Jaqi, Araskar and Z are on the run from everyone - the Resistance, the remnants of the Empire, the cyborg Suits, and right now from the Matakas - and the Matakas are the most pressing concern because the insectoid aliens have the drop on them. The Resistance has a big reward out for Araskar and the human children he and Jaqi are protecting. But Araskar has something to offer the mercenary aliens. He knows how to get to a huge supply of pure oxygen cells, something in short supply in the formerly human Empire, and that might be enough to buy their freedom. Araskar knows where it is, and Jaqi can take them there. With the Matakas as troops, they break into Shadow Sun Seven, on the edge of the Dark Zone.
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MY LIFE EN'T EVER been simple, but it's been a lot more complicated since I went and did a miracle.
Take this situation, here, right now. I'm at the bottom of a node-relay tower. The node-relay controls communications for this entire moon; it sticks a mile up into the sky, the crystal Jorian structure shining prettily from the middle of a desert junk field, all old chassis and parts, spread out so evil wide it could pass for the Imperial Fleet's secondhand sale.
It's not our node-relay tower; we're hijacking it to try and recruit for the cause. It belongs to the Matakas, the nastiest crime lords on all the nasty worlds, and if they saw what we're doing, they'd kick us out the airlock.
Actually, no airlocks here. We're on the planet surface, where gravity and air are free, so I reckon they'll just fly us evil high and drop us. You'll have to forgive me, as I'm just a spaceways girl.
Yeah, me, Jaqi, the spaceways scab. I am fighting my own little fight against John Starfire himself, who conquered the galaxy. All because I did a miracle.
Right now I'm bent over the power cell, greasing it up with anti-oxitate to make sure the thing actually speaks to the tower. Got to grease up the connections before they go back together, as the atmos evil corrodes everything. These power cells work best in vacuum.
"Come on now," I mutter. "Let's get word out to the rest of the galaxy, and get back to camp and eat some real matter." I had tomatoes and corn and beans for breakfast and it was better than anything. 'Cept now I'm ready for lunch. We didn't even eat lunch in the spaceways. It's a noble tradition, lunch. I plan to observe a couple of times a day.
I wipe my hands on my pants, and then see the miracle, looming over me, holding out a handful of sand.
"Here," the miracle says.
"What's this for?"
"It will get the grease off your hands. We often used sand for cleaning, among my people."
"Thanks." I scrub the rough granules across my skin. "Evil rough on the old skin, though." Could use a rag, the kind that we would recycle and re-spin once the fibers got too damaged. But you en't going to be able to keep track of all your rags planetside. (Planetside! Where you can lose things! Did I mention that food grows out of the damn ground?)
"You and I have discussed sand before," the miracle says.
"Yes." Why's he look so nervous? I en't never seen this slab look nervous. Just cuz I did a miracle? "At the asteroid base. Bill's. We spoke about the relative merits of cleaning with water, sense-field, and sand."
See, the miracle is my friend Z, short for Zaragathora, not that I have any intention of saying that mouthful. He's a Zarra, about seven feet tall and one of those folk your momma warned you about.
Z and I hooked up back on the day the galaxy was "freed." John Starfire, the greatest swordsman and warrior and probably tea-drinker in the galaxy, overthrew the Empire, proclaimed a new order, and then started killing humans. Z and I teamed up to protect a couple of human kids who had a mighty secret, and ran all the way here, to the end of the universe.
Oh, and in the process he died.
And I brought him back to life.
Don't know how. I en't got one little clue.
"What do you suppose it is made of?" Z points up, at the node-relay tower.
I follow his gaze all the way up. Unlike the miles of junk around us, the tower is a Jorian-built relic, so it has the appearance of spun crystal, gleaming and shining with a thousand different colors. Like webs upon webs, spun on top of each other up to the sky.
"Reckon no one knows. Jorian things, left over from the past."
"It is beautiful. It strikes the heart as though the Starfire itself is drawn down from it. A thousand years the galaxy has stood in shadow, and yet the light still offers its mystery."
This is an odd conversation for us, given that this fella knows two words: "blood" and "honor." "You feeling well, Z?"
The handheld comm crackles, and Taltus's snakey voice comes through from above. "I have reached the manual relay screen, sss. Are you hooked up to the cell?"
Taltus, he who's on the other end of this comm, is a big Sska, meaning a lizard, but more important, he is one of them Thuzerians, the military monks what wear the mask and take the vow to protect the innocent. He leads this group of desert runaways, doing everything from gathering seeds to training horses to leading church services. Now he reckons I should talk to his preaching heads. "Everything running smooth, sss? We must have uninterrupted connection with the Council of Elders."
"Evil smooth, aiya. You sure these folk'll hear you?"
"I have invoked the great blood oath, most sacred to God. They must. For you, the Son of Stars, call them."
"Uh ..." How's a girl supposed to answer that? "Yeah."
The power hums, all juiced-up on solar cells. In space, you can draw power off background radiation, when you pass through a heavy belt, or just burn unthunium, but there en't none of that planetside. Just go ahead and grab some of that sunlight, we do.
