After going through seven different screwdrivers, Roya finally found the one she was looking for. It had an end shaped like a tooth, which was a rarity even for a mechanic next to a junkyard full of Zaronian era scraps. Tooth-shaped screws were never accepted after the new regime took over, but when using parts from thousands of years ago, one had to use the tools of a thousand years ago.
"Roya Xaviera," a voice called from behind her. "Must you always be in here? Even in the middle of a sandstorm?"
Outside the barn raged yet another sandstorm, but Roya didn't notice it until after someone mentioned it. Sandstorms were commonplace on the dry planet of Falasto, and after living among them most of her life, Roya stopped paying attention to them at all. The winds made the outside metal plating bang against the old rotting wood holding it up, which was no different from usual. Some of the wind got through the cracks, blowing bits of sand inside and annoying the hell out of Roya while she was working.
"Oi, Analy," Roya answered, tightening another screw in the large motor she had sitting on her worktable. "No one asked you to come out here and find me in the middle of another sandstorm." She turned to look at her blonde friend who didn't look like she was dressed for traveling in the middle of the fastest windstorm they'd had in months. "You should have stayed inside the fort. You know they're gonna lock it up during one of these storms."
"Yeah, but Mateja wanted to see you," Analy answered, crossing her arms. "We thought you might have run off to the library again, but you weren't anywhere in Fort Shantz anwhere." She let out a sigh and sat on an unused bench. "The man likes you quite a bit."
"That's a laugh, considering I've done everything I can to avoid his presence." Roya said quietly, looking back at the motor. "Now if I only could find a plasmatic generator out here, we'd be in business. Working out of the scrap yard means limitations based on what was abandoned. I hate not having any money for projects like this." She reached up and wiped her brow to keep the sweat from rolling down her face. "I'm sorry, Analy, what were you saying?"
Analy pushed her flyaway hairs out of her face before continuing. "You know that Mateja, he really likes you. One would think that someone like you would enjoy someone so wealthy."
"Wealth alone does not a relationship make," Roya grunted.
"No, you are right about that," Analy replied. "But you were just saying how little funds you had on hand was frustrating and-"
Roya put her hand up, immediately signaling she had something to say. "You know I can't agree to marrying for money. I've all ready sworn my heart to another."
"You have?" Analy asked.
"Hmm," Roya said with a nod. "I will marry my starship, the Zwarti Onteli Uno!"
Analy couldn't believe what she just heard. "You're… not going to name your first ship that, are you?"
"What? Doesn't sound legendary enough for you?" Roya asked, turning back to the motor. "I really wanna see if this thing works or not, but I don't have any Plasma Core to try it out. I suppose when the storm ends, I'll go looking through the yard again. Plasma energy hasn't been used for travelling in ages, so I couldn't even buy it from the Docking Station out in Parun." She got up from her stool and stretched upward as high as she could. "I can't even build a hull or a frame unless I know my motor works flawlessly. It would be a complete waste of time and effort, not to mention all the rare parts!"
While walking back to their home of Fort Shanz, Analy let her thoughts carefully float about her mind to distract her from the harsh winds that almost knocked her down every time she took a step and the sands constantly beating up against the goggles that came with the Sandsuit. She cared about Roya practically all their lives. She should not have been surprised to hear her closest companion go on and on about her dream of building her own starship, as it was pretty much all she ever talked about since she could remember. Analy felt useless next to Roya, who tirelessly worked on whatever contraption she was building at any given time. It was amazing that anyone even looked in Roya's direction anymore. Their schoolmates had all left town to work in Parun, the biggest city on Falasto. There was not much left to do in Shanz. The town was dying, as evidenced by the large collection of junk that the Space Federation would dump right outside every week. Piles of broken ships, destroyed colonies, and whatever else the Federation deemed waste. Roya certainly believed the saying that "another man's trash is another man's treasure." Her dream depended upon that very concept.
Roya put her hand up against the wall of a very large metal building and pounded on it three times. A door shook loudly and it opened just enough for both Analy and Roya to slip through and then closed back up.
Once sheltered from the storm, Roya immediately pulled off the Sandsuit and hung it on the nearby wall where hundreds of other Sandsuits were waiting for use. She fixed her favorite goggles from on her eyes to atop her head, and retied her apron around her waist. When her red hair fell out of the helmet, she braided it back into place and without even waiting to see if Analy was even ready to head out of the gateway room, she left.
"I'll never understand that girl," Analy said in a melancholy sort of voice. "But…" As she started to say something, she realized no one would be there to hear it, so she kept her trap shut. She exchanged the sandsuit boots for her normal shoes and walked out the gate room promptly.
Fort Shanz looked like a gigantic metal box from the outside, but on the inside, it was a town. All of the structures inside were built into the windowless steel building. Several sets of stairs and elevators linked the bottom, where stood mostly supplies for going outside, and the upper layers, where all the businesses and residential areas were located. A lot of it was made out of the old parts from the scrap yard which was only a few miles away. Books from other planets spoke of buildings made of wood, but no wood ever grew on Falasto.
Around the town were many different people, most of them were of the native race, the Falastons. They were well known throughout the universe for the facial markings they are born with, often in a weird pigmentation which would cause them to be blue or purple. The Falastons believed the markings they were born with determined their destiny, similar to how humans who used to live on Earth would read the lines in their palms to determine their future. Other than the facial markings, the Falastons also had horns which stuck out from both sides of their heads. Females would hang charms off of them, especially during weddings or other rituals where mating happened to be involved. They wore little clothing, as their home world happened to be nothing but desert except for in Parun, where there was enough money to create artificial plant life.
From the gateway room, Analy could see that Roya was being greeted by that of her would-be paramour, Mateja. She didn't run over there. Mateja would never do anything to hurt Roya, of this Analy was quite sure.
"Roya," Mateja said gently, trying so hard to get her to listen to him. Mateja was one of the many Falastons, having been born and raised in this very fortress all of his life. He had blonde hair that extended down to his knees, with decorations littering it in the typical Falaston tribal fashion. "I was worried about you. You really shouldn't go out when you know there will be a sandstorm!" His frame was light and delicate, perfect for surviving in a world of nothing but heat.
Roya stood a bit shorter than he, and her hair was bright red. Her frame was delicate and petite, but she carried meat on her bones. Her face bore no facial markings, and she had no horns. Her head was covered up by her bandanna and her goggles, but she did share one thing in common with the Falastons she lived alongside. Her purple eyes showed no signs of hesitation. "Mateja," Roya said carefully. "I understand your concern, but I've done this tons of times. I wouldn't have walked out into the storm if that dingbat Analy hadn't come to retrieve me. I wanted to stay out until nightfall. She was lucky that I need something else to continue my project, or she would have been waiting with me all this time!"
"Roya, as the son of Fort Shanz's commander, I beg you to not do this again. You're lucky your family has a standing with mine, or you wouldn't be allowed to have your workshop in the middle of the scrapyard. The Federation does not want anyone to use those parts anymore except for what we might need for survival." Mateja replied, his voice becoming stern. "I want you to be happy, but you at least have to follow the rules sometime."
Analy approached slowly as to not interrupt them. When she caught up with Roya, she looked over to Mateja and said, "He is right, you know. When the storms start up, everyone is supposed to stay inside the Fortress. That's the law the Commander put in place to keep us all safe."
"Keep me safe?" Roya asked. "I have a dream, and that dream is well worth fulfilling no matter what anyone says. I'm going to find my father's home world. I will get there if it kills me."
Mateja shook his head. "It just might, Roya. If your ship is not up to the right standards, it could kill you. Go the safer route, my dear. I will take you to Parun, and we will find a way to visit your father's home world. You will find the people with the webbed ears and the red hair, just like yours, and who bear the bright clear blue eyes of Sernan Xaviera." He put his hand on her shoulder. "Let me, and I will gladly take you!"
Roya looked away from him and suddenly decided she was going home. She stopped by a nearby vendor to buy a piece of imported sweet fruit with the few credits she had on hand, and headed up to the elevator which would take her to the twenty-fifth floor. It was so abrupt that Mateja and Analy both were dumbfounded by the fact that it actually happened.
" That was nice, trying to pick her up like that," Analy said with a devilish smile. "Trying to turn the only motivation she has to keep going into a romantic experience was probably a bad touch, considering."
"It's not my fault her father died in the Toxic Rains of last year," Mateja replied, frustrated. "I will keep trying to get her attention. I will not give up in this. Roya will understand that my feelings are genuine eventually."
Analy sighed. She liked Mateja a lot, as he was a great friend to both her and to her best friend, so she decided to bring up something that was nagging her in the back of her mind. "If you really want to make Roya open up to you, her birthday is soon. She needs one thing to see if her experiment is a success or failure. If you get her the fuel she needs, I'm pretty sure she'll take notice."
Mateja's expression brightened almost instantly. "What kind of fuel is it? Stardust? Runechips? Hydrogen Ionized Particles?"
Analy leaned in closer to whisper so no one else could hear. "Plasma."
He looked around quickly to make sure no one else was around once he heard that. His voice was barely a hushed whisper, as he had a hard time keeping his panic down. "P-Plasma?! Is that not illegal now? How is she expecting to fly in a ship powered by an old Plasma engine?!" Mateja shook upon hearing it. It was his duty to his father and to the rules of the city to report an illegal activity to keep the safety of the entire city in the eyes of the Federation. Over time, it became clear that Falaston towns were not exactly cherished by Federation troopers, and if one was suspected of doing anything against the established rules of the Universal Federation Constitution, the whole town was punished. After that it became mandated that every city keep a very close watch on all of its citizens, lest their own city was discovered to be harboring criminals. He loved Roya more than anything he could think of, and here she was, putting him in such a spot. "I suppose that means when it actually is ready, I'm going to have to go with her. My father will kill me when he finds out about this."
Analy nodded. "You did say once that you would buy her a ship. Make the offer. Try to talk her out of it. I don't want to be put to work in the mines any more than you do, but she has never listened to me when it came to things involving her dream. Master Xaviera would have been able to do it with no problem. Now she doesn't care who says what anymore." She then shrugged and started to leave him behind. "I am worried for Roya. I had best check on her."
"You may not be one of us, Analy, but you understand community like we do." Mateja agreed. "I will go do the routine checks on the Hydroponic Dome. Shall I stop by tonight, then?"
