Perhaps this was the fresh beginning they all needed. Novak smiled as she turned over the silver watch in her left hand. The ticks of time pulsed through her veins with each strike of the second hand suspended over the infinite space that contained the clock’s face. The smooth back reflected the pulsing glow of her form against the backdrop of the stars. Who would’ve thought that a dark star was the answer? she mused. The city itself, nestled safely within the tight weave of the Inner Orb, hummed the peace they all felt. Home.

“Did you feel the Hunters race past?” Lune asked. She waited outside the veiled entrance in the void between the Inner and Outer Orbs, absentmindedly pulling on her braids.

“Of course. Their frequencies give them away every time,” Novak said. She brushed her fingertips ever so lightly over the watch face. In its reflection her gray eyes seemed to hold a sadness, the secret. Too much life lived already. Her awareness of the dark star’s pulsing sharpened.

“Yes, of course.” Lune blushed and stared at her feet. She bounced on the strings to keep her upright, much like balancing. She fiddled with the fit of her deep silver cuirass, even though it fit her perfectly.

“They’re on the far north side of their moon by now.” Novak’s eyes shut out the beautiful colors of their hidden galaxy to focus. Every time she closed her eyes her brain longed for the shadowy magentas, magical purples, and soul-resonating blues. It took her breath away sometimes. Life without their beauty wouldn’t be life at all. As a young girl she imagined that faraway stars decorated the sky like glitter. Even then she felt their pulsing. But she never dreamed of a life like this one. “I don’t sense them returning anytime soon.”

“My design worked then,” Lune said with a smile. “I mean, I know it passed the first test, but sometimes I still get nervous when the Hunters fly by so close.” She exhaled the fear and admired the mastery of the rotating Inner Orb. “Perfectly concealed door with an invisible Outer Orb under the cover of a dark star.” She drifted over to look through the Outer Orb. Though invisible to the outside eye, the Outer Orb’s meshed design blended in with the surrounding space while allowing those inside to see clearly through the protection like glass.

Novak watched her cousin admiring the tight weave of the Orb fabric. Strings. It was all strings.  She shook her head at the simplicity of the design. The dark star was my discovery, though, she thought. A rare star that spewed virtually indetectable night into space by drawing energy from exploded stars around the galaxy . . . like star telepathy—that’s something straight out of legend.  “Yes, we can finally stop running.” Novak sighed with her entire body, letting her closely shaven head droop.

Lune whipped around, disturbing the space around her. “Novak, stop. It was an accident, okay?” In an instant she stood by the latter’s side. “I know that tone of voice.” Her eyes searched like spotlights. Novak shuddered at the memory.

“But look what it did to our people,” she whispered. She hated running away. Even in her dreams the spotlights chased her.

The spotlights had felt harsh, unnatural, in the otherwise comforting expanse of space. Fear rose in her chest as she looked at the lifeless body in front of her. It turned white like pure matter, the original form, like a marble statue in one of their museums. It had felt like the sun, warm on her skin with the soft touch. The softness felt strange—foreign—but not tough like she thought. She let her guard down.

Within seconds their galactocopters appeared from the hovering ship suspended alone in mid-space, activated all thrusters, and turned the top propeller her direction to pursue her as she fled on the cosmocycle. Using the strings to her advantage, she created vibration waves to hover, then zip away from whatever had just happened . . . away from him. Its speed outpaced the slower metal vehicles, even with their newest improvements for rotations and directional changes. Spotlights pierced the comforting darkness, trying to keep up, trying to find her. The vibrant colors of the galaxy grayed in her panic.

I didn’t mean to.

I tried to warn him.

Don’t lead them home.  

“You didn’t mean to.” The echo of Lune’s voice overshadowed her last thought with hope.

Novak looked up. Although their cosmocycles vibrated slightly to stay afloat on the invisible strings, everything else stood still. Even the watch silently passed the time in reverence to their solitude. Moments like these where they could be out in the open were few and far between. Her people stayed hidden for safety. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” She shifted in her seat and gazed at the galaxy.

“Yeah, it is,” Lune said. “But how do we protect it?” She bit her lip in concentration as she enlarged the holographic map in front of them.

