Looking back, it turns out it was a love story after all. Perhaps the first the earth has ever known, and definitely the most violent.
Kara stared up at the seamless silver ceiling, watching ripples of light across its surface cast from stars that had gasped and died millennia ago, and focused on keeping her mind blank. Not only could they gauge and decipher her thoughts (and then follow through on their threats), but this kept her breathing even and her heart from breaking. Not thinking of him, of Seth, was a second-by-second, breath-by-breath endeavor.
She heard the doors sigh behind her head and sat up, careful not to glance out the portal and see how far away from her world they had banished her.
“It’s time,” one of them said. They were all the same to her now – she could not distinguish one face from another, they all had Seth’s face, his voice. She waited until this one moved away from the door to follow it, keeping her eyes on the seamless silver floor, moving only by the sound of this one’s footsteps.
“Kara of the Klandestines,” another one said once she stood facing it, its voice slithering to her across the last bio pod. Not for the first time, Kara regretted her decision to study intergalactic language: if she had been ignorant, she would be unable to understand their words, their decrees. She cocked her head; yet, had that been the case, she never would have met him in the first place. “You are guilty of slaying another of your kind, a leader and father of industry, as well as another, his mate, for no discernible reason.”
Kara allowed her eyes to close, holding her breath and her memory at bay. The effort this took made her almost puddle at the bases of their thrones.
“You are also guilty of illicit and illegal acts, leading to the slaying of two sentient beings. By the hand of a jury of your own kind and representatives of the Wisterian Council, you have been sentenced to exile upon the Earthsphere, known as the most primitive sphere in the last-flung and forgotten Galactical Providence. Do you acknowledge your guilt and punishment?”
Kara raised her chin and saw the flash of her own yellow eyes in the black empty portal of space behind them, beyond their judgment thrones. She caught her lower lip between the ridges of her second and third sets of teeth and sucked, hard.
A sizzle of language, the bubbly hiss of a Kriegnanigan (that simpering hag Rayelda, Kara realized, a being so slimy and slothful she had been appointed Lifetime Exile Supreme and never actually left this ship), and Kara instantly, silently translated: “Her acknowledgement of her guilt and punishment is purely formal and bears no witness here. She will be banished, now can we get on with it as to move on to the evening meal. Rakkard serves Corinthian swipe tonight.”
Kara blinked her eyes and ignored a shiver that lit up her spine: Corinthian swipe was not only the sludge of their planet, but consisted of pure fat that Rayelda slurped from the creature’s nasal cavities and savored with such smacking relish that more than one of her colleagues had bolted from the dining pod never to return.
Kara allowed herself to be backed up to the pod wall beside the largest portal and her palms pressed against a flat blinking panel. Her wrists instantly bound, she slid into a squat and again did not think of him, instead kept her eyes on the swirling white, blue, and green sphere blooming into view in the portal across from her: Earthsphere. The Last Banishment.
No Klandestine – or any other race she had ever known of – had ever been banished there and heard from again. Kara had been imprisoned for several eons, her skin bubbling and bulging with a certain type of insect only found in the deepest, mossiest of cells, a hole in the back of a forgotten prison. It had taken almost a day for Kara’s guards to walk her there as they stopped repeatedly to beat and berate her – she was grateful and glad that was all they did to her. Her hole of a prison had been sealed up and she forgotten until it had been her turn to stand before the jury and Council, who had made up their minds before she ever even appeared.
While imprisoned, Kara had received telepathic messages from her horrible older brother. He unspooled tales of the blank face of Earthsphere, the bodies of slick liquid teeming with creatures that breathed impossible chemicals and swam blindly, of craggy mountains spitting fire. He showed her plains of empty yellow nothing, and how the entire sphere was warmed by only one sun. Kara had thought nothing could be worse than huddling silent and alone in that far-flung hole, itching and boiling with bugs, but the thought of this Earthsphere was enough to almost make her forget her lover forever.