"I don't think that would be a problem, really." Analy said looking back at him. "Roya knows how you feel about her. You should act upon it."
Mateja Dejern was as normal as anyone else who lived in Fort Shanz. He had been conditioned to like it, as he was born and lived his entire life there. He had seen Parun and the marvels there, traveling with his father, the Commander of Fort Shanz. Dejern-born Falastons were considered to be the upper class, as the markings on their faces tended to be read by the shamanic priests as 'kingly' or 'royal.' It was because of this fact that Majeta was seen as something like a prince among the people at Fort Shanz. He was a humble person, having eaten food grown in a Hydroponic Dome and worked to keep everything in line. When the Federation troops came to inspect or give orders to the townsfolk, Mateja and his father were the first to report to them. He hated the troopers as much as any other in town, but as his destiny was determined by the purple swirls that branched off of his eyelids and the triangle which sat in the center of his forehead, he did what was assigned to him. Perhaps this was why he found Roya Xaviera so damned attractive. He saw her exist outside the laws he worked to enforce, and he was envious. He wanted to take part in whatever schemes Roya was starting, just to be free of everything he'd been around all his life. Seeing his people bow their needs to survive, while Roya would dance to the beat of her own drum, much against the rest of the townspeople's chagrin. Roya was born there, but she had the blood of a Nuerian in her veins. It showed in everything she did how much she really didn't fit in with Falaston culture. And what confused him the absolute most about it was that she didn't seem to notice this fact.
Majeta wore boots made of sandworm skin that his mother had sewn with thread made of the intestines of the same sandworm, and his clothes were of the same, almost translucent material. The Falastons never wore anything heavier, as the heat would have surely killed their bodies otherwise. His beautiful blonde hair fell to his knees, decorated with all sorts of Falaston charms and beads, as the old tribes did for those considered 'royal' by their birthmarks.
Roya wore clothes that she found in the scrapyard that she spent a while cleaning. The skirt was made of a cloth no one could identify, and dyed a deep blue that never washed out somehow. It was durable, and felt rough to the touch outside, but on the inside, it was comfortable and very cool against the skin. Oh, and for sure no one knew what the hell those flashy things were that she had on her head until she explained it to them. Goggles, she said they were, were invented to protect one's eyes from the environment. The Falastons had never heard of anything like that, but they recognized the usefulness of it easily. Eventually, when Roya and Sernon Xaviera were making all the sandsuits that were still used in the gateway room facility until that very day, they had the approval of everyone in Fort Shanz to include the goggles with them. Falaston hunters had brought them the sturdy skin of a sand beast to make it much more durable. Falastons never allowed any part of whatever they killed go to waste, as it was rare to have any new supplies at all. Everything had a use. It was hard to believe there was even a scrap yard to begin with!
Mateja spent a while in the Hydroponic room that grew all of the organic food that the people in Fort Shanz ate. A lot of it was preserved, dry meat from the hunts done over the past few weeks, and some of it was imported through Parun's universal market, but most of it was vegetation that was grown in a dome of humidty impossible to occur naturally on Falasto. He knew the technology wasn't supposed to exist here, but after one of the merchants went to great lengths to bring it here to save Fort Shanz's population from certain death, the Dejern family let it slide. He looked at all the buttons and knobs, then gazed into the dome itself. All of the plants inside were perfect. After checking the humidity level, he just stood there and let his thoughts pass him by.
Roya never knew that Falastons choose their mates when they are very young, as per the tradition established by generations past. Mateja was no different. Many times in the past, the facial markings a Falaston was born with would determine who they should marry, and romance was expected to develop between the two engaged as they grew up around each other. Mateja tried on every chance he got, and after hearing Analy's idea, he couldn't think of anything else to try to open Roya's heart. He would buy her a ship, or he would help her build her own with what he had on hand. He wasn't going to go against what he was raised to uphold. 'Tradition is important in the life of a Falaston,' his father had said time and time again. 'You will court the one you are arranged to marry, or you will grow old alone. That is our way.' The only one who was different, was the lonely Royatina, whose mate died almost right after they were joined together in the eyes of the Desert Goddess. This left her able to care for the wounded Sernon after he crashed onto Falasto twenty-five years ago. Mateja smiled as he thought about it. If Royatina, his beloved Roya's mother, had not lost her original love, Mateja himself would be arranged to marry another one like him, striving to continue the way his father and grandfather had. Was it wrong to rejoice in the fact that Royatina's mate died at the hands of the sandworms while on a hunt?
Then there was the rebellious spirit in Roya, the girl with the bright red hair, named after her mother. The child who grew up constantly under her father's wing after her mother died giving birth to her. Any other man in the universe would have completely abandoned her by now. Roya never noticed a single advance, never acknowledged a single favor, and never seemed to notice him aside from when he was scolding her for going against the established rules of the town.
He got up once he realized he'd spent about an hour in there thinking everything over. Mateja had to report back to his father that everything was working and try to figure out where the hell he could get plasma ore without anyone noticing.
"Ah, there you are!" Analy said from a floor above Mateja. "How's it lookin' in there?"
Mateja looked up. "Everything checks out to be normal. How is our little mechanic?"
Analy shrugged. "Hungry. We're out of credits. Your dad got any new jobs she could do to earn a few?"
He nodded. "I'll ask, and if he doesn't, you both are more than welcome over for supper tonight." He smiled. This was going to be a perfect opportunity to finally talk some sense into her. His father would be able to persuade her to buy a starship instead of risking her life smuggling illegal fuel to power her handcrafted ship that may or may not survive its maiden voyage. "In fact, come by anyway. I'll cook for you both."
"Let's see if she agrees," Analy said laughing, heading back on up.
"If she's broke," Mateja said under his breath, "She'll come looking for a way to earn a few credits. I'll show my father I'm courting her to the best of my ability… and he says I'm not trying hard enough." He then walked over to the other elevator across the way and pressed the button to be lifted up to the twenty-fifth floor.
Fort Shanz was exactly twenty-five floors tall, each floor having a special purpose. The tallest floor was for the use of the family in charge, the Derejins. On one side was a section for the Derejins to live and for the Commander's office. Across the way were the sections that were given for whatever use the family needed it for. Two of the sections were given walls and doors to be used for the Xaviera family, as at one point, no one in Fort Shanz wanted to share a floor with an outsider. While Roya was accepted for the most part even if she was a half-breed, her father was looked down upon by many, no matter how much he tried to help them in their daily lives. There were floors below for residential purposes, some for cleaning and prepping resources for daily use, and one floor to serve as a place of punishment for those guilty of committing crimes. For the few hundred residents of Fort Shanz, it was enough to serve as a home. Mateja marched up to his father's office and knocked on the door.
"Come in," a stern male voice called from inside.
Mateja opened the door and bowed his head slightly. "Commander," he said, even though the title was not fitting for a man who looked more tribal than militant. "All of the routine checks are normal."
"My son," the Commander said, extending a hand. He was about a full foot taller than that of Mateja, and that was not including his large, expansive horns, which at the end were turning to the same color as the facial birthmarks both of them bore proudly. His hair was a darker blonde, running through with streaks of brown, showing his old age. "Please sit down. I have something I wish to discuss with you, now that you're here."
"Sir?" Mateja asked, confused by this. "I thought you didn't want to be bothered while you were in your office. I was going to wait until you were home before-"
The Commander shook his head as he pointed to the nearby cushion-like seat on the floor. "This is between you and me, my son. You don't need to be so formal." He waited until Mateja sat down, then his smile grew. "It's almost time for you to take the vows, my son. Have you checked on Roya lately?"
"She is coming over to dine with us this evening," Mateja answered with a smile. "I was hoping she might fall for one of my best recipes."
"Ah ha! Splendid idea, my boy. I always told you that you had to think outside the box to be able to court a rebel like that one. A woman can easily be swayed by a man's dish from the heart." The commander laughed at that, patting Mateja's shoulder. "You can use all our finest meats and fruits to fill her belly as full as it can get, and then you will invite her to sleep with you!"
"Wha… Father!" Mateja gasped. "Y-you cannot be serious."
"I didn't say you would go through with the baby making ritual, you idiot!" The commander said. "I said you would offer her company and warmth. Desert nights are not at all comfortable alone. It is one of the best perks of having a mate, my son, keeping you and your mate gently safe from the outside world. This is how the romance works. You hold each other, you comfort each other, you are each other's ultimate love and ambition, all you do is for your mate and your community."
Mateja knew in the depths of his heart that would not go well on Roya. Trying to tell her something so archaic and poetic would go right over her head, and she would just ask when she could get back to work on her blasted project in that damned shed out in the middle of the scrap yard when he was done. "Fa… father," he started like he wanted to say something important, but he stopped himself from continuing. Mateja knew that Roya would never forgive him if he revealed that she was doing something more than illegal outside the city's boundary. He was aware of the fact that she and her father spent time outside, probably because he wanted to fix his own ship to return home somehow, but Mateja's father never knew that the erratic behaviors continued in Sernan Xaviera's daughter.
"I'll go get started on it, then," Mateja said quietly, picking himself up from his seated position. "Father, I… I'm not sure if you know this, but Analy will be coming along as well."
"That one still lives around here? I'm amazed she hasn't left yet."
"She makes it her personal duty to keep watch over Roya."
The commander grunted. "That will be over the moment Roya is married into the Derejin family." He stood up, too. "I will have a word with her. You just take care of Roya."
Mateja also knew in the depths of his heart that Analy would not be the one to take that so lightly. Analy took her duties to heart, whatever they were exactly, and Roya never had a problem with her following her around all the time anyway. He turned to bow his head just a little bit towards his father, then walked out of the main office to find that Roya was standing right there in front of the door looking intently at her set of screwdrivers. "Oh, how long have you been there, Roya?" he asked.
"I came looking for work," Roya answered, not looking up from the blue one with the end shaped like a tooth. "I'm out of credits and can't buy anything else to eat right now, so I wanted to come see if the Commander needed anything fixed around the fort." She smiled before putting her screwdriver back into her pocket.
"You don't have to work to eat," the Commander's voice came from behind Mateja. He soon stepped through the door, coming out to where he was visible to Roya. "Come now, you're family. You can eat with us as much as you like. You share the same floor we do. It's amazing that you don't tell us more of your problems."
