Maram had spent decades without seeing the stars slip into the Wave, since piloting a ship. She’d expected to die with her feet covered in dirt.
But then the ships came back and Maram realized that there were bigger threats than old age.
She had another chance at the stars. The question was whether she and her girls could survive long enough to return to Maram’s only true home.
By Meyari McFarland
Maram added a stick to the fire, poking the embers dim glimmer into something like a spark of life. Her back was cold despite Kirin pressing close, his long horns carefully angled away from Maram. Not as cold as she could be, bless the Mothers for that. Her camp sat close to the Hightown cliff, nestled into a little indent created when the ones Above had decided to try to mine the cliff for building stone.
The stone was too soft for that, crumbling under their fancy tools.
Sparks flared and floated upwards like ships rising towards orbit. None of those anymore. The ships were long gone. Come and gone like mist in the wind. It was part of why Maram was here, down Below when she’d once been accepted up in Hightown. Ancient history but it was hard to let it go on cold dark nights when her girls were off hunting and the skies filled with stars that she’d never touch again.
It’d been decades since she saw stars without the distortion of atmosphere, decades since she’d been in a ship, had ridden the Wave between stars. Nights like tonight Maram felt every single second of those too many years, felt them like blood pouring from a cut artery, like having her arm cut right off and left to bleed out on the floor.
Kirin snuffled, touching his nose to the nape of Maram’s neck. She chuckled and petted him. Nose still felt like the finest velvet even though his fur was going white with age. Just like her hair. It’d been black as the void of space once. Now it was a white so pure she looked as though she was going bald.
She tugged on her headscarf, grunting that it was still in place. Hated it when people saw her thin pale hair. Wrinkles weren’t a problem but you had to have some pride and Maram’s hair was that. Have to remember to check the supplies when the sun came up. They were low on several things and would need more soon, much as Maram hated the climb up the cliff to Hightown only to sneered at and charged too much as if she didn’t speak nine languages and hadn’t piloted ships between the stars when she was young.
Honestly, she missed it. There was a joy to riding the Wave, the faster than light drive that warped space around you, front and back so that you slipped past the bonds of time and distance. She’d been good at it. Only gave it up for love, a wife she adored, twin girls they’d doted on.
All long dead.
Kirin nibbled on her ear.
“I know, I know,” Maram huffed at him. Let him continue his nibbles, scratched under his chin until his eyes drifted shut in contentment. “Letting the ghosts of the past bite me. It’s hard without the girls around. Glad you stayed, old friend.”
Kirin hum-huffed, one eye opening lazily. Intelligence showed there, alien, silent, unspeaking, but intelligence nonetheless. She’d never managed to find a way to communicate with Kirin’s people. Most of them ignored humanity entirely, hunting the plains and traveling in their herds. She still didn’t know why Kirin had chosen to leave the herd, to travel at her side from the plains to Hightown and everywhere else but he seemed quite determined to be by her side until one or both of them dropped dead with age.
The thought, or maybe the frown, got her another, sharper, nibble. Maram laughed. One more stick and then she leaned back against Kirin’s side. She should sleep. If the girls were successful in their hunt there’d be work a-plenty on their return, carcasses to clean and quarter, meat to butcher, skins to scrape and stretch. Possibly even feathers to pluck, clean and sell for a premium up in the market. Even at her age, Maram helped. Wasn’t as though the girls had learned everything she knew. Not yet. Maybe in the next few years. Who knew? It’d be nice to teach them to fly between the stars but that wasn’t going to happen, no matter how much she dreamed of it.
When Maram opened her eyes, felt like a moment later but the sun was coming up so it’d been hours, the fire was cold and she heard the girls’ voices carrying across the plains. Angel’s high, sweet songs of thanks, prayers to the Mothers, came first. Then Nitya complaining that not every single kill needed to be prayed over despite the laughter from Carey and Desta’s booming objections to Nitya’s never-ending whine.
Kirin huffed, nosing Maram until she sat up, stood up, moved away from the cliff. Kept right on nosing her as if there was something much more important than fresh meat and a good meal after too many days of not much at all.
“What your old ears picking up?” Maram asked once she’d been driven a good ten yards from the cliff. “You hearing things I can’t?”
Kirin stamped his right forefoot, their single agreed upon sign for communication.
“Yes?” Maram asked, stunned. “Been years since you used that. You are hearing something.”
Kirin stared at her, blinked solemnly, and stamped his foot again.
Maram cursed as she patted wildly for her comm. Front hip, no, back hip, no. Breast? No! Finally found it buried in the bottom of her thigh pocket, left side, under twine and bits of string she’d been using for weaving ornamental spider webs for gullible Hightown children to buy. The palm-sized unit was cracked and patched, barely functional on the best of days and cranky if not handled exactly right.
“Hey Maram!” Angel called when she came round the tumbled boulders along the path. She stopped in her tracks when she saw Maram’s frantic fidgeting to get the comm working. “Wait, what’s wrong?”
“Don’t know yet,” Maram replied, attention focused on the comm. “Kirin hears something.”
That brought all the girls to her side, peering over Maram’s shoulder despite the bloody near-hares and ground-fowl tied to their hips. Not a one of them over eighteen but they were the best hunters Below had. Maram’d be proud of their hard work if she weren’t tight as a fresh-strung bow over Kirin’s warning.
Nothing, nothing and more nothing on the comm. After a moment she lifted her head and stared out over the plains because her ears finally picked up what Kirin had heard.
Engines. Not the local flyers, little things with props and rotors that carried one or two rich people here and there. No, these were the big engines, the ones that thrummed like an earthquake turned low, ones that floated in the air like a bit of seed fluff set loose from the pod. She looked up and up and up and there they were.
Solar sails spread wide to catch the light as they descended from vacuum into atmosphere. Even at this distance she could see they were armored sails, sort used for heavy assault vehicles. Heavy bases shaped not like the balls Maram remembered from passenger transports but long and narrow, a spade perhaps. A sword, they looked like swords and damn if that didn’t mean trouble for them all, trouble in the midst of the first hope she’d had in decades.
She heard a sob, realized a moment later that it was her crying.
“Maram?” Angel whispered. “Are those spaceships?”