“We’ll hijack the ship and fly it back,” said Zufi. “It’s the only way to get home.”
Alika stared at him, her eyes wide and white in the half dark. The two of them huddled side by side, bracing their hands and feet against the roof and floor of the vibrating tunnel. Goosebumps crawled across their scalp and arms. The metal burned with cold. Their breath made pale streams of mist in front of their mouths.
They’d screamed when the spaceship engines started, scrambling to go back the way they’d come. But right side up had become sideways, the ground had become the wall. They’d bounced from side to side, banging their elbows and knees, knocking their heads together. They’d hugged each other, jouncing around and crying, urine gushing down their legs.
When the heart of the ship quieted, they had floated upwards like air bubbles. Then there came a bright hum and click, and they fell down again. The tunnel filled with an inrush of cold wind.
Zufi's's heartbeat was still running faster than an antelope. The urine stink was horrible, and the wet bark cloth chafed his groin. He shuddered. They shouldn’t have chased the injured goru fledgling into the visiting ship. It had seemed a fun game. Track it down, catch it and bring it out again. No one saw them go in, not the big rust men with their strange clothes and poking out guts, not Badu and Enkelaido as they haggled for a better deal on the goods. He and Alika had tracked the goru by the clicking of its claws and brush of its leathery wings on the ship’s metal. It had come into this shaft, they’d seen it disappearing around a corner ahead. Then the ship had woken up and hurt them.
Alika’s breath hit Zufi’s neck, sharp and hot. He shifted, pressing against her. Sometimes when she was too frightened, she went limp and boneless. What if it happened now? What if she left him all alone? He couldn’t fight for two. Zufi's heart clenched.
“I peed,” he said.
Alika’s breath slowed a bit. She hiccuped. “Me too.”
He heard the smile in her voice and it made him grin. Maybe they’d be alright. He imitated Badu’s gravely voice. “The famous Andala warriors Zufi and Alika pee themselves before battle to ensure victory.”
“Their enemies throw down their weapons and beg to escape from the stink.” Alika giggled, then shuddered. Her arm shook where it touched his. “Why is it so cold? Did they take us to the Night Arc?”
“We’re in the stars,” said Zufi, “the rust ship is taking us away from Erseleng.”
“I don’t want to go. I want to get off.”
“We have to make it turn around.”
“Remember when we rode on the back of the Maika?” Zufi asked. “We’re going to ride the ship, but instead of riding on it’s back, we’ll ride inside, behind the eyes so we can tell it where to go.”
Alika considered. “What about the rusts?”
“I have my sesei and a bit of frog milk. If we prick them all, maybe they’ll go to sleep. Then we can tie them up, except I don’t have any rope.”
“They have strings woven into their boots, I saw when we snuck past. We can use those.” Alika fiddled at her hip and brought out the knife that she used to fillet Idqu. The blade was no longer than her big toe. “Do the rusts have soft skin like fish?” she asked, testing the edge with her thumb.
“Like us, I think,” said Zufi. “Is it sharp?”
“Good.” Zufi uncoiled the wire from his ankle and rifled in his pockets for the hollow reed he’d filled with frog milk. His hands shook as he pulled out the clay stopper and dipped the tip of the wire inside. He took Alika’s knife, smeared frog milk on the blade, then handed it back to her. His throat convulsed. “I’m ready.”
“The rusts are as big as antelope,” said Alika. They looked at her knife and at Zufi’s wire. They looked at each other. The cold air in the tunnel wafted past. “I’ll go first and look for the eyes of the ship and bite them with my knife. You come behind and put the rest to sleep.”
“Not far behind.”
Alika crawled over his legs and down the tunnel, moving stealthy and quiet. Zufi followed. One at a time, he thought. One antelope at a time.
They reached the end of the tunnel, and wormed into a sloping hallway. And then: BLAAAAAT! Alika reeled backwards, hitting him in the chin with her elbow. Zufi peed himself again. The ship was screaming. Far down the hallway rusts shouted and hollered. Red eyes lunged out of the dark, blinding Zufi, going away, then lunging back.
Zufi screamed. Alika screamed They crumpled to the floor. BLAAAAAT, BLAAAAAAT roared the ship. The sound filled Zufi’s head. He covered his ears, clamped his eyes shut. It’s going to split me in two, he thought. I can’t get up. The ship is killing me. His heart pinched his chest.
But then, in the midst of the din, came a different sound. It reverberated through holds and hallways, lifting into a wild crescendo, fiendish and terrible. It cut through the blast of the ship, through the attacking red eye, through the cold and terror and splitting pain in Zufi’s head. The sound coursed through him and shot him to his feet. It was the reptilian shriek of a goru fledgling.
“It’s fighting too!” Zufi cried, pulling Alika upright. “Quick, to the eye!”
They ran, stumbling into walls, bouncing off corners, unable to gauge distance or depth in the dark and the red and the blare.