“Prepare for settlement,” the ship’s Interior Collective said, its command seeping through the silver walls and rumbling into Kara’s bones, her very cells. “Secure passengers and crew.”
Kara had thought there would be rumbling, or a disturbance of some kind as the ship broke through the Earthsphere’s atmosphere and lowered onto one of the planet’s many unbroken, endless plains. Instead silence pressed against her eyelids and forced her to face her own ragged, uneven breathing. She did not think of Seth, who was dead, who was dead, who was dead.
One of them came for her finally, releasing her bondage. Kara shook her hands, flexed her many fingers. She did not look at the white shadow on the eighth finger of her left hand. She did not think of what was missing there. When she straightened to her full height, she towered over the one escorting her out of the pod, its head could have nuzzled into the crescent of her waist. She could have bent him double, broken him in half. She could have fled. Kara raised her eyes and looked out upon the vast yellow saucer that was the Earthsphere’s surface as the guard walked her away from the ship: but flee to where?
“Kara of the Klandestines,” this one said, releasing the ropy length of her arm and stepping away. He held up a palm, and a tight yellow bag shimmered suddenly there. “You have been banished to Earthsphere for the crimes of life cessation and the illicit and illegal acts leading up to the cessation of two sentient beings. You shall live out your days here, and with only this.” Voice low and hesitant, he pushed the yellow bag at her and took yet another step back.
Something deep and pulsing and toxic moved inside Kara as she stared at that bag. She had not known she would be equipped with anything for her remaining time as a sentient being. She looked away, glancing around, and noticed for the first time the tightness in her chest, the heaviness gathering when she breathed. She was gulping, at least two of her lung sets squeezing, pleas for more hydrogen. Whatever this atmosphere consisted of made her eyes water, and she wiped at them as she finally focused on a shimmer of blue in the distance, a line of sparkling, glinting undulation. Her feet instinctively moved toward it.
“Kara,” her escort insisted, and looking back at him she realized he was not a guard but one of the jurors on the High Court who sentenced her, who damned her, and he again held the glistening yellow bag out to her. “You must take this,” he said.
Kara snatched it from his open palm and instantly knew, not from the weight of the object in the bag, but from the flash of it across her mind; her telepathy, her innate inner vision, had always been a curse.
She dropped the bag, her fingers stinging. “No,” she said.
This one, tiny and silver, standing before her with his moon blank face, his eyes black as seeds, cupped his hand and the bag lifted from the dusty Earthsphere surface, floating until it fit itself into her palm, sewed into the flesh of her fingers. Kara shook her hand, but the bag remained, yellow and shining like the one lonely sun on this planet, like sand shook from Kara’s hair the last time Seth had snuck her away to the Sea of Carrion.
No, she squeezed her eyes shut, sucked on her lower lip, you must not think of him. Then they will see.
“Take it,” this one said, “and open it. I must,” he did not glance over his shoulder at the ship, but Kara’s sense saw him cast his thoughts there, where the others read his agitation, his impatience, “see you open and accept it before we can move forward.”
Never taking her eyes off him, Kara’s fingers plucked at the drawstring of the bag and upended it in one fluid motion, as if she had been waiting all day, all eons, for this moment. She did not look down when the hammer fell into her hand with the weight of the entire Earthsphere, it’s one pathetic sun and moon and every slinking, swimming, silver-eyed creature inhabiting it. She didn’t have to. She could smell Seth’s blood on it.
“Why,” she said instead, and she felt her blood rushing, pooling to the surface of her skin as she let herself sink into this one’s black eyes, his stare empty of pathos or satisfaction or regret. “Why this?”
“It is your one weapon, your only hope and the instrument that brought you here,” he said, his tone without inflection but, inwardly, casting stones at her, smug, revelatory. “It shall be your saving grace or your downfall – only you may choose.”
Kara weighed the hammer in one hand, gave her wrist a little twirl and suppressed a smile when this one flinched just slightly. “You’re wrong, Advisor,” she said. “This is not the instrument that brought me here.” She touched her chest with one finger of a hand that did not hold the hammer, tapping at the thin, luminous skin covering her heart. “This one is.”
