Book: Star Wanderers: Tales of the Far Outworlds (Omnibus V-VIII)



Star Wanderers: Tales of the Far Outworlds (Omnibus V-VIII)

Star Wanderers: Tales of the Far Outworlds

by Joe Vasicek


Copyright © 2014 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 Derek Murphy.

Proofreading by Adam Bois and Nyssa Sylvester.


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Table of Contents


Copyright Page

Table of Contents


Part V: Dreamweaver

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5


Part VI: Benefactor

6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10


Part VII: Reproach

11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16


Part VIII: Deliverance

17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23


Author’s Note | Acknowledgments


This omnibus edition contains parts five through eight of the STAR WANDERERS series. Thousands of years after mankind’s exodus from Earth, a small band of colonists seeks a better life in the Far Outworlds. These are their stories.



PART V: DREAMWEAVER


HE SAVED HER FROM DEATH, BUT TO SAVE HIM SHE MUST COMMAND THE POWER OF DREAMS.


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.



PART VI: BENEFACTOR


IN A COLD AND LONELY UNIVERSE, A SIMPLE ACT OF GRACE CAN RESONATE ACROSS WORLDS.


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.



PART VII: REPROACH


ON THE OUTWORLD FRONTIER, GOOD MEN ARE SCARCE AND FRIENDS ARE EXPECTED TO SHARE.


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.



PART VIII: DELIVERANCE


SHE NEVER TOOK A CHANCE AND HE NEVER HAD A PLAN UNTIL THEY MET IN THE OUTWORLD STARS.


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.

Part V: Dreamweaver


Chapter 1


The sun shone a bright yellow against the deep blue sky, an alien combination of colors that felt so right even though it seemed so foreign. Noemi stared out across the grassy meadow and marveled at the wide open space all around her. A mountain breeze blew pleasantly cool against her skin, tossing her hair and whispering in her ears. She took a few steps and shivered with delight as the grass tickled her bare feet. The freshness of the air and the overpowering scent of lavender filled her senses. She closed her eyes to breathe it all in.

Such a beautiful world, she thought to herself. It could almost be home.

Almost, but not quite.

A light flashed in the corner of her vision, making her open her eyes. It was a message from her father. Sighing heavily, she opened it with a wave of her hand.

URGENT, it read. COME HOME NOW.

What is it this time? Noemi wondered. She’d finished all her chores for the day, and with her younger sisters back from class, she couldn’t think of any reason why he’d need her. Still, she obediently touched her thumb and middle finger together, making the signal to end the simulation.

The mountain meadow flashed out of existence, replaced by an all-consuming blackness that numbed every physical sensation. It only lasted for a second or two before her natural eyes opened and she came back to reality.

The ache of her empty stomach was the first thing that hit her. It was always that way, especially after the long dream sessions when she missed one of the carefully rationed meals. She reached up and opened the visor to the helmet-like dream monitor, blinking at the harshness of the bright fluorescent station lights. Gone were the sky and wide-open meadow, replaced by aging durasteel bulkheads and dented metal floor grating. The smell of mold and the taste of recycled air filled her mouth and nose, while the slick synthetic fabric of her recycled clothes clung to her skin.

She took a deep breath and sighed before sitting up. The ergonomic couch creaked a little as she slipped her legs over the edge, but she ignored that as she rose to her feet and stretched. All around her, dozens of similar couches stretched out radially from nearly twenty computer cores, with red and black wires stretched out haphazardly across the ceiling.

“Out of the way,” muttered a tall twenty-something man, shoving her aside to get to the simulator. She stumbled and turned to protest, but he had already fitted the dream monitor over his head. His arms were gaunt and hairy, and he folded them in his lap with great care as he settled in.

Noemi glanced in the direction where the man had come from, and saw a long line of people waiting in the doorway. The sight made her heart sink. Pretty soon, they’d have to start rationing time in the dream worlds too, which would bring an end to the long, creative sessions that she loved so much.

Not that it really mattered. In a couple of months, Megiddo Station’s food stores would run out, and all of them would die. Life was sure to be a living nightmare until then, but at least it wouldn’t last much longer.

The hallways and corridors were full of people, most of them huddled in clusters around the doorways. A group of half-naked children ran past her chasing a ball while a service bot cleaned up a pile of human waste. Noemi covered her nose and walked a little faster to get past the smell, while the dilapidated ventilators chugged overhead.

At the doorway to her family’s apartment, she glanced up at the image of Saint Oriana over the lintel and made the sign of the cross. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Intelligence, she half-thought, half-whispered. The shortages had driven some people to godlessness, questioning how an all-powerful, all-loving being could let them suffer the way they had. Noemi didn’t have the answers, but if it was God’s will for her to die, she would rather pass away as a believer than spend her last days feeling frightened and alone.

The door hissed open, revealing a short unlit hallway. “How could you even think to whore out our daughters like this?” her mother’s screaming voice met her ears as she stepped inside. “By the Father-star, what’s this universe coming to?”

“Quiet, woman!” her father shouted. “Can’t you see I’m trying to save their lives?”

“But they’re only—”

“Silence!”

Noemi stopped cold as her mother ran off crying to the back room. Her father’s cheeks were bright red, but his anger deflated the moment his eyes fell on her.

“Come in, Noemi,” he said softly. “Don’t mind your mother.” He wore the black vest of his official uniform as station master, with his cybernetic eye enhancements retracted so as not to appear too disturbing.

“What’s going on?” she asked, her legs stiff and wooden as she stepped into the main room. The jeweled table, a family heirloom used only for holidays and special occasions, sat on the rug at the center.

“We have an important guest, and I want everyone to be ready for him.”

“What kind of guest?”

“A star wanderer. He’s young, he’s single, and he has a starship with a functioning jump drive.”

She frowned. “A starfarer? What’s he doing here?”

“Hoping to trade. Apparently, he doesn’t know how bad things have gotten.”

“And you’re bringing him here … why?” Even as the question escaped her lips, the answer was already dawning on her.

“I’m going to have him choose one of you to take with him. Your mother may be against it, but I’ll be damned before I let you all starve to death.”

Noemi’s knees went weak. “You—you’re going to give one of us to him? A stranger?”

Her father sighed. “I don’t like it either, but we don’t have much of a choice. With the station’s food stores as low as they are, we might not get a chance like this again.”

“But what kind of a man is he? Will he expect us to—to—”

“To sleep with him? I don’t know. Probably.”

Her eyes widened, and the blood drained from her cheeks. She opened her mouth to reply, but her father raised his hand.

“Don’t worry, I’ll marry you first. I’m not just whoring you off to save your life. Besides, who knows what will come of it? Only God knows the end of all things.”

“Yes,” Noemi whispered. It wasn’t herself she was worried for so much as her younger sisters. She was under no illusion of her own plainness. But to think of a strange man taking one of them to bed—

“Go on,” said her father, shooing her toward the back room. “Get changed—he’ll be here any minute.”

“Changed? Changed into what?”

“I don’t know, something that will catch his eye. If he chooses you, it might save your life.”

Maybe, she thought to herself. But does that make it worth it?

The grim resolution on her father’s face told her it wasn’t worth arguing, however. Besides, what could she do to stop it? She knew he wouldn’t change his mind.

“All right, Father.”

“It’s for the best,” he said, almost to himself as much as to her. “I’m only doing this because I love you.”

“I know,” she whispered. Biting her lip, she slipped through the door without another word.


* * * * *


The back room was a flurry of activity, with everyone hurrying to get ready for the starfaring stranger. Marta, the oldest after Noemi, primped and admired herself in the mirror, turning her head at an odd angle to work around the crack that ran down its center. Elsa and Bekka, the two youngest, were in various stages of undress, while Eva tried in vain to console their mother. She sat on the low, threadbare divan with her head buried in her knees, weeping as if she were losing all her children at once. The sight made Noemi’s throat constrict, but she knew that their father was not to be disobeyed.

“Oh, hi Noemi,” said Marta, shooting a quick smile over her shoulder. She seemed oblivious to their mother’s sobs, or perhaps she was just preoccupied. From the way she preened herself, it was probably the latter.

“Hi, Marta.”

“Missed the last ration, didn’t you? Don’t worry, I snuck you out a little. It’s in the napkin on the dresser.”

Noemi took it with eagerness, even though she knew her father would have a fit if he found out. She was so hungry—and besides, it wasn’t any more than what she would have taken for herself anyway. Inside the napkin were three sticky synthmeal bars, tough and tasteless but better than nothing. She ate them quickly, turning to the wall so as not to torment her sisters.

“Why does father want us to dress up?” little Bekka asked as Elsa helped her put on her white pajama dress.

“Because,” said Elsa, as if that alone were enough of an answer. She wore her favorite dress, the sleeveless light blue one that barely stretched to her knees. Megiddo was an old station, and the interior climate controls were anything but precise, so to stay on the safe side the engineers erred on the side of keeping things warm.

“What are you going to wear?” Marta asked. She’d put on a loose-fitting chemise, pink with little sparkling sequins. The fabric was thin enough to reveal almost as much as it covered. With her shapely hips and her conspicuously bare shoulders, Noemi had little doubt that Marta would be the one chosen.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “I really don’t think—”

“Try the yellow one!” said Marta, digging through the clothes with glee. “I think it’ll suit you—here!”

She pulled it out and held it to Noemi’s chest. It was shaped much the same as the pink chemise, except with little pink flowers instead of sequins. The fabric was so flimsy and transparent, it made Noemi blush.

“Well, go ahead,” said Marta. “What are you waiting for?”

Noemi sighed and unzipped her jumpsuit, pulling it down off her shoulders. A small jeweled cross dangled from a silver chain around her neck. It was her most precious possession—indeed, perhaps the only valuable thing she possessed. Her godfather had given it to her for her confirmation, and she’d worn it ever since. Before Marta slipped the chemise over her head, she pressed it against her chest to keep it from being knocked aside.

“Here, stick your hand through—there we go.”

To Noemi’s horror, the hem was so short it barely stretched two hand-breadths below her hips. She pulled on it to stretch it a little further, but the cheap synthetic fabric refused to give. The sleeveless straps rubbed uncomfortably against her bony shoulders, and the front was so baggy and loose she feared it might fall open at any minute.

“Do you want to borrow one of my bras?” Marta asked. “I can stuff it with socks if you’d like.”

Noemi shook her head. “No, that’s all right. I’m sure he won’t choose me.”

“But you’ve got to at least try,” said Marta. “I mean, when are we going to get a chance like this again?”

It’s because she feels guilty for doing this when she’s already got a boyfriend, Noemi realized as she patiently submitted to her sister’s attention. She doesn’t want to seem too eager, but at the same time, she’s terrified of dying on this station with the rest of us.

A couple of months ago, that same fear had gripped Noemi, making her stain her pillow each night with her tears. But now, the fear was little more than a dull throb in the back of her mind, like a scab that refused to heal. She couldn’t quite forget it was there, but she could distract herself with other things. With the way Marta’s eyes glistened in the mellow light of the glowlamps, the way her hands trembled and her gaze jumped about the room, it was clear she was still gripped with the same terror.

“Don’t worry about me,” said Noemi. “From stardust we were made, and to stardust we’ll return.”

Marta nodded and hastily crossed herself. The moment she was finished, she took Noemi by the shoulders and pulled her in front of the mirror.

“Well? What do you think?”

Noemi cringed. She hated mirrors. It wasn’t that she was ugly, just that she was plain—which ultimately amounted to the same thing. Her arms were long and lanky, her legs thin and pale. Unlike Marta, her body was straight and almost devoid of curves. Her chest was so flat, if she cut her hair short, she could almost pass as a boy. Her only redeeming physical quality was her eyes, but all of the women from Delta Oriana had beautiful eyes—that was why so many starfarers chose Deltan brides. But even among her own people, no one had chosen her.

She smiled so as not to hurt her sister’s feelings. “It looks good,” she lied.

“Needs something, though,” said Marta. “How about a headband?”

Noemi shrugged. What difference did it make?

As Marta tied a matching yellow headband across her brow, a chime at the front door made them all jump. “He’s coming!” Eva shrieked, while out in the family room, their father’s heavy footsteps sounded on the hard metal floor. Their mother let out a low, disconsolate wail, while Bekka ran to give her a frightened hug.

Marta grabbed Noemi by the arm and pulled her to the door, where Eva and Elsa already crouched, listening in nervous anticipation. The room suddenly became very quiet, with everyone shooting quick and hurried glances at each other. Noemi’s heart pounded in spite of herself, and her palms felt warm and sweaty. Even though she was the oldest, it was all she could do to stay still.

“He’s coming!” Eva whispered. As with all of them, her voice betrayed just as much fear as excitement.


* * * * *


Their father’s voice trickled in through the flimsy partition, speaking in a strange and foreign tongue. The starfarer answered, and a picture of him slowly began to form in Noemi’s mind. He sounded young, though not too boyish—he was a man, definitely a man. From his soft, low tone, he seemed polite and respectful. She imagined him with short hair and a trim, well-groomed beard, like those worn by the station elite.

Does he have any idea what’s going on back here? she wondered, glancing around at her nervous sisters. Bekka’s eyes were wide with terror, while Marta bounced up and down on her toes. A small part of Noemi felt the same anticipation, but she knew better than to expect to be chosen. Instead, she waited with a strange mixture of detachment and hope—not for herself, of course, but for her sisters. If one of them went on to live a long and happy life, then perhaps this horrible spectacle would be worth it.

Father clapped twice—the signal for them to enter. Marta suppressed a squeal, while Elsa’s arms began to shake. As the oldest, Noemi led them out, her steps surprisingly light. Her legs, already numb, moved of their own volition, making her feel as if she were gliding across the floor. Her sisters followed.

They lined up in front of the partition like robots at an auction—or perhaps like portraits for sale along the rimside corridor. Noemi hated it. She stared at the floor and tried once again to tug the hem of her chemise down to cover her thighs. Next to her, Marta tossed her hair back, while the other girls trembled with fear.

As their father continued talking with the stranger, Noemi stole a glance at him. To her surprise, he was clean-shaven with wavy brown hair, not at all as she’d imagined. His face seemed a little pale, but his nose was straight and his chin sharp. He was about half a head taller than her, with broad shoulders and a flat stomach. He wore a dark gray jumpsuit like the local freight haulers, with short sleeves and a wristband on his left arm that carried a small computer console. His eyes were a light hazel, framed by dark lashes and narrow eyebrows.

He doesn’t look so bad, she thought silently to herself. In fact, he looked just as nervous as they did.

Her father said something to him and gestured to her sisters. He looked at each of them, from youngest to oldest. When his eyes fell on her, she bit her lip and stared at the floor. Marta did the same, but drew herself up a little more, no doubt hoping to get his attention.

I hope he chooses her, Noemi thought to herself. She deserves a better life than what she can have here. And besides, as much as she loved Bekka and the others, they were far too young for any of this. Marta, at least, was old enough to take a husband.

The stranger frowned. Was he going to refuse? Now they were arguing. Elsa glanced nervously from her to Marta, and Noemi tried to reassure her with a smile. In just a few moments, it would all—

“Aiee!” cried their mother, bursting out from the back room. Eva jumped while Bekka put her hands to her ears, but their mother ran past all of them, straight to their father.

“How could you do this?” she cried, her voice hoarse. “How could you peddle our daughters like—”

“Silence, woman!” father boomed. “For the last time, this is for their own good!”

His strong, authoritative voice made Noemi cringe. The stranger glanced nervously at her sisters; it was clear from the uncomfortable way he shifted on his feet that he didn’t want anything to do with this.

Father turned and bellowed at him, too, only a hint of restraint in his voice. At the same time, their mother collapsed to the floor in tears.

“Woe is me, woe is me!” she cried, rocking back and forth.

A wave of nausea gripped Noemi’s stomach. Everything about this farce was just wrong. The trauma in her little sisters’ eyes was just unbearable. Now her father and the stranger were arguing, with little Bekka looking as if she would cry.

Please—just choose and get this over with.

Without warning, their father grabbed her and Marta by their arms and pulled them bodily forward. Marta let out a nervous giggle as the stranger looked her over, but Noemi bit her lip and drew in a sharp breath.

That’s right—choose her.

The stranger held up both hands palm up, as if to protest. Behind them, Mother sobbed inconsolably. Noemi wished that her father would let go so that she could try to comfort her. After all, if the stranger was going to choose one of them, sure he would choose—

“Hiya,” said the stranger, pointing directly at her.

A chill shot down Noemi’s back, and her knees went suddenly weak. She covered her mouth with her hands to suppress a gasp, but already her father was pulling her away from the others.

Me? she wanted to ask. What—why?

To her horror, her father took her by the wrist and clasped her hands with the stranger’s. He made the sign of the cross on his chest, while behind him, her mother wailed even louder.

“By the authority vested in me as master of Megiddo Station,” he said quickly, “I pronounce you husband and wife.”

Noemi’s vision blurred, and her legs went numb. She was vaguely aware of voices screaming all around her, but the room was spinning, and nothing seemed real to her anymore—nothing but the gut-wrenching knowledge that she was about to leave her home forever.



Chapter 2


The tearful goodbyes passed in a numbing blur, like something from a dream. Noemi was barely able to keep up with it all. One moment, she was pushed in one direction; the next, she was pulled in another. Emotions spilled out freely all around her, and as much as she tried to keep herself together, her own feelings were far too complicated to grasp.

And then she was out of the apartment, following her father and the stranger—now her husband—down a narrow maintenance corridor, ducking beneath the piping and conduit. A hiss sounded up ahead, and they stepped into the main rimside corridor, walking briskly toward the dockyards.

The stranger said nothing, but Noemi could tell that he was tense. He spoke in hushed tones with her father, who waved magnanimously with his hand. She gasped for breath as she struggled to keep pace—she was already choked up when they’d left—and if they walked any faster, they’d practically be running.

They stopped and chased a few gaunt-faced beggars out from in front of an airlock. Dock rats, as some called them—but in a way, they were all beggars now. Her father had begged this stranger to take her from this place, and now she was all but at his mercy. The marriage only served to free her conscience, but it wasn’t guilt that seized her—not yet, anyway. It was terror.

The airlock door hissed open like a maw. They stepped inside, and Noemi’s legs turned to ice. She felt rooted to the spot, as if her feet had become fused to the deck of the stranger’s ship.

“Well, this is it,” said her father, his voice as soft as a whisper. He put his hands on her shoulders and looked her in the eye. “I’ve done all I can for you—I just wish I could have done more. Take care of yourself, and don’t forget that I love you.”

Noemi nodded mutely, unable to utter a word. In that moment, she felt as if she’d never be able to speak again. They embraced warmly, and then he walked away, his back turned to her, disappearing among the rest of the beggars on the deck.

Don’t leave me! Noemi wanted to scream.

For a very brief moment she felt an overwhelming urge to run after him, but when she tried to lift her feet, they refused to move. The stranger hit the access panel, and the airlock door hissed shut on her home forever.

The stranger swore—at least, that was what she gathered from the tone of his voice. She turned to face him and realized that they were completely alone together. Fear gripped her heart, and she took a long, ragged breath, struggling to calm herself.

He stuck out his hand and pointed his fingers at her. For a moment, she thought he would prod her stomach, but he just held it there. She looked up at his eyes and saw, to her surprise, that he seemed a little embarrassed.

What does he want? She folded her arms, not sure what else to do.

He slipped his hand into his pocket and asked a question. The foreign words spilled out of his mouth like water from a fountain, but try as she might to grasp their meaning, it washed right over her.

He doesn’t even know my language, she thought to herself, remembering how her father had spoken with him in his own tongue. That was going to make things unbearably—but no, better not think of that now. One thing at a time.

He nodded and spoke again, perhaps to give her an apology. He still seemed surprisingly embarrassed, and his eyes betrayed an underlying gentleness that calmed the worst of her fears. A little awkwardly, he palmed open the second airlock door and lead her into his starship.

The first thing Noemi noticed about his ship was how small it was. A short walkway led from the airlock to the cabin, with a door the size of a closet that could only lead to a bathroom. The cabin itself was barely the size of her father’s office, with a sloped ceiling and a bed that folded out from the wall. “Bed” was a little too generous, actually—it was more of a cot. The walls were devoid of windows, wall-screens, or even posters, though the torn remnant of one still clung to the face of one of the compartments. Elsewhere, long yellow handles ran vertically to the ceiling. They confused her at first, until she realized that they were hand-holds for when the ship was in zero gravity.

She swallowed. It wasn’t anything like home.

The stranger hastily threw some clothes into a small washer unit, then unfolded the cot and motioned to it with her hand. Noemi’s eyes widened, and she stifled a cry—not even undocked from the station, and already he wanted to bed her? She gave him a questioning look, and he blushed and vigorously shook his head. Relief swept over her—thank goodness it wasn’t to that yet. Instead, he opened a wall compartment and pulled out a jumpsuit very much like the one he wore. He held it out to her, then rose and stepped through the doorway behind him the moment she’d taken it.

He wants me to change, Noemi realized. There wasn’t much privacy, but that was all right—with four younger sisters, she was used to it. As he stepped through a doorway into what looked like the ship’s bridge, she slipped out of the chemise and pulled on the jumpsuit. It was a bit baggy on her, but not so much that it wouldn’t stay on. With comfortably short sleeves and pant legs that stretched almost to her ankles, it was a wonderful improvement over what she’d been wearing before.

She thought of Marta as she untied the headband and set it down on the pile with her clothes. What was she going through now? Did she regret the help that she’d given her? Noemi could just imagine her weeping out of shame and fear and jealousy—jealousy, for not being chosen; fear, for the bleak and hopeless future that awaited her; and shame, for having such evil thoughts about her sister.

To escape her own troubled thoughts, Noemi stepped through the doorway after the stranger. The ship’s bridge lay on the other side—really, more of a cockpit than anything. An age-worn chair sat in the middle, surrounded by instruments and control panels. The three main holoscreen displays showed numerous maps and data readouts, while the wide forward window gave her a magnificent view of space.

The starfield turned slowly, making her feel a bit dizzy. Overhead, the pocked and weathered hull of Megiddo Station stretched out like a long gray ceiling, a view of her home that she’d never before seen. As the station spun, the deep blue mass of Megiddo—known to the rest of the Outworlds as Delta Oriana III—passed into view. The small ice giant planet shone the same color as the jewel on her cross, and much brighter even though they were on the outskirts of the system. Noemi held her breath at the sight.

The stranger glanced at her over his shoulder before returning to his work. He activated a radio, and the hiss of static filled the narrow cockpit as he made the necessary calls to depart. Through the bulkheads, the engine hummed and purred.

This is it, Noemi thought, her body growing stiff. This is goodbye.

The ship undocked with a groan, and the floor fell out from under her. She gasped in surprise and fell back into the doorway, jarring her shoulder.

“Ow!”

The cry made the stranger turn and look wide-eyed at her in alarm. He didn’t offer to help, though—only offered a sheepish apology before returning to the controls.

The ship began to dive. The floor tilted, and Noemi slid to the base of the chair, feeling sick. She tried to suppress her nausea, but just as she began to regain her bearings, the universe itself began to spin and collapse in on her. For a briefly terrifying moment, she felt as if she had turned inside out—and then, in a flash, it came to a merciful end.

It was all too much for her poor stomach, however. Before she could stop herself, she vomited explosively across the floor. Her heart sank as the stranger climbed out of his chair. What will he think of me now?

He walked past her to the closet-sized bathroom, where he produced some disinfectant and a rag. Noemi blushed as he cleaned up after her, but she was still too dizzy to step in and clean up after herself. Besides, from the purposeful way he moved, she didn’t think he’d let her. As he finished up, she walked back into the cabin and sat down on the cot, pulling her knees up to her chest.

Alone. That was how she felt. She was alone now on a strange ship with a man she didn’t know, who had every claim on her as her husband. Her family was gone, and who knew how long it would be before they put into the next port? Until then, she and the stranger were alone.

It took him a while to finish cleaning, but once he did, he came and stood silently beside her. Noemi stared off at the opposite wall, lost in her own thoughts. After a moment, he spoke and reached up to a compartment above her. She glanced up just as he pulled out a helmet-like headpiece, attached to a retractable, swiveling arm.

A dream monitor, she thought, recognizing the device at once. Her heart skipped a beat—here, at least, was something familiar.

She leaned forward, and the stranger pulled up the upper half of the cot to incline it better for sitting. She parted the hair in the back of her neck to expose her neural socket, and he fitted the monitor over her head. The pin scraped a little as he plugged it in, making her fingers tingle, but it soon connected with a satisfying click. He pulled down the visor to block out the outside, and she leaned back and rested her hands comfortably in her lap.

Is this his way of getting rid of me? she wondered, doubts rising in her mind. Perhaps. At least it gave her a chance to escape, though—if only for a little while.


* * * * *


The comforting blackness of the simulator enveloped her, cutting her off from reality. A white, sleeveless dress fluttered loosely about her knees, the same dress she wore in the simulations back home. She sighed and closed her eyes as the data seeped through her awareness—long strings of silent data, invisible and yet so potent. The blackness was probably due to a system reboot, but that hardly mattered. Noemi only had to think the word, and the simulation would obey her as the universe obeyed the voice of God.

She’d always had a knack for computer systems and data manipulation. Once, as a little girl, the lesson simulations had bored her so much that she’d hacked into the curriculum and built a talking puppy who could tell her all the answers. The teachers had scolded her for it, but they didn’t delete the puppy—instead, they had appropriated it as a teaching aid for other classes. Still, it had amounted to the same thing, and Noemi had cried over her loss for weeks.

When she’d grown a bit older, her father had convinced her to take a job programming simulations for Megiddo Station’s dream center. That was back in the early days of the food crisis, when it still seemed like there was a way out. Her father had feared a mass exodus—or worse, an uprising—and so he wanted to give the people a virtual world worthy of anything the more-developed star systems had to offer. It was a way to pacify the people, to keep them distracted while other minds tried to solve their problems, but Noemi hadn’t known any of that. To her, it was simply a matter of pleasing her father. And she’d done very well—perhaps a little too well.

God forgive me, she thought, crossing herself in the silent blackness. The memory of those times always saddened her—better to focus on the task at hand.

She took a deep breath of the nothingness and slowly raised her hand. In her mind, she imagined a sunrise, and the simulation made it so. A reddish-orange star rose dimly over a deep blue horizon, much like the orbital sunrises over Megiddo. Noemi stretched out her other hand, and the speckled light of the stars surrounded her in all their constellations, appearing even before she consciously remembered them.

Her heart leaped in her chest as she recognized the familiar scene. Home, she thought to herself. Until that point, she hadn’t been aware of any direction in her work—she always did her best work from the subconscious. But now that she knew where she was going, it was as if the floodgates of her mind had opened. The line between perception and imagination blurred, and soon, she was swept away in the ecstasy of creation.

She bent her foot down toward the crescent world below, and it touched the grainy off-white floor tiles of Megiddo Station. The walls and ceiling were next, with the chugging ventilators and slight taste of smoke in the air. The red-orange light of the system sun shone overhead through the narrow spaceframe window, casting hard shadows against the floor.

She walked spinward up the curved hallway, adding details as quickly as her mind could recall them. Saints adorned the door lintels: Oriana, patron saint of the star cluster; Gaia Mariya, the holy mother; Christi Adonis, the Father of all. In a little niche, candles burned softly like silent prayers, while empty computer terminals and kiosks stood ready for use.

One by one, people began to appear. They paid her no mind, of course—they were only projections—but they added a sense of homeliness to the place, and Noemi found herself saying hello to them as if they were real people. Haulers and station officials, beggars and old, hunchbacked women—she thought she recognized some of the faces, but it was impossible to say for sure. As a crowd, they ignored her, which was just as well. She didn’t know what she’d do if she found herself face to face with one of her family. In the artificial dream world of the simulator, the possibility of that was all too real.

To forestall it, she raised her hands and flew out through the window, diving into the depths of space. To a normal mind, such an act would be impossible, but she had long since learned how to crack the data and break the illusion. She soared past the double ring of Megiddo Station, observing the patchwork of haphazard additions to the superstructure. The newest module was the giant hydroponics facility at the hub—the one that had become poisoned due to an engineering oversight.

She sighed and turned away, looking outward to the stars. If she had any sort of future, that was where she’d find it. As for her home, it was now only the stuff of dream simulations. She would never see it with her natural eyes again.


* * * * *


As always, the hunger was the first thing to hit her when she jacked out. It came as a low, throbbing emptiness that gnawed at her from the inside, a painful reminder that reality could not be cheated.

She sat up slowly, removing the dream monitor with care as she lowered her legs over the edge of the cot. The air in the starship had a sterile, recycled quality to it, completely different from the air back home. She’d never thought she’d miss the taste of stale body odor, but she had a feeling that the small things were going to affect her even more than the big things.

I wonder when we’re going to eat, she thought, clutching at her stomach. Would it be wrong to ask? She was so hungry—

No, she told herself, shuddering as sudden fear seized her. What if he took it wrong? It was risky to make demands on him so soon. She didn’t want to seem needy, after all. Better to wait.

But I’m so hungry …

What if he didn’t have enough food for the both of them? What if he had to ration his stores as carefully as they did back home? If she asked him out of turn, that could put her in a lot of trouble.

And yet … what if he just didn’t know she was hungry? She could be starving for hours—could practically starve to death, even—and he’d never find out until it was too late.

She took a sharp breath and began to nervously bite her nails. The trick was finding a way to communicate. But how? She didn’t know a word of his language—not a single word. And to try and ask on her own, that was much too pushy. Perhaps if he could see that she—

No, she told herself, burying her head in her hands. Don’t go to him—that’s much too pushy.

But she was so hungry …

In the end, her stomach had the stronger argument. Before she could step into the cockpit, though, the stranger came through the open doorway. He greeted her with a boyish grin and a few softly spoken words from his own language. From the innocent tone of his voice, her previous fears melted away like the icy surface of a sun-grazing comet.

Here goes nothing. She patted her stomach and gave him the most apologetic look she could muster.

His grin fell, and his cheeks turned bright red. A moment later, he opened one of the larger wall compartments and began punching buttons. Noemi’s heart skipped a beat—it was a food synthesizer, much like the ones back home. This one, however, was full. Her stomach growled in anticipation.

Don’t be too eager, she told herself. You don’t want him to think you’re starving.

The stranger pulled out a pair of bowls and set them carefully on the ground. Still mumbling to himself (he had a peculiar habit of that), he reached into a side compartment and pulled out a jar of flaky brown things. When she hesitated, he took her hands and formed them into a cupping shape. His skin was warm to the touch.

He poured out the flakes, and she realized to her surprise that they were dried fruit. How long had it been since the fruit stores had run out back home? Almost a year, perhaps more. She lifted them gingerly to her mouth, resisting the urge to eat them all at once. When she smiled at the stranger, however, his cheeks blushed red.

He almost seems a little sentimental, she thought. How many times has he blushed since I stepped onto his ship? At least he hadn’t abused her yet—that was surely a blessing.

He motioned to the floor, and they both sat down. The synthesizer finished its cycle, and he lifted their bowls to the dispenser underneath. As Noemi had expected, the goop that came out was a thick gray sludge—but edible, all the same. She attacked her bowl the moment he set it back down in front of her, but he made her stop and showed her how to crumble bits of the dried fruit and mix them in. Of course, she thought, silently chastising herself for being overeager. Fortunately, the stranger didn’t seem to mind.

As she started her second bowl, the stranger pointed to her and asked a question. She glanced up and smiled, hoping that that would satisfy him, but of course it didn’t. He pointed at himself and said:

“Jeremaya.”

Noemi paused. Something told her that this was important. He pointed to himself and repeated, looking at her expectantly.

“Jeremahra?” she asked, pronouncing the word as best she could.

He nodded and smiled “Jeremaya.”

That’s his name, Noemi realized. She pointed to him again.

“Jeremahra.”

He shrugged and spoke to her again. When she blinked in incomprehension, he pointed to himself and then at her.

“Noemi!” she said, her heart leaping in her chest. “Jeremahra, Noemi.”

“No-em-ee?” Jeremahra asked. She nodded vigorously and pointed to herself.

“Noemi.”

It felt so wonderful to be able to communicate, even with only a simple word. Finally, the stranger was no longer just a stranger—he was a man with a proper name.

Jeremahra.

She finished off her second bowl with relish—perhaps a little too much relish. He stared at her for a long while in silence, as if lost in thought. Noemi blushed a little and stared politely at the floor, folding her hands in her lap.

What does he think of me? she wondered. Probably that I’m as lanky as spaceframe and eat like a garbage recycler. And yet, when she hazarded a quick glance at him, none of that showed in his eyes. He had chosen her over her sisters, after all—even over Marta.

What kind of a man was he? Probably a young fortune seeker, like so many of the other star wanderers who came through Delta Oriana. Across the Outworlds, it was common practice for fathers to send their eldest sons away from home, to wander the stars until they found a place to settle down. Her grandfather had been a star wanderer, settling at Megiddo Station after almost ten years of starfaring. But her father had refused to leave, calling it a stupid tradition.

Jeremahra didn’t seem stupid, though. A bit boyish, perhaps, but not stupid.

If he is a star wanderer, Noemi thought to herself, it must have been hard for him to leave his home. It was hard enough for her. To leave everything behind, knowing that she could never go back—she feared it would destroy her.

Well, she thought, I suppose that’s one thing we have in common. If Jeremahra was a star wanderer in search of a new home, then so was she. It wasn’t going to help them overcome the language barrier, but at least it was a start.

Chapter 3


Noemi bit her lip as the water from the starship’s shower unit trickled down her back and chest. Her knees trembled and her stomach felt weak, even more than when she’d said goodbye to her family.

The wife does not have authority over her own body, but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but yields it to his wife. Those words from the Old-Earth Bible played over and over in her mind, making her skin crawl. She didn’t know what Jeremahra expected of her, but she was his wife now, and at Delta Oriana, that meant some very specific things.

It’s not wrong if you’re married, she told herself, trying in vain to calm her fraying nerves. As the oldest in the family, she’d always done her best to set the example and be a good girl. Not that it was difficult—none of the station boys had ever shown much interest in her. There had been another wanderer, once, but they’d only kissed—nothing more.

She took a deep breath and ran her fingers through her wet hair, scrubbing it down until her scalp felt raw. Soap suds ran across her face and neck, and she closed her eyes to keep them out. The water pressure wasn’t very strong, but that was all right—she was used to that. She could deal with it quite easily.

Will it hurt? she wondered, her heart racing. She’d heard that it sometimes did, especially the first time. And yet, she couldn’t deny that part of her hungered for it. That was the thing that had always frightened her—the dark, sensual part of herself that she’d never understood. Perhaps that was why she was so terrified right now—not for anything that Jeremahra might do to her, but for the dark and secret things that she might discover about herself.

Enough of this.

She rinsed the last of the soap from her hair and shut off the water. The shower nozzles retracted into the cylindrical wall, and hot air blasted her from overhead. She raised her hands to facilitate the drying process, and the water ran quickly down her skin, first in rivulets, then in dribbles. The vacuum at her feet ensured that as little moisture was wasted as possible.

When it was finished, she stepped out of the shower and into the tiny bathroom. There was barely enough room in the narrow space to turn around, which was just as well since the mirror was only about twenty centimeters square. Still, she did her best to make herself presentable, which mostly consisted of running her fingers through her hair and slapping her cheeks to keep them from looking too pale.

All right, she thought, clenching her fingers into nervous little fists. Let’s go.

She palmed the door to the cabin, and it slid open with a low hiss. A peek outside confirmed that Jeremahra was still in the cockpit, where he’d been when she’d left him. She stepped out into the cabin, barefoot and naked, but he was too focused on his instruments to look back and see her.

I’ll have to wait, then, she told herself, but when he comes, I’ll be ready. The cot was still inclined to accommodate the dream monitor; she lowered it down until it was flat, then lay on her back with her arms by her side. With her feet pointed toward the front of the ship, she had a good view of the cockpit doorway. She arched her back, thrusting up her chest as much as she could, but it didn’t make much of a difference. Still, if she bent her legs in just the right way—

Footsteps sounded in the cockpit, and Jeremahra appeared in the doorway. Noemi’s heart stopped, and time froze as their gaze met.

This is it.

His eyes widened in shock, and his cheeks instantly turned white. Something in his expression told her that if he’d shared her religion, he’d be crossing himself right now. Instead, he stammered some oath and steepled his hands beneath his nose. As quickly as he’d come, he turned on his heel and retreated to the cockpit.

Noemi sat up at once. For a second, she almost followed after him, but self-consciousness overcame her and she stopped short of that.

What just happened?

She waited silently and counted to ten, but he didn’t return. Instead, he seemed to be reclining the pilot’s chair back far enough to sleep on. She waited a little while longer, but then the lights went out, and she was still alone.

A strange mixture of relief and disappointment flooded over her, making her arms turn to water as she fell back to the cot. In an unexpected way, the rejection made her feel empty and lost. Did he not want her? But if so, why had he chosen her? They were married now—he was completely within his rights to take her. Or was now just not the right time for him? She stared at the ceiling trying to make sense of it all, but exhaustion soon overtook her.


* * * * *


Her dreams were tense and lucid, like being trapped in the simulator without the ability to command the data.

She dreamed she was in a wide, grassy meadow, barefoot in her simple white dress. The grass tickled her feet as she walked—the dream was so intense, it felt almost real. All around her, dark mountain peaks rose up toward the sky, cloudless and blue as the legends described Old Earth.

She looked behind her and saw the wreckage of a city, or perhaps a fallen space station. Corroded metal spires stuck up at odd angles, while the towering remains of collapsed and twisted structures broke the natural flow of the landscape. The derelict stood at the edge of a meadow, at least a kilometer off. Something about it called to her, and in the dream she couldn’t refuse.

She walked slowly at first, unsure of herself, but as she drew closer her steps became more certain. Dark purple storm clouds gathered above her, while the flowers bloomed in shades of brilliant turquoise. A warm, gentle rain began to fall, soaking her clothes and hair and skin with its life-giving moisture.

Jeremahra is in there.

The realization made her hesitate. Did she really want to be with him? They barely even knew each other, and things had been so awkward between them already. Still, something drew her to him, like a cold and lonely comet falling through the void toward a brilliant star. She knew it was just a dream, but in that moment it felt like something more.

Her vision widened, and she saw that the field in which she stood was just a tiny island in the midst of a lifeless wasteland. A sudden fear seized her, and she realized that this wasteland was devouring the grassy field, turning it to a bleak and lonely desert.

She broke into a run, her rain-soaked dress clinging to her skin. In that moment, she saw everything clearly—so clearly that it almost seemed like a divine revelation. Providence had put her into the hands of this kind and gentle star wanderer for a reason. She didn’t know what that reason was yet, but she felt it with every particle of her soul.

She ran faster and faster, the grass so thick it almost rose above her head. The color of turquoise filled her vision, imbuing the dream with an intensity that all but swept her away. The rain fell thicker, great fat raindrops pelting her skin, and in that moment she was naked—naked and not ashamed. Instead, she felt as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders—a weight that until that moment she didn’t know existed.

She entered the wreckage and gasped for breath, her body dripping wet. Puddles were everywhere, but the walls and floor were a dark maroon color, cold and lifeless. She started to look for Jeremahra, but her legs froze up, and her arms refused to move. It was as if something in the darkness had taken control of her own body, so that she was utterly helpless. Exerting all her strength, she lifted her arms over her head, trying to break out of it. Reality shifted, then parted like a veil, and she was torn away from the dream that held her.


* * * * *


Noemi moaned and twisted, her arms stiff and her body sore. She felt like she’d slept on a metal slab—which wasn’t too far from the truth. With her hands above her head, she arced her back and stretched, yawning as she slowly came to her senses.

She opened her eyes and saw a face staring down at her. Her blood froze, and her heart skipped a beat—if not for her dream, she would have shrieked in fright.

“Whoa,” said Jeremahra, holding up his hands. His eyes widened, and for a moment he seemed about to dart back to the cockpit.

Wait!

She slipped her legs over the side of the cot and sat up, holding the blanket to her chest with one hand. With the other, she reached out and took his hand. It felt unnaturally clammy—as if he were even more nervous than her. That possibility had not even occurred to her, and it made all her fears from yesterday seem a bit silly. When she looked into his eyes, she saw nothing but harmlessness. Whatever else he was, Jeremahra was a good man who wouldn’t mistreat her.

Do you want to go through with this? Noemi wished she could ask. If not, why did you choose me back at the station? The yearning from her dream returned in force, arousing a dark, sensual hunger that welled up deep inside of her. A tremor passed through her body, making her shiver with nervous anticipation.

Jeremahra hesitated, pulling back. Her grip on his hand tightened, but he pulled himself free. He didn’t leave, however. Instead, he stood as if perched on the top of a precipice, unsure which way to fall.



Something is holding him back.

All at once, he began to speak very quickly. Whatever he was saying, he wanted very much for her to understand him. She nodded and looked into his eyes, trying to catch some glimmer of meaning. Out of frustration, he bunched his fingers together and made the sign of the cross across his chest.

“Married,” he said.

Noemi’s heart leaped in her chest, sending a bolt of electricity to the end of her fingertips. Yes! she screamed inwardly, nodding her head. Yes! I know we barely know each other, but father married us before we left, so—

“No,” he said, wagging a finger at her. “No married.”

Her stomach fell through the floor. Not married? What do you mean?

He sighed and spoke again, waving his hands this time. It was evident he felt very passionately about whatever he was saying. His speech became more and more impassioned, until finally, in one final act of exasperation, he turned and stormed off to the bathroom. A moment later, the sound of the shower filtered through the bulkheads.

What just happened? Noemi wondered, leaning back against the wall. Her hands fell into her lap along with the blanket, leaving her upper body naked. She looked down at her tiny breasts and felt suddenly embarrassed—not at all like in her dream.

If he didn’t recognize their marriage, then perhaps it was best just to pretend it had never happened. But what would that mean for her? She couldn’t go home—that much was clear. Wherever he was taking her, it was bound to be someplace far away where she didn’t speak the language. And if he felt no connection or commitment, he’d probably just drop her off at the next port—and what would happen to her then? There was no law in the Outworlds—nothing to shield her from the abuses of evil men. If she couldn’t convince him to accept her, then she could easily find herself in a situation that was much worse.

Besides, of all her sisters, he had chosen her. That had to count for something. No one else had ever shown much of an interest in her, so the fact that he had meant that there was at least some potential. They barely knew each other, yes, but starfarers were used to striking up relationships in short periods of time. It was their way of life.

One thing was for sure, though—she wasn’t going to convince him to accept her just by getting him in bed with her. He’d proved that he was a decent man, and she’d just as soon walk out an airlock as manipulate him through guilt.

She dressed in the jumpsuit he’d given her and gathered her clothes from the day before. I should probably wash these, she thought to herself—ever since the water recyclers had broken down on Megiddo Station, there’d been a strict rotation for laundry. Her clothes weren’t exactly dirty, but they weren’t clean either, and could use a wash. Besides, this was a perfect chance to prove herself. If she could wash her own clothes, she could wash Jeremahra’s as well.

If nothing else, it gave her something to do besides torture herself with her thoughts.


* * * * *


While Jeremahra finished his shower, Noemi figured out the washer and made her bed. She would have made breakfast, too, but he finished before she had time.

That’s right, she thought as he admired her work. It’s not bad having a woman around, is it?

He shrugged and muttered something to himself before turning to the synthesizer. She wrung her hands silently as he made breakfast, reading his every little movement for some hint as to what he was thinking.

If he rejects me, then I really will be alone. She imagined him dropping her off at a distant outpost, where she knew no one and didn’t even know how to speak the language. What would she do? Where would she go? How would she fend for herself? The prospects made her legs feel weak.

He motioned for her to sit down on the floor, same as the day before. She kept her eyes down and was careful not to meet his gaze, but when he wasn’t looking, she watched him like an astrographer charting the stars. He passed her a bowl, and for a very brief moment, their hands touched. A bolt of electricity shot through her, but he turned quickly away and left her to her meal.

The food wasn’t flavored particularly well, but Noemi ate it gratefully. After taking just a couple of bites, he stopped abruptly and started talking to her.

What’s he saying? she wondered, wishing for the hundredth time that they spoke the same language. Strange, how he kept trying to talk with her—either he had an odd habit of talking to himself, or he had something that he really wanted to say and was just as frustrated as her that he couldn’t get it across. Perhaps both. She nodded, trying to placate him, but he clenched his fists and became more and more excited, until she started to feel a little scared. He didn’t hurt her, though—he slammed his bowl down and stormed off to the cockpit, evidently wishing to be alone.

What did I do? she wondered, playing every moment of the last few minutes over in her mind. Had she made him angry? Had she done something wrong?

A sickening feeling grew in her stomach, and the floor and walls began to spin. At first, she thought she was going mad—but then, the room began to shrink, and she realized it was the sensation of jumpspace. She grabbed the nearest handhold and held on as tightly as she could, while the spinning and the shrinking and the gut-wrenching nausea grew worse and worse—

—and then they were through, and she was running for the bathroom before she vomited all over the floor like last time.

A fine starfarer you’ll make, she thought despairingly as she threw up most of her breakfast. Not only are you the plainest girl on Megiddo Station, you have the weakest stomach of anyone in a dozen parsecs. For someone who was supposed to be a starfarer’s wife, she was off to a miserable start.

Chapter 4


The all-encompassing darkness enveloped Noemi like a blanket, the same as it did every time she plugged into the dream monitor. Before the simulator could fully load, she halted it and let herself drift in the infinite void. While some people feared the sensation of nothingness between simulations, she loved how it felt to be the only person in all of existence. With all the computer processes humming just beneath the plane of conscious awareness, she could feel the potential from the back of her neck to the tips of her fingers. The void was an entire universe just waiting to be born, and she was a goddess of creation.

She started with the stars. With one wave of her hand, a million tiny perfect points of light blinked into existence, their familiar constellations surrounding her. Next, she added the galaxy, a milky white carpet textured with dust lanes and nebulae. The sun came next, a dim red orb on the edge of her vision, not quite bright enough to drown out the rest of the stars with its light. Finally, she added the dark blue ice giant world of Megiddo, with the wispy white clouds of its upper atmosphere, and Megiddo Station, a tiny point of light just on the edge of the crescent horizon.

Her simple white dress fluttered soundlessly as she flew toward the station that was—or rather, had been—her home. As she drew closer, the details began to distill from her subconscious. Megiddo Station was a large wheel with a hodgepodge of additional modules built on. They protruded from the main hull like barnacles on the belly of a whale, a fascinating water-bound creature from Old Earth that Noemi had discovered while browsing through the archives. She imagined that life for those barnacles must feel very much like it did for the people on the station, drifting through an incomprehensible vastness in a tiny shell that was the sum total of their world.

Not anymore, she remembered. Megiddo Station was dead to her—even if she managed to go back someday, she doubted it would be little more than a space-bound derelict, only useful for scrap and spare parts. The thought made a lump rise in her throat, so she put it out of her mind and focused on the simulation.

The challenge was to see how much of her home she could recreate from memory starting from nothing but scratch. It was simultaneously a way to preserve her memories and exercise her creativity.

She stopped a short kilometer above the station’s orbit and painstakingly added every module, exactly as it had been when she’d left. She’d never seen the station from this point of view, of course, but she’d reviewed enough maps and schematics to have a clear picture of the structure in her mind. Towers protruded from the far-flung sections of the rim, while a large bulbous hydroponics module protruded from the bottom of the hub like an upside-down garden. She descended toward the planet and turned herself around so that her perspective shifted, making the module appear right-side up.

She didn’t spend much time on it, though—she couldn’t bear to, after everything that had happened in the last few months. Once, she had looked to it with everyone else as the man-made miracle that would save them. Now, it was a symbol of failure and despair, the last great collapse before the famine took them all. She kept the windows of the module dark and flew out toward the rim, skimming less than a meter above the dull gray surface of the age-worn station hull.

In a flash, she passed right through it and found herself standing in the middle of a wide, empty corridor. Now came her favorite part. Her feet touched the floor, and she took off running with her hands outstretched behind her. As she ran, the place came to life, shops and doorways popping into existence all around her. There was that small electronic parts store that she always loved to frequent, nestled in a tiny alcove between a port authority office and a warehouse facility. Narrow stairwells led up to courtyards and apartments on the upper levels, while airlocks led down to the rimside dockyards. Up ahead, the corridor opened up a small concourse with a high ceiling and narrow atrium. She looked up and saw right through to the opposite side of the station, upside down somewhere far overhead. Pausing only for a moment to add in the relevant details, she took off running once again.

She ran until she came all the way around to where she’d started. Her breath came short and quick, so she had to stop and rest for a moment. In the simulation, she didn’t ever have to feel tired or exhausted, but she kept those sensations just to add a touch of realism to the experience. A short moment of breathlessness was a small price to pay in order to feel that she’d come back home.

The station was empty, though—empty and eerily quiet. The old ventilators still chugged, of course, and the bulkheads still hummed, but the people sounds were all gone. Noemi hesitated—she could channel her subconscious to add the projections, but something held her back this time.

Growing up, she’d always been something of a loner. The boys were never really interested in her because she was too plain, and the girls her age never spent much time with her because she was too quiet and shy to fit in with the popular types. Her sisters had always been there for her, of course, but as the oldest daughter she was the one they looked up to, rather than the other way around. Lately, as her few childhood friends had gotten married one by one, her feelings of loneliness had only compounded. Most girls on Megiddo Station had found their husbands by the end of their seventeenth year, and the fact that she was nineteen and perpetually single felt, in a lot of ways, just as bad as the famine that had ravaged her home.

The empty halls and corridors echoed that aching sense of loneliness. As much as she missed Megiddo Station, had she ever really fit in there? Not really. That was why she’d always spent so much time in the simulators—here, she could be the goddess of a thousand worlds.

But what good was that, if she had no one to share it with?

That isn’t exactly true, she realized. There was Jeremahra—he was supposed to be her husband, after all. But was he really interested in her, or had she just been imagining things? Since they didn’t even speak the same language, it was difficult to tell.

Could things work out between them? Her thoughts wandered to their awkward first night together, making her cringe. The only things driving her had been terror and an awful sense of duty, but now, things were changing in ways she didn’t fully understand. Yes, he’d rejected her that night, but given the circumstances, that was probably for the best. If he had taken her, she’d be wondering if the sex actually meant anything, or if she were just an object for his lusts. At least this way, if he did decide to take her, she’d know that that meant a degree of commitment.

Providence brought us together for a reason, she told herself. I just need to find out what that reason is. It seemed a little strange that the right person for her would be someone who didn’t speak her language, but if they loved each other, did that really matter? Language barriers could be overcome, and love—real love—was something that grew.

A light flashed in the corner of her vision, breaking her out of her thoughts. It was an automated message, stating that someone else had requested to use the dream monitor. Her heart leaped—how long had she been in the simulation? She didn’t want Jeremahra to think she was hogging it all for herself.

With a swipe of her hand, she wiped the dream world clean from existence. It pained her to do it, but she’d be back to re-create it later. Besides, a couple of days ago, she’d forgotten to delete it, and the simulator had probably kept it open for Jeremahra to see after he’d plugged in. Her cheeks reddened, even in the simulator—the thought of him stumbling on something so personal to her made her cringe.

It took a few moments for the wipe to finish, but when it did, she found herself floating in the same vast nothingness as when she’d started. A few quick adjustments to return the simulator to its defaults, and she jacked out.


* * * * *


Noemi hugged her knees to her chest and stared out the forward cockpit window at the stars. They looked so different here, out in deep space. Back home, she had sometimes gone to the observation deck to lie across the floor and watch the stars pass slowly underneath her. Those had always been such peaceful moments—so unlike what she was going through now. Yes, she was alone, and yes, things were quiet—perhaps even quieter than they ever had been on Megiddo Station—but there was so much uncertainty in her life now, it was impossible to find any peace.

If Jeremahra hadn’t chosen her, would things have been any better? The part of her that missed home screamed yes—better to die among family than to live and never see them again. He should have chosen Marta—or better yet, he should have never come at all.

Stop, she told herself, blinking through the tears that inevitably came. It isn’t right to think like that. She reached down to her chest and pressed her fingers against the cross, her last possession from home. Providence had brought her this far, saving and preserving her from the famine that was ravaging her home. It couldn’t be coincidence that Jeremahra had come when he had, and had chosen her. Even if he rejected their marriage and dropped her off at the next port, there was a reason she was still alive, and that reason brought with it the weight of responsibility. Now was not the time or the place to feel sorry for herself.

Perhaps—but even so, she couldn’t help but miss her home. As she stared out across the vast unmoving starfield, the painful emotions rose within her heart, constricting her throat and making her vision blur.

In the cabin, Jeremahra began to stir, snapping her out of her thoughts. She rose to her feet quickly, meeting him in the doorway. He grunted and stepped back to let her through before returning to the cockpit and settling down in the command chair.

He wants to be left alone, Noemi realized. After a brief moment of indecision, she turned to the cabin, where the dream monitor still hung out of the compartment in the ceiling. She settled down on the cot and grasped it in her hands; it was still warm to the touch.

She looked back to the cockpit, but Jeremahra appeared firmly settled, and there wasn’t enough room up front for both of them. With nothing else to do, she pulled the monitor down over her head and plugged in.

For a brief moment, the weight of the device pressed down on her neck and shoulders. She leaned back against the headrest, settling her hands into her lap—


—and then she was in a dark, wet forest, surrounded by leafy green ferns and deeply furrowed tree trunks.

She frowned and looked at the strange landscape. Trees as wide as the main corridor at Megiddo Station stood all around her, stretching up further than she could see. She was in a forest—that much was clear—but it was a kind of forest she’d never seen before. The air was wet and heavy, thick with the scent of mulch. The trees themselves were a sort of pine or conifer, with deep red bark covered in patches of moss. She stepped forward, and the pine needles tickled her toes while the ferns and undergrowth gently brushed her legs.

What is this place? It had to be one of Jeremahra’s dream worlds, probably of a real-life place he’d visited. But the vibrant imagery and the striking level of detail told her that it wasn’t just any simulation—it was one that he visited often.

As she stepped onto a forest path, a deep and poignant longing for home threatened to overwhelm her. In spite of her natural curiosity at the place, her eyes blurred and she began to choke up. What’s happening? she wondered to herself, trying to brush it off. It was no use, however—the feelings were too strong.

Gasping for breath, she sat down on a rock and pressed her fingers to her forehead. As she did so, she realized that the powerful combination of emotions was actually a residual effect of the simulation itself. With her programmer’s eye, she skimmed the data and built a shield to block her from its effects. As soon as she did, the homesickness faded until she felt she could continue.

What was that? she wondered, opening her eyes again. Physically, nothing had changed, but the streams of data showed an intense amount of emotional residue. That was often a sign of frequent, repetitious usage: in order to properly interface with the mind, the simulation dug into the subconscious to create meaningful projections. Over time, if the thoughts and feelings drawn from the subconscious were similar enough, they became integrated into the main line of the simulation.

It was clear that this place meant a lot to Jeremahra, though how or why, Noemi couldn’t say. The details of any projection were impossible to predict, much less extrapolate backward to the memory or image that was its source. But perhaps, if she—

“Jeremy?”

The sound of a young girl’s voice made Noemi freeze where she stood. What was this—a projection of her own? It sounded almost like Bekka, but something wasn’t quite right.

“Jeremy!”

It isn’t Bekka, Noemi thought to herself. Bekka wouldn’t call for Jeremahra—she’d be calling for me.

The voice came again, this time much closer and speaking in a language that Noemi didn’t understand. If this was another projection, it went far, far beyond anything she’d ever seen. Her blood ran cold, as if she’d heard a ghost—which in some ways wasn’t far from the truth.

I can’t stay here, she realized. If she did stay, and the girl did see her, it would corrupt the simulation to the point where Jeremahra would know she’d been there. And if that happened—

She waved her hand over her eyes, and the world fell away into a black, empty nothingness. To her surprise, her heart was pounding, her breathing coming in short bursts. It wasn’t just due to the residual effects, either—she felt like an emotional voyeur, as if she’d invaded one of the most private parts of Jeremahra’s mind and seen something that could never be unseen.

But what was it, exactly? Was the forest taken from a real-world memory, or was that an emotional projection too? And what did it all mean?

I’m sorry Jeremahra, she thought silently to herself. I’m sorry, but I’m going to come back.


* * * * *


The next few day and night cycles passed without any significant incident. Jeremahra spent most of the time in the cockpit, leaving Noemi to the dream monitor. They made several jumps while she was under—she could tell from the way it disoriented her while in the simulation, making the lines of data difficult to grasp. Because of the way the monitor drew out her perception of time, the sensation seemed to last much longer, almost five or ten minutes. Still, it wasn’t nearly as hard on her as it was when she was conscious.

For the most part, they kept to separate parts of the ship. The only time she ever really interacted with him was when they came together to eat. After the awkwardness of the first night, she no longer went to bed naked, but she did change into the chemise, just in case he ever changed his mind.

He didn’t.

The discovery of his secret world in the dream monitor hung over her like a brilliant comet. She waited anxiously for him to plug in, to see if he’d noticed her tampering, and if so, to gauge his reaction. As much as she longed to return to the dark, mulchy forest with the mysterious girl, she didn’t want to risk making him angry—not when the nearest other people were more than a light-year away. She didn’t think he’d become violent, but there was no way to know for sure. In so many ways, he was still a stranger.

He didn’t use the dream monitor, though—in fact, he showed no interest in it. After each meal, he often helped her to plug back in, but he never tried to take a turn himself. Was that because he didn’t trust her? Or was it his way of being courteous, to share the best he had to offer? Either way, the effect was the same. Noemi couldn’t explore his dreams without first seeing some reaction, and Jeremahra showed no interest in doing anything but feed her. And so things slowly settled into a routine—a dull, insipid routine that threatened to drive her crazy.

She woke up after a long and tortuous night cycle and stared for almost an hour at the featureless ceiling. From all the time spent under the dream monitor, her body was so well rested that it was hard to sleep, even though she constantly felt tired. Such a frustrating way to live—she didn’t know how the lone starfarers did it.

I don’t care anymore, she decided. I’m going to go into the simulation and find out what he’s hiding. The thought echoed in her mind like the crack of a gunshot, sending chills down her arms and fingertips. Inwardly, she felt that it was right.

But as she swung her legs off the cot and sat up, doubts and fears plagued her. What if Jeremahra changed his mind and wanted to use the dream monitor? What if she changed things so much simply from the act of viewing that she could never get it to revert back to the way he remembered?

I need more strength if I’m going to do this, she realized. Her hand instinctively went to the cross around her neck, but it wasn’t there—she’d forgotten that she’d put it in the jumpsuit pocket before getting ready for bed. Well. If she was going to pray, better to change out of the skimpy chemise and get into something more decent. She dressed, glancing over her shoulder to confirm that Jeremahra was still asleep in the cockpit, and hung the jeweled cross from a knob in the wall.

She knelt by the side of the cot with her hands clasped together and bowed her head as if she were in a chapel. She wasn’t, of course, but if God could hear the prayers of the faithful at Megiddo Station as well as the famed Temple of a Thousand Suns on Gaia Nova, surely He would hear her now in the midst of the starry deep.

Our Father who art in the heavens, she began, Lord of Earth, hear my prayer. I know that thou hast brought me here in this place for a reason, and I thank thee for it, but please, I need thy strength—

The sound of a footstep behind her made her stop mid-sentence and leap to her feet. Jeremahra stood in the doorway, eying her curiously. She snatched the cross from the wall and hid it behind her back, but she was too late—it was clear he’d already seen it.

Is he prejudiced against believers? It had been a long time since the persecutions of the New Apostles, but tensions in the Oriana cluster were still high—she’d heard stories that made her skin crawl. Most star wanderers had no religion, or if they did, they changed it after settling down. Still, she didn’t want to take any chances.

He spoke quickly, his face a picture of puzzlement and confusion. When he held out his hand, she rocked back on her heels, heart pounding. The cross was her last personal possession—she would die if he took it from her. Fortunately, he relented rather quickly, walking past her and opening a wall compartment near the ceiling.

What’s he doing? she wondered, curiosity slowly overcoming her fear. She peered around him, trying to get a better look. He pulled out a green and orange pendant and handed it to her.

She took it gingerly from his hands and examined it. The main image was an oak leaf, with a narrow rocket ship in the center. The border was a deep orange copper, the rocket overlaid with gold. He pointed at the pendant and hastily crossed himself, as if to tell her that this was his religion.

Well, she thought to herself, at least he isn’t upset with me for praying. But if he wanted her to pray in his way, it wasn’t going to happen.

He looked at her expectantly, as if waiting to see her cross. She shook her head and handed back his pendant, then turned to use the dream monitor. He laid a hand on her shoulder, however, stopping her. When she turned back to him, she saw with dismay that he was holding out his hand.

Do you really need to see it? she wanted to ask. At first, she pretended not to understand, but when she saw that he wouldn’t relent, she sighed and placed the cross carefully in his hand.

He held it up to his face and eyed it curiously. She held her breath and wrung her hands, rocking back and forth on her feet. If he only knew how much it meant to her, this symbol of her home and her faith. It was all she had left of—

Wait a minute, she thought to herself. What if the pendant was to Jeremahra what the cross was to her? Not just a holy artifact, but a reminder of the life he’d left behind. What if he missed his home as much as she missed hers? She remembered the lonely forest with the young girl’s voice, how she’d cried after him, and the deep pangs of homesickness that came intertwined with it.

He reached over and hung the cross from the same knob as before. When he turned to replace his own pendant, however, she put a hand on his shoulder and held out her hand. “Not so fast,” she said aloud. “Let me see it.” His expression fell, and he scratched the back of his neck a little sheepishly, but she wasn’t about to let him off the hook.

He handed her the pendant, and she hung it from the knob so that it dangled beside her cross. The people back home might have found the juxtaposition scandalous, but if the Lord of Earth was as much Jeremahra’s God as her own, she had no doubt that He’d understand.

As she knelt by the side of the cot, Jeremahra stood awkwardly, hesitating to join her. What’s the matter? she thought as she looked up expectantly at him. He glanced away, but before he could return to the cockpit, she took his hand and pulled him gently down. Soon, he was kneeling beside her.

She clasped her hands together and bowed her head in silent prayer. Our Father who art in the heavens, she began again. Lord of Earth, hear our prayer. When she peeked over at Jeremahra, she smiled to see him doing the same.

We’re not so different, are we?


* * * * *


The forest seemed darker when Noemi entered it again. She stepped quietly as she walked through the ferns, trying to keep as low a profile as possible. Of course, no one was there to see her, but the less she interacted with the simulation, the less it would hopefully be altered by her presence.

