“Where’s Dolph?” Irene said in a low voice as I reached her perch.

“Over there,” I said, pointing.

From up here, we could see over the hedges, all the way to the island next door. Irene’s tension told me she had spotted the Sunderer ships, too.

I kept climbing up the ladder until I reached the top of the bridge. Irene followed me. We squatted behind the main radar dish, automatically falling into old habits of concealment from enemy spotters. Irene had served on Tech Duinn too. Whereas Dolph and I had been in the special forces, she’d been a sniper.

She measured the vista with a professional eye. The Sunderers’ launch pads abutted the coast of the other island. The coast itself was rocky and choked with thickets. I had to figure Dolph had got at least that far by now. The channel between the islands was only about ten meters wide, choppy, laced with foam discolored by chemical runoff from the spaceport. I could tell it was shallow, ‘cause waves broke on a ridge of rock in the middle of the channel. At low tide, you could walk out to these islands from the beach. The tide was about halfway in now.

There were two other launch pads in between us and the shore of our island, one empty and one holding an Ek landing shuttle. But the shuttle did not block our line of sight to the Sunderer ships.

“I could make that shot,” Irene said.

“I don’t want any trouble with them,” I said.

“So what’s Dolph doing over there?” she said.

I hesitated. I didn’t want to lay my personal issues on her. She was blissfully ignorant about the whole Sophia saga—I hired her long after that all went down, so all she knew was that I had a daughter I was raising on my own. Matter of fact, her daughter and mine were best friends. Stripping away all egotistical pretense, I was plain scared Irene might think twice about letting her Mia play with Lucy if she knew that Lucy’s mother was a Sunderer.

“I told him to savage them ruthlessly, like the security guys should’ve done if they weren’t fraidycats,” I said at last. Irene laughed. I felt the sting of my own hypocrisy keenly.

Mercifully, the arrival of Rafael Ijiuto saved me from having to explain any further. The shock of running into Zane had driven my customer clean out of my mind. He bounced across the pad in a rented pickup. I swarmed down the ladder to greet him, and asked Kimmie to process the balance of his payment.

This far out from the Heartworlds, accepting payments is a dicey business. All transactions have to be physically cleared through the nearest node of the EkBank, which in the case of this planet was 18 light years away. It aided my peace of mind to see that Ijiuto had a credit dot: a fingernail-sized holo embedded in the skin of his left arm, which he obligingly rolled up his shirt sleeve to show Kimmie. The dot shone traffic-light green, proving that he had credit in the system. If he didn’t, the dot would go black as soon as he was within range of a wireless signal, because the daily EkBank drones that fly to all planets in the banking system carry a record of the entire blockchain. You can’t outrace your own blockchain, unless you have a ship that’s faster than an FTL drone, in which case you’d be so damn rich you wouldn’t need to. Ijiuto had gotten himself a tattoo around his credit dot, kind of like a coat of arms.

He transmitted the payment from his phone, Kimmie tapped on her holobook, and I was 120 KGCs richer. With luck maybe 10% of that would stay in my pocket as profit.

“You’re Mr. Popularity, huh?” Ijiuto with a crooked smile. He nodded at the refugee children, who were still hanging around, staring at Kimmie’s holobook like they’d never seen one before. Maybe they hadn’t.

“Give ‘em a inch …” I muttered sourly.

“Truth,” Ijiuto said. “I’ll help someone that helps themselves. But don’t come looking for handouts, know what I mean?”

“That’s it.” I had him pegged as the type of entrepreneur most likely to succeed in the Cluster: the type that looks for the sale in every situation. For an instant I envied him for his youth—he couldn’t be a day over 25—and the abounding opportunities before him. Then I put those unproductive thoughts out of my mind. “I’ll unload that cargo for you right now,” I said heartily.

I climbed the ladder once more, while Ijiuto backed his pickup closer to the ship. Irene was still up on top of the bridge, pretending to clean the laser comms array and keeping an eye on the Sunderer ships. We have a cargo handler bot: it’s a fixed robotic arm mounted in front of the cargo hold, which is the bottom two-thirds of the ship’s superstructure. I climbed into the handler operator’s seat. At the touch of a button, the door of the hold began to rise, with a grinding sound I didn’t like. It opened six inches, and then crashed shut again with a thunderous boom.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” I muttered. I reached under the seat, searching for the jack to open it manually. Yes, this had happened before. It’s all part of the joy of owning a second-hand ship.

