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A Night in the Caves of Nerould

This story has never been published and was written as a character study. As I was considering the character of Princess Miranda (appearing in Desert Heat), I wanted to learn more about her spoiled attitude. This story is the result of that study. Only some of Miranda appearing here survived into later books.

A Night in the Caves of Nerould

Copyright © 2006


Melodee Aaron

Bal’Keudirdoo was having a bad day, and it was getting worse. Rapidly.

As he sat outside of his cave at the edge of the desert, he watched the streak of the falling spacecraft. It was coming right for him and the mouth of his cave, clearly tumbling out of control. When he saw the ship, he thought about running, but he’d never reach his food and water inside the cave soon enough and, without those, he’d be as good as dead in the open desert.

Since his day was going so badly, he decided being rammed by a crashing spacecraft just might be a fitting way to top things off. As he watched the silver ship fall towards him at better than ten thousand kilometers per hour, he reflected on his luck so far today.

To start his day, Bal’Keudirdoo had overslept. He needed to cross the desert and reach the safety of the caves on the other side before the iss’rili, great ape-like beasts nearly two meters tall with four arms and pink fur, came out with the darkness. Both the yellow and red suns had been high in the green sky before he woke, and he hadn’t been sure he could have made the trip before the suns set or not. It would be a close thing.

Then, his c’asom, a sort of Nerouldian prospector’s mule, had gone missing. He didn’t have to look long for Naln, though. He found her, dead, in a box canyon nearby, the apparent victim of the a’nydari, huge bird-like creatures that soared the skies of Nerould.

Then, to top it all off, the y’rillers, small rodent-like animals, had stolen his new shovel and carried it off to wherever it was they took all the shiny objects they could find.

His plan had been to remain here today and start walking tomorrow back to Waleer to get a new c’asom and a new shovel. In the meantime, he’d just come out to sit in the shade and watch the desert.

And now this. In a very human thought, probably picked up from his years at the human’s Empire school when he was a child, Bal’Keudirdoo though this day just kept getting better and better.

The ship hit the desert floor perhaps fifteen kilometers from where he sat. Hard. Bal’Keudirdoo tried to count the impacts, but the ship bounced and rolled and tumbled in every possible direction and angle so he gave up trying after about fifty. Finally, the ship came to a skidding stop about two kilometers from his cave. Unlike the crashes he’d seen on the tri-v shows in Waleer, the ship didn’t burst into flames or explode. It just sort of sat there in a cloud of dust and smoked a little.

After he’d fetched his medkit and some water, he stood staring at the ship for a time wondering if anyone could have survived the crash. Since he didn’t have anything else to do, he started walking.

When Bal’Keudirdoo reached the crash site, he looked through the broken canopy into the cockpit. The chairs for the pilots had come loose in the crash and were jammed into the nose of the ship, having smashed through the control panel. The pilots were still in the chairs and he thought they were human since they wore the uniform of the human space fleet, but he really couldn’t tell. The pilots were pretty well just so much jelly inside the uniforms.

He crawled through the broken windscreen and had to pry the door to the rest of small ship open like a can of food. He saw no other passengers, but there was an odd chair in the passenger compartment. While everything else in the small room had been thrown helter-skelter about the cabin by the repeated impacts with the desert, and many things once bolted down were now ripped loose and lying all over the place, the chair was still in one piece and still attached to the floor. In fact, it was the only thing in the room in good shape, and while there was no power anyplace, even in the cockpit, this chair had indicator lights lit.

There was a door at the rear of the cabin that Bal’Keudirdoo thought probably led to some sort of machinery area, and he was heading there to check the rest of the ship when he heard a vaguely familiar sound; a soft click followed by a faint humming. Bal’Keudirdoo turned slowly and saw a small human woman hiding behind the strange chair. She had a phase pistol pointed at his head.

