Territorial Date 6034
Number 833 sat up in her cot, blinking. Emergency lighting glowed a fluorescent red in the room. Alarm klaxons blared, making her ears hurt. Outside in the corridor, boot-clad feet ran in both directions. 833 threw off the thin blanket and jumped out of the cot. Above her, she heard 277 murmur indistinguishable words in a trembling voice.
“Come down! We have to get out of here!” 833 tugged at 277’s blanket, but the terrified woman held on to it, shaking her head wildly. “Don’t be an idiot. We have to reach our emergency posts right away, or matron will airlock us.” If the threat of the much-feared matron wouldn’t make them move, nothing would. It was no use. No matter how much 833 tried to persuade the other five women in the small quarters, none of them would budge. She considered carrying the youngest and smallest of them, 998, but the girl kept screaming and kicking at her.
Explosions roared through the ship. For a moment, it seemed they had lost inertial gyroscopes. 833 staggered sideways but managed to grip the pole holding the cots above hers in place. She pulled her blanket close and wrapped it around her shoulders. If these women thought she was going to hide in here and face the wrath of the much-feared matron, they were mistaken.
She pressed the sensor next to the door, and it hissed open. Outside, acrid smoke and the pulsating red lights, combined with the klaxons that seemed to have increased their volume, all added to the mayhem that met her.
Soldiers and civilians ran past each other as if they had no idea where to go. Pulling the blanket closer around her, 833 ran on bare feet along the wall, much-larger men almost knocking her over as they tried to reach their duty stations. Used to staying clear of big feet in hard boots, as no slave was allowed footwear, she stayed to the side and kept going.
When 833 reached her emergency station, nobody was there. Not even the matron. The small area next to the cluster of ladders that gave access to all parts of the ship if the lifts were down was abandoned. What was going on?
Gazing out through the narrow opening in the wall, 833 saw only people running as if they were on fire—nobody paid her any attention whatsoever. She was used to this. After all, slaves were invisible, but she was about to do something strictly forbidden and had to be sure.
Hurrying over to the computer console that matron used whenever they had chores in this part of the ship, 833 punched in the terrifying woman’s code, which she rarely changed. The screen flickered, but then it came to life. Deftly, using forbidden knowledge, 833 pulled up the information showing why they were at high alert. At first, she just stared. This couldn’t be possible.
Multiple enemy vessels were attacking the ship. The data didn’t reveal who they were or where they came from. The captain seemed set on standing his ground, focusing all his efforts on fighting back. Why hadn’t he at least ordered the civilians into the escape pods? Children were aboard, damn it! Perhaps he was afraid the enemy would shoot them like fleeing rodents if they jettisoned the micro vessels?
Deciding right then that she would make her way up to the deck where the family pods were located and help the families board them when the captain gave the orders, 833 left the emergency station and found the ladder that led to deck twenty-seven. She tied her thin blanket around her waist, not about to lose her only possession.
The climb was treacherous, and she hoped the families were still able to use the lifts. If anyone caught her using one, she’d be sectioned or, worse, airlocked. Climbing the narrow metal ladders was difficult even for her, and she was strong. Each time the ship lurched from a new explosion, 833 held on tight because her life depended on it. Her feet ached from climbing barefoot, but she kept going. Seven decks. She could do it.
Finally, she saw the number behind the rods of the ladder and knew she had arrived. After stepping off it, she enjoyed the pure bliss of standing on the cool deck. Her soles felt as if they were on fire.
She had expected deck twenty-seven to be crowded. It wasn’t. It was empty. Sobbing now, from sheer frustration, 833 slammed her palm against the bulkhead. Hadn’t the captain ordered the civilians to abandon ship yet? What was going on? Why hadn’t the families taken their lives into their own hands and simply come to the deck where they had at least a chance to survive?
Deep inside, 833 knew the answer. The wealthy and ruling classes of the Territory were spoiled. They were used to being catered to, pampered, and having all the decisions premade for them. None of those families would probably think they could save themselves. Unless told by someone in authority, they would sit in their quarters and wait in vain for someone like her to show up to lead them to safety.
