Don't Show Her Who You Are
The world had been silent since he shattered his eardrums.
The world had been silent since he shattered his eardrums all those years ago. So what if he lost one sense?
While music would never feel the same, and he would miss the faint whispers of the wind in his homeworld, he was still alive.
He was happy to be in a dangerous profession. And he was the only assassin in the universe with no hearing. Anyone who didn’t hire him or stood in his way was a fool.
Every sensible person regarded the name Stardust with a sense of awe. It wasn’t his real name. Most species didn’t have the vocal capacity to pronounce his language, and likewise, he didn’t speak theirs.
He’d once used a translator and hearing aids, but the constant buzzing feedback and headaches impeded his ability to work. Why should he compensate when most people know sign language? Besides, his actions spoke for themselves.
Despite his fearsome reputation and impressive list of successful targets, Stardust wasn’t much to look at.
Hailing from the Lebil species wasn’t a great start. With their short stature resulting from the immense aerial pressure on their homeworld, he wasn’t the most intimidating person in the galaxy.
A person who killed for a living was a ball of contradictions. It threw people off-balance. He liked it that way.
Except for one young woman.
This mission had been better than most. By that generous summary, he’d only destroyed half his ship by faking an engine failure and ramming it into a ravine to avoid capture.
He supposed this was what he got for working for one crime syndicate to kill another rival gang leader.
Now they’d be hunting him across the galaxy to seek their revenge.
But who cares? They’ll do their inner squabbling and elect a new leader until they tire of them and kill them. Thus, the cycle would begin again and continue until infinity.
Perhaps he should’ve orchestrated a betrayal to tip the already high tensions to a boiling point and collected the money without lifting a finger.
But who was he kidding? Subterfuge and manipulating people weren’t his specialties. He was a hit-and-run person.
He’d have to change ships again. The astronomical price he charged would cover only the fee for a new vessel and a few days’ food.
Breath escaped his frilled facial spines from his airholes on either side of his face in a long sigh. He was still stuck on a hostile planet, and the price on his head was high.
Some people would even pay if someone dragged a half-charred corpse out of a war zone if it looked enough like him. He stared up at the waiting opening from the bottom of the ravine.
It wouldn’t transport him there instantly. Teleportation devices had existed for decades, but they were too large to be portable, and people closely guarded the technology.
Naturally, only the rich could afford to use them, and having a ship wasn’t a status symbol anymore. Stupid sentient people.
In the end, all he could do was pack up his things and get out of there. Then what? He needed a disguise because he was visible from miles away with this garb.
He had an iconic way of dressing, which made him instantly recognizable. But no one knew what he looked like beneath his costume.
He scuttled inside what was left of the deserted wreck. Stardust retrieved his badge, a change of clothes, his weaponry, and some food supplies, stuffing them into a bag he’d always kept handy.
That was another thing his friend had so brilliantly suggested, changing his weapons so they wouldn’t look so threatening. His signature double-edged twin blades could slot into their holsters and combine into an average-looking staff.
Those things, however valuable for his work, made him suspicious. He shuffled through the main hallway, searching for anything salvageable.
Stardust would leave the rest for a pirate who was desperate. Didn’t hurt to spread a little goodwill.
After he’d left the ship’s remains behind, Stardust wandered the rocky surface of the desolate plains in the western hemisphere of the planet.
He was clad in his usual civilian attire of a simple blue knee-length tunic, dark-navy pants, and a bandana wrapped around his sweating head to keep out the sun. It’s just his luck to take a mission in summer.
Before his species had encountered the others that lived in this galaxy, they hadn’t bothered with clothes.
They didn’t know what the concept was. Why bother when you were covered in scales perfectly suited to insulating against the harsh climate of your homeworld?
Sure, they’d adorned themselves in precious stones according to achievement and social rank, but that was it. He didn’t conceal his now, the one grafted into the center of his forehead and the others lining his cheekbones and facial spines.
