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The Desert at Galaxy's Edge

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The Desert at Galaxy’s Edge

A Short Story by Emily Weber

The man was afraid of her. If he’d known she was a fifty year old woman, perhaps he wouldn’t be. She was enshrouded in her police suit; the heavy fabric, armor and helmet hid every clue that she might be a woman. She was tall and muscular from years of servitude to the Galactic Government, making the illusion complete.

“Papers, please.” Her androgynous voice echoed about the space station’s dome.

The man’s arms were shaking. His eyes darted from her reflective visor to the two-headed creature coiled about her right arm. He held the papers out the window of his space craft, almost dropping them.

“If you’re not a criminal, you have nothing to fear.” She said reassuringly.

The papers had almost become a formality. She checked them against his ID just in case, but the real test for this man was in answering the next few questions—questions she asked every being who passed through.

“Have you stolen recently?” She asked.

“No.” The man almost whispered.

She waited a few seconds for the Kliig, the creature wrapped about her arm to react. The first of its two heads stared at the man, its black eyes never leaving him. The other head swayed rhythmically up and down. Yes—he was telling the truth.

“Have you killed?” She continued.

“Yes, but not illegally. I was a soldier.” Again the Kliig’s second head bobbed up and down. Truth.

“Lastly, is there any criminal reason I might have for detaining you?” This was the all-encompassing question that she may as well have started with. But these questions were the ones she was trained to use—she was a good cop and she wasn’t going to go against them.

“No.” The man visibly shivered.

The Kliig took a moment to review whatever minor offenses the man might be thinking about, then bobbed its head up and down once more. Minor offenses were usually let go.

“You may go.” She handed the papers back to the man, careful not to tear a hole in them with her meshed fingers.

“Thank you officer…” the man squinted as he looked at the name printed on the badge hanging from her armor on the left side of her chest. “…officer Jarrett.”

Without waiting longer, the man shut the cockpit to his spacecraft, headed to the circular exit of the dome, and then off into uncharted space. Not many people headed into the uncharted regions given how dangerous it was and how long travel took without Galactic Government Speedways. Criminals were the main population on the outside, which was why having a Kliig to test for them was important.

There was no one else in line, so Jarrett headed back toward the office building, an efficient, white building with no trace of beauty or charm. She climbed the few steps that led into the entrance and waved at the projected images of officers milling about. The projections were for her protection—to deter unlawfuls from trying anything stupid. This watch zone was so under-visited that Jarrett was the only police officer the crumbling Galactic Government could keep employed here—they called this particular zone the “Desert” for a reason.

The projections waved back, and she went inside. She sat down at the lone table and took a moment to look through travel logs. No one else would be coming through today, and that was just fine with her.

She took off her helmet and plucked a beer out of the refrigerator close by. She drank it slowly, ruminating on her servitude. She’d been a police officer for twenty years. She simultaneously hated it and loved it.

She loved it because her position in the Desert was peaceful, leaving her much time to spend doing nothing but rake in money. She hated it because she’d initially been forced into her career by the Galactic Government as a way of ‘paying her debt to society’. She hated what they’d done to her.

Before bed, Jarrett closed down the office and did her daily exercises as prescribed by her manager. She showered herself off, put on a dumpy night shirt and pants, and looked into the mirror as she applied lotion to her rough skin. She looked nothing like how she’d looked twenty years ago; where once she’d been soft, she was now tight and coarse. And, being fifty she seemed to sag just ever so slightly. Her eyelids sagged, the skin on her muscles sagged, yes—even her hair seemed to droop off her head like a wilted flower.

The next morning would be fairly busy for a day in the Desert. Ten craft were coming through, which would translate to a thousand craft at the busiest posts. Jarrett took the Kliig out of its terrarium and let it wind its snake-like body about her arm, its dozens of tiny legs clamping onto the dense fabric of her uniform.

“Have you stolen recently?”, “Have you killed?”, “Is there any criminal reason I might have for detaining you?” were the three questions she asked to every passenger in each of the space craft.

