Flight of the Kikayon

The alien skies of Jannah IV stretch above me, infinite as time itself. This is day six hundred forty seven since the Kikayon's departure, but no one will come for me because no one knows I am missing. Well, no one but Cara.

It is an hour before dawn, and I am standing on the beach fantasizing about bread. Dreaming about the warm, yeasty aroma, the crisp surrender of the crust under my teeth and the yielding whiteness inside. I imagine dinner rolls torn in half and filled with melting butter, then licking my finger to dab runaway crumbs from the tablecloth. Pungent sourdough. Crusty baguettes. Small, sweet loaves dark with molasses.

I turn over a lump of seaweed to reveal sand fleas bigger than my thumb. I've learned to crack their shells with my teeth and suck out the insides. They are cold, slimy, and nothing like bread. When the sand fleas are gone, I slurp down some of the velvet kelp fronds, grumbling over their fishy stink. I spit grains of sand and look to the sky.

The edge of the horizon glows an incandescent pink against a cloudless, indigo heaven.

I shield my eyes with my hand. My once-manicured fingernails are splitting and caked with grime after my breakfast.

The coming heat warms my palm, and my eyes water in anticipation of the harsh light. The planet's twin suns will rise soon, and I must return to my cave to wait for the next dark.

On the sandbar some four hundred meters distant, the Kikayon's looted airskiff lies mired like a mastodon in a tar pit.

Squinting into the foredawn, I turn away from the water's edge. My bare feet leave footprints where the sand is wet, then shallow craters where it's dry. The trail ahead of me is hard to see in the gray light, but my feet know every rock and root from two years of nightly pilgrimage.

I gave the tissue sample to make Cara nearly seven years ago. With that amount of time to plan, you'd think I might have done a better job. If not for the accident, I'd be on Cirrus now, probably sipping a glass of wine at a cocktail party.

It wasn't difficult to get Cara onto the luxury liner. She was, after all, identical to me in every respect, from her wavy, brown hair, to her habit of averting her eyes when she laughed, to the spirals of her DNA.

Cara units were the latest fad among the ultra-wealthy. "Anam Cara," the slogan went, "because your children deserve you." Why bring a stranger into your home when ANAM—Allied Neuro Associates Multicorp—could create a duplicate mother in just a few months?

With an ANAM clone, celebrity and socialite mothers could lunch with the Ladies' FTL Auxiliary while Cara took the children to the park, and all the paparazzi would see was a doting mother on an outing with her children. For a million credits more, Cara could carry a couple's child, sparing the mother the inconveniences of pregnancy just as she would later spare her the inconvenience of childcare.

As ANAM's owner, my husband, Donnie, named them all Cara. He insisted that the first one would be ours, a replica of me.

****

I pause in the shade of a makeshift shelter at the base of a rock spire, running my hands over Cara's empty stasis capsule. I touch a button to open the windowed hatch in its white, egg-like surface. The repulsors couldn't handle the steep climb into the dye-smugglers' cave, but I am glad I kept it intact. Early on, I'd considered cannibalizing the upholstery, tubing and other components, but sentimentality stayed my hand.

Cara was delivered to us in that capsule, her naked body curled fetally around a four-month belly and locked in a sleep-like state that Donnie or I could start or end with a spoken command. Cara gave birth to our daughter, Emmeline, five months later.

The secret to Cara wasn't just cloning, but an embedded neurolink that ensured obedience and a pleasant demeanor. The companion memory module allowed the mother to share Cara's experiences almost as if she'd been there. Most children couldn't tell Cara apart from their own mothers, a feature designed to remedy the problem of undignified attachment to the hired help. Cara and the real mother could never be seen together, but those logistics were no impediment to a client base accustomed to shielded limos and staff who disappeared into the servants' wing.

I climb into the capsule's padded seat to flip switches, scan readouts and check every inch of wire and tubing. I can still smell Cara's scent—lavender soap and baby lotion. My hands complete their task even though my thoughts are elsewhere. No leaks, no bubbles, connections tight, all parameters within tolerance.

Climbing out again, I caress the padding where Cara's head used to lie. It shames me now, but I hated her for the first two years of her life. Donnie took special delight in beating me while Cara was pregnant. After all, he'd sneered, it wasn't like he could hurt the baby.

Later, after Emmie was born, when Donnie's temper rendered me unfit for polite society, it was Cara who appeared on Donnie's arm with bouncing baby Emmeline held in sweet domesticity on her hip.

I knew I'd need money—lots of it—to disappear with Emmie. Donnie's reach was long, and without an escape plan in place, divorce was a ticket to a tragic accident or an unmarked grave. Fake receivables, nested holding companies, off-shore accounts. With a company as large as ANAM, it wasn't difficult to siphon off what I needed. I kept it to a trickle, but I invested that trickle and five years later, I was ready to make my move.

****

By the time I reach the mouth of Yunus's cave, the second sun has fully risen. I breathe in the moist scent as the dew evaporates. My eyes adjust in the cave's entrance. It looks much as it did when I first saw it—a small sleeping platform, vats for making the brilliant purple dye from the whelks on the rocks below, a few tools, and a case of rations, empty now but full when I'd arrived. There used to be rolls of cloth, dyed and undyed, waiting for Yunus and Mittai to carry them back to the skiff, back to the Kikayon and Tarshish Station. These I used for clothing, to pad the sleeping platform and to make bright the shelter I'd constructed over Cara's stasis capsule.  

