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     “...are you sure they won't mind?”

     Perched on a tree branch and trying to pry open a double glazed window in the least derelict house they'd come across thus far, Rae glanced down at his friend with a look of patient exasperation. “Blink-...” He gestured to the rest of the housing estate with a long sweep of his arm. “Who is this ‘they’ you’re talking about, precisely? All these houses are empty. Their owners have gone. There's nobody left to mind.” He turned his attention back to his knife; the plastic shell of the window was still in remarkably good condition, all these decades after being abandoned, and it did not want him getting in. “I know you feel guilty for vandalising the place, but it'll be fine. Don’t worry.”

     Blink mumbled self-comfortingly to herself and fidgeted, standing in the overgrown garden below. The long grass came almost all the way up to her knees, and she'd been bitten several times so far – all the way through the fabric of her trousers! – by its resident horde of unhappy insects. The world seemed intent on turning her into dinner for as many of the planet's residents as possible. Her left arm positively throbbed, now, under its protective bandage, already dark and swollen, and she couldn't seem to divert power away from her pain receptors. What was the point in getting damage warnings if acknowledging them didn't actually turn them off?

     “Please hurry up, Rae,” she encouraged, quietly, unwilling to speak more loudly in case she attracted attention. Before meeting that... that ‘blight’ creature... being outside hadn’t left her feeling anywhere near so vulnerable, or unprotected. Now, every rustle in the grass, every shadow, every movement seen from the corner of her eye? Another of the vicious predators, sizing her up as a meal.

     “Rrgh.” Up above, Rae's battle with the window reached a tipping point. The frame simply would not give. Frustrated, he switched the knife around in his hand, and stabbed the handle at the glass, striking a good firm blow in one corner. Both panes broke with a harsh jangle of sound, making Blink jump. Broken glass sprinkled down into the remains of an overgrown flower bed.

     “See, what did I tell you? No problem at all, eh!” The spur grinned down at her.

     “Please don’t shout so loudly-!”

     He carefully knocked in the rest of the jagged bits, then reached through for the lock, which turned quite easily in spite of what must have been decades of corrosion. “All right! We’re in,” he called down, pulling the window wide open. “Not looking too bad in here, you know. Almost comfortable!” He vanished over the sill.

     Blink gave the tree a wary look, her gaze travelling all the way from the roots and up to the branch Rae had gained entry with, and sighed. I might be able to climb that if I practice from dawn to dusk every day for the next two months. Elegant and devoid of branches, the lower part of the straight, silken trunk had proved no obstacle to the athletic Rae, who'd shinned up it with the ease of any monkey, but there was no way she was going to get up there, not without help, not even if she'd been uninjured.

     “I don't think I can climb that,” she called up after him, but he didn’t reappear. “Can you throw down a rope?” She fidgeted, shifting from foot to foot, unnerved by Rae’s continued silence. Don’t be silly. You know they’re uncommon. You won’t have picked the only house in the suburbs with a blight living in it. “Rae...?”

     The big door in front of her rattled, startling her back a step, then clunked, and finally creaked open.

     She gathered herself to run, just in case. “Rae?” she queried, hopefully, leaning to one side in an effort to see around it.

     The spur’s grinning face finally reappeared. “Magic. It’s got a lock on the inside,” he explained, wiggling the latch. “No key required.”

     Relieved, Blink came closer. “Does that mean we'll be able to secure it closed again...?” She inspected the heavy bolt in the lock, and ran her fingers over it. She could feel the telltale grittiness of corrosion under her fingertips, but the bolt moved back and forth quite nicely.

     “Should do. I mean, the lock's not great, and it might go and seize up again once we shut it, but it should keep us safe overnight,” he reassured, resting a hand gently on her shoulder. “And you need a damn good sleep, hon. You look beaten.”

     “...I feel it,” she agreed, softly, slipping quietly under his arm and into the hallway of the deserted property. The carpet still had a little spring left in it, under her feet, but the floorboards creaked ominously. “You think we'll be all right in here?”

     “Sure, unless anyone still has a key, and you know I'm pretty sure that creature we ran into earlier didn't have pockets...”

     Blink winced, awkwardly. “Please don't joke about it.” Unconsciously, her hand came up to cover her injury.

