The last thing I wanted to do was get into a gunfight with two bounty hunters. They had better guns than I had. They had more ammunition than I had. And I had a sick five-year-old girl clinging to my back. I didnít even know there was a bounty out on my head. I guess that incident on Junket pissed off a few of the wrong people. Or maybe it was something else. I should have asked, but they didnít look like they were in the mood for friendly conversation. Running was an option. But I had no guarantee that they wouldnít shoot through Regan to get to me if I turned my back on them. I drew my two laser pistols.
One of the bounty hunters drew and fired so fast that my brain was still processing the fact that he drew long after the shot grazed my left hand. "Come quietly, Konstantine," he said. "We donít want to have to kill you."
I watched my pistol drop into the sand. Regan whimpered at the sight of my blood. The bounty hunters stepped towards me.
It just so happened that there was a little church out there in that desert. In the middle of mostly nothing, a little white church with dirty stained glass windows and a sagging roof. I was trying to make it to Pilon, a large trade city on the other side of the desert. I hadnít expected to run into anything at all, much less a shelter like that. I didnít know if there was anyone inside. Where would its congregation come from? Why the hell would any preacher want to bring the Word out here? Maybe it was punishment for heresy. I didnít think I should be questioning it at the time. I couldnít fight them both without putting Regan in danger. And of course, going quietly was out of the question.
I tucked my arm under Reganís leg. "Hold on tight, kiddo," I said. Her arms tightened around my neck, and her knees pressed against my ribs. Please let there be someone in that church, I thought. I didnít really aim at the bounty hunters; I just fired. And I ran. I tried to keep my shots low, kicking sand up into their faces and clipping their legs. They fired back, missing because they werenít used to shooting at a moving target.
"Doorís locked," Regan said when we were within five feet of the church.
"Fuck," I said.
"Go through it."
Thatís gonna hurt, I thought. But sometimes, Regan just knew things that she shouldnít know. If she thought I could just run through the door without breaking every bone in my body, she was probably right. "Duck your head," I said.
I headed for the door full speed, leaped the two worn concrete steps and crashed head long through paper-thin doors. The bounty hunters stopped just short of the steps. I guess no one told them exactly how crazy I was.
As soon as we hit the floor, Regan let go of me and scrambled towards the pews. I stood up and raised my pistol. The bounty hunters were just staring.
I donít know where the woman came from. She just seemed to appear. She smiled at me. "Are you seeking sanctuary?" she asked.
"Yes," I said.
She turned towards the door. "Leave this place," she said.
"Heís a wanted man," one of them said. "Heís a dangerous criminal."
"As long as heís inside this church, you cannot touch him, whatever authority you might have."
"Under the authority of the Republic, we are to take him in for sabotaging merchant guild meetings, stealing Republic property, associating with known criminals and attempting to assassinate Senator Blackstone."
"He has asked for sanctuary, and it is granted."
"Get out of the way, lady. Weíll take you in with him."
"I will not ask you again. Leave this place."
The bounty hunters werenít going to leave without me. Or so they thought. They started up the steps.
I smelled something vaguely like ozone. It made me think of my first ship, the one that left a trail of black exhaust as it chugged through space and always smelled like it was burning. The womanís hair began to stand on end. Blue sparks flared around her as she raised her arms. I backed away. Her hands filled with blue white balls that crackled and hissed. "I said leave!" she shouted. A bolt shot from her right hand, striking between the bounty huntersí feet. They turned pale and ran.
I put my gun away and went to Regan. She was sitting up with her arms wrapped around her knees and smiling. "Are you okay?" I asked.
She nodded. "Youíre bleeding, Daddy," she said.
"Itís just a scratch."
It was a couple of scratches, some splinters in my arms and the little wound on my hand.
The lightning lady turned away from the door when the bounty hunters were out of sight. "You know how to make an entrance," she said.
"Iím sorry about that. Iíll make new doors. Thanks for running them off."
"Youíre welcome. My name is Anala."
"Talon Konstantine. And this is my daughter, Regan."
"Come with me. Iíll heal your wounds."
I lifted Regan into my arms and followed Anala through a set of double doors at the back of the church. We descended a short flight of stairs and entered a large open area that contained a bed, a desk, several hundred books and notebooks, a stove and a small bathroom that was separated from the rest of the room by a set of paper screens with birds and trees painted on them. I would have thought that a basement room like that would be dark and damp. There were no windows, but the room was bright and comfortable and probably the most cheerful place Iíd been in years. I didnít like it.
Regan wanted to take a nap. Anala turned down the bed for her. She was asleep in about five seconds. I watched Anala blink back tears as she watched Regan sleeping.
