Star of Wonder, page 12
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“What is a Morian ship doing all the way out here?” Nightsinger asked, his feet tucked up under him in his chair. “I thought they never left their own little sphere of space, either because they’re afraid of the big bad galaxy or because it would cost too much!”
“They are afraid.” Carol—she couldn’t think of herself as Starsong just now, not with the terror that seeing the Balrog’s name had wakened in her—huddled in her own chair, shivering. Even a full year spent aboard the Wild Rover wasn’t enough to override the deepest reactions her early life had taught her, the churning in her gut and the shortening of her breath when she thought about the Morian authorities.
They’ll want me back, her mind babbled. It doesn’t matter that my aunt and uncle never liked me, that I know all kinds of music now, that they were only ever going to send me away to the reformatory in the first place—they’ll want me back, to prove that no one escapes Morian justice, no matter how far they run or how they try to hide…
“They’re afraid of all sorts of things,” she continued aloud. “Of hearing music, of learning stories, really, of knowing too much about anything that has to do with how the rest of the galaxy lives. They think it will distract them from their work, and a distracted worker gets her fellow workers killed…”
Primitive, by the standards of the greater galaxy, the Aelur might originally have been, but Carol couldn’t help but be grateful for their custom that it was the height of rudeness for listeners to stare at a speaker while she was talking. Killdeer had a tripad in her hands and was working it urgently with fingers and voice, Nightsinger was twisting and coiling a bit of wire between his hands, Suncrest was standing in one corner of the room and gazing at the wall screens which displayed an image of the starfield outside the ship, and Duskdance had her own workbag out and was busily stitching at what Carol recognized as one of her own show blouses, bright and cheerful with embroidery.
Am I ever going to wear it again? she wondered with a shiver. Will I ever take another bow with Sundance, and listen to everyone cheer for us, and lift up little Winterfur to sit on my shoulders and sing the goodbye song to our audience? Or will the law say I have to go back to Moria, because that’s where I was born?
“Work may be the excuse, but I’d bet you a full audience’s take that’s not the only reason.” Suncrest spoke without turning around. “Music and stories open people’s minds, make them think beyond their boundaries. But the Morians don’t want to lose their workforce, and with it their income, so they discourage or outlaw anything that could help to spark dreams in people about getting away from their incredibly dreary little planet—or am I wrong?” He glanced back at Carol.
Carol shook her head. “You’re not wrong,” she confirmed. “Morians do tell stories, but they’re all about how Reliable Jack got a good position and a big salary right out of school because he was never late and always did a little more than what was expected of him, or how Clever Jill won the biggest Christmas bonus in her office because she had studied all the steps of their process and found the places where they were inefficient so she could improve them…”
Nightsinger made a gagging noise. Killdeer reached over without looking to swat her mate on the back of the head. “Behave yourself,” she said, setting her tripad down on the table. “All right, here’s the latest news we have on board—I sent a probe off inquiring for anything more recent, but it won’t catch up with us until tomorrow. You were reported missing when it happened, Starsong, love, but the alert was blue-flagged.”
“Blue-flagged?” Duskdance looked up from her work. “I have heard of red flags, but blue?”
“That’s the First Responders’ code for an alert that looks like it was put out just for form, or possibly for spite.” Suncrest turned back to face the room. “Custody battles are a big cause of blue flags, where both parents would be acceptable as caretakers for their children but one gets so frustrated with the process that they claim the other one is a kidnapper. It’s too big a galaxy for the Responders to follow up on every single thing like that, a blue flag means they’re kicking it back to the local authorities—but hang on.” He craned his neck to peer at Killdeer’s tripad. “Are you sure that’s a blue flag, K.D., or is it green? Because a green flag on an alert means something entirely different…”
Killdeer swiped her fingers across the screen a few times and blinked in surprise. “How did you know that?” she demanded, holding up the tripad so that everyone could see Carol’s face, solemn in the last school picture she’d had taken before the Rover had come to Moria, the edges of the standard background clearly outlined in a vivid shade of green. “It was blue to start with, but they swapped it over to green after a month or two.”
“So what’s a green flag mean?” Nightsinger asked.
“Officially, it’s just a flourish on blue. ‘Give local authorities assistance with investigation’ rather than ‘Take no action, refer to locals.’ But unofficially…” Suncrest came to take a seat at the table, his lips beginning to twitch into a semblance of his usual easy smile. “Unofficially, it means the Responders have done their homework. They’ve looked into Moria, and they’ve looked into us, and they’re giving us the benefit of the doubt. A green flag means whichever Responder answers this alert, they’re going to look a lot more closely into it than they usually would a missing-child case. And once they’ve taken into account the cultural peculiarities of Moria, and Starsong’s undoubted talents in another direction…”
“Not to mention what she wants from life, her hopes and dreams for her future. And the transformation she has undergone over the past year.” Duskdance turned her warm smile towards Carol. “It has not always been easy for you, I know, my love,” she said. “But I hope that you, like I, have never had any true reason to regret the choice we made so quickly at this time last year.”
Shaking her head hard, Carol felt Starsong begin to creep back out of the place within her heart where she’d run to hide. “It’s been scary sometimes, and a lot of times it’s hurt,” said both parts of her together. “But little hurts and healings are the only way to get strong.” She regarded her fingers, callused both from her crochet hook and the strings of the harp and guitar she practiced every day, her left palm scarred by the unexpected jump of a knife with which she’d been peeling a potato and her right by a small burn from a heated stone she’d been trying to use to brew tea in the Aelur style. “And my body might always have been comfortable on Moria, but my heart was miserable.”
“Even misery can be comfortable, though.” Killdeer never took her eyes away from what she was doing on her tripad now. “If it’s all you’ve known for a long time, all you’ve been taught to expect, then hope and happiness can burn like fire.” Now she looked up, her eyes meeting her niece’s squarely. “And for some people, that’s too much. They’d rather stay with what they know, even if what they know is horrible, than endure the pain of change to get what’s better in the end.”
Carol took a deep breath in, and Starsong let it out. “Not me,” she said. “Only dead things don’t change, and I want to live.”
“In that case, let’s start making plans.” Nightsinger brought his palms together in a soft clap. “Suncrest, would you run that bit about the green flag past us again? If you’re saying what I think you’re saying, we may already have the perfect way to handle this one…”