I strolled along the main drag of Uimaphathat Refugee Camp with my old Panama at a jaunty angle and a sparkly fairy flying two feet above my head. Dust blew like smoke on the wind of this unmemorable Fringe planet, which rattled the cat’s cradle of power lines overhead, and tangled the banners hanging out in front of the stalls. A herd of horned, seven-foot yuriops rudely cut in front of me and my business partner, Dolph. I frowned at the remote control bracelet around my wrist, punched a button, and jacked the fairy up to a height of ten feet, to keep it visible above the crowd. Many aliens are much taller than humans.
And it seemed like every species in the Cluster considered Uimphathat to be a hot shopping destination.
I was never going to find this guy.
“I want one of those,” Dolph said through the bandanna covering his nose and mouth. I followed his gaze to a stall selling knives. Big, little, electrified, poison-tipped, auto-barbed, with grips made for hands that had five fingers, four, eight, or none. Uimaphathat really did have everything. You wouldn’t take it for a refugee camp, but that’s what it was. The people manning the knife stall were as human as we were, probably more so. The youngest of them was no bigger than my own daughter, eight-year-old Lucy. The eldest looked about sixteen. Thirty years ago, a human colony had fled a Sundering in the core of the Cluster, wound up here—and here they had stayed, and multiplied. The furry, long-nosed natives were signatories of the multilateral Refugee Convention, and also knew a money-making proposition when they saw one. With typical human ingenuity, the refugees had transformed this barren swath of coast into a shopping mall.
“Yo, big guy,” the teenager at the knife stall called out. “Wanna put some steel in your holster?”
“She’s talking to you, Mike,” Dolph said with an amused snort.
I glanced at the girl. Dirty blonde hair hacked off at her shoulders, dust-colored skin, charity trousers and sweatshirt retooled into something more punk than refugee. A knife the size of a machete rode at her hip. But it was her eyes that caught me—unexpectedly dark, smouldering with a hint of something like desperation.
“Or you need a place to stash your blade? Got something just the right size.” She pumped her hips, lifted her machete an inch clear of her scabbard, and laughed. She was a child, but she had the voice of a forty-year-old smoker, and a line in cheap innuendo to rival any streetwalker.
I practically had to put Dolph in a headlock to stop him from heading over to the stall.
“That’s a genuine metalforma,” he said in anguish.
For Dolph, it was all about the knives, not the girl.
“Gotta find this guy first,” I said.
“Yeah, keep on walking,” the girl shouted after us. “Whaddaya expect from a man with a toy fairy?” Her little friends giggled shrilly.
I looked up ruefully at the fairy. It had four wings, two for gliding and two that acted as a rotor. Its costume and long tresses had been sparkly before the dust of this planet turned them gray. It could sing nursery rhymes, although I had it on mute, figuring the humiliation of walking around with the thing was bad enough as it was. Basically, it was a fully functional drone masquerading as a toy. I was planning to give this one to Lucy, if it didn’t get too wrecked—and I had 8,999 more of them to deliver to one Rafael Ijiuto, wholesaler, at Uimaphathat.
If I could find him.
“He’s still not picking up,” Dolph said, pocketing his phone in disgust.
“So we’ll do this the old-fashioned way.” I peered at the screen of the remote bracelet and punched buttons. “Extreme mode: engaged,” I intoned.
We had reached a crossroads in the maze of the refugee camp. Humans and aliens were queuing up at the eateries. A crowd surrounded a unicylist doing tricks. The fairy rose up to a height of twenty feet, let out a peal of mechanical laughter, and began to swoop around, scattering fairy dust. I hadn’t actually tried this function before. It was impressive. Dolph and I watched open-mouthed as the stuff blew over the crowds and stuck to their faces, cilia, horns, and tentacles. It was just glitter. I had made sure we were standing up-wind. Nevertheless, Dolph got some sparkles on his hair, and my Panama would probably never be the same. The crowd let out that soft unguarded ‘oooh’ you hear when people have witnessed something unexpected and magical. The unicylist fell off his machine.
The wind caught a last voluminous cloud of glitter and carried it away over the tent roofs.
“If that doesn’t get his attention, nothing will,” I said. “Let’s eat.”
We were in the middle of a surprisingly good meal of ugali and stewed chicken—food aid remixed into something bordering on cuisine—when Rafael Ijiuto finally showed up.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m Rafe. You must be Mike.”
I swallowed my mouthful and half-stood to shake his hand. Dolph hooked a free crate with his foot. Ijiuto lowered himself onto it. He looked to be in his twenties, hair buzzed to a quarter-inch all over, biscuit-colored scalp showing through. The hair was biscuit-colored, too, with a coating of dust. Making no concessions to the fact that he was sitting in a fast food joint in a refugee camp, he wore a suit and tie, the business-formal template that has stood the test of so many centuries it’s practically encoded in male human DNA. I have a suit myself somewhere. However, at the moment Dolph and I were both in jeans and heavy coats—it was chilly on this planet. Ijiuto looked cold. He ordered a cup of tea. The wind snapped the awning over our heads. Aliens and humans alike shouted at each other to be heard.
