WEBSITE EXCLUSIVE PREVIEW
Moments after we touched down on Gvm Uye Sachttra, an antique floater bumped over the dirt field we’d been assigned as a landing pad. Several natives jumped out. They were about five foot high, furry, dressed in colorful diapers, with long muzzles crammed with teeth. “The St. Clare?” they said, through a ruggedized box hanging around the boss alien’s neck, which translated their clicks and hisses. “Twenty standard tonnes of food aid and agricultural implements for the refugees?” They wore lanyards identifying them as employees of Help the Hungry.
“That’s right,” I said. “If I could just verify your IDs.” They stretched out their forearms, and Kimmie, my admin, scanned the credit dots embedded in their blackish flesh. They checked out. It’s always nice to meet honest aliens.
While we were unloading the crates, the boss alien said, “Travellers.” He or she cast a dirty look in the direction of the vine-swaddled conifers that edged the pad.
“I know,” I said.
The spaceport sprawled along the coast north of the refugee camp, and several rocky barrier islands. We were on one of the islands. The Travellers were on the next one over. One ship, a sow-bellied cruiser daubed with thermal paint pictures of the macabre Traveller pantheon. Two prizes, already hacked up and stripped of saleable parts.
“Lousy rotten demon-worshipping pirates,” the alien’s translation box said, while its toothy mouth hissed.
I’d have smiled if it wasn’t so true. “Pretty much.”
The alien nudged me. We were standing on the top deck of the St. Clare. I was wearing jeans and a parka, wishing I had brought a heavier coat, white-knuckling through a bad hangover. “This is a good ship,” the alien said. “You could take ‘em out. How about it?”
The alien wasn’t wrong about my ship, anyway. I was justifiably proud of the St. Clare. She was military surplus, but not from the Fleet. She’d been the imperial flagship of a two-bit alien emperor who had been deposed shortly after commissioning her. I’d picked her up second-hand, and although she wasn’t perfect, I steered my thoughts away from what we called our “mechanical failure.” Not only was the St. Clare fantastically tough, she also boasted the armaments of the warship she had originally been. Forward of the superstructure, the elongated truss supported a flat top deck 50 meters long, which ended in a”‘head” whose serrated jaws concealed the mouth of a powerful railgun. We also had two turret-mounted large-caliber Gausses, plus a maser point defense system, and dual missile launchers on the belly for 360° coverage. Better have it and not need it than … yeah. All too often, we did need it.
“How much?” I said.
The alien named a laughable sum.
I shook my head. When I was in the army, I had killed people for peanuts. But those days were long behind me. Nowadays, I wouldn’t even consider it for less than seven figures. “If I hit them on the ground, it would depend on how accurate the strike was, but their antimatter containment ring might blow. Then you wouldn’t have a spaceport anymore.”
“Our chief-one-appointee made a deal with ‘em,” the alien said gloomily. “They get to sell their stolen goods at our spaceport. We get to live. Probably.”
And people wonder why aliens don’t like us. As one of the two great powers in the Cluster, humanity poses as protector of all the little guys who got caught on the hop by our third colonization wave, and forever lost the chance to develop spaceflight capabilities in their own way and in their own time. To be fair, if it wasn’t us it would have been the Eks, and we’re nicer than they are. But space is big. Ungraspably, horribly big. The Fleet can’t be everywhere at once. And unfortunately for our image, most of the predators out there are human, too.
Such as the Travellers, whom I had reasons of my own to detest. But I was trying not to think about that. Bitterness is ugly.
Dolph, my business partner and pilot, climbed down from the top of the bridge. He was tall and skinny as a rifle on legs, with a black ponytail straggling over the collar of his coat, and binos slung around his neck. “That ship has a HERF mast,” he said.
“Charming,” I said.
“Plus you have to figure they’ve got auto-nukes,” Dolph said. “There are clamps on the ship, nothing there. They probably left ‘em in orbit.” He scowled up at the clouds.
Auto-nukes—autonomous nuclear missiles—are also illegal, for a very good reason. You can’t tell ‘em from regular sats, until they fall on your head. I crunched some vitamins and chased them with black coffee from one of those self-heating bulbs. My hangover receded some.
To be honest, any sane captain would have bailed at that point. But I was too experienced to back down … and too broke.
“God, it’s cold,” I said. Dust hazed the distance. This whole strip of coast had been deforested. Even in human form, I could smell woodsmoke blowing from the refugee camp, and the tang of the sea.
Martin, my engineer, lowered the final crate of food aid into the floater, and we got down to the best part of the process: collecting our fee. Kimmie, wearing two pairs of fingerless gloves, processed the balance of the aliens’ 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 four light years away. Normally, we’d stick around until all our payments had time to clear, so we could chase up anyone who tried to stiff us. That could take days. I was not planning on sticking around here, but I knew that Help the Hungry was good for it.
Click, and I was 50 KGCs richer. That was payroll and operating expenses covered for the month, plus a few KGCs over that I could salt away for my daughter’s education. What I told her was that I was in the aid business.
The boss alien sidled closer to me. “You are not really human, are you?” the translation box whispered.
I looked down at the odious little creature. “Sure I am.” I was six foot one, with light brown hair that I kept short so it wouldn’t flop in my eyes. My open, square-jawed face served me well in business negotiations. I looked more built than Dolph, but sadly, not all of it was muscle. That’s what you get for spending too much time in freefall, and more time sitting on your keister.
“No, you are not.” The alien seemed quite sure of it. “You do not smell like a human.” It pointed a claw at Dolph. “Nor does he.” Martin had gone off to fetch the refuelling stand from the edge of our pad. Irene, my weapons officer, had just come out of the ship with her second-best rifle slung over her shoulder. The alien pointed at her. “She is not human, either. All of you smell like … animals.”