Just the act of observing was enough to rewrite crucial elements of the program, however. She kept that in mind as she leaned against a massive trunk to step over a particularly complex knot of roots. The bark was rough against her skin, and bits of it flecked off onto her dress. The ground, however, was wet and soft—not at all like the grainy floor tiles of Megiddo Station. She stepped barefoot over a cluster of rocks covered in moss and made her way to a small grassy field.

So this is Jeremahra’s birth world, Noemi thought to herself. This is what it’s like to live on a planet. It reminded her a little of her favorite simulation back home, except that the landscape was completely different.

The twilight sky was a dark rusty color, filled with haze. A large yellow cliff jutted up only a few hundred meters away, barren of any form of vegetation. She squinted and realized that she was looking through a thick panel of glass, one that arced upward at an angle and stretched above the leafy canopy. The field ended where the glass met the ground, turning to barren wasteland on the other side. She walked over to get a closer look.

It appeared that the forest was under some sort of planetary dome, like the ones at Gaia Nova and the Coreward Stars. This one was smaller than the ones she’d heard of, though—judging from the arc, it was probably only a kilometer or two in diameter. The ragged cliff on the other side was probably the edge of a small crater, as good a site as any for a settlement.

“Jeremy!” the girl’s voice cried. “Jeremy, where are you?” Like a ghostly wind, it rustled the nearby leaves and sent chills shooting down Noemi’s back.

In simulated dream worlds, the setting was largely interchangeable between users, while the characters who inhabited those worlds were projections and therefore unique to each user. However, sometimes a particularly strong projection created its own rift, like an eddy in the data stream. Over time, this rift became part of the underlying program—a ghost projection that drew from the monitor interface to mirror the one seen by the first user. To prevent this from happening, most shared networks required users to alternate between servers. The facilities at Megiddo station followed a strict rotation, and even then they occasionally needed to be wiped and reformatted. There was no telling how long it had been since Jeremahra had done that, however—and since there was only one simulator on the ship, the ghost projection had to be intensely strong.

The girl’s voice grew louder. Noemi looked for a place to hide, but the grass wasn’t yet tall enough, and the nearest tree was too far. She was just about to make a run for it when the girl stepped out from the forest.

At first, Noemi could see nothing but a dark hole where the girl should have been. Her presence felt like a vortex in the data, an eddy that had become a giant whirlpool. The space around her rippled, and the hole shimmered into a visual form. Noemi squinted, then gasped as her blood ran cold.

It was Marta, her sister.

The image lasted only for a second before the projection collapsed, but in that instant Noemi’s heart sank, and a crushing wave of guilt crashed over her. She fell to her knees, paralyzed by the sheer weight of it, and the world around her grew dark and tangled. Marta, her heart cried out, Marta, it should have been you who was chosen, not me. I’m so sorry!

As quickly as it had come, the moment passed, releasing Noemi from its hold. Still, she made no effort to get up. She missed Marta—she missed all of her sisters something terrible. But guilt? That had to be part of the projection.

As her breathing returned to normal, she rolled over on her back and stared up at the hazy alien sky. The simulation was based on Jeremahra’s life—that much was true. And for the rogue projection to have such a powerful influence, it must be based on a memory that tortured him. Obviously, it wasn’t Marta that he saw, but if that was the closest analogue, that would mean—

It’s his sister, Noemi realized with a start. He left his homeworld forever to wander the stars, and he feels guilty for abandoning her.

Tears came to her eyes, even in the simulator. What must it be like, to voluntarily leave your family, knowing that you’ll never see them again? It was hard enough for Noemi, but she didn’t have to live with the guilt of having made that choice on her own. From the beginning, it had all been outside of her control, and now she saw that that was a blessing. For Jeremahra, who still at least nominally had the option of rejecting the traditions and staying home, the guilt must be killing him.

A ticklish sensation on her cheek made her sit up. Her presence was altering the simulation faster than her ability to revert it. She sighed and touched her thumb and middle finger together to end it. The field and forest turned to blackness—


—and then she was staring into Jeremahra’s eyes as he gently stroked her cheeks.

His hand tensed, and he drew it back in alarm. She blinked and shuddered, too shocked to react. After mumbling a few words, his cheeks turned bright red, and he turned to leave for the cockpit.

“Jeremahra!” she cried, gradually coming back to her senses.

He stopped, and she rose quickly to her feet as she pulled the dream monitor off of her head. In two bounding steps, she was standing in front of him. For an awkward moment she realized she was wearing the skimpy, semi-transparent chemise—she must not have changed from the night cycle before. It didn’t matter, though. Jeremahra’s eyes met her own, and she reached up to stroke his cheek the way he’d stroked hers.

I’m sorry, she wanted to say. I’m sorry for your sister.

She opened her mouth, but words failed her. Instead, she threw her arms around him and gave him a hug. At first, he was as stiff and unresponsive as a statue, but gradually he began to melt in her arms. He put his arms around her, holding her close. Her breath caught in her throat, and for a heart-stopping moment, they shared a wonderful closeness that transcended words and language.

He whispered something gentle in her ear, dispelling any last lingering doubts she’d had about him. Providence had brought him to Megiddo Station to rescue her from the famine, but it had brought her into his life for a reason as well. That much was perfectly clear to her now. All around them was death and confusion, but here in the space they shared together, none of that seemed to matter.

She released him and stepped slowly back, her fingers tracing their way down his arms until she held his hands in her own. Her heart raced the way it had their first night together, but there was also a calmness that anchored her. You don’t have to be alone, she thought to herself. We can make it work. Come with me, and I’ll make it better.

She pulled him gently back toward the cabin, but he resisted. A horrible sinking feeling grew in the pit of her stomach. Are you afraid to make a commitment, she wondered, or is it opening yourself up to another person that scares you? As much as she wished he would take her now—take her, and give her the security of knowing that they were together—it was clear that he wasn’t ready. When she looked into his eyes, she saw a willingness to accept her into his life, perhaps even a desire. But when she tugged on his arms, he held back, as if unable to break out of the prison of his guilt.

She bit her lip and let him go, arms falling by her side. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then shook his head and muttered something before returning alone to the cockpit. Noemi watched him go, wishing she could reach out and talk to him, but even if she could, that wouldn’t have lifted the impenetrable glass wall that separated them.

Chapter 5


I have to find a way to make a connection with him, Noemi thought to herself as she fiddled with the synthesizer. Jeremahra was in the cockpit, where he’d been the whole day cycle. She didn’t know what he was up to in there, but the time for dinner had come and gone. That was all right, though—it gave her a chance to show him what she could do. Besides, Mother always said that the best way to a man’s heart was through his stomach.

Jeremahra didn’t have a good selection of spices, but she didn’t let that stop her. After opening every jar in the compartment and tasting a little bit of everything, she managed to mix a blend that was passable. From his stock of oil and synthetic shortening, she made a buttery extract and sweetened it with some sugar. She stirred it into the synthmeal and found, to her delight, that it greatly improved the flavor. Texture was still a problem, but by grinding up the dried fruit into powder and mixing it in liberally, it added a graininess that was much more satisfying than the normal paste. When she added the spice, it almost tasted like something from her home.

Let’s see how he likes this, she thought, spooning it into two bowls. After taking a deep breath, she took them both and stepped through the doorway into the cockpit.

She found Jeremahra staring at the monitor, a melancholy expression on his face. He turned and frowned at her, but when she handed him the bowl, he took it.

Come on, she thought to herself as she knelt beside his chair. It’s good—try it. He poked at it for a while, then stirred it as if unsure whether he’d like it. Noemi bit her lip and gripped the hem of her jumpsuit as he lifted the spoon to his mouth. To her relief, his eyes lit up almost immediately, and he nodded in approval.

“Yes!” she whispered under her breath, pumping her arm.

Jeremahra laughed, making her look up at him in confusion. He swallowed another spoonful, then pointed to her and spoke. The meaning was beyond her, but the last word sounded very much like “star.” She cocked her head, and he pointed out the window as if to confirm this.

“Stars,” he said.

“Stars,” she repeated.

His eyes lit up again, and he nodded vigorously. “Stars! Varigood.”

“Varigood,” she repeated, imitating his voice a little clumsily. Her eyes fell on the main display screen, and she recognized the array of dots as a starmap. “What’s this called?” she asked, pointing to her home star.

Jeremahra nodded. “Home,” he said. “Noemi home.”

She pointed and repeated. So that’s another word we share, she thought to herself.

The screen on the right showed a close-up of the main starmap, on a region that she didn’t recognize. She pointed to the star in the center and looked at him inquisitively.

“Jeremahra’s home?”

He nodded and answered yes.

Where’s the planet with the forest? she wondered, peering forward to get a closer look. “Home?” she asked again, lightly touching the screen.

Jeremahra stiffened a little and hit a series of commands on the main board. The starmap shifted on the central screen, zooming in to Noemi’s home star. She watched entranced as the view passed like a camera to Megiddo. After circling the planet a few times, it zoomed in on the station.

Noemi squealed and clapped in delight. “Home!” she said as the camera panned toward a small black dot outlined by the blue cloud decks of Megiddo.

As the station took shape, however, her expression fell. The hydroponics module on the hub was missing, as well as a number of newer towers. She frowned and pointed. “Not home,” she said aloud. That’s not the way I remember it.

Jeremahra spoke quickly, pointing to the image. “Old?” she said, picking up the term from what he said. He nodded vigorously and repeated the word. Apparently, it meant that the database was out of date. She shrugged.

“Jeremahra home,” she said, pointing again at the screen. He shook his head and waved his hand, but she insisted. I want to see your home now.

With a deep breath and a few muttered words, he brought his hands back over the display. The image on the screen shifted to a yellow-orange star. Four rings marked the orbits of the system’s planets, fading into black as the camera zoomed in on the second one from center. His body tensed as it came into view: a solid yellow world shrouded in clouds and haze. The camera rushed at the surface, making Noemi gasp, but soon the image was hovering over a glass dome, just like the one from the simulator. Inside was the same thick forest.

So this is your home, she thought to herself, leaning forward with her hands under her chin.

“Earth?” she asked, pointing as the camera panned down to the interior. Jeremahra nodded, but his expression was wooden. Something told her she was treading on unstable ground. Still, she couldn’t stop now—not when her curiosity had only just been piqued.

The image passed through the canopy to a footpath in between the trees. The level of detail was amazing—there must have been a great deal of feedback between the database and the simulator. If she looked closely enough, she could—

Jeremahra stiffened. Noemi immediately sensed that something was wrong and turned to face him. For a moment, she feared that he would lash out—at her, at the computer, at anything and everything. Instead, he switched off the screen and stormed past her to the bathroom.

Wow, Noemi thought, letting out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. That didn’t go over well.

She rose to her feet and clenched her fists, staring out at the stars. Things couldn’t go on like this much longer. If it did, then in his mind she would be nothing but a temporary passenger to him, no matter what other connections she managed to make. Risky or not, she had to find a way to break him out of his prison of guilt—even if it meant shattering his world in the process.


* * * * *


That night, after Jeremahra had retired to the cockpit and shut off the lights, Noemi pulled down the dream monitor and prepared to reenter the simulation of his homeworld. This time, she switched off all the safeties on the neurological interface and ramped up the settings to their highest level of intensity. It might render her virtually comatose while she was under, but it would enable the kind of connection she needed to overcome the rogue threads of data and fundamentally rewrite the simulation. If her message was to have any hope of getting through to Jeremahra, this was the only way to do it.

She took a deep breath and closed her eyes as the monitor hummed above her head. Her fingers tingled, and a sharp jolt shot down the back of her neck—


—and then she was falling peacefully through a sea of infinite blackness.

Blackness wasn’t exactly the right way to describe the way she saw it, though—it was more like a sea of intangible data, perceived entirely through intuition. Noemi ran her mind over it the way a swimmer might dip his fingers in a pool to test the water, or the way a starfarer might skim over a starmap. However, since data in its pure form lacked any physical stimulus, it appeared to her eyes as blackness.

Gradually, though, forms began to appear and a coherent image slowly took shape. It was the forest dome of Jeremahra’s homeworld, exactly the way she’d left it. As her subconscious melded with the deeper workings of the program, the subtler details began to coalesce: the freshness of the air, the wetness of the soil, the earthy scent of the redwood pines. A deep emotional resonance filled the space around her, bringing back a cold recollection of her experience before. Longing, loneliness, and guilt—it sent chills down her back and arms, but the only way forward was to face it unshielded.

She took a step, her small feet bare against the scratchy mulch. The leafy ferns tickled her legs while her simple white dress fluttered against her knees. There was no breeze to toss her hair, however—no sun to warm the skin of her arms and shoulders. Instead, the twilight was as thick and as dark as the echoes of the memories that infused this place—the ones that had tortured Jeremahra for so long. She had no way to erase them from his mind, but perhaps she could do something to alleviate the pain.

No, she told herself. I’m not here to manipulate him—I’m here to send a message. But here in the dream world, where the lines between observation and imagination often blurred, it was all but impossible to rewrite the data without also impacting the users.

He has to keep his basic mental associations with this place, she decided. If not, then anything else would just be playing with his emotions. And he has to come away from here with the ability to still say no. Otherwise, any other answer he gave her would be meaningless. How, then, was she to proceed? The only way that made any sense was to overlay the place with a world of her own creation and hope that it had the right emotional resonance.

Right, she told herself, taking a deep breath. Let’s do this.

She closed her eyes and stretched out her arms to either side of her. Home, she thought, conjuring up a host of familiar associations with the word. The chug of the ventilator fans, the slightly smoky taste of the half-recycled air—but no, that wouldn’t do here. She needed something more natural, something more … Earthy.

She walked to the edge of the dome, where the forest gave way to a short, grassy meadow. It was strikingly similar to the one from her private simulation back home—the one at the top of the mountains. She waved her hand, and the dome disappeared, giving way to the image from her memory.

No, she thought to herself, don’t disappear entirely. The concrete foundations of the dome reappeared, this time as a dilapidated ruin marking the line between Jeremahra’s forest and her own mountain meadow. The edges of the canyon appeared, too, but this time they were covered in grass and flowers. The hazy sky parted, and a warm yellow sun peeked through the clouds while a gentle breeze toyed with her hair.

Much better, she thought, nodding in satisfaction. Now, for the message.

“Jeremy?” came the voice of the ghost projection. The space behind her shimmered, and the voice changed.

“Noemi?”

She froze where she stood and slowly glanced over her shoulder. Even though she couldn’t see the girl just yet, she knew that it wasn’t Jeremahra’s sister anymore—it was her own.

“Marta?” she called out, turning to face the sound of the voice. A hole opened in the lines of data—an invisible eddy, merging with the projections of her own subconscious.

The ferns at the edge of the forest parted, and Marta stepped out. Their gaze met, and time itself seemed to stop.

“Marta?” Noemi asked. A lump rose in her throat, and the full weight of Jeremahra’s guilt pressed down on her chest like a hundred-pound weight. Not all of the guilt came from the simulator, though—some of it was her own.

“Noemi,” Marta cried. “Noemi, why?” The word was as much an accusation as a question.

“I’m s-sorry,” Noemi stuttered. “I’m sorry, Marta, I—”

What was she saying? What was she apologizing for, exactly? She had to keep her mind perfectly clear, otherwise the projection would collapse and she’d never get through to Jeremahra. The guilt pressed down, threatening to overwhelm her, but she closed her eyes until the worst of it passed.

“I wish it had been you instead of me, Marta,” she said softly. “I don’t know why it happened this way, but everything happens for a reason, and only God knows the end of all things.”

“Noemi?” Marta asked, her voice wavering. “Noemi, where are they taking you?”

“I don’t know. It’s in God’s hands now—that’s all I can say.”

“Don’t go, Noemi. Please don’t go.”

“I’d stay if I could, Marta. Honest, I would.”

Her sister sniffled and wiped her eyes. “I’m going to miss you, Noemi.”

“Me too. Come here.”

She knelt down and opened her arms, and Marta ran up to her with tears streaming down her cheeks. Noemi’s breath caught in her throat as they embraced. How could the simulation feel so real? It was almost as if she was back home again, embracing her sister before the starfaring stranger whisked her away.

“Goodbye, Marta,” she whispered. “I’m going to miss you.”

In that moment, several things happened at once. The eddy in the data swallowed her, making her gasp. For an instant, she lost all sense of consciousness, returning to the empty place between simulations. And then, she was above herself, staring down at her and her sister embracing each other. A bright flash like a newborn star flared between the two of them, and the eddy was gone.

The next thing she knew, she was lying on her back, staring up at the deep blue sky. Goodbye, she whispered soundlessly—that was the answer! Jeremahra couldn’t forgive himself because he’d never said goodbye. He hadn’t rejected her at all—he’d rejected himself, and didn’t want to drag her into that.

“Jeremahra!” she shouted, rising to her feet. “Jeremahra, can you hear me? It’s okay—you don’t have to punish yourself any longer.”

A stiff breeze rose from the east, and dark clouds billowed on the horizon. The ruins of the dome took on the appearance of the wreckage from her dream, while around her, the flowers bloomed a deep turquoise.

“Jeremahra!” she shouted, running against the wind. “It’s okay—you don’t have to keep reliving the past. We all have to say goodbye.”

The skies opened, and a heavy wet rain fell all around her. At first, it came cold and hard, pelting her skin and making her gasp for breath. The guilt and loneliness threatened to sweep her away, but she stood her ground and refused to be moved. Just when she thought she couldn’t withstand it any longer, the storm broke, and the rain turned warm and gentle, nourishing the earth like a healing balm.

She opened her eyes and saw that her clothes had disappeared, leaving her naked. She didn’t feel embarrassed, though—far from it. It was as if a weight had been lifted from her—and from the simulation as well.

That’s all I can give, she thought, walking calmly back through the grassy meadow. The sun peeked through the clouds, turning the rain into a fine mist. She smiled as the water ran over her skin and soaked her hair—it was all she could give, but that was enough.

All that was left was to see if Jeremahra would accept it.


* * * * *


When Noemi jacked out, her body felt stiff and sore. She pulled the monitor off of her head and yawned, stretching to work the kinks out. The lights in the cabin were still dark, but the wall clock read 0552 hours—she’d been under for most of the night cycle.

In the cockpit, Jeremahra moaned and whimpered. She frowned and rose groggily to her feet. What was going on? He’d never made any noise before—none that she’d heard, anyway. Was he having nightmares?

I should help him, she thought. She took a step toward the cockpit doorway, but he cried out suddenly, making her stop cold. Did she really want to risk upsetting him? Perhaps it would be better if she waited for him to wake up on his own. After all—

He caught his breath and started whimpering again, turning her heart to water. No—she couldn’t let this go on any longer. Whether or not he showed it, inwardly, he was torturing himself.

She stepped gingerly up to the pilot’s chair, careful not to hit any switches or equipment. Jeremahra lay on his side, his body contorted with his arms pulled up against his chest. Sweat plastered his brow, and his jumpsuit was partially open, revealing a small tuft of hair on his chest.

Noemi fumbled at the wall until she found the switch for the cabin lights. The brightness made her squint and cover her eyes for a few seconds, but failed to wake him. As she stood awkwardly over him, his mouth fell open, and a low moan escaped his lips. His arms and shoulders began to shake as the nightmare returned in full force.

“Jeremahra?” she said. “Jeremahra, are you okay?” The sound of her own voice surprised her.

His arms grew stiff, and his shoulders began to tremble. He shivered, but it was too warm in the cockpit for him to be cold.

She took a deep breath and put a hand on his arm. “Jeremahra, can you hear me?” She shook him—gently at first, but then with more force.

“Wake up!”

He drew in a great breath and snorted. She jumped back in surprise just as his eyes flew open. He glanced around him dazedly, still moaning from the dream. When she tried to calm him by putting an arm on his shoulder, he looked up at her for a moment, then pushed her away.

“Ow!” she said, stumbling against the doorway. She grabbed a nearby handhold to right herself while he sat up and buried his head in his hands.

“Why’d you do that?” she asked, rubbing her arm. When he failed to answer, she sighed and took hold of his sleeve. “Look, I’ve got something to show you—something that might help. I know you can’t understand what I’m saying, but—come on!”

He growled and pulled himself free from her grasp, snapping out with some snide reply. She stood back and hesitated for a moment, then bit her lip and came forward to try again.

“Just trust me,” she said. When he threw up his hands and made as if to ask what she was doing, she swallowed her fear and pointed to the cabin.

“Look, I’ve got something to show you—something important.” For both of us.

She tugged at his sleeve again, and he rose to his feet, muttering to himself.

“That’s right—that’s very good! Now, come with me.”

He reluctantly followed her to the cabin. She brushed the bedding aside and inclined the back of the cot, motioning for him to sit. She had to push him a little to get him down, but a stern glance kept him there. Satisfied, she reached up and pulled down the dream monitor. He responded by rolling his eyes and making another snide remark.

“Just shut up and plug in,” she said, giving him another sharp look. He bit his lip and took the monitor from her hands.

As he pulled the visor over his face, she reset the simulator to normal and stepped back. Moments later, his body went limp, the blinking lights on the monitor’s control panel the only sign of any activity.

Now that she was alone with herself on the ship, the creeping doubts began to slowly set in. Had she been too pushy in getting him to the simulator? What if that colored his reaction to the dream? Would he be moved enough to forgive her for invading his secret world, or would he come away even angrier?

It doesn’t matter, she decided. There’s nothing I can do about it now anyway. It was all in God’s hands—just like it always had been from the beginning.

But the waiting—that was enough to kill her. She sat down at the other end of the cot and pulled her knees up to her chest. If he rejected her after all this, what would she do? She’d be alone then—completely and truly alone. Jeremahra would leave her at the next port, where she’d likely slip through the cracks—or worse, fall prey to a human trafficker. She knew he didn’t want to hurt her, of course, but she knew she’d never make it on her own. Not as a Deltan who couldn’t speak the language of the Coreward Stars.

Besides, after everything they’d shared together, she didn’t want to leave him. Even though they didn’t speak the same language, he no longer seemed like such a stranger. He was a good and decent man who needed her, perhaps as much as she needed him. Deep down, they weren’t so different from each other. In a cold and lonely universe filled with so much guilt and pain, what they had was the start of something tender and beautiful. Providence had brought them together for a reason, and now she knew clearly what that reason was.

The dream monitor clicked off, and he slowly began to stir. Noemi’s heart skipped a beat as he lifted the monitor off of his head and carefully replaced it in the ceiling compartment. For a gut-wrenching moment, she feared he’d lash out at her—but then she saw his face and realized that he was smiling, with tears in his eyes.

Thank God, she silently prayed.

He reached up and tentatively stroked her cheek. She hesitated for a moment, not sure what it meant, but when she leaned in to him he didn’t resist. “Noemi,” he whispered—and then, ever so gently, pulled her to him. Her breath caught in her throat, tension building like the flames of a meteor—and then her lips were pressed against his, chills shooting to the ends of her fingertips.

It worked, she realized, panting for breath as their bodies intertwined. He’s ready. His hands slid down to her hips, and she unclasped his belt, opening his jumpsuit and pulling it down off of his shoulders. Her body burned with excitement and fear and anticipation, much as it had that first night—but this time, Jeremahra wasn’t a stranger, but a kind and gentle man who she knew would take care of her.

His hands slipped underneath her chemise, and she pulled it over her head and let it fall to the floor. A few days ago, she would have been nervous and apprehensive, but when she looked in his eyes, she knew there was no reason to feel that way. She leaned forward and pressed her lips against his, tenderly this time. The feel of his touch was a confirmation that he would stay with her—that together, they would wander the stars until they found a place to call home.

Part VI: Benefactor


Chapter 6


Jakob never felt more bone-weary than when he came off of a twelve-hour shift at the Oriana Station dockyards. His feet ached and his back groaned with pain, even in the low gravity of the tram as it raced from the hub to the rimside habs. As usual, the narrow car was crammed like a vacuum pack, every seat occupied with the hot and sweaty bodies of the other dockyard workers. He glanced out the window to catch a glimpse of the stars, but an advertisement for a synthetic protein formula filled the holographic windowpane.

My life is a prison, he thought to himself—silently, as always. It’s a prison of my own making, but it’s a prison nonetheless.

The twelve-hour shifts had started only a standard week ago, but already it felt like months. A Gaian Imperial battlegroup had just arrived from the Coreward Stars, stirring up some panic at the top and driving everyone at the bottom to work a lot harder. Jakob didn’t have much time to follow interstellar politics, but he knew it meant overtime for the foreseeable future. Which really wasn’t so bad, except that the extra pay would barely keep the family above water, without paying off any of their debts.

From the quadrant tram station, he took an elevator to the slums on the lowest level. This was always the worst part: getting used to the slightly heavier gravity, after spending so much time in null-gee at the hub. He shuffled down the rimside corridor, barely lifting his feet off the floor. The walls were drab and gray, but spotlessly clean. That was something to say about the immigrant community—they might be poor, but they weren’t dirty.

The pungent odor of Deltan cooking spices met his nose the moment the door hissed open. That would be his mother-in-law, fixing dinner. He stepped inside and dropped his work boots on the floormat, waking his sister-in-law’s baby in the living room. He cringed from the high-pitched wailing almost as much as he did from the tongue-lashing he expected to get for it. But what did it matter? Ignoring the baby’s cries, he trudged off toward the bathroom for a much needed shower.

“Oh, hi Dad!”

His daughter Mariya bounded down the hallway, her black hair bobbing with every step. The bright smile on her sixteen year-old face cut through his dark mood, at least momentarily. She gave him a great big hug, and he returned it with a grunt.

“Guess what?” she said, her eyes lit with excitement. “I found someone to rent out the closet bedroom to!”

Jakob raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Yeah! A couple from Megiddo Station back home—at least, the girl is from there. Her husband is out working on his ship—he’s a star wanderer, see—but she’s in the living room, talking with Aunt Giuli. Do you want to meet her?”

Her words passed over him like a flurry of raw, unprocessed data. He focused on the essentials and disregarded the rest.

“How long are they going to stay?”

“Oh, not long. They just need a place to stay for a couple weeks until they’ve refitted their ship. Apparently they—”

“How much are you going to charge them?”

She hesitated a moment before answering. “Well, I was going to charge them two hundred, but Dad, they’re from back home! Remember Master Korha? She’s his oldest daughter!”

“Marta?”

“No, Noemi—the quiet one.”

While certainly interesting, he refused to let this piece of information distract him from the issue at hand. “How much, Mariya?”

“Uh, well, I gave them a small deal …”

“How much did you say you’d charge them?”

She held her arm behind her back and scrunched up her face. “A hundred?” she said, her words sounding more like a question than a statement.

Jakob sighed and shook his head. “That’s not enough, Mariya—not for both of them. Better double it.”

“But Dad—”

“When you and Benyamin have an apartment of your own, you can do with it as you please. Until then, you live on my floor space. Understand?”

“But Dad—they’re practically family!”

The last thing we need right now is more family.

“Two hundred, or they leave.”

“Fine! One twenty.”

“That’s not enough.”

Mariya pouted. “Come on, Dad—I promised!”

“Since they’re from back home, I’ll let you charge them one eighty, but anything less and I’ll ask them to leave right now.”

“Dad!”

A grin played around the edges of Jakob’s mouth. It had been far too long since he’d played hardball in a price negotiation. But the opposing party was his own daughter, and he knew he couldn’t hold out against her. Besides, she had her own brand of stubbornness.

“Let’s meet in the middle,” she said. “One fifty—it’s only fair.”

He groaned and rubbed his eyes. “Very well. Just see that they pay it promptly.”

“Don’t worry, I will. Thanks, Dad!”

Mariya turned and scampered off toward the living room, radiating with youthful excitement. She’s the reason I slave away at the dockyards all dayshift, Jakob reminded himself. If she didn’t have much of a head for business, it was only because she was still generous at heart, a sign that the hardships of refugee life hadn’t yet broken her. He would gladly give up his life to make sure they never did.

His wife, Salome, was waiting for him in the bedroom they shared with her sister and brother-in-law. Though she was not an old woman by any stretch, the last few years hadn’t been kind on her. Wrinkles creased her forehead beneath her jet-black hair, and her thighs bulged out a lot more than they had when they were young. From the way her arms were folded across her chest, she didn’t seem too happy. Not that that was anything new.

“How was work?” she asked.

“Same as usual,” he muttered, pulling off his shirt. He could really use that shower.

“Did you ask your boss today for that pay raise?”

He sighed and shook his head. “No.”

“No? Why not?”

“Because I want to keep my job.”

“Oh come on. With all the mandatory overtime, do you really think they’d fire you?”

“I don’t know,” he muttered. “You want me to be the squeaky wheel, with an Imperial takeover looming over us? Stars—we don’t even know if we’re past the brink yet.”

“Past the brink?” she said, her cheeks turning red. “Do you know who’s past the brink? Us, that’s who. We’ve been living like—like stowaways ever since we fled our home. When are we going to stop living from crisis to crisis? When are we finally going to have some stability?”

The wailing of the baby grated on Jakob’s ears. He took a deep breath and leaned against the wall, trying to ignore the headache that was starting to make his temples throb.

“I’ll do what I can, dear.”

“No,” she said, her eyes wild and her hands shaking. “I don’t think you will—I don’t think you are.

Why does every conversation with you have to turn into an argument? It hadn’t always been this way—they used to be quite close, back when life was simpler and filled with possibilities instead of hardships. And yet, as much as he wanted to get back to the way things were, he couldn’t keep the anger from rising like bile inside of him.

“What more do you want from me?” he asked. “I slave away every day for you and the rest of the family. I work twelve-hour shifts doing heavy, dangerous work—work that could get me killed. And after all that, this is the thanks I get?”

The look on her face told him he’d said exactly the wrong thing. For a brief moment, he felt as if he were poised at the top of a gravity well, drifting in free fall without enough delta-V to maneuver into a stable orbit. She paused for a second as if choosing her words, but he already could see how the argument would play out.

“Don’t pretend to be the victim when you were the one who brought us here,” she said. “If we’d stayed at Delta Oriana, none of this would have happened.”

He groaned and shook his head. “We’ve been over all this before, dear. The famine was getting so bad we had no choice. We’re lucky we got out when we did.”

“Oh, so we’re lucky to be here. Instead of starving with our own people, we’re starving at a foreign star where we don’t even speak the language. And for that, I’m supposed to be grateful!”

“At least we’re alive,” he retorted. “And you should be thankful I managed to bring out the rest of your family as well.” Thankful that they’re out here leeching on us.

He started for the shower, but his wife wasn’t about to let him have the last word. Her face was red, and her eyes burned with a fire that was all too familiar.

“Do you know what you lack? Ambition. If I’d married a more ambitious man, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Hot blood rushed to his cheeks, and he clenched his fists to keep his rage from spilling over.

“Oh, you know what I’m talking about. You’ve always been a drifter, wandering from one place to another with no direction in your life. Sometimes I think the only reason you married me was because I was the first woman who asked you.”

“That’s not true.”

“Isn’t it? And now, instead of making an effort to get a pay raise or find a better job, you’re grinding away at the first place that gave you work. And for what? So that the rest of us have to live like beggars?”

Her words stung like needles, sharp and dripping with venom. She knew he would never hit her, but at times like this, it was all he could do to keep from lashing out at her. Was that what she wanted? Was that why she goaded him like this?

“You think I want to live this way? If I could find something better, I’d do it in a minute. You know how racist these Alphans can be—I’m lucky to have the job that I do.”

“See, there you go again. ‘Luck, luck, luck.’ Why is it always luck? Why doesn’t work ever come into the equation?”

“I work plenty hard!” he shouted, his whole body shaking. A small crowd of eavesdroppers had gathered in the doorway, but he didn’t care anymore. “I work harder than anyone else in this house! Svenson is the only other one with a job, and he only works at the restaurant. All the other men just sit around all day, rotting their brains in the dream simulators.”

“You want to throw them out, then? Send them to beg in the concourse and sleep in the unused maintenance shafts?”

“No, but it would help if everyone else around here would pull their own damn weight.”

She glared at him in silence for a moment. “It’s better to starve than to abandon one’s family.”

“With family like this, we just might.”

Her eyes went glassy, the way they always did when she played the martyr.

“All I wanted was to make a safe and happy home. That’s all I wanted from the very beginning. Now my family is languishing far from home, where my birth star shines dimmer than the stars of the unbelievers.”

The room began to spin as a wave of rage and dizziness swept over him. He knew that this argument couldn’t end well. If they kept arguing, they would both say things that they would regret later—if they hadn’t already. But just like a meteor hurtling toward a barren planet, he felt powerless to stop or change direction. His anger blazed like the flames of re-entry, streaking across a starless sky.

“You want to go back to Megiddo Station and starve to death with the rest of your people?”

She glared at him. “You wouldn’t know what it means to be rooted somewhere—or to someone. Even to your family, you’re just a wanderer.”

“That’s not true.”

“Then what about our sons?” she shot at him. “Where are they now? Isaac and Aaron—you stole them from me!”

His vision blurred, and his headache exploded like the flare of a meteor. “That’s not true,” he said, his voice falling dangerously low.

“Oh, isn’t it? You sent them away without even giving them a chance to say goodbye to their mother. Both of them—and they were only boys!”

“A boy has to be a man someday,” he muttered, walking past her to the shower. She tried to stop him, but he brushed her off and kept walking.

“Hey! Where do you think you’re going? Don’t walk away when I’m talking to you!”

“I’ve had enough, woman,” he snapped.

“Oh, is that all I am to you? Just another woman?”

He stepped into the bathroom and shut the door. She continued to yell at him from the other side, but he ignored her.

I did it for their own good, he told himself as he peeled his sweaty clothes off of his weary body. A dozen tired arguments rose to his mind, like an age-worn track that tolerated no deviation. Still, the links were buckling in places where doubts had begun to creep in.

Had he saved his sons at the cost of his own marriage? Had he even saved them at all? Aaron would be eighteen standard years by now—Isaac would be twenty. Were they still alive? Or had something terrible happened to them? So many starfarers died when their ships broke down in deep space, or fell into the hidden gravity wells of uncharted brown dwarfs and rogue planets. Even those who successfully navigated such hazards often fell prey to pirates and slavers, or got caught up in some arcane blood feud or other dispute. There were no laws in the Outworlds, after all—only the promises people made to each other. And Jakob knew all too well how empty those promises could be.


* * * * *


The shower worked wonders. When Jakob came out, he felt like a new man. It always amazed him how something so simple could make such a huge difference. If only everything in his life could be so simple.

The living room was crowded, though his wife was notably missing. That relieved him a little bit more than it probably should have. All of the threadbare couches that lined the wall were filled, mostly with his younger nieces and nephews. They crowded around Opa Jirgis’s chair, where the new tenant sat.

She was a plain, lanky girl, with dark brown hair and a face that spoke more to hardship than to innocence. Still, she retained that youthful girlishness that Deltan women tended to lose so quickly. Jakob guessed she was no older than twenty—not young by Deltan standards, but not too old either. Salome had been only a little younger when they’d started their family.

She seemed a little embarrassed from all the attention, judging from the soft tone of her voice. Mariya sat on the armrest, chattering excitedly like she always did whenever they had company over. When the girl’s eyes fell on Jakob, though, she perked up.

“Hello,” he said in Deltan, stepping forward and extending his hand. “The name’s Jakob.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said the girl, rising as they shook hands. “My name is Noemi.” She smiled and nodded graciously before sitting back down on the edge of the chair.

“That’s my father,” Mariya explained. “He’s the one who convinced us all to move here to Oriana Station.”

“When did you move?” Noemi asked.

“A little over a standard year ago,” said Jakob. Something about the girl seemed oddly familiar. He took a seat on the nearest couch, and the kids scampered off to make room for him. “How is the situation at Megiddo Station?”

Noemi’s face darkened, and she looked down at the floor. “Very bad,” she said softly. “When we left, it … was very bad.”

“So things never improved?”

“No,” she said, sighing. “The synthesizers and reprocessors were maxed out months ago, and our food stores were never that good to begin with. We tried to install a new hydroponics module, but it failed catastrophically when a backlog from the old system contaminated it. When I left, rations had just been cut to bare subsistence levels, and people were already starving.”

Mariya’s eyes widened, and some of the older children started to cry. Giuli, who had poked her head in from the kitchen, covered her mouth in shock and quickly made the sign of the cross. While the news certainly vindicated Jakob’s decision to bring the family to Alpha Oriana, he couldn’t say it gave him any satisfaction.

“So no one sent any aid?” Jakob asked. “No humanitarian assistance ever came from the neighboring systems?”

“No—though God knows we asked for it.”

He shook his head and swore. “The racist bastards. Even if they were too dense to foresee this—which I seriously doubt they were—Theta Oriana and Altari weren’t too far off to send help.”

It was infuriating but true. If the same crisis had struck almost any other system, aid would have been forthcoming. But the Deltans were hated everywhere, especially in the Oriana Cluster. It was completely senseless and infuriated Jakob to no end, but that was the reality he’d married into.

“Maybe,” said Noemi. She shrugged. “When the crisis got bad, we lost all contact with the outside universe. People just stopped coming—I guess they thought it would spill over if they tried to get involved.”

“All contact?” he asked, frowning. “Even the traders and wanderers?”

She nodded.

“So how did you get here?”

Mariya’s eyes lit up, and she leaned forward. “You have got to hear this story, Dad—it’s really, really good.”

I doubt that anything this poor girl has been through could be called ‘good,’ Jakob thought. Still, for his daughter’s sake, he kept the comment to himself.

“Oh, I don’t know about,” said Noemi. “It’s a bit unusual, maybe, but not that much of a story.” To his surprise, she actually blushed.

“Sure it is!” said Mariya. “Don’t be so modest. Tell us again.”

Noemi smiled, her cheeks bright red. “Well, it all started about three standard months ago, when a small one-man starship arrived at the station. It was a star wanderer from outside the Oriana Cluster. He must not have heard about the crisis, because he came on board to meet my father personally.”

“Your father let him dock?” Jakob asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah, Dad—that was Master Korha’s plan all along.”

“She’s right,” said Noemi. “My father saw a chance to save one of us, so he invited the star wanderer into our family apartment and made us come out to see him.”

“Made who come out?”

“His daughters, Dad. Don’t you remember?”

“I think so,” said Jakob. “How many of you were there? Five?”

Noemi nodded. “Five of us. I’m the oldest, though by no means the prettiest.”

I can see that, Jakob thought to himself. Not that she was ugly—just plain. Back when he was a wanderer, he hardly would have given her a second glance.

“So what happened next?” he asked. In the kitchen doorway, his wife’s mother joined Giuli and listened with a broad smile on her wrinkled old face.

Noemi took a deep breath. “Well, Father had all of us line up in front of him. He told the boy to choose one of us so that he could marry us off. That was his plan to save us.”

The women in the doorway laughed and started chatting among themselves. Jakob lifted a hand to his chin.

“Let me guess: the boy chose you.”

“Yes.”

“And then?”

“Father married us and sent us off.”

Stars of Earth, Jakob thought silently. Would he ever have the guts to marry his daughter off to a stranger? Master Korha must have been desperate. Even if it was the only way to save her, Jakob doubted he would ever be able to pull a stunt like that.

“So this star wanderer is now your husband,” he said. “Does he know that?”

“Oh yes,” said Noemi, blushing even deeper.

“Is he treating you right? I mean, it’s probably none of my business, but—”

“Yes, definitely,” she said. “The things we’ve shared … there’s a reason we came into each other’s lives the way we did.”

“You’re such a good girl,” said Giuli. She walked over and patted Noemi on the back.

“They really are meant to be together,” said Mariya. “You should see them sometime. They’re the cutest couple I’ve ever seen.”

Jakob shrugged. He was still a bit skeptical, but that was just his nature.

“So where is the boy from?” he asked.

Noemi bit her lip and glanced from face to face. “To be honest, I don’t exactly know. I mean, I know where his birth world is on a starmap, but I’m not sure of the name.”

“Why not?”

“Because neither of them speak the same language,” said Mariya. “He only speaks Gaian—or maybe something else too, I don’t know, but definitely not Deltan.”

Jakob frowned and glanced back at Noemi. “You mean to tell me that you can’t understand each other?”

“No.”

“But you’re married to each other.”

“Yes,” she said softly.

“Stars of Earth,” said Jakob, shaking his head. “You’ve sure been through a hell of a lot, young woman.”

“I suppose.”

“Such a good girl,” said Giuli. “You poor thing.”

“What’s your plan now?”

“I—I don’t exactly know,” said Noemi. “Find a place to settle down and call home, I hope. But only God knows the end of all things.”

“You should settle down with us!” said Mariya. “We’ve got plenty of room for you. Right, Dad?”

Jakob clenched his teeth and drew in a sharp breath. Still, he found his heart going out to the girl. If his own daughter had to rely on the mercy of strangers, he’d hope that they’d show her as much kindness as they could possibly give. Perhaps his family didn’t have much to offer, but at the very least they could give her some sense of that community which she’d lost.

“You’re welcome to rent from us as long as you like,” he said. “However, I don’t think this is such a good place to settle down permanently. There’s a lot of prejudice against us—most people won’t hire Deltans, and even fewer will rent to us. We’re lucky to even have this place, and even then, they charge us through the nose for it.”

“I understand,” said Noemi, nodding graciously. “Jerem-ahra and I don’t plan to stay here long.”

“Who?”

She gave him a puzzled look. “Jerem-ahra? He’s my husband.”

“Oh, you mean ‘Jeremiah.’ Sorry, the name threw me off.”

Mariya rolled her eyes. “Jeremiah, Jerem-ahra—what difference does it make?”

“Where is he now?” Jakob asked.

“Back with our ship,” said Noemi. “We’re docked along the station rim, not too far from here. That’s what I think, at least—to be honest, I’m not quite sure.”

I wonder if he’s come across either of my sons, Jakob wondered. The odds weren’t good, but as a star wanderer, the kid was bound to have visited at least some of same ports that Isaac and Aaron had been through. The Outworlds were vast, but people tended to be a lot closer outside the Coreward Stars.

“I’d very much like to meet this Jeremiah,” he said, stroking his chin. “When do you expect him to be back?”

“I don’t know. Not for a while, I think. Mariya told me he plans to make some major modifications to the Ariadne.”

It’s probably not a good idea to have that conversation here anyway, he thought to himself. Salome didn’t speak much Gaian, but Mariya did, and that was not a fight he wanted to drag her into.

“Do you know where your ship is docked?”

Noemi shook her head. “I don’t. Sorry.”

“That’s okay. You said it’s the Ariadne?

“That’s right.”

He activated his wrist console and jumped onto the local planetnet. The device was an older model, scratched and battered from years of wear, but it made the connection with little trouble. The public records available from the port registry showed an Ariadne docked on the other side of the third quadrant: a fifteen-minute tram ride, or an hour’s walk.

“I could use a good walk,” he said, more to himself than anyone else in the room. He rose to his feet. “It was good to meet you, Noemi. Welcome to our home, and sorry it’s so tight.”

“That’s all right—I’m used to it,” she said, dismissing his apology with a wave of her hand. “I’m just happy to have someone I can talk to.”

I’ll bet you are.

“Where are you going, Dad?” Mariya asked.

“To meet this Jeremiah,” said Jakob. “If your mother asks, tell her I’ll be back in a couple hours.” That should be soon enough to keep him from getting into trouble.

“Can I come too?”

“No, you stay here and keep Noemi company. I’ll be back.”

A look of disappointment crossed her face, but she relented without putting up a fight. Even if she had, though, Jakob’s answer would have been the same. There were some things a man could only share with another man—and others that only a fellow star wanderer could appreciate.


* * * * *


The walk down the rimside corridor was long but not unpleasant. The station was large enough that the unnatural upward curvature was barely perceptible, even with the broad width of the long hallway. Windows ran along the walls and floor, giving a spectacular rotating view of the gas giant Madrigalna. Docking nodes for mid to light freighters and passenger cruisers alternated along either side of the corridor, with only a few token security personnel to monitor the vast numbers of people who disembarked here every day. Ships of all kinds could be seen coming and going, the bustling commerce that made the station such an important destination across the Outworlds.

He reached the gate where the Ariadne was listed and found himself looking out at a beauty of a starship, a little old but none the worse for wear. Like most Outworld freighters, she had no marks of insignia other than the name ARIADNE painted just below the cockpit window. Her wings were short and stubby, just long enough to give the maneuvering jets enough leverage. She was rather small for a starship, with two oversized engines reminiscent of a cargo hauler’s, but the modifications, if there were any, were seamless.

“Hello,” said a young man behind him. “Can I help you, sir?”

Jakob turned to see a young, clean-shaven kid with wavy brown hair and sharp features. He smiled and offered his hand.

“The name’s Jakob,” he said. “You’re Jeremiah, I take it?”

“That’s right.”

Jakob pointed out the window to the Ariadne. “That’s a beautiful ship you have there. Was she built in the New Pleiades?”

“I’m sorry, do I know you?”

“Not yet,” said Jakob. “You should know me soon, though—you’re subletting a room from me. Your wife told me I could find you here.”

Jeremiah’s eyes lit up at once. “Ah—you must be Mariya’s father.”

“I am.”

“It’s good to meet you, then,” he said. “Pardon me—I guess I expected you to be Deltan like the others.”

They shook again, this time more warmly. Jakob took a moment to look the kid over. Though he was tall with broad shoulders, he didn’t seem to carry himself with much confidence—not like most outworlders, at least. His grip was not particularly firm, and he had a habit of glancing down whenever he spoke. Still, he wasn’t as awkward as some of the younger star wanderers who came through the station. He’d probably been out for just a couple of years—long enough to get his feet under him, but not so long that he didn’t occasionally yearn for his birth star.

“I understand you just came back from Megiddo Station,” said Jakob.

Jeremiah’s face fell. “Yes,” he said softly. “I’m sorry to say, things out there are a mess. I’ve registered an alert with the local authorities—”

“That’s all right. We all knew it was only a matter of time. What can you tell me about yourself?”

He paused. “Well, what do you want to know? I’m a third-generation star wanderer from Edenia, out near the Central Rift.”

“I’m familiar with the sector.”

“My ship was built in the New Pleiades, just like you guessed. She’s named the Ariadne, after an old pagan god of some kind.”

“How long have you been a star wanderer?” Jakob asked. He folded his arms and leaned against the wall. Out in the hallway, a group of dark-skinned women in flowing white robes walked by, on their way to whatever ship would take them across the stars.

“Not too long—about three years. I’ve only been to the outskirts of the Oriana Cluster before this, though. The last voyage was my first time at Delta Oriana.”

“First and last,” Jakob muttered, low enough that the kid couldn’t hear him.

“What was that?”

He smiled. “How long do you plan to stay here on Oriana Station?”

“Oh, not long,” said Jeremiah. “I just need to outfit my ship so Noemi and I can live on it together.”

On that tiny thing? Good luck.

“Well, you’re certainly welcome to stay with us. I’m sure your wife welcomes the chance to spend time with people from her own country.”

“I hope so.”

Something about the way he spoke made Jakob pause and cock his head. Was that a trace of regret he sensed? Or was it merely the same sense of apprehension that all wanderers felt before they settled down? Perhaps the kid’s feet weren’t so firmly under him as he’d thought.

He laid his hand on Jeremiah’s shoulder. “Listen, kid, I know how you feel. I was there once myself.”

“What do you mean?”

“Taking a wife, settling down, learning her culture and moving someplace foreign to you both—I’ve been through it all.” He chuckled. “In particular, I know what it’s like to butt heads with a hard-nosed Deltan woman who can’t get her way. Trust me, that’s a thing you’re lucky to survive.”

Jeremiah frowned. “Noemi and I aren’t like that. We get along fine.”

“Of course, of course—you’re still in the honeymoon phase. I can still remember what that was like.” Just barely.

“You’re an expert on Deltan culture, then?”

“Sure,” said Jakob. “You can’t live with a woman and have children by her without picking up some of her ways.”

“I guess not. I just want the best for her.”

The kid’s not a bad guy, Jakob decided. That Deltan girl he married really lucked out.

“We probably won’t be staying more than two weeks,” Jeremiah continued, “but I told Mariya I’d pay for a whole month. I know that finances must be tight, what with your wife’s family and all.”

Jakob waved dismissively. “Eh, we’ll be fine. Just pay for as long as you plan to stay.”

“No, we can afford it. It’s only fair.”

“Fair for who? Keep the money—you’re going to need it.”

“But—”

“Trust me, kid,” he said, putting an arm around Jeremiah’s shoulder. “When the universe gives you a free pass, don’t haggle about the price.”

Chapter 7


Megiddo Station, Jakob thought as he walked down the narrow rimside corridor. Fitting to name this place after the last mythical battle of old Earth. The paint on the walls was peeling, the floor tiles grimy with wear. For all the noisy chugging of the ventilator fans, the air was thick with the smells of body odor and stale incense. Jakob had seen a lot of stations in his day, but if any of them was likely to come to a sudden and catastrophic end, this was the place.

Not that the people were all that bad. So far, everyone he’d met had been appreciably friendly. The workers at the docking node had waved to him as he’d disembarked, and the station master himself had been there in person to greet him. Trouble was, no one in this far-flung outpost seemed to speak any language other than their own. That was going to make things difficult, considering the state his ship was in.

“What do you people eat for food around here?” he asked the short, bowlegged station master. His bald head gleamed from the bright LEDs of the main corridor, his augmented reality eyepiece braced to his skull with metal screws. If he’d heard Jakob’s question, he made no sign of it.

“I said, what do you—”

“Food, yes, food much much. Want eat now?”

“Maybe,” said Jakob, rubbing his stomach. “What have you got?”

“Don’t afraid, yes yes, come food soon. Firstly, magram, see family to stay, no?”

How any of that was supposed to make sense, Jakob didn’t know. All he could do was follow the portly little man with the cybernetic eye implant and hope he wasn’t being led to someplace where he’d get robbed.

The station master stopped at the center of a large atrium with branching corridors and a central elevator shaft that led up to the station hub. The overhead windows were wide enough that Jakob could look up and see a similar atrium on the opposite side. By squinting a little, he could make out people walking upside down on what seemed to be the ceiling. Of course, that was just an illusion of rotational physics, and not a particularly convincing one at that.

As the station wheel turned, the deep blue ice giant planet came into view, uniform in color except for a giant storm near the equator. From the ominous way it loomed overhead, he supposed that was another reason to name this place after the end of all things.

“Come, come,” said the station master, tugging at his sleeve.

I hope the repairs don’t cost too much, Jakob thought to himself. It’s going to be a tricky negotiation. Delta Oriana was pretty far out from the rest of the star cluster, but the people who made the system their home were remarkably self-reliant. Even though there were less than four thousand people at Megiddo Station, the place had its own shipyards, with mining operations that extended even to the cloud of comets on the system’s fringe. The people seemed content to live apart from the rest of the Outworlds—which meant that Jakob had very little to offer them. At the same time, with the Medea’s faulty reactor core, he couldn’t easily go anywhere else.

They turned a corner and walked down a small hallway parallel to the station’s axis. The station master led him up a narrow stairwell into a cozy garden courtyard with a bubbling fountain in the middle and potted plants along the walls. Two levels of apartments surrounded the place, with a giant overhead window that offered a magnificent view.

“That’s all right—I’m fine with just staying on my ship,” Jakob stammered. If these people offered him their best living quarters, it would make the negotiations all that much harder.

“No problem, no problem,” said the station master. “Come, I take you shipyard director.”

“Okay, but only for talk, right? Just talk—no stay.”

The station master gave him a funny look and waved his hand dismissively. Jakob did not find the gesture encouraging.

The shipyard director lived in a corner office on the second floor, closest to the station wheel’s inner rim. The moment they entered, Jakob realized that they were in a private residence and not an office. Mattresses lined the walls, with a small futon opposite a wall-screen that depicted a luscious garden with some sort of pagan statue in the middle of it. An ornately woven rug was spread out in the center of the room, with a low-set table and several mats for sitting. A trim middle-aged man with graying hair sat on the far side, his legs crossed and his back straight. He rose smoothly to his feet to greet them, shaking Jakob’s hand with both of his.

Batano Jirgis,” said the station master, pointing to the man. Jakob nodded and smiled.

Unlike the station master, Jirgis had sharp features and shrewd, piercing eyes. He stared at Jakob long enough to make him cringe. Instead of looking away, though, Jakob increased his grip and did his best to meet the man’s eyes. If this was the start of their negotiations, he was not going to put himself at a disadvantage.

“Welcome,” said Jirgis, his accent only slightly less pronounced than the station master’s. “You are starfarer, yes?”

“That is right,” said Jakob, nodding again. “My ship needs a tune-up, and—”

“Come, sit,” said Jirgis, motioning to the mats around the table.

Jakob bit his lip, chiding himself for jumping into the negotiations too eagerly. It seemed that the custom in this place was to take care of personal matters first, business matters second. He would have to remember that in the future.

He sat down across from his host, to make it easier to look at him while they were talking. This seemed to please the man. Both of them sat on the floor with their legs crossed and their backs straight, hands in their laps. The table was empty except for a bowl of incense, which traced a thin line of smoke up toward the ceiling.

“How long you stay?” Jirgis asked.

“Not long,” said Jakob. “When my ship is ready, I can go.”

“No need go soon,” said the station master. He turned to Jirgis, and the two of them spoke rapidly in Deltan.

Great, thought Jakob. They’re probably figuring out the best way to screw me over. He shifted uncomfortably and cleared his throat. When that didn’t work, he leaned forward and opened his mouth to speak.

“I only need—”

Jirgis clapped his hands. A door hissed open behind him, and a girl walked out carrying a tray with three glasses and a pitcher of white juice.

The moment she came into view, something about her caught Jakob’s eye. She was almost a full head shorter than him, with a round, pretty face and short black hair that bobbed as she walked. From the self-assured way she carried herself, though, she might as well have been two meters tall. She was certainly attractive, with smooth skin and shapely hips that swayed as she walked. Her eyes met his, and she gave him a smile that was not in the least bit coy.

She set the tray down on the table and left the way she had come. Without realizing it, Jakob watched her until she was out of the room.

“You like?” said Jirgis.

Jakob turned and blinked. “Sorry,” he said, taking up his glass. The juice was thick and syrupy, with an odd smell that made him want to wrinkle his nose, but he took a sip to be polite. To his surprise, it tasted a lot better than he was expecting.

“That’s quite good,” he said, taking another sip. “What kind of juice is that?”

The station master chuckled, while Jirgis leaned forward and grinned. “Not drink—girl. My daughter you like?”

Jakob frowned and set his glass down. “That’s your daughter?”

“Yes. You like?”

He shifted uncomfortably. “Um, I guess. She’s very—”

“No matter,” said Jirgis, waving his hand. “Your ship, what need?”

“Ah,” said Jakob, letting out a short breath. “Well, the reactor’s been giving me a bit of trouble. A couple of capacitor blocks are faulty—though I don’t think they need to be replaced,” he added quickly.

Jirgis took a quick sip of his drink and nodded. “Of course, of course. Is frequent problem, we see much. Good fix.”

“I just unloaded my cargo,” said Jakob, eying the man carefully. “My next stop is Altari, and I don’t want to go without a full hold.”

The door hissed open again, and the girl came out again. This time, she carried three ornate ceramic bowls and a pot full of steaming hot porridge on her tray. Whatever it was, it smelled good. Jakob realized that it had been almost five hours since he’d last eaten.

The station master said something in Deltan, and both he and the shipyard director broke into good-natured laughter. The girl set the tray down and put a hand on her hip, looking thoroughly scandalized. She turned to Jakob.

“Pirvali marat g’dikhar shen?”

He blinked. “Uh …”

“She ask if first time you come,” said Jirgis. He leaned forward and began to fill their bowls.

“First time here? At Delta Oriana?” Jakob asked.

“Ki, ki,” said the girl. Yes.

He shrugged noncommittally. “I don’t know. I visit so many stars, it’s hard to keep track of them all.” That wasn’t true, of course, but the last thing he needed was to let on that he was unfamiliar with the system.

The girl spoke again, too rapidly to follow, and the men burst out laughing. She rolled her eyes and smiled expectantly at Jakob, waiting for his answer.

“She says, you think will forget?”

Not at this rate.

“What’s your name?” Jakob asked instead, trying to change the subject.

She looked to her father, who translated. “Salome,” she said, pointing to her chest. “Me vard Salome. Shen?”

“Jakob.”

The station master nodded and clapped his hands. “Smart boy yes, learn fast very.”

“Eat!” bellowed Jirgis. Jakob glanced over at him, and the girl left the room again before he could say anything.

The porridge tasted as delicious as it smelled. They made small talk as they ate, never returning to the subject of the negotiation. Jakob watched the shipyard director carefully, trying to figure out his game. If he was trying to make Jakob squirm a little before tossing out a starting price, it certainly didn’t show on his face.

“Megiddo Station you like?” he asked.

“Of course,” said Jakob. “It’s a good place, very comfortable.”

“You stay my house, how long you want.”

“Oh, that’s all right—I can just stay on my ship.”

“No, no,” Jirgis insisted. “Is no problem. You are welcome my house.”

The station master grinned and made some sideways comment, but Jirgis ignored it. He was getting serious—the negotiations would start soon, no doubt.

“Well, all right,” said Jakob. “I can stay with you—but it won’t be for too long.”

“How you want.”

He cleared his throat. “About the reactor: I saw a replacement at Alpha Oriana going for only half a shipment of elemental silicon. Now, I know the parts are costly, but—”

Jirgis clapped his hands, and the door hissed open again. This time, Salome carried out a platter of fresh apple crisps. The sugary brown glaze glistened in the light of the glowlamps. They wouldn’t be too expensive on a station this size, but they were still a significant luxury.

“You welcome my house,” Jirgis repeated, grinning from ear to ear. He spoke to Salome, who nodded as she set the platter on the table and retrieved the bowls and glasses. Her hand brushed Jakob’s, making the hair on his arm stand on end.

What’s going on?

“As I was saying,” Jakob continued, “I don’t know if you can match the price for the reactor, but—”

Jirgis waved his hand. “No problem, we fix. When return, you pay.”

“Wait, what?”

“You go star Altari, yes?” the station master interjected. “Is no problem. Keep account, you pay later.”

Jakob frowned. “You mean, you’re letting me off on credit? But the interest—”

“No interest,” said Jirgis.

“And the price?”

He threw his hands up in exasperation. “Price? How much you want? Fifty thousand, twenty thousand, no matter—you ask, we match. Is good, no?”

Yes, Jakob thought to himself. Too good.

“What do you want from me?”

The station master leaned forward, meeting Jakob’s gaze without flinching. The girl stood by the door, but didn’t leave.

“You star wanderer, yes?”

“Uh, yeah,” said Jakob.

“See many stars, meet many woman. But not good to man is alone. You stay now, then return, if no like, okay no problem, but if like …”

He left the thought unfinished. Jakob glanced from him to Jirgis, looking at first for clarification, then for any sign of guile. He found none of either.

“You really trust me enough to let me pay on credit?”

Jirgis smiled. “Of course,” he said. “Is no problem. You come back, come again many time. You welcome my house.”

I guess so, thought Jakob, helping himself to an apple crisp. It tasted more delicious than anything he’d had in months.

“You know, I could get used to this place,” he mused aloud to no one in particular. Over by the door, Salome gave him a suggestive smile.


* * * * *


The ride to the lower third quadrant always felt longest on paydays where the week’s wages weren’t enough to cover all the bills. Jakob dreaded the long talk that he and Salome were bound to have about it. The rent from their new tenants probably wouldn’t cover the difference, and there were only so many family heirlooms that they had left to pawn.

He shuffled down the windowless corridor and palmed open the door to his family’s apartment. It wasn’t locked—people in the immigrant quarters never locked their doors. As always, the thick smell of Deltan cooking hit his nose the moment he entered. The air was so humid, it almost felt steamy. Or maybe that was just the contrast with the overly recycled air of the dockyards.

“Dad!” said Mariya, running up to see him. Her eyes shone with even more excitement than usual. It lifted him in a way that only a few hours ago he hadn’t thought possible.

“Hello, dear,” he said in Deltan, giving her a hug. She squeezed his waist so hard, he nearly lost his breath.

“Oof! Watch yourself, Mariya.”

“Guess what, Dad? You’ll never believe what we found out while you were at work!”

Jakob frowned. His daughter was so naïve and innocent, it was impossible to tell when her surprises were more bad than good.

“What is it?”

Out in the family room, a large crowd had gathered around the couch. The scent in the air wasn’t just from the daily mix of bread and beans—there were spices in there that he hadn’t tasted for years. That blend wasn’t easy to come by here at Alpha Oriana. For some reason that he couldn’t quite articulate, it reminded him of the time he’d first met his wife.

“You know Jeremiah and Noemi? The new couple we just took in?”

“Uh, yeah?”

“Well, we took her to the clinic today, and it turns out—”

“Which clinic?” Jakob asked as he took off his boots. His hand-sewn slippers waited in their usual spot just before the corridor.

Mariya rolled her eyes in a dramatic teenage fashion. “Don’t worry, Dad—we went to the economy clinic on level five, of course.”

“Of course.”

“Right. So the doctor called us in after only ten minutes with her. I thought it would take a little longer, you know? I mean, from what—”

“Is that her on the couch? Why is everyone crowding around her?”

“Dad!” said Mariya. She put a hand on her hips in annoyance. “Are you listening to me or not?”

“Sorry, dear. I’m listening.”

“Right.” She sighed and rolled her eyes melodramatically, then got right back to the story as if nothing had happened. “Well, it turns out that she’s pregnant, Dad—ten weeks pregnant! Can you believe it? Oh, Aunt Giuli says she suspected it all along, and Noemi wasn’t nearly as surprised as Jeremiah, but Dad—they’re going to have a baby!”

So that’s what that spice blend is for, Jakob realized. Whenever a couple was expecting, it was traditional to make a special drink of nuts and spices indigenous to the Oriana Cluster, with coconut milk instead of juice. It was only ever drunk to celebrate a pregnancy, so that was why he hadn’t recognized it right away. Now that he did, though, it brought back a whole host of flashbacks.

“That’s great, dear. Go tell the others I’ll join them once I’ve washed up.”

“Okay, Dad!”

Mariya scampered back to the living room even more cheerfully than usual. It was clear that the news had struck a chord in her, probably because she wasn’t much younger than Noemi herself.

How is this going to change things? Jakob wondered as the shower washed away a dayshift’s worth of sweat and dirt. He closed his eyes and let the lukewarm water run across his face and through his thinning hair. Their new tenants would almost certainly want to stay longer than a couple of weeks, perhaps even for the duration of the pregnancy. Mariya was going to like that—she didn’t have too many friends outside of the immediate family. The extra money, though meager, would certainly be welcome as well. But there would be other adjustments, though, and those would not be so easy.

