I wanted to snatch the compass and run, but the pawnbroker was watching me. I figured I could smash the glass and take it. Although, what if alarms started ringing and metal bars came down around me? I could probably reach the door, but what then? My attempt at casually sauntering past the display case had failed miserably, and now we were dealing with unwanted attention. I felt guiltier than I would’ve if I’d actually stolen the compass.
I pushed the information button once again, just to be sure I hadn’t misheard: Species locator. Insert blood sample to map nearby targets. Ideal for hunting enthusiasts.
The first time I’d pushed it, I’d done it out of sheer boredom, but now my interest was piqued. I just wished I could’ve been a bit subtler about it; I might as well have been pressing my nose to the glass, from the way the pawnbroker was looking at me. There was a warning in her eyes, communicating to me that stealing the compass would be a very stupid idea. If only we had some money…
To be honest, I didn’t feel like getting on her bad side. She was pretty scary looking, with dark green, snake-like hair that moved independently of her head, an eye blinking at the end of each rippling tendril. She reminded me of Medusa, though I hoped she didn’t have the same freezing powers. I’d never get out of here with the compass if she could do what Stone could with his third eye.
The memory of that three-eyed bastard made my heart ache. He’d stolen Lauren away, and though we’d been chasing after her for a month, the trail had gone cold. It hurt to think about her, but getting her back was pretty much all I could think about. That, and Yorrek’s notebook, which potentially contained the secret to solving the immortality elixir. If someone got their hands on it, they could conquer the universe without contest. So, not the usual waking nightmares in an average girl’s life. Now, I was standing in front of the one thing that might refresh our fading hope.
Knowing I had to direct some of the attention away from me, I wandered around the shop again, casting a casual eye over the pawnbroker’s wares. They were mostly junk, with a few gaudy jewels and a curious piece of technology or two, but the only thing I was interested in was the compass. I was kidding no one—the pawnbroker knew what I was after. She was looking at me over Navan’s shoulder, with all her eyes, while he tried to haggle over a pile of our weapons. He was standing at the counter, desperately bartering for a loan.
After being hijacked in the middle of open space by another gang of pirates, we only had a few credits, limited weapons, and zero dignity left. Unfortunately, we needed to buy fuel and replacement parts for our ship… things that really required more than a handful of credits. Plus, the pirates—great, gangly creatures with scarred tattoos crisscrossing their bodies, and claws the size of my forearm—had gone to town on our vessel, and the whole engine spluttered and wheezed every time we flew. Bashrik and Ronad were back at the ship trying to patch it up as best they could with what we did have, along with Angie and Mort, who were mostly there for moral support.
“Sixty credits for the lot, or you can clear out of here with nothing!” the pawnbroker snarled.
“Sixty credits? That’s daylight robbery!”
“Take it or leave it.”
Navan lifted one of the guns, brandishing it in the pawnbroker’s face. “This blaster is worth at least fifty by itself!”
“Put the barrel of that in my face again and I’ll show you what it’s worth!”
My stomach rumbled, reminding me that we needed to buy food, too. About two days ago, we’d run out of the dried-up food that Navan had brought from Brisha, and the coldbloods were almost out of vials. It really wasn’t looking good for us. If we couldn’t find enough money to get off this planet, we’d be forced to stay until we’d earned enough to leave. That was simply time we didn’t have.
I heard Navan growl as I walked down another aisle. “This is worth a hell of a lot more than sixty credits! A hundred credits and we’ll call it even,” he said firmly.
“Sixty credits and I don’t call the authorities,” the pawnbroker threatened. “Haggling is for the darkstar market. If you aren’t happy with what I’m offering, put your wares up for auction there. See what those criminals want to give you for this heap of garbage.”
“Maybe I will.”
“My shop is a reputable business, not a seedy auction site. You won’t get a better price, and you know it, or you wouldn’t still be standing here,” she countered, her tendrils bristling.
I wandered down another aisle, my eyes still drawn to the glass display case, despite the array of weird and wonderful objects that the pawnbroker had on offer. I had no idea what most of it was for, but there were some unmistakable guns and a couple of impressive-looking blades tucked away to the side.
Coming full circle to the compass, I touched the glass case, wanting to check how flimsy the door was. A lock rattled.
“Keep your grimy hands off the merchandise!” the pawnbroker snapped, mid-conversation with Navan.
I jumped back, startled. “Sorry, I was just admiring it.”
“Yeah, well, don’t moon over things you can’t afford!” she growled. “Come over here and stand with your keeper, where I can see you. I’ve had enough of you creeping around my shop. There’s nothing in these cabinets for you!”
Feeling my cheeks burn, I shuffled over to where Navan was standing, keeping my head down so the pawnbroker wouldn’t see my sour expression. Anger burned in my chest at being referred to as a lowly thing that needed a “keeper.” It seemed the planet of Pulsyde was no better than Vysanthe. Humans were inferior beings wherever we went, even where nobody knew what we were.
