Theo stumbled into his ship. It was the small hours of the night but the fires blazed on. Men stood swaying around them with their arms around each other, singing songs from Earth. Most had never been on a planet before, much less one with an atmosphere safe to breathe. They were reluctant to return to their ships, to sleep in the sealed darkness, especially after the news from Phayara. Their voices rose plaintively into the cool air-
“Never grow old, never grow old,
In a land where we'll never grow old
Never grow old, never grow old-"
He closed his door and felt pieces of himself click back into their proper place as he felt the familiar hum of his automated home. Lights went up in response to his presence; the floor warmed at his feet, and in the kitchen there was a stockpile of Atmo Sardines from Martine's cargo. A few sardines spread on cheesy toast... he walked unevenly towards the silver-sided galley to heap his plate with toast and spreadables.
"In that beautiful land where we'll never more roam,
We shall be in the sweet by-and-by-"
Isela didn't like it when he ate in bed, but he would sit right here outside the door, and--
his plate slipped through his hands, sending fish, toast and melted cheese in a gooey spray at his feet. He saw everything. The dead Evok, the blood and sticky threads of fur; the wild writing on the walls.
His plate whirred loudly, clattered to a stop. For a beat there was only terrible stillness.
"Isela!" He ran to their room, calling her name. “Isela!” The room was empty. Where had she gone. He scraped his hair back, trying to think. What could have happened? Was she hurt? Unthinkable that any-
The realization slapped him.
She'd gone back to Phayara.
Of course. She'd felt uncomfortable around so many humans-- this bloody threat would have been the final straw. She'd said as much in the chaos after the Evoken had brought them her wild, unbelievable news.
"Theo, I have to go." She’d said that.
She'd gone to see the goddess. Suppose there were any other Phyrnosians who had survived the attack on Sand Maiden; they’d kill her if they found her in Phayara.
Theo ran to Howl’s ship and pounded on his door. “Wake up! Wake up! Captain, she’s gone! Isela's gone!”
It was Demma who stepped outside. She was fussing with her kimono, squinting at him. “Theo?”
“Where is he? I need to-Howl!”
Demma couldn't hold him back; he burst into their ship.
Captain Johnson was cross-legged and shirtless on their sofa, a silver flask loose in his hands. He stared glazedly at his boots. “Holloa” he said softly, not bothering to look up.
“Isela is gone! She’s gone into Phayara. We have to find her, they’ll kill her if they catch her-”
“Tell me, Theo,” Howl said, uncapping the flask, “How long is it you’ve known this Isela? One week, two?”
Demma leaned in the doorway, watching.
“Long enough,” Theo said, clouding.
“Lizards canna' be believed, friend. It’s why they carry that forked tongue, that we might see them for the low-belly snakes they be.”
Theo drew himself up stiffly. “I see. You’re afraid. You're afraid of what might happen to you in Phayara, that's plain. Well, goodnight and goodbye, Mr. Johnson.”
The captain leapt up with startling quickness and grabbed Theo's jacket.
“You make yourself too bold, sir. I am Howl Johnson and you’ll not be supposing you can speak at me so. We’re friends, aren’t we?”
“I need your help,” Theo said.
Howl still gripped his shirt. “I will give it. On one condition. You must keep your eyes open, Theo. Weather eyes. I know you love her. But you don't know her.”
“Have peace, gentlemen,” Demma said.
“I'll have none of your magic now, woman,” Howl said, but before he could finish his sentence, she'd radiated calm into the both of them. He and Theo settled back bonelessly into the sofa.
“She do pour it on,” Howl said, “sometimes, the lovesome thing.”
Theo struggled against the Evoken’s relaxant. “Demma! Please, I need to think.”
She only smiled, her robes gleaming in the dark.
“We're both drunk as dogs anyhow," Howl observed. "So your woman’s got to Phayara, yes? She's gone to see Phado."
Theo nodded. "She took some of my cargo with her. A fortune's worth of books. She stole them from me."
"Ah," Howl said. "Perceive you this, Snopes: one of my boys found a Phyrnosian lifter abandoned not far from here. We’ll link up with a Phodiine caravan, slip into Phayara. We’ll find your Isela, get back the books and haul in your bounty as well. Your mark, he calls himself Qabal, yes?”
Theo groaned. "There's been a price on him for years. He can wait. Now's not the time."
“You should take my Eve,” Demma said. “If you wear robes and ride in on a lifter with an Evok besides, you might pass.”
“I know where we can get robes,” Theo said. "I know a guy here."
“You kin a lizard, thar’s what ye mean,” Howl said. "What is it with ye and these monotreme devils anyway?"
“They’re modest,” Theo said. “Compared to most.”
“Well, bless your shiny heart,” the captain said.
“So I collect my bounty and I get Isela back. But what’s in it for you, Howl? Why should you risk your men to help me?”
Howl leaned forward. “I need Qabal for one thing, one thing only. He’s bait. I help you bring him in, you let me have the use of him for one week. One week only, then you have him back. Deal?”
“Fair enough. One week, then.”
As Howl yelled after them-- “We’ll make jelly widows in the morning!”-- Demma saw the bounty hunter outside.
“I must ask you a favor, Mr. Snopes,” she said. The night was cold. She rubbed her robed arms, trying to warm herself.
“Of course, anything.”
“Be careful with my Vokie. You must be careful when you have a beast that loves you. It will run its heart out for you.”
“Why should she love me?”
“She loves anything of mine. Howl is mine. You’ll watch after her, won’t you?”