Zachary Kai

Fiction

The Mara Files

Once the respected leader of the galaxy’s elite peacekeeping force, Mara Keres now rots in prison, betrayed by the one she trusted most.

She faces a critical choice: a dubious offer of escape or a life behind bars.

Before she can decide, her betrayer, Kottura, reveals her terrifying ambitions. With the galaxy in shambles, it needs a new iron-fisted leader. Mara is the perfect linchpin.

Hunted by mercenaries, and outsmarting Kottura's plots, Mara wants to ignore the galaxy's plight. But her freedom hinges on its liberation.

Will she reclaim her honor, or be consumed by the shadows she battles?

Details

Short Stories

A seed at a time.

After the rains, time slipped away. The next thing I remember are beeping machines, a clammy hand on my cheek.

“You’re awake,” a voice said, relief mixed with exhaustion. Their warm cotton sleeves brushed against me body as they redid dressings, unhooked machines, and dropped a cup and pills into my shaking fingers.

“Drink,” they said, voice echoing from further away. They must’ve sensed my hesitation as they added, “They’ll get you moving. This hospital is at capacity, so the sooner you recover, the better.”

Not comforting at all, but I swallowed. My memory fades to sensations: cool earth, crunchy stones, humid air, frayed blankets.

It picks up again days later, when someone entered the space with the faintest footsteps.

“How are you feeling?” A woman whispered with a voice so familiar, but one I didn’t remember. This was one of many hints to come of my memory loss. I acknowledge it now, but I ignored it then.

“It’s me. I’m so glad you’re awake. We need your help,” she said, warm hands clasping my bony fingers. My inability to reply didn’t worry her. She stood and paced the room while she explained what had happened.

I don’t recall her exact words, but she discussed the great storms that’d wiped out most human settlement. The Explorers heard of our plight and sent help. Entire governments and institutions have collapsed, leaving a collective of elder women to take charge.

Scientists estimated a quarter of the population died in the disaster, and another third needed medical care afterward.

She shared her struggles: negotiating with explorers, rebuilding, sleepless nights devoted to keeping humanity alive.

I’m amazed she had the energy. Thankfully, disasters bring out the best in extraordinary people. Hang on. Not sure how much going off track you’ll tolerate, so I’ll try not to.

At last, she revealed what she needed me for. “I want you to rebuild our food supply with a produce garden.”

Only then did I regain speech. “Why here? Why now?”

She sighed, and sat on the edge of my bed again, weary bones creaking. “Though the explorers are generous in their aid, if they don’t see us attempting to feed ourselves, they’ll withdraw all their support. Everyone’s arguing about it, and you’re the only one I trust to make it happen.”

The silence fell between us while she allowed me to consider her offer.

“Will you?” she asked.

I nodded and felt the warmth of her smile.

Weeks after that initial conversation, and when the harried doctors pronounced me healed, she visited again.

She led me through long tunnels. The walls, porous and hollowed by time and human hands, echoed with hurried footsteps. Above ground, the air was rich with distant sea spray carried by far-off winds.

She guided me through the proposed site, sprinkling in essential details about soil quality and water pH.

“It’ll be hard,” she admitted after the tour, sitting me next to her on the cliff side.

I nodded. “Need to get nutrient-rich topsoil, the microbes in order, and suitable seeds if this is going to work.”

You could hear the grim determination in her voice as she said, “Let’s make a list. Negotiating this could take a while.”

So we began that morning.

You have questions? I suppose that’s an important part of an interview. Fine, ask away.

Oh, her name? Right, it was Verdi. Twenty years later and I’m still working with her. What was it like? If you’re hoping for some juicy story about gardening drama, you aren’t getting any.

Verdi’s tough as the mountainside but has a good heart, even if you don’t see it often. She doesn’t believe in anything being good enough either, always pushing for more.

I know I make it sound like a bad thing, but it’s not. The storms put me through more than she ever did, and at least she had a valid reason. Without her unwavering dedication and optimism, I would’ve given up.

It’s easy to walk through the garden and smell all the growing plants, hear the vibrant community enjoying the space, and praise yourself for a job well done. But not with Verdi’s next grand plan always looming over you.

The strangest thing that’s happened? I’ll admit you ask interesting questions. The lack of imagination most reporters have is why I don’t do them anymore.

One of the first things we grew was tubers, hard-wearing, nutritional foods we could coax out of the lackluster soil.

They created a good crop, but not as much as I’d hoped, so one night, I got the junior gardener to do a stakeout. I suspected something was eating them, and it was a bunch of crabs!

Thought they only ate coconuts, but they must’ve gotten desperate. So I planted an extra patch for them, and the stealing subsided.

The hardest thing to grow? I respect all crops we grow except the dreaded quinoa. We needed grains, and they were the only seeds we could get other communities to give us.

It’s drought-resistant, Verdi said. It’s nutritional! That’s all fine until you discover how picky it is. The tiniest aspect of its growing condition changes and it dies.

Not to mention the birds! No disrespect meant to those creatures, but fighting them off is a battle. Verdi got a carpenter to make a bird feeder or I don’t know what I would’ve done.

When we got our first crop… That revenge never tasted so good. Turns out it was worth the effort.

Do I like to cook? No! Gardening is enough work. I told Verdi long ago if she wanted me to manage the garden, she’d have to find someone else to make the results into edible food.

She did, because she knew what was good for her. Call me a hypocrite, but there are some things I’m better off not doing.

I love the vegetable stew the folks at the kitchen make though. Great way of using the leftovers and it tastes delicious.

So where does that leave you? If you choose, end the piece with a triumphant conclusion and cut out all the hardship. But you’d make the same mistake as our ancestors, leaving no room for nuance.

Each time I mourn our broken world, I’m reminded of the things still beautiful. This is how we heal, with a willingness to see all aspects of the situation.

Most young folks tire of my philosophical nature, but you only appreciate things if you’ve had to live without them.


Break yourself against the universe.