When Anala said sheíd heal my wounds, I was expecting first aid. Iodine, tweezers, bandages, the sickening smell of sterile things. She knelt in front of me, closed her eyes and started chanting under her breath. I felt chills break out at the back of my neck and run down my spine like a thousand tiny cold spiders. Her hair rose as the static charge built up. Then she placed her hand on my forehead.
It felt like an impact. There was no falling, no movement, just a sudden, violent stop. I saw smoke and flames. I heard screams. I saw strange creatures with strange weapons, heard them shouting to one another in a language of clicks and chirps, like insects or those mythological sea creatures who used to live in the oceans of Earth. Above the din, I heard a child crying. I saw a little girl with a mess of yellow curls tucked under the arm of one of the creatures. I saw Anala running after the alien as it boarded its ship, tears streaming from her eyes. It aimed a weapon at her. Then there was blackness. Wind howled around me. I could barely make out the sound of voices whispering. One of them came clear. "Leysa is alive," it said. The voice all faded away, and the wind died down. There was only darkness and a bruised feeling.
Anala shook me gently. "Talon? Are you all right? Can you hear me?"
I sat up and rubbed my eyes. "Iím okay," I said.
"Nothing. I just ...I pass out like that sometimes. I was in an accident a while back, and I guess I got some brain damage or something."
"You saw something."
"Not a thing."
"What did you see?"
"It was dark."
"Youíre a psychic."
"No, not me. Iím just brain damaged, like I said."
"You can trust me with your secrets."
"I donít trust anyone with anything."
That seemed to do the trick. She didnít push her luck any further than that. She gave me a blanket and a pillow, and I stretched out on the floor and slept.
It wasnít that I didnít trust Anala. Oddly enough, I felt that I could trust her. But when it came to what my brain had decided it could do since the accident, I preferred to keep that to myself. There werenít many psychics out there. Most were killed as soon as they were discovered. Those who werenít killed were victims of persecution. They stayed hidden. There were rumors of large groups of psychics living on various planets. Some were just communities. Others were dangerous and were said to be plotting to take over the Republic and bring about the end of the universe. I didnít want anything to do with either type of group. I didnít ask to be psychic. I didnít know how to use the power. I just had visions, either of the past or the future, and I passed out because of it. Do you have any idea how inconvenient it is to pass out while trying to pilot a fairly large ship during a firefight? Especially when youíre the gunner as well and the rest of the crew is for some reason gun shy? Itís not good.
I had dreams as well. Dreams that left me feeling as if I hadnít slept at all, like the sleep you get when you pass out drunk. The body rests, but the mind canít. My dreams had always been vivid and imaginative. Once I dreamed that I was the kidnapped son of a noble family and one of my brothers had found me after years of searching. But in the end, I couldnít leave the man who had adopted me and the woman he married. They were Mom and Dad, and their sons were my brothers. But sometimes, my dreams actually happened. Or had happened. That was long before the accident, and I always thought it had something to do with willpower or whatever. Whatever it was, it wasnít a psychic ability. After the accident, I realized it was.
I didnít realize how tired I was until I lay down. I hadnít really slept in the three days since I had crash landed in the swamps and started walking for Pilon.
I dreamed that I met a girl with long curly blonde hair. She was about fifteen. Everything about her seemed odd in a very bad way. Her skin was hard and gleamed in the dull light, like armor almost but more like an exoskeleton. The shape of her mouth was all wrong, elongated with stunted tusks protruding from her lower jaw. Her eyes were the wrongest things about her. They were huge and iridescent and multifaceted, like diamonds or insect eyes. Behind her, I could see two or three others like her. I thought of a friend of mine for seemingly no reason. I hadn't see Dylan Riggs in years, and I didn't expect to ever see him again.
The girl raised her arm slowly, aiming something that might have been a gun but was made to hurt me whatever it was. I was unarmed. I knew that nothing I did or said was going to stop her from killing me. But I knew her name. "Leysa," I said. Her arm dropped. Then she swung at me, the weapon plowing into the side of my head. That didnít work, I guess. Iíll try something different next time.
I woke up with a pounding headache. Sometimes these weird dreams would give me headaches that got worse after the accident. It was like someone was inside my skull pounding on the metal plates on the left side of my head with a sledgehammer. Usually all I had to do was take a few deep breaths and I was fine, but this one was stubborn.
My stomach growled. Regan turned over in her sleep and muttered, "Bad kitty. Donít growl."