The woman was nervous and the pistol shook in her hands. Bal’Keudirdoo never considered trying to duck or rush her because she was so frightened, she’d shoot him in an instant, perhaps by accident. The woman waved the gun at him. “Put down your weapons or I’ll kill you.”

He sat down the length of metal he’d been using as a can opener. “I have no other weapons.” Bal’Keudirdoo kept his hands where she could see them, even though she hadn’t asked him.

She stood and Bal’Keudirdoo could see, by human standards, she was very pretty. Actually, he reflected, humans and Nerouldians weren’t very different. Nerouldians tended to be a bit taller than humans and a bit on the slender side. Nerouldian skin tones ranged from pinkish-white to dark bronze, as was Bal’Keudirdoo’s, and they had the same number of most external body features as did humans. She wagged the pistol again. “Keep your hands where I can see them.”

“I’m already doing that.”

“And don’t annoy me with your backward humor! I know how to use this thing!” She shook the pistol at him like a musical shaker-box filled with stones.

“I believe you know how to use it well enough to kill me. Are there any other people on board who might need help?”

“Just the two pilots and I.”

“The pilots are dead and you seem to not need any help, so I’ll be going back to my cave now.” Bal’Keudirdoo noticed the woman had not a scratch on her. He made a slight movement toward the cockpit door.

“Just stay right there! You have to help me, you desert rat!” She waved the pistol around again.

“No, I don’t. I’ve never responded well to threats and, if you’re going to shoot me, please do it now before I have to go back out in the suns again.”

“But I’ll die out here without your help! You can’t let me die!”

“Yes, I can. You see, it’s hard for me to feel anything when I’m being held at gunpoint.”

Her black eyes narrowed. “But how can I trust you?”

“Have I tried to hurt you? I came to help you and any other survivors and this is the way you thank me.”

She hesitated for a long time. Finally, she lowered the pistol. “All right, I’ll try trusting you for a while, but remember I still have this gun.”

“As long as you don’t point it at me, we have a deal.” He glanced around the cabin at the carnage. “We need to get to the caves where it’s cooler. It’s not far, only a couple of kilometers. Can you walk or are you injured?”

She dropped the pistol in her pocket. “I can walk. Let me gather a few things to take with me.”

It seemed ‘a few things’ meant about half of the items tossed around the passenger compartment of the ship. The woman and Bal’Keudirdoo both had their arms full and he pulled a pile of other items on a blanket behind him across the sand. “Hey, you, what’s all of this stuff?”

“Why are you third-world inhabitants always so rude?”


“You called me ‘hey you’ and that’s very rude.”

“What am I supposed to call you? You haven’t told me your name.”

“My name isn’t important. You may call me ‘Lady’ when you speak to me.”

Bal’Keudirdoo was right. This day just kept getting better. “Alright, Lady, what is all this junk?”

She glared at him. “This is not junk! These are my personal items like my clothes and my toiletries, if you must know.”

“Toiletries? Lady, you’re in the middle of the largest litter box in the galaxy.” He stopped walking. “Let’s go through this and take only what you must have to survive.”

When he began to rummage through the items piled on the blanket, she yanked his arm. “Those are my personal things and you’ll do well to keep your filthy hands off of them!”

“Alright, you drag them.” He turned and walked toward the cave.

“You come back here this instant! I still have the gun!”

Bal’Keudirdoo stopped and turned. “No, you don’t.” He held the gun he’d taken from her pocket when she’d grabbed him. “Now, if you’re coming to the safety of the caves, I’d suggest you come now.” He dropped the pistol back in his pocket and resumed his walk toward the cave.

She’d said nothing and he didn’t hear her following him. After he’d gone perhaps twenty meters, he glanced back and saw her sitting in the sand next to the blanket. She held her hands to her face and was crying. Bal’Keudirdoo sighed and went back to stand next to her. “Are you coming?”

She managed to speak between the sobs, though her hands on her face muffled her voice. “No! There’s no point! I’m going to die out here and this spot is as good as any other!”

