his wife. Whoever these people were, whatever they wanted from him, for her sake he had to keep himself alive.
“Copy,” he said, clenching his fists. “Powering down.”
If they’ve hurt her …
“A wise choice, Ariadne. A wise choice indeed. Helena out.”
The transmission cut, leaving him alone in the blackness.
* * * * *
The shuttle that took him to the Revenge was barely larger than the Ariadne. Breaks along the bulkheads showed where the cabin had been gutted to make it larger. Seats had been welded to the walls, with gun racks retracted into the ceiling. The cockpit wasn’t even set off from the rest of the ship; the pilot’s chair sat in the middle, with the seats leading right up to it.
That’s because this is a boarding craft, Jeremiah thought to himself as the half-dozen or so men around him strapped themselves in. They wore black body armor and carried assault rifles, with long, curved knives sheathed on their belts and chest plates. They talked among themselves in a language that he didn’t understand. One of them made a remark and pointed to him, and the others laughed.
At the head of the cabin, the leader of the squad lit a cigarette and gripped a handhold on the ceiling as the shuttle took off. Jeremiah looked at him and squinted—there was something vaguely familiar about his face, though he couldn’t quite place it. Perhaps it was his dark, beady eyes, or the way his scruffy chin narrowed down to—
The man looked him in the eye, and in that moment it hit him like a meteor. Zeta Oriana, he realized. Rift Station—the cantina …
“Who are you?” he asked.
The man raised an eyebrow and blew a puff of smoke out the side of his mouth. Though he made no response, Jeremiah could see understanding in his eyes.
“You were at Rift Station two months ago, weren’t you? You overheard everything I said about Zarmina and the colony mission—didn’t you?”
Again, no response. The man turned to his comrades with some snide remark, and they all burst out laughing.
“Who are you people?” Jeremiah asked, the hair on the back of his neck standing on end. “What do you want with us? Why have you followed me—”
A large, bearded soldier to his right tapped him on the shoulder and made a cutting motion with his hand. Jeremiah fell silent, and an awful sinking feeling swept over him. It was his fault that these pirates had captured them—his words that had allowed them to set up this ambush. And now, because of him, Noemi was in danger, and the whole colony mission was bound to fall apart.
The squad leader finished his cigarette and dumped it in a retractable ashtray, while the scrubbers in the ventilation system whirred noisily. The men sat mostly in silence, their hardened faces chilling Jeremiah to the bone. The only thing keeping him from despair was the hope that he’d soon see his wife. Like a child in a fit of passion, that was the only thing that still seemed real to him. He clung to it like a lifeline.
At length, the sound of the engines rumbled through the bulkheads, followed by the grind of the docking clamps. Moments later, the men were on their feet. The squad leader walked out first, motioning for Jeremiah to follow. The others marched behind him with their guns held at ready.
They walked quickly through a well-lit corridor. Metal pipes and conduit ran along the ceiling, while the floor tiles were worn and cracked in places. Up ahead, a door hissed open, and the squad leader ushered Jeremiah through. The others stayed outside.
“Captain Jeremiah of the Ariadne,” came a female voice just ahead—the same voice from the transmission.
Jeremiah blinked and found himself looking up at a tall, muscular woman with dark red hair and a cybernetic arm. She wore oversized pants and a black sleeveless top, with a synthleather vest and two gun holsters at her waist. An armband on her good arm bore an insignia that he didn’t recognize: a black cross set inside a blazing red star.
The woman chuckled and folded her arms. “What’s the matter?” she asked. “Left your tongue on your ship?”
“N-no,” Jeremiah stuttered, glancing around the room. It appeared to be an office of some sort, though the only indications of that were a retractable desk on the far wall and a computer terminal. Except for an aging yellow photograph tacked onto the wall, the decor was totally spartan. It wasn’t empty, though: two guards stood on either side of a portly old man with a thick white beard.
Jeremiah’s eyes lit up at once. “Captain Elijah!” he cried. “What’s going on? Where is—”
“I’ll ask the questions here,” said the woman. She nodded to the squad leader, who palmed the door shut with a hiss.
“Now,” she said, looking Jeremiah in the eye. “As you may have already guessed, I’m Captain Helena of the Revenge. The Zarmina system is what you might call our port-of-call, though from what I understand, you both claim to be part of a mission to colonize this star. Am I right?”
Jeremiah looked to Elijah, who nodded. “I assure you, ma’am, our intentions are peaceful. We had no idea that this system was already occupied.”
“And for everyone else in this sector, that’s the way we want to keep it.”
“As I told you before,” said Elijah, “we’re on a peaceful civilian mission and mean you no harm. If you permit us to leave in peace, we’ll—”
“Leave in peace?” snorted the squad leader. “And let you report back to your Imperial masters? What do you take us for—inbred station junkies?”
He speaks Gaian?
“My thoughts exactly, Salazar,” said Captain Helena. She turned to Elijah. “And why wouldn’t you report us to the Imperials? From what I hear, your home port of Alpha Oriana is already part of the Gaian Empire.”
Elijah’s face went red, and sweat began to form on his forehead. “I assure you, we are outworlders with no ties whatsoever to the empire. We left Alpha Oriana just before it was annexed—many of us were actually driven out by the takeover. We mean you no harm and simply wish to be left to ourselves, just like you.”
“That’s the trouble, though, isn’t it?” said Helena, folding her arms. “We can’t very well expect to be left alone when every starfarer between here and Gamma Oriana believes that there’s a thriving new settlement at this system. Just how many agents do you have spreading the word about this colony of yours?”
She glanced at Jeremiah, who swallowed. “Just me,” he said. “It—it was just me. My wife’s on that ship, you see, and—and I thought it was best.” He cringed at the weakness of his answer, but there was no better way to say it.
Helena narrowed her eyes. “Oh? And which one is she?”
“Her name is Noemi,” he blurted. “She’s almost nine months pregnant by now. Is she—is she all right?”
“You mean to tell me that you left your wife when she was pregnant?”
“I say we space them,” said Salazar, his lips turned up in a sneer. “Set an example, and send a message.”
“That’s one option,” said Helena. Jeremiah’s knees went so weak that they seemed ready to collapse.
“You’d be making a grave mistake,” said Captain Elijah, the rising tension evident in his voice. “The people of this sector wouldn’t stand for a massacre of that magnitude. They’d—”
Captain Helena laughed in his face. “They’d what, captain? Sell out their independence to the Imperials? Hobble together a strike team powerful enough to drive us out? I hardly think so. Like you said, they’re outworlders—the only thing they want is to be left alone.”
“You can do what you want with me and my ship,” said Jeremiah, his voice low. “Just—just please, don’t hurt my wife.”
Salazar took one good look at him and burst into loud, harsh laughter. Jeremiah’s desperation turned to rage, and he clenched his fists even as he cringed in fear. But before he could lash out, Captain Helena raised her hand for silence.
“Touching. But there’s no need to beg—it would be a waste to kill you.”
Relief flooded through Jeremiah’s body like a refreshing splash of cool water. When he looked to Captain Elijah, though, the furrows on his brow had only deepened.
“You say you’re here to colonize Zarmina,” said Helena. “Well, and why shouldn’t you? We have no operations on the surface. If you want to go down there, I don’t see why we shouldn’t allow it.”
“What are your conditions?” Elijah asked in a low voice.
Salazar chuckled, while an almost imperceptible grin spread across Helena’s face. The room suddenly felt much too small for all four of them.
“Simply this,” she said. “First, none of you will ever be allowed to leave the system. We can’t have news of our presence here leaking out to the empire, after all. Second, all of you will be confined to the surface. Any access to space will be at our discretion. Third, all of your hydroponics and food production equipment will remain in orbit with us. We’ll send you food and supplies in exchange for the natural resources you extract, which of course will be the fourth condition.”
They’re turning us into slaves, Jeremiah realized. His muscles tensed, while Elijah’s cheeks turned bright red.
“That’s—that’s inhumane,” said Elijah, the veins starting to pop on his forehead. “I wouldn’t think of subjecting my people to such conditions!”
“It’s that or breathe vacuum,” said Salazar. “Or perhaps you’d like to leave some of your women with us as well?”
Jeremiah drew in a sharp breath as chills shot down the back of his neck. Elijah opened his mouth to protest, but Helena silenced him with a wave of her hand.
“Those are your options, Captain. You may either submit to our conditions and live, or reject them and die. I’ll let you go now to inform your people—and remember, if you don’t come to a decision soon, I just might change my mind.”
She nodded to Salazar, who palmed open the door and motioned for them to step through.
“This is intolerable!” shouted Elijah as he led them out. “You can’t do this to us—it isn’t right!”
But Jeremiah knew that the negotiations were over.
* * * * *
“Jeremiah!” came a frantic girl’s voice. “You’re back!”
Jeremiah looked up in time to see a pretty black-haired girl running up to him from across the main corridor of the Hope of Oriana. Before he could say anything, she threw her arms around him, making him tense.
“Hello, Mariya,” he said a bit awkwardly. “It’s good to see you.”
It wasn’t, really, but with the crisis of the past few hours, that seemed like the best thing to say.
“When the pirates took over, we all feared the worst. Noemi—”
But at that moment, Noemi stepped through the hatchway at the far end.
Instantly, he left Mariya and rushed over to his wife. Her deep green eyes lit the moment she saw him, and she hurried to meet him too. Her stomach had grown enormously in the past few months, so that she was unable to run, but that hardly mattered. He laid hold of her arms—how thin and frail they seemed—and gave her a desperate kiss.
“Jerem-ahra,” she cried as their lips parted. Her shoulders shook, and she took him by the waist, holding onto him as if she would never let him go.
“I’m okay, Noemi,” he said. “I’m all right—kargadi vard. Everything is going to be all right.”
“You stay? No go?”
“That’s right—I stay.”
She bit her lip and took a deep breath as if to suppress tears. He held her close, careful not to put too much pressure on her pregnant belly.
“I never should have left,” he whispered, as much to himself as to her. “This whole mess, the pirates—I’m sorry.”
Whether or not she understood his apology, he couldn’t help but feel that everything was his fault. Even if she didn’t blame him for it, that wasn’t enough to relieve his guilt.
I’m so sorry.
“It’s good to have you back,” said Captain Elijah, laying a firm and heavy hand on Jeremiah’s shoulder. “Though I wish it could have been under more favorable circumstances.”
“So do I,” Jeremiah muttered. He glanced around the mess hall. Polished metal benches and tables stretched lengthwise from the front of the Hope of Oriana back toward the passengers’ quarters. Half a dozen black-clad pirates guarded the way to the bridge and the docking bays, holding them as prisoners on their own ship. The room was half filled with other colonists taking their regularly scheduled meal, but they all kept to themselves.
Noemi stood by his side and slipped an arm around his waist. It was impossible for him to express how he felt to be back with her. His legs felt light and insubstantial, as if the gravity had shut off and he were floating in midair. His heart still pounded from the realization that they were together.
For the moment, at least. With the pirates controlling the system, that could change at any time.
As if in confirmation of this, Captain Elijah glanced over his shoulder at the black-clad guards. “Let’s take this conversation to the dream center,” he said under his breath. “I have a room there where we can talk in private.”
