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I Set My Ship to the Brightest Star


When the Snow Queens took Kai, Grandma warned me not to follow. “Whatever you do, you will lose,” she said to me, just a little girl.

It was too dangerous. Kai had left our home planet of her own accord, with the Snow Queens, those visitors with the icy breath and icicle fingers and cold hearts. Tall and curved and smoke emitting from their mouths when they spoke, they were winter drifting from planet to planet.

Kai was not a prisoner. She went as a friend to the monsters. Or a friend to their sweet serums she shot into her arm.

The Queens pointed to the brightest star when they told Kai where they were from. So I set my ship to the brightest star and I sailed through the dark.

Somewhere along the line in my expedition I lost my way. I found the rebels. I heard their stories about the Snow Queens. All those people they’d carried off with them, so many of them were dead. Or prisoners.

But I know she’s out there. Her name is Kai. She’s alive.

* * *

It’s been forty-five years. I am sixty. I still stand among the stars, only glass and steel between us. There have been other missions. The rebellion against the Queens grew, then rebels got killed, and now we shrink.

But today, a sound arrives. My name through the stars.

I hear her voice over the intercom radio. My name, whispered through the stars. “Gerda,” she says. “Gerda.”

It has been forty-five years since I’ve heard her say my name. It has been forty-five years since I’ve heard her say anything. Now I know for sure: she survived. And it shakes me, because she is worth more than the universe.

Rover watches me closely as I lean over that radio, tracking that voice, that quiet strained voice. And I know Rover can see my usual determination has changed to a quivering fear. She doesn’t know why. She doesn’t know the person on the other end of this blind frequency. After years of telling Kai’s story, no one wanted to hear about Kai anymore. So Rover has never heard the name or the stories.

But Kai isn’t at the brightest star, where the Queens pointed and promised. The frequency puts her somewhere near the star, but in the worst possible place. The Queens’ prison ship, orbiting a cold planet in the oldest district of space.

The prison ship has no windows or day or night. They say the worst things imaginable happen in that place.

I won’t get clearance from the Commander. The rebellion is so small now. In rebel stories, the resistance is a scrappy group that will overcome with some clothespins and rusty ships. All of that is true, except for the overcome part.

“Absolutely not,” the Commander says.

“You don’t get it,” I say. “This is why I found your lot in the first place. I’m willing to risk it.”

“And your crew?” Rover stares at me.

“No,” the Commander says for good measure. And he slams his radio off.

“Who is she?” Rover says. “The voice?”

“Her name’s Kai,” I say. I throw the coordinates plate down. It clatters. “She’s alive,” I say, because I have had dreams about being able to say it, and now that I can, there’s a deep weight off my back. And then there’s an even heavier weight, because now I’m sure she’s out there and I can’t save her.

I can’t save her.

The Commander rejects my proposal. But my crew does not. They’re loyal. They’re young. They’re not making good decisions. Rover looks to me and says, “Like you said, some people are worth more than the universe.”

My crew have all have lost someone. And this one, maybe we can bring them back.

So together, without alerting the Commander, we return to the old solar system. We’re rebels with no silver skin and piercing ice eyes. We still eat chocolate and smuggle music onto their ship. This old solar system is unlike us: sterile, taken care of. We stick out from the moment we arrive. We are probably all going to be killed or worse, and we’re probably never going to escape.

Some people are worth the whole universe.

“If you want to turn back,” I say to them, “you take the ship somewhere safe. I’ll go in alone. You’ve done enough.”

There are six of them. All six say nothing, not even little Rover. I am more frightening than anything orbiting the ice planet. This one-armed grey-haired beast is on their side. And this beast is a damn good Captain who has kept them alive through this war. To leave now would be ungrateful, cowardly.

“No, you don’t understand,” I say. “Where they have her, it’s a death camp. It’s run by the Coat, the worst of all the Queens.”

But the conversation is done. We’re already here. Instead, we quietly watch the red planet grow closer through the windows, a sense of deep mistake settling like thick dust.

She’s in there somewhere, past the Coat, past the nightmare chambers, she’s in the silver ship circling around the ice planet like a loose ribbon on a maypole. And somehow, she got to a radio, and encrypted my name into the stars. If she can find me, I can find her.

So even when those silver ships turn to face us, even when they start shooting and jetting closer through the silence of space, I do not balk.

“They’re going to dock,” I warn my crew. “Don’t fight back. If you fight back, they will shoot you. Raise your arms. Let yourselves be taken.”

They raise their arms as they hear the dock door force itself open. I just raise one arm, the pinned sleeve limp at my side.

