Skip to main content

Stars Afire

Emma Halverson

Emma Halverson is a linguistics major and Latin minor from Boise, ID. After she graduates in May, she’s going to pursue an MA in linguistics and translation at Boise State’s Interdisciplinary Studies Program. She hopes to someday write fiction for young people. When she’s not writing, she enjoys crocheting, hiking, and attempting to keep her plants alive.

Stars Afire

Chapter 1

Rose’s left eye was wigging out again. She sat in her quarters, cross-legged on her spongey mattress, across from Ibb, who sat on the floor. Rose’s favorite quilt—the one Dr. Heloisa had made her, out of strips of gold and purple fabric—rested around her shoulders, to ward off the cold that leaked through the porthole and stiffened her joints.

This late in the Ithaca’s day-night cycle, most of the ship’s inhabitants were asleep, and the only sounds that bled through Rose’s thin door were the hum of the air filter and the omnipresent rumble of the engines. Usually the perfect time for concentration, even if it meant losing sleep and making up the difference with stimulants the next morning.

Hence Ibb, sitting on Rose’s floor, twirling her rust-red braid around a finger—although in Rose’s glitchy vision, she looked more like two Ibbs, layered over each other. They had a deal, Rose and Ibb: Ibb, the ship’s recently recruited copilot, helped Rose study her five-space vectors a couple nights a week, and in return, Rose helped Ibb learn the ins and outs of life on the Ithaca—the crew who were friendly, the best time to shower and get hot water, that sort of thing. Rose figured Ibb had the harder job, trying to teach her five-space math, but she wasn’t complaining. She needed to get better at all the math stuff, if she was going to test into pilot school.

“Okay, let’s try again,” said Ibb from the floor. She rattled off a vector equation from her touch-table. “What direction would that take a ship through the slipstream?”

Rose scrunched up her face. “Uhh …. upstream? Towards Epsilon Sector?”

Ibb shot her a flat look. “No. Stop guessing and do the math.”

Rose should plug the equation into her touch table, which rested on the bed beside her. But it was hard to concentrate when her stupid eye hadn’t taken yet, the way Dr. Heloisa said it was supposed to, and Ibb’s form wavered into and out of a double of itself. A dull ache spread over the back of Rose’s skull. The ache didn’t bug her. She was used to aches and pains. But her vision had been going to doubles and even quadruples off and on all day, and math was a lot harder when she couldn’t focus on the damn numbers.

The synthetic will integrate in a couple days,” she mimicked Dr. Heloisa’s low and solemn alto under her breath. “Yeah, right.”

“What’s that?” Ibb said.

“Never mind,” Rose said. She had learned over their past study sessions that Ibb’s genius ability to hold five-space math in her head didn’t mean she understood sarcasm. “The doctors finally replaced my left eye yesterday, and my brain doesn’t like the synthetic.”

“Oh. Well, we can quit for today, if you want.”

“Just … just give me a second,” Rose said. She wasn’t going to let her screwy vision cheat her out of a lesson. Unless … what if her vision stayed that way forever? Then she really never would get into pilot school.

How badly out of alignment was it now? She tapped out of the touch-table’s vector tutorial program and into its camera, so she could use it as a mirror for inspection. Sure enough, the version of her on the screen looked back at her with only one eye: the right eye. The left eye, the synthetic eye, the slightly brighter blue eye, the eye surrounded by delicate surgical cuts—that eye drifted outward.

It was strange, to look at a reflection that stared only partially back. It made her feel like she didn’t exactly belong to herself anymore. Like she’d had so many pieces hacked off and replaced, she was turning into someone else. She wanted to claw the synthetic out and shove her own eye back in.

“Can I ask?” Ibb cut into Rose’s thoughts. “Why all the … everything?”

She waved her hands at Rose indistinctly, at all of Rose’s scars and synthetics, and Rose fought the burning that crept up her neck and face.

“I mean,” Ibb said, “you’re what, sixteen? Why are you even on the Ithaca?”