But the foreign notion of putting a cloth on one’s body was one small price to pay for having access to space travel and new resources.
He was still hungry, and he supposed he could trust his luck with food. What was he supposed to find? He was a carnivore, and he only saw fresh grasses swaying in the breeze.
Stardust felt vibrations echoing through the ground beneath his bare, clawed feet. Someone was approaching from the back. Slowly, he turned around. He’d assess the situation before deciding what role to play.
The Vijan looked to be a young adult, judging by their gray hair and topknot. The rest was blowing gently in the breeze. Also, probably a woman, seeing the large green bead at her throat.
The young woman mouthed something, her hands flailing with her species’ characteristic dramatic hand gesturing.
Most assumed he could lip-read, but trying was exhausting, so he didn’t bother.
The Vijan stared at him, probably trying to work out why he wasn’t answering.
Why had he forgotten that badge? His friend, the only one who knew who he was and didn’t care, had the brilliant idea of a badge with the words “Please use sign language with me.”
It would change language depending on the retina scanners implanted in the viewer. A clever fixture. He’d rather drop the politeness, but his friend had insisted it would go down better. As if Stardust owed anyone graciousness.
Finally, she signed in the common language, “Where did you come from?”
How was he supposed to answer that?
“I’m lost. Are you a local? My ship needs repairs, and I need to find the nearest town,” she continued, and she could sign. He’d never encountered a species that moved their hands so expressively.
Her arms were so thin he could probably snap her wrist with his thumb and foreclaw. Vijan were such delicate creatures because of the low gravity on their homeworld.
Yet their ‘weak-looking’ appearance was a lie. They lived for three thousand years, and he’d made the mistake of going against on in a Battle Royale when he’d desperately needed the cash.
He lost the fight for the first time. Nobody was more disappointed than him. If this young woman was anything like her fellow Vijan, he’d avoid crossing her at all costs.
“Can’t help you,” he said as his frills puffed outwards in his species’ equivalent of a shrug. “I’m in the same situation.”
Her delicate eyebrows lifted at his answer. Despite seeing countless people with similar things, he’d never get over how strange they were.
She mouthed the words accompanied with the same over-the-top movements. “Where’s your ship?”
He raised a finger in the air, twirling it around in a horizontal motion, meaning he didn’t want to explain. What if she put two and two together? Stardust didn’t want to stand around chatting. He needed to get off this rock.
“Never mind. It’ll be better if we stick together. There’s safety in numbers,” she said. She had a point, but she was safer by herself than with him.
“But if you try anything,” she added, stepping closer, so their faces were mere inches away, “I have a blade on me.”
Smart, asserting dominance. So she wasn’t the kind to stuff about. He appreciated the honesty and knowing where he stood with people. He offered the same to others.
But she didn’t need to know he also had countless weapons on his person. Not that he needed them. Besides, even he had enough sense to avoid unnecessary violence.
Stardust held up his hands in surrender. “I won’t hurt you.”
She smirked. “I didn’t think so.”
“You have a map?” he asked. He’d searched the wreckage of his ship for a device, but all the flight logs and navigational manuals had been destroyed. Why hadn’t he uploaded some information about this forsaken planet to his cranial interface? He was getting clumsy.
She nodded and produced a pad from her belt. A 3D hologram of the celestial body he’d got himself stuck on appeared. Maybe meeting this stranger wasn’t so bad.
“It says we need to head north towards the mountains. The capital city is in the foothills.”
Whoever had taught her sign language had done an excellent job. Usually, he had to waste his precious time watching people fumble through, explaining even the simplest things.
Not now, thank the stars. He only had put up with her until they reached civilization.
Days cycled into the night. They trekked across the great plains, only hindered by the Vijan, constantly stopping to admire a new piece of fauna or flora.
What was so interesting about plants? They were all blades of grass.
The young woman sauntered along, clearing boulders as if they were mere pebbles.