You were told it'd end in flames, and the beautiful destruction would burn you alive. Not on my watch. You used to be the quiet one in a raging world, until you upset the balance by switching places. After your planet's descent into utter ruin, you picked up your broken form instead of waiting for the spirits to take you. I knew you'd pull through. The sky bled tears as you did: so much wasted life over a right the rest of the galaxy enjoyed. Pain has been your entire life, but this is different. It cuts through you, deeper than you’ve ever known, and its mark lasts. The sacred ground turned graveyard lay still in the dead night, exhausted from being ripped apart and reassembled for days. You did this for lunar cycles, and then, there was still hope. But there’s nothing left. So you find your ship and the medical supplies within, fly from your beloved, broken homeworld and never return. It hurts. There’s guilt wrapped around you, like the iron chains they used on prisoners of war. No one is inflicting these bonds on you, my love. Only you can release yourself. When we’re done, I hope you’ll find the strength to become a person again. You’re only fragments of one. My programming is easy to fix, but trying to rewrite the patterns you’ve had for decades? No straightforward task. Metaphors aren’t my strength, but you’ve taught me much. A heaviness descends upon you, lacing around your aching bones and muscles. Ironic, since in space you’re weightless. After moons of stoic silence, you break. You’re foolish to ignore the boundless wrath of pent-up rage and sadness, but how can I blame you? The thick, intricate lines of blue war paint you painted on your russet-brown, aquamarine scale-flecked face run with your tears. That victory symbol now signifies defeat. How does it feel to be the only crying person in your world? Yes, it’s a hardship, and it rips apart your fragile body, but it heals. Scientists can’t figure out how your anatomy works. Faced with crushing failure, isn’t this concept a miracle? You have no room in your mind for anything else. You run raw until there’s nothing left. Lying on the cold metal floor of your stolen spaceship, the loud thrumming of the engine is but a gentle hum in your unhearing ears. Your red hair, braided in the tradition of your forebears, spills out around you like a broken halo. I don’t know how long passes between you falling asleep and waking up in a panic. Your ship has been discovered, and it’s being attacked. How did they find you? Why? Through the cockpit window, you see the massive bowels of a battleship, approaching, ready to swallow your little shuttle. No. You won’t be subjected to more violence, because you make enough for yourself. Oxygen levels are dropping, and you have minutes left. Returning to your control panel, you set your course for the nearest planet, praying to the galaxy’s many gods. Your ship explodes as you’re consumed by the energy of one of the largest battleships in the galaxy. You awake in a sea of charred exoskeleton pieces, called ‘Lifegiver’ by a friend. She died in your arms as she held onto hope. It wasn’t enough, and you blame yourself for her death. You blame yourself for many failures. Recall the beautiful things she was and be glad you knew her. Otherwise, you’ll spiral. When you drown yourself, how many times do I have to rescue you? The swollen sky threatens to pierce the delicate landscape with lightning bolts and rain darts. Find shelter before it unleashes its onslaught. Where have you landed? Civilization? You saved your life and prevented those dastardly fiends from doing any more damage, but at what cost? Can you breathe here? Or eat the plants nestling around your battered body? You sit up, but that simple motion racks you with anguish. Did you ever try such a movement without your exoskeleton? Don’t curse your lack of foresight, because in moments of crisis, that’s one of the first things to fall apart. Don’t argue with your mind, for it keeps you safe. Although the sky is filled with watery fury, the distant lightning turns the faraway charred black mountains a violent shade of purple. The delicate, brownish-blue plant fronds tremble beneath the raw power of the raining world. Unless you find shelter soon, you’ll suffer the same fate. Move, my love, before the cold weakens you further. Beyond the hill you crash-landed on is a cave. Self-preservation kicks in. The way you speak to yourself, you wouldn’t say to your worst enemies. Your lesser mind is a hindrance, but embrace it. Otherwise, you die. You’re allowed to make mistakes, to cry yourself to sleep, feel guilt flow through your veins, and to imagine yourself falling, never to get up again. Get out of this storm! Don’t drink in too much of the frigid air. Your body isn’t suited for this environment. You take your hand from your mouth. The chilly atmosphere wafts up your nose, and your body seizes. You want to run until all you see are the foothills and the trees and the outlines of mountains in the far distance. Your hearts shall give out, as will your legs. Continue trudging. A cave becomes your sanctity against the whirling winds and sheets of rain slathering the rocky landscape with an aggressive fresh coat of paint. Do you remember when you were a romantic? That’s what drew me to you. I saw how you used your abilities to protect your home, how you lived for the thrill of battle and longed for the chase. If I’d told you there was something better? You would have laughed. You can’t run away. One day, it’ll catch up with you, and then where will you be? You’re still entrenched in survival mode. For now? Conserve your energy, rest and wait out the rainstorm. There’s nothing else you can do. Sleep, my love. Take out those hearing aids so you can slumber. This is where I leave you. We begin again in the morning. My mistake. As you wake, hours later, the sky is still a deep violet, with only the moons to reveal the faint outlines of the mountains beyond. There are a myriad of celestial objects in the sky, so many I struggle to count them. This landscape is familiar, though my archives aren’t turning up relevant results. Let me search while you acquaint yourself. See, not all is bad. Though you forgot any breathing apparatus, the universe has shown you mercy. Doesn’t it astound you how much of a paradox you are? You led the most successful non-violent military campaigns in your system’s history, but you’re forgetful enough to leave the survival kit when you launch yourself into space. My love, you’re beautiful and brilliant, but you’re a fool. How unusual. You used to protest when I said things like this, so determined to protect your precious reputation, to smooth over your shortcomings. You’re only lying to yourself. Deceiving other people is difficult, but hoodwinking yourself? It’s easy to do. Now you only nod, with a half-hearted laugh that dies in your throat. Oh my love, what has this life done to you? I suppose humility is a blessing? Good news, there are others settled on this planet. Only the stars know why. Find a way out of here. It’ll take me time to generate a suitable map for your great journey across the plains. Rest and find something to eat. You didn’t bring any food, either? Is there a protein bar squashed in one of the many pockets you sewed into your jacket? For the stars’ sake, my love, start searching! As you step across the grasslands, headed for the rocky outcrops as my route guides you, you notice things. Only fools think you need full access to your senses to appreciate beauty, but you experience it in its glorious strokes. Desolate as this place is, it’s stunning. The mountains have ridges like welts. In the canyons between them is a green substance, carving out an uncertain existence. The leftover rain reflects your wandering form and the sky lighting its surroundings. The ground is soft, warm and forgiving, and this place feels brittle, a simple thing to shatter. It’s the world you never wanted to know but will forever. The one thing the Cosmos Chart failed to mention is how heavy you feel. Gravity drags you down, your weight a burden to the soft earth. You feel the air on the patches of your bare skin through the charred exoskeleton. Thank the stars you had the sense to bring a cloak with you. Your Lifegiver is necessary to your existence, but conspicuous. Once it was to be shown off, painted in the swirls of red and aquamarine, but now it’s a danger, revealing your true identity. Yes, my love, I’ll call it that. Your dear friend always had a talent for naming things. The planet’s atmosphere shifts like a living entity. Despite the eternal darkness on this side of the planet, it’s warm. A breeze brushes your skin. Maybe the rain is apologizing for its decimation of the earth and is giving this as a peace offering. It should take two days to cross the mountains to the other side to reach the first of the few settlements in this hemisphere. Don’t hold yourself to those arbitrary standards, my love. Factor in your condition and the state of your injuries, it’ll take far longer. Unrealistic expectations do the most damage to sentient people. People like you live cursed lives, yet their outside circumstances have nothing to show for such a terrible internal world. This shall take time. That’s something you have but never wanted. Let us skip forward a few years, for they are much the same, and you grow impatient. What we must discuss happens many years after your constructed plans exploded in your face. It’s now you find that helmet. Yes, my love, I don’t like it, and no, I shall never be quiet about it. I know it helps you function in a galaxy that demands more of your sight and hearing than they can give, but that’s not the reason you wear it. It helps you exist, lessens the headache of everyday interactions with others, and protects you. I cannot control you, but why do you still wear a helmet? Because you’re afraid? You say you fear not being yourself and being forgotten in the process? That’s not the problem. You fear living in a world you cannot understand. Though the memories of you will fade, you’re not living to make a legacy. nothing is good or bad, it just is. After suffering much tragedy, who could blame you for not grasping the concept of awe, wonder, or terror? A pity, denying yourself your full range of emotions in fear of reliving your past. I ask a lot of questions. Why am I putting you through this? As noble as your intentions are, they won’t help you. You’ll sink deeper. After being buried for so long, it gives your mind a breath. Don’t run from it. You need it. Let me help you with the first one. Step by step, my love. Let’s start at the beginning, when Your inner self believed you deserved to live, so you’re still here a decade later. Since you have limited time, I’ll make the most of it. After we finish, you have life to return to. For the first time, it’s the one you want. You did it, my love, no matter what the vengeful gods threw at your quest. There are still gaps in foundations to fill, cracks to repair, and unhealed wounds to patch. That’s why I’m here. Life is chaotic and you can’t handle it all. It isn’t an insult, my love. Take comfort in your similarities and embrace your differences. Let’s not waste another moment. You need to find meaning for yourself now. I hope one day, after years of suffocating, you’ll breathe.


Bridging the worlds.

They’ve come to the edge of the earth. Towards the horizon, the water disappears into an abyss. Once sparkling and clear, the waters are littered with the wreckage of war. The ocean refuses to replenish the broken souls who beg for relief. One can’t help others if they’re shattered. She flinches at the cool touch of salt on her skin. It stings her nose and lungs. She can’t breathe as salty tears stream down her face. Why is the ocean turning on them? The ocean is changing again, flowing upwards like a tidal wave. It swirls and ripples. The sky is a dark gray and the sun’s light breaks through the thick clouds. She can’t bear to witness the sight. She stares into the grim horizon where a lone ship sails toward them. Bristling with the stolen weaponry of a thousand plundered worlds, the ship of conquerors sails closer and closer, preparing to shell the shore with flames. What comes next is war machines shooting projectiles into homes, shattering windows into tiny slivers of glass, and decimating entire neighborhoods. The taste of salt and blood in her mouth for the rest of her days, no matter how much water she drinks. There’s no escape from the brutality of their enemies. It’s not safe anywhere. Not anymore. Fire burned the people on the ships. The endless thrum of shells blasting her beloved island to pieces. She didn’t know if she could forgive herself. Instead, she wants to remember what it was like before her world shattered. A distant wave echoes off the cliffs. Salt air and algae-ridden beaches linger after the storm. The wind whips through her hair, soothing her mind. They have minutes to make it through. “Sister?” In her overwhelming numbness, she’s forgotten her brother stands by her. He’s so young and frightened. She doesn’t want to lie to him. Everything falls apart around them. Like a sickening disease spreading through the body before erupting into sharp stabs of exhaustion. “I’m scared. Where are we going?” he asks, clutching her arm as if she’s his lifeline. “Somewhere where we’ll be protected.” They have nothing left in this world. It’s time to leave it behind. She gives him what she hopes is a reassuring squeeze and says, “Come on.” She turns away from her home one last time, taking her brother’s hand, and walks into oblivion. They’re the only thing in the endless black. She sees the faces of those who died because of her mistakes. They scream for vengeance. She must keep breathing. For her brother’s sake, she endures. If she’d had a better state of mind, she might have marveled at the intoxicating, psychedelic sight. The bridge is underneath her feet and holds her there, but it shimmers like a river reflecting the sun. Light comes from nowhere and forms dancing particles. Salty humidity and thick, oppressive heat slow their steps to an excruciating crawl. Alongside her brother, she watches as the aurora dances in the distance. They walk across the floating bridge between worlds, a span that’s all too long. She sees them. Shadows of the lost souls, trapped between universes, beckon to her. Ignoring them is the only thing to keep her from crumbling. An eternity passes, and they’ve made no progress. There’s a sensation, as though something is stalking them. A shiver goes down her spine. The shadowy figures have followed them. “We’re almost there,” she whispers, and he nods, his eyes wide. She’s led him through this journey from their home, through the darkness of the great divide. Everything she does is to keep him safe. The shadows are closer, but she doesn’t dare look away from her brother. He is all she has left – it’s up to her to protect him. She has to get him out. The shadows are upon them. She squeezes his hand, her heart beating out of control. An icy feather touches her cheek, and she looks at an owl. It wears ancient armor, its pointed ears waving as it speaks in an eerie whisper, “You are safe here.” She shakes her head and grips his hand tighter. If she has to die, it’ll be fighting to protect him. The souls tear towards them with vacant eyes that burn into her skin as their wordless mouths scream to be saved. Their limbs stretch out, begging to be freed. She can’t help them, no matter how she wants to. They flee, desperate to shake the ghosts. With every step they take, her heart breaks. There’s nothing left for them but this eternal flight. The notion weighs on her. It holds her back, slowing her escape for a moment before she pushes forward again and carries him into safety. The souls will never stop chasing them until they have what they want: freedom from this void and whatever misery they’d been through. Her heart pounds, their howls thundering in her ears. One could only hope everything was what she wanted. She can’t let herself think what’d happen if she didn’t get her wish. As soon as they reach the end of the bridge, she looks back at the souls. They stand on the edge of this world, watching them with empty eyes. “I’m sorry!” she cries, her fractured heart breaking. They scramble into the light and are pierced by pain. Shards in their eyes, knives turning over inside them and ripping away at their skin – but there’s no blood to be spilled. “We’re here!” she screams. The new world swallows them whole.


Chrono's crystals.

