Chapter 19: Starlight Exodus

19

Appetite

Starlight Exodus


“The world we knew is gone. I couldn’t have predicted this. Maybe I could’ve if I looked hard enough.” — Mary Lu Caldwell, the Augur of Owls


Appetite was watching from Sundancer when his daughter broke the world. Kaulu darts from one side of his computer core, waiting for a response. The AI often flipped from being helpful to caring to obnoxiously amused at the dismay of humans. Showing any type of emotion that the AI wanted gave it the closest thing to satisfaction an intelligence its age could manage. Still, he struggled to keep his face devoid of emotions as he paced up and down the length of the ship.  He scratched at his red-clay beard, the stubs of his missing fingers barely reaching his chin. The fear tugged at him. He knew now the burden that Ina once carried with her, the reason why she couldn’t go from the planet for any long periods of time.  Everything had fallen on Kindle’s lap and with it came the worst possible outcome. Appetite hated it.

There was nothing he could do now. What was done was done. No one had told her the significance of keeping her power in check. That was the job of the Shadow, the Warlock to the Shaman.  They kept their power in check, regulated it. Two sides of the same coin, pushing and pulling on a thin rope ready to snap.  Ignace had let go of his end of the rope and let her fall deeper and deeper. Appetite took a deep breath. He had to look strong, had to hope that somehow this was going to all work out. We’re alive, he told himself. What happened next didn’t matter. What’s done is done, he told himself again, trying to gather his words for his daughter. What could he say? His heart pounded in his chest hard in his chest.  Nothing sounded right. She was gonna always feel like the Caldwell that took C’dar away from them.

“Passenger incoming,” Kaulu sang in his boyish like voice. “Access granted. Welcome aboard.”

Appetite straightened his back, preparing his words. The blinding white light threaded together, taking form bit by bit. Where he expected Ina or Kindle or both, he got Ignace. He materialized before him, his now black robe with the loo of purple shadows and star lights bellowing around him. Appetite recognized the staff that he twirled with every step. His father staff, a trophy. He smiled at him, the side of his ruined spiderwebbed scarred face barely twitching upwards. He strode in like he had come in from a successful hunt. He took a seat, poured himself a drink from the bar, and reclined with one foot resting on his knee. He sipped the liquid, making an exaggerated ahhh after every sip. Appetite didn’t have the energy or the mindset to throttle him. Instead, he opened his mouth and asked a simple question: “Why?”

“Ain’t it obvious,” Ignace grinned. “I was never going to be the Flame and Ina was never going to have the heart to do what was necessary. Your daughter, on the other hand, she’s a firecracker. She just needed a push.”

“Why, Ignace?”

“C’dar was our prison, Woody,” he laughed, “no different than what Daedel was to your father. My people can be one of the strongest people in the galaxy with the knowledge we know. So, I took the one thing that my father cherished most, his duty to this planet. What better revenge is there?” He shrugged, taking another long draft from his drink. “You should be happy. Even former Shaman are bounded to the Shadows they christened them, now that he’s gone, you and Ina might have something again. I honestly don’t know why you’re upset. You and your rats can always find another planet. There’s a dime a dozen. If you beg, I might even help you with the ships. So–”

“This was our home.”

“As it was mine,” he said matter-of-factly. “Sometimes, though, we can’t stay where we are. Move forward. That’s the truth of the matter. The Breauxs were chained here and the Caldwells, though a softer chain, ain’t that much different. You went around, lived off this land and the stole from a power stronger than you. You created a comfortable life for yourselves. Though admirable, y’all always had a thirst for something more. This world isn’t the thing to quench that. How long before the Civilization comes back, this time with fleets instead of foot soldiers? You think you all would’ve made it that far without my father’s deal, the need for your daughter, and Major Debenham’s curiosity. Don’t make me laugh, Woody.” He sipped his drink again. “I did you a favor.”

