Stargazers – Bella Forrest

My daughter and I craved sweetblood like our lungs craved oxygen. Too long without it, and the cracks started to show. Nova’s cries grew more pained, and I ended up struggling to cope with the shrill sound of them rattling my eardrums. I hated to admit it, but it made me want her as far from my arms as possible. And right now, having waited in this damn customs line for half a day, my addiction was controlling me more than maternal instinct. Although, thankfully, she was fast asleep at the moment. The bag full of sweetblood was back at the pod, and it was all I could think about. “Where will you be staying on Mallaroticzyshkravanczyrmo?” the customs official repeated, his tone impatient. I was miles away, dreaming of sweetblood. Without the blackwatch tuber tea to take the edge off my cravings, I’d taken to weaning myself off the substance, a taste at a time. It had been working until we’d ended up stuck in this endless line, trying to get the right documents to enter Mallarot as legal visitors. The plan to go straight to the Stargazer planet had been put on hold momentarily while we got the crew back together. I’d wanted to meet the others close to the location that was buzzing around in Stone’s head, but Lauren had contacted us a day or so ago to suggest it might be better if we met on a neutral planet, so we could go over the plan and regroup. So, we’d ended up on Mallarot after all. In all honesty, I was glad of the detour.

It only seemed right, after losing Mort, that we should pay homage to the place he was born, and perhaps bring some closure to his family, assuring them that he had been a hero, in the end. For what he had done for me, Navan, and Nova, I would forever be indebted to him. I just wished he was still around so I could tell him to his face. I missed him so much more than I ever expected to. Nova did, too—I could see it in the way she looked around sometimes, as though someone were missing. “Miss, where will you be staying on Mallaroticzyshkravanczyrmo?” the customs official snapped, waving a hand in front of my face. Navan interjected as my attention snapped back to the official. “We’re planning to stay with a friend’s family. They reside here on…” He trailed off, floundering over the full name of the planet. “Unfortunately, we’ve lost the address,” I added, smiling as sweetly as possible.

To be honest, I was just looking forward to cleaning the layers of grime and exhaustion off my crawling skin and getting a hot meal in my belly. Navan looked as broken as I felt, both of us suffering the aftereffects of traveling through space in a cramped pod with a newborn baby. At least Nova could fall asleep in my arms and be comfortable; I hadn’t slept properly in days. “A friend’s family?” The customs official didn’t seem convinced. “Do you know how many travelers I get through here, like yourself, claiming they’re coming to see a ‘friend’s family?’” “Shifters are a friendly people. I imagine they get a lot of visitors,” I replied, attempting charm, though the official looked anything but impressed. He seemed bored and world-weary, as though he’d rather be anywhere else. “That supposed to be a wisecrack?” I shook my head. “No, officer, not at all. I genuinely mean it.

My friend was very thoughtful, and I can only assume the rest of his kind are the same.” It felt weird to speak about Mort in the past tense. “Say I do believe you’re not making a joke at our expense—I’m still going to need some answers. For a start, who’s the family friend?” the official pressed. It was clear from his tone that, if we didn’t give the right reply, we’d be taken in for further questioning. Out of the corner of my eye, shifter guards in gaudy yellow uniforms were glancing at this particular post, preparing to haul us into custody if the occasion called for it. They had huge guns cradled like strange metal children in their fleshy arms. “Our friend Mort passed away very recently…” I paused, taking a breath. “And we’re here to inform his parents.” It was only a half lie.

Yes, we were here to rendezvous with our friends, away from Vysanthean territory, but we could kill two birds with one stone this way—no matter what Mort’s parents thought of him the last time they saw one another, he was still their son. They deserved to know what had happened to him. Maybe the loss of him might fix the damage that had been done to their relationship. “This ‘Mort’ you speak of, you don’t happen to know his full first name, do you?” The customs official was getting less amused by the minute. “Mort is a common nickname out here, short for a lot of things. Doesn’t help me much.” I flashed an anxious glance at Navan, remembering how stubbornly Mort had refused to reveal his proper first or last name, always saying I’d never be able to pronounce it. “I just knew him as Mort,” I said weakly, wishing again that he were here. The journey from Vysanthe’s atmosphere had been a desperately sad one, my emotions all over the place. The image of the iris closing on Aurelius murdering my friend had become a constantly replaying nightmare in my head—hard to shake and even harder to process.