He stepped toward the hatchway and was soon thronged by a large crowd of other colonists, all anxious with questions. Noemi moved as if to follow, but Jeremiah led her away to an empty table, away from the center of attention. He didn’t know what Elijah wanted to talk with them about, but if it was important, he figured it would be best to wait so as not to draw suspicion from the pirates.
Mariya soon joined them, sitting down on the bench across the table. “Noemi missed you something terrible,” she said. “It’s good to see you both together again.”
Jeremiah nodded, though he couldn’t help but notice that her words sounded a bit forced. She looked up at him through her eyelashes, but he glanced away as their eyes met.
“Did you get my message at Zeta Oriana?” he asked, more to fill the silence than anything else.
“Yes,” she said, nodding vigorously. “Noemi couldn’t get enough of it—she must have watched it more than a hundred times! I helped her with the translation, of course.”
“Anyway, the pregnancy has been progressing quite well. The doctor says everything looks healthy—no complications or anything. She’s due in a week, but really, the baby could come at any time, so I’ve done my best to stay with her in case she needs me.”
Making yourself indispensable, Jeremiah thought to himself. Just like a good second wife. He shifted uneasily and pulled Noemi a little closer, perhaps a bit possessively. Mariya stretched out across the table and put her hands on his, but he moved them away.
“Thanks for looking after her while I was gone,” he said.
She bit her lip and nodded. Has anything changed? he wondered. It was a lot harder to read her than it had been only a few months ago. Things had changed, certainly, but the tensions that had driven him off of the Hope of Oriana were still there.
He started to stand up from the table, but just as he did, Mariya’s father Jakob walked over. “Jeremiah!” he said, giving him a firm handshake. “Welcome back.”
“Thanks,” Jeremiah said weakly. Mariya’s father commanded a presence that made it impossible to leave. As he took a seat next to his daughter, Jeremiah found himself sitting back down.
“I’m not going to lie,” said Jakob, putting both his hands on the table. “I’ve still got a bad taste in my mouth from the way you left.”
“I—I’m sorry,” Jeremiah stammered. “I didn’t—”
“Well, none of that matters anymore. We’ve got bigger problems on our hands right now, so let’s put that behind us until we put these bastard pirates in their place.”
He frowned. “In their place?”
“You heard me right,” said Jakob. “You don’t expect Elijah to just turn over and submit to them, do you? There’s too much of the Outworlds in him. And even if he did, you can bet your starship that the rest of us wouldn’t take it lying down.”
Jeremiah glanced in alarm at the guards on the far side of the room. Though Jakob kept his voice low, the fervor with which he spoke made his skin feel clammy. It would be one thing if it were just him fighting for his independence—it was quite another thing to risk Noemi’s life as well. She smiled and put a hand on his knee to reassure him, but it gave him little comfort.
“Not here,” said Mariya in a hushed voice. “Later—talk later.”
She smiled and rose to her feet, sharing a few words in Deltan with the others. Without warning, she leaned over and kissed Jeremiah on the cheek. Before he could react, she was already halfway to the door. He glanced at Noemi in alarm, but the expression on her face was unreadable.
“My daughter is a good girl,” said Jakob. “You’d do well to reconsider her.”
“Never mind, we’ll sort it out later. There are more important things to deal with now, after all.”
“Yeah,” said Jeremiah. That much was certainly true.
* * * * *
The main corridor was packed. All the bunk rooms were full, with clusters of people out in the hall, blocking the way through. They talked quietly among themselves with wide, frightened eyes. The pirates had commandeered the forward sections of the ship and forced everyone else to the back, putting a great deal of strain on the life support systems. Even though the ventilators were running full blast, the recycled air smelled thick of body odor—something that was bound to get worse during the voyage from the Lagrange point to the planet itself.
Jeremiah and Noemi stepped through a crowded hatchway into the dream center of the Hope of Oriana. Reclining chairs radiated outward from half a dozen computer cores, filling virtually all of the available floor space. Wires ran along the ceiling, connecting the cores with view screens and other feedback relays. The place was filled to capacity, with even a few dreamers lying on mattresses next to the door. Their unconscious bodies looked eerily like corpses, especially with the helmet-like dream monitors covering their eyes.
“Ah, Jeremiah,” said Captain Elijah from a little alcove in the far corner. “Come here, come here.”
Jeremiah held Noemi’s hand and helped her step carefully around the dreamers. As they went, Mariya came in from the corridor and wordlessly joined them. He gave her a puzzled look, but she raised a finger to her mouth and glanced over her shoulder as if to make sure that they weren’t being followed.
There’s something going on here, Jeremiah realized. Some plot to fight back against the pirates, and Noemi is at the center of it.
“Captain,” he said quietly as they reached the far side of the room. “Why did you call us here?”
“Shh! Inside, inside.”
Elijah hurriedly ushered them into the hardware maintenance room. Harsh fluorescent lights hung from the ceiling, and stacks of computer cards and datachips filled a number of modular shelves along the wall. A couple of broken chairs sat in the far corner. Jeremiah helped Noemi down into one and took a seat on the floor.
“Sorry for the inconvenience,” said Elijah, motioning for Mariya to take the other chair. She objected at first, but he shook his head and insisted until she sat down.
“Why did you want to meet us?” Jeremiah asked once the door was closed.
“Because the pirates have taken my quarters, and this is the only other place where we can meet in private.”
Noemi started talking, and Mariya listened closely and nodded. “She wants to know what plans you’ve come up with so far.”
“Plans?” Jeremiah asked. “What plans?”
“For getting these damn pirates off my ship,” said Elijah, “and finding a way to defeat them.”
Jeremiah frowned, and his arms began to tense. Why drag Noemi into this? he thought. What can they possibly expect from her?
“The ship’s computer shouldn’t be too difficult to hack,” Mariya translated as Noemi spoke quickly in hushed tones. “She can get into the code directly through the simulator. Even if the pirates put up a firewall, it shouldn’t take long to crack it.”
Elijah nodded. “The Hope of Oriana follows a modular design, with emergency seals that are designed to go off in the event of a decompression. The pirates are all in the forward part of the ship, so if we can depressurize that section enough to knock them out, it shouldn’t be too hard to overwhelm them and take their weapons.” He stroked his beard. “But that still leaves the Revenge.”
“She says it’ll be a little trickier to get into the pirate network. Without a hard line connection, she probably won’t be able to do it, so we’ll have to wait until we’ve docked with the main orbital at Zarmina IV.”
“And how long will it take her to break in?”
Mariya conferred with Noemi, who paused for a moment to think. “If she’s already got control of the Hope of Oriana, not very long—maybe a minute.”
“So we’ll have to wait until we arrive at Zarmina IV,” Captain Elijah muttered, looking off in thought. “That’s cutting it close, but if we can overwhelm them quickly enough and seize control of the station—”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” said Jeremiah. “You want to fight back against the pirates, using my wife as your secret weapon?”
“Of course,” said Elijah. “She’s one of the best simulator programmers I’ve ever seen. Without her hacking skills, we have almost no hope of fighting back.”
“Don’t worry,” said Mariya. “She’ll be plugged into one of the dream monitors the whole time. If there’s any fighting, she won’t see any of it.”
“And what if you fail? What if the pirates figure out what you’re up to and crush this little rebellion before it starts?”
“Then we lose nothing,” said Elijah, his face grim. “I don’t like it any more than you do, but unless you want to spend your life trapped on that planet as a slave, we have to do something.”
Noemi put a hand on Jeremiah’s arm and smiled reassuringly. “Don’t afraid,” she said—then, turning to Mariya, began to speak quickly in Deltan.
“She says this is something she can do,” Mariya told him. “We might not get another chance at this, and she wants to do her part.”
“But will she be safe?”
“So long as those pirates are on my ship, none of us are safe,” said Captain Elijah. “You want to help your wife? Help her do her part to fight back.”
Jeremiah took a deep breath and leaned back against the bulkhead behind him. “But what about the Revenge?” he asked. “Even if we retake the Hope of Oriana, we don’t have the guns or the firepower to fight back against a fully armed pirate warship.”
“If she can break into their network, we won’t have to,” said Elijah. He turned to Noemi. “Can you do that?”
She frowned as Mariya translated. A tense moment of silence passed, in which she screwed up her eyes and bit her lip. Please don’t do anything unsafe, Jeremiah thought as he squeezed her hand. If anyone has to be in danger, it should be me.
As Noemi answered, Mariya’s frown deepened. She gave Jeremiah a quick glance, but turned to Captain Elijah before meeting his eyes.
“She says she can do it, but taking control of the ship would mean making a—how do I say? A hard-link between her brain and the control systems, and that’s dangerous.”
“Dangerous?” asked Jeremiah. “How?”
Noemi squeezed his hand and spoke quickly, evidently anticipating his question. She gave him a look that seemed almost apologetic, but there was a resignation in her eyes that he couldn’t deny.
“I don’t know exactly how it works,” said Mariya, “but it has something to do with the speed of the computer cycles and the capacity of the human brain. Basically, she can only keep up the connection for a few minutes, before—”
Mariya swallowed. “Before her brain overheats and she dies.”
Jeremiah’s hands went numb, and the blood drained instantly from his cheeks. The maintenance closet suddenly seemed unbearably cramped, the recycled air too stale to breathe. He fought the urge to grab Noemi and run.
“We can’t do it,” he said. “No way—never.”
“Hold on,” said Elijah, stroking his beard in thought. “What if we got another mind to connect with the network? If we could shift some of those cycles to someone else, would it give her enough time to do what she needs?”
Jeremiah opened his mouth to protest, but Elijah silenced him with a stern look and a gesture of his hand. Mariya hesitated for a second before posing the question to Noemi, who took a sharp breath between her teeth before answering.
“She says that it’s possible in theory, but that we’d never be able to do it. If she tried to break a second person into the network, the pirates would detect it and cut her off. The only way it could be done is to get someone on the Revenge and have them hook up at the same time she does.”
“We can’t do it,” said Jeremiah. “This kind of neural interfacing is too dangerous. People have died from things like this, and with the baby, she’s in no condition to take this kind of risk.”
“I’m afraid we don’t have much of a choice,” said Captain Elijah. He sighed heavily. “Noemi is the best hacker we have—certainly the only one who can crack into the pirate network and seize control of their own ships.”
“But can’t you see she’s pregnant? The doctor says—”
“I know, Jeremiah, I know. But we only have ten days before we get to the planet—ten days before that pirate bitch puts us down on the surface and cuts us off forever.”
Noemi leaned forward and waved for them to stop arguing. Looking directly at Jeremiah, she spoke in a low, calm tone.
“She asks that you don’t try to stop her,” Mariya translated. “She knows it’s risky, but this is the only way to build a future for your family.”
For your family. Jeremiah swallowed—everything seemed so complicated, with nothing for him to do but sit helplessly and watch everything spin out of control around him. If it was just himself he had to worry about, it would all be so much easier—but with her and the baby to look out for, he didn’t know what to do.
“If only there was some way to get a message out of the system,” he thought out loud. “Some way to call for help.”
Elijah shook his head. “Even if we could get someone out, it would take months or even years to rally a strike force—assuming one could be organized at all.”
“I think I could do it,” said Jeremiah. “I’ve got a lot of friends in this sector—Amos out at Gamma Oriana, and Thomas at Rift Station on Zeta. Samson knows a lot of people too, and he’s bound to be on his way back from the New Pleiades by now. If worse comes to worst, I could even go back to my birth world at Edenia. These pirates don’t threaten just us, after all—they’re a danger to the whole sector. If we can get the other outworlders to see that, then they’ll rally to our defense at once.”
