The Galaxy Key

"Do you know that every time the sun sets, the mistwraiths from Tiamet come here?" Six-year-old Jen stopped suddenly and looked up at his stepsister Mya with glossy dark eyes.

She forced a smile and tousled his sand-colored hair. "I doubt that is true." Mya glanced up at the great planet that stretched over the western horizon, locked in its eternal place directly over the rocky Diamondhead Hills, watching over their home moon Terra like an unblinking, turbulent, blue-green eye.

"Grandma Marri knows they exist," he said. "Just ask her. She even thinks that you came from elsewhere, that you're not a descendant from the First World. That—" He clapped his hand over his mouth and looked down.

Unexpected tears warmed Mya's eyes. She fought to blink them back. She appeared to be human in shape and size but not coloring. Although she was only fourteen, her hair was a vivid silver-white, a paler shade than even Grandma Marri's. She wished that her oddities ended with her hair, which she had dyed on occasion, but nothing could be done about her nacreous blue skin and incandescent eyes that resembled stormy Tiamet. To make matters worse, tiny, underdeveloped wings drooped from her shoulder blades like loose, diaphanous membranes. She kept these well concealed beneath baggy tunics.

Mya had been found as a small child wandering alone on the shore of the Dust Sea by a young couple. She couldn't speak nor remember from where she had come. Ignoring the warnings from their neighbors, they had taken this strange child into their home. Years later Jen was born.

Both her stepparents were Travelers, whose job it was to explore other life-filled worlds in the galaxy through the use of a Galaxy Key, an artifact that opened secret corridors into space. They had traveled to Tiamet's others moons, all of which were barren, and to planets beyond. Nowhere did they find people who resembled Mya but they had promised to keep trying.

They died not long ago from an illness they had picked up from one of the worlds.

"I'm sorry, Mya." Jen's voice was barely a whisper. "I forgot. I shouldn't have said that."

"I know you. You just want to see if I can remember where I'm originally from. But it won't work, young man. Not this time." She gave him a playful punch on the shoulder.

He laughed before darting away.

Mya grabbed his hand when the metallic, dome-shaped buildings of the main town came into view. School, where they had come from before they spent the long afternoon wandering through the Diamondhead Hills, looking for treasures they couldn't find, was bad enough. Her fellow classmates didn't so much as ridicule her as fear her. She couldn't wait until she was old enough to leave, to become a Traveler just like her stepparents. But she could never get used to the stares and strange looks she received every time she cut through town. At least their house was some distance away, on the shore of the Dust Sea.

The sun was slowly sinking below the horizon in a tawny blaze and Tiamet slimmed to a crescent as they drew closer to home. A cool wind was whipping the rose, garnet, and amber sands of the Dust Sea into sparkling drifts. Constantly glowing Tiamet shimmered against them. A thin membrane that the humans didn't seem to possess slid over Mya's open eyes. Jen had closed his so she took his hand and guided him toward the square sandstone edifice that was their home.

Mya saw something move within the sea. It's only a sand dolphin, she told herself, nothing else. A creature just frolicking in the rippling, powdery waves. But something clenched within her. It flickered with a hint of blue and silver and drew closer.

Mya knew she should pull Jen into the house, into Grandma Marri's protection but something caused her to freeze.

"Why did we stop, sister?" Jen asked, pressing his face against her tunic for protection against the stirring dust-drifts.

The sun slid below the horizon as the creature emerged from the sea. It was male, tall and slender. Mya stared harder, certain that Tiamet's steady blue incandescence, mixed with starlight and that of the other moons, was playing tricks upon her vision. The man was clothed in what appeared to be sea-dust. His long, wind-whipped hair was a startling white—just like mine, she thought—and his skin a vibrant blue.

She released her grip on Jen and started toward the stranger. She opened her mouth to speak but her mind grew blank. What could she say? What should she say?

His vivid eyes briefly scanned her. "You must be her, the mistake that Umbra spoke of." His voice was a whisper that resembled the forever churning dust-waves.