He knelt beside her. “No, Lady, you’re not going to die. I won’t let you die, but you need to listen to me. The desert is a harsh place and you’re going to need to deal with some discomfort and some inconvenience to get through this.” He ran his hand through his red hair. “I do want to help you and I won’t hurt you, but I can’t carry you all the way to the caves. You need to get up and walk.”

She sat crying for a long time before she finally spoke. “What’s your name?”

“Bal’Keudirdoo, Lady.”

She gave a sad little laugh. “OK, but what should I call you?”

“My friends call me Doo.”

She still had a few tears in her eyes when she looked up. “All right, Doo. I’m Miranda.”

He stood, offering her his hand. “Fine, Miranda. Let’s get moving before the a’nydari take an interest in us.” He helped her to her feet and they set off for the caves, leaving the pile of belongings on the blanket behind them.

After Doo made Miranda as comfortable as possible at the cave, he told her what his plan was for the next few days. “We’ll stay here tonight, tomorrow, and tomorrow night. There may be rescue ships out looking for you and we want them to find you if possible.” He’d gone out and set up a signal in the sand so ships could see them. “If no one comes, we’ll head for Waleer the following day. It’ll take us perhaps five days to get there, but we have plenty of food and water. It will be a long and tiring trip, Miranda.”

“You’re the expert on the desert.” She paused a moment. “I want to apologize for my behavior to you. It’s no excuse for my being rude and hateful, but I hope you understand I was scared.”

“That’s all right. The desert is a bad place if you don’t know what to do. What were you doing when your ship crashed?”

She hesitated. “I was on my way to Waleer on business.”

“Business? You don’t look old enough to be in business and you don’t act like a businesswoman.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment. I work in my father’s business.”

“I see. Would you mind if I ask how old you are?”

“I’m nineteen now and I’ll be twenty in about five months.”

“And your father sent you here to negotiate a salyilyte deal? At only nineteen years old?”

“My father places a lot of trust in me.”

“He must. I was also wondering why it is you even survived the crash. You saw the ship and the pilots.”

“My chair was a crash chair and it enclosed me in a collision field on impact. It’s also part of the main structural frame of the ship.”

Doo hadn’t seen the inside of many human ships, but he’d never seen a single one with a chair like that. “You were still very lucky.”

“Yes, I suppose I was. Not only did the collision field work as it should, but you were there to see the crash and come help me.” She paused again. “Thank you again.”

“None needed. We prospectors know how hard life is in the desert. Someone who doesn’t know how won’t survive a day out here.” He stood and stretched his arms. “I’m going to go outside and see if any ships are looking for you.”

“I’ll come along.”

They walked to the cave entrance together and stood in the shade as Doo used his binoculars to examine the crashed ship. There was no sign another ship had been there. There were also no ships in sight. “I’m surprised no one has come looking for you yet. We’re only about four hundred kilometers from Waleer and your ship is well behind its arrival time by now.”

Again Miranda paused before she spoke. “My flight wasn’t registered.”

“Not registered? Why?”

“It was a bit of a last minute trip and we just didn’t take the time. But my father knows I’m here and I’m supposed to contact he and my mother tonight at about 1800. When I don’t make the call, he’ll know something’s wrong.”

“He’ll send help to look for you?”

“Yes, and ships will be looking tonight, so we should set up a signal of some sort, maybe a fire.”

He laughed. “First, what would you burn? Second, when you go outside to tend the fire, the iss’rili will kill you. I doubt they’ll look for you at night. No one does that on Nerould because anyone not undercover and protected by darkness will be dead anyway. They’ll look for you at daybreak.”

“You’re probably right.” Miranda paused and asked, “It gets very cold here at night, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, it does. Do you have warm clothing?”

She smiled wanly. “I’m afraid that what you see is what you get.”

She was wearing a flowing blouse of some material that floated a bit when she moved and was just a bit translucent and her pants were of a similar material but a little more opaque. While the material was very nice and the color matched her eyes in a pitch black, it didn’t look warm. “I have some clothing you should wear to stay warm.”

