Sunday, March 30, 2014

Prodigal Prince, Ch. 22-23


TWENTY-TWO: Ready to die

Foxe felt it—a shudder in the deck beneath his boots. He shot a look at Frique. “What was that?”
            Frique’s hairless scalp was glistening with sweat as he helped Foxe move Rumav’s limp body through the passageway. They’d thrown a green gown around the kid; his skin was still slippery from the fluids in the crèche, but he was walking—actually, Rumav was stumbling like a wounded drunk with their arms around him. The single being they’d encountered while making their way here, a customer of Morine’s, didn’t care what they were doing. He just walked away muttering about costs, and Foxe felt relieved at not having to shoot him.
            The docking junction was down at the end of this corridor. Just a dozen more meters—
            An alarm began booming around them before the shaking stopped.
            “Shista,” Frique said. “Hull breach.”
            “ATTENTION! STATION WILL LOCK DOWN IN THIRTY SECONDS! STATION WILL—”
            Then the voice ceased as if a knife had cut it. The alarm stopped. What the—
            Frique dropped Rumav into Foxe’s arms. “We’ve got to get out of here.” Rumav groaned as Foxe caught him. His eyes flicked with confusion and fear, then closed again.
            “Wait!” Foxe tried to grab at the tech but Frique slipped away. Before Foxe could lower Rumav safely to the deck he felt a different pounding under his feet. Running.
            “Wait!” He lunged forward and snatched Frique’s ankle. They fell to the deck and Frique rolled over, kicking frantically at Foxe.
            The pounding drew closer. Foxe glanced up over his shoulder and saw the two Udorian males who wanted a son. Their names were Clayte and Tenner, and they running like panicked urfallo down the passageway. One of the big Udorians kicked Foxe’s leg by accident as he ran past. The other one jumped over Frique’s arm.
            Good—distraction. He nudged Frique with his boot. “Move! Fast!”
            He lugged Rumav down the passageway. Ahead in the junction, he could see the security andy struggling with the two Udorians. Big as they were, the andy could have taken both of them down in a few seconds if Tenner hadn’t wrapped himself around its trunk, pinning its arms down so it couldn’t fire the pulsers installed beneath its synthskin. The side of his face was bleeding, though—the andy must have gotten off at least one shot too soon.
             Clayte clutched its head, twisting it from side to side. That rarely worked—most androids had their primary processing units mounted inside their torsos. But that didn’t matter to Foxe as long as they kept the andy distracted. Most beings thought androids were invincible and indestructible, thanks to the marketing techniques of their Murrani manufacturers. But Foxe had fought them often enough to know where the vulnerable points were.
            But just as Frique reached the junction area, two more andys popped from a compartment inside a bulkhead, darting forward in search of targets. “Get down!” Foxe shouted.
            A bolt of plasma spurted from one android’s palm, hitting Clayte in the back. The Udorian screamed as his shirt and skin burned away but somehow kept his grip tight around the andy’s head. Tenner ducked his face behind the andy’s body, howling in rage.
            Frique flattened himself on the deck. With a quick, “Sorry, kid,” Foxe dropped Rumav and dove toward the second new android. He skidded past its legs and jabbed a fist up into its back, at the base of where a human spine would be. He felt a metal disc beneath the synthskin and punched again, and the andy froze.
            Not for long—the android would reroute its control systems in a second, but the interruption in signal flow gave Foxe enough time to shove it against the other andy, knocking its arm away from its aim on Tenner. Foxe kicked himself forward and slammed against the two andys as hard as he could. Pain lanced his shoulder but his push knocked both off their feet and onto the deck with twin thuds. “Get the kid!” he shouted to Frique.
            Looking for Rumav, he saw Clayte slowly collapse, toppling to the deck like a fallen skywood tree. Clayte stared down at Tenner’s body, his arms still wrapped around the andy’s torso, and howled in rage.
            Keep screaming, Foxe thought as he grabbed the rising arm of one andy and rammed the heel of his boot down into the other one’s chest. He felt the andy’s primary system drive crack, and its head flopped to the deck as Foxe jumped to his feet. But the other android rose up at the same moment, both arms thrust forward as if intent on crushing Foxe’s body in a lethal embrace.
            Foxe lowered his head and pushed himself forward between the android’s outstretched arms before it could fire a blast from its murderous pulsers. Hit it, he thought as he reached around the andy’s waist and jabbed his fingers at the control disc in its back. His blow connected; nothing happened. Damnit to hellcore! The machine had already rerouted its control after observing Foxe’s tactics with its partner.
            Foxe dropped flat and pushed at the andy’s knees. One foot shifted slightly. He shoved again and the andy fell, crashing to the deck, plasma surging wildly from its palms. Heart racing, Foxe hurled himself on top of it, slamming both fists down at the secondary control unit inside the killing machine’s chest. Come on, damn it, shut down! It raised an arm and Foxe twisted his head, feeling the plasma sear the back of his neck as he stabbed downward again. This time something crumpled beneath his knuckles and the andy’s arms dropped.
            He saw Frique dragging Rumav toward an airlock and felt a rush of relief. Just a few more seconds to safety. Tenner was kneeling next to Clayte’s body, a screeching wail keening from his throat. Poor bastard . . ..
            More footsteps pounded the deck. Foxe staggered to his feet, legs aching, and turned to face the next rush of security forces. But the beings hurtling into the junction weren’t security. He saw a young station tech, face pink with fear, shoving his way past two more human customers who were half-dressed and gasping for breath as they ran. More followed behind them. Foxe could almost smell their desperation. Lockdown or not, these beings wanted off the station, and a tether connection couldn’t hold their ships.
            A bear-built security guard called Borr shoved a human female and lumbered through the throng. Foxe braced himself for an attack. But Borr wasn’t interested in him, or in slowing the stampede. His eyes were tight slits as he scoped the area for the nearest open airlock. Getting out, like the rest of them.
            One of the fallen andys tried to lift an arm; Borr glared at it and slapped his comsol, and the android’s eyes went dark. He blinked at Foxe, veered away from him, but Foxe tripped him with a quick kick and he went skittering across the deck, clawing for his pulser.
            Foxe planted a boot in the center of the guard’s broad back and whipped the cable from his arm. He slung it around Borr’s throat and pulled until he heard desperate gasps for air. 
            “What’s going on?” He twisted the cable viciously. His voice shook as he repeated: “What’s going on?”
            “Attack,” he grunted. “Mines—all over. They’re going to blow the station. Some piece of material—they want—let me go!”
            Foxe tightened the cable. The guard screamed as Foxe slipped Borr’s pulser from its holster.
            “Who do they want?” He pressed the weapon against the back of Borr’s skull, charging it up with a flick of his thumb.
            “I don’t know! Material . . . in an escape pod, thirty minutes. And someone named—”
            “Foxe!” It was Frique, standing at the airlock. “Which tether?”
            Before Foxe could answer, Borr slid his arms beneath his body and thrust himself backward, up from the deck. The sudden move gave the cable around his throat some slack, and he twisted, trying to scramble free.
            Foxe dropped the cable and jumped back, knocking into a Ustalli’s flailing tentacles as it scuttled toward the airlocks. He aimed the pulser at Borr’s body.
            “Foxe,” Borr whispered, his voice raw. “You skullfucking son of—” Still straining for breath, he lunged for Foxe.
            Foxe shot him in the chest. Borr stopped, his feet slipping on the deck, and his face grew pale. “You—slimesucker . . ..” He closed his eyes and fell, clutching his chest, and rolled onto his side, curling up like a bug trying to protect itself. Borr’s shoulders shuddered, then went limp, and he was dead.
            Idiot. Foxe turned, peering through the growing crowd of desperate beings trying to flee. Clients abandoning their dreams of genetically-manipulated children, station crew just as frantic to leave Leda to its fate, security guards shooting through anyone unlucky enough to stumble in their path, and at least one crèche refugee, naked and dripping, staggering with hazy eyes. Shouts of rage mixed with loud weeping and fists pounding at the airlock hatch. Foxe smelled the different odors of sweat and excrement from the cascade of frightened beings, caught the scent of alcohol and a whiff of perfumed pheromones, but most of all he smelled fear. Death. Desperation. All because of me, he thought, suddenly angry. What did Shrinn want with him? Why was he so important now?
            A security guard shoved his way to the andy’s desk and began pressing keys. In a moment the airlock hatch began to rotate, and the cluster of bodies tightened into a knot as each being fought to be first through the opening. Foxe saw a pair of shoulders push forward, scraping the sides of the hatch; another body fall to the side, screaming as the crowd crushed him against the bulkhead in their desperation to escape.
            He realized he was looking for Val in the churning mess of beings. But she wasn’t coming. They had to leave. Now. He spotted Frique, looking angry and scared, his hands hooked under Rumav’s arms and his hairless skin slick sweat. Foxe ran toward them, pushing two beings in Leda uniforms out of his path.
            He pointed to the open lock. “Third tether. Get him in there and bring the systems online.” He blinked, bringing back the access code Val had set up for him. “It’s Omega 357 Epsilon, slash Foxe. F-O-X-E. Go! I’m right behind you.”
            Frique glared at him. His arms were trembling with fatigue and his face was close to total panic. But Foxe’s order, and the hope of getting free of the station, gave him a final jolt of energy. He lurched toward the lock. “Come on, boy. At least the tether will be zero-gee.”
            Foxe took one last look up the passageway. No Val. Damn it. Damn it to hellcore.
            “Are you coming?” Frique barked.
            How much time did she have? Not enough. Not nearly enough.
            “Are you any kind of a pilot?” Foxe asked.
            “I can handle a NavBoard. I ran the bridge on the last ship when the boss—why are you asking . . . ?”
            “Wait ten minutes for me,” he heard himself say. “Then leave if I’m not there. Set the NavBoard for Riskannon, it’ll be in the database. Take him.” He patted Rumav’s arm.
            “What are you going to do?” Frique demanded.
            Everything seemed clear now; his mind was quiet, his muscles relaxed despite the distant thump of pain in his shoulder and his neck. It was the kind of peace he only felt when he got ready to die.
            “You get going,” he said.
            Without another word, Frique began dragging Rumav toward the airlock.
            Foxe forced a deep breath into his body, letting it focus him. No time for anger. Thirty minutes. Fifteen by now. Time was sliding down the event horizon.  “Damn it to hellcore,” he muttered.
             Foxe launched himself against the surge.



