I slept like I hadn’t in months. The room was completely dark and silent, unlike sleeping on a space craft, where something is always humming or ticking. There were no birds or bugs singing. Just deep and restful silence.
I dreamt I was someone else, someone who had been on Nedan a long time ago. I was traveling from a distant city toward Solanti in a train or subway-like conveyance, looking out over the countryside. There were croplands, waterways, and walled cities, just like on Earth, but less developed, and cleaner. It was a rich and fertile planet, such as any explorer would be thrilled to discover. A shimmer of water in the far distance caught my attention and I leaned forward in my seat for a better view.
“Where are you from?” A voice beside me asked. Turning around, I found an old man with a gray beard, seated beside me on the train.
“Earth,” I answered.
“Ah, yes. A good place,” the man rejoined. “Not many of you travel.”
“Not many of us know we can,” I explained.
“Why are you here?” he questioned, with the easy curiosity of the elderly.
“For the commencement of the Bell,” I replied. “I was invited to give a speech at the garden near the Hall of Archives.”
“Oh, that is very interesting.” the man responded. “I’ve been cataloging the Special Clearance Archives.”
“I didn’t know any part of the Archives were off-limits to the public,” I responded.
He took a pamphlet out of his pocket and pointed to a map drawn on the back. His index finger was brown and wrinkled and the tip was stained with ink. Somehow the detail of that observation pulled me forcibly out of the dream.
For a moment I thought I was in the Sparrow Hawk, flying through endless space, but stuck in the confinement of the cockpit. But there were no stars, only darkness. . . where was I? Solanti. . . Nedan. . .the mask made me feel claustrophobic, so I pulled it off, taking deep breaths.
“Lani,” a voice said softly in the darkness. “Are you there?”
It was Ryonel. I fumbled for my flashlight.
“No. Don’t turn on any lights. Someone might see it. The dawn is near.” His voice sounded tired.
I sat up on the cot and found I could see his face in the moonlight coming through the window. The events of the day before began to reorder themselves in my mind as I fully awakened.
“Leon? Is Leon here?” I asked, beginning to sound like a broken record. I had been by my brother’s side for so long, being apart was like missing a limb.
“No, as we came through the barracks, his name was called and he had to pretend he had just been to the ablution block. I hope he is resting now. It was a long night. But we made a lot of progress on The Aero.”
Ryonel sat down on a chair near the window and looked out at the night. The silhouette of his broad shoulders sagged with weariness. He wasn’t wearing the hepa-filter mask, and for the first time I got a glimpse of his face. It was sharply drawn and angular, broad at the cheekbones and jawline. I could not see his eyes in the dim light, but knew I would recognize him easily enough if I saw him during the day. No one else in Solanti had such shaggy hair.
“When will you be done?” I asked.
He sat up straight and sighed through a smile. “I don’t know yet. Leon thinks maybe two more days. Are you alright here? Do you have enough food until tonight?”
I did not tell him about Madia sharing my food. The man needed rest.
“I’ll be fine,” I said. “Tell Leon I’m fine. If you need any help, I could go with you guys—“
“No,” Ryonel interrupted quickly, “It’s safer if you stay here.”
“Why? What’s out there?” I asked. I stood up to look out the window over his shoulder. The city looked peaceful in the low-angled glow of the setting moons of Nedan. Their light glinted off the brass of the great bell.
Ryonel was silent for a moment, and then answered me hesitantly, “There’s nothing that Leon and I can’t handle together. But if we have to worry about you—“
I stepped around him to look him in the face. I’d seen my share of space battle and had dealt with human monsters in high places of power. Being left behind to powder my nose was one of the few things I hadn’t experienced.
“Ryonel,” I said firmly when he looked up at me, “I can take care of myself. And if you won’t tell me what Leon’s up against, I’ll go find out for myself.”
