The lost stars sea, p.1
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       The Lost Star's Sea, p.1

           C. Litka
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The Lost Star's Sea
The Lost Star's Sea

  The Lost Star Stories Volume Two

  C. Litka

  Copyright 2017 Charles Litka

  Thanks for downloading this eBook. You're welcome to share it with friends. This book may be reproduced, copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes, provided the book remains in its complete original form.

  A version of Part One of this book, "Castaways," was originally published as "Castaways of the Lost Star" in 2016. The rest of this book is new material. Readers of "Castaways of the Lost Star" can start with Chapter 11 for the rest of Wil Litang's adventures.

  If you should happen upon any mistakes, I'd be delighted to correct them as well. You can email me at cmlitka@gmail.com Thank you.

  Information and news about my other and upcoming books, can be found here:

  C. Litka's Works in Words Blog

  Dedication

  I would like to dedicate this book to my wife and friends who spent many hours making this book better than I could have ever made it by myself - and far more fun. I am very grateful to Sally Litka, Hannes Bimbacher, Carlos, Dale Shamp, Bwaudou Sirip, and Walt for their eagle eyes and all their helpful comments.

  Chapter 01 Things Gang A'gley

  Can you dream pain?

  Fear, yes. I felt that, but was the sharp splinter of pain in my head part of the dream as well? Dream-like, it had no context - no beginning, no end, no reason to be - pain and blackness as far back as I could remember. Yet it seemed too real to be a dream. I must've slipped into consciousness. Not good. I need to do something. But what?

  Perhaps if I tried opening my eyes. Ouch! Maybe not.

  "Oh, just do it, Willy," I told myself.

  I was very reluctant to just do it. I was pretty certain I wasn't going to like what I'd see and I wasn't that curious. Even with the pain, there was some comfort in the blackness.

  "Do it now," I ordered myself.

  Action may not be the antidote for the pain, but it might be for the fear lurking on the edge of my consciousness.

  "What the Neb?" I tried opening them.

  A new dart of pain. I stopped, took a breath and tried again, prying them open a slit.

  It was still black. But not quite as black - there were fuzzy shadows and shapes. Slowly turning my head to one side - ouch! - I made out the sheen of screens and rows of buttons close to my head. Turning it the other way, I saw the outlines of a small compartment lit by a faint shaft of greenish light coming from beyond my viewing angle. I kept my eyes open long enough to recognize two pilot chairs facing a control console and a semi-familiar pattern of shadows - a boat's control compartment.

  I'd seen enough.

  I closed my eyes and tried to make sense of my discovery. Picturing myself within the boat's compartment I realized I was likely lying on the folded out treatment table of the boat's emergency med-unit. That semi-explained the pain, though not why I was still in pain. The med-unit should've taken care of that. I let that question slide, and tackled the big one. Where was I and what had landed me here so painfully in the dark?

  Came up blank. All blackness. No memories, beyond a sense of self. Fighting panic, I told myself that the blackness could be explained by the pain in my head.

  I lifted a hand to my forehead to find a painful lump over my left eye with a dart of pain that ricocheted around my head when I touched it. It felt odd, dead-like. That took several seconds to register - I was feeling a synth-skin patch. Right. A blow to the head, now patched. Don't remember doing that, but I must've. Where did that get me?

  Nowhere.

  I decided I needed to do something more. Should I sit up? I considered doing it.

  Sometime later, "Anytime now," I told myself.

  "Still, easier said than done." But I tried. It hurt and I didn't get far. It took me awhile, but eventually I realized that I was strapped to the treatment table. Finding and releasing the strap, I swung upright easily enough - the boat was in free fall - and stared about the small, dim lit compartment through the little flashes of light before my eyes and darts of pain. The boat was eerily silent, and with no status lights glowing, clearly powerless - dead.

  I studied the shadow shapes. The details were unfamiliar. It wasn't the Starry Shore's gig or longboat - that much came back to me from out of the darkness. Ah, had to be the Rift Raven's gig, left behind aboard the Starry Shore. I'd taken it to return to the Archipelago of the Tenth Star.

  To kill Hawker Vinden. A stupid idea. Bad karma. Not that Vinden didn't need killing. I just wasn't the one to do it. Too Unity Standard. Clearly it had proved to be an ill-considered idea, though try as I might, I couldn't push the curtain of blackness wide enough apart to know how it had gone so wrong.

