Not Exactly a Cowboy

A short space-western.

Fearghus looked to the North, shielding his eyes from the sun as the sands began to obscure his surroundings, stirring up from the earth in great orange waves. He pulled the black bandanna over his nose and with a nudge from his spurs, urged Thicket away from the patch of dessert thistles she was munching at. Reluctantly, teeth full of the spiny, turquoise flowers, Thicket obeyed and headed East.

Fearghus pushed down the brim of his hat to protect his eyes from the sand.

Crazy Gynts, Fearghus thought. Even the natives must know the kind of Hell this planet is. Or maybe they smoke too much sand-weed to be bothered.

There was little civilization here besides the small space port and the cluster of buildings around it that barely passed for a town. It was an irrelevant planet, used infrequently to refuel or grab a beer, if one was truly desperate. The only visitors who stayed more than a few days were Gypsies. Gypsies, and outlaws like Fearghus.

The sands buffeted against Thicket’s metallic hide. Her front legs, left shoulder, and most of her face had been replaced with steel and gears. It had been the only way Fearghus had managed to keep her together after the shape he’d found her in. You’d think saving the animal’s life and all would make her grateful, but Thicket had the worst temperament of any horse Fearghus had ever met, and he’d met a lot. Met a lot, rode a lot, shot a few, ate one — that had been rough. But, desperate times, and the rest.

The tiny wooden hut looked so out of place next to its neighbor — a large green shipping crate — that Fearghus rubbed his lids to make sure the sand wasn’t making him see things. But there they stood, side by side, and atop the shipping crate, a dark figure silhouetted in the sun, blurred by the sand storm.

Fearghus rode Thicket as close as he dared and then pulled on the reins to stop her. She snorted in protest.

“I don’t like standing out in this shit any more than you do,” Fearghus told her as they waited.

The figure leaped down from the shipping crate. Her dark skin stood out against the bright sand which went completely ignored by her as she strode toward Fearghus and his mount. She wore an ensemble of leather and thin hand-woven cloth that covered only the bare necessities — which apparently didn’t include her right breast. She had a sharp, gem tipped spear in one hand, painted and tied with feathers, and a brown leather holster around her hips, complete with a mean looking pistol.

Fearghus had loved that pistol. Curse this woman.

“Fearghus Fallet.” She spat out his name like an insult.

Fearghus pulled his bandanna down around his neck. “Theda,” he replied. “I’m in a pinch. Need somewhere to lay low.”

Theda narrowed her burnished brown eyes at him.

“Beast,” she said, pointing to Thicket with her spear.

“Her name’s Thicket.”

Theda walked around the horse to get a better look at her metallic muscles. “Why?”

“Because I found her in a thicket.”

She grimaced, raising her spear to point at him. “Why metal?”

“She was hurt real bad. Had to patch her up.”

“You doctor?”


She sniffed. A dangerous gesture in all this sand, Fearghus thought.

Theda nodded at him, then started walking back towards the shipping crate. He’d been accepted, for now, but Fearghus made no move to follow her.

She stopped to throw him a look over her shoulder. “What?”

“Where’s your…”

She narrowed her eyes again. Feargus chose his next word carefully.

“Cat.” Demon.


Good. Maybe the thing won’t be so sour with a full stomach.

Fearghus urged Thicket on after Theda. Inside, the shipping crate had been laid with boards and long green leaves. It wasn’t exactly hay, but Thicket didn’t seem to mind. She stomped at it with her hoof before deciding it was as good a bed as any.

There was a wooden wall dividing the shipping crate with a small door. Doors were a luxury most native Gynts found extravagant and unnecessary. Fearghus eyed the door and Theda eyed him.

Fearghus looked away first, patting Thicket’s nose and ears before standing and leaving the crate — he didn’t so much as glance over his shoulder.

I’ve got enough secrets of my own. She can keep hers.

Theda’s hut was hardly home to Fearghus, but there was a strangely familiar mood about the place that grew stronger with every visit. Of course, if he was here, it always meant he was in trouble. Strange, how a hideout was the closest thing he had to roots nowadays.

Gynt huts were triangular, with one point far longer than the others where the sides didn’t quite meet. The gap was big enough to walk through but small enough that, with the help of the overhanging leaf roof, it kept out most of the twisting sands.

Theda walked around him and dropped the shutters on the three windows, blocking out the sun and wind.

Fearghus hung his jacket on the back wall where its sagging pockets were least likely to pick up more sand and removed his boots and socks — abut kept his gun belt around his waist. Even inside the hut the sand was warm, sticking to his bare toes.

