The suns on the horizon hung pale and cool, so low in the sky that the giant rocks of the Ni-Chee desert seemed almost to reach them. The rocks were watchful, looking down upon the ships of men that slept now in the desert. They were amazing ships. They looked like slices of fallen sky; like moveable cities; but the rocks had seen cities before.
They knew this was not a country for cities. This was a country for sand. Sooner or later everything here turned to sand. Even the cities. Even the rocks. The rocks watched. They were waiting. They were learning how to die.
Dawn warmed the great desert of Phyrnos.
Theodore Snopes stood admiring the weird, grand nothingingness of the Ni-Chee. He wondered if Isela was glad to be home. He sipped his coffee, savoring its heat. He was sure he'd been here before; camped alongside these black rocks, those pale dunes so like distant stairwells. Which meant they must be some three days outside Phayara.
He remembered his way there, too. You went past the rocks and followed the suns across the desert, straight on towards the fabled, ancient city. That is, if a man made it past the hawks and monsters. Phyrnos was treacherous. It suffered no fools, no rash actions.
Snopes sipped his coffee, reflecting on his bounty in Phayara. It was a lizard named Qabal, one of the skin traders. Bound to be unpleasant.
The camp was quiet. A few were asleep in the open air, despite the smallish Uquelycra everyone had seen on the far dunes. Even from where he stood, Theo marked the men as unusually rough and wild. They were hard-favoured men: rogues, bandits, possibly thieves. Men without much to lose and everything to gain. Pioneers.
A flicker of color caught his eye. A man wearing breeches and an old-fashioned sleeveless stood beneath one of the smaller ships, his hands resting gently on her side. He had a round black beard and a naked, shining head His skin had burned copper under the hot dead lights of Phyrnos.
He was talking to someone.
Theo walked over, thinking he might say hello. Conversation would be nice. It felt good to be on the ground; real ground, with real suns overhead and a real city nearby. Not that city-ships weren’t real, but they weren’t the same.
He felt almost happy, in spite of yesterday’s slaughter.
Then he realized the man was talking to himself. Or to his ship. But he was too close to turn around now-the man had turned, was waving at him, unbothered, his almond-colored face creased in an easy grin. He wore a bandanna tied around his neck to protect himself from the sand, and together with his breeches and old fashioned shirt, he looked like a person out of time.
Except that Snopes could hear the man looking at him. He had a modified left eye, which telescoped out from his face, whirring gently. Aware he was being clocked for weaponry and mods of his own, Theo grinned back and lifted both his hands in the air, spilling a shameful amount of coffee.
"Good morning, sir!" he said.
“Sorry?” Theo said.
“Yes, um, good morning.”
“You hear that?”
Theo was perplexed. “Hear what? Your eye?” He almost smacked himself. You didn’t go around saying things like that to wildish men! But now the stranger was coming towards him, his hand extended.
“I owe you my duties sir, for bringing me crew in safe. Those were butcherly doins on Maiden. I thank you. But-” he said, raising his palm, “Listen close or you’ll miss it!”