The Star Pirate
THE STAR PIRATE
Navarro and Benedikta’s story
A Star World Frontier Book in the Star Series
The rebel in my soul will never die
Every morning the boy accompanied his mother into paradise. She held Navarro’s small hand in hers, tugging him past the secured gates manned by terrifying uniformed guards, a portal into the compound where those who dressed in fancy clothes and ate fancy foods lived. Ma tended to the colony’s rich elites, cleaning their houses and serving them. “Compound cogs” she called the mining bosses and their families, working long hours with never a day off, for which she would apologize to Navarro. He didn’t know why she felt so bad about it. He didn’t mind. The neighborhood where the mining bosses lived was a wonderland.
Everywhere else on Barésh foul air rotted things, even people, from the inside out. But in here the air was fresh, the plants big and green, the streets and homes tidy and clean. Even the people seemed perfect to him. Not that he had ever spoken to any of them—Ma forbade it. “It’s a miracle I got permission to bring ya in, boy. Don’t put it at risk.”
He knew to wait for her an isolated corner of a compound park with his toy starship and his imagination to entertain him for the long hours. But today she seemed sadder than usual. As always, she crouched on her knees so they were face to face. He was smaller than most boys his age, but Ma assured him he would one day grow tall. “My birthday boy,” she said, her eyes sparkling as she ran her gaze over him with pride. “Six years old today. I wish I didn’t have to leave ya.” Her work-worn hands felt rough but the touch was tender as she stroked his face and hair then kissed him on the cheek. “One day you’ll grow as big as your Da was. Aye, tall and strong. Before we know it, you’ll be having to get down on your knees to look me in the eye instead of the other way around!”
He could hear the whistling in her chest as she laughed. Her coughing woke him at night in their tiny apartment, frightened him. But Ma said she was fine. “Clearing my lungs so I can sing ya to sleep, boy,” she would tell him, and he believed her. Ma always told him the truth.
“Stay put, ya hear, Navarro? I’ll come find ya with something for lunch. A special treat for my birthday boy.”
Always hungry, he salivated in anticipation of the small bundle of food Ma would give him before hurrying back to work. It was his main meal of the day. Since she worked from Firstday to Eighthday, he could have food in his belly every day of the week. Lately, it wasn’t enough to blunt all his hunger, but if the bundle was small, he tried not to complain. If he did, it made her sad. Sometimes even angry—“Ya craggin’ lucky we got a roof over our heads!”
He cared little about having a roof, although he sensed it was important to her. But Ma was the center of his world. His everything. She was his four walls and a roof. She was his home in a world that most often seemed chaotic and frightening—everywhere except in the compound, where the wondrous aristos lived and worked, the mining bosses and colony elites; here it was calm, orderly. Beautiful.
Within moments of her leaving for the Colony-Marshal’s mansion, he lost himself in his imagination, the little starship pinched between his fingers as he made engine noises. He was standing on the bridge, the boss of the ship, flying far, far away…beyond the compound, beyond the dome itself, to the stars and maybe beyond even those. He had glimpsed real starships coming and going, huge ships. Only rich folk could leave this place, but Ma worked hard. One day soon they would be rich, too, and could take a trip to other worlds. What an adventure that would be!
His growling stomach alerted him to the time. The sun was overhead in the dome that encased the colony in a protective bubble. But when his ma didn’t arrive as usual, he played farther afield, focused on his toy ship to keep from thinking about his empty belly. But soon, he grew so weak and sleepy that he tucked into a corner of the park, drawing his knees to his chin.
“What are you?”
Navarro bolted upright at the imperious, high-pitched voice. Blinking sleep from his eyes, he focused on a girl standing over him, her hands propped on her hips, eyes wide with curiosity. A compound girl. She wore a prim blue dress made of cloth that looked as stiff as a sheet of cardboard—and about as uncomfortable too. A pink line across her neck was proof that the collar rubbed her skin every time she moved her head, which she kept doing as she looked him up and down, from his shaggy hair to his shoes with their peeling soles.
Her shoes looked brand new. A row of little bows went from the pointy toes to her ankles. The seams of her blue dress contained tiny blinking lights. Thousands of them. They looked like stars, especially in the shadows of the bushes under which Navarro sat and marveled at the sight of this strange lass.
“Well? What are you?” she demanded with an arched brow.
“Why, I’m a little boy. Can’t ya see that?”
“Of course I can, silly. But what are you—a servant-lad or kitchen boy?”
“I’m waiting for my Ma.”
