This work is part of a series. The first installment can be read here.
“The thing is,” Ketzal said, after pausing to take a breath, “They were the very first interplanetary maps ever made. At least, the first usable ones.”
She swept her hair back over her shoulder as she talked, the pale light of Bleachbone making the deep purple pigment flash a pale lavender. She’d dyed it again the week before, itching for something to do while they navigated away from Blue 12 and towards Eli’s home world, Red 15.
She’d been the one to insist on stopping at Bleachbone. In her defense, the Last Chance had badly needed the repairs. She and Eli had been able to cobble together something spaceworthy out of the scraps of their two ships and the dismantled bot, but that had been functional for short-term use only.
The fact that the nearest trustworthy mechanic happened to in hiding on the dark side of a moon with a fascinating history was just a coincidence.
“The maps shouldn’t have been possible to create,” she went on, wrapped up in the fascinating glory of the past. “So much of the war effort at the time was a race to make some kind of readable navigation system for the stars. The best minds of the century had already tried and failed, but here was this lowbrow pirate captain, just making these maps like it was nothing. He’s been a stumbling block in the intellectual community for years, but that’s not even the weirdest part of his story—one day, he holed up here for an entire year, all but using up his ship’s oxygen tanks in order to survive, and built that.”
She pointed towards the sky, where the Rings should have been sparkling over them in all their mysterious and improbable glory.
Following her own gesture, she saw nothing but grey smog.
“I see,” Eli said, amused. Ketzal, with a faint jolt of surprise that he’d actually been listening, looked over at him. For once, his flat, worry-lined face was not twisted up into a scowl. As he glanced down from a sky and back her, his mouth even flicked up a little in a smile.
She looked away, grimacing up at the pale smog.
“I’d forgotten about that,” she admitted.
The smog was a part of Bleachbone as necessary as the bright UV lights that turned the town into a glowing white speck on an otherwise black and sunless landscape, or the synthetic bubble that provided the dead moon with a breathable atmosphere. It hid the tiny community from prying eyes. Those who lived in Bleachbone did so because, for one reason or another, they wanted to avoid being found.
“Darn. I wanted to show you the Rings.”
“The spinny things?” Eli asked. “We saw them as we came in.”
Ketzal shook her head. “They’re meant to be seen from the ground.”
She had an image in her mind, solid as if it was real, of Ma-Rek—old, and war-weathered, with graying hair, sitting down on the surface of a foreign moon and looking up at his creation—the one final thing he would leave to the world before his death. A sculpture in the sky, facing the dark side of a moon orbiting an untamed planet. It was a perfect mystery.
“Okay,” Eli said. He did not sound convinced. Ketzal ignored him, squinting up at the sky. She really wanted to see those Rings.
“I think I’m going to have to find higher ground,” she mused.
The smog had to be heavy. If it hung low enough, one of the moon’s plateaus would top off above it, and the rings would likely be visible from there.
“I’ll need my camera,” she said. “And some climbing equipment.”
Ketzal stalked back towards the mechanic’s, mumbling to herself about ropes and carabiners. Bemused, Eli followed her. Ketzal didn’t really talk to him so much as she just—talked. It didn’t seem to matter whether he was there or not. He’d learned more about history in the two weeks he’d spent aboard ship with her than he’d ever thought there was to know, and promptly forgotten most of it.
Inside the shack, the air smelled like iron-tainted oil and dry dirt. Rust-red dust covered most of the shop and flickered in the air, turning the glaring UV light a warm orange. It was a harsh contrast from the pale, corpselike world outside.
In the middle of the hollow shell of a building, the Last Chance stood in all its disconsolate and partially-dismantled glory. Ketzal made for it, manually opening the entry hatch. Eli lagged behind.
“Girlie, you are goin’ to just about kill me.”
Pax, the mechanic, stood in front of an open panel on the Last Chance’s side, giving the wiring an empty-eyed look. He gestured roughly at the ship.
“Did you build this in a scrapyard? These wires are using at least three different systems of energy measurement. Half of it’s burnt to hell, and I don’t even know what this—” He pulled out a rusted peice of hardware— “Is. Much less where it’s from.”
“Sorry, Pax!” Ketzal yelled back, voice reverberating a little from the inside of the ship. “Got into a bit of a scrape.”
“Sorry, she says,” Pax grumbled, dropping the bit of machinery on the floor and kicking it under a table. “You better be paying me double for this!”
Eli had a sudden vision of a bill neither he nor Ketzal could scrounge the funds to pay, a life spent on this sorry carcass of a moon, working off the debt.
“You know I’m good for it!” Ketzal’s voice echoed back to them.
“In chromium!” Pax shouted.
“Sure thing!” Ketzal sounded distracted. Careless. Like she promised away unknown amounts of precious metals every day.
Pax shook his head.
“Rich people,” he said, addressing Eli for the first time since they’d landed. “I swear they sell their sense for cash.”