Anala was nowhere in the room, so I wandered back up into the church. It had gotten dark. A few candles burned along the walls, but I didnít see Anala. The splinters I had made of the front door had been swept away, and a heavy blanket hung over the doorway. I pushed it aside and stepped into the desert.
It was cold. Above me, the sky was black and full of stars. I looked up at them and listed their names in my head. I knew stars. I knew constellations. I knew the planets that orbited some of those stars. No matter what planet I ended up on, I could look at the sky and see the same thing, a bit skewed depending on my exact location, but I never felt lost. If there ever came a time when I looked up and couldnít name the cold, glittering points of light above me, I would truly be lost. I hadnít been lost in twenty five years. I hadnít felt alone in almost as long. There were people I knew out there. On the planets, cruising between the stars or floating around in space stations. But they were getting harder and harder to find these days. I was wanted for things I didnít do. No one in their right mind would admit they knew me. I should have known better, but Shane had a way of persuading people that was almost scary. Of course, the amount of alcohol I had consumed that night had a little to do with it. Okay, a lot to do with it.
But we all knew something bad was going to happen. For several years, the merchant guild had been dissatisfied with the Senate. Most of the Senate seats were taken by nobles who could afford to put their asses in the seats. There were a few planets that held elections, and some of those senators were worthy men and women. But the nobles outnumbered them. The guild was getting screwed each time something was put to a vote. There were astronomical docking taxes on every planet. Goods had to be inspected and sometimes didnít last through the inspection. The guild lost more money than it made, and it should have been breaking even at least. They decided to do something about it.
Shane Decker was a pilot on a grain guild ship. Iíd known him since I was seven, but I wasnít so sure about him lately. When Dylan had vanished, Shane changed. They were close. It was kind of creepy, but I never thought much about it. I envied that relationship a little. Friends like that are hard to come by.
Shane had his ear to every grapevine he could get to, so when he heard that the merchants were starting to meet in secret, he made it a point to sneak into one of the meetings to find out what their plans were. He didnít like what he heard. What he told me never made much sense. He was afraid heíd lose his job or worse have to become a fighter pilot. He hated war, and he was convinced the merchants wanted to start a war.
I personally didnít care. I made my living on the black market and as transportation for hire. Got to get somewhere? Donít want anyone to know? Call Talon Konstantine. I had a rotating fleet of ships. If three or four is a fleet. All cheap, tiny things that most people ignored. It was all very discreet, and the blackmail material was worth as much as the gold I was paid. Before that, for about two years, I was the pilot on a nobleís adventuring ship. That I really liked, but after I passed out during that attack, I couldnít stay on. I couldnít take the risk that it would happen again and that someone would find out why I passed out.
Somehow, drunk as I was that night, Shane convinced me that my livelihood was in as much danger as his was, and I agreed to help him sabotage any other meetings. This consisted of setting off firecrackers in the halls of the building they met in or leaving dead animals in the meeting hall and various other juvenile pranks. He kept saying that if Dylan were still around, things would be different.
Senator Joelle Blackstone was probably the only friend the merchants had. Her son worked for a metal merchant operation. Her daughter married a merchant pilot. So Shane decided she needed to be killed. At that point, Iíd given up on him. Regan was sick, and I couldnít find a doctor who could tell me what was wrong with her much less make her well again.
When Shane got caught in his attempt, he said I put him up to it. So I did the dumbest thing I couldíve done. I ran.
That was over a year ago. I figured it had all been forgotten. Apparently, it just took them this long to figure out where I was. And I really thought that little incident on Junket would have gotten me a few bounty hunters. Then again, I didnít know that it hadnít. Maybe those guys hadnít found me yet.
My best ship crapped out on me three days ago; fortunately close enough to Gehgal that I could make a mostly painless crash landing. Unfortunately, I didnít put her down anywhere near a decent sized city. At least I knew what planet I was on. I pulled out my maps, looked at the stars and started walking. Pilon was as good a city to try to find help for Regan as any. I just didnít anticipate that weíd be walking across five hundred miles of desert.
I heard footsteps in the sand. Anala was walking towards the church with several heavy looking canvas bags. I felt dizzy when I stood up to help her, and my stomach started to cramp up. But I didnít let her know. Not only did I not expect a desert, I didnít expect not to find at least one or two villages where we could eat, sleep and stock up on supplies. There was nothing in that desert. We didnít have enough food for both of us, so I just drank water. Reganís appetite wasnít always good, but she needed the food more than I did. I hadnít eaten since the day before we landed on Gehgal.
"I could hear your stomach growling a mile away," Anala said.
"Then Iím sure the bounty hunters heard me too," I said.