I'd expected the purple to fade under the bite of the double suns, but somehow the color only deepened. I fashioned one of the lengths into a robe for tomorrow. I wrap it around me and head for the sleeping platform; its softness against my skin comforts me.

The cave is cool and dark. It smells of rock and water. I have seventeen hours before sunset, and I've chosen to spend them reliving Cara's memories—and perhaps a few of my own.

A blink of my eyes brings up the retinal interface for the neurolink. I've tagged my favorite memories so they're easy to find. In the first one, Cara bakes cookies with Emmie, teaching her to break the eggs without getting shell in the batter. A smile plumps my cheeks when the two begin sneaking bites from the bowl. Emmie flicks a morsel of dough at Cara. The ensuing cookie dough and tickle fight reduces them both to gasping laughter on the floor.

Their laughter floods my system with endorphins, a rush of happiness that nearly stops my breath. The neurolink syncs my biochemistry to readings from the memory. We added vasopressin in the final round of testing because it makes the memories seem real. I give in to the illusion because it allows me to feel the ghost of Emmie's ribs under my fingers when Cara tickles her.

Cara ruffles Emmie's hair and kisses a cheek gritty with butter and sugar. If I close my eyes and inhale, I can smell the vanilla extract. When this memory ends, I click through to the next, losing myself in a state more vivid than dreams.

****

Cara was a puzzle to me at first, shy and nervous in my presence but stealing adoring glances when she thought I wasn't looking. I told myself it was just the neurolink manipulating her neurotransmitters—oxytocin for bonding, serotonin, GABA and dopamine for mood—but Cara worked so hard to please that my heart softened toward her against my will.

Cara loved Emmie with every fiber of her being. It showed in her smile, in the way she held out a single finger for Emmie's chubby fist to grasp when the two walked in the park. Yet I dismissed her feelings for me as ghosts in the machine, meaningless accidents of her biochemistry. Can a neurotransmitter compel love? It makes no sense to me now, but I believed it at the time.

Donnie must have spent a fortune in bribes to persuade the food and drug authority that Cara's sentience was illusory, an artifact of the mother's consciousness amplified through the neurolink. Home movies and tissue grown in the lab, he'd said, no more intelligence than an organ transplant. Legally speaking, Cara was intellectual property with no identiscan and no status as a person.

****

It was Donnie who suggested the round-the-'verse cruise.

Time-dilation meant we'd be gone for two years Earth-time. I couldn't believe he'd leave ANAM for that long. Friends of ours had gone, so I assumed it was a status thing. You leave on a six-month cruise and when you return, tanned and relaxed, your investments have had more than two years to mature.

Donnie wanted to leave Emmie and Cara behind. He said he wanted the cruise to be just the two of us, a chance to heal and reconnect.

I refused. I didn't trust him, and I couldn't imagine leaving Emmie for that long. We fought about it bitterly.

Looking back, I should have suspected, should have noticed that something was different. It was the first fight where Donnie gave in instead of securing my acquiescence with his fists. What I didn't know was that his capitulation meant he'd decided to have Cara recycled.

Two weeks before our departure, Donnie ordered her into her stasis capsule to be returned to ANAM. There was childcare on the ship, and with us gone for two years, he treated Cara like one more thing to be boxed up and put in storage.

She came to me weeping.  "Lydia! Lydia, he's sending me back."

"Only while we're gone, I'm sure. You won't even notice it."

"He said recycling . . ."

I looked at her tear-filled eyes, so like my own. "Cara, I think we can help each other."

And that's what started the chain of events that left me marooned on this alien shore.

I cringe now, but we'd been trained to think of the Cara units as things; not people, and having her aboard the ship made my escape plan easier.

The deal I offered her was simple. I promised to save her from recycling if she would take my place with Donnie. From that moment forward, she was complicit in my every move. I persuaded Donnie to let me keep Cara until we left for the ship. It would make packing easier, I told him, if I didn't have Emmie underfoot all day.

Working in secret, Cara and I studied the route of the luxury liner, looking for a place to swap out the neurolinks. Exchanging the devices would give my identity to Cara and render me a non-person. The neurolinks communicated via the 'net, sending a continuous stream of data to each other and to ANAM, as well. If a unit went silent, it would trigger an alert at ANAM and send a message to Donnie—both of which would be lost if it happened while transiting net-dead space.  

We found what we needed at Tarshish Station in the Ghazi system.

"Cara, look!" I read the listing aloud to her. "Ghazi system. Luddite interdict; religious. Tourism prohibited on all planets, up to and including immediate execution for atmospheric incursions on Jannah IV, the system's uninhabited water planet. Restrictions broadcast from Tarshish Station, the system's only known technological center. Populated by citizens exiled for blasphemy, Tarshish Station is a refueling stop known for expansive views of Jannah IV and locally-produced holovids of New Makkah and other prohibited territories."