  "Are you going to find the answers just sitting here, Willy?" I asked myself, and then replied, "No, but do I really want to find the answers?"

  Not that I had a choice. I was still alive.

  I was surprised to note that I was wearing a darter on my hip. I didn't wear darters as a rule. Not unless I was going out into the Pela. You always wore darters out in the Pela. There are dragons and talon-tigers about. That thought released an additional rush of memories.

  I remembered taking over control of the gig from Botts - who had been remotely piloting it from the Starry Shore - on reaching the edge of the Pela and just before I lost radio contact with the ship, I reminded Molaye to give me twelve days and then clear out for the Unity. I then followed the string of laser-linked buoys to Redoubt Island, periodically sending a brief message to Tenry aboard the Rift Raven, without a response. Radio range is very limited in the Pela by its islands and atmosphere, so I wasn't concerned and cautiously pressed on.

  Cautiously being the key word. I'd a feeling I wouldn't be warmly welcomed back by anyone, unless it was with missiles. Tenry, however, would give me a chance to explain and warn me off, if he felt it was too dangerous.

  I reached Redoubt Island without receiving a response, so I was not surprised when the radar showed no hunting party or guard boats around it. As it came into visual, I found it floating serenely, fresh and green in the light blue-green sky, with the usual birds, minor dragons, flying feathered lizards and fist-sized beetles darting through its spiny forests, soaring over its little mossy glens and circling its knobby, lichen covered knolls. I edged the boat closer. The entrance to the secret redoubt was a black shadow in the vine laced cliff. The paths radiating from the cave were still distinct and the mooring spars that had held the anchored warships off the island were floating in a tangle of vines along the shore. I remembered feeling a mixture of disappointment and relief. I was slightly ashamed about that relief.

  With the fleet gone, my options narrowed, but got less iffy. I'd return to the airless outer region, and there, await the Cimmadar fleet's emergence from the Pela. Once we were both in the airless region, I could deliver my warnings by radio from millions of kilometers away, well out of missile range. And as long as they were still in a hurry to reach their first objective, the Cimmadar space station in the shell-reef, that emergence would be sooner rather than later.

  Still, something, obviously, went wrong.

  But what?

  Blackness. Well, not quite. The darter.

  There was one other reason for returning to Redoubt Island. Naylea Cin. That one had too many strands to neatly unravel. I just knew I had to land. And so I must've, hence the darter on my hip.

  Then...

  Blank. And try as I might, I could not dredge up any memory of landing, nor, any explanation of how I ended up in this condition. And sitting in the dark compartment, I had a very incomplete idea of what this condition involved, save that I was pretty sure I wasn't going to like it.

  "I suppose I might as wel
l face it," I said to myself. "Aye," reluctantly.

  I slipped off the edge of the med-unit table, my boots latching on to the deck, and stood, the pain sloshing around my head with every movement. I glanced down to my boots and noted that I was wearing the claw attachments used to enable walking on the gravity-less islands. I was set to leave the gig - but then the darter on my hip told me that as well.

  I punched a few buttons on the med unit just to make sure it was dead. It was. So I started towards the companionway, brushing some floating leaves and twigs out of my way and noted that the air had a sweet tang of crushed vegetation to it. Not good. And on reaching the short companionway to the gig's main compartment, I wasn't surprised to see a light streaming through a wide hole torn in the crumpled bow of the gig. Beyond, a wall of vegetation, with faint, greenish light filtering through it.

  As I stepped into the dim compartment, one of the darker green shadows stirred. My heart jumped to my throat as it uncoiled into a long, slender, crocodile like dragon in green feathers. It yawned, showing lots of teeth, and lazily undulated towards me with a swish of its tail, swimming through the air as if in a pool of clear, green-lit water to drift right up to me, touching its cold nose to mine. I stood stock still and croaked 'Hi.'

  She studied me for several seconds with her bright black eyes, and then, opening her mouth a little, hissed dismissively, sending a puff of rather rotten dragon's breath my way. That said, she waved her four limbs to back off a bit and turning away, slowly undulating her body and tail to swim across the compartment and out through the hole in the bow to disappear from sight in the crumpled foliage.