TWENTY-THREE: Tricks

Val trembled as she fought the pleasure rippling through her body. No, no, go, don’t let it— And then the sensations vanished.
            The sudden emptiness made her scream.
            She’d been tortured by Lakach bandits with dull knifes and rough rope. Still had those scars. Llanos Cartel dealer had skulljacked her brain, locking her mind in cold silence that seemed to last for centuries. She’d been threatened with gang rape by the Dragonlords of the Eighth Order, but fortunately the First Lord needed almost six days to achieve a full erection, and she’d managed to escape while his massive organs—three of them—were still limp. But the fear had taken root in her memory.
            Through it all, she’d survived because she could endured pain and fear and stay sane. She could handle torture, at least for a while.
            But this wasn’t pain. And—kitt!—she didn’t want to escape it.
            Every time Azid withdrew the claw from her arm the pleasure stopped, and she felt as if she was falling into a pit of frustrated desire with no bottom. Her rational mind was a whisper in a thunderstorm of physical need. She had to tell him. She couldn’t. She wanted to. She would—she knew that. Sooner or later . . . sooner . . . now! No. Yes! She’d talk. She’d do anything. But no, she had to wait. Give Foxe as much time as possible, a chance—
            “You want to answer,” Azid urged. His voice was soft, soothing.
            “Yes,” she said.
            “Then tell me. And you can have it all.”
            She took a deep breath. “I—I told you,” she grunted. “Ben tried to rape me. I just wanted to see the crèche . . ..”
            He hissed sadly. “No more pleasure, then.”
            She wanted to beg him to touch her again, but instead she clenched her teeth, gasping in frustration. The intake of air in her throat cleared her mind a little. Just enough to cut a line between her desire for more pleasure and her conscious judgment. The longer he held off—the more he denied what she ached for, damn it, she wanted it!—the easier it would be to keep fighting. Without the surge of pleasure from his claw she wouldn’t have to face the crushing disappointment that came when he pulled it back. In a few minutes she might get more pleasure, enough to make it—
            The door slid open, and Val cursed silently. An interruption meant she’d have to wait longer for Azid to touch her again, to give her—No! Kitt! She hunched forward and took another deep breath, resting her face in her hands. At least they hadn’t restrained her yet. Azid was armed, and by now she was too helpless with lust to think about breaking free. What did Morine want?           
            Go away, Val thought. Let me take it once more. Please.
            Azid stepped back, and his arm slipped back to its normal length. “We‘re very close—”
            Morine’s eyes burning with dark fire. Her biomech fingers looked like daggers. “Who are you?” she demanded. “And Foxe? Who?”
            “What?” Val blinked, sincerely confused.
            Azid’s eyestalks twitched. “What’s going on?”
            “They’re bombing Leda!” She looked ready to claw Azid. “My Leda! Antimatter mines!”
            “Gods and demons . . ..” Half his eyestalks flicked toward the door.
            She yanked the nerveblade from Azid’s belt. Fingers curled tightly around the handle, she marched toward Val’s face. “What was in that crèche?”
            “I don’t know what—” Was?
            “Where did you take it? That material, where is it?” She activated the blade, creating a thin silver beam that glittered from its handle.
            Where . . . ? Rumav was out of the crèche? How?
            Foxe. Of course. He’d done something right. Probably an accident.
            Val shook her head. “I just don’t know—”
            Morine stabbed the nerveblade at Val’s eye.
            She remembered that they hadn’t closed the chair’s restraints. Her arms were free. She reacted by instinct, blocking Morine’s arm and pushing the beam off target. Morine stumbled back, reaching for her dartwand, her face choked with rage. But Azid stepped forward at the same moment and they collided. It gave Val just the chance she needed.
            Pushing off from the chair, she launched a high kick that connected with Morine’s shoulder. Morine fell back into Azid’s arms. With a curse the Venzoid shoved her away, reaching down for one of the neutron pistols strapped to his leg.
            Val jerked forward, hitting Azid’s chest with her bent arm. She tackled him to the deck, and his roar of anger shook her body. The breath from his belly smelled like spoiled protein cubes and fried eggs. She grabbed at his wrist as he fumbled for the neutron weapon, and slammed his hand down against the deck. The weapon skittered away, but Azid brought another arm around and punched her face like a hammer. Stars exploded in her eyes, yellow and white, and the blow rocked her. She shoved down on Azid’s chest and thrust herself to her feet, snapping her heel down on another one of his three hands as it clutched at a flechette pistol on his other leg.
            Morine had her dartwand in her fist. “All right, bitchlicker,” Morine growling, breathing heavily. “Stop it right now—”
            The blast from the door caught Val by surprise. Morine never saw it—a bolt of plasma that burned into her spine. She opened her mouth, tried to scream, but she dropped before her lungs could draw the last breath she needed. Her biomech hands flinched, searching for signals from her brain, but she was already so close to dead that her fingers could do nothing but clench empty air.
            Foxe stood in the doorway.
            Blood on his sleeves, sweat on his face. His eyes flicked across Val’s body for injuries, and his gaze made her feel . . . warm.
            Then he turned his weapon and shot Azid as he scrambled across the deck. The blast incinerated his eyestalks, and then he pumped a second bolt into the gaping mouth in the Venzoid’s belly. An odor worse than the stench of his breath burst in the air, and a puddle of fluid spread in a black sticky circle around his body.
            Foxe waved an arm. “Come on.”
            Val looked down at Azid with a stab of regret for the pleasure she’d never receive from him. Disgusted with herself, she leaned down for Azid’s neutron pistol. “Well, you've screwed up everything.”
            “Yeah. I could see them begging for mercy. We’ve got maybe eight minutes before—”
            “I know. Who is it? Shrinn?”
            “Probably. I killed some of his people back on Crystal Rendezvous. Didn’t think he’d take it so—”
            “Where’s Rumav?” She jumped around the pool spreading around Azid.
            “Your ship. Probably in D-space by now.”
            “You gave him my ship?”
            “Him and a tech named Frique, and I trust him less than a leechworm, but I had to get Rumav out of here as fast as I could if I was going to—” He cut off his words.
            “Rescue me?” The skin of her face felt suddenly warm, and one of her legs twitched. Probably just the aftereffects of Azid’s pleasure torture. “Remind me to thank you. I might forget.”
            “Buy me a drink sometime. Let’s get out of here.” He peered through the doorway. “Clear. Everyone’s fighting their way off.”