He brushed past Mya and clutched Jen's arm with a diaphanous blue hand. The young boy's eyes flew open and his mouth soundlessly widened. The creature spread wings—beautiful, crystalline wings as blue as his skin and webbed with silver—and vanished, taking Jen with him.

Mya raced toward him but was too late.

She screamed loudly, belatedly. Where had they gone? Did Jen and the stranger disappear into the sea? Could her people come from the sea's sandy depths? What did he mean by "You must be her, the mistake that Umbra spoke of?" Who was Umbra and why was Jen taken?

Mya started into the sea but was pushed back by the constant batting waves. Flecks of dust grazed her skin, stinging it. She backed away, shaking powdery sand from her hair and clothes.

She burst into the house, fighting the tears that stung her eyes. "Jen . . . taken . . . " she gasped. The smell of stew simmering on the stove sickened her. How could she eat with her young stepbrother missing?

"Mya, calm down." Grandma Marri came toward her. Her wrinkle-webbed face, framed by wisps of hair, was drawn with concern. Her dark gray eyes pried into Mya's.

Mya allowed her tears to spill. They felt oddly comforting, almost hot against her wind-chilled cheeks. "It's my fault. I should have protected him."

Marri took her hands and settled her down upon a cushioned chair. "What happened? Where is Jen?"

"Gone." She swallowed. "A-a winged creature with blue skin and hair like . . .like mine, stepped from the sea and carried . . . Took Jen's hand and . . . disappeared."

"Mistwraiths," Marri gasped. "So the stories are true."

"True?" She remembered the stories she had heard as a child, whispered tales of diaphanous beings of light that came from Tiamet and snatched away children. These disappearances were scant and extended over a long period of time so very few people, except for the occasional fanatic, had ever been concerned with mistwraiths, although Mya had, from time to time, been accused of being one. And no human Traveler has ever been able to enter Tiamet's atmosphere. Those who did died instantly.

But Mya knew she wasn't completely human. Could she—

"I'll do it. I still have Mother's Galaxy Key. I promise I'll bring Jen back."

Tears shimmered in Marri's eyes. "No, Mya. It's too dangerous. Get some rest. Tomorrow we'll recruit some experienced Travelers to find Jen and bring him back. I lost my daughter, as well as her husband, through this ridiculous Traveling. Don't risk your life."

Mya nodded as her mind churned. Neither she nor Marri had much appetite for dinner. After Marri had fallen asleep, she retrieved her stepmother's Galaxy Key that she had kept hidden beneath the mattress of her cot. Fashioned from Tiamet's eternal glow and starlight, it resembled a glass pebble that held an internal, silvery blue incandescence. It pulsed with steady warmth as Mya took it into her palm.

She stepped outside as the sun was rising at her back. Stormy Tiamet, nearly full, battled with sun for dominance, dying the sky, sea, and hills a dusky purple that was quickly brightening.

Mya held the Galaxy Key toward Tiamet. Her heart was restless, her stomach twittered with nerves. It is stupid to do this, I know, she thought. But I must. For Jen. Besides, if I am indeed part mistwraith, I should be able to survive on that world. Shouldn't I?

She focused on the Key. "Send me to Tiamet," she whispered, concentrating. "To the place where Jen was taken."

A warm wind whipped around her. She felt a brief lifting, followed by an intense heaviness as if her blood had suddenly become solid. Her lungs tightened.

Just as her consciousness began to fade, the symptoms vanished. Mya looked around. She was floating through thick, stirring, blue-green mists spiced with unfamiliar scents. Shards of lightening flickered in the distance. She looked down. Her body had a ghostly appearance and she didn't seem to need to breathe. She opened her mouth to shout with joy but no sound emerged. The Key had worked!

Now she had to find Jen.

"Show me where he is," she whispered to the Key. "This planet is so vast and I can't see much through these mists that I wouldn't even know where to begin to look."