“You’re not that much older,” Rose mumbled.

“I am nineteen, thank you, and I have a job. You don’t. You’re just … here.”

Rose sighed. She should probably explain herself to Ibb. She shouldn’t have to—shouldn’t owe anyone her medical history—but Ibb would just keep prodding and poking, like a doctor, until she finally untangled the mystery that was Rose. Better to rip off the bandage quickly.

“Been here as long as I can remember.” Rose closed her eyes, giving the left one a break. “I have this medical condition—Felix’s Syndrome. It’s rare, but I guess there was an outbreak of it on the port station where I was born. Your body just … falls apart. Fast. My parents got it too. And they couldn’t afford doctors for us all, but they knew Dr. Heloisa, and she said she could get me a space on the Ithaca. Since it’s a research ship, it gets all the cutting-edge medical stuff, which they can use to keep me alive and kicking.” Rose shrugged. “So they sent me off and here I am. Stuck, pretty much.”

“I’m … I’m sorry,” said Ibb.

Rose shrugged, forcing her face into something like apathy. She didn’t open her eyes. “I don’t remember them. My parents, I mean. So it’s not like I miss them or anything. I’ve never even been back to the station where I was born.”


Briiiiiiiing. Bring. Briiiiiiiing. Bring. A siren cut Ibb off. The bell of the yellow alert pealed through the ship, ringing off the hard metal walls of Rose’s quarters. The sound echoed inside her skull, and her eyes snapped open. The lights were flickering, the color of deep goldenrod. Her quarters—still fuzzy and doubled in her out-of-whack vision—looked as though they had been dipped in honey.

Panic bloomed in Rose’s chest. Why was the ship going to yellow alert?

Ibb stood. Rose set aside her tablet and shrugged off her quilt. What was going on? The Ithaca was in the sparsely inhabited Rho Sector, which had a reputation for inexplicable and dangerous phenomena, theorized to come from the presence of two black holes. Did that have something to do with it?

“If this is a drill,” Rose grumbled, “I am going to kill the captain.”

“That’s probably a bad idea,” said Ibb, and Rose couldn’t tell whether she was kidding.

Briiiiiiiing. Bring. Briii— The audio portion of the alarm cut off, now that the crew were sufficiently roused, but the lights stayed honey-colored.

The yellow alarm went off a couple times a year—the last two had been for a hull breach down in storage and a chemical spill in a lab. Red had happened only once, when a monstrous blob of cells, not unlike a jellyfish, had crashed into the ship’s hull and electrocuted half the systems. Rose had never seen the highest level, black. Still, the yellow alarm required at least a medium amount of urgency, so she struggled up from her bed.

“You going to be okay?” Ibb offered Rose her arm.

“I’m fine,” Rose grumbled.

Fighting the feeling that her joints had hardened like mechanic’s putty, she shoved her bare feet into sneakers. The corridors’ dark metal flooring got cold enough to burn at night. And she had to get all the way from her quarters, at the stern of the ship, to the bridge at the bow—that was yellow alert protocol. All crew and passengers report to the bridge, with its thousand failsafes to protect it from whatever disaster struck other sections of the ship.

Rose had always wondered what would happen if the bridge was the part of the ship that got the disaster. No matter what the captain said about the bridge being “perfectly safe,” sending everyone there during emergencies seemed like tempting fate. It put Rose in mind of that old Earth ship that everyone had called unsinkable before it hit an iceberg and sank.

Rose strode from her quarters, doing her best to ignore the pain feathering from a newer shin scar. The coolness of the Ithaca did that to her—stiffened her if she stayed in place too long. Her scars did not like the damp chill inherent in filtered air. Ibb followed her out. The door became two doors in her vision as she closed it.

“Can you run?” Ibb said.

“What?” Rose didn’t track the reason for the question.

“Just, I’m copilot, so I should get to the bridge fast as possible,” Ibb said. “I don’t want to just leave you here, though.”

Right. Ibb was a vital part of the Ithaca’s operations. Rose was superfluous. She couldn’t hold Ibb back.