Cara peered at the listing over my shoulder. "Luddite; religious—proto-Amish?"

I squinted at the names and tapped the screen for details. "No, looks like Quranic."

"They have a beacon," said Cara. "That's not netless space."

"It says here the beacon is broadcast-only. All communication with Tarshish must be made via sub-space radio."

****

I spent the next several days in the lab at ANAM, practicing with neurolinks. Donnie liked it when I made myself useful, as he called it, and I enjoyed using the neuroscience degree I'd put aside after marrying. Cara spent the days with Emmie, and the evenings with me shopping and packing for the trip. We couldn't be seen together, so we used the holographic dressing room in the privacy of Cara's quarters instead of shopping in the stores.

I let Cara select much of what we would wear. After all, the clothes would be hers when I left so she might as well like them. Her taste was different than mine, fluttering hemlines and softer colors. It was an odd feeling watching her try on dress after dress. Odd, but pleasant. It reminded me of sleepovers and shopping with my mother as a child. It was the happiest I'd felt in years.

Donnie seemed to have no idea what we were up to, and he probably mistook my sunny disposition for excitement over the cruise.

****

Cara's stasis capsule went aboard as luggage, empty to avoid the ship's bioscanners, sealed in a crate and classified as a medical device. Cara, bare-headed and smiling, boarded on Donnie's arm holding Emmie by the hand. Security took photos and DNA, both of which matched up perfectly with my I.D.

I boarded forty-five minutes later, out of breath and clutching my wide-brimmed hat as if I'd been hurrying. My palm on the DNA scanner triggered a warning chime.

The ship's security officers eyed me. One of them walked over.

"Madame. . .?" he started.

"Lydia Braconte," I finished. Since we were penthouse guests, he would've been briefed on our names. "I left my hat in the VIP lounge."

The man squinted at his datapad. A tap of his finger summoned Cara's boarding photo, hatless and smiling. His eyes flitted to the hat in my hands.

"I'm terribly sorry, Mrs. Braconte. Passenger control did not log your departure properly. Welcome aboard, again."

****

I'd booked an extra cabin on one of the lower decks for additional storage. It became a secret haven where Cara and I met like conspirators in thriller vids. Cara stayed inside most of the day to avoid showing up on security cams. While I slept at night, she came to eat and explore the ship. At her request, I stayed hidden in the cabin myself every so often so she could have time with Emmie.

I still hadn't decided what to do about Emmie. I couldn't bear the thought of leaving her with Donnie, but a nagging thought had been building in the back of my head. It gnawed at me every time I saw Emmie through Cara's neurolink. What if the best person to take care of Emmie was Cara?

I prodded this thought over and over in the back of my mind. I was still prodding it on the day we entered the Ghazi system, six weeks into the voyage.

****

Donnie seemed so different on the ship. Relaxed, gentler, funnier, like the Donnie I'd known and loved in grad school, before ANAM, before anger and violence turned him into someone I no longer recognized.

We'd had honeymoons like this before, when he'd promise me that things would be different.

This change seemed too sudden, too contrived. I wondered if the cruise was a set-up to get rid of me. If I missed the Ghazi window, I wouldn't get another opportunity.

I decided to go through with the switch.

I'd booked an all-day spa appointment during the port call at Tarshish Station. The ship would be nearly empty, and the Ghazi holovids didn't interest me. Switching the neurolinks did. Cara arrived first, hiding herself inside the sensory deprivation tank I'd reserved. I wandered past the desk a few moments later, claiming I'd taken a wrong turn the first time.

I entered the treatment room and changed into the spa's fluffy robe and slippers. We hadn't even started when I heard a commotion in the hallway and an insistent knock on the door.

"Ma'am? Ma'am Lydia?" came an apologetic female voice. "Your husband . . ."

I closed the lid on the sensory deprivation tank, hiding Cara inside. I opened the door a crack.

Donnie barged inside, an excited smile on his face. "Shore excursion in an hour. Sport fishing! Be dressed and ready."

Sport fishing? On a space station? It made no sense, and Donnie was screwing with my plans.

"I'm booked here for the next six hours," I told him. "You can tell me about it when you get back."

When I turned to close the door, Donnie grabbed my arm, his face millimeters from my own.

"You're my goddamn wife, and you'll do—" Donnie blinked and shook himself. His fingers loosened on my arm. He took a halting breath, then continued. "It's a surprise, Lydia, for you. Please join me?" He leaned in to kiss my cheek, but I pulled away and closed the door between us.

I breathed in slowly. It was an old habit, counting each breath until the trembling stopped.

One. 

Down the hall, I could hear him telling the spa girls to rebook me.

Two.

I rubbed my arm, gingerly pressing where his fingers had been. Tender, but no bruises. This time. 

Three.

The latch on the sense dep tank clicked, and the lid raised by a tiny fraction. I pushed it closed again.

Four.

A hesitant knock at the door. A timid voice asked if ma'am was free on Wednesday. 

Five.

"Wednesday is fine," I called. "I'll be out as soon as I change." The steadiness of my voice surprised me.

I locked the door and popped the latch on the tank.

Cara sat up, soundlessly waiting. She looked at me wide-eyed, struggling on the point of tears. She reached out abortively as if to console me.