Moreover, the knowledge that Ezra and Aurelius would be coming after us, just as soon as they took over the queens’ united side, weighed heavy. “Last name?” The customs official sighed, his fleshy hand reaching for something on the desk ahead of him. “I don’t know that either. Like I say, I only knew him as Mort. He always said I’d never be able to pronounce his full name, so he never told me what it was,” I replied, knowing how feeble the argument sounded. The official plucked up a device and lifted it to his mouth, ready to rally the cavalry. “Wait!” I said, panicking. “He was pretty infamous on this planet when he was younger. I think he tried to impersonate a renowned diplomat, or something, and spent a while living on Almaghura, pretending to be this guy? He left not long after that. I know it’s not the best thing to be telling you, but his parents deserve to know what happened to him.

” A look of surprise registered in the official’s red-veined eyes. “You mean Mortozyczmirnov Azabaratafaraxcyn? I know the guy… hell, everyone knows the guy around here. You probably should’ve started with that, might’ve saved us all a bit of time.” A hint of a smirk tugged at his slippery lips. “Well, at least he was right about one thing. I never would’ve been able to pronounce his name.” Another attempt at levity fell flat on its ass, the shifter official glancing at me as though I were an idiot. “Anyway… can you find his parents’ address for us? I promise we’ll be out of your hair ASAP.” The official folded his arms across his chest. “Maybe the Azabaratafaraxcyns don’t want to know anything about their son.

He was dead to them the moment he broke our most sacred law. I doubt they’ll be too upset to hear he’s actually snuffed it.” “Maybe not, but it might give them some closure,” I insisted. “Nobody forgets their child, no matter what that child has done.” “Your kind must be very different from ours, miss.” “Well, what if it gives them some relief?” Navan said. “They might want to know that it’s all over, that they no longer need to be embarrassed about the son who brought them such disgrace. Would you rob them of that?” I was about to launch into another reason why the shifter should let us onto his planet when Nova gave a shrill shriek of displeasure. Her hands balled into fists, which she beat against my chest, her face contorting in a mask of red-cheeked discomfort. We’d been waiting our turn for almost six hours, leaving the pod in the inbound shipyard, and it had been about that since her last vial of sweetblood.

In her wail, I could hear the shiver of torment that trilled only when she hadn’t had her craving sated. It wasn’t mere hunger; it was something more visceral than that. The official glanced down at Nova as her cries grew louder, her eyes squeezed shut in desperation as her lungs heaved out the pained wails. Against my arm, her scarlet wings pushed downward in defiance, her whole body trying to arch itself out of my grasp. “Can’t you do anything about… that?” the customs official asked tersely, scowling. “Afraid not,” Navan replied, squaring his shoulders. No matter the situation, he always knew how to project an air of confidence. “Not until we get our papers to go through to Mort’s family, anyway.” The official pulled a face. “Fine.

Anything to get that thing away from here,” he muttered, reaching for a laser stamp and holding it above a metal rectangle shaped like a credit card. A set of symbols appeared on the smooth surface. The shifter waited for the lettering to cool before handing Navan the metal pass. He pointed to a square at the bottom-right corner. “Scan this panel across your navigation system and it’ll put the coordinates in for you. Welcome to Mallaroticzyshkravanczyrmo.” It was the most insincere welcome I’d ever received, but it was a relief to hear the words. Taking the laser-printed pass and following the snaking exit path toward the inbound shipyard, where our pod was clamped, Navan reached over and took Nova from me. He lifted her into the air, swinging her gently, trying to get her to smile. When that didn’t work, he pulled her closer and blew raspberries against her tummy, earning a small giggle that bubbled up from the back of her throat.

His focus was entirely on her—this little creature that we’d made—his face beaming up at her as her balled fists reached out for him. With Nova slightly calmer, he swung her slowly from side to side, singing quietly to her as we walked along. Despite feeling like a dead woman walking, I’d never been more in love with Navan than I was at that moment. He was the father of my child, the love of my life, the husband I’d never expected, and he had quieted my beloved daughter—a baby who could split open a skull with her addicted wails. “Do you think we’ll be safe here?” I asked, shaking out my tired limbs. Navan and I had been taking turns holding Nova throughout our six-hour wait, but he had way more stamina than me, thanks to his coldblood genetics. He was barely breaking a sweat, while I felt like I might crumble. He nodded, still rocking Nova. “Mort was right when he said nobody comes here for anything interesting. Nobody will expect us to be here, not even Ezra and Aurelius.