“No, go,” Rose said. “I’ll get there eventually.”

Ibb gave her one last worried look—edged with enough concern to set Rose’s teeth on edge—and dashed down the corridor. Her rust-red braid swung behind her, looking like a double tail in Rose’s double vision.

Rose took a deep breath. Scrunched her left eye shut. Now she could at least look down the length of the steel corridor without it undergoing visual mitosis. The corridor, drenched in deep yellow light, glittered in its sterility. Nothing seemed wrong at first glance, other than the presence of the yellow alarm itself, but the Ithaca’s identity as a science exploration vessel meant it frequently encountered weird threats—there had been the great scaly void-beast a few weeks ago, trawling the gaps between empty planets for starlight to devour. It hadn’t done the ship any harm, but Rose had never felt tinier than when the Ithaca soared past, smaller than the creature’s glittering eye.

Worried she was missing something, Rose took inventory of her working senses: The hallway was cold, but no colder than normal. No environmental control failure. The engines vibrated the floor like a purring cat (which Rose had never encountered but had seen in vids), but nothing shook alarmingly. No engine breakdown. The air held a faint metallic tang, almost like blood, but that was only the omnipresent scent of the abyss of space. Nothing in the labs burning and stinking the place up with smoke. What had tripped the yellow alert?

On either side of Rose, doors opened and more of the sleepy crew stumbled out, hair matted and pajamas rumpled. Rose didn’t catch much of what anyone said, only bits and pieces: “What’s … so late?” “Yellow? … Who thought … a good idea?” “Better not … a drill …”

            By now, it looked like all fifty-four crew of the Ithaca had been roused. The more essential personnel ran to the bridge, and the rest plodded down the corridor more slowly. At least the ship wasn’t on red alert or, saints forbid, black. But Rose’s knees still ached as she worked to keep up with the mob. It didn’t help that her dodgy synthetic eye was still closed. It threw her off her balance, so that the gently vibrating floor seemed to shift under her shoes.

Oh, get over it, she tried to tell herself. Dr. Heloisa will fix the eye, once all this is over. Whatever all this is.

But what if Dr. Heloisa couldn’t? Rose would never get into pilot school with an eye that worked only some of the time. And then she’d be trapped here, on this tiny ship, until she found another career path that didn’t care about the spottiness of her education. Being stuck on the Ithaca in her childhood meant her schooling had consisted of practical application of whatever science the ship encountered, and nothing else. The former captain couldn’t afford to bring a tutor out to the middle of nowhere for her.

But pilot school didn’t care about any of that. They only cared if you could do five-space calculations and navigate the glittering faster-than-light slipstream and make ships fly. And Rose would get there soon. She would. No matter how many synthetics she was full of.

“Frightening, to be woken in the middle of the night by a yellow alert, yes?” said an alto voice at Rose’s left ear. Dr. Heloisa—a round-faced woman with a perpetually red nose and cheeks, who somehow managed to look put-together even in the middle of the night. Her curly black hair was pulled into a tight bun on top of her head, and her light blue pajamas looked so similar to scrubs that she didn’t seem out of place in them.

“Didn’t wake me up. I wasn’t asleep yet,” Rose said. “Vector practice with Ibb. What do you think the alarm is?”

“You need to get more sleep, dear,” Dr. Heloisa said. “You can’t run on stims forever, you know, they’re not good for— Why are you squinting your eye like that?”

Rose looked away, still keeping her malfunctioning left eye closed. She and the rest of the crew were hustling past the ship’s laboratories, but everything in them seemed quiet. Normal. Nothing wrong there, either. So why the yellow alert?

Her headache shot from the back of her skull to her temples, and the scar on her thigh twinged. Moving had limbered her up, some, but she still desperately wanted to sit down.

“Rose? The eye?” Dr. Heloisa prompted. “You know the synthetic won’t integrate properly if you don’t use it.”

“I couldn’t see anything,” Rose grumbled. “It’s no good having a better eye if I can’t use it to see anything.”