“Ever the general, Lune,” Novak chuckled. “Life isn’t all about war, you know.” She punched Lune’s arm with her left fist. If only I could train the way she does, perhaps I’d be more help, she thought. Her own spindly arms and short stature made her a poor warrior. But she tried her best.

“Is it a war if the other side isn’t fighting?” Lune said. It was more of a statement than a question—and it stung deep. A period of silence passed, not uneasy but not pleasant, either. Both exhaled at the same time.

Strings. It’s all strings. Novak examined the black cuirass she wore. She always had to be prepared . . . they all did. Hiding, running, it was all the same. Out of sight, out of mind, hopefully. If only that were true. The fabric of the cuirass interlocked in a woven pattern that both held it tight and allowed it to breathe. Layer upon layer of the weave in alternating directions created an almost impenetrable protection garment. Strings. Novak closed her eyes.

“What are you doing?” Lune said. Bewilderment tinted her voice.

Novak felt the vibrations of her movement as she hovered closer. “I’m focusing,” she said. “Shh.” She closed her eyes to calm herself. The fingers of her right hand brushed the watch face, its cool glass sending a thrill down her spine. This feeling spread to her toes and traveled up around the crown of her head, calming her thoughts and sharpening her focus.

Tick, tick, tick, tick.

Novak inhaled.

Thromb. Thrommb. Thrommmb. She felt, or rather saw, the crisscrossing strings coming to life at the watch’s beckoning. Webs, lanes, patterns, the galaxies—they all glowed a neon turquoise wherever a string occupied space. They spoke to her, the strings did. And she listened for the lower voices first. They would be easiest to get. Novak’s left hand reached up and out above her head. She hummed, then listened. There. Moving to the left, she plucked the invisible string out of the space, and it materialized within her fingers.

“Whoa, no way!” Lune jumped out of her cosmocycle. “I knew they existed, but I’ve never ever seen anything like it.” She let out a whistle that vibrated the string in Novak’s hand.

“Easy, there,” Novak said. She motioned Lune to stay where she was with her right hand. “I don’t want it to slip away.” Novak looked up at the string she grasped above her head. Oh, not blue. Interesting. The string, now caught, appeared transparent. No, more translucent, like a crystal clear glass with a blurred outline.

“Novak . . .” Lune trailed off. She carefully waved her hand on the opposite side of the string. “I can’t see my hand.” She bit her lip in her puzzled way again.

Novak stared back at her cuirass. Strings. “You think we can catch enough to weave together?”

Lune’s mouth fell open. “If you can redo what you just did, it could work.” She scrunched her eyebrows together in thought and turned back to the map. “Maybe.”

Perhaps we can finally settle down again, Novak thought. Safety. That was a word they knew little of recently . . . a quiet world without the noise of humans and the fear they brought.

Boom! Crash. The vibrations snuck up simultaneously with the destruction. Screams filled the space—the terrified cries of astros and elders, of rovers searching for their young between deafening fires. The city shook with each hit the lofty buildings sustained from the cannons and snipers of the Hunters. Cosmocycles exploded. Here a dead rover lay with its third head horn snapped, its tongue hanging out, its tail limp. It wouldn’t produce any more cheese or nurture its young on the flats of the galaxy. The dust of compromised compounds formed thick clouds that blotted out portions of the upper-space.

Novak froze in the street. How did they find me? she thought. They found us. She dropped to her knees and sobbed. “I don’t understand. I don’t understand.” The vibrations of falling buildings, of cannon fire, tore through her body, pushing her flat on the plain. Tears streamed down her cheeks. “I was so careful,” she whispered. The destruction of her city, her galaxy, her life.

It’s my fault.

Zip. Boom! A shot whizzed by her ear. Propelled by fear, Novak sprang up and ran to the cosmocycle parking area. Although tears blurred her vision, she spotted a Hunter in full uniform for the first time. Time seemed to slow as a chilly sensation iced her tears. He wore full body armor that shone black like their metal birds, with black leather straps crisscrossing his chest and back. They held sniper shots that would pierce her robes or lacerate a rover in a millisecond. His armor mimicked the sky, creating a camouflage hard to detect in the chaos for the untrained eye.