“Are you sure?” said Elijah. “Because in ten days, we won’t have any other options.”
Better than watching my wife kill herself to save us.
“Trust me, I can do it. Just get me to my ship.”
Mariya conferred with Noemi. At first, she seemed a little resistant, but she offered no protest. After glancing at Jeremiah, she sighed and nodded.
“It sounds like a great idea,” said Mariya. “Where is the Ariadne?”
Captain Elijah raised an eyebrow. “Unless I’m mistaken, the pirates have docked her here with the Hope of Oriana. There isn’t a bay large enough for the ship on the Revenge, and I doubt those pirate bastards would put a crew on board to fly her separately.”
Jeremiah’s heart leaped in his chest. “If she’s docked with the Hope of Oriana, then can we hack into her?”
Mariya spoke with Noemi, whose face brightened noticeably. She began to talk very fast. “Yes,” Mariya translated. “We can even charge the jump drives, at least partially.”
“That’s it,” said Jeremiah, jumping to his feet. “The Ariadne has a much smaller mass than the Hope of Oriana—it would only take about fifteen minutes to charge her enough to make a short-range jump.”
“And once you’re a good five or six light-hours away, you’ll have plenty of time to charge the drives for a full one,” said Captain Elijah. “Even if they were looking for you, it would take a few hours for your signal to reach them—plenty of time to charge.”
Noemi looked up at Jeremiah and smiled. He choked up a little as he realized what it would mean to leave her now. Her pregnant stomach bulged out almost to her knees and sat so low she had to keep her hand under it to support herself. She would almost certainly have the baby while he was gone.
“Don’t worry about her,” said Elijah, as if he could read his thoughts. “We’ll do everything to make sure your wife and her baby are fine.”
It’s what you have to do, Jeremiah argued with himself. You aren’t abandoning her—you’re doing this to save her. Still, even though he knew it with his mind, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was making another mistake. Noemi took his hand again and looked him straight in the eye as she began to speak.
“She says,” Mariya translated, then stopped and blushed deep red.
The two girls turned and conferred with each other, their tone much more intense than before. Mariya bit her lip and nodded, but only with reluctance.
“What is it?” Jeremiah asked. “What’s going on?”
“She says that if you’re going to go, she wants me to come with you.”
He frowned. “Why?”
“To take care of you.”
“Take care of me? How?”
“She says she’s worried about you being alone out there—that you might have a breakdown, or get lonely, or give up. She says she knows she can trust me with you, and wants me to keep you company.”
“Are you kidding?”
“No I’m not—honest! That’s what she really said.”
He snorted in disgust, the strength of his repulsion surprising him. “I got here just fine by myself, didn’t I? I don’t need you to come with me—I’ll be fine by myself.”
“No,” said Noemi, putting a hand on his arm. “Jerem-ahra no go alone.” She turned to Mariya and spoke again in her own language.
“She says that she knows how difficult it is for you to be without her, and she doesn’t want you to bear that all alone. At some point, you’re going to need someone, and that’s why she wants me to come.”
He looked into Noemi’s eyes and saw a deep concern for him that reflected Mariya’s words. She’s telling the truth, he realized.
“She also says that once the pirates find out what happened, they’ll try to hunt down the hacker. If I go with you, she can make it look like it was me.”
“She can? That’s not going to put an extra strain on her, is it?”
“Not too much,” said Captain Elijah. “Remember, we have the codes for both ships—she won’t have to hard-line it to get to the controls.”
“It’s just personal data,” Mariya added. “She says it’s as easy as using a different login.”
Jeremiah nodded. “Well, in that case …”
He left the sentence hanging, unable to finish it. Noemi squeezed his hand as if to reassure him that everything would be all right. Even so, he couldn’t shake the fear that he would never see her again.
* * * * *
Two hours later, Jeremiah helped Noemi into one of the reclining chairs as Mariya took the one next to her. The dream center had been emptied in preparation for the escape attempt. A small crowd had gathered around the door, but they kept quiet enough—Captain Elijah saw to that.
“Are you ready?” Jeremiah asked.
Noemi nodded. No translation was necessary.
“Be careful,” he whispered. He patted her stomach and squeezed her hand as one of the Hope of Oriana’s crew fitted the dream monitor over her head. A quick smile before the visor went down, and her body went limp as she plugged into the simulator.
Jeremiah swallowed and stepped back. Beside him, Mariya plugged in and went limp as well. A low murmur rose among the crowd, but for the next few nerve-wracking moments, there was nothing to do but wait.
“When you get into the maintenance shaft, don’t come out until you hear us make the distraction,” said Captain Elijah, his voice low. “You’ll be able to hear it loud and clear through the ventilation system.”
“Are you sure?”
“As sure as I know my own ship.”
Jeremiah nodded. At that moment, Mariya began to stir.
“Well?” he said, pulling off the dream monitor. She sat up and blinked.
“It’s done,” she said softly. “Let’s go.”
Without a word, the two of them walked out of the dream center and into the main corridor. The crowd parted silently before them. Jeremiah’s movements felt wooden, like something from out of a dream. If he’d tried to stop, he wasn’t sure his legs would obey him.
The air in the corridors felt thick with a tension that seemed to run throughout the whole ship. It shone in the eyes of those they passed, a collective sense of desperation combined with an awareness that something decisive was about to happen.
They passed the bunk rooms in silence and stopped before turning down one of the narrow auxiliary corridors that circled the mess hall. Captain Elijah gave them a salute as he went the other way with a group of young men, his eyes grim and decisive. Jeremiah returned the salute.
May the stars of Earth watch over you until we meet again.
He led Mariya to a small hatch, which he swung open with some effort. Inside, a narrow crawlspace extended upward at a thirty-degree angle, with conduit and loose wiring along the walls and ceiling. It was a maintenance shaft, designed to facilitate work on the ship’s many systems. The network of crawlspaces extended virtually unobstructed from the bunk rooms to the docking bays. Captain Elijah had assured him it was a simple five-minute crawl—though at the rate Jeremiah’s heart was pounding, they might as well be entering the jaws of death.
For Noemi, he told himself, taking a deep breath.
The space inside was a lot tighter than he’d thought it would be. He crawled in on his knees and elbows, with barely enough room to lift his head. Fortunately, there weren’t too many twists or turns. He stopped at the first juncture, where there was a little more space to breathe, and waited to listen by the air ducts.
The lights along the floor were surprisingly bright, though a few of them had burned out due to age. They cast strange shadows across Mariya’s face, lighting her from below. He had to crane his neck to see her, but it reassured him that she was following close behind.
A faint echo by his ear alerted him to activity in the mess hall. He pressed his lips together as the echo came again, followed by the muffled sound of shouting.
“It’s on,” he said in a half-whisper. “Let’s go.”
She followed him down an incline as sharp as the one where they’d entered. As they went, the shouting grew increasingly louder. A sharp crack of a gunshot made his blood freeze, and he pushed on as quickly as the narrow space would allow.
He reached the exit hatch on the far end and opened it a crack, just enough to peek through. The corridor outside seemed empty, so he threw his weight against it to swing it open. It creaked on its hinges, making him cringe, but if anyone had heard, they seemed to be more preoccupied with the riot in the mess hall. He helped Mariya out and broke into a run, not even bothering to shut the hatch behind them.
“Over there!” she said, pointing. “This way!”
She led him around a bend to a series of four airlocks, with a branching passageway leading to the main corridor. Out there, a dozen armed troops ran toward the passengers’ quarters, guns at the ready. Jeremiah’s heart leaped in his throat and adrenaline coursed through his veins. He reached the nearest computer terminal and pounded on the keyboard.
“Which one is it?” he said aloud, his heart racing. “Come on, come on—”
“Number four!” said Mariya. “Hurry!”
She slammed her palm against the access panel, and the airlock door slid open with a hiss loud enough to alert the entire ship to their presence. Without looking back, he ran in and palmed it shut.
Moments later, he found himself on board the Ariadne, dashing toward the cockpit. The indicator lights were already on, the engines humming through the bulkheads. Mariya strapped herself into one of the cabin seats while he jumped into the pilot’s chair.
“All systems are online,” he reported, rushing through the checks before takeoff. “Jump drives at eight percent and climbing—”
“Just get us out of here!”
He punched a series of commands and pulled down the lever to disengage from the Hope of Oriana. The docking clamps groaned through the walls, and the floor shook beneath his feat as they pulled away.
“Undocking complete,” he said, gripping the flight stick in one hand. “Setting co-ordinates.”
An alarm sounded, alerting him to an incoming message.
“Attention Ariadne,” came Helena’s voice over the loudspeaker. “Stand down and do not attempt to flee. Failure to do so will—”
Jeremiah switched off the transmission and engaged the engines. With one eye on the sensor display and the other on the forward window, he maneuvered until the Hope of Oriana was between them and the Revenge. His fingers flew over the control panels as he plugged in the coordinates for the next jump. Not enough charge to go very far—just a few light hours out of the system. The nav-computer needed their present position, but he didn’t have time to plot it. Better approximate and hope for—
“Ariadne, this is the Revenge,” came Helena’s voice again. “Do not attempt to flee, or we will destroy you.”
Come on, Jeremiah thought to himself, waiting on the nav-computer. The progress bar filled for the calculations—fast, but still a hindrance.
“Jeremiah, listen to me! If you don’t abort right now, I will—”
Now! The progress bar reached one hundred percent, and he threw the switch to initiate jump.
“—personally order your wife’s execution.”
His heart leaped into his mouth as the room began to spin. He reached frantically for the switch, but it was too late. The spinning grew worse, and his vision began to freeze and blur until he lost track of his own hands. For a second, time slowed as if he were caught in a lagging simulation, and then it all came to a stop and reverted back to normal.
“No!” he screamed, slamming both fists against the controls. “No, no!”
But it was too late. The stars that shone through the forward window were noticeably brighter. The Revenge and the Hope of Oriana were nowhere to be seen. The nav-computer registered a short-range jump, with the energy reserves reduced to zero.
A cold sweat broke across his forehead, and he fell back panting in his seat. Mariya came running through the doorway, but his hands and arms were already beginning to shake.
I will personally order your wife’s execution.
What have I done?
Jeremiah stared out the window of his father’s ship with sweaty palms, the cold paralysis of quiet panic constricting his throat and blurring his vision. The stars shone clearer and more brilliant than he had ever seen, even from the main orbital at Edenia. It was almost impossible for him to believe that he was gone—that had left his birth world forever.
Barely an hour had passed since he’d made that first jump into the starry void. His father had been the only one at the station to see him off—his mother and little sister had said their goodbyes with the rest of the colony back on the surface. He still wore the New Earther pendant his mother had put around his neck, and the memory of her tears still stung him.
“Never forget,” she had told him, repeating the words of the sacred chant. “Never forget, and in passing may your spirit return to mother Earth.”
In passing. In death. That was the best way to describe what the past few days had felt like. And yet, instead of returning to an Earth-like paradise, he found himself alone in the emptiness of space. Edenia was almost half a light-year away, an impossible distance to bridge on sub-light engines alone. The Ariadne had a jump drive, of course, but the controls still felt awkward and unfamiliar to him. His father had taught him only the basics of astrogation, taking him on short jumps to the brown dwarf at the edge of the system.