Eli’s blank stare must have made his confusion clear, but Pax only shook his head again, apparently exasperated, and turned his attention back to the ship.
Just then, Ketzal jumped out of the entry hatch, a full pack on her back and a StrapCache around her wrist.
“Alright. Climbing gear, flashlight, camera, notebook—think I’m all set,” she said, and looked up at Eli with a grin. “You gonna be okay here for a bit?”
Eli was still processing the fact that his—their—ship was apparently carrying enough chrome to pay a mechanic for extensive repairs without his knowing about it. On top of the old surprise, this new one took a moment to settle in.
“I’m not coming with you?” He asked.
Ketzal did a slight double take, as though the concept hadn’t even crossed her mind.
“Do you want to?” She asked, looking worried, as though she thought that he might actually want to accompany her.
Eli did not particularly want to go mountain climbing, no. He did not want to look at things that were evidently supposed to be interesting by mere virtue of being old. He did not want to stray very far from the Last Chance, torn apart and helpless as the ship was.
“Isn’t it dangerous? You shouldn’t be alone.”
Ketzal’s shoulders straightened a little.
“It’s just dark.” She said. “I can take care of myself, I’ll be fine.”
She looked very small. Very young.
Eli told himself that she was right, though. She had been perfectly safe for however many years she’d spent recklessly hurling herself at things she found interesting, all by herself. She would be perfectly safe now.
“I don’t care where either of you go,” Pax shouted, “As long as it’s not here! I’m in the mood for chucking something, and you both have enough holes in your skulls as it is.”
* * *
The two idiots scuttled away, as Pax had found most people tended to do when sufficiently shouted at. He snorted, turning back towards the peice of work that was their ship, telling himself that no matter how frustrating it seemed now, Ketzal was a good customer. She paid on time and never bickered with his prices. This would be paying for his meals for the next few months, at least.
He wasn’t sure it was worth it.
“By the way, stay in the light!” He shouted.
He was yelling at an empty room.
Ah well, he thought. They didn’t need his advice.
What kind of fool would venture into the dark in a place like Bleachbone?
* * *
“Close your eyes,” Ketzal said, doing so, “And count to twelve.” She rippled her toes in her boots, assuring herself that the ground underfoot was steady. “Your night vision will kick in any minute now,” she assured very calmly, opening her eyes again.
As it turned out, she was a certifiable liar. Everything was as black as pitch.
She’d left the glaring lights of Bleachbone behind, which—for her purposes—was good, but it was difficult, this seeing in the dark business. She tapped her StrapCache, flicking through the applications until she found the one for topography. A small holographic map of the immediate area sprung to life, flickering vaguely green, from her wrist.
“Okay then,” she said. “So, we’ve got flat, flat, giant pit, flat, flat.”
She told herself that it did not feel odd, talking when no one was there to pretend to listen. Talking with no one listening was something she did, something she had been doing since she was very young and first realizing that the only person who wanted to hear her rambling explanations of strange historical facts was her.
Still, she’d grown used to Eli. He was always just sort of—there. He was quiet and large and occasionally made appreciative humming noises when she talked about the origins of interplanetary archeology.
As it turned out, she had vastly underestimated the conversational value of appreciative humming noises.
Not that she couldn’t do without them. Preferred the silence, even.
“Flat, flat, flat,” she sang to herself, moving off in a random direction, since she could see absolutely nothing useful and and the topography app overpixelated and shorted out when she tried to push its range past twenty yards.
Flat, flat, flat, and—
“And there you are,” she said. A perfect plateau, just waiting to be climbed. She made for it, happy to forget the absence of appreciative hums in the face of a new adventure.
* * *
Eli took a lungful of the pale air. The silence here was penetrative, sinking soul-deep in a matter of moments.
Housing units, low to the ground and constructed out of plates of scrap metal covered over in a pale white paste, were spread out in a wild sprawl, the spaces between them too wide to be roads and too small to be unclaimed lots. A spider’s web of wires was supported on poles over the whole space, hung heavy with wide-mouthed lamps.
The light was as white as the earth, and the combination was blinding.
Occasionally, the houses would have a clear-sided shack with bright green life sprouting up inside it, and once or twice a pale lizard scuttled away as Eli walked too close to its hiding place; but other than that, the signs of life were few. Eli wandered in circles, never straying far from Pax’s shop, never getting all that close.
After two weeks of close quarters with Ketzal’s near-endless chatter, the silence felt foreign. Lonely.
The quiet was as all-encompassing as the overwhelming white; the sudden whisper cut into it like a strikethrough of ink on a perfect sheet of paper.
“—distract them?” A voice hissed from somewhere out of sight. Eli stopped, holding himself still.
“Distract them how, Jay?” Another voice returned, coming from the opposite side of the shack Eli had been passing. “No, we’ve got to do this right. It’ll be easy, they’re probably asleep. Just remember—straight in the heart, all right? Straight in the heart, you take one while I take the other, easiest cash we ever made. Or do you want to live in this dump forever?”
