When Andrea left her cabin late that morning, the Meduse was awash with movement. Crew darted to and fro, adjusting the submerged sails and double checking the integrity of the anchor.
One look over the rail confirmed her suspicion. They’d reached their destination.
Panwerd’s docks were visible in the distance, crowded with tiny ships both with sails and without. Overlooking it was the town itself. She couldn’t make out the houses in the distance, but the windmill turned proud in the wind.
She rushed to find the captain, thrumming with excitement. Finally he’d tell her what she came here to see.
But the captain was busy overseeing preparations and guiding the crew into the proper streams that would take them to shore. She couldn’t get a word in.
She followed him around, dodging crew and ropes. And finally she managed to catch him before he could give another order.
“Captain!” she yelled. “Will you finally tell me what I came here to see?”
He turned to her, dark salted hair tangled in the wind, eyes tired. Captain Fisco was a man who gave the impression of being tall and broad. But on closer inspection one would realise it was more in the cut of his coat, and the sight of his magnificent beard, than any real bulk.
Shoulder pads, thick fabrics. And even his naval cap. All of it lended him a sort of square shape. It also all looked like he saw an image of any generic old timey sailor and said ‘that will be my aestetic.’
He smiled when he saw who called out to him. “Excited, are you?” His smile broadened at her impatient fidgeting. He’d kept her in suspense the whole journey, something about the elation of knowing ahead of time being liable to get her ‘taken by wake’. Some sailors superstition, if you asked her. He winked and gestured at the dock. “Why don’t you find out for yourself?”
She followed his gesture, and for the first time noticed just how close they’d gotten. The crew was already readying the lines to pull the Meduse to the dock. She looked back at him, eyes wide. “You’re still not going to tell me?”
He laughed. “Wouldn’t you rather be amazed when you finally see it?”
She looked up. It would be hours yet before it was dark enough to see the stars. But when she looked back to express this to Fisco, he was back to work.
She waited with baited breath at the railing as the crew reeled the Meduse against the dock. She shifted her bag from one shoulder to the other. Again.
A woman gently pushed her aside so she could secure the rope. Andrea was beyond caring about being in the way at this point.
Finally Fisco gave the sign that all was ready, and she didn’t even wait for the plank to be lowered before she jumped on the dock.
She then promptly toppled to the side as she completely lost her balance. She stared at the water below her, having landed right on the edge.
Fisco’s booming laugh echoed over the dock. “Need to get your land legs back lass!”
She stood, brushed off her knees. “Right.” She waved Fisco goodbye for the day, and left for Panwerd town proper.
It didn’t take her long to notice the people watching her. Now, the Meduse and her captain were quite famous, so it wasn’t so strange for people to pay attention to it and it’s crew. But she wasn’t part of the crew, was she?
Then again, they didn’t know that.
It would be hours yet before the sun set, so she had plenty of time to find the perfect spot to watch the stars from. She looked the windmill consideringly. It was certainly high enough. But climbing it was probably illegal.
Maybe something to leave for the last day.
“Excuse me!” A woman ran after her, arm raised. She looked to be about her age, maybe a bit younger, early twenties. Andrea stopped to wait for her, then had to take a step back as the woman came far too close. “Did I see you leave the Meduse?” she asked in a breath.
Taken aback by the exuberant interest, Andrea answered like she wasn’t sure herself. “Uh, yes?”
The woman didn’t mind. “Oh! You must have seen all sorts of things! Are you part of the crew?”
“No, no. I’m a passenger.” The only passenger, incidentally.
“How lucky!” the woman fairly squealed. She grabbed Andrea’s arm before she could move away. “Oh I’m on my way to meet a friend. You simply must tell us all about it!”
“I don’t know…”
“Please, we don’t get many interesting strangers around here. I’ll buy you a coffee!” The woman looked her in the eyes imploringly. Andrea looked at the sky, at the windmill. Plenty of time. And she’d never been called interesting before.
The cafe was a small building on the street corner on the edge of the dock. She would have passed it anyway on her way into town. The placement meant there was no space for tables outside. But the establishment made up for it by being brightly lit and leaving the door open.
The woman, who introduced herself as Marlien on the way over, did indeed pay for her coffee.
As they settled at a table near the window, Marlien wondered about her friend, she should have been here by now.
“She won’t mind you inviting me along?”
“Oh no! She’s just as curious about this things as me. She’ll just love you. But no matter, we can get started while we wait. Where did you come from?”
Andrea told her about her home town, and about some of the other places they visited on the way here.