     Ugh. Just be a moron again, why don't you, Rae. “Sorry, sorry. I wasn't thinking.” A sigh. “We'll be fine, in here. Once the door is closed, they can't get in.”

     “Do you really think there might be more of those creatures around?” Blink shot an uneasy glance in both directions along the street. Next time they came across one, the fight might not go in her favour.

     “I'm sure there might be one or two, but we can handle 'em.” Rae shrugged one shoulder, and gave his friend an encouraging smile. “Chin up, eh? If you close the door, I can go lay a false trail for them.” He gave her a gentle push back over the threshold. “If there's any around – and there might not be, we've only seem one or two – they should be stupid enough to chase that around all night instead of trying to get at us.”

     She clung to the doorframe. “How will you get in-? You can't stay out there...”

     “Secret knock.” He rapped his knuckles against the door, then winked. “Nah, I’ll just climb the tree again. We already proved they can’t climb, Bee, it’ll be fine. I’ll be back soon.”

     The door clunked shut with a satisfyingly heavy sound. He applied his shoulder and gave it a good hard shove, just to check, and it refused to budge. Good.

     Rae turned to face out onto the middle of what was left of the street, and sighed, sadly. Would have been a nice neighbourhood, this, once upon a time, before Hah'zeepti haemorrhagic fever came along and ruined it all. Each house had once stood proudly in its own little patch of land, with a drive up to the front door, and a garden outlined by a hedge or a decorative metal fence – all overgrown with weeds, now, and many choked with brambles. And even this rather genteel neighbourhood hadn't been spared the wrath of an increasingly violent populace – the hallmarks of rioting were clear in the crumbled walls and buckled roofs, the overturned vehicles hidden in the vegetation, the windows turned to soot-blackened eyes. What must it have been like, living here as your children and neighbours all slowly succumbed to violence and disease?

     Time had at least diluted and softened with vegetation the charred black eaves of burned out family homes. Wrecked vehicles formed the scaffolding for fruiting vines to climb up. The grass had even reclaimed the streets, the slim pale blades slicing relentlessly up through whatever tiny holes they could find, between the stones of the tarred road. The wind ruffled through them and turned the road into a pale green-gold river.

     All right. Time to get to work. Rae jammed his hand into a deep trouser pocket and tugged out the contents; a plastic bag, in which he’d put the trimmed-off ragged shreds of Blink’s shirt sleeve. He wasn’t entirely sure why he’d kept it, perhaps to keep the blights from sniffing it out and following their trail? But now he’d got it, he realised it’d make a good bait. Blights might have a good sense of smell, but they weren't exactly brainy. If there were any in the neighbourhood, he should be able to get them running around in circles with this.

     He carefully tied the bloodied fabric around the end of a long stick, and set off down the road with it, drawing an enticing zigzagging scent-trail down the grassy tarmac. No hungry monster should be able to resist this.

     The neighbourhood was a maze of lots of little dead ends and blind turns, and Rae spent a lot longer out than he had planned on, but eventually he managed to draw his trail in a big loop that crossed and muddled itself several times, throwing the rag up into the eaves of a sad, crumbling single-storey property. This should keep them busy. He made sure to follow the exact same route back to the house, hoping that a blight's sense of smell wasn't so good that it'd be able to tell in which direction he'd gone.

     He returned to find Blink up on the top floor, looking out over the abandoned street, watching for his return. He waved both arms at her, vigorously, and yelled up at her; “See, I’m fine!”

     She offered a vague, fleeting smile in return, and wiggled her fingers in a little wave, before touching a finger to her lips – shh. He had to work hard not to roll his eyes.

     Using the claws on his toes like blunt crampons, he scrambled back up his tree to the broken window. “There we go. Job done! Everything all right here, Bee?” He ambled across the creaky floor to the room he’d seen her standing in.

     “I was just wondering,” she explained, softly, listening as he came up behind her, resting a gentle hand on her shoulder. “What it would have been like living here, back then. Before everyone-...” Died. “-disappeared.”

     “Probably like everywhere else. Probably, like the staff sector in tiao'I spaceport. Mixed-species colonial environments are the same the galaxy over.”