            She came up behind him. “Then let’s find another ship fast.”
            “Oh, good thinking.” He pointed down the passageway. “There’s a docking port that direction. Come on.”
“Right behind—ahhh!”
            Pain ripped through her leg like a jagged knife. Mother of suns! Her knee buckled and she tumbled forward, cursing more in surprise than pain. Foxe whirled around, and the expression on his face scared her more than any of Morine’s threats had.
            One of Azid’s arms was trembling centimeters above the floor, clutching a flechette weapon that spit a stream of small metallic darts across the room. Some hit the ceiling, some sank into Morine’s flesh. Foxe’s arm moved like a whip, and the pulser flashed. Val saw the small shooter roll across the deck, but Foxe kept firing, one pulse after another, his jaw clenched tight, his eyes cold and pale.
            When he stopped, Azid’s body was a lump of charred black tissue. Foxe knelt next to her, breathing hard, and ran his hand over the wound in her leg. Blood seeped onto his fingers.
            “Think he’s dead now,” Val said, her teeth tight, willing the medplant in her body to dull the pain. Sometimes it worked.
            “We don’t have time to get the darts out. Can you walk?”
            “I can handle a little pain.” She pushed against the deck and stood, her leg steady. “Let’s go.”
            “Are you all right?” He showed more concern than she’d ever seen in him.
            “Don’t have time.” Her first step toward the door was a stagger; the second one was smoother.
            He fired another blast at Morine’s corpse and whispered an insult she didn’t catch, then followed her into the passageway.
            Her walking improved with each step, but she knew they’d have to pull the flechettes out soon. The medplant could only delay infection for a few hours. Of course, they could both be dead in a few minutes. That clarified priorities.
            She reached a turn in the corridor, but Foxe gripped her shoulder. “Wait,” he whispered.
            “Sure. We’ve got time unlimited.”
            Foxe ignored her as he crouched and leaned around the corner. “Okay. Come on.”
            Around the turn they stepped through an opening onto a nine-meter square platform. A vertical shaft extended several hundred meters above and below them. Chest-high rails guarded the platform’s edge, but they swung open on either corner. A lift on one corner and a ladder opposite allowed beings to reach airlock hatches that were spaced every thirty meters up and down the shaft. Most of the hatches were wide open—someone had obviously overcome the lockdown protocols here, too. Those ships had sailed. Three were shut and locked, two above them and one below.
            Foxe pushed the railing open to the lift. “Go up. I’ll cover us.”
            “They took my handcomp.” Its hackware was state of the art, but the security andy had taken it away before shoving her into the interrogation room. Opening a hatch without access codes in the time they had was a roll of the dice—one roll, live or die.
            He patted the gameplayer clipped to his belt. “All right—you cover us.” He stepped onto the lift.
            Footsteps. She lifted Azid’s neutron pistol. “Foxe . . .”
            “Right.” He moved from the lift as two beings raced through the doorway onto the platform. One was human, male, red-faced and gasping from fear and exertion. Behind him came a gray-skinned Narixian female, her face calm, as if she were only late for afternoon tea.
            They skidded to a halt as they saw the weapons pointed at them. The red-faced human looked ready to pass out. “Wha—what . . ..”
            “Take us on your ship,” Foxe said.
            The Narixian stiffened her spine. “That’s imp—”
            Foxe shot her before she could finish the word. The blast hit her in the middle of the chest, and she staggered back one step as if trying to escape. Then she dropped flat on her face, one arm dangling over the shaft.
            The human looked from Foxe to Val and then back. “You didn’t have to—”
            “Shut up,” Val ordered. Part of her agreed with him, but mostly, she realized, she was just glad Foxe wasn’t wasting time. “Just take us.”           
            “All right, just a second . . .” He reached for his belt. Foxe caught his arm and jammed the pulser into his neck.
            “Tricks get you killed,” he growled.
             They crowded onto the lift. “What’s your name?” Val asked as they ascended.
            “Lars. L-Lars Highcliffe. This is—they won’t—”
            “Just get us on your ship,” Foxe said. “We’ll worry about your friends.”
            The lift came to a stop at the second closed hatch. Foxe pushed Highcliffe onto a narrow ledge. “You know what to do.”
            Highcliffe’s hands trembled, but he slipped a keychip from his pocket and pushed it into the slot. Time was running out for all of them. He tapped the entry code with quick fingers
            The hatch popped outward and they crammed into the airlock. A secondary station hatch stood open, but the ship’s own hatch just behind it was closed, a blinking red light warning of imminent departure. Highcliffe punched in another code, breathing so hard Val was afraid he’d hyperventilate.
            The ship hatch remained shut. Highcliffe entered the code again, and then pushed a button above the pad. “It’s me! Lars! Open up!” He began tapping the entry code again, his fingers frantic.
            “Highcliffe?” The voice was impatient. No surprise there. “What the nine hells—get on board! Where’s Pillek?”
            “She’s—” He flinched as Foxe pushed the snout of the pulser into his back. “Security andys. They got her. Let me in!”
            “Come on!” The hatch swung inward.
            Foxe shoved him forward. Highcliffe tripped against the foot of the hatch and sprawled across the deck with a whimper. Before Val could follow, Foxe pushed her to one side and opened fire, spraying plasma across the entryway. She heard a loud curse.  When it faded into a groan, Foxe glanced at her and then stepped over Highcliffe’s legs into the ship.
            “Okay,” he said. “Come on.”
            Inside a human male lay on the deck, bleeding from his left side but still alive and moaning. The entryway was a small, narrow space, with monitors on the bulkheads for atmosphere, pressure, temperature, and other factors. A storage compartment was marked “Exo.”
            “Cover the door.” Foxe hauled Highcliffe through the hatch. Val ignored the wounded human’s gasps of pain as Foxe secured the hatch, her eyes and ears on the passageway beyond.
            “Arno? Is Lars on board?” The voice came from a comm unit in the bulkhead.
            “Answer,” Foxe ordered.
            “I’m here! Let’s go!” Highcliffe shouted.
            “Hatch reads secure. Detaching in fifteen . . . what the nine hells is that?”
            She looked at Foxe. He shrugged, and kicked Highcliffe’s arm. “Get us to the bridge. Now.”
            He got to his feet faster than Val expected, still panting anxiously, and scampered through the inner hatch as if expecting Foxe to shoot him in the back. Not an unreasonable worry, she thought. The man was ruthless. It scared her—and made her feel a little more secure. And feel . . . not now! Kitt!
