Pandora chased a fallen star. Struggling up the night dark face of another mountainous dune, every step forward was a battle against the clinging sand, the weight of the sledge dragged doggedly behind her, and the weight of her responsibilities to her clan. That was the heaviest weight of all.
Pandora was a water-witch, the youngest in her clan, one of the chosen few who held the map of the ever shifting dune sea in her head, and had the training to survive the dangers of the hungry and treacherous desert. The precious drops of water she and the other water-witches eked out of this barren land and brought back to the Stony Place were a necessary lifeline for the Five Clans, and it was a lifeline as thin and frail as Pandora herself. Theirs was a dying world. It was a world of small lives, and vast distances. A world of silences and quiet desperation. A lonely world. Even with the protection from wind and sun provided by the steep walls and narrow valleys of the Stony Place, Pandora’s people were well acquainted with the twin hardships of hunger and thirst, of disease and death.Nevertheless, they persisted.
Normally, the young girl would be joined on her water run by old nana Uru; the crone’s experience and knowledge paired with the girl’s youthful energy made for an effective partnership. Unfortunately, nana Uru had been bitten by one of the fearless rock snakes which plagued the Stony Place, and her foot would be swollen and useless for the next ten of nights. Pandora’s clan, clan Weaver, was the smallest of the Five Clans, and with most of the healthy adults pulled away by the war on their northern border with the rock lords, there was nobody available to take nana Uru’s place. None of the other clans would volunteer the services of their own water-witches, nor would they share in their bounty, even though it was the nylon netting produced by Pandora’s clan which, when wrapped around the strangely skeletal metal towers that studded the dune sea, captured and collected the morning dew that all of the clans relied on for drinking and watering their hidden gardens.
So it fell to Pandora to make the nighttime hike alone out to the net-draped tower claimed by her clan, traveling by starlight and memory, in order to trade the dew filled vases found at its base with empties from her sledge. Then, after spending the sandstorm filled daylight hours huddled underneath her sledge, which she lashed to the base of the tower, her duty was to bring the filled jars back to her clan hold, where she would spend a day of rest safely hidden from the biting wind and corrosive sand until the calm of night came once more, whereupon she would take her sledge out all over again, back across the dune sea to the water tower, in an unending circuit of starlit drudgery upon which everybody she knew depended.
That was her duty, and yet, at this moment, the circuit had been broken. Pandora had, as expected, had spent the first night of her journey traveling to the tower, to obtain the precious liquid collected there. She had endured the daystorm that always came with the rising of the sun by burrowing under her sledge, napping, gnawing on lizard jerky, and listening to the agonizing screams of the wind as it cut through the creaking metal framework of the ancient tower. She wondered at the original purpose of the old towers that ran in belts across the dune sea. Why would their creators build so many? How were they so uniform? Where did the people who made them go? The towers stoically refused to answer her questions. Like most of the Builder artifacts left over from the World Before, they remained stubbornly incomprehensible. Nana Uru thought they might have once been used as lookout towers, since there were spindly metal ladders leading to their tops. Pandora didn’t think that was right. What would be the point? There was nothing to look at in the dune sea, nothing but sand and more sand. At nightfall, Pandora rose with the calming of the wind, shook out her robes and hair, wasted a forgivable splash of precious water rinsing the grit out of her eyes, and began her journey home.
Since the daystorm had erased all evidence of her previous night’s journey, and the constant undulations of the dune sea were a language not meant for mortal minds to comprehend, the young water-witch looked to the heavens for guidance, her practiced eye finding the route home via the placement of familiar constellations. Because she looked up as much as she looked down on her journey, she could not fail to miss the telltale flame of a star falling from the sky and impacting nearby.
Star falls were relatively common, that’s how Pandora knew that at least some of stars in the sky were actually strange machines which had been placed there by the Builders from the World Before, to fill the lonely night with pleasant lights and sacred constellations. Once, when she was younger, a star had fallen right outside of her clan hold in the Stony Place. It had killed Mortimer Jones but, in Pandora’s opinion, the star could be forgiven because Mortimer was a grouchy old man, who was too old to fight, and too old to work, plus he pinched all of the children, so his loss was not an especially burdensome one. Additionally, the star had given her clan a valuable trove of useful metal material, so on balance, it had really been a decent trade after all.
Maybe it was thoughts of wealth for her clan that caused Pandora to change her path, and drag her water filled sledge toward the impact crater. Probably it was simple youthful curiosity. She wasn’t far, she told herself, it was just a minor detour. She would just go, scratch the Weaver mark onto whatever had survived the landing, and then none of the water-witches from the other clans would be able to claim the treasure for themselves if they happened to travel this path. That way she could still get home before the next daystorm, and come back in the future to collect her prize once nana Uru was again capable of running the water route.
When she got over the top of the last dune however, and saw what lay smoking before her, all of her plans, and her excuses, and her justifications were forgotten. The star that once fell near the Stony Place was small, a lightweight thing of thin metal and strange shiny panels.
This one was not like that.
A mountain of metal had fallen from the sky. It had struck the ground with such force that an artificial valley had been gouged into the ground, a literal line in the sand. The object had displaced so much sand that it had exposed the fractured bedrock below. The object was larger than even the biggest castle forts of the rock lords, and Pandora was terrified by the thought of people with powers so far beyond that menacing nation that they could literally hide their castles in the sky. Truly the Builders must have been gods to have wielded such might.