She met Seth at the lounge where she worked both as a bouncer and sporadic entertainer, singing Old Klandestine nomad tales set to whatever music Defan felt like playing that night. She had her regulars for the singing gigs, but on the nights she watched the door (enough of her legs exposed to make them appear, from a distance, like slender antennae, her costume skimpy enough to enhance her height and distract from the width of her head) she had an entirely different clientele. These males lingered at tables by the door to watch the slide of her tiny feet, the glimmer of her bracelets in the low lights of the lounge, the spiderweb glisten of her minty bustier.
It was on a night she was bouncing that Sethryn Savannah Baulstrade agreed to meet colleagues for drinks instead of bending to the will of his shrewish wife, a decision that would both make him the happiest he would ever be and eventually split open in a cold grave.
Kara was on a break, sipping a Cornealian Chiller so fast her forehead ached, when Seth approached the bar for another round of drinks. Yaman, who had worked the lounge floor for so long she often maneuvered between tables with her eyes closed, had decided she didn’t like the way Seth’s friends looked at her scaly legs and dripping jaws and was actively ignoring them. Kara glanced over at Seth as he drummed his fingers on the bar, appreciative of the way he hadn’t even glanced her way, until he said, still without looking, “What are you supposed to be, exactly?”
Kara sipped her drink and squinted through the gloom at him. His eyes, when she caught a glimpse of them in the bar-back mirror, were nearly as honey yellow as her own. Almost unheard of in this part of the Quadrant. “I’m sorry?” She called back.
Finally, after accepting several drinks and tucking a wad of bills into the bartender’s moist palm, Seth turned and focused those stunning eyes on her: Kara’s third stomach went cold. “Don’t be sorry,” he said, his lips curling back in a smile. “Just tell me what you are.”
At any other time, Kara would have pinged her telepathic senses to learn, instantly, blindingly, who he was and what he was about. But, for the first time, she wanted to learn about him herself, on her own, as her ancestors would have done, “the natural way.” So Kara wiped the glowing green condensation from her chilled glass and said, “I’m the hired help.”
Two slender antennae puckered from beneath Seth’s hairline, and he glanced over a shoulder to the table where his colleagues sat watching him, waiting for their drinks. Seth smoothed a hand over his hair, ducking his chin in a slight, childish way that made Kara inch closer to him and re-cross her legs. Behind the bar, Handolivan briskly rubbed a glass with a towel, eyeing her.
“And what exactly,” Seth asked, his eyes roaming over the gossamer lace across Kara’s chest, down her flowerstem waist and the length of her legs, “are you hired to help do?”
That was when Handolivan, slamming down the sparkling glass with a grunt, informed Kara that her break was over and she was needed at the door. Kara’s eyes flicked in that direction, where Slav – massive, solid, menacing slug that he was – obviously not only had everything under control but appeared rather bored by the professional, chaste audience of the night.
Kara slipped off her stool, tossed back the rest of her drink and approached the man with three hands, six drinks and one hell of a glint in his golden eye. She paused beside him, one honey hand on his arm, and leaned in close. “Meet me in the alley in an hour, and I’ll show you what I’m best at, not what I’m hired to do,” she said and, with a squeeze of his knee, returned to her post at the door.
He met her in the alley, but – as she would learn over time – he did everything on his schedule, not hers. She was ready to call it a night and start the long walk home when he appeared beneath a streetlight at the end of the alley, opposite where she asked him to meet her. Kara watched him for several moments before unzipping her boots and slipping them off, walking toward him in her bare feet, the alley cobblestones slick and cold.
“Just, you know, whenever,” was all she managed to say before Seth had her in his hands, pulling him to his chest and closing his mouth on one of hers. She released the tight iron coil inside her chest and waited until her last set of lungs were throbbing before pulling away, gasping, “you must be happy to see me.”