Roya put her hands on her hips. "I hate working on other people's stuff. I'd rather build on my own than fix anyone else's mistakes. But when I have no money, I have no choice." It wasn't usual for anyone in Fort Shanz to speak to the Commander in such an indignant tone, but the Commander let it slide. He wanted to give her the impression that he was just as her father was. He smiled. "Now, where is your little friend, Analy?"
"Analy isn't here? That's weird. I thought she was right behind me," Roya said, turning to look around. "Except for when I do work, she's always close by…" She then shrugged dismissively. "Well, I do walk faster than she does."
"Mateja, take the girl in for supper, she said she was hungry," the Commander said, nudging his son in the side. "I'll go find your friend and invite her to join you both."
"Of… of course," Mateja said with a sudden nod, offering his arm to Roya. "Please, be my guest. I'll be making some sandbeast and sweet fruit. How does that sound?"
Roya ignored the fact that he offered to take her so formally and just walked over to the door that led to the Derejin residential section of the floor and kicked the door open. "Ha, like you know how to cook! I'll do it!" she said proudly. "I'll make you a recipe Dad taught me while we were out in the scrap yard, out in his shop!"
Going into the two-roomed area that was marked as the Derejin's apartment, the place was not decorated in the least. Plain gray steel walls surrounded the steel floor, leaving it feeling cold and empty save the furniture. On the table in the center sat one decorative centerpiece that looked like it was from some sort of tribal ritual, but other than that, it felt like a very lonely place.
Roya tilted her head to the side. "How… desolate," she said in almost a whisper, hoping Mateja didn't hear that. "Dad made a point to keep the place welcoming in case we had guests. This just feels sad."
Mateja nodded in agreement. "There is a saying in Falaston legend," he said as he walked inside and shut the door. "That one displays their heart in their home."
Roya turned to look at him. "So you're saying that your heart is gray and empty?" she asked. "You can't be gray and empty and… cold like this, Mateja. You have a job to do, your father is still here with you, you have a home in the highest floor of this squeaky, oily, horribly constructed mess we call a fort. You're loved and needed, so your heart cannot be gray and empty!"
"This isn't my doing. I cannot control how the rooms appear, as they are not yet mine," Mateja answered her. He was concerned about the fact that it bothered her so much to be surrounded by a place that lacked any heart. "My father is still the leader, so as per tradition-"
Her face started to turn red. "No! No!" she shouted. "Tradition? If you come home to live inside a metal box like this every day, you're gonna feel like you're in a cage! It's a prison, not a home! I don't wanna eat here, it makes me feel nervous." Roya shook like she really was afraid. "There's no windows, there's nothing… it's soulless and lifeless and… it makes me miss my dad. I have to go home, this place makes my heart ache." As she started to leave, Mateja put his hand on her shoulder. "Don't stop me, I don't like it in here."
"No," Mateja said softly. "I don't want to let you go."
"This place is scary. Let me go! I need to be somewhere that feels welcoming. If you really wanna make me supper, Mateja, let's go to my place instead. Please? Can we do that?" Roya asked. "I'd feel a lot more comfortable that way."
Mateja agreed to that proposal. "Sure. I don't see why not."
Roya was downright excited to leave the Derejin apartment. She ran over to the door and walked out, discovering the Commander of Fort Shanz right there blocking her way out. "He-hello, Commander," she said, her fear instantly returning. "Can I… can I go home now?" she asked. "Mateja said he wanted to make me din…"
The Commander walked in, and she stepped back to make room for him. He must have been almost two feet taller than her, minus the horns which adorned his head. They weren't graceful like Mateja's horns. They twisted around in the center, pointing the horns to the front instead of to the sides. "Mateja, why is supper not started yet? The girl is hungry, isn't she?" he asked, forcing the issue.
"Father, Roya is not comfortable here," Mateja answered honestly. "I was going to take her home to prepare the food there, so at least she'd be able to enjoy the meal. Let her pass. Can't you see that she's shaking?"
"You've no need to fear me," the Commander said, trying to extend a hugging gesture to Roya. "I was friends with your father. Sernon Xaviera was a bright man, and you, you're a bright girl. Brought to us by accident, you brighten up our lives every day. Please, listen to me. Stay here with Mateja tonight. I have work to attend to, so stay here in these rooms. Do not leave, all right? This is an order from the Commander. You will be incarcerated as punishment if you disobey my orders."
Mateja couldn't believe what he just heard. "Father, you couldn't!"
"Things are happening in the Fortress that you cannot see, little Roya," the Commander said sternly. "My heart would ache to see you frightened."
"I… I am frightened," Roya shook her head. "I wanna go home."
"You can tomorrow. I promise. Bright and early in the morning, I will escort you there myself," the Commander said quietly, turning to walk out into the open area of the twenty-fifth floor. "If that is what you'd prefer."
"I… I'd much rather… Mateja… take me," Roya replied, hardly able to speak.
"Certainly! It shall be done, my dear, it shall be done as you will," the Commander beamed, walking out and slamming the heavy steel door behind him. When he was outside the door, his voice was heard again. "All right. She's secured. Now I want that little blonde bitch with the pointed ears found! She can't have gone too far! Bring her to me alive!"
Roya gasped. "Analy," she whispered. "Oh, no… he just talked about Analy! What's going on? Whe… where is Dad's old spaceship?! Why couldn't he have fixed it before those stupid Federation bullies had to find it and take it away?!" She almost fell to the floor, but Mateja caught her and helped her land more securely. "Mateja, why would your father do this? Why? Why can't I fly away?!" She had held her tears back as long as she could. Soon they fell everywhere.
Mateja gripped around her tightly. This was the first time Roya even let him that close. Even worse, this was the first time he ever heard his father speak in the way that he did. That tone, his gestures, his reasoning seemed to be completely different from what he knew of his father. The Commander was well aware of the fact that Roya was a free spirit and did things in her own way. He knew that messing with what Roya was familiar with would throw her into a fit. Mateja couldn't believe any of this was real. Hunting for Analy so randomly like this? Trying to keep Roya from going home?! No, this wasn't right. Mateja was going to confront his father about this the next time he saw him. This couldn't be just a plot to get Roya to accept the engagement. Not even the strict traditionalist mindset that the Commander held so tightly to would drive him into such actions.
Roya eventually found herself gripping onto Mateja. She found comfort in his presence, and she knew for a fact that if he hadn't been with her like this, she would be in a much worse state than she was. She had no clue how much time passed, but they didn't exchange a single word before Roya fell asleep with her head in his lap except for when she whispered a faint "thank you…"
A while after Roya had fallen asleep, the Commander came back in to find the display right there in the center of the room. Mateja was starting to nod off when he noticed that his father stood right there, looking down upon them with a dirty smile.
"And you didn't take her to your bed?" the Commander asked. "Never the less, everything is settled now. She can go directly home tomorrow, if she so chooses."
"What was all of this for?" Mateja asked. "You scared her, you trapped her in an unfamiliar place which made her even more fearful, and on top of that, she overheard your voice saying that you were hunting for her best friend!?"
"Mateja," the Commander said. "This is all for you, my son. You have her right here with you, finally letting you hold her and comfort her like you wished. Now, she will stay with you. I have assured that."
Mateja was confused. "Where is Analy?" he asked. "Roya will go into another panic if she doesn't have her companion!"
"No, she won't, my son. I will be giving you a new job here in Fort Shanz." The Commander sat down next to them and looked at Roya with an expression that downright terrified Mateja to his core. "You will supervise Roya Xaviera constantly. You will move in with her into her quarters, you will attend to her needs, and you will accompany her on every job she gets; and you'll document everything she does."
"What wrongs could Roya have committed that makes it a requirement that she be constantly supervised like this?" Mateja wondered aloud. "Analy was not her attendant, and I don't need to be, either. Father, this is madness! Is it because she has the blood of an outsider that you don't find her to be safe? She was born and raised here, even if she does have some of the weird tendencies of her father's race, she is still a person who is a part of the community and… the person I have loved since my childhood." He looked down to see her breathing peacefully and put his hand on her forehead gently. "I will keep her on my own, I don't want it to be an order from you."
"Boy, that blonde bitch with the pointed ears? She was Elruian. The troopers caught wind of her bio-signature from a hair inside one of the sandsuits," the Commander explained, trying to be as calm as possible. "Elruia is at war with the Federation and with Neuria. The girl? A spy. And, maybe, if things went wrong, an assassin."
"Nonsense!" Mateja shouted. "What would Analy be doing with someone like Roya?! There would be no reason to spy on a helpless girl in the middle of this Goddess forsaken pit of hell!"
"How dare you call our home Goddess forsaken?!" the Commander yelled in return. "The Goddess gave you the breath you draw, she can take it from you through the hands of those around you! Listen! That girl's father was important on her homeland, and he was running from the Federation with some sort of secret. They shot him down and when they noticed this is where he was crashing, they thought him dead. No one expected any of the Falasto to mate with one outside of their race, but Royatina did! That Elruian bitch came through Parun and infiltrated our community when she was a child to watch over the possible heir of Neuria to see that she stayed here. Got on the good side of the unsuspecting Sernon, who was an outsider himself here in Fort Shanz, and the rest is history." He stood back up and glared down at his son. "Take her to bed, for Heaven's sake. She looks cold on that floor. Desert nights are terrible when it comes to that."
Mateja had to use almost all of his arm strength to lift Roya off the floor and carry her to the other room where a single bed stood in the darkness. When he laid her on the bed, she jolted awake and he could no longer hold her. "Roya, please, settle down," he said. "You just fell asleep. I wanted to make sure you slept somewhat comfortably."
"I'm still not allowed to go home, am I?" she asked, shivering.
"No, not until morning," Mateja said gently. "Come now. Time to return to dreamland."
"But… what about Analy?"
Mateja knew that Roya would not want to sleep without knowing at least something about Analy, and he didn't want to upset her, so he wasn't sure exactly what to say. He had to pull something out of his ass and make it sound believable. "Well," he started, "She… she has something she has to do now. She'll be gone for a while. Don't worry though, you'll be safe. I will be there with you, no matter what." When he noticed that she was starting to fall back asleep, he took the opportunity to kiss her cheek. "We'll talk about all the details when you wake up, over a nice big morning meal." He looked back, knowing that his father was expecting him to crawl into the bed with Roya. He hated having to do it like this under a watchful eye. Mateja always wanted his relationship with Roya to be organic and genuine. He loved her dearly, but this was not done out of love. When he wrapped his arms around Roya, he could feel her heartbeat right up against his. Together, they were warm.