“I did have Nurse Clotilda give you the patch, right?”

“Yeah, you did, thanks.”

But Rose wouldn’t wear the black eyepatch if the saints themselves unwound from the nebulae to gift it to her. The sticky-edged circle of fabric was meant to go over her right eye, to force her brain to get used to using the left and work the muscles that would keep the eye from drifting. But patching made her look ridiculous, like she was one of the pirates rumored to ghost around black holes and board ships. Then again, she probably looked pretty ridiculous with one eye squinted shut, too.

“What do you think the yellow alert is?” Rose asked again.

Dr. Heloisa frowned in the goldenrod light. “I couldn’t say, dear. One would think the captain would send an announcement over the PA, but it seems he elected not to inform us …”

Rose realized she hadn’t seen the captain yet. And he was hard to miss, taller and broader than anyone else on the ship, with a shock of white-blond hair. Some of the crew—mostly the older ones, like Dr. Heloisa and Nurse Clotilda and the cook—gave him flak for being so young to his captaincy. He’d taken over for his father only a year ago, after all, and was barely twenty-two. But if nothing else, he was fastidious about following all two-thousand pages of the Ithaca’s book of regulations. Now that Rose thought about it, why hadn’t there been an announcement? The captain could have sent a message over the touch-tables, at least.

And where was he? The bridge, maybe—but in the middle of the night, when the Ithaca went on autopilot?

Finally, they came to the bridge: a circular room under a glass dome that gave an all-around view of the galaxy. The dusty rainbow of a nebula shone overhead, and the glittering slipstream ran through it like a ribbon. Distant planets and far-flung stars filled the view.

The captain sat in the center of the bridge, his back to them, at the long touch-table where he commanded the ship. He was perfectly still, the golden emergency lighting pouring over his head and shoulders.

“Captain?” said ship’s exobotanist, Larkin, who had been assigned to the Ithaca only couple years ago and always had something unsolicited to say about how it could be better run. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know, Larkin,” said the captain. “I can’t parse it.”

A rumble went through the rest of the crew. Frustration and curiosity and the consuming need for answers propelled Rose forward, from the crowd to the captain’s touch-table. Dimly, she was aware of Dr. Heloisa calling her back—she wasn’t supposed to just walk up there like that, wasn’t supposed to peer over his shoulder at his personal touch-table—but she’d grown up with the captain, when his father had been captain. He was like an older brother, if a sometimes distant one. And she needed to know what was going on.

She stared at his long touch-table. It was much bigger than her thin lap model; his was permanently attached to the floor, like the plastic table from which she ate meals in the dining hall. The screen displayed the ship’s most important statistics: current velocity (0.6 light-speed), life-support status (within functional parameters), alert level (yellow). Nothing, other than the alert, was wrong.

“See it?” the captain said quietly to Rose. “Tell me I’m not the only one who sees it.”

Her cheek was cramping from keeping her left eyelid squeezed shut so long, so she opened her eye. The data blurred. Rose clapped her hand over the infuriating synthetic. It took away her peripheral vision on the left, and probably looked stupid, but at least she could see.

Nothing looked wrong, though. Hand still over her eye—which the captain mercifully didn’t comment on—she shook her head.

“Ibb,” the captain said, “come look at this.”

Ibb hovered around the touch-table with Rose. “Looks good, captain. False alarm?”

The captain pointed a blunt finger at the time readout at the top of the screen. It should have said something around 0130, but didn’t. It blinked through time: 2100. 0632. 0955. 2311.

“A glitch?” said Ibb, unsure. “Looks like the ship’s clock broke, so it threw us into yellow alert. At least it’s not putting us in and out of night cycle every time the readout changes.”

Yellow alert seemed to Rose like an overreaction on the part of whoever had programmed it as the response to a clock glitch. Unless the clock wasn’t actually glitching, but the evidence of a deeper problem …

“Well, now I know I’m not hallucinating it,” the captain said under his breath.