Her golden brown eyes—upper-class aristo eyes—grew even wider before narrowing in disbelief. “You don’t look like anyone who lives here. On the other hand, you wouldn’t have made it through the gates if you didn’t belong here. Therefore, if you don’t live here then you must work here, but you already said you don’t.”
“You sure use a lot of words,” he said. “I never heard anyone use so many words at once.”
Her chin came up defensively as she clutched her skirts. The fabric made rustling noises.
“But, I like the way you talk.” He liked the way she looked too. Her hair was clean and shiny. It was the color of rust stains on the ancient sandstone walls in Old City. Her fingernails were clipped short and buffed clean. His were stained with dirt. Ma was right. He needed to wash more carefully—when the rooming house’s plumbing worked, which mostly it didn’t.
He got tired of looking up at her, squinting at her bright hair in the sun. He climbed to his feet, but she was still taller by half a head. “I don’t work here. My Ma does. I wait here while she cleans up the messes you rich folks make.”
“I don’t make messes!” She appeared indignant.
“Well, enough of ya do that it keeps her busy morning til night.”
She shrugged. “Why don’t you wait at your house?”
“It ain’t safe.” Ma’s warnings rang in his head—The rustlers look for children like you to steal for them. If they find you, they’ll force ya into piracy. You’ll be stealing to feed their bellies, not your own. “What’s your name anyway?”
“Bennie….” he tried.
What kind of name was that? An upper-class aristo name. “I’m Navarro. I live in North City.” He pointed beyond the walls. Her gaze followed. Curiosity filled her eyes, as if she actually wanted to go see the teeming streets of Barésh.
His stomach let out a prolonged gurgle. He slapped a hand over it to muffle the noise.
The girl’s brows drew together. “You’re hungry.”
“Aye.” He scrunched his eyes at her. “You got any food?”
“My governess does.” She cast a wild glance toward a solitary woman sitting on a bench some distance away. A large basket sat at her feet. He could tell by her posture that she was a stern sort.
“She won’t mind?”
“She’s happiest when I’m not pestering her. I heard her say so to her friend. She wishes I’d play more with other children my age, but,” she sighed, “they are so dull.” She eyed Navarro, smiled. “You’re not dull. Wait here.” She backed away. “Don’t go away.”
“I got nowhere to go.”
She returned shortly with a sack filled with wondrous things. Far better than the scraps Ma carried out. Cakes and breads and smoked meats. Pots of fruit jam. Boiled eggs and hot spicy sauce to dip them in. Shimmer chips seasoned with salt crystals. He devoured the feast, packing in more and more until his stomach was as tight as a drum.
They held their stomachs and groaned. “I ate too much,” she said.
“Not me. I only ran out of room.”
He picked up his toy and held it high, pretending it was soaring past. “This is my starship. My Da got it for me…before he died.”
“It’s broken,” Benedikta said.
“It ain’t broken!”
“Well, it doesn’t light up.”
“Like your dress does?”
She nodded and ran a finger inside the collar, moving her neck, slender and scrubbed clean but marred by the rub the collar had made.
“It looks itchy. And uncomfortable.”
“Well, I think it’s pretty,” she argued.
He liked the way she stood up for herself. “You’re prettier. You’re the prettiest girl I ever seen.”
Her eyes grew wide again.
“Didn’t no one ever tell you that before?”
She shook her head. “No…”
He held up his toy. “Well, this ship ain’t supposed to have fancy lights. It is what it is.”
“Like you, Navarro. Not fancy. You are what you are.”
He frowned at her, unsure whether she had intended to say something nice or mean. But her expression was soft. The way his Ma’s face looked when she studied an old photo-image of his Da. “Aye. I am what I am.” He liked that idea, like the way she put together words.
“Let’s play,” he said and flopped onto his back on the lawn. Tiny green plants cushioned him like a living rug. The girl fell down next to him, her dress rustling. Side by side on their backs, she watched as he made the starship fly overhead. “Bennie, we’re gonna visit the stars.”
“Benedikta,” she enunciated patiently. “Won’t the stars be too hot? My governess says you can’t walk on a star.”
“We can walk on worlds though.” He started to describe worlds that he had made up.
But she shook her head. “Those worlds sound too much like here. Everything so manicured and clean. I want to know about worlds that are like out there.”
Her reaction left him confused. If he lived in the compound, he would never long for the colony outside these walls, where people pushed and shoved you, tried to steal what was in your pockets, vomited on your shoes, sometimes crawled into a corner and died, and remained there until sometime noticed and called the Trade Police to get rid of the body before the packs of yipwags got to it.
