The stars are too far.
We fell from the sky,
To the harsh earth below.
Too late we learned
Of the monsters above.
We lost and we wept,
But could not surrender.
Through tears and blood,
We built hearth anew.
The price of our hope,
Is vigil eternal.
The stars are too far.
Bela Vista, Planet Seguro
Morning brought soreness and pain. The beating from the day before wasn’t as bad as Safira had been prepared for. Despite her more dire expectations, the blow to the face had made it puffy and swollen. The punch to the ribs had left a massive bruise that was a faint yellowish-purple, and would turn fully purple before the day was out. Her back was tight and her stomach was empty.
Safira woke at first light, and in the dim light of her refuge, she took inventory. She examined her too thin body for any more obvious injuries. She ignored the wide variety of scars that covered her skin. They were proof that she was a survivor, badges of achievement. Her long, golden-blonde hair was greasy and dirty, braided and tied with a string because she could do nothing else with it. Satisfied that she was whole and functional, she dressed swiftly.
In the desert, clothing was valuable. It kept sweat next to the body, preventing the moisture from evaporating. It protected against the dry, hot winds, and guarded the skin from the sun. Most women of Bela Vista preferred kaftans and scarves to shield themselves. That wasn’t an option for Safira. She needed to be able to move, and scavenging men’s clothing was easier, anyway. She wore cotton pants with multiple patches, and a long-sleeved blouse with faded embroidery that was tight at the neck and loose everywhere else. She topped it off with a shemagh, a huge square scarf that could be wrapped around the head and face.
Once dressed, Safira got out of her attic as swiftly as she could. Even in the relatively cooler temperatures of early morning, it was hot. It took only a few minutes to get back to her hideaway. She had just settled into her backup hammock when she heard the tell-tale sound of Tanque jumping to her roof. She spotted his familiar form as it came around the old air conditioning unit.
“Good morning,” he said with a smile. Safira smiled back, and climbed out of the hammock.
“Ready to go?” she asked.
“That’s my line!”
“Let’s go then!”
“Here, you need your energy today. Don’t worry, food is included in the cost of this. You’ll pay out of the loot we find,” said Tanque quickly to head off objections. He knew how much she clung to her independence. It was the one thing she could claim, that she was her own woman. Pride mattered the most when you had the least.
Safira nodded, and took the food package from him. She stared at it in wonder. It was a nutrition bar. She’d heard about such things, but didn’t think she’d ever see one. A full day’s calories in a single bar. Everything you needed to survive except water. She reverently tore the thin plastic package, to reveal a lumpy pale-brown bar. Safira sniffed it. It smelled faintly of sweetener.
The first bite tasted vaguely sweet. The bar was crunchy and soft at the same time, and tasted odd. The texture wasn’t familiar at all, nor was the flavors included. It didn’t matter. She finished the bar in three swift bites. Even before she finished swallowing, Tanque held out a canteen of water.
“Drink as much as you can,” he ordered. “You need to be in top form for this. We won’t make anything if I have to carry you out of the desert.”
Safira was a true survivor. She had to carefully ration her clean water so that she didn’t die of dehydration, one of her biggest survival challenges. Being offered as much water as she could drink was heavenly. Still, she knew better than to guzzle it. She took long, slow drinks of the water. It was warm, but clean. She managed about half of the canteen before her stomach gurgled and warned her to stop.
Safira marveled at the feeling she was getting from her stomach. She was full.
“Alright, let’s move. I want to get past the Bone Gulch before we stop for midday,” he said, stepping over to the other roof and moving to the ladder. Sarifa followed, a feeling of tremulous excitement growing. It was actually happening!
The trek across town was swift. The pair stayed to neutral parts of town and to main thoroughfares. These areas were patrolled by magistrates, but did not wind through the exclusive wealthy neighborhoods. Morning was busy in the city, for this was the best time to get things done. Men and women alike shopped in the markets, haggling about price and quality of food, clothing and anything else that could be bought or sold. Children ran around, playing in the relative cool of the dawn. People who had jobs walked back and forth. Delivery skimmers occasionally zoomed down out of the sky to hover over their destination, boxes and crates dropping down and lifting up their sundries.