I waved her back, and she hugged her knees to her chest. I might even have smiled. The shaking was gone but my mind raced. One hour. Sport fishing. What to do about Cara?

We switched the neurolinks. Now that I had the security codes, it was quicker than I'd expected. I wondered if I'd feel different. There was . . . something, but I didn't have time to ponder it.

While we fussed with identical buttons and zippers, I relayed my plan. She couldn't be seen aboard the ship while I was allegedly on a shore excursion—she'd have to come with us. I toyed with sending her in my place, but of course, I couldn't be seen either. She would have to travel in the stasis capsule, and I'd have to send it ahead as luggage. I assured her she could stay awake. I even gave her the unit's remote as security.

I thumbed the comlink for our cabin steward and ordered container number twenty-three delivered to my dressing room immediately. There wasn't enough time to stagger our departures by more than a few minutes. I went first, dressed in my original clothing and faking a conversation with Donnie on my smartcom. Cara followed a moment later wrapped in a bathrobe, her feet in slippers, hair in a towel and a masque of green goop covering her face.

Thirty minutes later, Cara was safely ensconced in the stasis unit, Emmie was in the ship's children's club, and I was dressed and ready for my sport fishing surprise.

****

When Donnie and I stepped off the gangway and cleared the docking tube, men in long robes crowded around us hawking jewelry, purple cloth and holovids. They plucked at our sleeves, thrusting their wares at us.

"Lady! Lady, you come. See Makkah. Very safe."

"Sir, my ship. My ship best. Liyahu give you many sons."

Ship? Why would we need a ship to watch holovids? I clung to Donnie, feeling alien and vulnerable in my shorts and boat shoes. Donnie shoved the sellers away.

"Yunus. We're with Yunus."

One of the men spat. He gabbled short syllables in his own language, and his face rendered them a curse.

A boy tugged on Donnie's shirt. "Sir! I take you. Yunus this way!"

The boy led us through the crowd, slipping like a ferret through the narrow maze of market stalls. He kept his grip on Donnie's sleeve, and we had to half-jog to keep up. After a few turns, the press of humanity thinned, giving way to echoing metal hallways punctuated by airlocks and docking tubes.

The man who waited near one of the tubes was ancient, his brown face creased like old leather under the swath of cloth that wrapped his head. His gaze flicked to my bare legs, delivering a rebuke that stung no less for being wordless.

The boy tugged on Donnie again. "This Mittai, Yunus father." The urchin bowed quickly, grabbing a proffered coin from Mittai before retreating into the echoing halls.

The old man sized Donnie up, extending one gnarled palm. "See Makkah, Lady?"

When Donnie pulled aside his jacket to reveal a wad of currency in his breast pocket, Mittai nodded and placed his palm over the scanpad for the airlock.

"What are you doing?" I whispered to Donnie. "He doesn't even have goggles." I doubted we were here for an exotic travel vid, and given Mittai's reaction to my bare legs, the docking tube led to something more chaste than a floating house of ill repute.

I lifted my chin. "Besides, whatever it is, we have to wait for the luggage."

Anger flashed in Donnie's eyes. "Luggage? It's a day trip, Lydia." His fingers tightened on my hand.

"It's just one case," I protested. "What if I need to change? You saw how they looked at me."

A muscle twitched in Donnie's jaw. He took a breath and struggled to calm himself. 

"We'll ask Yunus to send a man to get it for you," he said. Donnie let go of my hand and guided me through the airlock. His lips brushed my ear. "I saw the screen on your computer. I thought you'd like to see the ocean."

"Ocean? Jannah IV! Donnie, we can't go to Jannah IV. It's a death penalty interdict."

Donnie smiled that infuriating grin of his, the mischievous one I'd found so charming a decade ago.

"Not if we don't get caught."

****

Yunus introduced himself when we boarded. A younger version of Mittai, his bright eyes and disarming smile held a promise of adventure. The Kikayon, Yunus's ship, reminded me of the old man outside; ancient, verging on decrepit, and held together by stubbornness. The interior smelled of lubricants, spicy food and the body odors of Yunus's crew.

Yunus offered us refreshments, then led us to the ship's hold where the half-deflated balloon of an airship slouched like bread dough sagging over the edges of the pan. Donnie said what I was thinking.

"Does that thing even fly?"

Yunus laughed and clapped Donnie on the shoulder. "She will fly long after you and I are dead, my friend. If you wish to see the b'hamut, the great leviathan of the sea, this is how we go."

Leviathan? Donnie was taking us fishing . . . for sea monsters?

"How close will we get?" Donnie asked. "What about vids?"

"No vids," Yunus replied flatly. "Liyahu forbids it."

"What about off-worlders?" I asked. "Doesn't Liyahu forbid them, too?"

Donnie shot me a look.

Yunus just shrugged. He struck his breast with a fist, then made dismissive gesture with his fingers. "God," he said. "God, I love. The laws of men, not so much."

He turned to Donnie and continued. "The b'hamut, he is very large, very dangerous. He rises from the sea to take his prey. How close? Close enough to see him, but not so close that we are food for his children, eh?"