When everything had fallen silent, the door right next to the bed shut just enough to catch Mateja's attention. He tried to slip back into that mindset to let himself go to sleep, but another sound kept him awake.
"Hello?" It was muffled, but Mateja knew his father's voice. "Ahh, good to speak with you. Yes, yes. Things have been arranged. There will be no more fouls in the future." Every sentence had enough silence to sound like there was only one half of the conversation audible. Mateja was surprised that his father had that kind of communication device. "My own son will keep watch over the princess from now until they are joined through the ritual. Yes, she will join in this family, of course. When that happens, then it's all up to you. It states in the vows that she will give up all property in her own name in exchange for the right to mate, you realize that, right? Yes, so even her birthright will fall out of her own hands without her even knowing it. Ha… right, just remember your part of the bargain, will you? Dealing with this girl is more bothersome than you can imagine. My son does say and act like he truly is in love with her, but I'd have thrown her to you, if I had my choice. Hmm, perhaps you are right. Maybe I shouldn't have let one of my people breed with someone from Neuria like that. I can't kill her now, though, that would break my son's heart and throw the universe into turmoil."
Mateja's mind began to rush like crazy. Tomorrow, a lot had to be done. He was going to call someone at the black market for that Plasma after all.
What woke Roya out of her deep sleep was another raging sandstorm outside. It wasn't rare for the storms to rage for more than one day at a time. The light was faint, only an electronic bulb from the other room. She let her mind go through the events of the day before. She was locked in the Derejin Family Quarters, which was the most gray and empty place Roy remembered ever being, and Mateja was with her. He held her closely. She shook her head in disbelief, sitting straight up on the bed. She was alone, but that's not what Roya was thinking about. She let Mateja hold her. Roya had always been aware of the fact that he was close by, and she valued his friendship, but this was on a whole other level that she didn't expect. Perhaps she did trust him, or maybe she was so scared she needed someone to hold her, she didn't care who it was at the time. At any rate, Roya didn't really want it to happen again until she could sort herself out. The last night was mostly a blur, and she didn't remember much of it. Roya definitely did not remember what she had for dinner, which was rare. She always ate before sleeping. Her father gave her the strict order to do so when she was a child, otherwise she would wake up in pain.
The door opened, and the dark room illuminated almost instantly. Roya could see where she was. She sat on a bed in the second room owned by the Derejin family. There was no natural light. She still felt like she was enclosed in a gigantic steel box and that same fear was starting to set in until she noticed that it was Mateja who opened the door.
"Welcome back to the world of the living, little mechanic," Mateja said gently, walking closer to her. "Are you feeling any better?"
Roya sounded squeaky at first, before she coughed a few times to clear her throat. "I'm… fine," she said thought her shivers. The room was incredibly cold, almost like that room where the meats were kept after a hunt to preserve it as long as possible. "I would really like to go home, though."
Mateja nodded in return, offering her his arm. When she just glared at him for the gesture, he said, "You had no problem accepting my help last night, Roya. I'm going to escort you home right this second. I know how you feel in here, and the Commander has said it is all right."
Roya never thought she'd wish for Analy's assistance so much as she did right then. She would just agree to go with him back to her quarters, and then Analy would chase him away in that confident way she always did before. "Fine, fine," she grunted, accepting his hand. "I… guess I owe you an apology."
He smiled as if he could go into a fit of laughter, but he stopped himself from letting it out. "Hardly, Roya. I am here for you. I'm supposed to offer you all the comfort that you could ever need, and so I will do just that. Anytime you need any kind of comfort, just look to me." He helped her to her feet, and then led her out of the Derejin quarters.
A few moments passed before Roya turned to look at him. "Hey."
"Yes?" Mateja asked.
"Why aren't you wearing that yellow badge?" Roya asked. "That one you always wear because you're the Commander's son?" She had never seen him without that badge. It was the one that cleared him to do all the things that only people with authority in the fortress could do. Check on food, look at medical records, approach the troopers when they liked to come by and give the townsfolk a good scare. These were things only someone with authority could do. "Without that badge, you're just a normal guy around here, and always you have a lot of work to do."
"My dear," Mateja said gently, "I have been relieved of my duties."
Roya blinked a few times, and then her face went from an expression of confusion to outright bewilderment. "Bu-but no one else goes to check the Hydroponic Dome every afternoon, and then making sure all the sandsuits are up to standards, and putting together maintenance reports! Who else is going to do that?" She asked. "That is your job, Mateja."
"It isn't anymore," Mateja replied. "My father has put me on a new assignment." He was cold about it. He didn't want to mention what he overheard last night before finally slipping off for a disjointed, mostly uncomfortable sleep. It was terrifying. All he really wanted to do was carry Roya out of that fortress, somewhere far away from whatever the hell kind of mess it was underneath being one of the last havens for the Falaston survivors. He started to understand her claustrophobia a little more. It was a soulless place, the Derejin living quarters.
"Huh? Your own father demoted you? Why would he do that?!" Roya was almost disgusted. "You're the only person reliable enough in this entire place to be trusted with such important civic duties."
When they walked around the wall of the twenty-fifth floor, Roya noticed she was in front of her own door and she pulled out a key from inside her skirt pocket. She put it in the keyhole and pushed the door open with her hip. "Analy! You better have had breakfast ready for me, ya little-" When the door opened all the way, Roya would have crash landed onto the floor, but Mateja grabbed her belt and held her up enough to help her get her bearings.
Roya's quarters were almost a direct opposite from the Derejin quarters. Emblems from old crashed ships decorated different spots on the wall, and shreds of all sorts of cloths hung off of the metal plates, looking somewhat like curtains. The electronic lights glowed a different color other than that ugly pale green which blanketed the walls of Mateja's home. They were brighter. In the center of the main area was a table that held a painting of the late Sernon Xaviera, which made Mateja wonder how that even existed. Art wasn't so commonplace out this far from civilization.
"Analy!" Roya shouted. "Where's breakfast? I'm famished!"
There was no reply.
"Analy?" Roya asked, looking around. The entire two rooms that Analy and Roya shared was devoid of any other life. In fact, it looked like nothing that Analy owned was anywhere. It was all Roya's belongings, or things her father left to her care.
"You don't remember?" Mateja asked. "I told you that she had to go away for a while. But she'll be back." In his mind, he was promising Roya that he would find a way to take her to find her friend. He would find what Elruia and he would scour every town, village, city, metropolis in there until he found Analy again. "Don't worry, Roya. She's not hurt." Hopefully, he silently added in his mind. Hopefully, she's not hurt.
Mateja had to think of something. Roya looked like she was about to fall into herself, into some sort of madness. Ever since her father had died, Analy had been a constant companion for Roya. They were inseparable, and even though Roya had the underhanded comment now and then about her being somewhat annoying. He put his hands on Roya's shoulders, firmly holding her up straight so he could talk to her.
"What happened to her?!" Roya screamed in anger. "Where did she go? Why did she go?"
"Oh, we knew this would happen. This is why we couldn't let you see her leave last night," Mateja answered, pulling her close to him. "You hate it when people leave you behind. You feel lost and alone every time someone you trust abandons you. Analy has a big mission from her superiors on her home world of Eluria. I told you that my job has changed."
Roya pulled out of his hug and shook her head. "You aren't my attendant! You're not going to stay by my side constantly, Mateja. I will walk up to your father and demand he give you back your job right this minute!"
Mateja grabbed onto her as she tried to walk past him. "Trust me, please," he whispered to her. "Before Analy had to go, she told me there was one thing you needed for your project."
Roya looked up at him. "You told your father about it, and now I'm being supervised? You're afraid I'm gonna get all of you guys killed, like the massacre of Fort Franz twelve years ago. Well, I'm not. It's not even inside the town. Falastons can't be blamed for this."
"So it was true," Mateja thought aloud.
"Have you told anyone?" Roya asked in a panic.
Mateja held her tighter. "No. That would put me in as much danger as it would you. Ultimately, I want you to be happy more than anything else, and I'm willing to do anything to make that happen." He reached into a pocket on his side. "This is a receipt. You will be getting a package sometime today, and you need this paper to receive it. It's coming to you without being approved by anyone, Roya."
Roya took the paper and looked at the writing. She'd never seen it before. "This looks like some kinda glyph language."
"It belongs to the Volcani."
Roya gasped. "You…" her volume went down to that of a whisper's and she turned to slam the door shut before she continued. "…you connected with the black market of Volcani? How in the world are we going to receive anything from Volcani? I was willing to sift through the scrap yard for the rest of my life, Mateja, I wasn't going to get tangled up with the Volcani. They're bad news."
"How do you know about the Volcani?"
Roya was able to walk away from him and press on a button in on the wall to cause a part of the steel ceiling to slide over so that a concentrated patch of outside light could fall into a square structure right above it. "Didn't you know? Dad was being hunted by the Volcani when he crashed. Those guys were hired by the Federation to chase him down and kill him." She then pulled out a sweet fruit from a nearby basket and started cutting it up. When she was done with that, she put it in the box with lit with sunlight. "There we go! Gonna bake us up some sweet fruit for breakfast!"
Mateja, terrified, ran up to her and said, "We need to leave."
Roya cocked her head to the side. "I haven't even eaten yet."
"If you've ever trusted me on anything before, little mechanic, you will trust me on this!" Mateja said harshly. "If the people I've ordered this from are the same people who tried to kill your father, then it's only logical to assume that the people coming with your package are now coming to kill you. Goddess forbid they hurt one red hair on your tender little head, Roya. I will tear them apart, limb from limb." He lifted her chin so she could look into his eyes. "Roya, I-"
Soon there was a loud rapping on the door. Roya shoved her elbow into Mateja's side, making him almost fall over. "Who is it?" she called out.
"Package delivery," the voice on the other side answered.
Mateja shook his head furiously, but Roya opened the door anyway as if she had just forgotten what she said. She was hoping that they wouldn't ask any questions. She really did want whatever was in that package. "Hello?" she asked. "I have the receipt right here."
The delivery person looked just like any other Falaston. Towering horns, facial markings, and wearing the clothing made of sandworm skin. It seemed as if Mateja was completely overreacting. He handed her a fairly large box that she had a hard time holding up, so Mateja went over to help her lift the box to put it on the table. Then Roya handed him the slip of paper, and he waved at them as he went to the elevator.