Safira had once thrived at this time of day. When she was a child, she was small enough and fast enough to steal bits of food or the occasional coin from the vendors, and cute enough to beg for both at the street corners. Together with what her mother earned, she’d stayed well fed. It wasn’t until she hit her teenage years that the vendors became wary of her, and the more pathetic or feeble beggars earned all the coins that she had once gotten. After her mother disappeared, she’d quickly run out of options. She’d been forced to scavenge the junk fields to maintain her freedom.
Tanque plowed through the crowds, with Safira in his wake. At his size, people move aside for him without even thinking twice. It was instinctive, and made traveling far faster than if she’d gone on her own. They moved further and further away from the growing Rager gang territory and into a part of town that had once belonged to the Seven Laser Lords. Safira had avoided that part of town because they had thrived off of selling children, and word got around fast. Fortunately for pretty much everyone, a few rival gangs had worked together to wipe them out. Ever since, this area had been disputed.
That is, until now. Safira hadn’t been here in a few years, but the streets were clean and buildings were repaired. Groups of men and women in uniform patrolled, expensive slug-throwers displayed prominently on their belts. A few of them traded nods with Tanque. There were no gates or walls, but there was a clear delineation between this part of town and the rest. Occasional skimmers flew overhead, lending a sense of progress to the air.
“Welcome to the Tutelum Comitatus,” said Tanque.
“What is that? The outfit that gave you the real gig?” Safira couldn’t stop staring. This was what a healthy city was supposed to look like. There were still bars on the windows, but doors stood propped open and neighbors chatted casually in the street. There was no suspicion, no fear.
“Yeah, they’ve taken over this part of town. I think they want to take over the whole thing, but I haven’t been there long enough to learn anything,” said Tanque.
They walked on until they got to a large warehouse. People bustled in and out, and two skimmers sat in a loading dock. Tanque led her through a side door and over to a desk that was off to the side of the large, open bay. Crawlers moved back and forth, their six wheels squealing on the cement floor as they moved their heavy loads.
The desk was empty, but Tanque pointed at a smaller cargo crawler next to the desk. It was piled with empty crates, neatly strapped down and covered with a sand-colored tarp. Tanque popped open the small front cargo area, to reveal two large water canisters, easily three or four days worth of nutrition bars, and a slug-thrower on a belt. He pulled out the belt and strapped it on.
“I’m just borrowing the slug-thrower,” he said apologetically. “Perk of the gig.”
“Good,” said Safira. “Otherwise, it was coming out of your half, not mine.”
“Can’t be too safe. Let’s move.”
For the first time in months, if not longer, Safira left the city without looking over her shoulder. Well, not anymore than her paranoia demanded of her, anyway. The Tutelum Comitatus controlled territory included the area around one of the city exits out of the sand wall, making leaving a breeze.
Tanque and Safira marched ahead of the crawler, eyes sharp for anyone who might try to approach. The gangs let ‘their’ scavengers out into the junk fields, in return for a piece of the profit. Sometimes they even sent along protection. These affiliated scavengers rarely made it out of the city this early, however. They would be long gone before the bigger crews were working.
Their brisk pace ate up the kilometers. Safira looked back at Bela Vista. The city was just as ugly from far away. The dull, sand-colored buildings were squat and plain, blocky chunks of squat construction that rarely went above three or four floors in height. There was no architectural style, no beauty or grace to it. It was built to withstand the desert; no more, no less.