The floor vibrated under our feet, and a dull keening sound reached my ears.

Yunus turned to us with an expansive gesture. "My guests, your things have arrived and we are leaving Tarshish Station. My home is yours."

****

Two hours later, Yunus, Mittai, Donnie and I clambered into the airskiff's passenger compartment and strapped ourselves into the seats. More dirigible than spaceship, the little craft had a living area that doubled as a cockpit, two sleeping alcoves and a small hold for goods and equipment. I'd inspected the hold myself, making sure the crate that held Cara in her capsule was safely stowed amongst the nets and canisters that held Yunus's other goods.

The airskiff shook in its moorings when Kikayon pierced the upper atmosphere. The silvery skin above us still hung limp, covering the windows. Why wasn't it inflating? I lifted my voice over the din of rattles and screeches and yelled the question to Donnie.

"No room," Donnie yelled back. "It inflates after they drop us."

"After they what?"

Donnie was repeating himself when the floor dropped out of the cargo hold.

The little skiff shot from Kikayon's belly and hurtled like a rock toward the blue below.

I covered my ears, then my mouth. Only then did I realize that the high screeching sound that filled my ears was more than my own screaming.

Yunus and Mittai threw open the nozzles on the skiff's gas canisters. The silvery fabric above us rippled and billowed as it filled, slowing our descent until a soft, slow-motion bounce left us floating above the vast, blue oceans of Jannah IV.

The sight took my breath away.

The planet had no continents or large landmasses; only chains of small islands where red fingers of rock reached toward the sky. The entire curve of the horizon was nothing but water and more water, blue on blue as far as the eye could see. Ghazi's double suns painted the waves with gold.

Freeing myself from my seat, I stood entranced in the viewing area with my palms pressed against the glass. "Donnie, it's beautiful!"

Donnie sidled up behind me to slip his arm around my waist.

Yunus brought the skiff lower until we could see our shadow moving over the face of the water. A hundred meters, I thought, maybe a little more.

A thrill of excitement rippled over me.

Was this what Yunus meant? Close enough to see the b'hamut yet far enough to escape their bite?

Yunus caught my excitement. He grinned at me, pointing to our shadow below. "The b'hamut, you will see him there. Motion, direction, this means life to him, food for his belly. He will strike the shadow."

The water under our shadow rippled and went still. The ripple returned, joined by a second disturbance several feet away. The water boiled and heaved, white froth tipping the waves as something immense moved beneath the surface.

My hands had grown sweaty, so I wiped them against my shorts without taking my eyes from the window.

Yunus left the helm to stand beside me, teaching me to read serpent sign in the water below.

Donnie moved closer to the controls to watch from a different angle.

There were three serpents, now, maybe four, though none had breached the surface of the water. Then one rolling coil lifted clear of the waves. Turquoise changed to purple when the iridescent scales shimmered in the sun.

I clapped my hands like a child, my mouth agape.

A second coil followed the first, ruby-scaled and thicker than an oil drum. I saw a flash of emerald green, then a shimmer of black. Soon the water below was a great, writhing mass of glistening serpents—hundreds of them. Each one could have swallowed a man whole.

"Are there always so many?" I asked.

"It is a nest," Yunus replied.

"A nest? These are babies?"

Yunus nodded.

Donnie watched me from a few feet away, leaning against the control panel and smiling.

The skiff's shadow had grown steadily larger until it covered the entire pod of baby sea monsters. I was so absorbed in the spectacle that I didn't notice until we were close enough that I could see individual scales and trace the line of slime-covered spines along each jeweled back.

A large wave lifted the tangle of serpents, startling the young b'hamut. The water churned in an angry froth; the babies scattered and plunged beneath the sea.

Yunus lunged for Donnie and knocked him away from the helm. "Fool!" he cried. "Up, Up! The mother comes!"

The skiff shuddered when he dropped ballast and threw open the valves for the gas.

The water below us rose in white-capped peaks. A shimmer of green flashed beneath the surface, a shimmer so large the skiff could have landed on it.

Yunus strained against the controls. He shouted orders to Mittai as the little craft rocked to one side.

I grabbed for the rail, unable to look away from the water below. I judged our distance at fifty meters and rising.

The serpent's massive head skimmed under the surface of the waves. Water blurred her form.

I marveled at the vivid shades of turquoise and sea-green that mottled her sides.

Her nose lifted above the waves. Her head rose from the sea until it was level with the ship. Sea-foam dripped from her spines. She could have taken the skiff in two bites.

I stared into alien eyes slitted with a mother's rage.

Her great mouth opened. Row upon row of glistening teeth framed a maw of seashell pink. Her strike was too fast to see, a blur of motion and sound that shook the glass and rattled the skiff. She snapped us in her jaws and slammed the skiff to one side, then the other. Then she spat us out and dove beneath the waves to shield her young.

The deck pitched beneath my feet. Donnie and I slid down the floor until we crashed into the back wall. I crawled to the window where flapping shreds of silver confirmed my fear—she'd hulled the balloon.

Yunus and Mittai manned the controls. They drove the crippled skiff toward shallower water. A rock spire loomed in the distance with a yellow strip of sand curving like a chameleon's tongue in front of it.