  My heartbeat, pounding painfully in my head, slowly returned to normal. I had recognized her as a sentry-serpent like the one, if not the same one, who had been nesting at the entrance to the hidden base on Redoubt Island. I'd gotten to, reluctantly, know her better when she and her youngsters had taken shelter aboard the Raven during the talon-hawk attack. The little ones were everywhere, and mom, well she seemed to have taken great delight in swimming up behind me whenever I was working just to hear me yelp when I turned to find myself nose to nose with a feathered crocodile. I'd little doubt that this was the same sentry-serpent. I'd only met the one full grown one, but this one's attitude seemed awfully familiar.

  Looking around I could see the compartment had been greatly compressed by a powerful collision. Half the compartment was a crumpled and torn hunk of debris. I couldn't remember what had happened. It was a wonder I was alive to wonder about it at all.

  The next question - where was I? Likely Redoubt Island, but that would hardly explain the condition of the ship. I'd have to look outside. Stepping over to the gaping hole, I discovered a narrow passage in the tangle of vines along the hull of the boat. I wiggled out and pulled myself up along the hull for a couple of meters to stand on the engine room bulkhead in the milky Pela sunlight. The gig, or rather the wreck of it, lay tangled in vines at the bottom of a ten-meter-deep vine-walled crater, no doubt formed by the impact of the gig in this deep mat of vines. The engine compartment was another crumpled mass of metal twisted off to one side. I felt a wave of cold black despair welling up within me. There was no way home. And the Pela, for all its beauty, was no place for Wil Litang. Fate could have been kinder and let me die with the gig.

  As the despair settled into a dull black ache, I tried to cheer myself up with the thought that the Cimmadarians may have left enough behind in their base to make my chances of surviving a little better than it appeared. I couldn't be too far from the base. Best find out where I was, so I stepped over to the almost perpendicular wall of torn and twisted vines and started up the side of the crater.

  I found a flattened plain of vines on top, stretching before me for some 60 meters and ending in a pale sky dotted with the vague shapes of distant islands. The battered vines must have been flattened by some great force or impact. Out of habit, I glanced up and around and then behind me, checking for nearby dragons. I saw none, but sitting on the edge of the island, not more than 20 meters away was what I took to be a spaceer with the sentry-serpent draped across his or her lap. The spaceer was facing away from me, but wore a spaceer's cap at a rakish angle over wild grey hair, and the black jumpsuit type work garment favored by engineers. He or she was idly petting or combing the feathers of the sentry-serpent. For a long moment I put the image down to the blow on my head. I closed my eyes for a second to clear my mind, but they were still there when I opened them again, so I scrambled up, and setting my toe claws firmly into the torn and matted vines, started for them.

  'Hello!' I called out as I carefully crossed the little island.

  The sentry-serpent, who had been watching me approach, hissed. The spaceer turned toward me and said, in a gravelly voice, 'Ah, Litang, so you've finally decided to join the living. Good. I was worried that the knock on your head was more serious than I took it to be. You certainly bled enough. Patched you up the best I could without med-unit.'

  I stopped and stared. It was Glen Colin. No, but a close match. He had the same droopy mustache, and dissipated, whiskery face, the same oily jumpsuit open to the waist with a dirty grey shirt underneath. But he wasn't quite right, he was like a dream Glen Colin.

  'Are you all right?' he asked, seeing me stop and stare.

  'Yes, no. Sorry. My head feels like it has a spike through it. Who are you and what happened? The blow to my head seems to have set my wits adrift.'

  'Well then, don't go banging your head on the control console.'

  'Yes, certainly, but why was I doing that?'

  'I suppose because you were unconscious when the island blew up and I was too busy with one thing and another to stop you.'

  ''The island blew up?' I muttered, still dazed and confused as I reached the edge of the flattened vines where they abruptly fell off into the bottomless sky. The spaceer was sitting on a large vine, feet dangling over the ragged edge, though I noted that he'd carefully slipped one leg under a smaller vine for a bit of safety. In these weightless conditions an unexpected strong gust of wind could lift you off if you weren't careful. The big sentry-serpent shifted about to watch me.

  'I'm sorry, but you'd better start at the beginning. I'm completely adrift. Who are you, how do you know me, and how did we get here?'