Quietly, Eli shifted so that his back was pressing against the wall, turning his head to hear the whispers more closely.
“No, I don’t, but can’t we think about—“
“What’s there to think about? It’s pure chrome out there, Jay, free for the taking. More than enough to get us both out of here. Why should those bloodless bastards have what we don’t? It’s not like they need it.”
Eli was hearing someone plan a murder. Two murders. For money.
“If they had any money, why would they be here?” Jay asked. “Come on, Breek. I don’t like this.”
“You don’t have to like it.” The second voice—Breek—snapped. “Thought I’d give you a chance at a cut, is all. Either you help or you don’t, I’m going either way.”
Eli had done a lot of things for money. Some of them, he wasn’t all that proud of. He understood desperation, he understood pain.
But he’d never killed for it.
It wasn’t that the idea was unthinkable; the mines had lost almost as many workers to plain murder as it had to poison air or cave-ins. It was not all that uncommon for the morning to find a miner or two dead and stripped of his valuables. The more you earned, the more vulnerable to thieves you became. That was part of the reason no one ever got free of the place.
Eli had worked hard for every cent, and held his pick-axe close while he slept. The idea of anyone else having to live in fear of that made his fists tighten as though he had that same old pick-axe in hand again.
He had to stop this.
“Come on,” Breek said, and from the sound of it, the two men were moving off, towards their victims.
Eli did the only thing he could think of.
* * *
“There’s no way this is natural.”
Ketzal slid her hands over the solid surface of the plateau. It was smooth as oceanstone, with faint ripples that seemed alive under her hands, cold and still as they were to the touch.
“No way at all. Unless—no, storms wouldn’t do this. Or would they?”
She was going to pick up a book on geology one of these days, she swore it on her soul.
She looked up at the tall smooth surface. It was a pale pillar towering up to a pale sky, the ground and the smog both reflecting the distant light from Bleachbone.
It did not look climb-conducive. With a huff, she pointed her StrapCache outwards in hopes of finding another plateau, hopefully not a carefully sanded one.
There wasn’t anything in the topography reader’s range, which didn’t mean much. Ketzal hesitated. She was a good climber—a skill picked up by necessity, since most of the things that interested her towered so high above her head. However, she was less than confident in her ability to climb a smooth rock face.
She would likely have to go out in search of another plateau. Which was irksome. there was perfectly good piece of rock right here, after all, and—
There was a tiny clicking sound, and her whole body jerked upright as the stone she’d been leaning on gave way.
There was another click, and then a slow, gravelly scrape of stone upon stone. Below the obvious noise, Ketzal thought she heard something shuffling.
The shuffling something was, while mysterious in all other ways, decidedly not made of stone.
She was, suddenly, no longer content being left in the dark. She reached back to her pack, fingers dancing over rough canvas, and grasped the hanging metallic cylinder. She unclipped it hastily and flipped the switch, all but blinding herself with the sudden beam of blazing white light, and swung the flashlight around to point it at the cliff face.
A hand wrapped around her wrist, halting the beam of light halfway along its path. A patch of scattered rock to Ketzal’s right glowed, casting harsh, sharp shadows, while the rest of the world was solid black in comparison.
The fingers around her wrist were thin, cold, and preternaturally strong. Ketzal’s tongue was sticky and still behind her teeth. She did not move.
“What brings you out beyond the light?”
The voice, when it spoke, was not deep or hushed. It was a voice that belonged on the dockyard of a StarPort, clear and unsophisticated, with a faintly clipped accent that Ketzal couldn’t place. A woman’s voice.
Ketzal had a thousand questions to ask, and most of them had to do with why and how this person was living inside a solid stone plateau on the dark side of a small moon.
But. In spite of multiple allusions to the contrary by past friends, teachers, and random strangers overly vocal with their unsolicited opinions, Ketzal did, in fact, have the ability to focus. She had priorities.
Priority one at the moment was to get the saliva flowing in her mouth again so that she could actually reply.
“I’m looking for a place where I can view the Rings.” She said. “The smog’s hiding them. I figured if I could get up high enough, I could get above it. Sorry, I didn’t realize this was your house.”
There was a short pause.
“You can see the Rings from space.”
Ketzal’s shoulders slumped. Not that again.
“And you can see a painting from behind, technically, but it’s not the same.”
“Step inside,” The woman said, finally.
“Um,” Ketzal said. “I’d love to, really, but I—“
“There’s a pathway to the top. I will take you to see the Rings, if you want to look at them so much.”
“You’re kidding!” Ketzal said. Once she’d seen the Rings, she really, really had to find out what this place was and why it was here and why it was so darned convenient. She flicked off her light, but kept it in hand. “That’s awesome! Lead on.”
And, still gripping her wrist, the woman did.
The stone door swung shut behind them both.
* * *
Eli made his way over stones and ridges on the ground as quietly as he could manage, holding himself low and ready to dart for cover. Luckily, the two robbers evidently weren’t worried about being followed. They never glanced back.