Easy for her, while Stardust scrabbled up and over. Not the first time he wished he were taller, and it wouldn’t be the last.
Finally. A few hundred paces ahead, there was a herd of passive grass-eaters in a clearing. Maybe there was an opportunity for some food. “You eat meat?”
Her eyes widened in revulsion. Vijan must be herbivores.
His frills splayed outwards. “Suit yourself. I’m hungry.” He was about to draw his gun, an average-looking pistol with no upgrades. He hated using it, but he’d draw attention if he had anything else.
But she got there first. She hefted a collapsible rifle with surprising dexterity, and lining up the trajectory, she fired. A small grass-eater in the distance wobbled before falling.
The Vijan turned to him, unable to resist flashing him a smug grin. “There’s your food.”
“Call yourself a herbivore,” Stardust signed, trying to cover his gratitude with contempt.
They sat on the grassy plains while they ate. Stardust’s shoulders were stiff, his limbs on fire, but he ignored them. Usually, he saved all the physical stuff for finishing the job, not walking non-stop for days on end. But she didn’t need to know he was struggling.
The sun slowly descended as they finished their meal. The young woman was unbothered by him eating meat. Maybe she’d been around enough people to know how others do things.
“So, what’s your story?” she asked, then wiping her hands on her jumpsuit. She’d worn the same one for days now. So had he. The rest of his clothes had gone up in flames with half the ship.
He shrugged. Why would she want to know?
“I know you’re someone with something to hide. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here in the middle of nowhere,” she replied, cocking her head, a small smile growing on her lips.
“How do you know? I could be a farmer looking for a job.”
“You aren’t built for farming. Those are the hands of someone who hasn’t worked a day in their life. You’re a fugitive,” she said, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. She was good.
“I’m not,” he gave her a sly smile. Stardust liked to think he’d gotten good at lying after all these years. “What makes you think I have a story?”
She shrugged, laying down a cloth blanket. “You never know who you’ll meet.”
The Vijan was right, but she never needed to know who she’d encountered. She could be someone equally dangerous, but what did he care? That was her business.
He lay down to rest on the opposite side of the dwindling fire. No one bothered keeping watch. If anyone approached, he’d feel them before they got too close.
The further they went, the more the ground rose. The climate changed too, from dry and hot to humid and cool.
By the time they’d finally reached the foothills, they were both drenched in sweat and covered in dirt. The grasses were being pushed back by broad-leaved trees and shrubs.
It was while they walked they encountered the first signs of people.
A deserted settlement. An old starship sat on a landing pad. The ship’s lights flickered on and off as they approached. It was a large ship, most likely a commercial liner.
“Someone must have lived here. Let’s see if they left us something to eat,” the young woman said.
Stardust followed her, gaze darting all over the place. He didn’t enjoy being out of his comfort zone. He got along fine traveling from site to place, but being stuck in one spot was grating.
He could see inside the airlock, but the ramp had fallen off. Broken crates littered the floor.
“I don’t think anyone’s here. No one’s home,” she said. She didn’t seem too surprised as she made her way through the ship, the flickering lights from inside outlining her shape.
He pulled out his flashlight and flicked it, trying to catch her attention. It usually worked, and it was less intrusive than tapping their shoulder. The Vijan turned.
“I’ll stay out here and keep watch,” he signed. He wasn’t getting trapped somewhere where he couldn’t feel anyone’s footsteps.
“You do that,” she replied, unable to resist grinning at what she probably thought was being scared. Whatever. He didn’t have time for her teasing.
So he stayed outside the ship, overlooking the abandoned settlement.
There were ruined structures all around. They’d been abandoned for years, judging by the overgrowth. This might have been the old capital before erosion forced them higher into the mountains.
Stardust felt the young woman approach and turn to face her. Her hands, as he’d predicted, were empty.
“What did I tell you?” he asked, not expecting an answer. “There’s nothing here. We better keep moving. We must be close to the capital.”
“We are, according to the map,” she said. “Still, it doesn’t hurt to check for free supplies.”
