Sunlight rained down from the skylight of Tsanza’s domicile. Laila curled up into the fetal position as she slept like the dead in his bed. The covers had fallen away, revealing the deep indigo of her naked, scarified back. She shifted in her sleep. The tiny jewels embedded below her right eye glittered in the light that flooded the bed. The thin bracelet that she wore on one hand began to vibrate. She groaned. Still bogged down by sleepiness, she tap-tapped on the bracelet and rolled over.
It suddenly registered. Her heart stuttered. Her eyes went wide. She shot up into a sitting position, fully awake in an instant. Tsanza’s room had been invaded by four black-uniformed goons. They stood, backs to the doorway, weapons aimed at Laila. A strange woman led this pack. She’d come to roost on the chair at the foot of Tsanza’s bed. She was sitting there watching Laila with bright, curious eyes.
“No,” the woman said. “Don’t get up on my account.”
She was dark, like the earthy kind of spice that bites. She wore boots that went all the way up to her thighs, a short skirt, and a diagonally slanted top. Her outfit was complete with a cowled leathery cloak. She was human. Middle aged. The wolven insignia on her chest was identical to the one on the goon squad’s lapels. Recognition came belatedly. That was the insignia of Metropol Arat’s military police. This woman was an officer of rank.
“Pretty sure I haven’t broken any laws.” Laila drawled, dragging the covers up around her torso.
The woman leaned forward. “Shall I explain to you how little guilt or innocence matters to us?”
Laila sucked in a deep breath, heart still hammering out a disconcerted beat. Nearly a month on Tilaat Amat, and the she’d gone to great lengths to keep a low profile. Ever since she left Hegira, she’d been careful not to make too many waves anywhere she goes. Her mission depended on it. Her very life depended on it. She knew that she hadn’t been careless. There was no fathomable reason for the capital’s authorities to seek her out, much less come barging in like this.
Her eyes darted to the empty chair directly across from the bed. Her guns were still in their holster, slung over the back of the chair. How fast, she wondered, could she get to them? Could she make it across the room before these weapon-toting jokers drilled her full of holes? She bit down on her lower lip, considering.
“I wouldn’t if I were you,” the boss of the goon squad said quietly. “You’d be dead in three seconds. Starchaser or not.”
“You seem to have me at a disadvantage.” Laila managed after a moment of unnerved silence. Hell. This was no good. Why did this woman know what she was?
“I do, don’t I?” The officer smiled. Her eyes were black ice. Her predatory gaze sent a shiver down Laila’s spine.
“I’m Daz Nestor,” she said. “I’m an acquaintance of your foster brother’s.”
Laila’s gut lurched. Even here, she realized. He could reach her, even here.
Brother was head of the Merchant Guild, a faction vying for control of Hegira. He was controlling, a tyrant and obsessed with Laila’s potential as a candidate to replace Hegira’s current pilot, Sesili. Like a dark star, he’d always been there to eclipse every ounce of Laila’s being. Worlds apart, he’d managed to track her down. It dawned on her that the real reason this Daz Nestor was there before in that moment, was to remind her that Brother could always reach her anywhere, anytime. A sickening feeling welled up into the young starchaser’s gut.
“He asked me to look out for you. Make sure you stay on task.” Daz Nestor bared her pearly whites again. “I’m sure you know what that means.”
Laila scowled. “I haven’t done anything to warrant any concern.”
“And we intend to keep things that way.”
“Why now?” Laila challenged, even though she already knew the answer. “I’ve been on Tilaat Amat for weeks.”
“You’re right,” answered Daz Nestor. “We could have picked you up at any time.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Why rush?” Daz Nestor asked. She didn’t say it but the implication was clear. They’d been watching Laila. To see what she would do. Laila was sure she’d been careful but as she sat there, she tried to think back on whether any of her actions over the past few weeks could have betrayed her.
“Hegira has entered the heliopause.” Daz Nestor informed her. “It won’t be too long now.”
Laila eyed her captor sagely. “What kind of deal do you have with Brother? What’s in this for you?”
“Oh, you know.” Daz Nestor murmured. “This and that.”
“Well,” Laila said. “I already sent him a message letting him know I completed my mission on Bentokal. I’m just waiting for Hegira to get here.”
“And your little gunsmith friend?”