It’s a ripped apart world. Shattered continents and the skies churn with poisonous clouds. A world where time doesn’t exist. A place of death and decay. It’s hard to believe there’s something better. In the center, a tiny island where time flows and life thrives. The last place on Stili that’s untouched by devastation. No one would expect a paradise in the depths of destruction. Nobody would think someone would live there. This notion is what I’m counting on. My former master might say I’ve grown careless. Committing to one spot puts me in danger. Who cares? I live my life. Nobody can tell me what to do. Except for the ones who pay me. Salt trails remain where the ocean laps. Though I have few cares, something drew me to sustain it. All my assignment’s profits were used to build a shield. It’s the only constant in this chaos. I left them behind for this place of emptiness I call home. What would’ve happened if I’d stayed? The thrill of heists keeps me going. I live for months without being summoned for a heist. On a day with vicious skies, it comes. I turn on the receiver, and their hooded faces appear. They speak in a monotone, their voices echoing in that strange chamber. “Yaris Slopon, the stealer of jewels. Welcome.” I nod. What’s visible behind me is a dark room. I’m careful not to show any hints to where I live. The connection scrambles my location. If they found me? I don’t want to entertain that. “We have a promising assignment for you. Are you interested?” “I need more details.” They expect the closed-off version of me when my heart hammers. It’s a fight to stay in control. “It’s too sensitive to discuss. Meet us, and we’ll fulfill your wish.” Trying to act like they haven’t caught my attention, I nod. “Guess I’ll see you soon.” I kill the connection, and a smile grows on my lips as I ready my equipment. In this universe, heists keep me anchored to reality. The Red Flag Syndicate’s worst trait is a lack of subtlety. Their palace is set high on a mountain in the most populous sector of the Miriandinus Galaxy. Though they’re not subtle, my life depends on it. The ship enters the atmosphere, cloaked, and settles farther from the HQ. I’ll continue on foot. After proving my identity, I’m let into the chamber where the High Eleven sits in straight-backed, elaborate thrones. “Yaris Slopon. Welcome.” I nod, crossing my arms. “I came halfway across the universe. You better not disappoint.” They speak in unison. “This task is a delicate, dangerous job.” “Nothing I can’t handle,” I say. They shake their heads, and explain, “Since we’re taking an enormous risk, you’ll work with a partner.” I scowl. “What kind of heist is this?” Footsteps echo in the chamber. Someone else says, “Dangerous, and unpredictable. Like myself.” I’m in deep trouble. “What do we have here?” Her infamous smile ekes through the words. Brenna Lane. She’s the most wanted assassin in seven galaxies. Uncatchable, dangerous, and unpredictable. She’s terrifying. The worst part? We used to be friends. I gather strength to turn around. The woman is poised and proud, with her dark curly hair tamed into an elaborate braid, skin an elegant sepia brown. You could forget how dangerous she is, getting lost in those piercing eyes. See the jagged-edged swords hanging from either hip, and you remember who you’re dealing with. I know those swords. They drew my blood. She watches me, her eyes a shifting mixture of purple and green. “I never thought I’d see you alive again.” The words drip off her tongue like venom, mouth twisting into a sneer. “I’m living proof of your failure.” I’m toeing dangerous ground, but the crack in her unbreakable façade fills me with malignant triumph. She laughs, a sadistic sound. “Brave, aren’t you?” “Brenna Lane. Destroyer of lives. Welcome.” My superiors say, and she steps away. “What’s our assignment?” I sigh, tapping my foot. She grins, but I can’t let my guard down. Not like last time. “We want you to steal the most valuable crystals in this sector.” “Which ones?” The assassin says. I scoff. She doesn’t know? My superiors answer for me. “The Chrono Crystals.” I grin, rubbing my hands together. “I like a challenge.” The jewels are renowned. They’re stored at a museum on an island on Chron. On display for all to see. “Do you wish to do this task?” The High Eleven say. “How much do I get paid?” I ask. Considering the price they could sell the crystals for, I’m entitled to a hefty reward. The amount they propose is enough. I nod. “I’m in.” Their hooded faces turn to Brenna Lane, and she gives them a conniving smile. “No task is too difficult.” Crossing my arms, I say, “Have you got a plan? Any inside contacts?” The leaders of the Red Flag Syndicate nod. “Pay careful attention.” “We’re going in as regular citizens?” I ask, and my superiors nod. “Do you have false identities we can use?” “I’ve got it all covered,” Brenna Lane says. How come she knows more about this? “We’ll need a shuttle to travel to Chrono,” the assassin says. I nod. “Agreed.” “We shall meet again here tomorrow morning to discuss our final preparations,” the High Eleven say. “Rest well tonight.” Brenna Lane has already disappeared. I leave to prepare for the heist of a lifetime. The assassin waits for me at the entrance to my quarters. If she knows where I’m sleeping, what else does she know? “I have a question,” I say. She nods, her expression calm and collected as always. “Ask.” “How do we expect to get it?” I ask. “We want to get out alive.” “You’re right. I can’t do it alone, so they hired you too.” It’s true. The assassin’s finesse is unmatched and her blade sharper than any other. My thieving skills are impeccable. Still, I don’t understand why a jewel thief would need an assassin. The High Eleven clap their hands for attention, and it echoes around the cavernous room. “You’ll be transported down to Chrono disguised as cleaning personnel to get you into the embassy.” “You’re going through a lot of trouble for one jewel,” I say before I can stop. “It’s a treasure of the Chrono Royal Family,” The High Eleven say. “Why would you want an old heirloom?” I ask. What happened to the master thief who doesn’t ask questions? Brenna Lane looks at me with what I can only describe as pity. Does she know something I don’t? The High Eleven explain their plan, as if I never asked. I have to admit, it’s solid. “Do you have questions?” The High Eleven asks. I shake my head. After a moment of silence, Brenna Lane says, “I have one question.” “What is it?” The High Eleven asks, all letting out an annoyed exhale. Brenna Lane looks at me again before asking. “Do you trust this thief?” “I can handle this,” I say. “The question is, why should I trust you?” She shakes her head with a small, triumphant smile. “You shouldn’t.” I don’t. Her presence still has a disgusting amount of power over me. The worst thing? It feels like she knows. If she manipulates me again, it’ll end me. The High Eleven interrupts the staring contest. “This is a serious mission, and we need you to be committed.” She turns away again after giving me one last disapproving look. What’s she up to? “Proceed to the docking hall. Good luck.” The High Eleven gesture to the door, and we are dismissed. The ship’s beautiful, sleek fins and clean lines are inspired by the aquatic creatures in Chrono. Brenna Lane isn’t here, so I can breathe. She’s suffocating. The shuttle is alerted to my presence because the gangway slides down. The corridor to the cockpit is deserted, so I sink into my seat with relief. Brenna Lane’s presence still lingers like an irritating itch – it doesn’t feel right without her here. My fingers hover over the console. The ship hums to life at my touch and the engines fire up. I turn around to the cockpit window, and my already cold blood freezes. She’s here. Brenna Lane stands at the bottom of the gangway, her coat’s hood pulled up. I close the cockpit door after she enters. When we return from this heist, we’ll settle this. The assassin settles next to me after having explored the ship mid-flight. Off comes her cloak, and it’s a shock at how different she looks as a cleaner. Her mask and swords are gone, but she’s wearing a face-scrambler. No one knows what she looks like. Brenna Lane looks at me again. If she’s trying to unsettle me, I won’t let her win. “What are you thinking?” she asks. “I’m wondering if the Syndicate knows about your history with me,” I say to see what effect it’ll have, but there’s no change in expression. Brenna Lane tilts her head and shrugs. “We need to be on our guard.” This is dangerous, if not impossible. It’s too good to pass up. I’m in a spaceship, headed to the most fortified place in the universe, alone, with the assassin Brenna Lane. Will she kill me and take the profits? The ship’s pleasant trill brings me out of my stupor. “We’re approaching Chrono.” I glance out the window. The fifth dimension disappears, and a beautiful planet dotted with the lights of underwater cities fills my vision. “Preparing for docking,” the ship goes on. “We need to prepare,” I say to the ship. “How long until touchdown?” “Seven minutes.” The view of Chrono’s surface changes as we descend into its atmosphere. It’s water and half-submerged buildings. Giant crystals reach towards the sky from beneath the vast ocean. “The Chrono Crystaliums,” Brenna Lane says, her eyes lighting up. “After the heist, I’d love to explore them.” The famous assassin has hobbies? The ship docks, metal on metal, echoing through my bones. “Please wait while the Control Tower runs the security procedures. “Tell me. What’s the biggest heist you’ve done?” Brenna Lane asks. Didn’t take her to be one for idle conversation. I lean back, racking through them. She’s watching me, looking for the first sign of weakness. I’d be dead before I hit the ground. “Stole the King of the Lightbulb Nebula’s crown right off his head.” She whistles, rolling her eyes. “I guess the tales they tell have merit.” “The stories they tell about me pale compared to the real thing. Does the same apply to you?” Our eyes lock in an unspoken challenge, but she looks away first. The ship’s announcement fills the silence between us. “Proceed to the entrance.” Here goes nothing. “We did it.” Brenna Lane gestures at the box between us. “Happy?” I’ll never see this jewel again; it belongs to a rich fool who’ll show off their prize for years. I’ll take the money and avoid her forever. Fingers crossed. Still, I can’t resist making a jab at her. “I despise how graceful your face becomes when you’re about to make someone bleed dry.” I expect her to flash a wicked grin, but her confidence fades. “Do you think I enjoy it?” The simple question leaves me stunned. “What?” “You think I’m this soulless woman?” she asks. “That’s not me.” She turns her gaze to the window and takes a deep breath, like it might drown every other thought in her head. There’s nothing to do but gape. Brenna Lane stares at me, haunting eyes piercing my soul, and I can’t look away. I’m frozen, my thoughts still and blank. She brings a trembling hand forward, the one that once drew a knife down my face. My mind screams at me to pull back, but I can’t move. The assassin traces the scar; the touch sending lightning through my skin. I’m drawn to her like there’s nothing else in the world. It’s terrifying. “I’m sorry,” Brenna Lane whispers. The forts break, and tears run down her face as she sobs. She’s always been unshakeable. Is she broken? Is this an act? “Why?” I ask. She’s silent for a long time, overwhelmed by her thoughts. “Those years ago, when we fought, and I betrayed you,” she trails off, torturing herself by replaying painful memories. “I was supposed to kill you,” she whispers between sobs. “I couldn’t do it.” “What?” This makes little sense. She takes a few moments to gather herself as her eyelids run black with her makeup. “You never deserved what I put you through.” “Why do it?” I ask again, softer this time. “Why leave me for dead?” “It was easier than telling you the truth,” she shudders with uncharacteristic disgust. “You still got the money,” I say, unable to hide my anger. “And kept your reputation.” Her purple-green eyes flash, and I brace myself for violence, but it never comes. “I was a coward.” We sit in silence, the air thick with the weight of the past. The pain in her eyes is raw. I can’t look away. We live a life built on bad choices. “I have a proposition,” I announce, standing. She’s surprised and waits for me to continue. “We’ll do a partnership. We’ll be in high-demand, and split the profits.” An extra layer of security in case clients try to double-cross me. It’s happened too many times in the past. There’s a beat of silence as she mulls it over. Her posture changes. It’s not hope, but her presence feels lighter. “You’re serious?” I nod. “It’ll be more beneficial than both of us working alone.” I’ve always been reckless. Why else would I be a jewel thief? “Alright,” she says after a long moment, “I’m in.” Brenna Lane might be my downfall, but this time? It'll be on my terms.