“Hot damn,” Dolph whispered to me. “Sniffed out by an alien on Planet Back-Asswards.”
“What about me?” Kimmie said. She was wearing a purple coat, to match her purple hair. She had a sweet, round face. A ruby sparkled in her nose.
“You are human,” the alien said, and hissed at her. “Goodbye,” it said to me. “Please give our regards to the team at head office.” All the aliens went down the port ladder head-first, like squirrels, then got in their floater and drove away. The levitation field, now compressed down to a few inches, bumped over every little irregularity in the ground, making the cargo jump up and clatter. There’s a reason floaters are not more widely used.
Dolph was laughing. “Good thing most people don’t have that keen of a sense of smell.”
“We are, too, human,” I said. “Homo sapiens versipellus.”
“Phooey,” Kimmie said. “I’m just a boring mainstream human.”
I smiled at her. “If all mainstream humans were like you, the Cluster would be a better place.” She was the youngest of the crew, as well as the only normie. I had a soft spot for her.
Irene was climbing the ladder to the top of the bridge. That’s what we called the three-storey armored superstructure, but most of it was the cargo hold. The actual essentials were safely tucked away below. While Dolph unloaded the remaining cargoes, I followed Irene up the ladder. The wind was like a wild thing, trying to rip me off the exposed rungs.
I knelt beside Irene behind the main radar dish, automatically falling into old habits of concealment from enemy spotters. From up here, we could see the Traveller ship over the untended hedges on the shores of the islands. This spaceport really was a dump. There were hardly any proper landing pads. Mostly you were just putting down on hardened dirt. In many places, rocks poked through like bones sticking up from a dessicated carcass. Most spaceships can cope with less than perfectly flat surfaces—the St. Clare certainly could—but all the same, it was an accident waiting to happen. Then there was the native greenery that had been allowed to grow up between the pads. A real mess.
There were two pads in between us and the shore of our island; one held an Ek landing shuttle, the other was empty. In fact, most of the pads nearby were unoccupied. Travellers can clear out a spaceport faster than rats in a kitchen. Despite what you may have heard about space piracy, the easiest place to steal spaceships is on the ground. The Travellers’ standard m.o. is to scream down out of a blue sky, land practically on top of their targets—they’re good at flying, I’ll give them that—and overwhelm them with high-speed ground assaults. Then they’ll fly their prizes away, sell ‘em or break ‘em up for scrap, spend the proceeds, and repeat.
They were selling, not stealing, today … probably. That margin of doubt was what had persuaded all the sane captains to leave.
“Looks like we missed all the fun,” Irene said. She measured the distance to the Traveller ship with a professional look in her cool blue eyes. “I could make that shot.”
“In this wind?”
“Sure,” Irene said. She was a vet, as were Dolph and I. But whereas we had been in the special forces, Irene had been a sniper. She probably could make that shot. She was the best marksman I’d ever met, or rather markswoman—55 kilos dripping wet, with fine blonde hair pulled back in a severe ponytail, and a husband and two kids at home.
“Those ain’t worth the antimatter in their containment,” I said, eyeing the Travellers’ prizes, a tramp freighter smaller than the St. Clare and a harp-backed scow. “Anyway, we still got a few more cargoes to deliver. The small-lot crap.”
“You’re the boss,” Irene said, making a face. “I’ll just stay up here and keep an eye on them.”
Figures in black coats moved around outside the Traveller ships, mingling with aliens and humans who were probably dickering for the stolen ship parts. They were too far away to make out any of their faces. I thought about going back down to borrow Dolph’s binoculars, then decided against it. I was better off not knowing.
I helped Martin hook up the water hoses to refill our reactant mass tanks, which involved dragging the refuelling stand across the pad on its rusty wheels, unkinking the hoses, attaching new sediment filters, and swearing like mad. At least it got us warm. While we were doing that, more customers arrived to pick up their stuff, and another floater delivered our return cargo—twenty tons of amateurishly packaged shipments for Ponce de Leon, mostly pre-processed rare earths, and some luxury items such as pelts and rare timber.
“Start loading,” I yelled up to Dolph.
“Can’t,” he yelled back.
“Why the fuck not?”
We were all grumpy. We always looked forward to getting there, after days in the field: shopping, going out for a drink, mooching around and feeling the dirt under our feet. Even on a semi-civilized Fringeworld like Gvm Uye Sachttra, there’s intel to be picked up and connections to be made, the lifeblood of the logistics business. Sometimes we’d make a side trip into the country and get in some hunting. All scrubbed off the agenda, because of the Travellers.
“Still got one shipment hasn’t been collected,” Dolph yelled.
“Oh, for—” I let loose with some curses that should have turned the air blue. “Which one?”
“The toy fairies.”
I cursed some more. Some whimsical individual had ordered 9,000 electronic toy fairies from a Ponce de Leon supplier. Leaving aside the frivolity of shipping expensive toys to a refugee camp, it wasn’t that unusual a shipment. Half of what we typically carried was aid and relief supplies. The other half was low-quality consumer electronics. Aliens love that junk.
I checked my phone. The customer’s name was Rafael Ijiuto, and he owed me eight KGCs. That was the difference between buying Lucy a new holobook or not. I tried to call the guy. My phone wasn’t working. No connectivity.
“I’ll go look for him,” I said resignedly. “Coming, Dolph?”
“Can I come, too?” Kimmie yelled.
“No, sweetheart,” I said. “It ain’t safe out there.” Ignoring her look of outrage, I climbed the ladder to get one of the toy fairies out of the hold. It would help Rafael Ijiuto to identify us, since I didn’t know what he looked like and vice versa.