To hell with it, Jakob decided. They already had lots of kids in this place—it wasn’t like the changes in routine would catch anyone by surprise. And after all the young couple had been through to get here, giving them a safe, welcoming place to live was the least they could do, even if it became semipermanent. After all, if it were his daughter who was pregnant at a foreign star, that was exactly what he’d want for her.

Once the drying cycle was complete, he stepped out of the shower unit and dressed in a clean change of clothes. Might as well, if the others were expecting him to join them. He strapped the outdated wrist console on his left wrist and palmed open the door to the main corridor.

Noemi sat on the big couch in the living room, with the whole extended family from Opa Jirgis down to the youngest grandchild crowded around her. The way she bit her lip, she seemed a bit uncomfortable as the center of attention, but her smile beamed all the same. Jeremiah himself stood behind her, his cheeks pale and an expression of shock on his face. He looked as if he could use a good, stiff drink.

“Congratulations,” Jakob said, walking right up to Noemi and bending over to kiss her on the cheek. He gave Jeremiah a sly grin. “Caught you a bit by surprise, did it, son?” he added in Gaian.

“I—a little, yeah,” he admitted.

“Ten weeks, Mariya tells me. You two must have been busy.”

His cheeks blushed red, an odd coloration considering how pale the rest of him was.

“Don’t worry, I’ll take you out for a drink later. I know a good rimside place not far from here.”

Jakob turned back to Noemi and reverted to Deltan. “Your husband seems a bit surprised by the news. Are you?”

She laughed, giving him his answer. It didn’t surprise him in the least—of all women, Deltans tended to be on top of this sort of thing. There was a hint of nervousness about her, but that was probably because of the way everyone was crowding in and making her the center of attention. Unlike Mariya, she didn’t seem like the kind of girl who liked that sort of thing.

Jakob smiled and nodded before joining Jeremiah against the back wall. “So what are your plans now?” he asked in Gaian. The others soon resumed their chatter, ignoring the both of them.

Jeremiah gave a weak shrug. “I haven’t figured that out yet. If it’s all right, we’ll stay here for a while.”

Jakob nodded, folding his arms. “Is rent going to be a problem?”

“I—I don’t know.”

“Well, I’m sure you’ll be able to figure it out. Just let me know if you need any help finding something, all right?” Preferably before you start to fall behind on payment.

“Well, of course we’re going to have a housewarming party,” he overheard his mother-in-law say over the din of chatter. “We’ll throw one right away!”

Jakob’s face darkened. He turned from Jeremiah to the others.

“What was that?”

“A traditional housewarming party,” his graying mother-in-law repeated for his benefit. “It’s only right and proper. Since we’re the closest thing to family that either of them has, why shouldn’t we do it?”

Because we can’t afford things like that, Jakob almost said. One glance at Noemi’s bright and smiling face, however, and he bit his tongue.

“Shouldn’t we figure out how much it’s going to cost before we start making plans?” he asked, low enough that Noemi couldn’t hear.

“Why should we wait? Wasn’t today your payday?”

“We’ll throw such a wonderful party for you,” said Aunt Giuli, taking Noemi’s hand. “It will feel just like home.”

Jakob’s arms tensed, and his throat started to constrict. “With all due respect,” he muttered under his breath, “I don’t think we can afford it.”

“Now don’t you be stingy,” his mother-in-law said, wagging her finger. “We may be far from our birth star, but we’ll keep the traditions all the same.”

But at what cost?

Before he began to get upset, he took a deep breath and turned to leave the room. His wife, Salome, stood by the doorway, her arms folded across her chest. She frowned in concern, and her eyes reflected the same uncertainty that hung over them all like a comet over a gravity well.


* * * * *


“You—you’re what?”

Salome grinned and patted her stomach in a meaningful way, making Jakob feel as if the floor had fallen out from under him.

“Shvila chemo,” she said. Our child.

For several moments, Jakob didn’t know what to say. He supposed that there were things people were supposed to do or feel when they learned that they were about to have a baby, but all he felt was an awful sense of constriction, as if the walls were closing in, or the universe itself were collapsing.

“Is it a girl or a—I mean, ra ikinebs, gogo da bichi?”

She answered with a nod, making his heart sink all the more. For religious reasons, the Deltans didn’t practice fetal gene melding or womb enhancement. They didn’t even believe in mapping the baby’s chromosomes, which meant that they wouldn’t know the gender of the child until the start of the second trimester. If the suspense didn’t kill him, the revelation certainly would.

“What do we now?” he asked, speaking in broken Deltan. The question was more for himself than for her, but giving it voice helped to fill the silence.

“Our family will throw a housewarming party,” she explained, speaking slowly enough that he could understand her. “Father, sisters, brothers-in-law, aunts, uncles, cousins—everyone will come.”

“And after? What after?”

She laughed. “Don’t be afraid, Jakob. Everything will be fine.”

“I don’t afraid,” he said quickly, but that wasn’t true. He was terrified. It felt as if the universe were spinning out of control all around him—as if he were falling into a black hole, the singularity stretching him beyond all recognition.

“Me excuse,” he said abruptly, bolting for the door. He needed space—he needed air. Salome’s face fell, and she seemed about to run after him, but she hesitated for just a split second, and he took advantage of that moment to leave.

It had only been a few months since they’d been married. To her, perhaps it felt like a lifetime, but a part of him still expected to pick up and leave any day for another voyage across the stars. God knew that was all he was good for—he wasn’t cut out for stationer’s work. His new father-in-law was helping him get adjusted to his new job at the shipyards, but it wasn’t something he could see himself doing for the rest of his life. And as for the language, he doubted he’d ever fully master it.

The door hissed shut behind him, leaving him alone in the narrow courtyard. The horizon of the planet Megiddo glowed a deep blue, while the night side of the world seemed like a giant pool of black drifting amid the starry sea. He looked up at the endless carpet of tiny, unblinking lights and clenched his fists. Each one looked so small and yet so perfect—millions of silent beacons full of worlds he had never seen. And now, he would never see any of them.

The door to the apartment across the way hissed open, and an old, plump woman stepped out with a crying baby. The noise shattered the solitude, a reminder of just how cramped the living space on Megiddo Station really was. Unlike most outworlders, the Deltans married young—insanely young—and started cranking out babies as soon as possible. The station master, Jeshua Korha, had five daughters, and his family was by no means the largest. Even with all the constant expansions and nonstop construction, it wasn’t enough to keep up with the population growth. The place was a cesspit of humanity—and he was trapped in it.

You’re not being fair, he told himself as he climbed down the stairs to the rimside corridor. It was your choice to settle down here—your choice to marry into this culture. And really, there were a lot of good things to look forward to here. The people here were more honest and genuine than anywhere else he’d been, and they knew how to take care of their own. And Salome—even after just the few short months they’d known each other, he couldn’t imagine a future without her.

But was this really the life he wanted?

The rimside corridor was packed from wall to wall. All the docking nodes were full, mostly with sublight haulers that had just come in from the inner planets. Everywhere, pilots and crewmen in their gray, utilitarian jumpsuits embraced their wives and children. That would be him in a few short years, unless he ran away and abandoned his young wife—and he would never be able to live with himself if he did that.

I just want to be alone, Jakob thought as he shouldered his way through the crowds. Where the hell can I be alone?

The answer was obvious, of course. The Medea was in long-term parking on the docking arm that jutted out from the station hub. He hadn’t been on board his old ship for weeks, but it wouldn’t take long to warm up the cabin from cold storage and get the life support systems fully online. They would be ready in the time it took him to get there.

The tram was empty when he arrived. It took about half an hour for the car to fill: resources were tight, so the runs to and from the hub didn’t follow a set schedule unless there was demand. Jakob passed the time by staring out the window at the dull gray bulkhead, his mind drifting.

A baby, he thought to himself. My wife is going to have a baby. His in-laws would throw a massive party, with a host of social and cultural obligations. Navigating those would be difficult, but he was confident that he was up to the challenge. He’d come so far in the last few months, learning a new language and culture. He was even starting to get a grasp on the Deltan religion, though he hadn’t yet been baptized. With the baby, though, he didn’t see how he could put that off much longer.

Had Salome tricked him? No, that wasn’t fair—if anything, it was just another cultural misunderstanding. She’d been so eager about ordering their new life together, and he’d been all too happy to oblige. And really, there was a lot he had to look forward to. Salome was a wonderful woman, and he knew that they would be very happy together.

Then why did he feel like he was stumbling into his future, tripping over his feet before he knew where he was going?

After what felt like hours, the doors hissed shut and the tram began to pull out. The dull gray bulkheads passed in slow succession, and the track turned upward until he was lying on his back. WARNING: LOW-GRAVITY AREA read the warning at the front of the cabin. Jakob gripped the shoulder restraints as the tram cleared the main station wheel, stars shining through the windows.

The artificial gravity at the hub was a little lighter than on the rim. Jakob could tell by the way his feet didn’t drag quite so much as he stepped onto the platform. A crowd of about twenty or thirty people waited to take the tram back down, but the corridors beyond the platform were conspicuously empty.

The walls of the docking arm were drab and gray, the lights dim. Jakob walked slowly to his starship, a horrible sense of dread growing in the pit of his stomach. A part of him felt as if he were going to the Medea for the last time. Perhaps he was.

He ran his fingers across the airlock before palming it open. Once he was inside, it took a minute for the pressure to equalize. He tapped the floor nervously with his foot, shivering a little in the chill recycled air.

The inner door hissed open, and the familiar scent of old, worn synthleather met his nose. He stepped inside, still running his hand across the smooth metal surface of the EV suit lockers. Out of habit, he reached up and grabbed a handhold as he passed. They were spaced evenly across the walls and ceiling. The once-white floor tiles had yellowed a little from age, but the cabin was clean and tidy, exactly how he’d left it. To his right, the ship’s dual bunks sat embedded like narrow slits in the wall, while the couch on the left made a semicircle around the table on that side of the room. The Medea was definitely larger than most single-pilot starships, but was still cozy enough that Jakob never felt as if someone were missing.

Until now.

As he drifted around the cabin, checking the holo projector and food synthesizer, he realized that the place seemed unusually empty. Perhaps it had something to do with how clean everything was—usually, the second bunk was piled with clothes, with unwashed dishes on the couch and table. But that wasn’t it.

He shook his head and stepped into the cockpit. The forward window was long and narrow, running horizontally from one side of the room to the other. Dozens of control panels and display screens filled the space above and below it. A pair of overstuffed synthleather chairs sat behind the controls, though the ship was perfectly capable of flying with just one pilot.

Normally, he ignored the second chair, but this time he couldn’t help but stare at it. He’d inherited the ship from his father, who had inherited it in turn from his grandfather. Originally a deep space hauler, it had been rebuilt practically from the floor up. Still, certain original features remained, like the dual bunks and piloting chairs. Since leaving his home at the Varvav system, he’d gotten used to those, as well as a hundred other quirks that made the Medea unique. But now, after living on a station for nearly three months, even his old familiar starship felt strange.

No, he thought, clenching his fists. Not here—anywhere but here. It was as if he’d returned to his sanctuary, only to find it desecrated.

But perhaps that was normal. He wasn’t a star wanderer anymore, after all—he was a married man; a stationer; a Deltan. If his starship felt a bit like an empty shell now, perhaps that was the way it should be.

I could have left with her, he realized, looking at the second pilot’s chair. There was plenty of room on the Medea for a second passenger, though things would be uncomfortably tight with any more. To travel from star to star with his wife—he realized all at once that the possibility had been in the back of his mind from the very beginning. When Salome had pushed him to marry her, he’d only agreed to it because he knew that he could always take her away with him. Only now, with a baby on the way, had it finally sunk in that he had permanently settled down.

I might never fly this ship again, he thought as he ran his fingers across the familiar controls. The thought filled him with a deep sadness, like the death of a close friend. He choked back his tears, unwilling to cry even in a place where no one could see him. That wasn’t the kind of man he was. But still, the emotions were overwhelming.

Was this how his father had felt when his mother had been pregnant with him? Jakob wasn’t so naïve to think that he was the first one who’d felt this way. If the ship had once been his father’s—as it certainly had—then it stood to reason that his father had gone through the same strange mixture of emotions, or at least something similar. The thought comforted him a little as he stepped out of the cockpit and back into the cabin.

Someday, he thought, my son is going to fly this ship. He’ll inherit it the way I inherited it from my father, and it will take him to all the places where I could never go. The realization was like a pressurized water reservoir bursting inside of him. His eyes burned until he couldn’t hold back any longer. In a deep, solemn silence, he let the tears freely flow.

My son. If one part of his life was ending, another was just beginning.

Chapter 8


How are we going to pay for this? Jakob thought as he surveyed the family room. The place was packed with friends and relatives, as well as a few relatives of friends from around the immigrant community. The women had gone all out with the food, with expensive yogurt balls and fried curdbread with chicken. It smelled delicious, but made him wince to think how much it must have cost.

He did his best to put on a good face, though. These sorts of parties were always the happiest time for the family, and he didn’t want to be the one who ruined things for everyone. So he took a platter of food from his mother-in-law and sat down against the wall, a good ways away from Noemi and the center of commotion.

“Hey Dad,” said Mariya as Jakob just finished off the chicken. “How goes it?”

“It goes,” he muttered. “I hope you’re enjoying yourself.”

She laughed. “You say that as if it’s a chore.”

Maybe it is, sometimes.

“I can’t remember the last time we had a party like this,” she said, glancing around the room. “It’s been too long.”

“It’s been less than a year. Leah had her baby not too long ago.”

“I know, Dad, but not like this,” she said, gesturing with her hands. “I mean, look—all the neighbors are here, with their kids and grandkids. They’re practically spilling out into the hall!”

He tried and failed to suppress a frown. “I hope they’ve brought something to contribute to the food, then.”

Mariya waved her hand dismissively, the thought of freeloaders completely absent from her mind. “Oh, don’t worry—of course they have. Oma’s got everything organized. They know what a big deal it is for Noemi.”

Jakob nodded. The celebrations for the first child were always the biggest. Leah’s latest baby was her fourth, so the housewarming party hadn’t been such a big deal, but for Noemi, they had held back nothing. Over on the far side of the room, Opa Jirgis had pulled out the smallpipes and was playing a traditional folk tune. Two teenage boys from down the hall started dancing, and a circle began to form around them. They threw their arms wildly across their chests and spun nimbly on their toes, much to the delight of the younger women.

“Well, I’d better go,” said Mariya. “Cheer up, Dad—loosen up a little!”

“I’m plenty cheerful,” Jakob grumbled. His daughter scampered off in the direction of the music and was soon dancing with the two boys, passing from one to the other like the belle that she was.

She takes after her mother, he thought as he watched her. There was a time when he’d felt a lot like those boys, caught up in the vortex that was courtship and romance. But Salome had always been better at it than him—more natural, not as stiff. He’d always struggled to keep up. And when the courtship turned to marriage and family life, he’d always felt as if he were dancing two steps behind her.

Well, no matter. What was done was done, and there was no use dwelling on the past. What mattered was the present, and that meant doing all he could to make sure that Noemi and Jeremiah felt like they belonged.

As Jakob finished off the last of his plate, he glanced at the crowded doorway. Jeremiah still stood there, welcoming the latecomers as they drifted in. He looked a bit stiff, his face somewhat pale—more like an usher at a court hearing than a proud father-to-be. Jakob grinned—he knew exactly how it felt.

Setting his empty plate on his chair, he navigated the crowd until he was at the door. Jeremiah didn’t notice him until the last moment. It gave Jeremiah a bit of a start, but he recovered quickly.

“Hello,” he said, taking Jakob’s outstretched hand. “I’d welcome you to the party, but …”

Jakob chuckled. “That’s all right. You’re doing a fine job.”

“I’ve got to be honest—it’s a bit overwhelming.”

“That’s to be expected,” he said, putting a hand on Jeremiah’s shoulder. “It certainly was for me.”

Jeremiah glanced over his shoulder and leaned in, keeping his voice low. “It’s not just the party, though—it’s everything. I don’t think I’ll ever totally understand Noemi’s language, or her culture.”

“Neither did I, at first.”

“How did you do it?”

Jakob shrugged. “Necessity, I suppose. We all tend to change over time. I’m not the same person I was when I met my wife, and you won’t be the same person in twenty years either.”

“I guess so. It’s just—I don’t know.”

“What is it? Come on, spit it out.”

Jeremiah swallowed. “Do you think it’s for the better? These changes, I mean. Since you’ve settled down with your wife, can you say that you’ve changed for the better?”

Before Jakob could reply, another guest stepped through the door, drawing Jeremiah’s attention. It was just as well, since Jakob didn’t know how to answer that question. A frown crossed his face as he took a moment to ponder it.

“Sorry,” said Jeremiah, returning a few moments later. “I guess the thing I’m really worried about is what we’re going to do for the next few months. How am I going to take care of her?”

Jakob nodded, relieved at the change of subject. “What’s your plan for now?”

“Well, I spent almost all my profits from the last trade on upgrades to my ship. I could sell back the goods in my cargo hold, but—”

“You need a job,” he said, nodding. He knew all too well what that was like.

“Yeah, I guess,” said Jeremiah. He took a deep breath. “I’ve already paid rent through the end of the month, though, so it’s not like I have any debts on that end.”

“No, of course not. Don’t worry—I know a guy who might be able to help.”

“You do?”

“Yeah. He’s the foreman at the dockyards, though we all call him ‘Chief.’”

“Do you think he can get me a job with you?”

Probably not, kid, Jakob thought silently. The Gaian Imperials had disbanded the local assemblies just last week, taking away what little public voice the immigrants still had. Rumor had it that the Gaians planned to establish population controls, penalizing families with more than two children. With all the rampant anti-Deltan bigotry on the station, the Alphans would probably be all too happy to comply.

“Maybe,” he said. “If not at the dockyards, then maybe something under the table.” Chief had plenty of connections, and could almost certainly find the kid something—even if it was just a minimum wage job at the waste treatment facilities.

The look of relief on Jeremiah’s face spoke volumes. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you so very much.”

“No problem, kid. We outworlders have got to look out for each other, right?”

“Right.”

Jakob nodded and turned back into the crowd before the kid got too gushy. He didn’t like asking help from anyone, and felt uncomfortable when others had to ask help from him. There was something about the act of asking that reduced a man, made him seem like a failure. He didn’t mind offering help where it was needed, but it always made him a little uneasy to see people reduced to needing it.

It’s my gift to the newly expecting couple, he decided as he returned to his seat against the wall. I might not be able to afford a more traditional gift, but I can give them this.

Before he reached his chair, Salome intercepted him. “Hi, dear,” she said, stopping him with a hug. There was little tenderness in her embrace, however, and her eyes were cold.

“Hello,” said Jakob, stiffening a little as he gave her a quick kiss. “Enjoying yourself?”

“Of course, of course.” She gently but firmly pulled him aside, toward the hall. A few clusters of guests lingered near the bathroom door, but for the most part the place was empty. Jakob obediently followed, his heart sinking. He knew all too well what she wanted to talk about.

“How is the money situation?” she asked, keeping her voice low. She glanced over her shoulder to make sure no one was listening, then looked him square in the eye.

Jakob took a deep breath. “I’m not going to lie,” he whispered. “This event has set us back at least a month, probably more.”

She winced. “Anything you can do to make up for it?”

“I can clock in a couple hours early to help out with the paperwork. Chief knows our situation—I’m sure he’d let me do that.”

“What about asking for that raise?”

This again?

“Honey, I don’t know what to tell you. If I lose this job—”

“Yes, yes, I know. But we can’t go on like this, dear—we can’t.

You think I don’t know that? Jakob wanted to say. Instead, he held his tongue. No sense getting into another argument with all these guests around.

“What are we going to do?” she muttered, as much to herself as to him.

“I’ll do what I can,” he said. “I’ll do everything I can. I love you, dear.”

Before she could respond, he slipped past her back into the family room. Surrounded by the guests, there was nothing she could do except scowl at him—which she did, quite fiercely.

I’ll do what I can, dammit, he thought to himself as he took his seat. The dancing was still in full swing, and a couple of other boys had joined in to replace the others. They swung out their arms and dropped to their knees, the reckless abandon of youth driving them almost as much as the admiring eyes of the young women. Mariya was no longer in the center of the circle, but half a dozen boys had gathered nearby, doting on her in ways that made her smile.

At least my daughter is enjoying herself, Jakob thought. Mariya glanced over at him, and she beckoned him to come join the dance, but his knees were still trembling from the confrontation with his wife. “I love you”—had he meant that as a term of endearment or a barb? It was so hard to tell these days.


* * * * *


“Starship on final approach,” came an automated female voice over the dockyard loudspeakers. “All personnel stand by.”

Jakob rechecked the vacuum seal on his jumpsuit and latched his utility belt to a safety pole. All around him, the other workers did the same. A couple of newbies fitted their breathing masks and made ready to put up their helmets, but all the old hands waited with half-bored expressions on their faces. About twenty yards overhead, the portholes were blocked by the mass of the approaching starship. Though the details were hard to pick out through the tiny windows, everyone knew what to expect.

The last few weeks had been more eventful than usual. That wasn’t saying much, but the recent events had been earthshaking by anyone’s standard. The talks with the Imperials had been peaceful so far, but that was only because they held all the big guns. Whatever they wanted, they could get—and there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that they wanted everything.

The artificial gravity shut off for a moment, and Jakob’s feet lifted slowly from the floor. From years of experience, he knew to keep his movements to a minimum, not to try and resist the disorienting effects of microgravity.

“Another battleship, eh?” said Arai, one of Jakob’s work buddies. “That makes the second one in as many weeks.”

“That’s right,” said Jakob. “They’ve come to relieve the Augustine. Stars of Earth, was that a ship.”

A mutter of assent rumbled through the crowd. Arai folded his thick, muscular arms while his dreadlocks drifted up like a pack of rearing snakes.

“You think they’re going to take us over?” asked one of the newbies.

“Hell’s bells, kid—they already have.”

The heavy clang of the docking gears reverberated through the dockyard, sending a tremor through the bulkheads. Jakob gripped the safety pole and watched the hangar bay doors overhead. The station-side tanks and pallets had all been secured magnetically to the floor, with a wide space in the center of the bay to receive whatever the docking starship sent through.

“Think they’ll put us out of work?” asked another of the newbies.

Arai threw back his head and laughed. “Fire us? As if the union don’t matter? No—who else would they find to unload their battleships and bulk freighters? I don’t think we have much to worry about.”

Not all of us are union, Jakob wanted to say. The Oriana Station unions wouldn’t admit immigrants as members—they only cared about protecting their fellow Alphans, and the immigrant community wasn’t large enough to form any sort of competing organization. The dockyards still hired immigrants, but at a much reduced wage, with hardly any of the rights that union workers enjoyed. Not that the other men on the shift looked down on Jakob in any way—but then again, they probably assumed he was union just like them.

“Hey, Chief,” said Jakob, pulling himself over to the foreman as they waited for the battleship to complete its docking routine. “Got a second?”

“Sure, Jake,” said the foreman. He was tall and beefy, with a thick neck and a well-trimmed goatee. In the null-gee, his face had reddened slightly, but the rest of him was built solidly enough that it hardly had any effect.

“I was wondering if you could do me a small favor,” said Jakob, low enough that the other men couldn’t hear him. “I’ve got a friend from the Outworlds who needs work, and I was wondering if you could help him out.”

Chief frowned. “Jake, you know with the Imperial takeover my hands are tied.”

“Nothing permanent—just something to help him get by. He’s a star wanderer who just needs something to tide him over for a few months.”

It made Jakob wince a bit to ask Chief for help directly, even if the favor wasn’t technically for himself. With all the mandatory overtime, though, he might not get another chance like this for a while, so there was no sense in taking the long orbit around.

“I’ll see what I can do,” said Chief, but he shook his head as if the outcome was doubtful.

“You want me to send him in to talk with you?”

“Yeah, that should be fine. Bring him to my office first thing tomorrow, and I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thanks, Chief.”

“No problem, Jake.”

The hangar doors over their heads groaned and began to separate. A strong draft of recycled air rushed down, blasting them as the pressure between the station and the starship stabilized. Jakob used his grip on the safety pole to keep his feet firmly planted against the floor. In less than a minute, the draft died down, leaving a slightly metallic taste to the air.

“Huh,” said Arai. “Would you look at that.”

As the doors parted, the gap offered an impressive view into the cargo hold of the Imperial battleship. The cavernous space extended almost fifty yards past the freight airlock. A crane even larger than the one in the dockyards hung like a giant claw from the ceiling of the starship, though in null-gee, it might as well have been a wall or even the floor.

“All right, guys,” Chief called out. “There’s a big load coming through, so we’re going to need everyone. Fahid and Jesson, take the mag-wheelers. Everyone else, let’s head up the shaft and get those tanks on the lift.”

“That won’t be necessary,” came a voice from the direction of the hangar. Jakob looked up and saw a Gaian Imperial officer in a dark blue uniform coming through with two soldiers, both carrying assault rifles. They caught themselves on the safety poles and expertly flipped themselves around, facing the Chief.

“I can’t allow any unauthorized entry onto the Starhelm,” said the officer. “Our own men will unload the bay on our end. Just be ready to receive our cargo as it comes down.”

“Right,” said Chief, his red face reddening a little more. “Well, in that case, we’ll just sit tight and let you do your thing.”

The officer nodded and scanned the workers before shooting back up through the freight shaft. Jakob frowned—it wasn’t normal to restrict entry into a ship’s cargo hold like this. Even the larger starships didn’t have the crew or equipment to unload everything themselves—that was what dockyard workers were for. Then again, no system in the Outworlds was large enough to boast a professional military. Defense forces, certainly, but those were normally small flotillas of local volunteers.

Which was why the Imperials had caught them so thoroughly by surprise.

“Anyone got the specs on the cargo they’re sending us?”

“I think it’s mostly waste solids,” said Chief. “Tank dimensions are Coreward standard.”

“Which means it’s gonna be a bitch finding a place to hold them.”

“Yeah.”

In the hold of the Starhelm, the loading claw groaned and came to life. A dozen Imperial crewhands came into view, swarming around the cargo to be offloaded.

“All right, guys, let’s secure the cargo containers in front of the freight elevator for the fourth quadrant. That’s where they’re going to end up anyway, and no one else is gonna dock here with the Starhelm taking up the space. Jakob, Isa, and Abe, you go with Fahid and the second mag-wheeler. The rest of you, stand by to receive.”

“They always give us the heavy work,” Arai muttered as they floated over toward the heavy equipment. “But hey, a job’s a job, right?”

Not when it barely makes enough to pay the bills.

“You think we’ll still have jobs after the Imperials take over?” asked Abe. He was a newer kid, a star wanderer who had settled down just recently with an Alphan girl. Even though he’d only just started a couple of months ago, he was already in the union, making a higher hourly wage than Jakob.

“Naw,” said Isa. “The unions’ll protect us. If anything, we’ll have even more work than before.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” said Jakob. He grabbed a handhold near the storage containers and swung himself around to wait for Fahid to bring up the mag-wheeler.

“Why do you say that?” asked Abe.

“Well, for one thing, Alpha Oriana isn’t really on a major trade route that the Gaians would want to consolidate. To us, it’s a major hub, but to them, it’s just a frontier backwater.”

“That doesn’t mean we won’t see any new investment,” Isa countered.

Or a mass exodus Coreward.

A harsh warning beep sounded through the dockyards as the cargo lift descended from the Starhelm to the receiving area on the floor. Without the gravity, the equipment didn’t have to work as hard, but the high mass made the going slow. The others leaned in a little closer so they didn’t have to compete as hard against the noise.

“That’s a very optimistic view,” said Jakob. “More likely, they’ll do all they can to dismantle our manufacturing centers and make us dependent on the Gaians for goods and supplies.”

“Come on,” said Arai, his lips curling downward. “What makes you think they’d pull a move like that?”

“Because they’ve got an empire to manage.”

“Look, they don’t really care what happens out here at Alpha Oriana. There’s only fifty thousand people in the whole system—how many billions are living on Gaia Nova alone?”

“I don’t want to know,” Jakob muttered. The Coreward stars were so utterly packed with humanity, it made his stomach sick just to think about it.

“Right. So what makes you think they’d want to overhaul us so badly?”

“The fact that they’d send a battle group out to take us over.”

Arai shook his head. “No way, man. I’ll tell you what this is about. The Gaian emperor thinks his dick would look bigger if he ruled a hundred and fifty-two systems instead of a hundred and fifty-one, so he draws a line on a starmap and sends out the navy.”

“Well,” said Abe, “if that’s all it takes, the emperor must have the largest dick in the galaxy.”

“Not until he rules over a hundred and fifty-three.”

The others chuckled, but Jakob wasn’t in the mood for crude jokes. Once the Imperials fully took over, there was no telling how things would change. They might keep everything in place the way it was, or they might make drastic changes. Only one thing was for sure—Alpha Oriana would never again be a part of the Outworlds.


* * * * *


“Is that the last of it?” the young pilot asked as the loading claw returned from the hold of his starship. He watched the remote operating screen over Jakob’s shoulder, unable to do much except supervise.

“Yep,” said Jakob, easing back on the controls. The old, sun-blasted loading claw—dubbed “Jonah II” by the dock workers at Megiddo Station as something of a religious joke—retracted slowly into the open freight airlock with its load. The secondary and tertiary displays cycled through the various video feeds, showing the equipment against the stunning backdrop of the planetscape below. Cloud decks swirled like the glassy blue surface of a marble, deceptively peaceful this high up the gravity well.

“All right,” said the pilot. “I’ll be happy to help your men with the offloading.”

He was scrawny even for a starfarer, probably no older than nineteen. Delta Oriana must be one of his first stops since leaving his birth star, Jakob realized.

“Shift’s almost over,” Jakob observed, cracking his knuckles as the automated systems took over and finished the operation. “Once the outer freight airlock is shut, we’ll wait until next upshift to finish offloading it.”

The pilot frowned. “Are you sure that’s a good idea? I mean, there’s only two loading claws on the whole—”

“Trust me, it’ll be fine.”

Jakob rose from the controls and stretched out his weary arms and legs. He must have been sitting there for hours—strange, how quickly they flew by. Well, his work was over for the day, and Salome was bound to have a hot, delicious meal waiting for him. Isaac would come running on his clumsy toddler legs to welcome him the moment he stepped in that door, and his sisters- and mother-in-law would all be waiting cheerfully around the table.

“You’ve got a place to stay?” he asked the pilot.

“Well, I thought I’d just stay on my ship—”

“Nah, that’ll never do. Come with me.”

The young starfarer seemed a little nervous as he followed Jakob up the long, narrow staircase from the tiny control room to the rimside corridor. The station had about a dozen docking nodes for light freight starships along the outer edge of each of its dual wheels. Four of them were designed as shipyards specifically for maintenance and repair, while the rest were dockyards for loading and offloading cargo. Jakob technically worked for his father-in-law in the shipyards, but when work was slow or the staff on other parts of the station needed him, he was more or less on call. Being a former pilot and star wanderer himself, he knew more than enough to cover for any of the dockyard workers.

“You don’t have to put me up, sir,” said the pilot. “I’m fine with staying on my ship.”

Jakob chuckled, remembering that first meeting with his future father-in-law and how stressed he’d been to find himself in a similar situation. “Don’t worry about it,” he told the pilot as they stepped out into the glass-ceilinged corridor. “You’re welcome to stay with me and my family—it isn’t any trouble at all. By the way, what did you say your name was?”

“Tom, sir,” said the pilot. He extended his hand.

“Very well, Tom. And no need to call me ‘sir’—the name’s Jakob.”

“Jakob. Right.”

“So where are you from?”

They made small talk all the way to the apartment courtyard, almost on the other side of the station wheel. Even though Tom was still somewhat nervous, Jakob could see that it put him a bit at ease to have a friend at this foreign place so far from his birth star. Just his luck, to come across one of the few people on Megiddo Station who could speak fluent Gaian. Well, as one outworlder to another, Jakob would see to it that he felt welcome and at home for as long as he chose to stay.

“Daddy!” little Isaac screamed as Jakob walked in through the door. He picked up the young toddler and tossed him high in the air, making him screech with delight.

“There you are,” said Salome. She wore the cross-stitched apron her mother had made as a wedding gift, the bright floral design complementing her rosy cheeks. The slight bulge in her belly showed that she was expecting their second child. Jakob set down his son and gave her a hug and a kiss.

“Who is that?” she asked, glancing over at Tom. Of course he couldn’t understand her, though, since she only spoke Deltan.

“Just a star wanderer I brought home from work,” he said with a wink in his eye. “His name’s Tom. Think any of your sisters would want to keep him?”

She gave him another glance, this one a bit longer than the first. Jakob took advantage of the moment to turn to Tom.

“Allow me to introduce my wife,” he said in Gaian. “This is Salome. Salome, Tom.”

“Pleased to meet you.”

The young pilot extended his hand, but Salome only looked at it curiously. When he drew it back a little awkwardly, she leaned over on her tiptoes and kissed him once on each cheek. This unusual greeting custom so flustered him that Jakob couldn’t help but let out a laugh.

“We do things a bit differently here at Delta Oriana, as you can see,” he explained. Then, turning to his wife, “Is dinner ready, dear?”

“Of course! We were just waiting for you.”

They went into the main family room, where Opa and Oma Jirgis, Leah, Sara, and Giuli with her husband and three children were already seated on mats around the table. Tom hesitated in the doorway, his awkwardness no doubt multiplied from having spent so many long months in deep space alone. Jakob knew the feeling all too well. When he introduced his guest to them, though, the others were warm and welcoming, so that even though the young pilot didn’t understand what most of them were saying, he took a bowl and joined them on the floor.

“My wife’s an excellent cook,” Jakob told the young pilot as he took a seat by his side. “The food might be a bit more flavorful than you’re used to, but I think you’ll like it.”

“Certainly,” said Tom.

Giuli’s eight year-old daughter came out with a tray full of small glasses of white, syrupy juice. Jakob downed his in one gulp, while Tom gagged and coughed on the strong drink. The others watched him with a mixture of amusement and concern. His eyes watering, he recovered and forced himself to swallow.

“Good stuff, eh?” said Jakob, grinning as he remembered the first time he’d tried it.

“Yeah,” said Tom. When he saw the others watching him, he took another sip. This time, it went down without any problem.

“How goes the dockyard work?” Opa Jirgis asked, sitting cross-legged with his back perfectly straight.

“Very good,” said Jakob. “We haven’t fully offloaded Tom’s ship yet, but we got it all into the bay. We’ll finish the job first thing next dayshift.”

“What is his cargo?”

He waited for Tom to answer, realizing only after a few awkward moments that the young man didn’t speak Deltan. He leaned in and motioned to Opa Jirgis with his hand.

“My father-in-law wants to know what your cargo is.”

“Parts and electronics from Alpha Oriana,” said Tom. Jakob translated.

“Ah, parts—that’s good to hear. The station recyclers have been giving us trouble, backing up into the hydroponics modules and causing all sorts of problems. Good to know we’ll have them fixed soon.”

Salome came out of the kitchen carrying a tray with hot platters of rice, beans, and synthmeal. Steam rose up from all three, curling upward before dissipating in the air. The smell, as always, was absolutely delicious. Jakob licked his lips as she set the tray down and placed the trays on the center of the table.

“We’ve got another tray of steamed vegetables coming out soon,” she said. “I hope you don’t mind waiting for a minute or two.”

“See how Salome tortures us,” said Jakob, winking sidelong at her. She gave him a mischievous grin and returned to the kitchen. In his high chair in the corner, Isaac gurgled.

“How long have you lived here at Delta Oriana?” Tom asked. Since Jakob was the only one he could make conversation with, his question more or less cut the discussion of recyclers and station system repairs short. Thank goodness.

“Let’s see,” said Jakob, screwing his eyes up in thought. “Isaac is a little less than a standard year and a quarter old, and we had him pretty soon after I settled down. So, give or take a month, I’d say about two years.”

Tom’s eyes widened. “Only two standard years? From the way you get along, it seems like you’ve lived here half your life!”

“Maybe,” Jakob said as he chuckled. “I have to admit, it feels like that sometimes.”

“How long did it take you to learn the language?”

“I’m still learning.”

“Really? I find that hard to believe.”

Salome came out with the vegetables and placed them on the table before taking her seat at Jakob’s side. Opa Jirgis rose to his feet, and the room grew silent except for little Isaac banging his spoon against his tray.

“Lord of Earth,” Jirgis prayed, his head bowed and his hands clasped in front of him, “we thank thee for this bounty which thou hast generously provided for us, and for the hands that have prepared it. We ask thee to bless it for our health, that it may nourish and strengthen us in the midst of the starry deep. Amen.”

Almost the moment he finished, there was a clamor as everyone brought out their spoons and bowls, eager to begin the meal. Out of politeness, they waited for Jirgis to serve the guest. After Tom took his bowl, though, it became a noisy free-for-all, made all the more chaotic for the fact that they were all family.

“Pass the salt!”

“I’ll take the vegetables when you’re finished.”

“Could you serve me some of that rice, Giuli?”

Jakob sat up straight and took a deep breath, an unexpected feeling of warmth coming over him. Two years—had it really been that long? For all that it seemed like he’d always lived this way, it felt as if only a few short months had passed since he’d married Salome and settled down on Megiddo Station. His years as a star wanderer now seemed little more than a dream, brought back to memory only by the presence of their starfaring guest. He glanced at his wife, now pregnant with their second son, and realized that the life he led now was almost unrecognizable from the single starfaring life he’d led before.

“What’s the matter?” Salome asked, putting a hand on his thigh. He took her hand and caressed it tenderly.

“Nothing, dear,” he said. “I was just thinking …”

“Thinking about what?”

Is this really the life that I wanted? When he had first asked himself that question, it had seemed so urgent and troubling. Now, it seemed like almost a lifetime had passed, and with it all the fear and uncertainty from before. So long as Salome was happy, and their young family was healthy and well cared for, he was happy as well—happier than his younger self ever could have imagined.

He answered his wife with a smile and a kiss. Giuli’s children pointed and giggled, but that only made him smile even more. Was this the life he wanted? Perhaps not when he’d first started out, but now, it was all he could have ever asked for.


* * * * *


The alarm cut through the warm, inviting comfort of sleep, making Jakob moan. He fought it at first, drifting back into the darkness, until he remembered the baby. He reached out and slapped at the unrelenting sound, but he was too late. As he hit the alarm and shut it off, the baby’s cries began to rend the air. Salome turned on the mattress beside him, while Leah rose quickly to hush her child.

“Sorry,” Jakob muttered as he stood up on groggy legs. He didn’t usually cause so much trouble when he got up for work—it must the long days of overtime starting to get to him. Not much he could do to help, though. If he lingered any longer, he’d be late for work, and his family needed the money. Stars knew they needed it.

The lights were out, as they were throughout the apartment, so he had to stumble a bit before he reached the closet doorway. Leah cooed and patted her baby in the darkness, but it did little to calm the infant or quiet it down. From the other side of the room, someone swore—probably Svenson, though he wouldn’t be getting up much later.

Jakob dressed quickly in the darkness, even with Salome’s sister awake in the corner. His fingers fumbled with the zipper on his pants, but he soon got them on and stepped into the hall. The kids slept in the family room, so he took care not to disturb them as he put on his work boots.

Breakfast was a tube of synthmeal and a piece of fruit. He stuffed them in his pocket as he stumbled out the door, still groggy from waking up. His wrist console said that he’d only had three and a half hours of sleep, but that hardly mattered. Only one more week of this, and he’d pay off the extra expenses they’d incurred with the housewarming party. He was already halfway there. It felt grueling, but things would be better when it was over. Just another week.

He squinted and covered his eyes as he stepped into the windowless corridor. Upshift or downshift, the lights in this part of the station never dimmed. In the time it took to walk over to the elevator, though, his eyes more or less adjusted to the harsh, yellow light.

One of the few advantages to getting up this early was all the free space he had to himself on the tram. Oriana Station was so large, they always kept a regular schedule, posted prominently on the platform and at all stops along the way. Jakob waved his wrist console over the meter and stepped aboard, glad to see only five other people in the car. One of them was so scruffy, he could have been a homeless drifter. There weren’t many of them on the station, since security tended to crack down on that sort of thing, but every once in a while you’d see them, mostly on the lower levels where the security patrols never came. He slept with his cheek pressed against the window, snoring loudly.

At least I’m not the only one working these days, he thought to himself as he took a window seat up near the front. Svenson still had his tacky restaurant job, but more importantly, Jeremiah had found something to pull in a little cash. He and his wife still kept their finances separate from the rest of the family, of course, but it was comforting to know that the rent would be paid on time. It wasn’t enough to make much of a difference, but at least it gave Jakob some small peace of mind.

As the tram pulled out from the platform and began to accelerate, his wrist console buzzed with an incoming message. He frowned and brought it up on the screen.


FROM: ORIANA STN PA (OSPA)

TO: VARVAVLI, JAKOB

SUB: TERMINATION OF EMPLOYMENT

Dear sir,

In accordance with clause 8(d) of your employment contract, your services with us have been terminated effective immediately. Your position as YARD WORKER has become redundant or your services were no longer required by us anymore. Please return any keychips or ID badges to the OSPA main office in Quadrant I.


A horrible sinking feeling grew in the pit of Jakob’s stomach. The tram shot out into the tube, but all he could stare at was the screen on his wrist. As the tram reached cruising speed in the low-gravity region between the rim and the hub, he felt as if he would throw up. The edges of his vision clouded over, and a cold sweat broke out behind his ears.

If his life was a prison, then this message was his death sentence.

Chapter 9


“Salome? We need to talk.”

Salome gave him a sharp look and rolled her eyes. “Is this about leaving Delta Oriana again? Because if it is—”

“Yes,” said Jakob. “Yes, it is.” He put a hand on her arm, and when she didn’t shrug it off, he continued. “Look, I know this place is your home. I know you don’t want to leave. But the recent events have got me seriously worried. We’re so close to famine conditions already, if the biowaste plant collapses, we haven’t got a prayer.”

“I know, I know,” said Salome. She sighed and lifted a hand to her forehead. “But we still have time. Master Korha said there’s enough food in storage to sustain us all for at least three months. Even if it takes longer to get relief, we can always run the food synthesizers.”

“That’s not true. Synthesized food is only a supplement, not a substitute. Too much for too long, and malnutrition is still going to be a problem.”

“Yeah, yeah. But that doesn’t mean that we have to leave now.”

Jakob looked her in the eye and paused. As always, she met his gaze square-on. Her face had changed a bit over the years, adding a few lines here and there with each of their three children. She’d put on a little weight, too, mostly on her hips. But there was still that touch of youthfulness that had initially drawn him to her, an echo of more carefree times. She was still the woman that he’d married all those years ago, the mother of his sons and daughter. Beautiful or not, he loved her all the more for that—and he’d be damned before he saw any harm come to her.

“Honey,” he said, putting an arm around her waist. She balled her hands into tiny fists, but offered no resistance.

“How can you just expect me to leave this all behind?” she said softly. “This is my home—the only home I’ve ever known. I’m not a starfarer, and never have been. Do you think it’s easy for me?”

“No, of course not. But you don’t have to be frightened. I know plenty of places we can go—Alpha Oriana, for example. They’ve got a bustling star port there, with plenty of room for us to settle down and start over.”

“I still don’t want to go if we don’t have to.”

He sighed. “Is it leaving Megiddo Station that bothers you, or leaving your family? Because if there’s another catastrophic system failure, we probably won’t be able to leave together. At least now, I’m reasonably sure I can arrange passage for all of us.”

She hesitated, biting her lip as she stared at the wall. Their cozy little bedroom had no windows, but a skylight mirror reflected the view of the stars from the courtyard. They drifted ever so slowly as the station turned, offering some freedom from the ever-present sense of confinement. It was all an illusion, though, and Jakob knew it would give no comfort if the famine that everyone feared became a reality.

“Listen,” he said, “it’s only until the situation here gets better. Once the biowaste plant is cleared and all the hydroponics modules are running at full capacity again, we can always come back. It’s not like this is forever.”

“Maybe,” she whispered. Without warning, she put her arms around him and squeezed. “Even if I stay, you’re not going to leave me—are you?”

“Of course not. I would never leave you.”

He kissed her forehead, and she began to softly cry. So many hard decisions—why did it have to be this way? At least they still had each other. He stroked her back, and she held on as if she’d never let him go.


* * * * *


“We have no choice,” said Jakob, reverting to Gaian in his frustration. “We can’t stay here with these Alphans any longer.”

He clenched his fists and glanced around the tightly packed family room. All of his wife’s relatives had come to the meeting, their faces betraying a mixture of shock, denial, grief, and exhaustion. Even Jeremiah and Noemi were present, standing with Mariya against the wall in the back. Opa Jirgis frowned, his brow furrowed in thought, while Jakob’s mother-in-law sat on the edge of her seat, ready to pounce on the first weakness in his argument.

“Look, I don’t like leaving any more than the rest of you,” he added quickly, switching back to Deltan. “But the truth is, if we stay any longer, we’ll be out on the concourse as beggars in just a few months. I practically scoured the station looking for work, and came up with nothing. If we stay, these racist Alphan bastards are going to keep twisting the screws until we all starve—or worse.”

“Has anyone else found work?” Opa Jirgis asked. A deafening silence answered him.

“None of us,” said Jakob. “The Alphans are taking advantage of the political situation with the Imperial takeover to drive us all out. If anyone does offer us work, they’ll be slapped with so many fines and regulations that they’ll soon be out of business.”

“You say we need to leave,” said Oma Salome, narrowing her eyes. “But where do you suggest we go?”

Jakob clenched and unclenched his hands. He glanced at his wife, but her arms were folded and the expression on her face was cold.

“Back to the Outworlds, of course. We need to start again at another—”

“And where are we going to find affordable passage for all of us?” his mother-in-law asked. “When you first brought us out here, it was all we could do to cram us onto six tiny freighters, without even a bathroom—and that cost us half the family fortune.”

“Aren’t you the one who brought us out to this wretched place?” said Leah as she burped her baby. “Why should we listen to you?”

Jakob glanced at Jeremiah and Noemi, who watched silently from the wall. Do you really want to air all your old grievances in front of our guests? he wanted to say. Of course, it was too late to stop them if they did.

“Because—look, I don’t have all the answers. I just know we can’t stay here.” And if you think I’m the one who got us into this mess, just remember: we’d all be dead if we’d stayed at Megiddo Station.

“I don’t like it,” Opa Jirgis muttered, his elderly eyes screwed shut in deep and ponderous thought. “I don’t like it one bit.”

“Well, it’s clear enough that something has to change,” said Oma Salome. “I just hope we have the good sense to be builders and not destroyers.” She glared at Jakob, as if that were supposed to be some sort of biting reprimand.

“We can always go Coreward,” Svenson suggested. “Passage is much cheaper, and there’s room for all of us. Now that Alpha Oriana is part of the Empire—”

“No,” Jakob snapped. “The Coreward Stars—do you have any idea how those people live?”

“Much better than us, I’m sure,” his mother-in-law shot back.

He drew in a sharp breath, his arms growing tense. “At the Coreward Stars, everyone lives under massive planetary domes, sometimes millions of people at a time. With all of that humanity packed into one place, lots of people fall through the cracks. If you think it’s hard for us out here, just wait.”

“Yeah, but how much of that is true, and how much of it is rumor?” Svenson asked. “When I was still a starfarer, I made a few runs less than a dozen parsecs out of Gaia Nova, and the systems out there seemed fine.”

“Were there any Deltans out there?”

He screwed up his eyes in thought. “Not that I remember, no. Though I wasn’t really looking.”

“If we go Coreward, I guarantee you I wouldn’t be able to find work,” said Jakob. “I’m forty-two standard years old, and my only useful skills have to do with piloting. Almost all of the starships in the Coreward Stars are superliners and bulk freighters—massive corporate-run ships with captains who started out in their careers back in their twenties. And the dockyard workers are all union, just like here.”

“Oh, come on,” said Salome, rolling her eyes. “Surely you’d be able to find something.”

Blood rushed to Jakob’s cheeks. “You don’t believe me?”

“No, I don’t. How often have I told you to find something better than that dockyard job, or at least ask for a raise? How often did you listen to me?”

Her expression was cold, but her eyes were full of fire. Like her mother, she sat on the edge of her seat, eager to catch Jakob in his own words. His throat constricted, and his vision began to blur. It was hard not to feel like everyone in the room was standing against him—even his own wife.

“I’ve been working my ass off ever since we came here to Alpha Oriana,” he said, his voice dangerously low. “Do you think I haven’t looked for something better? Or what about the rest of you, sitting around the apartment all day?”

“You don’t think homemaking is work?”

“No, but does it really take five women and three grown men to keep this place clean and livable?”

“Enough,” said his mother-in-law. “Jakob, if you don’t want to go to the Coreward Stars, where exactly do you propose we go?”

Jakob took a deep breath, trying in vain to calm himself. “Well, the New Pleiades isn’t too far. There’s been a lot of migration out that way—I’m sure we could find something.”

Svenson already had his wrist console out, checking the claim. “You’re right,” he said, “but the going rate for passage looks pretty high—almost five times the price for a one-way ticket to New Sol.”

“That’s too much,” said Opa Jirgis, shaking his head.

“Well, then let’s apply for one of the colony ships,” said Jakob, throwing his hands out palms up. “There are plenty of colony missions to the Far Outworlds that are eager to sign up people. We’d get passage free, possibly with the option to homestead.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?” asked Leah. “We’d be starting over at a place without any settlements. What about our kids?”

“I’m sure everything will be fine. They don’t send out those missions without plenty of supplies.”

“I’m not so sure,” said Svenson. “I’ve heard a lot of horror stories. Besides, there’s no guarantee we’ll find a colony ship that will take all of us. The Coreward Stars are still our best bet.”

“He’s right,” said Oma Salome. “Not all of us are young anymore. Better that we stick together, and go somewhere that’s well suited for all of us.”

But we can’t go Coreward, Jakob thought, his sweat turning cold. If we do, we’ll never see the Outworlds again.

“If you want to live the rest of your life trapped under a dome, breathing the same recycled air as a hundred million other people, then by all means, let’s take the cheapest option and leave our community behind forever. But if—”

“Oh, don’t be so dramatic,” said his wife, rolling her eyes. She folded her arms and shook her head. “You were the one who took us from our community at Delta Oriana—the one who made us leave our home forever.”

“I did it to save your lives!” Jakob shouted. “What part of that don’t you people understand?”

“We never should have left our beloved birth star,” said Giuli, crossing herself. “Nothing but evil has come to us at these stars of the unbelievers.”

“Do you think we could go back to Delta Oriana?” Leah asked. Her face lit up with the hope of someone who doesn’t know any better.

All at once, the room erupted into argument. Everyone started talking at once, while some of the younger kids began to cry. For her part, Salome just glared at him.

“Sometimes I don’t know why I still stay with you.”

Jakob’s nostrils flared, and his jaw began to quiver. “Then go, for all I care!” he shouted, reverting without thinking back to Gaian.

As he stormed out of the room, Mariya reached out to stop him. “Dad,” she said, “I’m sorry—”

He shrugged her off and walked past her, stopping only to put on his shoes before leaving the apartment.


* * * * *


The rimside bar closest to the immigrant quarter was unusually quiet when Jakob arrived. A couple young women eyed him from the far side of the room, but he ignored them and sat down in one of the booths. When the serving bot hovered over, he ordered a bottle of hard whiskey. As he poured himself a glass of the dark, noxious liquid, he stared out the window at the main corridor. A couple of Imperial soldiers walked past, their assault rifles conspicuously strapped to their backs.

Not many ships coming through these days, he thought to himself. It was true—with the Imperial takeover, Outworld traffic had taken a huge hit. There was a tension in the air, especially in the poorer areas of the station. The Imperials were changing things, and it wasn’t yet clear who would win and who would merely survive—if they survived at all.

Jakob had never experienced a station-wide riot before, but he knew that the soldiers were patrolling the corridors for a reason. From what he’d gathered, almost a quarter of the regular union workers had received the same termination message that he had—and that was just the dockyards. Rumor had it that the manufacturing centers were going to be squeezed next, which meant a lot of angry people without work if it was true. And then, there were the population controls and mandatory relocation plans—

“Hey, man,” came a familiar voice, shaking him out of his thoughts. “Long time no see.”

He glanced up just as Arai slipped into the seat across from him. He set down two mugs of beer, then noticed the whiskey.

“Ah—getting a head start, I see.”

Jakob muttered something unintelligible, even to him. Arai chuckled.

“How long have you been waiting here for me?”

“Not long,” said Jakob. “This is my first, I swear.”

“No problem, man—I know how it is. We’re all in the same starship together.”

I doubt that very much, he thought, thinking back to the argument back home. He took a long swig from his bottle and leaned heavily on the table.

“The union guys are really upset,” Arai continued. “They thought they had some security from this kind of stuff. Turns out, the Imperials don’t really care.”

“Unions,” Jakob muttered. “What kind of an Outworld settlement has unions?”

“One with thirty thousand people, I guess.”

He sighed heavily. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Back on Delta Oriana, we never had to deal with that kind of stuff. Everyone looked out for each other, and if any extra work needed doing, we all pitched in and did it. Not like here—no one tried to rip each other off like here.”

A few moments of silence passed between them. Jakob drained his glass and poured himself another one.

“A lot of the guys are thinking about taking work at some of the mining operations on Jarilna,” said Arai. “Me, I’ll probably try to sign on with a hauler crew. I’m not so young anymore, and I’ve got a wife and kid to support.”

“You and me both.”

“What about you? What do you plan to do?”

He emptied his glass again and set it down heavily on the table. “I don’t know. We can’t stay—you know how it is.”

“Yeah. It’s been tough for all of us.”

“Well, it’s tougher for us Deltans than most. I applied for all those same jobs as the other guys—every one turned me down.”

Arai frowned. “Even the mining jobs? Last I heard, the Imperials actually want to expand those operations.”

“Yeah, well, the system natives don’t want us to be a part of it. And when the manufacturing facilities close down, you can bet they’ll have their pick of the labor.”

“Stars of Earth.”

Another patrol of soldiers walked past their window. The leader, a clean-shaven young man with dark olive skin and sharp features, eyed Jakob suspiciously as they passed. Jakob returned the gaze, not really caring whether the man thought he was a threat or not. It was hard to care about anything anymore.

“It’s getting bad,” said Arai, setting down his half-finished mug. “I heard there was a guy from first shift who walked out an airlock. Just couldn’t take it anymore.”

“Huh,” said Jakob. He lifted the bottle to his lips and turned the bottom up. The alcohol burned his throat on the way down, making him swallow hard.

“Yeah. That’s the only one so far, though—thank the stars for that.”

“Well, it makes sense. If you’ve gotta go, that’s probably the best way to do it.”

Arai frowned. “What are you talking about, man?”

“I’m just saying, as far as suicide goes, walking out an airlock makes a lot of sense. It’s clean, quick, and fairly painless. Heat doesn’t radiate too fast in a vacuum, so you aren’t going to freeze to death, and while you might have a couple of veins burst from the sudden drop in pressure, all the air gets sucked out of your lungs in the first few seconds, so you pass out pretty quick.”

“The hell,” said Arai, shaking his head. “Don’t tell me you’re considering it.”

“Not at all,” said Jakob. “I’m just saying, as a way to kill yourself, that’s an effective way to do it.”

With his mind clear from the alcohol, it was amazing just how much everything made sense. A man from first shift walked out an airlock—well, why shouldn’t he? If there was nothing left to live for, what was the point of consuming all the food and oxygen that could be put to better use by someone else? Of course, it was all very sad, but that was just the way the universe was. The stars didn’t care—and if God cared, he certainly didn’t show it. Better for a man to take his destiny into his own hands than leave himself to the mercy of a vast, uncaring universe.

“Listen, man,” said Arai. He set down his mug again and looked Jakob in the eye.

“Yeah?”

“I know it seems tough right now, but you’ve got to stick it out. Things will get better—you’ve got to keep that hope alive.”

Jakob threw back his head and laughed. “What, you think I don’t know how to take care of myself? Listen to you—you sound like, like—”

“Like your wife?”

“Yeah, yeah. Wait—no. Stars, no. If you were her, you’d push me out yourself.”

He laughed again, but Arai didn’t laugh with him. That made him feel sad, which made him angry, since he hated it when the guys saw him sad. He stopped laughing and nursed the bottle, taking another swig. Just a little more, and he’d finish it off.

“That’s not funny, Jakob. You’re scaring me.”

“Scared? What for?”

“For you, man. I don’t want to check my news feed tomorrow and find that another one of my old work buddies has breathed vacuum.”

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever.”

“I’m serious. Before you step into that airlock, call me. I don’t care what time it is. Even if it’s the middle of my downshift, I’m here for you, man.”

Jakob nodded, though more to get his friend off of his case than anything else. He knew how to take care of himself. He’d been doing it for years now, taking care of a whole damn family even. A whole damn starforsaken family.

And a wife who didn’t give a shit about him.

“We gotta take care of each other, man. That’s how things work in the Outworlds. You take care of me, I take care of you.”

“Right,” Jakob muttered. But we aren’t in the Outworlds anymore.

“So you’ll call me if you’re in trouble.”

“What? Oh. Yeah, I’ll call you.”

“Promise.”

“Yeah, I promise.”

Arai nodded and leaned back. “That’s good. You know what they say: the only laws in the Outworlds are the promises we make to each other.”

“Right,” said Jakob. And he knew how empty those promises could be.


* * * * *


When nightshift came, Jakob didn’t go home. Instead, he stumbled out the bar down the main rimside corridor, barely able to walk straight. It’s these damn space stations, he remembered thinking later. Damn stations, always spinning.

He woke up on a stiff mattress with a buzz in his ear and a splitting headache. He groaned and sat up, bumping his head against the ceiling. The sharp pain made him swear and rub his forehead.

Where the hell am I?

He looked around and saw that he was in a small, boxlike room compartment that was only about a meter high and slightly longer than his body. The walls were a warm off-yellow color, the mattress navy blue. A narrow LED strip ran along the corner, illuminating the tiny space—it must have been activated by a motion sensor, since Jakob didn’t remember any lights before he woke up. The only exit was a hatch by his feet, while a holoscreen monitor near his head read: SLEEPCUBE 801-473. YOU HAVE 96:00 MINUTES REMAINING.

Sleepcube, Jakob read, trying to gather himself. The timer kept ticking, only making the dizziness worse. His stomach felt sick, and the place smelled of alcohol and vomit. A stain on the mattress by his chest told him why.

Someone must have found him and put him up in a sleeping unit down by the rimside docks. That was kind of them—though at Megiddo Station, they would have brought him into their home and cared for him there. The tiny modules were mostly for starfarers whose ships were in drydock or otherwise undergoing repairs. Jakob had never been in one before, but he knew how they worked. A public unisex bathroom would be just outside, probably at the end of a corridor.

He crawled out the hatch and stumbled to the bathroom, leaving his sleepcube open. When he found a toilet, he spent a good ten minutes retching into it. At least, it felt like ten minutes—maybe it was longer, maybe it was shorter. No one was waiting for him when he came out, and that filled him with a loneliness that was almost overwhelming.

The loneliness made him think about his wife. Sometimes I don’t know why I still stay with you. Her words were like jagged shards of glass tumbling in his mind. He bit his lip to keep his eyes clear, even though no one could see him. His teeth drew blood, filling his mouth with the dark, metallic taste. That snapped him out of it.

He stepped out of the bathroom and returned to his sleepcube to retrieve his wrist console and boots. Those were the only personal belongings he’d brought with him from the apartment. He supposed he should be getting back, but something kept him from going back, even though he felt awfully sick. A drink to clear out his hangover—yes, that was what he needed.

The main rimside corridor was just as empty as he’d remembered from the day before, though there weren’t any patrols or soldiers in sight. A couple of starfarers chatted in front of the gates, probably where their starship was docked. Jakob caught a glimpse of it out the narrow windows—a beautiful ship, not much larger than the Medea. The other docking terminals were empty, though. He walked a little further and passed a small janitor-bot cleaning the floors, but other than that, there were no signs of activity anywhere in the corridor.

Those docking gates each open up to an airlock, he found himself thinking. I wonder if the codes from the dockyard are still good?

He walked up to the closest one and punched in the code on the gate’s access panel. To his surprise, the doors hissed and slowly parted. With his headache, the sudden noise was like a knife to his forehead. He blinked.

The codes still worked.

He lifted his hand to close the door, but stopped just short of doing so. Something about the airlock seemed to call him, as if his old ship were waiting for him on the other side. It was foolish to think that way, of course—he’d passed the Medea on to his sons long ago—but he found himself stepping into the airlock anyway, his own feet moving of their own will and not his own.

It had been a long, long time since he’d stepped into an airlock like this one. The walls and floor were made of smooth, polished durasteel, and the lights along the ceiling were set behind almost four centimeters of plasteel glass. He took a deep breath of the cold, stale air, no doubt pumped in from one of the oxygen reserves. It still smelled slightly of copper.

A hiss sounded behind him, and the gate slowly closed, leaving him alone by himself in the windowless room. He knew he should leave, but his feet felt rooted to the spot, and his headache made him want nothing so much as to keep from moving. He stood there until the nausea quieted somewhat and his mind began to clear.

What had Arai said about airlocks last night? Their conversation seemed so long ago, he could hardly remember. He and Arai had talked about something important, but with his splitting headache it was hard to remember.

He walked over to the second door, the one that opened up into space. It looked so familiar, like hundreds of other doors he’d seen in his youth as a star wanderer. He ran his hands against the smooth metal plating, and found it cold to the touch—icy cold. Strange to think that less than a meter of durasteel separated him from the void of space.

If my life is a prison, he thought to himself, then here’s the way out.

A chill shot down his spine, from the back of his neck to the ends of his toes. His heart began to beat a little faster, and without thinking he lifted his hand to the second access panel. It would be so easy to open that second door. He’d done it hundreds of times before. Just a quick moment of violence, a loud but brief sucking noise, and a few seconds of unbearable pressure until he passed out from asphyxiation. If there was nothing left for him in this place, perhaps it was for the best. At least it wouldn’t leave a mess for anyone to clean up.

What am I thinking?

His hand stopped short of the access panel, trembling so much it barely seemed under his control. Taking one step backward, he leaned against the wall and began to breathe heavily. In that moment, the coppery air tasted sweeter and more pure than any he’d ever tasted.

He turned around and left the airlock as quickly as he could manage. His legs were numb, so he felt as if he were floating down the corridor. His palms felt clammy, and his hands wouldn’t stop shaking. His headache and nausea were nothing more than minor annoyances now, almost like the fleeting symptoms of a cold. He shuddered again, and walked a little faster.