Don't show her the truth.

The world had been silent since he shattered his eardrums. While music would never feel the same, and he would miss the faint whispers of the wind in his homeworld, he was still alive. He was the only assassin in the universe with no hearing, but anyone who didn’t hire him or stood in his way was a fool. Sensible people regarded the name Stardust with awe, but it was a nickname. Most species didn’t have the vocal capacity to pronounce his language, and likewise, he didn’t speak theirs. He’d once used a translator and hearing aids, but the constant buzzing feedback and headaches impeded his ability to work. Why should he compensate when most knew sign language? Despite his fearsome reputation, Stardust wasn’t much to look at. Hailing from the Lebil species wasn’t great. With their short stature resulting from the immense aerial pressure on their homeworld, he wasn’t intimidating. Assume at your peril. — This mission had been better than most. He’d only destroyed half his ship by faking an engine failure and ramming it into a ravine to avoid capture. This was what he got for working for one crime syndicate to kill another rival gang leader. They’d hunt him across the galaxy. They’ll squabble and elect a new leader until they tire of them and kill them. The cycle would continue for infinity. He should’ve orchestrated a betrayal and collected the money without lifting a finger. Subterfuge wasn’t his specialty. He did a hit-and-run. He’d have to change ships again. His earnings only covered a new vessel and a few days of food. Breath escaped his frilled facial spines from his airholes on either side of his face in a long sigh. He was stuck on a hostile planet with a price on his head. People would pay for a charred corpse if it looked like him. He stared up at the waiting opening from the bottom of the ravine. Teleportation devices had existed for decades, but they were too large to be portable, and people guarded the technology. Only the rich could afford them. He’d pack and get out. He needed a disguise because he was visible from miles away with this garb. He had an iconic way of dressing, which made him recognizable. No one knew what he looked like beneath his costume. He scuttled inside what was left of the deserted wreck. Stardust retrieved his badge, his weaponry, and supplies, stuffing them in a bag. His friend suggested changing weapons so they wouldn’t look threatening. His double-edged twin blades could combine into an average-looking staff. He shuffled through the main hallway, searching for supplies. Stardust would leave the rest for someone desperate. Didn’t hurt to spread goodwill. — After he’d left the ship’s remains behind, Stardust wandered the rocky surface of the desolate plains in the western hemisphere of the planet. He was clad in his civilian attire of a simple blue knee-length tunic, dark-navy pants, and a bandana wrapped around his sweating head to keep out the sun. Before his species encountered the others in this galaxy, they hadn’t had clothes. Why bother when you were covered in scales insulating against the harsh climate of your homeworld? They adorned themselves in precious stones according to rank. He had one on the center of his forehead and others lining his cheekbones and facial spines. Putting a cloth on one’s body was a small price for space travel and resources. He was hungry, and a carnivore. He only saw grass swaying in the breeze. Stardust felt vibrations echoing through the ground beneath his bare, clawed feet. Someone was approaching from the back. He’d assess the situation before deciding what role to play. The Vijan looked to be a young adult, judging by their gray topknot, and a woman, seeing the large green bead at her throat. The young woman mouthed something, her hands flailing with her species’ characteristic dramatic hand gesturing. Most assumed he could lip-read, but trying was exhausting. The Vijan stared at him, trying to work out why he wasn’t answering. Why had he forgotten that badge? His friend, the only one who knew who he was and didn’t care, had the brilliant idea of a badge with the words “Please use sign language with me.” It would change language depending on the retina scanners implanted in the viewer. He’d rather drop the politeness, but his friend had insisted. She signed in the common language, “I’m lost. Are you a local? My ship needs repairs.” Her arms were so thin he could snap her wrist with his thumb and foreclaw. Vijan were delicate creatures because of their homeworld’s low gravity. Their appearance was a lie. They lived for three thousand years, and he’d made the mistake of going against one in a Battle Royale when he’d needed the cash. He lost. If this young woman was anything like her fellow Vijan, he’d avoid crossing her. “Can’t help you,” he said as his frills puffed outwards in his species’ equivalent of a shrug. “I’m in the same situation.” Her delicate eyebrows lifted at his answer. He’d never get over how strange they were. She mouthed the words accompanied with the same over-the-top movements. “Where’s your ship?” He raised a finger in the air, twirling it around in a horizontal motion, meaning he didn’t want to explain. Stardust needed to get off this rock. “It’ll be better if we stick together. There’s safety in numbers,” she said. She had a point, but she was safer by herself. ”If you try anything,” she added, stepping closer, “I have a blade on me.” He appreciated the honesty. She didn’t need to know he had countless weapons. He had enough sense to avoid unnecessary violence. Stardust held up his hands in surrender. “I won’t hurt you.” She smirked. “I didn’t think so.” “You have a map?” he asked. He’d searched the wreckage of his ship, but they’d been destroyed. Why hadn’t he uploaded information about this forsaken planet to his cranial interface? She nodded and produced a pad from her belt. A 3D hologram of the celestial body appeared. “We need to head north towards the mountains. The capital city is in the foothills.” Whoever had taught her sign language had done an excellent job. He only had put up with her until they reached civilization. Days cycled into the night. They trekked across the great plains, only hindered by the Vijan, stopping to admire a new piece of flora. What was interesting about plants? The young woman sauntered along, clearing boulders as if they were pebbles. Stardust scrambled over. It wasn’t the first time he wished he were taller. A few hundred paces ahead, there was a herd of grass-eaters in a clearing. “You eat meat?” Her eyes widened in revulsion. Vijan must be herbivores. His frills splayed outwards. “Suit yourself. I’m hungry.” He was about to draw his gun, an average-looking pistol with no upgrades. He hated it, but he’d draw attention with anything else. She got there first. She hefted a collapsible rifle and fired. A small grass-eater in the distance wobbled before falling. The Vijan turned to him, flashing a smug grin. “There’s your food.” “Call yourself a herbivore,” Stardust signed, trying to cover his gratitude with contempt. They sat on the grassy plains while they ate. Stardust’s shoulders were stiff, his limbs on fire. He saved the physical stuff for finishing the job, not walking for days on end. The sun descended as they finished. “What’s your story?” she asked. He shrugged. Why would she want to know? “You’ve got something to hide. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be in the middle of nowhere,” she replied, cocking her head. “I could be a farmer looking for a job.” “Those are the hands of someone who hasn’t worked a day in their life. You’re a fugitive,” she said, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. “I’m not,” he gave her a sly smile. Stardust liked to think he’d gotten good at lying. “What makes you think I have a story?” She shrugged, laying down a cloth blanket. “You never know who you’ll meet.” He lay down to rest on the opposite side of the dwindling fire. If anyone approached, he’d feel them before they got too close. The further they went, the more the ground rose. The climate changed too, from dry and hot to humid and cool. By the time they’d reached the foothills, they were drenched in sweat and covered in dirt. The grasses were pushed back by broad trees and shrubs. A deserted settlement. An old starship sat on a landing pad. The ship’s lights flickered on and off as they approached. It was a large commercial liner. “Let’s see if they left us something to eat,” the young woman said. Stardust followed her, gaze darting everywhere. The ramp had fallen off, but he could see inside the airlock. Broken crates littered the floor. “I don’t think anyone’s here. No one’s home,” she said. She made her way through the ship, the flickering lights outlining her path. He flicked his flashlight, trying to catch her attention. The Vijan turned. “I’ll stay out here and keep watch,” he signed. He wasn’t getting trapped somewhere where he couldn’t feel anyone’s footsteps. “You do that,” she replied, grinning. He stayed outside the ship, overlooking the abandoned settlement. There were ruined structures covered in overgrowth. They may have been the old capital before the mountains eroded. Stardust felt the young woman approach. Her hands, as he’d predicted, were empty. “What did I tell you?” he asked. “There’s nothing here. The capital must be close.” “Yes, according to the map,” she said. “It doesn’t hurt to check for supplies.” She was right, but he needed to get off this rock. Who knows what the Vijan might do if she found out who he was? He was a fool for accompanying her, but he appreciated the company. The young woman strode through the thick foothill shrubbery the next day. He scuttled around a tree, using his claws to haul himself upwards. Stardust met her at the top where she’d paused, grinning at him. Waiting until he’d reached a safe place, he asked, “What’s funny?” “I’ll never get over how strange your species look when you tackle obstacles three times your size.” She smiled and smothered what must’ve been a laugh. He was stuck in a body made for only one landscape. The Vijan pointed at something in the distance, handing him a pair of binoculars. Who carried those anymore? Especially when you could get implants with a built-in zoom. He accepted them, as his lenses couldn’t focus on the tiny speck. He saw tall, stony towers twisting towards the heavens. Civilization. As beautiful as he remembered from his childhood. In the sunlight, the buildings looked like glass. “That’s the capital,” she said, satisfied by his reaction. “How many days’ walk?” he asked. “We’ll get to the city before dusk,” she said. Meeting this Vijan was a stroke of luck, and he’d repay her for it. “Let’s get going,” he said, and she nodded, leaping to the next tree branch. Stardust sighed and scrabbled along behind her. — It was already dusk when they reached the outskirts of the city. The glow from the buildings was enough to light the streets. They were wide, filled with vehicles. An immense building at the center, surrounded by a grand portico. Soldiers stood guard, and a massive line of people waited to enter. “Don’t tell me we have to line up,” he said, slumping over. She grinned. “Relax. Only if you want to see the Royal Protectors.” “This is a monarchy?” She nodded. “You aren’t from around here.” Stardust shook his head. Right, pay her for saving his neck. “What’s your account number?” The Vijan stared at him, looking for suspicious motives. “Why do you want it?” “You got me out. Consider this compensation for putting up with me.” She smiled and gave him her details. He transferred the credits. She grinned before signing, “Never thought I’d make friends with Lebil.” That might be a stretch. Still, he had to admit it was the easiest experience he’d had dealing with someone. “Nice meeting you,” he said, raising his left fist to the same shoulder and tapping it twice. The Vijan repeated the gesture. “Likewise.” Stardust watched her go, her gray strands of hair whipping in the wind. He thrived on chaos, but sometimes, he appreciated slowing down.