833 found another computer console, and now she couldn’t care less if anyone saw her. She pulled up the information she had looked at before. It had changed. Now it did say “abandon ship.” Why it wasn’t being broadcast over the communication system, she had no idea. Perhaps the system had been damaged in the attack.
An explosion, bigger than any other she had felt before, sent her flying. She hit the wall headfirst and thought she might pass out. Pulling herself along the deck, crawling with the last of her strength, only one thought flickered through 833’s mind. She would reach the nearest pod and survive.
The ship stomped and moaned around her, and 833 knew it would break apart any moment. Then she was floating. The inertial gyroscopes had to be down. She felt the bulkhead against her sore feet and kicked off, trying to aim at one of the pod hatches. Holding her hands out in front of her, she clawed for the lever but missed it. She cried out in panic but felt a sudden jolt when her blanket got stuck on it at the very last moment.
Sobbing again, she pulled at the lever, and the hatch swung open. She shifted her grip and grabbed the inside lever, then pulled herself in through the narrow, rectangular opening. Tugging at the lever, she tried to close the hatch, but it stopped short by a few centimeters. As the ship rocked again, she tore at the hatch, breaking her nails in the process, before she saw her blanket was stuck in the bottom of the opening. Furiously, she ripped it free, and then the hatch closed as it should.
The protocol for escape pods was simple and taught even to slaves in case they had to assist one of the civilians or a wounded member of the crew. She strapped herself in with the six-point harness, fastened the seventh strap around her forehead, and slammed the large red sensors on each armrest. Three seconds would pass before something happened, but she hadn’t thought they’d feel like years. Then suddenly she was pressed by an unspeakable force into the seat as the family-sized pod hurtled into space. One circular viewport, the size of both her palms, was located across from her seat. As the pod turned, she saw the ship she had lived on as a slave for almost twenty years. The enormous vessel was breaking apart in front of her, and the tiny dots she saw being thrown into open space were people. At that instant, it didn’t matter if they were slaves, soldiers, or civilians. They were all equal as they headed into the dark eternity of death the same way.
Crying now, 833 desperately wished she had been able to help someone escape. Everything had happened so fast. She thought of the little children, some of them small enough to be unspoiled by their parents’ wealth, and how they would never have a chance to grow up and find their way in life. They would have had all the advantages she never did.
Something slammed into the pod and sent it spinning. It took a few moments before the gyroscope righted the micro vessel again, but when it did, it seemed as if the systems were intact. She had life support, and the pod traveled fast, leaving the war zone.
As hours passed and the pod traveled farther and farther from the broken ship and its enemies, 833 made a vow. If she survived this catastrophe, she would seize every opportunity to make a different life, a better life, for herself. She had no idea where the pod was destined to go but knew the ship had been at least eighteen lunar years away from the closest Territory colony. Traveling in the micro vessel would make that journey even longer. No matter where she ended up, 883 would never admit to being a slave. The steps she had to take to ensure this designation were simple: cut out the tracker at the base of her skull and destroy it. Grow her hair. No matter where this pod was heading, she would have time to do that. A shaved head would show the markings on her scalp, but hair would cover them and any potential scar after the removal of the tracker. She would get rid of the beige coveralls that only slaves wore and don some of the emergency clothes stored in these pods.
Most important, she would forever stop thinking of herself as 833 and remember the name her mother had secretly given her. She allowed the memory to surface of how her mother had whispered it in her ear for the last time before her daughter was taken to another ship. “Your name is Moon, my darling girl. Your name is Moon de Cruz. Never forget that.”
“My name is Moon. I remember, Mama.” Moon’s voice was husky but strong. “I’ll never be a number again. My name is Moon de Cruz!”
Territorial Date 6038
“Captain, we’re entering orbit in ten minutes.”