“Sixty credits is all I can offer you,” she repeated, ignoring me entirely now that I was under the close guard of her tendrils.
“A hundred credits is a reasonable amount. It’s what we estimated judging by the current universal exchange rate on goods,” I challenged, having listened to Mort go on and on about it, after the pirates had robbed us. “You’re trying to cheat us, and it won’t work.”
The pawnbroker’s hair hissed at me, miniature jaws snapping. “Sixty is my final offer. If this is all you have to give, you can only expect a low offer.”
“Nice to see your sort are amoral wherever you go,” I muttered.
“Say another word and it’ll go down to forty credits,” the pawnbroker warned, her countless eyes staring me down.
Navan and I shared a look, knowing we really didn’t have the grounds to press her, in case she made good on her threat to lower the offer further. Sixty credits was better than no credits, which was what we’d have soon enough. Even so, it wouldn’t buy us much in this place. Pulsyde was a port-planet, and they knew how to work their clientele. Prices were constantly fluctuating, people were always in need of something, and the sellers could get just about anything.
“Fine, we’ll take the sixty credits,” Navan conceded with a heavy sigh.
We really were at rock bottom, with no sign of our luck turning around anytime soon. As well as having a broken ship and no money to our name, we were no closer to stopping Yorrek’s notebook from getting into the wrong hands. Then, there was the painful, perpetual fact that Lauren was gone… potentially sold as a slave, or dead.
Tears pricked my eyes. It was all I could do to hold myself together while Navan completed the exchange. I hated feeling so helpless.
“No doubt you’ll end up harassing some other poor soul on another port-planet. You wretched scavengers never cause anything but trouble!” the pawnbroker muttered to herself, turning to retrieve a pay disc to add the credits to.
In that moment, I saw red. The word “scavengers” rang in my ears like a siren, my eyes narrowing, my throat constricting. I snapped, pulling the scarf from around my neck and wrapping it around my fist, before plunging it through the glass of the nearest cabinet. I grabbed an electric spear from inside and stunned the pawnbroker in the back. A blue shock visibly bristled down her spine.
Navan turned to me, his face aghast. Ignoring the look, I twisted the spear around and made for the glass display case that held the compass. My knuckles were already throbbing from the glass pane I’d put my hand through, but I pressed on, smashing the display case with the sharp tip of the spear, reveling in the satisfying sound of it shattering.
Real sirens exploded across the room. Evidently, the pawnbroker had only rigged the most important cabinets.
“Riley! What in Rask’s name do you think you’re doing?” Navan yelled above the din. “The authorities are going to come running!”
“Then we’d better get out of here!” I fired back, reaching into the cabinet and snatching up the compass. I thought about dropping the spear, but some of my blood was already smeared on the pole, and we needed every weapon we could get. This one was coming with me. “Get the weapons!” I shouted, shoving the compass in my pocket and making for the door.
Navan stuffed the weapons back into our bag and high-tailed it to the door, slinging the bag over his shoulder. With him safely beside me, we tore out of the store, the sound of alarm bells ringing in our ears.
“What was all that about?” he asked as we ran.
“I stole a compass. It’ll lead us to Lauren, I hope,” I explained through sharp breaths. “It traces the blood of different species. I figure it can show us where any humans might be. We’re not exactly a common occurrence in this part of the universe.”
Outside the shop, it was unbearably hot, the atmosphere arid. Across every street and road there was a thick blanket of black sand that couldn’t be swept away. The uneven terrain made it tricky to run, but we were doing the best we could as we hurried down the street. As we rounded a corner, Navan grasped my wrist and pulled me to a halt. I thought he was going to shout at me, or chide me for being completely reckless, but instead he scooped me toward him, planting a fierce kiss on my lips.
“It’s so ridiculously brazen, I’m not sure whether to applaud or freak out. I’m starting to think I’m a bad influence on you,” he said with a nervous laugh.
“What’re you talking about? You’re the best influence on me!” I rose up on my tiptoes and kissed him back. “But if we don’t keep running, we’re going to get caught!”
Navan grabbed my hand and sprinted down the street beside me. I cast a glance back over my shoulder, hoping the pawnbroker was okay. Yes, she’d been curt with us, but that didn’t mean I wanted her to suffer, and I’d jabbed her pretty hard in the back. Hopefully, she’d wake up with nothing but a headache and sore shoulders, ruing the day we’d walked into her store.
We’d just turned down a narrow alley when the clamor of odd, howling sirens chimed behind us. The authorities had reached the pawnshop, by the sounds of it, and it wouldn’t be long until they started chasing us. Ronad had warned us that port-planets really didn’t take kindly to thieves, but I’d been desperate. Even so, I felt bad for stealing the compass and hurting the pawnbroker like that. It had been impulsive and cold, and I wished I could’ve done it differently. I didn’t want to become a person who relied on violence.
