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 Dynasty 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. 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 the Dynasty taxers never arrived so early in the harvest, and neither did the spacer merchants choose this time of month. 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.


“You must learn to take risks, boy,” said Grum, as they rounded a large boulder amidst tangled thickets. The grooves on its marbled surface were far too angular to be natural. But Kesser had passed it many times, and many boulders like it.

He still calls me ‘boy,’ even in my eighteenth year, Kesser thought with a hint of irritation.

No. He could not spare mind for that.

“What do you mean?” He asked.

Grum paused to cough, leaning against his walking stick. “We are short of coin. You know this. You know the Duke, too; we cannot beg for money.”

“We have Sidrah.”

Grum only chuckled and shook his head. And coughed, again and again, his sure stance weakening, lungs struggling for air. This time Kesser had to keep him from collapsing to the ground.

As of late, Kesser had kept his gaze away from the fact, but now it faced him, and he stared it down with all the strength he could muster—Grum was dying. A tumour of the lung, Morra the surgeon had suggested. Kesser did not care for the reason, only what he had left.

Soon his legs gave out, and still Grum fought each breath, and so he laid his father against a nearby tree.

“Go—” Grum began, but this time Kesser did not argue. For a moment he looked into those dark eyes, set deeply in the winding valleys of Grum’s weathered face, and saw the weak desperation within. He knew it was his duty to seek the shuttle.

“I will. Stay here, father.” Kesser set his rifle on Grum’s lap. “I’ll be back by nightfall, and I won’t come empty-handed. I promise.”

“No,” said his father, giving the weapon back. “You’ll need it more than me. Go.”

It took until late evening to find the shuttle.

By the time Kesser noticed a trail of dark smoke rising through the canopy, the sun straddled close to the horizon, and the cool air bore long shadows. He took his rifle from his shoulder and trained it ahead, advancing with careful steps.

A splash of colour by his feet caught his eye. He glanced down to find a small patch of ragged grass beneath an opening in the canopy, and upon it several crimson-red flowers reaching toward the light on frail stems. They did not seem long for the world. Eyes still ahead, he reached down and picked the blooms, then placed them gently in his pack.

No. He could not be distracted. He continued, and soon emerged in a spacious clearing a stone’s throw wide. There it lay in the centre: a small shuttle tipped to its side, a squat cone of jet black perhaps as big as a small house. He allowed himself a moment of marvel at the sight, before carefully glancing around for other hunters, listening for any movement beside the wind.

He crept closer. The shuttle belched a column of smoke from one of the engines arranged around its base, a star-born mockery of a chimney’s warmth. Had he not known better, Kesser may have thought it from a cabin deep within the woods.

Then the shuttle’s hatch swung open. That sharp thump and clatter sent him jumping back and his heart racing, and with his grip tight on his rifle he watched a sight he had only heard from stories.

A figure clad in a pressure suit climbed slowly out of the hatch, one rung down after the other, all the while oblivious to the gun barrel which Kesser presently trained on them. And then, with no great ceremony or flourish, the suited figure collapsed onto the ground.

For many minutes, the figure did not move. And so, with Grum’s words in mind, Kesser slowly approached and knelt down.

The pressure suit was of rugged make, emblazoned on its shoulders and forehead with unfamiliar blood-red emblems, each resembling a raised fist surrounded by spikes.

The figure raised an arm and lifted their visor. Kesser's stumbled back in surprise, before creeping ahead in grim curiosity. His breath caught. The figure—his face, which peeked through his helmet's open visor, was covered in burn marks, mangling him nearly beyond recognition. Underneath them, his pale complexion betrayed a middle age. He bore matted night-dark hair streaked with grey, and his desperate dark eyes had an uncommon shape to them.

The man opened his mouth to speak.

"The Sovereign-Lord," he rasped with an unfamiliar, musical accent, "must fall."

"Find—" the man continued. He coughed a harsh, dry cough. "Find the Lost Archivist."

With a trembling gloved hand, he reached into the collar of his suit and drew something out with a clenched fist. Then, letting his arm fall limply to his side, he sighed deeply and did not move again.

Hesitantly, Kesser unclasped the man’s fist. Finger by finger he peeled it open, until the object within came under sunlight.

A pendant.

Linked to a thin chain and caged in a frame of silvery metal, was a a misshapen lump of space-black stone. In spite of its stunning darkness, it caught the light in an odd way, shimmering iridescent in dazzling colours along its sharp ridges.

Kesser’s heart raced, breath quickened. Suddenly, his aching, tired limbs, the bug bites on his skin, the dead man and shuttle before him were all forgotten. Something about the stone drew him in, so pulling, so alluring…

He touched the pendant.

Pulsing. Beating. The pattering step of a mouse scurrying through the ceiling, the deep thumps of a bear prowling through the undergrowth. It was silent, for it was beyond sound; it echoed through his mind, the voice of the pendant.

The very instant Kesser’s skin glanced the stone, a wave of euphoria washed over him, the euphoria of untold potential, and now it was all his. One by one his fingers grasped the pendant, until he buried it tightly in his fist, savouring the sensation.

He smiled.

It was no platinum or gold, but he had found treasure.

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