Captain Beaux Lestarion of the commercial space vessel C.C. Empress turned from the computer console by her captain’s chair. “Steady as she goes,” she said, acknowledging the words of her second in command, Veyar. She moved closer to the main view screen, looking impassively at the image of the green-and-blue lush planet before them. She hoped it would turn out to be worth the eight-month-long voyage with the motley crew of passengers she’d been forced to deal with. Corporate suits and rough miners, they’d been making ridiculous demands and causing brawls in the mess halls more often than not. She was ready to put them down on their coveted, uninhabited planet and leave them there. “How are those scans going?” Beaux turned to the ensign in charge of ops. “I want no last-minute surprises.”
“Scans show the same as before. A planet rich in minerals, ore, wildlife, and fresh water.” Ensign Callas ran quick fingers across her console.
Fresh water was a rare commodity on many planets, including their homeworld, Cimeria Prime. Whenever a company detected water on a virgin planet such as this one, that was one reason to exploit it. Add to that commodity the presence of minerals and ores capable of being developed into much-needed energy sources, and the company suits began to salivate.
“Good. Keep the short-range sensors on full,” Beaux said. “I know we’ve scanned this planet extensively, but we’ve come close to running into trouble before. We’re far from Cimeria Prime and any chance of backup.”
“I hear you, sir.” Callas nodded briskly. “I won’t let anyone catch us with our suspenders around our ankles, sir.”
Barely able to refrain from snorting at yet another one of her young ensign’s infamous sayings, Beaux kept her gaze on the slowly rotating sphere that filled more and more of the view screen. Around her, the twenty bridge-crew members carried out their tasks with their usual professionalism and expertise. Beaux had handpicked them all from the Cimerian space fleet and the private sector. Most of them had followed her willingly and without too much persuasion, but some had needed a gentle nudge or two, mainly of the monetary kind. Her crew manifest consisted of two hundred and fifty well-trained and motivated people, all of them among the best, if not the best, in their field. Beaux was a successful private agent. In fact, she had seen very little turnover. When it came to her bridge crew, regardless of shift, she never had any vacancies. She paid them well, and their work and living conditions were better than on those on any other commercial ship working in this part of intergalactic space.
“High orbit in one minute, sir,” Lieutenant Neos said from the helm.
“Thrusters only.” Beaux glanced at her console, scanning the data flickering across it. She was pretty sure they’d make high orbit without a problem, but she hadn’t forgotten the planet closest to the one they were approaching, which wasn’t livable. Instead, it boasted an unknown metal ore core that could possess unknown qualities. If it was more magnetic than their scans showed, it could interfere with their instruments and make going into orbit difficult, even dangerous.
“Keep your eyes on the data from the next planet, Ensign Callas.” Beaux sent the ensign a warning glance, but her ops officer merely nodded calmly.
“Entering high orbit. Thrusters only.” Neos punched in commands and maneuvered the small stick with just his index finger. The controls demanded his full attention and dexterity, but Neo was the best pilot Beaux had seen during her entire career, regardless of his youth. Now he navigated her ship into high orbit with perfection.
“Orbit reached, sir.” Neo flashed a grin over his shoulder.
“Excellent. Now we just—”
The elevator door hissed open. Beaux looked over at her two bridge security officers, who had their hands on their sidearms. Just inside the door, two men, belonging to the company-suits camp among her passengers, stood flanked by their own security.
Furious, but harnessing her anger as these were important clients, Beaux stood. “I have told you more than a few times over the last eight months that the bridge and this entire deck are off-limits to passengers, Mr. Kragh.”
“We’ve entered orbit,” Kragh, a tall, thin man with white-blond hair and pale-blue eyes, said softly. “This is my mission, Captain. I have a right to observe to make sure nothing my CEO has tasked me with is jeopardized.”
“If the CEO of Ilienta Enterprises doesn’t trust us to do our job, it seems like a gross waste of money to have us bring you here. I mean, you could have leased any space vessel and come here yourself. Leave my bridge. Now.” Beaux was not about to let this corporate lackey win.
“Sir?” One of brawny men next to Kragh moved his hand to his side. He didn’t have an energy weapon. Nobody aboard her ship was armed except the captain and her crew. Still, he could be carrying a blade or a pulse baton. The internal scanners detected unauthorized energy weapons immediately but sometimes missed other, more low-tech weapons.