             She felt engines humming beneath her shoes, and the slight shudder of the ship pulling away from the docking clamps. The passageway was empty, and its pale yellow walls needed fresh paint. Highcliffe stumbled once but Foxe caught him, and after huffing and puffing for a few dozen meters he stopped and pointed to a step of steps. “Up there.”
            They’d hear his words. She expected a shout, or at least a hello, but before she could wonder about the bridge crew’s lack of curiosity Foxe hammered up the steps, pulser high in his hand.
            Her leg stabbed her as she hopped up after him. Another pulser blast burst in the air, but no cries of pain answered it. When she reached the small circular bridge she saw four beings standing at different stations and a burning hole in one chair.
            The size and shape of the bridge told her they were on a Cougar-class transport, not much larger than her yacht. Where was her yacht? She sent that thought away as she looked over the crew. Two humans, one male and one female, and a Rann-dishii, all of them more concerned with their boards than with Foxe’s attack.
            At the command board a tall being stood, eyes stretched wide with anger. His blue face looked familiar.
            “Who the fugue are you?” he demanded, and although she’d never heard the voice before she realized where she’d seen him now.
            Tadori. That Tadori. “Quili’s Fire,” she said.
            “Does that matter?” Foxe pointed his weapon. “Station’s going to blow. Let’s go!”
            The Tadori’s skin darkened from blue to black as his anger grew. Then it faded as he examined the pulser. His eyes began to shrink back to a calm, normal radius. “Skrag your soul,” he hissed, then turned to the Rann-dishii at the NavBoard. “Detach and prepare for transition.”
            “Skrag his soul,” the Rann-dishii agreed, but he began entering commands into the board.
            “Hey, we’ve got a tag.” This came from a human on the SurveyBoard with sweat on the back of his skinny neck.
            Shrinn, obviously. “Dump it,” Val said. “Scour your hull—”
            “that’ll take ten minutes, maybe more. Are we going to wait here for the station to go nova?”
            “Let’s deal with that later,” Foxe snapped. “Get us off the station now.”
            “All right,” the Tadori said, his face tense.
            “Is your Forward drive online?” Foxe asked.
            “Of course, but—”
            “Then transition. Right now.”
            “You can’t be serious,” the Tadori said. “We’re right next to Leda.”
            “Do you defectives want to get blown up?” Val jabbed a finger toward the hatch. “Any second now we’ll lose any chance we have of getting out of here.”
            Foxe smiled. “Better do what she says.”
“Skrag both your souls,” the Tadori said. “Begin the matrix sequence. Pillek—”
            “She’s dead,” Highcliffe said, looking at Foxe.
            The Tadori looked ready to leap forward at Foxe, pulser or no pulser, but he restrained himself with an effort. “Tiki . . ..”
            “Beginning matrix sequence,” the female said.
            The ship suddenly lurched. Val tumbled to the deck, cursing, and almost lost the neutron pistol.
            “The station is going,” the human male said.
            “Do it!” Foxe ordered.
            The ship seemed to roll, and Val’s stomach churned with the familiar sensation of transition to D-space. The whirling, twisting confusion inside her body lasted longer than it should have, and for a moment she was certain something had gone wrong—the mine hadn’t been repelled, or Leda had blown too soon, or the matrix had missed an atom of matter or antimatter in its field. She was going to die. Kitt!
            Then they were through. Val opened her eyes, and saw Foxe standing over her, whispering something with urgent intensity. He stopped when she took a breath, and his face relaxed.
            “You all right?”
            “Just fine.” She sat up, and the ship spun around her again, but it was just pain mixed with relief.
            “Pathway stable,” Tiki said.
            Foxe’s arm jerked up, the pulser pointed at the Tadori. “Don’t try anything. Tricks get you killed.”
            “He killed Pillek,” Highcliffe said. “And he shot Arno, I don’t know if he’s—”
            “Shut up. Everyone on the deck, face down. Now!”
            The Tadori knelt, but his face remained defiant. “I know you. Crystal Rendezvous, I saw you—”
            “Ancient history,” Foxe said. But she could hear the anger in his voice. Quili’s Fire had brought Rumav here. Brought them here. Brought Shrinn. “Just stay out of my way and nobody else has to get hurt.”
            “What about Arno?” Highcliffe was on the deck, hands behind his back.
            “The sooner you’re secure, the quicker I can check on him. Speaking of . . . .”
He swept the pulser across the bridge. “How many more on board?”
            No one answered. They didn’t look ready to die, exactly, but they were trying their best to show him that they hadn’t surrendered yet.
            Foxe fired a burst of plasma into the deck next to Tiki’s foot. “There’ll be one less in two seconds,” he said. “Who’s in the engine room? Who runs Forward drive?”
            “That was Pillek’s job,” Highcliffe muttered.
            “A ship this type wouldn’t need a big crew,” Val said.
            “We’ll see.”           
            Val grabbed the edge of a chair and pulled herself up. Her leg buckled, and swung the chair around to plant her butt in it.
            She wanted to sleep. Now that life seemed a little more permanent, the pain  neutralizers were making her drowsy. But they had too much work to do. Check the Forward drive’s parameters to make sure the matrix was stable. Examine the NavBoard to determine the pathway and take control of the ship once they transitioned. Sweep the ship systems for traps.
             “Keep an eye on them while I look for a brig.” He pointed to her neutron pistol. “Don’t give anyone a chance to try anything. Don’t let them talk to each other, or you. Don’t be afraid to—”
            “Not afraid of anything,” she said, her voice low.
            He nodded. “Thanks. For taking care of the mine. I’ll take a look at your leg as soon as we’re secure.”
            “I’m fine.”
            He nodded again. Something in his eyes that she hadn’t seen before. It hadn’t been there when Leda was about to explode. Looked like concern. Worry. For her?
            Then he turned, and she heard a sigh. “Still alive,” he said.
            He sounded almost disappointed.
            “We’ll find him.” Val wondered why she felt the need to reassure him. Foxe was arrogant and annoying, but he could obviously take care of himself. “I can locate Gemstone anywhere in the galaxy.”
“I just hope Shrinn didn’t plant a mine of her.”
            Did he just call Gemstone her? Foxe didn’t seem the type. But Val shook her head. “High-integrity hull mesh. It’ll detect any mine that attaches itself, even if it drills in. And throw it off.”
            “Must be nice to be rich. What about tags?”
            “Like that one said—” She gestured toward the SurveyBoard human. “Tags are small. Scouring takes time. He’ll be able to track her.”
            “Then we’d better be fast.”
            Val nodded. “Yeah. We better.”
           