Life jackets? None. I held onto Donnie instead. The impact when we hit drove the breath from my lungs.

****

Moonrise over the ocean of Jannah IV was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. The night was balmy, and Tarshish, nearly full, threw a cascade of silver ribbons over the surface of the waves. I wiggled my bare toes into the sand. When I'd left the crippled skiff, Mittai and Yunus had their heads together over an array of scattered charts and equipment. The skiff's walls were too close around me, and the air outside too free. If it was the last moonrise I'd ever see, I wanted to savor it.

I heard Donnie's footsteps padding over the sand behind me. I'd hoped to savor this moonrise alone, but like so many other things in my life, it wasn't to be. He sat down beside me, barefoot, khaki trousers cuffed to his calves as if this were any moonlit walk on any beach.

"Mind if I join you?" he asked.

I minded, but kept my head down and said nothing.

"This isn't how I planned it," he said, twisting a bottle into the sand between us. I recognized the vintage. It was the same sweet honey-wine we'd shared the night he proposed.

"I just wanted you to see them up close. You looked so happy. So alive." He showed me his other hand, the stems of two glasses laced between his fingers. "Join me?" 

I risked a quick look into his eyes. My breath caught at what I saw. Sadness. Regret. And something that might have been longing. He poured two glasses and handed me one.

"I'll get us out of this, Lyd. Don't worry. Yunus has a camp in a cave on the island." He nodded toward the distant rock formation. "They use it to harvest whelks to make their dyes. Yunus and I will cross over in a few hours to set a beacon from the spire."

"A beacon? Can't they radio?"

Donnie shook his head. "No radio. Tarshish will hear it. Kikayon can't land on water. We'll have to get above the surface, somewhere she can hover without attracting those monsters."

I wanted to protest, to defend the mother for protecting her young, but I knew better than to start a fight. We sipped our wine in silence.

"Four-point-seven is a lot of money, Lyd." Donnie named the exact amount I'd siphoned from ANAM's accounts.

I lunged away, spilling the honey-wine. Donnie caught my wrist and pulled me back.

One.

My world tilted until the silver-tipped waves ran up and down instead of sideways. Donnie eased me into the sand next to him. "Please, Lyd. Just listen." 

Two.

Donnie pulled my hand to the side of his head, running my fingers through the hair behind his ear. I felt a familiar shape there, hard against his skin. A neurolink.

Three.

"It took me awhile to get it right." His thumb caressed my fingers. "The neurolink, Lyd. We fixed depression. We fixed Alzheimer's. We made Cara. I knew we could fix this. Fix me."

Four.

"I tried without it, Lyd. I saw Jamie every day for six months," he said, naming the therapist from our failed attempts at marriage counseling. "When I couldn't do it on my own, she helped me tune the settings."   

Five.

"So you decide. I'll sell ANAM if you want. We can go anywhere you like, just you, me and Emmie. Keep the money. Hell, I'll give you a million more if you want it. Go to Cirrus with Emmie; I won't stop you. But, please, Lyd, give me—give us—a chance?"

Six.

Donnie pulled me close, stroking my hair with gentle hands until I lost count. Perhaps his words were no more than promises under an inconstant moon, but there on the alien sands, on a world hidden from life and time, we found in each other a place that felt like home.

****

I woke when Donnie disentangled himself from my arms. Yunus waited a few steps away. With the moon set and dawn not yet come, this was the darkest hour, the greatest chance of reaching the Kikayon by flare or beacon without attracting the b'hamut.

I closed my eyes against Donnie's chest. "Why does it have to be you?" I whispered.

"Mittai is too old to climb the spire. I promise I'll come back for you."

Yunus cracked open the survival kit, a round barrel with white, ridged sides. He tossed several small items onto the sand—rations, emergency blankets and a flare gun. Yunus wasn't interested in these. What he wanted was a crumpled mass of gray material, a life raft. He popped a latch, yanked a cord. The raft writhed and hissed while its coils filled and unfolded like a tiny version of the monster they hoped to escape.

The two men loaded themselves into the inflatable. Sand ground against the bottom when they pushed off. Their progress seemed achingly slow. Four hundred meters of open water separated us from the island. Yunus' plan was to drift with the current, saving the paddles for course correction.

We knew they were in trouble as soon as they pushed off. The current in the channel ran parallel to the shore. Unchecked, it would carry the raft past the small island and into the open ocean beyond.

The blade of Yunus' paddle glowed like a pale flame against the obsidian sea—a flame quenched while Yunus trailed it behind the boat, changing the direction of the raft instead of urging it forward.

Mittai came to stand beside me, murmuring unintelligible prayers at my side.

The raft passed the midpoint of the journey.

Hope rose in my chest. I clenched my fists against my mouth, my thumbs pressing into my lips as we watched. 

Then Donnie's shout reached us over the water. The paddles bit deeply into the waves as the men pulled for shore.

"B'hamut," Mittai whispered.

My scream joined Mittai's ululating cry when the back of the beast broke the beauty of the waves. Undulating coils rippled through the water, spines erect and glistening. The monster's back dwarfed the raft, a whale to their krill.