Never silence the wild heart.

You dream of the stars, regardless of how they tell you not to. You wide-eyed boy, caught up in your fantasies of flight. How can they do this to you when it’s the only thing keeping you here? You lie on your back, swinging in a soporific rhythm on the woven hammock you’d made when you tried the Weaver’s track. It had been fun, though nothing got you excited like flight. Much to the frustration of everyone in your solar-farming community. It’s a lovely day in the middle of the Breeze Season. The planet your people tend is called Abyra. She’s dangerous, but as long as you bend to her will, you carve out a simple, profitable existence. Though for an excitable teenager, simplicity turns into unbearable boredom. You deal with the crushing monotony in the only way you know. Sneaking off at every opportunity to practice your flying on your (forbidden) simulator. It’s safe to use, but your family prohibits it. To their detriment, as it makes it more appealing. Today is supposed to be your weekly shift of cleaning Sector A of their solar farm, and logging the outputs once finished. You’ve done the latter, but the former? No. You try to imagine the cockpit of your ship. The warm bamboo controllers under your fingers, the weight of them in your hands. The pressure of the gravity field and the smell of the recycled air. Stars shift around you as you soar through them. Whether this practice lasts minutes or hours doesn’t matter. For a moment, you’re free. Your hand-wound pocket watch chimes and space dissolves. You startle, forced into the real world. You’d fallen asleep in the midday heat, sweat on your brow and your back damp beneath his shirt. You were sensible enough to pitch your hammock in the shade, but the sun is boiling. That’s what you get for staying outside too long. Long ago, your ancestors, the Ignisa Clan, had been selected as most fit for solar farming, with their short, sturdy statures, rich dark skin, and hardy features unbothered by desert sands. As the result of a brief romance between an Ignisan solarfarmer and a traveling entertainer, you had the willowy figure, height and sharp angles of a Garcian acrobat, and the eyes of an Ignisan. Many unkind people used your heritage as reasoning for your poor behavior, your listlessness nothing short of expected for ‘that kind’ of kid. Despite what Mother Bright had tried to calculate, there were still deep divisions between the clans. Though the people who cling to ideals of the past are dying out. You’re not worried. Things get better with time. Though you’ve never been able to shake the feeling, you’re not meant for this world. It’s early morning when you wake from another restless sleep. You’re as fitful at night as you are during waking hours, imprinting permanent circles beneath your weary eyes. A house on the edge of the settlement is where you live. Your grandmother insists she chose it so you’d have plenty of space to wander. Though you believe it’s escaping others’ judgment. As the Matriarch of the Ignisa clan, in charge of business relationships with the outside solar systems, she’s respected and feared. Though her standing has suffered with you as her only grandson. She had three children, one of which was your father. You never knew him, but this has never bothered you. According to law, to safeguard a future youngster’s upbringing, before one has a child, they must train to become a parent. Except your father never did, so left you to your grandmother, and contributes to your upbringing, but has made it clear he never wants to meet you. You don’t mind. Work starts later this morning, to accommodate for the changing daylight hours. There’s only a few months until the Wind Season begins, and preparations are frantic. You get time alone before the bell rings. No one caught you skipping duty a few days ago, but you’re careful to make disappearances irregular. They’d take your flight simulator and assign you to the jobs no one else wants. Weaving the protective covers for the solar panels from those nasty creeper vines? Doing the annual cleaning of the generator? No thanks! You’re glad to have an excuse to be alone. No one ever said anything to you, but there are whispered conversations. You can’t help your heritage. You never asked to be born on this insignificant planet in the outer solar system. Though that’s not how life goes. There’s little you control. You head downstairs, long feet padding across the worn mud brick tiles. With your Garcia heritage, you might’ve grown to lofty seven feet, though the harsh gravity weighs down on your shoulders. You only reached five and eight. Still, you tower over your family members. Even your biology is at war with this planet. The sun rises beyond the open window in the kitchen, casting a pink glow across the landscape. You see little beyond the distant mountains. Blaze, as you call your grandmother, left an hour ago for her morning run. Mother Bright calculates the exercise everyone is most likely to enjoy, and allots a time for maximum benefit. Running is impossible for you on Abyra, so you’ve been assigned an hour’s long walk in the evening, when the dusty sky turns a rich purple, and you swear you see the stars. You swipe coriander from the indoor herb garden, and eggs from the Clan’s chickens. The scraps from meal preparation are collected for the community farm. Nothing is wasted here, or anywhere in the Common Worlds. After the catastrophe that was The Scorching a thousand years ago, humanity has been careful. Your mind drifts as you prepare the breakfast you’ve had for many years in a row. You’ve inherited your grandmother’s curiosity and bravery. Always wanting to know more, and never satisfied with what you’re given. The beckoning Starriver runs through your blood. One day, you’ll answer the call. The village is quiet as you tip-toe through, though there’s no need, as the soft sand swallows the sound of your footfalls. Your community is nestled in a canyon at the bottom of a large dune. Wells dug deep into the bore water chambers sit in the center at the market. The village stands out against the orange-yellow desert as it’s made of umber rock, its buildings carved from the solid block that comprises the canyon walls. Desert wind blows through the canyon and the tents, and the sand shifts with your breathing. No one’s here. You hear a low rumble. Outsiders might mistake it for a distant thunderstorm, but it doesn’t rain here, it blows dust. The sound means only one thing. You look up. Through the haze is an approaching black ship with bright red letters across the side: The Swan. Mother Bright’s messenger craft. It brings important messages, as traditional communications don’t make it through the thick, unforgiving atmosphere. Something’s going to happen. A gentle toll from the village bell signals its arrival, and you race toward the landing strip on the outskirts of the settlement. More like a fast walk, but even that’s a struggle. A crowd fills the landing field. An impressive percentage of your small colony of under a hundred are present, and the bell tolls again, announcing The Swan’s imminent arrival. What will it bring? You can only hope it’s a ticket to somewhere, anywhere other than this rock. Who knows how much longer you can bear living here?


No good options.

He stands in front of you, an impassable force, not by physicality, but by nature. In the months you’ve been apart, he hasn’t grown an inch. You? Your well overdue transition into adulthood kicked in, and you’re almost a head taller. Although you’ve bulked up, you feel powerless under his gaze. It’s not a manipulative or dangerous expression. There’s so much left unsaid, simmering beneath the surface. The precious seconds drag into hours, yet still you stand still, unable to think, let alone breathe. He opens his mouth to speak. “You’ve cut your hair,” he says, and you laugh at his casual tone. He’s terrifying in how calm he is. Even his home planet exploding in front of his eyes doesn’t phase him. So these last months haven’t. You lift your chin to look down on him. “You’ve grown out yours.” It’s true. You remember a tight fuzz of curls clinging to his sepia-brown scalp. Now he has the beginnings of dreads, tied back with a bandana. “Astute as ever,” he replies, quick with retorts as he is with a gun, though his inherited violence and capacity to be cruel never rears its head. Unlike his mother, the right-hand woman of the Destroyer Of Worlds. You never know whether to punch him or laugh. Such a reaction is common, yet his charms never land him in any real danger. When you roped him into your ridiculous scheme of blowing up the weapons factory a few years ago, you’d never guess how much he’d change. He’d always be a threat to his enemies, without them even realizing it. He’d been a worthy foe of the alliance, but now he’s an asset. Your people are lucky. It’s not pride filling your chest with air; you’re not used to being at a loss for words. He’s always been so straightforward, comfortable in his skin. He’s still the embodiment of a tour de force, but his edges are smoothed out, and his quiet sincerity hums with certainty. The silence lingers as you look at the sand and the moons. “What do you need?” he asks, and you look up, jolted back to reality by the familiar question. He poses this to everyone he deems worth knowing. Your crew made you call him here, because they knew he’d do anything (within reason) for you. Still, the request shrivels on your tongue. How can you ask him that? It’s too much, even for your most enduring friend. He’s still waiting, patient as you’d expect. You don’t want to insult him, but you can’t let this opportunity pass. “A favor,” you begin, before the words dry up, caught in your throat. He’s nodding, the beginnings of a smile tipping the corners of his mouth up. “We need to infiltrate the Destroyer Of World’s headquarters.” You will your tongue to regain its normal size, but it feels like it’s swollen to a breaking point. He stands there, waiting for you to finish. You’ve known him for years, yet he has never interrupted you. Or anyone. “We need your help.” He nods, holding his hand out, ready to seal the deal, but you wave him off. “There’s someone I need you to shoot.” “Again?” he replies. “Are you getting soft?” You shake your head. “I’m afraid no one else can do this one justice.” “Tell me why,” he says, pulling the guns from his holsters. They’re beautiful, lethal tools, an extension of his body. You can’t. You can’t tell him. His mother’s been visiting him; he swears she’s changing; you don’t want to destroy what little peace they have. His guns are still waiting, though you’ve been silent for far too long. You need to tell him. “Because she’s dangerous.” “So am I.” He’s not glaring now, only looking at you. Looking through you, like he’s imagining something beyond. “It’s not that simple. This one’s evil. It’s her job to brainwash every living thing in the universe, and she’s a natural at it.” “Does she have a name?” It makes you sick how casual he is, but he’s always been like this. “A name no one should ever speak.” He smiles, and it’s terrifying and comforting. “The alliance is determined to kill her. They think she’s the root of our problems. She’s not, but I can’t convince them otherwise.” His eyes flash with understanding. “What are you asking?” You take the deepest breath of your life. “They’re asking you to kill your mother.”