     “There used to be families here – families with children. There was none of that in the sectors of tiao'I that I knew.” She pointed across the street. “There’s still toys, see?”

     Following the line of her arm, Rae could just about make out the metal frame of a swing, only barely visible through the scrub. “Try not to go and upset yourself, hon. We don't know that they didn't just… grow up, and move away, like children usually eventually do,” he reminded.

     Blink gave him a funny look. “Please don’t treat me like I’m stupid.”

     “I’m not. I’m just saying.” Rae shrugged, defensively. “Children eventually grow up and move away. The fact the parents never got rid of the swing doesn’t mean they all died before they got the chance.” Even though that probably is what happened.

     “There was a family lived here, too,” Blink added, quietly, picking up a dusty little picture frame from the windowsill. The picture was a still capture, showing two copper-hued adult ondrai, and their three children – one of whom was still a downy little ball of brown fluff, its pudgy little arms caught mid-flail, stretching excitedly forwards for the camera.

     “You need to stop doing this to yourself, Blink. What happened here happened years ago – long before you and I ever met, long before Val and me arrived in tiao'I...” He sighed. “You can't help them now. Getting upset because you think their spirits will be insulted or get us into trouble for breaking into their home? That's not gonna help us survive this.”

     Blink's shoulder sagged, and when she spoke again, her words had dwindled down until they were little more than a whisper. “It just reminds me of home.”

     Rae mantled an arm across her shoulders, and gave her a little squeeze. “And we’ll get you back there. I promise. We just need to get through all this, first...”

     Blink remained silent. Although she trusted that Rae meant well, it was beginning to sound a bit like something someone would say to get her to shut up.

     “Come on.” He used his free hand to stroke her arm, comfortingly. “Now we're in, we might as well see if there's anything left in here that's worth using.”

     “Might as well,” she mumbled, and followed him dispiritedly away down the stairs.

     For a property that had been abandoned for more than twenty years, it was in pretty good nick. No running water, of course, nor electricity, but the kitchen cupboards still contained a little food in the form of canned or dried preserves, and more importantly, some fancy bottles of spring water. Enough of the elegant glass bottles lined up under the sink to save them having to boil water clean for a good day or two.

     “Ah, brilliant!” Rae snagged one, gleefully. “I've been gagging for a drink.”

     Even after all those years of storage, the bottle still made the tiniest fizz when he unscrewed the lid, and a small flurry of bubbles rose up inside it.

     “Haha. Looks like we’ve gone upmarket.”

     Blink made a dubious face, her delicate brows knitting together as she watched him pour the carbonated drink into their cups. “Are you sure it's all right to drink this? It could have just... I don't know. Gone bad, maybe.”

     “It's fine, it's meant to do that.” He tapped the bottle; the faded label was thankfully written in Commonspeech. “Sparkling Spring, it says here.”

     She sipped, warily; the carbonated water had a strange, somewhat sour acidic taste to it. “Eech.” She lowered the glass and stared down into it. “Tastes funny.”

     Rae laughed and accidentally snorted the bubbles up his nose. “Ow. Ahaha, yes, it does.” He smacked his lips, thoughtfully. “I guess that’s the carbonation.”

     Blink hastily put her glass down. “I’m not sure we should really be drinking carbonic acid, Rae-!”

     “At least we can be reasonably confident it’s sterile, huh?” Rather than argue the merits of the lightly bubbling water, Rae smiled patiently and uncapped a bottle of the plain, instead. “Here you go...”

     The two laima finally ‘pitched camp’ in the least-damaged room in the back of the property, facing out over a ruined garden that looked more like pasture, now, the long grass crisscrossed with animal trails. The single bed would only comfortably sleep one occupant, so Rae fetched an armchair from a room along the corridor, manhandling it with difficulty through the slightly-too-narrow doors.

     Blink tried to help, but felt so completely washed out by everything that had happened so far that she was next to useless. It was nowhere near evening, yet, but the idea of sleeping was such a tremendously enticing one. Maybe it would allow her to escape the dull, throbbing aches in her arm and her brain, if she could go dormant and just... not think for the rest of the day. She allowed herself to sag onto the mattress, as though every bone in her body had simultaneously melted.