I scan the horizon. No trouble coming from beyond this junkyard. Not yet, anyway. The folk what went out to serve as a distraction must have worked.
I walk over to check on the kids, what got me into all this trouble to start with. They squat next to the power cell, looking at the horizon — well, the little boy, Toq, does. The girl, Kalia, is a bit more interested in the older boy next to her.
Erdo is one of the random desert kids we've all been breaking bread with for the last couple of weeks. And he's a classic scab. Stolen more than he's ever owned, survived off protein packs, and ended up here after a job gone south. He's got a year on Kalia, is tall and quick-spoken, with a ragged crop of hair. Kalia's flush as five suns for him.
"She said it wasn't worth a shit in space," Kalia giggles.
"Oh, aiya, it en't, trust me," the boy says. "When I worked the spaceways, we woulda had power cells three times this size." He gives a grin and tosses his hair, as if this power cell is a thing to brag about — to a blueblood like Kalia! "You shoulda seen one I took off a scow near Routalais. Could power a whole ecosphere."
"Wow," Kalia says.
Then he sees me and he and Kalia both look at me strange — Kalia because she's a girl been caught going flush over a boy, but Erdo — well, this little spaceways scab of a boy hops to his feet and bows.
The bowing again. "Don't do that," I say.
He don't listen. Comes up out of the bow graceful as a fine servant in a holo. "Message for the sentries, ah, Saint Jaqi?"
"Erdo, stop that." I done explained it lots of times. "Taltus told you. I en't no Saint. It don't work like that."
"Yeah," Kalia butts in. "Saints have to perform three witnessed miracles. Jaqi's just done one."
That don't help. "I didn't do a thing. You stop that bowing."
Erdo nods, hair flopping around on his little head. "I'll go tell the guards, Saint — ma'am."
"Ma'am?" I can't help laughing at the poor kid. "Ma'am! That's even worse!"
Erdo starts to say something again, but sputters, and seems to think better of it. He leaves to speak with the sentries.
They were fine the first week or so. The kindest wanderers you could imagine, all of them with a similar story — they run from trouble elsewhere in the galaxy, and those of them who heard about our trouble were kind. We didn't speak on the trouble unless asked, and that was well by me. But then word of what I done with Z got around, and one day they start bowing, and calling me Saint.
"Oh, my gosh, Jaqi," Kalia groans once her boy is out of earshot. "You don't have to insult people's faith!"
"When did I insult anyone's faith? And who's gosh?"
"People believe in you," she says, like this is something everyone knows. "Ever since you brought Z back to life, people see you as someone to look up to. That's only going to increase the longer we're fighting against John Starfire."
"Yeah, well, folk ought to put their faith in something a bit more reliable."
"What's more reliable than a miracle we witnessed with our own eyes?" She turns to her brother. "Right, Toq?"
"I want Erdo to take me on a horse again," Toq answers. Unlike his sister, Toq is young enough not to make too much of a fuss.
"Toq, you don't think it's crazy to believe Jaqi can do miracles, right? We saw her bring Z back to life."
"Yeah," Toq says. And with all the energy of a kid, he adds, "You are gonna kill John Starfire!"
"Let's talk about something else."
"Just because you don't know how you did it," Kalia says, "that's no reason not to try and figure it out —"
Just then the comm crackles, saving me. "Losing power," Taltus says. "Check the relay orientator, please. Where is Araskar? I need to speak to him."
I walk over to where our independent power cell's been patched into the tower, through several wires fed into a relay orientator. Araskar's bent over it.
My crew is a funny bunch. Bluebloods on one hand, pit-fighting Zarra on the other. A religious type or two.
But Araskar is the most crazing slab in all the spaceways.
Up until we made planetfall, he tried to kill us. He was part of that Vanguard that chased us halfway across the galaxy, targeted the kids for murder, and invaded Bill's, my home. He only decided to join us at the last of all possible moments, when he turned around and killed his buddy what was about to cut down Kalia.
Goes without saying that I don't trust him no further than the end of a soulsword.
All that said ... he is a grade-A slab.
He's only wearing a pair of shorts and his scarred skin is even darker brown than usual, and as he hunches over the power cell I see (oh, do I evil see) the way those scar-laced muscles contract from years of training and soldiering.
I can't help thinking that we're both crosses, and if he gave me the slack, everything would work as intended. It would be a right old time.
See, these en't the thoughts of no Saint!
"You need something?" he asks.
"Taltus wants your ear." I hand the comm over. Araskar and Taltus talk back and forth, Araskar tweaking levels on the orientator. "That should do it," Araskar says into the comm. "Try it now."
"Receiving," Taltus says, his voice muffled by that mask all of his Order wears. We wait, and I try not to let Araskar see how I'm regarding him, a mixture of side-eye for his crazing, and appreciation for his chest.
"Any answer from your people?" Araskar says to the comm.
Taltus's voice crackles through the comm. "It will take time, sss. I have spoken to one lower Adept."
"What'd you do to get kicked out of this Order, anyway?" I ask.
"We had a doctrinal disagreement, sss." Taltus cuts off the comm signal, like he always does when I bring this up.