Ijiuto declined to raise his voice. I had to lean in close to him to catch his words. “OK to pick up the cargo directly from your ship?”
“Sure,” I said. “We’re on pad one-sixty-five.”
The refugee camp’s spaceport had grown in step with its fame as a shopping emporium. It now sprawled for miles along the coast, and over the rocky barrier islands.
“We’re out on one of the islands,” I said. “You got a vehicle? We’re talking four large crates, a hundred kilos each.”
Ijiuto nodded. “I’m going to hire a truck.”
“I’ll need the balance of your payment at that time,” I mentioned.
“No problem.” He was looking at the fairy. I’d turned it off and put it in the middle of the table, where it had been drawing admiring stares from aliens who’d seen the fairy dust display. Dolph had spilled beer on its wings. Guess I wouldn’t be giving it to Lucy, after all. “I love this product,” Ijiuto said. “Only humans would think of something like this.”
We drank to that. “To humanity,” Dolph said, knocking his beer stein against Ijiuto’s tea cup. “The only species in the Cluster with the gall to charge 300 GCs apiece for a mass market drone with a frilly costume.”
All joking aside, human solidarity matters in a place like this. If your fellow humans don’t have your back, who will?
“But it isn’t just a mass-market drone, is it?” Ijiuto said, his flat young face suddenly creasing with concern. “It’s got parental controls?”
“Of course it has,” I said, shifting into salesman mode. I took the bracelet off and showed him. “Here’s where you can lock it, and I guaran-freaking-tee you the firmware is secure against hacking. You know who’s got the hardest network security in the Cluster? Not arms manufacturers. Not governments. Toy makers. They know no parent is going to touch anything that could be vulnerable to malware.”
“He would know,” Dolph put in, jogging my elbow. “His daughter doesn’t even get to have a phone.”
“Maybe when she’s sixteen,” I said, thinking fleetingly of the girl at the knife stall. In a few more years, my Lucy would be that age. But what a gulf lay between this world and ours. “Or maybe when she’s sixty.”
Ijiuto laughed, but now I was wondering where I’d be in another few years. Still hauling cargoes to the most dangerous, unsavory, and politically non gratis worlds in the Cluster? Still hustling to make payroll for my crew and salt away a little something for Lucy’s education? At least I did not have a mortgage on my ship. I owned that baby free and clear. That’s not to say I had no problems in that area—but I kept my thoughts from straying to what Dolph and I called our “mechanical failure.”
“Bottom line,” I said. “This is the hottest-selling toy on Ponce de Leon this year.” Our home base, Ponce de Leon, is one of the Big 3 worlds of humanity in the Messier 4 Cluster. It sets the tone for human colonies throughout the Cluster, and the more impressionable alien species as well. “You’re going to be able to name your price.”
“Oh, I’m sold,” Ijiuto said, with the first smile I’d seen out of him. I relaxed. The 1,200 KGCs he still owed me were as good as in my pocket.
We finished eating, paid the bill, and moseyed towards the Uimaphathat parking lot. At this end of the main drag, the natives had more of a presence. They cowered in the booths of various relief and aid agencies, their cuddly appearance belying the most relentless bureaucratic minds I had ever encountered. I had had to pay an outrageous landing fee to these little teddy-bears. “We also brought a shipment of food aid from Help the Hungry on PdL,” I mentioned to Ijiuto.
Did I want him to think I was not just a mercenary bastard like most indie freighter captains? The truth was, Help the Hungry had paid me market rates to ship their cheap and nasty protein bars. I’m not in the business of helping people for free.
“You wonder how much of it is going to reach the refugees, you know?” I said, motioning to the Help the Hungry booth, where a congregation of natives were chomping on what looked suspiciously like my protein bars.
“Yeah, it’s a shame the way these people get exploited,” Ijiuto said, in a completely uninterested voice. He was swiping at the screen of his handheld. “I can’t get through to the truck rental people. Can’t even get a dang signal. I’m going to have to go over there. Catch you up at the ship. Pad one-six-five, right?” As he spoke, he was already angling away from us.
“Yeah,” Dolph said to his back. “What kind of refugee camp doesn’t even have decent phone service?” He snickered. Dolph has a strong sense of justice, in his own way.
Then his face changed. The almond eyes above his bandanna widened. He threw an elbow into my side.
I spun around and saw someone I had hoped never to see again, and yet had dreamt of meeting again, pretty much nightly for a while. Those were bad dreams. Bloody dreams.
The reality was worse.
A few feet away was Zane Cole.
The man who stole my wife.