Keeping to as many of the shadowed alleyways as possible, Navan and I sprinted back to the shipyard where we’d parked the Coeptis. It was the same ship in which Navan had left Northern Vysanthe to come and rescue me after receiving Brisha’s blessing, but the poor old girl had definitely seen better days. The hull was riddled with holes that had been patched up in deep space, using ancient spacesuits and even older repair kits, and most of the systems were temperamental at best. The engine was ravaged after the pirates had given it a kicking, the weapons systems were more likely to blow us up than any enemy, and the gravity simulator was barely hanging on. The only thing that still seemed to function was the life support system, which was one comfort we could take out of all this—at least we wouldn’t asphyxiate in our sleep.
Stopping at every corner, we made sure there were no authorities trying to intercept us. I could still hear the sirens blaring, but they were far behind us now. Somehow, despite the risk I’d taken, it looked like we were going to get away with it. I touched the compass in my pocket for reassurance, a nervous grin spreading across my face.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Navan said, smiling.
“Killjoy,” I muttered.
The shipyard itself looked like an enormous dock, with ships tethered to electrical posts, though there was no water nearby. Pulsyde was a desert-like planet that had sprung up in the middle of a trade route through the universe, meeting the needs of passing ships and cargo vessels.
Engineers and mechanics were toiling away at the engines of many of the docked ships, the sound of clanking and hammering filling the air, but we hadn’t been able to afford one. The guy who’d knocked on our hatch—a wiry creature with lurid pink skin—had more or less spat on us when he found out we had pretty much no credits to pay for any repairs, before sauntering away to the next vessel that had touched down. I guessed the workers here had no interest in time-wasters like us. To them, we were just taking up valuable space.
Instead of passing by the sentry towers that stood at the entrance of each shipyard, we ducked through a gap in the fence. We’d seen countless people do the same, coming in and out of the dock. In fact, it was how we’d entered the commercial district in the first place—to go in search of a pawnshop—after finding out that a fee had to be paid to even leave the shipyard. We didn’t have that kind of money to waste on a return trip.
Making sure nobody had seen us slip through the gap, we hurried across the yard toward the Coeptis. Ronad and Bashrik were working away on the hull as we approached, patching up the last of the exterior holes.
“Get inside!” I hissed. “We need to get going!”
They exchanged a worried glance. “What did I tell you, Ronad? I said Navan would get in some kind of trouble and we’d have to leave this place with our tails between our legs!” Bashrik muttered, following us up the gangway.
Navan shook his head. “It wasn’t me, this time.”
The two guys looked at me in shock, but there was no time to explain; they could have all the gory details later, once we were safely out of Pulsyde airspace. I had no idea how quickly the planet’s outer security could be alerted to a breach on the ground, and I really didn’t want to find out.
“Come on, let’s get this thing in the air!” I barked, running into the cockpit, where Mort was lounging at the controls. Navan followed straight after, shoving the startled shifter out of the pilot’s chair.
“Hey, I was—”
Navan flashed him a warning look. “Do you want to spend the rest of your miserable days in a Pulsyde brig?”
The shifter shook his head.
“Good, then keep quiet and let me fly us out of here.”
Mort did just that, looking concerned as Navan broke us free of the electrical post that held us to the ground. The clamps released a moment later, and the ship rose into the air, the screen bleeping to say we were low on gas and our guns were out of action. Navan slammed his fist into one of the buttons, turning the warning signals off. We were going to have to resolve the issues pretty soon, but it would have to wait until we could stop somewhere safe. First, we needed to lose the authorities, who would probably be tailing us before we knew it.
Wanting to see if anyone was following us, I moved out of the cockpit and walked to the back of the ship, skirting past a sullen Angie. She didn’t pay me much attention, which suited me just fine. The loss of Lauren was taking its toll on both of us, though we weren’t exactly dealing with it in the same way. Lately, it had been easier to avoid each other, since every conversation ended up in an argument. We just couldn’t agree on how to go about finding Lauren. Every suggestion I made was met with disapproval and comments about being too reckless about things. I supposed I’d proven her right by stealing the compass, but I wasn’t about to admit it.
Reaching the far end, I opened the hatch to one of the defunct gun-pods and clambered inside. The Coeptis was lifting higher and higher, until the ship’s nose tilted up and the roar of the throttle shivered through the metal bones, sending it soaring through the atmosphere of Pulsyde and back out into the brutality of space.
Catching my breath, I watched the landscape recede. It was a peculiar planet, with great swathes of black desert covering most of the surface, while the sprawling cities seemingly rose out of nowhere, offering rest and refreshment to weary travelers from all over the universe. I could only begin to imagine the wealth of different species that came and went from day to day.
I’d barely known the port-planet of Pulsyde, but I was grateful for what it had given me. Fishing the compass from my pocket, I gazed down at the strange glass face set in an oval of bluish gray metal. With this, we would find Lauren and the notebook. We just had to.