“Is Captain Fisco as much of a disaster as they say?”
Andrea looked around to make sure no one was listening in, then leaned closer to confide; “To tell you the truth, I think he’s just unlucky. We had several close calls on this journey alone.”
“But he got us out every time, so I trust him.”
She told Marlien of the various disasters that struck them on the way to Panwerd. Calling them close calls was a bit of an exaggeration, but she wanted to impress the woman, and Fisco wouldn’t mind.
Andrea paid for their second cups. It was then that Marlien asked why Andrea came to Panwerd in particular. “If this is your end destination, that is.”
Andrea, thoroughly warmed up to the other woman, leaned in conspiratorially. “I don’t actually know!” she whispered in delight. “I met Fisco and we got to talking… And he promised me there was something here that I would just love. So I just… went along with it. Left on the Meduse the same day.”
Marlien gasped. “Just like that?”
“Just like that. It was terribly exciting.”
“Surely he told you what you’re here for now though?”
“Oh no, he told me to find out for myself. I’m just waiting till nighttime to see. I told him how much I love the stars, you see. And he said I had to see this place.”
“Oh,” Marlien said quietly. Andrea’s smile fell. Something was off about Marlien’s expression. The exuberant light in her eyes was missing. “That’s—”
She didn’t finish her thought, because then someone new entered the cafe and went straigt for them. “I’m so sorry! I can’t believe I’m late!” The newcomer was a slight woman wearing a flowery dress. She looked between Marlien and Andrea curiously. “And who’s this?”
Marlien sighed. “Just another astronomer.”
The whiplash of the sudden loss of energy and interest left her reeling. The newcomer’s face fell. “Ah,” she said, “how disappointing.”
She sat, and the women started a new conversation about people Andrea had no reference for. She didn’t introduce herself, and Andrea never go the opportunity to introduce herself either. Though she still sat at their table, she wasn’t with them anymore.
She finished her coffee (she paid for it, damn it) and left.
She walked as far from the cafe as she could without leaving Panwerd. In all honesty, she wanted to walk blindly until the sky darkened and she could look at the stars. But that was likely to get her lost, and she did want to return to the Meduse to sleep.
Pissed as she was, the windmill looked even more inviting as a place to watch the stars from, but she restrained herself.
Eventually, she settled on a hill just high enough to give a better view of the sky over the rooftops. They were still in the way, especially that damned windmill, but it would do.
She sat there in the grass until the sky began to darken.
The wind turned. Her hair slapped her face. She angrily pushed it away. With the speed only spiteful clouds could achieve, the sky filled with dark grey clouds.
Andrea took a deep breath. Her nails dug into her legs.
A mean face formed in the clouds and grinned at her.
“Oh fuck off!”
She hugged her knees to her chest as another mean wind raised goosebumps along her arms. She didn’t know how long she sat there fighting her tears until someone joined her. “You here to look at the stars as well?”
Still smarting from everything, she only replied with a short “yes.” She didn’t bother to look up from her blank stare at the clouds.
“I’m Marty.” The stranger paused, then continued when she didn’t return the introduction. “There’s a hill a ways on the other side of town where the other astronomers gather. We ‘ave an encampment behind it too. It’s a bit of a walk on account of the light pollution, but it’s a better spot than this.”
An encampment. There were enough astronomers here to form their own encampment.
She stood abruptly and looked at Marty. He was a short guy maybe a few years older than her. His friendly smile faltered at whatever her face looked like. She didn’t know what expression she wore, or even what she was feeling, quite frankly. Just that the emotion was overwhelming, and hot, and ugly.
She swallowed everything, managed a barely civil “thanks” and quickly left for the docks.
What was this place? What was so special about the night sky here that it drew so many people here. What, did they move? Did they shift and dance and flare with emotion? They do that everywhere! That’s what they do! She didn’t need to come all this way for that.
Was this why Fisco brought her here?
Just another astronomer to bring to the place where the astronomers go.
Nearing the docks, she realised she’d have to pass the cafe again if she wanted to reach the Meduse.
For a moment she considered crashing on a patch of grass somewhere and spending the night there. But Fisco told her sleeping on the ship would help reduce her sea-sickness on the way back. So she braved the road to the docks.
She promised herself she wouldn’t look, but of course she still did. And of course Marlien and her friend—who she still didn’t know the name of—were still there. She moved on quickly.
Maybe she’d just spend the rest of the week in her cabin. But Fisco would be there, knocking on her door to check if she was alright no doubt.
