Chapter One - Landfall
In the second autumn of every year on planet Tal, as the leaves turned dull, the deer came south to the woods surrounding Estale. And before the Sector East freighters landed to take their tithes, Kesser would hunt with his father, so that in the second winter’s coming their family could eat meat in plenty.
The undergrowth’s bed was of rotting logs and red moss, among a carpet of fallen pine needles. Atop them Kesser lay, eye trained on the scope of his rifle. His finger rested against the cool metal of its trigger. Each breath came slow and measured, each breath, then a bout of curling fog in the cool air. In his gaze, the head of a wandering deer above brown ferns and orange ivy, covered by its curling horns.
“Steady,” he whispered to himself. He could sense the moment coming. Then a pull of the trigger, always the pull of his trigger and a deafening crack, and the deer would fall.
The deer moved and turned away, exposing its neck.
Thank you for your gift of life.
Cold metal. Colder, still, as his finger pulled. But when the gunshot rang through the forest, something else had already startled the deer away.
Kesser cursed, and glanced toward the sky.
“What is it?” Said Grum, standing up behind Kesser. His father, bless and curse him, had insisted on coming. “What was that noise?”
Kesser did not answer. Something streaked across the gray horizon. At the end of a wispy cloud-trail fell a black speck, growing larger by the moment. For a moment the sound stopped, and then it began once more, like a sharp gust of wind. But Kesser did not mistake it for the wind, nor the speck for a trick of the light. He had seen starships land.
The sight sent chills down his spine. Only the merchants of the Sector East Corporation ever made landfall on Tal, and their arrival rarely spelled good. He remembered, again, how it had all changed that cold year. The freighters landing with gaping cargo holds, and when the town could not sate them, they had taken the people instead…
But Sector East never arrived so early in the harvest. Why now?
The answer, Kesser realised, was simple.
“That’s not a merchant ship, is it?” He said. The ship moved faster than any he had seen. By now, raising an arm against the sunlight, he could see its form through squinted eyes, an upright cone of space-black trailing steam from manoeuvring thrusters beneath. “What in hell’s name is it doing this far in the Outer Reaches?”
“It’s—” began his father, before he broke into a fit of coughing. For a moment forgetting the hunt and the ship above, Kesser dropped his rifle and rushed over to hold Grum steady, giving him a cloth once he had heaved out his blood and spit.
“You should not have come, father,” Kesser said, gut twisting in worry. This disease—gods above, whatever had struck Grum had never healed.
“—No,” Grum growled, nudging Kesser away. He raised his head to the sky, where the falling ship had left a cloudy trail between the moons. “Do not worry about me. There are more important things at hand.”
Kesser raised an eyebrow at Grum, before picking up his rifle and counting its rounds. In its chamber, five remained of six. In the worn canvas of his pack, were ten more.
“Is it not the enforcers’ job to welcome visitors?”
Grum pointed towards the trail in the sky, then to where it disappeared behind the trees. He hefted his backpack.
“North. North is all forest. No—” A hoarse cough broke his words.
“No enforcers?” Kesser said.
“Aye. There will be coin in that ship. The enforcers will surely bar those in town from searching it, but we are already in the forest.”
“This is madness! We are not the only hunters here, and I have startled the deer already, and—” Kesser glanced at the sky again “—it is late in the afternoon. We should return and help mother and the others with supper.”
Grum seemed to ignore those words. He began walking, and with no choice Kesser soon followed closely him. They made their way to a nearby trail, then north, until the trees thinned in the distance and parted way for the pale blue light of ocean shore. From time to time Mimas—the closer moon—would peek through the canopy, its jagged crescent ravaged by craters. Then other times Lumas, a dappled silver silhouette much further and larger in the sky, would accompany Mimas, as though the two were locked in a frozen dance across long weeks and dark months.
And which one are you? Said the voice of a memory in Kesser’s mind.
Kesser recalled her, and he recalled the memory’s hand in his own, and the dance they had danced for their own under the mingled light of oil torchlight and the two moons.
Lumas, I think. It’s big and strong.
The memory laughed, a sound too clear with joy for the pain Kesser knew she bore underneath.
Don’t kid yourself. Me? I’d be Mimas. Small, yes, and a little rough around the edges, but Mimas is free. I’d very much like to be free.