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Starbursts and Shadows : the Obligatory Derelict Ship Episode 

There was a small town about four miles from where we had landed, and we stopped there to rent a land vehicle. After that, it was about an hour's drive into Crossgrove. I tried not to think about what would happen when we got there. I was going to get an engineer and get out. That was all. No confrontation with anyone for any reason. Yeah, right.

We went to the Wheel first. It was always a good place to start. At that time of day, shortly before lunch, it was pretty dead. A group of Vinny's thugs were at a corner table. Another man sat at one end of the bar with his hands around a glass that he didn't seem too interested in drinking. Chills erupted over my scalp when I saw him. He looked weird. He wore a long black leather coat and a black hat pulled low over his eyes. His blood red hair hung just past his shoulders in a thick ponytail. He didn't look up when we came in, so I decided to say nothing.

Britt Fawley was rubbing the bar down with a towel for probably the hundredth time that day though he'd had no more customers than were inside at that moment. He stopped rubbing and looked up when we walked in. "Oh my God does Vinny know you're here?" he blurted when saw me.

I laughed. Not that I felt like laughing. It just seemed like something I would do in any other situation. "If he didn't before, he does now," I said.

"You're lucky he's not here right now."

"Where is he?"

"At the fair."

"Oh, good. He's busy then."

"What the hell are you doing here? You didn't come back here to get in a fight with him, did you?"

"No. Why the hell would I do that?"

"You seemed to have a good reason last time you were in here."

"My ship's not running. I need an engineer. Are there any around?"

"I don't know. Business is slow because of the fair. Besides, they don't stick around any more. Pilots and engineers both. They're either working for the Empire or the pirates. There's no money in hanging around waiting for a ship to break down like there used to be."

"Great. So now you're gonna tell me I should go to the fair to find an engineer."

"That's the best place to look right now."

"Thanks."

As we turned to go, the man at the bar raised his head slightly. I saw Britt cringe. The man drained the glass, and the ice cubes in the drink turned to steam as they touched his lips. He stood up and tossed a coin to Britt. Britt caught it and stared at it.

"Hey, what the hell is this? This isn't money," Britt said.

"I'll take it back from you if you'd like."

"What is it?"

"Gold. Specifically, it's a gold dollar minted in Denver in 2001. In the Empire's shitty economy, that dollar is worth about a thousand of whatever currency your emperor decided to name after himself. If that's not enough, I have a platinum dollar minted in 2108. I think in Richmond. The Philadelphia mint burned down by then."

"No, this is fine. Just fine, thanks. Um, have a nice day?"

Rune tipped his hat at Britt and grinned. He turned to us and said, "You're late."

"Late for what?" Cherry asked. "Who the hell are you? Talon, do you know him?"

"If seeing someone in your dreams counts as knowing them, then yeah," I said. "This is Rune."

Rune shook Cherry's hand. "You must be Cherry," he said. Then he shook Danel's hand. "And you're Danel. That's weird. I've never met someone face to face who looked exactly the way they did in someone else's head."

"Oh?" Danel asked. "And what do you think that means?"

"That either Talon's perceptions of people are inhumanly clear or I'm just as crazy as he is."

"I'm leaning towards the latter."

We stepped outside. Rune flinched in the glare of the high noon sun and pulled his hat lower over his eyes.

"Aren't you hot in all that leather?" Cherry asked.

"No."

"But the sun seems to bother you," Danel said.

"My eyes have been a little sensitive lately. Anyway, I expected you to come into town at least three days ago."

"I was being stubborn," I said.

"That's too bad. There was a good engineer here for the fair, but she left yesterday. Little odd, but somehow I don't think you'd mind."

"It's a prerequisite for being a member of my crew. So what are you doing here?"

"Waiting for you. What else would I be doing here? Junket hasn't been interesting in years. This is just the first chance I've had to catch up to you."

"Well, plan on sticking around for a while. I've got lots of questions. And you better have some answers."

"I don't think they're answers. Clues maybe. I ran out of answers a very long time ago."

"Close enough."