Leda died in minutes.
            The first SP-2s detonated in sequence, a ripple of miniature supernovas bursting across the station’s hull, tiny but destructive needles of energy flaring and then vanishing in less than a half-second. The structural forcefields collapsed, and sheets of oxygen shot from the long rupture, a steady stream of gas that expanded into thick billowing waves as the gash cracked across the station’s surface. Huge chunks of the hull ripped free, whirling into the vacuum.
            Then the secondary mines fell inward through the long gap created by the SP-2s on the hull, and their explosions a moment afterward tore through the interior bulkheads and ignited the atmosphere inside. Fire roared silently through the decks, burning away the remaining oxygen as it tried to escape into the cold void. The walls began to break up, throwing off white-hot chunks of metal that whirled into space, quickly fading into black shadows against the dazzling brilliance of the nebula dust.
            The ships surrounding the station fought desperately to engage their engines and gain a safe distance. Some made the D-space transition; others were destroyed, shattered by the debris spinning away from the center of the firestorm, spilling their machinery and inhabitants into oblivion.
            In moments it was done. A few final bubbles of atmosphere coughed up out of the empty bulk. They dissipated in seconds, like a flickering meteor hurtling down from the night sky toward its rocky doom. Shards of the station began drifting away, dead rats floating on a roiling sea. Maybe a few compartments deep inside Leda remained pressurized; perhaps some of the crèches hadn’t been damaged; a few zygotes and fetuses might have survived inside their gestation tanks. But Leda was gone. In less than a standard day the Sorresana Nebula would be empty of life once again.
            “The station is destroyed.” Mateon’s voice was quiet.
            Silence dominated the deck. His crew had done their duty, but the complete destruction of a station full of living, sentient beings wasn’t something to celebrate. Even when it had to be done.
            It had to be done.
            “Begin a survey on the wreckage,” Shrinn ordered. Videos of a ruined station wouldn’t satisfy Darel, not without—
Declannes straightened his neck, looking nervous but determined. “Sir, I have an active tag from . . . Valeria Lynd’s vessel.”
            An active tag meant—escape. How? “Where is the ship?” he demanded. This wouldn’t have happened with Lanesh here. Seven hells, could he depend on anyone to do their jobs?
            “Teska-2,” Declannes said. “One hundred thirty light years . . .” His voice trailed off. “It’s gone again.”
Shrinn’s jaw trembled as he clenched. Damn it, he’d ordered—
            “Tracking indicates the mine detonated less than a hundred meters from the station.” This came from Mateon. “Somehow the ship—it must have flung the mine free. They could have installed a defensive hull mesh that—”
“I’ve got it. Hawk Beta. Three thousand light years.”
“Someone could have stolen it.” Aje stood in the doorway. Watching.
“And detached the mine? Hacked their NavBoard in a matter of minutes?”
“The mine detection could have been automatic,” Mateon said.
“Not the NavBoard,” Declannes said. “I tried to access it with everything I’ve got. Without the right passwords, it’s solid. It’s got to be an evasive maneuver.”
“Maybe they’re injured,” Aje said. “They need time in D-space.”
Foxe would take Rumav straight back to Riskannon. Lynd’s ship was flitting randomly across the galaxy didn’t make any sense. Unless . . .
He stared at the shattered remnants of Leda on the screen. “Start the survey,” he ordered. “Keep tracking the ship. Keep my updated on its location. They may be trying to lead us away. We need to check the debris.”
“Yes, sir.” Declannes opened another window on his board.
“Let me know if the ship remains in any one place for longer than fifteen minutes.
Keep the Forward Drive online. I want to be ready for transition on my order.”
            “Sir.” Declannes gave an affirmative nod.
            Aje had gone. Maybe he disagreed with Shrinn’s orders. But Shrinn couldn’t go rushing through the galaxy on a pointless chase. Patience before swift action led to victory.
            Aje understood that. They all did.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Engaging with authors: A few random thoughts