The junk fields technically started at the edge of the city. Bela Vista had been founded not long after the vast wasteland of debris was located, two centuries ago. An ancient battle, an epic fight that had somehow come down to the surface between a small Old Imperial force and a much larger Coalition fleet of warships had come to its conclusion here. Time and the Long Fall had happened between then and now, and the ever-shifting sands of the desert buried and uncovered parts of the field constantly. The planet Seguro had only been reinhabited three centuries ago, and Bela Vista was scarcely half that old.
The endless erosion of wind, sand and heat destroyed anything left out for long, making Bela Vista look far older than its founding. The fact that it was a jumped up scavenging camp did little to help it. The corpists who had resettled Seguro cared little for what happened there. They just wanted the ancient treasures from the sands, hoping to glean some lost bit of knowledge from the ruins.
By mid-morning, the sun blasted down and the temperature had risen dramatically. Tanque and Safira made sure to keep sipping at the canteens full of water, but the water gave no refreshment. It was every bit as hot as the air around them. The heat reflected off of the sand and stone, the city no longer visible from where they were. Safira kept checking their position against the Spike, a tall, thin mesa in the distance that was tall enough to use for bearings.
By late morning, both Tanque and Safira had ground down to a slow walk. The wind had picked up, adding to the discomfort. Every inch of skin that could be covered was covered; they wore their shemagh’s over their mouth and nose, hands were tucked into the billowing sleeves of their shirts, and sand blew into every crevice it could enter.
“There! A quarter-kilometer ahead! The Bone Gulch!” said Safira energetically. This was their rest point, and they’d made excellent time. The Bone Gulch was named because the rock walls of the deep gulch were bone white. Rumor had it that some of the gangs would dump their enemies here, but Safira didn’t believe it. Too many bodies were found just outside the city walls for that to be true. It was also rumored to have a lot of good junk at the bottom, but it was far too dangerous for them to check it out. The only safe way to do it would be to journey several days along the edge of the gulch to get to its end, and walk back in the long way. All told it would be two or three weeks of surviving the desert, which she and Tanque were not equipped to do.
Fortunately for them, and for anyone who wanted to do a long run into the junk fields, there was a wide, natural stone bridge over the Bone Gulch. Safira and Tanque pressed on, crossing the Bone Gulch before moving a considerable distance to one side. If someone else crossed, they didn’t want to be spotted.
Tanque stopped the crawler and popped open a side panel. He pulled out a wide solar panel, and propped it up with the built in leg. He repeated the action on the other side. While he did that, Safira pulled a large tarp from the back panel, and two collapsible posts. She tied one side of the tarp to the crawler, then used the posts to create a lean-to that was open on two sides. She kicked sand over the hanging edge of the tarp to secure it against the wind. She gratefully crawled into the shelter, which was already a few degrees cooler from the shade.
Tanque came in a few seconds later, carrying two collapsible chairs. Safira looked at him strangely. “You brought chairs?”
He shrugged. “Came with the crawler. They fold out with a headrest.”
Safira wasn’t going to complain. This trip was already more than she’d hoped for. The good part of the junk field was ahead of them. Now, during the hottest part of the day, was time to rest. She wasted no time in taking off her shemagh and sipping some water, before dropping down into one of the chairs. She let her head lean back into the headrest, and dozed off.
Several hours later, Safira woke with a start. A bad dream haunted the back of her mind, but she couldn’t remember the details. Tanque was already awake, sipping at his canteen. When he saw she was awake, he gave her a soft smile. Still dazed from her dream, Safira felt comforted by his presence. She smiled back.
The afternoon went by as swiftly as the morning. The worst heat of the day was behind them, and scarcely an hour into the trek, Safira spotted a piece of metal. They walked over to it, and with a few kicks revealed a wing panel. It was nothing but metal, with no electronics or mechanisms, so they left it where they found it. But it was a promising start.
By late afternoon, the Bone Gulch was far behind them. They’d gone at a thirty degree angle from the Gulch, hoping that this bearing would be different enough that, with a bit of distance, they’d hit a good find. Their strategy seemed to be a good one. They began to find random small bits of exotic materials, broken components, and interesting pieces.