No jack. I remembered that Dolph had taken it down to the ground this morning. I went down the ladder again. “Just be a minute,” I called to Ijiuto with a smile, knowing it would take more than a minute if the motor that opened the hold door had gone.

“No problem,” Ijiuto said, gazing quizzically at me as I searched around for the jack.The back of my neck burned with embarrassment.

The refugee kids had backed off when they saw me come down the ladder, but now they drifted back to Kimmie. Evidently they had broken down her resistance. I should have seen this coming. Kimmie was a sweetheart. She liked ethereal pop music, ballet workouts, and hot chocolate with cinnamon sprinkled on top. Her black bangs hung straight across her forehead, framing a round face. She had a poster of Mt. Everest in her cabin—yes, that Mt. Everest, the one on Earth, ye olde home planet of humanity, where none of us had ever been. She said it inspired her.

Why do I remember these details now? What good does it do?

At any rate, she was showing the older girl stuff on her holobook. But then she got up (leaving her holobook with the kids, a big no-no) and came over to me. Big-eyed with sincerity, she said, “Mike, I’ve been talking to them.”

“Not now, Kimmie.” There was the jack on top of a bale of cargo. I grabbed it and started back to the ladder. Kimmie kept pace with me.

“They’re smart kids. The older girl—her name’s Pippa—she knows her way around all the standard IT tools. Says she’s even worked with AI.”

“I know what’s coming next,” I said. “You want us to give them a ride.”

“They just need to get to Ponce de Leon. You know, under the Convention, if they land on the PdL, the government’s required to help them. I think we should help them get there.”

“Kimmie, we don’t have the mass allowance.” I settled on an argument she wouldn’t be able to counter with emotion. “Look at all this crap.” I pointed at the various amateurishly packaged small-lot shipments lying on the ground around the ship. I had to load this stuff into the hold as soon as the toy fairies were unloaded. We were contractually bound to haul it all to the PdL, and given my usual practice of maxing out the ship’s dry mass capacity, there just wasn’t any room for refugees, no matter how deserving they might be.

Kimmie’s face set in the expression of mulish obstinacy that was the flip side of her sweetness. “You know what their lives are like here? They’ve got no future. No hope.” I made a move to get around her. She sidestepped, cutting me off. “All they have to do is get to PdL, then they’ll have a chance—”

That’s as far as she got. Then her head exploded.

I was standing an arm’s length from her. I closed my eyes reflexively. Warm globs spattered my face, neck, and hands. Pain stabbed my cheek, and I knew I had just been jabbed by bone shrapnel from Kimmie’s skull.

I knew, because I used to live on a world where this kind of thing happened. It was called Tech Duinn.

My brain said Sniper and He was aiming for me.

He was aiming for me, but Kimmie stepped into his crosshairs while he was in the act of pulling the trigger, during that long instant after you commit your body to a course of action, when it’s too late to take it back.

I heard the crack. At the same time I hit the dirt.

I yelled, “Irene!” I popped my head up. All three of the kids had also hit the dirt. I knew all about their lives, right then. I could see Pippa’s sneakers sticking out from behind a bale of local pelts. She looked to be lying on top of the littlest kid. Protecting her. Her right sneaker had a hole in the heel.

I knew none of the kids had been hit, because there’d only been one shot.

One shot, one kill, as we used to say.

Rafael Ijiuto had not been hit, either. He had made the smart decision that his cargo was less important than his life. He was driving away across the pad as fast as his rented pickup could go.

Kimmie’s body lay at the foot of the ladder. Her blood puddled on the chemically hardened dirt. Her head was gone. Correction: I was wearing it. She had been a full foot shorter than me, and my brain said He wasn’t trying for a headshot. He aimed at your center of mass.

Another crack split the air. I paid it no mind, crawling underneath the ship. I already knew the sniper was not close. The sonic boom had taken too long to get here. I also knew his weapon did not have facial recognition targeting or smart ammo that could recalibrate in flight. Because if it did, I’d be dead.