As they passed out of Bleachbone’s glare and into the blackness of the country beyond, the need for cover decreased. Eli followed the whispers and tried not to stumble on the uneven ground.
His eyes adjusted to the dark slowly, but surely. The land itself was a dark grey void, but the smog-heavy sky reflected back some pale light—table scraps left over from Bleachbone’s veritable feast.
One such scrap of light glinted up from the ground ahead of them, and Eli squinted. He recognized the sharp, square lines of what had to be a roof. Two darker, shifting shapes were silhoutted against it, moving slow and cautious.
They had found their victims.
Eli picked up his pace, forcing his silence-stilled lungs into a shout.
“Robbers!” He shouted, hoping to startle whoever lived in the lonely hut to action. “Get up! Robbers!”
The interior of the hut flared with yellow light in response to his shouting, casting the two surprised robbers in sharp relief. Eli sprinted, barreling into the nearest shape. The wiry body stumbled, then fell with a startled noise. Eli kicked him once to keep him down, his boot cracking against something round and brittle.
“Breek!” The second thief—Jay—shouted, and Eli swung on him. He had a weapon in his hand; Eli grabbed for his wrist and twisted it, getting a fist thrown at his face for the trouble. They scuffled for a second before the kid jerked away, leaving his weapon in Eli’s hand. Eli’s eyes flicked down to it, expecting to find a pistol, or possibly a knife.
He blinked in confusion.
It was a wooden stake.
There was a solid thunk, and Eli looked back up in time to see Jay crumple to the ground.
The faint orange light from the shack was now making the whole clearing visible, casting long brown shadows that splayed out until they met and melded with the surrounding dark. Outlined in the fiery glow, a figure with a shovel stood over the boy’s body.
The stranger was pale and tall, looking down on Eli with dark eyes. He was holding a shovel. It was in intruder-bludgeoning shovel, Eli realized, at about the same time he realized that it would be a good idea to avoid looking like an intruder.
He got up slowly, weighed down by the stranger’s rightfully suspicious gaze.
Nodding down at the groaning figure on the ground, he began to explain.
“I heard them planning to rob you. Just wanted to stop them, before—“
The house—or shack; it was just a few metal panels propped together in a vague shelter-shape—produced another pale figure, slight and feminine. Eli watched her pad silently up to the still form of Breek and prod him with one toe.
To Eli’s relief, the kid groaned, twitching in a weak effort to get up. The girl planted her foot on his back and shoved him back down, pinning him with apparent ease. She looked up at Eli. Her eyes, dark and expressionless, made him look away.
Still eerily silent, the man with the shovel made a vague gesture that Eli read, after a moment, as ‘back away’.
He obeyed. The stranger leaned down, picking Jay up by the back of the neck. Pulling him upright, and held Jay out from his body, as though the kid were a dead creature who might be carrying fleas. The kid’s eyelids fluttered, and his head lolled to one side like a doll’s.
“Leave,” the stranger said, without looking at Eli at all.
“Um,” Eli said, his grip shifting on the stake in his hand.
Something was wrong here—wrong even by Bleachbone standards. He was not at all sure that leaving now would let him out on the right side of it. “You’re welcome.”
There was no response, unless you counted the stranger taking a step back, pulling Jay with him towards the shack. Eli took a step after him.
“Where are you taking him?” He asked.
The stranger halted, his shadow long and still where it shot out and away from his feet, and looked at Eli. His eyes were not only dark; they were black. Totally, completely black, harshly so against the washed-out white of his skin.
“Leave,” the creature said again, and Eli caught a glimpse of white teeth, too sharp where his lips curled back to show them.
Eli’s gaze traveled from those even, jagged teeth down to the wooden stake in his hand.
He had made a very terrible mistake.
* * *
“How long have you lived here?” Ketzal asked. The woman had let go of her wrist, and so she was busy rubbing the blood back into it.
The dark room she had first been pulled into had to have been some sort of antechamber. Where it had been pitch-black, the upper room the woman had led her to was lit, albeit faintly, by a soft moss that glowed a luminescent green, showing a floor littered with fascinating things. There were small chromium coins, cast in molds that Ketzal had never seen before. Books, ancient and paper-bound, stacked and scattered and laid messily on their spines. Lumps and tangles and piles of what Ketzal guessed to be fabrics, perhaps bedding.
She ached to pick the things up and study them, but the woman had snapped harshly when Ketzal had bent down to pick up a coin, so she kept her hands to herself, soaking up as much as her eyes would allow as the woman led her on.
“Years.” They left the green-glowing chamber and started to walk up. Ketzal’s feet told her they were ascending a ramp, and she guessed from the closeness of the air that it was inside a sort of stone tunnel.
“How many years?”
“None of your business.”
“Were you born here?”
“You like to read.”
“You like to ask too many questions.”
They walked in silence for a while. Ketzal bit her lip, considering.
