I awoke with a splitting headache. It was daytime, and I stared up at the blue sky. I was still outside amongst the Refugee ruins. I groaned and shut my eyes again, noticing that my head was resting on a soft pillow. The softest pillow I had ever felt, in fact. I opened my eyes by a crack and sat up very slowly. There was a thin blanket on top of me.
From behind me came a shout. An unfamiliar woman came rushing up to me from behind, kneeling down and supporting me with a gentle hand on one shoulder. She said something rapidly in a language I didn’t recognise, and for the briefest of moments I wondered if she was Berrumin before everything from the night before came flooding back at once.
Darro was dead. Darro was dead and Dyamma killed him and the village had been burning and… where was Dyamma now anyway?
I looked around blearily. A short distance away towards the road stood an enormous looming shape. It was a like a metal building on stilts, with a ramp descending from the front. It had four triangular wings like a toy dart; two at the front and two towards the back of the blocky main body, but each was about as wide as a small house. It reminded me of a picture I had seen in Lord Torru’s mansion of the Refugee landing craft in Landisilo, but where they had been sleek and silver, this one was a dull grey and barely looked more aerodynamic than a rock.
Dozens of other unfamiliar people were milling around between the object and where I lay. They wore the strangest clothes I had ever seen. Some were in white uniforms, whereas others were wearing a wide variety of colourful clothes. A small number were dotted around in pairs, dressed in black uniforms with pale blue helmets, standing absolutely still with their hands clasped behind their backs.
The woman crouched down by my side wore a thin white tunic with sky blue patches on the sides and a giant red “E” emblazoned on the chest. She then wore loose trousers – also white – with sky blue stripes down either leg. But what struck me was that there was not a stitch or a thread anywhere to be seen. They were entirely flat and smooth. They even shimmered slightly as though made of metal, or covered in water. Her hair was short, I noticed. Short as a man’s, and red. I had never actually seen a person with red hair before.
Dyamma was nowhere to be seen. I had seen him fall just like me, so perhaps he had already woken up, or been taken away. Where, then, was Darro’s body? I assumed it must have been moved.
Where was my mother? Selli? That question at least was answered quickly enough when I twisted around to see them only a short distance from me, both still unconscious.
“Ssh, ssh,” said the woman. She said something else in her language and offered me a small vial of what looked like water. She motioned me to drink it, then rubbed her hands on either temple and winced dramatically, feigning a headache. I nodded my understanding and drank from the vial. Almost instantly, my headache faded.
She babbled at me again, smiling, but when I returned only a blank look, she instead gestured with her hands: “Up. Come.”
I did as she asked, getting stiffly to my feet. My head span with every movement and my vision briefly threatened to go. I screwed up my eyes and opened them again, and I must have swayed slightly, because the woman held onto my elbow to support me.
She led me just behind one of the ruined structures where something like a tent stood, though I could see no strings holding it up. She gestured for me to go inside and offered me a reassuring smile.
I pushed aside the entrance flap to the tent and stepped inside. It looked like the same material as the woman’s clothing. Something invisible tickled my skin slightly as I passed the threshold, like walking through a wall of drizzle. I looked around for the source, but that and all other thoughts left my mind when I saw the interior.
Everything was white inside. A white mat on the floor, white walls. The interior was lit by a steady, pale light with no apparent source. In the centre of the tent was a sole bed with strange ornaments set around it and a familiar inhabitant.
“Darro!” I cried. He was not only very much alive, but even awake. I rushed up to the bed.
“Jorj,” he replied. He smiled weakly. A dressing was around his throat where Dyamma had forced him down onto the blade.
“How are you-?” I spluttered.
“Alive? I have no idea,” he replied. His voice was very hoarse. “I just woke up in this bed.” He glanced at the tent entrance. The woman had left. “Are Selli and your mother alright?” he asked.
“I think so,” I replied. “They were asleep outside next to me.”
Darro nodded, satisfied. Good,” he said. “Now, listen to me,” he continued earnestly, “these people are from Ti Yuwenna! They have journeyed here from across the stars like the Refugees, just as the Chronicle said they would.”
“How do you know?” I asked. “They can’t speak our language.”
“They speak Ancient Erti,” said Darro. “The original language of the Chronicle.” He paused. “Well, sort of. Only some of them speak it, and I don’t think they really understand what they’re saying as they say it. There’s some kind of magic they have doing it for them. But listen, Jorj; they are not to be trusted. They bring wonders and even brought me back from death, but Ti Yuwenna is a place of evil and tyranny.”
His voice was getting hoarser. “Go to your mother and Selli,” he said. “See if they’re awake yet.” He closed his eyes and laid back on the pillow.
I left the tent. There was far more activity just outside the tent than there had been before. The Yuwenni (if Darro was right about their origin) were gathered around the hole I found the day before. I zig-zagged between them, attracting a few staring looks, and made my way to where I knew my mother and Selli were.
They were both awake and sitting up. The woman who had helped me was with them, offering them vials like the one she had given me. I walked up to them.
“Jorj!” cried my mother. “Where were you?” She started to stand up, but the Yuwenni woman tried gently to keep her sitting down.
“Over there,” I replied quickly, pointing back at the tent, “with Darro! Mum, Darro’s not dead. He’s okay!”
“What? How?” she asked.
“These people have magic or something,” I said. “I don’t know, but he’s got a big bandage on his neck, where…” I trailed off. Selli’s eyes were wide. I shrugged. “Drink that,” I said, pointing at the vials the increasingly-exasperated Yuwenni woman was still trying to give to them. “It’ll help with the headache.”
There was a sudden flash in the sky, just like the ones last night that had heralded the arrival of the falling stars. I looked up to see a bright light falling straight towards us from the West just like last night, but this time I could see it properly in all its awe-inspiring spectacle. Within seconds, however, it began to fade until its true form could be seen quite clearly as another grey, oblong vessel like that which already sat nearby.
The clouds parted behind it in its wake, and a few seconds later came the deep roar that had accompanied the other craft the night before. The rectangular underbelly was glowing red like steel hot from the smith’s furnace, but that was dissipating cooling rapidly back to the dark grey of its companion already landed by the road, towards which it seemed to be heading.
It slowed almost to a standstill, hovering impossibly just above the ground before extending a set of legs and slowly touching down. It was several seconds before I realised my mouth was still agape, and even longer to realise that there was a commotion amongst the Yuwenni behind me.
A small crowd had gathered, and many of those in black uniforms were pushing their way through the towards whatever was the focus of the attention.
“Something’s happening over there,” I said to my mother and Selli, who were still very much struck dumb by the landing of the new ship on top of their grogginess. My mother called sharply to me to stay with them, but I ignored her. I wandered off to the side, clambering over a low wall to try and get a better view.
His face was gaunt and his hair was a mess, and his clothes were bloody and torn. He had cast away all his equipment and arms save for a small dagger on his belt. But there was no mistaking Gamma. He saw me and looked straight into my eyes before laughing once and collapsing to the floor.