“You’ll do fine,” he’d assured him. “The Ariadne is a good, reliable ship. Take the time to learn her, and she’ll serve you as well as she served me.”
“But what if she breaks down?” Jeremiah had asked.
“If you take good care of her, she won’t.”
“But what if I make a miscalculation? What if there’s an accident? What if I get stranded out in deep space?”
His father had sighed and put an arm around him. “Son, your fears are no different than those that the ancients felt when they left the ravages of Earth, or what our forefathers felt when they left Gaia Nova for the Outworlds. It’s the same fear that grips every starfarer, the immensity of space and the nothingness of man in the face of it.”
“So what am I supposed to do?”
“I can’t tell you, son. What works for some doesn’t work for others. The ancients looked back to Earth, while the pagans worship the stars themselves. But this much I can tell you—if you stare into the infinite void for long enough, it will change you. I can’t say exactly how it will change you, but it will, and you’d better be prepared for that.”
Prepared. If there was anything Jeremiah didn’t feel, it was prepared. Despite all the planning, despite all his father’s lessons and advice, now that he was actually out among the stars, all of that paled to nothing. For the first time in his life, he was alone—completely and utterly alone—and would be, so long as he was a wanderer.
The stars shone bright and cold through the forward window, offering neither warmth nor comfort. If you stare into the void long enough, it will change you. Perhaps more than anything, that frightened him most of all.
* * * * *
Mariya’s voice cut through the haze of waking dreams and brought him back to reality. He shifted in the pilot’s chair, the leather sticky from sweat, and opened his tired, groggy eyes. The stars still shone silent and cold out the forward window, no different than they had that first day. He bit his lip until the pain brought him fully awake.
“Jeremiah?” Mariya asked again, a little timidly. “Jeremiah, are you all right?”
He groaned and sat up. “Yeah,” he muttered. “Still here.”
“Are you sure?”
“That I’m still here?”
“No—that you’re all right.”
He looked at her and frowned. She stood in the doorway wringing her hands. Her skin was pale, even more than usual—probably from the blue-white light of the stars.
“Are you?” he asked.
Her lips quivered, but she nodded. “Yes, I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”
Is it the one or the other? Jeremiah wondered. He didn’t have the energy to ask, though—and besides, it didn’t really matter.
“What are we going to do?” she asked, her knees trembling. Nearly four hours had passed since they’d left Zarmina, and this was her first time crossing the void alone. Well, not technically alone. But without Noemi, Jeremiah felt so alone that it was hard to imagine anyone not feeling the same.
“I don’t know,” he said. Did it really matter what they did anymore? If Noemi was gone, what did anything matter?
Mariya’s face fell a little. “Well, where are we going to go then?”
“I don’t know,” he said again. “Back to Gamma Oriana, I guess. I can drop you off there.”
“What about the pirates? About raising the Outworlds?”
He said nothing. She stepped forward and knelt by the side of his chair, her jet-black hair shimmering in the starlight.
“You’re not giving up, are you? You can’t give up—not with everyone else still out there.”
“I know,” he said. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about them, just that everything seemed pointless now. He stared out at the infinite starfield and felt more empty and alone than ever.
Mariya put a hand on his arm. “You’re still devastated about losing her.”
He nodded, still keeping his eyes on the stars. His eyes burned, but the tears refused to come.
“She wouldn’t want you to give up,” Mariya said softly. She watched his face for a moment, trying to gauge his reaction.
“She never did take to the starfaring life,” he said, more to himself than anything else. “Always looking for a place to settle down.”
Mariya’s grip on his arm tightened. For several moments, neither of them said anything.
“If it makes you feel any better, Noemi told me to tell you that you’re not alone. She prayed before you left, and feels reassured that the stars will be watching us.”
Jeremiah scoffed. “The stars—even if they could watch us, what makes you think they’d care?”
Mariya tensed. “I—”
“Have you ever even looked at the stars?” he said, a sudden and inexplicable fury overtaking him. “Do you know what it’s like to stare into the unblinking face of the void, day after day, and know that you’re totally alone?”
“No,” she admitted.
He gestured at the window with his hand. “Do you know what we amount to in the face of all that? Nothing—absolutely nothing! The stars were shining long before the first man walked the Earth, and they’ll be shining long after we’re all extinct. From their perspective, you and I are as small and insignificant as bacteria. What makes you think that an intelligence on that level would even care about us?”
Mariya gripped the hem of her skirt and stared at him as if he’d committed an act of blasphemy. He grunted and shook his head.
“But what does it even matter? Even if the stars are watching over us, what can they do?”
“The pagans worship the stars,” she said softly.
“Yeah,” he said. “But you Deltans are Christian—Neo-Orthodox, I think.”
“That’s right. We’re a branch of the Neo-Orthodox faith, with close ties to the Patriarchate at Akalideda. But do you know what makes us different?”
She took a deep breath and pulled out a cross from beneath her blouse. “Most other Christians reject the pagans as heathens and unbelievers. They claim that Christ is the only God in this universe, and that Earth is the only seat of the divine. But while we worship Christ as our Lord and Savior, we believe that there’s truth in what the pagans teach as well.”
Jeremiah frowned. “How is that? I thought all Christians were monotheists.”
“We are—we just don’t worship the other gods as God.”
“But you believe in them?”
She nodded. He shook his head.
“How can you believe in a god that you don’t worship? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Are you familiar with the Apotheatic Credo?”
“It goes like this,” she said, taking a deep breath. “As the gods are now, man once was. As man is now, Christ overcame.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that we were gods once—all of us who ever were born, or ever will be. There’s a spark of divinity in all of us, just as there’s a touch of humanity in the rest of the universe. And even though we don’t worship the stars, we do believe that they look out after us—like angels, if that makes sense.”
“So you believe the stars are angels?”
“Not exactly—more like unborn spirits. When we look out at the stars, we believe we’re looking at the spirits of those who have yet to be born.”
Jeremiah paused to consider this. “So let me get this straight,” he said. “You believe that all of us were star-gods once?”
“But—but that’s impossible. How many billions of people have been born since the days of Earth?”
She smiled. “How many hundreds of billions of stars are there in the universe?”
“Good point,” he said with a grunt. “But if all of us were gods before we were born, why would we want to give that up? What’s so great about being human?”
“Because there are some things that we couldn’t have experienced otherwise.”
She paused. “Well, like families.”
“Yes. You remember that saying we have? How a strong family shines brighter than all the stars? Well, now you know what we mean by it.”
Jeremiah sat back to think about it for a moment. To believe that the stars were gods, and that he himself had once been one—the concept was truly staggering. If it were true, then somewhere up there were all his future children. To think that they were watching him—that he had once watched his own father when he was a wanderer—it was enough to give him pause.
“You believe all this?”
Mariya bit her lip and nodded. Her arms were still tense, and she gripped her skirt so tightly that her knuckles were white.
“And Noemi believed it too?”
Thinking about her brought a lump back to his throat. He drew in a sharp breath through his teeth and sighed.
“She wanted me to covert, didn’t she? And for her, I would have.”
“But would you really believe it?”
“I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t know what to believe. My mother taught me to look to Earth, but it’s hard to do that when you’re a wanderer. I think my father believed a little differently, but we never talked much about religion.”
Mariya nodded. She looked like she wanted to say something, but lacked the confidence to come out and say it.
“What?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she said quickly. “I was just—I mean, it sounds like you’re lost.”
He chuckled. “Yeah, that sounds about right.”
“Well, what do you want to believe?”
The question caught him off guard. He’d never thought about it that way before.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve been staring into the void for so long, I don’t know what’s true anymore. But if I had to choose, I guess I’d choose whatever made me happy.”
“Did your mother’s religion make you happy?”
“No,” he admitted. “All it ever did was fill me with guilt.”
“I feel that way sometimes too,” said Mariya. “But there’s also a lot to hope for. And whenever I look out at the stars, I can see the evidence of that.”
“Because a strong family shines brighter than all the stars.”
Jeremiah paused. “So is that why you wanted to marry me? Even if it meant being a second wife, that was better than never having a family?”
Her cheeks turned bright red. “I, ah—”
“And Noemi was willing to share me because she wanted you to have that too?”
Mariya took a deep breath and nodded. “More or less. I never meant to come between you—I only wanted to make your family stronger.”
He hesitated, not sure what to say. She looked up at him with eyes that plead for forgiveness, but his heart felt empty and hollow.
“I believe you,” he finally managed. Even though it felt like a lie, the moment the words left his mouth, it was as if an unseen wall broke down between them. Mariya sighed in relief, and he realized that it was true—that he did believe her.
“I don’t want to push you into anything,” she said quickly. “I know it must be hard, losing Noemi and all.”
“Don’t you believe that God will provide a way? Not the star gods, I mean—the God that you worship.”
“I suppose,” she said, “though it’s hard to believe, when you can’t see how things are going to turn out in the end.”
He nodded. That much was true.
At that moment, an alert tone sounded in front of him. Jeremiah turned and peered at the main screen. What he saw made him frown.
“What is it?” Mariya asked.
“It’s a transmission from the Revenge. Hang on—this could get ugly.”
He glanced down at the sensors and readied the engines. If enough time had passed for a radio transmission to reach their position, then the pirates were almost certainly able to pinpoint their location from the signal emitted by their last jump. The reserves hadn’t fully charged yet, but with luck they’d still be able to get out fast—if they moved quickly. At any moment, the pirates could show up and blast them out of the sky.
“What does it say?” Mariya asked. She stood up and leaned over his shoulder to get a better look.
“Just a moment,” said Jeremiah. “Just a moment.” He brought up the starmap and set the coordinates for a position about a thousand light hours away—far enough to make a clean escape without pushing the drives beyond their limits. As the hum of the engines reverberated through the bulkheads, he put his finger on the switch and took a deep breath. Only then did he bring up the transmission, making sure to keep an eye on the sensors.
Helena’s sharp, imposing face appeared on the main screen, her lips pursed and her eyes narrowed. A chill shot down Jeremiah’s back, running down to the tips of his fingers.
“Greetings, Jeremiah,” the transmission began. “You already know who I am. Before you panic and make a jump, hear me out. I have something that you want, and if you’ll take the time to listen, I believe that we can reach a mutually acceptable agreement.”
An agreement? What was this—an attempt to distract him while a strike team moved to attack? He glanced down at the sensors, but they were blank—nothing but empty space all around them.
“By the time you receive this message, several hours will have passed since your escape. At the same time, my men will be pinpointing your position, preparing to make an attack. Of course, such a move would prove futile; you’ve no doubt charged your jump drives enough to escape again the moment we arrive. However, if you place any value on your wife’s life, that would be a great mistake.”
Behind him, Mariya gasped. Jeremiah stared at the screen, hardly daring to breathe.
“Even now, my men are taking her into custody,” Helena continued. “By the time you receive this message, I will have her in an airlock, gagged and bound. If you don’t do exactly as I tell you, I will order my men to vent the airlock and release her into space.”
So she’s alive. The thought struck him like a bolt of pure electricity. His breath caught in his throat, and his heart skipped a beat.