“Did you build all of this?”
When the woman finally answered, her exasperated tone was gone.
“There were others,” she said. “At first.”
Which only gave Ketzal more questions. The woman deigned to answer none of them, leading them both along in silence.
Finally, they reached the top.
One moment, Ketzal was in the tunnel, inhaling dust-laden lungfuls of stale air, and the next—the next, the sky was alive with light and with color. The winking fire of distant stars sparkled like a dancer’s dress. The whole universe was just one giantess in an evening gown, twirling eternally across an infinite polished floor. Taris, Bleachbone’s sister moon, shone bright above them. She was a crumpled oblong shape, made lovely by an edge of reflected light from the Trachydene System’s central star. The cautious glow made the stone surface of the plateau gleam like tarnished silver.
The air up here was clean and clear, untainted by the plasticine scent of the smog. It was a touch too chill, and a tad too thin.
And up over her head, closer even than Taris, shining against their backdrop of stars, were the Rings.
They were bright in shades of copper and aluminum, flashing as they spun. The delicate pattern of repeated concentric rings started low in the center and rose upon either side, like wings. Every part of it was in constant, even motion, each ring spinning in its time without jamming any of the other rings. The genius that had mapped the universe at work.
From space, the Rings were just that—rings. Sparkly rings, but no more meaningful than a sculpture commissioned for a municipal park.
But from the surface—
Ketzal had been right.
The Rings were a perfect re-creation of the Seven Systems. They started with the Solar system—the central set of rings—and stretched out in either direction, as far as the Tasman system to the left, and the Iridos system with its twin stars to the right. The whole universe, as far as Ma-Rek would have known at the time. In a twist of artistry that no one could have expected from a robber and a pirate, the array made the Systems—things that spanned more space than the human mind could comfortably comprehend, even now that they travelled so far beyond—into something delicate. Something lovely in its perfect balance, breathtaking with the way it always seemed to teeter on the edge of collapsing into disaster, and yet—never did.
Ketzal blinked against the prickling heat that was trying to build up behind her eyelids. She wanted to absorb this sight unmuddied by tears.
“Awfully dramatic, aren’t they?”
Ketzal startled a little at the woman’s voice, and turned slightly, enough to see the woman’s pale face upturned towards the sky.
“He never could be content with what he had,” she continued, watching the Rings with an expression unreadable in the dark. “Couldn’t just have his holographic maps, no. Had to stick it up in the sky for all eternity—undeniable proof that he’d done what they never could.”
Ketzal blinked. The woman seemed to shake herself out of some reverie.
“Are you happy now?” She asked, “Or are you going to stare all day?”
Ketzal was very happy. She’d rarely ever been happier.
“I’m going to stare all day,” she admitted.
The woman nodded, a pale blur of a face wobbling, ghostlike, and slowly turning away.
“Well, I’m not about to stand around and watch you. Come back down for a drink when you’re done, won’t you?”
“I always assumed that Ma-Rek left the moon with his crew aboard,” Ketzal said.
The woman stopped.
“At least, that’s what the history books imply.” It was, quite carefully, not a question; but Ketzal waited for an answer anyway.
“The history books ever mention what happened to him after that?” The woman asked, not moving.
“They say he likely went insane. Drove his own ship into an asteroid belt.”
A soft chuckle sounded in the dark.
“Well,” the woman said, “That sounds like him, doesn’t it.”
And with that, she left, taking the answers to a hundred unspoken questions with her.
Ketzal looked back up at the Rings. They were still spinning, new and sharp as they must have spun when they were first built—over a thousand years ago.
* * *
“You came to warn us,” the girl said. “We are not ungrateful. Leave.”
Breek was moving, trying to rise, but she held him down without any apparent effort. Eli got the distinct feeling that the ability to leave with his life in his hands was, in her mind, a gracious offer.
He had just wanted to stop people being killed, he thought irritably. That should not have been a complicated task.
Frustration with the world in general settling deep in his stomach, Eli plastered a smile on his face. He had a good guess what the pale, not-human creatures were, and the idea made his stomach shrink inside him.
They might outnumber him. They might even have some twisted notion of justice on their side.
Still, he couldn’t leave.
Because he’d given himself a job here, and his job was not done.
“Yeah, anytime,” he said, and heard the insincere cheeriness loud and clear in his voice. “I’ll just take these boys back, then, won’t I, Bleachbone has plenty of laws against robbery, so—“
The girl snarled at him, and the man pulled Jay behind himself and bared his teeth.
His very sharp, pointy teeth.
Eli was pretty sure he was only still smiling because his face had temporarily lost the ability to form new expressions.
“The only law between Bleachbone and ourselves,” the not-man said, “Is this: what is in the light is theirs. Whatever is so foolish as to pass into the dark,” he shook Jay in his grip harshly, “Is ours.”
Eli shifted his stance, mouth dry. He was within arm’s reach. That was good.
“Go back while you still can,” the girl advised.