Trained killers. Novak knew that these men came from a special branch of the U.S. Navy Seals. Never look one in the eye, legend said. Fortunately, their full body suits and extra-protective black helmets made that almost impossible. But still . . .

Novak blinked and time sped up to its place. Using the strings under her feet, she bounded further and further with each step. Suddenly a shiny object caught her attention. A watch? She grabbed it as she jumped onto her cosmocycle. She wouldn’t be dying just to stop and look at a watch today. When she mounted and turned on hovering mode, she unconsciously squeezed the watch tighter. A Hunter in a mini galactocopter half a street length away turned his head directly toward her. Run.

“Where did you run to, love?” a sweet voice crooned. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Novak sensed the vibrations of footsteps inching closer. Don’t breathe. She clenched her fingernails into her palms until they hurt. The steps stopped, and the space fell still. One heartbeat. Two heartbeats. Three heart—

“Gotcha!” Wrinkled fingers grabbed Novak’s shoulders, and she screamed. They pulled her out of the small space next to the compound and set her on the plain.

“You’re such a scaredy-cat,” Lune whined. She crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow, looking tough for an astro.

Novak stuck out her tongue. “At least I didn’t cry . . . unlike someone else I know.” She smirked at her younger cousin.

“That’s not fair,” Lune shot back. “I was just pretending.” She straightened her shoulders to appear tall and strong.

“Now, darling,” the voice began. “Be nice to your cousin. She’s not as good at hiding as you.” The thin figure pulled both young girls into a hug. “You may need to do that one day, you know. Hide.” She squeezed their heads a little tighter against her abdomen.

“Ama, you always scare me when you do that,” Novak said. Her voice felt muffled against the robes of the queen. Why would I hide when I can run? she thought. “But I understand.” She felt safe surrounded by the folds of the royal robe. After withdrawing for sanity’s sake, she looked up into the gray eyes of her aunt. “Will you tell us the story again?”

“Yes, the story!” echoed Lune. “The story of the stars—that’s my favorite.” The tiny astro practically bounced up and down at the thought. She folded her hands in a plea. “Pleaseeeeee? We’ll be so good.” She batted her eyes, making the most of her fledgling beauty.

The queen chuckled. Her vibrations were warm and inviting. “Come, young ones.” She beckoned with her silver bracelets and sat on the compound wall with Lune and Novak. Novak closed her eyes to feel the story as she listened. “Long, long ago, countless galaxies were created. Each galaxy received stars that had their own unique names. No two stars were given the same name. There were suns and novas and dark stars and birth stars, to list a few. Some galaxies also received planets, and others, creatures to inhabit them. But each galaxy guards her own special secret . . .”

“A secret we have now told you. Now, everyone, remain calm.” Novak’s voice hushed the din of noise with her outstretched left hand. “I know this might scare you, but I promise it’ll work.” The people murmured among themselves, then gradually fell silent. They had always been a people of order and decision.

“And what happens if you’re captured or killed?” one elder asked. “What happens to us?” The murmur began again, swelling like the waves of their ocean. The fear of the Hunters and their rumored cruelties haunted the elders especially. Most of the astros were still too little to remember what had happened years ago—the destruction of their city and the murder of almost half the population. The revival process had taken time, all while they ran and ran away without a safe home. The Orbs had worked to shield them from Hunter eyes, but they needed something more, like an extra layer of protection.

“You’ll still be safe,” Lune interjected. She hovered at Novak’s side as they addressed the people from their cosmocycles. “No one will find you. They don’t know how the watch works.”

“What if they found out?” another elder questioned. He paced on the plain, wringing his hands together. “Their recent technological advances are impressive.”

“They don’t know about the strings,” Lune said. “You know they can’t detect them.” She stood to her full height on the runners adjacent to her cosmocycle.

A commanding presence if I ever saw one, Novak thought. She smiled at the warrior-general her cousin had become. “Plus, even if they found you, they wouldn’t be able to draw you out,” she added. I’m the only one who masters the strings. The secret.