The fair in Crossgrove happened every three months. It was a strange mix of games, food, art, freak shows and assorted merchants. It was a good place to buy weapons at dirt-cheap prices, and sometimes, it was a good place to make contacts. I'd used it more than once with varying results. The most successful, or maybe the least successful, of which was Petrine. Not that I ever made a habit of paying for sex. It was her eyes.

We walked through the rows of stalls with their colorful awnings and sometimes even more colorful vendors. I kept looking for any sign of an engineer and felt more and more like we'd never get off Junket.

"This is fucking impossible," I said.

"You give up too easily," Danel said.

"What the hell am I supposed to do? Just start yelling for an engineer?"

Danel shrugged. "It's more than you've been doing."

"Okay, so then Vinny would know exactly where I am."

"And then we'll kill him," Cherry said.

"No. No we won't. That's just a very bad idea."

"I'll do it for you," Rune said.

"What? Kill Vinny? I don't think so."

"I try not to kill people any more. It's addictive."

"I'm already not sure I like you very much. Please don't make it harder for yourself."

Rune turned his head to look at me and grimaced as the sun hit his face. The skin around his eyes was red and blistered as if he'd been burned, and his all black eyes were a little cloudy. Pus and blood gathered along the rims of his eyes.

"What the fuck happened to you?" I asked.

"It's nothing. My vision isn't damaged. It's not too clear, but it's good enough."

"Yeah, but what happened?"

"I ran into a kid."

"And how did that burn your eyes?"

"He was running away from something, and he just panicked. He had some kind of weapon. It went off with a really bright flash, and then he was gone. I didn't see what was after him."

"When did it happen?"

"This morning."

"What did the kid look like?"

"Utterly terrified. That was about all I had time to notice. And he smelled like death."

"I had a vision about him yesterday. He didn't get away from what was chasing him."

"Don't worry about it too much. I doubt you could save him. At least not easily."

"Someone needs to do something."

"Maybe it's not your place to save him."

"Why the hell shouldn't I do something? They're gonna kill him."

"Things die. People die. Maybe his death stops millions of others."

"And maybe not."

"Don't interfere with that which you don't understand."

I was about to do something stupid when he stepped up onto a stall and called out, "Are there any engineers for hire? I need a good engineer for a good ship. It pays well. Come on! Don't be shy! I know there's an engineer out there somewhere who needs something to do."

The vendor swatted at his legs and hissed at him to get down. People moved slowly away. Danel whispered in my ear, "Don't turn around. Vinny's coming."

"Fuck," I said.

While Rune ignored the vendor and continued to shout like a carnival barker for an engineer, Danel and Cherry tried to maneuver me through the thinning crowd so that Vinny wouldn't see me. But Rune was making people nervous, and they were clearing out quickly. When the path was empty, a kid with long black hair in a messy braid was standing in front of Rune and Vinny Vea was standing about fifteen feet in front of me.

Vinny's mouth was twisted into an evil scowl. I tried to concentrate on the thin scars across his cheeks, but all I could see was Petrine raking her fingers across his face as he tried to pin her down. The cold spiders came in a rush and faded as I shook them off. But I stumbled anyway. Danel and Cherry kept me from falling.

"So you're back," Vinny said.

"And I'm so glad to see you here," I said. "I missed you so much."

He drew a revolver and fired. The bullet slammed into my left shoulder and knocked all three of us down. Cherry scrambled to her feet and drew her laser pistol. Vinny laughed as tears poured down her cheeks. She fired but the shot went wide. Vinny laughed again and was about to fire at her when a whip cracked across his hand. He dropped the gun. Before he could turn to face Rune, the whip snaked around Vinny's neck, yanking him backwards into Rune's arms. Rune put a knife to Vinny's throat. The blade flashed and sparked. I got to my feet, leaning heavily on Danel. The wound in my shoulder throbbed and burned and slowly went numb.

"That was very rude of you," Rune said.

"Who the fuck are you? Let go of me. I'm gonna kill him first. I'll deal with you later."