Beaux’s security officers caught the movement immediately and drew their sidearms. “Hands where we can see them.” They aimed at the necks of both the guards. “Now.” Next to them, Commander Veyar kept his sidearm trained on them as well.
“This is appalling,” bellowed the other suit, a slightly shorter man, but with the same pale coloring, named Drak. “We’re paying for this, which means the ship’s practically an Ilienta vessel until we return.”
“Now, now,” Kragh said calmly. “Let’s not get carried away. Stand down,” he told his guards. “And, Drak, there’s no need to be rude. Of course this is Captain Lestarion’s ship.” He turned to Beaux, his nearly colorless eyes cold and unblinking. “Please forgive my associate. Mr. Drak is only eager to commence work after these long months. I’m sure you can understand that.”
Long months? Try eternal. Beaux didn’t return the frosty smile. “Better than you think.” She had spoken to Kragh only twice before, but he had not fraternized with either the other passengers or the Empress’s crew. Most of the Ilienta passengers had lived to party aboard her ship. In fact, she thought she could count on one hand the times Kragh had joined anyone in the mess hall.
“I’m sure we’ll collaborate splendidly once work is underway.” Kragh bowed while a chilling smile played on his thin lips. “At your service.”
Beaux was curious how the two suits from Ilienta Enterprises worked together. Where Drak was all bluster and drama, Kragh came off as quietly lethal. “Mr. Kragh, I suggest you go to the passenger area with your associate. We’re entering low orbit in a few minutes, and that can sometimes be a bumpy ride. Especially when it comes to unknown planets.” She didn’t take her eyes off his.
“You’re right, of course.” Kragh smiled thinly and bowed again. Beaux got the feeling that bowing didn’t sit well with him, which made her file this clearly placating gesture away for future reference.
As soon as Kragh, Drak, and their muscle had left the bridge, Beaux put them out of her mind and refocused on the task at hand. “All right, Lieutenant Neos. Start the protocols for low orbit.”
“Aye, sir.” Neos’s fingers fluttered across sensors and the multitude of levers before him. “Buckle up, everyone. We’re going in.”
Adjusting her harness in the captain’s chair, Beaux kept her eyes on her console. The data flickered by, but she knew her ship from port to stern and saw the Empress behaved impeccably under Neos’s skilled hands. The Empress slid into the low orbit as if on magnetic rails. Beaux unfastened her harness and stood. The screen showed the lush planet under the Empress’s belly.
For the first time, Beaux registered how beautiful the untouched world before her looked. She had read the reports that Ilienta Enterprises had put together from its extensive long-range scans. Ilienta owned and built the technology that allowed for in-depth scans at great distances. As contractors for the Cimerian military, they enjoyed complete freedom when it came to their own endeavors—and profit.
“Locked into low orbit at five hundred kilometers.” Neos grinned as he looked at Beaux.
“Can the Empress sustain this level without draining the reserves?” Beaux stepped up on Callas’s dais and studied the ensign’s data.
“Yes, sir. The planet’s gravity suggests this is optimal.”
“Excellent.” Beaux nodded over her shoulder at Veyar. “You have the bridge, Commander. I’ll be in the shuttle bay area, as I imagine our guests are eager to begin.”
“Aye, sir. Will you be going planetside?” Veyar moved to the center of the bridge.
“Perhaps later today. We’ll see. It all depends on how Ilienta’s crews are doing. If they run into trouble, I’d say we’ll all be down there to haul their asses back onto the ship before we know it.”
“Are you expecting problems?” Veyar frowned.
“You know me, Commander. I always assume there’ll be problems. And?”
Her next in command grinned. “And you are often right, sir.”
“Damn straight.” Beaux returned the smile briefly and then walked to the elevator. Stepping inside, she punched the sensor for the shuttle-bay deck. The octagonal car plummeted six decks down through the Empress, reaching the corridors leading to the vast area holding the shuttles. Each shuttle could take up to sixty passengers, depending on how much gear or luggage they brought. All in all, the Empress boasted four such shuttles and ten assault craft, for security. Beaux was one of the few private-transport-ship captains who would go into hostile territory—for the right price. This long haul would be her most profitable yet, and damn it, she had earned every cimero.