The sea wind was even colder than the one on the hill. Still, she walked the docks as slowly as she could, not wanting to risk seeing the captain on her return to the Meduse.
Waves crashed on the beach and the hulls of the anchored ships. She passed steamboats, sail ships, and the occasional ship propelled by oars alone. The Meduse was the only one with the submerged kind of sails that allowed it to ride the ocean currents.
She passed a gaggle of sailors next to one of the steamers. Their voices carried over the quiet dock. “What’s so special that the astronomers all gather here anyways?”
She slowed further to listen in.
“The stars, obviously. Idiot.”
“I get that. But what about these here stars is different than all the others?”
“Well, these don’t move, do they? Rather strange, that.”
“How come? They stuck?”
A third joined the conversation. “I ‘eard say they’s no stars at all, but moons.”
Andrea rolled her eyes. The other sailors shared the sentiment. “Don’t be stupid. Moon’s larger than stars. These ‘ere same size as anywhere,” the second said.
The third’s tone turned defensive. “What, ‘ave you seen ‘im?”
“O’course I ‘aven’t see it. Moon’s gone.”
The first sailor interjected, tone confused, “moon’s not gone, e’s invisible. What else moves the tides if not ‘im?”
A big sigh from the second. “Anything could move the tides! What kind of question—”
With the conversation turned away from the stars, Andrea moved on. She didn’t care for idle speculation on things that didn’t even exist.
But stars that didn’t move? Now that was intriguing.
The following night the clouds were still there. The mean face lurked above, enjoying her misfortune. Andrea had the bad feeling they weren’t leaving for a while yet. She’d be lucky if she got to see the stars at all.
She managed to avoid Fisco during the day by staying away from the ship and docks, but she did run into him that morning when she left the ship. He grinned when he spotted her, but she leaped onto the dock before he could ask her about her plans.
All day the conversation she overheard ran through her mind. Stars that didn’t move. She would like to see that, actually. If only the clouds would fucking move.
Her frustration and curiosity drove her towards the astronomer encampment. The hill Marty told her about was maybe a fifteen minute walk out from town. The road there was unlit, but it was easy enough to follow by torch light.
She dimmed her torch once she crested the hill.
The hill itself was mostly abandoned. With the cloud cover, no one would be watching the stars. Though one person fiddled with a telescope a distance from her. Aside from that and one or two abandoned telescopes, the hill was empty.
The foot of it though, on the side invisible from Panwerd, teemed with people.
They mulled and grouped between tents, caravans, camper-vans, and campfires. Some of the caravans looked like they hadn’t been moved in years. In the area that sported the biggest bonfire, a whole shack had been built.
In the group of people sitting around said fire, she spotted Marty. He looked to be invested in the discussion, but right at that moment, he looked up and spotted her. She couldn’t see his expression from so far away, but he waved exuberantly, causing his companions to turn to her as well.
Those faces turned to her invitingly, Marty waving among them, the empty chair at the edge of the circle… it was all too much. They were inviting doom upon her, asking her to join them as just another astronomer. She wasn’t. Her connection with the stars was something different. Something more.
She turned without acknowledging him.
The next day, after avoiding Fisco once more, she turned to the locals for answers. Most of her questions were met with dismissal. The moment she mentioned the stars, they lost interest. It almost reminded her of home, or what she imagined it would be like if she tried to talk about the stars back home at least.
“You keep those stars out of your mouth while you’re in respectable company,” an older person said, wagging finger and all, “No one wants to think about those things.
The answers she did manage to gather, from the few people who weren’t tired of repeating the same thing to every stranger that passed through Panwerd, were less than helpful.
Some agreed with what she overheard. “No, don’t move, out stars. Always the same damn things. Don’t know what they’re all so excited about on that hill. Bit boring if you ask me.”
Others told her the opposite. “They move alright. Skulking through the sky like slow little bugs. Always the same damn direction. Same formation too. But they do move, all creepy like.”
And finally, a woman by the name Gertrude warned her to, “Leave while you still don’t know. If you look too hard, you might lose yourself in them. People disappear, you know? ‘T happens more often than those astronomers like to admit.”
“They say the same about the ocean,” Andrea said. “Yet people still manage to be successful captains.” Some superstition wasn’t going to stop her. And she hadn’t forgotten how many of those tents and campers looked like they were there permanently. If they were still around after months if not years, then she was unlikely to disappear when she would be here for less than a week total.
Gertrude shook her head. “But no one pretends most captains don’t vanish at sea. Almost all of them do, eventually. Especially those that stare too long into the depths.”