“Hallucinating what?” Rose said. “It’s just a glitch. Not that weird.”

Come to think of it, she was starting to feel weird. It was more than her new eye or the scars over her synthetic bones, joints, nerves. A sense of vertigo, deep in her stomach, as though she were falling. But her shoes were firm on the vibrating floor.

“All the clocks are doing it.” The captain ran a hand through his white-blond hair, which the yellow light illuminated as if he had a halo. “Look.”

He held his wrist out to Rose and Ibb. Behind them, the crew’s murmuring grew louder. The captain wore an incredibly expensive antique analogue watch, with a face as round and pale as a moon. The delicate silver hands whirled so quickly they blurred.

“That,” said Ibb, “should not be happening.”

Nerves turned Rose sarcastic, and she bit back a No, really?

Maybe it was nothing, for the clocks to break, for the hands on the captain’s watch to move so fast they hummed. But this was Rho Sector, one of the strangest sections of the galaxy, and the subtle wrongness of timekeeping ceasing to work set Rose on edge.

“Hey,” said a voice behind Rose. Larkin. She turned to see him holding a personal touch-table the size of a dinner plate. “My clock’s screwed up, too.”

“That’s because yours is connected to the Ithaca’s, genius,” somebody grumbled.

“No, no,” he said. “I hacked it, last time we were back in port. Disconnected it from the shipwide systems—kept it on the same day-night cycle, though, for obvious reasons.”

“And why did you do that?” said the captain.

“Ah. Um.” Larkin, usually a gangly young man, managed to look ganglier and younger than usual. “Talk about this later? When we’re not in the middle of an emergency?”

The captain’s lips thinned, but he nodded. Rose had played enough card games with him during leisure hours—when he insisted on following every single rule, even the stupid ones everybody ignored—that she knew letting Larkin off for now must pain him. “Your clock isn’t keeping time either, then,” he said.

“Not exactly.”

Larkin held out his touch-table. The time read 0000.

“That should definitely not be happening,” Ibb said. “Like it just … stopped.”

How could three disconnected clocks—one of them analogue—go haywire? Some kind of strange time-disrupting signal in space along with the radio and ultraviolet and gamma rays?

Rose was starting to feel sick, really sick, like she was floating outside herself. It didn’t help that her tired hand still clamped over her glitchy eye.

“We should dock somewhere, sir,” said Ibb. “Until we can figure out what this is. If the ship’s internal timekeeping is off, that could screw up life-support and I don’t know what else.”

“Other systems could fail,” put in someone from the crew.

“Yes,” said the captain, “all right, that’s what we’ll do. Not much civilization out here, but there’s got to be something.”

He spun his chair around to face his touch-table and search for viable ports. Rose gritted her teeth. The former captain, Piers Nox, would have been the one giving his crew orders, pointing out that they needed to dock. But here was his son, taking orders from his own crew. Not that it was a bad thing, exactly, for Captain Gavin Nox to take advice from his specialists. But with everybody eyeing him, he needed to stop acting so nervous.

Something sour burned up Rose’s throat and coated her tongue. She felt like she was about to throw up, and she hated being sick, hated vomiting, hated losing control over herself in such a humiliating way. She wrapped her arms around her stomach, but now her synthetic eye was freaking out and the bridge’s dome doubled, quadrupled, octupled—

The omnipresent hum of the ship’s engines stopped. The floor stilled under the soles of Rose’s shoes. The yellow light vanished. The only illumination came from the galaxy out the dome. In Rose’s vision, it looked like a kaleidoscope of nebulae and the slipstream and stars.

“We lost power,” said the captain. “Dammit, we’re just drifting in the middle of—” He took a deep breath, probably conscious of Dr. Heloisa and Nurse Clotilda and Larkin and everyone else with words about what he could do better.

Don’t lose your head, Rose wanted to implore him, even through her panic. Focus.

“We’re still moving,” Ibb reported. “0.3 lightspeed. Steering’s online. Backup generator’s taking care of life support. Probably got, I don’t know, three or so hours. Maybe we can use the momentum and coast into port somewhere, sir.”