Then Alika shouted in warning and surprise. Zufi charged after her into a place that was bright white. The far wall was black and glittering. In front of it was a smooth, shiny board lifted off the ground, stuck all over with sticks and shiny stones of different colors. Little lights blinked among the stones. Four rusts were in the room, one sitting down and hammering on the shiny stones and moving the sticks, while three others stood around him talking in loud voices, pointing at lights and ripping at their hair.
Alika lost her footing on the slick ground and fell to her hip. She slid past a rust as he turned, stared at her, and hollered. Then her arm went up in the air. The knife caught the light, blinking. Then her arm came down and the knife bit deep into the rust’s boot. He howled and tried to kick her, but her arms hugged his ankle tight. All he did was lift her up and set her down. Then she hopped and hugged higher, climbing him like a tree. Her arms cinched him as far around as she could reach. She kicked him and bit his clothes and buried her knife in the ledge of his butt and then in the top of his shoulder. She tried to get his neck, where the skin was soft, but he reached over his head and clamped onto her hair and threw her down.
Zufi saw all this in between one step of his heart and the next. When she slid and sank her knife into the boot, he darted forward and pricked the sitting rust in the neck with his wire sesei. Another rust tried to grab him, but he ducked and pricked him in the hand. The third he got on the forearm when his punch went wide. Then Alika was on the ground, rolling and covering her head. A rust was pulling back his foot to kick her. Zufi jumped onto the high board with the shiny stones. They compressed under his toes as he leaped onto the kicking rust’s back.
The scream of the ship changed pitch, it tilted and yawed. The rust yelled. Zufi stabbed the tiny wire into his neck again and again.
Why didn’t he fall asleep? None of the rust’s were asleep. The frog milk wasn’t working! They’d never get back to Erseleng. The rusts would tear their arms off or shoot them into the stars where their breath couldn’t come and they would die.
It was supposed to be one antelope at a time, not the whole herd. What could he do now?
Hands yanked at him, flung him around, then circled his neck. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Alika running back and forth across the shiny stones, hitting the sticks with her feet. The rust in the chair jumped up and tried to catch her. The ship tilted and shuddered. All the little lights danced yellow and red. A voice spoke into the room, making some of the rusts shout in warning.
Alika’s eyes landed on Zufi and went huge. The room was going dim, the rust's fingernails dug into him like claws. Claws!
He was free, Alika hauled him out of the man’s grip, her knife shiny and red. They retreated into a corner of the white room. Zufi's back spasmed. He coughed. Breath filled his lungs. Then he cupped his hands around his mouth and screamed a long, wild call.
Nothing happened. The goru didn't come.
One rust got up from the ground and hauled himself back into his chair, rubbing at his neck. He attacked the shiny stones and sticks. The other three paced towards Zufi and Alika, lips tight over their teeth. The ship shuddered and tilted beneath their feet. One of the rusts lost his balance, his legs wobbled. His eyelids drooped down.
Another fell to his knees.
Then they were all down, even the rust in the chair. That one put his head on the shiny stones and didn’t lift it again.
Zufi remembered to breathe.
“We did it,” Alika spoke in a hushed voice. Then she danced forward and hopped on the rusts’ backs. “Now we’ll tie them up and—“
The lights flickered. A tremor ran through Zufi. “The ship,” he whispered. He went to the shiny rocks and sticks and pushed the sleeping rust out of the way. The black wall wasn’t black anymore. A huge round ball filled it, one half bright yellow, the other dark as soot. Down the middle was a band of half-shadow. Enormous circular wells dotted that region, some cast in shade, others dimly green. Zufi’s eyes itched and his nose went hot. Tears spilled down his cheeks. “It’s Erseleng. Look, there’s the Burning Sphere, and the Night Arc, and the sinkholes in Twilight. We’re so far. I don’t know how to get back. How do we get back?”
Alika looked first at the ball and then at Zufi’s face. Her eyebrows bunched together. “How do you know that’s Erseleng? It doesn’t look like home to me.”
“Rajii told me what it looks like from the stars. We’re too far.”
“We fought the rusts. We’re behind the eyes. Tell the ship to take us back.” Alika stuck her chin out, eyes fierce, lip trembling.
His heart pinched him again. The painful BLAAAT boomed in his head. Zufi’s eyes dipped to the rust on the floor. He had talked to the ship. Zufi touched the shiny stones and the sticks. They vibrated against his skin, smooth and warm. The little lights raced away from him. He followed the line of lights with his fingers, pressing each shiny stone along the path. He paused, then his shoulders sagged. “It’s no good.” He pounded his fist down. “I don’t know how to talk to it.”
The ship buzzed. A loud whirr filled their ears, like a mature goru rushing down for the kill. A judder went through their feet. Then a line of fire shot past the black space of the ship’s eye and burned towards Erseleng. Zufi snatched his hands off the shiny stones with a yelp. Alika jumped, then went stiff.