For the tiniest moment, we thought they might make it, might reach the safety of sand and shallow water. Then the behemoth's head rose from sea. Its great maw opened with a spray of shimmering drops, framing the spire on the distant island like a lance against the monster's throat.

The b'hamut took men and boat in one fierce snap of jaws, then plunged into the depths.

Mittai pounded his fist rhythmically against his chest, keening with the thudding of his grief. In his other hand, his dagger carved stripes of mourning into his flesh.

I felt . . . nothing. Numbness. An absent, static-filled void that left me unable to think or move.

****

The gray of dawn was creeping into the sky when Mittai touched my arm. 

"Lady." His ancient voice was little more than a broken whisper. "Lady, suns come. We go."

"Lydia," I said. "My name is Lydia."

The man stared at me; I stared back. His shirt hung in bloody ribbons, both cloth and skin scored with thin, parallel gashes then laid over with bruising. His fingers plucked at the remains of his shirt.

"For Yunus," he said, pounding the hilt of his dagger against his bloodied chest. His mouth worked until it wrapped itself around the unfamiliar syllables of my name.

"L-l-du'aa?"

It was close enough, so I nodded. "Lydia."

"Ll-du'aa." He fell to his knees, laughing and sobbing together as tears raced down his sun-creased cheeks. "L'du'aa. L'du'aa. Liyahu a'ba!"

I backed away from this strange display, certain the man had gone mad.

"Lady. L'du'aa. You stay." Mittai pushed himself upright, swayed, then steadied himself to explain. He gestured to the heavens. "Liyahu." His word for god. That much I understood. He knelt again, facing East, and bowed his head to the sand. "L'du'aa." He bowed rhythmically. "L'du'aa." 

Prayer? My name was his word for prayer?

Mittai rose. He beckoned me close, tipping my face toward the pinking dawn while he pointed. A single flashing star moved across the heavens.

"Kikayon," he said.

Not a star. His ship.

Mittai pressed the flare gun into my hands. The sky grew brighter, but maybe, just maybe, there were a few, final moments for the flare to be seen.

"L'du'aa." Mittai tugged reverently at my sleeve, urging me to kneel beside him in the sand. "Liyahu. L'du'aa." We prayed together. Mittai cupped his hands around mine, and we lifted the flare gun to the sky. I squeezed the trigger once, twice. Two graceful trails lifted into the dawn above us, prayers for two lives on the sands of a forbidden shore.

"Liyahu a'ba," we whispered together.

Satisfied, Mittai patted my shoulder as if I were a small child, waving me toward the ship. "Suns come. Sleep."

I did sleep that day, but not until I'd seen to Cara. The stasis capsule protected her from the worst of the crash. Both she and it were unharmed. I pulled her from the stasis unit and held her tight against me. I didn't have to say a word. She'd seen it all through the neurolink.

****

Mittai's pounding woke me several hours later. I closed my eyes, but I could hear him rummaging through the skiff's wreckage.

When dusk gave way to full dark, he laid his creation out on the sand. He'd fashioned a small balloon from fabric sliced from the airship's sides. The silver sheath stretched limply across the sand, seeming far too small to support the weight of one person, much less two.

My laughter was bitter on my lips. I knew it would never lift three.

There was no basket, but Mittai had fashioned a double harness. With a pidgin of words and gestures, he explained that this would lift us into the sky ahead of Kikayon's arrival. If we could get high enough, above the lunging bite of the b'hamut, the Kikayon would pluck us from the air.

Mittai demonstrated the harness, the air masks and the gas canister, ensuring that I could use them if I had to. He tapped his chronometer and held up two fingers. Two hours. We would rendezvous with Kikayon in two hours.

Cara watched through the neurolink. I could feel her there, on the edge of my thoughts.

We spent those two hours together, Cara and I, talking like old friends, like sisters. I told her ANAM was hers, to keep or sell as she pleased. She tried to argue with me, insisting that I should go, or that she would send rescuers from the ship, from Tarshish. I held firm. The neurolink no longer compelled her to obedience, but terror, hero worship and years of habit amounted to much the same thing.

Tarshish might look the other way for dye-smuggling and illegal tourism so long as the right people were paid and nobody made trouble. Even a missing tourist could be covered up if Cara played it right. But an illegal clone demanding a rescue mission in the interdicted zone? That was trouble of the highest order. That kind of trouble would get people killed.

****

When the dark hour came, it was Cara who met Mittai on the sand. Cara who let herself be strapped into the harness opposite him.

I'd expected the ascent to be slow, a leisurely upward drift, but it wasn't. The canister opened with a wrenching squeal. The balloon shot upward, yanking Cara and Mittai off their feet. It dragged them tumbling over the sand before it whipped them into the sky.

I stayed out of sight, hidden in the wreckage of the skiff.

Cara's heartbeat pounded against my ribs. Mittai, pressed against her in the harness, smelled of blood and sweat. Maybe she didn't understand, or maybe the reality didn't hit home until she saw the crippled airship shrinking on the sandbar below. Wind and terror whipped her hair across her face and left wet tracks on my cheeks. One arm stretched back to me while she rocketed upward, a single word torn from her lips and burned into my consciousness through the neurolink. "Motherrrrr!"

