Lorie paces around, turning to each person in our circle. “That’s why I believe the essence of our way is openness,” she says.
I fight to hold back a yawn. According to the last eight hours of discussion, the essence of the Desideratum is belief, vigilance, honesty, devotion, modesty, charity… and now openness. Can its essence be all those things at once? I don’t think so.
If only the essence was brevity.
“An interesting concept, novitiate,” says the Revered Priestess. “Openness is necessary, to be sure. But how can we show people our way without a foundation of belief from which to begin?”
I gaze upward, to the stars. This could take a while.
Evening fell hours ago, and the firebugs zipping through the sky chirp their constant chorus. At least our studies will be nearly complete after our Day of Expression. All that’s left are our initiation missions. The only question is, what will I do on mine?
Lorie’s going to visit the monastery on Novadeen and learn from the Novadic monks, since she’s so open to other schools. Aeric and Delled will travel the Brasteron Path, teaching the children there our ways.
I have plenty of options, but none feel right. Shouldn’t my mission have more personal meaning?
“Novitiate Keelah!” calls the Revered Priestess.
I snap to attention.
“What do you think about Lorie’s advocacy for openness?”
I’ve barely heard a word of it.
“I… I’m open to it,” I say.
The novitiates snicker. I guess I deserve that.
The Revered Priestess smiles, rising to her feet. “We can continue this discussion another day. Novitiates, you are dismissed.”
We all stand, waiting respectfully for the Revered Priestess to leave. The second she’s gone, most of the girls break out in laughter and cheers, hugging each other and joining hands to dance. Despite my fatigue, I watch, letting their genuine joy lift my lips in a smile. I may not know what I can do to help the galaxy, but they’ll be devoted servants to our way, and to people in need.
I just wish I had their belief.
“Hey, Keelah,” Lorie says as I turn to leave. “Would it have killed you to listen to our expressions? We listened to yours.”
“Sorry,” I mumble, cheeks blushing. “I didn’t mean any offense. I was tired.”
Lorie rolls her eyes. “Maybe you should have been open to a little tea at dinner,” she snaps. “You’re so lucky. If any of us said something so stupid to the Revered Priestess, we’d be disciplined for a week.”
I can’t help scoffing. “I think I could tolerate the punishment of attending one fewer Desideratum class each day.”
The other girls collectively gasp. I shouldn’t have said that, but novitiates shock so easily. It’s hard to resist after a day like this.
“Sorry,” I say again. “I didn’t ask to m—” I pause. “I didn’t ask the Revered Priestess to turn the conversation to me during your expression,” I finish. “And if anything, what I said supported your expression!”
“What?” Lorie squeals. “No it didn’t! You weren’t listening to me at all! The point of openness is to…”
All I want to do is turn around and walk away, right as she’s talking. She’d be so angry, I can’t help enjoying the mental image of her turning red as a ripe tomav. Instead, I pretend to listen for the second time, nodding and making eye contact even though my mind has strayed from Desideratum to tomav soup, hot and steaming with a wedge of thickbread.
“Do you get it now?” Lorie asks when she’s done.
“Yes,” I lie. So much for openness. Sometimes I wonder if I’m really supposed to be a priestess. “Very insightful. Please, excuse me.”
I leave for real now, heading for the cloister’s cafeteria. However, as I wander down the warm, opulently decorated halls of our order’s ancient home, I stop at the reliquary.
Lit only by candle sconces on the walls, the small, cool room seems to dance with flickering shadows. Infusers spread the subtle, earthy scent of farris root. Four tombs in a row take up most of the space, but a small, silver box rests on a podium at the center.
“Hi, Niona,” I say, lowering myself to my knees. “I’m sorry I haven’t visited in a while. Studies have been intense. I miss you, though.”
A breeze slips through the open window, tossing the light around.
“I can’t believe you’ve been gone for almost four years,” I say, doing the math. I’m twenty-two now, and Niona passed after my second study year. “It feels like so long ago, but it still hurts not having you here. I could really use your wisdom and clarity right now.”
I close my eyes and breathe deeply, recalling the time she chaperoned the Harvest Dance. The boys from the farming communities were all so handsome and muscular, and the girls and I were too nervous to talk to them. I wanted to dance with one so badly—a boy I can barely remember except for his charming, toothy smile. Niona told me to go to him, but how could I? They were supposed to come to us. I couldn’t do it.
