Crucible of Stars


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Maeve Cavainna is running and her wings won’t save her. The infamous bounty hunter, Logan Coldhand, chases close behind her and intends to drag Maeve back to the planet of Axis to collect the high price on her head. When he finally corners her, the long chase seems to be over… until a frightened alien girl stumbles into their fight and begs for their protection. Maeve and Logan call a reluctant end to their battle and promise to help the girl, but they have agreed to far more than they know. Can the fragile peace between hunter and mark hold long enough to save the lives that depend on them?

Crucible of Stars is the first book of the Reforged Trilogy. It was originally published as Anvil of Tears.

Chapter 1: Hawks and Doves

“You shall know the last days by the coming of the three: the hungering father, the mad mother and the undying child. Beware these signs of the end times and open your heart to the One God, for He alone offers you His love and His salvation.”

– The Book of Light (23 PA)

Maeve Cavainna stared out at the elongated rainbows of stars as the Blue Phoenix raced between them. Superluminal flight scattered their spectra into a thousand subtle hues, transforming starlight into something strange and unfamiliar. At these speeds, even the brightest sun was only a colorful smear against the perfect black of space. A heartbeat of light, and then each one vanished again.

How many billions of lives did the Blue Phoenix fly past, un­noticed by people living on the worlds circling those hazy little rainbow stars? But those planets were invisible to Maeve, too small and gone too fast to see. The universe was a cold and empty place.

Maeve pressed her fingertips to the glassteel of the viewport, searching through the darkness. It was like no one else was out there, as though she were utterly alone. But Maeve knew better.

Where are you?

He was out there somewhere: Logan Coldhand, the bounty hunter. Tiberius was sure they had shaken him from their trail, but that seemed unlikely. No matter how many worlds Maeve fled to, Coldhand always found her. Whatever stinking alleyway she hid inside, he would be there, the silencing hand of the Nameless closing around her at last.

There, that spark of light… Was that Coldhand’s ship? But no, it couldn’t be. Maeve frowned as the ember glow faded once more into nothingness and she struggled to remember what Gripper had told her about SL flight. At superluminal speeds, there was no way Maeve could see a pursuing vessel, right? The Blue Phoenix was flying faster than light, outrunning sight of anything that might be behind them.

Everyone expected time dilation and lapses at superluminal speeds. All of the math predicted it, Gripper said. They called it relativistic travel, but it never happened. No one stepped off a starship to find themselves years younger than their own children. Time wasn’t the mutable, changeable thing that physicists and chronologists expected, not stretched and twisted by superluminal speeds like cloud-candy. Time didn’t behave according to the mathematical models, but as a strange, steady galactic constant, a mysterious and unwavering interstellar heartbeat that no one seemed to understand.

Least of all Maeve. If there were a way to change the flow of time, she wouldn’t be here at all. But Maeve leaned against the window and her breath clouded the glassteel pane. She squinted through the fog, willing herself to see the impossible.

Where are you, Coldhand?

Here in the back of the ship, Maeve could feel more than hear the deep thrum of the Blue Phoenix’s superluminal drive. There was a clang and a shout from Gripper as he tried to wring more speed from the old machines. Maybe she could…

Maeve’s com chirped insistently, interrupting her thoughts. Where had she put that thing? She patted at her threadbare spacer’s pants until she found the small device. Maeve turned on the audio with a flick of her finger, but left the tiny video screen dark.

“I am here,” she answered. “What is it?”

“We’re almost ready to drop out of SL,” came the muted, tinny response. “You might want to strap in.”

The voice was masculine, but muddied by a buzzing sound on the com channel. Probably the engines interfering with the signal, even at this short range.

“If you are the one landing us, Duaal, then I had best say my final prayers,” Maeve answered. “How close are we?”

“Sink you. We’ll be coming in about ten minutes from Axis. Just sit down and strap in, Maeve. It’s going to get choppy. Axis’ gravity well is an absolute Nnyth.”

“I will tell Gripper.”

Maeve keyed off her com and half turned away from the viewport, but she caught her dim reflection in the glassteel and hesitated. At a glance, she might have passed for human, if a very small one. She had two arms and two legs, and a head of tangled hair the black of a starless midnight.