I tried to keep my voice even, but I was afraid for my brother. I couldn’t lose him too. It would be better to die with him than be left behind. Ryonel seemed to be taking stock of my resolve and intention.
“You are not like the girls of Nedan,” he laughed nervously. “You remind me of my mother and grandmother. . . ” He sounded a little unhinged again, like he had the day before. I did not answer and after a moment Ryonel sighed and surrendered his caution.
“Okay,” he said. “There are creatures in the Dark Wood. Big creatures. Not necessarily evil, or even threatening. They’re just big. And they eat things smaller than themselves. Leon and I are both armed. We shot a lizard today about the size of a mountain cow.”
“Was it going to eat you?” I had no idea how large a mountain cow was, but it sounded big.
“No. Well, maybe. I think it was just watching us. But Leon made a point that if there is a dead body of a lizard nearby, the others will be less likely to prey on us.”
I was silent, trying to think of the questions that would be haunting me later in the day.
“Still want to go with us?” Ryonel asked with a teasing grin. The sky was getting lighter at the horizon and I could see his face more clearly.
“Yes.” I answered. “I do. And I could help. But if Leon had rather me stay here, I will. Just don’t take forever. Bartroles is after me, and frankly, I’d rather fend off a cow-sized lizard.”
For the first time, Ryonel looked worried. He seemed to notice the bouquet of lilies in the dim light and stood up.
“Don’t go anywhere alone with him,” he told me. “The Marchempor doesn’t obey his own laws. If he is after you, he will not be dissuaded. You can only hope to put him off for a while. We will finish The Aero. But you must make Bartroles believe you are truly ill. Too ill to - to look like that.”
It was my turn to laugh.
“I’m serious,” Ryonel said anxiously.
“Okay,” I assured him. “I get it. No tempting the Marchempor. Gross and unappealing is the new look. I can handle that.”
Ryonel looked dubious, but after a moment’s hesitation, he turned away toward the door.
"Oh - Ryonel?" I asked quickly.
"How many people can The Aero hold?"
"Her limit is two tons of cargo. She’s a freighter. Why do you ask?"
“Well, what if others want to come along?” I said. “There’s—"
“Someone is coming,” Ryonel whispered urgently, “You’ll have to tell me tonight. Be safe, Lani.”
He disappeared, and I laid back down, waiting pensively to see who was coming down the hall. Maybe it was Madia.
Minutes passed and no one appeared. Had someone been coming, or not?
I felt uneasy and unable to go back to sleep, so I took the ink pen out of the survival backpack that had served me so well thus far. Carefully unscrewing the tip, I put a drop of ink in my palm. This, I mixed with water from the urn until I had a teaspoon of black liquid. Then I stood in front of the polished brass mirror, looking at myself in the dawning light of morning.
“Gross and unappealing,” I whispered to my own image.
I was tall for a girl, and too slender from lack of enough food and rest. But I was strong. The set of my jaw in the brass mirror’s reflection was surprisingly intimidating and made me smile. My hair was light brown, long, and bound in a tight braid. The gray-blue of my eyes did not appear in the mirror, but the arch of my black brows communicated a wide-awake interest that reminded me again of Leon. We had the same eyes and eyebrows.
Carefully, I used the watery ink to paint dark circles around my eyes. Too much. More water. There. I looked like I was dying for sure. No, my lips were too red and my skin still had a healthy glow.
I took out a vitamin C capsule, opened it and dabbed the white dust on my mouth and cheeks. Too powdery. I added water and it washed away. Finally the right amount of white powder and water resulted in a pale complexion and whitish lips.
Next I took some bread crumbs and grapes from the bundle Ryonel had left, mashed them up, mixed in some soapy water and spilled the sloppy combination on the floor near the bed. I reflected wryly that I’d never made vomit before. Rubbing my head vigorously with the flat of my hands produced a halo of messy matted hair, and the look was complete. All I had to do was sprawl on the floor whenever I heard someone coming.
But in the meantime, I would explore.