In retrospect, they were probably nervous too, seeing us mysterious novitiates in our pearlescent priestess gowns—not even for a formal dance would we wear something different. They probably had no idea how to approach us.
When Niona saw the boys were just joking around with each other, while we novitiates were whispering in each other’s ears, she turned the music so loud none of us could hear anything else. When we still couldn’t get over our nerves, she ambled onto the dance floor and pretended to fall. All of us flew to her to help, but before we could give her a hand, she sprang up and grabbed one of the boys.
If the lot of you don’t dance, I’m going to keep falling down!
She wouldn’t let go of that boy until they’d cut across the dance floor twice. Niona got everyone out there, and we ended up having a wonderful time together. At the end of the night I asked her what she would have done if no one came to help her.
I knew someone would. People will overcome their fear to do the right thing. Sometimes they don’t know what that is until you help them see it.
“Keelah,” says the Revered Priestess through the communicator on my wrist. “Please come see me.”
“I’ll be there soon,” I reply.
Countless memories of Niona swirl in my mind as I make my way. She always knew what to say, and how to get through to me instead of making me roll my eyes. She would have helped me think of a meaningful mission. She always used to tell me about the villages on Favrastis where she made peace between the local gangs—a dangerous mission, but one that called to her.
My only regret is having to leave, she would often say.
That’s what I want—a mission so profound it lives in my heart forever, one that takes me to a place I’d love to call home. One that—
Actually… Maybe that’s it. But it wouldn’t be allowed, would it?
“Revered Priestess,” I say as I enter her chambers, followed by a bow.
“There’s no need for that,” she says, motioning for me to sit with her on the meditation dais. “You can call me mother, here in private.”
“I don’t want to make a mistake in front of the others,” I say, kneeling on the richly carpeted platform. We both face straight ahead. A tapestry hangs all around the circular chamber, depicting through glyphs the ancient origins of our order.
“They all know it,” Mother says. “What would it matter? Never mind, I think I understand. You don’t want to remind them.”
“Yes.” At least she gets it.
“You did well this morning,” says Mother. “Your expression was very well informed.”
That was the idea, of course. As the Revered Priestess’s daughter, my expression couldn’t be substandard. I’d never live down the embarrassment—nor would she. For a moment, I expect her to elaborate on her response or launch a critique, but she doesn’t.
“I’d like to talk to you about your mission,” she says at last.
I nod, turning to her.
“I think I have an idea.”
“That’s wonderful!” Mother replies, relief smoothing the creases around her eyes. “What is it?”
“Please, I literally just thought of it. I haven’t taken much time to consider it. For all I know it could be terrible.”
Mother gets up and paces, her hands held behind her back. “How do you feel about this idea? Explore it.”
I take a deep breath.
A jungle world, barely civilized. Practically lawless. Black markets, frequent conflict, substance abuse. It’s the last place in the galaxy for a priestess of the Order—but that didn’t stop Niona. They loved her, just like everyone who met her. Maybe they’ll like me? We already have something in common. And if they knew why I’d come…
Isn’t it what Niona would want? It wouldn’t be the same as if she were alive, but wouldn’t she be glad? I’d like to think so.
“I want to do it,” I say at last. “I want to lay Niona’s remains to rest on Favrastis.”
Mother stops walking and stares at me for a time. “Where did this idea come from?”
I explain to her about Niona’s sole regret. I don’t have to remind her how much Niona meant to me. When I finish, Mother ruminates on the proposal, resuming her pacing and nodding to herself. “Your desire to honor your elder is commendable,” she says. “Niona would be proud.”
I shoot up to my feet. “You’ll allow it?”
“I have reservations,” Mother says, sighing. “Niona’s ashes should remain here, with the Order. She worked for a few years on Favrastis, but the Order was her home, just as it is mine and yours.”
“Favrastis was her home,” I argue. “Spiritually. It’s where she found herself. Would she have become the priestess we all admired without her experiences there? She wanted to return someday. You know she did.”
“Yes,” she whispers. “This is true.”