  The spaceer looked up and regarded me with bright, laughing, grey eyes under his - no, her - (false) bushy brows. 'Forgotten me, have you? We've crossed orbits before.'

  I recognized the eyes. Even in that false face, I recognized her eyes. We had indeed crossed orbits before and they sent such a dart of joy and relief through my heart that I forgot my pain. 'Naylea!' I exclaimed, and just stood beaming down at her. I hadn't killed her.

  'Blast!' he/she frowned, and then laughed under her drooping mustache, 'How'd you recognize me? This is our finest living mask and voice transponder; it should've been impenetrable!'

  'Well, you recognized me - with my beard - on the flagship.'

  'Who said I did?' she growled in her strange, raspy voice. 'You were just a body in the line of fire. Even if I killed you, you weren't likely to fall out of my way, so I needed a diversion to give me a second or two to get a clear shot at my prime targets. Discharging a dart on your cap emblem should've provided one. '

  Her eyes didn't lie, and I saw in them that he/she wasn't expecting me to believe that. 'Right,' I said with a smile.

  'Besides, you should've missed.'

  'You can't beat luck,' I replied, and then, crouching down, I took one of her hands in mine. 'And then it deserted me. I'm so sorry... I was so careless?'

  'What are you raving about, Litang?' he/she growled, giving me a look I couldn't read between her uncanny mask and racing thoughts.

  'You see, it never occurred to me to post a guard by your sleep pod. I assumed Vinden would come after me, not you, so his men just slipped aboard and kidnapped you.'

  'Oh, that. Never mind. It gave me a second chance to kill Min and Vinden.'

  She wouldn
't be alive, if she had tried, so I ignored that.

  'I felt terrible. You were my responsibility...'

  'I was your prisoner. And I gather from the gossip that you made quite a fool of yourself making me one.'

  'I'd no choice. A matter of principle. Several of them. And yet after all that fuss, I just let them kidnap you as easily as simply cutting a door-panel latch. What a fool I was!'

  He/she, Cin/ Glen Colin, gave me a long, searching look from under those shaggy brows, and that strange face, and then said, still in a low gravelly voice, 'No harm done. You were also careless about disarming me which allowed me to look after myself.'

  'It wasn't carelessness. At the time I was simply concerned about getting you in stasis before you recovered from the dart. D'Lay told me that stealths often had implanted capacitors that greatly nullify a dart's effects, so I was in a hurry to get you secured. We could finish disarming you before we revived you. I wanted to get my thoughts in order before we talked.'

  She noticed that I still held her hand, and gently pulled it away. I sat down on the edge of the island beside her and the serpent dragon, planted its tail on my lap and gave me a meaningful look.

  'She wants you to preen her. She had a rough ride. See how messed up her feathers are? She's very fussy about them. They have to go just so,' he/she said, combing her fingers through them. 'Each in its place. You never ruffle them...' which she then proceeded to do.

  The dragon reared its head back and opening its wide mouth, gave a loud angry 'hisssss!'.

  'Oh hush, Siss,' exclaimed Cin, gently swatting the angry sentry-serpent lightly on its crocodile snout. 'I was just showing Litang what he shouldn't do.'

  Which pretty much summed up Cin. Annoying a wild, three-meter-long dragon just to show me what annoys it. And then scolding it when it got annoyed.

  'Why the sentry-serpent anyway?' I asked, carefully combing some ruffled feathers into place - never one to ruffle a dragon's feathers when it could be helped.

  'I'm not sure I'd a choice.'

  It, she, Siss, gave a small bark and wagged the tip of its tail. She swung her head around to give me an eye.

  'If she's the sentry-serpent from the grotto we're old shipmates. She took shelter aboard the Raven during the talon-hawk attack.'

  'She is. I set up my base in a crevasse behind her nest in order to discourage casual callers. We bonded, didn't we Siss?'

  A bark of agreement from Siss.

  'And once everyone left, it was just Siss and I. She must have gotten used to company, so when it came time to leave, she insisted on coming along.'

  'Ah, yes... About that. I don't seem to remember, well, anything really. I take it I landed on Redoubt Island...' I muttered, rubbing my forehead. The pain had returned. 'What exactly happened after that? And why was I banging my head on the console?'

  'Aye, you landed. I was watching from the cavern. And when you emerged to tie the gig up, I put a dart in your back,' he/she laughed.

