Zane might’ve walked away. Or I might’ve. Nothing of what followed need have happened.

Then we decided to recognize each other, after all. Zane stopped walking. Dolph and I had already stopped. We stood face to face.

The wind gusted over us, making Zane squint. I saw the white in the frown lines he’d acquired on Tech Duinn.

He mustered a normal voice. “Well, hey! I wasn’t expecting to see you two chunks of space debris this side of Ragnarok.”

My palms were damp. Heat surged through my veins.

Intellectually, I knew I was angry at the wrong person. Zane had not forced my wife to leave me, after all. She had gone of her own free will. But I felt like punching him to a bloody pulp.

Dolph stepped in. “Did they forget to check IDs when you applied for a landing permit? Or you just lied to them?” He let Zane know that we weren’t buying his ‘hey ol’ war buddies’ bullshit.

“Who are you calling a liar?” Zane said. “We’re legit. Paid the landing fee and everything.”

“Guess it’s true what they say about the natives,” Dolph shot back. “They ain’t very freaking smart.”

“Other way round,” Zane said, still acting injured. “They’re smart enough to not discriminate. You here on business?”

Dolph ignored the question. Stepping in closer to Zane, he growled, “You scouting this place for a Sundering?”

As the trophies decorating his coat proclaimed, Zane Cole was a Sunderer. He hadn’t been one when we were in the special forces together. He had drifted over to them after the end of the war. Our war, the one that liberated Tech Duinn and killed my youthful illusions about humanity. It should not have been a surprise to me that one of our own would become a pirate … an exile from human and alien civilization, one of the Sundering tribes who gloried in a reputation so macabre, not even the Eks would mess with them.

It had surprised me—totally blindsided me, in fact—when this selfsame renegade walked off with my wife.

She had said she was bored with me. Bored.

Black spots danced in front of my vision. I realized I needed to breathe. I inhaled a lungful of dust, and felt something solid in my right hand. I was gripping the butt of my Midday Special.

If you’ve been in the army, you know you don’t need to be walking around encrusted with macho leg jewellery. A .22 is sufficient for most close-quarters situations. Especially when it is loaded with soft points.

My Midday Special would suffice to put Zane Cole on the ground right now. I could practically taste the blood that would gush from his wounds.

Snapping out of the fantasy, I reminded myself that I was forty-five years old, responsible for the livelihoods of a dozen people. Furthermore, we were being watched by a hundred beady-eyed natives. I pictured Lucy’s face.

I said, “How’s Sophia?”

Sophia. Never Sophie or Sophs. My ex-wife’s name suited her perfectly, conjuring the dark-haired elegance and pensive gaze that I had fallen in love with. I’d managed to forget the world-weary sneer more often seen on her face towards the end of our marriage.

“She’s good, man, she’s good.” Zane managed a weak smile. Pirate or not, at least he had the decency to feel awkward about the situation.

What I really wanted to know was if they were still together. But I was too proud to ask.

“You treating her right?” Dolph said bluntly.

Zane pushed back the left sleeve of his ghastly coat, making both of us twitch. But there was no weapon sheathed on his forearm. Instead, a slender lady’s watch glittered amidst his arm hair. “Got her a present. Genuine Urush fortunometer.”

Well, there was my answer. He wouldn’t be buying Sophia presents unless they were still together. I wondered where she was right now. Jomborg? Calthutitan? That still wouldn’t tell me much, as the Sunderers’ nomadic fleets of hellships seldom stay in one place for long.

“That the kind that tells your fortune as well as the time?” Dolph said.

“Yeah. Got it for 15 KGCs.” Zane was simultaneously boasting about what a good price he got, and bragging on his spending power. I wouldn’t clear 15 KGCs in profit this whole trip.

Dolph flicked the watch contemptuously with a fingernail. “Don’t need a fancy timepiece to tell your fortune,” he said.

“How not?”

“I can read the future,” Dolph said. “It holds a severe ass-kicking for you if you don’t get outta our faces right now.”

Zane drew back. His fair face flushed an angry red. “Shifter assholes,” he said. “Shouldn’t be allowed off the leash.” He walked away, the bits of dead people on the back of his coat bouncing.