Mother takes my hands, turning them over in her palms. They’re steady.
“You’re certain, Keelah?”
“Then I’ll allow it.”
I nearly knock her over with my hug. She laughs, regaining her balance, and rubs my back.
“You’re going to make Niona very proud,” she says. “And me, too.”
“It’ll be an honor. But… are you sure I’m ready?”
She lets go of me and looks up at the mural on the ceiling, a depiction of the gods living through the stars in our galaxy. “Novitiates never think they’re ready for their mission. You’re no exception. Don’t worry. The mission wouldn’t be meaningful if it wasn’t a challenge.”
“Thank you,” I say, blinking away a tear. “Thank you.”
Mother pats my shoulder, then walks me to her chamber door. “Go rest, Keelah. Tomorrow you’ll begin preparing for the journey. And in less than a week, you’ll be on your way.”
I go, but only to lie in bed. There’s no way I’ll sleep tonight.
Tomorrow I’ll enter a short training program for novitiates leaving on their missions: rudimentary wilderness survival skills, basic self-defense lessons, essential customs and greetings for the galaxy’s major species… it’ll be intense. At the end we’ll celebrate with a goodbye dinner—and then I’ll be on my own, for the first time in my life. I’ll have some discretionary spending money, and an emergency fund, but no one will be around to tell me how to make my way.
But, that’s the point—it’s supposed to be a mission, not an errand. Honoring Niona is worth going to a dangerous world like Favrastis. I should be terrified, but I couldn’t be more excited.
The human bartender grimaces as he passes me my fifth glass of thogg ale. I get it: thogg ale is super cheap and it stinks. I’m taking up a seat at the bar and have been for hours, occasionally laughing like a lunatic. He’s thinking, if this weirdo gets too drunk, he’ll be a huge pain in the ass to drag out of here.
That should be the least of his worries.
Ugly as sin and not talkative, he glares at me every time he passes by. The crowd is starting to thin out, which is the only way to be sure it’s getting late. Light fixtures hanging from the ceiling cast a feeble glow; panels on the floor glimmer so that we don’t trip. Most of the bar’s illumination comes from vidscreens for the bot races. The cacophony thins with each departing patron, and individual conversations sharpen in my ears.
They said the money would be better. But now I’m under contract, so what am I supposed to do?
So I said to her, “Either get on your knees or you can sleep in the airlock.”
I can get you a discount. High-quality jajarka meat with oiny spice, just say Haloritix sent you.
That one I’ll have to remember. Sounds delicious.
Don’t worry, she’s not going anywhere. And if Daddy doesn’t pay, we’ll find someone who will.
There it is. This is the place.
I polish off my drink, waiting for the last of the randos to finish theirs and leave. It’s been long enough since last call.
Here we go.
The humans discussing the girl occupy a booth in the corner; I stagger and lurch my way over, a big, dopey grin on my mug.
“Hey, my guys!” I say, slurring a little. “What you guys talking about?”
All four turn to me, daggers in their eyes. They’re middle-aged humans, judging by the streaks of gray in their thick beards. Heavyset more than muscular, they look ready to put up a good fight. Bulges under their shirts at the hips suggest they’re armed—as expected.
“Fuck off, rat,” says the one closest to me. There are scabs on his lips, as if he’s already taken a shot recently. “Bar’s closing.”
“Shit. It’s… shit. It is?” I mutter. “Hey, let’s go to another. I’ll get… the first round. On me, guys.”
The shortest of the men gets up from the booth, forcing me to take a step back. That’s fine, it makes me seem scared.
“You smell like ass. Get the fuck out now,” he says.
“That’s the thogg,” I reply, grinning. “I’ll get you one, it’s not bad… after the first one.”
“Hey,” says Lips, getting up too. His hand drifts to his waist. “Are you fucking stupid or something? Get the fuck out, now.”
“Okay, okay, I will. Just, I was supposed to find a girl.”
The goons laugh.
“Yeah, well you struck out,” says Shorty. “Better luck next time.”
I squint at them, then nod in comprehension. “No, no. Not any girl. I’m here for the girl.”
The other two men scoot toward the ends of the booth, but Shorty and Lips block them from standing up.
“The fuck did you say?” Shorty asks.
