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Starbursts and Shadows: the Obligatory Derelict Ship Episode

It was mutiny. I should have expected as much. I had heard them talking in low whispers as I worked on the ship, trying to figure out exactly what those fucking pirates had done and how I could fix it. I heard Regan giggle. That giggle should have told me something was up, but the heat and the fact that I could see Crossgrove from where I'd put Blue Ava's Angel down distracted me.

I hated Junket. I always had. Even though the drinks were cheap. Even though it was where I had met Petrine. Maybe I knew without knowing that something was just wrong with it. For two years, I'd avoided it like the plague. Then I found myself forced to land there after the pirates hit us with something new. I managed to get everything going long enough to get to Junket, but I knew she wasn't going to let me do that again. Engines speak sometimes. They'll let you know what's wrong. All she did was cry. The weapon the pirates had used wasn't energy based or even regular ballistics. It was magic. I could almost see it. So I could almost see what I needed to do to get her running again. But I couldn't actually do it.

We'd been on Junket for three days. We'd run out of food except for the mushrooms that grew in abundance around the hot spring about fifty yards from where we sat. I got the radio back on and tried to get Kaylan to send us an engineer, but he was too busy dealing with ambassadors from one of the newly discovered planets near Saint Dominic. He wouldn't even take my call, the fucking prick. I could fix the little things. Engines were different. I could take engines apart and rebuild them, but that wasn't the same as fixing them. This damage was different. I wasn't even sure an engineer could fix it.

"Talon!" Danel shouted. I didn't like the tone of his voice.

I had crawled inside one of the booster tubes, which gave me access to parts of the engine and sets of wires I couldn't reach from the outside. It was a tight fit, but I found that I could remove one of the panels and squirm past some wires into the narrow space between the outer hull and the inner hull. I'd end up somewhere near the cargo bay. If they had evil plans, I had an escape. "Yes, dear?" I called back.

"Please come out here," Danel said. I could feel him suppressing the urge to yank me out of the tube and beat the shit out of me. We got along just fine, but we got along like brothers. It didn't seem to matter that we hadn't known each other all our lives. It was biological. It couldn't be helped.

"I'm busy."

"Doing what? Talon, it's been three days, and you haven't fixed a goddamn thing."

"It's a very delicate operation." I heard tiny feet scramble up the ship and sneak towards the opening. I already had the panel off and was squeezing myself through it.

"Delicate operation my ass!" Cherry shouted.

"That's a whole different operation."

"Talon, we're sick of eating mushrooms," Anala said.

"Mushrooms are good for you."

"It's a fucking fungus!" Cherry shouted.

A small shadow rose over the edge of the tube's opening. "Mushrooms suck!" Regan shouted as she jumped down into the tube and came after me. The Mushroom Mutiny was underway.

I squirted through the panel just as Regan reached out to grab my leg. "Fuck," she said.

"Regan, watch your mouth," I said. I inched through the crawlspace.

"You say it all the time," she said.

"I'm an adult. You can say it all the time when you turn eighteen."

She grumbled and came after me. She had an easier time getting through than I did and caught up quickly. I was on my hands and knees trying to push through a tight spot. Regan wriggled around me and started tickling my side. Fortunately, it was my left side. The scars there were too thick to be ticklish, but Cherry had done a more than thorough job of finding all my ticklish spots and passing along the information to Regan. So she went for my stomach.

"No more mushrooms!" Regan said, barely containing her laughter.

"Your hands are cold." I was trying not to laugh at all, but it wasn't working.

"Fix the ship, Daddy!"

"Okay, okay, okay. Cut it out."

"I want ice cream! Now!"

I caught my breath long enough to reach down and grab Regan's arm to pull her face-to-face with me. "Now you'll pay for this mutiny," I said.

Regan shrieked and crawled away from me before I could start to tickle her. I went after her. She giggled and shrieked and stopped to stick her tongue out at me every once in a while. I was so intent on the game that I didn't notice we'd taken a wrong turn somewhere and weren't going to come out where we should have. It shouldn't have mattered. We both knew that ship like the backs of our hands.