The silver soldiers appear. They are younger than I remember soldiers being. They have soft faces and unblemished bodies. So many of them aren’t Snow Queens at all, they’re humans or droids or dothlons or one of a thousand other species that are not who we’re fighting. But they look nothing like the rebels.

Was I that young? “We surrender,” I say.

Then the silver soldiers shoot my crew. Rover screams and runs for it. They grab her and beat her down. They don’t touch me. They know who I am. I am a trophy for their camp. I am the one-armed fury. I deserve more pain than a bullet to the head.

But as they walk Rover and me off the ship, I keep in mind that I would have never shot people with their arms up.

* * *

The death camp is one silver ship the size of seven normal silver ships. But I know I am certainly in the place where Kai is. We are connected now, even if it’s by curving hallways. But if there were no guards or guns or doors, I could take one step and then another and eventually come to Kai’s side. Where I should be. Where she should be.

I know what to expect here. Most rebel Captains don’t know. But when I joined the ranks, one of the first people I admired was an old woman who was the first and only person to escape the death camp. I listened to her stories, just in case I ever needed to become the second person.

“Think,” the old woman told me, “of your worst fears. Think of the worst thing that could happen to you. That is what will happen in that camp. They’ll find a way to break you. Those in charge of that prison are the most ruthless in the whole silver army. The Coat has an active sadistic imagination and not a lot of patience. The prison doesn’t execute you. It doesn’t keep you alive. It rots you.”

I asked her how she escaped.

“I kept one story in my head,” she said. “A story they couldn’t take from me.” She croaked a laugh. “And I made a shiv out of my own teeth, there was that, too.”

I have a story.

They throw Rover and me into a cell, and I’m not surprised when they don’t return for hours. I’m expecting the dinner to be perpetually frozen stuck in a block of ice. Seen but never eaten.

Rover is afraid. All the other prisoners in this ship are afraid. Not me. The silver soldiers shake when they bring the shit food to me. They know me. They know the stories. I’ve fought in the war longer than they’ve been alive. There are books written about me. When I lost my arm, my kill count tripled.

And these guards know what they’ve done. They’ve taken Kai from Gerda. And now Gerda has come. They should be afraid.

“They won’t feed us tonight,” I tell Rover. “They will douse the lights in about an hour. They’ll stay like that all night. You won’t be able to see anything.” I put my back against the wall, getting comfortable and kicking off my boots. “They aren’t here to scare us. They’re here to rot us.”

“What are we going to do, Captain?” Rover asks.

“I’m going to tell you a story.” I hear my voice, and it’s unwavering but it’s old. I wonder if Kai will recognize me. When I lost Kai, I sounded younger than Rover.

The lights power off with a clunk and a guttural thunk as the ship chokes the electricity. The prison cells go blind.

“Stay calm,” I warn. “Keep your mind together. They won’t come on for another two days.”

“You said it would just be overnight!” Rover whispers.

“We’re in space,” I say. “Morning is whenever they decide. Now listen to my story.”

“I don’t want to listen to a story.”

“What else are you gonna do?” I say. “Knit a scarf? Shut up and listen.” I clear my throat.

“We lived on a planet where there was clear blue water and deep green trees on the land. There weren’t big continents like on Earth, only little islands. I lived on an island called Washington. I was an adorable child. You should have seen me, running around causing trouble, always wanting to climb to the top of the island or shake the trees bare or whatever else I could do to make myself laugh. And one day, Kai was there.”

“What’s she like?” Rover says.

“She’s kind,” I say. “She’s funny. I know everyone says that about people, everyone is funny, especially after they die or get lost. She’s so nice and funny. But Kai? She was actually funny. She’d sing songs and throw fruit at people and when anyone started getting too serious, she’d say something so witty and quick, it gave you whiplash.”

“Like what?”

“I can’t tell you, because I’m not as witty and this was half a century ago,” I say. “But let me think of a specific story.” I wander from thought to thought for a moment, trying to find the perfect example. Maybe the elephantianturus? No. The pirate play? No, that wasn’t funny if she wasn’t there. “One time, when the silvers finally made it to our planet, she tricked them into washing their uniforms with some special cleaning elixir so their uniforms turned purple.”

“Ah,” Rover says.

“But it was the way she did it,” I say. “She always made an elaborate stage show out of it. Quite literally. So there I am, walking down the street, and there’s this short man standing on the back of a horsdragoon, this gigantic beard all the way down to his feet, and he’s holding up this potion bottle spitting verses on its great powers. He even made a banner and had one of our friends hold it behind him while singing a theme song. It was Kai, of course, the old man.”