The packaging was unusually heavy-duty: each fairy was encased in an airtight, opaque plastic bubble. I ripped one open with a knife and took the fairy out.
It had four wings, two for gliding and two that acted as a rotor. Basically, it was a fully functional drone masquerading as a toy. Lucy would love it. I decided to give her this one as a present. Rafael Ijiuto wouldn’t miss it, and I would not have time to pick up anything better here.
I fastened the remote control bracelet on my wrist and pressed the up arrow. The fairy rose into the air, its wings and long tresses sparkling luminously in the dimness of the hold. Watching the thing circle above my head, I unaccountably shivered, like someone had walked across my grave.
The fairy turned its head down towards me. The violet eyes in its plastic face froze me with a malevolent stare. I took a careful step backwards, watching the thing without blinking. For an instant I was back on Tech Duinn, stalking through the undergrowth, scarcely breathing …
I came back to myself when my right hand closed around the butt of my .22. Flushing with embarrassment, I turned the toy off. It fluttered down placidly to my wrist. Tense, much, Starrunner? It was just a toy. Good thing no one had seen me overreacting like that.
There was a junky old electric buggy sitting under the trees. Dolph and I got it started, after some fiddling with the battery connections, and drove down the coast to the refugee camp.
We spotted Travellers here and there on the main drag of the camp, browsing the stalls. They typically flew with huge crews, twenty or thirty people to a ship—their ground troops. The tattoos on their faces flickered and writhed, rendering them unrecognizable to facial recognition technology—not that there was any surveillance in a place like this, anyway. The skirts of their hideous black coats ballooned in the wind, permitting glimpses of the weapons strapped to their bodies.
The locals could have overwhelmed them at any time, a hundred to one. But whoever controls orbital space controls everything on the ground. That’s just how it is, and that’s why a few lunatics with auto-nukes can roll right over millions of dirtsiders, leaving a trail of pain behind them, like grass flattened by heavy tyres.
“At least it ain’t Cole’s clan,” Dolph said.
“How do you know?” I said. “The attrition rate is something insane. We probably wouldn’t recognize any of them by now.”
Yuriops cut across our path, their horns making them fully eight feet tall, while the sensing cilia of stargends nodded to avoid the cat’s cradle of power lines overhead. Eks fingered the local wares with their four hands. They knew the Travellers wouldn’t mess with them. Humans were their preferred prey, and sure enough Dolph and I were almost the only humans left … apart from the refugees manning the stalls. Cheap, flickery holo greeters in front of the stalls touted deep discounts, and desperation tinged the patter of the salesfolk.
“I need 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. This place 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 eldest looked about sixteen. The youngest was no bigger than my own daughter. Some years ago, a human colony had fled a war on the far side of the Cluster, wound up here—and here they had stayed, and multiplied. The natives were signatories of the Sapient Refugee Convention, jointly formulated by humanity and the Eks, and co-signed by all other biologicals, whether they liked it or not. They may not have appreciated being told to turn over a piece of their planet to several thousand homeless humans, but it had paid off for them. With typical human ingenuity, the refugees had transformed this barren 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 gave the girl a second look. 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—gray, smoky, smouldering with the same desperation that gripped everyone in camp.
“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 messer,” 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 glanced ruefully up at the fairy whirring above my head. The dust had turned its costume and long tresses gray. It didn’t look spooky at all now.
We reached a crossroads in the maze of the camp. Humans and aliens queued at the eateries. A crowd surrounded a chained Kimberstine haulasaur that was doing tricks. I even saw a couple of the Travellers in the crowd. Dolph muttered obscenities at their backs. I shook my head.
Suddenly, the toy fairy rose up to a height of twenty feet. I hadn’t touched any buttons on purpose, but maybe I triggered something by accident. The thing let out a sinister peal of mechanical laughter, and began to swoop around, scattering fairy dust. Dolph and I watched open-mouthed as the stuff blew over the crowds and stuck to faces, cilia, horns, and tentacles. It was just glitter. We were standing up-wind. Nevertheless, Dolph got some sparkles on his hair, and my watch cap would probably never be the same. The crowd let out that soft unguarded ‘oooh’ you hear when people have witnessed something unexpected and magical. Even the Travellers blinked in surprise. The Kimberstine haulasaur let out a melancholy roar.
The wind caught a last voluminous cloud of glitter and carried it away over the tent roofs.
“Did you mean to do that?” Dolph said.
“Nope,” I said. “I don’t think it’s working right. I’m gonna find something different for Lucy.”
The fairy descended towards us. I reached up and grabbed it. It struggled, its rotor trying to whirr in my hands. I found the power switch and turned it off. “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 of food 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. At the moment, however, Dolph and I were both in jeans and heavy coats. Ijiuto’s sartorial style helped to mask any anxiety he may have felt. He didn’t look scared, he just 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.
I had to lean in close to Ijiuto to catch his words. “OK to pick up the cargo directly from your ship?”
“Sure,” I said. “We’re on pad one-sixty-five, out on one of the islands. You got a vehicle? We’re talking four large crates, one hundred kilos each.”
Ijiuto nodded. “I’m going to hire a truck.”
“I’ll need the balance of your payment at that time.”
“No problem.” He was looking at the toy fairy. I’d set 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. “I love this product,” Ijiuto said. “Only humans would think of something like this.”
“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.”
“To human audacity,” I said, wryly.
“Huh,” Ijiuto said. “See those tattooed freaks walking around? They’re human, too.”
“We’re a versatile species,” I agreed.
We finished eating, paid the bill, and walked back towards the parking lot. Ijiuto was swiping at the screen of his phone. “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 had a strong sense of justice, in his own way.