Thank you, Novak mouthed to her cousin. She sat up straight in her seat, taking on a new air of authority. “We’ve tried it with smaller galaxies, and it works perfectly. No damage to the structure, no damage to any life forms.” The people cautiously accepted the information, thinking about it in family groups. They’d seen the demonstrations before and knew she spoke the truth. In unison they nodded their assent. They were ready. Anything to keep their community, their galaxy, safe.

“Okay, everyone needs to stay within the perimeter we’ve marked,” Lune instructed. “It’s bigger than our last city, so there should be plenty of room for expansion.” She surveyed the ongoing building projects and smiled.

“We’ll see you when we’re safe, okay?” Novak put on her best smile and waved goodbye to her people. She and Lune zipped away on the cosmocycles. Their beloved galaxy grew smaller and smaller as they exited its boundaries. The blues and magentas of cosmic energy spiraled out, taking her breath away at the dazzling show. Here we go, she thought. Novak brushed her hand over the watch face and regulated her breathing, eyes closed as usual. She grabbed a string out of thin space, then put it back. It returned to invisibility. She repeated this maneuver twice before frowning.

“Can’t find it?” Lune asked softly.

“With a galaxy as big as ours, finding the pull string is difficult—even from the fringe.” She shook her head to clear it, then doubled down on concentrating. C’mon, you can do it. Listen. The watch’s energy flowing through her veins suddenly increased. Deep blue penetrated her mind’s eye as she saw the string. Yes, there. There. Using both hands Novak plucked the pull string, the longest string with the lowest frequency and richest color of blue, from its slumbering deep down in space. Steady now, steady, she thought. She pulled it down toward her until she found the end. Then, with all her strength and focus, she gave it a sharp pull. Slowly the vibrations rippled from her galaxy’s core as it collapsed, folding in on itself to protect the people. When the entire galaxy hovered above her left hand like a small insect from a miniature string, she removed the watch, revealing the tattooed NZ99051 on her wrist.

“They don’t feel anything, right?” Lune asked.

“No, the pull string just allows the galaxy to condense, to make the outside matter smaller while everything inside stays the same,” Novak said. “It’s nice that they can be portable. To reinflate it, I just have to pull the opposite pull string—the shortest, highest frequency one.”

“That’s so cool!” Lune practically bounced in her seat with excitement. Her eyes shone with the thrill of exhilaration.

“I’m almost done, and then we can get going.” Novak pried open the hidden door on the underside of the watch. Carefully placing the tiny galaxy inside the infinite space, she anchored the pull string away close to the hinge. The galaxy hovered happily within the boundaries of the watch. Then she shut the door, leaving not so much as a hairline fracture on the smooth underside of the silver watch.

“All right, let’s go find a dark star!” Lune plopped onto her cosmocycle seat and sped away.

Novak breathed evenly as she replaced the watch on her wrist. Almost there.

Why are you here? thought Novak. Leave us alone. We didn’t do anything to hurt you. She looked down at the watch, then slowly uncurled her balled left fist. Not on purpose, at least. Why don’t you understand?

Hunters flew past in their personal galactocopters that functioned like the larger versions of the predator vehicles but quicker. The double thrusters and all direction propellors allowed uncanny ease of motion—stopping midflight on a dime and switching directions in the blink of an eye. They also emitted fewer vibrations, making them harder to sense on the strings. Yet the killers’ eyes never detected the two women crouched within the bottom rift of the night-emitting star. In fact, they didn’t see the star at all.

“Whew.” Lune breathed a sigh of relief. “I think this dark star thing is going to work out,” she whispered to Novak. The two quietly slid out of the rift at the bottom and examined the star.
“Yeah. I think so too,” she responded. For the tenth time in two minutes, she double-checked the wrist strap of the silver watch. Snug and sound, she thought. This is my chance to fix my mess. After the Hunters’ vibrations dissipated, she and Lune rode in opposite directions to inspect the dark star.

“Okay, so it spits out night that blends in with the rest of space . . .” Lune started.

“And spits it out from every direction?” Novak said. “Hm.” She circled the front of the portion of the star. It was gaseous, like a normal star, but seemingly without a hot core. In fact, when they were inside it, there wasn’t a temperature change at all.

“Just like Ama used to tell us,” Lune said, “when we were astros.” She smiled at the memory of her late mother.