Appetite squashed the urge to lunge across the ship and strangle him. Where he was completely wrong on some points, there was a logic there he couldn’t ignore. They had been lucky. Any more power from this clearly superior force, they wouldn’t have been crushed. Perhaps the Major had some sympathy for them. Maybe he wished to have the core completely under control before wiping them from the planet. He didn’t know. The truth of the matter was they were gonna come back whether Kindle did what she did or not and they had to be gone when they did. That didn’t excuse it. If anything, leaning on that twisted logic left an even more sour taste in his mouth. The urge to strangle Ignace began to slowly evolve into imagining vivid images of each of his vertebrate individually breaking against his knee.  Kaulu giggled at the tension. “Sorry to interrupt,” the Kaulu said in its soft man’s voice, “but the lady is about to board and I doubt she would want violence between the two of you. So be a good little boy and stay in line.”

The spinning lights of the return beacon appeared, this time the color of sunlight instead of its normal white. Ina stepped through first, not losing a single stride in her walk. Kindle followed not too far behind. The difference between the two was night and day. Ina came like a storm, Kindle more like a soft rain. Ina tossed everything she was holding to the side, went straight to her brother and punched him in the jaw with a sharp crack. His face snapped to the side, a dribble of the brown drink streaking down his mouth. He went to say something and punched him again with her other fist, this time on side of his face where he had his scar. Her knuckles left companion bruise, red and purple from swelling and blood. “I’ve been wrong before,” Kaulu muttered.

“How dare you,” her words were barely audible, leaning hard on a foreign language, “how dare you put this on her?”  In her anger, she looked barely human at all. She grabbed her brother by the collar. “Why would you do that?”

“Don’t be silly, Ina. Both you and I knew I wasn’t gonna stop at killing dad.”

“But using my daughter.

“Funny you use that word since you were never there for her. We both know we have no idea how parents work. No need to pretend like you’re not satisfied. I did for everyone.”

The anger on her face boiled into an uncontrollable rage. For a second, Appetite thought she was gonna draw her weapon and shoot the man in his belly. She might have if Kindle didn’t push past them.

The tension in the room only grew when she stumbled forward. Appetite opened his mouth to speak, trying his best to sound strong and reassuring. All the rehearsing, all the reassurance left him all at once. Kindle walked directly into her papa’s arms, her forehead resting on his abdomen. Appetite lost all interest in what was happening between the siblings and wrapped his arms around his daughter. He pressed his forehead against the top of her’s. She wasn’t crying or shaking from anger, or even muttering to herself. She remained motionless and emotionless in his arm.  The best he could do here was to hold her, pressing his head against the crown of her head. What could anyone say to a girl who accidentally sent in motion the destruction of her family’s planet?

***

The ride on the Sundancer back to the Dusk Mountain stretched on in what felt like a millennium. Appetite looked out on the window, keeping the now catatonic daughter close. He hoped that seeing the familiar peaks of the Homestead would’ve brought some sort of reaction to the young girl’s eyes. She didn’t. Perhaps that was a good thing. Seeing the clouds settle over the mounts, angry black and already weeping frozen flake left a bad feeling in his stomach. He had expected it to bad. From what he knew from Kaulu, the satellite and its ultra-powerful AI was the only reason this planet remained habitable in a ring of dead or desolate planets. With its slow death, the planet would die with it. Within a year or two, the entire planet would be so erratic that living would be impossible. There was a beautiful still in their home. He saw it and ached. No. Homes can be replaced. The pain filled him but for his daughter, he won’t let that pain show.

They landed not far from the crashed ship that brought his grandfather and his brothers here in the first place. Appetite went to go for another one-armed hug, but Kindle softly pushed him away. She left the ship without a word, walking directly to their small cabin. Appetite took a deep breath and watched her. He couldn’t even imagine the guilt that she felt. What she didn’t seem to see was that she saved her family. Some Caldwells were going to resent her, resent all of this. For those stubborn family members, there was nothing anyone could do. Whatever happened, happened. Too late to fix it. He understood her pain and let her be. She’ll recover, he told himself feeling as helpless as a frog without legs, she’ll recover. She had to. If she didn’t, he too might go mad from it all.