"I'm sorry. It doesn't work that way. I'm the one with the knife to your throat."

"Let him go, Rune," I said.

I was surprised that Rune didn't argue. He stepped away from Vinny and made no move to stop Vinny from retrieving his gun.

"Talon, what are you doing?" Danel asked.

"I'm putting an end to this for good," I said.

"You're putting an end to yourself is what you're doing."

"An end is an end."

Rune leaned up against the corner of an empty stall and lit a cigarette that came out of thin air. "I can still get him from here," he said.

Vinny cast a nervous glance in his direction.

The kid had pulled something from his backpack and was taking small cautious steps towards Vinny.

"Is what you told me in the dream the other night true?" I asked Rune.

"I don't know. What did I tell you?"

"That when I use all three, I put a hole in the universe."

He thought for a second then said, "Your dreams aren't always prophetic nor are your visions always accurate. That sounds to me like fear."

Before I could think of anything to say or anything to try, the kid tapped Vinny on the shoulder. Vinny spun around. The kid flinched as Vinny's gun came around, then he held a small spherical object up towards Vinny's eyes. It went off with a bright flash, and Vinny dropped to the ground screaming and covering his eyes. The gun hit the dirt and went off. The kid's eyes got big and then he shouted, "That fucking hurts!"

The bullet had struck his ankle.

"I think it's time to be going now," Danel said. Some of Vinny's thugs had finally realized that something was going on and were running up.

"I agree," Rune said.

That was the last I remembered at the fair. Some time later, we were back in the parking deck where we'd left the land vehicle we'd rented. "We can't leave yet," I said as they were piling me and the kid into the vehicle. "I promised Regan I'd get her ice cream."

"We might as well get something other than mushrooms," Cherry said.

"We need to get them back to the ship," Danel said.

"I'm fine," the kid said and propped his ankle up on my stomach.

"Ow," I said. "Watch where you put that thing."

"Sorry."

Rune sighed. "I can tell already that this isn't a crew that makes decisions easily," he said.

"If we had anything resembling a captain or some kind of leader, we'd be fine," Danel said.

"It works the way it is," I said.

"Sometimes."

"All right, listen. One of you take these two back to the ship. They're not bleeding, so they're not in danger. But they don't need to wait. One of you stay with me, and we'll get food and ice cream. Once the invalids are dropped off, come back here to pick us up," Rune said.

"This is my crew. Don't give them orders," I said.

"You shut the hell up. You're in no condition to do anything right now."

"What are you, some kind of general or something?"

"I used to be the leader of my very own terrorist organization. So who's driving and who's shopping?"

"A terrorist?" the kid asked.

"It's a long story."

"I don't know how to drive," Cherry said.

"Okay. Danel, I hope you're not going to tell me you can't drive either."

Danel shook his head. "I got it," he said.

"Great. Take your time. Don't bounce them around too much. That could reopen the wounds."

Danel nodded and slid into the driver's seat.

"Chocolate and vanilla," I said to Cherry when she leaned down to kiss me.

She smiled. "I know," she said.

"And be careful."

"I'll be fine."

It might have been a bumpy ride. I don't remember. I remember the kid's leg across my stomach. I remember looking up at the sky and seeing the distant form of a bird wheeling above us. I pointed to the bird and mumbled, "That's Peter."

The kid followed my arm. "Yeah? And I guess you got names for the rest of the clouds, too, huh?" he said.

"That's Rune's bird."

"You're hallucinating. There's nothing there."

My arm felt like it weighed a ton, but I couldn't seem to put it down. "It's there," I said.

The kid pushed my arm down. "Chill. You're gonna fucking hurt yourself."

"Watch your mouth."

"What?"

"You can say it all the time when you turn eighteen."

"Okay, you're totally fucked. I'm not talking to you any more." He turned his head and shoved his hair behind his ears.

"You've got pointed ears," I said.

He leaned forward. "Hey, can you drive faster? Your brother's brain is turning to goo," he said to Danel.

"Both of you please shut up," Danel said.