I knew something was wrong the second it started. The chills spread out from the small of my back. They moved like the tendrils of some black-as-tar creature seeking through the muck of its lair for the sweet, tender, unsuspecting meal that had just wandered in. I stopped and tried to shake it off. Regan had stopped, too, and pushed herself backwards toward me. "Daddy," she whispered.

It passed through us like a bitterly cold wind, ripping through flesh and spirit. Its face was a wrinkled, ashen mass of seething evil. The eyes were black pits. Its hatred slammed into my heart like a fist. It wanted to hurt people. It wanted to kill everyone I loved. I saw them torn to shreds, slit open and gutted and the empty carcasses ripped in half or crushed into masses of stringy viscera. I'd come across hateful things before. I'd met things that were so angry it hurt me to be close to them. But I'd never felt anything like that. I'd never felt it so powerful. Or so directed.

I don't know if the sound I heard after that was my own scream or if something deeper inside me found its own voice and screamed for me.

I knew I had wrapped my arms around Regan. I could feel her shaking, but my arms felt empty. It was more than Regan that was missing. They were all gone. There weren't even hostile aliens on some distant planet I had yet to discover. The universe was empty. I was very, very tiny.

I tried to breath. My lungs shuddered. I forced myself to keep my eyes open. The narrow crawlspace was empty except for me and Regan. She was huddled against my chest, her fists over her eyes and her teeth clenched. But she was there.

On my knees, clutching Regan to my chest, I managed to turn around to go back the way we came. It was right in front of us. Its face flickered across my perception. Regan screamed. I got pissed.

"Get the fuck off my ship, you son of a bitch!" I yelled at it.

It hissed and started to advance. I put my left hand up, as if that would stop it. It recoiled. It took me a second to realize what I had done. Somehow, I'd raised a shield of some kind. My head rang like a hollow ball of concrete as the sound of wind chimes and a gong and murmuring voices started out of nowhere. The cold spiders overran me. I felt hot, and my nose began to bleed. Don't pass out, don't pass out, please god don't pass out, I thought.

The thing struck out at me. It hit the shield and made a noise like a hiss or a scream or a curse or all of the above. Or something worse. Darkness closed in on the edges of my vision, and I could feel the shield beginning to weaken. I shook my head. I felt so hot I could barely breath, and the heavy copper tang of blood on the back of my tongue was starting to gag me. I had a pinprick of light left, and when that was gone

The sound of metal being torn in half was oddly comforting at that moment. The demon sped toward the hole that had been opened to my right. I managed to get out of its way. It attacked the first thing it saw, which happened to be Dylan. Its claws raked clean through his side without drawing blood, but I saw little flashes of light where the wounds would have been. Dylan looked surprised for just a second then he collapsed in a heap without making a sound.

"Anala! Shoot it!" Regan shouted.

Anala didn't hesitate. She raised her hands, and her static charge lifted her hair. Before the demon could attack again, Anala flung blue-white balls of lightning at it. Her eyes had turned the same color, and she screamed at the demon in a strange language. It cringed and hissed. She hit it again, and it was gone in a puff of foul smelling grey smoke. Then she was on her knees next to Dylan while Danel and Cherry helped Regan and me out of the ship.

"What the fuck was that?" Cherry said.

I shook my head. "Evil," I said. I couldn't manage a more complete description. The fever was gone, and I was covered in clammy sweat. I sat on the ground and shivered. It was ninety degrees out there, and all I could do was shiver.

"Are you okay?" Danel asked.

I just shivered. I looked over at Dylan. He was sitting up, rubbing his head. The slashes in his side had closed up, but I could tell that pieces of his spirit were gone. Pieces of him had been breaking off for years, like flaky plaster. Just breaking off and drifting away. I blinked. My vision wasn't right. Everyone was glowing like they were standing in front of a lamp, and around each of them, I could see a tight thin band of color. Danel was bright orange. Cherry was pink. Regan was purple. Anala was green or white or both. It was hard to tell. Dylan was deep blue. I blinked again, and it was gone. Dylan looked at me, and then all at once, his face was right in my face, his hands gripping the front of my shirt. I heard the soft tear as his claws pierced the cloth. "Make it stop," he said.