Underneath the ship, a robust lattice of metal trusses at head height supported the auxiliary engines. The underslung missile launchers blocked my view forward, but I figured there were no enemies in that direction.

The shots had come from the south. From the island where the Sunderer ships were.

If I was correct about that, the aft port auxiliary engine would now shield me from the sniper. It rested on the ground like a prehistoric whale’s flipper. Keeping it at my back, I crawled to the kids.

Their faces were white under the dirt. “Mister,” the boy said, “you got blood on you.”

Ignoring the comment, I beckoned to the older girl. What had Kimmie said her name was? “Pippa. Follow me.” I rose to a stooping crouch and led the kids aft.

The boy yelped. I turned around and saw he wasn’t behind me. He’d gone to peek out around the aft port engine, and seen Kimmie’s body lying at the foot of the ladder.

I seized him by one bony shoulder and hauled him back. “That could be you if you don’t do as I say.” I turned to Pippa. “See that ladder?”

A ladder reached down to the ground on the starboard side of the fuselage, identical to the one on the port side. Pippa nodded.

“We’re going to climb that. I’ll go first. If I get shot, y’all come back down here and don’t move until the cops arrive.”

“What cops?” Pippa said. “This’s a free-fire zone.”

I cursed inwardly, having suspected as much. If the natives believed in the concept of policing, this wouldn’t be classified as a Fringeworld, and the Sunderers wouldn’t’ve just shot my admin’s head off. “Move it,” I said curtly.

Every minute I was on the ladder, my spine tingled. But no shot came, and I heard nothing except the wind until we were all on top of the fuselage, crouching on the starboard side of the bridge. Looked like I’d figured it correctly. There was only one sniper, and now I had a three-storey armored superstructure in between us and him. We called it the bridge, but most of it was the cargo hold. The actual essentials were safely tucked away below.

I figured it wasn’t a huge risk sending the kids below. They’d be safer inside the ship than they were out here. Martin, my engineer, and Mechanical Failure were down there, anyway.

I slapped the plate of the starboard airlock hatch, unlocking it with my palm-print. The hatch cover slid back smoothly into the hull.

“Get my scope,” Irene’s voice floated down from the top of the bridge.

“Which one?” I called back.

“The 20x tactical Dayforce.”

Pippa stopped me. “I’ll get it,” she said. “Where is it?”

I started to tell her no, then reconsidered. I didn’t have time to rummage through Irene’s tip of a cabin. “Ask the bald guy.”

I sped them on their way into the airlock with a slap on the littlest kid’s rump. I just hoped they did run into Martin first, not Mechanical Failure.

In the same motion, I leaned inside the cramped airlock chamber, opened a locker, and took out my tactical backpack. I shrugged it onto my shoulders.

Irene looked down from the top of the bridge. She was lying flat on her stomach, her head and the muzzle of her second-best rifle silhouetted against the gray sky. Figured she’d had it close to hand with Sunderers in the area.

“Kimmie’s dead,” I said.

“I know,” she said.

“If they come for the ship, hold them off until I get back,” I said.

“Why are they shooting at us?” she said.

“That’s the ten million GC question,” I said, not quite lying. I didn’t know that it was Zane Cole’s gang shooting at us. I just strongly suspected it. I realized that if we all lived through this, I was going to have to fill Irene in on my history with the Sunderers, such as it was.

I closed the airlock, descended the ladder, said a Hail Mary in my head, and sprinted towards the trees lining the back of our pad.

I knew that the wind was blowing onshore, perpendicular to the sniper’s line of fire, and with the amount of variation in its strength, he’d have a hard time dialing his windage up or down fast enough to shoot accurately. Especially at a moving target.

All the same, I was gambling with my life, and the only thing that drove me to it was the thought of Kimmie’s poster of Mt. Everest, and her body lying on the dirty ground of an alien planet.

Halfway there, I heard a crack. My brain said Irene and my legs kept running. I hit the treeline without slowing down, crashed into a curtain of vines, and stumbled to a halt.

I pushed the vines aside like a curtain, letting them fall back into place behind me.

Then I stripped off my clothes in record time. Stuffed them into my backpack.

Took a deep breath, hunched my shoulders, and Shifted into a wolf.

Keep reading Chapter 4

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