As Beaux exited the elevator, she had to wait until a long, double row of passengers passed her. She estimated it was about half of the miners she’d shipped across intergalactic space. The other half would enter the shuttle bay from the opposite direction. Ensign Callas had calculated that they would initially have to do two runs with the four shuttles, but when the miners and the suits had set up their base camp at their designated area, one or two shuttles for supplies and maintenance would be enough.
Beaux had decided it would be prudent to have a security detail consisting of her own crewmembers planetside, along with their own maintenance and support crew. Ten volunteers were assigned to patrol the different areas on caterpillar bikes. Powered by small hydro engines, they were quiet and fast. She knew Ilienta had brought other, less quiet, caterpillars, and Beaux felt it prudent to match their resources. As she had just stated to Veyar, partly tongue in cheek, she always expected trouble.
To an untrained eye, the cargo bay would seem like utter chaos. People hurried back and forth, the shuttles hummed with a sound Beaux found most pleasant, and last-minute crates were hauled aboard.
“Sir. We’re right on schedule.” A tall, burly man tapped the computer pad in his hands with his index finger. Shuttle Master Chief Somas’s soft voice contradicted his imposing physique. He had been with Beaux when she was still in the military and had not hesitated to follow her into the private sector.
“Good.” Beaux leaned against the bulkhead as four of her cargo-bay crew rushed by carrying what looked like long, black pipes she vaguely identified as part of drilling equipment. “I think Ilienta has enough of those to drill straight through the planet.” Beaux snorted.
“Yeah. I just hope they do it quickly. I don’t know about you, but with this lot, all I want is to return home to get paid.” Somas had lowered his voice.
“No kidding. Have you spoken to Drak or Kragh?” Beaux made a face. “I just had the dubious honor on the bridge. Again.”
“That’s what I mean,” Somas murmured. “I haven’t talked to many of the suits. In fact, I make it a point to stay clear of them, but the unofficial reports I get from my subordinates—”
“You mean gossip.” Beaux smirked.
“Well, if you want to put it that way. Anyway, the suits keep to themselves, and even if I can understand that they’re mindful of corporate espionage, they’re apparently acting as if this is a life-or-death situation.”
“Hm. Perhaps it is.” Beaux didn’t mean literally, but a lot of money was at stake. That much was a given. Still, Kragh’s demeanor could give anyone with even slightly weak nerves the chills. Something about the man was just…wrong. “Jokes aside, Somas, keep your feelers out for the gossip. You and I’ve been around long enough to know that on a ship, even one as large as the Empress, the rumor mill is more efficient than official reports any day.”
“Yes, sir.” Somas tapped the corner of the thin computer pad against his temple. “I’ve got your back.”
“I know. Likewise.” Beaux made her way over to the closest shuttle that was ready to launch. Sitting with its crew in its bay, which would seal up around it before the large airlock hatch opened, the crewman in charge was ready to retract the steps. Impulsively, Beaux pulled her communicator to her lips. “Lestarion to Shuttle One pilot. Delay the launch for a minute. I’ve decided to join you.”
“Affirmative, Captain,” the calm voice of the female pilot responded. “Waiting for you to board, sir.”
Beaux paged the bridge. “Commander Veyar. I’m joining Shuttle One for its first transport. I’m not planning to stay on the planet, but I do want to take a closer look.”
After a brief pause, Veyar replied. “Can’t say I blame you, Captain.”
“I’m taking a long-range communicator and an emergency pack, just in case, though I expect to be back in six or seven hours.” Beaux walked over to some storage units by the bulkhead and pulled out a backpack that held a medical kit, survival gear, emergency rations, water, and a lightweight bivouac. From another shelf, she plucked the communication system that would allow her to contact the ship while planetside. She was always armed when they carried passengers, no matter who they were, and now she tucked more energy ampoules into the leg pockets of her pants.
As she jogged up the steps to the shuttle, she felt an unexpected rejuvenation. She had been in space for so long and stopped at only a couple of space stations, but that was four months ago. The idea of breathing fresh air and feeling solid ground under her feet caused a bewildering giddiness completely out of character for her.
