18 · ???

Anlyn woke when it became hard to breathe. It was her body’s way of jostling her into consciousness, telling her to do something. It was a warning that the air in her suit had grown too thin.

As she came to, she had a moment’s doubt about where she was. She had been dreaming of her Wadi Rite, and now she found herself floating in space. All around her were bright stars and pyrotechnics—the flash and silent explosions of a major war.

A circulating fan whirred near her ear, moving air around her helmet, but her lungs told her that precious little oxygen remained inside. Her breathing had become wheezing—each laborious inhalation a vaporous disappointment. Her suit was kind enough to filter out her toxic exhalations, but it couldn’t create oxygen from nothing. Gradually, a vacuum was forming within her suit to match the one embroiled with fighting beyond.

As she spun around in her ejected pilot seat, Anlyn got a sweeping view of the action taking place around her. Bolts of plasma the size of Drenardian skyscrapers could be seen coursing through the cosmos. They travelled near the speed of light, but the distances they crossed meant their path could be followed, actually watched. Anlyn tracked them with surreal detachment. One of the bolts impacted the bright orb of a nearby planet. The cylinder of energy punched through an atmosphere choking with smoke. It struck land, already little more than magma, and a red crack appeared in the crust. The energy was so great, chunks of the planet’s continents exploded away with enough force to drive them into orbit. Some of these jetted through space, glowing and trailing coronas of fire. Others fell back to the surface, throwing up destructive echoes of the initial blow.

Amid this chaos, two fleets swarmed, intertwined. The crafts seemed impossibly fast and agile, but they all were, and so a continuous stream of them winked out in puffs of spectacular coordination and aim. Dozens of orbital stations seemed to be the targets of these buzzing attack fleets. Swarms of missiles agitated around each one, brought down by equal swarms of countermeasures. Another column of hellish plasma erupted from a nearby station and began its lightning-quick stampede toward another planet in the distance.

Anlyn sucked in fruitless gasps while she lost herself in the swirling battle. Her head had already begun to throb with dizziness. When she spun around in the direction of her ship, she marveled at the cloud of debris it had become. Flashes of light caught on the tinsel and confetti of the craft’s remains. All that was left of any substance was half of one wing, blown off before the second missile struck. There was that, plus Anlyn and her ejected flightseat.

She labored for another breath. Her chest swelled with effort, pushing on the harness restraints pinning her to the seat. Since the flightseat no longer served any purpose, Anlyn unbuckled herself and floated away from it. She tried, once again, to wick some oxygen from what little air swirled inside her helmet. As her gasps quickened into frantic, shallow pants, Anlyn felt her mind slipping away. She had a sudden impulse to pull off her helmet, a hallucinatory feeling like it was the thing constricting her breathing, keeping her from taking in the air that surely must be all around her. She felt like she was underwater. Drowning. She needed to come up. Needed to kick and swim and break the surface of her awful torment.

Anlyn fumbled for the latches on the sides of her helmet. She fumbled for them, even as some receding and sane part of her screamed not to do it. She groped along her collar with her too-big flight gloves, the unwieldy padding making it difficult to do anything. Her lungs burned as they starved for air.

And then the hallucinations grew worse. Something like a ship, but silver and gleaming and fluid, danced in her vision. It hovered in front of her, windows like giant eyes, like a metallic and curious face watching her die. Anlyn screamed. She beat her hands on her helmet, her palms smacking her visor. She was frustrated she couldn’t open it, couldn’t pop it off to take in a deep breath. She pawed at her gloves, trying to tear them off, but her fingers had already grown tingly. Her entire body was becoming numb. She shook her arms, and a spasm vibrated through her chest. With a throat deadly empty, she took one last feeble pull on the thinning air. The great metal face sat there, watching.

Watching as the black fell over her eyes once more.

•• DRENARD ••

“Girls to the right,”

The voice filled Anlyn’s head, relayed through the D-bands worn by each of her Rite mates. Anlyn and Coril exchanged looks but obeyed. The three boys jockeyed for position to their left, lining up to receive their great Wadi lances. Gil flashed a quick, sad glance Anlyn’s way, then continued his half-hearted charade of feigned excitement as he shuffled closer to the other boys.

“Settle down, you three.”

One of Anlyn’s uncles—a former member of the Circle—joined the other Rite leaders by the lobby’s window. Anlyn assumed it was he who had spoken the last, though it was improper for her to guess. During the Rite, all were supposed to be equal, the questions and answers made diffuse by the power of the bands.

“Come forward to take your maps.”

The boys scurried toward the Rite leaders as the Drenard adults reached for a table that had been draped in layer upon layer of blue honeycloth. They each picked up one of the fabric maps laid out on top and turned to present them to the boys.

Anlyn and Coril approached a smaller table to the side where their Aunt Ralei stood. Anlyn accepted her map blindly; she was distracted by the flurry of excitement around the boys’ table as they took their own maps. Gil turned and met her gaze, and a shiver of fear leaked into her band. Her poor cousin was doing an awful job of concealing his inner thoughts.