She was right, but he needed to get off this rock. The longer he stayed here, the more likely someone might find him.
Then he’d be in trouble. Who knows what the Vijan might do if she found out who he was. Maybe he was a fool for agreeing to accompany her, but he’d be living in stupid denial if he didn’t appreciate the company.
He’d forgotten what it was like to work with someone else. Maybe for his next mission, he’d test the waters, take on a task with a partner. Who knows what would happen?
The young woman led him through the thick canopy of the foothills the next day. He had to do some creative climbing to get through the trees that were centuries old.
He scuttled around a tree, using his clawed hands to haul himself upwards. Stardust met her at the top where she’d paused, grinning at him.
Waiting until he’d reached a safe place, he asked, “What’s funny?”
“I’ll never get over how strange your species look when you tackle obstacles three times your size.” She smiled and smothered what must’ve been a laugh.
She could chuckle all she wanted, but he was stuck in this body only made for one landscape.
The Vijan pointed at something in the distance, handing him a pair of binoculars she’d produced out of nowhere. What kind of person carried those these days? Especially when you could get lens implants with a built-in zoom.
He accepted them anyway, as even his lenses couldn’t focus on the tiny speck in the distance she’d shown. He lifted them to his eyes and saw the outline of a city, tall stony towers twisting towards the heavens.
As beautiful as he remembered from his childhood. In the sunlight, the buildings looked like glass, made of smooth stone.
“That’s the capital,” she said, satisfied by his reaction.
“How many days’ walk?” he asked.
“We’ll get to the city before dusk. Then we can go our separate ways,” she said.
That was the best news he’d heard. Meeting this Vijan was a stroke of luck, and he’d repay her for it.
“Let’s get going,” he said, and she nodded, effortlessly leaping to the next tree branch. Stardust sighed and scrabbled along behind her.
It was already dusk when they reached the outskirts of the city. The glow from the buildings was enough to light the streets. They were wide, filled with vehicles of all shapes and sizes.
An immense building at the center of the city, surrounded by a grand portico. Soldiers stood guard in front of it, and a massive line of people waited to gain entry.
“Don’t tell me we have to line up,” he said, slumping over. “”I’m sick of waiting.”
She grinned. “Relax. Only if you want to have an audience with the Royal Protectors.”
“This place is a monarchy?”
She nodded. “You really aren’t from around here.”
Stardust shook his head. What else could he do? Right, pay her for saving his neck. “What’s your account number?”
The Vijan immediately stared at him, looking for suspicious motives. “Why do you want it?”
“I was a fool getting myself stranded, and you got me out. So consider this a compensation for putting up with me.”
She smiled. “Not that bad.” But the Vijan gave him her details anyway because she wasn’t stupid.
He transferred the credits and let out a sigh. Even after all these years, he’d probably not get used to making sounds he couldn’t hear.
But the Vijan gave him her details anyway because she wasn’t stupid. He transferred the credits and let out a sigh. Even after all these years, he’d probably not get used to making sounds he couldn’t hear.
She grinned, shaking his hand, before signing, “Never thought I’d make friends with Lebil, but here we are.”
That might be a stretch. Stardust tolerated her presence. Still, he had to admit it was the easiest experience he’d had dealing with someone else.
“Nice meeting you,” he said, raising his left fist to the same shoulder and tapping against it twice.
The Vijan repeated the gesture, offering a smile. “Likewise.”
Stardust watched her go, her grey strands of hair whipping around her face in the wind. Maybe there was more to life than working meal to meal.
There was a world of possibilities. But first, he had to take another job to pay for his next ship. And he hoped among all the stars it would be his last.
The last thing he needed was destroying another vessel. But in a life as unpredictable as his, who knows? Stardust told himself he lived like this out of necessity.
But he’d be kidding if he didn’t thrive on the chaos. Sometimes, he appreciated slowing down.
This existence was random, but he’d learned to make the best of it.