But Maeve wasn’t human and any human would have been insulted by the comparison. She was Arcadian. Under that mess of dark hair, Maeve’s ears tapered to imperfectly hidden points and her stained shirt did even less to conceal the pair of wings that arced up from between her shoulders. Each of them was as long as the fairy was tall and covered in feathers that would have been white if they were ever clean.

Maeve turned away from the depressing view, ducking down through the hatchway and into the engine room. The ceiling here was so low that she had to fold her wings tightly against her back to avoid tangling them. According to the ship’s original design, this ceiling should have been considerably higher. But the Blue Phoenix was old, several times reclaimed from the scrap heap and repaired just enough to get it back into the sky. Any room that would have let Maeve stretch out her wings was now taken up by jumbles of retrofitted pipes and cables that connected the ship’s outdated systems. The cargo hold was the only place left that Maeve could spread her wings without knocking into something and causing a problem – for her or for the rest of the crew.

There was another loud thud and some more shouting up ahead. Maeve brushed dangling wires out of her face with the crest of one wing and wondered how Gripper managed to keep the Blue Phoenix flying at all. She caught sight of the grumbling’s source and stopped in the narrow passage.

Anandrou – or Gripper as he very much preferred to be called – was squeezed into the cramped corridor, plucking at the exposed circuitry behind an open panel. He cradled a length of frayed wiring in his massive hands and eyed it mournfully. One long, brown-mottled ear twitched at Maeve’s approach.

“The FMS relay is shot,” Gripper said. He craned his thick neck awkwardly in the tight confines to shake his head morosely. “We need a new one. Are we there yet?”

Maeve had no idea what the FMS relay did, or why the chewed-looking bit wiring in Gripper’s hands meant the machine’s death. But the Blue Phoenix was a coreworld construct and made little sense to her. Arcadians didn’t need starships to travel between worlds… At least, they didn’t used to. Now the fairies travelled however they could manage. When they could travel at all.

But Gripper loved the Blue Phoenix like a living creature and Maeve couldn’t help being momentarily charmed. The inevitable failures of the old ship always seemed like personal wounds to Gripper, while the numerous cuts and scrapes in his brown hide went utterly unnoticed.

“Duaal is almost ready to take us out of superluminal flight,” Maeve said.

“Shimmer’s landing?” Gripper asked, even as he began an ur­gent wriggle out of the hatchway and into the engine room. “We better go tape ourselves to something!”

Watching him leave, Maeve’s heart clenched. Gripper was so very much like her little brother, though the thought surely would have offended them both. Boys treasured their pride like favorite toys and hated to be reminded of their youth.

“Hey, Smoke,” Gripper shouted to Maeve over one lumpily muscled shoulder. “Come on! You have to strap in, too!”

Maeve followed Gripper as he picked his way through the cluttered engine room. The fibersteel floor was dark and patchy from countless coolant and oil spills, so many times cleaned up and re­spilled that they had seeped into the very metal. The hatchway on the far side of the engine room was larger, tall enough that Gripper could pass through without hunching his bulky brown shoulders. He didn’t bother with the stairs, but jumped instead and grabbed the joint of the heavy ceiling plates. He swung on his long arms to the top and by the time Maeve caught up, Gripper was already in­side the crew mess, tugging impatiently at the too-short safety belts on one of the acceleration couches.

Xia had arrived before them and the Ixthian’s expression was one of carefully composed serenity. Only the tightness of Xia’s harness and a faint red sheen to her gem-like compound eyes be­trayed any concern about their copilot’s skill. Her slender, long-limbed build and six-fingered hands hearkened back to her race’s insect origins. Xia’s skin was a polished pewter color and a pair of slim an­tennae rose up from her short white hair, waving toward Maeve and Gripper as they hurried through the door.

The deck of the Blue Phoenix pitched beneath them and Maeve tried to spread her wings for balance, stumbling the final distance to throw herself down into a seat beside Xia. It was uncomfortable to cinch her wings so tightly against her back, but it was better than taking the beating of Duaal’s amateur flying. Strapping himself into the opposite couch, Gripper grimaced and clapped his hands over his stomach.