Eli’s grip on the stake in his hand was sweaty, which was bad. He was surrounded. Also bad. His limbs felt shaky and uncertain of themselves. Again, bad.
“You know, that’s amazing advice,” he said, trying to calm his heartbeat down enough so he could hear over it. “But the thing is,”
He glanced at Jay’s face, twisting up sluggishly as he regained consciousness. He heard Breek cursing behind him. And he became—not calm, exactly. But still. He dropped his shoulders, feeling the straightness of his spine where it rested between them, and gripped the stake in his hand.
“Thing is,” he said again, “I can’t do that.”
His arm snapped out ahead of him, pulling him slightly off-balance as it drove the stake hard and true into something solid that squelched.
He looked up into the wide, eyes of the creature. The not-man blinked its dark eyes at him. Jay, gasping, tore out of its grip and began to stumble away into the dark.
The girl shrieked. Eli spun to see her staring, watching the not-man as it slowly collapsed. Her gaze rested on the corpse for a moment, then traveled upwards to the stake in Eli’s hand. Finally, it rested on his face.
Eli gripped the stake. It crackled in his hand, and he looked down at it.
Black blood was smeared up it, bubbling as it ate away at the wood. As he watched, it dissolved entirely. He was left empty-handed.
The girl shoved off from Breek and began striding towards him. Backing away from her advance, Eli tripped over a stone, landing hard on his back, and began to scramble backwards, kicking up dust.
She followed him, murder in her steps.
His eyes could, would do nothing but stare as she passed the lantern sitting on the ground, her shadow swinging around in a determined arc, a minute hand ticking backwards.Her shadow swung around over him and she became a towering silhouette, her shape inhuman where it blocked out the light.
Eli’s elbow cracked against the wobbling wall of the shack. Without thinking, he’d cornered himself.
A cold hand wrapped around Eli’s ankle and tugged. His back slid against the gravel as the girl began to drag him out of the sorry shelter. Desperate, Eli kicked at her face, but she only caught his other ankle and tugged harder. He dug his fingers into the rough ground. It wasn’t enough to slow him down. He saw the glint of reflected lantern light flick over her loose hair, saw the pale, ash-white sky sliced across with the sharp black shape of the rickety roof.
The idea came to him almost faster than thought. It was an instinct, a clawing need for survival that drove one to action before anything else. One moment, there was nothing in his mind but terror.
The next, there was the roof.
It was sharp, and it was heavy, and the angle at which the girl was straining to pull him out of the shack placed her neck right under it. Eli reached for the flimsy wall of the shack, tugging at it with all his might.
There was a metallic screech as the structure swung to one side. With a scream of scraping steel, the roof slid down and sliced into the dirt, true as a knife to its sheath.
The next moment, the world was silent.
The grip around Eli’s ankles was loose and lifeless. He kicked free of it, breathing hard. A cloud of dust wafted over him, and he coughed at it. His hands stung where the stones had bitten them. Sweat trickled like a cautious finger down his spine.
He was alive.
Part of the wall had come free and was pressing up against his side, weakly attempting to squash him.
A cautious crackle of footsteps over the scattered rock-and-gravel ground made Eli tense, hands forming into stinging fists.
The panel was shifted off him by unsteady hands, and he found himself looking up at the wide-eyed form of Breek. He blinked at Eli, reeling back slightly.
“You kicked me in the head,” he stated, talking around his tongue instead of with it.
Unintentionally, Eli could have pointed out. However, he didn’t feel like arguing details. And besides, he was not in the mood to be guilt-tripped by a teenager who’d intentionally gotten himself into a confrontation with vampires.
“Yes, I did,” he said instead. His own voice was a little wobbly, which he resented. His legs didn’t want to help him stand, so he stayed where he was.
Breek shared none of this instinct for recovery. He let the wall panel fall to the side, stepping over the body of the girl to try to reach into the bowels of the shack and rifle through them.
“There’s got to be chrome in here somewhere.”
Eli blinked, shifting out of the kid’s way. Breek wasn’t addressing him, talking to himself, as though to convince himself of something. “They’re rich as hell, everyone knows they’re—“
He was reaching over Eli, groping blindly.
In any normal situation, the idea of unclaimed chrome coin ready for the taking would have interested Eli enough to join him; but the recent terror, the pair of bodies lying sprawled in the dirt, the ramshackle home that had been reduced to a ruin—it all made the mere idea of looking for treasure sickening.
He got to his feet, a little unsteady.
“Kid,” he said. “Stop.”
Breek kept sifting through the stuff in the shack—some extra clothes, a small and intricately painted music box that jangled when the kid tossed it aside.
Eli reached out a hand and gripped the back of the kid’s neck.
“Kid. Stop.” He said, pulling the boy back. Aside from the sick feeling that rose in his stomach at rifling through what belonged to the dead, the dark was making him nervous. ‘What lurks in the dark belongs to us,’ had not sounded as though the creature had had only himself and one other to talk about. Who knew how many were out here?