When he arrived at the family apartment in the immigrant quarters, his headache was little more than a low throb. He took a deep breath and palmed open the door, feeling an almost overwhelming sense of peace and security as he stepped inside. His anger from the day before was all but forgotten, a dark but fleeting moment from the past. Everything about the place—the rich, familiar smell of Deltan incense, the orderly rows of boots and slippers next to the door, the sound of a baby crying in one of the back rooms—it all combined to overwhelm him. This was his home.

“Daddy?” Mariya asked, stepping out from the family room. Her voice was tinged with fear, and her eyes widened like full moons the moment she saw him. Without another word, she ran up and threw her arms around him, hugging him so tightly it made a lump rise in his throat.

“I’m so glad to see you, Mariya.”

“Me too, Daddy.”

“Jakob?”

This time, Salome stepped into view. She froze, and for a moment, Jakob wondered if they would fall into another argument. But then, her lip began to quiver, and she ran up to join him in an embrace.

“Oh, Jakob—we were worried sick about you. There’s been a spate of suicides on the news feeds, and when you didn’t come home, we feared the worst. Are you—are you all right?”

“Yes,” he whispered.

She burst into tears and buried her face in his chest. “I’m so, so sorry! Whatever I said last night, I didn’t mean it. Can you forgive me?”

“Of course,” he said, stroking her back. “Of course I can.”

“I’ve got some good news, Daddy,” said Mariya, a brightness returning to her voice that felt as warm as the rays of a sun. “Yesterday, after you left, Jeremiah and I went to visit a friend of his. Well, not exactly a friend, but—here, let him tell you.”

“Welcome back,” said Jeremiah, nodding in greeting. “It’s good to see you, sir.” Noemi stood beside him, holding his hand.

“And you as well,” said Jakob, reverting to Gaian as he gently let go of his wife. “What’s this news Mariya tells me about?”

“We found passage back to the Outworlds, sir. A private colony mission to the Zarmina system has room for all five of us, and the captain has agreed to sign us on.”

His heart leaped in his chest. “A—a colony mission?”

“That’s right: a colony mission to the Zarmina system. It’s in the Far Outworlds, but not too far from the Oriana Cluster. I have some friends at Zeta Oriana who might—”

“How did you find this?”

Jeremiah glanced at Mariya for a moment, then back to him. “A friend of a friend was able to help us out. She has a lot of connections here at Oriana Station—I know her through my old mentor, who took me under his wing when I was just starting out as a starfarer.”

“How—how much does it cost?” Jakob asked, so dumbfounded he barely knew what to say.

“The cost? It’s nothing, sir. Just a favor from a fellow outworlder—a ‘free pass,’ like the one you gave us.”

That was too much. Jakob’s legs buckled, and he fell to his knees weeping.

Chapter 10


“Where are we going, Dad?”

Jakob swallowed, hardly slowing as he led his sons down the long, narrow corridor that ran along the lower housing level of quadrant three. He exchanged glances with Isaac, who looked up at him with a single question written across his face. Should we tell him? The answer, of course, was no.

“Uh, Dad,” said Aaron, “the elevators for our section are back there.”

“I know, son,” said Jakob. “We aren’t taking those elevators.” Too much of a chance that someone might see us.

“Then … where are we going?”

“I’ll let you know when we get there.”

Aaron gave a loud, exasperated sigh, as if to let the whole station know how much of an inconvenience his father was putting him through. That was the least of Jakob’s worries, though. The corridor was empty enough—empty and drab, with so many doors like uniform prison cells—but it was only a matter of time before Salome’s suspicions arose and she started looking for them. Knowing how many arguments they’d had over this issue in the last couple months, it wouldn’t take long.

“Everything’s secure,” Isaac whispered as they rounded a corner and headed toward a parallel apartment block. “All of my things are already stowed on board the Medea.”

“And Aaron’s?”

“As many as I could sneak out.”

Jakob looked his oldest son in the eyes. He was a tall young man, though a bit lanky, no doubt from the reduced food rations at Delta Oriana in the months before they’d fled. His chin and cheeks were a bit scruffy, and his curly black hair spilled almost to his shoulders. Still, there was a gravity in his expression—a confidence that demanded to be taken seriously.

He’ll do well out there, Jakob thought, more out of hope than conviction. He himself had been a bit younger when he’d set out on the Medea, and things had turned out all right. Isaac would find his way sooner or later. Most star wanderers did.

They rounded another corner and arrived at a set of passenger elevators, identical to the ones at their own apartment block. Jakob allowed himself to relax a little as they stepped inside—once they were on the main rimside corridor, there wasn’t much that Salome could do to stop them. She could always send one of the brothers-in-law who spoke Gaian, but Svenson was out working and all the others were plugged into the dream monitors. It would take time to send someone out to stop them—time that was now on their side.

“You’re seriously not going to tell me what this is about,” said Aaron, his statement more of a complaint than a question or observation. He smirked and shook his head. “What is this, some kind of kidnapping?”

In a sense, Jakob thought to himself. Isaac gave him another questioning glance, and he shook his head. They couldn’t tell Aaron yet—not when they were still so close to the family apartment.

The elevator ride, though only a couple of levels, was the longest in Jakob’s life. He stood with his sons in a silence that felt almost deathly. Perhaps that was because Isaac knew full well where they were going, even if Aaron didn’t.

Jakob remembered how difficult the moment of parting had been for him back on his birth world. For those first couple of days alone on the Medea, it really had felt like death. But looking back, he had no regrets. For Isaac and Aaron, it was bound to be the same—though perhaps they would regret not being able to tell their mother goodbye. But there was nothing Jakob could do to change that now. If Salome had had her way, their sons would be stuck here, trapped in this cesspit of humanity. Better to leave now, when they still had their whole lives ahead of them.

They stepped out onto the wide rimside corridor. As usual, the place was bustling with activity. Pilots and passengers from all across the local sector came and went from the docking gates, their starships visible through the windows that stretched along the floor and walls. Many of them wore strange and exotic clothing: robes and headscarves, skinsuits and sarongs. Several dark-skinned women with shaved heads and cybernetic eye implants passed them in the opposite direction, while a group of men clustered around a hookah pipe eyed the crowds from a hole-in-the-bulkhead café. After living at Megiddo Station for so many years, Jakob still found himself disoriented by the wide diversity of cultures at this major Outworld hub. From the way his sons stiffened, it was clear they felt the same way.

They’ll get used to it soon, he told himself. After a couple of trade runs, they won’t think anything of it.

“We’re going to the Medea, aren’t we?” Aaron stated more than asked. Jakob didn’t answer, but kept walking.

“I said, are we going to the Medea?

Isaac took a deep breath. “Yeah. That’s where we’re going.”

“Why?”

“I’ll tell you when we get there,” said Jakob. He didn’t raise his voice, but thankfully, Aaron kept to himself until they arrived.

They opened the airlock and stepped onto the ship. A lump rose in Jakob’s throat as he entered the familiar cabin, with its double bunks and wall compartments. The beds were already made—as usual, Isaac had been very thorough in following through with his instructions. A couple of the compartments were open, revealing vacuum-sealed food stores and carefully folded clothing.

“Hey, what’s with all the stuff in here?” Aaron asked. “Is someone getting ready to go?”

“Yes,” said Isaac. “We both are.”

Aaron’s eyes widened, and his lips curled up in a nervous smile. “Nuh-uh.”

“He’s right,” said Jakob. “I brought you here to see you both off. Coming here in secret was the only way to get past your mother.”

“Wait—both of us?”

“That’s right.”

Aaron’s smile fell sharply. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It was the only way to make sure that you didn’t go tell Mom,” said Isaac. “I mean, the only way to make sure she wouldn’t find out and stop us.”

“It’s your choice, of course, whether to stay or go,” said Jakob.

“My choice? Wait—what about my things? My clothes, my—”

“I already brought them on board,” said Isaac. “The important things, anyway. They’re stowed in the footlocker under the bunks.”

“You mean you went through my things without asking me?”

“That’s not important,” said Jakob, stepping between them. “Look, boys—look at me.”

He placed his hands on their shoulders and looked them each in the eye. A somber silence fell over them. Isaac bit his lower lip, while Aaron started trembling.

“I know this isn’t easy for either of you,” Jakob began. “It certainly wasn’t easy for me when I was your age. It’s a vast and lonely universe out there, full of dangers and risk. Once you leave, you’ll probably never see me or the rest of your family again.”

“Then why are you sending us out?” Aaron asked in a shaky voice.

“Because it’s the only way to give you both a chance at a better future. You remember how hard it was to leave Megiddo Station, don’t you? How much we sacrificed just to get here? Well, the prospects aren’t going to get any better if you stay. The Deltan community is just too small and too poor. If you’re going to build a future for yourselves, you’ll have to do it the same way I did—by seeking your fortunes across the stars.”

Isaac nodded, his eyes dark and his jaw set. Aaron, on the other hand, looked as if he was about to have a breakdown. He shrugged off Jakob’s hand and turned to face the wall, burying his head in his hands.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” he said. “You want me to leave everything behind? Just go, and never see you or Mom or Mariya ever again?”

“You won’t be leaving everything,” said Isaac. “Whatever happens, we’ll be in it together—we’ll still have each other.”

“Yeah. Right.”

“Like I said, the choice is yours,” said Jakob. “If you don’t want to go, you can take back your things and return to the apartment. I’m not going to force you.”

“But Aaron—do you really want to stay?”

Aaron looked up at his brother, his cheeks red and his eyes puffy. He took a deep breath and wiped his face with the back of his hand.

“You’re going, then?”

“Of course I’m going. Dad was younger than me when he left, wasn’t he? The only reason I haven’t gone already is because of all the problems getting the rest of the family to Alpha Oriana.”

“But it’s different for you. You’re the oldest—it’s expected of you.”

“Perhaps,” said Jakob. “That is the tradition. But there’s nothing to say that the both of you can’t go together. The traditions exist to keep the Outworlds strong—to bring in new blood, and to prevent inbreeding and isolation. There’s space on the Medea for both of you, so as long as you can get along with each other and work together, I don’t see anything wrong with sending you both out.”

Aaron nodded. He took another long breath, and his eyes began to clear.

“Think of it as an adventure,” said Isaac. “You don’t want to spend the rest of your life at Alpha Oriana, do you? Ten standard years from now, what are you going to regret more?”

“I don’t know,” Aaron muttered. “It’s just so heavy …”

“You’ve got to make a decision one way or another. This isn’t the sort of thing to let drift away.”

“Am I really never going to see you again?” he asked, looking Jakob in the eye. The expression on his face stabbed Jakob to the heart.

“God knows,” he said softly. “But you probably won’t.”

“And Mom? Mariya?”

He shook his head.

“But—but how can I leave them without saying goodbye?”

“We can record a message and send it to them over the planetnet before we jump out,” said Isaac.

“I can’t say goodbye in person?”

“Your mother will do everything to stop you if you do,” said Jakob. “Trust me—it’s better this way.” Better not to remember her as an emotional wreck, screaming and raving at you to stay.

“Is the cargo hold full?” asked Isaac.

“Yes,” said Jakob, sighing a little. “I had it loaded this morning. The complete inventory should be in the computer.”

“Great. Where’s the best place to sell electronics?”

“Damned if I know, son. It’s been almost twenty standard years since my last trade run. Just keep your ears open and check the prices wherever you go, and you’ll be fine.”

“This is really happening, isn’t it?” said Aaron. His cheeks weren’t quite so red anymore.

“Only if you want it to,” said Isaac.

He nodded and bit his lip. “Right. You’re leaving now?”

“As soon as we can go.”

No regrets, Jakob thought, his eyes burning and his throat beginning to constrict. Follow the path of least regret.

“I’m coming,” said Aaron, his voice low but firm.

Isaac smiled and slapped him on the back. “Then welcome aboard, brother. I knew you’d come around.”

“I just hope we don’t kill each other before this is over.”

“Over? We’re just getting started.”

They gave each other a warm, brotherly embrace that made a lump rise in Jakob’s throat.

“I suppose that settles it, then. Very well—just remember to be careful. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering if my sons died less than half a dozen parsecs from here.”

“Don’t worry, Dad,” said Isaac. “We’ll be careful.”

Aaron said nothing, but instead put his arms around his father and gave him a hug. A sharp pang of sadness cut through Jakob’s heart like a knife, and he returned his son’s embrace with a fierce one of his own. Isaac joined in, and they stood in silence for several moments on the cabin of Jakob’s old ship.

“Thank you, Dad,” Aaron whispered. “Thanks for everything.”

The other goodbyes all happened in a blur. The next thing Jakob knew, he was in the airlock, waiting for the door to hiss open so that he could return to Oriana Station. He glanced over his shoulder at the cold, windowless durasteel that separated him from his sons, and felt the same pang of sadness, only sharper this time.

It never goes away, does it? he wondered to himself. Still, there was a satisfaction in knowing that he’d given them a chance at a better life. Their destiny was in their own hands now, and that was exactly as it should be.


* * * * *


Jakob gazed out the window at the massive bulk of the colony ship Hope of Oriana. Though she wasn’t much to look at compared with some of the newer models coming out from the Coreward Stars, Jakob didn’t think he’d seen a more beautiful sight in his life. Rows of portholes along the dark brown hull showed bunkrooms and corridors, living space for more than two hundred people. The massive reactors and sublight engines at the back showed signs of quality engineering, the kind that could keep a ship running for generations if maintained properly. Pockmarks and micrometeor streaks showed the ship’s age, but she was built as solidly as any that Jakob had seen. He had little doubt she would take them safely to the Far Outworlds.

“Sorry I couldn’t find a better ship,” said Jeremiah. Jakob turned—he’d been so lost in his own musings that he hadn’t heard the young star wanderer approach. He fought back the urge to throw his arms around him and offered his hand instead.

“There’s nothing at all to be sorry for. So long as she takes us far away from this hellhole, I’ve got no complaints.”

“The first officer said they can only take the five of us. I tried to bargain for a couple extra spots, so at least some of the extended family could come, but he wouldn’t budge.”

“That’s okay,” said Jakob, putting a hand on Jeremiah’s shoulder. “I doubt any of them would have come anyway. You did good, kid—you did real good.”

A wave of emotion rose up suddenly and threatened to overwhelm him. Jeremiah wasn’t much older than Isaac right now—perhaps at some star not too many parsecs distant, the Medea was about to take off as well. Or maybe, just maybe, his sons had settled down already to start families of their own. His throat suddenly hoarse, Jakob bit his lip and turned back to the window before he cracked.

“Noemi and I will take the Ariadne to make a few quick trade runs,” said Jeremiah. “We’ll rendezvous at one of the ports on your schedule before heading out to Zarmina—hopefully before the pregnancy is too advanced.”

“Right,” said Jakob, slowly recomposing himself. He gripped the guardrail under the window until his knuckles turned white.

“Well, if that’s all, I’d better get going. If I don’t get to see you before you go, may the Stars of Earth watch over and protect you.”

He turned and gave Jeremiah a warm hug. If the gesture was unexpected, he recovered quickly. They held each other in silence for a few moments, two friends of unequal ages made immeasurably closer through hardship and sacrifice.

“Thank you,” Jakob whispered. He let go and took a step back.

“Hey, we outworlders have to stick together. It’s what you would have done, right?”

“When I was your age, maybe. When I still had my father’s starship and there wasn’t a place in the Outworlds where I couldn’t go.”

“Well, that’s where we’re headed, isn’t it?”

Jakob smiled. “That’s right, kid. We certainly are.”

They parted ways, Jeremiah to his starship to get ready for the long voyage ahead. Jakob knew that he should get back to the apartment and help pack the last of their things, but he lingered at the window, staring at the colony ship that meant freedom—not only his, but his family’s as well.

The sound of footsteps made him glance over his shoulder just as his wife approached him. She wore a dark gray dress and a small black jacket, things they’d picked up secondhand like so many of their other clothes. She didn’t look bad in them, though. Perhaps the conciliatory expression on her face had something to do with that.

“Hi,” she said softy, as if it were taboo to speak Deltan publicly on Oriana Station. Perhaps it was.

“Hi.”

She walked up next to him and gazed out the window with a mixture of apprehension and dread. She gripped the handrail so tightly that her knuckles began to turn white. Jakob reached down and covered her hand with his. The contact made her flinch at first, but she soon relaxed.

“So that’s the ship that’s taking us out to the stars.”

“That’s right,” said Jakob. That’s our chance for a fresh start.

For a long time, they stood together in an uneasy silence. With all the heart-wrenching goodbyes as they prepared to leave on the Hope of Oriana, Jakob wasn’t sure what to say. They hadn’t fought over it—yet—but they hadn’t talked much about it either.

Salome sighed. “Mariya isn’t taking the move very well. She spent the better part of the last few hours crying in the bathroom while I finished packing our things.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes. She tries to hide it from you, but I can understand how she feels.”

I’m sure you can, Jakob thought to himself. Chances were that his wife didn’t feel that much different.

“Is she angry?” he asked.

“I don’t think so—not yet, anyway. So far, she’s taking it the way she took it when Isaac and Aaron left.”

“That bad?”

“Yeah. I think she’s still in shock, but she’s been crying a lot, so she’ll probably be all right eventually. At least, as much as any of us can expect.”

Jakob took a deep breath. “I know it was hard on you—sending Isaac and Aaron out the way I did. There’s nothing in my life that I regret more than that.”

The air between them grew tense, as if it were all that separated two points of enormous charge. Salome looked up at him, and he turned to meet her gaze. Instead of anger and bitterness, however, her eyes were clearer and more honest than he could remember seeing them. It brought him back to the days when they were young, and their children were still unborn.

“Do you mean that?”

“Absolutely,” he said without hesitation. “If I knew how it would tear you apart—how it would tear us apart—”

She took a deep breath and nodded, looking away. Her eyes shimmered, and she blinked away tears.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s me who should be sorry,” she said. “I swore I’d never forgive you for that—and for most of the last two years, I didn’t. But if I’d known how close that would come to destroying you …”

He tentatively reached for her hand. She tensed a little, probably from habit, but interspersed her fingers among his and squeezed.

“Is it hard for you?” she asked. “Leaving everything behind like this, I mean.”

“Of course it is,” he said softly. Though probably not as hard as it is for you.

“When you first brought us to this place, I hated you for it, even though I knew you were only doing your best. Everything was your fault, and that was all that I allowed myself to see. Maybe if I’d opened my eyes and let go of my stupid pride, you wouldn’t have had to take Isaac and Aaron from me the way you did.”

Relief flooded over Jakob’s senses, like a balm soothing an old, unhealed wound. Salome’s body relaxed, and he realized that she was experiencing the same thing.

“Do you remember how it was when our family was still young?” he asked. “Back when you were expecting Aaron, and Isaac was just a toddler?”

She smiled. “Do you remember how it was when we were first married? When we were young and naïve and had our whole lives in front of us, like that girl Noemi and the starfaring husband who rescued her?”

“Yes,” Jakob said softly. I do now.

“We were so clueless back then,” she continued. “Young and clueless, but totally in love. At least, I know I was.”

“So was I.”

“Our lives were so happy—full of hope and devoid of regret. Do you think we can ever get back to that? When everything was simpler and nothing stood between us?”

She looked up at him, her skin glowing in the soft light of the reflected stars. He felt as if he had just woken up from a dream, a long and terrible nightmare that was only just coming to an end.

“I’m sorry, Jakob,” she said at last. “I’ve treated you so awfully these past two years—can you ever forgive me for that?”

He turned and ran his fingers through her soft, dark hair. “I already have, dear. I already have.”

They embraced each other tenderly, the way they used to when they were young. A warm feeling of comfort and peace spread through every part of Jakob’s being, turning his muscles to water and making his eyes burn. He clenched his teeth and clung fiercely to his wife, determined to never let her go.

“What about your family?” he asked.

She took a deep breath. “It’s going to be hard,” she admitted. “I wish I didn’t have to leave them.”

“So do I. If there was anything I could do to—”

“There’s nothing you could. If we went with them to the Coreward Stars, we’d still be in the same miserable situation we are right here.”

He bit his lip and nodded. “I’m not much good at stationer’s work. Give me a ship, though—even just a sublight hauler—and I’ll more than earn a living wage.”

“I’m sure you will,” she said, smiling. “More importantly, we’ll have a chance to start over—not just with a new home, but with each other.”

“Yes. We certainly will.”

He gazed out at the Hope of Oriana and thought of all the times he’d wished he could escape back out to the stars. Now that it was really happening, it felt less like an escape and more like a return to the life he’d left behind.

“I’ve always wondered something,” Salome mused, her arm wrapped tightly around his waist. “When you left your home and your family to become a star wanderer, was it difficult?”

“Of course,” said Jakob.

“Then why did you do it?”

He thought over the question for a moment. “Well, you know the traditions. It was something that was expected of me—something I always knew I’d do.”

Salome chuckled. “Yeah, but you were never one to do something just because it was expected of you.”

“I suppose not.”

“Then why did you leave everything behind?”

“Because …” His voice drifted off for a moment as he thought of his birth world. It had been so many years since he’d taken to the stars that it was difficult to remember. So much had happened since then—he’d grown from a boy to a man, and married and raised a family. Yes, the last few years had been extraordinarily difficult, but all of that was coming to an end, and the next chapter in his life was just beginning.

“I don’t know,” he answered her. “I guess it wasn’t that I was leaving something, so much as I was finding something else.”

“And your family? Didn’t you ever miss them?”

“Well, yes—but I have my own family now. And if I’d never left my parents, I never would have found you.”

She gazed up at him with her dark, beautiful eyes, and he knew that he’d said the right thing. He held her close, the way he had when they were both young and the stars of the Outworlds still beckoned with the promise of a bright and hopeful future. He looked out across them now, and realized that that promise still held true.

Part VII: Reproach


And in that day seven women shall take hold of one man, saying, We will eat our own bread, and wear our own apparel: only let us be called by thy name, to take away our reproach.

(Isaiah 4:1, KJV)



Chapter 11


Mariya never felt so small as she did when she stared out the fishbowl window of the observation deck of the Hope of Oriana at the endless sea of stars. In deep space, they shone brighter and fiercer than anywhere else. This was the second time that she’d seen them from this perspective, and both times, it hadn’t been by choice.

A strong family shines brighter than all the stars, she thought silently to herself. The old Deltan proverb gave her no comfort, however—not when all of her family except her mother and father were light-years away. Only a few weeks had passed since she’d said her last painful goodbyes, but it felt as if it had been years. Her aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents—the family she’d known and loved since childhood—they were all headed for the Coreward Stars, while the colony mission was taking her deep into the Far Outworlds where she’d probably never see them again. It was still hard for her to believe it, but every time she looked out at the stars, it became a little more real—and a lot more painful.

“Attention passengers,” came the low, gruff voice of the Hope of Oriana’s chief steward over the loudspeakers. “Upshift dinner is now being served. The line will close in ten minutes. If this is your scheduled meal time, please report to the mess right now.”

Mariya rubbed her eyes and sighed. She wasn’t particularly hungry, but her parents would be worried if she didn’t show up. The last thing she wanted was for them to come look for her—or worse, send someone else.

As if in response to her thought, heavy footsteps sounded behind her. She turned and found herself looking at the white-bearded face of Elijah, the ship’s captain.

“Good upshift,” he said, nodding. “Mariya Varvavli, is it?”

“Yes,” she muttered, turning back to the window. Captain Elijah was likable enough, but she really hoped he hadn’t come to talk with her.

“Beautiful sight, isn’t it?” he said, either oblivious to her melancholy mood or choosing to ignore it. “There’s nothing quite like the sight of the stars to stir the soul.”

“I guess,” said Mariya. The truth was she came down here just because it was one of the few places she could be alone.

“Is something the matter?”

“No, everything’s fine,” she said, forcing a smile.

The captain raised an eyebrow. “Is it really?”

No. But the last thing she wanted was to explain to him why.

“I’ve spoken extensively with your father,” he said, turning to the window with his hands clasped comfortably behind his back. “He’s very worried about you. Ever since we left Oriana Station, he says you’ve been strangely aloof.”

“I’m doing okay,” she said quickly. “It’s just—my parents worry too much.”

“They’re not the only ones. Several of the people on your work shift have mentioned it too.”

Mariya’s arms tensed, and her legs began to grow weak. She drew in a long breath, but said nothing.

“As captain, it’s my responsibility to see to the well-being of every member of this mission. If there’s anything you want to talk about, I’m here.”

“There is … one thing,” she said, hesitating for a moment out of fear. “The system we’re going to—Zarmina—how isolated are we going to be once we get there?”

The captain smiled. “Don’t you worry about that, my girl. The Outworlds may be vast, but it’s a small universe outside of the Coreward Stars. It may be a standard year or two before we see anyone, but we won’t be cut off forever.”

A standard year or two. How was that any better?

“For all that time, it will just be us? Alone, on an unsettled world?”

“Alone except for each other. And since there’s more than two hundred of us, I wouldn’t exactly call that ‘alone.’”

Two hundred colonists, but no other Deltans. No other family.

“Is it the feeling that you’ve been uprooted that bothers you?” He put a hand on her shoulder. “Your father told me about your family’s experience leaving Delta Oriana. It’s hard, being a refugee.”

You have no idea, Mariya wanted to say. Instead, she forced a smile.

“I’ll be fine, Captain,” she managed to say. “I’ve left my home for the stars before.”

“Yes, of course. And if it’s any consolation, so have I. This isn’t the first colony mission I’ve been on, so don’t worry.”

“I won’t,” she lied. “Now, I’d better get upstairs before mess is over.”

“Very well. If there’s ever anything else you want to talk about, feel free to come see me in my quarters. I promise to keep it confidential.”

“I’ll remember that,” she said hastily as she climbed the narrow stairwell to the main deck. Not that she’d ever take him up on that. After all, she doubted there was anything he could do to help her. Had she left her home before? Yes, but not her family—never her family. Now, they were gone, and she didn’t think she’d ever see them again.

A strong family shines brighter than all the stars. Not like hers—that was for sure.


* * * * *


Mariya was the last one to get her food. The synthmeal and beans looked thoroughly unappetizing, but she served herself some anyway just to keep everyone from worrying about her. The last thing she wanted was for someone to confront her like the captain had.

“Hi there!” came a young man’s voice from behind as she scanned the room for her parents. She didn’t recognize him, but from his clothes he must have been one of the guys in engineering.

“Hello,” she said as cheerily as she could manage. The mess hall was the most spacious room on the ship next to the rec hall, which wasn’t saying much. Almost all of the available seats were packed. Three rows of tables and benches branched off on either side of the main aisle, their smooth metal surfaces reflecting the bright overhead lights. The low rumble of mingled conversations was pleasant to her ear, though most of the other passengers were strangers.

“If you’re looking for a place to sit, we can make room for you here.”

The boy scooted aside and patted the open space on the bench next to him. He seemed harmless enough, with tousled blond hair and dimpled cheeks. His friends sat across from him: a lanky, broad-shouldered boy with a face that was kind of cute, and a beefy-looking guy with a thick neck who was probably a couple of years older than the others.

“Thanks,” said Mariya, “but I’m looking for my parents.”

“Hey, aren’t you the Deltan girl?” said the older boy. His upper arms were almost as wide as Mariya’s thighs—muscular, but stout, just like the rest of him. She tensed a little under his gaze.

“Yes, I am.”

“Watch out, James. You know what they say about Deltan girls—don’t get too friendly unless you want lots of children.”

Hot blood rushed to Mariya’s cheeks as the boy and his friend burst out laughing. Heads started turning at the nearby tables, and she walked off as quickly as her shaking legs would allow her.

“Ash, you jerk! Why’d you have to go chase her off like that?”

“Hey, I was only teasing. It’s not my fault if …”

She didn’t catch the rest of their conversation. A part of her wanted to run away to some place where she could be alone and cry until she felt better, but with the tray of food in her hands, she knew that was impossible. People were watching, so she took a deep breath and put on as best a face as she could.

She found her parents in the far back corner, at a table with a young couple on the other end. They sat next to each other, the height difference more than a little striking. Her mother might be short, but she could still be feisty when she needed to be—a quality that Mariya often envied. Her father, on the other hand, was hard-edged except when it really mattered, probably because of his years spent as a directionless star wanderer. Just Mariya’s luck that she should end up with the weaknesses of both.

“Hello there, Mariya,” said her father. “It’s good of you to join us—we almost thought you wouldn’t.”

“Jakob!”

“Well, it’s true, Salome” he said in Deltan, turning to Mariya’s mother. “Besides, you yourself said—”

“Please don’t fight,” Mariya said heavily, speaking in Deltan for her mother’s benefit. She sighed and sat down across from them, with her back to the rest of the room. At least that way, she didn’t have to keep putting on a face—and since no one else on the ship spoke her native dialect, she didn’t have to worry about anyone overhearing them either.

Her mother turned to her and smiled. “We’re worried about you, Mariya. I’ve never seen you this glum before.”

“Yeah,” said her father. “You never were like this at Oriana Station.”

We’re not at Oriana Station anymore, Mariya was tempted to say. Instead, she dipped her spoon in the synthmeal and began to stir it listlessly.

“Do you miss the rest of the family?”

She stopped and stared vacantly at her tray. As usual, her mother had nailed it.

“We’re never going to see them again, are we?”

Her parents glanced at each other. Neither of them spoke for a long time. When they did, her father leaned forward, his hands clasped with his elbows on the table.

“I know how hard it is for you,” he said. “It hasn’t been easy on any of us. But if we’d followed the rest of the family Coreward—”

“I know, I know,” she said, staring off at the view through one of the portholes. “It’s not your fault—I know that.”

Her mother reached across the table and gently took hold of her hand. “You miss Benyamin, don’t you?”

Benyamin. Mariya’s arms tensed as she remembered their last goodbye. One of the few cousins her age who hadn’t taken to the stars, he’d been with her for as long as she could remember. As a little girl, her parents had told her that she would marry him when they were older. That fact had carried her through the hard times when they’d been forced to flee from their home, much like they were fleeing Alpha Oriana right now. She could picture him in her mind: tall, dark hair, gentle eyes, a gap between his front teeth that she’d always made fun of as a child. Now, she would never see that face again.

“A little, yeah,” she said quietly, her spoon shaking. She set it down and put her hands in her lap, biting her lip to keep from trembling.

“You’ll be fine, dear,” said her father. “There will be other boys to choose from. Everything at our new home is going to work out fine.” He said it with authority, but his voice lacked conviction.

And what if there weren’t? What if the only other men she had to choose from were the ones on this ship? She thought back to the boys who’d harassed her on the way to the table. To them, it might have been harmless fun, but to her it was another painful reminder that she was different—that she was weird. These were not her people.

“You haven’t met all the boys on the ship yet,” her mother said, practically reading her mind. “Remember, there’s still everyone on the downshift. And even if none of them interest you, they aren’t the only ones in the universe. Sooner or later, you’ll meet your future husband.”

“In the Far Outworlds?” she said, unable to hold herself back anymore. “Mom—where we’re going, there won’t be another human soul for more than a parsec.”

“That may be true, but—”

“And where am I going to find a boy who’s Deltan?” Someone who doesn’t think I’m weird.

Her mother sighed. “Your father wasn’t a believer when I married him, you know.”

“I know. But—but that’s different.”

“Different how?”

She drew in a sharp breath, burying her head in her hands. Because you weren’t the only Deltan girl on a colony ship headed for the middle of nowhere.

“I don’t know, it just is.”

“I don’t ever want you to settle for someone who won’t treat you right,” said her father. He waited until she looked him in the eye to make sure she got the point. “Even if it means staying single your whole life, I’d rather see you safe.”

Single your whole life. The prospect sent shivers of terror down Mariya’s spine. She would rather die than spend the rest of her life alone.

“Nonsense,” said her mother, giving him a teasing push. “Mariya won’t be single for long. Even in the Far Outworlds, I’m sure she’ll have no trouble finding a husband.”

“Yes, but how can we be sure that he’ll treat her right? There are no laws where we’re going, after all. I should know, I—”

“Just—just stop,” said Mariya, covering her head with her hands. She covered her face and closed her eyes as tightly as she could, blocking everything out except the rumble of conversation and the ever-present hum of the shipwide ventilation system.

“I’m sorry, dear,” said her mother. “We didn’t mean to offend you.”

“I’m not offended,” she said, looking up again. “I just need a break for a while. Can’t we talk about something else?”

Her father shrugged. “Sure. Have you gotten to know any of your shift-mates on the comm crew?”

“A little.”

“Well? What can you tell us about them?”

“They’re all right, I guess.” Two girls who were probably sisters, and a former star wanderer with a wife and family who kept mostly to himself. None of them had showed much of an interest in her, which was probably just as well. She knew she should be making more of an effort to reach out to these people, since she’d probably be spending the rest of her life around them, but she just didn’t feel like it.

“Don’t worry, dear,” said her mother. “I’m sure you’ll make plenty of friends before long. Besides, isn’t Master Korha’s girl supposed to meet up with us soon?”

Noemi. Mariya’s heart leaped as she realized they’d be seeing each other again soon. Noemi was one of Master Korha’s daughters from back home. She and her husband had stayed with the family for a short while on Oriana Station. Noemi and Mariya were practically best friends by now; friendships tended to form quickly when you were a refugee. Once they met back up with the Hope of Oriana, Mariya wouldn’t be the only Deltan girl on the colony mission. That, at least, was something to look forward to.

“Soon, I think,” said Jakob. “If they don’t meet us at Beta Oriana, they’ll rendezvous at Gamma Oriana for sure. Good people.”

“Yes,” Mariya said softly. She missed having someone her age to talk to. Besides, Noemi always seemed so confident and self-assured. She was going to have her first baby in a few months. Even though she and her husband didn’t speak the same language, they obviously loved and cared for each other. Their budding family shone like a bright new star, veiled in a gorgeous nebula.

Mariya would give anything for a family like that someday.


* * * * *


A few hours later, Mariya lay awake on the topmost bunk, unable to fall asleep. Her father’s muffled snoring echoed through the five-person bunk room, but that wasn’t what kept her up.

Ever since she’d become a refugee with the rest of her family nearly two standard years ago, few things in her life had been certain. The only things that had given her any sense of security at all were the closeness of her family and the heritage and traditions of her mother. Surrounded by a good Deltan family that knew and loved her, she’d known exactly who she was and what was expected of her.

But then, her father had sent both of her brothers away to seek their fortunes across the stars—sent them away, without a chance to say goodbye. She still remembered the way her mother had screamed and sobbed when she’d learned of it. For Mariya’s part, any anger at her father’s brazen act was swallowed up in the fear that her parents’ marriage was about to be sundered apart. A cold iciness had set in between the both of them, and she’d tried in vain to bring some of that brightness back. For a little while, things seemed to be going well. Then, shortly after Noemi and Jeremiah had started boarding with them, her father had lost his job, tearing them apart all over again.

“If we go Coreward, I guarantee you I wouldn’t be able to find work,” she remembered her father arguing with the rest of the family back on Oriana Station. His eyes had been wide with anger and desperation. “I’m forty two standard years old, and my only useful skills have to do with my time as a starship pilot. The only starships in the Coreward Stars are superliners and bulk freighters—massive corporate-run ships with captains who started out in their careers back in their twenties.”

“Oh, come on,” her mother had said, her hands belligerently on her hips. “Surely you’d be able to find something.”

Please don’t fight, Mariya had thought to herself as she stood against the far wall, near the door. The whole family had crowded into the apartment’s family room, making the cozy space feel hot and cramped. From the nervous glances her aunts and uncles stole at each other, it was clear that the problems were serious—even more so than usual.

“You don’t believe me?”

“No, I don’t. How often have I told you to find something better than that dockyard job, or at least ask for a raise? How often did you listen to me?”

Her mother’s expression was cold and spiteful, making Mariya cringe. Why did her parents have to fight? She didn’t like it—it made her feel as if the family was about to fall apart. Ever since they’d fled Megiddo Station as refugees, it had been like this. The tensions usually just simmered, but now they were bursting to the surface with a vengeance. If she didn’t do something to stop it, she feared that something awful was going to happen.

“The New Pleiades isn’t too far,” her father was now saying. “There’s been a lot of expansion out that way—I’m sure we could find something.”

Uncle Sven already had his wrist console out, checking the claim. “You’re right,” he said, “but the going rate for passage looks pretty high—almost five times the price for a one-way ticket to New Sol.”

“That’s too much,” said Grandpa, shaking his head.

“Well, then let’s apply for one of the colony ships,” said her father, throwing his hands up in exasperation. “There are plenty of colonization missions to the far Outworlds that are eager to sign up people. We’d get passage free, possibly with the option to homestead.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?” asked Aunt Leah. “We’d be starting over as first generation settlers on the stellar frontier. What about our children?”

“I’m sure everything will be fine. They don’t send people out on those missions without plenty of supplies.”

“I’m not so sure,” said Sven. “I’ve heard some horror stories. Besides, there’s no guarantee we’ll find a mission that will take all of us. The Coreward Stars are still our best bet.”

“He’s right,” said Grandma. “Not all of us are young anymore. Better that we stick together, and go somewhere that’s well suited for all of us.”

From the frown on her father’s face, it was clear that he didn’t think that was a good idea.

“If you want to live the rest of your life trapped under a dome, breathing the same recycled air as a hundred million other people, then by all means, let’s take the cheapest option and leave our community behind forever. But if—”

“Oh, don’t be so dramatic,” said her mother, shaking her head as she folded her arms. “You were the one who took us from our community at Delta Oriana—the one who made us leave our home forever.”

“I did it to save your lives! What part of that don’t you people understand?”

Please don’t fight. Please.

“We never should have left our beloved birth star,” said Aunt Giuli, crossing herself. “Nothing but evil has come to us at these stars of the unbelievers.”

“Do you think we could go back to Delta Oriana?” Aunt Leah asked. Her face lit up with the hope of someone who doesn’t know any better.

Suddenly, everyone started talking at once. It was as if the mere mention of home had brought out a flood of pent up emotions. Mariya’s head spun as she tried to keep up with it all, but it was impossible.

“Then go, for all I care!” her father shouted in Gaian. He stormed out of the room, his face a picture of rage.

Without thinking, she reached out to stop him. “Dad, I’m sorry—”

But he shrugged her off without a word.

Mariya clenched her teeth and gripped the edge of the blanket with all the strength she possessed. In the darkness of the bunk room, the memories played across her mind as if on an endless loop. She turned and buried her face in her pillow, but it made no difference. There was nothing she could do to stop it—nothing to distract her from her fears and anxieties about the future.

What would happen to her? Zarmina was a distant star on the farthest fringes of the Far Outworlds. She and the other colonists would be the only ones there. Without her family—her aunts and uncles and cousins, and all their children as well—she might as well be alone. Her future was as dark and as cold as a starless void.

A strong family shines brighter than all the stars. The words brought tears to her eyes, staining her pillow with their fleeting moisture. She’d always thought that her family was strong enough to endure anything, but now she saw that she had been wrong. Nothing in her life was secure anymore—any part of it could be shattered in an instant. And now, she was on her way to a place where she would be the only Deltan her age, among a people who thought that her faith and traditions were weird.

Well, that wasn’t quite true. There was still Noemi and Jeremiah, who’d be joining them on board the Hope of Oriana in just a few weeks.

Thinking about that only made her tears come faster. How could they share such a bond with each other when the rest of her family had fallen apart? Even though they didn’t speak the same language, they were almost inseparable from each other. Jeremiah would do anything for her—even give up his starship. He was like an anchor of security in Noemi’s life, guiding her through the darkness and shielding her from uncertainty.

Could Benyamin and I have been like that? she wondered. With all the light-years that now separated them, it was impossible to know for sure. She doubted it, though. Perhaps in time, they could have grown as close, but the fact that Jeremiah and Noemi already had that connection—why couldn’t she have it too?

Well, why couldn’t she?

Another memory came unbidden to her mind—the lavish upper-class penthouses in the spokeside districts of Oriana Station, far from her home in the immigrant quarters. She’d gone with Jeremiah to a woman there, a beautiful young woman with the means to help her family. Jeremiah had said she was a friend of his friend, though he hadn’t wanted to visit her alone. And with good reason.

“I have a friend who might be able to help you,” she had said, the air thick with the heady smell of her custom-rolled cigarettes. “Not with a starship, of course, but with passage out of the system—and possibly more.”

“Y-you do?” Jeremiah had asked.

The woman had looked down on them with haughty eyes, clearly holding them both in contempt. Still, she answered.

“He’s the captain of a colony expedition. 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,” Mariya had said, not wanting to push their luck. “My parents and myself.”

“It shouldn’t be too difficult.”

“Thank you so much,” said Jeremiah, rising to his feet. “I—”

“Not so fast,” said the young woman, stepping between him and the door. “You said you wanted something from me, but you never asked if there was anything I wanted from you.”

He glanced back at Mariya, as if asking what to do. Mariya didn’t know what to tell him.

“What’s that?”

The woman approached him slowly, swinging her hips as she walked. Her sleek, form-fitting dress accentuated all of her curves, giving her a deeply sensual beauty that Mariya would never have. Before she spoke, her lips turned up in a sultry smile, and Mariya knew exactly what she was after.

“I’m not a married woman,” she said, circling Jeremiah like a cat. “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.” She stopped and faced him. “That seems so … so fascinating.

That’s enough, Mariya thought, unable to stand by silently any longer. She stepped between them before they could come any closer.

“No!” she yelled. “Jeremiah is—it’s not right to expect that from him. We don’t want—”

“This isn’t about what you want, dear,” sneered the woman. “It’s about what he wants—and how much he really wants it.”

Ignoring her, she stepped past her and ran a hand down Jeremiah’s chest, undoing the top button of his shirt. Much to Mariya’s dismay, he didn’t move to stop her.

“I don’t know about this,” he said softly. “It … wouldn’t be very faithful of me.”

“Faithful? It’s only once. She never has to know.”

Don’t do it, Mariya had wanted to scream. You have a wife, a family—don’t throw that all away!

“She wouldn’t want me to do this,” Jeremiah said.

“Then tell me: how much do you really love her?”

The woman stared at him in the eye, dominating him. He shifted uneasily, while Mariya clenched her fists.

“I’ve committed myself to her,” he said. “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 the woman, “but is it passion?

She stepped right up to him, so that their bodies almost touched. Mariya’s eyes widened, and she covered her mouth in shock. Still, she couldn’t look away—something about the scene transfixed her.

“I love her,” said Jeremiah, his voice soft but firm. “Please, don’t ask me to betray her.”

The woman 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, returning to her haughty tone from before. “That would be … too banal. Besides, I doubt you’re as good a lover as my Samson.”

“Yes,” he said, the relief evident in his voice. “I’m probably not.”

“However,” she said, turning sharply, “there is something else you can give me.”

“What is it?”

A smile like that of a naughty child spread across her face, making Mariya tense. “It’s just a small favor—a very harmless one. Something not difficult at all.” She licked her lips mischievously. “I want you to give me a kiss.”

“A kiss?” Mariya shrieked. “But—but Noemi—”

“Just a kiss? That’s all?”

“Yes,” said the woman. “But you must kiss me like you would kiss her.”

Jeremiah 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.”

You horrible, horrible woman! Mariya nearly screamed. You—you bitch! But with her hands trembling, it was all she could do to fold her arms and shake her head.

“Don’t do it,” she told Jeremiah. “We can find another way.”

“It’s just a kiss,” he said softly. “If it’s the only way to get us back to the Outworlds …”

The woman put her hand on his arm, pulling him to her. The taste of vomit filled Mariya’s mouth.

“All right,” he said, taking her by the waist. “Like you’re her.”

All her life, Mariya had been taught that love meant giving yourself completely to another person. That was why the kiss, no matter how small or how innocent, had horrified her. Jeremiah and Noemi had a love that was beautiful, with a future that shone with all the brilliance of a newborn star. To risk shattering it all with an act of infidelity, no matter how small—that was unthinkable. Even if Noemi never found out, surely it would grow like some sort of cancer, slowly killing their love until it had all become corrupted.

But something strange had happened after that kiss. The woman had upheld her end of the bargain, arranging for them to join the colony expedition on the Hope of Oriana. And Jeremiah had gone back to his wife, loving her just as much as he had before. It was as if the kiss had never happened.

How could a man who had given his heart to a woman ever share a piece of that with another? How could he split his affections and still stay true? At the time, it had baffled her. But now, lying on her bunk in the Hope of Oriana, the reality of it struck her with all the force of a meteor.

If Jeremiah could share a piece of his love for Noemi with that woman, he could also share it with me.

Chills shot from the back of her neck to her fingertips. She lifted her head from her pillow, her mind racing. Could she really—but no, that was crazy.

Or was it? Her ancestors who had settled at Delta Oriana had taken multiple wives. They’d managed to make it work. It wasn’t a common practice anymore, but these were the Far Outworlds—a place where good men were in short supply, just like the old times. And Jeremiah was a good man, the kind of man her father had said was so rare. His words came back to her: I don’t ever want you to settle for someone who won’t treat you right.

She took a deep breath and stared in thought at the ceiling. Her tears were gone now, replaced by an ever growing excitement.

Her father already knew and trusted Jeremiah. Unlike all the boys on the colony ship, he was already committed to the Deltan ways and traditions. True, that was only because of his wife, but Noemi would understand—she wasn’t the type to be jealous. Besides, Mariya was fluent in both Deltan and Gaian—they relied on her so much for translation, she was practically married to them both already. And if that was true, why shouldn’t she make it official and become Jeremiah’s second wife? What was so icky or strange about that?

He’s still a man who belongs to somebody else, a voice in Mariya’s head whispered. Even if they agree to it, he won’t be yours alone—you’ll always have to share him with another woman, and she’ll have to share him with you.

But that wasn’t the important thing. The important thing was that in just a few months, she and the two hundred some-odd colonists would be starting a new life in the Far Outworlds more than three parsecs from the nearest human being. If she was ever to marry and have a family of her own, she would have to play the cards the universe had dealt her.

And really, what was so bad about sharing a husband with someone else? Especially if the other woman was as close a friend as Noemi. As sister-wives, their friendship might even be strengthened, since marriages always brought everyone closer together. And since Jeremiah was such a good man, she had no doubts that he would be able to take care of them both equally well.

It was all so perfect, she could barely keep still. The only thing that remained was to convince everyone. Her mother would almost certainly be on board—stars knew she was anxious enough to marry her off already. Her father might have doubts, but he already knew and trusted Jeremiah, so it wouldn’t take much to swing him over to her side. And as for Captain Elijah, she didn’t think he would object as long as it was all consensual.

But that left Jeremiah and Noemi—the two most important variables to consider. Would they open up and welcome her into their family and marriage? Or would they reject her like some sort of man-stealing bitch? Mariya didn’t think so, but it would still be tricky to get them both to say yes.

And what if she failed? What if they said no, and the whole thing made it impossible for them to be friends again? The thought filled her with terror, but she swallowed it as best as she could. Whatever the risks, she had little choice—and besides, the benefits were worth the risks. Jeremiah was the key to her future now, of that she was certain. And if it took some guile to win him—guile like her mother—well, then so be it.

Chapter 12


Noemi put a hand under her stomach and steadied herself as she rose from her seat in the cabin of the Ariadne. The floor felt cold under her bare feet, but she paid it no mind. She ducked under the doorway and stepped into the ship’s narrow cockpit, behind Jeremahra who sat in the over-sized pilot’s chair. His wavy brown hair was a mess as always, but after nearly a month in space alone together, the same was probably true of hers. Not that it mattered. She smiled and ran her hand over his head, savoring the feeling of being alone with the man she loved.

A large yellow crescent caught her eye. It was a gas giant planet, with beautiful rings that stretched like a heavenly highway around to the night side of the world. She squinted and leaned forward. Not too far away, a rocky gray moon loomed on the outer edge of the rings. Almost a dozen nearby spacecraft showed up as glistening little specks. The stars, which normally shone like a soft carpet out in the depths of space, now were all but invisible, swallowed up in the light of an orange-yellow sun.

I wonder where we are now, Noemi thought as she stared out the main window. Not that she was worried. Wherever Jeremahra took her, she trusted that things would be all right. After all, God had brought them together for a reason—not the least of which was the baby growing inside of her.

The radio intercom cackled, and a scratchy voice said something in Gaian that Noemi didn’t quite catch. Jeremahra turned and leaned forward in the pilot’s chair.

“Offer-motive, port authority,” he said. “We are looking for hope Oriana. Have they yet arrived?”

He means the Hope of Oriana, Noemi corrected herself. She was getting better at understanding his language, but there were still a lot of gaps in her knowledge. It wasn’t too hard to pick out the individual words, but phrases and sentences still gave her trouble. Even so, she’d come a long way since they’d met, back when they could barely understand each other at all.

The voice on the radio returned, as scratchy and impossible to understand as ever. The only word that Noemi caught was Ariadne, the name of Jeremahra’s starship. Apparently, they were coming in to dock. She slipped around the side of the chair to get a better look out the forward window.

“Friends?” she asked, pointing.

“Yes,” Jeremahra answered. “We are going see friends soon.”

“See friends soon,” she said softly, thinking of Mariya. That girl was a godsend, a close and trusted friend in the unlikeliest of places. She loved Jeremahra, and there was certainly a closeness between them that she’d never felt with anyone else, but sometimes she just needed a woman to talk to. With the baby coming soon, that need was increasingly impossible to ignore.

“Yes,” he said, glancing over at her. “I looking forward it too.”

She smiled and sat down on the armrest, keeping one hand under her stomach for support. He reached up and gently stroked her hair. The orange-yellow light of the system sun shone brightly through the auto-tinted glass of the cockpit window, warm and mellow.

“How long?” she asked.

“Not too long,” Jeremahra answered. “Five six hours maybe.”

That’s a long time to wait when there’s someone you want to see, she thought to herself. The crescent moon loomed larger than the yellow ringed planet, though far enough to one side that it didn’t dominate the view. Even though the moon’s surface was a dull, almost uniform gray, she saw what looked like clouds in the atmosphere reflecting the light of the sunset.

“What is it?” she asked, pointing at the moon.

“That? That is B’tum. It is terra-firm world—like new Earth, but not now. Someday.”

She frowned. “New Earth?”

“Yes.”

The world certainly didn’t look like an Earth. Except for the clouds, it looked gray and barren. Craters pocked the surface, a testament to countless millennia of geologic slumber. The rocky moon wasn’t dead—to be dead, it would have to have first been alive.

“They are terra-firming it now,” said Jeremahra, waving his hand. “It will be like Earth, but not for long time.”

Terraforming, she realized. That’s what he’s saying. From the tone of his voice, he seemed almost wistful.

“Home will be?” she asked, tensing a little. Mariya had told her that they were going on a colony mission to the Zarmina system—that she and Jeremahra would meet up with them midway, after making a few trade runs. But from the expression on his face, it almost seemed he had a mind to stay and settle here.

“Home? No,” he said, shaking his head. “We stay with our friends—Zarmina is home.”

A wave of relief swept through her at the prospect of traveling with their friends. Still, a part of her couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment. As much as she loved Jeremahra, the starfaring lifestyle was starting to wear her down. She patted her stomach and tried to imagine what it would be like once they settled down for good. With the baby on the way, it wouldn’t be long—or so she hoped.

“How are you feeling?” Jeremahra asked, his face a picture of concern. The light brown stubble on his chin gave him a rugged look, like a bandit or a space pirate. The contrast between his expression and his appearance made her laugh.

“Happy,” she said. I’m happy.

“How is the baby?”

“Very good,” she said, wishing again that she had a better command of his language. There were so many things she wanted to tell him—what it felt like when the baby kicked, or how the baby had a taste for cinnamon and raisins. Instead, all she could do was smile and tell him that everything was all right, as if the pregnancy was just another problem waiting to blow up in his face. It was a good thing there hadn’t been any complications—if so, he probably would have panicked a lot worse than her.

“We going to see our friends soon—they help you with the pregnancy. More than me.”

“Yes.” I know.

She ran her hand across his chest as he returned to the piloting controls. If she could, she would have told him how much she appreciated all he was doing for her—that he’d done so much for her already. She didn’t know how much left he had to offer, but she knew that he would gladly give her all of it.


* * * * *


Mariya paced the narrow corridor in front of the docking airlock, clenching her hands and glancing at the access panel every other moment. Where was the Ariadne? They were supposed to dock any minute now—she’d gathered as much during her work shift. She’d run straight from her post at communications, anxious that she’d be late, but ten whole minutes had already passed and still there was no sign of them.

“A little excited, are we?” her father asked her in Deltan, chuckling. He leaned against the smooth metal wall, arms folded.

“Of course—why shouldn’t I be?” Honestly, her father could really be a pain sometimes.

“You do know he’s not as eager to see you as you are to see him. Don’t you?”

Mariya’s heart fell, but she managed to roll her eyes. “I know, I know.” But even a second wife has to get something.

“You’re sure about this?” her father asked, his face suddenly serious. “This is what you want? You’re sure?”

“Of course I’m sure, Dad. Are you?”

He sighed. “Jeremiah is a good man, but I doubt he wants to share himself with another woman. Still, it’s your choice, and it’s not a bad one. Just let me talk with him first.”

A minute passed uneventfully, followed by another. Just when she was about to run back to the control room to make sure he was actually coming, the muffled sound of metal on metal reverberated through the bulkheads, announcing that Jeremiah’s starship had docked.

Her heart leaped and her stomach flipped as she turned to face the door. On the other side, the magnetic docking clamps hummed as they engaged, ending with a loud clang that made her teeth chatter. Without realizing it, she started counting down the seconds for the airlock to open. One one thousand, two one thousand …

Don’t be too eager, she tried to tell herself. You don’t want to overwhelm him. Even so, it was hard not to feel overwhelmed herself. If her plans succeeded, everything would be fine and they’d all be happy, but if she failed—she tried not to think about that.

After an agonizing minute and a half, the door hissed open, and Jeremiah stepped through. He wore a crisp gray jumpsuit with a black synthleather vest, dozens of tiny pouches lining his belt. His face was smooth and clean-shaven, with long, dark eyelashes framing his light-brown eyes. He stood about half a head taller than her, clearly much older—but not too much. Not for the Outworlds.

Forgetting all caution, she lunged forward to greet him. Fortunately, Noemi came into view just as she realized her mistake. She changed her direction at the last second and threw her arms around Jeremiah’s wife.

“Noemi!” she said with a hug. Noemi was a sweet girl, if somewhat plain, with straight brown hair and narrow hips and waist. Her stomach was noticeably pregnant, however, bulging out from her otherwise thin body. Mariya took care not to jostle her too much, though of course it was hard not to.

“Hi, Mariya,” said Noemi in Deltan, kissing her cheek. “How have you been these last few months?”

“Very good, very good,” said Mariya, responding enthusiastically in kind. “What about you, sister?” Soon to be sister-wife.

Noemi gave her a funny look, but said nothing. Jeremiah watched them from off to the side, his hands in his vest pockets.

“It’s good to see you too, Mariya,” he said in Gaian.

“You too,” she said, giving him a hug. Was that too forward of her? Probably, because it seemed to catch him off guard. He returned the hug awkwardly, making her cringe and pull away.

I really hope I didn’t screw that up, she thought. Before her expression betrayed her, she turned back to Noemi.

“How was the voyage?”

Noemi smiled. “Fine, thanks.”

“You didn’t stay long at Beta Oriana, did you?”

“No, thank the stars. I couldn’t stand that place.”

“Me neither,” said Mariya. “Can you imagine living on a world with that ugly red sun? I don’t know how they can stand it.”

“I know, right? We only spent a couple of days there, though we did go down to the surface.”

“Really? Why?”

“To see a doctor of course,” said Noemi, patting her stomach.

“Oh yeah! How’s the pregnancy going?”

“Very well.”

“Is it a boy or a girl? When are you due?” There were dozens of other questions that Mariya wanted to ask, but she did her best to keep too many of them from spilling out at once.

“I don’t know,” said Noemi. “The doctor didn’t speak Deltan, so Jerem-ahra had to translate. If all goes well, I’ll deliver the baby right after we arrive at Zarmina.”

“You’re so lucky—your family is going to shine so bright and strong.”

“Thanks. I definitely hope so.”

Me too, Mariya thought silently. And I’m going to be a part of it.

As Jeremiah and her father talked quietly off to the side, Captain Elijah stepped through the hatchway, dressed in a crisp gray uniform. “Quite right—quite right!” he bellowed in Gaian, his voice booming in the narrow space.

“Captain Elijah?” said Jeremiah. “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?” He laughed and slapped Jeremiah 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.”

“Who’s that?” Noemi asked in Deltan. She leaned in close for Mariya to translate.

“Don’t worry—it’s just the captain. He’s going to give us a tour of the ship.”

“Ah.”

This is why they need me, Mariya thought to herself. Without me, who would help them translate?

As Elijah led them through the hatchway to the main corridor, Jeremiah paused, probably to let Noemi through first. Since Mariya was translating, she took her by the arm and walked through with her, giving Jeremiah a 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 on the coreward side of the Oriana Cluster.”

“What did he say?” Noemi asked as they squeezed against the walls to let some of the other passengers through.

Mariya shrugged. “He’s just telling them the history of the ship. Frankly, it’s kind of boring—unless you want to know about it.”

“No, that’s all right.” She laughed. “I don’t even know the history of the Ariadne.

“Normally, we try to keep the crew and passengers from getting too cozy,” Elijah continued, speaking in Gaian. “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 blurted to the others. “It was fun!”

Jeremiah nodded and looked off as if in thought. Her cheeks burned—why did she have go be so impulsive? He probably thought she was weird—or worse, just another teenage girl.

Fortunately, Captain Elijah led them into the forward control room before she felt like too much of an idiot. Holoscreens and computer terminals lined the walls, with chairs that were bolted onto the floor. Since they were in a parking orbit around B’tum, most of the displays were empty. At the far side of the room, Corporal Sanders trained a couple of Betan girls who had joined the colony mission at the last port. Mariya hadn’t really gotten a chance to know either of them.

“What’s this?” Noemi asked, looking curiously at all the equipment.

“The forward control room,” Mariya explained. The captain stopped to chat with Sanders and the girls, giving them a moment. “This is where we control most of the ship’s systems. It’s empty now because we’re in orbit, but when we’re in transit, it can get pretty busy.”

“Really? I didn’t know it took so many people to pilot a ship.”

“Well, we don’t really pilot it from here. All that stuff happens on the bridge. We just help run all the other systems, like the reactors, the engines—it’s kind of boring, to be honest.”

“No, that’s all right,” said Noemi. “Go on.”

Mariya shrugged. “It’s an old ship, so it can be a little finicky. All I know is that my post is at communications, in that corner over there.” She pointed to the far corner, behind Elijah and the others.

“Wow—it sounds like you have a lot of responsibility.”

“Not really. Everyone is supposed to chip in and do something. I’m sure one of the officers will assign you to some post in the next couple of days—though don’t worry, they probably won’t give you anything too hard.”

Noemi smiled and put a hand on her stomach, the look of concern clearing from her face. With the pregnancy, no doubt she’d get off easy on the more difficult chores.

“We run a tight ship,” Captain Elijah explained to the others as he led them into the mess hall. “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.”

“What is he saying?” Noemi whispered.

“He’s just explaining how little personal space we have on the station,” Mariya explained as they followed behind the others. “We run things in two shifts—upshift and downshift. You’ll be on the upshift crew with us, and we’ll share a five-bed bunk room.”

“We each have our own bed?”

“Yeah, but you have to share it with someone else on the downshift crew. Honestly, it’s a little crowded. There’s not much privacy anywhere on the ship.”

Noemi shrugged. “That’s okay—I’m used to tight spaces.”

That’s right, Mariya thought. You’ve been living with Jeremiah on a one-man starship for the last six months. That was probably a little different, though. If you were married to someone, why would you need time away from them for anything? Mariya could hardly wait to feel what it was like to be that close to someone—at the very least, she would never have to be afraid of being alone.

The mess hall felt roomy, probably because it was empty. The Alphan boys from before were on cleaning duty, wiping down the tables. They glanced curiously at her, but she did her best to ignore them.

“What’s the food like?” Noemi asked before she could follow the conversation between Jeremiah and the captain. She blinked and gave her a shrug.

“Not bad, I guess. It’s mostly synthmeal, with beans and milk.”

Noemi frowned. “Milk?”

“Yeah, the quartermaster is running a milk donation program so we don’t have to rely too heavily on synthetics. Don’t worry, though—it’s all voluntary, so they won’t make you give yours up if you need it for your baby.”

“Thank God. I’ve never been able to produce much milk. Maybe that’s something you and your mother could help me with.”

Mariya frowned and gave her a funny look. “You’ve lactated before?”

“Of course. Don’t you remember?”

“Remember what?”

“Oh, that’s right,” said Noemi. “Your family left home before the famine got really bad.” She sighed, a look of sadness coming over her face. “When the last hydroponics module failed, we had to resort to mandatory milk donation. Only women who were already breastfeeding were required to enroll, but everyone who was healthy was encouraged to volunteer. It was the only way to stretch the food stores long enough until we could get the hydroponics modules going again. But even then …”

Her voice trailed off. Mariya put a hand on her arm—she’d left with her family before the famine had gotten especially bad, but she remembered what it had been like just before that. Gray synthmeal sludge, with tasteless powdered food stores and only an occasional piece of dried fruit. Synthetics could only go so far without natural foods to supplement them. Human milk was a lot easier to obtain than hydroponic fruits and vegetables, but without any other supplements, it could only go so far—especially if the women who donated were living almost exclusively on synthetics themselves.

“Wow,” said Mariya. “I had no idea.”

Noemi shrugged. “It worked well enough for a few months, but it couldn’t go on forever. If we had gotten aid soon enough from the neighboring stars, perhaps it would have saved us.”

“What was it like? Was it painful?”

Mariya regretted the question almost as soon as she uttered it, but Noemi took it graciously enough. “A little,” she admitted, “but it wasn’t unbearable. I only stopped because the doctors said I wasn’t producing enough to justify it.”

What if the same thing happens at Zarmina? What if our hydroponics modules fail, and we have to wait for someone from the outside to save us?

What if that help never comes?

Mariya took a deep breath and did her best to swallow her fears. “Well, let’s pray that nothing like that ever happens to us.”

“Yes,” Noemi whispered as she made the sign of the cross.

Captain Elijah led them out of the mess hall to the crew quarters toward the rear of the ship. The Alphan boys stared at them as they passed, making Mariya tense. The one who’d approached her before made as if to call after her, but evidently thought better of it and returned to his work.

“This is our medical bay,” said Elijah as he ushered them into the main clinic. “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.”

