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Starlight

PG ,

The Rasite ship sprawled ten times the size of the little cruiser that Ambros had named Starlight. Starlight was built for little more than its two-man crew. The Rasite vessel looked as though it could have housed a colony. The Rasites fired a warning shot across the bridge of Starlight's nose, then transmitted a message over the universal radio receiver.

Don't move.

Two minutes later, The Rasite pod had attached itself to the roof of Starlight. Carv heard a sawing sound, then the rattle of a drill forcing its will upon metal.

We have removed one third of your ship's roof.

On one hand, one third of a vehicle as small as Starlight didn't amount to much metal. On the other hand, with a vehicle as small as Starlight, there was no hiding from such a hole. Left in space, anything that wasn't bolted down would get sucked out into blackness.

In one minute, we will depart. You may choose to stay with your ship or join us. If you come along, leave all weapons behind.

One minute was enough time to move, not enough time to think. Enough time for Carv and Ambros to trade looks, but not enough for discussion. Not that there was anything to discuss. The chances of Starlight's long-term survival had been small before the attack. Now they barely existed at all. Carv and Ambros made their way to the hole and climbed the ladder up into the Rasite pod. The Rasite on board closed the hatch behind them. Carv watched Starlight as they flew away. The cruiser remained still, gaping hole through its roof, leaking light and debris.

Carv had heard of Rasites-everyone had. But like so many of the galaxy's dangers, the people of Cary's home planet, Colma, downplayed the Rasites' very existence, insisted that they, like any other alien form that hadn't actually appeared on the planet, didn't really exist.

The people of Colma never discovered anything, never acted upon anyone. They waited for the world to come to them.

But the Rasite on board the pod lived up to every monstrous stereotype every visitor to Colma had ever suggested. He stood seven feet tall, his chest bulging against a black metal-cloth hybrid that covered his lilac-colored skin. He looked upon them with a certain fascination. Rasites were famous for using other people for whatever they could. Rumor told they would kill the holiest leaders of a warrior people until the people agreed to fight on their behalf. They used empathic people to read the emotions of enemies-to detect submission or rebellion, fear or spite. They used a people who had explored the outer reaches of the galaxy to understand those resources available to them, and a people skilled with measurement to draw the maps based on what they had described. And if all else failed, the Rasites had no qualms about eating people.

Aboard that pod, en route to the Rasite ship, Carv had his first chance to see what the Rasites were capable of with his own eyes. A girl, no more than seven or eight years old, stretched in front of an electrical panel at the back of the pod, each limb spread and wired into the circuit board. Blue and white sparks of electricity ran between her and the board. At first, Carv thought they were electrocuting her, then noticed that the streaks of light all seemed to originate from her and shoot into the ship.

The girl's face was pure horror-as though someone had startled her and she'd forgotten to stop looking scared. But then no part of her moved, all tense, all subject to the Rasites' will.

The total population of planet Colma was little more than a major city on some larger planet. There were no major cities in Colma, just a series of villages, each simpler than the next.

Carv and Ambros would drink at Tregor's, the same bar where half their town gathered each night.

The sounds of Tregor's remained the same each night. The dull tapping of wooden mugs on wooden tables, the low grumble of men, the scuttle of young women's footsteps dancing, only to be joined by older women and finally the men who had drowned their trepidations in warm beer. They danced to the slow melodies produced with fine-haired bows running over strings stretched from dried out animal intestines. Always the same songs, never a crescendo, never a change in tempo. People on Colma didn't like changes. The bar was lit by torchlight.

"We're firing off into space tomorrow." Ambros drank from his mug quickly enough that foam spilled over the side and down his cheek. He rushed a sleeve over his face. "We're gonna taste every beer there is to taste, hear every kind of music-"

An ex-lover wandered past and slowed down just enough to roll her eyes at him.

"-and sleep with different kinds of woman-better women than Colma has to offer." He slammed his empty mug down on the bar.

People from Colma never visited other planets, but there were people from other planets who visited them. One of them brought a six-stringed instrument he played with his fingers. Carv and Ambros smuggled him beer after he got kicked out of Tregor's for all his racket and three of them stayed up half the night making music and talking about places far, far away.