Her laugh sounded like birds twittering. “You and I are not the same in any given dimension, but I suppose being a fashion train wreck is better than freezing to death.”

Doo made one final check, after they had their meal, to make sure the signal in the sand was still intact and returned to the cave. He called Miranda to the cave mouth as he set up the force field. “Miranda, this force field will protect us from the iss’rili when the suns set. It’s very important it stays turned on and for you to stay away from it. It won’t hurt you, from this side, but if you bump the controller, you might turn it off by accident.”

She frowned. “You mean we can’t go outside after dark?”

“No, the iss’rili are out then.”

“I’ve read a little about them. They’re so much larger than the other desert creatures, I wonder what they eat and how they get enough to survive.”

“Yes, they’re big, at least the males are. Like most desert animals, their bodies are very efficient and waste very little of what they eat. Mostly, they feed on y’rillers and a’nydari while they sleep, along with a lot of other smaller creatures. They’ll feed on you and me if they can get to us.” He paused for a moment. “They’ll be raiding your crashed ship tonight.”

She had a horrified look. “The pilots?”

“Yes. There’s nothing we can do for them and, believe me, it’s better for the iss’rili to be there than here.” He activated the force field. “Let’s get ready for the night. It’s going to be cold soon.”

As Doo set up the wind deflectors to block the desert winds, he thought it might get very cold tonight. The wind was already biting and he could hear it howling at the cave mouth. He had some fuel for the small heater, but only enough for about three nights. Since it was going to take them at least five nights to get to Waleer, the question was if he should use some fuel tonight or wait to see if it was even colder on some other night. He decided to wait a while and see just how cold it got tonight and to see how Miranda was able to handle the cold.

Miranda had taken the clothing he’d given her and found some rocks to stand behind while she changed. When she came back to the lighted area, she had the clothing full of folds, tucks, and knots in several places just to keep them from falling off. “You should stay near the light, Miranda. There may be y’rillers in the cave with us and, if you startle them, they may bite.”

She had sat down on a small rock and worked on rolling her pant legs up a little better so she wouldn’t trip on them. “I had to change, and I certainly couldn’t do that here.”

Having grown up in Waleer around humans, Doo had some idea of the misplaced sense of modesty humans seemed to share. “Sometimes, in the desert, you need to do things differently to survive.”

“Maybe, but that’s no reason to abandon all decorum, in spite of what my mother might say.” She paused. “I’m not going to change in front of a man, human or otherwise.”

Doo thought a change of subject was in order. “Where are you from, Miranda?”

“Technically, I’m from Earth, but I haven’t been there for more than ten years now. I live on my father’s ship with the rest of my family, so I guess that’s home. We’ve all been in space so long we really don’t care much for planets anymore.”

“So you really have no home world, then?”

“No, I didn’t say that. We all consider our ship to be our home world, and we don’t need a planet to live on. My mother told me of an old saying about home being where the heart is, and I think that’s what we’ve found.”

Doo laughed. “But ships are so small! How can you compare a ship to a planet?”

“Not our ship. It’s very large, but it’s not as big as a planet. It’s more than big enough to be home, though.” She’d finished with her pant legs and was almost done getting the sleeves arranged the way she wanted them. “What of you? You’re a salyilyte prospector, aren’t you?”

“Yes, and I have been for almost twenty years now, as was my father and his father and his father before him. Both of my brothers are also prospectors.” Doo smiled. “All of the men in my family are prospectors.”

“Tell me, what exactly is it a prospector does out here? I mean, you need money to live, like to the replace the pack animal you lost earlier today, and how do you find enough salyilyte to make a living?”

“A c’asom is what the animal is called. I guess that does puzzle many off-world visitors to Nerould, but we’re not out here to find the ore to sell for its own value. We find the ore and sell the location to the mining companies from earth. They actually dig out the ore and sell it, not the prospectors.”