Finally she came to the last ship; a short spherical one with two passengers. They seemed confident and easy going enough until their eyes caught the Kliig wrapped around her arm. The passenger looked like he might panic.

“They didn’t have a Kliig last time I was here.” the driver, a human in a handsome camel hair coat remarked.

“Oh? That must’ve been some time ago. I’ve been working here a solid twenty years and I’ve always had one.” She said blandly, then looked to the passenger, an immense four-armed Ghat who was now fidgeting with all his limbs. “Have you stolen recently?” she asked the alien.

“No.”

The Kliig’s first head stared into the Ghat’s eyes while the second head rose and fell. Truth.

“Have you killed?” Jarrett fingered the pistol at her side. She’d worked at the Desert long enough to know when things might be about to go wrong.

“No.” The Ghat said after a deep breath.

The Kliig’s thousands of legs tightened about her arm and the second head shook from side to side. Liar.

“Sir, please step out of the craft. You’re being detained until the proper authorities arrive.” The projections of officers gathered close by, some staring and some holding out their weapons. It was all fake of course, but with a show of force most criminals went easily.

Both men stepped out of the vehicle. The Ghat nearly stumbled; his enormous frame shook with fear. Though the Galactic Government was in chaos and ineffective in most cases, it was still up to snuff when it came to crime and punishment.

Jarrett locked the Ghat in a holding cage, then brought the driver in the camel hair coat to the office and began asking him the questions; “Have you stolen recently…?” she began.

“-Wait a second.” He said in his middle-toned voice. “No need to ask that. I’m not headed to the ungoverned zone.”

She raised an eyebrow under her helmet, then shrugged. “Okay. You’ll still have to wait here to be questioned for association with the Ghat.”

“Fine by me.” He said, a little relieved.

Jarrett was surprised when further questioning revealed the driver had no association with the Ghat. Apparently, the man in the camel hair coat was only driving him to the platform where he would take a taxi the rest of the way. That was it. He wasn’t wanted for crime on any known account.

They arrested the Ghat, who was sobbing, and the man, whom the authorities called Hevel Adelman was left alone with her in the little office.

“Alright, Mr. Adelman, You’re free to go.”

“Call me Bob.” He said.

“Alright… Bob. You’re free to go.” She repeated.

“Can I see your face, ma’am?”

Jarrett started. “How did you know I’m a woman?”

He seemed confused, like it was obvious.

“No, you should go.” Jarrett opened the door for him.

He ignored the door and opened the refrigerator tucked away in the corner of the office. “I’ve known a lot of criminals in my time. I think you’re one.”

She let the door shut and she crossed her arms indignantly. “You do know I’m an officer of the law? I’m no criminal.”

Bob grabbed a beer, looked about at the small office and out the window at the rest of the Desert. “Yes, but this is a small, desolate job. You were indentured at first, weren’t you? May I have this?”

“You’re astute.” She said blandly. In the past she wouldn’t have talked to a criminal this long, but she’d become haughty, irritable and somewhat uncaring in recent years. “I was indentured here for breaking the law decades ago. When my time was up I elected to stay. And yes, go ahead and drink that. They provide too much anyway.”

“And if you hadn’t stayed, would you consider going out with me?” He asked, taking a swig.

The suggestion blindsided her. “Maybe if I was younger and you weren’t a criminal.”

Bob smiled. “But I’m not a criminal. I have no record.”

“You’re a criminal. Why else would you want to avoid the three questions?”

Bob thought for a moment. “True enough. I’d be fine by the first two. But the third… not so much. Why didn’t you ask me them? Any normal officer would’ve asked.”

“My job description is to detain those illegally entering the ungoverned territories.” She said simply. “You weren’t headed to the ungoverned territories, so you’re not my problem.”

“Like I said,” he smiled at the corners of his mouth. “You’re a criminal. Not necessarily on paper, but up here.” He tapped her helmet with one finger.