I tell her about the time we faked our deaths so we could see our funerals. I tell her about the submarine we failed to make (it quickly became a fishbowl full of fish and ocean). I tell her about a thousand things we did under a thousand sunrises and sunsets and the space between. And Rover smiles. I can’t see Rover, but she’s laughing and I can always hear when someone’s talking through a smile.

I finally tell her about our garden. Two little girls, sitting in a suspended garden between trees, looking out to the ocean and watching the sun spin around our little planet in the middle of nowhere.

We were going to be a family one day. We were already family.

“What does Kai look like?” she finally asks.

“She’d be taller now,” I say. “Not a shrimp anymore. She’s got big bushy eyebrows. Blue eyes. Black hair. And she’s got a tattoo on her neck. It’s her family’s tattoo. It looks like three sticks bound together.”

Rover says, “You think she has a plan for us? How to get out of here?”

“Sure,” I say. “And if she doesn’t, she’s gotten us this far. We’ll find her.”

Morning still won’t come. I tell her about the time Kai baked a cake but didn’t know she had to add things to chocolate other than cocoa. I tell her about the time Kai wanted to run away, so she tried to ride on the back of a turtleish. It didn’t work.

But my voice becomes hoarse, until Kai can’t light up the room anymore.

Our cell gets too quiet.

Rover starts humming to herself. Then she screams and cries and laughs and sings loud. Then she starts begging people to turn the lights back on.

“Kai sang,” I interrupt her. “Hey, yo, Rover, did you hear me? Kai sang. You want to hear the song?”

“What?”

“Focus, Rover,” I say. “Kai had a good singing voice. She sang ‘up the back crack of oleander,’ which was the name of the cove near the island but also our nickname of our teacher, because our teacher had a gigantic ass.”

Rover is silent. And then she gives a little laugh. “The teacher never caught on?”

“No,” I say. “Kai was cunning. She never sang in front of Oleander. If she did, she’d just hum it or be like, ‘You’ve never heard that song before, Miss? It’s an old traditional tune!’”

Rover laughs.

“At least they didn’t take away the sound,” I say.

Then, without warning, the lights turn on and Rover screams. I cover my face with my arm. I push off the wall, trying not to shake. Rover vomits.

I estimate the time. I’ve taught myself how to do this. In space, you have to have an internal clock, tally marks no one but you can see.

The night has been three days long.

“Calm down,” I say. “Your eyes will adjust. It’s over.”

“Don’t turn off the lights again,” Rover pleads with the walls, with the ceiling, “Please don’t, please please –”

“Rover.” I bark.

The door opens. “Roll call,” a soldier says from the corridor beyond. I stand with a little difficulty. Rover is hysterical.

I shove her against the wall. “You shut the hell up now.” My eyes lock into Rover’s, like two dogs staring each other down. “Roll call is a firing squad if you show you’ve broken. Their goal is to eventually kill you. They want a reason to do it today. So shape the fuck up.”

Rover takes my hand. We walk out into the hall. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the other prisoners. Some don’t have a Gerda to warn them. They’re screaming and crying and holding their faces and falling to the ground like a mental asylum. They’ll be shot.

“Now listen to me,” I say to Rover. “They will come down the line. If you look sick or crazy, they’re going to shoot you. Get yourself together, and start looking at the faces around us. We don’t see the other prisoners that often, and we need to see if she’s here.”

Rover spasms like she’s just been pulled out of an icy lake, but she nods. “Yes, Captain,” she says. And she looks around to the faces, mumbling to herself. “I … I don’t remember what Kai looks like …”

“Dark hair,” I say, collecting myself. “I told you this. Got that tattoo.”

“What if she’s not here?” Rover says. “This is just one little corridor. It’s a big ship.”

“Well, then we’ll know she’s not in this corridor. Check it off the list,” I say.

The roll call begins with the shouts of soldiers down around the corner. Our piece of the hall falls silent as they listen to boots clacking against the grated floor, gathering closer and closer to their huddle. There will be a calm voice, then a plea, and then a scooting of a chair, and then a gunshot. It’s methodical, like killing is as menial as doing the dishes.

It must be the Coat.

The Coat, the mad Queen who runs this camp, is ruthless. If I heard Kai’s voice seven days ago, she may have already been killed. This could be for nothing.

And if that’s so, woe be to the sad sack who did it.

Just as the shooting is about to round the corner, the roll call is cut short for some reason. Rover breaks to her legs and cries. I shuttle her back into our cell before anyone sees her. Anger rolls through me. I was unable to run away, unable to look around to assess. It will be another spell before I make a move, and Kai could have been in that line ahead of us. Kai could already be dead because I’m not smart enough to figure out how to get to her.