” “And you think the others will be able to swoop down without anyone noticing?” “We only needed to do this the legal way so we could stay low and keep hidden, without worrying about Mallarot authorities blowing our cover or throwing us in some shifter prison,” he replied. “All the others need to do is touch down for a couple of hours, max. They’ll be in and out before anyone has the chance to say anything.” “Are you sure?” He smiled. “Positive.” “Did Bashrik say whether Alfa and Dio were coming along?” He had spoken to Bashrik yesterday, when the brothers checked in with one another. They were coming straight from Lunar HQ to join us, arriving in a few days’ time on one of the modified Fed ships. “No, they’ve taken another ship and are heading to rendezvous with Niniver and that Carokian guy,” he replied, giving me a wry smile. “I think they’ve had enough of our problems.” I chuckled.

“I don’t blame them. Are they okay?” “Alfa got picked up a while back. A onceover from the Rexombran wisewoman and he was fine. Dio is much better, too. I think they’re just ready to go back to their old lives,” he muttered. “Although, apparently it was Stone who told Alfa to head back to their junkyard ship. The two of them are best friends; I doubt he’d leave willingly.” “Why do you think he did that?” “Not sure. Maybe he thought his friend had done enough. I’d say singlehandedly surviving at the rebel base, and taking out hordes of enemies at the same time, is enough to warrant a rest.

Or maybe Stone is worried about his business going under, and needs someone to take over while he’s gone?” I nodded. “He has been away from the stealing and trading business for a while. Do you think Stone will go back to it, once all of this is over?” It was something I’d been wondering for a while, though I had to admit it came from a selfish place. I was worried he might take Lauren with him, when this madness finally came to an end. “I’ve got no idea what that renegade will do when all’s said and done. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’ll ever change his ways, but I didn’t think I’d be the kind of guy who’d change mine, either,” he said, smiling. “It takes the right person and the right circumstances.” I leaned into his shoulder, feeling my heart swell. If Lauren and Stone loved each other as much as I loved Navan, then maybe that was enough reason to let her go. If her path led to joining him on his junkyard ship, traveling the universe together, then who was I to stop them? “And you didn’t mention Nova?” I asked.

“No. I thought it best we save that for when we’re all back together. It’ll be easier to explain that way.” “I agree.” After a few minutes, we reached the pod, which was clamped in a bay in the immigration port. The shipyard was overcrowded and dirty, the sky stormy overhead, with travelers pouring toward the never-ending customs lines that snaked backward. Relieved to be away from it, I waited for Navan to swipe the metal card over the scanner, the clamps releasing as the pod door opened. He stepped in first, lifting a vial from the bag of sweetblood. Pulling out the stopper, he settled down with Nova at the rudimentary pilot’s chair, multitasking as he poured the golden liquid into her mouth and got us in the air. I sat behind him, watching us lift away from the shipyard.

“What if Mort’s parents won’t take us in?” I asked, feeling a tremor of doubt. After all, it wasn’t as though we had many options. If they kicked us out, we’d have nowhere to go… and I couldn’t bear the thought of another night sleeping in that pod with my husband and child cramped in there with me. Navan stared through the curved windshield of the pod, his slate eyes fixed ahead. “We’ve got to hope that they do.” He turned to me, smiling sadly. “I mean, they put up with Mort for long enough. I’m sure we’ll be a piece of cake by comparison.” I knew he meant well, trying to make me laugh, but it was all a bit too raw. One day, I’d be able to grin and chuckle and reminisce about all the things that had happened with the errant shifter, especially knowing my own death wouldn’t have stopped Mort from cracking jokes, but I needed a bit more time.

So, I simply put on a smile and watched my husband feed our daughter, while measuring out the tiniest drop of sweetblood for myself… just to take the edge off this doozy of a week. Hell, this doozy of a year.

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