He was right. After what the galactic government had done to her all those years ago, she’d been rebellious in her head. She’d dreamed and even fantasized about charging onto the Central Planet and holding the leaders hostage, asking for her daughter back.

She sighed.

He seemed to sense she was having a moment. He gave her a minute then continued, “Are you allowed to procreate?”

Her jaw opened at such a forward question. Luckily, he couldn’t see her loss of composure under the helmet. She was about to reach for the door again and shoo him out, but her inquisitive nature was awakened. “Sure. But not with law offenders. You said you’d be caught on the Kliig’s third question. I know that you’re a criminal of some sort, so I’d be guilty if I learned the details and didn’t report you. My own Kliig could give me away.”

“Devilish things, aren’t they?” He stared at the second head of the animal still attached to her arm. “Good thing they’re such a rarity. Still…” his eyes flitted back up to her helmet. “May I see your face?”

He was so polite about it she couldn’t resist. She carefully lifted it off, knowing he’d be unpleased enough when he saw her. Surely he must have thought she was younger.

He looked, and she could only guess what he was thinking to see a woman his own age.

“You can go now.” She said after a moment.

But he didn’t leave. “I propose a game.”

Another surprise. “A game? We don’t have many around here.”

“Not that sort of game.” He paused and continued to look at her. At first she thought he was trying to intimidate her, but then she realized he was just trying to gauge her response. She smiled a bit. “Go on.”

“I propose we play a game…” He said again, smiling at how ridiculous he knew he was about to sound, “We pretend we’ve been lovers for years. We pretend I’m not a criminal. We stay with each other as often as possible. We never talk about the details of work. All we do is make each other feel… well, happy.”

It did sound ridiculous. Perhaps what he really wanted was to blackmail her later on for breaking the law. Perhaps he was trying to form a relationship so he could trick her into smuggling people into the ungoverned lands. Then again, he might be sincere; he was surely a criminal, but he also seemed tired and isolated. Ten years ago she might’ve called him stupid and sent him away, but again her curiosity won out.

She looked to the Kliig on her arm. She could just ask about his motives.

“And no Kliig.” He added.

“Hah. And why not? You know I’m not stupid, right?”

“Of course you’re not. But, if you were to ask the Kliig everything about me, that would break the mystique of The Game. Making pretend wouldn’t be the same with a Kliig telling you it was false the whole time.”

She’d been good at ‘pretend’ once. She’d played it daily with her daughter.

“You can quit any time. You can tell me to leave any time.” He said, adding rules onto The Game.

“And a pause button.” She threw in, surprising herself. “We should be allowed to pause for anything serious that crops up.” It seemed the Desert had made her lonely enough to try such an idiot thing.

A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth again, happy that she was considering such a silly game. “Other than that, The Game is that we simply pretend to have been in love for years, and we never talk about the details of work.”

This was her chance, however small, to be rebellious—to stick it to the government that had turned her into the shell of a being that stood now before Bob. But moreover, she found the thought of companionship, however fake, to be enticing. “Let’s give it a try.” She shrugged.

She took the Kliig from about her right arm and returned it to its terrarium.

He came close to her. As tall and muscular as she was, he was taller still, so finding her face wasn’t difficult. It felt odd to be held by a stranger, but it was comforting to be with someone after so long.

It was true he might be attempting to use her, but she wouldn’t let him do that, and she’d play The Game by the rules, so long as he did.

She awoke next to him the following morning. She sat up and wrapped one of the two blankets about herself against the cold. There was no sun nearby, and so it was always dark and cold at the Desert. She could swear the heater did almost no good.

Bob woke up a moment later. She watched him carefully, waiting to see if he actually wanted to continue The Game past one night. Even though she was wrapped in one of the blankets, she was still cold and she shivered slightly.

Bob wrapped the other blanket about himself and sat up next to her, but made no move to leave.

“Pause.” He said quietly—it was too early to talk above a whisper. “Do you prefer darling, dear, dearest, honey or… whatever your first name is?”