I’ve been thinking a lot about how I engage with authors lately.

From the 1980s through the mid-2000s, I knew a lot of local mystery writers. I belonged to the Mystery Writers of America (associate member) and went to all the monthly meetings, and met people like Sara Paretsky, Barbara D’Amato, Sam Reaves, and others—people who’d published novels and were happy to hang out with wannabes like me.

And of course I bought and read their books, and got them autographed. Part of the reason—to be a little cynical about it—so they might feel obligated to buy my books if I ever got published. But mostly because I genuinely liked their writing and valued their friendship.

But I was always aware that I was friends with their authors. I would picture them in key roles, hear their voices narrating, and think about how they approached this scene or that character. Which made for a somewhat different experience than reading something by Robert Parker or Nevada Barr.

All of this was before the Internet, of course. Now that I’m reading mostly science fiction, I engage with authors by obsessively reading their blogs. It’s similar in some ways, except that they don’t know who I am. I might occasionally post a comment, but generally I lurk and wait for entertaining flame wars to break out. (“You’re an idiot!” “No, YOU’RE an idiot!” “You’re a bigger idiot!”)

But still, it’s a connection to the author. I worry that if I’m ever at a convention and John Scalzi walks into an elevator, I’ll casually say something like, “Hey, John, how are Krissy and Athena?” forgetting that he’ll have no idea who this guy and why I’m asking about his family like a stalker. And then he’ll call security.

At Windycon last fall, Jim C. Hines, a fantasy author who was Guest of Honor, was walking down the hall, and I was THIS CLOSE to saying “Hi, Jim, good to see you!” But I didn’t. I should have, because I’m sure he would have been gracious; he seems very nice on his blog and in person. But I realized he wouldn’t have the slightest idea who I was, and that might be awkward for both of us. Plus, I’m a coward. But I did go to a reading he gave and got a book of his autographed later, and he was indeed very nice.

(I will mention that I did force myself to ask George R.R. Martin if I could take his picture at WorldCon two years ago. He agreed, but seemed irritated. Fortunately the picture was fine, because there was NO WAY I would have had the nerve to ask for a do-over.)

Anyway, I think about this because I’m frequently doing the same thing now that I did in my MWA days—choosing the books I read because of my “relationship” with the author. I don’t read a lot of fantasy, but I read Jim C. Hines’ books because I like him and his blog. I’d read Scalzi anyway, because he mostly writes the sort of space opera SF I like, but my enjoyment also has an element of personal support for him, especially since his political opinions and mine mesh pretty closely.

I do make a point of looking for new authors as much as I can, so I hope it all balances out. And I try to be open-minded about books by authors I know I disagree with, or who just seem to be jerks online. In my MWA days, I didn’t love every member I met, but I did try to read at least one of their books or stories in the interest of fairness. 

I do my best not to read a book with my mind on whether the writer is liberal, conservative, nice to animals, or awful to panhandlers in the street. I’d probably be less annoyed with an author promoting a left-wing agenda than one who clobbers me with visions of a libertarian utopia, but in the end I’m likely to be irritated either way.

I’m not leading up to any grand point here. Just trying to remind myself to keep an open mindabout what I read. Because everyone should.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Blame the polar vortex


So it’s been a few months since I posted anything new and original. I hope you've all been enjoying the chapters of Prodigal Prince I’ve been posting one by one (or two by two), even though I’m doing it far too slowly and inconsistently. The novel is actually finished (in the sense that I’ve written the last chapter and rewritten and revised and—I hope—improved the thing over time), so I really have no excuse for not putting chapters up more often. Except the polar vortex, because right now I’m blaming that for everything.

For those of you following my life and attempts at a writing career, here are a few glimpses of what’s been going on:

• Conventions. I went to Capricon a few weeks ago, a local SF convention in Wheeling, Ill. I typically go to two conventions a few, both close to home: Capricon in February and Windycon in November. I’m getting up my nerve to volunteer to speak on a few panels. I’ve realized that I can speak more or less authoritatively on Star Trek, Doctor Who, Firefly/Serenity, and the challenge of writing every day whether you feel like it not, since that’s my actual day job. So when Windycon starts looming on the horizon, I’m going to put myself out there. Or chicken out. We’ll see.

• Books. I’m going to recommend a book, with one caveat: The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova. It’s a novel about Dracula, in which three generations of historians become obsessed by the possibility that Vlad the Impaler is a vampire, still “alive,” and still dangerous. The book follows three separate but interconnection stories as each main character attempts to track Dracula down in Eastern Europe. Very well-researched and well-written, lots of atmosphere, lots of history.

The caveat? I stopped the book about halfway through. It’s very long, and told in an epistolary format (letters and more letters), much like the original Dracula by Bram Stoker. And while it did hold my interest as far as I got, I decided there were other books I wanted to read soon, and this would have taken me another two or three weeks (reading for an hour at bedtime, which is my “serious” reading, as opposed to the books I read on the bus). So I gave up, not because I didn’t like it, but I was getting too impatient for the payoff. Still, if you have the time, and like Dracula, I recommend the book.

• Writing. I’m sending my urban fantasy novel, A Bar Called Revelations, out to another major publisher. We’ll see what happens (and how long it takes). After that I’ll probably start seriously researching small presses. And I’m working on my other urban fantasy novel, The Black Guard, which is going very quickly in the first draft, probably because I don’t really have any sort of an outline. I’m just making it up as I go along, veering from one action scene to the next. Great fun.

Thanks for your patience, and enjoy the latest installment of Prodigal Prince.