Ambros latched on to any visitor. He always said he could tell within a few minutes whether they were knowing. "A true traveler asks you to buy him a drink, and he pays you back with a story of how he got his ship to run, or the strangest piece of space tail he ever snaked his way into." Ambros's eyes caught the torchlight. "If he offers to buy you a drink, it means he's got the money to do it, which means he's never worked a day on his own ship, and he probably doesn't even know how to fly the damn thing. That's when you take the free drink and look for more interesting company."

Interesting company either entertained or educated Ambros. He had worked on his cruiser for years, and he sought visitors who could help him figure the many nuances of making a spacecraft run, or who could offer tales that inspired him to keep chasing other worlds.

Carv knocked his mug against Ambros's. The next morning, Ambros would fly-space his destination. For Carv, leaving Colma marked the continuation of a search for something he could not define. He had no objective or passion, just an inkling of speculation, maybe hope, that something worth feeling awaited him out in those stars.

The Rasites subjected Carv to a series of interrogations, each with a larger Rasite, each less interested in the verbal components of conversation, more interested in bending his arms far enough back to stretch his rib cage, or slowly twisting his neck as far as he could without breaking it. Carv had nothing to hide. In spurts of gasping breath, he communicated the same story four times. Ambros's cries echoed from the adjacent room. The two of them screamed a dialogue through the steel wall.

After enough iterations from both of them, the Rasites seemed to accept the story of the boys who rebuilt a spaceship and blasted out into the unknown. They identified how they could use them and set them to work.

One of the Rasites, his forehead littered with pockmarks, led them to their assignment. The Rasites didn't use names with one another, and never asked for Carv's or Ambros's. "This one was called Edry." He stood alongside a woman, stretched in every direction, much like the little girl in the pod. "Insisted on going by a name for months, before she accepted her place."

Pockmarks looked upon her. "Her kind generate electricity. An adult can power a ship like ours for a year. She started stronger yet. She produced enough current that we could power other ships." He lifted his arms as if to encompass the whole of the ship. "Now we live in this dim light, lurching through space. Three months from home and she's sputtering out." He began to pace and crossed in front of her, and around and behind Carv and Ambros before setting a heavy hand behind each of their necks. He squeezed softly. "The two of you will fix her, and you will live another day."

With that, Pockmarks disappeared.

Where the girl looked as though she were locked in a moment of terror, Edry appeared far more subdued-absent. She looked almost regal to Carv, elegant and dignified in a way that was completely at odds with the makeshift, ragged brown dress that covered the space from beneath her shoulders to mid-thigh. Against the illumination of all that electricity behind her, she was more beautiful than any woman Carv had ever imagined.

Ambros crouched at her feet, by the toolbox the Rasites had left behind. He sorted through the strange wrenches and gauges the likes of which Carv had never seen-the likes of which he doubted ever existed on Colma. Ambros licked his lips and set to work.

Ambros had learned about engineering and mechanics by hanging on every traveler, watching the men at work at the autoshop, and jumping at every opportunity to do something as simple as hold parts for someone who knew what he was doing.

Cary went to school and he sold vegetables from his mother's garden at the market. What time remained was his own, and he had little interest in watching others work on the chance he might learn something.

But Ambros did learn something. Enough to wrest Starlight into operable shape, and enough to fly her into space. And Carv trusted him with that, even heeded Ambros's call in the late stages of readying the cruiser for flight, when there were parts too heavy for Ambros to lift on his own or when he needed someone to yell to him from outside the ship to tell him if the lights shone or if some turbine spun in the right direction..

The process of working on the ship's electrical system-on Edry-proved similar. Carv sat and watched Ambros at work. Cary would have been bored were it not for the fear of what would come next. Outside that electrical room, there could easily be hundreds of Rasites wandering unseen corridors of the ship. If Ambros failed, Carv couldn't imagine either one of them would survive. And if he succeeded? It might be the start of careers as mechanics. Or the Rasites might kill them anyway.

Carv stole looks at Edry. Ambros seemed to linger curiously far from her, removing and replacing wall panels around her, around the room, now again peeking around her body at the streaks of light.

Days and nights passed like this-it was impossible to tell how many. The lights dimmed and brightened occasionally-perhaps Ambros's handiwork, perhaps a consequence of the flagging power. Mercifully, the Rasites brought them food. Cary feared what a Rasite mess hall might look like. Less fortunately, the food closely resembled the gray mold accumulating in the corners of that electrical room, mashed and warmed.