The Key grew warm in her hand. In the next instant, Mya was spiraling downwards at a great speed. Through gaps in the bright mists, she could see winged flickers of white and transparent blue. Were those the mistwraiths? she wondered. The one who stole Jen looked just like them. Their forms were blurred and indistinct, as if they had been woven from clouds.

Mya didn't have time to focus before she found herself once again standing on solid ground. A barren landscape, decorated only with brownish rocks stretched before her. Tiamet's shimmering, blue-green gases surrounded her, forming a stirring, multi-layered sky.

A square glass building stood to one side. Mya hurried toward it, her steps so light that she floated slightly above the ground.

She peered into the building. It consisted of one room where several young children were sleeping. Some had blue skin and white hair like hers, others held only tinge of those shades and the rest resembled regular humans.

What is this? Mya wondered as she pocketed her Key and scanned the bunks for Jen. She found him on an upper bunk, deeply asleep. A disturbing sensation tingled through her when she saw that several tubes were attached to his skin. The other children also had tubes extending from them.

She rapped urgently on the glass, hoping to awake them but made no sound. "Jen! Jen!" she called next. There was still no response, neither from him nor the others.

"They can't hear you," said a voice from behind that made Mya jump. It was toneless yet somehow distinctly female.

She turned.

A slender, blue-skinned woman stood behind Mya. Her pale hair whipped constantly against the currents like the wind-stirred sands of the Dust Sea. Gauzy wings draped her body like a second robe.

"A-are you a mistwraith?" Mya found herself asking before she could demand that her stepbrother, along with the other children, be released.

"Yes, I suppose the human colonists who dwell on the moon Terra have come up with a number of names for us over the centuries. I have my own name. It is Umbra." Mya froze. Didn't the wraith that took Jen mention Umbra? "We live in the turbulent gases of Tiamet, preferring to fly and float than stand on solid ground. Some of us can even take human shape during the short darkness that visits Terra every several hours. We—"

"My little brother is in there." Mya pointed. "You must release him."

"Must I?" The mistwraith woman leaned closer, her eyes holding an intense glow. "And what about the others? Most of these children have been here for years, decades even. Many of their parents are probably dead."

Years? Decades? Ice prickles shivered through Mya's ghost-body.

"That's how long the transformation takes."


"They'd die instantly if they were subjected to Tiamet's environment in their human forms. As I speak, they are being injected with an ancient magic, a magic that will transform each child into one of us . . .a mistwraith as your kind call us."

"But . . . why?" Mya shook her head in confusion. Anxiety wormed in her stomach.

"We mistwraiths cannot reproduce. That is why we must take the very young and make them like us. But we are not greedy. We only take a few at a time so as not to raise alarm within the human population.

"You, Mya, were one of our first successes but you escaped too soon." Mya went numb. "You were not complete yet."

"I escaped? To where?"

"To Terra, of course. You were fortunate that, not only did you retain your Terran form, but that enough of Tiamet's magic had been inserted into you, making it possible for you to survive on both worlds."

"That's impossible. How could I have left one world for another without a Key?"

"You were born to be a Traveler," Umbra said. "The truly gifted Travelers can travel without Keys. Keys actually work merely as homing devices, to get you back to your original world, not to send you outward. You left here on your own and returned just the same way."

Mya struggled to digest this. She had had the magic of a Traveler all along? And she didn't remember ever being here although somehow the place seemed vaguely familiar. Memories tickled her mind but then receded, like those from a dream.

Mya fought these ghosting thoughts. It didn't matter what had happened before and at least she now had a reason for her odd appearance. She had come here for one thing.

"You must release my stepbrother Jen," she said, staring up into Umbra's eyes. They resembled glass with only a hint of color, like an ethereal rainbow within a dewdrop.

"What will you give me in return?" Umbra asked.

Mya's stomach knotted. She didn't have anything to give. Except . . .

"You can take me back." She swallowed around the tightness of her throat. "Just let Jen and the others go."

Umbra paced, her wings slightly flaring. "A noble offer but not quite enough. Hand me the Key."

"The Key?" Didn't she say Keys were useless? Unless . . .