“Now, I am not an unreasonable person,” said Helena, looking squarely into the camera. “It makes no difference to me whether your wife lives or dies. What does make a difference—and what I very much want to prevent—is the knowledge of our presence at Zarmina escaping the system. If you return and surrender yourself to my men stationed at the fourth planet, I will spare your wife’s life. However, if you fail to turn yourself in within the hour, I will order my men to space her. The choice is yours—her fate is entirely within your hands. Helena out.”
The transmission cut, leaving a faint after-image on the darkened display. The hum of the engines replaced the sound of her voice.
“Wow,” said Mariya. “So, what do you think we should—”
“We’re going back,” said Jeremiah, his fingers racing across the keyboard. The nav-computer zoomed in on Zarmina and ran through the calculations to put them in orbit around the fourth planet.
“Going back? Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“You heard the woman. Noemi’s alive—and we have only an hour before they space her.”
“But what if she’s lying? What if it’s just a ploy to get you to come back?”
He paused for a heart-stopping second to consider the implications. If Helena was lying and Noemi was already dead, then they were the only hope the colonists had left. Going back would mean losing everything. But if Noemi was still alive, then this was the only way to save her. And if Helena was telling the truth, he would never find out unless they went back. If they didn’t, he would spend the rest of his life wondering if Noemi had died because of him.
“I can’t do that,” he decided aloud. “We’ve got to go back.”
“But—but what about the others?”
“If she’s still alive, then Captain Elijah can go ahead with the first plan and use her to hack into the network.” He clenched his teeth—it might still kill her, but that was the only way to give her a fighting chance. And at this point, that was the most he could do.
Mariya took a deep breath. “I hope you’re right about this.”
“Yeah,” said Jeremiah. So am I.
The cloud-covered world of Zarmina IV shone like a pearl on a shimmering velvet cloth. Here and there, breaks in the clouds showed large swaths of the turquoise-blue sea. It wasn’t exactly an Earth-like world, but like B’tum and Edenia II before the failed terraforming project, it had the potential to become one. Situated well within the habitable zone of its parent star, with a thick atmosphere and a water-rich surface, it was a wonder it hadn’t been settled already.
Then again, with all the pirates in the system, perhaps that wasn’t so surprising after all.
The alert tone sounded almost as soon as they exited jumpspace. It was a transmission from a station orbiting about 150 kilometers above the planet’s surface.
“Attention unidentified vessel,” came a gruff voice with a thick Pleiadian accent. “We have particle beams trained on your position. Identify yourself.”
“I copy,” said Jeremiah. “This is the Ariadne, returning to Zarmina IV as requested by Captain Helena.”
Pause. Behind him, Mariya shifted nervously.
“Acknowledged, Ariadne. Power down systems and submit to boarding.”
“Copy. But first, I need to speak with her.”
“Negative, Ariadne. Power down at—”
“Now look,” said Jeremiah, blood rushing to his cheeks. “Captain Helena gave me certain assurances, and I’m not going to submit until I’m satisfied that they’ve been met. I’m going to contact her directly, and if you try to interfere, I’m pulling out.”
With that, he switched off the transceiver and began powering the jump drives.
Mariya frowned. “Uh, Jeremiah? Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“Of course,” he said, keeping an eye on the ship’s sensor displays. Two red dots began to approach their position. The alert tone sounded again, but he shut off the transmission before it could play.
“But—but what about those particle cannons?”
“We’re too far out of range for them to do any serious damage.” Probably. “Besides, I’m not going to surrender until I know for certain that Noemi is alive.”
He identified the convoy returning from the Lagrange point and directed the transmitter in that direction. The distance was a little over a thousand kilometers, so they could expect a fair amount of lag. Better to restrict it to audio, then.
“Attention Revenge,” he said. “This is Jeremiah of the Ariadne. We have arrived at Zarmina IV as per your request. Do you copy?”
Silence. He took a deep breath and counted to five.
“Copy, Jeremiah,” came Helena’s tinny voice over the loudspeaker. “I see you are a man of reason. Submit to my men, and I’ll see that you’re reunited with your wife when we arrive.”
“Not so fast. First, I need some assurance that you’ve kept your end of the deal. Where’s my wife?”
The line died as the message transmitted to the Revenge. Mariya put a hand on the back of the pilot’s chair.
“Don’t worry,” said Helena. “Your wife is alive and safe. My men are escorting her from the airlock even as we speak.”
“How do I know you aren’t lying? Let me talk to her!”
Another silence, this one longer and more excruciating than the first. Jeremiah began to tap his foot nervously against the floor, while on the sensor displays, the red dots crept closer.
“All right, she’s here. Stand by.”
The tension in Jeremiah’s body grew until he felt he would burst. He clenched and unclenched his fists, leaning forward to sit at the edge of his chair. At long last, a scratchy voice sounded over the loudspeaker. His heart skipped a beat—it was her.
“Noemi?” he said. “Noemi, it’s me. Are they treating you well? Mariya, please translate.”
Mariya nodded and leaned forward to speak into the microphone. A few seconds passed as their transmission was sent, then Noemi’s voice came again through the transceiver.
“She says that it’s been hard for everyone, but she’s still healthy. They—”
“Do you actually need a translator to speak with your wife?” Helena interrupted. She scoffed in amusement, making Jeremiah bristle. He decided to ignore her.
“Noemi, how is the baby? Are you taking care of your health?”
As the message transmitted, an idea came to his head. He turned to the sensor display and counted all the signatures his instruments were picking up. Beside the two approaching spacecraft, there was one large ship about the size of the Revenge at the station and about a dozen satellites, probably weaponized. Those were probably connected to the network, though, so—
Noemi’s voice came on again. Before Mariya could translate, he put his hand over the microphone and leaned over.
“Tell Noemi that there’s one other capital ship at the station, with at least twenty defensive satellites in orbit, perhaps more.”
Mariya nodded. He lifted his hand from the microphone.
“That’s great, honey,” he said. “I want you to take good care of yourself, okay? Everything’s going to be fine—we’ll be together again soon. I love you.”
Mariya spoke quickly, her face pale but her voice steady. He was glad the transmission was just audio—it would be impossible to pull this off if it were visual as well.
“That’s enough,” came Helena’s voice. “Are you satisfied? Will you stand down, or should I order my men to fire?”
“I’m satisfied,” said Jeremiah, his heart still racing. “Tell your men I’m powering down now.”
“Good. You’ve made the right choice, Jeremiah. Helena out.”
As the transmission finished, he sighed and leaned back in his chair. His arms felt limp, his legs like water.
“Is the radio off?” Mariya asked. Her voice was low, barely more than a whisper.
“Yeah, it’s off.” He reached up and began putting the systems on standby. The hum of the engines died to a low whine, and the cabin lights slowly dimmed.
“Noemi said that she’s going to move ahead with Captain Elijah’s plan. Once they dock at the station, she’ll hack into the network and seize control of their starships.”
“And what about her health? Is she strong enough to pull it off?”
Mariya hesitated. On the sensor display, the boarding craft raced toward them.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Noemi thinks that she can, but—it’s difficult to say.”
A thousand questions raced through Jeremiah’s mind. He opened his mouth to speak, but held himself back. There’s not much we can do about it now, he thought to himself. Nothing except wait.
That was always the hardest part.
* * * * *
The acrid smell of cigarette smoke hit Jeremiah’s nose almost the moment the airlock hissed open. He cringed and recoiled, but the black-clad soldiers were already inside his ship. Salazar was one of them.
“We meet again, star wanderer.”
He grinned, baring his yellow teeth. His men stepped forward, carrying two pairs of restraints.
“We don’t want any trouble,” said Jeremiah as they clasped the restraints on his wrists. “What do you want from us?”
Salazar took another puff from his cigarette and tapped the ash onto the floor of the Ariadne. Without answering the question, he motioned to his men. They escorted Jeremiah roughly to the airlock.
“Jer-Jeremiah!” Mariya screamed as the soldiers pulled him away. He glanced back just as the door hissed shut, cutting her off.
“What are you doing?” he yelled. “If your men do anything to—”
A sharp blow to the stomach knocked the wind out of him. He gasped for breath and collapsed to the floor as the soldiers struck him. One of them kicked him in the side of his head, making his ears ring. The beating went on for a few more moments, until Salazar motioned for his men to stop.
“Did you really think we wouldn’t separate you? You escaped from us once, but we won’t let that happen again.”
Something about the way he grinned made a chill shoot down Jeremiah’s spine. He rose painfully to his feet, but collapsed onto the floor, his sides aching with pain. The soldiers ignored him as they took their seats around the room, while Salazar gripped one of the handholds on the ceiling.
The flight to the station passed in a long, tense silence. Jeremiah nursed his bruises until the pain faded to a low throb. A buzz sounded in the ear that had been hit. It dulled a little, but refused to go away.
It’s okay, he tried to tell himself. Noemi’s alive. But even that was little comfort, when in just a few days, she might be gone.
After what felt like hours, the docking clamps groaned through the bulkheads and the floor jolted in a way that could only mean that they’d arrived. Salazar palmed open the airlock and the soldiers half-led, half-dragged him out. Someone cuffed him on the cheek, nearly knocking him over.
They passed a number of grimy looking men, all of them talking in a loud, harsh language that he couldn’t understand. It sounded nothing like the language that Noemi spoke—her words were like a soft, soothing rain to his ears, while these were like knives. A couple of men got into a fistfight, and Salazar shouted at them until they stopped.
After passing through an elevator, they came to a long, darkened corridor with corroded walls and windowless doors. Condensation dripped from blackened pipes, while wires dangled from a mold-infested ceiling. Jeremiah’s heart started to pound in his chest as he realized that the corridor came to a dead end.
“Where are you taking me?” he asked. One of the soldiers slapped him again, while Salazar grinned.
“You are not going to escape from us again, star wanderer. I will enjoy this very much.”
They came to a room with a decrepit old reclining chair in the middle, the synthetic leather blackened and worn. A large dark stain ran along one side, while a hole in the center made it look like a toilet. A device that looked like a dream monitor hung from a battered computer core, while IVs dangled from a large rack against the far wall.
“What is this place?” Jeremiah asked, his hands shaking. “What are you going to—”
“Silence,” said Salazar, grinding out his cigarette against the back of the chair. “This is your holding cell. The captain wants you alive—though I doubt she cares what condition you’re in when she arrives.”
At a nod, the soldiers took off Jeremiah’s restraints. He rubbed his wrists and considered making a break for the door, but Salazar pulled out a pistol and leveled it at his stomach. He swallowed and held his ground.
“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll do as I say,” said Salazar. “First, you’ll find some zero-gee toilet equipment on the floor. Pass it through the hole and put it on.”
“Put it on?”
“That’s right. I don’t want you dropping your shit all over this place.”
Jeremiah hesitated, then reached down and picked up a large toilet cup with a tube connecting it to a pump in the floor. It smelled disgusting, but he opened the lower portion of the jumpsuit and strapped it to his crotch and backside. The padding was sticky—he doubted it had been cleaned since the previous use.
“Good,” said Salazar. “Now, sit down in the chair and make yourself comfortable.”
“Wait—what are you going to do?”
“I said sit!”
Jeremiah jumped a little and complied. As he settled down, the soldiers fitted a set of clamps around his arms and legs. He made as if to resist, but they forced him down until he was fastened in.
“What are you doing?” he shouted, struggling in vain against his bonds.