Finally, Ambros spoke. "I think I've got something."

Carv rose to meet him standing directly in front of the Edry.

"Check this out." Ambros slapped the side of his wrench against the electric woman's hip, soft enough that he didn't threaten to break anything, hard enough it would hurt.

The lights in the room dimmed for a fraction of a second.

"And this." Ambros hit her again in the same spot.

The lights dimmed again, longer this time before brightening to their original level.

"This time, make sure you're watching her face." Ambros hit her again.

Carv didn't expect to see anything in Edry's face-he had seen her do little more than blink for all the times he had looked at her. When he watched her eyes this time, though, he saw a flicker of something bright. It wasn't just electricity, but a hint of emotion. A hint of anger.

At that same moment, the lights in the room flashed their brightest.

Ambros clapped his hands. "This is the consequence of bioelectrical power. You're not just connecting to a battery or plugging into a steady electrical current. There's a person involved, and her mental state, her emotions, her physiology-it's all going to impact the power she produces." He cocked the wrench backward a couple hand spans from her hip again, just as he had each of the other times he hit her.

Carv caught the wrench in his hand. "That's enough. Like you said, she's a person. You can't just bang away on her like an engine."

Ambros shrugged and let go of the wrench altogether. "Fair enough."

"What's our next move?"

"I think I can fix her."

"But you're wondering what happens if you do."

Ambros snapped his fingers. "You catch on fast. That's why I brought you along."

Carv forced back a smile. "So we have to figure out an escape route."

"I'm thinking we bargain for it. Show the meatheads we have the answer but we'll only tell it to them after they give us a pod and let us disembark."

"You really think they'll give us a pod?"

"They'll give us a pod before they'll give up their ship."

"And what? We leave Edry here to keep them in space until they run her dry and plug in another one of her people?"

"We'll be lucky if we make it out alive. Now's not the time to play hero. Besides, if we unplug her, it's a matter of minutes, maybe seconds before the whole ship powers down. That wouldn't leave us much time for a getaway. Especially when we would have to find our way back to the pods to make a run for it."

Carv remembered being dragged off the pod, the interrogation room, when he first saw Edry. He hardly remembered a single moment between these points.

"We're getting ahead of ourselves anyway." Ambros reached down and took the wrench from him and deposited it back in the toolbox. "Just because you diagnose the problem doesn't mean you can solve it." Ambros retreated to the spot on the floor where he had slept before. They slept when they were tired-more particularly, when Ambros needed rest. In that room, it was impossible to tell day from night.

When he awoke, Carv's head ached for lack of sleep. His shoulder joints ached from the angle he had bent his arms beneath his head. He sat up, only to feel his back throb as well.

Ambros's chest moved up and down in a slow, steady rhythm. He snored softly.

Edry waited.

Carv stood and walked toward her, careful for his steps to fall lightly. Her expression hadn't changed in any marked, readily perceptible way. And yet her eyes had shifted. No longer did she stare dully at the ground, as though she were apart from and unaware of everything around her. Instead, her eyes fixed on Carv's. Carv had no notion of looking away.

Carv wouldn't remember why he got up right then, why he walked to Edry, why he made eye contact with her. Just the same, he had the sense that it was outside his control. That his part in it all was preordained, or guided by some hand he would never see. Or by Edry.

Carv focused on her eyes, and before he knew what he was doing, he found himself almost touching her, existing in a space close enough that he could see the reflection of himself in her eyes, and close enough that they couldn't help smelling the exact same smell, hearing the exact same sounds, and tasting nothing but those molecules of space between their mouths.

They kissed.

In that instant of kissing, Carv felt the ordinary rush of making contact with a beautiful girl, then the shook with the electricity she channeled. Then he knew everything.

Without the use of words, she communicated her situation in exquisite detail. He didn't so much hear or see a story as experience it. Her people transmitted electricity as a conscious, voluntary act. The Rasites sedated her people and wired them into ships and pods in such a way to draw their power out in a constant stream. When they could not check their own flow, it was as though they leaked blood. Her people could live to 150, but at the rate the Rasites used them, they withered and died inside two years.