Theda grimaced at his feet as she passed. He didn’t blame her. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a chance to take those boots off.

He threw himself onto one of the rugs in the center of the hut, propped himself up on a rough, thread-bare pillow, and rested his chin on his chest, letting his hat fall over his eyes.

Theda snatched it from his head. “In a pinch?” she said in her thick Gynt accent, waving the hat at him. Gynt was nothing like the Slauzoric languages, but her Vakanish was getting much better. Fearghus often wondered if he was more of a benefit or a detriment to her vocabulary.

“Don’t worry ‘bout it Theda, I won’t bring no trouble here.”

She shook her head at him but tossed back his hat. The tangle of wild, dark curls on the left side of her head bounced, while the tightly braided strands on the right swung between her shoulder blades, nearly touching her hips. As she walked away to tend to the small fire pit in the center of the hut, Fearghus tried not to pay too much attention to those hips.

Theda, as he’d found out the hard way, was off limits.

She’d been at the space port’s tavern, the day he’d first ended up on Gynt, trying to find someone to buy her goat. Fearghus had readily agreed to purchase the animal and told her he’d pay triple if she threw in some accommodations. If the bounty hunters had managed to tail him to the planet, the last place he’d want to be was in the local watering hole.

She’d agreed, but nearly threw him out when he’d slaughtered the goat. Gynts were vegetarians, apparently. He’d tried to explain the hypocrisy of this, seeing as all her clothing was made from leather, but she’d known almost no Vakanish at the time and had gotten her point across with a few solid whacks to his head with her spear.

He learned a lot more about Gynt culture since then, like the fact that Gynt women took their virginity far more seriously than Vakanish women. She’d worn basically no clothes all day, then had given him a significant look of satisfaction when he’d removed his shirt — how was he to know that was a customary Gynt gesture, to show the host or hostess that you accepted and appreciated their hospitality? Where he came from girls didn’t just invite any bloke back to their home if they didn’t have a mind to have their way with him, even if said bloke had bought their damned goat.

He’d left the sandy carpet she’d specifically laid out for him — which, he admitted in retrospect, was a pretty solid hint she had no intention of sleeping with him — and sauntered over to her bed. She’d been sleeping soundly, her curly hair spilling over the mattress, not a single thing on her person in way of clothing. He’d brushed her ankle, gently, to wake her, and before he knew what was what he was on his ass in the sand with a lump on his head you could see from space. Theda had let lose a slew of Gynt curses which Fearghus didn’t need a dictionary to understand. He’d spent the remainder of the night under the stars, alone, with sand in unmentionable places.

The next morning, he’d surreptitiously appropriated a book on Gynt history and culture from the nearby town, and returned to Theda’s hut with a lei of thistles and a hare’s foot (the traditional Gynt gift of apology), as well as a can of Vakanish chocolates (the traditional “I was a dink” gift of males everywhere).

Flowers, chocolates, a dead animal’s foot — I was a down right gentleman, I was.

A curious humming sound outside pulled Fearghus from his musings. Theda jumped to the window and peeked under the shutter. Her hand had instinctively gone to her gun when she’d heard the noise.

Good girl.

Fearghus eyed his own gun, still too new and shiny for his liking. It was easily inferior to the one he’d lost to Theda in that bad bet.

Theda took a green scarf from a hook by the entryway and wrapped it around her head, mouth, and nose. If she was covering up, then a serious storm was blowing in.

Great, I’m being hunted and there’s a hell-storm brewing. Can this get any better?

“What was that sound?” Fearghus asked. It had sounded like a motor perhaps. “That hum?”

“Out window,” she said.

“What’s out there?”

“Out,” she gestured towards the window with her spear. “Door.”

“Door? I thought you wanted me to go out the window?”

She gestured at the window again. “Out. Hide in door.”

The door in the shipping crate.

Fearghus grabbed his boots and jacket and climbed out the back window as Theda left through the front of the hut.

The wind was vicious. Fearghus tied the strings of his hat tight under his chin so he wouldn’t lose it. As he pulled on his boots, he heard a soft growl at his back. Slowly, he turned around, hands up, to face a large Gynt leopard.

Its body was an orange-beige colour, only a shade or two lighter than the sands. Its pointed ears stood up around tufts of teal fur, and more patches were stuck between the pads of its toes and dotting its hind quarters and tail.

Luckily for Fearghus, only the female leopards had the long, saber-like front teeth that the species was known for. This one, in comparison, was mildly less intimidating.