“Come on, kid,” he said, turning around and marching them both back towards the distant glow of Bleachbone. The light, cold as it was, looked immensely welcoming.
“Hey!” Breek said, struggling, but Eli gripped him harder and walked faster.
“What were you thinking?” He snapped.
Breek blinked at him, not seeming quite able to focus on Eli’s face. Concussed, Eli thought a little guiltily.
“Firstly,” he continued, the guilt doing nothing to keep all the adrenaline and anger and relief from the fight hitting him at once, “You do not go off robbing people. You just don’t. How would you like it if everyone felt free to slit your throat and take your coin, hey?”
He walked as he talked, letting the kid stumble along beside him as best he could.
“I don’t have anything!” Breek insisted.
“You’ve got your life,” Eli retorted, “You’re lucky as hell you didn’t get yourself and that other kid dead. They weren’t gonna let either of you leave alive. Don’t you ever do something that stupid again, you get me?”
He was talking partially to calm himself down, and partially to ward off any other pale, hungry shapes that might be lurking in the shadows. In spite of this, he found himself meaning what he said.
Breek and Jay could have died tonight. Died bad, for nothing but desperate greed, and alone, away from whoever cared about them. If they did have anyone to care. They could have died bad and alone and unloved.
“You’re the one who warned them, we would have been fine without you!”
Eli didn’t bother arguing. Maybe it was his fault. Maybe that was why his heart wouldn’t stop beating like he’d just fallen down a mineshaft.
He pulled the kid close, steadying the boy against himself and slowing his pace to something a little more manageable for Breek’s drunken-footed gait. The kid’s heartbeat was driving hard and fast enough for Eli to feel through his ribs.
“Don’t be stupid, kid.”
Breek cursed at him, but Eli didn’t let him go.
* * *
Ketzal adjusted the lens of her camera and clicked another photo. It looked exactly like the thousand photos that preceded it. Unlike the last thousand photos, though, this time she realized the fact.
She checked through them, clicking through photo after photo. None of them did the Rings justice. For that, they would have had to take in not just the Rings, but the whole sky, and the pale plateau and the dusty moonlight.
Her notepad was open and filled with scribbled impressions and sketches, providing the human observation to balance out the photographs. It had been a successful data-gathering expedition; she felt replete, strangely free of the restlessness that usually buzzed through her bones.
There was no real reason to stay, but she looked up, watching the Rings glitter for a moment, giving herself one last vision to keep. They were so beautiful.
Oddly enough, she suddenly wished Eli had insisted on coming along. This sight was too lovely not to share.
She pictured him being stuck on top of this plateau with her for the past two hours, and the idea fizzled out as quickly as it had come.That would not have ended well.
She turned to pack away the last of her supplies, and found herself looking at the open entryway of the downward ramp. Biting her lip, Ketzal wondered about her chances of going back that way and getting out alive.
If her assumptions were correct, they were slim.
It was unfortunate, really. She wanted to ask the woman so many questions—someone who had lived on the dark side of this moon for years, likely centuries, who had all but claimed to have known Ma-Rek himself. Ketzal was itching with curiosity. She hesitated for a moment.
A slim chance was still a chance, after all. She had never talked with an immortal before—only heard the speculations in the medical journals, the demonizations in the stories. There was a chance, albeit small, that she’d live. Whatever else the experience would give her, it was bound to be an adventure.
Eli was waiting for her, though.
Pax needed her to pay for the repairs he was making on the Last Chance.
They both worried easily, and somehow, the idea of Eli wondering where she’d gone and what had happened to her was more painful than the notion of actually dying.
Ketzal wondered when she’d started letting the mundanity of living get in the way of her adventures. More than that, she wondered when the idea of letting anything stand between her and excitement had become something other than detestable.
Most of all, she wondered if the climbing ropes she’d brought would be long enough to let her rappel down to the ground. She secured the line to the edge of the plateau and looked over. Nothing was visible down there except for the pale grey sea of smog, lit from above by moonlight.
Well, she thought, and clipped the the line to her belt. There’s only one way to find out.
There had, as it turned out, been almost enough rope to reach the bottom. The drop hadn’t been that long, luckily, and her ankles hadn’t twisted.
Sore and satisfied, Ketzal swung open the door to Pax’s shop.
She was greeted by yelling.
“I don’t care how dangerous it is!” Eli shouted from the inside of the ship. Pax, one hand on the edge of the entry hatch and the other on his hip, was peering up into the belly of the ship with evident resignation. “I’m going after her!”
Ketzal raised her eyebrows. She glanced at the third figure in the room—a young man, sitting slumped in a chair and holding a freezepack to the side of his head. He was wearing Eli’s jacket, which Ketzal could have sworn hadn’t been that dusty when she’d left. She gave him a questioning look, to which he responded by scowling at her and slumping further into his chair.