Roya closed the door behind her, and her smile turned downright devilish. "Now let's see what kind of a lovely present is in here, shall we?" She turned around and opened the box with the end of her screwdrivers and threw the top off to the side. The material inside glowed brilliantly. "Oh… this is!" Her eyes glowed right along with the rock she was gazing at. "It's exactly what I need." She couldn't believe it. The only person who knew what she was up to was Analy. "With this, it's only a matter of time."
Mateja chuckled. "Happy early birthday, Roya."
She turned around and ran into his arms, hugging him as tightly as she could manage. "Thank you, Mateja! Thank you so much!" Roya had never been so excited over any present before. Her dream was only a little bit away. "I'm so grateful. What can I do for you in exchange?"
"It is for your birthday. It is a gift. Please, I don't want anything in return," Mateja said, returning the embrace.
"No, I must give you something! This will help me achieve my one dream. I'll finally be able to do it after so many things got in my way! Oh, the stuff is pure. When distilled, it'll last enough to fly across the entire universe. You have to let me return the favor," Roya said, looking up at him. "I'll do anything, anything at all."
Mateja thought about that for a few seconds, but he wasn't going to use her sudden burst of thankfulness against her the way he thought for the first few minutes. Even he had his desires. "You have to accept the fact that I'm going to be your companion now, in the same way Analy was to you the last year," he said, trying not to say anything that could be interpreted in any unclean way. He stuttered a bit before he gained his confidence. "And when you launch, take me with you."
"Hmm," Roya said, letting go of him and looking back in the box. "You drive a hard bargain."
"What? You actually have to think about accepting my offer?" Mateja asked, confused.
Roya smiled. "Of course not. You've always been reliable and trustworthy. If you want to take up the job Analy had, then fine. I accept it. We'll have to get you moved over here, though. I can't stand that dreary cage you call a home." She put the lid back on the box and pushed it under a cabinet where no one else would see it easily. "And we'll have to move the extra mat from the other room in here. I don't think you want to share the same room with me, do you?"
Mateja blushed. "If it would save space, I have no qualms about sharing the sleeping room with you. I mean… doesn't it get cold in here at night?"
She nodded. "Yeah, but that's what the blankets are for. Dad made them out of old cloth materials we found out in the scrap yard. He said that it was tradition to take the old and unusable cloth and turn it into something usable where he grew up." Roya walked into the other room and pulled out a blanket as tall as she was. It was sewn together out of all sorts of fabrics with different textures that Mateja had never seen or felt before. "He taught me how to sew. That's how I made this neat little skirt I like to wear so much. I have all the materials here, if you want to learn."
"Of course, of course," Mateja said, taking the blanket out of her hands. "You don't have to worry about moving me, Roya. I actually don't own anything that isn't property of the Fortress."
Roya blinked a few times. "And here I thought you'd have more than I do."
Mateja walked into the other room to see that Roya was digging through boxes of all sorts of trinkets. He had no idea what any of it was for, and seeing how she knew how to use all of them interested him. She went on for a while about what each thing was and how it was used and how her father taught her how to use each and every thing in there for when he wouldn't be around anymore. She was resourceful, always looking for things that she could use out in the scrap yard while she was out there. He loved that about her. Mateja could listen to her ramble on about the correct way to sew or how to use a screwdriver or even how to pull about cloth to use the thread it was woven from for hours on end. This was stuff he'd never heard before. How could someone so young know so much?
"Haha," Roya said, leaning over onto him after hours of going on and on about whatever came to mind. "Not even Analy listened to me like this. She knew a lot of it when she came to live with me. You, though… Mateja, are you empty?"
"Empty?" Mateja just cocked an eyebrow and stared at her for a few seconds. What did this mean?
"You don't own anything. You're always working and so focused on rules and regulations. Your relationship with your father is incredibly scary and cold," Roya thought aloud. "Mateja, you're empty inside. You don't love anything. I don't even think you like being alive."
"Maybe it's cultural differences," Mateja said. In his mind, he was screaming to her how much he loved her and wanted to tell her for years about how he felt. He wanted to tell her. He wanted to be honest about everything and run away with her before Goddess forbid someone find that pure condensed plasma and turn them both over to the Federation troopers to be put to death as an example and then slaughter everyone in Fort Shanz for harboring criminals. "We're not supposed to own anything, because if it gets stolen or taken away, then we will be sad. We want to prevent being upset in the future," he continued, trying to keep his calm.
"I don't think that's the right way to do it," Roya crossed her arms. "You're supposed to feel sometime, right? You should be happy sometimes, and when you're sad, you understand the value of being happy."
"I have feelings," Mateja said suddenly. "Roya, I-"
Roya turned a little, just so she could fit her head on his shoulder. "When the storm ends," she said gently, "We're going out to the shop. Wake me then."
"But… didn't you say you were hungry?"
"We'll eat before we leave," she answered before she passed out suddenly.
Mateja was able to lay Roya down while she napped. He cleaned everything up, putting things back where Roya had them. He finished preparing the sweet fruit that Roya put out to bake in the Sunbox and had it all ready to serve when he noticed the storm outside finally died down. He walked back to wake her as she asked, but he found her sitting up with her arms crossed.
"Are you all right?" Mateja asked.
"I thought I told you to wake me the moment the storm ended," Roya said, turning to look at him. She appeared to be angry for a few minutes just to check his reaction, but when the worried expression didn't leave his face, she smiled instead. "You really were upset that you disappointed me?" she asked. "You are full of surprises."
Mateja rolled his eyes. "And here I thought I'd lost all chances with you over something so stupid."
Roya giggled. "What was that?"
"Oh, nothing. If we're going to go, then let's get ready. The meal you started before is done and ready to eat all ready," Mateja said, helping her to her feet.
Roya ran out and grabbed for the box with glowing plasma inside, taking a stone just big enough to fit in her hand and putting it into her skirt pocket. She wanted to laugh loudly, but she was going to wait for that. When she was in her shop, she could be as loud as she wanted. It was just another thing she loved about it.
"Mateja," she called, "I'm not feeling sweet fruit. Let's pick up some dried worm meat on our way out."
"You're kidding," Mateja grunted. "I prepared it for you."
She looked back at him. "Yes, but I really do want to leave now," she said, that devilish smile appearing on her face again. "So, do me this favor? Just this once? I won't do this to you again. I promise. Analy had strict rules for me most of the time when it came to food, but my heart's beating so fast that I can barely contain myself." Roya reached up and braided her hair back up, then snatched her utility belt from its hanging spot on the wall to wrap it around her waist.
Mateja nodded. It was her greatest dream, after all. He conceded, but not without a catch. "Fine, but next time we eat what I prepare."
"Deal!" Roya leaned over and gently kissed his cheek, then put her key in her pocket and ran out the door. "Time to get to work!"
Mateja tried to hide that box the best he could before locking the door and following Roya's dust trail down to the bottom floor of Fort Shanz. He had a mix of feelings welling inside him, everything from the thought of 'why did I sign up for this' to amazement at Roya's excitement over this.
Down at the bottom, he bought a few packs of the dried worm meat that could be taken anywhere and needed no reheating. This was because he knew for a fact that Roya wasn't going to stop to cook anything. She could barely stop to put on her sand suit properly. It was one thing after another for that girl no matter where she was. Always with her eyes on her prize, she never stopped. Mateja had never seen anyone of his own race get so worked up over anything like this. He wondered if he'd ever be able to be that excited over anything, and the depressing feeling hit him pretty hard as he followed her out of the building without getting approval first. Of course, she'd know how to pass all the security measures that he helped develop, he couldn't help thinking to himself.
The walk from Fort Shanz out to workshop that Roya led Mateja to wasn't that long. He barely noticed it. Perhaps it was because he was so deep in thought? The shop was surrounded by gargantuan piles of parts from all sorts of things that Mateja hadn't seen before. Now that he stopped to notice it, it was the first time he'd ever come out to the scrap yard. He never left Fort Shanz unless it was official travel. This was his first time breaking any rules like that. He had to admit it to himself, this freedom was exhilarating. After standing there, watching Roya unlock the door to the workshop, he realized exactly why he envied her.
"Home sweet home," Roya said once Mateja followed her inside. She sealed the door back up and immediately peeled herself out of that tightly-fitting protective suit.
"This is it. My real home."
Mateja wasn't sure what to make of it. There was an open stack of toolboxes on the first table, all full of tools that he'd never laid eyes on. "You found… all of this out there?" he asked curiously. The walls were just like the walls back in the living quarters in Fort Shanz. There were logos from old spaceships decorating, as well as cloth hanging up in all sorts of places.
"I didn't find it all," she answered honestly, hanging the suit on the screw that stuck out by itself next to the door. "Dad did most of the finding, but I was with him, so he could teach me everything he knew about what he found. Apparently, Neuria is a world full of ancient technology." Roya looked at the big table in the center, which held a large machine up to where Roya could look at it without having to crouch or sit down. "This baby is my finest work. I am rebuilding an old engine, circa 2984, give or take a few years."
"So, you're working on an engine from two hundred calendar years ago?" Mateja asked, wondering if he could sit down. Eventually he found a stool, but he didn't know of Roya was going to use it. He hated how he had to keep up with two calendars. The Federation operated on their own calendar, stating that it is based on the original calendar which was used in their original civilization. Time flowed differently on Falasto than it did on other planets. It took almost fifty entire Falaston calendar years to complete just one of the Federation Calendar years, and it was annoying to keep track of.
"Yep," she said, finally climbing on the table. When Roya looked back at him, she gave him this angry 'well what did you expect' sort of glare. "What? Oh you better sit down. We'll be here a while." She pointed at the stool he spotted a few moments ago. "Go ahead. Look around. If you see anything you like, then don't hesitate to ask. That's how we learn."
"You heard me," Roya said, taking a cloth that was hanging on the wall and wiping off the dust that had gotten in the nooks and crannies in the engine since she had been out there last. She was sitting so close to the motor that it looked like she had her whole body wrapped around it as she worked. "Dad said that about one hundred seventy five calendar years ago, the original Neurian colony was taken over by the Federation's Alliance."
"What? Neuria wasn't originally a planet?" Mateja asked.