  'Why? You must've guessed I'd landed for you, on the chance that you were still live.'

  'Hardly a given. Didn't matter. You had just handed me another chance to complete my mission. All I had to do was capture your gig. I figured putting a dart in your back before you sealed the boat it would save us from a lot of unpleasantness, and - for you - pain, if it prove necessary to convince you to unseal it and turn it over to me. Besides, it felt good?' he/she smiled and mimicked aiming and firing a darter.

  All likely true. I shrugged. 'No matter. What's another dart between us? So what happened next? You said the island blew up...'

  'I assume so. I hauled you into the gig and secured you in the co-pilot's chair, gathered my gear from the cavern, and after failing to chase Siss out - she insisted on coming along - I had just closed the gig's hatch when the whole Neb-blasted island must have exploded.

  'It could have been a timed explosion - burning bridges and all that. They had been expecting the Empress's navy to arrive at any moment, and had only sailed less than a round before you arrived. Or perhaps your boat's arrival set off a delayed booby trap. Who knows?

  'In any event, something big and powerful went off. Fortunately for us, the hunk of the island you landed on remained intact, shielding us from the full chaos of the blast and carrying us along as it shot outwards. I was slammed to the deck by the acceleration and had to crawl to the control compartment to try to power-up the boat. We were just slowing down enough for me to climb into the pilot's chair to get it under power when we hit the second island which sent the gig cartwheeling across it. I was hanging on for dear life, you were banging your head on the control console and poor Siss here was hanging on to both of us, terrified...'

  Siss protested with growl.

  'You were, my dear. It was all very frightening. Nothing to be ashamed of,' cooed Cin and then continued, 'And then we landed on this little piece of rock and vines - the gig dead; poor Siss was pretty shook up, and you were bleeding all over the place. I patched you up the best I could, soothed Siss, and came out here to get a read on our situation.'

  I had a hundred questions, but the pain in my head was back, and I tried, without noticeable success, to think of what to say or do next.

  'When can we expect the rescue boat?' Cin asked, breaking into my confused train of thoughts.

  'Huh? Rescue boat?' I glanced across to the old, disreputable spaceer engineer with Cin's grey eyes. Perhaps it was all a dream after all. I hadn't gotten around to considering a rescue.

  'How long will your crew wait before they come looking for you?'

  What should I say? And did it matter? Couldn't seem to think clearly, so I went with the truth. 'They're not. I told them to give me twelve days and if I was not back, sail without me. I'd find my own way home after that.'

  'And they'll obey you?' he/she laughed.

  ''They might.' I doubted it, which was a bright thought. 'But if they don't and send a boat in, they'd still have trouble finding us now that the island gone.'

  'Oh, I'm sure you could get the radio up and running.'

  'Maybe. The control compartment didn't seem to be too damaged. We'd need to rig a new antenna, but as long as we're not too far from Redoubt Island we should be able to make contact.'

  He/she fished a compact survey viewer out from one of the pockets of her grimy jumpsuit, and put it to her eyes. 'I've been tracking our movement against that large island. I think it's the island we bounced across. Redoubt Island may have been ten kilometers or so beyond it. The viewer scale is showing that we're still drifting away from that large island at about 20 kilometers an hour,' she said, pointing to a distant shadow of an island.

  'The thing is, I have a feeling this little island is drifting in the air currents. With the blast behind us, we should be slowing down and we're not.'

  'Aye,' I muttered while trying to do the math in my head. 'At 20 kilometers an hour, we could be six thousand kilometers away from the point where they'd start looking, assuming the current continues to take us away.'

  'Too far for radio contact?'

  'Yes,' I said, and glanced about. The sky was brighter looking away from the island. 'And it looks like we're drifting inwards, so there's no chance of them passing close enough on their inward journey to pick up our signals. '

  'So we could be here for a while.'

  'For forever,' I muttered, as a wave of black despair closed in around me. I wasn't going to grow cha on a green peak above a blue shimmering sea. Or see my family and shipmates again. Or live a quiet, civilized, Unity Standard life. Or a long one...

  'Wil?

  'Yes?' I said, giving her a curious glance, catching the "Wil" instead of the usual "Litang."

  'I need to make something clear - now, at the start. You need to know that I am still bound by my sacred vows to complete my mission, or die in the attempt.'