Something pinched Anlyn’s hand, drawing her attention away from the lads. She turned to find her Aunt Ralei giving her a severe look. Her aunt’s eyes darted down to the map she was pressing into Anlyn’s hands.

Anlyn looked. The map had been folded over several times, leaving one section exposed. It showed an intricate tangle of Wadi canyons.

Her aunt’s finger moved from Anlyn’s hand and slowly traced one of the canyons. Anlyn felt Coril leaning against her arm to see, and her Aunt Ralei twisted the map to better facilitate this, showing both girls some specific route through the labyrinth. Anlyn wasn’t sure what she was supposed to be looking at; the bands were silent, no thoughts leaking through them save for a twinge of Gil’s fear.

She watched her aunt’s finger tap one spot in particular, then the same finger slid to the edge of the map and up the back of her Aunt Ralei’s arm, pulling her cloak back to expose a pale-blue wrist.

It was there that Anlyn saw what her aunt was speaking of. Trailing out of the woman’s sleeve were three parallel scars, the knotted flesh heaped high and sinister, looking like white ropes laid into her skin. Anlyn gasped at the sight of them; she felt her deep thoughts leak out as she looked up to her aunt’s face. But gone was the scowl her aunt had been giving her earlier. It had been replaced with a grim smile. Her aunt now bore a look of happy, hopeful, and raw determinism.

•• ??? ••

When Anlyn passed out the second time, gasping for air, she had felt certain it was her last moment of life. Her final thoughts had been like a sliver of shimmering oxygen, piercing the black suffocation coiling itself around her. She had thought how nice it would be for the end to come, to find an escape from the slow torment. And if there was something beyond—a peaceful afterlife for those with sound souls—she thought, right at the last, that she was about to discover it.

She came to once again to find her journey had been delayed.

Her helmet was off. She could feel something pressed over her mouth and nose and the pinch of tight straps wrapped around the back of her head. Above her, the silvery curve of a ship’s hull arched up, its surface spotted with portholes of varying sizes. Through these, Anlyn could see the bright bolts and explosions of a battle still raging beyond.

Someone leaned over Anlyn. She blinked and tried to sit up, but a gentle hand kept her in place. Large, wet eyes blinked slowly, her own reflection clearly visible in the black dome of them. When the head pulled away, Anlyn recognized the race immediately, even though she’d only ever seen them in books. It was a Bel-Tra, the mysterious surveyors of the universe.

Anlyn tried to say something, but she managed only a groan. Her head felt as if it had been split in two. Now that she was out of her flightseat’s harness and back in gravity, she could feel how traumatized her body had been by the explosion that destroyed her ship. She felt bruised all over and completely empty of air.

The Bel-Tra brushed Anlyn’s forehead with the back of its hand, then reached to its side. Anlyn turned her head to follow and saw that she was lying on the spaceship’s decking. Clear tubes led away from a mask over her face and trailed to a small canister by the Bel-Tra’s side. The figure freed a device—one of many hanging from its belt—and slipped it over its wrist. It looked like a flat rectangle of some sort, like an LCD display. When the Tra turned it around for Anlyn to see, words were already marching across the screen:

I DID NOT DO THIS.

“I know,” Anlyn whispered. She saw, down in the lower part of her vision, that her spoken words did no more than frost the inner coat of her mask. She reached up and pulled it to the side, then let her hand drop to her chest.

“I know,” she said again. She closed her eyes and tried to summon back her voice. “Thank you.”

She couldn’t tell if the Bel-Tra could hear her, didn’t know if it even understood Drenard. She opened her eyes to see more words flitting across the screen:

I MEANT TO SAY: I DID NOT RESCUE YOU.

Anlyn read the words several times, but they made little sense. They disappeared before she was ready for them to.

WE ARE ONLY SUPPOSED TO WATCH.

These new words came fast. They seemed to pulse with extra light, giving them an urgency of some sort. Anlyn realized the device was something like her people’s bands, but different. She lifted her arm and reached for the Tra. “I won’t tell anyone,” Anlyn said, finally understanding.

The Bel-Tra clasped Anlyn’s hand. The slim creature’s large eyes blinked, pale lids snapping down over Anlyn’s reflection. When they reopened, Anlyn saw thick tears welling up at the base of them. They ran out over the lower lids and dashed down the Tra’s long and narrow face, past a small mouth, pursed with thin lips. The alien squeezed her hand, then pulled the device up in front of her, blocking her view of it crying. New words slowly worked their way across the screen, the light behind them dim, each one coming hesitantly, as if wary of being seen:

I AM SORRY.

Before Anlyn could ask what the Tra meant, or even begin to puzzle it out herself, the alien took hold of her mask and put it back in place. Anlyn tried to shrug it away, no longer needing it, but it was pressed down too tight for her to resist.

She caught a whiff of the gas that had replaced the flow of oxygen, and the apology began to make sense. As the darkness gathered, squeezing down around Anlyn’s vision, the last thing she saw was the face of the Tra, tears dripping off its chin, and the bloom of her own complaints frosting the mask in the tightening edges of her consciousness.

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