Something caught Safira’s eye, but she couldn’t quite say what it was. She studied the spot for a few minutes as they trudged along, but whatever she noticed was no longer visible. It nagged at her. Finally, she patted Tanque on the arm and pointed.
“I want to look over there,” she said.
“Why? There isn’t anything there.”
“I don’t know. Weird feeling.” She felt embarrassed for suggesting it, and knew she’d feel even worse if they wasted their time. But it wasn’t as if they’d found anything great on their current heading.
Tanque dutifully altered course, and the crawler followed him. Safira lead the way to the spot that bothered her. It turned out to be a shallow ravine, no more than four or five feet deep. At the bottom was a window. The wind had blown the sand off just enough for it to be visible. Safira must have seen light reflecting off of it for a mere second.
“Wow, now that is something,” said Tanque. “Let me get a rope.”
Safira nodded, transfixed by the object in the ravine. When Tanque returned, he quickly looped the rope around her waist. She grasped it with one hand, then nimbly climbed down the steep slope to the bottom.
“It’s safe!” she called. “Come on down!”
By the time Tanque joined her, Safira was already peering through the glass. Through it, she could see a shattered cockpit of some type of fighter craft. It didn’t have any of the symbols that indicated a Coalition ship. Her heart began to beat faster. This could really be something.
“How are we going to get in?” she asked.
“I think we need to pry out the glass. I don’t think we can break it.”
Working together, they brushed away the sand until they found an edge. It didn’t take long to find the other edges from there. The glass was part of a canopy, but half of the cockpit below the canopy was sheared away. Working together, the pair managed to lift the canopy just as the sun began to set.
Too excited to sleep, Tanque brought the crawler closer, and aimed one of its headlamps down to illuminate their dig, while Safira crawled down and began to inventory the find. Her excitement continued to climb, the longer she was in there. There was most of a console panel, a bunch of random broken bits with wires and gears, and what looked to be the top of a helmet poking out.
Working together, Safira and Tanque carefully pried out the console panel. Behind it was a wealth of electronics. Safira doubted any of them would ever function again, but a mostly complete piece like this was one of the richest prizes one could find. When it was finally free, they used the canopy as a jury-rigged pallet, then used the crawler to pull it out of the ravine.
Finally, they laid it carefully to rest at the bottom of the crawler’s cargo bed. Tanque knocked two sides out of a few crates, then flipped them over on top of it to make a shelter and to hide it from view. Meanwhile, Safira poked away at the helmet buried next to them. After a few brushes of sand, she realized it was not a helmet. It was an armor pauldron, meant to protect the shoulder.
It took only a few minutes of digging before she had enough revealed to get a good grip. She grabbed on and pulled. At first, the pauldron didn’t want to move. It took a few minutes of tugging before it gave way suddenly. She pulled up the chestplate and one arm as she fell backwards. Safira caught herself before she hit her head on the frame that had held the canopy glass.
When she looked down, she realized that it wasn’t just a piece of armor. The pilot was still in that armor. The head was missing, and the chest plate was broken open. The arm she freed had a fancy bracer hanging loosely from the bones of the forearm. She gave a short shriek of surprise, before catching herself. It was just old bones.
“Safira? Are you okay?” came the worried call from Tanque.
“I’m fine! Just surprised!” she shouted back.
She could hear him scrambling down the ravine slope, but her eyes were on the broken chest plate. A gleaming gem was on the ribcage, just sitting there. It was blood red and shaped in a long hexagon, tapered to a point on the top and bottom.
“Wow, that is beautiful!” said Tanque. “You should keep it.”
“Why?” said Safira even as she grabbed it. “We should sell it. I bet it’s worth something.”
“It’s just an empty energy core,” said Tanque dismissively. “They aren’t worth a thing. No one can figure out how they worked, or how they charged. It’s Old Imperium tech, though, which means the console panel alone will pay for this trip and give us a nice profit.”