So he made up planets that were more like his world and hers together—wild, exciting places but with compound food. The hours flew until, outside, high above the compound’s clear ceiling, the sun-orb motored lower across the artificial sky. Eventually it would disappear at the edge of the dome, far out on the badlands where the huge, ugly smelting factories were that processed ore mined from underground caves, where his Da had worked until the day he died. Where Navarro would have to work, because mining was what everyone did when they were old enough.
“Benedikta!” The governess’s impatient tone rang across the park. Her meaty hands were propped on her hips. A hairpin stuck in her bun glowed, a rainbow of colors. It seemed out of place on her. Like a glistening dew drop on a trash can.
“I’ve got to go,” the girl said.
“Me too.” He pretended that he, too, had somewhere to go, but he didn’t know how long Ma would be. It was not like her to be gone all day without checking on him. He felt a little uneasy about it but he did not reveal it to his new friend. “See you tomorrow, Bennie.”
“Benedikta. Yes, see you tomorrow We’ll go fly again. Right Navarro? Promise me!”
“Aye. I promise.”
Her face glowed with excitement that he couldn’t help but share. Then she ran off. Full, happy, content, all things he wasn’t used to feeling, he watched her skip back to the governess, who said something to Bennie that Navarro couldn’t hear. Bennie went as stiff as her dress, taking the governess’s hand obediently as she was led back to the big houses.
“See you tomorrow, Bennie,” he whispered.
It was dark when his mother finally emerged, escorted by two guards. Her eyes were swollen from crying.
“Ma! What’s wrong?”
She reached for him, but one of the guards shoved her forward.
“Hey! That’s my Ma!” Navarro shoved at the guard. “Let her go!”
A burst of bright light then pain, his Ma screaming. Navarro blinked, dazed, sprawled on the pathway. Then he was being carried off by the scruff of his neck like a yipwag pup. He tried to wrestle free of the guard’s grip but all it won him was a painfully hard shake, the collar of his shirt strangling him.
“Accused me of stealing, they did,” his Ma gasped between coughs. “I guess I have no argument. I didn’t ask, I took that sack of food for ya.”
They were escorted out the gates. A flycar waited. TRADE POLICE, it said on the side. Navarro’s stomach chilled. He was raised to fear the colony police. Now they were waiting for him and his Ma. One of the police opened the door to the flycar. A compound guards pushed on the back of her head, shoving her inside.
“I have a child!” she screamed. “Who will take care of him? We’ve no family. His Da died in the mines—”
The flycar door closed.
“Ma!” Navarro threw himself at the car. He could see her face behind the tinted window shield, her mouth open wide in a howl he couldn’t hear, her anguished eyes on him until the flycar lifted and glided into the street.
He never saw her again.
He struggled in the grasp of one of the guards. He had been fighting to free himself. “Boy, you best get home.”
Navarro spewed curses at him. “Let me go. I got to find my Ma.”
The guard held him still. His eyes held a speck of kindness in them. “If you know what’s best for ya, you’ll put all your energy into surviving. You’ll need it.”
Navarro tore free of him and trudged home to the rooming house. When he got there well after dark, a stranger answered the door to his apartment, her teeth gray and rotted. “Ya don’t live here no more. Git!”
He wandered back into the streets in search of his Ma, keeping to the shadows, too shocked to cry. The night grew cold. He shivered, wishing he had a blanket or a coat—his sweater felt too thin. Soon, the wondrous day with the compound girl seemed like another life. The food Bennie had fed him were all that kept him going that first night and day spent loitering near the colony prison’s high gray walls. Desperation and the memory of the one kind guard gave him enough courage to query the hard, burly men standing outside the gates. “My Ma’s in there. I want to see her.”
“Git!” Their weapons were aimed ominously.
Navarro meandered back to the compound gates a couple of days later, exhausted, cold, hungry and thirsty. “Bennie!” he called out, hoping to glimpse her. She would wonder why he never showed up the next day.
“No beggars within twenty standard feet of the walls!”
“I cam to see my friend. Bennie—Benedikta—”
A guard fired a warning shot at him. A piece of the sidewalk splintered, bit into his cheek, slicing it open. He could hardly believe the blood drops on the sidewalk were his.
His eyes watered from the pain as he scampered back into the dusk to pick through the colony’s trash with starving yipwags, the creatures sometimes kept as pets or as protection but most often abandoned to run in the streets. Few Baréshtis had enough credits left over to feed an animal.
Or an orphaned boy.
Another night came, then another. Navarro barely heard the klaxon that announced a shift change in the mines. Soon miners filled the streets, visiting the bars and clubs to buy something to eat. One of the miners dropped a small, hand-sized pie, too drunk to notice he had missed his pocket. Navarro ran to snatch the pastry off the sidewalk, but a yipwag with barely enough skin to cover its bones beat him to it. “Let go!” Navarro tried to pull the pie from its sharp teeth even as the thing wolfed it down.