“I see. A c’asom.” She pronounced the word carefully, but perfectly. “Is prospecting a profitable occupation? I’d think there would be only a limited market for your services.”

“It’s a living. I have enough money to meet my simple needs and to stay in the city when the rains come every five years. When that happens, this whole desert is a shallow lake and it’s the rains that make my service needed. When the rains come, new salyilyte deposits come to the surface and old ones may fall back deep into the planet, so the mining companies are always looking for new deposits to work.” He paused and felt the chill in the air. So far, Miranda didn’t seem to be getting cold. “There aren’t too many prospectors anymore, perhaps a thousand or so on the entire planet. Not many want to spend their life out here in the desert these days.”

Miranda frowned. “Yes, it’s a bad place. Hot in the day and cold at night, and the dangerous animals being around doesn’t help either.” An iss’ril roared in the distance, probably attacking a clutch of y’rillers. The sound was like a million homicide victims screaming at once. Miranda shivered, but he wondered if it was from the cold or not. “I can understand people not wanting to be out here, especially alone.” She paused for a moment. “You said you have brothers who are prospectors, too?”

“Yes, I have two brothers, Bal’Pyndaloi and Bal’Caphumoo. They both work the deserts far to the south of here.”

“Do you have any sisters? And, do prospectors always work alone?”

“I have one sister, Bal’Broewysou. She’s married to a man named Waz’Streyllerau who works for one of the mining companies as a machine operator.” He paused, a bit wistfully. “Yes, we almost always work alone. The desert is too dangerous and often a man alone can survive easier than two together.” Doo saw her shiver slightly. “Are you cold?”

“No, I’m fine for now, thank you. Are you married?”

“I don’t know of any prospector who is married. This is not a life for a married man. I normally get to Waleer maybe once a year, sometimes less, and I only spend a few days unless the rains come, and even then, I’m only in town for a few months until the waters go down.” Doo sighed. “I hope my children will have a better life than as a prospector.”

“You have children, then?”

He hesitated again. “Yes, I have a son seven and a daughter ten. I hope that doesn’t shock you.”

Miranda shrugged. “Most humans are obsessed with the idea of being married before you have children, but my family isn’t worried about that, so you haven’t shocked me.”

“What about you, Miranda, are you married or do you have children?”

“No to both questions. I guess I haven’t found the right man to marry or have children with yet, but I’m not really looking, either. I’m young and I have plenty of time for that sort of thing.”

“Yes, you have a lot of time. Tell me about this family of yours living on a spaceship.”

“I have a very big family.” She paused for several moments. “I have sixteen brothers and twenty-one sisters. Several of my brothers and sisters are married and have children of their own, too, so I have a number of nieces and nephews as well.”

Doo chuckled softly. “You’re mother was very busy with thirty-eight children.”

“Oh! I didn’t mean to imply that.” She frowned for a moment. “Now it’s my turn to hope I don’t shock you. My father has four wives and all of the children are spread around to different mothers, but we all have the same father.”

“That’s very unusual. I’ve never heard of a human doing that before.”

“Yeah, I guess it’s unusual, but that’s what we have.” Another iss’ril cried out, closer this time, and Miranda huddled in on herself. “I know this is your home, but it’s a horrible place to me.”

“It can be, and I won’t argue with you.” He searched for words. “I’ve always known Nerould with humans here, but I recall my grandfather talking of the days before you came. In some ways, things here are better, but in many ways, things are far worse than they were.”

“I wouldn’t know about that as it was all very long before my birth. I’ve heard my father talk a few times, though, how Nerould was found and there was no real government and no law and order and how the pirates bought, or stole, the salyilyte from your people. When the Empire came, things changed and there were schools and trade and the money from the ore was kept here instead of in some pirate’s larder.”