Seth laughed then, and it was the ribbon of her undoing, the unspooling of her resolve and the crumbling of every wall she had built around herself. She admired the glint of streetlight off his rows of sharp teeth (only the best families could afford to have their teeth ground into the slicing slivers that ensured Klandestines became adept at holding their tongues) until he finished, running a hand over his hair again to hide his amusement and arousal.
“That,” he said, reaching into his pocket and showing her, “is my trusty hammer.” He pushed it toward her with a wink. “I never leave home without it.”
Kara plucked it from his hand and turned it over in the light of the streetlamp. It was small but hefty, fitting in the cup of her palm. She held it up and swung a few light slashes, Seth taking a step back with a small smile.
He went home with her that night, not displaying any surprise or distaste at her dusty kitchen counters, the broken Mein-Watt Counter or drafty windows. Her bed, thankfully, had clean linens and she had always admired how the light of the Fourth Season Moon filled her bedroom with its signature dusky pink light. She allowed her minty uniform to whisper down her legs and watched his eyes glow the yellow of sacred feline stars in the gloaming.
“You,” he nearly choked, emptying his pants pockets without looking away from her, sliding his special tiny hammer onto her dusty bureau before shuffling toward her, “are my heart’s desire.”
The suns of Eros had never blazed brighter, its moons had never glowed so serenely as they did in those honeyed, peeling days. Kara wandered from work to home, bumbled through cafes and into lingerie shops, her face split and dreamy, fingering lacy garments and hand-tooled stockings, crafted chocolates and the cold smooth silhouettes of rasping amber sparkling wines.
“Someday,” crowed the blind soothsayer on the corner of 5th and Main, just two streets from her pod near Nostradamus Park, “beings of tender flesh and fragile hearts will partake of that which we shun and toss away, and they will desire more than we may comprehend. They will have souls delicate and laced with desire, and their mortal coils will last less than our year, and our accomplishments will go unheeded in their eyes, they will not know of our sprawling silver cities, our empires, our knowledge of that which they glimpse in the flickers and flaws of those they call insane.”
“And why is that, old man?” sneered a second-eon, pausing with a group of friends to leer at the old Master, elbowing each other and nudging the soothsayer’s basket with their toes. “What about the insane makes them not able to know how great we are?”
“Yeah,” another asked, leaning forward and swiping what few dinera the blind man had collected in his basket, “why won’t they recognize how great we all are?”
Kara stepped forward and swept the thief’s feet out from under him, and his friends were dragging him away as the old soothsayer called, “They cannot recognize that which they do not know. We will be erased. We will be forgotten.”
He turned his milky eyes on Kara as she backed away. “We will be false, conjured, fiction to them,” he told her, and Kara turned and sprinted home.
The last days burned orange and thick, heat rising in coiling waves above the silver walks beside the park. She and Seth had made their plans; he would meet her after her last shift at the lounge, his long black Shipster waiting at the curb with their bags and a final swipe of his investments. His wife was visiting her family on the 16th ring of Bannister, she wouldn’t be home for two eons. They would shapeshift and then travel along the Coitous Canal until they reached a dwelling he had procured just for them, a nest to start over, start fresh, just them and their whole hearts beating together, a new life free of the pristine purity and tyranny of Eros.
However, he was not waiting. Kara stood alone in the alley beneath their street lamp, yellow eyes flicking from her few bags to the empty dark boulevard, until she realized he was not coming. She left the bags and ran the wet streets, boots in hand, around the park, skidding to a stop outside his towering steel dwelling. The lights were on. Shadows cut sharp and angry against white windows. Shouting, Seth’s voice loud and firm. And another, high and fragile, words slicing as neat and precise as ice.
Kara was inside their dwelling before she realized she had left the street. Water caught suspended in her eyelashes, dewy in the long swirls of her hair.
“Is this it?” the female, obviously Seth’s life mate, screeched as Kara blinked at Seth’s recoiled form, his curled body against a wooden case beside the door. Inside the case were dishes, the flat objects for proper consumption, uppity domestic unnecessary items Kara and her coworkers snickered about as they eyed the older clientele, those with life mates and offspring and responsibility. “Is this your cherished one?”