  'Which is?'

  'The primary one is to eliminate the two usurpers, Min and Vinden. Failing that, I was to disrupt their campaign as mu
ch as possible. But there is one more - my old, and still uncompleted, assignment - eliminating you.'

  I sighed. I had hoped? 'You've seen what's left of the gig. The Min and Vinden assignment is over. It's a planet astern. As for eliminating me, well, you've passed up too many chances for me to believe you will. The last time was just an hour ago,' I said, touching my synth-skin patch. I then added, 'It never mattered anyway and it certainly doesn't matter here and now. It's time for us to chart a new course, Naylea.'

  'I can't. I have no honorable course but to proceed as instructed, even if it is a trivial assignment - a lesson for me, a punishment for my failures. But there's more than honor or orders involved. You've destroyed me, and in doing so, ended my family. So there's revenge as well.'

  Her grey eyes had grown icy with anger, and perhaps sorrow. She wasn't teasing. And yet, if revenge she wanted, she could've had it on the flagship deck. I sighed. 'All I ever did was try to stay alive - and would've failed, except that you let me live, Naylea. It wasn't me who destroyed you or your family, it was you. But that's a planet astern as well. Our old life ended when the island exploded. We'll never return to the Nebula - it's gone forever. We have a new life now, and we could, perhaps, make it a good one if we worked together as shipmates and friends.'

  She shook her head. 'I was dead long before the island blew up. I'm only alive to die with honor. My revenge, Litang, will just sweeten the poison,' he/she said fiercely, before adding with an almost apologetic shrug, 'But I need you for a while - until the boat is repaired. So you live, for a while. Or even longer, if you can find the courage.'

  I just looked at her. 'Right.'

  'I mean it.'

  'Right now, living longer is no incentive at all.'

  'Oh, it will be, once you're feeling better. You're armed, you know? It's for my protection as well as yours - four eyes, two weapons against any dragons, talon-hawks and such. It's also your chance for that longer life. You're free to try to dart me - kill me or throw me overboard. Or escape, if you are too Unity Standard to kill me. I make no conditions. Saving my life on Redoubt Island bought you this chance to live, if you've the courage to take it.'

  'I can't?'

  'That's up to you. What is not, is making the repairs needed to allow me to continue with my primary mission.'

  'You've seen the wreck. Shoot me now.'

  'Oh, you'll come up with something, I'll see to that - with pleasure,' he/she added with a leer. 'You're a spaceer, after all.'

  Siss, her head between us, watched us both intently with her bright black eyes.

  She was playing her cat and mouse tease game again. She'd lost on Despar.

  'I repeat, Cin, shoot me, and be done with it. I've no intention of lifting a finger to help you and I won't play the mouse again. If you feel you owe me a favor, use that Cimmadarian side arm you're wearing to put a hole in me. I'm too Unity Standard for the Pela. Do it, if you have the courage,' I added with a leer of my own.

  'Oh, that's just your headache talking, Litang.'

  'The Neb it is! Do it,' I replied, angry enough not to care, confident enough on another level, to believe she couldn't, or at least wouldn't.

  'I'll do it in my own time - when I no longer have any use for you.'

  'Right. And here we are again. Every time you've found an excuse not to kill me, you've failed. Don't keep making the same mistake again and again. I don't need you. If the gig can be made mobile once more, I can do without you. You played this game and lost once already. Just do it.'

  'My, such spirit, Wil!' he/she exclaimed, taunting me in her faux gravely voice from under her ridiculous mustache. 'You're armed. And, I gather, sailed the drifts for years while I slept. Show me what they've taught you.'

  'They've taught me not to be a fool. I'll shoot you in the back while you are asleep.'

  'He/she laughed. 'Then the drifts have taught you well. Still, I'll risk it. And as I said, I need your spaceer expertise, and wouldn't mind having to, ah, compel, you to supply it.'

  'You were smiling like that when I put those darts in you on Despar. Don't underestimate me, Cin.'

  'And instead of finishing me off or leaving me to the Legionnaires, you tucked me safely out of sight and left my darter with me.'

  'I debated leaving you for them,' I replied feebly, as the flare of my anger faded.

  'But you didn't - and for that weakness you would've died later on the landing field, but for that lummox of a legionnaire getting in the way of my dart.'