“The girl.” I scan the bar, taking in who’s still here. These four, the bartender, and two lizardlike Vassa hissing at each other at the bar. They could be a problem. There’s one other human, but he runs for the door when he sees me looking. “He said she’d be here, told me to pick her up.”
“Who told you?” says Lips.
“Her dad. Paid me to get her.”
They laugh again, but their body language softens: shoulders drop down, chests draw inward as they exhale.
Shorty smiles. He says, “She’s here. You got the money?”
“I’m about to.”
I close my eyes. Moving my fingers against my palm in sequence sets off the flashbang on my belt, releasing a brilliant surge of light that fills the entire bar. The goons scream, covering their eyes. When the light fades, my optic masking system deactivates, and I draw my pistol and fire. Superheated plasma burns through Shorty’s sternum. My next shot catches Lips in the neck.
The other two goons draw their guns, but they’re still blinded and seated; they don’t see me duck, and their shots hit the wall on the other side of the bar. I pump two rounds into each of them, then spin to the others.
All three of them rub their eyes, blinking rapidly. When their vision clears, they see me: not a drunk human, an armed Aktaraka mercenary.
The two Vassa goons rush me. I fire on them, sizzling their scales, but they don’t stop.
They knock me down, sending my gun sliding across the floor. I scissor my legs, kicking them in their shins, then leap up to my feet again. In the corner of my eye, the bartender drops down, hiding behind the bar.
“You’re dead, Aktaraka!” hisses one of the Vassa. He—I think it’s a he—rubs his shin, then whips his long tail against the floor.
“You should run,” I warn them.
They laugh and charge. This time I’m ready. They’re big and tough, but slow. They caught me by surprise before; they won’t again. I dodge one and punch the other with enough force to drop him to the ground. Stomping his tail earns an ear-splitting shriek and a crunch of bone. Vassa might have dense scales, but their insides are squishy.
My body becomes a cyclone of dodges and punches, with the occasional tenderizing kick. The Vassa keep coming, shrieking when I bust an arm or tail. They’re too slow to outflank me. My blood pumps with fire and joy. Electricity tingles through my fists, my hard, bronze skin bruised by the scales, but I don’t even feel the pain. When the Vassa finally have enough, they lash their tails at me from the floor, refusing to fully concede.
Drunk on adrenaline, I retrieve my gun.
“Good fight, guys,” I tell them on the way to the bar.
I fire off a warning shot into a tap, releasing a spray of foaming ale into the air.
“Throw out your gun and stand up slowly.”
A sonic shotgun rises, held by the barrel, fingers away from the trigger; the bartender sets it on the bar and slides it away, then comes into view. He keeps his hands raised.
“You can have the girl,” he says. “She’s upstairs. Just take her and go, Aktaraka.”
I should probably shoot him. He’s scum. But this is a planet full of scum.
“Gimme the cash,” I say, keeping my gun leveled at his chest. “And I’ll let you live.”
“Asshole,” he mumbles.
The girl, Ulia, lies on a cot, her hands crossed over her chest.
“Dad send you?” she asks.
Sighing, she gets up. “It’s about time.”
She complains all the way back to my ship, so I leave her in the empty cargo hold. She bangs on the bulkheads, shouting something at the security cam. Thankfully, it’s a relatively short hyperjump to Ivlic—only a few hours. Galactic Sovereignty locks onto my ship the second I come out of the jump.
“Vessel Cortra, state your business,” a bored Sovereignty officer says through the com.
“This is Captain Degan Cor,” I respond. “I am escorting a passenger whose presence is requested on the planet.”
“Whatever. Are you carrying any contraband on your vessel?”
“Only the best for the fine people of Ivlic.”
“Just say ‘no,’ Degan. Please? Now I have to fill out an extra form.”
I chuckle. That’s too bad. “No, nothing this time. Just a passenger.”
“Scans confirm one human aboard, one Aktaraka. You may proceed, Cortra.”
“Thank you, thank you.”
Ivlic City sparkles below me, white spires rising into the blue sky, with verdant green fields stretching on forever toward the horizon. Silvery ships like chrome slivers sail through the sky in orderly lanes; barges hover in the air, small cities unto themselves. Thousands of high-end merchants make a killing selling overpriced antiquities and delicacies to rich movers and shakers—and if I wasn’t so useful to them, they wouldn’t let me set foot on their fancy planet at all.