That night, they chain the prisoners into headphones. They take away our sound. It never made sense to me the Coat’s obsession in controlling everything, depriving and giving and depriving again. It seemed the whole of the tyranny I’ve seen in the war rooted from here. Here is where the trunk of evil stood taut, and then the branches all spread from this cell, where there was no sound. No sight. No time.

Time dissipates. All that is left is my heartbeat.

“Most of the prisoners’ time is in the cells,” the old lady had told me. “But once in a while, they’ll move you to an interrogation room or to a lab.”

It’s impossible. But the prison underestimates someone like me. “Rover?” I say.

Rover can’t hear me. I can’t hear me. My voice has been snatched from my ears, and I only feel the rumble inside my skull and throat and chest but nothing more than a rumble. But my lips still move. My story is still out there in the air. So I keep speaking it.

“When the Snow Queens first came,” I say, “they didn’t bother with me. They immediately went to the kids who didn’t have parents. Of course Kai always had my grandma, but she didn’t think so. We loved her. But for some reason … the serum they gave her loved her more, I guess.”

I hit the back of my head against the wall behind me. “It didn’t make sense. She was always there for me. When I was drafted by our island to go hunt the big creatures in the water beyond the reef, she came with me. When I got on my ship to go, she was right there behind me to hold my hand. She wasn’t afraid. She was determined. Her mind was made up. But … once she tried that serum, she was gone. And I didn’t see that determination ever again. It was like watching someone disappear right in front of me. Died while still alive. And when the Snow Queens left …”

The night Kai left, the rain came down like knives. Kai didn’t even look at me when she got on the ships to leave. Grandma said it was her choice. Grandma said I was lucky I wasn’t wrapped up in going myself. Grandma said no matter what I did, I would lose.

“Let me tell you more about when we hunted the big creatures in the water,” I said. “That’s a better memory. Now Kai, she made us smoreys right there on the ship. She said, ‘See? No big difference between land and island. Both have land in them. Both have me in them.’ And we kissed that night. And when it started raining, she grabbed my hand and made me dance. She never stopped moving. I finally fell asleep, and when I woke up in the morning, Kai was standing on the edge of the ship, looking out to the big rocks of the reef, facing the green sun and she said, ‘Make way! It’s Kai! Gerda and Kai, make way!’”

Once, she followed me into the universe. There’s a debt to be paid.

The only question left is how to pay that debt.

“At the next roll call,” I say. “At the next roll call, we’re going to break out. We’re going to find her.”

I feel those words vibrate in my body. We’re going to find her.

* * *

The soundless night keeps on for another two days. Finally, the headphones are removed. Lights turn on. Rover rocks, staring at the floor. She says nothing. I spasm, my ears hurting and my brain trying to turn on all the way.

Make way. Make way for Gerda and Kai.

It brings me back, enough to keep Rover on her feet as we head out to roll call, and then who knows where.

“So after Kai left,” I say, getting in line in the hallway, “I hocked a ship. I went out into the world. Ran into a meteor stream, an old hermit woman on a moon all by herself, princesses and princes, and each one of them said it wouldn’t end well. Well I’m still here. Because I found you and the rebels. They all kept me alive, for this one moment. You understand that?”

Rover stares at me. But she’s not listening.

The shots fire again around the corner. The boots clunk closer and closer until they turn the corner.

Rover laughs as the Coat comes into view.

The coat hangs off flat shoulders like a curtain. On a smaller Queen, or maybe even a more timid Queen, the coat would swallow her whole. But on this executioner, the coat is like a part of her being. It curls around her neck, it turns at the ankles when they switch direction to look at a new prisoner in the line. It is immaculate. The Coat’s hat settles on gray hair and shields her brow with a black brim. Her big black boots slam into the grated floor. Her thick black gloves are the only hands she’s known. She looks as if she’s were born in that black uniform. It’s as natural as her tattoo of three sticks bound together.

The only thing Kai does not wear is a smile.

Sound leaves me. My eyes blur.

When did she get old?

When did she turn into ice? When did she melt into snow? When did her body stretch and her face become someone else’s. When did she become a Snow Queen?

The Snow Queens, they were all someone else once. And I can see traces on the Coat’s face. Kai’s eyebrows. Kai’s small freckle on her cheek. Kai’s teeth. And Kai’s tattoo.

Was it the serum?

The Queen soldiers around her step out of her coat’s quake. Her empty eyes dart down on each of the prisoners, still holding a girlhood glimmer. That’s what is eerie about the Coat, she still looks to people as if she’s going to help them. There’s an older man down the way from us, and when the Coat sees the man struggling to stand, her eyes get large and glassy. She offers the man a chair.