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 meters away stood a blond, heavily tattooed man in a black leather greatcoat, glowering at us.
The man my wife left me for, seven years ago.
Zane might’ve walked away. Or I might’ve.
Then he decided to recognize us, after all. He 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 Sophia to leave me, after all. She had walked away of her own free will. But I still felt like punching him to a bloody pulp.
Dolph stepped in. “Where’d you jack those ships?” He let Zane know that we weren’t buying his ‘hey ol’ war buddies’ bullshit.
“No law against selling hulks,” Zane smirked.
“There is if you made them into hulks.”
“We’re contributing to the local economy,” Zane said. “You here on business?”
Dolph ignored the question. Stepping in closer to Zane, he growled, “How many bank accounts you had yanked so far? How many postulants you burned?”
Zane had odd scraps of leather and hair hanging off the lapels of his coat, decorated with beads and such. I could smell them from here. “You haven’t tanned those properly,” I said. “Remember how we did the deer hides on Tech Duinn? We built smoke pits out back of the FOB.”
“It ain’t easy on board a spaceship,” Zane said with a smile that made me want to claw his eyeballs out of his skull. “How’s the shipping business these days?”
The weird thing was how little the black coat had changed him. He always had been an aggravating lightweight, even when we served together during 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 Traveller.
It had surprised me—totally blindsided me, in fact—when my wife left me for this selfsame renegade.
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.
Zane had to be armed, too. But Dolph was distracting him for me. He wouldn’t have time to draw his own weapon before I could drop him. I could practically taste the blood that would gush from his wounds …
Snapping out of my violent fantasy, I reminded myself that I was forty-four years old, responsible for the livelihoods of a dozen people. Furthermore, we were being watched by assorted beady-eyed natives, refugees, and aliens. I pictured Lucy’s face.
I said, “So 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.
“Sophia!” Zane said. “Man, I haven’t seen her in ages.”
“Yeah, man. She left the life.”
I was speechless. All these years I’d been picturing them together.
“She washed out?” Dolph said. “Or you burned her?”
“Her? No way,” Zane said. “She just decided it wasn’t for her. It happens. I guess we’d all like to get in touch with her, but …”
“Why?” I said.
“Why’d she leave? Search me. You can’t make this kind of money in the Temple.” This was how the Travellers referred to mainstream society: the Temple, with them on the outside, going their own way. Having insulted us, Zane pushed back the left sleeve of his ghastly coat. We both twitched. But there was no weapon sheathed on his forearm. Instead, a chunky silver watch glittered amidst his arm hair. “Check it out. Genuine Urush fortunometer.”
“That the kind that tells your fortune as well as the time?” Dolph said.
“Yeah. Got it for 60 KGCs.” Zane was simultaneously boasting about what a good price he got, and bragging on his spending power. I wouldn’t net 60 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.
“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 face reddened. “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. 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 60 KGCs.
“Yeah,” Dolph said. He glanced at me.
“I thought they were still together,” I said.
“Maybe she wised up,” Dolph said.
We got in our buggy and drove back through the residential part of the refugee camp. Ragged tents surrounded open fires where people were cooking their messes, reminding me that the smell of woodsmoke was not only the smell of home but also of extreme poverty. It was terrible to see humans living like this. But I’d seen similar scenes, and worse, in a dozen different parts of the Cluster. Space colonization ain’t easy, even without Travellers preying on the weak.
A few klicks brought us back to the spaceport. As we drove onto the causeway that connected the mainland to our island, the Ek shuttle that had been parked next to us took off, drenching the world in noise and filling the air with dust. We bumped through the racket onto our island.
I stopped the buggy.
“I don’t believe it,” I said, over the fading thunder.
“Zane. I think he was lying.”
“He lies every time he opens his mouth,” Dolph said, “but why would he lie about that?”
“Because he didn’t want me to know she’s here.”
“He said she left the life.”
“Yeah, and as we’ve already established, he’s a liar. I’m gonna go see if she’s here.” I opened my door.
Dolph reached across me and held it shut. “That’s about the most boneheaded thing you could do.”
I didn’t wrestle him. We weren’t kids anymore. I stared out the windshield at the alien foliage pressing in on the road. “She left me without a word of explanation, Dolph. I deserve some kind of a fucking explanation. And so does Lucy. I haven’t told her anything. But she’s eight. She already wonders why she doesn’t have a mommy like other kids. Pretty soon she’s gonna start asking me questions, and what the hell am I supposed to tell her? I tell her enough goddamn lies as it is.” The words nearly choked me. “About what it’s like, what we do out here.”
“We don’t do anything bad,” Dolph said uncomfortably.
“Oh, not that bad, no. We deliver our cargoes. No contraband within five light years of the Heartworlds. We occasionally kill people, but only if we’re paid a lot of money for it, and no one will ever find out. I agree, nothing that bad.”
“You left something out,” Dolph said. “We try to help other human beings. In some ways, that’s the worst job of all.” He popped his own door and stretched into the back seat for his backpack. “Those motherfuckers bring the whole species down. I’ll go.”
“Jesus, no! You can’t—”
“I’ll just go and see if she’s there.”
“If she is—”
“Then I’ll pop her,” Dolph said, “for having the bad taste to leave you for that fucking faggot.” He grinned. “Just kidding.”
“Douche,” I said, with feeling. We had known each other since we were five, playing with stick guns in the forests of San Damiano.
“You’re the captain,” he said, “and that’s why you get to go back and make nice with the customers, while I have all the fun.”
He melted into the thickets.
I drove on, cursing violently.