Jeremiah and Noemi both seemed to take special interest in this place. They spent several moments glancing around the cozy but well-kept office. The walls and floor here were spotlessly white, the cabinets all neat and orderly. The examining table was carefully folded up against the wall, next to the displays that monitored the room’s temperature, humidity, and sterility.

“Good upshift, Captain,” said Doctor Andreson as he stepped into the main room from his office. “How may I be of service?”

Mariya liked the doctor. He was a thin, sharp-featured man, with jet black hair much like her own and a smile that had a peculiar way of curling up at the edges. He was one of those people who was always calm and kept everything in its place. She’d only seen him a couple of times for psychiatric evaluations, but every time she’d come in, he’d immediately set her at ease.

“That’s Doctor Andreson,” Mariya explained for Noemi. “He’s a good man—you’ll like him.”

Noemi nodded and smiled at Jeremiah to show that she understood. As the men talked among themselves, she turned to Mariya.

“Can he speak Deltan?”

“No, sorry.” You’ll still need me. “But don’t worry, he’s a very experienced doctor—in fact, that’s what he’s explaining right now. He’s delivered lots of babies before, so I’m sure he’ll take care of you.”

“So am I, but Jeremiah might not be so sure. He’s been worried about me ever since Beta Oriana.”

Mariya nodded. From the look of intense concern on Jeremiah’s face and the gist of his conversation with the doctor, she gathered as much.

All the more reason that they need me.

They walked back out into the corridor, heading toward the gymnasium and dream center. Each room was about half the size of the mess hall, though the gym took up two levels instead of one. It was usually so packed that Mariya tried to avoid it. This time was no exception.

A sweaty group of boys were playing a game of rocketball in the gymnasium. They hollered and shouted as they bounded off the walls and ceiling, grating on Mariya’s ears. A couple of them were kind of cute, but not enough to make her take notice. Besides, she already knew she didn’t want anything to do with the upshift boys.

“What’s this?”

“The gym,” she said. “This is where we come for exercise—well, one of the places anyway. That’s what the captain’s explaining. I usually just go on the treadmills above the dream center.

“… does it have to be strenuous?” Jeremiah was asking Captain Elijah, apparently about the exercise rule. “I mean, what if Noemi’s pregnancy makes it difficult?”

The captain made a face and waved his hand dismissively. “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,” Mariya interjected, “walks during a pregnancy are healthy and good, and not a problem unless she’s bedridden by doctor’s orders.”

Rebuffed, Jeremiah fell silent. Captain Elijah led them back out to the hallway, while Mariya wondered if she shouldn’t have said anything.

The dream center was just across the hall, a low-ceilinged room full of computer cores wired to the various monitors and reclining chairs. Most of the chairs were occupied, though the users were all unconscious—much quieter than the gym. In fact, the loudest sound was the hum of the ship-wide ventilation system.

“That’s a lot of simulator cores,” Noemi mused aloud. “How many people can this place serve at once?”

Mariya shrugged. “I don’t know—maybe half of each shift? We can set up mattresses on the floor if we need to.”

As the captain explained things to the men, Noemi peered at the nearest core. “Akhalitech—I’ve never heard of that manufacturer. What are the specs?”

“The specs?”

“Yeah—memory, bandwidth, processing speed. How many devices do they have slaved to this thing? It looks like they’ve got twelve monitors hooked up to this server, though there are enough ports on the rack for sixteen.”

“Hold on,” said Mariya. She turned to the captain and held up her hand to catch his attention. Jeremiah already had a questioning look on his face.

“She wants to know the model and specifications of the simulators,” Mariya explained in Gaian.

The captain 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.”

“What was that?”

Mariya’s head spun as she switched once again from Gaian back to Deltan. This translation stuff was going to be a lot harder than she’d thought.

“He says he doesn’t know, though he can ask someone who does. They picked them up twenty years ago at a star called Tajjur or something.”

Noemi’s eyes lit up. “The Tajjur system—of course! I should have recognized it from the jack design. Do they support all standard neural augmentations, though? And what about the free memory—is there enough to rewrite the world in creative mode?”

“Rewrite what?”

“The dream world, of course. Is there enough free memory to support a massive real-time rewrite of the simulation, or do we have to overclock the servers first?”

Mariya’s head spun even faster, but the others were looking at her expectantly. She couldn’t afford to falter—not with Jeremiah watching.

“She wants to know what sort of neural augmentations the simulators support,” Mariya said, pausing to breathe, “and whether there’s enough free memory to support large-scale rewriting of the simulations.” I don’t know what that means exactly, but that’s how it translates.

“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?” Noemi asked in Gaian, catching Mariya by surprise. “I mean, can you ask them if they need another programmer? That’s certainly a chore I could do.”

You speak Gaian?

“She, uh, wants to know if you need another programmer,” Mariya said, casting a sideways glance at Noemi. If she and Jeremiah could already speak with each other well enough that they didn’t need her help as much, that was going to make things tough.

Elijah shrugged. “I don’t see why not. As long as the doctor clears it, I’m sure we can work something out.”

Two couches down, Mariya’s mother Salome stirred as the lights on her helmet-like monitor switched from green to red. Jakob went over to help her take it off and sit up. The others gathered around them, Mariya bringing up the rear.

It’s okay, she told herself. Dad’s going to talk with Jeremiah right after we’re through here. Even if Noemi’s Gaian was good enough that they didn’t always need her help, her father was bound to find some other way to persuade Jeremiah to marry her. His years of star wandering had made him a shrewd negotiator.

“Jeremiah and Noemi are here, honey,” Jakob said, speaking in Deltan. “They arrived less than an hour ago. We’ve been giving them a tour of the ship.”

Salome stretched and nodded. “Well, that’s good to know. When did they arrive?”

“Less than an hour ago.”

“Hi Mom,” said Mariya. She stepped forward and gave her mother a warm hug. “How are you feeling?”

“Fine thanks. Is this Jeremiah?”

Jeremiah stepped forward and shook her hand, bowing a little. “Hello, Mrs. Varvavli. It’s good to see you again.”

Salome smiled but said nothing, probably because she didn’t speak Gaian. At the same time, though, her eyes drifted meaningfully to Mariya. So this is the man you want, they said with a sly twinkle. Good choice.

Noemi stepped forward and kissed her on the cheek. “Hello, Oma Salome.”

“Noemi!” said Salome, throwing her arms around her. “How are you, how are you? By the holy stars of Earth, it has been too long since we last saw you—too long indeed!”

And this is his first wife, her eyes said again. This is the other woman. It lasted barely an instant, but to Mariya the meaning was as clear and as sharp as a gamma ray burst.


* * * * *


Noemi followed Mariya and Salome through the narrow doorway into the bunk room. It seemed a little cozy for five people, but it was certainly no worse than the Ariadne, and besides, they already knew each other well enough that it wouldn’t be a problem. The sight of the narrow beds did remind her of how exhausted she felt, though. With their arrival at B’tum and the tour of the Hope of Oriana, it had been a long and eventful dayshift indeed.

“So how do you like the Hope of Oriana?” asked Mariya.

“It’s nice,” she said, stepping aside to let Jeremahra set her duffel bag of clothes on the off-white tile floor. “I like it.”

“It’s not too crowded for you, then?”

Salome shot her a glance over her shoulder as she pulled off the sheets from the top bunk’s previous occupants. She was such a hardy woman, her arms strong and tough from years of hard work. Noemi would probably be like that too someday. The thought made her smile.

“No, it’s fine,” she said, glancing at Jeremahra. “It reminds me a lot of home, actually—before things got too bad.”

“I hear you, dear. Living space on Megiddo Station always was rather tight.”

“I don’t remember it ever being like this,” said Mariya. “Still, it’s not too bad—you get used to it after a while.”

She picked up the duffel bag and stuffed it into the locker on the far side of the room, beneath the fifth bunk. Salome pulled the curtains aside for the bunks on the left and began pulling off the sheets from those as well. Without a word, Noemi pitched in to help.

“Jerem-ahra and I are going to unload the Ariadne,” said Jakob from the doorway. “Will everything here be all right?”

“Of course,” said Salome. “We’ll be fine, girls, won’t we?”

Mariya and Noemi nodded. Jeremahra seemed a little puzzled, but he followed Jakob out into the busy corridor.

“Here,” said Mariya, palming the door shut. “Sure is noisy out there. It always gets busy between shifts, but otherwise it’s usually not that bad.”

“Everyone has somewhere to be, then?”

“Sure—they’ve got to keep us all busy somehow. The long voyages can really wear on you if you don’t have anything to do. But you probably know all about that already.”

Noemi shrugged. “I guess. It’s different, though, when it’s just you and the man you love.”

“You and Jerem-ahra are really close, then?”

“Of course,” she said, patting the bulge in her belly with a smile. “How do you think I got this?”

The others laughed with her. As they returned to their work, however, a strange silence fell over them, as if some unspoken tension hung thick in the air. Mariya glanced nervously at her mother, making Noemi wonder if it was something between the two of them. But instead of speaking with Mariya, Salome turned to her.

“About Jerem-ahra,” she said. “He’s a good man, isn’t he?”

“Oh, yes,” said Noemi, slowing down a little as she folded the last of the clothes. “Why?”

“God knows there aren’t many good men where we’re going—the Far Outworlds, I mean.” Salome pulled the bed-sheet tight and tucked it expertly beneath the thin foam mattress. “Not many Deltans out there either. At Zarmina, we’ll be the only ones.”

Noemi frowned. She glanced at Mariya, who was watching her intently out of the corner of her eye. Something was going on here—she didn’t know what it was exactly, but it felt as if they were backing her into a corner.

“Really?” she asked, her arms growing tense. “Just the three of us?”

“And father too, of course,” Mariya interjected. “He wasn’t born Deltan, but he’s one of us now.”

“And Jerem-ahra,” said Salome.

What are they trying to get at? Noemi wondered. Both of them were staring at her now, making her hands feel clammy. It was as if they expected an answer from her, but she didn’t even know what they were asking.

“J-Jeremahra hasn’t been baptized yet,” she said, her voice quavering. “I don’t know how to bring it up. We understand each other when it comes to little things, but—”

“I can talk with him!” Mariya said, smiling cheerily. “I can help translate almost anything for you. And even though he hasn’t been baptized yet, I’m sure he’ll come around eventually. When he married you, he practically married into it—just like daddy. For your sake, I’m sure he’ll convert before too long.”

That’s odd, Noemi thought to herself. Back on Oriana Station, she did everything she could to avoid bringing up religion. It wasn’t like she’d stopped believing, though—just that she was nervous talking with people who didn’t share their faith. Considering all the anti-Deltan bigotry back on Oriana Station, Noemi didn’t blame her. But why was she so eager to see Jeremahra converted now?

“Let me put it this way,” said Salome. “Where we’re going, we need to stick together. And what’s a better way to do that than to become one family?”

Stars of Holy Earth, Noemi realized, they want Mariya to become his second wife. Her eyes widened, and an awful sinking feeling began to pull at her gut even as her legs turned to water.

“You—you want me to share my husband?”

“It’s not like we’re trying to steal him,” Mariya said quickly. “Just—well, just share him, like you said.”

“It’s not unheard of for men on the Outworld frontier to take multiple wives,” said Salome. “Surely you remember the stories of our forefathers who built Megiddo Station. And in the scriptures—”

“Yes, I know,” said Noemi, struggling to keep her composure. She leaned against the wall for support, and Mariya hastily unfolded a chair.

“Here, sit down. Do you need a glass of water? I can grab one from the mess, if you’d like.”

“No,” Noemi said weakly. “That’s all right.”

“I know it seems hard,” said Salome, her arms folded. “You and Jerem-ahra are still in the honeymoon phase—I can see it in your eyes. But please, try not to be selfish. Mariya needs a husband, and where we’re going she won’t find a better one than yours. If you’re such good friends, surely you can make room in your marriage for her.”

Selfish? Noemi wanted to scream. How am I being selfish? It took every ounce of her self-control to swallow her rising emotions and not lash out in a hormone-induced fit. But she couldn’t afford to do that—not with the baby coming so soon. She needed Mariya and Salome almost more now than her husband, since without them she’d have no one to help her through the last few months of her pregnancy. Maybe if this weren’t her first child, she could manage it on her own, but as much as everything screamed at her to run away, that wasn’t an option now.

“You’ve considered all the other boys on the ship?” she asked, her voice still weak.

“Of course,” Salome said with a dismissive flick of her wrist. “But, like we agreed, none of them are Deltan. Jerem-ahra is the only young man who is committed to our customs and traditions. Surely you can see why such an … unusual arrangement would be necessary.”

“It’s all right,” Mariya said softly. “Please—don’t be upset.” She squatted down and put her hands on Noemi’s shoulders, making her flinch.

How is this happening? Noemi wondered. She looked up at Mariya and saw a desperation there that positively frightened her. Here they were, light-years from home with no way back, and now the last of her friends was asking—no, demanding—the only man standing between her and the utter loneliness of space.

“Don’t be upset,” Mariya repeated. “It’s all for the best—really. We’re already such good friends, we’d make perfect sister-wives. Besides, I’d be able to help you and Jerem-ahra understand each other—to translate your needs, so that he can take better care of them. It’s only going to get harder once the baby arrives. And who knows—maybe this will help you to grow even closer to each other.”

“Maybe,” Noemi whispered. But when she looked into Mariya’s eyes, she saw that her friend had no idea what she was asking of her.

Salome put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. “Please try to think of this from my daughter’s point of view. She’s of a prime age to marry, and has no prospects—none that are worth settling for, anyway. A marriage with Jerem-ahra would make her very happy, even as a second wife. In fact, it would make all of you happy.”

“Does Jeremahra know about any of this?” Noemi asked, her heart racing.

“Jakob is talking it over with him as we speak. Being the man that he is, I don’t think he’ll say no.”

“Are you sure? What if he does—what if this isn’t what he wants?”

Salome and Mariya looked at each other for a moment. “If we had what we wanted, we never would have left Megiddo Station,” said Salome. “Do you think any of us wanted to leave our home for the stars of the unbelievers? Life isn’t about what you want—it’s about what you do with what’s been given you. We may not have been given much, but we have been given each other.”

She’s right, Noemi thought, blushing at the not-so-gentle chastisement. They were all refugees now, headed for the furthest reaches of the Outworld frontier. It didn’t make sense to think in terms of what any of them wanted—only what they had to share.

But what if Jeremahra did say no? Was there still a chance of that? A part of her desperately hoped that he would. But if he did, how would the others react? From the intensity in Salome’s eyes and the barely restrained eagerness in Mariya’s, she doubted that either of them would take it well. And if they didn’t, how would that affect their friendship? How would that change things, once they arrived at Zarmina—the only other people on an uninhabited world?

Jeremahra can’t say no to this, Noemi realized. If he does, that will put an awful rift between us and the only other friends who can help us through the pregnancy. Her legs went weak, and her blood turned to ice.

“It’s for the best,” Mariya said, taking her hands and squeezing them. “Really, it is.”

“Are you asking for my blessing?” Noemi asked softly. Or are you determined to marry my husband whether he wills it or not?

“No one is forcing you,” said Salome. “If either of you refuse, we’ll respect your decision. But I urge you, please consider the needs of my daughter as well as your own. As Deltans and as outworlders, we need to do our best to look out for each other. Will you look out for us just as we’ve looked out for you?”

Is this God’s will? Noemi wondered as a wave of dizziness passed over her. Is there a reason why this is happening to me now? She eased herself down on the nearest bunk, her legs shaky and unsteady. It didn’t help that she was carrying a child—Jeremahra’s child. How long would it be before Mariya bore him children as well?

“Don’t worry,” said Mariya as she sat down beside her. “After all, a strong family shines brighter than all the stars.”

“That’s right,” Noemi whispered. But what if I’m not strong enough to see it through?

Chapter 13


“Did you talk with him, Daddy? What did he say?”

“Now, now,” said Jakob, motioning for her to hush. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure they weren’t overheard.

Mariya fidgeted impatiently with her fingers. Noemi was using the public restroom, and Jeremiah had just gone to sleep. The corridor was wide open, but if there was no one within earshot who could understand them, what did that matter?

Evidently satisfied that that was the case, he turned back to her and leaned in so he didn’t have to speak so loudly. “Yes, I talked with him. He doesn’t seem too excited about the idea, but I think we can still get him.”

Mariya frowned. “‘Get him’?”

“Of course, dear. Did you think he would jump at the idea? Give him some time, keep the pressure up, and trust me—he’ll come around.”

You make it sound like he doesn’t want it, Mariya thought. Even if that was true, she didn’t want to pressure him into doing something that he didn’t want. Far better to convince him that this was something he really wanted instead.

“You—you didn’t try to force him, did you?”

“Force him? No. But I do know how to close a sale.” There was a glint in his eye that disturbed her, one that was wild and almost predatory.

“Dad, this isn’t a trade negotiation.” She put a hand on her hip to emphasize the point.

“Of course it is, dear. Finding a good mate is always about selling yourself, and I’ll be damned before I sell you short. I love you far too much.”

“I know, but—look, can you just let things develop a bit on their own? There’s no need to make him feel like he doesn’t have a choice.”

“But if you tell him he does, you have to be ready for him to refuse.”

Mariya swallowed hard. Like it or not, her father was right. If Jeremiah had the slightest chance to turn her down, everything could fall apart in an instant. Just the thought was enough to make her knees go weak. To start a new life at Zarmina alone—

“Don’t worry,” said her father. He put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. “Young men like Jeremiah don’t always know what’s good for them. I certainly didn’t, back when I was his age. Your mother was a bit zealous at times, but it all worked out in the end.”

Did it, though?

“I don’t know,” she said, folding her arms. “What if everything falls apart? What if—what if it breaks them up?”

“Breaks them up?”

“Yeah,” said Mariya, a sudden panic surging through her. “When me and Mom talked with Noemi, she was almost as pale as a comet. What if she can’t take it, and the whole thing destroys the family that—”

“Look at me, dear.”

He looked her square in the eye, placing both hands on her shoulders.

“We’re not breaking up their family. You’re not trying to come between them, are you?”

“I know, but what if that’s what ends up happening?”

“Jeremiah and Noemi have been through a lot harder things than this. They’ll come to accept you in time, no matter how hard it is for them now. Trust me, dear—they’re outworlders, through and through.”

His words did little to comfort her, but her fears were all so vague that that was enough to quell her panic. Still, there was one concern that gnawed at the pit of her stomach. If she didn’t give it voice, she feared that it would consume her.

“Do you think he’ll ever love me?”

Her father frowned. “Are you doing this for love?”

“No,” she admitted. “But—well, do you think he ever will?”

He wrapped his arms around her in a reassuring hug. “Of course he will, Mariya—of course he will. One thing about love is that it grows, sometimes in ways that you would never expect. If you do your best to treat him right, even better than he treats you, I have no doubt that things will work out for the best.”

He sounded so convinced that Mariya couldn’t help but believe him too. And as she did, a deep sense of peace washed through her. She hugged him back, and they stood together in the empty hallway for a long while, just holding each other.

Is this what the second and third wives of the forefathers went through? she wondered as they headed back for the bunk room. If it was, then they’d obviously found a way to work things out. And if that was true, and she was also on her way to an unsettled world, would she someday be an ancestor to a whole new colony just like Megiddo Station? The thought filled her with even more wonder than the stars.

Whatever she did, she couldn’t afford to screw up.


* * * * *


Noemi wandered away from the cavernous mess hall down the unfamiliar corridors of the Hope of Oriana. She walked slowly, unsure where to go. With Mariya at her post in communications and Jeremahra at the station negotiating a trade, there was no one to guide her. It didn’t help that the corridors were mostly empty, with the majority of the passengers already on leave and headed from orbit to the world down below.

At length, she found what she was looking for: the bathroom. The main facility was down the hall a short distance from the medical bay, on the opposite side. Like everything on the Hope of Oriana, it was huge—at least, huge compared to the Ariadne. Six toilet stalls lined the far side of the room, with three sinks fitted with special vacuum reclaimers for use in micro-gravity. A little alcove with a winged door stood off to her left, with lockers along the walls. The sound of running water on the other side piqued her curiosity, and she glanced over just in time to catch a glimpse of a naked man in a large public showering room beyond.

Am I in the wrong restroom? Noemi wondered, her heart beating furiously. There hadn’t been a sign on the door, but then again, the bathroom was so large, it had to be the only on on the ship. A second alcove just beyond the first confirmed this—and this time, she saw the women’s sign.

Even here in the bathroom, space was cramped. The sinks and bathroom stalls were so close that she could touch the rim of the counter and the nearest door simultaneously. The stalls were so narrow that she brushed her shoulders as she turned around in them. With all the extra tubes and devices around the seat, no doubt in case of a loss in gravity, she hardly knew how to use the place.

Fortunately, all she had to do was pee. It was a need she felt often nowadays, with the pregnancy well into the second trimester. She relieved herself quickly, then took a little extra time to familiarize herself with the equipment. Once she felt confident enough that she could use the facilities again when the need arose, she washed up and left as quickly as she could manage.

I feel so lost here, she thought to herself. Everything about the ship was so unfamiliar—the lack of portholes or windows, the inward slanting walls of the corridors, the sharing of everything, even down to the public restrooms, and the casual lack of privacy that exceeded even what she was used to. At least on Megiddo Station, each family had had their own dedicated personal space, however small. Here, someone else occupied her bed while she was awake.

And yet, what choice did they have? There weren’t any medical facilities on the Ariadne—none that would be of any use if a complication arose in the pregnancy. And even if there were, Noemi didn’t feel that she could get through it with Jeremahra’s help alone. She needed the support of friends like Mariya—friends who could help her through in a way that only another woman would understand.

Mariya.

She swallowed hard as she walked past the bunk rooms toward the dream center. Mariya was at the core of everything—not just the pregnancy. Without Mariya’s help, it was a challenge just for her and Jeremiah to communicate. He’d been trying hard to learn her language, but there was only so much he could teach himself. And even though Noemi’s Gaian was rapidly improving, she barely understood the language well enough to navigate the bathroom. They both needed Mariya far more than they needed anyone else right now—which was exactly why she felt so trapped.

She entered the dream center and stood for a moment in the doorway. The place was completely empty. Wires dangled from the ceiling like haphazard tinsel, while the reclining chairs branched out from the computer cores like giant flowers waiting to swallow her. She hesitated to enter, unsure whether she was out of place, but the hum of the machinery told her that the simulators were on, and that at least meant that the dream center wasn’t closed.

Taking a deep breath, she went to the back of the room and chose the furthest reclining chair from the door. The shape and texture were completely unlike the chairs on the Ariadne, but in a moment that wouldn’t be important. It took some effort to get on, but once she was comfortably seated it was simply a matter of leaning back and pulling the dream monitor over her head. The jacks slid into the neural socket on the back of her neck with a satisfying click—


—and then she was floating in a wide, featureless void, her body as insubstantial as a breath of air.

From the moment she first plugged in, she began to relax. Here, within the artificial world of the dream simulator, she was completely in control—no more feeling lost or helpless without another person to show her around. She lifted her hand and pierced through the illusion of reality to brush her mind against the stream of raw data from the simulator. The effect was like splashing her face with cold water, making her feel alive.

The Ariadne was connected to the main network, with only a flimsy password gate between her and full access. She broke through it easily enough and opened a menu to access the Ariadne’s memory banks. A glowing blue window opened up before her, with moving images from the dream worlds she’d shared with Jeremahra.

She lingered for a moment over each one, savoring the memories of their time together. That was the one of her home at Megiddo Station, and this was the one of his homeworld that she’d reworked to help him forgive himself. A half dozen others showed various exotic planetscapes, all from worlds she’d never seen. There was even one of the Temple of a Thousand Suns, at Gaia Nova in the heart of the Coreward Stars.

None of these were the ones she’d come for, though. That one was at the very bottom of the list, almost half the size of any of the others. The image on the menu showed a simple blue sky with a wide expanse of long green grass and verdantly forested mountains ringing the horizon.

She touched the image with her finger, and the menu dissolved into the void. A moment later, she felt that peculiar falling sensation as the simulation loaded. Colors blurred into existence all around her, shapes coalescing from nothingness. Weight and substance returned to her body, and before she knew it she was standing barefoot in a mountain meadow, the blades of grass tickling her legs as they danced in the deliciously cool breeze.

The incredible vastness of the place was always the first thing that struck her. All her life, she’d lived on space stations and starships, with nothing but portholes to let her know that there was anything beyond those tiny artificial worlds. But here, there were no walls, no ceiling—only a long, rolling floor with a living green carpet that waved in the gentle wind. Outwardly, it seemed completely alien to everything she’d ever known, and yet, in a deeper sense, it felt so familiar, like a preview of heaven. Familiar like Earth.

The hem of her simple white dress fluttered about her knees. She looked off a short ways to the cluster of boulders where she and Jeremahra usually sat together. Her heart beat a little faster, even though she knew he wasn’t there. They’d spent so much time here that the emotional residue of his presence had been ingrained in the simulation, like a scent to be savored.

She walked over to the boulders and closed her eyes, reveling in it. With a little imagination, she could almost feel his hands caressing her shoulders. She needed another person right now—someone to hold her and let her know that everything would be all right.

It’s not like we’re trying to steal him, Mariya’s words came hurtling back to her. Just—well, share him.

The thought made her sick, even now. How could she possibly share Jeremahra with another woman? She’d shared the most intimate parts of herself with him—not just physically, but emotionally as well. Even though they didn’t speak the same language, they shared a bond that transcended words. Out in the long eternal silence between the stars, nothing else mattered—nothing else felt more true and more real. And now that she carried his child, it was as if they had touched a little piece of heaven itself. After all that, to give her husband up to another woman—she might as well rip out her own heart and hand that over instead. Even if she and Mariya were best friends, there were parts of herself that she couldn’t bear to share with anyone. Jeremahra was so close to her now, watching him take another woman in her arms would feel worse than getting stabbed.

A chill gust of wind blew down from the mountains, making the grass bow low. Noemi wrapped her arms around her chest as goosebumps pricked up around her skin. Of on the horizon, clouds began to gather—thick, brooding storm clouds, threatening to cover the sky. There was no lightning, however. This was not a summer storm, but the coming of something much darker.

Noemi knew only little about the seasons of Earth—bits and pieces from old legends and half-forgotten histories. She expected that it was similar to other planets, like Gaia Nova and the terraformed worlds in the Coreward Stars. There was a time when things were alive, and a time when things died. Though she’d lived in space all her life, she could imagine what that was like.

The grass changed from green to gold to yellow-brown. The stalks that had once waved so prominently in the wind now bent low in the dust, the flowers wilted and drooping. A cold gust blew across the land, bringing with it a host of dead leaves. The trees turned orange and red, brilliant flames of color in a last passionate gasp before the end.

We had our moment of passion, Noemi thought woefully. It seemed like forever while it lasted, and that at least was a blessing. But nothing lasts forever—not even the stars.

Only a few months ago, she’d fully expected to die in the famine that had ravaged her home. Back then, it hadn’t seemed like things could have gotten any worse. She’d resigned herself to her fate, accepting death as inescapable—and then Jeremahra had come into her life. When he’d whisked her away on his starship, everything had completely changed. Her home, her family—all of that was gone forever. But just as spring follows winter, the new life he’d given her had more than filled the space left by the one she’d lost. Though they were strangers to each other at first, a beautiful love had blossomed between them. With the child in her womb growing larger every day, that love soon promised to bear fruit.

And now she knew that she’d been wrong. Things could get worse—much worse.

The cold wind felt like a knife against her skin, but she made no effort to shield herself. Dark clouds covered the sky, and the scent of smoke carried over the wind. It tore at Noemi’s dress and left her skin red and raw. As painful as it felt, though, it was only a feeble echo of the emotional wounds within her.

How could Mariya trap her like this? Her best friend—her only friend from the exodus of their home? There was no way that she or Jeremahra could refuse her. And yet, to share him with another woman—the thought chilled her as much as the cold air around her.

The leaves slowly browned and fell from trees, leaving them naked in the wind. The grass was little more than a dead stubble now, and the air was thick with dust. It was as if the world itself was dying, and Noemi was in the center of it. But if the simulator echoed the feelings of her heart, then that was only to be expected.


* * * * *


Mariya walked into the dream center, her eyes flitting from bed to bed. Where had Noemi run off to? If that girl had gotten herself lost—but no, there she was.

“Oh, hi there!” said Mariya as she ambled up to Noemi’s side. With the dream monitor off, she looked a little worn, sitting up and rubbing her head.

“Hello, Mariya. Where were you all dayshift?”

“Sorry about that—I had an early work shift that I forgot to tell you about. Did you find your way around the ship okay?”

Noemi gave her the strangest, most impenetrable look. It chilled her for a second, and made her wonder if she was angry. But at the same time, there was a sad resignation there, as if Noemi were submitting to something horrible yet inevitable.

“Yes,” she said, her voice barely louder than a whisper. “It took me a while to find the bathrooms, though.”

“Oh—that,” said Mariya, her cheeks turning red. “I guess I should have shown those to you earlier. Well, it won’t take long to get used to the Hope of Oriana. It’s not an awfully big ship. And even if you don’t speak Gaian, the people aren’t too unfriendly. But don’t worry—I’ll be sure to help.”

Noemi nodded and looked her in the eye. Mariya realized that she was babbling.

“Hey, do you want me to show you something?” she asked, trying not to sound shaken. “It’s something we missed on the tour.”

“Sure.”

“Here—come with me.”

She took Noemi by the hand and pulled her toward the door. Her skin felt unusually clammy, as if she were sick or had a fever. Mariya frowned.

“Are you feeling all right?”

“I’m fine,” said Noemi. From the sallowness in her eyes, though, she didn’t look it.

“No, really. Is something the matter? You look sick—maybe we should take you to the doctor.”

“It’s not that,” she said softly. “Here, why don’t you show me the other part of the ship?”

“Well …”

Mariya was unsure what to do. Noemi smiled, reassuring her somewhat, but she still didn’t seem too well. Did she need to see the doctor? Doctor Andreson was down on B’tum with everyone else, but there was bound to be a nurse somewhere. Even so, it would take some effort to track one down, and Noemi probably wouldn’t consent to that anyway.

“All right,” said Mariya. “Come on, let me show you the observation deck.”

She led Noemi down the hallway to a narrow, steep stairway set in the recess between the dream center and the nearest bunk room. It led to a tiny corridor with a maintenance shaft leading back to the engines. The shaft was barely more than a crawlspace, with wires and pipes skirting along the foil-coated insulation. Someone had left the hatch open—Mariya stopped to close it.

“Umph!” she said as she pushed the heavy durasteel door. A handhold on the wall helped her to get some leverage, but it wasn’t until Noemi pitched in that they were able to get it closed.

“Those things are heavy,” said Mariya as she wiped her forehead. “Thanks for the help.”

“Gravity is always a bit heavier on the lower levels,” said Noemi. “At least, that’s true on the stations—I don’t know about starships.”

“It’s true here too. Something having to do with artificial gravity field lines, though don’t ask me about the details. In any case, on to the observation deck!”

They walked down the narrow, windowless corridor past a number of storage rooms. The main stairway was closer to the mess hall, of course, but this way was shorter, and Noemi didn’t seem to mind much anyway. A door on the other end opened up to a circular room with round fishbowl windows on all sides. The dark brown hull of the ship stretched out above them like a wide awning, but nothing obstructed the vastness of space below.

“Wow,” said Noemi, walking toward the nearest window. Still, there was a listlessness in her voice that Mariya didn’t understand.

“This is a good place to come when you want to get away from everyone,” she said. “Of course, there’s usually someone else down here, but at least it’s not as crowded as the decks up above.”

“Who else comes here?”

Mariya shrugged. “I dunno—people who want to be alone, I guess. A lot of them bring books to read, since this is one of the only quiet places on this ship besides the dream center.”

“And it’s empty now because everyone is planetside.”

“More or less. That, or they’re on B’tum station right now—want to go? The next ferry shuttle leaves in just an hour.”

Noemi shook her head. “No, thanks. I don’t want to risk getting lost.”

“You won’t get lost—not with me showing you around. If you want, I can—”

“No.”

Her answer, though calm, was firm enough that Mariya dropped the subject.

Together, they stared out the window at the barren rocky world below. Great ancient craters stared up at them like empty eye sockets, with only the barest hint of clouds along the highest rims. Little splotches of red and green showed where the first stages of terraforming had already begun. Off on the horizon, the yellow gas giant Chronos rose with its magnificent rings glowing gold in the sunlight.

The Hope of Oriana was parked in a low orbit, parallel to the moon’s main orbital station. They’d jumped in from the L2 point of the Chronos-B’tum system just a few hours before, which was why she had spent the better part of her dayshift at communications. It had been a lot of work, but now that they were safely parked in orbit above the partially terraformed world, Mariya could relax.

“Where is Jerem-ahra?” Noemi asked.

“Jeremiah? I’m not sure, but I think he went to B’tum station. Do you want me to check?”

She shook her head and stared silently out the window.

“You know, now that we’re at port, we should have plenty of time for a language lesson,” said Mariya. A short one at least—no need to teach them so much that they don’t need me. “I think that will give us a good chance to spend some time together, perhaps even bond a little. What do you think?”

Noemi said nothing.

“Did you hear me? I asked if you think we should—”

“It sounds fine,” Noemi said softly.

Footsteps sounded on the stairwell leading down from the main hallway just outside the mess hall. It was a middle-aged woman, coming down with a reading tablet. Mariya drew in a sharp breath—even though no one else on the ship spoke Deltan, she didn’t like being in a place where she could be overheard.

“Do you think we can have the lesson on the Ariadne?” she asked. “It looks like the observation deck isn’t as empty as I’d thought.”

“Sure, why not,” said Noemi. She didn’t seem nearly as excited about it as Mariya.

“Hey, what’s the matter? Are you feeling well?”

Noemi sighed. “I’m doing fine, Mariya—really, I am. It’s just … I have some things to work through.”

“Like what? Can I help?”

She tensed ever so slightly, clenching her fingers together for a brief moment before looking away.

“Thanks, but I don’t think you can. Unless …”

“Unless what?”

“Never mind. Forget I said anything.”

“Forget that you said what?” asked Mariya, leaning forward. Now that her curiosity had been piqued, she absolutely had to know what was going on.

“I said nothing.”

“But you were about to say something. What was it?”

To her immense surprise, Noemi burst into silent tears. She buried her face in her hands, her shoulders trembling.

“Noemi? Noemi, what’s wrong?”

“Do you really have to do this to us? Force me to give him up, after all we’ve been through?”

Jeremiah, Mariya realized, her stomach sinking. She’s talking about us and Jeremiah. The woman on the other side of the room was staring at them now, but they couldn’t go to the upper decks to work through this issue—not in this condition.

“Don’t cry—please don’t cry,” she said, rubbing Noemi’s back. “I know it’s hard, but—”

“Then why are you—why?”

Why am I what? Mariya almost asked. Noemi’s tears had come so completely out of the dark that she didn’t know what to think. How could Noemi not see that this was the best path for them all?

“You don’t have to give him up,” she said softly. “He’ll still be your husband, and you’ll be his wife. His first wife.”

Noemi shook her head, her eyes suddenly fierce. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Mariya. You really don’t.”

“But—but it’s the best for all of us. Can’t you see? We’re practically married already, the three of us. We need each other.”

I need.

“We don’t need you,” said Noemi. “We got along fine without you on the Ariadne, and—” She clenched her fists, and in that moment, she seemed ready to lash out.

“W-wait!” Mariya squealed, covering her head with her arms.

But instead of hitting her, Noemi collapsed to the floor, burying her face in her hands again. Her sobs were much louder this time, and the middle-aged woman walked over across the room to them.

“Do you need any help?” she asked in Gaian. “The captain is still on board. If you want, I can go get him.”

“No!” Mariya blurted. “I mean, no thanks, we can handle this by ourselves. It’s just—” she paused, thinking quickly. “Just—my friend has lost a lot of family. She’s still working through it.”

“Really? I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I know,” said Mariya, smiling in a way that she hoped said would you please just give us a moment? without seeming too rude.

“Well, I’d better be going then. Let me know if I can help.”

“Thanks.”

As the woman walked away, Mariya turned back to Noemi and squatted beside her. Not knowing what to say, she put a hand on her shoulder, half expecting her to shrug it off. She didn’t though. They sat like that in silence together until Noemi had worked through the worst of her tears.

“I’m sorry,” she said at last, her voice strangely hollow. “I shouldn’t have gotten angry at you like that.”

“It’s okay—no harm done. Are we still friends?”

Noemi didn’t answer right away, so she hugged her close.

“Things will be better when we get to Zarmina,” said Mariya. “I know that they will. With the three of us together, we’ll be able to face anything.”

“But Mariya,” Noemi whispered, “do you really have to force this on me?”

There eyes met, and in that moment, Mariya’s words from earlier with her father cut into her like a laser: There’s no need to make him feel like he doesn’t have a choice. Well, if the same was true of Noemi right now, then everything was in danger of falling apart.

But how could Noemi feel this way? Couldn’t she see that opening her marriage would solve all their problems? Mariya wouldn’t be in danger of living the rest of her life without a family of her own, and Noemi would have a companion and sister-wife to help her during the hard times. No one had to give anything up—not even Jeremiah. Sure, it might be a challenge for him to love them both, but she was okay with being the second wife. Was that what Noemi was afraid of—that she would somehow come in second in this relationship?

“No one is taking anyone away from anyone,” she said, gently rubbing Noemi’s back. “If anything, you’re getting a new sister. Is that all right? Do you not want me as your sister?”

“No—of course I do.”

“And as sister-wives, we’ll be so much closer than we are right now. Where we’re going, we’ll need to be as close as we can get. After all, what if something terrible happens to us? The nearest help will be light-years away—we’ll have to rely on each other. And what better way to do that than to become a family?”

“You’re right,” Noemi whispered.

Then why are you taking it so hard? Mariya almost asked. Instead, she rubbed Noemi’s back in silence for a few moments.

“You’re okay with it, then?” she asked.

Noemi didn’t answer right away. When she did, she looked Mariya in the eye.

“Do you think God brought us together for this reason?” she asked. “That this is his will—part of his plan?”

The question took Mariya aback. She stammered for a second, not sure how to answer.

“Does anything happen without a reason?” she blurted.

Noemi’s expression hardened, but she nodded. “You’re right, of course. If everything happens for a reason, then maybe this is God’s will for the both of us.”

“If it weren’t for you and Jeremiah, I’d be alone,” Mariya said, the words gushing out of her. “I was supposed to marry Benyamin, and we really should have gone through with it last year, but we were too poor. Now that we’re going to the far Outworlds, and he’s light-years away with everyone else, I—”

I’m lost and alone.

“It’s okay,” said Noemi. “I know how you feel.”

“Y-you do?”

“Yes.”

“So you’re okay with it, then? We can both be sister-wives together?”

Again, there was that pause. It was shorter this time, though.

“Yes,” Noemi whispered, her arms tensing even as she spoke. “Yes, I can share Jerem-ahra with you.”

A feeling of welcome relief spread throughout Mariya’s entire being. It felt like the warmth and comfort she’d been longing for ever since they’d left Oriana Station. Still, it didn’t come without an edge to it. Was this truly Noemi’s choice, or was she just resigning herself to the inevitable?

Of course it’s her choice, she told herself. After all, why would she choose otherwise?

Chapter 14


“Well, you seem different,” said Captain Elijah as Mariya bounded toward the docking bay. “Anything new that I should know about?”

Mariya laughed nervously. “No, nothing at all.”

“I take it you’re happy to see our new passengers then?”

“Oh yes—very much.”

Captain Elijah nodded, his hands clasped comfortably behind his back. He stood aside so as not to block her way, but Mariya hesitated by the exit hatch, not sure if it would be rude or not for her to leave.

“I understand they’re close friends of yours. It’s good to have friends on board, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Were you afraid that they wouldn’t meet up with us before going to Zarmina? Is that what was troubling you before?”

Mariya sighed. “No, I—it’s not that.”

An awkward silence fell between them. Captain Elijah drew in a long breath and nodded slowly.

“Well, it’s a good thing that we have you on board to help them adjust. That girl is just like your mother—doesn’t speak a word of Gaian.”

“She knows a little,” said Mariya. More than either of us probably thinks.

“Even so, the help is much appreciated. I don’t want anyone on this mission to feel like they aren’t part of the larger community. When we arrive at Zarmina, we’re going to need as much of a sense of community as we can get.”

Is that why you’re always checking up on me at the most annoying times? Mariya thought—to herself, of course. She edged toward the door, wishing that the captain would catch the hint and let her go. Instead, he eyed her more intently.

“Well, yeah,” she said, more to fill the silence than anything. “That makes sense if we aren’t going to see anyone from the outside universe for a while.”

“I wouldn’t count on that,” said Elijah. “We may be headed for the Far Outworlds, but there are still a number of outlying settlements in the neighboring stars, and plenty of starfarers making trade runs between them. Once news of our colony spreads throughout the local sector, it won’t be long before we’ve reestablished contact with the outside universe.”

And if we don’t?

“This isn’t the first time that I’ve led one of these colony missions,” he continued. “And if it’s being cut off that you’re afraid of, I can assure you that that won’t be the case forever. It may take a while for the starfarers to come—perhaps even a few years—but when they do, it won’t just be trade goods they’re looking for.”

“What do you mean?”

Captain Elijah laughed and elbowed her in the side. “I think you know what I’m talking about. It’s a cycle that repeats itself countless times here in the Outworlds. A boy sets out on his father’s ship to seek his fortune among the stars, not knowing what fate awaits him. Tradition compels him to leave his birth world and find a girl at some distant star, keeping the Outworlds strong. I’m a Coreward man myself, least-aways by birth, but I know full well how the Outworld traditions work. Even in the furthest settlements, they’re still in effect.”

Mariya’s cheeks warmed a little, and her arms grew tense. What was he saying—that she should wait for a star wanderer, like her mother had waited for her father? Trust her fate to the whims of chance, and whatever the cruel universe might send her? No—why should she, when the answer to all of her problems lay clearly in front of her? Jeremiah wasn’t a wild card. He was a known quantity—one of the only known quantities left in her life. Better to be his second wife than to trust her future to chance.

“Thanks,” she said, “but I really need to be going. The others are waiting for me.”

“Oh, really? Who? Where?”

She groaned and fought back the urge to roll her eyes. “Noemi and Jeremiah, of course. They’re on the Ariadne—we’re going to have a language lesson.”

“A language lesson? What a fine idea! I’d better leave you to it—but why don’t you hold it here, on the Hope of Oriana?

Because it’s not just about the language, you dolt, Mariya wanted to say. She was already halfway through the doorway to the docking airlocks, but he seemed almost oblivious to the awkwardness he was causing her.

“Well, I suppose that’s all right,” he said with a flick of his broad hand. “There’s no problem with meeting in private, so long as you plan to help them integrate later on.”

Integrate? Mariya thought. Who needs that when you have a good husband? Whether or not the captain had an answer to that, she was already out the door.


* * * * *


Noemi enjoyed cooking. It was something she was good at—a way for her to distinguish herself. Anyone could mix synthetics and instant foodstuffs to get something passable, but it took a special hand to turn processed space food into a hearty, fulfilling meal. Back home, she’d cultivated her skills in the hope that it would help her to overcome her own plainness. So many of the girls her age were prettier than she was, Mariya among them.

Jeremahra sat directly behind her as she cooked, the dream monitor pulled over his head. Here on the Ariadne, they were alone together, which was more than could be said of the Hope of Oriana. She glanced over her shoulder and thought she saw him smile as the scent of her cooking filled the tiny starship. The neural jacks connected to the olfactory bulb directly through the brain stem, but it didn’t shut off the natural receptors. Wherever he was in the dream world, right about now he should be able to smell something delicious.

The monitor blinked, and he began to stir. On the far side of the narrow cabin, the airlock door hissed open, and Mariya stepped through.

“Noemi!” she called out, bounding over to kiss her on the cheek. Noemi smiled and received Mariya as graciously as she could, though a brief chill passed over her as they embraced.

“What are you cooking? Stars of Earth, it smells delicious!”

“Thank you,” said Noemi. “It’s not much—just a little snack for the lesson.”

“A snack? It smells like a whole meal!”

Jeremahra took the dream monitor off and rose to his feet. Before Noemi could respond, Mariya greeted him with a hug and a kiss. Noemi cringed, though she knew it was something she’d have to get used to. As she glazed the re-hydrated fruit slices and spread them out in an attractive presentation on a platter she’d borrowed from the Hope of Oriana’s mess hall, Jeremahra and Mariya sat down on the two wall-chairs facing each other across the tiny cabin.

“Is there a table?” Mariya asked.

“I’m afraid not,” said Noemi. “Normally, we just eat on the floor.”

She gathered up the pot with the spiced beans together with the fruit platter and turned around to face them. Mariya scooted over as if to make room, but Jeremahra rose to his feet and motioned for her to sit down.

“No,” she said, smiling at him. “You use the chair—I’ll sit on the floor.”

He took the food from her and set it down carefully on the floor. When he saw that she hesitated, he shrugged and put the seat up. What is he doing? she wondered, until he sat down and motioned for her to join him. She did so gladly, noting that they had figured it out without having to resort to Mariya to translate.

“Well, are we ready to get started?” Mariya asked. She leaned forward on the edge of the chair, her hands clasped and elbows on her knees.

“Hold on,” said Noemi. “Let’s pray over the food first.”

Jeremahra looked at them both in confusion for a moment, but when they folded their arms he did the same. Noemi closed her eyes and bowed her head, waiting until only the hum of the Ariadne’s ventilation system sounded over the silence.

“Our father, who art with Earth,” she prayed, “We gather before thee in this space, and ask thee to bless this food which thou hast given us. Please keep us safe in the midst of the starry deep, and guide and watch over us as we travel to the new world. Amen.”

“Amen.”

And please help me to accept thy will, she added silently. Whatever that may be.

By the time she opened her eyes, the others had already started to help themselves. Mariya was speaking in a warm, lively way with Jeremahra, but her words came so fast that Noemi couldn’t make sense of any of them.

“All right,” she said in Deltan as Noemi took a spoonful of beans and put them in her bowl. “How should we start—with Deltan, or with Gaian?”

“Gaian, of course.” I need it to get around on my own.

Mariya nodded. When she explained the plan to Jeremahra, though, he objected almost right away.

“No,” he said. “I want to learn understand Noemi better. She understands already me.”

That’s not exactly true, Noemi thought to herself. Still, it wasn’t worth making a fuss over. Perhaps it was for the best that he learn her language first, especially if Mariya was going to be a part of their family.

“Are you okay with that?” asked Mariya.

“Sure,” said Noemi, shrugging. “We’ll just do Gaian next time.”

“All right. If you say so.”

Mariya started him off with the most basic structures: personal pronouns, both singular, plural, and dual. The dual construction confused him, so she dropped that and focused on just the singular and the plural.

Shen, tkven,” she said, enunciating the words as she taught him the second person. “I love you—shen—I love youtkven.

The first time, she pointed just to Jeremahra, while the second time, she pointed to the both of them. Noemi tensed a little at the choice of phrase, but went along as good-naturedly as she could manage.

“I love tven,” said Jeremahra, mispronouncing the pronoun.

“Not tven—tkven. Tuh-kuh-vuh—tkven.”

He frowned. “tk’wen?”

“No, no, no!” said Mariya, throwing her hands up in the air. Her gesture was so emphatic that Noemi couldn’t help but laugh.

“T’kven,” said Jeremahra. “I love you—t’kven.

Mariya sighed and shook her head. “Close enough, I guess.” Jeremahra didn’t seem to understand, so Noemi put her arm around him. He looked at her and smiled—touch could sometimes say so much more than words.

“I love you—t’kven,” he said, looking her in the eye.

Is it just me you’re talking about, or me and Mariya?

“Let’s move on to something else,” Noemi suggested.

“Right,” said Mariya. “We’ll do pronunciation next.” She gave him some instructions in Gaian, then took a deep breath. “Tuh, t’eh; tsuh, ts’eh; kuh, q’eh; khe, qkhe. Now you.”

Jeremahra stumbled through the first few letters without too much difficulty, but when he got to the last two, he screwed them up so badly that Noemi couldn’t hold back. She slapped her leg and burst into a fit of giggles.

“No no no,” said Mariya, shaking her head. “Hot—tskheleh; water—ts’qkhaleh. Understand?”

He tried to pronounce the words, but again failed miserably. Noemi was beside herself.

“Ai, you star-born off-worlder! How am I ever going to tame your tongue?”

“Now you see what I’ve had to deal with.”

“You can say that again,” said Mariya. She shook her head and clucked with her tongue before explaining the sounds to Jeremahra in his own language. With the scolding look on her face, she cut a ridiculous picture, but Noemi did her best to regain her composure.

“Hot—tskheleh,” Mariya explained. “Water—ts’qkhaleh. Tskheleh, ts’qkhaleh. Now you.”

Jeremahra made a brave attempt, but failed spectacularly once again.

“No, not khe,” said Mariya, putting a special emphasis on the sound. “Qkhe. Khe, qkhe.”

“Tskhaleh,” he said, sounding like a two year-old child. Again, it was too much—Noemi’s shoulders shook as she broke into quiet peals of laughter.

“No, no, NO!” said Mariya, throwing her hands in the air. “Ts’qkhaleh. Ts’qkhaleh.” She spoke quickly in Gaian, but though she pretended to be angry, Noemi could see that she could barely keep from laughing herself.

Jeremahra sighed wearily and objected, but Mariya would have nothing of it. They argued until Noemi stopped laughing. When she saw that Jeremahra honestly wanted to stop, she coughed and leaned forward.

“Sorry, Mariya, but could we stop for a break? I should probably clean up the food.”

“You want to stop now? But we’re just barely getting started!”

As they talked, Jeremahra rose to his feet and stretched. Noemi longed to do the same—with the three of them on board, the Ariadne felt almost unbearably cramped.

“Just for a little while. I think we all could use a good stretch.”

“Oh, all right,” said Mariya. She told Jeremahra, and he nodded before ducking through the cockpit doorway, leaving them both more or less alone.

Noemi rose to her feet, careful to support her stomach as she did so. Mariya helped by gathering the dishes and putting them in the universal washer unit.

“Thanks.”

“No problem. How do you think the lesson went?”

Noemi shrugged. “Well enough, I suppose. It’ll take time for him to learn, though. Deltan isn’t an easy language.”

“Yeah, but he can’t hardly speak it at all. Honestly, I’m shocked that you two have been able to get along like this. It must be terribly awkward for you.”

Why? Noemi wondered. But even if she tried to explain the connection she and Jeremahra shared, she doubted that Mariya would understand. When it was just the two of them in the silent void between stars, words mattered very little. It was touch, and not words, that dispelled the awful loneliness of space—touch that made their love real and tangible.

“Don’t worry, though—I’ll teach him. He’ll be speaking Deltan like my dad in no time. After all, he was a star wanderer too. And if he can learn, I’m sure that Jerem-ahra can as well.”

“Of course,” said Noemi, putting away the uneaten food for later.

“Do you think it will work out, then, between the three of us? I mean, I don’t know how Jerem-ahra feels about it yet, but if he’s as confident as you …”

Noemi’s arms tensed, and her body stiffened. Truthfully, she still felt nauseous every time she thought of Jeremahra taking Mariya as a second wife. It was horrible, she knew—after all, Mariya had just as much of a right to a happy future as she did—but she didn’t know if she could follow through.

“Do you mind if I use the simulator?” she asked. “I could use some time alone right now.”

Mariya gave her a funny look, but nodded. “Sure—this place is starting to feel cramped anyway. You don’t mind if I chat with Jerem-ahra for a bit, do you?”

If I can’t stop you from marrying him, how can I stop you from talking with him?

“No,” said Noemi, sighing as she pulled down one of the dream monitors from the overhead compartment. “Go right ahead.”


* * * * *


As Noemi went limp under the dream monitor, Mariya stood up and took a deep breath. The lesson had gone very well so far, even if Jeremiah couldn’t quite pronounce his qkhe’s. What mattered was that the three of them were getting along well together, in spite of any tension that may have existed before. If they could work together at something as small as a language lesson, then surely they could work their way up to something bigger. Couldn’t they?

Jeremiah ducked through the doorway to the cabin, startling her out of her thoughts. He regarded his wife coolly for a moment before turning to face her.

“Hello, Noe—I mean, Mariya.”

“Hello,” she said, smiling at his less-than-innocent slip up.

“You didn’t want to plug in?”

“No,” she said, her heart beating a little faster. This is the first time since Alpha Oriana that we’ve been alone together, she realized. The thought sent shivers running across her skin—the only other time had been the visit to that slutty woman in the spokeside penthouse back on Oriana Station.

Jeremiah paused, leaving an uneasy silence between them. Mariya wrung her hands, unsure how best to break it.

“I really like your starship,” she blurted. “What’s it called?”

“The Ariadne.

“Ooh—that’s a really pretty name. Where did it come from?”

The question made her cringe. She sounded so stupid—why did she have to always make everything awkward by opening her big mouth? Fortunately, Jeremiah didn’t seem to mind much. He never did.

“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. She edged 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.”

“Maybe.”

“Your father spoke with me earlier,” he said, frowning a little. “He, ah, asked about—”

“About what?”

“About—he asked if I was willing to take you as a second wife.”

So that’s what he wants to talk about, Mariya thought to herself. Her heart beat a little faster, and she leaned forward without hardly realizing it.

“He spoke with you already? Great! What do you think?”

“I—” Jeremiah paused, as if unsure what to say. The expression on his face made her stomach fall.

He doesn’t want me.

“I don’t know,” he said. “To be honest, it seems like a strange thing to ask.”

“Strange? How?”

“Well … you’re young, you’re outgoing, you’re pretty … 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 interjected. Already, she was lining up in her mind all of the ways the conversation could go, trying to figure out how best to respond. It was as if half a dozen alarms were ringing in her head, and she was trying to steer things away from absolute disaster. Whatever else happened, she could not let him slip.

“Yeah,” he said, “but there are lots of single starfarers in the Outworlds—thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. A few of them are bound to come to Zarmina before too long—it’s not like we’re going to be cut off forever. Besides, you’re still young. Time is on your side.”

His words made her think of Benyamin. She swallowed hard at the painful memories and took a deep breath.

“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.”

If she had hoped to gain Jeremiah’s sympathy, it didn’t work. He folded his arms and stared at her impassively, making her jaw tighten.

“Look,” she said, her voice leaking desperation, “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.”

From the look on his face, he didn’t seem to be buying it. He reached up to rub his forehead, but Mariya pressed on with renewed vigor.

“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.”

“Look, 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. “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?”

“That was different,” he said quickly, but his tone had already changed. His voice carried a hint of doubt, and his eyes were wider than they’d been just a moment ago.

Go easy, she told herself, her hands cold and clammy. You don’t want to drive him away—not now.

“I know,” she said, “and I’m not judging you for that. Really, I’m not. It’s just …”

“Just what?”

“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?”

Their eyes met, and to her intense delight, she saw that his mind was already starting to change. He still seemed confused, of course, but his resistance was slowly breaking down, just as Noemi’s had. If she played her hand right—

“You really are serious about this, aren’t you?”

She bit her lip again and nodded, never taking her eyes off of him. His expression had begun to change into a strange mixture of sympathy and resignation.

“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.”

He groaned and shook his head. “I don’t know—I seriously doubt that.”

“But it’s true! I’ve already talked with her about it, and she agrees.”

“Wait—you what?”

In an instant, everything changed. The sympathy evaporated from Jeremiah’s face, replaced by anger. His nostrils flared, and the fire in his eyes made Mariya shrink.

“I—I talked with her,” she explained, “and she told me she’s open to the idea. We’re already so close, I’m sure we could make it work.”

Blood rushed to Jeremiah’s cheeks, and his face reddened the way her father’s did whenever he was about to fight with her mother. Instinctively, she pulled away from him.

“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—”

Without warning, he threw out the other wall chair and pulled down the second dream monitor from the ceiling compartment. Mariya flinched and made as if to cover herself, but he sat down, ignoring her.

“Wait!” she cried. “Where are you going?”

“I’m going to talk with my wife,” said Jeremiah. He leaned forward to part the hair at the base of his skull.

“But—but don’t you want me to translate for you?”

“No.”

Before she could stop him, he plugged himself in. His arms flopped onto the armrests, and his body went as limp and unconscious as Noemi’s.

What just happened? Mariya wondered, her heart racing. What have I done? Her hands shaking, she stumbled to the airlock and palmed her way through. She had to get out of there—get as far away as possible. Her head spun, and tears burned in her eyes, but she did her best to hide them as she returned to the Hope of Oriana.


* * * * *


It’s never going to be the same, Noemi thought to herself as she walked across the dying landscape. The little stubs of grass jabbed at her feet like needles, digging into her toes and ankles. Not that it mattered.

Dust and leaves blew past her in the chill autumn wind. The trees on the edge of the once-green meadow were naked and bare, just like her arms and legs. The cold air penetrated through the thin fabric of her dress, making her shiver uncontrollably. Still, there was something almost soothing about the pain—it reflected the feelings of her heart, the almost overwhelming sense of loss. Overhead, the colors in the sky deepened, and the clouds turned crimson as the sun dipped low on the horizon. Night was coming, and with it the end of the simulated world.

But wasn’t her world outside of the simulator also coming to an end? Not literally, of course—she would still be alive, still have a future to work toward. With the addition of Mariya to their marriage, however, things between her and Jeremahra would no longer be the same. Those intimate moments they’d shared together, alone in the depths of space—how precious they now felt to her! But those moments were in the past, and she wasn’t going to get them back.

I shouldn’t be so selfish, she told herself, gazing out at the rapidly setting sun. Mariya deserves a good husband and family just as much as I do. Where they were going, there was no guarantee of ever finding a man for her. She’d heard stories about the Far Outworlds, how some settlements went for decades without contact from the outside universe. It wasn’t unheard of for starfarers to report arriving at a distant outpost, only to find that all the inhabitants had perished and their orbital stations were little more than lifeless derelicts. If she were in Mariya’s place, she’d be just as desperate.

She reached her hands to the underside of her belly and held them there, feeling the warmth that emanated from her womb. As the sky turned orange and the mountains turned purple and red, it felt almost as if she were carrying a whole world inside of her, not just her husband’s child. As one world passed away, another would replace it. Even in the throes of their fiery death, the stars spewed forth the seeds of rebirth.

As she watched from the top of the meadow, she heard the crunch of boots on the dead, dry stalks behind her. “Noemi!” a voice carried over on the wind. She took a deep breath—it was Jeremahra.

He ran up to her, briefly taking her in his arms before he realized just how frail her emaciated body was. She bit her lip and met his gaze. The sharp look of worry and anxiety on his face made a lump rise in her throat. He fidgeted with his hands, as if he longed to help her but didn’t know. It was clear that he was deeply concerned for her sake.

“What wrong?” he asked.

Noemi shrugged and looked away. How could she possibly explain how she felt? Even without the language barrier, she didn’t think she had words for it. At least this was all just a simulation—at least she wasn’t torturing herself in real life.

Jeremahra clapped his broad hands onto her shoulders and turned her gently to face him. The crimson of the darkening sky only deepened the intensity of his expression.

“Mariya?” he asked. His next few words were spoken too quickly for her to catch every word. The meaning, though, was clearly written on his face. His nostrils flared, and eyes burned with sudden rage, like the rapidly growing blaze of a mountain wildfire.

“No,” said Noemi, putting a hand on his chest to calm him. “No—Mariya friend.” She’s not to blame for the way I feel. I am.

Jeremahra spoke again, words spilling out like an angry torrent. It was clear that he didn’t believe her—that he saw Mariya as an enemy. Of course, that was a problem—any sort of animosity would only lead to unnecessary drama in the future.

He raised his voice, but before he could shout Noemi put a finger on his lips. “Shh,” she said, trying to think of the best way to get through to him. She let out a long breath, and the world slowly spun around them. Time became as fluid as her emotions, and the sunset darkened until the starry band of the galaxy shown bright across the starry sky.

The view reminded her of the starfield outside the cockpit window of the Ariadne. She closed her eyes and pictured the starship in her mind. The cold autumn wind disappeared, replaced by the warmth of the recycled air with its comforting, familiar smell. She opened her eyes and they were in the cabin, recreated perfect in every detail from the placement of the wall compartments to the scuff marks on the floors and handholds. They’d spent so much time on the Ariadne together that she was able to pull almost every detail straight from memory.

Jeremahra sobbed quietly, and she put her arms around him. The resonance of the place was quite strong, and his emotions mingled freely with hers. He clearly missed their time alone together just as much as she did.

“I love you, Noemi,” he said softly. “Don’t want lose you.”

“I stay,” she said, rubbing his back until the tears slowly stopped coming. “Jeremahra no afraid—I stay.”

“That good.”

It’s not just the end, she thought, searching for some way to tell him. It’s the start of something as well.

“Happy?” she asked. His eyes were still red, but he managed to give her a smile.

“Yes. Much.”

Then come with me.

She led him into the cockpit, where the softly glowing starfield filled their view. Off in the distance, a starship came into view—the Hope of Oriana. By concentrating on the way she’d felt when they’d arrived at Alpha Oriana after their first voyage alone together, she managed to get across a small part of the loss she now felt. After all, Oriana Station had marked their first time integrating back into human society, with all of its petty obstacles. It wasn’t exactly the end of their honeymoon period, but it did represent the encroachment of outside concerns.

She pointed out the window at the Hope of Oriana. “We go,” she said, squeezing his hand to let him know that she wasn’t ever going to leave him.

Jeremahra tensed. He wasn’t quite as angry as before, but she still saw the rage lingering in his eyes.

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “We don’t have do this. It does not to be way.”

“Don’t afraid,” she said. “I love you.”

He spoke again, so quickly that his words all blurred together and made her dizzy. She took a deep breath and prepared to try again.

“Don’t afraid. I—”

But before she could finish, he jacked out and disappeared.

She stood for a moment in the simulation of the Ariadne, unsure whether to jack out. If he didn’t understand her here in the simulator, then nothing she could say out there would make any difference.

Lord of Earth, she prayed silently as she buried her head in her hands. I don’t know if I just made a mess of everything, but if I did, please help him to understand and accept thy will.

Even though the prayer was for Jeremahra, it applied to her almost more.

Chapter 15


I’ve made a mess of everything, Mariya thought to herself as she folded her clothes. She and her mother weren’t the only ones in the narrow laundry room on the Hope of Oriana, but she was so absorbed in her melancholy thoughts that it certainly felt that way.

“Just pile the socks in the basket—we’ll take care of those later,” said her mother. No doubt she was anxious to get out of the space before the next rotation. With only three universal washer machines dedicated exclusively to laundry use, the passengers kept a strict wash schedule. Mariya folded the clothes as quickly as she could, knowing that in just a few minutes, the next group would come in to replace them.