“Hasn’t Shimmer been flying for like four years now?” he asked with a groan. “And the guy is still wasp-crap at piloting. Do you think Claws could teach him the SL drop some other time? Like some time I’m not here?”

“How could he when you never leave? You’re married to this ship,” Xia said with a short, clicking laugh.

Gripper flushed. “Hey, that’s not my fault. She’s old and needs a lot of care.”

Maeve let her head fall back across the patched cushions of the couch. The harness straps dug into her narrow chest as the sudden deceleration to sublight speeds made the Blue Phoenix buck and shudder. What if the ship did crash? What if Tiberius or Duaal had miscalculated their drop time? What if they smashed into the planet, crushing flesh and steel and stone? At least it would be an end…

No. Maeve had a better way to finish this story.

Outside the viewports, the colorful streaks shortened, blurred and then burst into hundreds of thousands of stars that filled the blackness with blinding white points of light. The thrum of the superluminal engines and clanging of metal finally stopped.

The ship intercom buzzed. Maeve could just make out the loud sound of Duaal cheering his successful SL shift from the cockpit.

“Welcome back to Axis,” Tiberius announced over the noise of his copilot. “Our home away from scattered homes.”

Axis was a silver-blue planet positioned only a few hundred light-years from the precise center of the galaxy, but it was not that location for which it was named. By agreement of the member planets of the Central World Alliance, Axis was the capital of the largest government in the galaxy and a vital checkpoint for travel and trade throughout the stars.

On a lesser planet, the colossal Central World Alliance capitol complex alone would have covered an entire nation. From its heart rose the vast Lyceum, the galactic parliament in which every world of the CWA had a voice. Four species and thirty-six planets argued in the Lyceum daily for – or sometimes against, when certain debts were called in – the interests of their homeworlds.

Axis’ megatropolis had swallowed the world’s land and seas long ago, burying them under a planet-spanning city of concrete and fiber-woven steel. Axis was divided into ten distinct levels, each a world unto itself. Level One was the outermost shell, the glittering crown jewel and the only part of Axis with true sunlight and open air. Aglow in the radiance of the system’s bright yellow sun, Level One was the shining face that the Alliance presented to the galaxy and the great glass and metal heart of the CWA that moved a lifeblood of trade and bureaucracy.

The deep lower levels of Axis, however, were a different story altogether.

When Duaal finished another bumpy landing onto the planet’s surface, Maeve followed the others down into the cargo hold of the Blue Phoenix. They gathered around the airlock, waiting to venture out into the city.

Xia stood to one side of the bay, smiling and joking with Duaal. Like many Ixthians, Xia was a doctor and served as the ship’s medic when trouble inevitably caught up with them.

The planet of Ixth had been one of the eight responsible for founding the Central World Alliance. Under Ixthian care, all life flourished. They were masters of genetics and medicine, their colleges producing the best doctors and biologists in the galaxy. Before the Ixthians, most species had to replace lost limbs or organs with unwieldy and unresponsive metal cybernetics. Now Ixthian cloning tanks had all but eradicated such barbaric practices.

“So I gave him the redprints and that was the end of it,” Xia said. “I never saw the man again.”

Duaal laughed. The Blue Phoenix copilot was one of the several human species found throughout the core worlds, this particular example born on the watery planet of Hyzaar. Duaal’s skin was dark and his bleached-blond hair was cut in a short, ragged style that was popular all across the Alliance.

Like Ixth, Hyzaar was a founding member of the CWA. The sapphire-blue planet boasted a surface area that was ninety-five percent ocean and the humans of Hyzaar considered themselves experts of every aquatic sport. Since no other race in the galaxy could best a Hyzaari ship in the annual Beven competition, no one disputed their claim. Of course, those were bragging rights that only the Hyzaari seemed to care about.

But Duaal didn’t dress like other Hyzaari. Instead of the loose, comfortable clothes favored by most of his subspecies even off world, Duaal’s choices were… exotic. Today, the Blue Phoenix co­pilot wore a long coat of black and purple leather, closed down the front with bright gold clasps. Beads and charms dangled from every hem and chimed with each step. Duaal covered himself in such expensive, ridiculous extravagance that Maeve wondered sometimes if it was the boy’s face she recognized or just his clothes.

