Authors: Brenda Cooper
The evening smelled of stone and releasing heat, and the rain that would wash across the land in a few hours. The first high clouds turned gold and red above me, the sunset a show repeated every night here, where the weather ran on clockwork schedules. “What are we going to do, Sash?” I whispered. “I want to be back on a ship and away from here. All planets are poison.”
Sasha had no answer. She probably liked it better here. Room to run and ready game. I didn’t. Here, I didn’t really know who was friend and who wasn’t. On Fremont, my friends and enemies had been easier to tell apart.
What did Alicia think she could accomplish? We didn’t know this place or these people. Not yet. What did she want, except maybe just to be bad? She’d been bored; I’d left her out of so much that I was doing. But what choice did I have? I wanted to be more like her; I always had. I fell in love with her for her wildness. But the older I got, the more things I had to do that just weren’t wild. We’d been
made—me for flight and Reading the Wind, her for risks. I didn’t want to lose her, not ever, even though I’d be willing to bet they didn’t make us for each other. When she followed her core nature back on Fremont, Chelo had saved her. This time, I wanted to save her. But how could I abandon Marcus? And how would I find Alicia anyway?
“I hope she’s safe,” I whispered into Sasha’s ear, and the dog leaned even harder against me for a moment. The two of us stared down the ravine path together, Sasha’s nose questing the air and me taking in the shapes of stones and vegetation. We got to sit that way, alone together, watching the light change for so long I began to actually feel better. Then Sasha stirred and bounded off, smelling Kayleen’s and Marcus’s approach before I heard their feet scrape on the stones.
“No new word?” I asked.
“No.” Marcus sat down beside me, in the spot Sasha had vacated, and the dog and Kayleen sat across from us both, the last soft rays of sun making an unnaturally light halo of Kayleen’s dark hair. Marcus looked as outwardly calm as normal, but he was close enough that I could feel his anxiety. Deep work in data together always left a bit of something Kayleen called “glow” between us, as if we had more access to each other’s emotions than before. It would slide away. But it hadn’t yet. He squinted toward the sunset. “It’s past time for flying, anyway. The rain will be in before we could get to Oshai.”
Was he trying to convince himself or me? “Good thing it doesn’t rain on space ships.”
“What happens to the simulation since we got interrupted?”
He shrugged. “We’ll see. I left it running with what we’d done. Mistakes should surface by the time we get back.”
“So it wasn’t that bad to stop?”
“First runs-through almost never get it right. Especially not in people.”
I hoped we hadn’t wasted all that effort. I wanted to be done with this and to go on, to leave here and be with the fleets. Or back home. Or anywhere else.
Kayleen fed Sasha bits of meat and root vegetables, and Marcus
handed me a sandwich and a flask full of water. I savored a long drink and the three of us ate in silence. As soon as Kayleen and Sasha finished their shared meal, Kayleen said, “We should have all come here. I think we should swear we’ll never be separated again. No matter what. The six of us, always.”
“Just six?” Marcus asked.
Kayleen covered her mouth with her hand. “Well, I suppose we have to include Ming, the way Bryan is hanging around with her.”
Marcus laughed. “First we need to get together again. There’s no price on Alicia’s or Bryan’s head, or even Ming’s. They should be all right.”
“There’s a reward for Jenna,” Kayleen reminded him.
He swallowed, and looked a tiny bit vulnerable. For all the things he often looked—amused, tolerant, frustrated, intrigued—vulnerable was a strange sight. “You really love Jenna, don’t you?” I asked.
“I love her fury and her independence. Those will keep her safe.”
He loved more than that. He loved the soft heart it had taken years for me to see. “That’s why I love Alicia.” But Jenna wouldn’t do anything stupid. “I can’t imagine Jenna not being safe. She kept us all safe for years. It’s Alicia I’m worried about.”
“Yeah. Well, I’ll keep an eye out for her, a little, even from here.”
He had resources everywhere. But I didn’t have access to his net or resources, and no matter how much I admired and trusted him, I needed to do more than worry. Besides, it was going to be too dark to walk back to the cave soon. “Ready to go find Tsawo?”
arly evening blurred the edges of the rocks outside the cave and faded the black of Sasha’s coat into the landscape so her white feet and nose looked like ghost dog parts approaching the cave. Stepping through the barrier between the outside and the inside, the hum of conversation and machinery assaulted us. Any calm I’d gathered outside left quickly.