Beaux joined the flight crew up front, taking one of the two available seats in the back. She knew how to operate the shuttles, but she would never insult her crewmembers by simply taking over without good reason. Strapping in, she merely nodded to the crew.
“Good to have you with us, Captain,” the first pilot said, and Beaux recognized the wiry woman who had been with her for ten years.
“I couldn’t resist a first look, Lieutenant Ashdo.” Beaux relaxed as Ashdo merely nodded amicably and then started the protocols for launching. As the large shuttle majestically slid along the magnetic rails, she looked out the small viewports between the instruments to her left. The effortless feeling of being dropped into space always amazed Beaux. As the shuttle dropped, she felt the propulsion system shift and maneuver it to head for its destination. This shuttle would transport miners to an area on the northern hemisphere that consisted of forests, lakes, mountains, and valleys. According to estimates, it would be mid-morning in the area at the site in question, which would give the miners and the crew time to make camp and secure a perimeter before nightfall.
While the shuttle steered toward its destination, Beaux kept looking out the viewport. Yes, it was green, and blue, and the poles were capped with ice. Perhaps Cimeria had once looked like this, before urban civilization covered eighty percent of its surface. There, only the rich could afford nature experiences. Perhaps someone would catch on to that fact and start arranging excursions to this planet, she mused. Or start colonizing it.
She doubted Ilienta Enterprises would ever give up on their stake on this planet. Too much money in it for them. Beaux shrugged and leaned back in her seat. She couldn’t blame them for seizing their opportunities. After all, that was what she’d been doing ever since she left the military and bought the Empress.
It was how the universe worked.
The combination of the gentle swaying of the branches supporting the structure Moon had built during the last four years, and the sun’s warm rays filtering through the thin fabric in the window, made her smile. No matter that she had lived in the wilderness on the planet she had named Haven; this blissful tranquility managed to both elate and ground her. She rose each morning, grateful to be free.
Pulling her hair back into a long ponytail, she tied it with a thin vine. She rarely cared to look at her reflection, unless she went fishing in the lake and happened to glimpse herself, but she had to admit she was still amazed at having long hair. Being bald her entire life before now, she considered feeling the hair dance against her back yet another sign of her freedom.
After she donned her daypack, Moon pulled the hatch in the floor open and climbed down the rope ladder. She didn’t bother closing the hatch, as she didn’t store very much of her food in the tree house. If any of the tree-climbing animals took what little she had, they were welcome to it. Moon stored most of the food she’d gathered in the escape pod half tucked into a cave system half a kilometer away.
Taking the self-made fishing rods from where she had leaned them against the massive tree trunk, Moon began to walk down the hill toward the large lake in the valley below. She had done this so many times, she had created a path. What once had been a frightening experience was now familiar and instilled nothing but a feeling of security and being at one with this world. For the longest time, she had expected to detect signs of civilization, even if the scans performed by the pod while it was in automatic orbit suggested that none existed.
A rustling sound to her far right made her pull her sidearm. The scar on her leg had taught her to never leave the pod or the tree house unarmed. The large, furry mammal she later named a brummer had attacked when she had gotten to close to its cubs, after she had been on the planet for only two months. Digging its fangs into her left thigh, it had nearly killed her, first due to the blood loss and later from the infection. She didn’t hunt the animals on this planet, but she had fired on some in self-defense. Learning to fish had been important from a nutritional point of view, but to hunt the animals with a piece of technology not indigenous to this world…felt wrong. Moon had survived during her entire previous life on simple foodstuff provided for slaves. Meat had been available only for the ruling classes. As she couldn’t see anything that explained the sound, Moon holstered her weapon.
Down by the lake, Moon walked over to the sunny side of it and shed her clothes. She secured her weapon in a pouch around her neck, then threw herself into the water for her bath. As a slave, she had loathed having to adhere to routines, of doing the same things day after day, year after year. Secretly, she had dreamed of being spontaneous, of being her own boss and, most of all, free. Free to be a person who could choose what to do and when to do it. Ironically, she now craved a certain schedule. It felt good to always take a morning swim in the warmer seasons, at her favorite spot, and, like now, as she rinsed her ponytail out, to look for Dancer.