“That’s not exactly the case because only a very tiny fraction of the money from the salyilyte stays here on Nerould, and most of the money is kept by the human monopolies running the mining companies. You see, we Nerouldians are prohibited from owning a mine and we can only sell ore we find to the human companies at the price they offer.” He watched her closely and saw only curiosity on her face. “And we don’t have our own government. The Baron is appointed by the Emperor and we have no elected council, so the people of Nerould have no say in anything.”

She frowned again. Doo had decided he liked her smile much more than her frown. “I didn’t know that.”

“Your father should have given you more or better information before sending you here to trade.” He pressed on about the government. “The people here feel like the humans are running our world simply for profit. I want you to understand that there are many good things the humans have brought to Nerould. The schools you mentioned, and that I went to as a child, are just one example. Before your kind came, the only thing children learned was how to mine ore and how to dodge the pirates while in town. Now, our children learn about other things, some important, some not, but they learn.” He nodded toward the mouth of the cave. “The force field is another good thing. Before we had them, a prospector had little chance of surviving if an iss’ril stumbled into his cave. Now, they can’t even get in.” A strange sadness came over him. “But we’re no longer our own people. We are, for all practical matters, slaves to the humans.”

“That’s terrible, Doo! You shouldn’t feel that way because the Empire doesn’t have or allow slavery. I don’t know of anyone who thinks of the Nerouldians as slaves!”

“Perhaps, but that’s how we feel. With no home rule and no say in our own affairs, how could we feel otherwise?”

She was frowning a lot tonight. “I’ll talk to my father. He’s a powerful man in the Empire.” She shivered a bit. “It’s cold.”

“Yes, it is. I’m not sure what one man could do to change things here because it’s a big problem.” He studied her face again. “Most Nerouldians don’t like humans because of these things.” He got an extra iss’ril pelt from the supplies and put it around her shoulders. “Maybe this will help you stay warm.”

“Thank you. I can see it may be a big problem, but I’ve always been taught, and I’ve many reasons to believe as well, that one person can make a difference, especially if the person who sees things differently has the determination to make things change.” She hesitated. “What of you, do you hate humans?”

He thought for a time. “I think hate is too strong a word. I’m frustrated and I’m discouraged. I think you humans have found a way to make money and are riding the Nerouldians just the same as the pirates did before you came. At least when the pirates were here, we ran our own affairs.” He smiled at her. “But at least I like one human.”

Miranda smiled like daybreak at him. “Thank you.” She looked at her watch. “It’s 2000 and I suspect my father is finding out something’s wrong about now.”

“Maybe there will be rescue ships looking for you in the morning, then. It may take some time, though, because the desert is large and the y’rillers will have taken the shiny parts of your ship and those they couldn’t take they’ll have covered with sand.” He thought for a moment. “It might be wise, since we’ll be staying here tomorrow, to go to your ship and clear the sand away early in the day.”

“If you think that’s best, then we’ll do it.” She hesitated. “Doo, you should know I’m used to having things my way and getting what I want. Most people say I’m a spoiled brat, and maybe they’re right, but that’s the way things are with me. I’ve come to know over the past twelve hours or so if I don’t listen to you and do what you say, no matter what it may be I want, I’m going to die in this desert.” She looked at him for several moments, her gaze moving over his face. “I’m sorry I was so rude earlier and I’m trying to listen and do the things you tell me to do, but it’s hard for me. I know it’s been hard for you to deal with a human and to deal with my attitude sometimes.”

“That’s all right. I know it’s hard out here, especially for someone not used to Nerould, and I’m trying to make things easier for you.” She shivered under the iss’ril pelt. “Are you too cold?”

“I’m pretty cold. I’m not used to cold temperatures, I guess.”

He checked the thermometer and it was five degrees below zero in the cave. He stood and began to set up his small shelter inside the cave. “I’ll get the shelter set up and we’ll put the heater inside for you. That will warm you, but we need to be careful of the fuel supply. Using the shelter will save on fuel, too.”

“Thank you. I’m very cold right now.” She eyed the tiny shelter. “Will there be enough room in there for both of us?”