And then she shoots the man.

She shoots out of pity, like putting a dying dog out of its misery. And she’s so convincing, for a minute, I even believe she’s doing the right thing.

“Here you are.” She hands the gun to one of her soldiers. She doesn’t hold her own weapon. I remember once, she told me when she was rich, she would have someone else decorate her home because it meant stability. I always wondered why those things mattered.

She goes to the next prisoner, then the next, those glassy eyes smiling and those kind lips asking, “How are you this morning?” “How do you do?” “How was your rest?” Sometimes she just goes past, not saying anything, just making sure everyone is standing. But she strides along in a good mood.

Some of the prisoners are fooled. Most of the prisoners are terrified.

My heart pounds as she comes to see me. I feel that wrench twist in my stomach, just like it did back when I was a little girl. I thought little Gerda had died somewhere along the way, on that moon with the old lady or when I found the rebels, or when the arm was taken. But I’m still here, beating against my ribs and clawing her throat and working my way into my old eyes. All I’ve wanted is to look at her again.

And then she looks at me.

For two seconds, there is once again Gerda and Kai. Gerda and Kai and nothing else.

Two seconds fall flat. The Coat moves to Rover.

“How are you today?” she asks Rover. “You look tired. Would you like a seat?”

“That’s her,” Rover says, ignoring the scary Queen in front of her. “That’s Kai, isn’t it? Yes, I’d love a seat.”

“Don’t take a seat,” I say.

“Go on then,” Kai says, “Soldiers? Can we get this poor girl a seat?”

“We’ve come to save you,” Rover says, too chipper. “Gerda, I found her!”

And before I can move, Kai puts a bullet through Rover’s head. The crew is now wholly dead. Rover twitches, but she’ll stop soon.

And in this heaviness, I wonder if I knew all along.

Her big icy eyes look to me. She looks to me the same way she’s looked at every prisoner who has come before me. A stranger. The bridge between us, the garden suspended by two trees, it’s gone. Erased. It’s as if it was never there.

* * *

They leave the lights on. They give me sound. They put Rover’s rotting body in the middle of our cell and lock the door.

I tell her my favorite story.

The garden in the trees, between our two houses. Kai and Gerda’s place. It’s gone now. I never went back to my home world, because it wasn’t home anymore. Everything has disappeared in one way or another. And everyone let it, and no one cared enough to stop it.

But there were once was a suspended garden on that island, and it smelled like grass and moss and chopped wood and lilacs and fruit. During the day, their green leaves caught the sun and cut the air with great pillars of morning light. During the night, the stars danced between their shadows, tangled up in branches.

Kai loved playing pretend in the garden.

One day, we stood between the trees. I took her hand. We listened to the wind rush between our bodies.

“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for making this place with me.”

We spent the rest of the afternoon swimming in the creek below, singing old rhymes and splashing water. We spent the evening eating smoreys. We spent the night in the flowerbeds next to the rutabagas, curled together like two little pups. The next morning, we cooked breakfast and readied to return to town.

“I feel guilty,” she said.

“Why?” I said.

“Cause we didn’t get close until my parents died,” she said. “In order to meet you in this world, my other world had to burn down.”

My least favorite story.

* * *

Every morning, we stand for roll call. They’ve strapped Rover’s body to me.

Every morning, Kai asks how we are all doing.

She kills lots of people. She never kills me.

She just asks me how my morning is going. But she never acknowledges. She never says my name. It’s like she doesn’t recognize me.

Rover is getting disgusting. I still tell her stories. I still sing to myself, the shanties Kai knows. The nights are long the days are short and neither really exist.

Sometimes, when I finally fall asleep, they crawl into our prison cells and they put serum in our veins. I know they’re doing it. I’m starting to lose her, even in my own brain. The serum is starting to matter more than Kai.

But there will be a day she says my name again.

She said it once. She brought me here. And I will wait until she breaks. Just a moment of recognition. Just a moment of admittance. Just one little moment.

It was all real. She was real. She really did love me. I know she did.

I will wait.

Every night for the last lifetime of years, when her message never came, I at least knew this: wherever she was, whatever she may be doing, there was some portion of her brain that still remembered me.

That day, however many days ago, or years … had it been years… I should instead say, that time before coming to the prison when I still had a ship and a crew, that time that was marked with the things I have given up for Kai, I heard her say over the intercom radio: “Gerda. Help.”

My name, whispered through the stars.

Some people are worth more than the universe.


J.R. Dawson is an active SFWA member. She has been seen in Escape Pod, Mothership Zeta, Eclectica, and The MFA Years. Dawson has a forthcoming story in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

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