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Purple Sands MAG
The stars blazed with a brilliance never seen on Earth. Their glow lit up the violet sands of the alien planet’s smallest moon, the only inhabitable area in the solar system. The air was thin, too thin for most people to survive in comfort, so the moon was given a number recognition in the League of Worlds database and left to those foolish enough – or desperate enough – to seek the red diamonds that could be found there. The moon’s diamonds were rare and prized on other planets, for their beauty was unlike that of any other stone. Desire drove many to the moon’s surface, but this place was not kind to those who would steal its stones. Few who arrived in search of profit ever left; the moon’s vast deserts held dangers for humans seeking wealth.
Those who survived, who adapted to the harsh climate of the planet’s moon, were a mixed group of fortune’s fools, those willing to risk their lives in the pursuit of riches, and those who had no other choice. They came from all parts of the galaxy, surviving by sheer will or an unwillingness to give in to outside force. These prospectors were few but enduring, seen infrequently in the small spaceports scattered sporadically across the landscape. Dangerous people, it was said. Inhabitants trying to scrape out a safer, if more meager, living in the tiny towns avoided the fortunehunters who roamed the purple deserts.
Jet was one such prospector, a fierce woman, rangy and fit from too long in the deserts. She was descended from the tribes native to the American continents of Earth, but her heritage was far removed, weakened by time and disregarded in a time when only personal gain mattered anymore. Some of her ancestors had come from another land, giving her eyes as cold and hard as frozen emeralds. Tall and lean, made hard from life in the galaxy’s worst places, she kept to herself mostly and stayed in the desert as long as she could, preferring the company of the stars and her desert-runner to that of others of her kind.
In the dark, under the brilliant stars, she gave the draconic desert-runner its head and let it run as it would. She clung easily to the heavy saddle. The runner would find its own food, eliminating the need to feed it from her supplies. Jet was headed for the Spine, the low, sprawling mountain that ran between the moon’s poles. It was there that the greatest number of red diamonds had been found recently, but she was in no hurry. Her supplies would last through a side trip to feed the hungry runner.
Jet knew what it was that the desert-runner smelled, since only the scent of death could get this reaction from the normally placid reptilian beast. It had smelled another creature’s demise and wished to feed. Jet wondered idly what had been caught out in the arid desert. Perhaps it was human.
Her lips curled, baring her teeth in a cruel, predatory expression. She had no great love for interlopers.
It was no prospector who lay in the desert, breathing in the fine-grained purple sand. It was a K’han woman, one of the natives of the small moon. She lay in a pool of blood, but she was still alive.
Jet pulled the desert-runner to a halt and sat watching. The woman raised her head and stared at Jet with strange, pale blue eyes. Her purple skin was stained with gold, signaling both dehydration and pain. A large gash in her right leg bled golden fluid, staining the sand black.
She met Jet’s eyes with a proud arrogance that spoke of her unbending will, in spite of her situation. Jet could see the sunken, cracked skin of her face, showing that she had been too long without water in the harsh climate. Her bones stood out in sharp relief, making her look like a living skeleton. Only her pale eyes looked alive, staring out with a wounded predator’s last, hopeless pride.
For a long moment, Jet considered the K’han woman. The moon’s natives had no love for the race that had come to their world to rob them of the blood-red stones so sacred in K’han culture. The humans were there for the jewels alone, and many would do anything to get them, including desecrating K’han temples and tombs.
Had their positions been reversed, Jet had no doubt that the K’han woman would leave a human to wait for the desert’s predators to finish the job. But Jet had no argument with the K’han. She may have been an offworlder, but she respected their right to the diamonds, and sought only the stones that could be taken from the ground. The K’han were welcome to what they had; she wouldn’t debate their claim.
Jet let out a soft breath, then drew in a lungful of the dry, thin, almost painful air of the desert night. Those who lived in the harsh conditions of the moon-desert had their own code, beyond that of races and cultures. Though invaders, interlopers, could be chased off or killed, a wounded traveler would not be left unaided. Jet could not leave the K’han woman any more than she could leave a wounded human, or other living creature, in the same situation.