Almost without thinking, Pandora found herself sliding down the face of the dune, drawn toward the strange castle. Her route brought her past sections of sand that had fused into sharp edged glass from the heat of the impact, heat she could still feel through the thick soles of her lizard skin moccasins. Her eyes, sensitive from a lifetime of nocturnal activity, studied the alien building. Its skin was an impressively thick armor of metal panels, larger and fitted together with more precision than any of the clan smiths could ever hope to reproduce. Even so, the armor had gaps, indeed entire sections had been peeled away by some trauma. Some of the holes were clearly new, likely created by the crash, their jagged metal rents shiny and bright. Others looked older, their edges dulled and softened by immeasurable time. This castle had seen war on its tour of the heavens, the kind of war that the warriors of the five clans, with their long man-killer spears and proud battle hymns could not even imagine. Into the holes Pandora peered, and in the gloom she found strange webs of pipes and conduit.
Leaving her sledge behind, she took out her nightlight, a clear bottle stuffed with bioluminescent moss. She knew she should not go nearer. She knew that this was bigger than herself, bigger than clan Weaver, possibly bigger even than the entire Five Clans. She knew that she should turn back, and hurry home with news of her discovery. The clan elders should debate and discuss what to do with the sky castle. People older and wiser than her should make the decision. But they were not here, and she was. And she knew what she wanted to do. Pandora the water-witch climbed into the wreck.
Either the Builders were smaller than Pandora’s people, or this castle wasn’t very well designed. That was Pandora’s determination as she grunted her way up and over another inconveniently placed pipe in the narrow corridor. Granted, she was fairly certain she was traveling along some sort of maintenance crawlspace instead of a grand hall, but that was because she hadn’t been able to find a grand hall. This cramped tunnel was actually the largest one she had been able to locate so far on her journey inside the sky castle. In some other sections she had been forced to slither flat like a sand snake, the unyielding metal forcing her to take shallow breathes through squished lungs. Here at least, she had room to crawl on her hands and knees, and by the feeble light from her glow glass she could see a space that opened up even further just a few more body lengths ahead.
Finally reaching the wider area, she was able to swing her feet around and actually stand upright for the first time since she had climbed into this strange metal building. Holding her glow glass aloft, she surveyed the room, if it could really even be called that. True, the space was taller than she was, but only by a hand span or two. The floor was three long paces across, and was crisscrossed by yet more of the insulated tubes and piping that had filled the tunnel behind her. In the center of the room was a small black box, relatively featureless and inoffensive, but for some reason Pandora did not want to go near it. It made her feel uncomfortable in a way she could not describe. Her gaze instead was drawn to the wall above the box, where something had been painted. By holding her glow glass up and getting as close as she was willing to while still avoiding the ominous box, Pandora was just able to make out what was painted there. It was lettering, written in the strange blocky script of the Builders. Pandora knew that her language was the child of theirs, but she could not read, so whatever ancient message had been written on the wall of this hidden room in the heart of the fallen sky castle was a mystery she would be unable to solve.
“It’s my name,” a strangely accented voice whispered from the darkness.
“Ahh!” Pandora screamed, leaping around and hurling her glow glass reflexively. The glass shattered against the wall, its load of bioluminescent moss falling in a clump to the floor.
“Who is there!?” she cried, grabbing her bone knife where it hung on a thong around her neck and brandishing it at the gloomy corners of the room. “Show yourself!”
“Peace, child. I did not mean to frighten you. It’s just…I’ve been alone for such a very long time. And so. And so. I got excited. That was thoughtless of me.”
“Why can’t I see you?” Pandora asked, still crouching warily with her knife raised. She couldn’t pinpoint where the voice was coming from, it seemed to whisper from everywhere at once.
“But you can child. You’re looking at me right now. Everywhere you look while you are in this place, you are looking at me.”
Pandora was confused, but then with dawning insight, she understood. “You’re…the castle?”
“I, what? No. I’m not a castle, I’m a person!” now it was the whisper’s turn to sound confused, and a little offended.
“You don’t look like any person I’ve ever met,” Pandora noted.
“Yeah, well, that doesn’t mean I’m not a person,” the room whispered, “in fact I used to look a lot like you. Until I didn’t. When I was changed into this.”
“Oh, like with a magic spell?” Pandora nodded sagely. She knew all about magic spells. She was a water-witch after all. “Was it the Builders that did this to you?”
“The…Builders? Uh, yeah. I suppose you could say it was something like that.”
“So if you are a person, then why were you turned into a castle?”
“I already told you, I’m not a castle! I’m a starship. And a lady.”
“…You have no idea what a starship is, do you?”
“I know what a star is!” Pandora argued, “I already knew you were a star, I saw you fall!”
“That’s ridiculous, I’m not a star, I’m a starSHIP. A ship that travels between the stars. And also a lady.”
“oh, okay….but what’s a ship?”
“Sisters preserve me! You sure have a lot to learn, don’t you child?” the whisper brightened significantly for the first time, “but that’s why I’m here now, isn’t it? I can teach you! Would you like that, child?”
“Yes, I would like to learn.”
“And what would you like to learn?”
Pandora’s eyes twinkled in the gloom of the room at the heart of the castle which was a falling star, but was actually a starship. And a lady.
“Everything. My name is Pandora, and I want to learn Everything. Starting,” she pointed at the word painted on the wall, “with what that says. What is your name?”
“Hello Pandora. It is truly a pleasure to meet you. My name…is Hope.”