“You got ripped off,” I yelled after him. He kept walking, but I thought his ears turned redder. “That’s a fake for sure,” I said to Dolph, forcing myself to speak in a regular tone of voice.

“Yeah.”

The Urush—the extinct alien race who are thought to have been the first intelligent species to conquer the Messier 4 Cluster—left behind odd bits of tech that still work after all these years. I had heard of their fortunometers, but no way had Zane scored a genuine one in a refugee camp for a mere 15 KGCs.

“What kind of Sunderer is he anyway,” Dolph said, “buying shit instead of just taking it? That’s gotta be against the pirate code of ethics.”

I made a gesture that meant I was grateful to Dolph for having my back—always and forever, amen, bro—but I needed him to shut the heck up right now.

He got the message and fell silent, after spitting out one more comment: “Makes me think less of the natives.”

I nodded. Even if the Sunderers had promised to be on their best behavior, the natives shouldn’t have let them land. Most spacefaring species don’t even allow them in-system, at least not willingly.

Admittedly, these little furry guys were not quite a fully-fledged spacefaring species. They contracted out their planetary security to a human outfit, one of the private military companies that flourish in the Fringe, beyond human territory proper. I guess this outfit didn’t want to risk any of their brittle old military surplus ships by telling the Sunderers no.

We saw the Sunderer ships as we drove in our rental buggy across the causeway connecting our island to the mainland. There were two of them. They peeked out from behind a hedge on the lee side of the next island over, about one klick away. Dust hazed the scene, and ships were constantly landing and taking off, rattling the bones in my head and stirring up even more dust. But there was no mistaking the angular dragon-heads of the hellships—sculptures welded together from steel plate—or the whip-like tails coiled over their backs. These “tails” were actually HERF masts, illegal weapons that could paralyze an enemy ship by killing its electronics. Illegal is no barrier to the Sunderers. Some people were moving around outside the closer hellship, setting up what looked like tents.

I strained my eyes, trying to see if one of them was Sophia. She might have come here with Zane. But it was no use. The figures could have been men, women, or even human-sized aliens. There are a few alien Sunderers, and they wear the same baggy, handmade crap as the human ones.

“Dolph?” I motioned towards the hellships.

“Uh huh.” He was staring in that direction. He’d seen them.

As we bumped off the end of the causeway onto our island, Dolph said, “Let me out here.” He reached across me and killed the buggy’s electric engine. The little vehicle drifted towards the shoulder.

“Dammit.” I spun the wheel to stop us from going into the ditch. “What’s the idea?”

“I’m just going to take a look around.” He popped his door. “They won’t even see me.”

What should I have said? Don’t? He was doing exactly what I wanted to do, and both of us knew it. I had trouble, oftentimes these days, stomaching my own petty hypocrisies. For better or for worse, my frayed sense of my own dignity prevented me from telling Dolph to get back in the car like a good little Shifter. I settled for, “Don’t kill anyone.”

He grinned at me. “I’m shocked, shocked, that you would feel the need to say that.” As he stretched to grab his backpack from the back seat, I glimpsed his gun inside his coat. It was a pocket Gauss of Ek manufacture. Of course he had it on him, just like I had my Midday Special. Uimphathat was known to be a dangerous place. “Couldn’t ask for better cover,” he said, raising his eyes to the horizon, and slipped out of the buggy.

What he meant was that this spaceport was a Godawful mess. Located about four klicks from the refugee camp, it had grown without a plan and with only minimal infrastructure. There were hardly any real landing pads. Mostly you were just putting down on hardened dirt. In many places, rocks poked through like bones sticking up from a dried carcass. Most spaceships can cope with less than perfectly flat surfaces—mine certainly could—but all the same, it was an accident waiting to happen. Furthermore, tenacious local greenery had been allowed to grow up between the pads, and around the water and cryo-fuel tanks on the coasts of the islands. This was a heavily forested planet—from space it looked green. It was just around the refugee camp that every last sprig had been uprooted, presumably by the refugees themselves. Nights can get cold out here.