My guts knotted with worry as I parked beside the St. Clare. It looked like we were dishearteningly far from ready to go. Power lines still trailed from the ship’s belly across the dirt field, feeding ship’s power into the grid. Places like this, you pay your landing fee with electricity. At least the refuelling stand had been rolled away. Kimmie sat on a bale of pelts beside the ship, writing up our manifest.
As I swung my legs out of the buggy, a ragged, undersized female accosted me. I had to struggle for a minute to place her.
“Mister, can you help me?”
That voice. Throaty, husky. It was the teenager from the knife stall. She was still clutching her cruddy plastic case of knives.
“Sorry, kid,” I said. “I’m kinda busy.”
“They got my cousins, mister. Please.”
“They did a sweep along the main drag. I hid. They took Jan and Leaf.” Her eyes were huge with desperation. Her brash patter and precocious attitude had melted away. Now she was just a girl—scarcely more than a child—in mortal panic. “Please!”
“Oh, Jesus,” I said tiredly. “They took them to their ship?”
“Yes. It’s over there,” she said, gesturing, as if I might not know where it was.
“Irene,” I yelled.
Kimmie trotted over to us, leaving her holobook on the bale of pelts. “Mike, she says they came through and took all the children. It’s the most heinous thing I ever heard of.”
“You are young,” I said. I walked towards the port ladder.
Kimmie walked fast to keep up with me. Her face set in the expression of flinty judgement that was the flip side of her sweetness. “We’re really asking for it,” she said.
I slowed my pace, making a show of patience. “Asking for what, Kimmie?”
“When the shit hits the fan, you know who’ll be to blame? Us. Humanity. For what we do to each other. For what we do to ourselves.”
“People are horrible to each other, Kimmie,” I said. “We were horrible to each other with stone knives and catapults. We were horrible to each other with revolvers and cannons. And now, we’re horrible to each other with spaceships and nanotechnology. The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
The girl understood humanity better than Kimmie did, She yelped, “I can pay you, mister!” She fished in the neck of her charity sweatshirt and lifted out a pendant. It looked like a three-inch, slightly curved dagger in a sheath studded with diamonds. “These are genuine diamonds!”
“Sweetheart, I got bigger diamonds than that in my ship’s bearings.” I started up the ladder.
As I climbed, I scoped out the next-door island. The coast 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. 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 probably walk out to these islands from the beach.
Irene came to meet me on the top deck, wearing a surgical mask, holding the business end of a high-pressure air hose. She must have been cleaning the dust out of the barrels of the Gausses. She believed in being prepared. “Where’s Dolph?”
“Over there,” I said, pointing.
“Oh, for the love of God, why’d you let him do that?”
I hesitated. Irene 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 Traveller. Or had been one. Which was it?
“That kid says they got her friends,” I said at last. “Where’s Dolph’s binos?”
“I left them up top.”
I climbed up the second ladder to the top of the bridge. The binos were lying behind the radar dish, next to Irene’s second-best rifle. I fitted them to my eyes. More people were now milling around the Travellers’ pad. Yuriops, stargends, several of the furry natives … and a whole lot of human children. The binos brought their little faces right up to my eyes in heartbreaking clarity. As I watched, another duo of Travellers marched up the road, herding several more kids.
I went back down to the top deck. “I’m going over there,” I said, not quite meeting Irene’s eyes.
“And do what, Mike?”
“I’m not sure yet,” I said. “Tell Marty to go ahead and load the cargo. I don’t think that joker Ijiuto is ever going to turn up.”
“I’ll cover you,” she said, heading for the airlock. “I’ll just go get my other scope.”
“Should I tell Marty to unload Ijiuto’s crates?”
“Hell, no. He hasn’t paid me. We got enough mass allowance to take ‘em home. At least that way we get a kill fee.”
I climbed down to the ground on the starboard side of the St. Clare. Glancing underneath the ship, I saw Kimmie sitting with her arm around the refugee girl, consoling her. She had even given the girl her purple coat. The sight of them together made me feel strangely alone, and less than human.
Carrying my tactical backpack, the twin of Dolph’s, I walked across the dirt field to the trees lining the back of our pad. I pushed the vines aside like a curtain, letting them fall back into place behind me.
In the dim greenish shadow under the vines, I stripped off my clothes. Stuffed them into my backpack.
Took a deep breath, hunched my shoulders, and Shifted into a wolf.
I’m a Shifter. Hundreds of years ago, extreme genetic modification was all the rage. The fad passed, but it left behind pockets of alt-humans with significant differences from mainstream humanity. We Shifters are the largest alt-human community, and if you listen to some people, we’re the most dangerous. In my opinion, the reason people say that is because unlike other alt-humans, we’re indistinguishable from normies.
Until we Shift.
Most Shifters have one, or at most two animal forms committed to muscle memory. Me, I have a bunch. But for the past couple of years I’d been favoring my gray wolf. I liked this beast’s power, speed, and sheer scary factor.
The wolf also excelled at stealth. I flowed through the curtains of vines, carrying my backpack in my teeth. Ecosystem contamination is always a risk when you hang out your shingle as a trading post. These invasive vines, which I recognized from Ponce de Leon, had killed most of the conifers stone dead. Bone-dry needles and twigs littered the ground. My wolf did not crack a single one of them underfoot.
With a map in my head, I turned west at the corner of our pad and followed the next hedge to the south coast of our island. That Ek shuttle was long gone, so I did not have to worry about someone spotting a predator that belonged on a planet 7,200 light years away. Scrubby native bushes grew right down to the coast of our island. Staying under cover, I peered out of the brush at the mainland and the next island over.
No one was driving along the coast road. I was too low down now to see anything of the Traveller ship except its tail antennas, meaning they couldn’t see me.
I jumped into the channel.
Hell, that was cold.