Safira looked at the gem once more, then stuffed it in a small pouch on her belt. He was right, it was pretty. Maybe she’d keep it as a memento of this trip. Tanque picked up the bracer, shaking the pilot’s bones out of it.
“Amazing that this stuff survived,” he said, before tossing the bracer to her.
She looked it over. It appeared to be made of leather, and its workmanship was remarkable, but it was otherwise unremarkable. Safira slid it on her arm. It fit overtop her concealed Corruption Blade nicely, without interfering with it. But she didn’t really need armor. She took it off and tossed it back to Tanque.
“Maybe someone will want some Old Imperium armor.”
Tanque shrugged. “It’s not like we don’t have the room. If we find something better, we can throw it out.”
With the two of them working, it didn’t take long to unearth the rest of the armor. Two pauldrons, the shattered breastplate, a backplate, and neckguard. There was nothing else, and the head was still missing. Safira figured it was with the other half of the cockpit, wherever that wound up.
“I’m ready to call it for tonight,” said Safira. “I’m a bit hungry.”
“I could eat,” said Tanque.
After making camp and eating, Tanque leaned back in his chair and regarded Safira in the light of the safety lamp hanging on the back of the crawler. All other lights had been turned off, leaving only the dim amber glow of the lamp. Safira noticed his gaze.
“Nothing, it’s just, I wanted to talk to you.”
“Okay,” said Safira slowly.
“I talked to my boss at the Tetelum Comitas last night. About you. He’s willing to talk to you, maybe hire you for a real gig,” he said. Tanque held up his hands to forestall an argument. “I know you like your freedom, but this isn’t a gang. There’s a thin line between freedom and starvation.”
Safira sighed heavily, unwilling to argue. He wasn’t wrong. “I’ve been riding that line for a long time.”
“You don’t have to, you know. I’m saving to rent a place in Tutelum territory. It’s expensive. But if there were two of us to share the cost, it wouldn’t be to bad, would it?”
Safira’s heart lurched. She’d known, probably for awhile, that Tanque was interested in her. A strong part of her railed against this perceived encroachment on her freedom. She’d fought to remain above the gangs and to avoid prostituting herself for so long, she couldn’t even fathom not needing to do that anymore. But she was tired of being hungry, tired of being alone. Tanque had never done anything against her.
She felt the hidden knife against her wrist, remembering a past scavenging trip where the two of them had gone to the junk fields. Tanque had found two of them, but offered them both to her. He had insisted she have something to protect herself with. Safira had refused, taking only one as her due. She’d almost sold it once, but had managed to earn some coin and buy food in time. Since then, she never even considered selling it. Now it was a reminder of yet another time that Tanque had proven himself. How many times did she really need?
“I think… that might be a really good idea,” she said slowly. She waited for the panic to set in, the worry that she’d made the wrong call, but it never came.
“You do?” said Tanque in disbelief, followed by, “you do! Great! Well, when we get back, we’ll get it all squared away. It’ll be great, you’ll see. I’m glad. Wow, I’m rambling. So many words. Shit.”
Safira leaned over and put a finger on his lips, the most intimate contact they’d ever had. She kissed his cheek. “You’re always so good to me, Tanque. Come on, let’s get some sleep. I want to start heading back in the morning.”
That night Tanque settled onto the ground next to her, a respectful distance away. Safira closed the distance, snuggling up to him. Nights in the desert were cold.
“I’m chilly,” she said by way of excuse.
“No excuses needed, you’re welcome to snuggle any time.”
Bio: I live on the coast of Virginia with my wife and daughter, where we enjoy hiking and camping. I am a lifelong reader and occasional writer who has decided to start sharing my work. Writing for me is recreation, what I do instead of watching endlessly repetitive reality tv or derivative shows. I joined RoyalRoad so that I can have a place for feedback to improve my writing, and in return I will be posting something every week.