Prodigal Prince, Ch. 20-21


TWENTY: Prey

“It’s here,” Ben said. “Wait and let me check there’s no one in there.”
            “Hurry,” Val told him.
            He was nervous again, breathing as shallowly as he had when taking her to Station 4. Something about his behavior was wrong, she realized, but she didn’t have time to analyze it. She had to watch him punch in the codes so she could use them herself if she needed to.
            “Nobody,” he said. “Morine was here an hour ago but she left. It’s safe.”
            “Let’s go.”
            “I don’t know . . .”
            “Ben—” She bit her lip. “It’ll be all right. Just let me take a look at it. You won’t get in any trouble. I promise.”
            “Okay.” He entered the unlock code and the door slid open.
            Creches filled the room—ten of them, translucent boxes on gray pedestals, monitors blinking at the foot of each one, cables and tubes snaking in and out, medical instruments set into cradles around the sides. Harsh white lighttubes in the ceiling emphasized the sterility of the chamber. The air tasted crisp and clean, but that just made the atmosphere feel that much more monstrous.
            Inside the nearest crèche she saw a humanoid floating within a cloud of hazy pink gas, as still as a corpse, probes and needles sticking its body at a dozen points. The number 387 glowed in the monitor. 
            Who were you? Val wondered. How long have you been here? If I took you of the tank, how long would you survive? For a moment she toyed with the impulse to start opening the crèches and free all of them, or at least as many as she could fit in her yacht. No one deserved this half-life, not even the beings who were doing this to them. Even if they died within minutes, a clean death would be better for all of them.
            But she had a job to concentrate on. Maybe when she was finished she could transmit the location to AW and let them come in and take the station. Yeah, that’ll happen soon. She had to get Rumav out of here. The others were—not her problem.
            “This is Materials Management Three,” Ben said. “It should be right over here.” He put a hand on her elbow—the first time he’d touched her. His grip was firmer than she expected, but she let him lead her across the room to a crèche in the corner.
            “This one’s empty,” she said. The monitor was dark, the tank clear.
            “No, I mean—this one.” He pulled her around.
            The monitor read 1682. Wrong number. She felt his hand running up her arm and in a flash realized that she’d made a mistake. Ben’s nerves weren’t fear, but excitement.
            She twisted her arm, yanking it free of Ben’s fingers. He lunged forward faster than she expected, as if it were part of his plan, and wrapped his arms around her waist. They tumbled to the deck. She felt his breath against her chest as they hit the hard surface. 
            Ben was on top. Fortunately he wasn’t very heavy, and with a grunt she was able to push him off her body. She chopped her hand across his neck. He yelped, but instead of crawling away he pushed himself forward and rammed his head into her stomach. Hard.
            Spawn of a— Val couldn’t breathe. For a moment she struggled for air, gasping helplessly, and then Ben reared up and slapped her face. Bright lights flooded her eyes, and her face stung as if burned by a plasma flare.
            She kicked, her knee slamming into his hip with bone-shattering force. Ben scampered away, stumbling on his feet. Val launched herself at him, intent on taking him out as quickly as possible. No time for games. But he ducked down as she flew forward and caught her ankle in his hands and yanked. Her shoulder rammed into the deck, and Ben jumped on her again with a frustrated grunt. Val felt a hand on her neck and another one ripping at her shirt, his fingers grasping at her chest. “Don’t . . . don’t . . .,” he whispered, and she felt his breath on her cheek, hot and stinking.
            She butted her head up into his face. She felt his nose crumple and heard another yelp, softer and angrier than before. But he stayed on top of her, his hand tightening around her neck, sending shocks of pain shooting down her spine.
            “I’m—sorry,” he hissed. “You just—can’t—know what—”
            Anger flooded her body, and Val shoved an elbow into Ben’s side. A rib cracked. His grip on her neck loosened. “No!” he shouted. Val rolled off her shoulder and scissored her legs around his hips, flipping him onto his back. She sprang to her feet and aimed at kick at his face.
            Ben curled up into a ball, blood dripping from his nose, weeping with a pleading wail in his voice. “No, no, please . . .”
            She changed her mind and drove the side of her foot into his shoulder. He shuddered, clutching his nose, and lay still. Crying.
            Val caught her breath and straightened her blouse, staring down at him. Pathetic, she thought. Piece of horny trash. I could rip off his
            But she stopped and took a deep breath. “Ben? Ben!”
            “Wh-what?” He pressed his face against the deck, trembling all over.
            “Where’s 9749?”
            “I’m . . . sorry . . ..”
            “Ben! Look at me.”
            He blinked tears from his three eyes and peered up, his mouth hanging open, as if ready to scream for mercy.
            Worthless scumspore. “If you touch me again I’ll kill you. You know that, right?”
            He nodded, sniffling.
            “Okay. Where is 9749?”
            “M-Management Two. Across the hall. I swear!”
            You will swear if you’re lying again. She leaned down, caught his shoulders, and pulled Ben to his feet. She put a hand around his throat, pressing her thumb down just enough to make breathing a real worry. “Get me in.”
            “All—” He croaked, unable to speak, and then just nodded. Val spun him around and clamped a hand down on his shoulder, digging her fingers into his skin. Then she walked him across the room.
            “No tricks,” she whispered.
            “No—no. I’m sorry—”
            “Shut up.” She waited for him to open the door.
            He lurched across the hall, his legs shaking, to a door marked with the numeral 2. Checked the entry log, then tapped in the access code. The door slid open.
            Her shoulder still throbbed, and she had to focus on slow, even breathing to keep the pain and anger under control. She’d underestimated Ben, assumed he was harmless. But no one was harmless, and the list of people she trusted completely was filled mostly with the names of dead people. Foxe wasn’t on that list yet, and she doubted he’d ever make it in this lifetime. Ben was off it permanently.
            “Over here.” Ben tried to pull his shoulder free but Val kept a clawlike grip. He led her to a tank labeled, yes, 9749.
            “On the floor,” she ordered. “Face down. One twitch and I’ll kill you.”
            He dropped to the deck, flat. “Hands behind your back,” she ordered. He clutched his hands together, whimpering.
            Val stepped to the monitor. The being was in level-2 suspension; vital signs were healthy. The readout provided some basic information that told her she was looking at Rumav. He’s right here. But how— “Ben, how do I get him out of here?”
            “You can’t—they’ll—”
            “Ben!” She swung over and stomped her heel down on his foot. He squealed. “How I do open this up?”
            “My access code—77 Alpha Epsilon 4315.” He moaned. “There’s a menu. Second from the bottom.”
            A panel sprang up on the screen. “Got it.” Resuscitate Full. “Just press?”
            “Yeah. Then—”
            Authorization clearance required. “It’s asking for authorization.”
            “Uhh . . .”
            “What do I use?” she demanded.
            “I don’t have one. You need specific codes every time—”
            She hit Cancel on the menu. Now what? “Can I wake him up manually?”
            “It’s dangerous! You can’t do it—”
            “You’re the one in danger, Ben! What do I do?” How much time did she have? She tapped her comm bracelet to get Foxe, but Ben lifted his head, a desperate look in his eyes.
            “Shut down the primary system,” he told her. “Then disable the AG field, and then you can open the tank and detach everything.”
            “Is this going to trigger any alarms?”
            He closed his eyes and gave a nod of despair. “They’re probably already on their way.”
            Kitt.” She resisted the urge to kick Ben across the face. At least he’d warned her. “Up. Now.”
            She hauled him off the deck and dragged him toward the door. “Open it!”
            The passageway was still empty. How long? Seconds, maybe. And now she realized that it ended in a bulkhead twenty meters away. Only one way in or out. Good planning.
            She shoved him back toward the door to room Three. “Inside.”
            “They’ll know—”
            She hit him across the face. He screamed, then collapsed to the deck like a leaf. Val stepped over his body and began entering his access code. She could get inside, hide, warn Foxe—
            “Don’t move.”
            An android’s voice, cold and commanding. Val froze.
            The andy held an arm outstretched toward her. She knew it had a pulser mounted inside its arm, ready to burn through the synthetic skin on his palm. It had golden eyes and a body like a big Harlikkan death-wrestler. A humanoid male stood behind it, glaring at her.
            “He tried to rape me!” Val shrieked. “He tried to stuff me in one of those tanks and—and . . .”
            “Ben.” The man stepped around the andy, shaking his head. “Idiot.”
            “Controls were activated on 9749,” the andy said. “That behavior does not match her statement.”
            “I got away!” Val triggered tears from her eyes and let her shoulders shake. “Then he opened that door and I fell against a machine—”
            “You’d better come,” the man said. “Right now.”
            “But he—”
            “You will both accompany us,” the andy said. “Any attempt to resist or escape will result in countermeasures that may lead to injury or death.”
            “You can’t—can I call my husband?’ She reached for her comm bracelet.
            “No communication,” the andy said. “Place your grasping appendages above the highest point of your body. Co-operate when the guard places appropriate restraints on you.”
            “This is— ” She stopped as the human moved toward her, keeping clear of the andy’s aim. With a sigh she lifted her hands.
            Gotten out of worse hellholes, she thought as the guard pulled a roll of restraint tape from his belt. Lots worse. “All right. But there’s going to be trouble.”