“What about him?” Laila’s eyes shifted to the empty space on the bed beside her. That side of the bed had long grown cold. Tsanza was either being held at gunpoint down below or he’d left early to go to his workshop. Laila hoped for the latter.
“No lingering attachments that might cause you to change your mind?” Daz Nestor asked. “We wouldn’t want that would we?”
“I assure you, there are none.” Even Lila herself didn’t buy those words.
How much did this woman really know about her relationship with Tsanza? Laila wasn’t even certain where they stood. Tsanza was just supposed to be Laila’s contact in Metropol Arat. The whole thing had been arranged ahead of time by Sesili. Laila and Tsanza had met. Sparks had flown. For Laila, that was enough but right then, she wanted to throttle Daz Nestor for even bringing him up.
“So, you wouldn’t mind if I ordered my men to take care of him here and now?”
Laila’s gaze hardened.
Daz Nestor laughed. “That was a joke, of course. Even I don’t have license to execute citizens without reason but believe me, if I need to, I can find one. Remember that.”
“Are we done here?” Laila asked. “You’ve made your point and you now know where I stand. Was there anything else?”
“No.” Daz Nestor stood. “Nothing else. For now. I just wanted to meet you in person. You brother has such high hopes for you, after all.” Her broad smile didn’t quite reach her eyes.
They turned to leave. At the doorway, Daz Nestor stopped and turns briefly. “Rejoice, Laila,” she urged. “Your brother’s most important dream is about to come true. It won’t be long now, until Hegira falls into our hands.”
Laila stared after her wordlessly. She curled her trembling fingers into tight fists. Closed her eyes. This was what she got for letting her guard down. This is what she got. She swallowed hard. She swallowed it down, all of her desperation and frustration swelling up and threatening to overflow. This was hardly the time to lose it, hardly the time to be weak.
Still trembling, Laila shoved the covers aside and stood there frowning at the empty doorway. She remembered tossing her clothes somewhere in that general direction last night before tumbling into bed. Where were they now?
“Tsanza?” She called out. “Tsanza!”
No answer came.
Her nearly knee-high boots had been left by the bed. Laila sat back down and hauled them on. At the center of the room was a metal staircase that lead down to the living area of Tsanza’s dwelling. Laila slipped down the staircase, wearing nothing but her underwear and boots.
There was a table crammed into the living small space, leaving barely enough room to squeeze by to the galley. Her clothes were on the table, folded up neatly. A note had been left on top of her clothes with one word. Shop.
Relieved, Laila chuckled. So, Tsanza missed out on Daz Nestor’s little visit. Thank the stars.
She dressed quickly before going to the galley and snatching some fruit from a bowl.
“Teeva!” She called up to the bedroom. “Come eat!”
A bird-like thing swooped down from the ceiling. It was blue, leathery, and smooth all over with beady eyes and wings like a stingray.
“And where were you while I was in trouble just now?” Laila demanded scowling up at the teruun.
Teeva ignored the accusing query.
More fruit? Came the drowsy complaint, spearing into Laila’s mind. Worms are better.
“Fine,” Laila mumbled, mouth full of the tart succulence. “I’ll get you some worms later.”
The metal door leading outside was unlocked and creaked open with a shove. Good thing. At least, Daz Nestor’s goons hadn’t seen the need to break it down. Laila wasn’t sure how she would have been able to explain that to Tsanza. She stepped into the harsh morning light. Although the sun was burning bright and hot, it had recently rained. The streets were slick with wetness and Laila could still hear the sound of gutter water rushing through drainpipes underfoot. The air of sun-baked Metropol Arat, a small city squatting on the western continent of Tilaat Amat, was stained with the scent of petrichor, mechanic’s oil, and spice.
Laila liked Metropol Arat. The city was a melting pot of alien species, all jostling for space and surviving side by side. It reminded her of Hegira. It reminded her of home.
Laila ran through busy streets paved with bricks of petrified wood. Unlike Tsanza’s house, the inner-city buildings were tall, shaped liked knives slicing through the bottoms of the clouds. Laila had chosen to stick to ground level, mingling with the dregs of Tilaat Amat society. That sort of living suited her just fine. Music wound its way through the alleyways, a strangely beautiful but agitating melody that made Laila want to clamp her hands over her ears to keep from hearing any more. Instead of taking the low road suffused with the stench of refuse mingled with the smell of burning meat, she ducked into the into the canopied marketplace.