"They wonít find us that easily. The church moved."
"It moves about two miles every day. I wake up every morning in a different spot."
"This was getting freaky enough as it was with you shooting lightning at them. I donít think I can handle a church that relocates itself."
"The desert does it."
"The desert wasnít always here, was it? Itís not on my maps."
"Maybe your maps are old."
"Six months. I get new ones every six months."
"Youíre getting cranky." She handed me an apple. "Eat this, and Iíll have dinner ready soon."
I sat down next to the bed where Regan was still sleeping. Her forehead was hot, but her skin was dry. The fevers came and went, and all I could ever do for her was put a cold towel on her head and hope she wouldnít come out of it weaker than before. But she was always weaker. If the fever didnít come back too soon, she could regain some strength. It could stay gone for days or it could be weeks. At that point, her last fever had been the first day on Gehgal. I thought a lot about leaving her with someone who could take better care of her. There were sick houses everywhere run by healer witches like Anala. It would cost me everything I had to put Regan up in a place like that, and I couldnít bear the thought of being away from her. Even if she recovered, I wouldnít be able to afford to get her out again. But I was determined to find someone who would tell me what was wrong with her and do something to make her better.
The apple almost made me sick. I struggled to keep it down. My stomach cramped, and acids burned the back of my throat. But when all that passed, I felt better. Not good, but certainly better than I had before. Still, I made it a point to eat slowly. I didnít want to make a mess. Regan woke up and ate a little before going right back to sleep. "Friendly beastie," she mumbled as she curled herself into a ball. "Heíll help Daddy."
Her fever was nowhere near breaking. I sat next to her with a bowl of water and a rag. I thought maybe it would be safer to leave her with Anala since the bounty hunters had found me. But Anala could be taken in for harboring a criminal. Then again, they probably wouldnít have found it very easy to arrest her.
"So did you do everything they said you did?" Anala asked as she cleaned the plates.
"No, not everything," I said. "I didnít try to kill Blackstone. And I donít know what they meant about associating with known criminals. Some of my friends arenít exactly nice people, but I wouldnít call them criminals."
"And all this with a child at your side."
"Sheís my daughter. Whoís side should she be at?"
"Whereís her mother?"
"I donít know. I donít know who her mother is."
"I could guess. But Iím not sure. It doesnít matter. Iím the one who takes care of her."
"Whatís wrong with her?"
"I donít know that either. She gets fevers. The first doctor told me it was a cold. Then it was pneumonia. But itís just a fever. A really high fever thatíd probably kill anyone else."
"And she talks in her sleep."
"She told you those doors were locked, didnít she?"
"Yeah, but Ė "
"And she just said something about a beast who could help you."
"That doesnít mean anything."
"So what are you saying?"
"That Regan gets fevers when she has psychic visions, like you pass out when you have yours."
Regan groaned and rolled over.
"What do you know about my daughter?" Anala asked.
For a long time, I didnít answer. I could have told her what the aliens had done to Leysa. I could have told her that Leysa was going to be sent to kill me at some point. And for some reason, I thought of Dylan again. Regan smiled in her sleep, and I felt the fever break a little. "Her name is Leysa," I said. "And sheís alive."
A plate shattered on the floor.
I didn't sleep that night. I watched over Regan while her fever slowly subsided. Anala cried for a while then tossed and turned all night. In the morning, I was ready to leave. I wanted to get to Pilon quickly, get another ship and get the hell off that planet.
I stepped outside just before dawn, as the sky was growing pale in the west. Gehgal rotates the opposite way of most planets, just to be different. But something else seemed different that morning. The stars were fainter. The light in the north seemed brighter. I turned in that direction and wondered if I was losing the rest of my mind.
Pilon was less than a mile away.
I went back inside to get Regan. She and Anala were both awake, and Anala was packing for a trip.
"I'm coming with you," Anala said. "You can protest all you want, but I'm not staying here. You'll need me eventually anyway."
"Great. Just what I need. Another woman telling me what to do," I said.
Regan giggled. Anala gave me that look that only women can give. Though it's the same every time, it means a thousand things. And I didn't understand any of it. The curse of men everywhere. We only know we've been given "the look," and it's never a good thing.
"How long before the church moves again?" I asked.
"A while," Anala said.
"Good. The sooner we leave, the better. Pilon's practically right outside the door."
Even with Pilon that close, the walk wasn't easy. The sand was hot and deep. The sun was plain evil. Regan was too weak from her fever to walk so I carried her, first on one hip, then on the other and finally on my back where she watched the city grow over the top of my head. And all the while, I felt like we were being followed.