     Rae draped her with a blanket, and crouched in front of her, arms folded on the mattress. “How are you feeling, Bee?” he coaxed. “Honestly.”

     Blink managed to force an exhausted smile, curling around onto her right side to look at him. “I'll be all right. The pain is going away, a little,” she lied, quietly. “I just need to get some rest. Straighten my thoughts out, a little.”

     “All right.” He stroked her shoulder, gently. “But you tell me if you need anything.”

     She nodded, snuggling down in her blanket. For all her earlier optimism, looking forwards to sleeping in a comfortable bed, the mattress was old, the springs inside rusted, and it smelt fusty, leaving her longing for a cosy hammock in a tree somewhere.

     Home – her real home, and her family – felt a very, very long way away, both physically, and emotionally. Not for the first time since the crash, she dozed off wondering if all their efforts to escape were even really worth it.

     Half-remembered dreams plagued her sleep; it was almost a blessing when she rolled onto her injury, and pain stabbed all the way up and down her arm, up into her shoulder and right down into her fingertips. It jangled her rudely awake, and away from the nightmares.

     Night had at least drawn in, now, the shadows helping hide the poor condition of the room. Arm hurting too much to go back to sleep, she instead lay and watched Rae sleep in the armchair; he didn't look especially comfortable either, limbs all bunched up like a kicked spider. At least he was a good soul, in spite of his flaws – she wouldn't have got so far if she'd been travelling with anyone else, that much was guaranteed.

     She wriggled her way off the edge of the mattress, keeping her blanket around herself, and made her way over to the window across the creaky floorboards. The sill was just wide enough for her to sit comfortably on, letting her painful left arm rest against the cool glass.

     A weak moon sat on the horizon like a thin, pale ginger fingernail, leaving the garden a world full of shifting shadow. Although the garden remained empty for the most part, Blink sat and watched as life occasionally came and went – flying nocturnal creatures hunted insects in the grass, and a small serpentine creature slipped through the remains of the rusted chainlink fence at the end of the garden, a cluster of babies clinging to its back.

     Dawn had just begun to stain the sky on the horizon a faint yellow-pink when a small group of quadruped animals arrived, making their way along the trails through the grass; their pale coats seemed to glow in the dim light. At the back of the group, one of the smallest individuals was moving along very slowly; it didn't look injured, and it wasn't limping. Just... slow. Looks like I feel. Always behind, always slowing everyone down. The rest of its tribe had already stopped to nibble berries off one of the scrambling vines in the far corner of the garden, next to what looked like it used to be a child's playhouse. The largest individual in the group hooted scoldingly, the hollow call echoing weirdly across the garden, and the slow one hastily scurried to catch up.

     Blink at last looked away, cuddling down in her blanket. It all reminded her of home more than she cared to try and explain, and not only because of the sorry, derelict houses, and struggling remnants of family scattered around. It hurt to watch, because it hurt to remember.

     Thank you for trusting me with Serendipity. Skydash's last words to her left a phantom ache deep in her chest. Blink covered it with her hand, and tried to ignore it; her daughter was in the best place possible for a stable, loving upbringing, it would never have been fair to drag her away from everyone that loved her just to satisfy her own wants. I promise I'll look after her.

     Dear little Dipps; one little groundling in a whole family of skyborne, who didn't seem to care that she alone had her feet planted firmly on the dirt when everyone else had their eyes on the skies. Although she’d been a surprise addition to the family in the first place, no-one would have suspected from watching them all interact. She'd very quickly got muddled about who was meant to be “Ama”, and latched instead onto Skydash, her brother's bearer; Blink became “auntie” to both babies. A crazy, moody auntie who was not there a lot more often than she was at home, spending a big chunk of her time at school, but auntie nonetheless.

     I could never think of anyone who'd be a better mother to my baby than you, Dash.

     Blink sighed and let her cheek rest against the soothingly cool window, trying to let herself drift back into a doze. Although sad, and disappointed, she managed to stave off her tears, just this once.

     I wonder if I'll ever see you all again.

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Note: You may have noticed that I changed my mind about Hesger having a moon. I haven't gone back through previous chapters to correct this, right now. I'll do that AFTER NaNo is done.