She blinked away some sleep and rubbed at her eyes with one hand, the other keeping the blanket up against the cold. He was still playing The Game. She pursed her lips in a smile. “My first name is Jan—and don’t say it together with my last name. My parents thought they were being clever by making it alliterate.” She thought for a moment. “Dearest, I should think.”

“Un-pause.” He said and wriggled closer to her. He opened up his blanket, and reached to open hers. She was reluctant for a second, but she let him take the ends of the fabric and he pulled her towards him. He wrapped both blankets about them—it was much warmer and she allowed herself to snuggle close to him. “Good morning, Dearest.” He said, and kissed her forehead.

After a bit of coffee, Bob said he was going “to work” and went out the office door. He waved bye to her and the projections. Somehow or other he’d known they were projections all along, and she knew then and there that he must be an experienced criminal. And apparently he’d never been caught.

Jarrett went about her days’ work normally, only thinking about The Game between travelers. Twenty single-manned craft came through that day, and she asked the three questions twenty times; “Have you stolen recently?”, “Have you killed?”, “Is there any criminal reason I might have for detaining you?”

There was no one to arrest this day, and after the last craft left she mused about Bob. He’d said the first two questions he could pass, but on the last one he’d fail. That being said, according to him he hadn’t stolen recently, and he wasn’t a murderer. Obviously he made a life out of crime, but what that law-breaking act was, she couldn’t guess, and according to the rules of The Game she couldn’t ask.

She wondered if he’d even return again. Perhaps it was all just a show to get one night out of her, which she was fine with. She’d tried to date in the past, but her job and position in the Desert made it difficult to carry on for more than a few months.

But he did return. Again and again. Every night he came back, and every night they played The Game. Oddly enough, they didn’t always make love. Sometimes Bob would come “home” as he called it, get into bed and fall asleep against her, exhausted.

Other times, Bob would bring home a book. Not an electric book, but a tangible book with actual pages from some library in the Gor sector. They would read aloud to each other, laugh when each other’s tongues got tied in the words, talk about the books once they’d finished reading, and sometimes bring them up again later in casual conversation.

Sometimes he would arrive at the office early and they would make dinner together. There was no rule about bringing up things from the past so long as it didn’t reveal the details of their jobs, so often they would talk about their childhoods, school, previous aspirations and the like.

She grew to thoroughly enjoy his company, and she became curious about his mind and motives. What exactly did he do all day that made him so tired and emotionally starved that he’d want to play such a game with a stranger? He certainly wasn’t insane—she could see in his eyes that he was intelligent. Then again, perhaps he was biding his time, waiting to see if he could use her and the Desert once the time was fitting.

But six months passed, and Bob never made a move to use her. She got to know him very well—his mannerisms such as keeping his camel hair coat pressed, his clear, unwavering middle-toned voice, his nighttime whispers, the way he sometimes fumbled when he was carrying too much, how he’d wait until she got out of bed to leave himself, all became very endearing to her. It didn’t bother or worry her that she’d grown to love him—it was all contained in The Game, and she could quit at any time.

Finally, one night, Bob didn’t return. She thumbed their most recent book slowly as she waited for him, curious about the next page and trying not to be worried about the man. When she woke up the next morning without him, the book unread by her side, she felt a lump in her throat and had to bite back tears. Was The Game over? Had something happened to him? She didn’t even know how to contact him; his life outside The Game was too well-kept a secret.

She got out of bed and got ready for the day. As she brushed her teeth, she saw his razor blade and washcloth neatly folded on the counter. He always shaved, and never left a mess. She sighed, the lump rising again in her throat. She turned her attention to brushing her hair and caught her reflection. Still saggy. She opened the mirror and took out the lotion for her rough skin.

After her day of work, when the travelers had come and gone, she waited with the projections on the small porch of the office building, staring out to the stars, hoping to catch a glimpse of his circular craft. But there was none. The Kliig grew restless on her arm, and she retired to bed.