Tsawo and Angeline weren’t immediately visible. Kayleen pointed. The two fliers sat on top of a storage building at the far side of the cave, off to the right. I started toward them. Kayleen walked beside me, her steps as determined as mine, and Marcus dragged a bit behind, maybe lost in data. Out here in the main cave that meant Lopali data, soft and seductive and full of lies and half-truths and deep truths.
We stood at the bottom of the storage building, a nearly two-story box with no windows, and rows of closed doors along the bottom. It was made of the same stuff that lined the cave walls, smooth light gray material that could be molded into almost any shape. From this close, it was easy to tell the building’s roof had actually been set up for fliers with stones and perch-tree branches arranged pleasingly to make a sort of outdoor/indoor sitting room. The two fliers, black Tsawo and white Angeline, held their heads close together, talking. I called up, “Hello!”
Angeline looked down. “Come on up!”
We weren’t going up the sheer walls in front of us. Marcus headed around the building. “Here.”
Steep, shallow steps had been cut into the cave wall, more like a ladder than a staircase. We started up, Sasha struggling behind us. Kayleen, last in line, looked down over her shoulder. “Sasha. Wait. You don’t like fliers anyway.”
Sasha barked, clinging to the wall, and then gave up and fell the three steps down, landing on her feet and whining softly.
“You’ll be all right,” I told her.
At the top of the ladder, Marcus helped me and then Kayleen over to the top of the building. We sat opposite Tsawo and Angeline, climbing up on seats clearly meant for fliers; once again our feet didn’t touch the ground. I sat in the middle, with Marcus on my right. From up here, the cave looked bigger and emptier than it did from below. The walls and turns were all rounds and angles, more like a space ship than a cave. Rock, but carved by people. The roof was still far above us, although our new height revealed a doorway behind us at the level of the top of the building. We hadn’t figured out where people lived yet. Maybe here?
Now what? Angeline prompted me, her blue eyes bright in her pale face. “What can we help you with?”
I watched Tsawo’s expression. “Alicia’s gone missing.”
He winced, but didn’t look surprised. “From where?”
Kayleen was her usual subtle self. “Near Oshai. We’re not supposed to know where the others are. But Seeyan said she and Bryan tied up a Keeper and got away. We need to find her.”
Tsawo’s features tightened and Angeline’s eyes widened. “A Keeper!” she exclaimed. “Was the Keeper all right?”
Marcus’s answer came quickly. “Yes.”
“Good. They’re valuable to us.” She sounded like she thought of the Keepers as pets. Maybe she did; Seeyan acted like they were a club, but whatever they were in Lopali’s overt social structure, it was less than fliers.
“Alicia won’t hurt anyone,” Kayleen said. “She’s just wild.”
Tsawo’s face gave away nothing; smooth and pretty and controlled. “You think I can help?”
A small uncomfortable silence ensued. I spoke into it. “I thought . . . you’d spent so much time with her. I was hoping she told you something to help us?”
Kayleen added words I’d only been thinking. “Or maybe you told her something about Lopali that she wanted to go find. Alicia’s curious.”
Marcus remained quiet and watchful, his energy partly gone again as he double-dipped between the physical and the world of data. Hopefully he was looking for Alicia and Jenna his own way.
Angeline and Tsawo shared a glance. The dark flier looked back at me and took a deep breath. His words sounded soft, like a stream of peace, but were actually hard. “Alicia is willful. She has no calm, no access at all to her inner core. I tried to teach her to fly, and she couldn’t get close enough to her own fears to even see them, much less overcome them.” He paused, the look on his face almost exactly the one I’d seen on Alicia’s face when I asked her about Tsawo. He seemed to be proud of her and mad at her all at once, about like me. He drew in a slow breath and calm touched his muscles one by one, until his face was again serene. “She’s probably gone to find some poor soul from the warring worlds that will help her try to kill herself by attempting to change into a flier.”
His words had gotten Kayleen all worked up. “Alicia’s better than you’re giving her credit for. She’s undoubtedly trying to help us. She wouldn’t just run away and she wouldn’t tie someone up on a whim. She’s smart. She’d know we might get in trouble, so it must have been worth the risk! She must know something we don’t.”
