“Sofia Abril,” said the doctor as he swiped a silver stylus across the screen of the slim metallic device he was partially resting on his left forearm. Her eyes slightly widened, then narrowed. Her last recollection was of taking a pill in her room, yet now she was reclining on a cushioned hospital chair in a sterile white room wherein the lights were now dimming. Along the walls were tall, pale blue streaks where the room’s heavy curtains failed to fully eclipse the outside sunlight, overhead were circular orange ceiling lights, glowing like embers.

“Is it morning?” she asked weakly. The doctor stopped walking and glanced at her over the top of the rims of his glasses, clearly startled by her inquiry.

“Indeed it is. Good morning.”

“What happened?” Dr. Maer paused, lifting his attention to her.

“Well, we took a ride here to the hospital and operated on your broken arm. It should be fully healed within a few days. Your confusion is typical after a surgery of this nature. It will all come back to you, give it time.” She lifted her hand to her head, realizing only after the fact it was her left arm she had raised.

“Thank you, but I need to be getting back to Busco’s,”

“Of course. Your servant is waiting just outside of the hospital, ready to escort you back.” The doctor opened the door and a blinding blue light poured in from the hallway. In the doorway he was a mere silhouette, a dark figure gesturing to her to stand. As she did so the room’s own lights began to lighten, revealing his kind features.

“Farewell; I’ll check on you in a few days,” She nodded and continued forward, down the hallway, passed the hospital lobby, and out into the cool morning where Andrea was shivering.

“Are you ready to return to the manor?” She nodded.

“Where’s the car?”

“Oh - sorry - Vehicles aren’t allowed to remain parked outside of the hospital; I can go get it if you’d like it only takes a few minutes to walk there,”

“Let’s walk then,” she said with a smile. Andrea smiled in relief and began down the steps. Busco’s manor was visible from the hospital’s entrance, across the vast and crowded plaza that the people of this planet called a street. The roads here were nothing like she had known on Marsonovo; like nothing she had seen on Earth. . .

When the two reached the main street it was so crowded that she had to follow behind Andrea rather than at his side, and she was struggling to match his pace. Several people were always within the distance of an outstretched arm, walking without end like the flow of some great river. Among the many faces she saw one which gave her pause, a familiar visage seen only for a single moment, then lost among the crowd. She stopped and Andrea continued forward, vanishing as well among the horde. She felt then an awful claustrophobia as hundreds of faceless figures seemed to pour past her, and in the distance, drowned to the din of the city she heard voices calling her name.

Then, suddenly, someone grabbed her right arm - just above the elbow.

“Oh, Andrea, you startled me.” she said, relaxing.

“Sorry,” he said flatly. “Please try to keep up,” She nodded and followed him to the manor, forgetting for the moment the face she had seen. Once they had climbed the hundred marble steps they found Busco waiting for them, standing before the open doors of the manor with his arms outstretched toward the pair. A couple of his followers stood behind him in the shadow of the doorway, peering cautiously at the encounter.

“Welcome back,” he said with a flourish. “How are you feeling?” He took a step forward to intercept their approach, and glanced for a moment past them, down and around the tall marble staircase and its adjacent grassy platforms whereupon various residents of the manor were picnicking and enjoying the warm weather.

“I’m fine,” she said, with an ease and honesty that had not accompanied those two words since her arrival.

“That’s good to hear.” In one fluid motion Busco pivoted so that he was now shoulder to shoulder with Sofia, walking her back into the manor. “By the way, I checked in on your ship while you were away,”

“Oh? Any news?” He nodded and cleared his throat.

“Fortunately any physical damage to the ship has been repaired, but unfortunately the engine damage you sustained rendered a majority of your fuel inert. The engineer I spoke with said you were lucky to have even landed here.” He paused, unable to discern any emotion from her expression. “I took it upon myself to contact the Emperor about acquiring more fuel for your ship, and I received a message this morning stating she was considering the offer.”

“The emperor? I appreciate the effort, but I was planning on simply buying the fuel.” Even Busco could sense that she did not appreciate the effort. His brow furrowed.

“You’d have a pretty hard time buying fuel here; there are no refineries.”

“None? How does anyone leave the planet?” she was shocked.

“Most people don’t,” Busco replied nonchalantly, “And anyone who can afford a starship, the imperial estate, the Confederation Police, the--” he stopped himself, but the momentum of the censored word continued in the form of a low, momentary growl at the back of his throat. He continued, “They can all afford to import fuel from off-planet.”

The manor doors closed and pale shadow flooded the room, kept at bay only by the array of chandeliers.

“By the way,” said Busco, “there’s a feast in three days.”


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