  'No. You shot him to save me, yet again,' I replied, unwilling to concede her anything.

  He/she just laughed and shook her head. 'You don't really believe that do you?'

  'Neb! It fits the pattern, doesn't it? But what I believe or not doesn't matter. What you need to consider is that I'm not the Unity Standard fool I was back then.'

  'Right.'

  'And I've a grandmother from the drifts. Blood will tell.' I never considered revealing my St Bleyth heritage. First, because I couldn't prove it to her, and secondly, because my St Bleyth ancestors would've sneered at me. Even as a half-blood St Bleythian, the heritage of 500 generations should enable me to conquer Cin without hauling them in.

  He/she laughed, eyes bright now with amusement, 'Well, you and your drifteer granny can try any time you like - awake or asleep.'

  Cin was enjoying playing her game of cat and mouse - her good spirits restored. I wasn't, so I gave up.

  We lapsed into silence once again. I remembered to search the sky again for dragons while I brooded on my fate. While sitting alongside a crocodile in feathers and a girl in whiskers who promised to kill me some day, it struck me that fate, the Black Neb, or whatever superstition ruled chance in the Pela had a sense of humor. A rather dark sense of humor. And yet, was it? I could've been alone, which, after spending my life in the small, closed worlds of a space ship, would've been far more depressing, and frightening. If I had to face life in the Pela, having the fearless Cin and a three-meter dragon at my side would make it a whole lot, well, safer, especially since I've never taken Cin's threat to kill me as seriously as I should. She could be cold and cruel and in perhaps in anger she could do it, but not in cold blood. I had hoped, for a few minutes, that finding ourselves castaway together in the Pela, that she'd put the past behind her and we could be shipmates, friends.

  I glanced across to her. A very dark sense of humor. Yet I'd not kick.

  I turned away to stare at the sky that surrounded us. I could see half a dozen sizable islands around us, lush green fading to hazy blue in the distance. The closer ones were bright and colorful, trimmed with flowering vines, as was our own island. The sweet smell of sap and crushed flowers laced the little slipstream breezes as it leisurely tumbled in the stream of air that was carrying us ever further from rescue. Brightly feathered birds darted overhead, while the lazier feathered lizards swam through the ragged edges of the vines, idly chasing butterflies and stalking the big, dark green beetles that chugged and buzzed about us.

  There were undoubtedly far less pleasant places to be marooned on. It could've been a rock in the cold, airless drifts. But no place was further from home. I glanced again at the whiskered spaceer-engineer that was Cin. She was staring out at the sky as well and idly running her fingers through the feathers of the sentry-serpent on her lap. I suppose there might be far more pleasant companions to be cast away with. You know, ones who were not promising to kill you. But to my dismay, I couldn't think of any, assuming, that is, she'd eventually take off that eerie mask.

  I sighed. I needed to settle some things, both in my own aching head, and with Cin, which meant saying things out loud - now, or never. And I'd a feeling never wouldn't have been healthy.

  'I'm sorry,' I said, after I'd carefully charted my course and gathered what was left of my wits and courage.

  'For what?'

  'For getting angry. Forget everything I said. Do what you must. Be true to your ideals, your heritage. Defend the honor of your family t
o the end.'

  'Nice of you to say so,' he/she said sarcastically. 'That'll make it all so much easier.'

  I didn't let that deter me. I pushed ahead. 'And I'll be true to mine as well. We both know that I can't kill you. And I won't. So you can sleep soundly at night...'

  'How about during the day?' he/she laughed. There is no night in the Pela.

  'Yes, during the day as well. And, well, I've no intention of jumping ship either. I'm too used to company, of having shipmates around me. I've no desire to be alone in the Pela. Whatever happens, I'll live longer with you than without you. So in the end, when I'm no longer useful to you, you'll just have to kill me. Sorry.'

  'I can do it.'

  'We'll see. There is, however, one more thing I need to say to you. I shouldn't be saying it now - it's far too soon. But, well, I don't want you feeling angry at either yourself or me so I'll just say that you've not been a fool for nothing.'

  'A fool, Litang?'

  'A fool over me. You know; letting me live when you should've killed me. I know you're rather fond of me, Naylea - perhaps on account of our night together on Lontria...'