A week passed and she realized just how desolate her life was alone in the Desert, day after day, and she was reminded why she’d opted to play such an odd game with an absolute stranger in the first place. Occasionally she would think of something and for a split second she would be excited to share it with Bob, only to remember he was gone.

Because of the rules, she didn’t have the slightest inkling of what he was like outside The Game, and she wondered if she would be infuriated if she knew the reason he was gone. Was he playing other games with other women? Was his crime that wasn’t stealing or killing far worse than either?

Another half-week passed, and she seriously considered resigning her post. Losing Bob was like losing family, which she’d preferred not to be reminded of again.

Jarrett was sleeping soundly. It had been a difficult day; a busload of people had come through the Desert and she’d had to arrest them all—they were robbers, on the run after having taken money from several Galactic Government welcoming centers. They’d been belligerent, and she’d only just managed to keep them under control with the help of the projections.

Slowly she was roused from sleep by the soft sound of the bed being compressed, and the feeling of a warm arm being draped over her. She rolled over, trying to blink sleep from her eyes. “Oh my God.” She muttered and seized Bob’s face in her hands, kissing him over and over again.

“I didn’t mean to wake you.” He said between the touching of their lips. “I’m sorry, I was—“ his voice broke off. “I’m sorry.” It was all he could say without breaking the rules of The Game.

She awoke next to him the following morning. Naturally she wondered where he’d been, and she tried to think of a way to ask him without breaking the rules. It seemed even now that if she broke them, The Game would be lost and their relationship, however fake or real would be over.

She waited patiently for him to wake up. Usually he’d awake at the same time she did, but this time was different. He was drained from whatever he’d been through. As she stared at him, she realized how foolish she’d been; worrying how much her skin sagged. He was her age, and she saw the same flaws in his appearance that she saw in herself. She reached over and gently traced the bags under his eyes, the skin at his jaw and chest, and the gray hair at his temples.

Finally his eyes fluttered open. “Good morning, Dearest.” Jarrett said in her morning whisper.

He didn’t say anything, but took her arms and wrapped her about him. Clearly he’d missed her, but something had happened to him. She considered asking him again and again as she lay up against him, but The Game was too precious a thing to break, so she decided to leave whatever it was alone. Still, something else nagged at her.

“Pause.” She said after a minute. “Bob… are you going to disappear for good one day?”

He was thoughtful for a moment. “Yes. I suppose I’ll be caught one day. All criminals get caught—isn’t that what they say?”

She didn’t know how to respond. The thought of The Game ending was almost horrific. She’d spent a week and a half without it, and it had been like living a half-life. “I don’t even have a way to contact you.” She said finally.

“Well… I suppose you’ll know I’ve been caught when I don’t return. And, you can always look me up—you’re a police officer. Just look for my name in the computer. Do you remember my real name?”

She searched her memories. The day they’d met had been nearly six months ago and she hadn’t heard it since. She squeezed him tighter. “Hevel. Hevel something.”

“Hevel Adelman.”

She deliberated asking him if he’d played The Game with other women, as she’d thought he might be before. But now, seeing him in his state of exhaustion she knew he hadn’t. Bob’s life seemed to only consist of only two things; his life-draining work and his time with her. “Un-pause.” She said, still whispering.

Bob rested his chin on her head and stroked her hair. “Tell me something about yourself. Something you’ve never told anyone.” He changed the subject.

Her mind immediately flitted to her daughter. Perhaps confiding in him was the best way to show how much she cared about The Game. “I have a daughter. Or at least… I think I still do. I can’t be sure.”

Bob readjusted himself so that he was looking into her eyes. She waited for him to say something, but he was waiting for to continue. She breathed in heavily. She’d never told anyone something so personal, especially while being so physically close to them.

“Pause.” She said suddenly. “I know we’re not supposed to talk about the details of work. But, can we talk about the reason we have the job we have?”

Bob considered. “I think we can allow that.”