“Hello, Serge,” Fearghus said. It earned him another growl and a pair of hunched shoulders.

“Listen, your mommy said it was okay that I’m here. She might be in trouble though. Go out front there and protect here, ‘ight?”

Curse this cat.

Serge let out another deep growl, and his tail flicked — but something, inaudible to Fearghus, caught his interest out-front and he went bounding around the corner of the hut.

Fearghus let out his breath and peeked around the other corner of the hut. Two sand buggies were parked some ways off. It was their motors that Fearghus and Theda had heard. The owners of the buggies were meeting Theda in front of the hut.

There was a man wearing the uniform of the International Border Police, and a woman in a different, navy uniform. He knew that woman, even with the scarf covering most of her face.

Shit. How did she find me this time?

They were too far away for Fearghus to hear their conversation, but he watched as Theda circled them as she had done to him and Thicket. While she had their attention, Fearghus made a run for the shipping crate. He barreled through the open doors and tumbled in beside Thicket. Thicket made to get up at her master’s sudden arrival, but Fearghus quickly soothed her, petting her mane and whispering to keep her calm. The horse snorted, but settled down again.

Fearghus went to the door in the wooden wall of the crate. It was locked. He rolled his eyes and waited, listening until a particularly loud gust of wind blew by the open crate doors and then he kicked in the door.

He hurried inside and shut the door as best as the busted latch let him. The room was dark, but the wall didn’t go all the way to the top of the crate so there was just enough light for Fearghus to notice (and not trip over) the cloth bags on the floor at his feet.

He opened one, and grabbed a handful of little brown pellets. He brought them to his nose; they smelt like dirt, and fish. Chicken, maybe.

Cat food?

Fearghus dropped the pellets and brushed his hands together. There must have been thirty bags of the stuff in the little room. The only other object was a long chest which he was relieved to find unlocked. He opened it and found yet another bag. He moved to pick it up to move it out of his way, but struggled to budge the bag. It was astonishingly heavier than a bag of cat chow.

His jaw dropped when he untied the bag and looked down. In it sparkled dozens, maybe even hundreds, of polished green gemstones.

Where did Theda get these?

No time for that now. He shoved the bag as best he could to the far side of the chest and squeezed in beside it. He knew the chances of someone not looking for him in there were slim — it was a horribly obvious hiding place — but he hoped, for that reason, that his pursuers wouldn’t bother to look.

Surely, she knows I’m more competent then this. Right?

Even if she didn’t, he would be ready and waiting for her to open the lid.

Fearghus removed the gun from his hip holster and made sure it was loaded before closing the lid of the chest. The a thought struck him.

My gun! Theda’s got my old gun!

There was no way Janelle wouldn’t recognize his favorite pistol.

Fearghus busted from the crate and tore out of the room, slapping Thicket on the rear as he ran past.

“Come on girl, I may need ya!” He ran out into the swirling sand storm, Thicket close behind. Seeing through the billowing gusts of sand was near impossible, but a muffled gun shot gave him a fair idea of where the excitement was.

Fearghus quickly pulled his bandana over his face again, regretfully relinquished his hat to the sands, and tied back his shoulder length, brown hair where it wouldn’t fall into his face while he battled his pursuers and the elements.

He grabbed Thicket’s reins and hauled himself into her saddle. She didn’t mind the sand, but he worried briefly how it was affecting her gears before kicking her into a gallop. They rode off in the direction of the shot.

The storm raged on and Fearghus strained to hear something human. Finally he caught sight of a tall figure silhouetted behind a wall of blowing sand. He pulled hard on the reins and took aim.

Sighing, he lowered his gun again. It was impossible to tell who was who in this storm — he couldn’t risk a shot and hit Theda by mistake.

And would you really be alright plugging Janelle full o’lead?

He was glad he didn’t have time to ponder that question. He swung a leg over Thicket’s back and jumped to the ground. Then, with a running start, he leaped for the figure’s knees, taking him out and sending them tumbling over each other in the sand.

A very surprised Border officer rolled over. He coughed as he tried to simultaneously scramble backwards and grab for his gun.

Fearghus punched him in the side of the head, knocking him backwards before grabbing a fist-full of the officer’s jacket, punching him in the teeth.

He left the unconscious man in the sand and raised his gun before heading towards another dark, writhing shape in the storm. As he got closer, gun at the ready, he recognized the two women: Janelle, with her hands around Theda’s throat and Theda, repeatedly slamming her knee into Janelle’s abdomen.