Hours passed in silence as they waited for the rest of the Caldwells to return. The Caldwells left at the Homestead waited in bated breath, hoping to hear the news. Appetite wasn’t in the mindset to give it to them. Ina sat beside her. They all watched her with hard eyes. To them, Kindle’s mom had returned out of nowhere. Kindle’s mom who had taken Appetite’s heart and thrown into the trash, leaving a shell of a man for years afterward. Despite any disagreement they did have, the family came first, and Ina had hurt him. The only reason they hadn’t brought out their weapons was the fact that Ina probably could’ve killed any person here without a second thought. Their judging eyes and passive aggressive whispers would have to suffice for now. Again, Appetite didn’t have the energy to correct them. Worst off, he didn’t know whether he should. She had left them. She hadn’t contacted them. There wasn’t a right or wrong answer to that. They had a lot to push through, if only as parents. Appetite pinched the bridge of his nose. That was looking at it lightly.

One by one, the family returned. Vermin, carrying most of the younger generation, came rolling in with Hung Beetle and his father’s 7-A mech. Both were in bad condition, but that’s how Doc’s boys and girls liked it.  Truck after truck filtered in, each with a tired but satisfied expression. They had won for all they knew–beat the invaders to live another day. What they didn’t know was that their hardship had only begun. Appetite didn’t want to be the one to tell them, especially the old boys trailing the rear. Though he was relieved that everyone seemed to have made it, he wasn’t particularly thrilled on telling them how or why. He hardly knew the details himself.  Kindle hadn’t been too thrilled talking about it. The only detail managed to get out of her with a simple head shake was if she had killed the Major.  No. She’s didn’t. Somewhere in the galaxy, the Major lived. He took a deep breath. At least I got one of them. He adjusted himself in his seat, gathering the loose threads of his courage in his head. What he wanted to do was have dinner and go to bed. Both would have to wait.

Pa and Pastor came in on the last truck. Drifter stumbled out of the truck, his pale body covered in a long blanket. It bothered Appetite how frequent this scene was. What made it worse this time was an eyepatch on his father’s eye, that entire side of his face burned into a cracking charcoal black. Out of pure luck, he even survived that—nevertheless, be conscious and walking. The Caldwell mutations saved him, no doubt. Odd, the very mistake the Civilization wanted to erase was the very thing that saved their hides from time to time. Soon their luck was gonna run out but not today it seemed. They lived, this time as a shame upon the Bluecoats measure. Probably not the first, but it dang well felt like it to them. Too bad I’m gonna haffta ruin our parade. He coughed and stood, puffing out his chest and squaring his shoulders. They gotta know before it gets bad. “Hey,” he cried out, “gonna steal a moment from ya for a second?”

Everyone looked up in surprise but didn’t interrupt. They had taken glean to listen to him when he spoke now. His voice boomed loud enough, and he looked dang intimidating with his scars and missing fingers.  “Settle in, I got something to say.” He felt his heart thumped so hard he felt it through his body. Would they believe him? They had to right. Crazier things had happened, and it wasn’t unheard of.  Thick-tongued, he pushed his thoughts and words forward through his mouth. “Something happened.”

Drifter’s good eye grew wide. Everyone’s eyes did. “Where’s Cassie,” he said, his voice frantic. The wind howled, carrying with it thick flakes and spears of ice. Already, the snow coated the tips of his father’s white beard. His lips trembled but not from the cold. “Where’s Cassie?”

“She’s okay,” Appetite said hurryingly, “but, we aren’t safe here. Not anymore.”