“You’ll only get yourself lost or killed,” Pax pointed out, bringing her attention back to the conversation. “Besides, she does what she wants. Believe me, if I chased her down over every reckless, idiotic—“
“Chased who down?”Ketzal asked, shrugging her pack off her back and plopping it on the floor.
Pax stopped talking and swung around. He nodded at her in greeting.
“She’s back!” He shouted.
There was a loud crash from inside the ship, and a second or so later, Eli jumped out of the entry hatch. He took her in, eyes wide.
Ketzal opened her mouth. Before she could ask what had happened, Eli crossed the short distance between them and wrapped his arms around her, holding her tight. He smelled like dust and dry sweat.
Slow with uncertainty, she reached up and patted his back. His muscles were tenser than bridge cables. It felt as strange as hugging a statue.
Going up on her tiptoes, she managed to catch Pax’s amused look over Eli’s shoulder.
“What happened?” She mouthed.
Pax only shook his head and walked away.
* * *
Ketzal’s hair still carried the chemical scent of the dye, and she was tapping his shoulder cautiously.
“Is everything okay?” She asked, and Eli had to tell himself to let her go.
“You’re safe,” he assured himself, before he could. “You’re safe.”
She looked back at him, clearly confused, and he drew a shaky breath.
“You don’t know what’s out there,” he said. “Those things—“
“The vampires?” Ketzal asked.
Eli stared at her.
“Everyone knows about the vampires,” she said. “But I didn’t know where they came from, before, and now, I think—“
“You went out,” Eli interrupted, “In the dark. Alone. When you knew there were vampires.”
“I had my UV flashlight the whole time,” she said, as though that would make everything all right. “I was fine.”
“I didn’t know about the vampires!” Eli burst out. “And that is not fine! You can’t protect yourself with a flashlight! Those things almost killed me! They almost killed—“
“You went into the dark without a light?” Ketzal asked, as Eli swung around to the chair where he’d left Breek.
It was empty, except for the freezepack.
“He stole my jacket,” Eli noted irritably.
“You went into the dark,” Ketzal was saying, “On Bleachbone. With no light.”
“No one told me there were vampires! Besides, I had to stop a robbery,” Eli explained.
They took a moment to stare at one another. When they spoke, it was as one.
“I am never leaving you alone again.”
The ship shook softly, rumbling like a house in a thunderstorm as it hurtled through the vast expanse of space. Bleachbone was a day’s travel behind them, and Red 16 lay who knew how many days of travel ahead.
Outside Ketzal’s quarters, the hallway was dark. Eli had shut off the lights ‘to conserve energy,’ he’d explained, with a roundabout description of how it—somehow—could make the ship’s energy core last longer. Mostly, Ketzal only understood that turning the lights off at night made him happy, so turn the lights off they did.
Her own chamber was glowing, every overhead fixture turned up to its highest capacity, and the photos and notes she’d taken of the Rings were spread out in neat rows on the floor.
In the center of them all, her tablet whirred, displaying cross-referenced images of a model of the Six Systems with the images she’d taken of the Rings.
They fit together perfectly. Ma-Rek had intentionally, painstakingly, made the Rings to be a model of the whole universe as he knew it—spinning and alive.
Why, she had yet to find out, but there had to be a why. There just had to be. Some instinct in her insisted that Ma-Rek—soldier, pirate, mapmaker—had not spent two years and who knew how much precious metal to make something that was only a pretty piece of art.
The photos were beginning to bleed together in her vision when one of them caught her eye.
She frowned at it, sifting it out of the general pile.
She blinked at it for another moment, processing, and then leapt to her feet and let out a whoop.
* * *
Eli was quite happily asleep, thank you, when someone started banging on the door to his quarters.
“Nnnn” he said, to the world in general and the banging in particular.
“Eli! Come look, you have to look!” Ketzal shouted, her voice muffled by the door. “It’s so cool!”
‘Cool’, Eli thought, as he reoriented his aching bones into a sitting position and gave his blankets a sorrowful blink. ‘Cool’ meant it was probably not an emergency, which—conceivably—meant that he could lie back down, if he so chose.
He flicked on the lights instead. Squinting against the stabbing sensation in his eyes, he made his way to the door.
Outside, Ketzal was holding a sheave of papers and a glowing tablet. She handed him one of the papers, and Eli squinted at it blearily. There were blurry shapes. They did not enlighten him.
“It’s the Rings!” Ketzal explained. Which was helpful, because Eli’s eyes were currently in a state of rebellion against being awake.
“See that?” Ketzal asked, poking at a segment of photo.
“I see your finger.”
“It’s a mark! Right on the outermost ring of the Sobera System! The whole sculpture is of the Six Systems, and the mark is right where the planet Loris would be!”
Eli blinked again.
“Right,” he said, in a tone that he hoped betrayed how little of that he had absorbed.
It must have worked, because Ketzal took a breath, slowing herself down for him.
“It’s not just a sculpture,” she said, eyes sparkling. “It’s a treasure map.“
The next work in this series can be read here.
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