“Un-pause.” She took another breath. He hadn’t backed away at all—his face was three inches from her own. She didn’t know if it was comfortable or uncomfortable. “I couldn’t afford most things on the Galactic Government Parental Essentials List, so they took her. They indentured me into servitude so I could afford the items; insurance, shots, approved schooling, regulated check-ups—God, I still remember the list. I told them I could raise her just fine without the list, but it was illegal.”

She was shaking a little. Not with anger, but with emotional fatigue. She’d never told a soul about her daughter; having kept it pent up inside for so long, it felt like she was telling a jury of a thousand people at once. “I was a bad mother. They made me a police officer so I could afford to be a good mother.”

She felt ashamed and tried to look away from Bob, but he reached out and quietly turned her face back to his.

“Once I could afford the list, I asked for her back. But you know how the GalGov is these days. Crumbling, worthless, disorganized. They…” her voice dropped even further, barely audible. “They couldn’t find her.”

It was so difficult to look at him while saying it—it might ruin his opinion of her. But she continued anyway. “Maybe they put her name in the system wrong, maybe some employee didn’t even enter her name. She’s gone. Hopefully she’s somewhere with someone who loves her. I tried for so long, but the galaxy is too big to track her down. She was only four. She probably doesn’t remember the name I gave her… Pause—just as I couldn’t remember yours. Un-pause.”

He didn’t say anything, but kept her gaze. She didn’t know if she needed to say it but she did anyway; “Pause—“ she said again, “—and then you disappeared for over a week. I know you said I could just look you up if you disappeared, but what if they got your name wrong? What if they changed it? I know that these are things out of our control… but I just wanted you to know… Un-pause.”

He was silent for a moment, then; “Pause— I would offer you to stop playing The Game… but I don’t think either of us want to do that. Un-pause.”

She didn’t feel the need to pause again. Instead, she drew the second blanket up tighter about them against the cold of space and brought herself as close to him as possible.

“You don’t blame yourself do you? About your girl?” Bob queried, as he wrapped his arms about her again.

“No… I don’t think I do. I did for decades, but having described it for the first time just now… No. I think I was a good mother. She told me she loved me every night, whether I said it first or not.” Now that she’d told him so much, she wanted to know more about his origins. “Dearest, what started you on your career?”

“Same as you. I needed money.”

They were the same: both slaves to the crumbling Galactic Government; Jarrett because she was part of it, and Bob because he couldn’t be part of it. Jarrett was sure this is what they were both thinking, and the reason why their life together had only existed as a game in the Desert at the edge of charted space. “I love you.” She said faintly.

“I love you.” He returned without hesitation.

They were essentially living two lives; the life outside The Game, and the life inside The Game. Life in the Game was far preferred for both of them, and they wondered, during pauses if they could continue to be together outside the confines of the rules they’d set forth—perhaps take his craft and escape into the ungoverned zones.

But life outside The Game was always pulling. Bob had responsibilities to whoever else his criminal activities involved him with, and true to his nature, he was loyal to them. As for herself, there was always the chance her daughter was still out there, her name left in the wrong file on the wrong computer, waiting to show up again.

“Pause—“ She said a few months later while they were reading one of Bob’s books to each other. “Do you think it would be possible for me to join you in your exploits if I left my job? I have no particular fondness for it.”

They were both desperately trying to find a way to merge the puzzle pieces of their lives in a way that worked. Bob considered it, folding his arms over his camel hair coat. “What I do is dangerous for two reasons: the people I deal with and the prospect of jail. I hear survival rates for the incarcerated has plummeted.”

As a police officer, she knew this was true; “The GalGov doesn’t have the funds to keep them alive. They prefer them to perish. Survival rate is only 30% for those imprisoned over a year.”

He laughed a little, shutting the book. “Why tell me this? Now I definitely don’t want you to leave the Desert.”

She was still in her armor from earlier that day, and she fed the Kliig, which was still on her arm. She fed both heads, though she was sure it all went to the same stomach. The first head watched Bob and the second head bobbed up and down at his words. Truth.