“It’ll be a rough docking,” said the captain. “But it might work if we can find a place.”

Something flashed in Rose’s eyes. The captain kept talking, but Rose lost her concentration. Light like molten silver. No one reacted but her. A hallucination? Another glitch?

Great, she thought desperately. Everything is going wrong and now this.

If only they could find somewhere to dock. Rose squinted shut her left eye and peered over Ibb’s shoulder, where her touch-table was still operational.

“Can you—?” Rose croaked. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Try looking for asteroids.” She and Ibb studied docking protocols for those a few days ago.

“Good idea,” Ibb said.

Another flash—a shudder. It coincided with another wave of vertigo, with the feeling her stomach wanted to crawl up her throat. Whatever this was, it was more than a malfunction.

The bridge around Rose flickered away like the image on a dying touch-table. She was in a cathedral—could see out both eyes. White stone and stained glass and shimmering caerulean mosaics surrounded her.

Caerulean. That was the color of lazlium, the color of Saint Aspera. If Rose remembered right, the few inhabitants of capricious Rho Sector dedicated a disproportionate amount of churches to Saint Aspera, the patron of hardship and bitterness. Did that mean this place was nearby? What was happening to the ship?

What was happening to her?

“… A church to Saint Aspera,” came Ibb’s voice, as if from down a long corridor. “An asteroid … not … away. We can … there.


Chapter 2

100 Years Later

“I’m not robbing a church, Gallus,” said Leo.

“Come on,” said Gallus. “It’s not like anyone uses it anymore.”

Leo sighed and turned from his cousin to the starchart overlaid on the front windows of his souped-up shuttle’s cockpit. He sat in the pilot’s chair, his head nearly brushing the ceiling, and Gallus occupied the passenger’s seat. The map spread over the window in front of them labeled stars, planets, nebulae, the slipstream. A pulsing blue dot—the symbol for lazlium—marked an asteroid.

Lazlium. That was why Leo and Gallus were out on the edge of Rho Sector, in Leo’s ship that was really a heavily modded shuttle. To look for the wonder mineral that had gone from common to almost nonexistent over the centuries and that even in trace amounts could increase a ship’s speed by a factor of ten.

Unfortunately, the only lazlium within a thousand lightyears was the lazlium marked by the blinking dot on Leo’s map. And doubly unfortunately, if FANIN was right, the reason marauders and mercenaries and rival pirate fleets hadn’t yet plundered this particular stash of lazlium was because it was inside a church dedicated to Aspera.

“FANIN?” Leo directed his query in the vague direction of the ceiling. The AI was more or less everywhere in his tub (which he had in fact christened the Tub), but he always pictured her above him. “Are you sure Asteroid 601-BA-Rho houses a church of Saint Aspera?”
“Oh, positive.” FANIN’s voice came metallically from the cockpit’s speakers. Gallus jumped. “It’s tagged very clearly in the records. Church of Saint Aspera number 00354. Rumored—by frankly irreputable sources—to contain books 221 through 232 of the Saint’s Texts, despite its status as a now-defunct and abandoned place of worship. Need I go on?”

“No, thank you.” Leo turned back to Gallus. “I told you. I’m not stealing from Aspera.”

Gallus scowled. It was an impressive scowl. Leo’s cousin was a big guy, his arms and neck marked up in animated tattoos. One, a gold and black snake that wound across his collarbone, was keyed to his moods, and flicked its tail impatiently. “Why not? It’s empty. And Icadius will be pissed if we don’t get his lazlium for him.”

Leo frowned, thinking of his father—the admiral of the pirate fleet that had spread through the entirety of Rho Sector. Icadius had been marauding for as long as Leo could remember, and Leo had been trying to stay out of it for as long as he could remember. But sometimes, Icadius called on Leo for a job, and it wasn’t like Leo could say no. Not when Icadius was his father.