The way she said it, how she spat out an endearment while holding Kara’s eye, made Seth cower even closer into himself, his three hands clutching at his heart even as he refused to glance in Kara’s direction. Kara took a step forward, then another, moving herself between Seth and the shrieking other one. Somewhere behind, suddenly and rather softly, she heard sobbing.
“Seth,” Kara said, eyes wide and, for once, just this once, she allowed her senses to open, her mind to widen and open porous as a sponge, filling with him. “Seth,” she struggled to keep her voice calm even as his riotous red thoughts assaulted her, “tell me what it is that has happened.”
And yet he could not. He was not one who would leave his life mate, not really, not ever. He had entertained the thought, he loved the way Kara moved and spoke and felt like air beneath his many, many fingers, but he would not give up his life, his mate, his career and his planned existence. Kara would understand. She would move on. She had done this many times, she must have, she must have done this before because that is what creatures such as Kara do, they do not cling, they do not cleave, they do not carry on and forward and carve out lives, they merely exist to accommodate others, look at her life, her flat, her churning wake of violence and sex and crooning. This is what she is. This is what she does.
Kara wheeled back as if slapped, and no one had said a word. Yet the high keening of the life mate, that shrieking shrill harpy continued, and Kara turned on one heel and put her fist through the female’s face.
Seth was screeching her name. Kara, with some effort, pulled her second hand from the female’s face and shook it: green life matter splattered into the corners like paint from a frustrated artist’s brush. And yet the female continued to keel, to wail, and so Kara, seeing only red and hearing only Seth’s roaring wail, his shattering pain in her head, filling her ears and her mind and pressing against her eyes until she thought she would split from it, calmly leaned over and slipped one foot into a boot she still carried in her third hand. She zippered it up, took two steps over and stomped the heel into the female’s face.
After that, the female was silent, but Seth got louder.
Kara slipped the boot off, tossed it aside and squatted before him, cocking her head to one side. She knew what she must look like – huge head, blazing yellow eyes, wide angry mouth smeared with the life matter of his beloved. Kara could see herself in Seth’s eyes, and it only marginally bothered her that she no longer cared. He whimpered and slobbered and moaned, his matching eyes moving between her face and the messy pit that was left of his life mate.
“Where is it,” Kara said.
Seth’s eyes couldn’t meet hers, and he scooted to one side, keening softly. He stammered.
“Where is it?” She asked again.
He could not answer, so Kara stood and searched. She found the hammer, small and steely, on the dresser in their bed chamber. It seemed to have been dropped in haste, and when she allowed herself the concentration, Kara’s senses told her that the life mate had slipped it from Seth’s pocket, hidden it away until he thought she had left for her family visit. Only she hadn’t left, had never planned on it, but had waited until he was steps away from the door to ambush him. Kara saw it all, the sloppy sordid scene, and paused to chuckle to herself in the darkened room. She had allowed herself to fall in love with a man as blind, old and delusional as the faded soothsayer on the corner. Kara breathed deeply and gave the hammer a little toss in her hand.
Seth’s face drained when he saw her approach, his eyes falling to the hammer. Kara used what psychic energy she had left to keep him silent as she went to work on him.
Kara sat, legs splayed, on the cracked earth of a yellow field, tossing the hammer end-over-end in her third hand. She knew something, or someone, was coming. She wasn’t lucky enough to be banished to this place, this forgotten Earthsphere, to simply live out her days in wandering abandon. This was punishment. This was karmatic force. After a while, she lay back and let the weak rays of the one sun touch her face and lull her into something that resembled sleep.
A rolling growl, like thunder, like ache. Kara sat up. She shielded her eyes with one hand, the hammer tight in another. It was a voice, a keening, a low moan, a wail. She gathered herself slowly to her feet, scanning the distance, the hammer a weight like lost memory in her palm.
“Hello?” She called. A loud nothing answered, wind hissing across the plain. “Seth? Is that you?”