Roya shook her head. "Originally, Neuria was called something else. He never told me the name of that planet, because it's illegal to even say the name now."
Mateja snickered. "Like that's stopping you from what you're doing now."
She coughed to catch his attention and continued with her story. "The people from that planet had killed it over the thousands of years they lived there, so they built ships to escape. They built a colony around the power source that kept their planet alive. Living so close to that power, to the radiation held within, changed them. They lived there for a few hundred calendar years before being chased away from the colony. Dad said the reason why the Federation wanted that colony is because it had everything that the original planet had, and that they claimed they had the rights to whatever that planet had before. The founders of the Federation believed that they were the true descendants of the ones from that planet." She stopped for a moment, then she went back to cleaning. "My father was born on a planet that had been terra-formed and turned into a paradise through generations of hard work. I want to see it with my own eyes. I want to see rain and snow as he described them. A world where water falls from the skies, though, that's so hard to believe. Water is such a rare thing to see here. You'd think they'd just be able to hand some of that water over if it just falls from the sky, but no, as it turns out, they're greedy about it."
"Maybe it's not so simple," Mateja said with a slight shrug. "So, this engine is pretty small. It can't power an entire ship."
Roya nodded. "That's right. This baby is just to power one part of the propulsion system. But if I can get it working, then every other piece will be simple. It will just take time."
"I'm afraid that time may run short on you," Mateja said, frowning. "What you're doing is highly illegal, and… if anyone finds out that I'm just letting you do this, Roya, you will be punished. And then I'll be punished for not telling anyone about it." He leaned over but she slapped him away without even looking up. "I know it's your dream. I know this is what you've been working for all your life. But, Roya-"
"I can't just buy a normal starship," Roya said angrily, reaching into the pocket where she put the plasma ore chunk earlier. "I can't just take a ferry there. It doesn't work like that. I have to do it. It's cheating to buy a new ship out of nowhere. Where's your sense of hard work?"
"It's me looking out for our safety. You know a real ship has all the right parts to work without something backfiring. You know a real ship is legal and will not get us hunted in every corner of the damn universe." Mateja explained, his tone rising until it seemed like he was almost screaming at her. "Roya, remember what your father told you about the Volcani? The problem is… worse than what he told you."
"You know about the Volcani? What they're doing and… do you know who shot my father's ship down?! Do you know what caused the Toxic Rains last year? Because if you do and you haven't told me-"
Mateja then got an idea. "I will tell you everything I know, but you have to let me buy you a ship and we get the hell off of this planet first. You really want your dream, don't you? Don't waste your time trying to build something that will probably kill you. I know you hate the Feds. I hate them, too! I hate them more than I've ever hated anything in my entire life for what they've done to my people! Massacre after massacre! You don't want a Federation approved ship, hell, I don't want one, either! But if you don't move, you never will. I swear it based on what I know."
Roya looked down at the engine. "This isn't about the Feds. This is about honor."
"It's about keeping my word," Roya said. "I told my dad I would go to Neuria and I would tell his family there that he lived the rest of his days in peace."
"What's more important? You getting there to deliver that message, or doing it all the hard way?" Mateja asked. "Please. I know you've never done anything by the rules in your entire life, but you need to on this one."
"Yeah, and you've never done anything to break any laws until today."
"That may be so, but existing within the law ensured my survival."
"Oh? Is that so? It might have worked for you thus far, but how many Falastons were killed at that massacre at Fort Franz?" Roya asked, gripping the chunk of plasma in her right hand. "If one in your entire group goes against the rules? That's it. That isn't survival."
"What you're doing isn't safe for your or anyone else around you. Even you know that."
Roya sat back up and looked right into his eyes. Mateja could feel that she meant business. "I could care less if I live or die, Mateja."
Mateja stood up, the humor in his face completely gone. "Roya. Don't ever say that again. Ever. It's an insult to everyone who loves and cares about you."
"There's no one left! I'm an outcast in town, Dad is dead, and Analy is gone!" Roya said. "I'm not worth anything alive." She opened her hand again to look at the rock as it glowed. "Unless…"
"I love and care about you, Roya," Mateja said honestly. "I'm letting you get away with something that could get our entire fortress massacred because, for Goddess' s sake, I want to see you happy." He walked over to the table and pointed at the glowing plasma. "I got the plasma just for you. I wouldn't do it for everyone else. Listen to me, Roya. I will help you get the hell off Falasto. I will make sure you get to Neuria. Let me."
Roya sniffled a few times before tears streamed down her face. She let go of the plasma, letting it land on the table with a 'tink' before it fell onto the ground of sand. She turned away from the engine before she wailed out at full volume. She tried to speak through it, but no words made it out of her blubbery sobbing mess. She pounded her fist on the table a few times in frustration.
He hugged her. "You've never properly mourned, have you? Swept it under the rug and hoped no one would notice. You have to let it out. You're sad, and it's okay to feel sad, right? It makes you value happiness." Mateja's resolve intensified. "We will beat all odds. I swear it here in the eyes of the Falaston Goddess and to you. Let me do what I can to make it happen."
Roya pushed him away at first, but he was determined to stay there. She pushed him harder, but he hugged her tighter. She hit him as hard as she could, and he withstood it. It took her a while to understand that Mateja was more than serious about it. Roya didn't think she could find that kind of determination anymore. It was too much work. She didn't look up at him, as her guilt seemed to have made her look down into the sand that served as the floor in this beat up old shack.
"If you buy me a ship…" she said once she blew her nose on one of the many scraps of cloth lying around, "…I get to fine-tune it my own way."
"What would my little mechanic be without her constant need to fix things?" Mateja asked. "I accept that addition to our deal. "Besides, I know you won't find any good makers out here in the scrap yard. That's a fairly new advancement." He kneeled down so he'd be able to look at her face. She seemed to have a much lighter expression on her face than any other time in this last year. He knew he was right about that. "I'll be able to get us a passport fairly easy."
"Even without your badge that gave you everything with no questions asked?"
"I was able to get the plasma, right? Believe in me, my little mechanic. All your dreams will come true." He reached up to ruffle her hair. "So, if there's anything you need in here, please, let's take it with us."
Roya asked suddenly. "This is my place. I can't just abandon my shop!"
"You're going to leave this whole world behind, aren't you?" Mateja asked. "That includes this little home you've created for yourself. You were aware of that, weren't you?"
Roya frowned for a moment. "I… didn't think it would be so sudden."
Mateja could understand that sentiment quite well. "Well, you know, your birthday is tomorrow. Let's go to Parun! I know we'll find something there at the capital city. We'll just leave this place behind. I have a card with plenty of credits on it, so we'll do wonderfully, I just know it."
"Yes, that sounds like a wonderful idea," Roya agreed. Her face showed him a smile much different than the one he'd been seeing for the entirety of the last year. It wasn't a trouble-making, 'I dare you to give me orders' smile. It was genuine. Upon seeing it, Mateja wondered if Analy had ever seen that smile before. "Sad thing is, you got me the plasma for this thing, and it seems like it's gonna be useless now."
"Useless? You have any idea how much that trunk of plasma cost? We'll sell it back, or better yet, keep it. You never know what you'll find out in the vast reaches of space," Mateja said quietly. "Tomorrow, we're going to put Fort Shanz behind us. It will be a new beginning for the both of us." The knowledge that he had overheard before falling asleep last night still echoed in his mind. He was afraid that his father would not let them leave in the open. The Commander seemed incredibly interested in forcing Roya to marry into the family when she came of age for the ceremony. What if they were forced into it? Mateja couldn't keep that thought out of his head. Or worse yet, what if he changed his plans and decided to give her to whoever it was that had a transmission with the Commander? Whoever it was, whatever it was, whatever happened…
Mateja vowed that he would keep his promises. Even if they had to get married first, they were leaving Fort Shanz behind forever.
The next morning couldn't have come any quicker. Mateja slept next to Roya, and even if they had different quilts, he was more than satisfied. He'd never known so much warmth before. It felt safer that night more than any time in his life. So what if they had something so illegal they'd be shot on sight for having it? Mateja had never enjoyed the present like he did right then, and he didn't want morning to come yet.
Unfortunately, there was a heavy knock on the door much earlier than either expected. Roya heard it, but she just rolled over and ignored it, leaving Mateja to get out of his warm blankets and see what the hell it was.
Mateja opened the door. "Good morning?" he asked in the sort of tone that let whoever it was out there know that he wasn't particularly in the mood to deal with them. "Can I help you?"
"There you are," the Commander's stern voice replied. "Sleeping in now, are you? How unfitting for my son, but no matter. I suppose having to live by her rules things are much more lenient on you. Neurians are not Falastons, that's for sure." He stuck his head in through the door. "What is all this?!" He saw everything from the decorative plates to the scraps of cloth hanging from the wall. He looked at it all with contempt and utter disgust.
"This is Roya's home, sir," Mateja said, that last word much heavier than the rest of them. "You're not going to meddle in her personal life, especially not her home. It's not yours."
The Commander laughed at that. "Since when were you her personal attendant?" he asked. "She's slowly turning you into a woman. I bet you cook all her meals for her and keep the clutter put away, if this is to be considered clean at all. No matter. When the ceremony is over, this will change. This will all change. She is of age today."
Mateja shook his head. "Commander, I don't-"
"Retrieve your bride, my son. I wish to make all the arrangements early, so there are no fouls later on during the day," his father said. "I'll wait."
Mateja sighed. He was afraid this would happen. He walked to the other room, wishing he had a way out. Though, he knew Roya incredibly well. She would come up with a plan to escape. He learned that she always found a way out of things she wasn't interested in doing, and he knew for a fact that's what she would do this time. He leaned down and nudged Roya a few times. "You're not going to like this," Mateja said. "But you've been summoned by the Commander of Fort Shanz to report as soon as possible."
Roya sat up. "What?!" she asked. "We have places to go and things to do today. I don't feel like dealing with your father."
"Unfortunately, you can't refuse. He'll come in for you if you don't go answer him." Mateja said it in a way that sounded incredibly sad. He was about to get something that he'd chased after all his life, but it didn't feel right. He wanted the relationship to be on their terms, not anyone else's. He didn't want to force her into the ritual for creating babies. He wasn't ready for that. The last thing Mateja wanted to do was condemn his beloved to a life she would hate. Under his father's control, Roya would kill herself! "As much as I'd love to keep laying next to you, I can't keep my father waiting."