For an awful minute I couldn’t find the bottom.
I can’t swim a stroke. Not as a human, nor as a wolf. Jumping into the water had been an act of faith and calculation. I had assumed the channel was walkable, based on how much of that rock in the middle was sticking out of the water. Was it deeper than I had thought?
My claws scrabbled on the sandy bottom. I raised my head and gulped air—and the next swell lifted me off my feet again.
I kind of hopped across the channel, timing my lunges to the swells that surged through the channel to break on the distant beach. It was terrifying. The swells also dragged me inshore, so I ended up crossing the channel at a diagonal angle.
I didn’t lose my backpack.
I scrambled up a low crag and crawled into the bushes, soaked and shivering, with the taste of salt water in my mouth. I shook myself like a dog, then slunk uphill. The bushes got thicker. The leading tendrils of the invading vines entwined their tops. Now I was stalking under a roof of green leaves, which grew higher and denser as I got in among the dead trees on the edge of the Travellers’ northern pad.
All the way, I sniffed the air. A wolf has a much more sensitive nose than a human being. This is one of the biggest advantages of tracking in animal form. Unfortunately, the smoke and dust that saturated the wind covered any scent of human beings, except for the occasional punch of latrine odor where someone had snuck into the bushes to do a number two.
I doubted the Travellers had anyone posted in these woods, anyway. What would be the point? They wouldn’t be able to see out.
Chinks of daylight showed through the green roof ahead.
A sudden impact knocked me sideways.
I danced my feet under me and dropped my backpack in a silent snarl. Even before I felt the impact, I’d smelled a familiar scent: jackal.
The jackal now standing nose to nose with me was much bigger than a real jackal would be—almost as big as my wolf, and my wolf was bigger than a real wolf, tipping the scales at 82 kilos, same as me. Nothing is gained or lost in Shifting.
“Gotcha,” Dolph said, around the strap of the backpack he held in his teeth. Our animal forms were exact replicas of the Earth originals on the outside, but not on the inside. Shifting wouldn’t be much use if you lost your ability to talk.
“Well?” I said.
Dolph’s ears went back. “She’s not there. I’ve been watching them for the last forty minutes. I scouted all around the pads where they parked their prizes … she’s not there.”
“Maybe she’s inside the ship,” I said.
“Mike, she’s not there.”
“Goddamn,” I said. “I guess that asshole was telling the truth for once in his life.” I felt strangely empty. Only now did I realize how much I’d built up the possibility of seeing Sophia in my mind. I had even begun to plan out what I’d say to her. I read a book on deprogramming once. It said that you should try to produce an emotional connection to their former life by showing them the faces of loved ones.
“Never mind,” I said, emptily. “What’s going on?”
“It’s weird as hell,” Dolph said. “All these kids.”
I pulled myself together. “That girl from the knife stall showed up at our pad, asking for help. She said they took her cousins.”
We dropped our backpacks under a tree and flowed through the last few meters of the woods. The smell of the Travellers now reached us. Poorly cured leather, cigarettes, unwashed funk, and … hot chocolate?
Crouched flat, we parted the vines with our noses, a millimeter at a time.
Aliens milled, buying shit from the Travellers. In addition to ship parts, they also sell pirated software, that kind of thing. Kids were running around everywhere. There must have been two hundred of them. Some sat on the ground, eating candy and drinking hot chocolate. The Travellers were handing it out in paper cups. It came from a hospitality tent where the Travellers were showing off their digital wares on display screens.
Over this bizarrely festal scene loomed the Travellers’ ship. It was a monster. As high as a three-storey building, it measured a good 200 meters long from head to tail. A trio of tubular auxiliary engines supported it off the ground. Intricate thermal ceramic inlays decorated its fuselage and flaring engine bell, depicting figures from the Travellers’ mixed-up mythology. All of us try to keep some part of old Earth alive in ourselves—wolf; jackal … but the Travellers have cherrypicked the worst of our ancestral traditions to create their own pantheon of outcasts, spanning from Loki to Cthulhu. Whether they actually believe in these grisly gods is up for grabs. I suppose it depends what you mean by belief.
I picked out the kids from the knife stall without much difficulty. All the humans here looked kind of samey. Our ethnicities are muddled these days; the distinctions between normies and alt-humans have taken their place as our primary way of sorting ourselves out into categories. But you do still get similarities among people who all come from the same place. These refugees tended to unruly blond or brown hair, dark eyes, muddy beige skin. So did the kids I was searching for. But something else distinguished them from the others. They were the only ones who looked scared.
Terrified out of their wits, in fact.
The little girl I’d noticed before, who was about Lucy’s age, held a cup of chocolate without drinking it. A boy of twelve or so gripped her shoulders as if he thought they were about to be pulled apart.
A Traveller was talking to them, gesticulating impatiently.
Spaced out around the edges of the pad, more Travellers stood guard with battered old assault rifles. They were facing in, not out. I watched the one closest to us for a few minutes. His eyes had an unblinking, glassy lustre. His coat flapped in the wind.
Dolph and I retired into the woods again.
“Where are their parents?” I growled.
“Maybe they don’t have any parents.”
I made myself calm down some. “They couldn’t fit all those kids on that ship.”
“Nope,” Dolph said, “and they’re too young to be burners.”
This business of “burning” people was how the Travellers maintained their access to the financial system. They played an endless cat and mouse game with the EkBank. As fast as the Eks identified them and closed down their accounts, they recruited new postulants to open burner accounts. Tragically, the Cluster’s many failed and suffering colonies offered them a near-limitless supply of potential recruits. They left nine out of ten burned in their wake, dumped far from home, or sold off for body parts … but you have to be eighteen to open an EkBank account.