As if on cue, her only friend on the planet came strolling between the trees at the edge of the forest. Silver-gray, with black markings around his small, pointy ears, eyes, and on his chest, the beautiful animal approached. He stopped at the water’s edge and tilted his head as if he questioned her sanity for voluntarily getting wet.
“I know. You want me to provide you with some fish, don’t you, Dancer?” Moon splashed at him and giggled as he managed to look affronted and jumped a step back. She walked up and shivered as she let the sun dry her naked skin. Dancer came up to her and pushed his blunt nose into her palm.
“Yes, yes. I’ve missed you too. However, I did see you last night. Like always.”
Dancer sat down next to her, his head reaching to her hip. Moon caressed his silky ears, and he gave his usual guttural gurgle, which she had determined was a sound of pleasure. “All right. I’m going to get dressed, and we’ll walk over to the shade and see if we can catch some of those red, flat fish. Those are our favorites, aren’t they?”
Dancer seemed to agree as he trotted next to Moon over to the part of the lake where the trees lined the grassy edge. Moon spread a weathered blanket on the grass and then readied the four fishing poles she had fashioned herself after the one stored in the pod broke. After baiting the hooks with a type of berry she’d found that some fish favored, she made a whipping motion and let the hook and bobber fly as far out as possible. Leaning the poles against four large boulders she’d dragged to this spot for this purpose, she pulled Dancer close to her, and they sat there together, both watching the bobbers intently.
After only a few minutes, the bobber on the pole to the far right moved. Dancer gave a low snarl.
“I see, I see.” Expertly, Moon grabbed the pole and whipped it up and back. She felt the hook grab the fish firmly and began tugging the line toward her. Dancer was doing that special sidestepping next to her that had made her name him accordingly when he was a pup. Laughingly she told him, “Calm down. After two years of this, I haven’t forgotten that the first catch is yours.”
Dancer looked like he meant to say, “rightfully so,” or something to that effect, which made Moon laugh again. “Silly creature.”
Once they had caught ten fish all in all, Moon packed up the rods and began walking back around the lake. She intended to cook the fish when she got back to the tree house and treat them to one each. Then she would walk over to the pod to place the rest into the dry-freeze storage. Dancer trotted before her, and she smiled absentmindedly at his antics, since he clearly thought he needed to show her the way back each morning.
Moon followed the path and saw her tree in the distance. It had the largest trunk she had seen on any of her hikes. At least sixty meters tall, its crown spanned at least one hundred and twenty meters across. The sight always moved her, as did the fact that she had had the courage to make it her home. Every year she had added to the tree house, and though she didn’t actually need that much space, planning and building, and making sure she never did anything to hurt the tree, gave her great satisfaction.
When she reached the shade provided by the massive branches, Dancer growled. Dropping the poles, Moon pulled her weapon from the pouch around her neck and made sure it was set high enough to incapacitate a large mammal. If Dancer warned her like this, something was wrong. Gazing around her, pivoting slowly to not make any sounds, Moon scanned the immediate area. She had created a narrow shortcut to the pod in case danger came from the direction of her tree. It was steep, but she had practiced running along it so many times, she could basically fall all the way down it without injuring herself. If something came at her from the other direction, she knew how to pull herself up the rope ladder equally fast.
Dancer’s growl escalated now, but nothing appeared. Just like she had trained him to do, Dancer faced away from her, making sure nothing surprised either of them from behind. Slowly, they moved in a circle, once, twice, but no raging predator launched itself at them.
“What’s up, Dancer?” Moon whispered, her skin prickling. “What’s wrong, little man?”
Dancer got up on his hind legs next to her, sniffing the air. He raised his blunt nose into the air, and then he emitted an odd, snorting sound.