Duaal’s wardrobe wasn’t half as strange as his studies, however. Maeve had lived for a century in the galactic core – since the fall of the White Kingdom – and in all that time, Duaal Sinnay was the only human she had ever met who knew any sort of magic.

But his understanding of her people’s craft was deeply flawed. Did Duaal think his magic required the arcane symbols embroidered all over his clothes? Perhaps. Maeve wasn’t sure where Duaal might have learned that, but she had no intention of wasting her time correcting him. Besides, the young human seemed to take great pride in his strange appearance.

Boys and their pride…

Gripper hung from the ceiling supports by his long arms, impatiently digging his huge fingers into the metal hard enough to make it creak. He wore basic spacers’ pants and shirt, like Maeve and Xia, though his were all cut much, much larger. They were sized for a Hadrian, but even those seams had to be let out in places.

Gripper towered over every other member of the Blue Phoenix crew, almost nine feet tall and powerfully built. The Arboran’s body was protected by leathery, mottled brown skin. His ears were pointed, like Maeve’s, but considerably longer. Gripper’s arms, too, were elongated, and hung nearly to his knees. No hair grew on his head, but his thick forearms were covered with green fur. Maeve wasn’t sure what evolutionary advantage that fur might offer, but Gripper was clearly made for climbing and swinging through the trees of his homeworld, not for cramming himself into an engine room.

Gripper dropped to the floor with a loud clang. He eyed the damaged ceiling support, coughed and sidled quickly away.

He had told his crewmates that he looked just like other Arborans, if a little on the short side. Of course, they all had to take his word for it. No one in the Alliance or in the rim kingdoms had ever seen another Arboran. Gripper’s sudden appearance in the core was a mystery, even to him.

People stared at Gripper wherever he went, but not many challenged him. It was much easier to harass the less intimidating and far more numerous Arcadians. Which was lucky for Gripper – for all his great size and strength, he was a shy young man, awkward and more or less a coward. His world was a peaceful one, Gripper said. The Arborans lived high in the huge trees of their homeworld, far from the predators below. They were all herbivores and knew nothing of hunting or bloodshed.

The captain of the Blue Phoenix, Tiberius Myles, stood at the airlock controls. He cleared his throat loudly, silencing Duaal and Xia. Though hardly as massive as Gripper, Tiberius was large for a human, with broad shoulders and a wide barrel chest. His hair was short and steel-gray with age. Tiberius’ stubbled face was worn by years of heavy burdens – burdens of which this unruly crew was only the most recent. When he spoke, it was in a rough, deep voice with the rolling accent of his homeworld, Prianus.

“Listen up,” Tiberius said. “We’ve got about eight hours on Axis. We haven’t seen any sign of Coldhand yet, but that doesn’t mean he’s not out there. We’re ahead of him, but not by much. Not with that leak in our core.”

Gripper held up his huge hands at Tiberius’ accusatory glance.

“Hey, I’m going to buy a new venno plate today,” said the Arboran. “Even the FMS relay is broken. The recycling system is old, Claws. What do you expect?”

Tiberius sighed. “Fine. But if we can get off Axis before Coldhand touches down, he’ll have a hard time following us out. Don’t make a fuss and don’t give anyone something to remember. Let’s not invite trouble. That means you, princess.”

Tiberius leveled a hard, blue-eyed glare at Maeve and the fairy shrugged. Her battles with Coldhand were her own business. And even if the bounty hunter caught up with them now, all he wanted was Maeve. The rest of the Blue Phoenix crew was unimportant – unless they tried to interfere.

Gripper watched Maeve and shifted his considerable bulk un­comfortably. He obviously worried about her, but knew better than to say so.

“Gripper, you get that shielding taken care of,” Tiberius said. He waved his hand toward Xia and Duaal. “You two, we need supplies. Especially water. With the recycling system working at half, we’re losing a lot of it. Duaal, let Xia handle it. We don’t have much colour to throw around. Just help her get it back here.”