I shut my eyes and shuddered. When I looked again, Dylan hadn't moved. "I need to lay down," I said. I felt myself getting up and falling down again. The ground tilted at a funny angle and went black.

I woke up surrounded by fire. I was startled until I realized that I was in some kind of enclosed glass bubble suspended in the fire. I sat up and looked around. Nothing but fire as far as the eye could see. Beyond that, there was a vastness bigger and emptier than the universe itself.

"It gets worse," a man said. "It expands until it rips itself to shreds then it comes back and does it all over again."

He was sitting in a low chair with a high, rounded back. His fingers were steepled under his chin. His right ankle was on his left knee. His legs were long. On his left shoulder was a sleek black falcon.

"I'm dreaming you again," I said. "You're Rune."

"Do you know what you just did?"

"I passed out."

"You tore a hole in the universe."

"What?"

"It's not your fault. You didn't know."

"If you're gonna hold me prisoner inside a glass ball in hell, then I want better answers than that."

Rune smiled. His eyeteeth were long and sharp. "Hell?"

"Yeah, hell. Fire, brimstone, all that."

He laughed. "Sounds like a nice place."

"Then what is hell?"

"What is heaven?"

"I'm not in mood for riddles."

"Well, then." He rested his hands on the arms of the chair. His all black eyes glittered in the flames.

For all the control over my power I had managed to teach myself, the one thing I could never get a handle on was controlling my dreams. I always felt like a hostage in my dreams, forced to watch what unfolded and unable to manipulate it no matter what skill or power I possessed.

"You are a hole in the universe," he said. "Just like me. Ripped out of the very fabric of creation and shaped into man. Every time you pull the three together, you open the hole further."

"So what am I supposed to do, get rid of my powers?"

"Yes. Find that kryptonite shit and embed it in your skull. You're the only one who can pull all three. Do it enough, and you will kill us all. Could you live with that? Could you kill us all?"

"I didn't mean to. I was just "

"Talon, don't get defensive. You'll learn."

"Tell me more."

"No. That's not why I'm here."

"Then get out of my dreams."

"I have a message to deliver."

"Then deliver it and get the fuck out so I can sleep."

Rune took a deep breath and closed his eyes. The next instant, he was right up in my face, his fingers gripping my shoulders so tight I thought he would draw blood. "Make it stop," he whispered.

I opened my eyes to the sound of rain. Cherry was asleep next to me, breathing softly through her mouth. I stared at the roof for a minute and tried to figure out how I felt. Queasy. Rubbery. Terrified. About standard for the really powerful visions. They didn't happen very often, but they'd all been so vivid that I had trouble telling which part was vision and which was reality. Everything I'd seen had been such a distant future that I couldn't help thinking that my actions at the time I had the visions were somehow affecting the visions. If I lived long enough, I could answer that question.

But the demon hadn't been a vision. That shield I threw up wasn't a vision.

I wandered through the ship. It was quite except for the rain and their breathing. Regan trembled in her sleep, but at least she was sleeping. I found Dylan in the cargo bay studying the seams in the sheet metal.

"Are you all right?" I asked.

"No. Are you?"

"Not really."

"That hurt."

"You scared it, I think."

He smiled.

"What are you doing in here anyway?"

"I couldn't sleep. I thought I heard something."

"Another demon?"

"A kid crying."

"On the ship?"

"No. I can't tell where. But close. And it's not good."

I left him to his staring and listening and went into the galley for a snack. There was nothing but mushrooms, so I made a cup of coffee. But even that tasted like mushrooms. I went outside and stood in the rain, watching the sky turn lighter shades of dirt. In the distance, the black outline of Crossgrove lay like a rotting corpse. I didn't have a choice. I needed an engineer. That was the only place I was going to find one.

But I would wait until the rain stopped and until my hands stopped shaking and that face wasn't so close every time I shut my eyes.