“This must be their new thing,” I said. “Recruit them young. Brainwash ‘em hard. Make them repair the outsides of ships in the Core. They’re probably going to take the ten smartest ones, and leave the rest wishing they’d been chosen. Hearts and minds.”
Dolph’s neck fur hackled. His ears were all the way back. “Well, what are we waiting for?”
I glanced up at the chinks of sky visible through the roof of vines. The light had not changed since we touched down. This planet had a long day.
“They screwed up,” I said. “They’re too close to us. They can’t nuke the St. Clare without nuking themselves. So I think we can get away with it, if we move fast enough.”
We talked it over for a few minutes. Then I held my backpack down with my teeth while I used a claw to activate the radio clamped to its strap. We had these little FM radios—they only worked over short distances, but they did work, even in places with no connectivity. “Irene,” I whispered. “Come in.”
“You in position?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Where are you? What’s the plan?”
I told her.
“There’s a .50 cal turret on top of that ship,” she said.
“I saw. But they can’t lower the elevation of that thing far enough to shoot up their own pad, even if they wanted to. It’s for area clearance.”
“You should’ve at least taken that alien’s money.”
“Point,” I said, laughing. I cut the connection. I thought about how maybe I was about to die. “Well,” I said to Dolph, “let’s do this.”
We split up.
Dolph went west around the pad, to the other side of the ship.
I went back to the location of that doped-up postulant and crouched directly behind him.
I gave Dolph a count of twenty to get into position.
Then I gathered myself and leapt out of the vines, pouncing onto the postulant’s back.
I knocked the postulant flat on the dirt. He smelled like prey, and I couldn’t resist clawing him up a bit. I ripped his trophy coat with my teeth and tore the skin of his back to ribbons. When he stopped fighting me, I left him lying. I kicked his rifle into the woods with a hindpaw, and dashed towards the two kids from the knife stall.
Some of the guards loosed off rounds, but we were fast-moving targets, and they couldn’t get a clear line of fire. The aliens, and all the kids, were screaming (or hooting, or lowing) and fleeing. A thought shot like a meteor across my mind: the Travellers were the worst predators in the Cluster, yet these folks were running from a wolf? That’s fucked up.
Before I could reach the kids, a Traveller the size of a yuriops plunged towards me with an axe cocked high behind his shoulder. An amateur with the weapon, he telegraphed his blow by shifting his weight. I anticipated the downwards sweep of the blade, danced outside his guard, and sank my teeth into his right forearm. His sleeve tasted like old cheese. I broke his elbow by twisting the arm the wrong way, and jumped over him as he crumpled.
Another Traveller charged in from my left, swinging at me with a katana. His two-handed grip suggested he had a clue about swordsmanship, but I was ready to bet he’d only ever practised on a human opponent. I leapt off the ground, all four feet together. His swing went under me, and his own momentum carried him into the collision.
I was already panting, tiring from the intense exertion. But in a head-on collision between a human being and a four-legged predator, the predator wins. Katana dropped his sword and jerked both arms up to protect his throat. I knocked him to the ground—I was bigger and heavier than he was—and mauled his forearms. The taste of blood filled my mouth, bringing a hit of exhilaration. I left him leaking and sprang clear.
A black-and-brown blur wove through the fleeing crowds: Dolph. I almost laughed as I realized the Traveller guards were no longer attacking us. They were trying to reach their ship. Dolph took his pick of targets and leapt on a postulant’s back. His pointy, almost dainty-looking jaws closed on the man’s neck.
In the same instant, my peripheral vision caught movement behind the tent. A rifle muzzle peeked out from behind it, pointing in Dolph’s direction.
I hurled myself at the tent. It collapsed under me—on top of the rifleman. Human forms struggled inside the folds of grubby nylon. I stepped on them to reach the rifleman. His hand emerged, groping for his weapon. I was about to bite the hand off when I saw the knock-off Urush fortunometer on the hairy wrist.
Heaven forgive me.
I bit it off anyway.
Well, not quite. The wolfish joy I took in savaging my enemies did not quite blind me to practical considerations. The little voice of caution in the back of my head, that had saved my life many times on Tech Duinn, warned me not to go too far.
So I didn’t literally bite his hand off. But I made sure he would be looking at an amputation or a long and painful reconstruction. I sank my fangs into his palm. His blood gushed into my mouth. His screams filled my ears. His bones cracked between my incisors. I wrenched my neck sideways, ripping muscle and sinew, tearing his hand into two floppy prongs, one of which was only attached by a bit of skin. The pinky was also hanging by a flap. I bit it off—
—and a bullet carved a furrow through the fur on my back, close enough to sting.
I spat out Zane’s pinky, dropped him, put my head down and sprang at the Traveller standing on the steps of the ship. He was a big blond with all the tattoos and the raised worm-casts of clan scars on his neck and face. He had come halfway down the steps to make sure of his shot. I could see the black circle of his rifle barrel, a hole through to eternity. I was dead for sure—
Blood gouted from the Traveller’s throat. He stood stock still for a moment, making a whistling noise as he tried to breathe through a windpipe that wasn’t there anymore. Then he dropped his rifle and toppled headfirst down the steps. His head hit the steps with a clonk like when you slap a steak on a cutting board.
I landed on his back. Panting, I kicked his body the rest of the way down the steps. Although I didn’t know for sure what had happened, I could guess: Irene had saved my ass.
She’d hit him in the throat from a distance of what we later calculated, using a sat map of the spaceport, to be 952 meters.
With an 11 kph wind gusting unpredictably.
There’s a reason her old unit, the Ghost Gators, was known as the best sniper outfit on Tech Duinn.