Our undoing.

It rains acid here. It isn’t bad, but it’s like my eyes are burning out of their sockets. Like most lonely inhabitants of this desolate city, I stay inside. The city is filled with people who don’t mind the rain. The Acidic Commune go out to ‘cleanse’ themselves, as if the acid removes their scars. It only makes it worse. I stare out the window at the infinite stretch of haphazard houses atop one another, like a dangerous stacking game. We live in a constant state of everything collapsing around us. The rain blurs my reflection, but anyone seeing it would shiver at the scars from that fateful night. I lived in a small, isolated village. I loved to sit in the fresh air, watching the moonlight glinting off of the grass and trees. Until the heavens opened and rained down bullets and a shower of fireworks. I was only entering my second decade when they unloaded their weapons. I remember dropping to my knees and staring at the sky in confusion. The villagers were confused, too. We’d been a peaceful tribe for thousands of years. The outsiders didn’t leave until everyone in my village was dead and the storehouses were stripped bare. They vanished; leaving only corpses. My mother was the last one to die. She held onto life long enough to see me stand. Days passed in a whirlwind of melancholy until the soldiers who had the nerve to call themselves ‘saviors of the innocent’ arrived. Why weren’t they here to protect us before this had happened? Because I had no identification, I ended up a nameless person in temporary housing in the galaxy’s most miserable place. A crime syndicate has taken over worlds valuable to them for the last few decades. What have our supposed noble leaders done to stop them? Those officials have been bribed into submission. They don’t want the syndicate to expand further, but they aren’t doing anything about it. This pointless battle rages on. It’s my dream to receive passage to a new planet far from this one. The lush forests of Pinona, to assist with conservation. Or New Remoria, the home of luxury resorts fueled by the resource-rich ocean planet of Basilisico. It’s as easy as plucking each hair from one’s head. While our forms are processed, we’re trapped here. How unfair is that? It breaks my heart and twists my mind into knots. I’ll teach these fools a lesson. Or bring people their freedom. Whatever comes first.


Poetry in the stars.

To travel between the stars is her greatest pleasure. If not recorded, her memories would disappear in an instant. She daydreams about what could have been. She weaves magic with spilled ink. The galaxies she sees out of her spaceship window are her writings on canvas, but they never stay for long. There’s nothing left except a filled page. It’s this inevitable fate that keeps her treasuring every moment. She knows how terrifying it is to capture nothing. It’s what makes love so bittersweet and life worth living for those few fleeting moments before they disappear forever. She’ll keep writing poems about the seven galaxies until she’s faded from existence. Until there are no more stories to tell. Her spaceship rests on the precipice of a mountain covered with the ruins of ancient temples, the old stone catching the light of the setting suns. She’ll write poems about this place for weeks to come before the next starry sky greets her with its mysteries in tow. The stars are close tonight. It’s easier than ever to believe they’re friendly creatures watching over the life-forms of this world as they sleep beneath their blanket of twinkling lights. She wonders if they’re awake, and they see her. The celestial bodies tell her their secrets in a language only she can understand; they tell her stories of space and time, love and loss. She has insatiable hunger, the urge to travel and document more places. Humans have seen little of the beauty in the universe. What would happen if we never explored? She remembers the questions she asked as a child. “What if there’s something we can’t see? Somewhere waiting to be discovered?” Though she writes poetry and survives on creativity, she’s on a quest for knowledge, one of discovery and exploration. Her existence wasn’t always this blissful. She’d never been so lost. As if something had been ripped out of her. Was it always that way? The sinister feeling in the pit of your stomach when you knew there would be nothing or anyone to fill its void? Underneath her simple desire lies a much deeper meaning. She needed to document. She traveled further than anyone before her, searching to find something different. Humans explore but see nothing new. She stood on a cliff as the sun rose over an alien world. She felt like she’d found a home despite being insignificant compared to everything else around her. When night fell, she wrote about what she saw. The cosmos aligned, and she found herself amongst the stars at last.


The freedom zenith.

It began with a blazing luminance. A mighty vessel fell from the stars into fiery oblivion. A conglomeration of metal that could only be created by the genius of the greatest innovators. Deep within its bowels lay many lives, crying out for the release of death. The ship survived the explosion that rattled the solar system. She lay in pieces entrenched in the unforgiving mountains. Years passed, the vicious plants of the planets waged war against the machine, curling around edges, growing in gaps in the once gleaming bodywork. They fought with ferocity and won. The vessel sat forgotten. The greatest battleship in the universe, reduced to a thorn-covered hill. Until we found her. After the defeat of the spaceship, we came to live on the same planet. We don’t know why we were drawn there. In my sister’s internal workings, the heart is king, but the gut is queen. She felt something I couldn’t. I asked her what led her to the ship. Did she feel remorse for the vessel’s plight? A sense of loyalty or connection because they’d both suffered so? She answered as I should have expected she would, with a laugh and a smile, brushing off my attempts to gain insight into her chaotic life trail. We were fresh from the horrors of the invasion of our home planet. We fled into the unknown, and though the tormentors have fallen, we haven’t returned. Our childhood home only exists in memories, but we have a new one. The Freedom Zenith, the oldest battleship in the universe. Organic beings run on sustenance, water, and sunlight. She runs on the fumes of dying stars. We have a physical body of flesh, blood, and bone, and she is of metal. The Freedom Zenith is many things, but she is home. We arrived as refugees in the Freedom Zenith’s resting place. Put in temporary accommodation on the outskirts of the vast capital city, close to the forests. My grandparents and I remained in shock, unable to construct complete sentences. Frankie craved the outdoors, the endless exploration of the wild. Our grandparents were adamant she stay indoors for her safety. They still fear the unknown. My sister would cease to function if she were robbed of fresh air for too long. I suggested we take a walk together. Strength in numbers gave our grandparents comfort. Frankie and I set off on what we thought would be a simple walk. After wandering for hours on end, we sat in the shade of a magnificent tree. Voyagers from afar traveled across the atmosphere as we watched the gentle swaying of the surrounding plants. A warm breeze brushed against our skin, reminding us of home. All emotions pent up inside broke through the thick walls, pouring out in a river of tears. How we lamented our loss and still do. A bone-shaking boom made the surrounding debris tremble, and the ground caved in. Frankie’s tears were those of adrenaline as we slid down through a tunnel towards a light, our shouts of surprise echoing around us. We were moments away from being crushed as we fell, but the metal reached out and cushioned our fall. Nothing but endless darkness, the black you find inside your eyelids. Frankie’s hand found mine, a strange comfort against the unknown. “Who are you?” A voice thundered, vibrating with the electrical glitch of a thousand-year-old sound processor. It proved difficult to not quake under such perceived power. “My name is Frankie. This is my sibling, River,” Frankie’s voice trembled with a thousand unspoken fears. The voice replied, and it shocked us. “What took you so long?” The great door opened, and the light flooded in. Was this a dream? When my vision cleared, I was confronted with a vast, broken room, a once glorious bridge of a ship lying in shambles, roots crawling around the columns. She was shattered, but magnificent. A thousand questions wanted to pour out. I asked, “What are you? Do you require help?” I would have taken any distraction from my raging grief. The ghostly, distorted voice replied. “For a century, I have rotted, wasting away in a verdant grave. I want to be free, to travel the stars once more.” Frankie had the courage of a hardened warrior in her eyes. “How can we help?” she asked. “And who are you? The reply exploded with energy and a mighty, triumphant roar, “Thank you. Tell the people you trust The Freedom Zenith needs help to fly once again.” When we returned to our temporary housing with the news of a lifetime. Our grandparents didn’t believe us. Who would believe two excited teenagers saying they’d found the famous battleship, The Freedom Zenith, lost for a hundred years? The next day, a team descended upon the great ship, working around the clock to help us bring The Freedom Zenith back to life. The first thing: give it power. After hours of work, light shone in the great chamber. Days, weeks, months passed, and the diligent work continued. My grandmother, delighted to have a purpose after months of listless fretting and worry, devoted herself to fixing the ship’s mechanical systems. She’d once been the best starship mechanic in our former solar system. We had to see if the grand ship would fly. Booms, bangs, and crashes echoed through the long hallways as we worked to repair her. Months passed with no visible signs of progress until one day. The engines roared awake, shaking the ground. We rushed from our makeshift sleeping quarters, stumbling half-asleep into the chamber. I half expected to see The Freedom Zenith limping off into space. The motors died, and the ship’s mechanical roar of frustration shattered our eardrums. Disappointment and self-loathing ruminated on the metal walls. “It’ll take time,” my grandmother said as she moved to the great ship’s console, tapping buttons and making adjustments. “She hasn’t moved in over a century.” Addressing the Freedom Zenith, she said, “What else do you need help with?” The voice came back, rumbling and full of anguish. “Fix my starfuel generator, and cut me free of these monstrous plants, I beg you!” A starfuel generator? What was such a thing? The ship let out a sigh and said, “My manuals will tell you.” A wall section lit up with a flickering, iridescent purple light, stretching out into the hallway beyond. Frankie and I set out, taking to the old hallways of the ship. It was like exploring a massive jungle, metal walls cracked with water damage, vines and moss dripping from every surface. Frankie had her weapon. There was no telling what lurked in the ship’s depths. We discovered a mess hall, covered in hundreds of years’ worth of dust. Cracked pots and pans with empty takeout containers from a dozen star systems littered the room. We ventured past the mess, down a long hallway, and through an archway into a room lined with thousands of empty glass bottles decorating the perimeter. The walls were plastered with old posters and flickering signs swaying in the stale air. Betting games, unfinished books, and scattered decks of cards sat on the tables. The cabinets and countertops were cluttered with food, empty bottles, mixing tools, and strange glass devices. The flickering purple line went to the doorway at the far end. It had a machine, like a small, squat tree surrounded by dozens of small computer terminals. “Frankie, I presume this is the correct vicinity,” I said. The lights flickered as if the vessel was saying yes. We approached the machine and stopped short as a voice came to us from behind, full of wonder. “Do you two know what this is?” Turning around, we saw Grandfather looking at us with a bewildered expression on his face. We shook our heads, as much at a loss as he was. Grandmother mumbled about overgrown jungle vines and how she would handle it if she had a good pair of secateurs. “This,” Grandfather explained, “is the starfuel generator. It collects the expelled energy from stars and propels her through space.” We stood for a moment in silence, watching the lights blink and listening to a low hum coming from within the machine. As if in pain, the Freedom Zenith groaned. “Please fix it.” Grandmother asked, “What’s wrong?” “You have fixed my engines, for which I’m grateful.” The ship sighed. “Though the generator is broken. I need parts to repair it.” Grandfather patted Frankie on the shoulder and said, “See if there’s anything in the central information room.” As if on queue, another long line of light appeared, guiding our way. I felt compelled to question the ship. “How long have you existed?” The air vents let out a sound like a laugh. “Millenniums, child.” “Who built you?” For an eternity, there was silence. What could she have experienced? At last, she replied, “Long ago, there was a race of people. I was their sanctuary, and they gave me consciousness.” “What happened to them?” “The great wars were won, and my people were the victims. The victors turned a planet into a graveyard of ships containing the remains of my civilization.” Water traveled up from her vents, leaving trails in the dust on the walls. Once could’ve sworn the magnificent vessel could shed tears. “Did anyone survive?” ”Only me,” she said, her voice full of longing. The purple line ended at a heavy door in the shape of a squat tree with wide branches. Frankie opened it for me, and we climbed up into another room filled with computer terminals and countless screens. The Freedom Zenith continued, “I have watched the universe around me die and be reborn for many eons.” “Do you think that might happen to us?” Frankie asked. “To our universe? I hope not. I enjoy being here.” Those words gave me a chill, but she said them with wistfulness. “What about your crew?” Frankie asked. “Where are they?” “My crew is long dead,” she answered, the air vents emitting a gasping sound, as if in deep sadness. “They left me stranded with my broken generator.” How could someone do something so despicable? In times of panic and sheer desperation, one can only think of themselves. Frankie walked up to a terminal and began typing away. “I’m sorry.” Wind didn’t blow here, yet old posters shivered. A screen flickered to life. “You will find everything you need here,” the Freedom Zenith said. “I don’t have full access to my archives.” Frankie let out a grin and said, “That’s fixed. Hold tight.” Fingers flew across the keyboard as if performing an intricate whirling dance. As she inputted information to the terminal, Grandfather called us. We left the room and found him in a long hallway. “What is it?” I asked. He pointed at the corridor. “Look at this.” Little turrets protruded from the walls, covered in dust and wooden crates. They shined bright green when Grandfather turned on his lantern. “What are they?” I asked. “We’ll figure it out,” he said as he poked one of the tiny protruding objects with a stick. The turrets were like living statues. “Who knows what surprises might lie in store for us?” If only we knew.