“Putting you into a brain vacuum,” said Salazar, pulling down the dream monitor. “A prison—for your mind.”
He shoved the neural jacks into the socket at the base of Jeremiah’s neck, making his skin crawl and his fingers tingle. He opened his mouth to scream, but before he could utter a sound, his world turned to darkness.
* * * * *
The brain vacuum wasn’t like any other simulator. Normally, the neural interface projected sensory details directly, bypassing the eyes, ears, and other senses without totally eliminating them. The brain vacuum cut them out entirely, so that Jeremiah perceived himself as a bodiless entity drifting through a starless void. Height and depth, distance and time—none of these translated into any meaningful sensation. The only awareness of his own existence came from the thoughts running like an electric current through his mind.
At first, there was confusion and terror. Where am I? What is this place? He’d heard of brain experiments done by the Imperials at the Coreward Stars—attempts to separate the human consciousness and merge it with an AI. All of the experiments had failed miserably, turning the subjects’ bodies into vegetables while causing system failures that ultimately destroyed the networks built to house their minds. Was this what he was experiencing—a computer crash as viewed from the inside? Or had some of the scientists succeeded, finding a way to exile him into a database forever?
Gradually, terror gave way to reason. Even if the Imperial scientists had found a way to upload a consciousness to a computer, these pirates were the last ones who would have that technology. And even if they did, it didn’t make sense for them to use it just to torture him—indeed, if this was supposed to be torture, it was remarkably painless. As frightening as the place was, it wasn’t hellish—more like a bizarre sort of limbo.
Salazar had forced him to put on the toilet equipment before plugging into the brain vacuum. That meant that his body was still out there. If Helena had ordered her men to keep him alive, that probably meant he was receiving at least some kind of sustenance. Perhaps she wanted to interrogate him when she arrived—if that was the case, he’d be plugged into the brain vacuum for a little over a week. But how much time had passed, or how much he still had to look forward to, he had no way of telling.
Numbness swept over him, an emptiness of thought and emotion punctuated only by his memories. Fleeting images drifted across his awareness: Noemi standing with her sisters, waiting to be chosen; the warmth of her hand as they walked through the garden at Oriana Station, stars shining up through the glass floor; the gentle beating of her heart as she lay next to him on the Ariadne, sleeping in his arms. In all of the memories she was there, echoing the remnants of a longing that he could not satisfy. He came to the events of the last few days, and the memories became tinged with regret. If only he’d spent the last few months together with her, instead of traveling the stars alone. He’d tried to do what seemed right at the time, and yet everything had still fallen apart.
How had it come to this? Where had he made his first mistake? At Zeta Oriana, by telling everyone about the new colony? At Alpha Oriana, for joining the mission at all? Or had he simply been doomed to fail from the beginning? Whatever the case, he’d made a mess of everything, and now there was no way to turn it back. He was as lost as a shard of ice in the void between stars.
It was impossible to say how long he fell back into such melancholy thoughts. Time was as nonexistent in this place as space or distance. Eventually, however, the simulation began to shift. A light appeared in front of him, growing gradually brighter until it threatened to blind him. He squinted, and in that moment he realized that his natural senses had returned.
He glanced down and saw that he was completely naked. His body glowed like the afterimage of a holoscreen, and was semi-transparent, so that he could see through it. His arms and legs were without feeling, but when he flexed his fingers, they obeyed.
When he looked back up to the light, he saw that it had transformed into Noemi. Her eyes were closed, her hair waving outward as she floated in midair. She was as naked as he was, but that somehow felt right in this place. Her belly was more swollen than it had ever been, and though she was as ephemeral as he was, her muscles looked strained and wearied.
“Jerem-ahra,” she whispered, opening her eyes. Her lips turned up in a smile.
“Noemi,” he said. “Are you—is that you?”
She nodded. “Yes, it’s really me.”
He opened his mouth again, then froze. Had she just answered him in Gaian? Since when had she learned how to speak it so well?
“We can understand each other because of the network interface,” she said, speaking slowly and distinctly. “Our minds are linked directly, not to a simulation.”
“Linked directly?” He frowned. “So does that mean you’re in the network?”
She nodded. “I’m in. There’s not much time, though. I can’t hold out … much longer.”
Her body looked as delicate and fragile as a glass statue. His heart went out to her, but he didn’t know what to say or do.
“They’ve hurt you,” she said, each word coming with great effort. “I can see your body—they’ve treated you very badly.”
“Noemi,” he said. “Please—don’t push yourself.” They came closer, and he locked his gaze on her, afraid that she would shatter if he so much as blinked.
She shook her head. “I must do this, Jerem-ahra,” she said. “It’s the only way.”
“I’m so sorry,” he said, the words spilling out of him. “I’ve made a mess of everything. I never should have left you—never should have brought you to this place. Everything that has gone wrong has been my fault.”
She shook her head and put a finger to his lips. At her touch, a feeling of love and forgiveness swept over him, calming his anxieties as if he were a little child.
“It’s okay,” she said. “You did your best—that’s all I could have asked. Besides, it isn’t over. You can still help.”
“Thirty eight seconds have passed in real-time since I broke into the network. Helena is on the Revenge, and there’s one other ship nearby, plus all the orbital defenses. I can seize control of them all, but the burden is so great, I don’t know how long I can last.”
She needs another mind to connect with the computer, Jeremiah realized. Some way to shift those cycles to someone else.
“I can help you,” he said, his heart racing. “Give me the burden—let me carry it for you.”
She held out her hands. They felt airy and insubstantial, but the moment he touched them, a great heaviness passed onto him, like a heavy weight on his chest. He gasped for breath and saw a steady stream of numbers flowing in and around him.
“Ah,” said Noemi, sighing in relief. Her skin began to glow even brighter, and that brightness extended through her fingers to him.
“What’s happening?” he asked. The weight grew even heavier as the space immediately around them began to light up. He looked at her face and thought that she’d become an angel.
“Thank you, Jerem-ahra,” she said. “Thank you … for everything.”
She closed her eyes and threw her head back, and in that moment a conduit of pure white light opened high above them. The universe began to spin, the way it did just before a jump, and the weight on Jeremiah’s chest became unbearable. He gripped her hands as tightly as he could, but it wasn’t enough. The spinning grew worse, and then he was falling, falling away from her.
“Noemi!” he screamed. But then, he passed out into blackness.
When Jeremiah returned to consciousness, he felt a terrible aching pain from every joint and muscle in his body. At least he still had a body, though—that was a good thing. He pried his eyes open and held up his hand, wiggling his fingers as if seeing them for the first time.
“Jeremiah?” came a voice—so loud!—in his left ear. Everything seemed louder, brighter, and more intense than it ever had before.
“Jeremiah?” the voice came again, and he turned his head to see who it was. His muscles responded sluggishly, as if he were under several extra gees, and when he finally did succeed in getting his head into position, his neck cracked, sending shivers down his spine.
“H-hello,” he said, his throat raspy and dry. The thirst was so strong, he felt it as an actual physical pain. His eyes took a second or two to focus, but when they did he saw a narrow, clean-shaven face staring down at him.
“Patient is responding,” said the man, apparently to the medical bot hovering next to him. “Vital signs appear to be good, though I see evidence of severe dream fatigue. Recovery is progressing smoothly, however. Patient has regained consciousness and is responding well to external stimuli.”
“Doctor Andreson? Is that you?”
The doctor looked down at him and smiled. “Hello, Jeremiah. How are you feeling?”
He coughed. “Where—where am I?”
A nozzle appeared over his lips, and he opened his mouth to let it in. A spurt of blessedly cool water flowed over his tongue, running down his parched throat and extinguishing his thirst. He gasped for breath and gulped it down as quickly as he could.
“You’re at Zarmina Station,” said Doctor Andreson. “We found you a little over an hour ago in a prison cell. Your arm was hooked up to an IV, and your brain was plugged into a dream simulator with its databanks wiped. We suspect the pirates kept you in a comatose state for at least eight days.”
Eight days. No wonder he ached so much. But where was he now?
“Zarmina Station?” he asked as the doctor removed the water nozzle. “Where’s that?”
“In orbit around Zarmina. Captain Elijah renamed it after seizing control from the pirates. They’re currently being held on the Revenge, until the details are worked out for their resettlement.”
“Resettlement? Who—what happened? The pirates—”
“Easy there. Don’t worry, it’s all over. We won. The pirates have surrendered, and we’ve taken control of the system. Everything is going to be fine.”
Jeremiah felt a slight pinch in his arm and glanced over to see the medical bot injecting him with a light amber serum. It burned like fire, but the pain in his muscles slowly diminished until he felt only a slight ache.
“As I was saying,” Doctor Andreson continued, “you’re in one of the medical bays on Zarmina Station. It was easier to transfer you here, and the facilities are stocked just as well as the Hope of Oriana. Now, if you’ll sit up …”
He put his hand beneath Jeremiah’s back and helped him into a sitting position, turning him so that his legs dangled over the edge of the bed. He was in an off-white room, with a curtain partition on one side and a row of modular cabinets on the other. The light came from a string of bright LEDs in the ceiling. Though he and the doctor were alone, he could hear other people through the partition, walking quickly and talking in hushed tones.
“There,” said Doctor Andreson. “Now, let’s run through some tests. If you’ll—”
“Noemi,” said Jeremiah, his heart skipping a beat. “Where is she?”
“Your wife? She’s back on the Hope of Oriana. The battle put quite a strain on her, but—”
“How is she? Is she alive? Is she well?”
“Yes, yes, she’s doing well. Last I heard, she was put on bed-rest until she recovers.”
Jeremiah sighed in relief, but his hands still shook with nervous energy. “What’s her condition? Who’s taking care of her?”
“Don’t worry. The midwives are attending her. If you’d like, we can ask them how she’s doing right now.”
“Yes—that would be good.”
The doctor raised his wrist and checked his console. To Jeremiah’s dismay, he narrowed his eyes and frowned.
“Oh my,” he said. “It looks like—”
“What? What’s going on?”
“Her condition is still fine, but she appears to have gone into labor.”
Jeremiah leaped to his feet, swooning a little as he steadied himself against the wall. He paused for a moment to gather himself, then dashed through the curtain partition and out toward the main doorway. Adrenaline coursed through his veins, giving him strength and clearing his head, while his patient’s gown flapped against his knees.
“Jeremiah!” shouted Doctor Andreson. “Jeremiah, come back here!”
But nothing in all the Outworlds could have stopped him just then.
* * * * *
The corridor outside was full of people coming and going. Jeremiah stopped to catch his breath and gain his bearings. This wasn’t a part of the station that he’d seen—the walls were white and well-lit, with a long, narrow window running along the ceiling. He didn’t recognize any of the people, but none of them were pirates: either they wore the dark blue jumpsuits of the Hope of Oriana’s crew, or they were dressed in decidedly more civilian clothes. Some of them carried bags or dragged pieces of luggage. A few glanced his way as they passed, but no one stopped him.
After regaining his balance, he took off against the flow of traffic. If most of these people were carrying bags, that meant that they were offloading—which meant that Noemi was in the opposite direction. He knocked shoulders against a number of people, drawing some heated words. Fortunately, the airlock wasn’t far.
The Hope of Oriana was even busier than the station. The control rooms were packed, while the crew practically ran on their errands down the narrow corridors. Those who weren’t working were busy celebrating, as Jeremiah found when he stepped into the mess hall.