Anyway, these untended, house-height hedges, blanketed by invasive vines, blocked my sightlines as soon as I drove onto the island. Tents filled in the gaps in the hedges and encroached onto the launch pads. Some of the refugees apparently preferred to live here, despite the noise. Having seen the housing provided for them further down the coast, I couldn’t blame them.

Pad 165 was much like the others: a dirt field equipped with water sprinklers and a movable fuelling stand. My ship sprawled in the middle of it like a beached plesiosaur. Around the ship lay bales and boxes of this and that which we were contracted to take back to Ponce de Leon. Kimmie, my admin, sat on a crate, writing up our manifest. There were several other people around, who I barely looked at, assuming they were the owners of all this crap. Then, as I swung my legs out of the buggy, one of them accosted me. She was a ragged, undersized female. I had to struggle for a minute to place her.

“Mister, you got a minute?”

That voice. Throaty, husky. It was the teenager from the knife stall.

“Sorry, kid,” I said. She had brought two of her little friends. “I’m kinda busy.”

“Where’s the other guy?” She stayed with me as I walked up to my ship. The other kids straggled, regarding the ship in awe.

“Irene,” I yelled.

The girl persisted, “Gonna let you in on a special deal. Two for one. I shouldn’t be saying this, but it’s hot stock, know what I mean? Gotta move them.” She grinned. The grin stopped me in my tracks. It was so … joyful, despite her awful life circumstances. And yet when it went away, I could still see that hint of desperation in her eyes. “Just have a look, whaddaya say?” She opened a cruddy plastic case and brandished a knife to show me as we walked.

I grabbed her hand and twisted the knife out of it. “I say don’t wave a goddamn blade at me. Or anyone.” I seized the case, fitted the blade back in, closed it, and tossed the whole thing to one of the other children. “You pull a knife, you’re just bumping the odds of getting stabbed yourself.”

She stared at me, nursing her fingers, and said quietly, “I live here, mister. I know.”

Irene, my weapons officer, looked down from the top of the ship’s fuselage. She was wearing a coverall and surgical mask, and holding the business end of a high-pressure air hose. She said, “I tried to get them to go away, Mike.” She shrugged and went back to cleaning out the barrels of the hull-mounted guns. We had two rotating large-caliber Gausses, plus a maser point defense system, and dual missile launchers on the belly for 360° coverage. Better to have ‘em and not need ‘em, than need ‘em and not have ‘em.

Irene was as tough as they come, but I would bet she hadn’t tried very hard to make the kids go away. She had two children of her own. Moreover, her shrug said the same thing as Kimmie’s silence: You’re the captain. Your responsibility.

“Kids, we’re not buying,” I said, heading for the port-side ladder. “Try the next pad over.”

“Mike? Is that your name?” The girl changed tack. “You heading back to PdL after this? Matter of fact, we’re looking for a ride. You take passengers?”

Her tenacity would have made me smile, on a better day. Now it exasperated me. “No passengers,” I grunted, starting up the ladder.

Another of the kids, a boy of maybe twelve, spoke up for the first time. “Mister, this is an awesome ship.”

I didn’t disagree. My ship actually looked enough like a Sunderer ship that we got grief from folks who’d never seen a real one. It had a ‘head’ whose serrated jaws concealed a powerful energy cannon—but my ship’s head was rounded, with a sort of a goofy grin. The cuddly lines continued through its fat fuselage. Its four wings looked like flippers, although in fact they were auxiliary engines. Up top, a jumble of retrofitted point defense systems and a cargo crane resembled a bunch of luggage tied on top of your minivan. No doubt its first owner had been mightily disappointed. I suspect he had asked for something that looked like a hellship. What he got was this, and now I had it, second-hand. It could do half a gee of constant acceleration for days, or turn on a dime in FTL, and you wouldn’t feel a thing. I shrugged off the kid’s praise, but I was keenly aware that I must look to them like the possessor of impossible riches.

A man with his own spaceship.

And bills to pay.

And the ex-wife from hell.

And Zane Cole’s gang of Sunderers, coincidentally on this planet at the same time as me? The Cluster was too big for that to be a coincidence .

Continue Reading Chapter 3

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