Just like Ama used to tell us, Novak thought. She brushed the surface of the watch, more for comfort and assurance than for anything else.

But each galaxy guards her own special secret . . .

She didn’t have to keep it a secret anymore. Novak practically squealed with delight as she felt the vibrations of the strings whizzing past her. Her first solo adventure! Finally, I’m old enough to explore by myself, she thought. I can’t wait to tell Lune what I find.

The purples and blues of the sky danced to the pulsing of the stars. Here a pale rust star emitted the remembrance of things forgotten, there the dark green arms of a galaxy seemed to wave at the adventurer.

Suddenly she came to stop. What was that? A spaceship? Novak cautiously slowed her cosmocycle and looked at the odd contraption. Could they not breathe in space? Why did they cover the ship with thick metal? They couldn’t see the beautiful colors of the galaxies that way. Unconsciously, she pulled her robe tighter around her body to hide her pulsing light. She wiped her forehead with the back of her left wrist.

A vessel deployed from the ship and approached her with less than complimentary speed. They really need to work on their tech, Novak thought. She had no reason to be afraid. After all, Humans were kind of dumb. At least, that’s what she was always taught. I can’t wait to go back and tell Lune I saw some Humans. She’ll be so jealous, Novak thought.

A single figure jumped from the vessel that had stopped a street length away. It was tethered to the vessel (hovering by use of thrusters) with a long, rope-looking thing. As it floated closer, its clear visor revealed green eyes. “Are you guys getting this?” a voice crackled. “I’m about to make first contact with the—the aliens.”

Novak cocked her head to one side and slowly backed away on her cosmocycle. She crossed her arms over her midsection.

“Wait,” the voice crackled. “Don’t run away.” The strange figure came closer. His full body suit was black, with black straps crisscrossing his chest.

It was a man. A Human man, she thought. It was unarmed. Harmless.

“I just want to talk to you.” The man extended his arm in a greeting. He inched closer and closer.

Novak stopped backing away but ignored the arm. Never touch a human. That’s what Ama had always said. She didn’t think she wanted to touch it anyway, even with its suit on.

“I’m Adam. I come in peace.” He flashed a bright smile, then looked at his outstretched arm. “Let’s shake on it?” He inched closer until they hovered only an arm length apart.

“No, thanks,” Novak said. As a student of multi-galactic languages, she spoke most of them fluently. She hovered, staring at the man. His features were perfect. I wonder how he got his green eyes, she thought. Maybe the galaxy gave them to him.

Then, something unexpected happened. The man retracted the glove on his hand. Novak saw his skin, the wrinkles in his palm up close. “No, don’t touch me,” she warned.

“Come on, now,” Adam crooned. “This will be great for the relationship between our races.” He moved his hand closer.

“Stop,” she said. “Something bad will happen if you touch me.” She backed away again. Sweat began to form on the back of her neck. Her hands felt clammy. I need to get out of this. She put out her left hand to halt him, revealing her tattoo in the process.

“See, that’s not so bad.” Before she realized it, the Human had touched her palm with his. It felt surprisingly soft, warm, but strange. She withdrew her hand to look at it. Nothing had changed it. “What’s—”

Novak gasped. Before her eyes the man turned pure white like marble, his features frozen in a startled expression—pure matter.

Simultaneously a feeling of guilt, then fear rose in her chest. I warned him, I did, she thought. Her gray eyes reflected at her in his helmet. He didn’t listen. Sweat trickled down her neck into the collar of her robe. Bright spotlights swarmed the space in seconds as the vibrations of thrusters radiated her direction.

“Put your hands in the air!” A hundred voices seemed to speak through the galactocopter. “Now.” When she didn’t comply, they opened fire, raining bullets in her direction that sliced strings left and right.

Novak flicked on her cosmocycle and used the strings to hover, then break away from the scene. She felt the vibrations of the galactocopters pursuing her. A danger? Surely, they saw he touched me, didn’t they? She felt confused, attacked, scared. Would they listen if she tried to tell them? Maybe it was my fault. Her cosmocyle picked up speed, jetting in and out of strings. “I didn’t mean to,” she whispered.