“Sorry.” Zufi patted the shiny stones without compressing them. “Sorry ship.” He shook his head and nudged the sleeping rust with his foot. “We should have kept one to talk to it for us.”
Alika jumped again. “Remember the goru! There’s more rusts. Let’s go get one.”
“First we tie up these ones.”
They worked quickly, yanking the strings out of the rusts' boots and lashing them tight around the rusts' hands and feet. Puffing and laughing, they dragged one rust into each corner of the room. To be safe, Zufi wet his wire sesei in more frog milk and pricked each rust again.
Out of the white room they went. Out into the lunging red and along the sloping hallway. After a long way, Alika stopped, and Zufi came up short beside her. In the dark ahead they heard someone crying and groaning. They heard the click, click of goru claws, the leathery brush of its wings, the snip of its beak. Zufi’s stomach clenched. He looked at Alika, and as the red pulsed on and then off, he saw her looking back.
He pulled out the reed of frog milk and wet his wire again. Alika dipped the tip of her knife into it. She stood with her back against the metal wall. Zufi crouched low on the ground, curled his fingers around his lips. He chirped and croaked, shifted his feet and clucked.
The red eye blinked on and off. On and off. Zufi’s heart ran far ahead, stumbled, got up, and kept running. Blink, blink. Red, black, red. BLAAAT, screamed the ship. BLAAAT. Something soft brushed his cheek. He smelled the musky scent of goru feathers. Red. A reptilian eye gleamed inches from his face. Black. Alika screamed. Zufi lunged forward and plunged his wire into the goru. Red. It shrieked, shot its beak towards his arm. Black. Something grazed his skin, he cried out and snatched it to his chest. Red. Alika stood overhead, her knife tracing downwards in the bloody light.
“Are you okay?” Alika whispered.
“You’re stepping on my hand.”
“Sorry.” She wormed her fingers under his armpit and pulled him upright. He sagged against her, breathing hard.
“My legs feel like water.”
Alika giggled, “probably because you’ve peed so much.” She kept her arms around him as they stepped around the goru. A little ways down, they found the rust. He was still alive, that was all they could tell in the lunging red light. He didn’t resist when they grabbed his ankles and pulled him up the hallway. He was lighter than the rusts they’d fought in the white room, but it was hard work. His head bumped along the ridges in the metal ground. By the time they reached the white room, they were covered in sweat. The rust breathed through his teeth with his eyes closed.
Zufi took him by one shoulder, and Alika the other, and they pulled him until he was sitting upright, facing the eye-wall of the ship. Erseleng was much bigger now.
Blood ran down one of the rust's arms. His head lolled. Zufi tapped him on the scalp, softly, then harder. Alika pried open one of his eyes. It stared past them, looking at the eye wall. Then both his eyes and his mouth popped open. He yapped, jumped into the chair, and hit the shiny rocks with his good hand and yanked on one of the sticks. The ship’s eye moved. Erseleng swung out of view.
Zufi rushed to the rust’s side. “Take us to Erseleng.”
The rust's forehead creased. He shook his head and said something, but Zufi didn’t know the words.
“He’s taking us away again!” cried Zufi, his vision blurring with tears. “I can’t speak to him. I can’t make him understand.”
Alika's eyes went hard, she squished the blood from her lips and grabbed the rust by the hair. She yanked him so he was looking at her, eyes wide, mouth hanging open. She banged herself in the chest, then pointed at the planet sliding out of the ship’s eye. Again she banged herself in the chest. Again she pointed at the planet. The rust shook his head. Alika cleaned her knife on her sleeve.
The rust's forehead smoothed. He grabbed the sticks. Erseleng slid back into view. Alika smiled and nodded. Erseleng grew closer and closer. The rust muttered to himself. He moved sticks and pressed buttons, his forehead creased and smoothed. A voice spoke into the room. Lights blinked. BLAAAT sounded in the hallway.
Erseleng came closer. The band of Twilight grew and Zufi recognized the sharp rocks lining the mouths of the sinkholes. Shreds of gray cloud boiled out of Night and into Day. His heart shivered and jumped.
Fire exploded over the eye. Zufi screamed and tumbled to the floor. He banged his knee, his head, his elbow. Alika rolled into him shrieking. They hugged each other tight as they jounced around the white room.
After a long time the ship hissed, shuddered, and went silent.
Zufi raised his head and peered through the eye. The walls of Eskegur filled it, sheer and stark. Vines hung from the rocks, shrieking falcons twisted and plummeted from cliffside nests. And nearer, on the sloping ground, he saw figures running towards the ship. They shouted and waved jegun, koda, and akiiya blades. He recognized Badu, Enkelaido, Rajii, even Solongo!
Zufi sighed, a happy floppy sound, and dropped his head back down. Alika lay beside him, warm and breathing, her eyes wide and bright, her lips curving up, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Bubbles of mirth filled Zufi’s chest.
“I didn’t pee,” he said.
She grinned. “Me either.”