Duaal pouted less than subtly at his uninspiring planetside duties. Tiberius ignored him.

“Maeve, take care of the datawork and landing fees,” Tiberius ordered. “I’ll get the ship refueled. That should leave each of you more than enough time to do anything personal on Axis. Remember, be back on the Blue Phoenix in eight hours or you’ll need to find another bird off this rock.”

Everyone in the cargo bay nodded, except Maeve.

“We had to take off from Hadra before we could finish re­stocking or pick up new work,” Tiberius said. “So keep your eyes open. Salvage has been pretty thin lately, so we need cargo and we can’t afford to be picky.”

With that, Tiberius pressed the glowing green airlock button. The cargo ramp hissed as the seal broke and then lowered with a mechanical whir that grated and ground more than it should have. Gripper wasn’t exaggerating the Blue Phoenix’s age or disrepair.

Outside, the blastphalt abutted expansive metal walls studded with fluorescents and striped by colorful map tracks. The landing that Tiberius told Maeve to pay for wasn’t enough to buy an expensive Level One open-air pads. The ceiling overhead was ribbed with arcing beams as wide as Maeve was tall and covered by a network of yellow-white daylights, all dimmed to simulate nighttime for the late evening traffic.

A massive mechanical claw still held the Blue Phoenix where it had set the cargo ship down between a huge Hadrian bulk transport and a shorter Dailon carrier. The Blue Phoenix wasn’t a large vessel, which made it well suited to handling jobs too small for the major shipping companies or whose owners wanted to avoid official attention.

Most of the Blue Phoenix’s length was dedicated to the cargo hold and engines, without much space left over. That made the corridors inside narrow and quarters cramped, resulting in a lot of scraped knuckles for Gripper and tangled wings for Maeve.

The Blue Phoenix was shaped like half a cone, bisected from base to tip and set on its flat side. The cargo ramp and three stout landing legs extended from the bottom of the ship. But the rest of the shape was almost lost under a multitude of sensor spars – invaluable in scanning for salvage – that thrust out in every direction like the spines of a drunken porcupine. A pair of wings with stabilizing jets and a matching rotational thruster in a fin on top seemed nearly an afterthought.

The only other break in the forest of sensors was the cockpit. The windows there were not strictly necessary, since pilots flew almost entirely by instruments and computer readings, but shipbuilders had learned centuries ago that pilots liked to see where they were flying.

Xia wrapped her long silver fingers around Duaal’s embroidered sleeve, leading him away from the Blue Phoenix, and Gripper knuckle-walked behind them with a small computer folded under his chin. Maeve moved to follow. She was eager to finish her task and attend to her own business, but Tiberius caught her by the shoulder.

Maeve rustled her wings and the captain glanced at them. The humans of Prianus adored birds over all other animals and Maeve was sure that her wings had a great deal to do with Tiberius’ patience with her. Of all the coreworld species, Prians alone treated the Arcadians with anything like respect. It was a shallow sort of respect, based only on the fairies’ superficial resemblance to their beloved birds, but it was something.

Maeve rarely hesitated to use that advantage. But not this time, it seemed. Tiberius held her fast.

“I’m serious,” he said. “Stay out of the lower levels. I don’t want you coming back to the ship low on some chem or beat up from a fight that you picked.”

Maeve narrowed her eyes. “What I do with my own time is my business and none of yours.”

“It’s every bit my business! I didn’t make you my first mate for your looks, dove. If I’m going to keep the Phoenix in the sky, I need you to put the crew in order for me and you can’t do that when you’re out of your skull on some chem.”

“I will… consider your request,” Maeve said.

Tiberius grunted and released her. It was the best he would get for now.

“You’ve got eight hours, princess,” the captain reminded Maeve before stumping down the cargo ramp.

Tiberius vanished into the throng of travellers pouring from the other ships and out onto the busy streets of Axis. Maeve closed the ramp behind her and then punched a code Gripper had given her into a keypad. The airlock hummed and cycled, then the light ticked from green to red. Secure.

When the Blue Phoenix was locked, Maeve turned away and hurried into the city.

Published 12.11.2009 by Loose Leaf Stories