Edry's body rejected the sedative. She wasn't strong enough to remove herself from the electrical panel, but she could think. She knew the ship intimately because she consciously transmitted electricity to every part of it. But she grew tired, and she grew bored. Her energy flagged and she started sending less electricity. The Rasites talked while she was in the room. They wanted to replace her, but knew it would take months before they could get a replacement. They knew, before long, the ship would be a powerless mass adrift in space. There weren't enough pods to transport more than a tenth of the Rasites on board, and there was little chance the pods would carry them far enough to find safe harbor-to find more of their own kind, because no one but their own kind would choose to help them.

When their lips separated, Carv knew all of this. Knew it all as if he had lived it.

Ambros stirred behind him. "What's going on?"

Carv looked away from Edry, broke off their kiss, and found the room almost intolerably bright, like those times when he and Ambros had stumbled from Tregor's after an impossibly long night, only to find the morning sun already shining down from overhead. Carv covered his eyes for a moment, then shaded them to look around the room, to marvel at the surge of electricity that had transformed the stygian little room into a place of light.

Carv looked back at Edry, whose expression had returned to passive, disengaged. He heard Ambros tell him to stop, heard him ask what he was doing, but ignored it all as he reached his hand upward to connect with Edry's, to interweave their digits, and to squeeze. One of the overhead lights blew and sparks fired from a panel on the opposite wall.

The Rasites came to the electrical room to see what had caused the electrical surge, to see if the two men from Colma had actually solved their problems. Carv took the lead-explained quickly that they had found a temporary solution, but that they could make it permanent. He explained that they would need a medical kit-that Edry's performance problems had less to do with a mechanical failure than an improper sedation.

Carv spoke with enough confidence to convince the Rasites he knew exactly what needed to happen. Moments later, he wondered if the plan he set into motion with those few words had been his own conception or something Edry had communicated more deeply, into Carv's subconscious, such that he would believe everything he said, such that he would trust every impulse as if it truly were his own.

Pockmarks brought Carv the med kit he had asked for. The Rasite no longer left him alone but rather stood with his head cocked to one side, watching him at work.

Carv hadn't counted on the scrutiny. He started to explain each movement he made, lest he arouse suspicion. His voice quaked, confidence dripping from like the beads of sweat that rolled from his forehead down his cheek. "I need to give her some adrenaline first, before I start the sedation, or she could die."

Pockmarks took a step closer. "I thought your friend was the one with the know-how."

"Mechanical, yes." Ambros stood far enough away that Pockmarks had to turn his head to see him, had to give up his attention, if just for that second. "I'm good with machines. But Carv is far better with medical things. He's practically a doctor for all his experience."

Pockmarks stepped toward Ambros. The thud of his boot sounded, perilously heavy against the metallic floor. "I thought he worked at a market, selling his father's vegetables."

"He did. But his father was in poor health. Needed all kinds of medications and shots just to keep from drooling on himself." Ambros lied skillfully in general, but the act wore thin with the implicit promise in each of Pockmarks' steps that the next might mean he would pummel the truth from him.

Carv readied the needle. The prescribed Rasite dosages really might have been enough to kill a man from Colma. He didn't know how much Edry could take or how much she needed.

"You lie." Pockmarks wrapped his hand around Ambros's throat.

The needle shook in Carv's hand. The Rasites might not know how to fix Edry, but they were smart enough to smell a double cross.

"You know nothing." Pockmarks turned his head to look at Carv. "You are the one who built your ship. You are the one of use." Pockmarks twisted his wrist, and in that motion, snapped Ambros's neck.

Ambros stared at Carv, eyes duller than Edry's had ever looked.

The electric light behind Edry seemed to gather and focus when Carv looked back at her. The light shone on her forearm, illuminating a solitary vein to burning blue. Carv heard the thud of a footstep behind him.

The electrical panel sparked and flashed, before the room fell into darkness. Carv heard a rustling noise, heard Pockmarks' stride quicken, a buzz of electricity, then the powerful clatter that could only be his body falling to the floor.

Edry fingers wrapped around Carv's hand. He felt the dull, itching pulse of electricity, not unpleasant, but oddly stimulating and reassuring. The door opened from the electrical room to the corridor, and Edry led him outside.