“I told you because I’m willing to take the risk.” She said adamantly, “Oh… Sorry about the Kliig. It’s not supposed to be around when we’re talking, but I was late feeding it today.” Now it was staring at her. Truth.

“I don’t even want to imagine you in jail.” Truth. “I also know that most jails make no difference of gender to save funds. The thought of—I don’t even want to say it. Let it just be said that my hands are the only pair that belong on you.” Truth.

Jarrett gave him a smile, and sat next to him. He continued; “I know you’re willing to take a risk, but I don’t think you’re ready to be part of my other life.”

“I’m ready.” She said. Bob looked over her right shoulder. He shook his head slowly, a smile of his own tugging at the corner of his lips, “you almost had me there.”

The Kliig’s second head was moving from left to right. Liar.

The Game continued for a year, and Jarrett hadn’t paused since the night the Kliig told her she was lying. Every single evening Bob would come home after the Desert was closed to travelers, or slightly before. They read dozens of books, watched movies, and chatted for hours about whatever came to mind. Sometimes Bob would feel extra romantic and bring her flowers.

The back room of the office where they slept had become adorned with personal items; artwork Bob had found in his travels, a bigger quilt an older woman had sold Jarrett on her way to the ungoverned territories, a Christian cross and a Jewish Star of David, and a small nightstand that always held the most current book they were reading to each other.

Every night their love for each other increased, and every night before bed, Jarrett would go to the terrarium, look into the eyes of the first head of the Kliig and say, “I’m ready.” But the second head always shook. Liar.

On the night of their first anniversary, Jarrett nuzzled up to him under the covers. According to The Game, the two had been together for years, so they simply called it their anniversary, omitting the word ‘first’ per the rules.

“Happy anniversary, Dearest.” She said and began kissing him.

“Wait, wait, wait.” He said, having to hold her face away from his. “We’ve been together a long time, yes?”

“Yes. What is it?”

“Maybe we should take this to the next level?” He took her left hand from under the sheets and kissed it, then held his thumb and index finger in the air, as if he was holding something imaginary between them. He slipped the imaginary object on to her ring finger.

“That is, if you want to.” His middle-toned voice faltered at her silence.

She’d never loved anyone this much before, and she was concerned it might never take place outside The Game. “Pause—“ she said. “Once I’m ready to join you outside the Desert, will you marry me for real?”

“So far as I’m concerned The Game already is real. It’s just… something that can’t be seen on any records in the GalGov.” Bob said, his voice fading to his usual bedtime whisper. “But yes, once we come to that point I will marry you in a heartbeat.”

She didn’t need the Kliig to know he was telling the truth. If he’d been lying, he would have said, ‘if we come to that point’, not ‘once we come to that point.’ She knew from experience with the father of her daughter that bad men try to disguise lies in ‘ifs’.

“Then… in one year, I will marry you. I swear I’ll be ready. Un-pause.” She said resolutely. “Yes, I’ll marry you.” She repeated again after the pause. She felt she had to say it in The Game, too.

“I believe you.” Bob said, a little sadly. He didn’t want her to enter his other life, treading the laws of the Galactic Government. But, if it was what she wanted, he wasn’t going to stop her. When he’d proposed The Game, he hadn’t even expected it to last so long—indeed, finding his soul mate in a police officer at the age of fifty-two was incredible.

Jarrett had rolled over, and was face-up, going over everything in her head. Bob moved onto his side, just to look at her. Without thinking, he reached out and traced the lines in her face, her muscled arms, the sags in her skin and her frayed hair. He enjoyed these little details.

One morning, a few weeks later, the police arrived at the Desert. Bob had finally been caught.

“And he’s been coming to the Desert for well over a year.” A chief officer said, dragging him by his camel hair coat. He forced Bob’s arms behind him and lassoed his wrists in a pair of metallic cuffs. Jarrett was in her armor. She’d just been about to say goodbye to Bob for the day when they came for him. “You had no idea he was a criminal?” the officer asked.