Pit opened his mouth to speak, but Drifter quietened him with a hand before sniffing the air. The flakes of snow tumbled from the sky a bit harder and the wind whistled sharper. Thunder boomed in this distance. Lighting streaked on the surface. Drifter licked the air, flakes dissolving on his tongue. The rest of the old boys followed with equally odd inspections of the world around them. They split up for a second and whispered among themselves. C’dar had been their home for fifty odd years. Looking closely, they felt that something was wrong. Heck. Appetite knew it. Their slow reaction dug deep within them slowly going from confusion to a soft panic. There was no way to say that your world was dying. They each perked up, staring at Appetite with a waiting expression. “We have to leave C’dar,” he said, trying to keep his voice strong.

Never had the Homestead been so quiet. Long seconds stretched on into long minutes. After a time, Appetite tried his best to explain the situation involving Ogoun, its terraforming satellite, the Flame, and the Shadow. The more he tried, the angrier the mob seemed to grow. Who they were angry at? It didn’t matter. Ina, the Breauxs, himself, Kindle. The mob wanted to be angry, they wanted something to blame. This was their planet and somehow one situation screwed over the whole thing. The crippling silence soon broke into a million pieces. They spoke over one another until no voices were clear anymore. Appetite lost control of them for a brief second, looking for his father in the crowd for help. He didn’t find it. He too was too shocked to take in the information. Dang it, stay calm.  He clenched his fist. Ina gave him a bit of a tap on the shoulder, her eyes hard.

“Everyone shuddup,” he shouted, louder than he ever had before–even thunder booming behind him sounded soft in comparison. “Are we gonna just sit here and scream at each other or are we gonna do what we always have and survive? We’re Caldwells. We’ll make it. So, we can either sit here, moan and complain or we can do somethin’ bout it. We can make it off this planet. We can find another one and give the Bluecoats hell on our way. There’s an entire galaxy out there that only a few Caldwells has experienced. ‘Bout time we leave our little corner. Change ain’t so bad. We’re alive, ain’t we? Time to act like it. Either we’re gonna sit here and complain or do somethin’ bout it.” Blank stares. Appetite shook his head. He didn’t care anymore. “We’ve taken worth of crap from these Coats, bout time we put them to use. We’ll make it up as we go.”

Make it up as we go. The words stuck to him. It was reckless and dumb. There was an expanse of galaxy out there, each with its dangers and obstacles. Given the time they had on the planet, they at the very least could hobble together some ships. Tiger was here, he knew how working with a large ship would work. Maybe bring in some help from his crew.  They had enough fuels and supplies to make it a couple of months and more than enough food they can work with. The next months might be rough but manageable. Appetite squared his shoulders, aware how towering of a man he was in this crowd.  The most important thing was to look forward, not back. The moment they did, they would think ‘bout all they lost here. “We gotta move forward, never back.”

Appetite half expected to be laughed off the mountain–or at the very least torn apart by the mob. The stony eyes of the Caldwells, but young and old, slowly turned to resignation. Why would Woody lie about something like this? He wasn’t the prankster type.  It had to be the truth. The truth, cold and relentless, never moved. The whispers returned, one by one. He could hear the scope of what was happening, only bit and pieces here and there. Some were excited about the prospect of leaving, mostly the young men and women.  Others were resilient and stone fast on staying. This wasn’t over, only postponed. For now, the family splintered into pieces, each recovering from their quarrel with Bluecoats and the wild mutants of the Old City. Appetite exhaled, deflating and slumping his shoulders. His nerves frayed, he turned to Ina. She sat in an uncharacteristic stoicness, frowning, eyes distant. He expected her to say something, anything. She never did.

Jo, Loner, and Drifter strolled up. Drifter was leaning on his daughter’s shoulder, his good eye staring Appetite down. “What aren’t you tellin’ us,” Drifter said. “I ain’t blind, only half way there. Cassie’s ain’t okay.”

“She feels responsible for this…” Jo placed her father’s arm over to Appetite who took it without pause. “We can’t change that.”

Drifter sighed. “Take me to her.”

“Ina,” Appetite turned to her, “are you coming?”