I felt the lurch when the Kikayon hooked the balloon. I fought Cara's vertigo, swinging in the harness as Mittai's crew reeled them in.

The Kikayon faded to a tiny point in the sky, then disappeared entirely, leaving me standing alone in the ruined airship. Without the 'net, the neurolink's range was only a few miles, so I lost Cara in the humid haze over the vast, blue ocean.

****

Mother.

The word jangled around in my head. Is that what I was to her?

I closed my eyes against a spinning sensation that had nothing to do with Cara's skyward flight.

I staggered from the corpse of the airship. The silver sands turned treacherous under my feet and I pitched to the ground like a fisherman's catch. Grief shook me. Grief for Emmie, for Cara, for Yunus, and yes, for Donnie.

My fists pounded furrows that filled again as soon as I made them. Sand abraded my elbows, caked my lips and crunched between my teeth. Finally, when exhaustion came, I lay still and silent, smelling salt, hot sand, and feeling the persistent sting of sun on my exposed skin. I crawled back to the ruined skiff and slept.

****

I woke at dusk feeling stiff, sore and throat-parched. I pillaged the ship's storage lockers for water and rations. I ate with my feet in the sand, staring over the chasm of blue water that separated me from the island. Yunus's voice played in my head, warning me about symmetry, shadows and patterns.

"Life," he'd said, "is direction. The b'hamut know this, and they strike. No direction; no life, and the b'hamut allows it to pass."

It took me three night-day cycles to prepare. I scavenged the hulk of the skiff for food, water, nets and knives, and swaths of fabric cut from the airship's skin. I tested the currents from different places on the sand bar, watching and waiting while I tracked bits of flotsam I'd set adrift. I'd have to launch from the seaward side of the bar. Only the eddy where the waters rounded the point would spin me toward land at a sharp enough angle. If I missed the island, I'd drift out into Jannah IV's vast, open waters.

I tested the capsule's seals with a bucket of seawater, then pushed it knee-deep into the shallows to test the repulsors. It hovered a quarter meter above the surface, turning this way and that with the wind. I beached the capsule and hauled the skiff's tattered nets onto the sand. Working in the cool of night, I threaded the weave with supplies and debris from the crash. I laid them over Cara's capsule like a bedraggled shroud, masking its regular lines in a cloud of jumbled trash. Sealed inside, I would be at the mercy of wind and wave, unable to steer or paddle.

I cast myself adrift under a night of alien stars. The capsule bobbed gently, sealing me away from sound and sky. In the darkness, my mind wandered. Was it Wednesday? I thought of the ship's spa.

Emmie would be mourning the loss of her father, held safe in the arms of the only mother she'd ever known. I understood then that I'd never been Emmie's mother, not in any way that mattered. In that crystalline moment, I lost the person I was and became someone else.

It was this new Lydia who finally understood love, who knew in the deepness of her soul that love was more than chemicals in the bloodstream or flashes in the brain. It was this Lydia who finally understood the trust and wonder in Cara's innocent eyes and the single word torn from her lips as her mother released her into the sky for a chance at life.

****

My feet make no sound while I descend from the cave in my purple robe.

The capsule's skin is white and smooth under my fingers. The seat's foam padding cradles me like a child in the cool velvet of night. I seal the hatch and find myself surrounded by the soft thum-thump of my own heartbeat. Indicator lights glow blue, confirming connection to the neurolink embedded behind my ear.

I've done the math more times than I can count, scratching time dilation equations in the sands of Jannah IV. If Cara is coming, I must buy her more time, and I must do it before I'm too weak to survive the process. I stretched the rations as far as I could. Now that they're gone, sand fleas and seaweed will only delay starvation, not prevent it. I'd hoped to be awake if Cara came, but like so many other things, that is no longer possible.

I think the words as clearly as I can. I want Cara to hear them in the neurolink's memory module if she cannot revive me.

"Cara, child of my body and daughter of my heart, take care of Emmie for me. You were a better mother to her than I ever was. And whatever happens, know that your mother loved you."

Satisfied, I speak the words that Donnie had ordered of Cara all those months ago.

"Computer . . . Identify neurolink."

A mechanized voice recites Cara's unit identification number and asks if I wish to proceed. I lean back into the cushions, holding the image of Emmie and Cara firmly in my mind.

"Initiate stasis."

A floating sensation lifts me into the indigo night. When I close my eyes, I can smell vanilla extract.

****

 

About Kary English

Kary English grew up in the snowy Midwest where she avoided both siblings and frostbite by reading book after book in a warm corner behind a recliner chair. She blames her one and only high school detention on Douglas Adams, whose “Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” caused her to laugh out loud while reading it behind her geometry textbook.

Today, Kary still spends most of her time with her head in the clouds and her nose in a book. To the great relief of her parents, she seems to be making a living at it. Her fiction includes several short stories, a planetary fantasy forthcoming in 2014, and an unfinished saga about a little girl and an orange kitten. A student of New York Times bestsellers David Farland and Tracy Hickman, Kary hopes that her own work will someday be detention-worthy.

Visit Kary on the web at www.KaryEnglish.com.

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