Panic gripped Mya. "You're going to use it to come to Terra anytime, aren't you? That way you won't be limited by Terra's brief nights."

"You are very perceptive."

"I won't do it."

"Good. Then your stepbrother stays. In several years he will awaken, as a full-fledged mistwraith."

Mya froze. No! She couldn't abandon him. But if she handed Umbra the Key, she and her people would use it to come to Terra any time, to steal even more children to transform.

I'll pretend to give it to her, Mya thought, her hand creeping slowly toward her pocket. But I must think of something, anything.

Umbra tossed her head back and emitted a sharp, strange cry. Several other mistwraiths appeared, descending from the roiling skies, their ephemeral bodies becoming more solid as they touched the ground. Their wings were spread out like graceful sails, to lower and float around their bodies like gauze clouds when they alighted. A wistful twinge twisted Mya's heart.

If only I'd remained longer instead of escaping, I'd have become a full-fledged mistwraith, not a half-human freak with stumpy wings. Maybe it still isn't too late.

No. I can't dwell on that now. I must rescue Jen. But how?

Umbra said I have Traveler magic within me, I was born with it. Could I somehow combine my magic with the Key's, use it to transport all of us back to Terra? That would destroy the mistwraiths and save the children.

Not certain if this would work, Mya concentrated on the Key to do just that as she pulled it from her pocket. Her thoughts burned.

She was vaguely aware of the indrawn gasps of the mistwraiths, of Umbra's long-fingered hand reaching forward to take the Key—

A blinding light burst from Mya and the Key. She felt it crumble to dust in her hand before she lost consciousness. The screams of the mistwraiths roared like wind in her ears as everything went dark.

The sun was warm on her face. Mya breathed deeply, drawing in the scents of silverblossoms and dustfish.

Terra. I'm back on Terra. She could hear the Dust Sea's stirring sands, felt an occasional powdery spray brush against her face.

She opened her eyes slowly. Gibbous Tiamet hung overhead, eternally watchful. Mya sat up and, as she lifted her hands to her face to wipe away the stray dust, saw they were no longer blue but a rich olive shade. The hair spilling over her shoulders was dark brown. Breathlessly she reached beneath her tunic and felt her shoulder blades. The stubby, partial wings were gone.

A whoop of joy locked in her throat when she realized she was not alone. Several sleeping people scattered the beach. The adults she didn't recognize but she recalled the children. All had been restored to their human selves. Jen was among them.

She dashed to his side and shook him awake. He blinked and sat up in puzzlement. "What . . . Who . . . ?" He squinted at her, rubbed his eyes and stared harder. "Mya, is that you? You look . . ."

Mya laughed. "I know. I look normal."

"Grandma's going to have to get used to this!"

Mya was aware of the others stirring, awakening.

A slender, dark-haired woman approached Mya. There was something oddly familiar about her.

"I was Umbra," she said, taking Mya's hands. From the corner of her eye, Mya saw Grandma Marri emerge from the cottage and stare at the strangers in wonder. The woman grinned when she found Jen and hurried over to gather him into her arms. "I was one of the first colonists, the ones who came from the First World," Umbra said, her voice barely loud enough to be heard over the amazed murmurings of the others mixed with the whispering dust-waves. "We were in a sense the first Travelers. Some of us explored Tiamet where we were captured by the indigenous mistwraiths and transformed into them. Our transformation was quick since their magic was stronger than ours. I'd left my small daughter behind and stole her away before she could perish from starvation."

A chill prickled the back of Mya's neck.

"Yes, Mya. She was you. I wanted you to become one of us so that I couldn't lose you again but you awoke early and found a way to escape before your transformation was complete."

"I . . ." Mya struggled to find words that refused to emerge.

"You turned out to be our Galaxy Key. All of us have been returned to our original human forms, including you." She kissed Mya's cheek and put her arm around the girl. Mya sank into the embrace as she struggled with her conflicting emotions. I have a mother. A mother who had been a mistwraith for decades and I had almost become one myself. "We are now home. And we have you to thank."

The End