Fearghus had fantasized about women fighting over him before, but he had envisioned slightly different circumstances, with a lot less sand and clothing.

The roar from behind gave him barely enough time to roll out of the way as Serge went soaring over his head. The Gynt leopard pounced on Janelle. She’d lost her scarf in the struggle, and Fearghus could just make her out, pinned underneath the big cat.

What took him so long? Fearghus thought, glad to see the animal for once.

Then there was red on the sand. And screaming mixed with howling the winds.

“Call him off!” Fearghus shouted to Theda.

Theda was digging her pistol out of a dune. “She tried to kill me!”

“She’s my wife!”

Theda raised her eyebrows at him, and though only half her face was visible, Fearghus could tell she thought he’d just said the stupidest thing she’d ever heard.

“Serge!” she called, whistling sharply. The leopard came bounding over to her.

Fearghus walked over to Janelle. She was on all fours, struggling to get to her feet. Her short black hair stuck to her forehead with sweat, and her eyes had dark rings of exhaustion beneath them. Her shirt was torn and bloody.

“Fearghus,” she said, in a weak, barely audible voice. She looked worse than he’d ever seen her. She reached a trembling hand up for help.

Fearghus holstered his gun and gave her head a hearty kick with his boot.

There was a honky-tonk song playing on the buggy radio. Theda taped the dash in rhythm with the twangy voice. Janelle, unconscious and gagged with one of Theda’s scarfs, sat slumped in the back seat between a bag of precious gems and a bag of smelly cat food.

Serge had crammed himself in the trunk, unwilling to be left behind, and rested his chin lazily on the headrest in front of him. Blueish drool was slowly running from his jowls onto the seat cushions.

Fearghus buried his face in his hands.

“Ship?” Theda asked, turning the music down. They were waiting for the winds to lessen. The tight town streets acted like wind tunnels, making walking even five feet between buildings a struggle for survival. The buggy shook, but had been built heavy to stay grounded, in worse weather than this.

“Yes, I’ll get us a ship,” Fearghus said. “I need a few things first.”

He leaned forward, trying to judge the weather beyond the wind-shield. Things seemed to be dying down. He opened his car door. “Stay here.”

Slamming it behind him he made for the nearest store.

A sleepy cashier perked up as he came in. He said something in Gynt, then must have noticed Fearghus’ light tan and excessive layers of clothing, because he immediately repeated himself in broken Vakanish.

“You out in storm?”

Fearghus discreetly grabbed a box of candied almonds from a shelf while looking around the store.

“It’s not so bad now.” Pretending not to find anything of interest, he wandered up to the till. “I need a pack of your finest.”

It took the man a moment to realize he meant the cigars behind him. “Oh yes, these, sir.”

He took down a small yellow box and laid it on the counter. Fearghus flipped it over to look at the price. He rolled his eyes. Anything sold on a space port was jacked up to highway robbery.

He bought them anyway, pocketed the candy as compensation, and headed back to the car.

He found Janelle awake and glaring in the back seat, scarf still in her mouth. He threw the candy and cigars on the dash and put the key in the ignition.

“Are we ready to go?”

Theda was sitting stone still, looking at him like he might spontaneously combust.

He sighed. “What?”

She thought about it for a moment. “Why cigar?”

“To bribe the guard at the gate.”

She paused again. “Candy?”

Fearghus ground his teeth. “I’m munchy.”

Theda crossed her arms.

Fearghus sighed. “You took off her gag, didn’t you?”

“She say you stole her daughter — ”

“Our daughter.”

“And lied about being pilot — ”

“I am a pilot.”

“And she say that — ”

“Yes, I’m a horrible husband! I thought I wanted to settle down, thought a wife and a home and a family would make me a respectable man. Well, it didn’t. So I left.”

He jabbed an accusing finger at Janelle, still glaring and breathing heavily through her gag.

“Whatever lies she told you, I am a good father! I see Tahra as much as I can, and I give her everything she wants. Never missed a birthday in all six years, never! And this damned woman would turn her into a tool, a drone for that corrupt government she worships!”

Theda laid a hand on his shoulder. Fearghus was gripping the steering wheel with both hands, turning his knuckles white.

“I won’t let her do it,” he said softly.

He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. Then he turned to Theda, and for the first time in a long time, he begged.

“Theda, I can’t give up my little girl. That woman’ll turn her into a government robot, send her off to some mind-wash academy where they’ll cut-and-paste some cookie-cutter Girl Guide personality on her so she can be screened and sorted into a cubicle somewhere on the far side of the Galaxy. I want her to be free, to choose her own fate, like you. Do you understand?”