“This will be for you. I’ll be fine out here.”

“But you’ll freeze out here!”

Doo smiled. “No. Unlike you, I’m used to the cold temperatures.” He finished assembling the shelter and got the little heater fueled and started. “Now, you go in the shelter and get warm.”

Miranda was asleep in a matter of minutes.

When Doo woke at first light, he saw it hadn’t gotten too cold overnight, only about thirty below or so. He peeked into the small shelter long enough to see that Miranda was still sleeping and to turn off the heater. She looked warm and was sleeping soundly. He decided to walk to the ship and dust off the sand the y’rillers would have covered the shiny parts with before the suns got too high in the sky, so he left Miranda a note on the door of the shelter. When he turned to leave the cave, he hesitated for a moment. Finally, he took the pistol from his pocket and set it on the rock she’d been using as a chair.

Miranda found Doo sitting on a rock at the cave mouth, just watching the desert. She had the pistol in her hand. “Why did you leave this in there?”

He turned to face her. “Good morning. I went to your ship to dust off the sand earlier and I thought you’d be more comfortable if you had it with you.”

She sat the weapon on a rock near Doo. “Not really. My father taught me to shoot, but I’m not good at it and, to be honest, the things scare me a little.” She looked out across the sand toward her ruined ship. “You should have woke me and I’d have gone with you.”

“I can make better time alone, but I did bring a few things from the ship.” He indicated the pile of items on the blanket they’d left in the desert yesterday. “The y’rillers got a few things, but I think most of it is there.”

She smiled. “Thanks. You didn’t have to do that.”

“I know, but I’m hoping those things might make you more comfortable.” He watched the sky for a moment. “Were you warm enough last night in the shelter?”

“Yeah, it was just fine, and thank you for setting it up for me.”

“You’re welcome.” He indicated a direction off over the desert. “They’re looking for you, Miranda.” She squinted against the glare of the suns. “Use the binoculars. I forget our eyes are better than a human’s.”

She used the binoculars, but couldn’t find what Doo was talking about until he came up behind her and put his arms around her head to aim the glasses. “Do you mean the black dot so far away?”

“Yes. That’s a ship running a search pattern.”

She was suddenly excited. “Shouldn’t we try to signal them somehow?”

“Not yet, they’re too far away and too high. They’re doing a scan right now, looking for life signs. Other ships will come to have a closer look at anything these ships find.” He smiled at her. “That ship is coming closer to us right now. If we stay here, they’ll see us on the scanner.”

She calmed as quickly as she’d gotten excited. “Can you tell what kind of ship it is? I hope it’s one of my father’s ships.”

“All I can tell now is it’s about the size of a landing craft, a little bigger than your ship was.”

Doo pointed in the direction of Waleer, and when she looked, Miranda could see a second ship, this one much closer than the first. The ship suddenly lost interest in its search pattern and flew towards them, still very high, but low enough that Miranda could see it without the binoculars. Doo smiled broadly. “They have noticed your ship.”

The sky was suddenly fully of ships zooming in from almost every direction. One landed near the wrecked ship and they saw several people get out and search the area. She saw them looking at Doo’s footprints in the sand from this morning and pointing in the direction of the caves. “Those are my father’s ships, Doo!”

“That’s good, because they’ll be here in a few minutes.” The grounded ship lifted off and headed toward them, followed by three others. The ships landed not more than twenty meters from the mouth of the cave and at least a hundred Marines in combat armor swarmed onto the sand. They all pointed their weapons at Doo.

One of the Marines shouted, his aim at Doo never faltering. “Put your hands on your head and stand up slowly, Nerouldian!” Doo put his hands on top of his head, palms up.

Miranda shouted at the Marines. “Sergeant! It’s all right! He’s a friend!”