  'Ha! You were out cold the whole night, my dear! I was just about to give you a stimulant jab to get you awake for our bedroom scene, when you started coming around.'

  'So you say. Unfortunately, I remember nothing of it. I do, however, remember that kiss before the duel. And what you said after you kissed me.'

  He/she gave me a searching look. 'I believe I told you to die gallantly. But you didn't die, did you?'

  'Aye, and you were rather annoyed by that, as I remember. You've a bit of a temper, my dear. Yet, in the end, you let me live.'

  'You're imagining that. I had no viable choice but to do so, if I didn't want to end up in Felon's riff.'

  'Perhaps. I thought so at the time as well. Yet you had bolt holes and time to get away... Anyhow, Neb help me, what I'm trying to say is that in the end, you can't quite bring yourself to kill me because you find yourself rather fond of me for some reason...'

  'Ha!' he/she laughed. The sentry-serpent barked and wiggled the tip of her tail.

  'And you also suspect that I'm rather fond of you as well,' I said, sailing on. 'I want to tell you straight out that I am rather fond of you, though I haven't many illusions - I've seen murder in your eyes, and your pleasure in my pain. I know there's a wide, cold, ruthless and sadistic streak in your character. I'm not blinded by fondness for you. But on the other hand, you have a certain cheerful, wild, sort of joy about you. You're fearless in the face of danger. And, well, you're as happy as I am to find us here together. Oh, you have a sharp edge, but I don't mind that. There's a friendship between us.'

  'Ha!'

  'Deny it if you want, but it shows. And while it might be my Unity Standardness that makes me reciprocate that feeling, I think there's more to my fondness for you than can be explained by either my Unity Standardness, the little time we've been together, or the circumstances....'

  'You're raving, Litang. That blow to your head must've been far more serious than I imagined.'

  'Laugh if you like. I'm fine with that for now. I'm only saying this now so you'll not think you've made a fool of yourself over me and then get mad at yourself - and take it out on me.'

  'I don't need an excuse for that.'

  I shrugged. 'True. But I think that perhaps for the first time in a long time, you have a friend...'

  Siss growled a protest.

  'Two friends, then. And well, I really think you're going to find me useful for a long, long time to come...' That last part was mostly wishful thinking.

  Cin gave me a long look that I couldn't quite read, and then said angrily, 'You are the snakiest, most devious person I've ever crossed orbits with, Litang. You could give Siss here lessons on being a serpent.'

  Siss hissed her objection to being called a second class serpent.

  'Everything you said is so sweetly self-serving, it's sickening,' he/she added.

  Which was true, of course. No denying that. Still... 'Self-serving it may well be, but the fact is, I like you. And now you've heard me say it out loud - no wondering, no guessing.'

  'You're lying to save your life.'

  'No. I'm a very cautious fellow, Naylea. I know that if I lied to you about this you'd not only kill me, you'd take your time doing it, just as you promised on Despar. So I've been very careful not to overstate my case. You just saw how happy I was to find you alive. I wanted to put that into words. However foolish you may've been in sparing me, whatever price you've had to pay for doing so, it has been, well, as I said, not for nothing. It's been for friendship at the very least.'

  And with that I found I'd said all I could safely say. I'd not tell her that I'd fallen in love with her, because I'd not, not to the point where I'd admit it even to myself. But then, I'm rather reluctant to admit things like that. And with my encounter with Min only months past, it would've seemed wrong. I just didn't know what I felt, nor the depth of whatever it was I did feel, or the price to be paid.

  Cin, grotesque behind her whiskered cheeks, droopy mustache, and bushy brows, said nothing more, but her eyes, well I'm not sure what they said either, but there was nothing in them I found to fear.

  Siss barked softly and wagged the tip of her tail.

  'I'll see if I can get the med-unit up and running,' I said, carefully lifting off Siss's tail, so that I could rise. 'I need to treat my head.'

  'Yes, you do, Litang. Take your time. Do a thorough job of it. You've been babbling. And after that, see if you can get the synth-galley up and running as well. I'm getting rather hungry. Make yourself useful,' he/she said with cool, but laughing eyes.

  'Right,' I said, and climbing to my feet, gave the sky one last glance - no dragons - and walked back to the impact crater.

  Chapter 02 A Visitor

 

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