She smiled wryly. “I do no academy.”

Fearghus laughed, and let the tension leave him. “No, but you don’t need it. You’re your own kind of brilliant, Theda.”

She grinned. “I help.”


“And you help me.”

Fearghus threw her a curious glance. “The gems?”

“I sell, and buy ship.”

“What?” Fearghus bet those gems would buy far more than a ship. It was likely Theda didn’t even know what they were worth. “You want a ship. Theda, you can’t even fly.”

“You pilot. Can’t be hard.”

He rolled his eyes. “Alright. I know a guy who can sell them. He’ll take a cut, but he owes me one so it shouldn’t be too steep.”

“You owe me one.”

“I’ll owe you much more than that, if we manage to get off this planet alive.”

“Good. Now what?”

He opened his door again. “I need a drink.”

Theda’s eyes widened as he headed towards the tavern. She hopped out her side of the buggy.

“What about wife?”

“Come on, she’s not going anywhere. Serge will keep an eye on her.”

Reluctantly, Theda followed him.

At this time of day, and at the tail end of a sand storm, the tavern was nearly deserted. Fearghus walked straight to the bar.

“I want to buy a case of your finest malt,” he said to the bartender.

The tall Gynt man eyed him. “You paying cash?” he said in a perfect Vakanish accent.

“It’s prepaid.”

The bar tender nodded and walked around the bar and out through a back door. He came back shortly carrying a large crate about four feet long with a whiskey label burned into the wood.

“Fragile,” the bar tender said, sliding it onto the bar.

Fearghus nodded and leaned across the bar. “There’s a shipping crate a few miles west o’ here,” he said, voice low. “Inside is a horse. I need you to send someone, preferably someone who’s real good with mean animals, to pick her up and ship her to me.”

He took a napkin and wrote an address on it.

“Ship it here. Can you do that?”

The bar tender took the napkin and nodded. “I know a guy.”

“Perfect.” Fearghus grabbed one handle of the wooden crate. “Your heard the man, Theda, this is very fragile.”

She rolled her eyes and took the other handle. They carefully slid the crate off the bar and walked it back out to the buggy.

“I know a guy,” Theda repeated.

“It means, ‘I can handle it, but it’s best you don’t know the specifics’.”

Theda sniffed. “Cowboy.”

“I’m not a cowboy.”


“I’m — ” They put the crate down in the sand. “Alright, I am that.”

Fearghus unloaded Janelle, throwing her over his shoulder. He hurried off to the alleyway beside the store and leaned her against the wall.

He sighed and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “Nothin’ personal, I just think you’re a bad mother, is all. And your new husband’s a goof. He’s got no business around my Tahra.”

Janelle kicked out ineffectively at him and spat some words he was glad to have muffle by her gag.

“Oh, c’mon. Someone’ll find you before the next sand storm blows in.” Probably.

Fearghus, satisfied and having nothing else to say to her, headed back to the buggy. Theda had moved the bag of gems onto the floor so that the crate fit in the back seat. With everything taken care of, they climbed in and headed for Port.

The Gynt Space Port was small, surrounded by a tall wire fence that Fearghus knew gave you a good jolt if you tried climbing it. Most of the pads were empty, but Fearghus could see a few ships docked down the far end.

Fearghus drove up to the gates, and a man wearing what looked to be a bee-keepers mask, stepped up to the car.

“They make you stand out here in the storms?” Fearghus asked as the man approached his window.

“There’s a little nook we hole up in, but if anyone official comes by we have to be ready to take their identification and let them through,” the guard said.

“Does that happen often?”

“Uh, does what happen?”

“Do official or important people come by here? It’s such a small port, after all.”

The guard puffed up his chest. “Just this morning we had a woman come through. A detective-type if you ask me.”

Fearghus laughed. “Who? Janelle?”

“That was her name!”

“She’s just a bounty hunter, we both are. You see, she’s my partner.” Fearghus looked over his shoulder dramatically at Theda before leaning towards the window. “You know, I’m not supposed to say anything, but this here is our catch. Blood-thirsty criminal, she is. I’ve been out undercover for months.”

Theda snorted and mumbled something in Gynt, which luckily, the guard didn’t seem to speak. His eyes nearly glazed over as he leaned closer to the window. “Did she kill somebody?”

“Somebody? You don’t even know the half of it.” Fearghus grabbed the box of cigars off the dash and patted his jacket pockets. “Say, you got a torch?”