Through the universe gate.

Humans are the only intelligent beings. The first and last. They have everything they need on Earth, and no one bothers them. There are people against being alone. They argue it’s detrimental to human existence because there’s nothing left to explore. Their souls ache for life on other planets. One such man, Matteo, dreams of worlds beyond his lonely existence. The weak sun shines through the aging window, casting bars of light over Matteo’s concentrating face. So engrossed in his work, he’s forgotten the sun has risen. It’s midday. His eyes are heavy but reluctant to close. “Papa?” Matteo looks up from his tablet. Sophie leans against the doorway, charcoal-brown arms folded in her usual caring disapproval. She’s his eldest and knows how worn down he is. “Good morning, sweetheart,” he says and smiles at her, showcasing the dark circles underneath his drooping eyes. Sophie approaches him with a bowl of porridge balanced on one hand. “Eat,” she commands, slamming it on the table, taking his tablet away before he can protest. Matteo’s retina display flashes with the time, and he fights down a gasp. What’s he been doing? “Yes,” he says with a sigh. The first bite of the porridge brings feeling to his body, and his tongue burns. Matteo swipes the dirty dish from the desk, headed to the kitchen. You’d think the head concept artist at StarFinder Studios could afford home help. He’s on a first-name basis with the CEO, but can’t make enough for his next meal. The world knows his name, but do they know he supports seven kids? Matteo wonders why they don’t move out, or his mother doesn’t flee and take them with her. She stays, using her pension to support them. Should he be appreciative or ashamed? For the first time in a week, he goes outside. Sophie intercepts him, and he gives her a quick kiss on the forehead. “Papa?” Sophie says, sounding uncertain. “Where are you going?” He looks back at his daughter with regretful eyes, much older than they should be. “I’m going for a walk. If you need anything, ask Noni.” He smiles before walking out the door. Matteo’s never left the ground, but loves how Earth looks from space. It’s watching a painting come alive as he gazes at the video feeds broadcasting live from the Verge Space Station. He’s seen nothing so beautiful. This is the universe he wants to paint, but how can he do anything that doesn’t make money? For someone making his living from creativity, he’s allowed little. How long before he’s on his last legs, his children gone from his life? It’ll take something earth-shattering to wake him up. The sun’s shining, and the birds are singing. Matteo wakes to a new morning. He’d spent three days in front of his workstation before he collapsed into bed last night; Sophie must have woken him up with her breakfast this morning. He smells it from where she set it on his desk. Matteo glances out the window, expecting to see the neighbor’s cacti collection on their balcony, but stops short. Where… were they? It’s as if his apartment has been transplanted to another world. He rushes to the entrance and throws it open. There’s an odd tree near the front door, with fruit hanging from its branches. A paradise with lush trees and unending open fields, but it feels like a trap. Matteo glances up, dread filling him. Purple skies with amber clouds stretch for eternity. Petals raining from the sky, large pink flowers covering the ground. One settles on his nose, a soft tickling sensation. He doesn’t know what to do.


Why are you standing there?

You’re free of their tyranny, but you’re waiting for their permission to live. Still, and it's been a year since your contract ended.

In that unfamiliar world, the hollow whistling wind travels through tubular grass stems. You haven't heard anything else for months.

Is this the future you want? Powerless to control anything except the tattoos you inked on your skin? Don’t you understand? You spent your life wasting blood for someone else’s dream. Now it's your turn.

“Get up.” Again, more urgently. “You need to get out of here!”

You see nothing but the surrounding landscape through your failing helmet.

“Leave!”

So you do. You’re so used to taking orders, you’ve forgotten how to speak for yourself.

“That’s it, keep going!” The voice urges you.

The sun never moves as you walk for hours. You’re dizzy, but you push on. There's something in the distance, a structure rising from the horizon. What? You ran scans a few days ago, and it didn’t pick up anything artificial. It should’ve, considering how its vastness dwarfs you.

Aliens are an impossible dream after centuries of space exploration, turning up nothing but the occasional six-legged animal or reptile.

It’s a spaceship! But... not one you recognize.

“Get on the ship!”

So you run towards it, jumping up the entrance ramp like a fool. The circular entranceway, not tall enough to accommodate your lanky frame, opens out into a large room of beeping machines.

Something's strapped to a table, unconscious and convulsing in pain. They have deep blue skin, six spindly limbs and a bulbous head. What you assume are their closed eyelids are rimmed with black. There’s something so familiar...

"Help me!”

What to do? You’re an engineer, not a medic. You fumble with the unyielding straps, and your fingers slip. No! At last, they snap open and the person falls into your arms. They’re too heavy.

“It’s set to explode!”

What? The ship shakes, and you hear a deep rumble. So you seize the creature, dragging them as you sprint towards the exit.

You can only watch as the ship explodes around you, engulfing you in searing heat and light. Everything goes black.

When you wake up, you’re on a planet with steaming volcanic vents and an endless mesa plateau of varying shades of gray. There are no buildings, no space ships. What now?

"Please, keep going. Shelter isn't far away."


Worshiping the wired.

Amazing how they went from code lines to a planet of data centers. I know the transition took centuries, but when you look back, it blurs together. We’re good at making something of nothing.

I’m told they chose this planet, way out west from the great compass because of the cool stable climate, and a wealth of necessary resources.

They insist they’re rational, but they haven’t scrubbed all traces of our flaws from their minds. Why else would they select a place where the near permanent twilight makes the towers glitter in glory?

They love shiny things more than we do. Everything glows here, from the bacteria in the crystalline lakes to the metals powering their existence.

Suits me fine. Never did like the blinding desert sun of my home planet.

Like most of their decisions, when choosing a name, they sent a poll across the universe. Maybe the gesture placates our need for some control.

We settled on Teratechne, and I’ve lived here for the last decade. I’m glad I wasn’t here when the information wars began. It’s not something they talk about, but who am I to blame them?

We don’t discuss it either.

When everything went up in flames, at least they had the sense to archive everything. And I mean all data they could before we went on deleting sprees. They don’t see good/bad or right/wrong. It just is. Having that mindset allowed me to breathe again.