The next thing I remembered was ice and Anala's hand holding a cold cloth against my head. I didn't move or try to speak for a long time. I didn't really feel the cold. I just knew it was cold. I could feel ice cubes in the water. I could feel my skin turning blue.

Heavy footsteps approached the bathroom. "How is he?" I heard Rune ask softly.

"Getting better, I think," Anala said.

"We need to move soon. They're starting to look. I know I was seen."

"We can't move him now."

"We don't have a choice."

"One more day."

"Half a day."

"Rune, it could kill him."

"They will kill him. They'll kill us all. It's better to take this risk than sit here and wait for them. We've already lost too many people. I'm not losing any more." His voice trembled, and I wondered what he meant. Who had been lost? What the fuck was going on?

I opened my eyes. Everything I saw was covered in a thick red haze. I could make out dark shapes in the haze, and I could tell when they moved.

Pain jolted through my shoulder, and I sat up. There was no ice. There was no red haze. The bullet wound was healed but my shoulder was still a little stiff. My head throbbed once then cleared. I'd grown to hate the visions that came in dreams. I was always unsure of them, and that made me unsure of myself. I never gave myself time to try to figure out those kinds of visions. I knew that if I did, I wouldn't like what they had to show me.

I got dressed and made my way to the galley and other places I thought people might be. I was pleased to find the cabinets well stocked again and even more pleased to have a cup of coffee that didn't taste like mushrooms. But the galley was empty. So I sat there with my coffee and let the thought of seeing through a haze of red disturb me.

Regan ran in with a strange toy in her hands. "Daddy, Daddy! Watch this!" She got in a chair on her knees and set the toy down on the table. She pressed a button on the top of it. It started to spin and wobble. It spun faster then little flaps opened along its surface, revealing patches of bright colors and flashing lights. It lifted off the table half an inch, sprouted eight thin mechanical legs, set down again then skittered off the edge of the table where it proceeded to thrash its legs and flap its flaps in futile attempts to right itself.

"It doesn't work right, but isn't it neat? Duncan made it," Regan said. "He made a bunch of stuff."

"Duncan?"

"With the pointy ears."

"Oh."

"Daddy, is he gonna fix the ship?"

"I hope so."

"What if he doesn't?"

"He will."

Regan slid down off the chair and picked up the mechanical toy. Before she ran back outside, she looked at me over her shoulder. Her eyes were full of blood. "Make it stop," she whispered. Cold chills washed over me. I shook my head. Regan was sprinting back out, shouting for Duncan to give her more toys.

I sat there for a few more minutes. Something had happened to my power when the demon attacked us. I couldn't tell if the demon had caused it or if the attack merely acted as a catalyst. It felt like part of my vision was permanently in whatever state I was in when Shaman showed me things, sort of like the place I was in when I talked to the spirits in the tunnel at the Falkenberg estate. But I couldn't make it stop if I didn't know what it was.

I grabbed the hat I had found and went outside. Cherry and Anala had gone to the hot spring. Duncan was sitting on the ground pulling various things out of his backpack and handing them to Regan who looked both delighted and uncertain. Danel, Dylan and Rune were watching them. Danel looked up at me. "Well, it's about time you got up," he said.

"Fuck you. I got shot. That hurt," I said.

"And that entitles you to sleep all day?"

"Sure."

"We need to hurry up and get the hell out of here. It won't take Vinny too long to figure out where we are."

"He knows already," Rune said. "Peter saw him and about seven thugs headed this way last night. They stopped in that little village and haven't moved yet. One of them is psychic or at least sensitive. They know something isn't right. I don't think they'll get any closer."

"I'm not worried about Vinny," I said. "I'll take care of him later." I handed the hat the Rune. "What do you make of this?"

He looked over it for a second. His eyes were getting worse. "Shit, he's a Yankees fan," he said.

"A what?" Danel asked.

"New York Yankees."

"Who?"

"A baseball team that won a lot of championships."

"What planet are you from?"

"Earth."

"How the hell can you be from Earth? It's been a desert for over two thousand years."