I turn back to Araskar, and for lack of anything to say, offer, "No sign of trouble yet."
He puts his hand on the sword at his side, maybe without realizing it. "I'm ready."
"What's that thing going to do?" I point to the sword. "Them Kurguls don't swing swords. They just turn you into shard-food." I know what this fellow is thinking. "You going to go get yourself dead? You promised not to. You gonna learn guitar."
"I didn't promise anything," he says, surly as ever, "but I'm not going to get myself killed. Although life won't be worth much if the Thuzerians won't help us."
"So optimistic there, fella."
"Just realistic." He squints at me, shading his eyes, looking at the horizon. I don't see no dust out there, but I en't never been in a big wide-open planet space anyway. "There are only a few major military powers in the galaxy, and the military monks are the only ones who never pledged to the Resistance or the Empire."
"Don't sound so fatal, slab! We got a chance of recruiting some folk to our ... what'd you call it."
"That's a terrible name."
"You're welcome to come up with something better." He turns back to the orientator, like it needs his attention. "Nothing will matter if we can't learn what John Starfire knows about the Dark Zone. Why it mattered that the kids had that memory crypt."
He's talking about the map we saw, afore we made planetfall here. Evil big map of stars, all the stars swallowed by the Dark Zone way back when. I don't like thinking about that Dark Zone. Don't like thinking about the cold, that sick little half-light, about a face the size of a planet, a face that could swallow whole suns. I accidentally jumped in there and got enough for a lifetime. "You, uh, you know anything about them devils?"
"No more than you. A thousand years ago, the Shir —"
"Aiya, slab! Don't name the devil!"
He laughs, without humor. Told you this fellow was crazing. "All right, a thousand years ago they appeared, at the same time the Jorians disappeared. They killed a thousand star systems, swallowing suns to burn their internal furnaces, before the Imperial Navy was formed to stop them, with the first successful cross soldiers. But that's just propaganda I got in my data dump. Along with You Are the Hero the Empire Needs Now and Battle: The Purpose of Cross Life and Understanding Sentience: A Primer for Non-Sentient Races." He laughs, but it en't a happy laugh. I don't think he knows how to do a happy laugh. "I don't know any of the real history from that time. What little information is left is in the memory crypts, or ..." He pauses.
"Or somewhere no one can find it."
This is the way he goes. If he didn't drive me so mad with his crazing, I'd be worried about him pulling out that sword to use on himself. "Don't sound so sad about things. Think about your guitar. Think about lunch. Just don't spend too much time thinking on the dead, aiya?"
I try to make myself sound friendly. By his scowl and narrowed eyes, I failed. "What do you know?" He turns back to me, them cold eyes surrounded by them scars, and I remember, again, that this slab is a killer, moreso than even Z. "You don't even understand who you are, or what you did back there. I killed the woman I loved because of you. I —" He cuts himself off.
"Well, that's some honesty there. Don't stop! What else you going to say? That I ought to know how I did a damn miracle? Because I would damn well like to know, slab!"
He turns back to the horizon, doesn't answer me.
"You had the idea. You said you heard music coming off me."
"Yes," he says, hardly without opening his lips.
"Magic music, miracle stuff that makes me some kinda special."
"Yes. I hear it all the time. I hear it right now. I don't have an explanation for it."
"But you just looked at me back there, and you saw Z laid out all dead, and you thought, oh, hey, I ought to have her use that music to bring this slab back to life — that's what you thought? All from one look?"
"No, I knew something was special about you. For a long time."
"What? When? When did we ever chat before this, slab?"
"At the asteroid base. I was in one of the Moths that attacked you. I could hear the music then."
The home the Vanguard waltzed in and smashed up, and though I killed a good number of them, enough got through that they killed Bill, who was a father to me after my parents died. Then they nearly killed the kids, and poisoned Z. "You knew I was special back at Bill's."
His scars contort with confusion. "What's Bill's?"
"The asteroid." Now it's my turn to sound cold. "You knew I was special, and you tried to kill me anyway, and let them folk kill my own?"
"It wasn't like that. I —"
"You hadn't figured this business out, then."
He pauses. "No. Not yet."
"Just figured I was special, not figured the Resistance was evil for wanting to kill kids."
"It was complicated."
"Sure it was." I'm so angry I could say a thousand things at once, and nothing at all. "Sure it was. I mean, in the spaceways, someone tries to kill young ones, they have a happy accident with an airlock. But it's more complicated with all your learning. How many Imperial years you seen, now? One? Or you fresher from the vat than that?"
"I'm five years out of the vat," he says.
"So much wisdom in them five years. So much complication."
He stares at me for a long time, and his hand twitches on the smaller of the two swords he wears, like he's about to yank it out and start a fight. "I told you. I was wrong. The Resistance was wrong."
"Lot of folk 'wrong' is gonna bring back, slab —"
A shard flies right past us and explodes, blowing an old ship's engine housing into a thousand white-hot fragments, spinning through the air.
Excerpted from "Starfire: Shadow Sun Seven"
Copyright © 2017 Spencer Ellsworth.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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