She pulled her clothes on reluctantly, strapping on everything from her tool belt to her goggles, and went out to the front door. Mateja didn't want to follow her out there. Roya was going to hate him for this, and there was nothing he could to do stop it. He wished he could lock the door and ignore everything outside forever. They would be happy as hermits, secluded from the rest of the damn universe. They would make new quilts and talk about history and discuss their dreams together. It would have been more than wonderful.
"Ahhh, there's the lovely lady of the hour," the Commander said it like he was mocking her. "Happy birthday, Roya Xaviera. I bet you wonder why I'm here to see you in person so early this morning."
Roya nodded. "Yes, sir, that would be the big question. I'd assume something broke and you need me to fix it for you, but you've never come to me personally to tell me about things like that." She wasn't polite in the least. She made it obvious to both men that stood close by that she had no interest in being there at all.
"I've come to finish a deal," the Commander grunted, reaching into his pocket. "Your father, the late Sernon Xaviera, agreed to something as payment for me saving his life." He handed a piece of paper to her and nodded to her to signal that it was okay for her to open it. He gave her a few moments to read it, and the only thing Mateja could see in Roya's eyes was shock. "The day you were born, he agreed to join our families through marriage."
Roya crumpled the paper up in her hands. "My father would never agree to this."
"That is his signature at the bottom," the Commander said.
She glared up at him. "This is forged!" Then she turned to look at Mateja. "So, you wanted me to fall in love with you to help your father?"
Mateja couldn't find his words. "Goddess, no, I-" This is not what he wanted. Not in a million years.
"Yes. That's right. Come now. You are friends, and you have quite a deal in common. You will make him a wonderful bride," the commander said, smiling. "It's a beautiful future."
"Well," Roya said plainly, "I don't want it."
"You will, or you will accept your fate in a life sentence in the holding cells for breaking a formal contract. I'm sure that you would feel much worse than you did when you shared Mateja's room. They are smaller and darker. There is no light. There is nothing but cold and loneliness in those cells."
Mateja stepped forward, putting his hands protectively in front of Roya. "I don't want to marry you, Roya. Well, no, I take that back. I do. But I don't want it to be against your will," he said. "I want to earn your love." Then he looked at his father. "I will not force her to go through with this." Mateja felt confidence, even if it was not fated to last long. "You force her to go through anything... and before the ceremony, I will take my own life."
The Commander shook his head. "Son, I am severely disappointed." He grabbed Mateja by his collar. Then he threw his only son across the hall to smash into the wall. "Get up, you idiot! You will not ruin this chance for me!"
Roya glared at him. "Chance? What chance?" she asked. "You…" She looked between the two, and suddenly it felt as if her heart broke that instant. She could not handle it. Her body became heavier with every breath she took, until she slumped to her knees. The world was closing in around her. "Father," she whispered, begging the heavens themselves for a chance to ask him directly. He never would have signed her life away. The one person who taught her, and even understood her well enough to encourage her to always remain a free spirit. "I… I can't… I can't go into…"
"Hmm," the commander mused. "I believe the lady is in shock."
Mateja slowly picked himself off the floor, rubbing his head before coming to stand. He couldn't help tears forming in his eyes as he reached to pick Roya up into his arms. She didn't even seem to notice he was carrying her. "Commander," he said, almost growling. "Answer me one thing, and I will go along with everything you say."
"One thing?" the commander asked, cocking up an eyebrow.
"But you must answer me truthfully," Mateja added, staring straight into his father's purple eyes. He wanted his father to know how serious he was. "And you know I am like Mother was. I can tell when you lie." He gripped around Roya trying to offer her some comfort, though her expression revealed that her mind was currently a million miles away.
"Fine," the commander replied, turning around. He started to lead them to the Derejin family quarters. "I will answer anything honestly, and you will go through with the ceremony. Ask your one question."
Mateja followed until they were inside his bedroom once again. He sat upon his uncomfortable bed, holding Roya on his lap, and waited for the heavy door to slam behind them. "I…" His verbosity failed him right then. How did one ask a question like this? There was only one way to do it. To just spit it out directly. "…Did you have Sernon Xaviera killed?"
The commander reared his hand back like he was going to slap Mateja harder than he ever had, but he stopped himself. A deal was a deal, after all. "Yes," he said curtly. "The man was wanted, dead or alive, by the Federation. When the opportunity presented itself, I told the troopers when he was going to be out of the Fort. They… arranged the rest."
"He was your friend!" Mateja yelled. "Your companion!"
"He was also an outsider who could have gotten us all killed if I had not played along. I did what was best to ensure the survival of our people here in Fort Shanz. You remember what happened in Franz, don't you?" the commander's voice did not conceal his frustration from his son. Sure, he was not yelling like Mateja expected, but it was obvious. The way his eyebrows furrowed. The way he carried himself, even if it was just to his only son, the commander tried to use his body to convey that he – and only he – was the commander, as he had been appointed by the people who built the fortress. No one was going to question that, especially not his rebellious son.
Mateja knew he stepped on a nerve he wasn't supposed to. There was much more that he was not saying, but the younger of the two was not going to ask any more. He had no clue if Roya even caught that confession or not, and if she had, there was going to be hell to pay. "Fine," he said quietly. "You have done as I asked. I will comply."
"Hmm," the commander said, trying to sound gentle. But it was impossible for Mateja to find his father's voice gentle. The man didn't know how to be anything but a forceful, authoritative figure. "My son, this is a big day for you."
"Father," Mateja whispered, turning away. "Falaston wedding ceremonies, by tradition, happen only at night." He started to sit Roya down, but she snapped out of her trance and came to the moment her skin touched the hard, cold mattress. "My bride will not be disturbed before the ceremony. Please… let us be alone."
The commander nodded. "Fair enough, then. I will return for you both when it is time to prepare." He left the room, but did not slam it behind him. Instead, the door leading out of the Derejin living quarters locked in place the moment he stepped outside it. It left a bitter taste in Mateja's mouth.
"Hey," Mateja said, turning to Roya. "Are you all right?"
Roya's red hair dangled in front of her face, blocking her eyes from looking at him, which was fine by her at this point. "You have me where you want me, I guess," she said as if all her usual emotion had completely vanished from her heart. "I suppose if I… have to get married, you'd be the only one I'd agree to marrying." She wanted to cry, but tears did not fall. She wanted to shout, but she couldn't find the volume. All she felt was emptiness.
"I did not intend for it to be this way," Mateja answered quickly, running over to the one box of belongings he amassed over the course of his life. "I think I still have it in here somewhere…" he muttered, going through the box until he found some sort of weird knapsack. "Aha! Just what I was looking for."
"A swell wedding gift that purse will make," Roya grunted, disinterested. "I suppose I'll take it now and save you the embarrassment, my lord husband."
"Stop that," he said. "Sarcasm ill suits one like you."
"Oh, then I'll curtsy for you when you enter the room? Yes, yes, treat my husband like a king. I understand your wishes and desires," she said. "I suppose you'll want me nude now, wouldn't you? Of course, why else did you ask for privacy?"
Mateja stopped what he was doing to walk over to her and force her to stand. "Because, Roya, I am not going to marry you under such circumstances. My father told me everything I need to know. I'm getting you out of here. To Parun, where I will buy you a ship, so you can go on your quest to deliver your father's message." He pushed the hair out of her face, and their eyes met. "Roya, I…"
"Mateja…" Roya whispered, "…you cannot escape your father. The Commander of this entire Fort rules over it in place of the Federation who get some sort of sick joy out of forcing someone of their own tribe turn on them. If you betray the rules of your father, you will suffer the same fate as me. I… I couldn't do that. Not to you."
"No," Mateja said, running back into the other room. "We will be free." He found a stash full of cards that contained Federation Credits and stuffed them all into the sack he pulled out earlier. "I do love you. Let me prove it." He walked up to the mechanism that opened the roof a bit to let direct sunlight inside to cook with, and smashed the button on it as hard as he could. It opened but only a little.
When there was a knock on the door, Mateja grabbed Roya by her shoulders and told her to act like she was cooking to prevent anyone from asking why there was a crack in the ceiling. She felt put on the spot, but she picked up a handful of fruit and began cutting it very slowly. Mateja hid the bag in a nearby drawer. The door opened to reveal the Commander standing there.
"I know I said I wouldn't disturb you…" the commander began. He turned to see Roya standing in the kitchen, knife going through the pieces of purple sweet fruit; and Mateja was sitting at the desk, looking at official paperwork from one of the random drawers. "…perfect." He walked up to Roya and watched her cut the fruit. "It's not so bad, is it? Tending to the needs of the man who cares for you is a joy and an honor." He put a hand on her shoulder. "Such a beautiful creature, you are. You might be a Neurian on the outside, but you will be a Falaston inside. Wait until you carry the second child of mixed race."
Roya tried to ignore him. After all he put her through, it took every bit of willpower she could muster to keep from taking her knife and stabbing him in the eye. Every word he said sounded to her like an invitation to kill him. She pushed his hand off her shoulder and reached to grab more fruit. How dare he keep talking like she was some sort of property? It was sickening. She was supposed to marry his son, not him. He was in her personal space. He wouldn't shut up. His mouth kept flapping. On and on and on. She couldn't talk back to him. He would punish her for it. The Commander was indeed a commanding person. The title suited him well.
"Your bride is not listening to me. She will not reply to anything I say," the commander grumbled. "Mateja! Tell her to answer me!"
Mateja stood up and came to the kitchen, standing at her other side. "Roya," he said. "Please don't make this any harder than it has to be."
She closed her eyes. She put her hands over her ears.
"Thanks, Father! You said you would leave us be until time for the ceremony!" Mateja kneeled down and put his hands around her shoulders. "She need not answer you. She is MY bride!"
The commander growled. "How dare you!" He rose his hand to hit them both. "I will not tolerate such insolence!"
Roya slumped onto the floor. She couldn't stop her tears. Every time she saw that man, she couldn't help but feel an extreme hatred. He was to blame for so much of her suffering. He was to blame for Mateja's suffering, too! How was she supposed to deal with this. She couldn't be a part of a family that involved the Fort Shanz Commander. Every day, having to obey his orders was going to be nothing more than torture. Roya didn't believe her father signed her life away and she never would. This was all a damn plot; some political scheme that Roya couldn't have cared any less about! She felt more than justified in feeling frustrated.