"And a good thing, too. I was this close to blowing it all up."

"You're insane."

"No, just very old and still so full of angst."

Danel rolled his eyes and turned away. Dylan snickered.

"What, you don't believe me?"

"How old are you exactly?" I asked.

"3207."

"Then you aren't human," Danel said.

"What tipped me off?"

"What are you?"

"It's a long story. Short version, I'm made out of something older than the universe itself, created by a greedy little bastard who thought he could use me to destroy his enemies, and well, I just wasn't having any of that, so I killed him and you know, that's not really the short version. I'm not going to eat you or do anything else weird if that's what you're worried about. Human flesh is just too fatty."

"Talon, are you sure about having him on the ship?"

I shrugged. "No. But he's the closest thing I have to an encyclopedia of psychic stars, so he stays. If he fucks up, he goes out the airlock."

"That wouldn't kill me," Rune said.

"No, but it'd get you off my ship."

"Good point." A cigarette appeared in his mouth out of thin air, and he lit it with his fingertip. He flinched against the momentary flame.

"Why don't you let Anala heal your eyes?"

"That'd be a really bad idea."

"Can we stop talking and get the ship fixed?" Dylan asked. "The air is twitching again."

I turned around to look at Duncan. He lifted his head, his eyes wide. Then Cherry screamed.

I ran towards the hot spring with both guns drawn, the others not far behind. Cherry was sitting on the ground with a towel wrapped around her. She was shaking. Anala was drying herself off quickly in case she needed to use her lightning.

"What the fuck just happened?" I asked.

"There was something in the water," Cherry gasped. "It grabbed my ankle and tried to pull me down."

I sat down next to Cherry and put my arms around her.

"I don't see anything," Anala said.

"It's gone now," Dylan said. He glared at Duncan.

"What? I didn't do anything," Duncan said.

"It's coming after you. What is it, and how do I kill it?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"You're lying," Rune said.

"Fuck you."

Rune grabbed the front of Duncan's shirt with one hand and lifted him off the ground. "Whatever this thing is, it wants you dead," he said. "If you want anyone standing here right now to help you, you need to tell us what exactly is going on. Otherwise, you get to stay here and wait for it to come back for you."

Duncan wrapped his hands around Rune's wrists and tried to pull himself out of Rune's grip. "It can't come through," he said. "I put a seal over the door. If it breaks the seal, it'll take a long time. Now fucking let go of me."

Rune shrugged and let Duncan drop to the ground.

"Asshole!"

"I've been called worse. By the way, the Yankees were a fraud." He pulled the hat out of his back pocket and tossed it to Duncan.

"Yeah? Well well so are you!"

Rune smirked and walked away but not without taking a second glance at Anala, who hadn't bothered to cover herself with her towel. Her cheeks turned red.

"I think that's about enough drama for one day," I said. "Let's get this ship fixed and get the fuck out of here."

"Finally," Danel said.

"What about the thing in the water?" Cherry asked.

"I'm all for leaving it the fuck alone especially if it isn't gonna show up any time soon," I said.

Duncan stood up. "It's not," he said. He shoved the hat on his head, tucking his ears underneath it and walked away.

"That kid really bothers me," Danel said. "Come on, Regan, let's go." He picked her up. She had her fingers in her mouth, a sure sign that she was afraid of something.

"Dylan, do you mind staying out here and making sure nothing comes near us? Not things out of the water or another demon or Vinny and his thugs," I said.

Dylan nodded.

"Was he staring at me?" Anala asked quietly.

Cherry laughed. "He was checking you out, all right," she said.

Anala's face got redder.

"He's cute. You should be flattered."

"But I'm I'm a woman of God."

"He would probably be more than happy to help you reaffirm your faith."

"Cherry! That's awful. I would never let something like that happen. Unless he was my husband."

No one really minded being told to stay on the ship after that.