Dylan had made his way outside, sniffing and staring in the direction of the hot spring. "It's close," he said, without looking at me. "But not here."

"What do you mean?"

His nostrils flared. "I don't know."

"Any idea what it is exactly?"

"A boy."

"Human?"

"Not exactly."

Something about Dylan had always in some slight way bothered me. Even when we were kids, long before I found out what had been done to him. Lately, he was too quiet and too distant. He rarely said more than the bare minimum he needed to make a point. I knew why, but there was nothing I could do. Half of him was gone. No matter how much anyone else cared about him, it wasn't enough to make up for his loss. Sometimes, I would see him staring out the window, and I could almost see the reflection of the exploding shuttle in his eyes. Shane had asked me to take care of Dylan, and I was doing a piss poor job.

I closed my eyes as things began to spin, and the cold spiders rushed over my face. I leaned against the ship. I saw a young boy running. His feet were bare and covered in blood. What he was running over looked like chunks of black glass. He was breathing hard and looking over his shoulder every few seconds. A cold wind kept blowing his long black hair in his face. He jabbed his fingers through his hair, shoving it back behind his pointed ears. His fingers were long and slender, rough with calluses and ragged nails. There didn't seem to be anything behind him; nothing visible anyway. Something was there, and it wasn't nice. He turned forward again and stumbled. The surface cut into his knees and his palms. He winced. When he got up again, whatever had been chasing him was right in front of him. He screamed and tried to run back the other way, but his pursuer reached out and grabbed his arms, puncturing the boy's flesh with a silver claw fitted over its thumb. The boy stopped struggling instantly and collapsed.

As soon as I was stable again, Dylan headed toward the hot spring, and I followed. The air around the spring seemed to vibrate as if something had just happened, but everything else was still. The rain fell. Steam rose from the water. Dylan growled. "It's gone," he said.

Then I noticed something at the edge of the water. I picked it up. It was a dark blue hat of some kind with strange symbols stitched on the front in white. "What do you make of this?" I asked.

Dylan sniffed the hat. "He smells like death."

"It's not the kid we need to worry about. It's whatever comes after him."

"What language is that symbol in?"

"I don't know. I've never seen it before. Maybe it's something humans haven't discovered yet."

"Or something they lost."

Either way, there was nothing we could do about it. The kid wasn't there. Whatever was trying to hurt him wasn't there.

It stopped raining around noon. We replaced the piece of metal Dylan had ripped off, and I crawled through the hull looking for any new damage. Everything seemed okay, other than the damage the pirates had done. She cried a little louder.

The next morning was hot and harshly bright. I had every intention of going to Crossgrove alone. Vinny knew I was there, and I knew another confrontation wouldn't go well. I didn't want anyone else to have to worry about it. I never told them what happened a couple years before, nor did I ever mention why it happened. But they all knew. So there was no way they were letting me face that alone. I was ambushed in the cargo bay.

"You lied to me about Regan's mother," Anala said.

"I did?" I asked.

"You told me you didn't know who her mother was. I didn't believe you, but I wish you'd told me. Maybe I could have helped."

"I don't know what you could've done."

"Something more than let you suffer."

"You're not coming with me."

"You're not going alone," Danel said. "If you don't come back, how would we ever know what happened to you?"

"Don't forget she was my sister," Cherry said softly. There were tears in her eyes.

That time, I decided to let them win. There was no point in me trying to keep them from wanting to help me. "All right," I said. "But I'm not leaving this ship alone. Dylan, you, Anala and Regan stay here. If a kid with pointy ears shows up, make sure he's not being followed."

"Daddy, I wanna go with you," Regan said.

"I know, but it's safer here. You'll know if the demon comes back, and you can tell Anala to shoot it again. I don't know what's gonna happen in the city."

"I don't like it when you leave. It's like before when I was sick. It makes me sad."

"I won't be gone long. I promise."

Regan folded her arms and pouted. "It's only okay if you bring back ice cream."

"Chocolate or vanilla?"

"Both."

"You got it."

I told Cherry and Danel to make sure they were armed, and we left for Crossgrove about ten minutes later.