After a long day of fruitless questions, Andrea settled tired and annoyed in the familiar bustle of the dock tavern (NOT the cafe, thank you very much). She quickly settled in the darkest corner, similar to the table she used back home when she was done with her shift. She should remain unobserved there, even if Fisco did come here.
The food was warm, if not the best tasting. Warm was what she needed then, though. The drink could take care of the rest.
As the outside darkened with another overcast sky, more people wandered in. The table closest to her filled, and as they talked, she realised they were astronomers.
And to think her mood had just improved a little.
“I’ve seen it alright.” An older man said. His voice was rough and brittle. “I was about your age then. Just left on my first trip ‘round the world. I get here in Panwerd, first stop, and BAM, there he was.”
“What does it look like? Is it just like the stories?” One of the others asked.
Andrea watched out the corner of her eye as the old man took a slow drink before answering. “It glowed as bright as the stars, but bigger. Much bigger. As big as the sun! It crawled across the sky, chasing the stars. A more amazing sight I haven’t seen since.”
The others expressed appropriate amazement for the story, which Andrea tuned out. Her attention was grabbed again a while later, when she recognised Marty’s voice. He sat with his back to her, so she hadn’t recognised him earlier.
“Interesting as that is, I highly doubt the moon’s beauty could compare to the stars.”
The old man laughed. “I never said it was beautiful, I said it was amazing.”
Marty made a sound that could have been agreement, if the tone didn’t fall flat and settled on unconvinced instead. “Amazing, beautiful, what you call it doesn’t matter. You prefer the moon over the stars right?”
The old man grumbled. “Right. And you would too if you ever saw him.”
“I wouldn’t.” He sounded so sure in that moment, that Andrea fully believed him. And she wondered, if only for a moment, if Marty could understand her connection with the stars after all.
“You couldn’t handle the sight of him, boy. Your puny stars won’t stand a chance. You’ll see.”
Marty snorted. “Upset because the moon didn’t look at you the way the stars look at me?
“So you say. I’ve yet to see the proof—”
The words turned to static in her ears. The stars looked at him? Did he hear them too? Did he feel them, dream with them?
She wanted to ask him, to demand answers, to tell him she was the same. But the thought left her equally terrified.
She wrestled with the idea long after they left.
The sky remained clouded for the next night. And the next. The Meduse was leaving soon, and if the clouds remained, she would have come all this way for nothing.
If she couldn’t see the stars, at least she wanted answers. The locals were no help, but the astronomers were right there, with Marty among them. She’d thought about him a lot, the last few days, and come to the conclusion that even if he didn’t have the same connection with the stars as her, she at least wanted to talk to him.
She made the treck to the encampment shrouded in darkness. Maybe, she thought, it would clear her head to walk to path from memory alone. Nothing more than the absence of grass under her feet to mark the path.
But the darkness of a clouded sky did nothing to clear her head. Without the stars, she felt adrift, weighed down and unable to breach the surface for air.
She crested the hill, still unsure if she could muster the courage to talk to Marty. And suddenly she could breathe. Her lungs filled with coll clear air as above her the clouds finally left. Light suffused the hilltop. Excited exclamations came from the encampment below, and soon she was surrounded by eager astronomers adjusting their telescopes, taking out notebooks, and taking pictures.
She barely noticed it. The sight above her mesmerised her. Bright lights hung in the sky in patterns unfamiliar to her.
And they were still. Utterly still. Just hanging there, as if anticipating a sign before they could start their dance.
A sign that would never come.
The sailors were right all along. The stars didn’t move. But above all—
The sky was quiet. Silent. She waited and waited, but not a whisper reached her. She was used to the stars sharing their emotions freely, screaming their dreams into the world for her to her. But these were quiet.
Neck already aching from being bent, knees a little weak from the sight, she laid down in the grass. She wasn’t sure how long she lay there watching them, but eventually she noticed that her first assessment was wrong.
They did move. Just very slowly. So slowly she only noticed it after hours of staring.
Did that mean they shared their emotions slowly as well? Was that why so many of these astronomers settled here for years? To wait and listen?
The thought of them brought her back to her body. She became aware once more of the people around her, and their conversations filtered through the fog in her brain.
She overheard the names of constellations, none of which she’d heard before. Andromeda, Fishes, Large pan and small pan, Lion, Astronaut.
Voice hoarse, she asked the people closest to her to tell their stories. And they did.
So the stars did share their dreams. Once.
Why did they stop?
It took four hours for a star to answer her question. It was but a flicker of light, a whisper in the back of her mind. A sense of fear and the tang of iron at the back of her tongue.