The sergeant didn’t move his weapon. “My Lady, stay where you’re at and be quiet! Nerouldian, walk toward me, slowly, and keep your hands on your head!” Doo moved forward as he’s been ordered. When he had covered about half of the distance, the sergeant shouted again. “Stop there and get on your knees.”

Doo knelt in the sand, and two Marines came and handcuffed him.

A man Doo recognized then stepped from one of the ships. Not only had Doo seen him on the video and news programs in the city, but the man’s picture was on every piece of Imperial money Doo had ever seen.

Miranda jumped up and down and yelled. “Daddy!” She ran the twenty meters into the man’s arms. Four other women had followed the Emperor from the ship and Miranda was hugging them all.

The Emperor wore his black Lord Admiral uniform and, after talking to Miranda for a moment, he and his daughter walked toward Doo. The Emperor turned to the Marine. “Sergeant Collins, please release our Nerouldian friend.”

“Yes Sir.” The sergeant came and removed the handcuffs and helped Doo to his feet.

When Miranda and the Emperor reached him, Doo bowed. “Your Majesty.”

The Emperor laughed a hearty laugh. “My friend, please don’t bow to me. I should be bowing to you for saving my daughter’s life. Miranda told me your name, but frankly I can’t pronounce it, so she suggests I call you Doo, as the rest of your friends do.”

“Yes sir, that would be fine. It was my pleasure to help the Princess, but she never told me you were her father.”

Miranda smiled a little sheepishly. “I’m sorry, Doo, but we keep quiet when we’re not sure of what’s going on yet.”

“I understand, Princess. Better to be safe, especially here.”

“Please, just call me by my name.”

The Emperor chuckled. “My daughter tells me you may need some help yourself because of some bad luck you had before she got here.”

“Yes, some. My c’asom was killed and I was getting ready to return to Waleer to buy another when the ship crashed.”

“I’m glad you were delayed in leaving.” The Emperor paused for a moment. “Doo, I don’t want this to sound like a reward for simply being a good man and doing the right thing, but is there anything I can do to thank you for saving my daughter’s life?”

Doo thought for a moment. “Sir, other than a ride back to Waleer, there’s nothing else.”

The Emperor again laughed loudly. “We can sure do that for you, but is there anything else? Anything at all?”

Doo looked at Miranda. “No, I don’t think so.”

Miranda studied Doo’s face for a minute. “Daddy, I think there are some things Doo and I talked about last night you may be able to help with.”

“Oh? What things, Little One?”

“Political things, Daddy. You and I can talk about them later, but I think those are the things Doo would like to see happen.”

“All right, Miranda, we’ll talk later, but I really don’t understand yet.”

Doo nodded. “Sire, Miranda is right. Just knowing the things we talked about have been brought to your attention is more than enough thanks for me.”

“Very well, then. Miranda and I will talk.” The Emperor paused for a moment. “I hate to do this, but Miranda and I must go back to our ship, Doo. My men here will make sure you get back to Waleer as soon as possible.” He extended his hand to Doo. “Again, thank you, my friend, for helping my daughter.”

Doo shook the Emperor’s hand. “I’m glad I was here, Sir.”

The Emperor and his wives turned to their ship, but the Emperor turned back to face Miranda. “Come along soon, Little One.”

“Yes, Daddy.” She turned to Doo. “I can’t thank you enough for helping me.” She paused. “And for helping me to understand something, too.”

Doo smiled at her. “The Princess. I’m glad I was here to help you, but what was it I helped you to understand?”

“That people are the same all over the galaxy. I’ll talk to my father and I’ll press him to make things different here on Nerould, and everyplace else in the Empire as well. Thanks to you, I not only learned it’s the right thing to do, but I’m also still alive to do something about it.” She smiled brilliantly. “Thank you for that, Doo.” Miranda kissed his cheek and boarded the ship.

As the landing craft lifted into the green sky and the Marines were loading Doo’s gear on another ship, he gently rubbed the place on his cheek where her lips had touched him.

He thought maybe, just maybe, today would be a better day than yesterday had been.