They ran, Carv had no idea where. All along the way, the hall was pitch black any more than two feet in front of them. They ran into the light, and light stayed in front of them. A path. Edry had planned this, Carv felt certain. She had distributed her electricity just so to light the way out, to keep everyone else in darkness. And though Carv heard banging steps running toward them, they never crossed another Rasite's path en route to the pod.

Aboard the pod, Edry rushed to strap herself into the electrical panel in back. "Fly."

Steering the pod wasn't so different from Starlight. In a manner of seconds, they had separated themselves from the ship. Seconds later, the ship went completely dark, powerless.

"They'll start putting the children in the electrical room soon," Edry said. "But they won't have the electricity to power a ship like that."

Carv nodded to acknowledge what she said, but drove the ship forward no less quickly.

In less than an hour, Edry had detached herself from the panel and sat beside Carv while he steered. "Little pod like this, I'll only need to plug in once every few days." She folded her legs beneath her and ripped open a little plastic pouch.

Carv wondered at the simple wheat and flour smell of wafers. He remembered when Ambros had introduced them to him as the universal food of the space traveler. Most pods or ships worth a damn had at least a year's supply on board. He remembered munching on them alongside Ambros after a night of working on the old ship.

Carv grabbed some and plunged them into his mouth, savoring the salty flavor, the feeling of something hard crunching between his teeth, in contrast to the mushy consistency of whatever the Rasites had fed him.

"I suppose you'll want to go home." Carv felt suddenly conscious of how lost he was-he didn't know where they were or where they were headed.

"Home is a farm for the Rasites now."

"You seemed to fend them off pretty well. You're telling me a whole planet of electric people can't protect themselves?"

"The Rasites had too much faith in themselves and didn't understand me. They don't take chances like that at home." She bit off the corner of a wafer. "Do you want to go home?"

Carv remembered having sat beside Starlight, back when she remained a carcass of a ship, before all of Ambros's repairs and renovations and replacements. The two of them took turns drinking from a bottle of whiskey Ambros smuggled out of Tregor's hours before.

Carv leaned back, rested his head against the steel exterior of the ship, and drank deeply.

"Seven years ago, this ship broke down outside our atmosphere, and crashed," Ambros said. "Seven years, and nobody has touched the thing, besides removing the bodies."

Carv shook his heavy head from side to side. "And you want to make it fly again."

Ambros snatched the bottle from him. "It's the problem with everybody here. One cruiser crashes, and they don't want to learn from it and build a better one. They want to take it as confirmation we never should have flown to begin with." Ambros pointed up in the sky. "You see that star up there?"

"I see a million of them."

"But do you see that one I'm pointing at?"

Carv shrugged, no less sure of which one he meant. "I guess."

"That star is trillions of miles away. But here we are, sitting on Colma, looking at it."

Cary squinted his eyes and focused on one star.

"It's not just impressive. It's important. All anyone here will ever do is look up at it and accept it." Ambros elbowed Carv's side and handed him the bottle. "But you and me are gonna fly out and see it. And when we're on our way there, we'll be another speck of light in the sky. Too far away from anyone here to know anything about it, more important than any of them will ever be." He slapped his hand up, over his head, against the side of the cruiser. "I'm gonna call her Starlight, because that's just the way everybody here is going to see us, and that's the very last they'll see of us."

The whiskey stung at Carv's throat. For a moment, all he thought of was the early hour his father would expect him up the next morning, the way his head would throb when he woke.

Then he thought of space. Seeing all those stars up close. Seeing other planets, meeting other people, instead of waiting for them to come to him. It was easy to get lost in that dream long before the two of them fell asleep on the dirty ground beside that dirty old ship that night.

In the cruiser, in space, in this moment, Carv remembered Edry's kiss. Remembered her electricity. He began to manipulate the controls, began to figure out how to set the autopilot. When she saw what he was doing, Edry reached over to help.

They could fly back to the electric planet and try to play heroes. They could settle down in Colma. More than likely, either path would lead to one form of defeat or another.

They could keep flying, delving deeper into space. The Rasites wanted to make every people and everything their own, to use the galaxy to its fullest potential. Carv didn't want to use anything. He wanted to taste the galaxy, smell it-wanted to see how brightly a star might burn from up close.

Carv took Edry's hands and raised it to his lips. Her skin felt smooth, and made him conscious of how his lips had chapped and frayed. "Let's keep flying."