She kept shooting, leading her targets as they scattered. Faint, distant cracks reached us on the wind.
Carried away by violence, I had almost forgotten what we were here for. Now I remembered. From this higher vantage point, I spotted Dolph near the trees. He was dancing around a group of children, snapping at them. The boy from the knife stall swung at him with a stick.
I leapt off the steps and hit the ground running. I bowled into the group of children, knocking them over, and got my teeth into the little girl’s sleeve. Dragging her half off her feet, I sprinted towards the woods.
The boy followed. I thought highly of him for that.
The minute we got into cover, I let go of the girl and gasped, “Don’t be scared. We’re human.”
She stuffed the tail of her shirt in her mouth. Her face glistened with tears and snot.
We had not fled a moment too soon. The ta-ta-ta-ta-ta of automatic fire erupted behind us. Leaves fluttered down and pale gashes appeared in the woody stems of the vines.
“Run!” I snarled.
We didn’t have time to go back for our backpacks. We ran flat out. I wasn’t sure if the kids knew they were being rescued, or if they were running away from us. I didn’t care, as long as they went in the right direction: away from the Travellers, towards the shore of the island.
Stumbling through the coastal brush, we cut the corner and caught up with the Travellers’ fleeing customers on the causeway. They provided cover for our escape. At the mainland end of the causeway, Dolph and I chivvied the children down to the beach. The tide had come almost all the way in. There was only a taupe thread of beach left. We dashed along it, with the waves licking our paws and the kids’ sandals, and scrambled up onto the causeway of our own island.
The kids were done in, Dolph was limping badly, and we were exposed out here. I was wondering if we could make it back before the Travellers spotted us, when an electric buggy bounced out to meet us. I had never been gladder to see Martin. He said severely, “I feel very left out.”
“Sorry,” I said. “It was kind of impromptu. Hop in, kids.”
Reassured by the sight of a human, the children squashed into the passenger seat of the buggy. Martin opened the back door for me and Dolph to jump in, then floored it.
We jolted across the causeway, between the hedges, and turned the corner onto our pad. The bales and crates were gone from around the St. Clare. Martin confirmed that he had loaded the cargo. Another vehicle stood next to the ship—one of the spaceport’s rental pickups.
Rafael Ijiuto stood beside it, arguing with Kimmie.
“He showed up after I finished loading,” Martin said. “Wants his stuff.”
“Uh huh,” I said.
Martin parked the electric buggy next to the airlock. I clawed the door open and jumped out. I noticed that Ijiuto had a rifle in his pickup, the type known as a dino gun. Maybe he was planning to get in some hunting.
“Hey, Ijiuto,” I said.
He turned to me, registering shock that a wolf was talking. “You guys are Shifters?”
“No, I just happen to be a wolf right now,” I said.
“Ha, ha. Hey, I got nothing against Shifters. I was just surprised.”
“I understand that you want your cargo,” I said. “Well, too fucking bad. If you had showed up in a timely fashion, I’d have delivered it with my compliments. But now it’s at the back of the hold, behind twenty tonnes of rare earths and pelts strapped down in the precise distribution that won’t mess up the center of mass of my ship. So you’re not getting it. Sorry. Feel free to contact our complaints hotline.”
Ijiuto’s mouth opened and shut. “But,” he said lamely.
The kids spilled out of the buggy, shouting. “Pippa! Pippa!” The older girl was climbing down from the port airlock, in such a hurry she nearly fell off the ladder. The three children hugged. Their joy brought a tear even to my hardened eye.
Kimmie marched up. “Excuse me,” she said to Ijiuto, and bent down to speak to me. “Mike, I’ve been talking to her. I think we should take them with us. You wouldn’t believe what their lives are like here. They’ve got no future. No hope—”
An engine thrummed. Dust spurted up from the wheels of Rafael Ijiuto’s pickup. He had jumped back into the driver’s seat and reversed away from the ship. The pickup bounced away across the pad as fast as it could go, and vanished around the hedge.
“Well, that was easier than I expected,” I said.
Dolph held up his right forepaw. “I stepped on something,” he said. Blood oozed from a nasty cut on his pad. “Think it was a sword.”
He melted into a quaking mass of flesh, hard to look at, which resolved twenty seconds later into a naked man.
Shifting often has a revivifying effect. I can’t quite quantify it, and no one has ever proved it scientifically, but it feels like it kind of “resets” your neural system, so you get a respite from whatever was troubling you. That’s why I was able to bite a man’s hand off in wolf form, and that’s why Dolph stopped fainting from blood loss as soon as he became a man, and staggered upright, cradling his cut hand. Back in human form, he looked pretty shocking; stark naked, his straggly black hair loose, his mouth and chin smeared with Traveller blood.
I mentally shrugged, and Shifted back into human form, as well.
Kimmie was pushing the two younger children towards the ladder. Naked and shivering in the icy wind, I grabbed her arm. While the little girl and the boy climbed up to the airlock, Pippa hovered anxiously, her eyes popping at my nudity.
Kimmie had seen it before. She folded her arms. “Under the terms of the Refugee Convention, if they land on Ponce de Leon, the government’s required to help them. Anyway, we can’t leave them here.”
I could still taste Zane’s blood in my mouth. Now that I was in human form again, it was no longer a good taste. I spat on the dust. I had no time for this argument. We had to get gone. If enough of the Travellers had survived to launch their ship, we would be in trouble. “All right, all right,” I said. “Whatever you want.”
Kimmie broke into a smile as pretty as spring flowers. “You’re the best,” she said, and then a spaceship took off from the other side of our island. The noise drowned out her voice. It drowned out everything.
I made a move to get around her to the ladder. She sidestepped.
And then her head exploded.