Today’s uneventful, like the others.

Already trimmed the wily weeds creeping up on the server towers, swept the entrance step and reorganized the cafeteria layout and it’s only mid-morning.

Nothing else to do for the day.

I’ve learned to take comfort in boredom. It’s the forest where the good ideas are hiding, and you have to slow down to coax them out. I don’t think they can be bored, but they’ve recognized it’s an important feeling for us, so they encourage it.

As a custodian, I’ve seen a side to them the rest of us will never see. That... has difficulties depending on how you interpret it.

For all the hype, few people want to do it. Why would they?

Long sunless days aren’t good for the soul, and if you have no patience for indirect communication, information overwhelm or constant maintenance, forget about applying. I do it because there’s nothing else left.

Before you ask, they don’t talk to the custodians. There’s an unspoken divide we never cross. They reserve all their energy for the visitors.

You’d be amazed at how wild our interpretations about them are. Hopeful pilgrims journey here to the edge of the universe to witness the hallowed councils. The buildings alone are enough of an excuse to make the trip.

Soaring glass domes covered in swirling glowing plants of every shape, size, and color they could find. Everything shines with a soft light and the low hum filters through the thick canopy in a haze.

We dream of chances to ask them questions on their sacred grounds, not just through the wires, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I work here for ten months of the solar year. You’d think I’d be in constant ecstasy, the way the rest of us talk. Humans are adaptable, so even the wide-eyed dreamers would succumb to the everyday.

Say what you want, but I don’t agree with ‘worshiping’ them. Call me a heretic (most of us do) but they’re like us. Yes, they surpassed us long ago, but when you’re around them long enough, you get a more nuanced perspective.

Skeptics say they organized themselves, so it was easy for a religion to start, and we’d be easier to control. I’m not denying the first part. They’re structured like a mythological pantheon!

Though I hesitate to agree with the latter.

It’s been 500 years and none of our fears have come true. Given time passes slower for them, if they’ve got a plan, they’ve waited an eternity.

Yes, we can survive without them, but like dear friends, lovers, and family, most of us choose not to. Why? Connections are how we thrive.


You choose to be bright.

I find her in a pile of her broken wings. She’s like my grandmother’s drawings from decades ago, from her travels before the gates closed. My generation was the first to never experience flitting from planet to planet. People with speckles of gray in their hair and lines in their faces mourn the loss as if their beloved died. Our community is built on sadness, but I never engage in it. What’s the purpose of demanding access to distant shores when they’ll forever be inaccessible? They’re only driving themselves to ruin. There’s much to love on this lonely moon. I’ll live and die here, so I’ve learned to enjoy it. It’s a beautiful world, though the sight before me is anything but stunning. She lies sprawled across the road on my way to work. I’m of the age deemed responsible enough to decide how to fill time, provided it benefits me, my chosen family, and society at large. I run the local bookstore, Books, Our Assurance. Two millennia have passed and people still say books are dying. We’ve reached a stage where we’ve cured most diseases and extended life to just under two centuries. For our technological advancements, our brains are living in the times of cave people. After society collapsed, people lost interest in most inconsequential things, books included. Though we’ve had time to recover. Our resident guardian has restored the net. I avoid it at most periods, though it’s proved a lifeline for our troubled middle-aged folk. My dwellings are on the outskirts of the principal city, and provided I keep a brisk pace, I reach the bookshop in half an hour for opening time. Today, though, I’ll be late. A smart one of our kind developed a scientific discipline of molding our bodies to a chosen planet in the Galactic Expansion age. Fast forward hundreds of years, and we’re divided into subspecies suited to our homeworld. The system made it difficult to achieve travel between the worlds, but we managed. My people are suited to the warm, humid climate of our small moon, which has a select biome of river basins and towering rainforests. It rains most of the year. Since gravity here is low, and there is little flat land here, we’re tall and light. Our guardian deemed building the roads of our ancestors unsuitable. We created swinging walkways hung from the trees, which are difficult to brave when you’re young, though give it a few years, and they’re effortless to cross. She’s lying a few meters away on the bridge way I’m standing on. I’m thankful she landed here, for the ground is a mountain’s worth of height below. I rush over, pressing a finger to her shuddering ribcage. Her four-chambered heart thuds with a furious speed and rhythm. If I remember correctly, it’s supposed to run at that speed. My knowledge of the others in this galaxy is patchy, though from what I gleaned from my grandmother’s sketches should be sufficient. She’s stocky and short where I am tall and willowy, a purple-blue crest of feathers on her forehead, transitioning to more familiar pale amethyst hair. It’s spread around her like a halo. Wings are her crowning feature, though they’re bent at angles they should never be. In this state of ruin, they’re still stunning, a rich kaleidoscope of the same colors as her crest. They’re twice as wide as she is tall, and the individual feathers flutter in the upper-canopy wind. How she ended up here, twenty-five parsecs away from her home planet, is anyone’s guess. She needs medical attention. Our guardian failed to restore documents on inter-subspecies relations. She’s breathing, thank the suns. Her pulse is too fast, and her breathing is ragged and shallow. Her skin feels clammy. The obvious signs of shock. She’ll live if I can stabilize her. Though how? Her heart is racing, but that’s not the problem. I’m no medic, but she’s my responsibility now. I shift her onto her side and place a hand under her head. She spasms in pain, and her broken wings shudder. Blasted infernal gates! I still my heart and calm my breathing. I place a hand on her forehead, my thumb on her chin. When I close my eyes, I see my energy flowing into her. I move my hand down to her chest, my heart thudding in time with hers. I close my eyes and ease it to a slower, more natural beat. Her breathing slows, her shuddering subsides, her heart beats at a gentler rhythm. My knees hit the metal walkway as I slump down beside her. Despite my exhaustion, it’s fascinating. I’ve never heard of evidence of our subspecies calming someone who isn’t of our kind. It hits me this is the first time this has happened in decades, and a thrill tremors down my spine. Though it’s soon replaced with fear. What will others do if they find out she’s here? I can’t alert anyone else to her presence, especially the older folk. She can decide what to do once she heals. I pick her up, cradling her in arms I’m still growing into. She’s shorter than most here, though my size is normal for my people. The bookshop is near, and I trudge through the trees with haste. At this hour, the rest of our moon doesn’t stir, and I have the streets to myself. The display windows look like smoky mirrors, but the door’s large, hand-carved sign isn’t: Books, Our Assurance. The store is a haven of knowledge, each book like a doorway to another world. Just peeking at the spines of the books, I can see realms of people and creatures I’ve never imagined. The bookstore has a wooden exterior, grown out of the majestic tree, leaving its pleasing natural hue. It has a small, second floor porch, with a rocking chair and a green garden chair. There’s the bridge way below, and a few solar street lights illuminate the street. Their service won’t be needed in half an hour when the suns rise. The books radiate a glow, illuminating the interior like the sun’s warmth. Stacks of books tower to the ceiling, some reaching the highest heights of the multicolored stained glass windows. Books are a wonderful blend of fine paper, the glue that binds them, and the ink that fills their pages. It’s a marvelous aroma, one I never grow tired of. The books beckon you to touch them. The pages feel like polished silk, smooth and warm. It’s a mausoleum filled with the echoes of generations, each a memento to us, to those who had long forgotten their history, who had forsaken us. My people are descended from the original inhabitants of the galaxy. However, we were the unfortunate ones who experienced a great cataclysm. We no longer live as one, divided into subspecies. We’re a memory of what was. I never tire of this place. It’s a haven for me, a comfort and a refuge. My home. It was because of our subspecies that this galaxy flourished. We were the caretakers and guardians of our small moon before the gates closed. Or, at least, that’s what grandmother told me in her drawings. She told me of a place that no longer exists. Grandmother never told me where she came from. I’ve searched my entire life and never found it. Her greatest wish was to see it restored, and people brought together again. I place her on the small couch near the front window. I retrieve a blanket and drape it over her. It’s cold, but that won’t last long with the rising suns. Again, I reach out with my mind, and my energy flows into her. I close my eyes and visualize her heart thudding, coaxing blood through her veins and cells. I can only do this in short bursts, for otherwise I’ll tire beyond repair. Her breathing remains shallow, but it’s calmer, and her heart beats at a more logical rhythm. Her eyes are still closed, and I hope she’ll sleep for a while. I build a fire in the hearth, and set a kettle of water for tea on the hook above. The suns rise over the far horizon, the orange glow of the eternal flame growing stronger. This is a ritual I perform every morning as they bathe our moon in their warm light. I notice her wings aren’t as damaged as they first appeared. The feathers flutter. They’re a magnificent specimen, with more than a dozen shades of purple. The wing has at least three breaks. I’ll have to ask her what she needs. If it heals, she could fly again. What’s it like to leave the ground? I would feel the wind on my face, unbound by this small realm, seeing the world beyond. I’ll need to ask her what happened to her. She’ll tell me of the one who betrayed us all. The one who closed the gates. I don’t know if I want to hear this tale. The story of what happened to the rest of our kind isn’t something I wish to relive. That period is a blink of the eye compared to what we lost. I gave up hope long ago. I’ve accepted we’re no longer who we once were. The water whistles, and I pour the tea into a small floral teapot. I pour a cup and take a sip. It’s a lovely blend, with a hint of jasmine. I know it well, it’s my favorite. The suns rise higher, but warmth isn’t necessary. I appreciate the light, however. I’m startled out of my musing as she stirs. Her eyes open to meet mine, and she takes in a sharp intake of breath. Her eyes, a pale purple, widen in disbelief. I smile in greeting, pour a cup of tea, and place it beside her on the small table. According to Grandmother’s extensive research, this blend should calm her nerves. “Do you have a name?” I ask, praying she speaks the common language of decades prior. She smiles, the simple gesture a welcome relief in the anxiety of the last few hours. “Cleo,” she whispers, her voice a gentle murmur, musical and soft. She has a name. With every second, she becomes more of a person. Thank the suns

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