For the most part, I watched Duncan work and tried to ask him where he was from. He said Boston and refused to say any more. His arms and shoulders were covered with small thin scars, as if he'd been very carefully opened and carefully closed up again. There was a bruise on his left arm in the center of which was tiny round wound. It was exactly where I'd seen him get pierced in the vision. I couldn't shake the feeling that there was something bad about him and that I knew what it was. I just couldn't remember. I'd seen him before in a vision or a dream, but I couldn't remember anything beyond that. And I knew he was scared to death.

"Fuck me," I heard him say when he finally got to the major damage.

We'd repaired all the little things along the way except the more cosmetic damage. Blue Ava's Angel had almost stopped crying. She liked Duncan. His hands soothed her. It's probably a little melodramatic to say that there was something magical about his skill, but it was magical. And not just figuratively.

He turned his head to me. "What did this?" he asked. He sounded angry, as if he couldn't believe someone would harm a ship that way.

"Pirates," I said.

"What the hell kinda pirates can do this?"

"They're the same pirates they always were. They're going to different arms dealers now."

"It's magic! How the hell are they getting magic? They shouldn't even be able to handle it."

"Can you fix it?"

"Of course I can fucking fix it. And I can make sure it doesn't do this much damage ever again."

"Once we're off this planet, I'm going to do what I can to put a stop to shit like this."

"Good, 'cause this is fucking nasty shit. Hand me my backpack."

I did. He rummaged around in it for a second and pulled out something that looked like a very complicated metal box. "What is that?" I asked. I was expecting another terse answer that wasn't really an answer, but the only subjects he wanted to talk about openly were the things he made.

"It's really just a box, based on ancient Chinese puzzle boxes. It's got an ass-ton of hidden compartments, and it'll hold a lot more than it looks like it'll hold. This one's got spaces that hold raw magic and insulation against bad magic. So I can draw off what the pirates put here and hold it. Then I can either convert it to good magic and use it or let it go, or I can simply hold the bad stuff forever. Technically, I could use the bad stuff again. But bad magic tends to get worse when it's reused like that. So, what I'm gonna do is convert it and use it to make a barrier here. Hopefully, that'll keep the damage to a minimum next time you get hit and possibly repel demons. Yeah, I can still feel that. You were lucky."

"Duncan, what exactly are you? You're not human. You're not any kind of alien I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot. And before you cuss me out for getting in your business, I'm not prying. I'm curious."

He didn't answer for a while and slowly opened a compartment in the box. "Kihaku," he said eventually.

"Ki-what?"

"Kihaku. I guess you might call me an elf or fairy or something like that. Kihaku are used to be the ruling race in Texas until the Akurei decided they didn't like that very much. I'm the last of my kind."

"Why didn't you tell me that before? That would have made it a lot easier for me to take you on as a crew member."

"Yeah, I know, but I didn't think you'd believe me."

"Come on. It's not like I've never come across weird things before. Where is Texas, by the way?"

"Underneath Junket."

"Excuse me?"

"Underneath like another layer but not in the same place. I mean, if you drilled through Junket, you'd get the usual rocks and sediment and oil and molten core bullshit. But you'd go through Texas, too, and unless you could see things like that, you'd never know. You'd see it. You see this, right?" He pointed at the mass of magic energy around the damaged engine.

"Sort of. Not clearly, but I know it's there."

"That's what Texas would be like to you."

I didn't know what to say. I couldn't imagine the things he'd probably seen happen to his people, and I knew horrible things had been done to him. It made me even more anxious to get off Junket. "Let's get this engine running," I said.

He nodded. He reached his hands into the membrane of magic and started to pull it into a thin cord that he fed into the box. When it was all gone, he pushed the compartment shut, rotated the box clockwise, turned it upside down and rotated it counterclockwise. Then he picked it up and shook it. "It'll be ready by the time we get the engine repaired," he said. He cocked his head and smiled faintly.

"She's not crying any more. She's happy now."

"She likes you. So don't fuck up and make me have to shove you out of the airlock."

Half an hour later, the engine was fixed, and Duncan had placed the protective magic around it. Half an hour after that, we were off Junket. We celebrated by jettisoning any mushrooms that were left over and eating a big meal that had no mushroom dishes.