“Hey, you!” a young man called out. “Star wanderer! Come, share a drink with us!”
“Not now,” said Jeremiah, hurrying past. “I have to—”
“Haven’t you heard the news? We’re free men! Zarmina is ours!”
“That’s great!” he called out over his shoulder.
A cluster of old women had gathered next to the hatchway at the other end. He shouldered his way around them and dashed through the narrow opening. The door to the medical bay was just a short distance down the corridor. He slammed his hand against the access panel and waited impatiently for it to open.
A high-pitched scream made the hair on his neck stand on end. He recognized the voice at once.
“Noemi!” he shouted, jamming his head through the opening. He no sooner did so than a hand pushed him back outside.
Noemi lay on the examining table, her face contorted with pain. Two middle-aged women in white smocks and face masks attended her, while a third one blocked the door. They all stopped to wave him away, as if his presence could only do more harm than good.
“But she’s my wife!”
“There’s nothing you can do—now get out and let us do our work.”
He started to protest, but Noemi arched her back and let out another scream, making his knees go weak. As much as he wanted to help her, he saw that there was nothing he could do. The midwife shoved him out into the corridor, and the door hissed shut on his face.
For several moments, he stood there without knowing what to do. Another group of colonists came down the corridor toward the airlock, but he hardly noticed them as they passed. All he could think about was Noemi, lying in pain on the table—everything else seemed cold and distant. He clenched his fists, but his arms and legs felt like water. After taking a moment to catch his breath, he sat down on the floor.
“Ah, Jeremiah!” came a familiar voice. Captain Elijah strode into view, grinning broadly beneath his freshly groomed beard.
“Captain?” said Jeremiah, blinking as he rose to his feet. Through the door, Noemi’s scream turned into a pitiful wail.
“Jeremiah Edeni—it’s good to see you. Doctor Andreson told me you were on the run, so I figured I would find you here.”
“What’s going on?” he asked. “What happened?”
“Quite a lot, quite a lot. When we arrived at Zarmina IV, Noemi hacked into the pirate’s network and took control of all their assets. She locked down both of Captain Helena’s warships and depressurized the front half of the Hope of Oriana, allowing us to seize their weapons and storm the station.”
“But what about the hard-link? Did she come out all right?”
“That’s just it,” said Elijah. “At first, her brain patterns were all across the map. She started to get feverish, and for awhile, we feared we’d lose her. But then, things eased up, and her symptoms disappeared. The doctor said it’s almost as if she found some resource on the network to relieve her.”
Jeremiah nodded. He remembered taking her hand as a bolt of pure energy surged through him. At the time, it had seemed like little more than a delirious dream. But what if she really had come to him? The sound of her voice, speaking to him in Gaian—real, authentic Gaian—
The wailing behind the door turned to sobs. His arms tensed, and he gripped the hem of his gown so tightly that his fingers went numb.
“How is she now? Will she be all right?”
“Probably,” said Elijah. “Though the stress probably put her into labor.”
“When? How long ago did it start?”
“Oh, about an hour ago. To be honest, I’m not quite sure. It’s been a busy upshift for all of us.”
Jeremiah’s cheeks went pale, and Elijah slapped him on the back. “Don’t worry, my boy—I’m sure she’ll be all right.”
How can you be so sure? Through the door, Noemi coughed and moaned.
“In any case, I’d better go. Helena and her men are still in orbit, and I won’t rest safe until all of them have been repatriated to the surface.”
“Don’t worry; we’ll put them down as far from our colony as possible. The mountains on the other side of the planet need mining, and I’m sure they’ll be willing to trade with us once things have quieted down. On our terms, of course.”
Elijah nodded. “Until next time, then.”
He turned and walked off, joining a group of colonists that had gathered at the far end of the corridor. Jeremiah watched him go, then collapsed again to the floor.
He looked up again and saw Mariya walking toward him, hand in hand with a young, blond-haired man. There was something familiar about him, though he didn’t look like any of the other colonists. Jeremiah stood up to greet them, and Mariya ran over to give him a friendly hug, her smile radiant.
“Jeremiah—you’re alive! When they took you away, I feared the worst. But Doctor Andreson is worried sick about you. Why did you run off?”
Before he could answer, Noemi let out an awful wail. “Oh my God,” said Mariya, covering her mouth with her hands. “Is she—”
“Yes,” said Jeremiah. “She’s—she’s having the baby.”
Her eyes lit up like a pair of novae, and she looked as if she were going to pounce on him. A high-pitched squee escaped her lips, and she began to jump up and down.
“Stars of Earth—you’re going to be a father! This is so exciting!”
“Indeed,” said the young man at her side. “Congratulations, star wanderer.”
He offered his hand and smiled. As Jeremiah took it, things suddenly clicked, and he realized where he’d seen him before.
“That’s right,” said Lucca. “We met at Gamma Oriana some few weeks ago. Your talk of Zarmina intrigued me, so I chose to come and see it for myself.”
“Lucca rescued me from the pirates,” said Mariya, putting her hand on his arm. “We didn’t know where you were, otherwise we would have come for you.”
“Wait,” said Jeremiah, frowning. “How did he find you? How did he know we were in trouble?”
Lucca put his hand around Mariya’s waist, pulling her gently close to him as she began to rub his back. “Before I made final jump into system,” he said, “I caught strange transmission broadcast across local space. It was woman who said something about holding your wife in airlock. From this, I could tell that your colony was in trouble.”
“So why didn’t you run away?”
He grinned. “And miss opportunity to be hero? No, I have dealt with pirates before. They aren’t so dangerous if you know how to play their game. I pretended to be envoy from another rival group, and they told me to keep on station until their captain returned.”
“It’s kind of a long story,” said Mariya, giving Jeremiah a guilty look. “Anyway, I hope you don’t mind, but …”
As her voice trailed off, Jeremiah looked at them both and put two and two together. Their eyes told a tale of serendipity that had repeated itself across countless generations of starfarers. A young man leaves his birth world to seek his fortune across the stars, not knowing where he’ll go or when he’ll get there. Light-years away, a young woman bides her time, wondering when she’ll find her man and how she’ll know him when he comes for her. They come together, and like stars forming deep in the heart of a nebula, all the clouds of doubt and uncertainty are blasted away before them.
“Of course,” he said, his lips turning up in a smile. “The best of luck to both of you. After all, a strong family shines brighter than all the stars.” He winked at Mariya, whose cheeks blushed deep red.
At that moment, a high-pitched wail came from behind the door. Jeremiah froze, and his blood turned to ice. It wasn’t Noemi this time—it was the cry of a newborn child.
“Stars of Earth,” he whispered, adrenaline coursing through every vein in his body. Mariya’s eyes widened, and her jaw dropped almost to the floor.
“Oh my God,” she said. “Is that—”
But Jeremiah was already rushing through the door.
* * * * *
The medical bay smelled thick with perspiration, only partially masked by the biting scent of chemical cleansers. Noemi lay on the table against the back wall, her head propped up with small cushions. Her cheeks were drained, her skin pale, her face so much a picture of exhaustion that Jeremiah hardly recognized her. One of the midwives dabbed a wet towel against her forehead, but her eyes barely fluttered in response.
“Noemi,” he said, hurrying to her side. “Are you—is she all right?”
“She’ll be fine,” said the midwife. “The worst is over.”
Noemi looked up and gave him a weak smile, as if that was all she could manage. He took her hand and squeezed it ever so gently. She seemed so fragile, like the barest touch could break her.
“Are you sure?”
“Trust me. She’s a woman and an outworlder—she’s stronger than she looks.”
He nodded. That was certainly true.
The cry of a small infant made chills shoot down his neck and spine. One of the other midwives came out of the washing room in the back, cradling the newborn in her arms. Its skin was red, its eyes clenched shut, its tiny arms and legs flailing about at random. Jeremiah’s heart fell through the floor the moment he saw him.
“Is that—is he—”
“Congratulations,” said the second midwife. “You’re the proud father of Zarmina’s first baby boy.”
A boy, Jeremiah thought, the word striking him like lightning. The baby opened its mouth again and let out the most beautiful wail, so loud and strong it seemed it would never end. The midwife placed him on Noemi’s chest, and Jeremiah watched in reverent awe as mother and child began to bond.
A father, he thought to himself. Stars and constellations of Earth—I’m a father!
Noemi held the baby close and glanced up at him again. The smile on her face completely disarmed him—she looked so happy, so satisfied, that he knew that everything they’d been through together had been worth it.
Her smile will warm you in a way the stars never could, his father’s words came back to him. And your feelings for her will fill a void in your heart you never knew was there. The memory brought a lump to his throat—only now did he realize how true that really was.
“He’s—he’s beautiful,” he said, running a finger along the baby’s tiny head.
“What’s his name?” asked the first midwife.
Jeremiah paused for a second, trying to remember. “Isaiah,” he said. “We’ll call him Isaiah.”
“Isha’rah,” Noemi whispered. She rocked the baby gently. “Isha’rah.”
“Would you like to hold him?”
Before he could answer, the midwife reached down and lifted the baby, placing him in Jeremiah’s arms. His knees shook, and his legs went weak. His son looked up at him with those tiny, innocent eyes, and his heart all but melted.
This is your son, he told himself. This is another human life that you’ve helped to bring into existence. He stared in awe at Isaiah’s tiny, delicate features. Now he knew why the Deltans believed that their children were gods and goddesses incarnate, and how they could stare at the unblinking face of infinity and see a reflection of themselves. To him, it seemed as if he had stepped out of space and time, where he could see both his past and his future as clearly as a cloudless planetscape. He stood at a cusp, the end of his old way of life and everything he’d known. Whatever else would come, as he looked into his son’s dark brown eyes, he knew that his life would never be the same.
Is this how my father felt when I was born? He imagined what it must have been like, to settle down at Edenia after so many long and lonely voyages. The Ariadne had once been his father’s after all—and his father’s father’s before that. And one day, when Isaiah grew old enough, the time would come for the boy to take command of the old starship and venture out across the stars on his own.
The thought made Jeremiah’s throat constrict and brought tears to his eyes. His arms began to shake, and he held his son close as if to never let him go. But one day, of course, he would have to. He knew what it was like to feel the call of the stars—to look up at the sky and feel that they held his destiny. If he hadn’t listened to that call, he never would have met Noemi, never would have started a family with her. Instead, he would have spent his whole life wondering what would have happened, had he listened. So no—as much as the thought pained him, he would not hold onto his son forever. Instead, he would do as his father had—prepare him as best he could to venture into the starry deep and take control of his own destiny.
Noemi reached up and put a hand on his arm, bringing him back to the present. “Jerem-ahra sad?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “I’m not sad.”
He took a deep breath. “Are you?”
She nodded, then laughed. “Scared happy.”
“Yes,” he said, smiling. Little Isaiah gurgled in his arms, and he knew that the real adventure was only just beginning.
One of the questions writers get asked the most is ‘where do you come up with your ideas?’ Honestly, that’s probably the hardest question to answer. Orson Scott Card said that everyone runs across at least a thousand story ideas each day, and a good writer will see maybe three. To that, I would add that it might take years before you realize that you’ve seen them.