That’s when Moon heard it. A low, humming resonance seemed to grow in intensity with each moment. Dancer looked straight up, but not at Moon. Instead he seemed to locate where the noise was coming from. Moon let her gaze follow the same trajectory, and at first, she thought the white lines on the sky were some odd clouds. However, they were too precise—and growing closer. Watching in fascinated horror, Moon saw the lines move to align themselves with the mountain ridge on the other side of the valley. Her mind raced as she tried to figure out what could create streaks in the sky like that, and some of the suggestions that came to mind made her shiver. Were those from escape pods like hers? She doubted it, even if she had no way of knowing what her arrival had looked like to the animals on Haven.
The moment Moon understood that whatever was approaching the mountains was slowing down, she knew they had to be some form of space vessels, as they were making their way down through the atmosphere. Using the library available in her escape pod, she had learned a lot. Someone was about to land on the planet where she had made her home, and she had no idea who they were, where they were from, or why they were here.
Dancer had lowered himself onto all four of his paws again and pressed himself against her hip. He wasn’t growling, but he sure wasn’t dancing either.
“I know, little man.” Moon scratched the top of his head. “Change of plans. We need to see where they set down and then make our way over there. All right?” Moon thrust her chin out. “And don’t worry. We’re not going to introduce ourselves, but we must try to find out why they’re here. Perhaps see if they’re from some other continent on Haven.” Moon doubted that. If spacefaring individuals had been on this planet, she would have seen traces of them at one point. No, these were from another planet, and that was one of the reasons she needed to stay invisible on her quest to find out the truth. If they were from the Territory, and they located her and found her to be an escaped slave, her life would be over.
In the distance, Moon saw what looked like two large shuttles set down on one of the less jagged mountain tops across the valley. What had reminded her of white smoke in the sky turned out to be green-tinted exhaust. Now that the shuttles had landed, the sound changed from humming to deafening as it traveled across the valley and bounced among the mountain walls. Dancer growled again, and Moon calmed him by kneeling next to him.
“It’s all right. We’ll figure this out. Perhaps this is temporary, an emergency landing to make repairs.” But if that was the case, why would two shuttles set down? As large as they seemed, shuttles couldn’t manage interplanetary travel. Another propulsion system and vast resources were required for that. She had lived aboard the escape pod for ten months and only survived because she had been one woman in a pod meant for a family unit of four plus one slave. Transport shuttles, if that was what they were, didn’t have the cutting-edge technology most passenger-vessel pods boasted. Designed to transport people or goods from orbit to planet and vice versa, they simply couldn’t be used for long hauls in space.
The sound eventually died out, and the green exhaust trails thinned and evaporated. The shuttles were too far away for Moon to see any details. She would have to fetch her ocular she’d taken from the pod and kept in the tree house. She always carried it on her hikes, but rarely on her home turf.
Pivoting, she rushed toward the rope ladder and scurried up. Dancer would be on guard below. Finding the ocular by the cot, she grabbed it and hurried across the floor and out one of the side hatches. She balanced along the thick branch that extended twenty meters toward the valley and afforded a great view of the mountains on the other side. Moon climbed into the small hammock she had fashioned from vines and hung like a net from the branch. She was twenty-five meters above ground, and from here, she could see better, as most other trees close by weren’t this tall. She stabilized the swinging hammock and then raised the ocular to her right eye. After adjusting the settings, she zoomed in as close as the instrument would allow.
The white shuttles had markings on the side. She couldn’t see all of them but made out the word Cim and the numbers 442. As she let the ocular travel along the long, sleek fuselage, an opening appeared on the one that had set down first. A set of steps appeared and reached the ground. Moon swallowed against the sudden dryness in her throat. People began exiting the shuttle, and she wished she could have zoomed in farther but couldn’t even see if they were men or women, civilians or military.
Lowering the ocular, she tugged at her still-damp ponytail. She had to make her way over there to see what was going on. Perhaps their visit was temporary, and she’d see them depart before she was even halfway across the valley. Moon growled as she climbed out of the hammock and hurried back into the tree house. She doubted it.
Pulling out her large backpack, Moon began to get ready. Some of the items she needed were in the pod, which meant a quick trip down the emergency path. She had no time to lose.