Mateja's voice came from very close to her. "Roya," he said gently. "Roya, are you all right?"
She opened her eyes to see that she was no longer in the Derejin Family's kitchen, but sitting in another room all together. She pushed her bangs out of her eyes to get a better look. The room was full of hot air. Her tools sat on her lap and around on the metallic floor as if she'd been going through them. She was in an engine room and it took her a good five minutes before she realized that she was on her own spaceship. The one they had escaped on. "Gods," Roya breathed out. "It still hurts every time I see it. It's like experiencing it all over again."
"I know," Mateja said. "Putting all of what happened behind us will not be easy. We may have to live with the scars from Fort Shanz for the rest of our lives, but that's all they will be. Scars." He leaned over to hug her close for a moment, and then let her go. "…So, how's she holding up, captain?" The way he said 'captain' made Roya feel proud. That's right. She had achieved one of the things she always wanted, which was reaching space on her own ship. So it wasn't one she built, but it was one she knew how to maintain.
Roya turned to the motor and found her trusty screwdriver among the other tools, and when she started to put it into one of the screws, she noticed it didn't fit. Her tools from the Shanz scrapyard were useless in the face of such modern mechanical technology.
She looked at each gauge carefully before smiling. It was brand new, carefully built. Not only was it much cleaner than what she had to work with, as Roya was trained to clean every piece she picked up before ever using it, but it was all newer than anything she had any practice with. It was going to take some time to learn this ship. Deep in her heart, she wished that she was the one who built the ship, that way she'd know what each individual part was by memory, but she had to take what she was blessed with. If not for this ship, she would have been stuck in Shanz, probably for the rest of her life. "How long have we been away from Falasto?" she asked. "I feel like I could have been out for days."
"We launched, and the moment we reached Falaston orbit, you wanted to check the motor," Mateja answered. "I didn't hear you reply after calling you a few times, so I had to come check on you." He walked out of the doorway. "So, this here is your very own ship, you know." His voice carried from the other side of the wall. Roya could hear him clearly while she bent down to pick up her tools. "You can name it whatever you want."
She had all of her tools inside her toolbelt strapped to her waist before she walked out of the engine room and into a hallway. "I wonder what all there is in here. Judging by the engine's size, it can't be very big," Roya said carefully. "Infirmary, living quarters, mess hall, engine room, cockpit, supply bay… that's pretty much all a ship needs to function, honestly." She could hear the clanking of metal every time her foot hit the floor. It wasn't an unfamiliar sound, as she had seen no other surface used for floors but metal. It made her have this feeling like even if it seems like everything had changed, some things seem to always stay the way they were. "Well, I guess there's one thing that needs to be done before anything else."
Mateja opened the door to the living quarters, which seemed to only be one room, but between them that wasn't going to be very difficult at all. "And what would that be?" he asked.
"Getting supplies. I doubt we're stocked with everything we need. I mean, my favorite green-tipped screwdriver that I've been using all my life doesn't even fit in the screws used to hold in the gauges back on the engine! We'll have to find a station somewhere to let us buy something like that," Roya replied. "Fuel for both us and the ship would be first. Then replacement parts and tools specific for working on this particular ship, and…"
"Coordinates to my father's home planet, silly," she said with a smile. "What else could I have said?"
Mateja nodded in return. "I should have known you'd have nothing else on your mind," he said almost dismissively. "So, I guess you're nowhere near ready to take a nap, are you?" He had a very exhausted expression on his face. The escape was so much, so fast, that it took a lot out of him, too.
Roya looked at her surroundings. Everywhere she looked there was a machine for some purpose, and what fun she could have had by taking each apart to learning what all they did! She was overcome with excitement the more reality set in. As she knew for certain that this was not her imagination trying to help her escape from her fate as it would have been in the hands of the Commander of Fort Shanz, she ran into Mateja's arms, crying tears of joy.
"You were just crying a few moments ago," Mateja said quietly. "You're not sure what to feel, are you?"
"I know exactly what to feel," Roya whispered. "Relief, gratitude, and happiness. The one thing I don't know is how to express it properly." She sniffled a few times. "It looks like I'm sad, but I'm not. I promise."
"Our escape happened so quickly, I don't think you even processed what was going on," he said gently. "But don't worry. You have all the time in the galaxy." He hugged her close until he no longer heard her cry, and the ship fell silent around them for a little while. Mateja had two things he always dreamt of right here in his arms. The freedom to live however he pleased, and the woman he'd had his eye on ever since childhood. It was perfect. "I will always be here, with you."
"You're the only one who's made it thus far, sticking by me," she said, looking up at him. Those purple eyes had never shown him such emotion before. Mateja remembered her always pushing him away. She fought with him almost constantly because of all the rules in Fort Shanz. "I never understood why someone who upheld the rules seemed to care about someone who hated the rules more than anything. You completely confused me, Mateja."
Mateja laughed for a second. "It's not like I wanted to be someone who enforced all those rules, you know." He then pointed over to one of the circular windows that was positioned over one of the beds in the one-roomed sleeping quarters. "You wanna get your first real glimpse of outer space?"
Roya couldn't help herself. At the suggestion she almost tripped over her own feet trying to run over there as quickly as possible. When she got to the window, she couldn't believe what she saw. Stars, stars, and more stars as far as she could see. No sand, no sandstorms, no big metal box dubbed a fort. It was easy to get lost in looking at them all. There were far too many to count, though if she was left there long enough, she would have stood there and tried. "How big is the universe?" she asked, turning away from the window to look back at Mateja, who took the free moment to sit on one of the beds.
"I don't know how big it is. But it's hard to take in, for someone who has spent their whole life living in a big metal box," Mateja said carefully. "Did you see anything else?"
"No," Roya said, plopping down on the other bed. "Just… stars. So many stars." She took in a deep breath. "It's almost scary."
Suddenly, there was a beeping coming from another part of the ship. Roya snapped back to her senses and looked around everywhere, wondering exactly where that beeping was coming from. Mateja led her to the cockpit and put her In the pilot's seat, then flipped a switch on the control panel. Roya had no idea what she was doing there. She had never flown a ship before, and there was no way she could fly it if she couldn't even fix it properly.
"We've received a signal," Mateja said. "I want you to act as composed as possible because we don't know who is sending it." He pressed a button right next to what appeared to be some sort of sound-making apparatus. Roya stared at it, wondering if that's what it was really going to do, until crackling sounds came out of it.
"This is Parun Space Station. Do you copy? Over." It was a woman's voice. A very familiar voice, at that.
Mateja put his finger over his mouth to signal to Roya that he needed her to be absolutely silent. "We copy. Over." He answered it very sternly, almost as if he was another person inside is body.
"A stolen ship has launched in your direction. Have you seen it? Over."
Mateja wasn't sure how to answer that, so he thought about it for a moment. He looked around desperately, trying to sort out his reply to that, when it slipped. "A ship was seen headed towards the nearest planetary system, Parun. We have no knowledge if it was stolen, but it was the only ship I did not recognize." Oh, no. He didn't want to lie, but there was no way Mateja was going to hand over the ship they'd made off with only to go back to that sandbox of Fort Shanz. He had all ready gone past the point of no-return. If he went back at this point, the whole fort would be handed over to the Federation Troopers like Fort Franz twelve years ago. He felt a surge of courage from somewhere as he added, "That's the one you may want to take a look at. Over."
"Understood. Safe voyage, Zwarti Onteli Uno. Over."
Roya's eyes widened. She'd only told that name to one person. She was about to yell, but Mateja shook his head. She had so many feelings at once, she wasn't sure how to react to that. Analy was alive! She wanted to go back and get her best friend. She didn't care who she had to fight off at this point. There was no way she was going to leave Analy, who was hunted and had to flee for her life, back on that world of endless desert.
"Thanks, Parun. Ending communication as of now." Mateja pressed the button again, then let out a sigh. "Here I was afraid it would be someone else." He looked over at Roya. "What?"
"What do you mean, WHAT?!" Roya asked, putting her hands on her hips. "That was Analy!"
"It was. You're right." Mateja replied. "Who do you think ran away to get you this ship? Analy knew before any of us what was going on. It wasn't her race that made the Commander, my father want to kill her. We had to run so fast that she didn't get much time to explain, but she handed me this-" he held out a folded note "-before she put us on the ship."
"We have to go back and get her!" Roya shouted at him.
"We can't let her sacrifice go to waste. Analy will get out of there on her own. She's good at what she does." Mateja wasn't trying to sound heartless as he spoke, but that's all Roya could hear. "Go on. Read the letter, Roya. I'll set a course for the nearest station that isn't affiliated with the Federation."
Roya snatched the letter out of Mateja's hand, then promptly got up and wandered back to the quarters where she would have both the time and the freedom to read it as she saw fit. She sat on one of the beds and unfolded it, scared of what was written inside.
I am not going to have the chance to explain myself before things get ugly. I know that you have always done your best to look after Roya, and that after this is all over, you will continue to do so. You see, it has always been my charge to keep watch over Roya. Sir Sernon Xaviera, heir to Neuria's royal family, lived on my home planet before the war erupted with the Federation. He was hiding from the Volcani bounty hunters. He met my father before I was born, and it was promised that when I came of age, I would become his new heir's personal guard. I left my home planet at the age of ten, after Sernon had all ready crashed on Falasto. It was discovered through my father's network of spies all through the galaxy that was his location, and I faked a crash landing to be able to assimilate myself into the Falaston culture. We three were a family until the Toxic Rains took the life of Sir Sernon, and it hurt me almost as much as it hurt Roya. Listen and listen well, Mateja. I need you to help Roya accomplish the mission her father gave her. Only then will her heart finally be at peace. I secured this ship and registered it in the name that Roya wanted to name her first vessel. You know as well as I do that Roya doesn't understand a lot of the rules of engagement of this world. It is my only wish to see my promise to Sir Sernon finally fulfilled.
Roya put the note down, trying to process all the information in her mind. There was all so much to keep track of, and until now, she wasn't privy to any of it. Was she really some sort of heir to another world? Roya Xaviera, the same girl who had, up until today, spent her entire life shuffling through scraps that the Federation deemed as waste just to make her dreams come true, was of noble decent? She looked around the room, feeling dazed. Dizzy, even.
"Father," Roya whispered. "I… I'm so confused…"