Still, her mind wandered inevitably back to Jeremiah. Was he still angry with her? She longed to talk with him, if only to explain herself, but he’d taken off on a planetside ferry, and probably wouldn’t be back for a day or two. In the meantime, all she could do was wait, and she hated waiting more than she hated anything.

Besides, what was he so angry about? That she’d talked with Noemi first, before he’d had a chance? Well, what did he expect—that they would keep her clueless about the whole thing? That they would do anything without first getting her permission?

But you never really got her permission, a nagging voice whispered from the back of her head. You pressured her into it without really getting an answer.

Mariya tensed her arms and drew in a sharp breath, but inwardly she knew it was true. The way her father had pressured Jeremiah—she was doing the same thing. Was Noemi really in a position to say no? Maybe that was why Jeremiah was so angry. Maybe he should be angry.

But what if she does say no? Mariya wondered, her heart beating a little faster. What if I give her the choice, and she—

“Better hurry up, dear,” said her mother. The next group to use the laundry room was waiting by the door. A small pile of unfolded clothes still sat on the counter-top between them.

“Sorry, Mom,” Mariya said, chiding herself for getting carried away in her thoughts.

“What are you thinking about, dear?”

“Oh, nothing,” she lied.

“Come on—I know how to read you better than that. Are you thinking about Jeremiah?”

She cringed. “Yeah.” Sort of.

“You seem worried, though. What’s the matter?”

“I—Mom, when you married Dad, did you give him the chance to say ‘no’?”

The question surprised both of them.

“Of course, dear,” her mother said with a little laugh. “Your father was a star wanderer, with his own starship and the freedom to go anywhere. He could have turned me down at any time. In the long months when I waited for him, I often feared that he had.”

“Yes, but grandpa guilted him into coming back by repairing his ship. And you were pretty aggressive about courting him, weren’t you?”

Her mother smiled as she folded the last of the clothes and put them in the basket. “Mariya, dear, sometimes people don’t know what’s good for them. A lot of young star wanderers don’t know what they want until it’s right in front of them. And even then, sometimes they need a little push.”

“But he still could have said ‘no,’ right?”

They walked together out of the laundry room and back toward the bunk rooms, carrying the basket between them. The hallway was much less crowded, with most of the passengers still planetside or on B’tum station.

“Of course he could. I may have been a little aggressive, but I didn’t force him. It was still his choice.”

But it won’t be Noemi’s.

“Is something the matter, dear? You look a little pale.”

“What?” said Mariya. “Oh, don’t worry—I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”

“If you’re worried about pressuring Jeremiah, don’t be. He’s not the only one making a sacrifice. Besides, as hard as it seems now, when you look back on this time a few years from now, it won’t seem nearly so bad.”

“Are you sure?”

Her mother hesitated. “Of course, dear. Everything will work out just fine in the long run. It’s going to take an adjustment on everyone’s part, but with effort I’m sure it will work out just fine.”

With effort. That right there was the key. If Noemi and Jeremiah didn’t open their marriage of their own choice, then they wouldn’t be motivated to make the effort for it to work. As much as Mariya’s mother denied it, the truth was that she had pushed her husband into marrying her—and look at what had come of it. Mariya’s brothers were gone, her cousins and aunts and uncles were practically on the other side of the universe, and her parents had spent most of her life fighting with each other. A strong family shines brighter than all the stars—if that was true, it was only because all the parties involved made it that way. It took more than one person to make a marriage.

“Are you all right, dear? Your face is white—are you sure you don’t want to see the doctor?”

“No, I’ll be fine,” Mariya said softly, though that wasn’t how she felt. Her knees felt weak, her legs numb, and her hands could barely stop shaking. She did her best to swallow her fear, but without confronting its source, she knew she couldn’t keep up appearances much longer.


* * * * *


Noemi’s feet dangled over the edge of the examining table as the doctor peered through the data on the wall-screens opposite her. He tapped a keypad, and a grayscale image of her womb opened up on the wall, making her heart leap. The baby looked so small and precious, curled up with his tiny little hands near the budding features of his face and mouth.

“Isha’rah,” she whispered. The name had belonged to Jeremahra’s father, and would now belong to their son as well.

The doctor turned and spoke, looking at her directly. Only when he was finished did he nod to Mariya, who stepped forward to translate.

“He says everything looks good. The baby is coming along beautifully—no complications.”

Noemi smiled and turned to Doctor Andreson. “Thank you,” she said in her broken Gaian. He returned her smile and gave her a polite bow. He was a very precise, tidy man—even though he didn’t speak her language, she trusted from the way he carried himself that he was a dedicated professional, and that she would be safe in his care.

He took off his gloves and spoke again, this time to Mariya. She turned to translate.

“He says to come back in four standard weeks for another checkup, unless of course something comes up. He doesn’t think anything will, but if you notice anything unusual, don’t hesitate to contact him.”

“Of course,” said Noemi. She took Mariya’s hand and supported her stomach with her other as she slipped her feet back to the floor. Doctor Andreson put a hand on her shoulder and helped her stand up.

She paused at the wall screen and stared at the image of her womb. Mariya seemed anxious to go, but the doctor stopped and gave her space as he went about preparing the examining area for the next visit. Noemi stared long and hard at the baby, until everything else around her seemed to fade. Just a year ago, she’d fully expected to die childless and single—to think that a new life grew inside of her was simply mind-boggling.

“What’s his name going to be?” Mariya asked.

“Isha’rah.”

“Isha’rah—like the ancient prophet from Earth?”

Noemi nodded.

“It’s a good name. You must be looking forward to holding him in your arms.”

“Oh, yes,” said Noemi, patting her stomach. “Come on, let’s go.”

As they stepped out of the medical bay, Mariya hesitated as if she’d forgotten something. Noemi stopped and looked at her, but she didn’t turn back. Instead, she looked in both directions, then stopped and turned to face her.

“Have you got a moment, Noemi? We need to talk.”

“Sure,” said Noemi, frowning a little. What did Mariya want to talk about now? She seemed so tense, Noemi couldn’t help but feel a little worried.

It’s probably something to do with Jeremahra, she thought to herself. If it is, she’ll probably lead me down to the observation deck where we can have a little more privacy.

Sure enough, Mariya led them toward the mess hall and down the narrow steps.

“What is it?” Noemi asked. “Is something the matter?”

“No, not at all. That, is, I mean—well—”

“Does it have to do with Jeremahra?”

“Yes,” said Mariya, “but probably not like you’re thinking.”

“How so?”

For once, the observation deck was completely empty. They pulled down a couple of chairs near one of the fishbowl windows and sat facing outward. On B’tum down below, it was night, but a greenish-blue glow along the edge of the horizon promised an imminent sunrise.

“The last time you saw Jerem-ahra,” said Mariya, clasping her hands in her lap. “Was he … angry?”

Yes.

“A little,” said Noemi. “I mean, he seemed upset about something, but don’t worry—it’s not about you.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” she lied. “It’s not really a big deal. I’m sure he’ll come around.”

Mariya nodded. “Right.”

What’s the best way to smooth this whole thing over? Noemi wondered. The last thing she wanted was to blow things up and make them worse than they already wore. Yes, Jeremahra still wasn’t keen on taking Mariya as a second wife, but he’d come around eventually—he had to. In any case, there wasn’t anything Mariya could do to help on that account. Better to let her think that everything was fine than to make her freak out and upset everything all over again.

“About the way I brought up this whole marriage thing,” said Mariya, her voice barely louder than a whisper. “I—it wasn’t right.”

Noemi frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, I went about it the wrong way and made a mess of everything. I wish I could go back and do it differently, but I can’t, and I don’t know how to fix things without …” her voice trailed off, leaving the thought unfinished.

A chill ran down Noemi’s spine. They’d both made mistakes, certainly, but what was in the past was in the past. Better to let it go—though of course, there was no way of saying that without bringing it up all over again.

“What makes you say that?”

“I—I put too much pressure on you, without giving you any choice. You were never in a position to say no, and probably felt like I was trying to steal your husband from you.”

That’s true, Noemi thought silently. She took a deep breath and tried very hard to keep the memory of her pain from coming back.

“Well, I just wanted to say, if this isn’t what you want, I’m okay with that. We can still be friends, even if you don’t want to share your husband with me. I’ll still be there for you.”

Noemi’s legs went weak, and her hands began to shake. If Mariya had given her this option just a few days ago, she would have said ‘no’ in a heartbeat. But was that even the right thing to do now? Mariya had said she would be all right, but the expression on her face said otherwise. Her cheeks were pale, her lips quivering. It was clear that the thought of being single at a place like Zarmina filled her with a terrible fear. And why shouldn’t it? On the Outworld frontier, there was more danger and uncertainty than anyone deserved to face all alone.

God’s will.

“Are you sure?” Noemi asked. The words seemed to come from someone else, as if she were a spectator in her own body.

“About what?”

“That you’ll be all right if I say no.”

Mariya bit her lip, but nodded. “Yes,” she said softly. “Like you say, everything happens for a reason. I’ll be okay.”

For one brief moment, something inside of Noemi screamed at her to say no. The urge to go back to the way things were, when it was just her and Jeremahra alone in the depths of space, was almost overwhelming. But when she looked at Mariya, all she could see was herself—that hopeless young girl who knew with awful certainty that she would die single and alone. She might as well cut off an arm as refuse that girl a small chance to be happy.

“Thank you, Mariya,” she heard herself say. “It’s very brave of you to say that. But if everything happens for a reason, and this is God’s will, I—I can’t think of a better friend to have as a sister-wife.”

Mariya’s eyes widened, and her tears began to overflow. “D-do you mean that?”

Say no! Say no!

Noemi took a deep breath. “Yes, I do.”

This time, it was Mariya’s turn to throw her arms around her. She did so with so much energy that it took her completely by surprise. A moment later, they were laughing and crying and letting their emotions spill out all over. It was as much a release as the dying world in the simulator—more so, in fact. And unlike the simulator, there wasn’t nearly so much pain. Instead, there was the sweet, welcome peace of rejuvenation.

But inside, Noemi still felt as if a part of her had died.


* * * * *


“Where is Jeremiah?” Mariya’s father asked as she came off another training exercise. He was waiting for her on the observation deck, his arms folded impatiently.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I think he went down to the surface, but—”

“Planetside? When we’re less than forty-eight hours from leaving the system?”

Footsteps sounded through the overhead bulkheads from the mess hall, echoing in the small space of the observation deck. Apparently, a sizable crowd had gathered for first lunch—which meant that most of the passengers were already back from leave. Surely, Jeremiah had to be among them.

“I’ll find him, Dad,” said Mariya. “He left a while ago—he’s probably back by now.”

“Well, be sure to find him before we jump out. If he runs off, we’re going to be in big trouble.”

If he runs off? Mariya wondered as she climbed the narrow stairs. Why would he do that? Then she thought of how he’d left without warning in the first place, after their fight on the Ariadne. What if he was secretly planning something? Fear clutched her heart, and she ran a little faster.

She reached the top of the stairs and dashed through the crowded mess hall toward the control rooms. If Jeremiah had come in on the last ferry, he would be registered on one of the incoming passenger lists. Those weren’t generally accessible from the other computer terminals, but her password for communications would give her access to it. Probably.

The control rooms were empty, though many of the holoscreens were still active from the last training session. She found her chair and leaned down over it, not bothering to sit down. Her fingers flew across the keypad, and in just a few moments, she brought up exactly what she was looking for. She skimmed the roster until, sure enough, she found Jeremiah’s name near the bottom. He had come back on the latest ferry, just a few minutes ago.

“Well hello there,” Captain Elijah’s voice boomed behind her. Mariya jumped in fright—she’d been so intent on her work that she hadn’t heard him come.

“Oh, hi,” she said, quickly closing down the window and logging out. “How are you?”

“Very well, very well. Care to tell me what you’re up to?”

“Sorry—no time to explain!” she said, dashing off down the corridor. Captain Elijah frowned, but before he could respond, she was on her way.

I’ll have to apologize for running off later, she thought as she shouldered her way through the crowd at the mess hall. “Sorry!” she said as she nearly knocked over someone’s tray—why did they clog this place so much? Didn’t they know there was no other easy way through? She stopped only to scan the room for any sign of Jeremiah, but he didn’t seem to be there.

Maybe he’s with the doctor, she thought to herself. Noemi’s checkup had happened while he was gone, and he was always worrying about her, so it made sense that he’d be there.

He wasn’t, though. Doctor Andreson was at lunch—the only one in the medical bay was a young nurse. “Can I help you?” she asked.

“Sorry,” said Mariya, ducking back out into the main corridor. Little clusters of people milled about, but Jeremiah wasn’t among any of them. He wouldn’t be in the bunk rooms either, since they were occupied with the downshifters. She could try the bathroom, perhaps, but it wasn’t likely that he’d get on a re-entry shuttle without using the bathroom first.

The dream center, you idiot! If Noemi was there—and she usually was—then that was where he’d be.

She ran passed the bunk rooms and stopped just outside the dream center to catch her breath. This part of the ship was considerably less occupied, and for a moment she worried that he wouldn’t be there. Fortunately, he was.

“There you are,” she said, forcing an exasperated smile. “I’ve been looking all over for you. Where have you been?”

“Uh, nowhere,” he said, his eyes darting past her for a brief moment. “Why were you looking for me?”

“Because I heard you went down to the surface. Why?”

Mariya frowned—something was wrong. The way he gripped Noemi’s hand was too firm, as if he were about to drag her down the corridor with him. The shifty look in his eyes, his legs spread as if ready to run—it was all very odd.

“Oh, that,” he said. “Nothing really. Just meeting up with an old friend.”

He moved as if to walk past her, but Mariya’s father stepped into the room, cutting him off. His cheeks paled, and he stood as if rooted to the floor.

Something was definitely wrong.

“Jeremiah,” he said, folding his arms the way he did whenever he wanted to talk about something serious. “What’s this I hear about you leaving the colony mission without us?”

What?!

“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?”

Mariya’s stomach fell, and her legs went weak. Her father had assured her that Jeremiah would come around—she’d had no idea that he was thinking about leaving them. From the puzzled look on Noemi’s face, apparently she didn’t either.

“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?”

“It’s okay, father,” said Mariya, trying frantically to stop the fight. She put 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?”

Please say that we can.

Jeremiah drew in a sharp breath, and her heart sank. “I’m sorry, Mariya. I can’t marry you.”

His words struck her like an unexpected blow from behind. It was as if the floor had fallen out beneath her. Fear seeped into her heart like a cold vacuum, leaving her empty and without breath.

“What do you mean?” she asked, laughing nervously. “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.”

Silence fell over them all, like the terrible cold of the void. Mariya’s vision darkened, and she felt as if she were going to throw up. Everything was falling apart, just like it had at Alpha Oriana, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.

“Well,” said her father, “I suppose this is where we say goodbye, then.”

“But—but—” Mariya stammered. Noemi put a hand on her arm, making her turn.

“What’s the matter?” she whispered in Deltan.

“What’s the matter? Jeremiah is leaving us behind, and he doesn’t want us to come with him. He’s taking you too, I’m sure, but he isn’t going with us to Zarmina—he’s staying here.”

Noemi’s eyes widened. “Staying here? But—”

“That’s enough,” said Jeremiah, stepping between them. “Goodbye, Mar—”

“No want go!” Noemi yelled in her broken Gaian. “No want—we stay, we stay!”

As she struggled free of his grip, Jeremiah gave her a puzzled look. “What? Noemi—”

“This is not what I want!” she shouted, switching back and forth from Deltan to Gaian in her frenzy. She threw her arms around Mariya and held tightly onto her. “I don’t want to go—no want go!”

Her reaction was so touching that Mariya broke into tears. Her father was shouting now, and Jeremiah’s cheeks were pale.

“No want, no want,” Noemi cried over and over. “We stay—we stay.”

Stay or go, it wouldn’t change the fact that everything was a terrible, horrible mess—and that Mariya was to blame for it all.

Chapter 16


The walk to the docking airlock felt like a death march. Even though Mariya knew that Jeremiah wasn’t leaving yet, she did not relish the thought of confronting him. At least Noemi would be there too—she wouldn’t have to face him alone.

How did it come to this? she wondered for the hundredth time as they stepped through the airlock and onto the Ariadne. Just a couple of days ago, they’d passed through these very doors for the first of what she’d hoped would be many language lessons. The whole time, had he been contemplating how best to leave her? It had seemed like such a fun and innocent get-together, but now, she didn’t know what to believe.

Jeremiah ushered them in, not meeting either of their eyes. He collapsed on the cabin chair facing away from the cockpit, as strained and exhausted as if he had a hundred pound weight hanging from his neck.

“All right—let’s talk.”

Noemi motioned for Mariya to take the other seat, but she shook her head. “No, thanks,” she said in Deltan. “You need it more than I do.”

“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”

“No, really—you take it. I’ll just sit on the floor.”

Noemi sighed and folded up the chair. “Well, I don’t want you to be the only one sitting on the floor. I’ll join you.”

“But—”

“No buts. Sit!”

When Jeremiah saw them sitting on the floor, he let out an aggravated sigh and came down to join them. Under lighter circumstances, Mariya would have laughed at the awkwardness of it all. Laughter was the furthest thing from any of them now, though.

She cleared her throat and straightened her back. “Right. So, Noemi doesn’t want to leave.”

“Why?” he asked—then, turning to Noemi, “ratom?” Why?

“Because—because I thought we were going to stay here with Mariya’s family,” said Noemi. “We need her—I need her. What are we going to do when the baby comes? I don’t want to deliver him alone. I love you, dear, and I respect your authority, but we’ve been wandering the stars for so long, and I just need a place where I can be with my own people.”

Mariya raised her hand and nodded. “That’s enough,” she said softly. “I’ll translate.”

Jeremiah watched her intently now, his face gaunt and his eyes clouded.

“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—”

“Unless what?”

She hesitated, not sure whether she should put words in Noemi’s mouth or not. Then again, if Jeremiah really did want to settle at B’tum, this was the best way to avoid making the fight any worse.

“Unless the rest of us can come with you too. It’s the pregnancy—she just wants to be with her own people.”

If she’d feared that Jeremiah would get angry or lose his temper, that fear was misplaced. He bit his lip and nodded despondently, as if blaming himself for everything. It reflected almost perfectly the way she felt.

Noemi put a hand on her knee, as if to show him how close the two of them were. Mariya didn’t know how to respond—she still didn’t know if Jeremiah saw her as an impostor, trying to come between them. She drew in a long breath and waited stiffly for his response.

“But why …”

“Why what?” she asked.

He paused. “I just don’t understand.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Just—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’s heart leaped. It’s okay, she told herself. He wants to work things out—everything’s going to be okay. If it was the idea of marrying her that he objected to, then maybe Noemi could help him come around. There was still a chance that things could work out.

“What did he say?” Noemi asked.

“He says that he’s sorry. He’s changed his mind now, and says that you’re coming with us to Zarmina”

Noemi listened, but still seemed troubled. She turned to Jeremiah and patted him on the leg.

“Jerem-ahra no sad,” she said in her limited Gaian. “Is sorry, is good. Noemi no angry.”

Still, Jeremiah seemed more deflated than relieved. His body tensed, and he rubbed his forehead with the tips of his fingers. It wasn’t okay—not yet.

“Mariya,” he said. “I—”

“Yes?”

He hesitated. Mariya swallowed, and Noemi put a hand on her arm. Now more than ever, she was grateful for the show of support.

“What is it, Jeremiah?”

“I … I shouldn’t have said what I did back there.”

About what? she almost asked. About not being able to marry me? It seemed like too much to hope for, but if they could work everything out right now, so that there were no more conflicts or misunderstandings, that would be perfect.

“And the marriage?” she asked. “What about that?”

“I’ll consider it,” he said quickly—too quickly. Then, after a brief pause, “I don’t know.”

“I’ll do my best to help Noemi,” she said, eager to convince him. “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, what if my answer is no?”

Once again, all the gut-wrenching fear from before came flooding back to her. If you say no, then I won’t have anyone else to go to, she wanted to say. I’ll be forced to settle for one of the Alphan boys—or worse, spend the rest of my life alone.

“Why would you say that?” she asked. If only she could get him to see that this was the best way—that everything would be better if he would just agree to marry her. It would solve everything for all of them.

His face lit up, making her pause. “Here’s an idea,” he said. “What if I left by myself on the Ariadne and met up with you again at Zarmina?”

Mariya frowned. What would that accomplish? The suggestion caught her so off guard that for a moment or two, she hardly knew how to respond.

“Why would you want to do that?” she asked.

“Captain Elijah asked me to spread the word about the new colony at Zarmina,” said Jeremiah. “The more people know we’re out there, the more traders will come through with goods that we’ll need.”

“I suppose,” she said slowly. “But what about Noemi?”

He 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.”

But you’re still leaving her.

The look of confusion on Noemi’s face brought Mariya back to the present. She took a deep breath and turned to translate, knowing full well that Noemi wouldn’t like what she was about to hear.

“He says he wants to leave on the Ariadne, by himself. He’ll meet up with us at Zarmina, of course, but he wants you to stay on the Hope of Oriana.

“What?” said Noemi. Her eyes widened like a pair of full moons, and her hands began to shake.

“To be honest, I don’t really understand it myself. He says—”

“Jerem-ahra go?” she said abruptly, turning to Jeremiah and speaking in Gaian. “No go—stay.”

“I’m sorry, Noemi, but this is something I must do.”

Noemi bit her lip and shook her head. The look of pain on her face made a lump rise in Mariya’s throat.

“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, forcing a smile. “Everything will be fine—don’t worry.”

Noemi’s shoulders trembled, and she buried her head in her hands as she began to quietly sob. Jeremiah stiffened, and for a moment he seemed about to change his mind. But then, he turned to Mariya with a sad look in his eyes.

“Can we have some time alone together?” he asked softly.

“Of course,” she said, rising to her feet. “I’ll go tell my father.”

He nodded and rose to see her out. A short while later, without really understanding what had happened or how she had come to be there, she stood in the docking airlock of the Hope of Oriana as the door hissed shut behind her.

What just happened?


* * * * *


Why is he leaving me? Noemi wondered as Jeremahra stepped back into the cabin. What’s going on? He put his arm around her, but the gesture gave her little comfort. When he tried to explain, of course she couldn’t understand.

Why do you have to go? she longed to ask him. Did this have to do with Mariya—was he trying to run away from her? She didn’t see how leaving would possibly change anything in the long run—and even if it did, she wasn’t sure it was worth it. The whole thing was stupid and pointless, but like everything else that had happened to her since leaving Megiddo Station, she couldn’t do anything to stop it.

He pulled down the helmet-like dream monitor from the overhead compartment and motioned for her to unfold the chair. She went through the motions mechanically, hardly aware of what she was doing. Once he’d helped her down into the seat, he slipped on the monitor and slid the neural jacks into the back of her neck—


—and the next thing she knew, she was floating in the dark, empty void.

He wants to tell me something, she realized. This is his way of getting through to me without anyone else to translate. She considered opening up to the autumn world, with the mountains and trees and the once-green meadow, but that simulation no longer reflected the feelings of her heart.

Taking a deep breath, she clapped her hands together and let her subconscious take over. A vast, barren plain extended from horizon to horizon. The sky overhead turned bright blue, like the sky over the mountain meadow, but the heat of the sun was searing and merciless. There was no cloud—no moisture in the air whatsoever. Great cracks spread across the earth, like broken, empty veins in search of water. She took a step, and the ground crumbled and turned to dust. Off in the distance, a small brown whirlwind danced across the lifeless landscape.

Yes, she thought to herself. This is how I feel. She lowered herself to the ground and laid on her back, letting her hair spill out across the cracked, waterless earth.

A voice called out in the distance. “Noemi?”

It was Jeremahra. She didn’t bother to answer him, but waited for him to find her. It didn’t take long.

“Noemi,” he said softly. When she didn’t respond, he sat down on the ground next to her. “Noemi, I sorry.”

“Why?” she asked, turning to look at him. Why are you doing this to me—to us?

He cringed a little, sweat spreading across his forehead from the heat of the sun. “I want only best us,” he explained. “If stay, Mariya’s will make until agree marry. That is why I leave.”

“Mariya no wife?” she asked, sitting up beside him. Was he really so opposed to taking a second wife that he’d leave her just to avoid it?

“No,” he said, putting an arm around her. “I not take wife—only you.”

“Why no Mariya wife?” she asked.

“Because I not want, and because you not want. Ki?

She shrugged. “Yes,” she said in Deltan. “But—”

“If you no want, I not want you make kind this sacrifice. Is not right—not make family strong.”

He met her gaze and held it. On this issue, he was firm.

“But no want you leave too,” she said. Not if it’s only going to delay the inevitable.

“It okay,” he said, rubbing her back. “Only for little. See?”

He took her hand and pointed to the horizon. Way off in the distance, shimmering like a mirage, Noemi saw the faded image of a beautiful garden, with tall, leafy plants and a deliciously cool pool. Little brown dates in wrinkled, sugary skins hung in clusters beneath the leaves—just by looking at them, she imagined she could taste their sweetness. It was as if she and Jeremahra had been struggling in the wilderness for all their lives, wandering through a barren, inhospitable universe, and this was the thing that they had always been looking for—the place where they had always longed to be.

The vision faded—Jeremahra wasn’t strong enough to hold the image in the simulator long. Noemi reached up and took hold of it herself, adding a touch of her own.

“Home?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Jeremahra, giving her a hug. “We be together again—just two us.”

Just us, Noemi thought. Not Mariya. But couldn’t he see that marrying her was inevitable—that running away wouldn’t solve anything, but only make things worse?

She let go of the image of the oasis, and it vanished into the air like a mirage. On the horizon to their right, the sun hung low in the sky, turning it to brilliant shades of orange, then red, and finally a deep, warm violet. The sun was setting on them now just as it had in the dying world, but when it rose again, the place would still be a barren wasteland.

“Don’t sad,” he said, running his fingers through her hair. “Is not forever—just few short months.”

“But Jeremahra be alone again,” she said. Her mind went back to the way he’d tortured himself with guilt and loneliness before she’d entered his life. If anything worried her more than him leaving her, it was what he would do to himself without her.

“I be fine,” he said. “Don’t worry about.”

“Yes worry,” she said stubbornly. “I love you.”

“And love you too.”

If I can’t change his mind, then maybe I can give him something to hope for, she thought to herself. Something to keep him going in the cold, lonely void.

“Remember, home,” she said, pointing to the stars. They were just starting to come out, shining like millions of tiny beacons in the clear desert sky. “You and me, family strong, yes?”

“Yes,” he answered softly.

As strong and bright as all the stars.

“Remember, I love you. Come home see me together, ki?

Ki.

She smiled and stroked his cheek. “Goodbye,” she whispered.

“Yes,” he said again, his whole body trembling. “Goodbye.”


* * * * *


A strong family shines brighter than all the stars, Mariya thought to herself as she stared out the window on the observation deck of the Hope of Oriana. Now that they were on their way to Zarmina, the starfield shone like a silvery carpet of tiny perfect points of light, a shimmering, godlike cloud of worlds. She drew in a long breath and sighed—the view didn’t depress her as much as it used to, but it was still frustrating how uncertain the future still was.

“Ah, there you are,” came a deep, booming voice behind her. She stiffened—it was Captain Elijah.

“Hello,” she said, turning to face him. He still wore his crisp white dress uniform, the same as he did every time they jumped out of a port. It was one of his many quirks—but after all, it was his ship. He could do whatever he wanted.

“I’ve been meaning to talk with you for some time now,” he said. Without being invited, he opened the nearest chair and sat down. She cringed a little, but at least they were alone.

“Oh, really?” she asked, laughing nervously. “Why?”

He wasn’t smiling. Her laugh turned to a cough, and her cheeks turned red.

“What’s this I hear about Jeremiah having problems with the other Deltans on this ship?”

Mariya’s blood turned cold, but she recovered quickly. Why are you asking me about this now? she wondered. With Jeremiah already gone, it was kind of late to ask.

“I’ve already asked your father a dozen times,” he continued. “He never gave me a satisfactory answer, however. I was hoping you would.”

“It’s nothing—not anything too big, anyway. Just—just a few small misunderstandings. Nothing we can’t work through.”

She said it with a smile, but he didn’t seem to be buying it.

“If that’s so, why did Jeremiah tell me just a few days ago that he and Noemi had decided to stay at B’tum?”

Was it only a couple of days ago? To Mariya, it already felt like months.

“That’s all in the past now. He’s still coming with us to Zarmina—he’s just leaving for a while, to go spread the word among the other Outworld colonies.”

“But why would he tell me that he was leaving in the first place?”

She swallowed. “It’s … kind of a long story.”

“It’s a long way from here to Zarmina, too. I think we have time.”

There’s no way he’s going to let me out of this, is there? From the look on his face, she knew that he never would. And since there was no one else on the observation deck …

It took her almost half an hour, but she told him everything. He listened intently without saying a word, his white-bearded face as impassive as a moon. She started with Jeremiah and Noemi’s arrival, how she and her father had separately approached them with the idea of the marriage. But to explain that, she had to go back further, to Benyamin and everything else. Before long, the words were gushing out of her like blood from a severed artery, and it was all she could do to keep from jumping from one thread to another.

“So that was the misunderstanding,” she said after explaining it all. “Noemi is fine with it, but Jeremiah … I don’t know. Maybe he just needs some time? I guess I made a mess of everything. But it’s still the right choice for all of us—don’t you agree?”

Elijah stared at her with his unreadable eyes. She shifted uneasily, not sure whether to brace herself for an argument or go on.

“Well, what do you think of this whole thing? Do you think I—”

“All of this was happening on my ship, and you didn’t think to inform me about it?”

His sudden answer nearly made her jump. For an awkward moment, neither of them said anything.

“Uh, yeah,” she said. “I mean, I always meant to tell you eventually, but … yeah.”

“You tried to impose yourself on two of my passengers, manipulated your way into a relationship that neither of them wanted, and blackmailed one of them into leaving when he tried to refuse?”

Mariya’s jaw dropped. “What? No!”

“Stop lying to yourself. That’s what happened, isn’t it? By Earth, Sol, and Luna—I knew there was a fire somewhere on my ship, but I didn’t know that you were pumping liquid oxygen into it.”

“That’s not what happened at all!” she cried, her hands shaking. “Everything’s fine—there were a couple of misunderstandings, but everything’s worked out by now.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes.” At least, I think it is.

“You do realize that as captain, I am the only one on this ship who has the authority to solemnize marriages? That no one in this colony can get married without my approval?”

She scratched her arm nervously. “I—I guess I just assumed you’d be okay with it.”

“You assume a lot of things, Mariya. But this—this makes me wonder if you even live in the same universe as the rest of us. Did you honestly think that you could insert yourself into someone else’s marriage without any sort of push-back?”

Mariya’s whole body shook with anxiety. The room seemed to spin around her, and more than anything, she wanted to run away. But her feet felt rooted to the floor, her seat to the chair, with nothing to stop the captain’s awful eyes from boring into her.

“I—I thought we could make it work,” she said weakly. “I never—I never thought—”

“Exactly. You never thought of how your actions would impact the other people around you. You never thought to come to me with your concerns and ask for help in resolving them.”

That’s because you couldn’t have done anything to help.

“Mariya, look at me. This is my starship. I am the captain of this expedition. We’re a small group of people who are going to be relatively isolated together for quite some time. Under those circumstances, the smallest interpersonal conflicts could easily grow until they tear this community apart. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

“Under those circumstances, everything on this starship—and I do mean everything—is my concern. When you go behind my back in ways that are manipulative and deceitful, it makes it makes my job that much harder.”

“I wasn’t deceitful.”

“Yes, but were you ever fully honest with yourself and with others? Did you never try to manipulate the truth when it didn’t favor you?”

Mariya shrunk and stared at her knees, wishing she could fall through the floor.

Captain Elijah sighed. “I suppose that what’s done has been done. It’s too late to go back and change anything. But looking ahead, how do you think we should fix this mess?”

“I don’t know,” she said softly. “It’s—it’s not that big of a problem, is it?”

“Considering how you chased a married man away from his pregnant wife, I wouldn’t say that at all.”

“I—I can take care of her.”

“After all you’ve done?” he said, raising a menacing eyebrow. “I don’t know if she has much of a choice, but what reason does she have to trust you?”

He’s right, Mariya realized. Her heart sank, and she buried her head in her hands. I’ve made an absolute mess of everything.

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “What—what can I do?”

For a long time, neither of them said anything. Mariya’s lip quivered, and her throat constricted as she struggled to choke down her tears.

“Whatever you decide, will you promise to talk with me first the next time you have a problem that affects the other people on my ship?”

“Yes,” she said, her voice sounding like a cross between a croak and a sob.

“Very well.”

The captain rose to his feet and walked toward the stairway. He stopped just short, though, and turned back to face her.

“One last thing,” he said. “When we get to Zarmina and your friends are together again, are you still going to try to insert yourself into their marriage?”

Mariya said nothing. What could she say? Whether or not she’d made a mess of things, it was still for the best for all of them.

“I—I don’t know.”

Captain Elijah narrowed his eyes at her. “Well, no matter how you feel about it now, I hope you’ll keep in mind that things can change. Three months from now, you might not even want any of this.”

“What?” she said, bolting upright. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m just saying.” He raised his hands as if to let go of the matter. “Just remember—if anything like this ever comes up again, what are you going to do?”

“Come talk to you,” she muttered, looking away.

“What’s that?”

“I said, come talk to you.”

“That’s right. Take care of yourself Mariya.”

With that, he climbed the stairs to the upper decks, leaving her a bit miffed. What did he mean that she might not want it? That she would fall for one of the Alphan boys on the way to Zarmina? The odds were better that she’d collide with a falling star. No—Jeremiah was still her best option, even if she’d gone about it all wrong.

Three standard months to Zarmina, give or take. With all the uncertainty that still lingered, it was going to be a long wait—and she hated waiting more than anything else in the universe.

Part VIII: Deliverance


Chapter 17


There were few things that Lucca Tajjashvili enjoyed more than jumpspace. That thrill of breaking the sidereal laws of physics, with the stomach-churning rush that came with it—no other physical experience compared. But the best part, by far, was not knowing exactly where you’d end up. With jump drives, there was always a trade-off between distance and endpoint prediction accuracy, which made things treacherous when entering a star system from deep space. Even so, Lucca always preferred to shoot for his in-system destination from as far away as he could, sometimes by as much as a quarter of a light-year. He risked jumping into the heart of a star or planet, but at the same time, opened the possibility of discovering something that everyone else had overlooked.

With that in mind, he surveyed the instruments and display panels of his starship, the Gagarin. Few things made him as proud as the old shuttlecraft that he’d re-purposed as his own private starship. Her hull was long and sleek, with a pair of wing-like vanes for extra maneuverability. Her dual reactors cut down charge time for the jump drives significantly and gave her sublight engines a real push. When running at full capacity, she could do a little under six parsecs in two standard months, and pulled just as much delta V as sublighters twice her size. Not that she was perfect—many of the LEDs on his instrument panel were dead, and the holoscreens flickered like old, tired ghosts. Wires ran along the floorboards, while several of the wall panels were broken or missing. For all her engineering muscle, the Gagarin was certainly a piece of work. But she was his piece of work, and that was all that mattered.

The people back home at Tajjur V had thought he was crazy for setting out for the stars, especially with the terraforming project going so well. They’d thought him even crazier for leaving the well-established merchant routes to the Coreward Stars in favor of the uncharted Outworlds. He’d had many reasons for leaving, not the least the fact that his meager inheritance as the youngest son of a sizable family left him with few other options. But the truth was that he could never stand being confined to just one planet. To be bound by the circle of the horizon, the sky a ceiling and the ground a floor—that was no way to live. Back home, the best future he could hope for was to acquire some land holdings and make them profitable, buying up more land and further rooting himself to his mother-world. How could he do that when the stars were beckoning? No—better to leave it all behind and become his own man, following the path of least regret wherever it took him.

Thoughts like these wandered freely through his mind as he stared out the window at the yellow-white F-class star that was his destination. It shone like a brilliant jewel on a field of shimmering black sable, close enough that it seemed he could reach out and touch it. A more cautious pilot would shoot for a point just above the orbital plane, from which to calculate a more accurate jump into the system proper, but the last month had been quite boring and Lucca was eager to finally be somewhere. Instead, he set the coordinates for a point along the orbit of the fourth planet (it was impossible at this distance to locate the planet itself) and prepared to jump.

Zarmina. That was the name the people of this sector had given to the star. Back home, it was known by the catalog number Gvidiani-28, after the first Tajji astronomer to map the stars beyond the New Pleiades, but that was immaterial. The colonists who were coming to settle this star had named it Zarmina, and since they were the first to actually live there, that would be its name on all of the charts in the future.

He took a deep breath and flipped the switch to initiate the jump. Deep within the ship, the reactors funneled all of their pent-up energy to the engines, making the bulkheads rumble. His hands began to vibrate, and a tingling sensation swept from the back of his neck to his toes and fingertips. The edges of his vision swirled and came suddenly into focus, as if he were looking through a wide-angle lens. Reality itself seemed to bend, as if he were trapped in a bulge that had been squeezed out of a bubble. Then, something imperceptible shifted. Everything returned to normal, except that the colors seemed a little richer and more vibrant than before. But that was probably just his own perception.

All right, Lucca thought to himself as he cracked his knuckles. Time to find out where we are. The stars shone a lot dimmer out the forward window, though the system sun was nowhere in his immediate view. That was to be expected, though, considering how things tended to get disoriented in jumpspace.

As he toggled the nav-computer to begin triangulation, an alert tone sounded from the ship’s main comm transceiver. He frowned and checked the short-range sensors—was someone trying to hail him? But the scanners showed that he was alone. Still, there was no doubt about it—his instruments were picking up a transmission.

After checking to make sure there was no immediate danger from gravity wells or nearby debris, he brought up the message on his main display. The holoscreen flickered, and a fuzzy image of a dark-haired woman came on screen. She was trim and fit, with sharp features and an imposing glare. One of her arms had a silvery sheen—cybernetics, no doubt. Her sleeveless black top had a vague military look, which the pistols on her belt only strengthened.

“Greetings, Jeremiah,” the woman said. For a fleeting moment, Lucca wondered if she was addressing him. Then he remembered that it was only a recording, probably transmitted several hours earlier. Besides, there was no way she could know that he’d be here. The message was clearly meant for someone else.

“Before you panic and make a jump, hear me out,” she continued. “I have something you want, and if you’ll take the time to listen, I believe that we can reach a mutually acceptable agreement.”

What is this? Lucca wondered. Whatever it was, it was interesting.

“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 location, preparing to make an attack. Of course, such a move would prove futile; you’ve no doubt charged your jump drives to escape again the moment we arrive.”

A game of cat and mouse, spread across hundreds of millions of kilometers of space? A grin slowly spread across his face.

“However,” the woman continued, “if you place any value on your wife’s life, that would be a great mistake.” She paused, her face as impassive as ever. “Even now, my men are taking her into custody. 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.”

Pirates, he realized. The system is overrun with pirates.

“Now, I am not an unreasonable person,” said the woman—no doubt a pirate captain. The black and red armband on her good arm confirmed as much. “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 screen flickered and went black. Lucca leaned back in his seat and stroked his chin, staring out at the starfield in thought.

So the colonists were locked in some sort of confrontation with the pirates. That much was clearly evident. But for the pirates to send out a general transmission so broad that anyone in the immediate vicinity of the system could pick it up, someone had to have escaped. A short-range jump would put them just far enough that a focused beam wouldn’t be the best way to reach them. In the five or six hours that it took for the pirates to detect the ship and pinpoint its exact coordinates, the escapees would have charged their drives for another jump. No, the only way to get a message off that had any chance of reaching them was to broadcast it everywhere almost the moment they jumped out.

But all of that had happened hours ago—in fact, judging from how far he was from the system sun, about four hours ago. The escapees, if they were still in the area, had been waiting for their jump drives to charge for several hours. By the time his own drives were charged enough for the next jump, the escapees would either be gone, or they would have returned to the pirates and turned themselves in.

They need help, he thought. If the pirates were desperate enough to broadcast a transmission across all of local space, then they were probably telling the truth when they said that no one else knew of their presence in the system. Which meant that no one else knew that the colonists were in trouble.

No one except Lucca.

Fantastic, he thought with glee. A chance to be a hero—just the sort of thing to liven things up. He had enough supplies to get back to Zeta Oriana, just a few parsecs away, but where was the fun in that? He’d dealt with pirates before, back in the New Pleiades—these guys couldn’t be much worse. And if they were already so desperate to keep their base a secret, he could easily bluff his way through. Besides, if he was going to be of any help to the colonists, he’d have to gather as much information on their situation as he could.

He turned to the nav-computer and set the scanners to search for the fourth planet. If that was where the pirates had their base, that was where he would have to go. With four hours until they knew he was here, he had plenty of time to come up with a plan. Though in all likelihood, he’d probably end up doing what he always did—winging it.

Either way, it was sure to be an adventure.


* * * * *


The low groan of metal on metal sent chills down Mariya’s spine, muffled as it was through the bulkheads of the Ariadne. She swallowed and glanced nervously at the airlock on the far side of the narrow cabin. The pirates would be coming through at any moment—and once they did, who knew what would come next?

Mariya didn’t know, but she had a good idea.

“W-what will we do when they come through?” she asked Jeremiah. He stared at the wall, his face expressionless.

“We have no choice—we have to surrender.”

“And then?”

He sighed and looked at the floor. “I don’t know. Hopefully, they’ll keep us together, otherwise …” his voice trailed off.

Through the bulkheads, the docking gear made a low clang.

“Mariya,” he said, looking up at her with apologetic eyes. “I know things are going to be tough for both of us—probably more for you than for me. We can probably expect them to do some horrible things to us. I didn’t meant to drag you into this, but I did, and I’m sorry.”

“No,” she said, her knees trembling. “It’s me—I was the one who chose to come with you.”

“You understand, then, that I had to do this? That I had to come back?”

She swallowed hard. “Yes.”

“Still, I’m sorry, Mariya. I really am.”

“It’s okay,” she whispered. Of course, it really wasn’t. They were supposed to be on their way to the Oriana Cluster by now, to get help for the other colonists held hostage on the Hope of Oriana. The ship was still more than a week away from the main planet, which meant a long wait until they were reunited with the other colonists. Unless …

“Do you think they’ll bring in the Hope of Oriana with the jump drives?”

“I doubt it,” said Jeremiah. “A ship of that mass sends out a loud signal whenever it goes in or out of jumpspace. Since Helena wants to keep her presence in the system secret, she’ll probably bring the Hope in on sublight engines only.”

“But what about that transmission they sent us? What if someone overheard it?”

He shrugged. “That’s different. A calculated risk, I guess.”

“But—”

At that moment, the airlock hissed open. The smell of cigarette smoke wafted in through the door, making Mariya cringe. A swarthy, dark-haired man with deep-set eyes and a narrow chin stepped inside, followed by two black-clad soldiers with scary looking guns.

Salazar. Helena’s second-in-command.

“We meet again, star wanderer,” said Salazar. His eyes wandered off to her, and a terrible grin spread across his face.

“We don’t want any trouble,” said Jeremiah as the soldiers clapped a set of restraints on his wrists. “What do you want with us?” Space in the cabin was tight, so that they had to get to him before they could get to her.

Salazar tapped his cigarette ashes casually onto the floor. At a wave of the hand, the soldiers dragged Jeremiah to the airlock, while another held her at gunpoint.

“J-Jeremiah!” she screamed. The door hissed shut on him, leaving her alone.

“Well, well, well,” said Salazar. “So this is the hacker who nearly escaped from our grasp.” He grinned again, showing his yellow teeth. “And a pretty one, at that.”

She cringed as he undressed her with his eyes. The other soldiers took by the arms, pinning her against the wall.

“N-no!” he screamed. She tried desperately to break free, but the men were too strong for her. Salazar laughed.

“Put her in solitary until I can come for her. You’ll all get your turn, but I want to take her first. Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” said the soldiers.

He barked the rest of his orders in a language that Mariya didn’t understand, probably to let her know that the first part was for her benefit. When he was done, he stared at her for a moment longer before slipping through the airlock.

This can’t be happening, Mariya thought to herself. Please tell me it’s not happening.

The soldiers pushed her roughly to her knees and pulled her hands behind her back. The cold metal surface of the restraints clamped down hard on her wrists, making her cry out in shock. Her heart started racing, while through the bulkheads, the groan of metal on metal told her that they were taking Jeremiah away.

“Jeremiah,” she cried, unable to hold back. One of the soldiers slapped her across the cheek, making her spin. The other laughed.

“Hacker,” said the one. He reached behind her head and fingered the neural socket at the back of her neck, sending electric tingles across her skin.

At least they still think I’m the hacker, she thought. They don’t suspect Noemi at all. Noemi, Jeremiah’s wife—she was still on board the Hope of Oriana. And since she was safe, they still had a fighting chance. Once the Hope of Oriana docked with the main orbital at Zarmina, Noemi would hack the network and give the colonists the opening they needed to board and take over. It was a desperate plan, one that could go horribly wrong, but at least she still had that hope to hang onto.

But if the pirates were bringing the ship in on her sublight engines, it would be days before the other colonists arrived. In that time, she’d be completely at the mercy of Salazar and his men. The thought made her heart pound and her legs go weak. Without Jeremiah or the others, she was powerless—absolutely powerless.

This can’t be happening, she told herself again. She closed her eyes as if to shut out everything else around her. It was never supposed to happen like this—never.

But there was nothing she could do to stop it.


* * * * *


The sensors lit up and the alarms started flashing almost the moment Lucca exited jumpspace. Outside the forward window, the cloud-covered world of Zarmina IV shone like a giant white marble, filling his view. Scanners showed it to be less than two thousand kilometers away—far too close for comfort. He was already falling into the gravity well, and would have to pull some last-minute maneuvers just to avoid a meteoric collision.

But that wasn’t the most worrisome thing.

The sensors showed a number of satellites in swing orbits around the planet. The nearest was less than five hundred kilometers away—well within particle cannon range. It wasn’t identified with a transponder, but a small space station orbiting at about 150 kilometers altitude was. They weren’t hailing him.

I’d better start talking fast, Lucca thought. He switched to the standard general comm channels and set the transceiver for an audio-only broadcast—no sense in showing his face until he had to.

“Attention,” he said in Gaian, “this is Lucca Tajjashvili of starship Gagarin, representing Gulchina’s Marauders. I wish to speak with Captain Helena. Where is she?”

Silence. The nav-computer plotted almost twenty possible courses that would put him into a safe orbit. He chose the one that most closely paralleled the space station and brought the ship around to bear.

Those particle cannons must be trained on me by now, he thought, his palms growing clammy. One shot, and the radiation would cook him alive while leaving his starship intact to be looted.

“Captain Helena, I advise you to hear me out before you fire,” he said, doing his best to keep his voice steady. “Gulchina’s Marauders are not far from this system. If anything happens to—”

Gagarin, this is Corporal Salazar, Helena’s second-in-command,” came a gruff voice over the transceiver. “Who are you, and what do you want?”

“Corporal,” said Lucca, disguising his relief with an air of affability. “I see you have built yourself quite impressive base in this system. Is that fifteen defensive satellites I count? Considering orbital pattern, I would guess the total is closer to twenty.”

The sublight engines engaged, the roaring muffled only slightly by the thick metal bulkheads. The green line on the sensor display showing the Gagarin’s trajectory bent out and slowly turned into a loop around the planet, not far from the red loop representing the station’s orbit. To the pirates, it would seem as if he were preparing to dock—an arrogant, presumptuous move, especially considering how they could shoot him out of the sky at any moment.

It’s perfect.

Gagarin, we have our particle beams trained on your position and—”

“It would be very unwise of you to shoot me, Corporal,” Lucca said in the most nonchalant tone he could manage. “You need not fear me, of course—I come under flag of truce. But I report directly to Captain Gulchina, terror of New Pleiades. You have heard of us, no?”

Silence. The gee forces from the sublight acceleration pushed Lucca up against his chair, so that he felt as if he were lying on his back. He gripped his armrests and glanced from the nav-computer to the scanners.

“Why should we believe you?”

“Because Gulchina is not enemy you want to make,” said Lucca, not missing a beat. “But if you wish to see some token, perhaps this will convince you.”

He set the computer to transmit the private log files of the Aruna, a starship that Gulchina’s forces had captured less than eighteen parsecs from Gaia Nova itself. She was just a mid-range freighter, caught outside the protection of the Gaian Imperial military outposts. Lucca had been one of the first starfarers to pick up the distress signal, and had downloaded and cracked the log files before the Imperial forces could arrive. It had been a grisly scene on the ship—Gulchina’s men had breached the hull and vented its oxygen before boarding the wreck with EVA suits. The brazen attack, so close to the Coreward Stars, had sent shock waves rippling throughout the empire, and resonated through the Outworlds as well.

For several long moments, there was no transmission from the station. Since he was still alive, though, Lucca knew that they hadn’t yet fired on him. He waited patiently as the sublight engines finished their burn and fell silent. Outside, the cloud-covered planet grew ever closer.

If Captain Helena is not speaking with me directly, then she must not be with Salazar on station, Lucca realized. That meant she was probably elsewhere in the system—perhaps close enough that Salazar was asking her what to do.

He ran a quick scan and picked up a blip out near the fifth Lagrange point of the sun-planet pair. Its transponders were off, but Lucca knew that it was standard practice to keep away from the major planets before jumping into an uncharted system. The idea was to scout things out from a place far enough away that the jump drives could be given enough time to charge if it became necessary to run. Of course, if the pirates were expecting someone, they could easily circumvent that by setting up an ambush. Which, apparently, was exactly what they’d done. If that was true, then the blip on the scanners would be the Hope of Oriana, on track to arrive at Zarmina IV in the next seven to ten days. And if Captain Helena was there instead of at the station, then so much the easier to bluff his way through.

“Attention Gagarin,” came Salazar, “you have permission to dock. Captain Helena isn’t here, but anything you want to discuss with her you can discuss with me.”

“That is not acceptable, Corporal. Where is she?”

“Out of system,” he said abruptly. “She’s on a raid, but should be back any day.”

Lucca smiled. I know more than you think I do. Not for the first time, he was glad the transmission was limited to audio only.

“Very well, Corporal. I will await your flight plan for docking maneuvers.”

“Good. Salazar out.”

Lucca cracked his knuckles and leaned back in his chair. Things were shaping up for a very interesting adventure indeed.

Chapter 18


Why haven’t they come for me yet? Mariya wondered. She sat in a windowless cell with a cold steel floor and a mat in the corner for a bed. With the caged lights and the lack of any ventilation source other than the grill welded onto the hatch, she suspected that the place had originally been a storage tank for extra cargo. A dark stain on the wall and the stench of urine told her that she was not the first prisoner to be held here.

She hugged her knees against her chest and tried for the hundredth time to calm the beating of her heart. In some ways, not knowing what would happen to her was a lot worse than any of the horrible, sadistic things her imagination could conjure up. How long had she been in this horrid place? Hours, at least. They’d taken Jeremiah away, so now she was alone—totally alone.

Her stomach was starting to growl, and she had to pee something awful. Not for the first time, she wondered if she should call out and ask to use the toilet. The hall outside her cell was empty, but it was a small station—if she was loud and insistent enough, someone was bound to come down for her.

No, she told herself. Don’t make trouble—you don’t want them to do anything worse to you than they already will.

But how could things get any worse? They’d taken Jeremiah away from her already. If he was still alive, she didn’t know where to find him. And the others on the Hope of Oriana weren’t due to come to the planet for more than a standard week. She was alone—totally alone—and she really, really had to pee.

A sharp pain in her bowels made her whole body shudder. Enough was enough—she couldn’t hold it in much longer. Moving carefully so as not to burst herself, she crawled to the hatch and put her face against the grill.

“Hello?” she called out gingerly. “Is anybody there?”

No one responded.

“Hello?” she called a little louder. “Can I use the bathroom? I really have to pee.”

Again, nothing. From the deck above her, footsteps sounded through the bulkheads.

“I’m not kidding—I really have to go!”

At the far end of the hallway, someone swore in a language she couldn’t understand. She waited quietly for a moment, but when no one answered, she called out again.

“Hello, can you hear me? I said—”

“Shut up!” someone barked at her. “Quit making noise or I’ll make you quit!”

The pain in Mariya’s bowels sharpened. She winced and closed her eyes until it passed.

“Please,” she said softly. “I have to go.”

“Didn’t you hear me the first time? I said SHUT U—”

Another voice interrupted him, this one too soft for her to make out. The two men conferred with each other, the first one shouting back in his native language. They spoke for some time, but eventually the hatch swung open.

“On your feet,” said the first man. He grabbed her under her arm and yanked her up, an unsheathed laser-blade in his hand.

“W-where are we going?” Mariya asked. Her whole body shook with fear.

“To the toilet, of course. Follow me—and no ideas!”

The second man jabbed a gun in her side, making her flinch. It was too dark in the hallway to see either of them, not to mention the fact that they were both dressed in black. She put her hands behind her head, the way she’d seen other prisoners do, and followed the first, keeping her knees close together.

The man with the gun made a joke, and the other one laughed. Mariya swallowed—when is this going to end? The scarier question, though, wasn’t when but how—and that was one she didn’t want to think about..


* * * * *


Lucca checked his wrist console and made sure it was strapped on securely. The tiny computerized unit was his lifeline to his ship—the only sure way off of the pirate station. When the time came to run, he wanted to be ready.

Not that he was worried. The station was small enough, without any missile bays. They probably relied on the defensive satellites to do most of the shooting, as short-range projectile cannon were dangerous in such a low orbit. Too many shots could throw the station out of alignment and send them crashing to the surface below. No, as long as he could get back to the Gagarin in time, he’d be all right.

He strapped the holster for his energy pistol to his belt and straightened the jacket vest that he wore over his jumpsuit. Had to put on a best first impression. He admired himself in the reflection off the polished steel compartment door for the food synthesizer, then walked to the airlock and palmed it open.

A squad of four black-clad soldiers was waiting for him on the other side. They looked horrendously scruffy, with unkempt beards and unwashed faces. He nodded to them, but they only scowled in return.

Pirates.

“Where is Corporal Salazar?” he asked, returning their contempt with a presumptuous sneer. “He is supposed to meet me here, no?”

“The corporal is on his way,” said the nearest soldier. “You’ll have to leave your pistol with us.”

“I will not take commands from subordinates. Tell Salazar that Captain Gulchina expects her messengers to be treated with same respect as herself.”

The soldiers grumbled and swore, but they accepted his words at face-value. That was good—it meant that he had leverage. So long as he could keep up the act well enough to fool them, he’d be in good shape.

At length, the elevator at the far end of the corridor hissed open and a man stepped into view. He was just as scruffy and unkempt as the other soldiers, with a hand-rolled cigarette clenched between his yellow teeth. From the deference the soldiers gave him, as well as the obscure rank insignia on his arm, Lucca guessed it was Corporal Salazar.

He wrinkled his nose—the last time he’d been around people who smoked had been on his homeworld at the Tajjur system. There was always a hint of tobacco smoke mingled with the other exotic scents at the larger bazaars, but the cramped living space and lack of terraformed planets significantly curtailed the habit in the Far Outworlds. Apparently, though, there were those among the pirates for whom such concerns mattered little.

If they were all that stupid, then walking in and out of this place should be a piece of cake.

“Salazar,” he said, ignoring the soldiers as he stepped past them to offer his hand. “I was beginning to wonder if you would come.”

Salazar eyed his hand dispassionately. “I wish I could say it was a pleasure.”

So that’s how it’s going to be, Lucca thought as he withdrew his hand and hooked both his thumbs in his belt. Fortunately, Tajjis had a stubborn streak, and Lucca was no exception.

“I have orders to speak with Captain Helena directly. When will she arrive?”

“I can’t let you come onto this station with a live weapon. You’ll have to leave it with my men.”

Lucca pulled the pistol out of its holster and opened the socket for the power bolt to show that it was empty. “It is not problem, Corporal. The weapon is not live.”

Salazar frowned and crossed his arms. “Then what the hell is it doing on your belt?”

“It is just token, Corporal—something to carry for good luck. You cannot part man from his gun, no?”

“Let me tell you something, mister, ah—”

“Lieutenant Tajjashvili.”

“Tajjurshv—whatever. This is my station, and so long as I’m in command, I’m not going to let anyone but my men carry the weapons here. Do you understand?”

“What I understand, corporal, is that you hold me in contempt, and therefore Captain Gulchina as well. Now, it would be shame if such pettiness were to spark conflict between us, but since your commanding officer is not present, I am willing to graciously overlook this blatant disrespect—for now. Do you understand that, Corporal?”

Salazar’s cheeks turned redder than an M-class supergiant. For a brief moment, Lucca wondered if he’d pushed him too far, but the pirate grunted and relented.

“Very well, lieutenant. I’ll show you to your quarters.”

“That will not be necessary. It will please me to stay on my own ship until your captain arrives.”

“Then let me at least show you the facilities on our station. After all, you are our guest.”

If this is how you treat your guests, I would hate to see how you treat your prisoners.

The guards fell in close behind them, their rifles held across their chests. Lucca ignored the obviously threatening gesture and followed Salazar to the elevator shaft, where they all crowded in.

“Tell me, lieutenant, how did you know to find us here? Zarmina is not an Imperial-cataloged system.”

“Captain Gulchina does not rely on Imperial catalogs or Gaian scientific reports. However, word of your captain’s raids have spread far enough for Gulchina to take notice. It was not difficult to trace a pattern to this region of space.”

“That’s strange, considering that we leave no survivors for raids closer than five parsecs.”

“Yes,” said Lucca. “Well, let us say that Gulchina has … other sources.”

To his relief, Salazar appeared to buy his answer—or if he didn’t, at least he discontinued that line of questioning.

The elevator doors opened, revealing a long rimside concourse with floors that curved upward on either end. It wasn’t a small station, but it was small enough to give the illusion of a constant incline rather than a flat floor. No matter how many Outworld stations he visited, Lucca never quite got used to the effect.

The concourse itself was fairly Spartan. There was no decoration other than a horizontal blue stripe that ran along the gray metal walls. The weld-marks and loose wires told him that the place had been constructed out of spare parts, though it did seem fairly well built. A long window ran along the ceiling, which curved like the inner edge of a doughnut.

“The canteen is down this way on the right,” said Salazar. “We don’t have much in the way of produce, but the meat is local.”

“Local to station?”

“To the planet. All sorts of critters down there. Most of them are only marginally edible, but mix in some enzymes and cook ‘em real well, and they’re not half bad.”

Mystery meat with synthetics, Lucca thought, shuddering a little. Thanks for the warning.

“We brew our own moonshine, though, and plenty of it. Keeps morale high between raids. You ever had home-brewed alcohol?”

“Of course,” said Lucca. “I am from Tajjur, after all.” And I doubt the rancid wastewater that passes for drink in this place can even compare with pure Tajji vodka.

“Well, you’ll get plenty of the good stuff here. The quartermaster is proud of this stuff, and rightfully so.”

“I am sure.”

They walked past the doorway to the canteen. A ragged bead curtain hung where the door should have been, letting out the stench of alcohol and sweet-smelling hookah smoke. Lucca peeked in and saw a group of burly-looking men sitting around a holographic projector, hooting and jeering at an image of a dancing girl who couldn’t have been older than fifteen. She pulled her top over her head, exposing her perky young breasts, and the catcalls grew louder.

“Plenty of entertainment,” said Salazar. “Though you’ll have to watch yourself—the men like to pick fights from time to time, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.”

“I am sure that will not be problem,” said Lucca, turning his back on the disgusting scene.

“What, you think you can take them?”

“Why should I, when they seem to be doing fine job of it themselves?”

Salazar laughed. “You’re a funny son of a bitch, you know that? Cocky as hell, but good for a laugh. I’ll bet you’re hilarious when you’re drunk.”

You’ll never find out.

“Where is command center?” Lucca asked, trying to bring things back on track.

“Down aways,” said Salazar, his mouth turning downward into its customary frown. He took a long puff from his cigarette and blew the foul-smelling smoke almost directly into Lucca’s face. “Come with me.”

He led them further down the corridor, past a row of doors that appeared to lead to the barracks for the men. They walked through a double hatchway past a long row of storage tanks, then out into another hallway with bright LEDs running along the ceiling in place of the window.

“How far do we have to go?”

“To what, the command center? It’s on the other side of the station. That supply room we passed is an ammo depot for our capital ships—no shortage of munitions, I’ll tell you that.”

He didn’t tell me while we were passing through because he didn’t want me to learn any specifics, Lucca realized. With only few brief glimpses, it is likely that my imagination will rewrite my memories, and I will overestimate the scope of their armaments. Not a bad tactic for someone who didn’t know that he was being played.

As they walked down the narrow, windowless corridor, a door hissed open just ahead of them, and a raven-haired girl stepped into view. With her young face, her bright, frightened eyes, and her nearly perfect skin, she was such a contrast to the men all around her that Lucca couldn’t help but pause. She had a bruise on her upper arm, probably where someone had handled her roughly, and her skirt was torn. As soon as she saw Salazar, her eyes widened and she cringed in fright.

“What is the prisoner doing out here?” Salazar shouted at the soldiers escorting her, reverting soon to his own language. As he barked angrily at the two cowering men, the girl’s desperate eyes met Lucca’s.

Save me.

He could read the plea on her face as clearly as if she’d spoken aloud.

The shouting stopped, and the guards took her forcibly by the arms. For one very brief moment, she struggled against them, but they soon dragged her off through another doorway. Lucca watched her go out of the corner of his eye, marking the doorway while staying as discreet as possible.

“Prisoners,” grumbled Salazar. “They’re more trouble than they’re worth. Except the women, of course—don’t you agree?”

The grin on his face filled Lucca with deep revulsion. Save me, the girl’s plea echoed in his mind.

“Yes,” he said softly. “They are certainly worth the trouble.”


* * * * *


Mariya huddled against the far wall of her cell, fully expecting the doors to hiss open at any moment. More than anything, she wished she could sink through the floor and disappear. She closed her eyes, but all she could see was Salazar’s dirty face locked somewhere between a snarl and a grin. He was coming for her, and there was nothing she could do to stop him. If only she had some way to make herself invisible—

The hiss of the doors made her jump. Her eyes flew open, and her heart began to pound. A figure stood in the doorway, looking down on her with cold, hungry eyes.

“No!” she shrieked, shielding herself with her hands. “Please, don’t—”

“Shh!” said the man. He stepped forward and knelt down in front of her, a finger on his lips to tell her to be quiet. With his other hand, he took her gently by the wrist.