That might not be hard.
Angeline spoke up. “Lopali is a patient place.” She looked at me, and then at Marcus and Kayleen. “You three have shown patience, and I’m grateful for the work you’re doing. There are more forces at play than you realize. A saying we have for visitors is, ‘Patience skins your soul.’ ”
Kayleen’s soul hadn’t been skinned yet. She just plowed ahead, pleading with the fliers. “She’s got this invisibility mod. We’re not going to be able to find her by
for her. Don’t you have any ideas about where she is?”
Tsawo shook his head. “Our eyes aren’t any better than yours at seeing the invisible.”
Kayleen blinked up at him, looking disappointed. “What about
the other women who were with us? Have you seen them or heard anything about them? My mom’s with them.”
He leaned back away from her, looking slightly assaulted. Maybe he wasn’t a guy who understood women’s feelings. Maybe fliers didn’t know what a mother meant to someone. I glanced at Angeline, who probably should know, but her face was as serene as Tsawo’s. But then, she hadn’t birthed, or really raised Paula. Mari had. I tried a different tack. “Chelo said that you’re protectors. What does that mean?”
His feathers rustled softly against the stones he sat on. “It means we’re protecting Lopali against the war.” His gaze stayed steady on me, unblinking, and I refused to look away. Finally, he looked at Marcus. “I know your goal. You want to drag us into war, but we want peace.”
Again, Kayleen said the first thing that popped into her head. “Chelo doesn’t like war, either.”
“I admire that,” Angeline said. “I hate the idea of Tsawo dying in some strange place, or anyone else.”
I glanced at Tsawo. “You can fly a space ship?” It would give us something in common.
His laughter sounded bitter. “Not me. Fliers are seldom Wind Readers like you; we don’t command most of our own ships. We learn as children that ships are cages.”
Marcus spoke up. “So then why is Angeline worried about you going to war?”
“Because if there is a war, I will go.” He glanced at the other flier. “Angeline, too. But I far prefer flying here to flying through space.”
And I preferred flying ships to flying myself any day.
Angeline interrupted. “But what about you two? Do you want to stop this war?”
Marcus answered her. “We need you. With Lopali at our side, Islas will back away.”
“I didn’t ask you,” Tsawo said. Marcus’s jaw tightened, but he didn’t reply.
Kayleen answered him. “I hate fighting.”
He looked at me.
I wanted to fly the ships I’d seen in the war room. More than that, I expected to; they called to me. But the end of the only real battle I’d been in made me want to puke for months. So that’s what I talked about. “I killed some people in the battle on Fremont. I hated it. Especially afterward.” When their screams stayed in my head for months and when they came back to haunt me, like they had when we were working on Angeline’s daughter’s simulation. Now, because I had made the mistake of thinking about them. My ghosts.
It wasn’t enough answer for him. “
war. What do you think of this one?”
I didn’t know. I shook my head, feeling stupid. Chelo had a stance; if it was war, it was wrong. Marcus’s every breath went into stopping this war, but he would fight it if he had to. Alicia would like it. Bryan, too. But what about me? People were fighting about the freedom to do what Marcus was teaching me to do. The same stuff that Islas hated enough to go to war to stop. I took Kayleen’s hand. “We’ll do what’s right.”
Angeline’s gaze was softer than Tsawo’s. “Do you know what that is?”
“Helping you is right,” I said. “Whatever happens with the war, I want to help you. You shouldn’t be owned.”
She nodded. “We agree.” She paused, and her voice softened. “At least you’re willing to tell us what you don’t know.”
Tsawo slid down from his perch and stretched his wings. “I can’t help you easily. But if I see Alicia, or I hear about her, I’ll let you know.”
Angeline smiled wistfully. “Good luck.” She, too, spread her wings.
“Wait,” I said, but not before they fell off the edge of the building. A wing beat or two later they rose again, flying out the cave mouth, side by side, and so fine-looking I lost my breath for a moment.
“What are they to each other?” Kayleen asked Marcus.
“Brother and sister.”
“Really?” I’d thought they might be lovers. “Genetically?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. Matriana and Daniel raised them both.” We were still sitting on the slightly-too-tall-for-normal-humans perches, and he started to slide off. “I want to check on the simulation.”