Ulia’s father meets me at the spaceport. I drag the kid out of the cargo haul and let go as her father runs to hug her.
“Thank you, Captain Cor,” he says. “Thank you so much.”
“You’re welcome,” I reply, tapping my holstered pistol. “But we’re not quite done.”
He nods, tapping his wrist tablet. After a moment, an alert shows on my eyepiece: BANK TRANSFER RECEIVED.
“Great, thanks so much.” To Ulia I add, “You just cost your dad a small fortune. You could thank him.”
“Eat shit,” she mutters as her father drags her back to his ship.
Wow. No appreciation whatsoever. I just saved her damn life. Sure, Daddy could have paid the ransom, but why do that when he could hire me at half the price? He gets his kid back, and the gangs know not to go near her again. It’s a win-win.
I whistle as I check my new account balance. I’m in Ivlic City—I could take in the Galactic Circus, or go clubbing. I could buy a few bottles of the finest Ivlican sugar liquor and show the humans how an Aktaraka stomachs alcohol. And to be honest, I really want to tell a few other mercs about beating two Vassa goons at once.
However, before I take two steps, my com trills with an unidentified encrypted caller reaching me on my direct line.
Interesting. Not just anyone can reach me this way.
“This is Captain Degan Cor,” I answer, making my way to the spaceport exit. “Who’s this?”
“Captain Cor, my name’s Japh. I’m calling on behalf of a client who would like to hire you. Is it correct that you’re available to take on a new contract?”
What, did they tap my bank? I’d be mad if this wasn’t certain to be an opportunity to make another fortune.
“That depends. Who’s your client?”
I pause at a stall offering luxury apparel from a host of planets—all of it very expensive, considering they’re made with reflective microweave fibers. Perfect for a high-profile target who doesn’t want to miss out on a night of Ivlic City revelry. They even have sizes suitable for an Aktaraka.
“You haven’t worked for my client yet,” says Japh.
No, of course not. They could be anybody, and that means an unknown level of risk.
“I’ll require an in-person meeting before I consider—”
“I’m afraid that’s impossible,” Japh interrupts. “But you will be compensated accordingly.”
Nope. That sucks. “Sorry, Japh. I’m not taking a dangerous job from a client I don’t know and have never worked for. That’s a pretty important rule of mine.”
“It’s not a dangerous job, Captain. In fact, it’ll be simultaneously the easiest job you’ve ever had and the highest paid.”
A link to an escrow account arrives on my eyepiece. When I open it, I stop in my tracks. The number hovering in front of my eyes would last me the rest of my life—and not just if I’m frugal. I could do whatever I want for a very, very long time.
“Let’s just say I’m interested. What’s the job?”
“Steal a parcel from a young woman and bring it back,” says Japh.
It can’t be that simple. It just can’t be. Not for that amount of money.
“Who’s the woman?”
“A priestess of the Order.”
A good disguise. No one would suspect her.
“Sure, of course. But who is she really?” I ask. “Private courier? A thief? A derby berserker?”
“I’m told she’s of no threat to a trained mercenary like yourself.”
I grin, shaking my head. Flattery. Well, he’s not likely wrong.
“Why hire me?” I ask. I should have broken the connection long ago, but it’s too late for that now.
“Because my client wanted the best in the business. They don’t want the girl harmed, and money is of no consequence to them.”
Yeah, no kidding.
“Get the parcel and bring it back. That’s it?”
“That’s it, Captain Cor.”
There’s no way. He’s lying to me—or conveying a lie. This is tempting—too tempting—but there are too many unknowns.
“I’m sorry, Japh, but I have to decline.”
He sighs loud enough to come through his connection.
“I understand. I am aware of your hesitation to take a job under such circumstances. You can think it over, you have a couple days. Though, I am obliged to inform you we’ll be offering the job to your competitors…”
“Of course, I understand.”
“…including Captain Matuv.”
My hand tightens into a fist, and my sneer makes a young human in my path start to cry.
Whoever these fuckers are, they really know me.
“Japh, tell your client I’ll take the job.”