She frowned and looked up at him. Only then did she realize that he wasn’t one of the pirates. He had a round face and wavy blond hair, with high cheekbones and a firm, penetrating gaze. Still, from the moment she looked into his light brown eyes, she knew that he meant her no harm. His lips curled up a little around the edges, as if from habit. Except for a little scruff on his chin, he was clean-shaven.

This is the man I ran into in the corridor, she realized. The one behind Salazar.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“My name is Lucca,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at the open door. “Lucca Tajjashvili, from Tajjur system. And you?”

She didn’t answer right away. Though his Gaian was clear and understandable, his accent was thick enough to disarm her. The way he rolled the ‘r’ in ‘Tajjur,’ and enunciated his ‘y’s as if they were two or three letters all on their own—it sounded more than a little exotic.

He grunted. “No matter. We must go—you understand? They will come soon, and when they do …” He left the thought unfinished as he helped her to her feet.

“Who?” she asked. “Go where?”

“Go to my starship at station hub. I am star wanderer, understand? I am come for rescue you.”

Her heart skipped a beat, but there was no time to answer. He led her by the wrist to the doorway, where he stopped just long enough to look both ways before dashing out.

Stars of Earth, he’s really going to get me out of here. Chills shot down her spine, and she noticed for the first time the pistol at his belt. She had no idea how he had gotten it past the pirates—or how he had come to the station in the first place—but all she could do was hurry to keep up and do her best not to stumble.

The corridor curved up to the nearest hatchway, where one of the soldiers who had escorted her to the bathroom lay unconscious. At least, Mariya hoped he was only unconscious. His head lolled to one side like a discarded doll, his legs sprawled out and his arms limp.

Stars of Earth, who is this man?

“Stay quiet,” he whispered. Down the hallway on the other side, she could hear raucous laughter. She didn’t need to be told twice.

He slipped the pistol out of its holster and held it in front of him. A quick glance over his shoulder to confirm she was ready, and then they were running up the long rimside corridor, watching the lip up by the ceiling to make sure the way was clear.

A pair of boots came into view. He yanked her back into a recessed doorway, out of view. Footsteps sounded ahead of them, and he pressed himself up against the wall, motioning for her to do the same. Her whole body quivered with fear and anticipation, but she took a deep breath and did her best to stay still.

“But Captain Helena won’t be back for at least another week,” came a voice, growing louder with each step. “Are you saying you want us to—”

“Yes,” said Salazar. At the sound of his voice, Mariya’s sweat turned cold. “I want everything you can get on this Gulchina, and I want it now—even if it means scrambling that damned starship’s drives so bad it needs a memory wipe. I don’t care.”

“But—”

“Who’s in command on this station? You?”

The men came into view, close enough to reach out and grab her. Mariya froze, hardly daring to breathe, even as the stench of cigarettes hit her like a meteor.

“No, sir,” said the subordinate officer—a short, balding man with a pair of cybernetic enhancements for eyes.

“Then so long as Helena’s gone, you’ll do as I say. Understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

The two men walked by without noticing them. Mariya was so relieved, her legs practically turned to water. But there was no stopping. Once the pirates’ heads had passed above the lip of the ceiling, Lucca took her again and started running.

By the time they reached the elevator shaft, she was practically breathless. He pulled her in and slapped his palm against the access panel, shutting the doors behind them.

“Wait!” she cried. “What about Jeremiah?”

“Who?”

“Jeremiah—he was with me when the pirates captured us. They’re holding him prisoner too—we have to go get him!”

Lucca frowned. “Do you know where?”

“No, Mariya admitted. “They separated us when they captured our ship.”

“Then there is nothing we can do. If we do not escape, we cannot get help. At least this way there is chance we can return and save him later.”

She bit her lip and nodded. “All right. Let’s get out of here.”

He pulled down the shoulder restraints to secure him against the wall. Across from him, Mariya did the same. He checked his wrist console, then keyed the elevator control panel. There was no window to see outside, but the sudden pressure on her legs told her they were moving.

“Who are you?” she asked. Now that they had a moment to stop and breath, a hundred different questions flooded into her mind.

He looked over at her and grinned. “Don’t be afraid. I am just star wanderer, looking for adventure. I think we have found it, no?”

“I guess.”

“And you are?”

“Oh,” she said, taking a second to realize that he was asking her the same question. “My name is Mariya—Mariya Varvavli. I was on a colony ship, out by one of the Lagrange points. The pirates—it’s a long story.”

Her stomach flipped as the elevator slowed on approach to the hub, then fell as they passed into the artificial gravity field. She caught her breath and swallowed. Before she could unstrap herself, the door hissed open, revealing two black-clad pirates.

“Lucca!”

He fired twice in quick succession. There was a high-pitched squeal as the shots sizzled through the air. Both men slumped to the floor.

“Oh my God!” screamed Mariya. She tore off her shoulder restraints and leaned against the wall, clutching at her chest.

“It is okay,” said Lucca. “They are not dead—the energy settings are not high enough for that.”

“Stars,” she gasped. He was already out on the platform, his pistol pointed in front of him. In the time it took her to catch her breath and step gingerly over the unconscious bodies, he had already secured the hallway.

“Come,” he said. “I think they have sounded alarm.”

As if in confirmation, the doors behind her hissed shut, and the elevator shot back down the spoke. She watched it go through one of the hub’s narrow windows, while Lucca swore.

“We don’t have much time. Come on!”

She followed him down the hallway. Unlike the rimside sections, this part of the station was white and well-lit. Airlocks branched off on either side, and a long window ran along both walls, offering some spectacular views. They didn’t have time to admire it, though.

Lucca’s ship was docked about thirty meters from the elevator. He got there well ahead of her and stopped by the door. Shouting sounded behind her.

“Get in! Get in!”

He fired over her head, making her scream. A sudden rush of adrenaline sent her sprinting through the open doorway, just as gunshots came from behind. Lucca slammed his palm against the station access panel, then shot it with his pistol, sending sparks flying.

“To the ship,” he said. The door was already open—she didn’t have to be told twice.

As soon as she passed through the second airlock, she found herself falling headfirst into the wall. Too late, she realized that the wall was actually a floor, and the walkway leading out was actually a ladder. She covered her head just in time to shield herself from the worst of it, but still landed flat on her face.

“Ouch!”

“Sorry,” said Lucca. He came down headfirst, swinging his feet expertly so that he slid down the ladder and landed squarely on the floor. Once down, he helped her to her feet and led her down a short hallway to the cockpit.

“Sit,” he said, pulling down a chair against the back wall. “Strap in—this will be close.”

The engines were already purring through the bulkheads. He leaped into the main pilot’s chair, and the displays and control panels came to life. Mariya’s head swam as she struggled to strap herself in. Outside the forward window, the cloudy atmosphere of the planet shone a nearly perfect white.

Lucca’s fingers raced over the controls, and the ship came to life. A loud clang vibrated through the hull as they disengaged from the station, but as the view began to swim, the only sounds were the puff of the maneuvering jets and the rumble of the sublight engines.

“Where are we going? Can we jump out? Are they going to shoot us?”

“Away, yes, and probably,” Lucca answered without breaking his concentration. “Hang on.”

He pulled the switch to jump out, but nothing happened. The engine began to whine, so he tried again, frowning.

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know,” he said. Sweat was beginning to form on his forehead—that couldn’t be a good sign.

At that moment, alarms began to sound from the display to his right. Mariya peered forward—it was the scanners, showing a swarm of small piloted objects deploying from the station. They gathered in tight clusters and headed straight for them.

Drones.

“Hang on!” said Lucca. He nosed the ship down just as something impacted them. The bulkheads shuddered, and Mariya was thrown forcibly against her restraints. If she hadn’t strapped down, she’d be sprawled out on the floor.

The sublight engines came alive with a roar, and an invisible hand pushed her back against the wall. Another impact threw her to the side and sent the ship into a spin. More alarms sounded as Lucca worked frantically at the controls.

“What—what’s happening?”

“We cannot jump, cannot shoot drones. Must evade—”

An explosion cut him off. The engine jumped in pitch, making Mariya’s hands go clammy.

“We’re going to die!”

Out the forward window, the clouds loomed closer now—much closer. The nearest ones towered like anvil-shaped monoliths over a sea of swirling white. Lucca managed to stabilize them from the spin, but before he could pull up, flames began to lick the edges of glass. The roaring grew louder, and Mariya realized with a sickening sensation that it wasn’t just the engine making that sound.

“What are you doing? Pull up, pull up!”

“I can’t!” Lucca shouted over the growing din. “Lost orbit—coming down too fast. Hang on tight!”

The flames grew longer and the roaring grew louder. Mariya shut her eyes and tried very hard not to scream.

Chapter 19


“Hey Lucca!” called out a familiar voice, interrupting Lucca’s concentration as he welded the last support into place. It was his older brother Ivan, back a few days early from the hunting trip up in the mountains.

“Ivan,” he said, lifting his visor and stepping out from the partially dismantled T-85 shuttle he’d bought at auction. His brother ran up and embraced him, kissing him on both cheeks. The sun shone yellow-white above them, a perfectly clear summer’s day. Why Ivan was here instead of the Akhalikavkaz Mountains hunting ridgebacks with the others, Lucca didn’t know.

“Wow, you’ve really taken that old shuttle apart,” said Ivan. He looked at all the chairs and interior electronics strewn in a fifteen-yard radius from the decommissioned ship. A couple of construction robots Lucca had borrowed from his father’s garage stood among the heap, waiting dispassionately for their master’s next order.

Lucca laughed. “I should hope so. When I’m done with it, it won’t be a shuttle anymore.”

“So you’re really going to turn that thing into a starship, are you?”

“That’s right.”

Ivan nodded and looked the ship over. His dirty-blond hair was tied back in a ponytail, still tucked beneath the high collar of his hunting jerkin. The hot wind off the golden-brown steppes tossed a strand in front of his eyes, but he ignored it.

“What brings you back from the hunting trip?” Lucca asked. He hooked his greasy thumbs around his utility belt.

“Had a problem with my skimmer. We ran into a herd of jantelope in the foothills, and one of my stabilizer gimbals got bent in the pursuit. When I tried to repair it, I found that the whole casing was shot. I didn’t have the tools to fix it, so I was forced to come back.”

“I see. That must have been frustrating.”

“Damn right. The biggest hunting trip of the season, and everything has to break down.”

It wouldn’t if you took better care of your equipment, Lucca thought to himself. His older brothers were so focused on proving themselves in some feat of skill or strength that they never took the time to learn things like mechanics or a trade. Then again, most of them stood to inherit a sizable portion of the family land holdings. Tajjur V was still in the final stages of terraforming, but the annual grain yield was already more than enough to support the system’s five hundred million inhabitants, with plenty of land left over for cash crops like cotton and yanweed. Why should the sons of rich noblemen concern themselves with blue-collar work?

“Do you think you can fix it in time to return to the hunt?”

“That’s what I’m worried about. You wouldn’t be able to, ah—”

“I’ll take a look at it. If it’s just a problem with the casing, it shouldn’t take more than an hour or so.”

“Thanks!” said Ivan, smiling broadly. “I was hoping you’d be able to take a look at it. You’ve got a way with machines—sometimes, it makes me jealous.”

You could be just as skilled as me, if you took the time to learn, Lucca thought. Not that he minded the work, but anything that took him away from his main project was a bit of an annoyance, even though it might take months before the decommissioned shuttle was spaceworthy again—perhaps even years.

“So where are you going to go once that ship is finished?” Ivan asked, changing the subject. It always made his brothers uncomfortable to ask for help.

Lucca shrugged. “Don’t know yet. I hear there’s a lot of opportunity out beyond the New Pleiades—young colonies, profitable trade routes. None of the territory has been incorporated, so the Empire doesn’t have a choke-hold on things the way it does here.”

“Well, that’s debatable. Tajjur is still an autonomous system—and by the stars, we’ll do everything to make sure it stays that way!”

“Of course,” said Lucca, more to turn the conversation away from the tedium of politics than anything else. “Point is, there are whole worlds out there that haven’t had anything to do with the empire—settlements that are only two or three generations old. People who live the way the stars made them: free.”

“And you’d rather live out there in a tin-can station somewhere than here on our beloved mother-world?”

“What can I say? As much as I love my home, I can’t spend my whole life here. It’s the call of the stars, Ivan—I can’t possibly confine myself to just one planet. Besides, with you and the others taking most of the inheritance, there’s not much left for me here. I’ve got to get away.”

“But surely father left you something.

“He did,” said Lucca. “How do you think I could afford this ship?”

Ivan’s eyes widened. “I thought it was just a decommissioned shuttle.”

“It is. I got it at a good price, so I could afford the reactor upgrade and jump drive. They’re over there, in the shed.”

He pointed to a small concrete shed, its metal doors propped open with pieces of discarded equipment. The space outside was filled with scrap, but inside there was a brand new jump drive and reactor, still packed away in plyfoam boxes.

Ivan whistled. “How much do those things cost?”

“A lot,” Lucca admitted, “but there are other upgrades to make as well. I want this ship to be able to take me as far as New Rigel.”

“Why?”

He grinned. “Have you ever heard of the New Rigel system? There’s a water world there that has the most beautiful girls this side of the Good Hope Nebula.”

“So that’s why you’re so eager to get this ship spaceworthy again,” said Ivan, laughing. He slapped Lucca on the back. “I suppose this ‘call of the stars’ thing means you can’t bother to be tied down by a woman?”

“Can’t say. Who knows what will happen in the future?”

“Who knows indeed. Well, I wish you luck with your starfaring exploits. Though I suppose you won’t be coming back to Tajjur once you’ve left.”

“Probably not,” Lucca admitted. “But I’m not gone yet. Now, how about that skimmer?”


* * * * *


The clouds of Zarmina IV loomed dangerously close as the fires of reentry lapped the edges of the forward window. Lucca gripped the flight stick with sweaty hands and tried to ignore all but the most important alarms going off in the cockpit.

“We’re going to die!” the girl screamed behind him. “We’re both going to die!”

“No, will not,” said Lucca. He would have said more, but Gaian was his second language and it never came readily to him in high stress situations.

The fighter drones had hit the reactor, and coolant was spilling out in a long tail behind them. He’d have to bring it down to ten percent in order to shut off the intakes, and hope there was enough coolant left circulating through the system to keep the whole thing from overheating. That left precious little energy for the engines, but fortunately, the original T-85 vertical thrusters were still installed. With luck, that would slow their altitude loss to an acceptable level, even with the reactors at only ten percent. Unfortunately, he’d taken out the scramjets to make room for the cargo bays, so this was probably going to be the Gagarin’s last flight.

Of course, if he couldn’t find a suitable place to land in the next minute or so, this might very well be his last flight too.

“What are you doing?” the girl asked, her voice still frantic. “You’re not actually going to land this thing, are you?”

“Better than crashing it, no?” he said, a wry grin spreading across his face. His brothers had always appreciated his dark sense of humor, especially in crisis situations like this. He was half tempted to glance over his shoulder at her, but the controls absorbed all of his focus.

The clouds were coming at them faster now—so fast that he could pick out the individual wisps and tendrils. They flew low over the towering anvil formations, which formed like a line of mountain ranges across the rapidly flattening horizon. The scanners said that they were a little over fifty kilometers above the planet’s surface, so that meant the cloud tops were probably at about twenty to twenty five kilometers altitude, give or take.

“What do you need me to do?” the girl asked. He risked a glance over at her and saw that she was much calmer than before. Fear still clouded her eyes, but she was fighting it, perhaps with all her strength.

“Watch here,” he said, pointing to the sensor display. “If you see any blips or dots, it means pirates are pursuing us. Understand?”

“Yes.”

She leaned forward against her restraints and fixated her gaze on the display as if it were a lifeline. Good girl, he thought to himself. Perhaps she will not be so much trouble after all.

He switched the scanners to horizontal view and started the landing sequence. The main displays showed a new series of indicators, such as altitude, pitch, thrust, and wind shear. The horizon continued to flatten, until they were almost level with the highest clouds. Then, almost without warning, they dropped through.

Behind him the girl gasped. White haze filled the window, rapidly darkening to gray as they fell. The floor rumbled as the thrusters worked hard to control their descent, but a high-pitched whine from the engines told him that the system was strained enough as it was.

Where to land? Lucca thought, glancing from the window to the scanners and back again. His heart was beating faster now, and his sweaty palms had turned cold. They were flying blind—for all he knew, they were about to crash into a mountainside. He rerouted more processing power to the scanners, but picture they gave him was no less fuzzy. Without line of sight to guide them, all he could do was try to control their fall.

What were they flying over right now? Desert? Jungle? Ocean? Until the clouds cleared, there was no way to tell. And the atmosphere—was it even breathable? Was the surface air pressure so great that it would kill them if they stepped out of their ship? And what about the pirates—did they have a base down here? The sensors showed no surface radio transmissions, so that probably meant they were dropping into an uninhabited wilderness. How would they—

One thing at a time, he told himself. If you want to elope with a mountain girl, first get some meat for her father’s dog. The old Tajji proverb made him smile in spite of their desperate circumstances.

The girl gasped. “Look!”

He glanced immediately at the sensors, but she pointed up to the windows. When he looked up, one of the most spectacular sights of his life met his eyes. They had descended beneath the cloud cover, but the overcast sky was bright enough to give them an unparalleled view. Thick vegetation stretched like a blue-green carpet all around them, punctuated by craggy limestone peaks that jutted out of the ground like the bony plates of a ridgeback. The lowest levels were shrouded in mist, while lakes and rivers were clearly visible in the higher elevations. Hundreds of light-green clouds drifted in clusters like flocks of giant birds. As they drew closer, Lucca saw that they weren’t clouds at all, but giant floating platforms of airborne algae.

It was beautiful, but he had no time to admire it. They were losing altitude at almost a hundred meters per second, with no way to slow down except by risking a reactor explosion. They needed a place to land—now.

The valleys probably weren’t any good. No doubt the jungle was thickest there, as well as the atmosphere, which might kill them if it was thick enough to support airborne flora. Besides, the mountains would cut off any sort of radio transmission or distress signal. As much as he didn’t want to attract the pirates, he didn’t want to leave any rescue option off the table. That left the peaks, but they were so steep and craggy that finding a place to land would be like trying to sew a parachute while in free fall. There were the lakes off to his right, but he didn’t know how deep they were, and—

To hell with it, he decided. He gripped the flight stick and banked to the right—hard.

The girl cried out in surprise and nearly fell to the floor in spite of her restraints. “Hold on,” he said as he throttled the vertical thrusters. The altitude showed about four kilometers, but the mountain basins were probably much higher than that. The engines screamed in protest, so he increased power to the reactors, knowing full well that he was risking a total meltdown. Well, maybe that was what the lakes were for. The ground was coming much faster than he wanted, even though the indicators showed that their fall was slowing fast. Forty meters per second, thirty meters per second—

They weren’t going to make it.

“Brace!” he shouted, wrapping his arms beneath his legs. The last thing he saw before ducking his head between his knees was the tree-line at the water’s edge, hundreds of light brown trunks pointing upward like green-tipped spears.


* * * * *


Why didn’t you come for me? Jeremiah asked. His disembodied voice haunted Mariya as she ran frantically through the endless corridors and hatchways. Darkness clouded her vision, and her legs and arms became unresponsive. She struggled as hard as she could against it, but to no avail. The darkness overtook her.

“Jeremiah!” she screamed. “I’m coming, Jeremiah—I’m coming!”

A light appeared in front of her, as if at a great distance. She tried to follow it, but no matter how much she tried to run, it seemed to move away from her even faster. Her breath came in sobs, and a bitter despair overtook her—the despair of knowing that her best was not enough, that no matter how hard she tried, she was doomed to fail.

It was never supposed to happen like this, she argued within herself—as if that could somehow make anything better. We were supposed to go to Zarmina and settle down there, you and me and Noemi. We were supposed to be happy and raise a strong family together.

As if in response, a figure came to her out of the darkness. It was Noemi, in her simple white dress with the light-blue sash. Her long brown hair fluttered weightless around her shoulders, and her stomach was swollen with Jeremiah’s child.

Why didn’t you take care of him? she asked, her voice echoing in Mariya’s head. Though Noemi’s words were clear, her lips didn’t move—but her sad green eyes stared out at her.

“I—I never—it wasn’t supposed to be like this!” Mariya stammered. “I—I did all I could, I—”

You told me you’d take care of him. You told me you wouldn’t let him be alone out there.

“I tried, but Salazar—the pirates—they took me away! What was I supposed to do? I don’t even know what they did with him!”

He needed you, Mariya. I needed you.

“I didn’t mean to! I wanted to go back and get him, but—”

You failed us.

Noemi’s image began to fade. Mariya tried to run after her, but her legs wouldn’t move, and her breath came in short, painful gasps. Her eyes burned with tears, and her whole body shook and trembled.

“Noemi!”

Something within her broke, like an airlock sliding open or a wall coming down. She could move freely again, but as she reached out into the darkness, hands on her shoulders held her back. She wrenched her eyes open and saw that she was lying on her back, staring at a row of bulkhead compartments like those in a ferry shuttle.

“Whoa there,” came a voice behind her. “Stay calm—you are not in danger.” It was Lucca, the star wanderer who had rescued her.

Mariya tried to sit up, but a splitting headache made her groan and fall back down to the floor. Her hair was wet, and something had encrusted her blouse just above the shoulder. She reached over with her hand to feel it.

It was blood.

“You hit your head when we landed,” Lucca explained. “Your wound needs healant. Stay still.”

Mariya closed her eyes and fought back the urge to panic. What had just happened? She remembered the escape from the station and the first part of their flight away from it. After the attack from the drones, though, her memory became fuzzy. The last image she could remember was the pure white cloud tops looming ever closer, as flames lapped the edges of the windows. We’re going to die, she had screamed—then, everything started to become fuzzy.

“The healant is fast acting,” said Lucca as he ran his hands through her hair. “You must rest for one hour, but after, it will be better.” Tingles of pain ran down her spine, but as his fingers gently massaged her scalp, they faded to a more tolerable level.

“What happened?” she asked.

“We landed. Well, to be fair, it was more like crash. But we are alive still, no?”

“Still alive.” She closed her eyes and tried to put everything out of her mind except for the sound of his voice. Her heart still pounded, and her body was as tense as an overstretched spring, making it difficult.

“We are on Zarmina. I believe this is planet you came to settle, yes? It is interesting place. Very green—much vegetation. We are in mountains, next to very clear lake. The atmosphere is not so thick here, so I think we will be fine.”

“You—you think? You don’t know?”

He laughed. “Who can know what will happen in future?”

That’s not very comforting, Mariya thought silently. She let out a long sigh and moaned a little.

“There, I have finished. Now wait for fifteen minutes, it will set if you do not move. Understand?”

“Yes,” she said. We’re stranded together on an alien world.

“Good.”

“Lucca?” she asked softly.

“Yes?”

“When are we going to get off of this planet?”

The pause before he answered said it all.

“That is not … good idea now,” he said, fishing for words. “If we go, pirates will see us and kill us—or worse. But I must be honest with you—I do not think the Gagarin can fly anymore. We must wait until someone rescues us.”

A lump rose in Mariya’s throat, the choked up emotions momentarily cutting off her air. “When will that happen?”

“I do not know. Who knows what will happen in future? But we will be fine, Mariya—we will be fine.”

What makes you say that? How can you be so sure?

“We have many supplies,” he said, as if answering her unasked question. “Food, water, filters, clothes—I even have inflatable shelter, which we can set up when your healant has set. And in wost case, I have emergency signal which we can activate. We are not lost.”

“Right.” Not lost like Jeremiah.

“Here, you must rest.” He laid a cold compress across her forehead, which gave her surprising relief. “I will make masks for us now. When you are ready, we will build shelter and set up camp.”

Why can’t we just stay here? she half-wanted to ask. But the drug-like allure of sleep was too great. She fought it at first, afraid of returning to her guilt-ridden nightmares, but her sleep was as dreamless as death.

Chapter 20


When Mariya woke up, her body felt as stiff as hardened plastifoam. She groaned and sat up, rubbing her head as her vision swam. She was on the floor of a starship, that much was clear—a small starship, much like the Ariadne. It wasn’t the Ariadne though. The doorway led to a long corridor, with narrow windows on either side. Instead of a hammock, the sleeping quarters had a bunk set into a small niche in the wall. She sat on the floor, on an off-white blanket that Lucca had laid out for her. Little spots of blood had dried near the hem, but it was otherwise clean.

As her head cleared and her headache slowly lifted, she started to notice other things about Lucca’s sleeping quarters. Instead of a dream monitor, he had a small holoscreen set up on the wall across from the bunk. It alternated between images of a wide, rolling grassland to sensuous pictures of gorgeous young women in various states of undress. She tensed a little at the pictures of the girls—who was this man who had rescued her? He’d treated her well enough so far, but that was no guarantee for the future.

She watched the wallscreen for a couple of minutes while slowly gathering her strength. The grassland pictures were quite pretty—some of them showed great herds of horses, with an occasional rider dressed in a knitted skullcap and colorful robes. It looked so dreamy, like something from out of a fantasy. Even the pinups had that same otherworldly quality about them. And though they made her blush, she had to admit that they weren’t distasteful.

“Feeling better?” Lucca asked from the doorway. She started—she hadn’t heard him approach.

“Oh! Yeah, I guess.”

He put one hand against the wall and grinned. A gas mask dangled in front of his chest, with a clear face visor and a tube that led to a tank of oxygen strapped to his back. He wore gloves and a dirty gray jumpsuit, with a utility belt sporting more than a dozen different tools. His boots were muddy.

“Where have you been?” she asked, rising to her feet. She stumbled a bit, and he took of a glove to help steady her.

“Outside. I have made camp and built shelter. We should not stay here—if pirates send landing party, they will find our ship very easy.”

“Right. Is it safe out there?”

He shrugged. “Who can say? I think we may be among first people to set foot on this world. But it is not too dangerous—I am still alive, after all.”

How can you be so confident in the face of so much uncertainty? Mariya wondered. If it was Lucca who had been injured in the crash, she would be paralyzed with fear right now. He, on the other hand, seemed to take everything in stride—even the loss of his own starship.

“I—I’m sorry about your ship,” she said. “Do you think she’ll fly again?”

He cringed visibly at her question, but waved his hand in a gesture of nonchalance. “Perhaps. First reactor is out of coolant and second is mostly shot, but hull is still intact so no problem. When all this is over, perhaps I can rebuild her.”

“All this? You mean, when the pirates are gone?”

“Yes. But come, there is no time. We must go.”

He handed her a gas mask and an oxygen tank. She strapped the tank to her back, but wasn’t sure how to put on the mask until he showed her. His touch was surprisingly gentle.

“There,” he said as he fitted the elastic straps over her ears. “To seal faceplate, you must push the glass. Understand?”

“Like this?” She pushed the glass a little, and the soft foam around the edges of the mask conformed to the shape of her face. When she took in a breath, the filter came to life and began to hum.

“Yes. Is it working?”

“I think so.”

“Good. Follow me.”

He led her out of the sleeping quarters to the main corridor of the ship. Leafy blue-green foliage blocked the windows, making her feel as if she were looking into a greenhouse rather than out to the exterior of the ship. He came to the ladder that led up to the airlock and gripped the rungs.

“Wait—don’t you think I should change first?”

He stopped and looked her over. She was still wearing the blouse and torn skirt from the escape. The fabric was thin, and her arms and legs were mostly bare. If the air outside was poisonous, she didn’t want to expose too much of herself to it.

“You will need boots,” he said, nodding at the rubber-soled slippers on her feet. “Otherwise, I do not think there will be problem.”

“Are you sure?”

“Trust me. The air is hot and wet and very thick. You will do better wearing fewer layers, not more.”

He opened a locker and pulled out a pair of heavy black boots, which he handed to her. She sat down on the floor and put them on. When she cinched the straps, they tightened automatically, almost but not quite to the point of pain. It felt strange to have something so heavy attached to each of her feet, but hopefully she’d get used to it.

“One thing,” he said before climbing the ladder to the airlock. “Is this your first time planetside?”

“You mean my first time setting foot on the surface of a planet?”

He nodded.

“Uh, yeah.”

“Then stay close to me. It will be very disorienting, and you may experience some shock.”

“Why? Is it dangerous?”

“Not at all,” he said, grinning at her. “Just different. So don’t be afraid—okay?”

“I—I guess.”

He climbed up the ladder as quickly and easily as if it were more natural to him than walking or running. Mariya took much longer, mostly just because of the weight of her boots. She stumbled on the first couple of rungs, but soon got the hang of it. Once she was at the top, the hatch slid shut below her. It hissed a little as the seals engaged. There was no window on the exterior hatch, and that fact made her nervous. She folded her arms and wondered again if she wasn’t making a mistake to go out in just a skirt and blouse.

“Opening main hatch,” said Lucca. “Stand by.”

He keyed the access panel on the wall, and the hatch irised open. Mariya squinted at the bright white light and raised a hand to shield her eyes. A blast of hot, wet air blasted her, making her skin crawl. It felt as if she had been enveloped with a damp towel. She shuddered to think of all the toxins the alien air might carry, but Lucca didn’t seem to mind it so she decided not to either.

Once the hatch was open, he shimmied up the ladder and out into the sunlight. The rungs were recessed into the wall, so it took her a bit longer to climb them, but he reached down and helped her up the last bit of the way. She no sooner stood beside him, though, than a deep and primal sense of panic began to seize her.

The crash site was on a high mountain plateau, beside a small lake. The foliage grew thick all around them, but where the ship sat it was mostly clear. A small stream trickled down the side of a sheer cliff, which stood higher than any station concourse she’d ever seen. Even more staggering, though, was the sky. The gray-white clouds were near enough that she could see each wispy tendril, but they were so far—so very far—that it boggled her mind to stare at them. All her life, she’d lived in small, confined spaces, but this ceiling was so high above her that you easily fit any space station underneath it. To stare up at such a wide expanse, with no glass except the faceplate of her mask between her and it—it made her feel incredibly small.

“This way,” said Lucca. He climbed down another recessed ladder, this in the side of the hull. Mariya crouched down to follow him, then gasped and froze.

The horizon stretched around her, and it curved in exactly the wrong way. Instead of bending upward around the edges, like it would on a space station, it actually seemed to curve down. Her heart hammered, and she felt as if gravity were tugging her to the edge, threatening to make her fall. They were up so high, too—just beyond the lake, the ground sloped downward until it became a cliff, stretching so far that the trees in the valley were barely specks. One false step, and she could easily fall to her death.

I can’t do this, she told herself as the taste of vomit filled her mouth. I have to go back.

“Is there problem?” Lucca asked from below. He looked up at her and frowned. “Mariya—are you all right?”

“I—I feel sick,” she said.

In just a few quick strides, he was by her side again. His presence gave her some comfort, but her knees still felt as if they were about to collapse.

He put his hands on her shoulders and looked her in the eyes. “Don’t be afraid,” he said softly. “There are more than ten thousand kilometers of rock between you and down. You are safe—you will not fall. Understand?”

Why do we have to leave the ship? she wanted to ask. Why do we have to be out here at all? Instead, she bit her lip and nodded.

“Good—that is good girl. Now, this next part will be hardest, so if you can do it, everything else will be easy.” He pointed to the ladder on the side of the ship. “We must climb down about twenty meters, until we reach ground. After that, is no problem. Okay?”

“Okay,” she whispered. With the mask obscuring her mouth, she didn’t even know if he could hear her.

“Very good. Now, you want go first, or me?”

“You,” she said quickly. “You go first.”

“Okay. Stay close, and watch.”

He gripped the railing and turned himself around, crouching as he took his first backwards step. As far as Mariya could tell, the rails went down on either side of the ladder like a long, continuous pair of hand holds, giving them something to grip as they climbed. Lucca went down three or four steps, then leaned far out with his arms almost straight. His position seemed so precarious that she gasped in fright.

“Don’t do that!”

“Do what?” he asked, grinning up at her. “It is okay—there is no problem. Very safe. Now come, you climb down in front of me. You slip, I catch you. Understand?”

He wants me to climb down between his arms, she realized. It seemed like a horribly awkward position to put him in—not to mention, dangerous—but the thought of having him there to catch her helped to allay at least some of her fear.

“All right,” she said, taking a deep breath. “Here goes.”

She crouched and grabbed hold of the rail. It took her a few moments to turn herself around, mostly because she was terrified of slipping, but Lucca waited patiently without rushing her.

“Very good,” he said. “You are doing well.”

She got her foot on the highest rung and grabbed onto the far railing with her other hand. Her palms were sweating now, so much that she feared she’d lose her grip. She waited a moment for her heart to calm a bit, then stepped gingerly down to the next one.

“Good. Now, when I say step, you climb down one more. Understand? I am here—we will go slow, so don’t be afraid.”

“Okay,” she said, taking another deep breath. His arms were at about her waist level, and if she leaned back, her butt would brush up against her chest. It was such an awkward position, but somehow that didn’t seem to matter to him.

“Step.”

She bent her knees and timidly slipped her left foot out, groping blindly for the next rung. With the weight of her boots, it was difficult, but she eventually found it. Once it was in, she brought down the other foot as well.

“Good. Step.”

His arm brushed up against her thigh as he descended behind her. It took her a lot longer to follow, but he waited patiently until she was down.

“Step.”

For the next five minutes, they took one step at a time down the hull of the crashed starship. The hatch was far above them now—so far that Mariya knew she would never climb back up there. She didn’t dare look down, though, for fear of losing what little nerve she still possessed.

“You are doing very well,” said Lucca. “Step.”

“How much further?” she asked. Sweat dripped down her forehead beneath the faceplate, getting into her eyes. More than anything, she wanted to wipe them, but that was impossible.

“Not far. Not far at all.”

She slipped her foot down into the next rung and slid her sweaty hands down a short distance. Below her, something made a soft crunching sound.

“Uh, Lucca? Are you—”

Before she could react, he grabbed her by the waist and pulled her back. She lost her grip and screamed as she fell down. For a brief instant, fear shot through her like a burst of superheated plasma. Then she was standing on solid ground, with Lucca laughing as he held her in his arms.

“You jerk!” she yelled, pushing him away. She stumbled and fell to her knees, soiling her skirt on the soft mud beneath her feet. The ground was uneven, and little blue-green shoots poked out between pieces of rock.

“Sorry,” he said sheepishly. “I could not resist.” He offered her a hand and helped her to her feet.

“Yeah. Well, thanks for helping me down.” And now you probably think I’m a helpless clod.

“That was long climb—see? Almost twenty meters. For your first time planetside, that was not bad. And since that was hardest part, the rest will be no problem.”

She looked up and realized he was right. It was a long climb, no matter how you looked at it. Part of her wanted to ask why the hell anyone would design a ship with the main hatch on the top, but after such an exasperating climb down, she was too tired to speak.

“Now come,” said Lucca. “I show you camp. Don’t be afraid—it is not far. See? And jungle is thick enough that it feels like corridor.”

He was right; the blue-green foliage was thick enough that she could barely see the sky, let alone the horizon. That, at least, was a comfort.

“Are the leaves dangerous?” she asked. They grew so thick, it would be impossible to keep them from brushing up against her arms and legs.

“Not at all,” said Lucca. To demonstrate, he took off a glove and ran his bare hand through some ferns down by his knees. “See? Only air is dangerous, and then only if you breathe it.”

I hope you’re right, she thought. Then again, he’d been right about everything else so far. She took his hand and followed him over the uneven ground, into the leafy fronds.


* * * * *


Interesting girl, Lucca thought as he led her to the campsite. He’d marked some of the trees along the way with a triple notch, cut with his lazer-bladed kukri. The further they got from the ship, the harder it was to find them, but by stopping by one and scanning the trunks for a few moments, he was able to stay on track.

“Are we lost?” the girl asked. “How much oxygen is in these tanks? We aren’t going to run out, are we?”

“We are fine,” he assured her. What he didn’t say was that the oxygen tanks only had about an hour in them. They were designed for EVA use, not for planetside exploration.

“Is that it?” she asked.

He peered through a stand of yellow bamboo-like shoots and saw the outline of the inflatable shelter he’d set up just an hour ago. It sat at the base of a large rock with a small mountain spring dribbling through the cracks.

“It is,” he said. “You have sharp eyes.” Beautiful ones as well.

The inflatable dome was white with silver-gray solar cells stitched across the top. The walls were about twenty centimeters thick, with double padding to prevent accidental puncture. There was one room inside, a little less than ten square meters at the base, and not quite high enough to stand in. Any larger, and the portable air recycler wouldn’t be able to keep the space breathable.

The airlock chamber was only large enough to admit one person. Lucca let the girl in first, instructing her how to tell when the outside air had been full purged and it was safe to go inside. It took a few minutes for the green light to go back on beside the outside access panel, but she figured it out soon enough. He followed suit, taking off his gloves and boots while the airlock equalized.

“So,” she said as he stepped in from the airlock, “I guess I should thank you for rescuing me.”

“It was my pleasure,” said Lucca. He tossed his boots into the equipment locker and sat down on the padded floor. The girl did the same. Except for the locker, a couple of unrolled mats, and the portable food synthesizer, the shelter was empty. Good thing, too, or the place would be even cozier than it already was.

“What are we going to do now, though? If you can’t get the ship back into orbit, we’re stranded here. The only people who can rescue us are the pirates.”

“That is true.”

“So what now? What do we do?”

He tried and failed to suppress a smile. The intensity in her eyes—what was her name again? She’d told him back on the station, but he’d been too busy to catch it.

“I said, what—”

“Don’t be afraid. I am sure we will think of something.”

She took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I mean, I guess I’m just worried. How badly was the ship damaged? Can it fly again at all? How much food and supplies do we have? Do you think the pirates will find us? If they don’t, do you think we’ll survive?”

“How is your head?” he asked.

“My what?”

“Your head. Does it still hurt?”

She ran a finger through her hair, feeling the scalp at the back of her head. “No, it’s much better. I’ve still got a bit of a headache, but I think I’ll be all right.”

“Good. Then I’m sure that everything will be okay.”

“Why?”

“My father always told me, so long as you have your health, you can get through anything.”

“Was your father ever stranded on an unsettled planet?”

He threw back his head and laughed. “That was good!” he said. “Very good. I like you—you have good sense of humor.”

She didn’t laugh, but continued to stare at him in disbelief. He found that even funnier, though this time he swallowed his laughter. What was her name? The fact that he couldn’t remember was starting to bug him.

“We still have many options. We have food, shelter, water, air—everything we need. Our supplies will last for many months. And besides,” he said, holding out his hands for emphasis, “we have whole planet to ourselves!”

“But the pirates are all in orbit—anyone who comes to rescue us has to get through them first.”

“True,” he admitted. “For that reason, we must not wait for rescue. We must find some way to rescue ourselves.”

He pulled out his energy pistol and winked at her. Her eyes widened.

“You mean, you want to fight your way out of here?”

“Perhaps. But we have time. Because of clouds, I do not think the pirates know where we are. If they saw where we crashed, why did they not send landing party to capture us? No, we have time to make plan.”

She nodded, her face brightening a little. It seemed like she had something she wanted to say, but was a bit hesitant to come out with it.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“Do you have something you wish to tell me?”

She paused, then shook her head. “In a second, maybe. But first, who are you exactly?”

Aha! he thought, a grin spreading across his face. So I am not only one who forgot.

“No time until now for introductions, eh? Adventures can be like that. My name is Lucca Tajjashvili—Lucca, child of Tajjur. And you are …”

“Me? Oh, I’m Mariya.”

“And you are from where?”

“Originally? Delta Oriana—have you heard of it?”

“It is not familiar.”

Mariya sighed. “Well, that’s all right. My father was a star wanderer, and both my brothers have already left for the stars. How about you?”

“I am first star wanderer in my family. It is interesting tradition: oldest son of each family must leave on father’s starship to seek his fortune among the stars. Where I am from, this is not common practice.”

“Really?” she asked, her eyes widening a little. “You must be from someplace really far away then.”

“Indeed. Tajjur is my mother-star. You are not familiar with system?”

“Sorry.”

“It is perhaps one hundred parsecs from here, toward Good Hope nebula. If you are not starfarer, you would not know of it.”

“I guess not.” She paused and glanced off to the side. “I suppose there’s no sense keeping this secret from you, then. We have a plan to escape—me and the other colonists, I mean.”

Lucca raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Yeah. When Captain Helena captured our ship—how much do you know, anyway?”

“Only that there is colony ship somewhere in this system and that pirates have taken it. Besides this, I know nothing.”

“And how did you learn that?”

“When I was just outside of system preparing to make final jump, I received very strange transmission. It was Captain Helena, speaking about some Jeremiah and his wife, who was prisoner.”

“Ah!” Mariya exclaimed. She leaned forward, her eyes lighting up excitedly. “You got that message?”

“Intercepted it, yes. Very strange, broadcasting something like this across whole system.”

“That was me and Jeremiah—we escaped and were on our way to get help. But then we heard that Captain Helena had taken Noemi—that is, his wife—and were going to space her if we didn’t come back. So we did, but of course we had a backup plan, and that’s what we’re going to try now.”

“Interesting,” said Lucca. It was amazing how gorgeous the girl was when she became passionate about something.

“Yeah. See, Jeremiah’s wife is a hacker. She helped us escape by starting up the Ariadne while we got past the guards. When the Hope of Oriana—that is, the colony ship—docks with the pirate’s station, she should be able to get a hard-line connection to their network and take over their defensive systems. With luck, she may even be able to take control of Helena’s flagship!”

“And then?”

“Well, once she’s in control, she’ll lock everything down and vent the oxygen from the sections with the pirates. That will make it easier for the colonists to take them prisoner. And once the pirates have all been captured … I don’t know what we’ll do after that, but that’s the plan.”

“Very interesting. I did not know that this was possible.”

“Trust me, Noemi is good. I’ve never seen anyone like her. She linked all the simulators on the Hope of Oriana together to create a massive shared world—and he did it in just one dayshift. One dayshift! And it feels just as real as this one. I can’t tell it’s a simulation!”

Simulation, Lucca thought silently. He remembered feeling the neural jacks on the back of Mariya’s head when he’d applied the healant. Many outworlders installed a cybernetic brain interface which allowed them to interact with artificial simulations as if they were in some sort of dream. That was one way to endure the long, tedious voyages, especially on starships with living spaces barely larger than their emergency shelter. Of course, such implants were almost unheard of on Tajjur, or anywhere in the Coreward stars for that matter.

“She can do this, then? Seize control of all pirate assets in this system?”

“Yes, but there’s a danger that it might fry her brain. That’s why Jeremiah and I left to go get help. But there’s nothing we can do about that except follow the plan.”

“Interesting plan,” he muttered, stroking his chin. “When will it happen?”

“When the Hope of Oriana arrives at the station, in about a week or so. The instant that they dock, that’s when everything starts.”

“I think I can fix sensors on the Gagarin enough to watch sky for their arrival. They are traveling at sublight speeds, yes?”

“That’s right.”

“Why?”

Mariya shrugged. “Beats me. Something about Helena not wanting to tip anyone off to their presence in this system.”

So that is where Helena was, Lucca realized. Not out on raid, as Salazar told me.

“Good—very good. See? We have options. Everything comes together in time.”

Mariya frowned. “What do you mean? None of that changes the fact that we’re still stranded here.”

“For now, yes. But not for long.”

The look of intense puzzlement on her face was downright charming. Just wait until you see what I am capable of, Lucca thought to himself. We will show these pirates who is best.


* * * * *


Dinner in the emergency shelter was a simple affair, but Mariya ate with relish. It tasted all the better knowing that they had a plan, or at least the beginnings of one.

“So what are we going to do for the next few days until the Hope of Oriana gets here?” she asked.

Lucca ate a spoonful of the bland synthmeal and shrugged. “Stay low. Make preparations for escape.”

“What sort of preparations?”

“Don’t know. It depends what they will do.”

“Are we going to wait until Noemi and the other colonists defeat the pirates? Do you think we can just wait for them to rescue us?”

“Of course not,” he said, scoffing. “I am sure they will need us. But we must time our escape well, to be of most use to them. Unless, of course, the pirates come after us first. But I do not think that they will.”

“What makes you say that?”

“You have many questions. Where you are from, do all beautiful girls have so many questions as you?”

Blood rushed to Mariya’s cheeks. “Sorry,” she said, “I didn’t mean—”

“No, it is good, no problem. I like it.”

She blushed even harder.

“In any case, where did you say you are from? Delta Oriana—it is system in Oriana Cluster, yes?”

“Yeah,” she said. “It’s a little ways out from the main trade routes. But for the last two years, I’ve lived with my family on Alpha Oriana.”

“Why did you move?”

“It’s … kind of a long story.”

“So? We have time. Will you tell me?”

He looked her in the eyes as she spoke, something that few men outside of her family ever did. It didn’t make her uncomfortable, though. His eyes were surprisingly gentle, considering how cavalier he could be.

“Later,” she said a bit awkwardly. “So … what now?”

He finished his food and tossed the bowl casually into the small washer unit. “There is some equipment on my ship that I think we will need. The pirates have not come yet, so I think it is safe.”

He stood up on the foamy shelter floor and pulled his boots out of the locker. Mariya’s heart skipped a beat at the prospect of being alone.

“Wait—you’re going back out there?”

“Of course.”

“Then let me come with you.”

“Why?” he asked, giving her a funny look. “It is safe here, and I am not going far.”

“I don’t care,” she said, rising to her feet. “There’s a lot we don’t know about this place, so we should stick together.” Besides, if something happens and you don’t come back, what am I going to do?

He shrugged. “Okay. Put on boots and mask, and let’s go.”

She glanced down at her blouse and skirt. Something told her that she’d need to dress in something a little heavier, especially with all that jungle. There was no telling what was out there.

“I don’t know,” she said uneasily. “Don’t you have something else I can wear? I don’t think it’s a good idea to go out in the jungle like this.”

“Of course.”

He reached into the locker and tossed her a gray jumpsuit, much like the one he was wearing. It fell open as she caught it, and she saw that it was much too big for her. The mid-section was elastic, though, so she could probably make it work.

She glanced around for a place to change and realized that there was no privacy in the little shelter. Blood rushed to her cheeks a second time, but Lucca slipped on his mask and opened the airlock.

“I will wait for you outside,” he said. Moments later, she was alone.

She dressed quickly, wondering if he was actually waiting for her. Was this his way of making sure she stayed back in the shelter? It wouldn’t surprise her at all if it was.

“Lucca!” she shouted, half to him and half to herself. “I swear, if you’ve gone on without me …” No sound came through the walls, but that hardly meant anything—they were so thick, they might as well be soundproof.

The jumpsuit was a struggle, but by cuffing the pant legs she was able to make it manageable. After fumbling with her mask for a couple of seconds, she slipped it on and stepped through the airlock.

Lucca was leaning against the trunk of a tree, absent-mindedly checking his energy pistol. So he really was waiting for me. The moment he saw her, he put his pistol away and walked over.

“Ready?”

“Yeah,” she said. The respirator masked the relief in her voice, but they could hear each other clearly enough.

“Good. Let’s go.”

The jungle was thick, the ground porous. It was impossible to see more than a few meters through the leafy turquoise plants. Veins of deep blue ran along the stems, turning to a rich, deep green out near the lobes. Each individual leaf was a complex work of art, but taken together they made for an annoying obstacle. Mariya didn’t know how Lucca was able to find his way so confidently through them, but with his laser-bladed knife he cut a path that wasn’t too difficult for her to follow.

At length, they made it to the clearing. From her vantage point at the edge, she could see that the ship had kicked up a lot of dirt in the crash. The skid marks on the ground stretched all the way to the small lake. Except for the clouds obscuring the sky, it wouldn’t be hard for someone in orbit to find them.

Evidently, Lucca thought the same thing, because he stopped at the edge of the clearing and crouched behind a large fern, his pistol held at the ready. Mariya stayed close behind him.

“Any sign of the pirates?” she asked softly.

He scanned the wide open space in front of them and shook his head. “No, they are not here,” he said, standing up. “If yes, there would be sign of their ship. Instead, there is nothing.”

He walked brazenly out into the clearing, his tools rattling along his belt. Mariya took a deep breath as the vertigo threatened to overwhelm her, but she followed him out, taking one cautious step at a time.

“Can you climb ladder?” he asked.

Her stomach flipped. “I—I don’t think so.”

“Then take this.”

He handed her his energy pistol. It felt strange and unwieldy in her palm, as if a sudden jerk could set it off without warning. She held it at length, clenching it nervously with both hands.

“I need for you to stand watch,” he said. “I will go into ship and toss you down supplies. Understand?”

“I think so,” she said. “What do you want me to watch for?”

He shrugged. “For danger.”

Before she could ask him to clarify, he was already on his way up. He climbed the ladder as easily as if he were walking on a level floor. It made her dizzy to see him go, but she kept a close watch for ‘danger,’ just as he’d asked her to.

The cloud-covered sky had deepened significantly, probably a sign that the system sun was lowering toward the horizon. She could see the outlines of the lower formations among the purple and gray. A breeze picked up, making the leaves rattle and the trunks of the jungle sway.

Something above their heads caught her eye. It looked like a little black speck, circling instead of drifting with the wind. She squinted and saw that there were a lot more of them, perhaps as many as twenty. Most of them were far away, but one came down close enough to make out its shape. It looked like—

Chills shot down her back, and her blood ran cold. “Lucca!” she shouted.

He stopped and looked down at her. “What?” he shouted back.

“Come down! Come down right—”

But she was too late. With terrifying speed, the winged reptilian beast plummeted like a meteor from the sky. It struck Lucca, slamming him against the hull of the ship with an awful thump. The beast had talons as thick as Mariya’s thighs, and its leathery wings were like something from a nightmare. It let out an ear-splitting cry before shoving off and flying away, carrying Lucca in its bloodied claws.

“Lucca!” she screamed. Her hands trembling, she raised the energy pistol.

Chapter 21


Lucca felt the wetness of his own blood before he felt the pain. That was how he knew that he was in serious trouble. Pain was relative and could be controlled, but bleeding was an undeniable sign of injury.

The beast gripped him by the shoulder and around his waist. Its massive claws shredded his jumpsuit and dug into his skin. Its talons were dark and scaly, like a hellish dragon. He tried to struggle, but the beast tightened its grip, making him wince.

With a terrible cry, the beast shoved off from the Gagarin into the sky. Its giant, fleshy wings beat the air, propelling them upward. Locked firmly in the animal’s grasp, Lucca was in no position to fight back.

An energy bolt lanced through the air just a few meters ahead of them. It crackled harmlessly, but made the animal pull up sharply and let out another cry. The second shot came only seconds later, and went even wider than the first. The beast worked furiously with its wings to gain back some of the momentum it had lost.

The third shot sizzled just inches from Lucca’s face. The world began to spin, and he wondered if he’d been hit. But then the animal let out a high pitched screech, and they both began to fall.

He opened his eyes just as the animal released him. The ground was still a good fifteen meters below. Something caught on the pack containing his oxygen tank, tearing it off.

This looks bad, Lucca thought as his face met the ground. There was no second thought.


* * * * *


“Lucca!”

Mariya watched in horror as he hit the ground with a horrible thump and lay perfectly still. Overhead, the nightmarish beast wheeled and crashed into some rocks before recovering enough to take off into the deepening sky.

For an instant, Mariya stood rooted to the spot, unsure what to do. Fear paralyzed her, making her feel utterly helpless. It only lasted a moment or two, though. The instant she snapped out of it, she ran over to him as fast as her legs would carry her.

He’d landed on his stomach, his arms lying limp by his side. His oxygen tank had come loose in the struggle, and his clothes were in bloody shreds, especially at his left shoulder which had taken the brunt of the hit. Besides that, he’d fallen so far that something was bound to be broken.

Don’t be dead, she pleaded inwardly as she carefully turned him over. God of Earth, please don’t let him be dead.

First things first—he had no oxygen mask, so the air he was breathing was poison. She took a deep breath and pulled hers off, placing it over his face. When that didn’t have an effect, she realized it was probably because his lungs were too weak to expel the air he’d already breathed—that, or he really was dead.

Lifting the mask back to her face, she took a deep breath of the sweet oxygen and leaned forward. If he wasn’t breathing, she’d have to do what she could to get that started. She took off the mask and leaned down until her mouth covered his. Her heart pounded in her chest, but she ignored it as she breathed into him, watching until his chest rose appreciably before pulling back. Her own lungs burned for oxygen, but she put the mask over his face and counted to three before lifting it to her own face and taking a desperate breath.

Come on, she thought to herself as she repeated the process. The second time had just as little effect as the first. The third time, though, he began to cough as she covered his face with the mask.

Just at that moment, the sky darkened like a shadow drifting over them. Quicker than thought, Mariya grabbed the pistol and spun around, firing an energy bolt wildly into the sky. A terrifying scream filled her ears, and one of the beasts slammed into the ground so close that the impact made her shudder. It peered at Mariya with its deep yellow eye, its jaws brimming with fearsome teeth, then took off again before she had a chance to react.

Mariya gasped, and her lungs filled with the poisonous air of the planet. It burned her throat and made her head spin. She dropped the pistol and groped desperately as if she were drowning, but thankfully her hands found the oxygen mask before it was too late.

Lucca was coughing a lot harder now, which was good—so long as he was coughing, that meant that he was alive. He was bleeding, though, and if she didn’t do anything to stop that, she feared he might bleed out. His face was pale, and his lips were starting to turn blue. She took another deep breath and gave him the mask, which seemed to help.

A screech over head made her blood ran cold. I have to get us out of here, she realized. We’re not safe in the open. But the jungle was almost twenty meters away, and she didn’t know if Lucca had broken anything in the fall. Besides, he was still bleeding out—

A second screech propelled her from panicked paralysis into action. After pulling up some grass and stuffing it against Lucca’s wound, she grabbed the mask and breathed deeply as she pulled him frantically toward the jungle. One of the beasts dove for them, so she grabbed the pistol and fired at it. The shot went wild, but the beast pulled up at the last second, leaving them alone.

The oxygen, she realized as he began to cough again. She took a deep breath and gave him the mask, watching the sky with the pistol in hand. Almost fifty of those nightmarish creatures now swarmed overhead, closing in on them. Her heart pounded and her lungs screamed for air, but she let Lucca keep it for another couple seconds before leaning down to take it.

“Hold your breath,” she said, hoping he could hear her. She waited one excruciating second longer before lifting the mask back to her face. An instant later, at least three of the beasts dove for them.

With adrenaline surging through her veins, she raised the pistol and fired. One of the beasts landed not three meters from her and lashed out with its claws, but she sidestepped the blow and shot it squarely between the eyes. It screamed and fell back, stunned or dead—there was no way to tell. The air above her was a mess of fluttering wings, but she fought back the urge to panic and run. Lucca still needed her, after all—and without him, they would both die on this starforsaken world. Standing over him, she let out a desperate cry and fired at everything that moved.

The next few moments happened in a blur, but when it was over, she was alive—she and Lucca were both alive. The beasts flew up in retreat, all but the first one that had attacked her, which stumbled limply along the ground until it collapsed in exhaustion or death. Either way, it didn’t matter. She grabbed Lucca by the back of his shredded jumpsuit and hauled him another few meters.

When he began to cough, she stopped and gave him the mask. The grass had helped the bleeding somewhat. She stuffed some more in the wound, for lack of anything else. He moaned a bit at her touch, but stayed conscious.

“Notches,” he moaned.

“What?” said Mariya. She glanced at the sky before turning back to him, her lungs on fire.

“Three … notches … in the trees. That is … path. Three notches.”

The markers to the shelter, she realized. If I can get him there, we’ll be all right. She put her hand over the faceplate and waited a second for him to take one last breath, then lifted it to her mouth and took a deep breath of the blessed oxygen.

The jungle was about fifteen meters now, across stony ground. The rocks were sure to scrape Lucca as she dragged him away, but that was the least of their worries right now. The beasts were flying a lot closer, and the longer they waited the more would come.

Summoning every ounce of her strength, she grabbed beneath Lucca’s arms and pulled. He winced as they went over the sharp rocks, but kicked out with his feet to make them move faster. He left a bloody trail across the ground, but there was nothing she could do about that. They’d gone for almost fifteen seconds now, so she took a deep breath and put the mask over Lucca’s face.

The largest beast that Mariya had yet seen landed right in front of her, not a meter away from where they had been just a moment ago. Its skin was a deep red, with streaks of yellow across its wings and belly. Its claws were as long as her forearm, and its mouth was large enough to snap her in half.

It looked her in the eye and roared. Without thinking, she screamed—promptly losing any air that was left in her lungs.

The beast lashed out with a claw, knocking her to the ground. She gasped, and her throat burned as if she had just breathed fire. She tried to cough it out, but that only made it worse. Scrambling on the ground, her vision began to cloud and her mind went light-headed—

The beast turned from her to Lucca, rearing its head as if to strike.

“No!” she screamed as she raised the energy pistol. Her shot hit the monster square in the jaw, just as it opened its toothy mouth. It let out the strangest gurgling cry, as if choking on its own vomit. Mariya fired again and again, until the pistol ceased firing and the monster lay in a heap behind them.

Her arms weak, she fumbled for the mask and grabbed it as quickly as she could. The oxygen felt like a soothing balm, clearing her head and renewing her strength. Her breath came in short, desperate bursts, but there was no time to recover—the beasts would soon be back.

“Go!” Lucca whispered as she reached down to hand him the mask. He shook his head, telling her to make a run for it.

With the mask strapped securely to her face, she lifted him up again for one last desperate push for safety. Her weakened muscles screamed out in protest, but she forced them to move, losing every last ounce of adrenaline. Twice, she stumbled on the rocks, but then she was in the ferns, and moments later, beneath the thick, shady leaves.

We made it, she thought, collapsing in a heap next to Lucca. We’re out of danger. We’re going to be okay.

That was when she saw that he’d gone unconscious.

“Lucca?” she said, shaking him by his uninjured arm. “Lucca!”

She gave him the mask again, but there was no indication that he was still breathing.


* * * * *


The last thing Lucca remembered before passing out was the red-skinned beast that had seized him, a monster among those winged creatures and quite possibly the mother of them all. Mariya fired, and her shot was true—truer than if Lucca himself had fired it. The beast fell back, and writhed as she fired again, and again. Then, his world turned to blackness.

When he woke up again, he found that she had dressed his wound with strips of fabric torn from his tattered jumpsuit. The pressure told him that the bleeding had all but stopped. He coughed, and the air he breathed was clean—the mask was firmly on his face.

A hand covered the glass, and he took a deep breath of the clean, blessed oxygen. Moments later, Mariya lifted the mask from his face and fitted it to her own.

“Are you okay?” she asked. “Can you walk?”

Mariya, the girl who had saved him. The girl who had stood over him and fought off almost half a dozen of those nightmarish creatures all on her own. How stupid he’d been to think of impressing her with his show of brazen arrogance! It was only because of her that he wasn’t dead right now.

He nodded and sat up. A sharp pain made him wince and fall back, and she hastily put the mask back over his face.

“It is not bad,” he said. “Just some cracked ribs. It will heal.”

She took back the mask and breathed before speaking. “Can you move? This tank is running low.”

“Of course,” he said when he gave her back the mask. “Come, help me up.”

His body screamed in pain as she helped him to his feet, but he grit his teeth and endured it. By leaning heavily on her for support, he was able to take a few short steps. With the tank slung across her other shoulder, they passed the oxygen mask between them, taking one feeble step at a time.

The sun was beginning to set by the time they reached the shelter. He could tell by the way the sky turned red and orange through the leafy canopy, coloring the white inflatable walls a light shade of pink. It was a beautiful sight, though he was in no condition to enjoy it.

Since the airlock couldn’t fit them both at the same time, it took a bit of fumbling to get in. Lucca went first, and collapsed on the floor after sealing the door shut. Mariya followed a few moments later and knelt by his side, as if unsure what to do.

“The healant,” he croaked, pointing to the locker.

As she searched for it, he unzipped his jumpsuit and gingerly began pulling it down to his waist. It was slow going, even with the fabric in pieces. His ribs ached with pain, and the gash in his shoulder made his arm almost useless.

“Hold still,” said Mariya, kneeling by his side. She peeled back the jumpsuit and carefully removed the press. The blood around the wound had dried, forming a thick crust with bits of cloth and grass. He winced as she opened it again, but before the bleeding could start, she took a sponge and began to apply the gel-like healant. The effect was immediate: like a soothing balm on a serious burn, it relieved the pain and helped his body to relax.

“Thank you,” he said. “Let it soak, then wash and apply again.”

“What about the rest of you? Is anything broken?”

He felt at his stomach, gingerly pressing the swollen areas where his bones had broken. “It is just cracked ribs, I think,” he said, his head swimming from the pain. “You can apply healant—but gently, please.”

She nodded and unzipped his jumpsuit down to the waist. A large purple bruise just above his abs showed where the ribs were broken. She pulled his clothes aside carefully, as if the merest touch could kill him. It took longer than he would have liked, but soon she was dabbing the lifesaving healant all over the wound. He closed his eyes as relief washed over him.

“That was the scariest moment of my life,” she said softly, still applying the healant gel. “I don’t ever want to go through anything like that again.”

“You did well,” he reassured her. “Very well.”

“Yeah. Well, I guess that makes us even. You saved me, and now I saved you.”

“No.” He opened his eyes and looked straight at her until she met his gaze. “It is not just even—it is more. If I had not rescued you, colonists would when they arrive in just few days. But you—I owe you my life.”

She blushed—or had she been blushing the whole time? With the pink and purple hues of the deepening sunset through the walls of the shelter, it was difficult to tell.

“Would you even be down here if it weren’t for me? No. It’s because of me that we crashed on this horrible planet in the first place—if not for me, you’d probably be on your way out of the system right now.”

“Horrible planet? I thought you were colonist. Does that not make this place your home?”

“Home,” she said bitterly. “I don’t even know what that word means anymore. At first, it meant the place I was born, but famine struck and now everyone back there is dead. I never really fit in at Alpha Oriana, but at least I still had family—until they all went Coreward, and my parents brought me out here to this starforsaken rock of a world.”

“How old are you?”

“By standard Earth years? Sixteen. Where I’m from, though, that’s not very young.”

“Interesting. I do not know much about ways of your people.”

“That’s probably because everyone hates us, at least in the Oriana Cluster. Our culture, our way of life—but mostly, it’s our religion they despise.”

“Why is that?”

She hesitated, as if the topic made her uncomfortable. “I don’t know, honestly. Maybe because they think we’re heretics? I just know that they hate us.”