The pungent scents of spices and incense clouded the air. She almost bumped into a pair of veiled Toskans carrying baskets laden with bioluminescent herbs on their heads. They flitted through the crowds like gray ghosts, hawking their wares, faces never shown. As she ran, Laila caught a glimpse of a dusky, four-armed Malaui, who sat guarding brass pots filled with writhing water serpents, an expensive delicacy. Laila made a mental note. Worms for Teeva.
She passed a stall offering pelts of every skinnable species imaginable and one with caged, live specimens for food and other unspeakable purposes. Laila waved briefly to the Idran weapons and spaceship parts dealer that she did business with two days earlier. Idrans were a fearsome lot with big teeth, red eyes, and horns. They stood two feet taller than the average human adult and had a tendency to growl at the slightest provocation. Still, they were sticklers when it came to doing honest business, and an Idran could always be trusted to deliver quality product at a fair price.
The starchaser navigated through the crush of bodies, instinctively avoiding two human males wearing the uniform of Metropol Arat’s military police. She didn’t stop running until she caught sight of Tsanza’s workshop.
Skin like red ochre, eyes deep green, and hair twisted into long black locks, Tsanza was like a rare animal. Although he blended in with with racial mix that made up the populace of Metropol Arat, Tsanza was like no other on the entire planet of Tilaat Amat. The moment she’d laid eyes on him, Laila had him pegged for exactly what he was. It was his differentness that made him stand out, a differentness that had nothing to do with the color of his skin or the strange clothes he wore. Tsanza had that air about him, the air of one who didn’t belong planet-side. The air of a starchaser. He and Laila, they were wildly different but in that singular respect, they were the same.
He was there in the workshop, repairing an old-looking sidearm. He glanced up as Laila entered the workshop.
Tsanza stood a head taller than Laila, which at first made her self-conscious about her slightly diminutive stature. While working, Tsanza wore a simple gray shirt and dark utility pants. Whenever he was out of the workshop, he wore one of those woven ponchos that were so common among the denizens of Tilaat Amat. In the shop, he sat at his worktable, squinting at a tiny part from the gun he was repairing. His manner was somber. Half the time, Laila could only hazard a guess at what he was thinking.
“You missed a bit of a party.” She announced. “The military police paid me a little visit. An officer named Daz Nestor. Corrupt, power starved. You know the type?”
His head came up again, he seemed on the verge of saying something but in the end he just nodded and went back to working on the old gun. Laila was used to his little mannerisms so she didn’t think much of his reaction.
“It’s almost here,” she murmured. “Hegira.”
Hegira. It was a word that filled Laila both with bubbles of elation and nervous knots. The ship of wonder. The wandering world of beauty and horror. Hegira was heaven and hell wrapped in metal, hurtling through the universe at a billions of parsecs per second. Hegira was a behemoth, a massive monster of a ship. The only home Laila had ever known. Home to Winny, Bex, and Sumida, the three people Laila loved most in the ‘verse. It was home to Brother, the man she feared most in the ‘verse.
“I need to use the comms,” she told Tsanza, who nodded, pointing in the direction of the console.
Laila keyed in two messages. One to Sesily. The other to Brother. Laila’s mind shifted to Sumida. She’d told Sumida to leave Hegira, to run. Had Sumida listened? Sumida was tougher than anyone realized but she was also more stubborn than anyone else knew. She might have stayed on Hegira, out of pure spite. In that case she would already be dead. There’s no way Brother would let Laila’s rival live. Laila’s heart clenched at that thought. Laila loved Sumida, lived in awe of Sumida. She didn’t want Sumida to be dead.
She sent her messages, a short and seemingly meaningless burst of chatter that would be picked up by anyone scanning for transmissions from Tilaat Amat. Only Sesili and Dornvold would have any idea what it the message meant for them actually said. In her message to Brother, Laila included just enough information to keep him from being suspicious. Laila knew what would happen if Brother found out that she was actually reporting back to Sesili and Dornvold. He didn’t expect Laila to have the guts to do anything other than what he told her to do. Absolute obedience was what he expected.
Laila was dancing, dancing on the sharp edge of a knife. She knew it. She was used to doing that.