The guard nodded vigorously and brought a lighter out of his pocket.

“Thanks.” Fearghus took it and made to light a cigar, then stopped. “Say, I told Janelle I’d get our chopper started up. Think you could point me in the right direction?”

“Sure thing, I just need some identification.”

“Now, I don’t have none, you know, being undercover and all,” He waved the cigar around as he spoke. “You think you might be able to just let me through? I really need to get her locked up before the sedative wears off.”

“She’s sedated?”

“Oh yeah. She’s so vicious though it don’t put her right out, just makes her drowsy. You know?”

“Sure, sure.”

“So, about that chopper?”

“I guess it wouldn’t hurt — ”

“Great! Here, take the rest of these for your trouble.” Fearghus threw the pack of cigars at him. “Do me a favor, when Jan comes by, don’t tell her I had them on me. I told her I quit.”

“Wow, sure thing! Thanks!”

The guard walked back to the gates. Soon, they rolled opened for the buggy to drive through.

“It’s pad twelve, out by the main dock,” the guard called as they drove past.

“Blood-thirsty?” Theda said, arms crossed.

“It’s all about telling a good story. Not that it was hard. That man must have the most boring job in the galaxy. I didn’t even have to bribe him.”

“She really bounty hunter?”

Fearghus nodded. “She used to be. When she was fun.”

Fearghus drove the buggy along the thin road until he found the ship, and parked right under the wing. “Alright, we need to get everyone and everything on board as quickly possible.”

Theda got out, carrying a bag of cat food, Serge following right behind.

I can’t believe I let myself get talked into bringing that over-sized cat.

Fearghus took a deep breath and managed to heave the bag of gems over his shoulder. Once the bags were inside he and Theda brought in the crate. He placed it down gently, right behind the pilot’s seat.

“Teach,” Theda said, sitting down in the seat beside him.

“Ground rules: no lessons if we are escaping from a hostile environment. Yes, that includes right now. And you wear normal clothes when we’re in public places. Other planets are not quite as free-spirited as Gynt. Got it?”

“I wear my clothes on ship?”

Fearghus shrugged. “You won’t find me complaining.”

She nodded, seeming satisfied.

Fearghus got the engine running and tore out the tracking system installed in all Government ships. Doing so was supposed to make the ship inoperable, but he’d learned ways to get around that years ago.

With everything ready for take-off, he got up from his seat and knelt beside the crate. Using the handle of his knife, he carefully pried open the lid.

Inside was a little girl, sleeping soundly. Her cheeks were rosy red and big, puckered on each side with dimples even in sleep. She had her mother’s black hair, and Fearghus’ tan.

“She want to come with you?” Theda asked.

Fearghus gathered his daughter in his arms, careful not to wake her. “Yes. She wants to be a pilot.”

Theda thought about that for a moment. “She wakes and says she like cookie-cutter cubicle, I kill you and take her back to wife.”

Fearghus laughed quietly. “Fair enough.”

He carried Tahra through the ship to one of the two small rooms on board. Theda had already put her things in the other, and Serge had made himself comfortable on her bunk. That was fine with Fearghus. They had a long couple days of flying ahead with where he planned to go, so the only sleep he would be getting were naps, and only once he showed Theda enough for her to mind things in his absence.

He laid Tahra on the small bunk and rested her head on the pillow. He pulled the box of candy from his pocket and laid it on the bed beside her. “Here you go, Munchkin, we’re going on an adventure, just like Daddy promised.”

He returned to the cockpit and shooed Theda away from the many blinking screens and buttons she was inspecting. When Fearghus took the ship out of Gynt’s atmosphere, she was nearly standing on her seat, clinging to the chair like she was the sole force keeping herself in the ship.

Eventually, once he was sure they weren’t being followed, he pointed out some of the basic functions of the ship. He also gave her a Vakanish dictionary to read, which he’d found by the toilet.

With a wider vocabulary — and a proper shirt — he imagined she’d get on just fine, in most space ports at least. He surprised himself by being grateful to have her along. She wouldn’t have been his first pick for a substitute mother, but an extra pair of hands, particularly feminine ones, would go a long way in taking care of Tahra.

“We go sell sparkles now?” Theda asked.

“The gems?” Fearghus asked. “Not yet. First we have to find a place to lay low.”

Theda cocked her head. “We in a pinch?”

“Just a little one.”

“Where we go now?” she asked.

Fearghus smiled. “I know a guy.”

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