The idea that eventually grew into Star Wanderers probably came to me the first time I saw Serenity. At the beginning of the movie, there’s this long continuous shot that shows the space ship from the hangar bay doors to the cockpit. I don’t even remember what the characters were talking about, I was just mesmerized by that shot. For weeks, I dreamed about having my own starship like the Serenity, where I could escape the stresses of college and lead an adventurous life out among the stars. I still daydream about it to this day. Having my own starship and piloting it to places where I can be free and independent is one of my greatest recurring fantasies.
Another major catalyst for the idea that became this story was the Lombardo translation of Homer’s Odyssey. The Odyssey is perhaps the most famous epic work of all time, but the Lombardo translation struck a particular chord with me because of how down-to-earth and accessible it is. Instead of some stodgy 19th century translation that passes for cruel and unusual punishment in some high schools, this one made the story come alive. I was first introduced to it in a Western Civ class in college, but enjoyed it so immensely that I picked up a copy over the summer of 2009 and read the whole thing.
As I read it, I couldn’t help but notice the potential for a science fiction crossover. What if the sailing ships were starships, and the oceans the vastness of space? The islands would be like planets, with their strange and exotic cultures, and travel from world to world would be as arduous and difficult as it was for Odysseus to return to Ithaca. A new form of paganism would emerge, one that worshiped the stars and planets just as the Greeks worshiped the rivers and trees. The starfaring people would be as hardy and self-reliant as the ancient Greeks, and as antagonistic toward the more civilized Coreward peoples as the Aegeans to the Trojans. Most importantly, though, the starfarers would feel a sense of powerlessness as they faced the unforgiving vastness of space, just like Odysseus as he braved the wine-dark sea.
I actually started writing that novel in 2010, and got about a hundred pages into it before moving on to the revisions for Bringing Stella Home. Later, I trunked it, but the basic world-building stayed with me as I continued to expand the Gaia Nova universe with Desert Stars and Heart of the Nebula.
The final catalyst for Star Wanderers was the love story from one of my favorite Westerns, Jeremiah Johnson. My college roommates introduced me to that movie my sophomore year, and just like Serenity, I spent the next several days daydreaming what it would be like to be a mountain man. I went to college in Utah, so the frontier landscape where the film was shot is very familiar to me (in fact, I’m writing this author’s note from Slide Canyon just outside of Provo). But the love story—that was the best part. An accidental marriage from a cultural misunderstanding that blossoms into something touching and wonderful, in spite of the language barrier—by far, that was my favorite part of the whole movie.
All of these ideas were bouncing around somewhere in the back of my mind for years, but it wasn’t until 2011 that they all came together. I had graduated about a year and a half before, and was working a number of low-skilled temp jobs, trying to make ends meet as I grew my writing career. I was between projects, trying to work on Edenfall (sequel to Genesis Earth), but nothing was coming together and I just felt very frustrated.
One day, as I was lying on my bed daydreaming for the umptieth time about escaping this planet on my own starship, the thought “what would Jeremiah Johnson look like if it were set in space?” came to me. It was like a supernova exploding in my mind, illuminating my imagination with the power of an exploding star. For the next half hour, I worked through all the details in my head—the famine backstory of Megiddo Station, the Oddysey-like far-future space setting, the wandering lifestyle of the mountain man turned starship pilot. And then, once I’d replayed it half a dozen times in my head and worked myself up to a fever pitch, I rolled out of bed and wrote the first chapter of Outworlder almost exactly as it now stands. The rest of that novelette came just as readily, and in a couple of weeks I had a finished draft.
As a young single guy in my early twenties, I tend to think about love and relationships a lot. I think it’s a myth that women are somehow more interested in romance than men—we just express that interest in different ways. At Worldcon 2011 in Reno, Louis McMaster Bujold said that women tend to write about love and life, whereas men tend to write about love and death, and I’ve found that to hold very true, at least in my own writing. Perhaps that’s why it was so easy and natural to come up with the backstory that put Noemi on Jeremiah’s starship. The rest, with the pregnancy, the polygamy issues, and the baby at the end, all came naturally as I wrote things out. I was originally going to have Noemi miscarry about halfway through Fidelity, but realized almost immediately that that wasn’t going to fly. Once I realized that the natural ending of the story arc would be the birth of their son, everything else just came together.
My goal from the beginning was to write something that I could submit to the Writers of the Future contest. For that reason, I kept Outworlder fairly short. However, when I got to the end, I realized that there was still a lot of story left unwritten, so I decided to follow it out. I’m more of a novel writer than a short story writer, so it was natural to structure the overall story arc in that way. At the same time, I really enjoyed the intimacy of that first novelette, and the way that the shorter structure allowed me to focus on one or two characters and their relationships with each other. Those were all considerations that pushed me into following the novella format, as well as the chance to experiment with publishing a series of shorter works.
Fidelity and Sacrifice were a lot more challenging to write, in particular Sacrifice. Part of this was because I was still trying to figure out where the overall story arc was going, and part of it was because some of the subject matter (such as polygamy) seemed pretty unconventional for a science fiction story. But after taking a couple of short breaks to work on other projects, I managed to push through it, eventually getting to Homeworld which came much more easily. I’ve always been better at endings than at middles, and I went into Homeworld knowing that it would conclude Jeremiah’s main story arc.
As I was working on the later parts to the Star Wanderers series, I moved to the Republic of Georgia to teach English for a year. That had a tremendous impact on how I wrote the language barrier between Jeremiah and Noemi, mostly because my experience was quite similar. I didn’t accidentally marry a Georgian girl (though there are one or two who I still miss sometimes), but when I showed up in the airport in Tbilisi, I didn’t speak a word of Georgian and knew almost nothing about the people or the country. Needless to say, it was quite an adventure. The stresses of living in a foreign culture did slow down my writing a bit, but I managed to get it back by the end and finished Homeworld before coming back to the States for the summer.
When I first started publishing the Star Wanderers series, I saw it as a sort of side project that I would do before getting back to other projects. However, this series has proven to be more popular than any of my other books, so I’ve decided quite happily to expand it. The Jeremiah Chronicles contains the full story arc for Jeremiah, but there are a lot of other characters who I want to explore, and the novella format is perfect for that. If you have any in particular that you’d like to revisit, feel free to shot me an email at [email protected] and let me know. I love getting fan mail and do my best to respond to it, so any comments would definitely be appreciated.
If you’ve just discovered Star Wanderers and would like to keep up with the newest books in the series, you can get them for free by signing up for my mailing list. Whenever I release a new Star Wanderers story, I put out a two-week coupon code to get it for free on Smashwords and send the coupon code out to my subscribers via my email newsletter. That way, you don’t have to feel like you’re spending too much once I have fifteen or twenty ebooks out. I figure that if you enjoy these stories enough to sign up for the mailing list, you’ll probably tell a friend or post a favorable review, so I’m happy to make my new Star Wanderers releases available for free.
I hope you enjoyed this omnibus! If you did, please consider posting a review or sharing it with a friend. Every little bit helps, and the more people discover and read this series, the more stories I’ll be able to write. My goal from the beginning has been to make a living telling stories that I love, and it looks like Star Wanderers might actually make that possible.
In the meantime, don’t be a stranger—you can find me on Twitter (@onelowerlight) and Goodreads, but the best way to keep up is to follow my blog, One Thousand and One Parsecs. I’ve been blogging since 2007 and plan to keep it up for the foreseeable future. You can also find links to all my books there, on all the major sites where they’re published. And of course, if you want to sign up for my mailing list, you can find the sign-up form on the sidebar.
That’s just about it. Thanks for reading! It’s readers, not writers, who really make a story come alive, and at the end of the day the greatest honor is simply to be read. So thanks for taking a chance on this one, and until next time, I hope to see you around!
There are so many people who helped to make this book and the first part of this series possible. First, I’d like to thank Laura Christensen, Stephen Dethloff, Evan Witt, and Benjamin Keeley for their insightful feedback on several of the earlier drafts. Evan Witt, Andy Lemmon, Caitlin Wall, and Emily Debenham were also very helpful as first readers for Outworlder, and Kindal Debenham and his writing group (Ailsa Lillywhite, Aneeka Ritchins, Amber Fullwood, and Megan Hutchins, as well as Andy and Emily) were very helpful in workshopping some of the first chapters. Thanks also to Nathan Major and Kathleen Skovran for their proofreading help, and Libbie Grant for the awesome cover art.
The Star Wanderers saga continues in Tales of the Far Outworlds (Omnibus V-VIII)!
Noemi fully expects to die before her twentieth birthday. With a famine ravaging her home system and the neighboring stars refusing to offer assistance, her only escape lies in the worlds of the dream simulator. She may be the station master’s oldest and plainest daughter, but in the simulator, she’s a goddess of creation.
All of that changes when a young starship pilot whisks her away to the stars. Far from the monster she fears him to be at first, he seems like a kind and gentle young man. But he carries a heavy burden, one that he can’t divulge since neither of them speaks the same language.
When he took her from home, he saved her from death. But only she can save him from himself—by commanding the power of his dreams.
An outworlder is nothing if not fiercely independent, and Jakob is no exception. But ever since he brought his family of starbound refugees to Alpha Oriana, he's felt increasingly powerless. With the recent Imperial takeover and rumors of job cuts at the dockyards, it's only a matter of time before they're forced to move on—again.
When a young man and woman with an unusual story show up from his wife's homeworld, he takes them in, if for no other reason than that they remind him of a time when he was young and still in love. Ever since he sent his sons away, his marriage has been a nightmare—but all he wanted was to give them a chance at a better life out among the stars. Whether or not that was a mistake, his wife has never forgiven him for it.
In the face of so many challenges, it's not clear how long the family can hold together, but Jakob will sacrifice everything before he asks for help—even if the only way out lies through an open airlock.
The Far Outworlds: an endless frontier of uncharted worlds and alien stars. A vast, unsettled stretch of space where generations can pass without outside contact and colonists can live out their lives without seeing anyone from the outside universe.
That prospect terrifies Mariya more than anything else. She’s one of the only Deltans on a colony ship where no one understands her religion or culture. She was supposed to marry a good Deltan boy and raise a family with the help of her many relatives, but now she’s headed for an unsettled world on the Outworld frontier. Twice a starbound refugee, every last shred of security has been stripped from her life, leaving her future prospects uncertain.
There is one man who can change all that, but he’s married to her best friend. Mariya doesn’t need to steal him, though—she’s perfectly willing to share. Whether or not her friend is willing is something else entirely, but in the end, she may not have a choice.
Lucca Tajjashvili isn’t a typical star wanderer. The youngest son of a wealthy planetborn family, he took out his inheritance early in order to build his own starship and seek his fortune on the Outworld frontier. The starfaring life suits him well, and he has no plans to settle down.
All of that changes when he picks up a distress signal in the Far Outworlds. A small colony has been taken over by pirates, and Lucca is the only one in a position to help. Among the prisoners is a beautiful young woman whom Lucca decides to rescue. But when the pirates see through his skillful ruse, any escape plan he might have had soon falls completely apart.
Mariya isn’t the kind of girl who likes to take chances. But when she finds herself stranded on an alien world with her would-be rescuer, that's exactly what she has to do. Lucky for her, Lucca is just the sort of guy who can teach her.
A science fiction romance from the author of Bringing Stella Home.
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?
A coming of age sci-fi romance from the author of 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.