They’d taken the Kliig from her and the questioning was going easily enough, though her heart was breaking underneath her armor.

“I had an inkling he might be, but I never asked him what he did for a living.” The Kliig, now attached to the arm of a formidable man, nodded its second head. Truth.

“You had no idea that he was escorting criminals, laundering their money, and helping them evade our forces?” The man wanted to be sure.

Jarrett glanced at Bob. He stared back. Even when they’d first met he’d told the truth; he hadn’t stolen, and he hadn’t killed. “I had no idea.” Truth.

The officers shrugged. The one with the Kliig stated, “You got duped by a criminal, miss.”

But she hadn’t been duped at all. She’d agreed to The Game, and within those parameters, Bob had always told her the truth. They’d shared over a year’s worth of a true and loving relationship, and now those same parameters of The Game were protecting her from incarceration.

As strange as the whole thing was, her short life with Bob, a criminal, had been more true than that of the law-abiding father of her daughter.

It was only by pure force of will that she kept her eyes from tearing up or her voice from cracking. “Eh. These things happen. Can I say good-bye to him anyway? We had some good times.”

The chief shrugged again. “No skin off my nose. We’ll be following up with you in a few months.” Jarrett doubted that. She was sure that the officers would make a footnote of her in their report, that footnote would get lost, and they’d never return. For Bob, however, punishment would be swift.

The Kliig was handed back to her, and it wrapped itself dutifully about her arm. She walked up to Bob, who was unable to stand up straight—the enormous hand of an alien officer was on his back, keeping him slightly bent.

She didn’t want the officers to catch wind of their intense love affair, lest they suspect something more than what was, so she chose her words carefully. She leaned in, her jaw aching from keeping the emotions at bay. “Was The Game real?”

His voice broke a bit, and he was so quiet she almost couldn’t hear him. “Yes.”

The Kliig’s second head nodded dutifully. The officer didn’t understand the question and yawned in boredom.

Jarrett couldn’t say more for fear of crying, so she held up her left hand so that the back was facing him. The index of her right hand traced where the invisible band was on her left ring finger. A small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.

After that, they took him away.

It was difficult, but Jarrett continued her duties at the office for the rest of the day, letting several craft pass through. Finally, after the Desert closed, she wrapped herself in their quilt in the back room and let loose the tears.

Her mind was swimming with thoughts. Memories flitted in and out of her head as she considered Bob’s fate; hoping against hope she could keep track of him in the Galactic Government’s crumbling information system. She found herself chanting his real name as she wept, praying that he wouldn’t disappear; “Hevel Adelman, Hevel Adelman, Hevel Adelman.”

Finally, after a few hours, Jarrett ran out of tears and reached for the library book on the nightstand. She opened it to where they’d left off and a note fell out. It had been hurriedly scribbled—most likely Bob had written it when he saw the police approaching.

It read, Dearest Desert Defender, would you please return this book for me when you’re Ready?

He had purposefully capitalized that R, she knew. She leapt out of bed and knelt before the terrarium, staring into the eyes of the first head of the Kliig. “I’m Ready.”

The second head stayed still for a moment, then nodded up and down.

She knew then the reason she wasn’t ready before; it was true she loved him enough to take a risk, but she was only truly ready when she feared for him enough. Now The Game was over—no, not over, but merged with her other life so that the two could no longer be kept separate. A third life had begun.

The next morning, Jarrett called in sick with the Thumeran Toxin, which would buy her a few weeks off the job. She took her police uniform, armor, and her Kliig, thinking they might come in handy. Her destination was the Gor Quasar Library. No doubt some of Bob’s acquaintances frequented there, and hopefully they’d be willing to help get him back.

Her craft sped into space, headed for the Gor System, leaving the Desert, closed down and dark behind her.


The Desert at Galaxy's Edge

  • ISBN: 9781370258857
  • Author: Emily Weber
  • Published: 2017-07-24 22:05:08
  • Words: 6864
The Desert at Galaxy's Edge The Desert at Galaxy's Edge