The sensation was barely over before a single cloud passed over the sky. It was fast and dark and small, and when it moved on, the moon was there.
It was sharp as broken glass. A crescent of light, not as bright as the stars, but in it’s mass eclipsing them without apology.
Gasps, shouts of excitement and horror, and rapid fire shutter clicks heralded his arrival.
Andrea watched in horror, as legs like those of an insect unfolded at the crest of the moons arch. They were short, segmented, and pitch black. If the moon had been any brighter, she wouldn’t have been able to see them.
The legs moved, and the moon crawled forward.
She remembered the overheard conversation from days ago. Chasing the stars, said in a rapturous voice. It really did. But worse—
It was gaining on them.
It traced the path of the stars, slowly, but just a tiny bit faster than them. That tiny bit was all it needed. Soon enough, it caught up to the one that whispered to Andrea. Its legs reached it, and then something else, something that wasn’t legs at all. It latched on.
Maybe it was the star, maybe someone in the crowd. Maybe it was her.
She didn’t know what it did at first. Was it eating it? Killing it?
But then the moon’s arch started to fill. It bulged slowly into something that would soon resemble a circle. It’s light brightened, glowing with the same brightness as the star and then brighter even than that.
People exclaimed in amazement. “It really does change shape!” “Moon phases!”
Andrea thought of a different fable. A tale claiming that the moon didn’t glow on its own, but stole its light from the stars.
She never cared for legends of the moon. She loved the stars, and the ones she could see back home had stories of their own.
But she saw it now, bulging with the blood of the star she encouraged to speak. And she hated it.
A few mutters close by, tinged with disgust, “Leech.” “Vampire.”
“No,” Andrea realised. “It’s a tick.”
In that moment she felt the moon looking their way. Her little group fell quiet to let those praising the moon talk. Those that looked at the moon with adoration and amazement, even now.
Andrea hated them.
But the moon’s gaze turned away. Appeased. And she and the other dissenters held their tongues until the sky brightened once more, the stars faded, and the moon with them.
The scream remained.
In the light of day, the astronomers streamed back down the hill towards the encampment. She remembered why she originally came here, to find Marty. Talking to him felt more urgent than ever.
She mingled with the astronomers to search for him. But where before he appeared so easy to find, that morning he was nowhere in sight. She asked around. Maybe he’d gone to sleep, or back to town. She exchanged names with the people who hated the moon as much as she did, and avoided those who didn’t. But still she didn’t find Marty.
Finally, she found the old man who had a disagreement with Marty in the tavern. Or rather, she resigned herself to asking him. She’d seen him earlier, but avoided him because he admired the moon far too much for her tastes.
He still had the fevered light in his eyes when she approached him around noon. “Ha! That boy.” He laughed when she asked him about Marty. “Vanished in the rapture of the moon gazing upon him.”
Her gut twisted.
“Screamed when it happened, too,” the man continued carelessly. “I had to turn my hearing aids off!” He laughed again.
The scream she could still hear, if she listened for it. Not the star then, after all, but Marty.
She was sure, suddenly, that Marty did share the same connection with the stars as she she did. Maybe his was even stronger, for him to vanish in horror at the pain of a silent star.
And now she could never ask him.
Andrea checked one last time she had all the contact details she needed before leaving her cabin. The Meduse was leaving today.
While the astronomers she’d met and connected with after the moon incident asked her many times to stick around—
There were plenty of empty tents and caravans. Turned out Gertrude was right, people did vanish. Often. No one batted an eye at Marty’s fate.
—she had her own stars to return to.
But they’d keep in contact. Maybe her stars had some advice for the ones here. And besides, she’d go mad if she didn’t have anyone to talk to about the horror that was the moon. Many rants were had already, at the blight on stars.
Contact details confirmed, she went in search of the captain.
She found him leaning against the railing, watching the crew as they prepared to detach the ship from the dock. She joined him, and they stood in silence for a while.
“Why did you bring me here?” she finally asked.
Fisco smiled. “I thought you would like to see the stars here, since they’re so unusual.” His smile fell, his voice turned unsure. “Was I wrong?”
“No. It was interesting.” And horrifying. And humbling. The ship swayed as the crew lifted the anchor, and the Meduse was detached from the dock, thrown to the mercy of the sea currents once more. “I met some cool people. Also astronomers.” She smelled a hint of iron on the wind. “We started a project together.”
She nearly toppled over the edge as Fisco slapped her back. “Good for you! I’m glad it all worked out.”
Marty’s scream continued.