Which was how Leo had ended up here, at the edge of Rho Sector, trying to convince Gallus that stealing from the patron saint of hardships was a terrible idea.

“If I may make a suggestion?” said FANIN, sounding entirely too happy about the whole debacle. “Maybe don’t rob the saint who has a reputation among you humans for meting out wrath from the nebulae.”

Gallus glared at a speaker set into the metal siding of the cockpit. “Nobody asked you.”

Leo bit his lip to keep from grinning. FANIN had been cheap, as AIs went, and Leo hadn’t expected her to be so opinionated when he installed her a few years ago—but now he couldn’t bring himself to replace her. Most of the time, when he wasn’t on a job for Icadius, the Fairly Advanced Neural Intelligence Network was his only company.

“You’re sure the church is the only source of lazlium around here?” Leo asked her.

“Very,” said FANIN. “That’s all the scanners are picking up. In past millennia, lazlium was frequently used in mosaics dedicated to Saint Aspera, giving them their distinct shade of blue, so the results make sense.”

She enlarged the blue dot on the map overlay, as if to make her point.

“Why hasn’t anybody scavenged it before now?” Leo said. It seemed too easy, other than the robbing Aspera part. As a rule, Leo was suspicious of easy things.

“Well,” said FANIN, “it is entirely possible we are simply the first to find this place. Rho sector is large, and not everyone’s scanners are as long-range as yours.”

Leo’s modded scanners were the reason Icadius had put him on the job in the first place. Leo had jury-rigged them onto the Tub himself, and they reached farther than most, despite being made of junk. Maybe FANIN had a point. Or maybe others had already tried to steal the lazlium and been unsuccessful—maybe Aspera smote them before they could steal anything.

“Look,” Gallus said. “We get in, we take the lazlium, we get out. Easy, and Icadius will love us. Pay us too.”

Leo could practically see the credit amount ringing up behind Gallus’s eyes. And Leo did need the money. The cockpit had smelled like burned hair all day, which meant something was probably on the verge of fritzing out. Not to mention there was a gorgeous starfire plant at Carver’s greenhouse that would look amazing in Leo’s collection …

“No one will even know we were there,” Gallus said. “Maybe Aspera won’t even know we were there. It’s either go to her church or go back to Icadius empty-handed.”

Recruits who went back to Icadius empty-handed sometimes lost fingers. Leo had seen it. Sure, Leo was his son, but what if …?

“All right,” said Leo. “FANIN, engage the engines.”

The snake tattoo on Gallus’s collarbone hissed. Leo felt like it was laughing at him.


“For the record,” Leo said, “I hate this.”

He and Gallus stood in the narthex of Saint Aspera’s church. The church had been abandoned so long that all the lights had gone out and the stained-glass windows were dark, but Gallus and Leo lit the dusty space with flashlights. The high-vaulted white stone rose around them, the aisles dotted with pillars covered in crumbling mosaics.

Leo’s flashlight beam swept over mosaics depicting black holes and long-toothed void-beasts. Aspera’s identity as the patron of hardship and bitterness, of the sorrow that was inextricable from life, made for unsettling decorations.

Leo shivered and shined his flashlight down the nave. At the opposite end of the church, in the half-dome of the apse, was a mosaic of Aspera herself. Leo was too far away to see details, but her eyes seemed extraordinarily blue in the beam of his flashlight.

Was that the lazlium? In Aspera’s eyes?

Oh, saints. Was Leo going to have to pry out Aspera’s eyes? He was starting to feel sick, like his stomach had shrunk to nothing and left a hole inside him.

“Relax.” Gallus shined his flashlight in Leo’s face. “How much time do we have?”

Leo checked his wrist, where he’d applied a temporary tattoo of a ticking clock. “Five or six minutes.”

According to FANIN, the Rho Sector inhabitants who’d built the church generations ago had ensured it had a survivable atmosphere by encasing the whole thing in force shields. But the shields had begun to fail over the years, and small amounts of radiation from the nearby stars leaked through. Leo and Gallus had to limit their time to only a few minutes.