“Hatred is stupid,” said Lucca, easing himself up to a sitting position. “Why do we hate each other, just because we are from different stars? Did not our fathers all come from Holy Earth? And the stars that shine on us, they are all same, no matter at which one we live. It is foolish, this hatred of those who are different.”

Mariya’s face brightened. “You really mean that?”

“Of course. I have been traveling for many years, and seen many different cultures and worlds. But I have never hated one of them—not one. Always there is something good in them. If others cannot see this, it is always because they do not wish to see it.”

The look on her face told him that he’d said something right. She seemed about ready to throw her arms around him and kiss him. With his wounds still tender, though, he was glad she held back.

“My people believe very strongly in families,” she said. “A strong family shines brighter than all the stars—that’s one of our most important sayings. So it was really hard when all my aunts and uncles left for the Coreward Stars.”

“Are you betrothed?”

“No,” she said quickly—a little too quickly, perhaps. “I mean, I was, but he left with the others.”

“Who?”

“Just one of my cousins. He’s gone now, of course. We’re out so far, I’ll probably never see him again.”

“Do you miss him?”

She shrugged. “I’m over it, I guess. But it’s just so frustrating. I used to know exactly what my life was going to be like—who I was going to marry, how we would raise our children, where we were going to live and what we were going to be. Then the famine happened, and we fled to Oriana Station, but there was still our family, our traditions—at least some security. Then we came here, and everything changed. Everything.

“Security,” said Lucca, chuckling to himself. “It is just illusion, is it not? Well, I have something better.”

“You do? What is that?”

“Luck.”

His answer made her frown. “Luck? How do you mean?”

“It is simple. Nothing in life is certain, so why should I seek security if it is only illusion? But luck—luck is not illusion. It is very real.”

“But how can you trust in something like luck?”

He paused for a second to consider her question. “Perhaps ‘trust’ is not right word. I trust in myself, and make my own luck.”

“What do you mean, you ‘make’ your own luck? How is that possible?”

She was staring intently at him now, her whole being focused on him. It was clear that this was something she felt very strongly about—something that had worried her for a long time. And from the look on her face, it seemed that his answers were boggling her mind.

“Ah, Mariya,” he said. “I think you worry too much. You obsess about future, as if knowing what will happen is most important thing. But who knows what will happen in future? No one—and that is good thing. If future was certain, we would have no choice—no freedom. We would have no chance to make things better when everything goes wrong.”

“Maybe—but what if things didn’t go wrong in the first place?”

“That is impossible. If there is good, there must be bad. If there is happiness, there must also be sorrow. Luck is what keeps the balance. It is like pendulum, which swings from one side to the other—sometimes very fast, sometimes very slow. To make luck, you must simply be ready for when it swings in other direction.”

“That’s it, then? That’s how you do it?”

He chuckled. “Yes. That is how I make my own luck.”

“But—but it can’t be like that. It’s too simple. Suppose something terrible happened, and you died?”

“Then I die.”

“But how can you stop that? How can you make it so that that won’t happen?”

“I cannot. It is how universe works.”

“If you can’t control something as basic as that, how can you possibly claim to make your own luck?”

Lucca reached for the food synthesizer and filled up a drinking bottle with water. “You make mistake,” he said as the bottle filled. “It is not about control—with luck, it is never about control. It is about position and leverage.”

“Position? Leverage?”

“Yes. I cannot stop death, but I can take steps to avoid it. And I cannot make good things happen, but I can put myself in good position to take advantage when they do.”

“Such as?”

“Such as this shelter,” he said. He stopped to take a drink of the pure, filtered water—so refreshing, after all that they’d just been through. “Why do I have this shelter, when my ship is starship and not shuttle? Because it is better to have it and not need than to need it and not have. It is for when luck is bad. But why did I rescue you? Because if luck is good, it is better to have girl and win than to win and be alone.”

“Yeah,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Some luck I’ve brought you.”

“Ah, but you have. See? You have saved my life. Because of you, I am alive.”

“Because of me, we’re stranded here with no way off except by contacting the pirates. If the other colonists fail when the Hope of Oriana docks with the station, we’ll all be as good as dead.”

He looked at her and smiled. “I do not think so. Remember how luck is like pendulum?”

“Yeah,” she said, meeting his gaze.

“It is my belief that before things get very, very good, they must first be very, very bad. And yes, things have been bad for us—very bad. But that is just sign that soon things will be very good. And I think that will happen because of you.”

“You’re just saying that to make me feel better, aren’t you?”

“Is it working?”

She grinned. “Maybe a little.”

“But that is not only reason why I say it. I say it because I think it is true.”

Her cheeks flushed red, this time much more than before. From that and the way she smiled at him, he knew that he’d said exactly the right thing.

Chapter 22


Mariya’s heart fluttered as she climbed out the hatchway onto the top of the ship. The vertigo still gripped her as she scanned the skies for any sign of the giant raptor-beasts, but it wasn’t as bad as it had been when they’d landed. The cloud-covered skies were empty, so she tossed the bag of supplies down to the ground and prepared to descend the ladder.

Strange, to think how difficult the climb had been just a few days ago. Now, it wasn’t the vertigo that terrified her so much as the raptor-beasts. Yesterday, she’d watched the sky from the underbrush for nearly an hour, until they had started to come out in the afternoon. This early in the day, there was no sign of them. She climbed down the ladder as quickly as she could, and dragged the bags to the safety of the underbrush.

After waiting for her heart to calm down somewhat, she took a deep breath through the oxygen mask and prepared to set out for the camp. Lucca was getting better, but he was in no shape to come outside yet, and she needed to stay with him as much as possible. Besides, he was horrible at preparing food, and she didn’t want him to attempt to make lunch before she had a chance to rescue it.

Some luck, she thought as she walked though the broad, leafy ferns. In spite of all that had happened to them, Lucca was in remarkably good spirits. It was almost as if the universe had a big cosmic joke, and he was one of the only ones in on it. If he ever took anything seriously, she couldn’t tell.

And yet, in spite of all that, things really did seem to be working out for them. At least, they were doing all right so far. If she were by herself here, she probably would be dead by now. But with Lucca, everything seemed to work out somehow. It was crazy, because he never made any plans for the future, or seemed to even think about it. But even though they were stranded on an uninhabited planet in the Far Outworlds with a poisonous atmosphere, with no way off and the pirates in orbit cutting off their only hope of rescue, she somehow felt that they were going to be all right. Certainly Lucca felt that way, and because he was so confident about it, she couldn’t help but feel the same.

I wonder if he’ll settle down with us when all of this is over, Mariya thought to herself. It was a crazy, wishful thought, but one that she couldn’t put out of her mind. She liked the way she felt when she was with him—the confidence that he helped her to feel. As crazy as his philosophies on luck were, she’d never met a man who made her feel so secure.

The thought made her laugh. “I must be going crazy,” she said aloud, then laughed some more. She’d never been in so much danger—how could one man possibly make her feel this way? Yet it was true. She’d never felt it so strongly in her life.

Which led to other problems. The things she’d told Lucca were only partially correct. Yes, she’d been betrothed once, and that betrothal was definitely off, but there was another one now—one of her own making. Ever since Jeremiah had showed up with his wife at Oriana Station, the three of them had been extremely close—close enough that it didn’t seem wrong for her to marry him as well. It made a lot of sense, even if it was a little unusual for a man to have two wives. In the Far Outworlds, though, arrangements like this were not unheard of. They already knew each other, they already leaned on each other for support, and they were already close friends, so why couldn’t they make it work? It was certainly safer than waiting for some stranger to come sweep her off of her feet. On a world as far removed from civilization as Zarmina, a lifetime could pass before anything like that ever happened.

But now, she didn’t know if she still felt that way. Or maybe she did, but Lucca threw an entirely new variable into the mix. All of her meticulous plans were collapsing, with nothing but uncertainty to replace them. These emotions she was feeling, so new and so strange—was any of it right? Was any of it safe? Or did any of that even matter anymore?

She reached the shelter without too much trouble. The bags crowded the airlock, but she managed to climb in anyways. After walking under the open air of the planet, it felt strange to be cramped in such a tiny, narrow space again.

“There you are,” said Lucca, smiling as she entered. “I see you made it with no problem.”

“No problems at all,” said Mariya. “I think I got most of the equipment you asked for, including the spare wrist console. Oh, and here’s the other oxygen mask—it was lying on the ground not far from the landing site.”

He grunted and took the mask and oxygen tank from her, examining them carefully. They were covered in dirt from the incident a few days ago, but seemed intact. The way Lucca nodded confirmed as much.

“Excellent. They have seen very rough time, but are not broken. Even there is some oxygen left.”

“Well, that’s good news.”

“Indeed.”

She took off her boots and placed them with her own mask in the equipment locker. “How are you feeling? Any better?”

“Much better,” he said, rummaging through the other bags. “At this rate, I think my injury will heal in only few more days. Already, I am well enough that I can go out.”

“No, not yet—you’d better stay in here and rest. We can’t risk opening up that wound before it’s fully healed.”

He looked as if he were about to object, but caught himself and relented. “You are right, of course,” he said. “I am just getting sick of this place.”

“Well, one way or another, we won’t be here much longer. Either we’ll find a way off, or the colonists will rescue us when they take over.” If they take it over.

“That is right.”

He pulled out the wrist console and laid back down on the roll-out mattress that served as his cot. Mariya stepped over to the food synthesizer and started to get lunch ready. Even though they were both soon engrossed in their work, his presence was impossible to ignore.

“I think those raptor-beasts only come out in the afternoon,” she said, breaking the silence. “I’ve been watching them, and they never come out in the morning.”

“Interesting. Do they always come out in afternoon?”

“Every day so far, yeah.”

“Good—very good.”

She frowned and glanced at him over her shoulder. “Why is that?”

But he was too busy with the wrist console to be interrupted. He stared at the tiny screen with eyes that were almost crazed, and his fingers flew across the miniature keyboard as if with wild abandon.

“Good, good,” he muttered again. A grin slowly spread across his face.

“What is it?”

“I have accessed sensors on the Gagarin, and they show projected path of your Hope of Oriana. If nothing has changed, your ship will dock with station in seventy-nine hours. That is perfect.”

“Perfect?” Mariya asked, turning around to face him. “Why?”

“I have been thinking about this for some time. At pirate station, there are two parts, yes? One rimside section with boarding transports and barracks for troops, another at hub with docking bays for starships. Rim section uses rotation for gravity simulation, hub uses artificial generators.”

“Yeah—what does that have to do with the raptor-beasts?”

“One minute. If Hope of Oriana docks at hub, there will be many pirates waiting for her, no? Many troops for controlling prisoners. Your friend will hack into network and help close off rest of station, but even so your friends will have to fight through all those pirates to take control. It will be very difficult.”

Mariya folded her arms and nodded. She hadn’t thought much on the colonists’ plan to take over the station, but what Lucca said made sense—a disturbing amount of sense.

“However, if we can board station before Hope of Oriana, we can make distraction. On rim, it will be easier to fight pirates, with narrow corridors and many blast doors that your friend can hack. Since transports dock there, if we can capture one, we can go there first instead of hub. And once we make distraction, troops at hub will come down to rim to capture us.”

“A distraction? You mean, return to the station just as the Hope of Oriana starts to dock?”

“Exactly. If we send distress signal, pirates will send transport down to capture us. But if we capture that transport, we can fly it back to station and dock on rim. It will draw pirates away from Hope of Oriana and help colonists take station with minimal losses.”

“And just how do you want to go about capturing one of those transports?”

“This is where raptor-beasts come in. It takes perhaps one, maybe two hours to come from orbit to surface, and same to go back. But Hope of Oriana will dock when it is evening for us. If raptor-beasts come out in afternoon, we can time distress signal so that pirates will land just as they fill the sky.”

He grinned again, this time with a devious glint in his eye that made her shiver.

“So the raptor-beasts attack the pirates, and while they’re distracted we steal their ship?”

“Exactly.”

She took a deep breath and put a hand to her forehead. “I don’t know. There are so many ways that could go wrong—”

“But if it goes right, it will be perfect. And when will we have another chance?”

As nervous as it made her, she had to admit he was right.


* * * * *


Lucca winced a little as he walked through the jungle, but he took care not to show it. It was too late to turn back now, and Mariya was nervous enough as it was. And honestly, he was too. The fight with the raptor-beasts had shaken him, even though that was more than a week ago now. He heard them screeching above the canopy, and a small part of him shuddered at the sound.

This is some adventure, he told himself, grinning inwardly as the adrenaline gave him chills. It is probably best adventure I have ever had. As always, the optimism helped him to shake off his fear and focus on the task at hand.

The clearing with the lake was just up ahead. On the other side, they’d placed the emergency transmitter. A little less than an hour had passed, so the pirates were probably on their way.

He got close enough to the edge to give him a small view of the sky, without exposing himself to the raptor-beasts. Mariya waited a few meters behind him, underneath a particularly large tree. He crouched and drew his energy pistol, making sure that it was charged.

If they do not come …

The sky had already filled with almost a hundred of the fearsome creatures. The sun was low behind the clouds, turning everything into deepening hues of orange and yellow. A light rain trickled over the leaves and ferns, dribbling harmless moisture on his clothes and skin. He settled in for the wait.

The one thing he regretted about the plan was that it left the Gagarin in a place where the pirates would be able to get to it. He didn’t relish the thought of them swarming across her decks. But at least that would make it easier for him to find the ship again once the fighting was over. He doubted they would deactivate the distress beacon, or go into the wilderness with their minimal supplies.

A high-pitched scream sounded in the distance. At first, Lucca thought it was just another raptor-beast, but it was followed by a slowly-building rumble. The pirates, he realized. The scream became louder, then gradually dropped in pitch as a contrail broke through the clouds.

“They are coming,” he told Mariya. “Stay ready.”

She nodded, her eyes wide.

The contrail passed over near the horizon, then made a wide circle as the transport came back for a second pass. As it approached, the raptor-beasts scattered, making Lucca’s stomach sink.

Where are you going? Don’t leave us now!

The rumbling grew as the supersonic scream died down. It shook the ground and made his knees tremble. He clenched his teeth and gripped his pistol with a clammy palm. Soon, the rumbling was replaced with the sound of thruster jets, just on the other side of the clearing. Lucca ducked behind a trunk just as the blunt-nosed transport came into view. Its dark gray hull was pocked and dented, its wings showing the residue of paint that hadn’t quite been scrubbed completely off. The thruster flames made the air beneath the transport ripple and dance, while the plasma cannons glowed hot, ready to fire.

The transport circled the clearing once before coming down for a landing. At first, Lucca feared it would touch down on the other side of the lake, but it hovered over the water, casting violent, furious waves across the shore. It landed next to the Gagarin, about fifty meters from where he stood—right where he’d hoped it would.

But what about the raptor-beasts?

An airlock door open near the back, and nearly two dozen men in black body armor came out. They carried heavy assault rifles, probably of Gaian manufacture. Some of them were missing gloves and helmets—one even wore a modified EVA suit with bits and pieces of armor tacked on. At least that would make them easier to hit, if it came to that. His energy pistol wasn’t much good against full Imperial battle armor.

A screech sounded overhead as the men split into two groups. Lucca’s heart skipped a beat, and he looked up into the cloudy sky. What he saw made him grin. The raptor-beasts, which had been scattered by the transport’s arrival, now swarmed thicker than he’d ever seen.

“Get ready,” he said softly. Mariya came forward and crouched beside him, ready to run.

The pirates were in the center of the clearing now, some headed for the distress signal, the rest for the Gagarin. None of them was watching the sky. Wary from their last human encounter, the raptor-beasts gathered until there was almost a hundred of them circling the sky. When the first of the pirates reached the top hatch of Lucca’s ship, that was when they attacked.

Six beasts dropped out of the sky like giant winged darts. The first one struck the men atop the Gagarin, knocking one over and carrying the other away. He screamed and fired wildly as the other beasts fell on the rest of them. With shots, screams, and screeches filling the air, the pirates ducked and scattered.

“Now!” said Lucca. “Go!”

He ran with Mariya straight for the airlock, which was thankfully still open. Another pirate ran blindly for the cover, so he shot him with the energy pistol, hoping that the others wouldn’t notice in the confusion. Shots filled the air as the pirates started to regroup, but they were firing at the raptor-beasts, not at them.

Panting for breath, he leaped into the airlock and pulled Mariya up after him. Another pirate rounded the corner, and without thinking he shot him in the chest. The armor absorbed the shot, but the man stopped short in surprise. He wasn’t wearing a helmet, so Lucca shot him in the face and palmed the airlock door shut.

“Let us in!” the pirates shouted over the intercom. “Let us in!”

It took almost half a minute for the air to be pumped out. Lucca waited a few seconds, then took off his mask and laid it on the ground with his oxygen tank. Mariya did the same.

“What now?” she asked, her hands trembling. “What do we do?”

“Stay with me,” Lucca said softly. He took off his oxygen mask and held his pistol at the ready.

The door hissed open, and he scanned the interior of the transport. It was one large room, the partitions gutted to make extra space. There were seats along the walls for the soldiers to seat themselves, and pull-down compartments on the ceiling containing weapons. A couple of them were still pulled down. The main part of the transport was empty, but up near the front, the pilot and copilot sat behind the controls.

“Get up!” he said, running forward. “Up, you bastards! Put up your hands!”

They turned, and their eyes widened. He fired a shot at the wall, and they both ducked for good measure.

“Into airlock! Move, you bastards—move!”

They didn’t need to be told twice. He held them at gunpoint until the door hissed shut, then locked it and handed the pistol to Mariya.

“What? What do I do with this?”

“Make sure they do not come in.”

He got behind the controls and looked them over. They were remarkably similar to the controls on his own ship—enough that he wondered if the design wasn’t Tajji in origin. There wasn’t any time for that, however. He started up the thrusters.

Outside the forward window, the pirates had regrouped and were shooting down the raptor-beasts left and right. Several of them lay dead on the ground. When the pirates saw their ship rise up, however, their faces lit up with shock and horror. Several of them ran forward waving their hand, but it was too late.

“So long!” said Lucca, laughing as he gave a mock salute. He opened the outer airlock door to let out the pilot and copilot, then blasted off into the sky.


* * * * *


We did it, Mariya realized. We really did it.

“You can stop watching door,” said Lucca. “Our friends are out now.”

“What, you just dropped them out of the sky?”

“Don’t worry, I released them before takeoff. In any case, airlock is empty now. Come, sit up front.”

She lowered the pistol and walked forward as the floor rumbled from the thrusters. Out the forward window, the raptor-beasts circled almost at eye level, while shots lanced through the sky.

“Strap in,” said Lucca. “This will be rough.”

She sat down in the oversized copilot’s chair and pulled the shoulder straps down across her chest. Lucca checked the large holoscreen between them, which showed the planet complete with all of its satellites. Two of them were so close that their orbits nearly converged.

The Hope of Oriana and the pirate station, Mariya realized. They’ve almost docked.

“How much time do we have?”

“Until colonists arrive at station? Less than one hour.”

“Can you get us there in time?”

“Yes, I think I can. But you must handle communications so that they will let us dock.”

“Right,” said Mariya. Communications. That was her post on the Hope of Oriana, though she’d been in more of a supporting role than anything else. But to get the pirates to let them back—that shouldn’t be too difficult. She’d have to modulate her voice to make her sound like a man, but she could do that. She had to.

“What if they won’t let us dock?” she asked.

“Don’t know. Maybe they shoot us? Hang on.”

Behind them the engines roared, filling the ship with noise. An invisible hand pushed her against the back of her chair until it seemed like she was lying on her back. Through the forward window, the clouds sped faster and closer overhead.

“Switching to ramjets,” said Lucca. “Stand by!”

The roar died down, replaced by a rumbling under the floor. It grew until the vibration made her teeth rattle and her hands shake. She gripped the armrest and tightened the muscles in her stomach.

“Breathe quick, keep legs firm! Only little more—scramjets now!”

The rumble grew to a roar and filled her ears, while the pressure grew until it was almost unbearable. It was as if she were trying to breathe with a thousand pound weight on her chest—and not just on her chest, but her whole body. She tightened her legs like Lucca had said, and it helped somewhat, but the pressure continued to grow until her vision began to turn gray.

“Seventy five kilometers and rising. Scramjets off, switching to sublight engines. Stand by for orbital insertion.”

The pressure slowly died down, leaving a buzzing sensation in the tips of her fingers. The roar of the engines returned, but it was quieter now, a bit more muted. She opened her eyes and gasped.

They were in space again. The cloud canopy extended like a pearly-white floor beneath them, turning to blackness as they passed over to the night side of the world. The horizon glowed a deep burnt orange, fading to purple and black just ahead of them. A few of the stars peeked out from the velvet blackness—the stars! How long had it been since she’d last seen stars? And up ahead, two distinct points of light came into view.

“That is station,” said Lucca. “They are hailing us.”

“Right,” said Mariya, leaning forward. She took a deep breath and opened the channel.

“Argo, what’s happening? Why are you coming back?”

“Uh, Argo is hurt,” she said, “hurt very badly.” The feedback from the modulator showed a drop that wasn’t perfect, but hopefully enough to be believable.

“Hurt? What are you talking about? Who is this?”

“There was an accident,” she said, sweat forming on her forehead. “An accident—no, an attack. The bastards were waiting for us. We’ve got wounded—several wounded. We need to offload them right away.”

Silence. They’re not buying it, Mariya thought. I sound like an idiot and they’re not buying it. If we can’t get on that station—

“Who is this? Is this Corporal Chan?”

“Yes,” said Mariya, hoping that the relief wasn’t too evident in her voice. “This is the corporal. We need to dock and offload immediately. Do you understand me?”

“I understand, corporal. Stand by for docking. Do you need medical?”

“Yes, definitely. Some of our equipment may have been damaged as well. They got onto the ship and shot us up pretty bad.”

“Salazar isn’t going to like this. I hope you’re ready to tell him about it, because I sure as hell won’t.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll tell him personally.”

“Right. Flight plans transmitting now.”

The plans showed up on the holoscreen, and Mariya shut the transmitter off. She sighed and leaned back in her seat, her heart still pounding, while Lucca cracked his knuckles.

“Good job,” he said. “And indeed we will.”

“Will what?”

“Tell Salazar personally. I wonder what his reaction will be?”

From the grin on his face, Lucca seemed a lot more eager to meet Salazar than she did.

“Right. What now?” she asked.

“Thirty minutes to docking,” he said, rising to his feet. “That is thirty minutes we have to suit up. Do you know how to use assault rifle?”

She swallowed and watched as he pulled one out from an overhead compartment. Her heart beat a little harder.

“Uh, no. I don’t.”

“Then we have thirty minutes to learn.”


* * * * *


“This is it,” Lucca said as he eased the transport into its final docking approach. The sun-blasted, meteorite-pocked hull of the station wheel rotated not twenty meters above them through the forward window. He fired the thrusters and pulled back on the flight stick as the docking node rotated into position, his assault rifle on his lap. Behind him, Mariya stood with her back to the chair, the tension in her breath so evident that he could feel it mingling with his own.

The node locked into place with a low scraping sound, and the whole transport shuddered. The floor seemed to wobble as the ship’s artificial gravity field adjust to the station’s rotation, then shut off. Lucca rose to his feet and cocked his weapon.

“Ready?” he asked, looking Mariya in the eye.

She took a deep breath and nodded.

On impulse, he wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her close. She pressed herself against him, the contours of her body fitting perfectly with his.

“Mariya,” he said. “I must be honest. This idea is crazy, and I do not know if we will survive. But if we do—”

She pulled him down and pressed her lips against his, running her fingers through his hair. His heart leaped, and adrenaline surged like fire through his body. There was no holding back now—no holding back for anything. He closed his eyes and kissed her with all the passion of a man who knows it will be his last.

We will make it, though, he told himself. Together, we will.

The sound of people entering the airlock brought them back to the present. Mariya turned and leveled her gun, and Lucca did the same.

“Now we have something to fight for, eh?” he said, grinning at her. She gave him a look that said she wanted nothing more than to kiss him again. At that moment, the airlock door hissed open.

Lucca fired first, deliberately over the heads of the people on the other side. They were probably medical personnel, and not a direct threat. He didn’t want to kill anyone they didn’t have to—it was only necessary to make a distraction. Mariya dropped to her knees and fired as well, her shots going wide like his. Either way, the pirates got the message. With shouts and screams, they turned and ran.

“Quick,” said Lucca. “Into station! Move!”

They ran through the airlock doors and into the narrow corridor on the other side. The floors were old and grainy, the walls dank with spots of mildew. From the looks of it, the rimside docking corridor barely saw any traffic at all. The pirates fled behind a hatchway and swung it shut, cutting them off.

“Where now?” asked Mariya. Her cheeks were flushed, her hair tossed back, but her face shone with resolve, not desperation.

“This way,” said Lucca, motioning toward the other side. “We must keep moving—always moving. We cannot let them corner us!”

He led her through the hatchway on the other side and shut it behind them. The corridor opened up to what looked like a large store room. The lights on the ceiling were caged, with large cylindrical containers piled haphazardly at random. A hatch on the other side led out, with a freight elevator to the right.

This level is just network of storage rooms, Lucca thought to himself. We must get higher—get to main corridor.

“Into elevator,” he said, running around the containers. Mariya followed, keeping her gun trained on their backs. When he palmed the access panel, nothing happened. He tried again, and a red warning sign flashed onto the screen in a language he didn’t understand.

“Damn!” he said, slamming his fist against the wall.

“What? What is it?”

“I don’t know—I think they have locked down all elevators on this level.”

“So there’s no way out? There’s nothing we can do?”

Shouts sounded from the other side of the hatchway they’d just come through. The pirates were storming the transport—they’d come into this room next.

“Get behind me,” he said. From his vest, he pulled out a grenade that he’d taken from the transport’s armory.

“Lucca, here!”

He turned and saw a door to a narrow maintenance shaft. Mariya was pointing to a ladder, which seemed to lead in the same direction as the elevator—up.

At that moment, the hatch swung open.

Mariya ducked, and Lucca followed just in time to avoid getting his head clipped by gunfire. Without thinking, he tossed his grenade and made a dash for the maintenance shaft. Mariya covered him, firing wildly. A second before he reached the shaft, a bright yellow flash filled the room, followed by an ear-splitting explosion. He grabbed Mariya and pulled her in.

The next thing he knew, they were climbing the ladder through a dark and narrow space. The noxious smell of burning engine coolant followed them, almost making him swoon. He could feel the heat of the flames in the storage room, urging him up before the whole deck below them exploded. Ahead, he saw a hatch.

“Quickly!” he shouted. Mariya was coughing now, the smoke stinging both their eyes. He climbed through the hatchway to a small platform above and pulled her up after him. Not a moment too soon, he swung the hatch shut—the explosive rumble below their feet told him that the pirates had a lot more troubles now than two renegades on the loose.

“Where now?” she asked. Red lights flashed through the maintenance shaft, punctuating the otherwise dim light of the LED strips along the ladder. The platform on which they stood was a junction, with narrow crawlspaces heading out in either direction.

“This way,” said Lucca, choosing one at random. They ducked down and crawled through the tight space, loose wires and insulation brushing against them. Through the floor, another boom sounded, just as loud as the first.

“Do you think they’ll find us here?” Mariya asked. Even though the going was slow, her voice was breathless.

“No doubt,” said Lucca. “They will probably close off this segment of station to prevent fire from spreading.”

“So what do we do?”

“Go up.”

As the noise began to fade behind them, Lucca noticed a hatchway to the right. His first impulse was to go through, but he paused for a moment to consider the risk. If the pirates suspected that they had fled through the maintenance shafts, they would no doubt close them off, starting with the nearest ones. But if most of the pirates were still at the hub, waiting to receive the Hope of Oriana, they wouldn’t have enough manpower to seal off the hub and stop the fires at the same time.

Through the hatch, then.

“Cover me,” he told Mariya. Before she could react, he turned the bolt to throw open the locks and threw his weight against the heavy metal door.

It swung open with a loud creak, and he crawled out into a maintenance closet. The walls were covered with compartments, several of them overflowing with spare parts and disorganized tools. Huge masses of wires led to a large server node, with dozens of flashing red and green lights. As with the storage room on the deck below, the dim green ceiling lights were caged.

The important thing, though, was that the room was empty.

Lucca helped Mariya out and cocked his assault rifle. There was only one way out beside the crawlspace, and chances were good that someone was out there. He pressed his ear against it just in case, and when he heard nothing, he stood back and palmed it open.

Just as he’d hoped, the door opened to the main deck of the station. The ceiling extended at least an extra floor above them, with a line of windows offering a view of space and the planet below. Even better, the corridor was empty—for the moment at least.

“Let’s go,” said Lucca. He ushered Mariya out, then tossed a grenade into the closet for good measure.

“What are you—”

The explosion was a lot bigger than he’d expected. It sent them both sprawling to the floor, with alarms going off in every direction. Mariya dropped her rifle and covered her head.

“Sorry about that,” said Lucca as he staggered to his feet. “They cannot ignore us now.”

“Are you crazy? You’re going to blow this station to pieces before the others can even rescue us!”

He opened his mouth to answer, but the sound of shouts behind them cut him short. “Quick,” he said, pulling her up. “Let’s go.”

As the feet of their pursuers came into view through the smoke spilling out of the maintenance closet, he lifted his rifle and fired. A couple of men screamed and fell to the floor, while the others scattered in confusion. He took advantage of the opportunity to run.

Mariya was already a good five meters ahead of him. He grunted and hurried to catch up with her, strapping the rifle behind his back. Instead, he pulled out his energy pistol—better to have a weapon he was familiar with.

“What now?” she asked, her eyes wide with excitement and desperation. Though she was breathless, she kept running as if her life depended on it. Perhaps it did.

A movement over their heads caught Lucca’s attention. It was an elevator car heading down one of the spokes just ahead of them—he could see it clearly through the overhead window. No doubt it was full of soldiers. He glanced over his shoulder to see if they could turn back that way, but the shouts and heavy footsteps behind them told him they were cut off.

“Hurry!” he said, running as fast as he could. “Past the elevator!”

“What?”

“The elevator!”

The car slowed and passed below the window, into the receiving area at the next concourse. Moments later, they burst inside. If they couldn’t get through before the pirates cut them off—

Just as they passed beneath the atrium, the elevator door opened, revealing a squad of at least a dozen black-clad soldiers. At the head of them was Salazar, a cigarette clenched between his teeth. Their eyes met just as Lucca ran past, and a look of astonished recognition crossed his face.

“Get to cover!” shouted Lucca. He turned and fired into the elevator with his pistol, incapacitating one of the pirates at the front. The others shouted and raised their weapons just as he shoved Mariya around the nearest corner.

Gunfire filled the space around them and splattered like a fiery meteor storm on the opposite side of the corridor. There was no way out—it led to a control room, not an exit from the concourse. Lucca pressed his back against the wall and struggled to catch his breath. He reached a hand into his vest for a grenade—the last one.

“It is Salazar,” he told Mariya.

“Salazar?”

“Yes.”

“Hold on.”

She stepped away from the wall and emptied her clip in the direction of the enemy fire. The rifle bounced and recoiled in her hands like an animal struggling to get free, but she held tightly onto it, the stock jammed firmly against her slender shoulder.

I love you.

When her magazine was empty, she took cover behind the wall and reloaded a new ammo clip, just as he’d showed her. He took out the last grenade and pulled the pin.

“Get ready for run,” he said, then tossed the grenade round the corner.

The explosion was even louder than all the previous ones. They both ducked and covered their ears. The shock from the blast reverberated through the walls and floor, the air filled with smoke and the smell of burning. For a few moments, it was impossible to hear anything, but the gunfire against the opposite wall had stopped.

“Now!” Lucca shouted. They ran into the smoke just as the emergency sprinklers activated overhead. A yellowish foam fell all around them, getting on their clothes and hair. Mariya slipped on the floor, but he caught her and pulled her away from the chaos.

It didn’t take long for the pirates to recover, but the first few shots went wild. They managed to pass out of the concourse and into a recessed doorway before the firefight resumed. Escaping down the long open hallway was now impossible, though.

“We are cut off,” said Lucca. He reached around the corner with his pistol and fired off a couple of shots for good measure.

“Hang on,” said Mariya. She palmed the access panel, and when that didn’t work, she leveled her rifle at the locking mechanism and fired. The door shuddered and opened a crack, and by prying it apart they were able to get in.

The pirates behind them were shouting—no doubt they were hot in pursuit. Lucca covered Mariya as she slipped inside, then followed as quickly as he could.

“What’s this?” she asked, peering around the room. Bunks stacked three high lined the windowless walls all the way to the bulkheads. Where the walls curved up on either side, a door led to other facilities, probably bathrooms.

“Barracks,” said Lucca. He ushered Mariya down the room just as the pirates reached the half-open door.

Gunfire soon filled the narrow space, the staccato dakka-dakka of the pirate’s assault rifles mingling with the high-pitched wail of the energy pistol. He managed to pull a foot locker out onto the floor to give them some cover, but in the increasingly narrow space, they were running out of options.

“Lucca!” shouted Mariya. She motioned for him to get behind her and let loose with another clip just as he scrambled past. They were almost at the bathrooms, now—a foul stench hit his nose, and the grimy floor tiles looked as if they hadn’t been washed in years, but at least the doorway was narrow enough to give them some cover.

He ran in, closely followed by Mariya. As he rounded the corner into the shower room, the smell of cigarettes hit him like a bulkhead.

It was Salazar. He stood in center of the room, blocking the only way out. Lucca lifted his energy pistol to fire, but nothing happened—the charge was out. Salazar grinned, a cigarette clenched between his yellow teeth.

“We meet again, Lieutenant,” he said, leveling his own pistol at Lucca’s face. “Or should I say, Star Wanderer?”

“Lucca!”

Before Salazar could shoot, Mariya fired at the shower-head just above them. Steaming hot water gushed out from the break, splashing Salazar’s face. He swore and fired, the shot going wild, and Lucca used the opening to lunge forward and tackle him to the grimy tile floor.

Lucca fought like a cornered ridgeback, holding nothing back. He screamed and let loose with a right hook, blood smearing from Salazar’s nose across his cheek. The pirate corporal tried to shove him off, but he shifted his weight and took hold of Salazar’s collar as if to choke him. Salazar responded by grabbing the sides of his face and moving to gouge his eyes with his thumbs, forcing Lucca to let go in order to push him off. Blood and grime mingled with the scalding hot water, turning his world into a pain-filled blur.

Salazar threw him off and half-rolled, half-crawled across the slippery floor toward his gun. Lucca staggered to his feet and kicked it to the other side of the shower room. Instead of chasing after it, though, Salazar reached into his boot and pulled out a double-edged knife.

“Lucca!”

At that moment, the bulkheads shuddered, sending Lucca and Mariya both to their knees. Salazar lunged, but Lucca grabbed his knife arm and pushed it away. The pirate’s wild eyes gleamed with a bloodthirsty, merciless rage. Even with his face battered and bloodied from Lucca’s fists, he fought with terrifying strength, wrestling his arm free.

An awful sluggishness took command over Lucca’s limbs. It was as if he were struggling in a pool full of hydraulic fluid, thick and unyielding. He took a deep breath, but his lungs refused to fill.

“I have you now, Star Wanderer,” said Salazar, the veins popping on his forehead. He lifted the knife over his head, poised to strike.

Before he could bring it down, though, his arm began to tremble uncontrollably. The pressure grew, evidently for both of them. Salazar gasped for breath and plunged the knife downward, but the strike was sloppy and missed its mark. Lucca grunted and knocked the knife free, sending it clattering across the floor. Salazar struggled to get up again, then fell flat on his face.

“Wh-what’s happening?” asked Mariya. She crawled over to Lucca on her hands and knees before falling on the floor as well.

“I—I do not know,” said Lucca. The pressure was becoming unbearable, like a weight on his chest that made it almost impossible to breathe. He reached out and took Mariya’s hand. Blackness shrouded the edge of his vision, and the smoke and blood and blaring of the alarms all seemed so distant now. He looked into her frightened eyes just as the blackness overwhelmed him.

Chapter 23


Mariya woke up feeling groggy and dazed. Her sleep had done nothing to rest her, if ‘sleep’ was the proper word for it. All she remembered was the growing pressure all around her as Lucca had squeezed her hand. His eyes had rolled back, and he’d lost his grasp. Moments later, she’d passed out as well.

She looked around and recognized the shower room on the pirate station. The shower head no longer gushed water, but the pools on the floor were still warm. She heard voices and realized that there were people all around her. The realization made her start, but they didn’t seem like pirates. Hands helped her to sit up, and someone wiped a refreshingly cool rag across her face.

“She’s awake! Anyone recognize her?”

“She looks like that Deltan girl.”

“Her name is Mariya,” came Lucca’s voice, clearer and louder than all the others. He knelt beside her and ran his fingers through her hair. “How are you feeling?”

She looked up at him and smiled. His cheeks were a little grimy from the firefight, and his jumpsuit was stained with specks of blood, but none of that mattered so long as he was alive and well.

“I’m doing okay,” she said as she took his hand. He helped her to her feet and let her lean on him as she gradually regained her balance. Her gun was on the floor—she reached down for it, but he stopped her.

“That is no longer necessary,” he said. “Your colonist friends have taken over station. The pirates are no longer threat to us.”

“What? How? What happened?”

He grinned. “Ah, there is Mariya I know. Questions, questions, always questions.” He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, making her laugh.

“No, really—what happened? The last thing I remember, you and Salazar were fighting, and he pulled out a—”

“You!” boomed a threatening voice, making her flinch. It was Salazar, his face battered and bruised, with a dark spot around his eye and a scar across his nose. She shrunk away from him, but Lucca shielded her, making her feel safe. That was when she noticed the restraints on Salazar’s wrists and the colonists in navy-blue jumpsuits with assault rifles in their hands.

“You bastards,” said the pirate corporal, his eyes seething with rage. “You think you’ve won, do you? Well, I’ve got—”

“Not just think,” said Lucca, patting him condescendingly on the head. Salazar scowled and moved as if to strike him, but one of the colonist escort energized the restraints, making him wince from the electric shock.

They led Salazar off without another word. It was just as well—Mariya didn’t want to spend any more time around that man than she had to. She put her arm in Lucca’s and followed him out to the main hallway.

“So the colonists took over? When—how?”

“Your hacker friend, I think. That would explain sudden gravity change.”

“What do you mean?”

A crowd of unarmed pirates walked by, their hands on their heads as a squad of colonists led them. One of the boys recognized Mariya, his eyes lighting up, but she made no move to speak with him and he marched on with the rest of the escort.

“When we led Salazar and other pirates onto station, your hacker friend accelerated rate of spin in order to increase apparent gravity. That was what made us pass out, and other pirates as well.”

“Really?” Mariya looked around—the air smelled of smoke, but the hallway seemed relatively undamaged. Another squad of colonists smiled and nodded to them as they walked past.

“So Noemi spun the wheel fast enough to make us pass out, then slowed it down and sent the colonists to take the pirates prisoner?”

“It appears so, yes.”

“Where is Noemi?”

He shrugged. “How should I know? This friend of yours, I have not met her. But I think we will find your friends at station hub—that is where colonist ship has docked.”

“Right.”

They walked into the concourse by the elevator, stepping over the foul residue from the pink-smelling foam and the pools of dried blood. Scorch marks from the grenade blast were still visible on the walls, as well as the bullet holes from the firefight. But the worst part—the part that made Mariya sick to her stomach—were the bodies with the off-white sheets draped over them.

“How—how many people do you think we killed?” she asked in a hushed voice. Lucca took her hand and squeezed it for reassurance.

“Difficult to say,” he said. “We will find out before long, I am sure.”

“I hope none of them died because of me,” she said, her mouth going dry. “I mean, of course they did, but I hope I didn’t … you know?”

“We did what we had to,” said Lucca. “Perhaps we killed some, but how many more lives did we save? If not for distraction, perhaps pirates would have won and killed all your friends. We fought to save them, no?”

“Yes,” she said softly. “I guess you’re right.” It didn’t erase the blood or the bullets or the bodies lying there, but at least it gave her some small degree of peace to know that they’d saved more lives than they’d taken.

Lucca let go of her hand to palm the access panel for the elevator. “Come, let us go to your ship. I am very interested to meet these friends of yours.”

“Of course,” she said. I’m eager for you to meet them too. Especially her parents.

Strange how so much could change in so little time.


* * * * *


Lucca held Mariya’s hand all the way up the elevator to the hub of the station itself. It felt so wonderful to have her next to him, especially after what they’d just accomplished. He smiled as he thought back to what he’d told her in the emergency shelter: it is better to have girl and win than to win and be alone. How true that was!

The elevator came to a stop, and they let go of each other to undo the shoulder restraints for the low-gravity areas. Before the door opened to the main concourse on the hub, however, she slipped her hand into his and squeezed. Even though they’d only met less than two weeks ago, it felt like they’d known each other for years, with a whole lifetime to look forward to. Perhaps there was some truth to that sentiment.

The hub was bustling with activity. The colonists were just starting to offload, evidently taking the pirate station as their own. A handful of officers tried to direct the crowds, but if there was any order to the chaos, Lucca couldn’t see it. A baby wailed in the distance, while teary-eyed mothers met their sons who were just coming back from the station. For all the coming and going, though, there were no pirates to be seen—the colonists had all but erased every last sign of them.

“This way,” said Mariya, pulling him eagerly into the crowd. “Noemi’s on the Hope of Oriana—I’m sure she is!”

He did his best to keep up, bumping shoulders as they pressed against the traffic. The airlock was tight, and it took them a minute to get through, but once on the other side there was at least a little more space.

The main corridor of the Hope of Oriana was fairly narrow, but several large control rooms branched off on either side. These were mostly empty, with the majority of the colonists already on their way out. As they stopped to let a family pass, Lucca admired the design. It was a bit older, with large display screens and bulky control panels, but the terminals reminded him of the ships back home. The wave of nostalgia was like an aged wine, sharp and strong.

Up ahead, an older man in a crisp white dress uniform and a less meticulous snowy beard directed a group of officers in navy blue. From the sense of presence about the man and the way the officers deferred to him, Lucca guessed that he was the captain. As they finished and the subordinates nodded and went their ways, he turned until his eyes fell on Mariya. The moment he saw her, his whole being seemed to light up with shock.

“Mariya!” he exclaimed, hurrying over to her. “Mariya, you’re alive! How are you? I hope those bastards didn’t—”

“I’m doing fine, Captain Elijah,” she assured him. “There’s someone here I want you to meet. Captain, this is Lucca Tajjashvili—Lucca, this is Elijah.”

“Good to meet you, sir,” said Lucca as he gave the captain’s hand a firm shake.

“And you as well, Lucca. What can you tell me about yourself?”

“Well, sir, I am star wanderer from Tajjur system. I heard about your colony mission some two or three standard months ago and decided to see it for myself. That was how—”

“Lucca rescued me,” Mariya blurted, unable to contain herself. “We escaped the pirates and crash-landed on the surface—Captain, you won’t believe what it’s like down there! I hope we have plenty of guns, and at least some electric fencing, otherwise …”

Captain Elijah gave a deep belly laugh, cutting her short. “I see you’re doing just fine, Mariya—perhaps even better than before. But come! Your parents have been worried sick about you ever since you left.”

“Really? Where are they?”

“Last I saw, in the mess hall. Are either of you hungry or thirsty? I don’t know how you came from the surface onto this ship, but let me assure you, our facilities are all yours.”

“I could use some food,” said Lucca. “Perhaps even small meal. It has been long time since last we ate.”

“I’m famished,” Mariya agreed.

“Very well. As you can see, I’m currently a bit preoccupied, but I’ll join you all shortly. You remember the way to the mess hall?”

She laughed. “Of course! It’s not like it’s hard to get lost.”

“Quite right, quite right.”

As quickly as they’d met, Mariya led them off again, swallowed up in the flurry of activity all around them. Lucca could tell she was anxious to see her parents as soon as possible.

The corridor opened into a large room with steel benches and tables, like a cafeteria. The crowd was considerably thinner in here, and the air smelled of synthmeal mixed with Orianan spices. Mariya stopped only long enough to survey the scene, then made a beeline for a table in the corner where a middle-aged couple sat with their backs to the rest of the room. She was so eager to meet them that she let go of Lucca’s hand mid-way in order to get there faster.

“Mom! Dad!”

At the sound of her voice, her parents turned and rose immediately to their feet. The next few moments were a blur of hugs and tears, which Lucca observed from the periphery. Mariya’s mother was short and plump, and sobbed almost uncontrollably, but her father was much taller and more reserved. Though he addressed her in that foreign language which all three of them spoke, his eyes kept wandering to Lucca, a strange mixture of gratitude and suspicion on his face.

At length, Mariya turned and gave Lucca an exhausted but happy smile. “Lucca, these are my parents,” she said. “Mom, Dad, this is Lucca Tajjashvili—the star wanderer who rescued me.”

“I hope you’ve been treating my daughter well,” said her father, stepping almost into Lucca’s face. He gave him a handshake that nearly crushed his fingers.

“Of course, sir.”

“And by well, I mean that you didn’t do anything to take advantage of her.”

“Dad!”

Lucca chuckled. “I assure you, sir, nothing else was further from my mind.”

Her father’s eyes narrowed, but Lucca met his gaze without flinching. Evidently satisfied, he let go of his hand and folded his arms.

“So Mariya tells me you’re a star wanderer,” he said. “That you come from the Tajjur system, out near the Good Hope Nebula.”

“That is right, sir.”

“How long have you been out starfaring?”

“A few years,” said Lucca. “I built my starship from old shuttle. She is best ship I have ever had privilege to fly.”

The man grunted in admiration. “So you’re a mechanic then? An engineer?”

“When it is needed, yes. But in Outworlds, it is important to be many things at once, no? I do my best.”

“You must have quite a gift of gab to talk your way onto this station. Is that how you rescued my daughter? Smooth talked them until they let you on board?”

“Well, sir, with pirates of this kind, nothing is ever smooth. But yes, you are right about that.”

A smile crept around the edges of the man’s face, the first sign of anything close to approval. Mariya’s father was tough, but Lucca wasn’t worried—he knew how to negotiate his way through just about anything. Besides, he kind of liked the man, and that gave him a suspicion that the feeling was mutual.

“One last thing,” Mariya’s father said. “I understand that you hijacked a transport and used it to bring my daughter back up to this station before we’d captured it. She tells me it was all a part of your plan to help us take it over, but I find it alarming that you’d knowingly put her in danger like that.”

“Dad! I told you, I—”

“Sir,” said Lucca, a grin slowly spreading across his face. “With all respect, I think that pirates were in much worse danger. You should see her with assault rifle—I swear, I have never seen more frightening sight!”

His answer elicited a snort of laughter, deflating the tension like a hull breach. Evidently, the question had been more of a test than anything. Mariya’s father offered Lucca his hand.

“Well, I’m glad she fell into your hands. Thank you for taking good care of her.”

“Of course, sir. I would not do anything less.”

“Also, don’t call me ‘sir’ all the time. The name’s Jakob—Jakob Varvavli.”

“Certainly, Jakob. It is pleasure to meet you.”

“Oh no,” said Jakob. “The pleasure is ours, I’m sure. All of ours.”

Lucca didn’t know exactly what he meant by that, but from the glint in Mariya’s eyes, he gathered it meant well for them, whatever their future entailed.


* * * * *


Mariya was overjoyed to see her father and Lucca hitting it off so well. As they fell into a more casual conversation, she left with her mother to bring over some food.

“So, do you like him?” her mother asked, a sly grin on her face.

“I think so,” said Mariya, glancing nervously over her shoulder. Even though no one else on the ship knew Deltan, she spoke with her mother in hushed tones.

“He seems like quite a catch. Reminds me of your father, actually.”

“He does?”

“Sure. He was a star wanderer too, once, you know. And I don’t doubt he could have stood up to those pirates like your boyfriend.”

“Mom, he is not ‘my boyfriend.’” At least, not yet.

“Oh, don’t think I can’t see what’s going on between you two,” said her mother with a wink. “That boy hasn’t stopped making eyes at you since you walked in here. I’d say you have him hooked.”

“You do? You really think so?”

Her mother chuckled. “Of course, dear—I’m not blind. Now, how far have you two gone?”

Mariya frowned. “How far have we—what do you mean?”

“Oh, don’t pretend to be so innocent. You don’t get stranded alone with a hunk like that and stay a saint, even if you were one to begin with.”

“Mom!”

“Just tell me. And don’t worry, I won’t tell your father.”

“We didn’t do anything—honest,” said Mariya. “Most of the time, he was recovering from some pretty nasty wounds. But—”

“Yes?”

Blood rushed to her cheeks. “Well, we did kiss once.”

“Only once?”

“Okay, a few times. But that’s all—honest.”

Her mother picked up a tray from the end of the buffet line and started loading it with platters of lukewarm food. Mariya helped her, grateful for something to do with her hands.

“Well, if that’s the case, I think we should marry you two off as soon as possible. How about tomorrow?”

“What?” said Mariya, her legs going weak. She had to admit, she’d daydreamed about something like this in the few non-eventful moments of the past few days, but to have it so close to becoming a reality—that was something else entirely.

“Well,” said her mother, “it’s clear we aren’t going to keep you two apart from each other. And he seems like an outstanding young man. To rescue you the way he did, and take care of you until you made it safely back—”

“To be honest, I think I took care of him more than he took care of me.”

“Even better! I don’t see why we shouldn’t marry you off right now.”

Mariya’s cheeks burned, and her head spun. “I—I don’t know,” she said, her throat constricting. “I want to, but—”

“But what, dear?”

“Don’t you think we should try to plan this out a little more? I mean, we only just met each other ten days ago. This whole thing is so unexpected, I don’t know what to make of it.”

“Are you scared? Is that it?”

“No—well, maybe. I don’t know—it’s all just happening so fast.”

“Mariya, dear,” said her mother. She put a hand on her shoulder and looked her in the eyes. “I know how scary these things can be. But I’ve also been around long enough to know the chance of a lifetime when I see it. If you two marry each other now, I don’t think either of you are going to regret it.”

“I hope not. But—but what about our plans from before? I don’t think Noemi and Jeremiah will—”

“Trust me—a man is never heartbroken to lose his second wife. And even if it does turn into a mess, you can always clean up later. But with star wanderers, you always have to act quickly. Now’s your chance—seize it.”

Mariya’s heart pounded as if it would leap out of her chest at any moment. She felt as if she stood at the top of a pinnacle, where her whole life, past and future, lay before her view. Her footing was unsteady, and the way ahead was unclear, but with the right person beside her she knew she would never have anything to be afraid of. And that person, she realized with a gut-wrenching start, was talking with her father at the table on the far side of the mess hall.

“Do you think it will work out?”

Her mother grinned. “Only one way to find out, isn’t there?”

She’s right, Mariya realized, chills shooting from the back of her neck to the ends of her fingers and toes. Even though she couldn’t remember ever feeling so scared, nothing in her life had ever felt so right.


* * * * *


Lucca followed Mariya down to the observation deck of the Hope of Oriana. Large fishbowl windows offered a magnificent view of the newly-christened Zarmina Station superimposed over the pearly-white cloudscape of the planet below. It had been a long day—or dayshift, as the colonists called it. They’d just finished a long and extensive debriefing with the captain, which had gone extremely well. It wasn’t the first time he’d been called a hero, but never had it been anything like this. Now, though, he just wanted some time out of the spotlight to relax and process it all. Fortunately, with most of the colonists offloaded onto the station, he and Mariya were alone.

“It’s a beautiful world, don’t you think?” she asked, squeezing his hand. “I mean, aside from the fact that it almost killed us.”

He chuckled. “Yes, certainly.” But not as beautiful as you.

Her long black hair shimmered like the velvet depths of space that he knew all too well. Everything about her, from her vacillating excitement to the youthful gleam in her eyes, drew him like a comet to a gravity well. The closer they got, the hotter it seemed, until he felt as if he would break apart and be consumed in a wave of passion.

She gave a little laugh, tossing a strand of hair nervously behind her ear. “You know what my mother told me?” she said, looking into his eyes.

“What did she tell you?”

Her cheeks flushed red. “She told me she thinks we should get married as soon as we can.”

“Do you disagree?”

“No,” she said quickly—more quickly than she’d probably intended. She blushed deep red. “I mean, it’s an interesting idea, maybe even a tempting one, but you probably have places to go, other stars to see—”

“My starship is down, and will take long time to repair. Until then, I am going nowhere.”

“Right. Well, everything’s happened so quickly for both of us, and I’m sure you were never planning on settling down at a place like this, but even so … I guess, what I’m trying to say is what do you think?”

He took her gently by the shoulders and looked into her gorgeous hazel eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, but fell silent, her whole body stiffening with anticipation. The moment was electric, and he savored it a moment before closing his eyes and leaning forward. His lips met hers, warm and perfect, and she all but melted into him.

“I think I am very lucky man,” he said softy as they parted to take a breath. The creamy glow of the planet reflected off of her smooth, perfect skin, making him feel as if they were caught up in a dream.

“Not as lucky as me,” she whispered. Their lips met again, and he knew that he was giving up the stars for something far greater.


Author’s Note


When I wrote the first chapter of Star Wanderers: Outworlder, I had no idea what it would eventually become. Even after I finished Homeworld, I didn’t know how the series would end up. I had already written Dreamweaver and knew that I wanted to write more, but I didn’t know exactly what.

Because the first four parts in the series were from Jeremiah’s point of view, I initially thought that the next four would be from Noemi’s. The more I considered it, though, the more I realized that I wasn’t exactly qualified to write from a pregnant woman’s point of view. Normally, I’d approach that as a challenge, but this time I decided it would be better to hold back until I had more experience with that aspect of life.

I didn’t want to stop after Dreamweaver, though. It was so much fun to revisit the original storyline from another character’s point of view that I wanted to do it again. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Noemi wasn’t the most interesting secondary character of all the books anyway. She certainly was for Outworlder, but for Fidelity, I was much more interested in seeing Jakob’s side of the story. For Sacrifice, I really wanted to get into Mariya’s head and see why an otherwise normal girl would want to insert herself into her best friend’s marriage. And for Homeworld, I wanted to see all the action that Jeremiah and Noemi missed.

I think there are two major parts to the creative writing process: the broad overview where the story has its beginnings, and the actual shaping of the story as it is written. The overview is when you first tell the story to yourself, and often happens in a flash of inspiration where the ending becomes clear before you start. But it’s not until you actually put words on the page that the story takes its true shape and form. When I sat down to write the last four books in the series, I knew in a very broad way how each story would go, but the relationships between the characters, the details of the setting, the twists and turns of the plot—all of these revealed themselves only through the act of writing.

There’s a Neil Gaiman quote that I’m fond of: “Everybody has a secret world inside of them … no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds … Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.” If that’s true—and I sincerely believe that it is—then the difference between a well-written character and a poorly-written character is that no matter how small of a role the well-written character plays, you can still tell a compelling story just from their point of view. That’s what it means to make someone the hero of their own story. It’s not always necessary to work out all the details, but whenever I create a new character, I always try to figure out at least the broad outlines of their personal story—the one in which they play the starring role.

One of the advantages of writing at novella length is that it gives you the chance to get very intimate with one or two characters. With novels, you usually have to juggle multiple subplots or point of view characters, so it’s difficult to capture that same sense of intimacy. Even if you do manage to capture it, there’s so much else happening that it often gets drowned out. With short stories, the problem is exactly the opposite—there isn’t enough space to get into a character’s head, or to stay there long once you’re in. But novellas fall right into the Goldilocks zone, where there’s just enough space to get close to a character without all the noise to pull you away. I found that time and again as I wrote each new part, exploring a different character with each one.

The first four parts of Star Wanderers were written while I was living overseas in the Republic of Georgia, teaching English. I returned home on New Year’s Eve and spent most of 2013 immersed in the Star Wanderers universe. There were other projects that I started or tinkered with over the course of the year, but Star Wanderers was the clear focus. In some ways, revisiting the main storyline was like reliving the events that had prompted me to write the series in the first place. In particular, Jakob’s struggle in Benefactor echoes the same struggle that made it necessary for me to find work overseas. But my favorite character, and the one whose views come closest to my own, is Lucca. His personal philosophy perfectly encapsulates what I took from the experience of living abroad: “Hope for the best, plan for the worst. Follow the path of least regret.”

I wasn’t initially sure whether to end the series with Deliverance or to continue with another four books. At this point, though, I’m fairly sure that this is the best place to end the series. Star Wanderers has always been very intimate in scope, so that branching out would feel like tacking on unnecessary sequels. The main cycle has been told satisfactorily from the points of view of all the important characters involved, and while it might be interesting to get, say, Master Korha’s story, or Captain Elijah’s, I think it would be better to leave things as they are.

Which isn’t to say that I’m done writing stories in this universe. Far from it! I’ve already written the first book in a new series featuring Mariya’s brothers, Isaac and Aaron, as major characters. The series is called Sons of the Starfarers, and the first book is Brothers in Exile. As with Star Wanderers, each book will be novella length, though I have a feeling that they’ll skew longer just because of the nature of the story. Where Star Wanderers is about a small group of people trying to make a life for themselves on the Outworld frontier, Sons of the Starfarers is about the struggle to keep the Outworlds free. It’s much more epic in scope, though the personal journeys of the characters are still a major part of the story.

If you’d like to be notified when Brothers in Exile comes out, the best way to do that is to sign up for my email list. I only send out an email when I have a new book out, and I send it as soon as it’s available, so that’s probably the fastest way to know. You also can find the sign up form on my blog, One Thousand and One Parsecs (onelowerlight.com/writing). I post regular updates there, as well as my thoughts on various things related to writing, science fiction, and life in general. You can also find me on Twitter and Goodreads, though I don’t spend a whole lot of time there. I do pop my head into social media from time to time, but the best place to find me online is my blog.

That just about does it for this one. Thank you so much for reading—after all is said and done, the greatest honor for any writer is simply to be read. A story doesn’t truly live until it finds a place in the imagination of a reader. My job is just to put the words onto the page and get out of the way. It’s an awesome job, and one that I feel very privileged to have. Because of you, I hope to continue with it for many years to come.

Take care, and as always, thanks for reading!


Acknowledgments


There are so many people to thank for their help with these stories. First, I’d like to give a big thanks to Laura Christensen and Ailsa Lillywhite for their awesome, in-depth feedback. Ben Keeley, Nathan Major, Steve Dethloff, and Sarah Seeley also helped to shape these stories into what they are now. Nyssa Sylvester and Adam Bois both did an excellent job with the proofreading, especially on short notice. Most importantly, though, I owe a big thanks to all of my faithful readers, especially those who stuck through with this series. It’s because of your support and enthusiasm that I’m able to have this amazing career. The best way I can show my gratitude is to keep putting out more of the stories that you love, and I plan to do that for many years to come. Thank you!

Thousands of years after mankind’s exodus from Earth, a band of starfarers fight for the freedom of the Outworlds in Sons of the Starfarers (Omnibus I-III).


Star Wanderers: Tales of the Far Outworlds (Omnibus V-VIII)


BROTHERS IN EXILE


Deep in the Far Outworlds, a derelict space station holds the bones of a long-dead people—and a beautiful young woman locked in cryofreeze. When the star-wandering brothers Isaac and Aaron Deltana find the sleeping girl, they soon realize that they are her only hope for rescue. If they don't take her, then slavers certainly will.

With no way to revive her, they set a course for the New Pleiades in hopes of finding someone who can help. But a storm is brewing over that region of space. After a series of brutal civil wars, the Gaian Empire has turned its sights outward. A frontier war is on the verge of breaking out, and the brothers are about to be caught in the middle of it.

They both harbor a secret, though. Somewhere else in the Outworlds is another derelict station—one that they used to call home. That secret will either bind them together or draw them apart.


COMRADES IN HOPE


War has come to the Outworlds. An Imperial expeditionary force has taken the frontier systems and threatens to strike at the heart of the New Pleiades. The only thing standing in their way is a ragtag flotilla of starfarers and merchanters, their motives as varied as the stars from which they hail.

Aaron Deltana can barely speak the same language as his Outworld comrades, but he isn't about to let that stop him. Though he has no military training or combat experience, he's determined to prove his valor. Besides, the Imperials have taken something very dear to him—something that he has sworn to take back.

He isn't the only one with a score to settle. Mara Soladze, the only other Deltan in the Flotilla, has vowed revenge on the Imperials for killing her father. Where Aaron hopes to prove himself, though, Mara fully expects to die—and her fate is tied to his.

Aaron isn't prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, but when the war turns against them, it looks as if he may not have a choice.


STRANGERS IN FLIGHT


For countless ages, Reva Starchild has slept in perfect cryostasis. Frozen in secret to escape a catastrophic death, she awakens only to find herself the sole survivor of a people whom history never remembered. Light-years from her homeworld, among a culture she finds both perverse and obscene, she must somehow build a new life for herself where misplacing her trust could be fatal.

With nowhere safe to run, she finds refuge on a small starship with a mysterious young man who seems to be fleeing something as well. Where others have sought to enslave her, though, he treats her with unexpected kindness. As they slowly open up to each other, she learns that he too carries a burden—one she can barely comprehend.

Isaac Deltana indeed carries a burden. The failure of his mission at Colkhia has brought untold calamity to the Outworld forces and almost certainly led to the death of his brother. Now, he flees from the Gaian Imperials to prevent them from obtaining the secret technology he carries—one that will change the face of interstellar war forever.

Little does he know, the Imperials aren't the only ones hunting him.


CLICK HERE TO BUY SONS OF THE STARFARERS (OMNIBUS I-III)

A science fiction romance from the author of Bringing Stella Home.


Star Wanderers: Tales of the Far Outworlds (Omnibus V-VIII)


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?


CLICK HERE TO BUY DESERT STARS

A coming of age sci-fi romance from the author of Desert Stars.


Star Wanderers: Tales of the Far Outworlds (Omnibus V-VIII)


THE ULTIMATE VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY ENDS WHEN YOU LEARN THE TRUTH ABOUT YOURSELF.


Michael Anderson never thought he would set foot on a world like Earth. Born and raised in a colony of scientists on the farthest edge of the solar system, he only studied planets from afar. But when his parents build mankind's first wormhole and discover a world emitting a mysterious artificial signal, Michael is the only qualified planetologist young enough to travel to the alien star.

He is not alone on this voyage of discovery. Terra, his sole mission partner, is no more an adult than he is. Soon after their arrival, however, she begins acting strangely—as if she's keeping secrets from him. And her darkest secret is one that Michael already knows.

Twenty light-years from the nearest human being, they must learn to work together if they're ever going to survive. And what they discover on the alien planet forces them to re-examine their deepest, most unquestioned beliefs about the universe—and about what it means to be human.


CLICK HERE TO BUY GENESIS EARTH


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