“Go on, ya mangy beast! Go!” a man yelled and kicked the snarling dog out of the way. Then he smiled warmly at Navarro. His clothing was finer than most, a bit shabby but still that of a dandy. “Go on, take it.” He offered Navarro a pie that looked even better.
Navarro gulped. He could smell the aroma of crust and meat, and it made him salivate. His stomach had stopped growling but was as aching and empty as ever. Something he had eaten from the trash had made him sick to his stomach and made him dizzy. He started to reach for it, but his Ma’s voice filled his head. It’s too dangerous. The pirate rustlers look for boys like you.
Navarro jerked backward. “I don’t want yer pie,” he said, but his eyes betrayed him. He couldn’t keep them from staring at the pie. They seemed to want to pop out of his head to gobble up the treat.
The man held out his hand. The pie sat in the center of a relatively clean palm. A raised scar ran along his thumb. Above each knuckle, a tattoo of a crescent moon glowed. “No strings attached. Just deliciousness. Take it.”
What could the man do to him? Nothing. Navarro was fast; he could grab the pie and run. And did.
He danced backward, half choking as he crammed the pie in his mouth. Somehow he got it down and it stayed down. The man’s laughter rang out as Navarro turned to run away. But a raggedy group of children had gathered around, forming a half circle. Some were younger than he was, most a little older.
“Don’t be afraid,” one of the smallest ones told him. Navarro couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl.
“There’s more where this came from,” one of the older girls said. Her dress was worn and tattered, but there was meat on her bones, and her hair was clean. “You’ll have food every day for a little bit of work.”
“It ain’t hard,” a boy piped up, scratching his leg. “I got an extra cookie. I’ll share.”
Every part of Navarro’s body urged him to give in and take that cookie. “My Ma warned me about you. Pirates.”
“Pirates?” the man said and laughed.
“Aye! Gangs of feral children and orphans.”
“Ain’t you feral?” the older girl asked.
“An orphan then.”
Navarro’s throat ached with grief as he threw a glance in the direction of the prison. “I ain’t no orphan.” He addressed the man. “My Ma says you send children out to steal so you can eat.”
“What in this colony ain’t got by stealing, lad? Well? Only the aristo cogs have everything they want. Don’t let them make ya feel guilty for taking what you deserve.”
The man’s words made some sense. The aristos had arrested his Ma. Stole her away, leaving him alone. They didn’t care what happened to him. Why should he care about them?
“I’m a businessman,” the man went on. “My employees and I share and share alike. They eat their fill.” He looked at the children. “Don’t ya?”
A chorus of “aye’s” rang out.
“And a warm place to sleep too,” one of the boys said.
Navarro gave his head a shake even as he felt himself wavering. His conscience told him one thing but his stomach told him another. “No. I’m gonna listen to my Ma.”
Navarro darted into the street and left the group behind.
He spent another two nights, starving, cold, and alone, fighting with stray yipwags for anything edible in the trash. The man and his street urchins came upon Navarro by the prison, where he always seemed to return. This time the man offered no pies. “If you have a Ma, why ain’t ya with her, boy?”
“She’s in there.”
The man considered the high walls and cringed. “Lad, if ya wanna be alive when she gets out, you gotta eat. If all you eat is bits and pieces here and there, you’ll soon grow sick and die.”
It’s almost what the kind guard told him. Navarro dashed a frayed sleeve across his nose, wiping away snot. “I want to see my Ma again,” he said.
“Then come. We’ll get you washed and fed. A place to sleep. You can leave whenever you want.”
“Aye.” The man’s teeth were even and white. His smile seemed genuine even if his observant eyes didn’t quite match the warmth.
Navarro buried his hand in his pants pocket, his fingers closing protectively around the toy starship. He thought of Bennie and her blue dress. The slash of pink on her collar. Her desperation to escape, to fly away. He thought of his Ma, locked behind bars. This wasn’t what she wanted for him but she wouldn’t want him to die, would she? If he had to work for this man and join his gang of alley pirates, it would be a kind of cage too. People telling him what to do, like they told his Ma what to do. A kernel of anger swelled in his chest, and his hand closed around his toy starship, squeezing it hard. No one, no soul, no matter how powerful, would keep him caged for long. One day, he would visit the stars—in his own ship, no matter what it took, he would get there. And he wouldn’t be following anyone’s rules when he did so—especially no compound cog’s rules.
“Aye, I’ll come with you,” he told the man.
The man grinned and extended his hand. “Welcome to the pack.”
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