“Let’s split up,” said Gallus. “We’ll find the lazlium faster.”

“All right.” Leo was pretty sure the lazlium was in the eyes of Aspera’s mosaic, but he couldn’t bring himself to tell his irreverent cousin, Hey, I think I found it, and we have to blind Aspera to get it out.

Gallus split off from Leo and searched one of the side aisles. His light bobbed.

Slowly, Leo walked down the nave, towards the mosaic of Aspera. He left footprints in a thick layer of dust, which puffed up the floor and shined in his flashlight beam. The dust smelled like organic things—like the stone that made the walls and the wood that made the pews. The scent reminded Leo of his plant collection, and was oddly comforting.

That sick feeling didn’t go away, though. His head spun, and his balance wavered. Did it have to do with the church’s artificially enhanced gravity? His Tub had artificial gravity and it never made him feel like this. Was it Aspera, reaching her burning hand down from the nebula to smite him?

He stopped in the apse, before the mosaic. It was high on the wall, so that Aspera’s feet began at about his shoulders. She wore a flowing robe, made of pale blue squares of glass, and stared down at him. He shined his flashlight in her eyes. They flashed a brilliant caerulean and threw rainbows across the white stone apse. Orbs of pure lazlium.

Fighting nausea, Leo checked his time-limit tattoo. How long could he put off yanking out Aspera’s eyes?

The tattoo ticked through digits so quickly they blurred. It was broken.

First the strange sickness, and now a broken tattoo. Sour panic coated Leo’s tongue. How long had he and Gallus been here?

Better get it over with quickly then, he commanded himself, and pulled a small pry-bar from his pocket. He stretched onto his toes to reach Aspera’s eyes and managed to wedge the pry-bar underneath one of the lazlium orbs.

What am I doing? he thought wildly. He should just leave. Leave and never come back. But he had to bring lazlium back to his father. Had to. He didn’t want to lose a finger or thumb.

Dizziness flooded him, but he bit the inside of his cheek—hard—and popped the lazlium out of the mosaic’s eye socket. It clattered to the dusty floor. Leo picked it up and tasted the warm salt of blood in his mouth.

“Hey,” Gallus called from the side-aisle. “You find anything? I heard a noise.”

Leo shined his flashlight Gallus’s general direction, looking for his cousin in the darkness. “Yeah, I got—”

The church around him … shuddered. For a second, the place filled with light. Some nearby sun streamed through the stained glass and cast jeweled shadows on the white stone.

And then there was darkness again.

He must have imagined it. Maybe he was tired, and that was why he was so dizzy. Dizzy and seeing things.

Leo clenched his hand around the cool sphere of lazlium. See? That’s real, he told himself. You can still tell the difference.

“Leo?” called Gallus. His flashlight beam swept over the church. “Everything all right?”

Before Leo could respond, the church shuddered into daylight again. He froze in shock, and the dust in the air seemed to freeze too. It hung in the sunbeams that shone through the stained glass to bejewel the floor and the walls.

“Gallus?” Leo dared to call. His voice didn’t echo off the stone, the way it had moments before. “Hey, are you there?”

Gallus didn’t respond.

Leo had witnessed odd phenomena before. That happened when a kid grew up in Rho Sector. He’d seen the long, scaled void-beasts that lapped up starlight like milk. He’d seen centuries-old abandoned flagships chart paths so irregular that most of Icadius’s pirates believed they were piloted by ghosts. But Leo had never been transported to—where? Another dimension?

“Hello?” called a voice—not his, too high to be his, with a peculiar edge like a razor.

He searched for the source of the voice and found her right behind him, about an arm’s length away.

A girl about his age, maybe sixteen or seventeen. She wore soft blue clothes in a strange cut and shoes without socks. Her blonde hair piled in a mess on top of her head. Delicate pale lines—surgical scars—striped her face and her neck and her arms and even her hands.

And her eye … one of her eyes was bluer than the other, the blue of lazlium.

She was staring back at him. She said, again, “Hello?”