Ina shook her head. “She needs to see some friendly faces, not more questions. The very least I can do right now is help you with those ships.” She stood, dusting the flakes of snow off her lap. “That’s the least I can do for you and your family for right now. You will have your ships. They might not be the best, but I’ll see what I can.” She looked up to the swirling storm clouds above the mountain. “I’m sorry, Woody. I’m sorry for everything.” With that, she left, heading back to her ship Sundancer. A part of Appetite felt a twinge of pain watching her go, feeling like he would never see her again. Another part, a darker, selfish and cynical part of him, exhaled in relief. How they felt and where they were going needed to take a back seat for Kindle. She, at least, deserved that.

“Loner help her when she gets the ships if you can. If anyone can help get us on track, it’s you.”

Loner grinned through underneath the green material of his gas mask. This was what he was training for, this was his shining moment. He practically jumped at the opportunity, calling his droid Jesse over and following Ina into the Sundancer. She wouldn’t mind the help, at least he hoped so. Loner, in his mechanical prowess, wasn’t the best at communicating what he wanted from anyone around him. He hadn’t gotten the nickname for no reason. They would figure that out. Let ‘em be, Woody, they’ll get us outta here. Focus on what you need to do. 

Appetite led Drifter and Jo into his cabin, braving the cold winds and earning a warm embrace of the fireplace on the other side. They took the time to shake off the cold, take off some of their weak and dingy jackets and shoes and enjoyed the comforts of home. After they got their act together, they made their way to the back bedrooms. To his surprise, Tiger sat with Appetite’s mother, Mary Lu, chatting in chairs outside of Kindle’s room. In his mother’s lap was a bundle of fresh clothes for Drifter, who took them with a welcoming and loving smile. Appetite lowered his father from his arms, allowing him to change while they waited outside of his daughter’s door. “How is she?” Appetite found himself asking, knowing all too well the answer. Tiger shook his head. “That bad, huh?” The crackling of the fire snapped a piece of wood in the living room. “Has she said anything? Done anything?” Another head shake. The dread in Appetite’s chest tightened. He rapped on the door with his knuckles. “Hey, can I come in?” No response. He tapped the door again. “I’m coming in.”

He hadn’t expected to see what he saw.

The smell smoke choked the air from the room. The dread in Appetite chest found its home here. He looked around. There were only blackened charcoals everywhere. A small fire burned soft in the corners, eating away small things everywhere. Clothes lied spewed on the floor from the smashed drawers and nightstand. Every picture, framed and unframed, was torn from the walls, leaving paper straps and empty dusty frames. Appetite tip-toed over the glass from a shattered lamp, braving through minor cuts here and there to make it to the other side of the room to the bed. “Cassie, are you–” he touched the lump in the bed and felt nothing. He tossed the sheets aside. Nothing. A cold wind hit him on the side of the face. The window’s open.  A fear like no other lanced through him. He looked over the edge of the window and found nothing. He looked through the mess on the floor. Coal was nowhere to be found as was she.

Confusion dove to anger, anger to panic, panic to distress. There was no way he would catch her. She could be anywhere by now with her craftiness and skills. Appetite felt his mind fall deeper and deeper into an animalistic panic. Was it destiny for everyone in the family he tried to make to leave him without a word? He fell to his knees, nails scratching against the floor of the wood. He remembered making this house for them, all of them. Tears rolled down his face, blood oozing from his bitten lips.  Kindle was gone. She was gone, and she didn’t even say goodbye. He wept. He screamed. He shouted. He roared. Everything felt as black as the charcoals in this room.  People flooded into the room, but he didn’t hear them even when they spoke to him. The sick feeling in his stomach didn’t go away. He thought he was gonna vomit.

“Woody,” he heard his father say, “it’s okay. It’s okay. We’ll find her.” Drifter put his head on his. “We’ll find her.”

> To the Epilogue
< Previous Chapter
Back to Main Menu