She swung her leg over the saddle and slid down, landing softly in the ankle-deep sand. The K’han woman watched with wary eyes from her prone position. Jet raised both hands, showing that she was unarmed, and slowly pulled the waterskin from her belt. Pale eyes followed the human’s motions. Noticing the dagger that the native had hidden in the waves of dark blue hair that spilled around her body, Jet set the canteen on the ground within reach of the other woman.
“This help is given without ties,” she said in the K’han tongue. “I give it freely and without bindings. Anyone who wishes may receive it and owe me nothing.”
The giving of help was a ritual of family in K’han culture, akin to becoming sisters in blood. Help could only be accepted if it came from one who would be family, or one who formally renounced the ties that would otherwise be formed.
The K’han weakly reached out and took the canteen, struggling with the stopper. She drank a few quick sips and held them in her mouth for a long moment. To drink as deeply as she wished, after so long without liquid, would be a death sentence.
Jet pulled a medical kit from the saddlebag. Her green eyes scanned the surroundings, but she could see no hint of why the other woman was here, alone, when her people’s closest outpost was several hundred miles away. There were cases when the K’han would cast out one of their own, leaving them to die in the desert, but such occasions were rare. Jet didn’t know enough about their rituals to hazard a guess. It could have been a simple attack too: the desert was far from safe.
Jet turned back to find the other woman watching her with those pale eyes, so at odds with the intense colors around them.
“Why help?” the K’han queried in her whispering, fluty voice. She coughed painfully. “Why do you help me, human? What do you wish to gain from this?”
Jet shrugged, setting the kit down within reach, as she had with the water. She was careful not to look the K’han in the eyes, which would have been a direct challenge.
“Not everything is for profit,” she said evenly. Many a fight had been averted by Jet speaking a single word, as anything uttered in her flat, deceptively sweet voice could have been either threat or simple statement; one was never sure.
“No matter what you might think, a few humans have honor too.”
The K’han snorted, a strangely human sound that made Jet’s mouth curl up. The prospector riffled through the pack, pulling out a roll of bandage and a bottle of pills to destroy infection, which she handed to the K’han. The woman looked down at herself for a moment, then back at the human. Though Jet didn’t know it, thoughts flashed behind the native’s pale eyes, too quickly to speak aloud.
She helps me, though she is an offworlder, the K’han woman thought. She has no reason to; she could have turned her desert-runner away and left when she saw what I was. The K’han looked up at Jet again, facing the truth. That is what I would have done, and we both know it. And yet she aids me despite this. Perhaps ….
Carefully, she handed the medical supplies back to the human, keeping her face blank. Jet hadn’t expected her help to be rejected, since it was freely given.
“You have shared water with me,” the K’han said slowly, “and helped me without provocation. But as of yet I am too weak to tend to my own wound. I ask for your aid.”
Jet’s eyes widened in surprise. In K’han culture, this was the equivalent of asking someone into your family, to become sisters in full. No K’han would give such an invitation to an offworlder, especially a human.
She shook her head, trying not to offend the other woman. “I have helped you freely, and I do not ask for repayment. You do not have to do this.”
“I wish to,” the K’han said simply, still holding out her offering, though Jet could see that her arm was beginning to tire. “Long have my people hated yours for the cruelty shown to us, but we are as much at fault as you. Accept this bond as an offering of peace.”
Jet let out a slow breath. In one gesture of kindness, she had broken down more barriers than any other cultural envoy. She could see the sincerity in the other’s gaze and knew that the offer was not made lightly. Humans and K’han were not friends and would not forge those bonds easily, but Jet could see that they would be worth the effort – and not simply for the riches to be gained in the process.
Taking the medicines from the K’han woman’s grip, she set them in the sand and clasped the other’s hand. Light seemed to flare between their palms, sealing their pact. The vows they gave were silent, unspoken, but all the more powerful for the lack of words.
After a moment, Jet smiled truly for the first time in years. The K’han matched her expression, a trace of wonder in her eyes that Jet had no doubt was reflected in her own.
“I believe,” the K’han said slowly, “that we are more alike than I thought.”
Jet laughed – a rich and bell-like sound. She tilted her head back to take in the blazing stars above.
“I think you are right,” she agreed. “And fools will be those who do not see it.”