I had long since grown used to running with my friends whenever we had distance to cover and their legs were somewhat longer than mine, but Pip couldn’t keep that kind of pace. He wasn’t used to it at all, and we were forced to stop only a few minutes after we started.
After he caught his breath, he asked, “Were you going to run all the way to the space port?”
I thought about the distance. We were about two hundred miles away from the spaceport and I had planned to bypass the village. “No, I figured we’d have to stop for lunch,” I said. It was a bit of an exaggeration, but I was mostly serious.
He started laughing. “It’s impossible to cover that kind of distance in one day. What’s your hurry?”
I just looked at him. “You’re not used to running, are you?”
I gave him some water to drink. I figured there was probably a way I could help him do better, but I didn’t know how to do it, so I let him set the pace. We walked; it felt like a snail’s pace.
We reached the spaceport shortly before noon on the seventh day after leaving my friends. As we entered the town, I saw that things had worsened since the last time I had been here. Posters of my latest picture were posted all over the place. I wasn’t terribly concerned about it outside of its presence, because it was a fresh-faced picture of me that bore little resemblance to what I looked like now. I had a scruffy blond peach fuzz of a beard and my red hair reached below my shoulders when it was loose. Right now, it was tied back in an unkempt ponytail.
Pip looked from the first poster we saw to my face. “We’ll have to do something about that right away,” he said, and led off. “Someone’s bound to see through the differences. There’s not too many red heads around.” He booked us a room in a seedy little motel and then went shopping. “Take a shower,” he said before he left.
I did as he said without further prompting. Baths in the creek, though cleansing and invigorating, just weren’t the same as a nice, long, hot shower, and it had been several days since I had been to the creek.
When I was finished with my shower, I remade my undershirt and undershorts, leaving the dirt and sweat behind. I remembered that it was Carm who had given me the idea. After watching me try to wash and dry my underclothes for the umpteenth time, he suggested, “Why don’t you just make new ones. Make them out of the old ones.” It had been so much simpler than washing them and then trying to dry them without setting them on fire. Fire was always a bit temperamental for me.
I was just buckling my pants around my waist when Pip returned. “Take your shirt off and come over to the sink,” he said. He was pulling something out of a bag.
He bent me over the sink and washed my hair again, or at least I thought that’s what he was doing. When he was finished, my red hair was gone. Then he worked something into my beard.
“I was going to shave that off,” I said.
“You can shave it off some other time, for now, I think this’ll look much better. What do you think?”
I looked at the stranger in the mirror. My hair and beard were both black now, which made my skin look too pale except where it was red - I didn’t tan. I don’t think my mother would have recognized me.
Pip wasn’t finished with me yet. I had always kept my hair pushed back. My mother could seldom pin me down long enough to keep my hair trimmed to her satisfaction, so it had always been on the longish side, and over the last eight months, it had grown unchecked. I had taken to keeping it tied back with a strip of leather. Pip sat me down on a stool, wrapped a towel around my shoulders and began to cut. By the time he was done with it, my hair looked quite shaggy, still hanging below my collar in back but there was little point in tying it back any more. “Leave it hang and break yourself of the habit of pushing it behind your ears,” he said, as he smacked my hand, which was reaching to do just that.
He looked at his finished product. “I think that’s good enough. A scar across your face would cinch it, but I think you’re too young for something like that. They might look too close if they saw you with a scar at your age.”
When he pulled the towel from around my shoulders, he saw what he had missed before. “Are those bullet holes?”
“Yes, they are.” I turned to let him see all of them. “There are two more below the belt.”
“And you’re alive?” I could hear the wonder in his voice.
“The magic has a few advantages.”
“You must be invulnerable,” he said, as he slowly handed me my shirt again.
“No, I can be killed, just not easily.” Durmas had told me that a fatal strike to the heart or the head would kill me instantly. Too much damage could do it too, but after my last trip off-planet, I wondered what ‘too much damage’ could be.
Next, he pulled two large wads of cloth out of the bag and handed me the larger one. It turned out to be a full-length hooded cloak; I’d seen a lot of people wearing the like. “We need to change your appearance. Someone might remember what you were wearing when they were pumping those bullets into you.”
I held up the cloak. “I could have made this if you had told me.”
“Really? I didn’t know that. I’ll have to remember that in the future.”
I looked at my leather shirt draped across a chair. My leather clothes were just raw uncolored leather, kind of reddish. “I could change the color of my leathers too.”
“You can? Good idea,” he replied.
I buckled my shirt on, and then, at a touch, I made the leather black. It went with my beard and hair. I looked at the effect in the mirror. It was such an unrelieved black. Then I had an idea. I touched my right shoulder. Under my hand appeared a basilisk crawling over my shoulder. Its fanged mouth rested over my heart and its long sinewy body coiled over my shoulder and down my back then I turned it’s black, brown and gray diamond scales to shades of blue - basilisk for my magic, blue for water.
All Pip said was “Wow.” Then he said, “Wear the cloak anyway.”
I sat down on the foot of one of the beds. “I’m hungry. Do you want to eat here or would you rather eat out.”
He recovered from his surprise and returned to the business at hand. “We still need to book our flight. Let’s go eat at the docks. How do you make food anyway?”
“You don’t want to know,” I said.
I bent to put my boots on and finished buckling my many buckles. My boots each had four buckles. There were five up each leg of my pants to the knee, three on each arm of my shirt up to the elbow. Already buckled were the three up my left side, and two on my left shoulder. It was all a bit of a pain, but I was long since used to it. My sword belt was the final touch. I looked quite dangerous, if I do say so myself.
As we walked across the town toward the docks, Pip suggested, “You look pretty pale; it might not be a bad idea if you act a little less than healthy. Maybe you could develop a slight cough if you talk too much, just a little something to account for your less than healthy color.”
I hadn’t planned on doing much talking, but I could do something of the sort if I had to.
We ended up rattling around the spaceport for two days before our ship would arrive, unload its cargo and load up again in preparation for departure. In order to pay for our fare, Pip had arranged for us to work as part of the crew. My credit chip had plenty of credit to purchase a flight, but we didn’t look like wealthy travelers, so it was best not to act like it.
When we were getting ready to lift off, Pip noticed my unease. “Are you all right, McTavish? You look a little more pale than usual.”
“I’m fine,” I replied. I was short with him, but frankly, I was terrified.
“What’s the matter, Liam?” he asked again.
I just growled at him; I was having enough trouble reliving my horror in my head, I didn’t need to talk about it.
“Suit yourself,” he said, and he climbed into his pod.
I felt the temperature drop. It happened rather fast and I had to squelch my desire to stay warm. I closed my eyes and thought of being hot. If I could convince myself that I was hot enough, the cryo-pod would be able to do its thing, I hoped.
Whether it was my thoughts or my recently attained control, I don’t know. I woke just fine along with the rest of the crew with no one guessing that I might be the kid whose pod had malfunctioned and yet had not died from the gravitational forces of take off. I learned that the subject still came up at least once per trip, and Pip asked enough questions, and knew enough about my background to be able to put two and two together.
Before we docked again, he looked up those reports and read them in detail. He never told me what he read, but he did say, “If I hadn’t seen you do the things you do, I never would have believed it. I’m having trouble believing it anyway.”
“It isn’t one of my favorite memories.” The subject, painful as it was for me, reminded me of my . . . well, I suppose it was my first kill. I had to warn him. “Pip, did you happen to see the report about a murder on board that same flight?” I asked.
“Yeah, I did. I don’t see any connection, though. You were in the infirmary when it happened.”
“There is a connection. He was found in the infirmary next to my bed. When I use magic, I burn up a lot of energy. You’ll notice when I use a lot of magic that I’ll eat a lot too. I had used a great deal of magic, and . . . I needed to eat. I didn’t have any control. I . . . I sucked the life out of him. You need to know this. If I get hurt really bad, you shouldn’t come near me. I don’t know if I’ll ever do that again, but you should be warned just the same.”
Pip looked at me in horror then he left our quarters. I wondered at the time if I would ever see him again or if he would vanish as soon as we landed. I needn’t have worried. I found out later that he had gone and read the medical examiner’s report on the body. I don’t know what it said and he never told me that either. I’ve never been able to bring myself to read it myself.
The last of our debt to the captain of the ship was to help with the unloading and then we were free to go.