“Who knows about these passageways?” Foxe asked.
            “Everyone,” Frique said.
            Foxe was hunched over, the ceiling rubbing the top of his head. Glowspheres every ten meters cast dim light, and his feet kept kicking empty bottles and the occasional mutant rat. “So how safe are we in here?”
            “You can only reach about half the station here.” Frique’s whisper echoed like the call of a distant bird. “None of the secure areas. They just haven’t bothered installing surveillance yet. Or they don’t want to take it away from us.”
            “How’d you end up here?” He still didn’t trust the tech.
            He sighed. “My ship was making a delivery, and the boss was bored with me. Traded me for some slimehog with a bigger rod. First couple of months I didn’t mind. It was different, and I didn’t have to forn anyone I didn’t want to. But you ever spent four years inside a cube? Out in the void?”
            Foxe had endured a prison camp for six months of freezing air, raw mutant-meat, and daily beatings. This place didn’t seem so bad. But his universe had been limited to a dark blockhouse and thirty other dirty prisoners with nothing to live for. Maybe not so different. “I can see your point.”
            “I’ve got to get out of here. Ay, I’m on the red list right now, one more mistake and—okay, here.”
            He stopped, pressed his ear to a seam in the gray wall. “Empty. I think.”
            “What’s out there?”
            “Food storage. Automated. Shouldn’t be anyone in there right now.” He checked his wrist. “Not for another hour.”
            “Then where?”
            “The Management compartments are just down the hall.”
            “But I bet they’re monitored.”
            “Yeah, but I go in all the time. Unless we do something stupid—”
            “How far to the tether ports? That’s where my ship is.”
            He frowned. “Tethers are on the other side of the station. This is closer to the main docking ports. They want material tanked as fast as possible once it’s delivered.”
            “Wait.” Foxe lifted a hand, thinking as fast as he could. Getting past the security station with Rumav—and Frique, if he actually brought the tech along with him—would be the toughest part. “Any way to disable that andy at docking?”
            Frique took a deep breath. “No,” he admitted.
            The honesty actually relieved Foxe. If Frique had promised he could get through the security station without a problem, the odds were he was either stupid or lying. Foxe knew some tricks for dealing with security androids. If they got that far, Frique wouldn’t have time for a change of mind.
            “Okay. Let’s go.”
            Frique popped the panel out, and Foxe slid through into a long narrow room lined with storage freezers. He smelled stale protein and hot spices, but he saw only the flickering light of the storage locker monitors.
            Frique dropped next to him with a soft grunt and replaced the panel. Foxe tied the length of cable he’d torn from the handcomp around his arm and stepped to the door.
            The corridor outside was quiet. Frique pointed to the left. Foxe nodded. A Bekkan prayer flowed through his mind: The true prey lives inside you. Sometimes these bits of wisdom came into his brain at the worst moments, as if trying to tell him something he couldn’t reach consciously. What the hellcore was this one saying?
            They turned at a branch in the hallway. Foxe could feel Frique’s breath on his shoulder. “Here. Materials Management Two.”
            The corridor was a dead end, with three secured doors facing each other. Foxe led him to the one marked Two and waited while Frique tapped the key.
            The door slid open. Frique closed it again as he followed Foxe through. “It’s crèche—wait. Something’s wrong.”
            He was staring at a crèche, but Foxe felt the problem in the air. What—? He inhaled, and realized the problem at once.
            You can’t live with someone two days and not pick up part of their essence. An eyelash floating in the air, maybe, or a faint scent he wasn’t aware he knew. Years of living on the edge of death had taught him not to ignore what his senses told him. And right now they were quietly insisting that Val had been here not long ago.
            His eyes darted around the room. “Is he still there? In the tank?”
            “Yeah, but . . ..” He peered at the monitor. “Someone didn’t close the menu right. They’ve been in here.”
            “Damn it to hellcore.” She’d been taken. It wasn’t the only explanation, but it was logical, and it was the one he needed to accept if he didn’t want to take any unecessary risks. “All right. Can you wake him up?”
            “It takes a couple of hours for—”
            “Can you get him out of there fast? Without bringing security right here?”
            He frowned, thinking through the question. “Yeah. Sort of. I can shift the monitor to the backup and put crèche support on standby. They won’t notice that for maybe half an hour. But he won’t be in any shape to walk.”
            “We’ll get him there.”
            “But if anyone sees us—”
            “My job. Yours is to get him out of that coffin right now.”
            He looked at the deck, moving his lips without sound. Foxe didn’t have time for an attack of nerves. With one step he was at Frique, one hand around the tech’s skinny neck.
            “If you can’t help me, I don’t have any use for you.” Foxe squeezed the bones beneath Frique’s skin, forcing a shudder of pain. “Do it.”
            “All right! All—” He staggered away as Foxe released him, and rubbed his shoulder. “I’m doing it. Don’t hurt me.”
            “Just get to work.”
            Watching Frique navigate the crèche menu, he tapped a number into his comsol. Val, honey? I want to take a nap. Where are you? But she didn’t respond.
            He unclipped his handcomp and set a virtual link to the comsol, They’d let him download the facility’s basic layout so he wouldn’t have an excuse for wandering around or getting lost. In a moment he had a location, but the section was unmarked on the schematic.
            He shoved the player in Frique’s face. “Where is this?”
            Frique looked up from the monitor, irritated. “I can’t . . ..” He blinked at the screen, then took a deep breath. “Security Holding. What is that?”
            “Nothing.” He shut down the gameplayer and clipped it back to his belt. “Get him out of there.”
            So that was it. Val was out of the game now. He tried to ignore the jolt to his stomach while he thought through his options. How long could she endure an interrogation?  How long would it take them to guess what was going on? To start looking for him? How long would she live after they were—
            Breathe, he told himself. Val knew the risks. She wasn’t the type to complain about bad luck. She’d keep her mouth shut as long as she could, no matter what they did to her. He couldn’t afford to waste time worrying about her—no matter how strong the feeling grew inside his gut.
            “Tough luck, Val,” he whispered.
            “What?”
            “Nothing.” Val was on her own. Nothing he could do. “Just keep working.”




TWENTY-ONE: Threat

“What were you doing in Materials Management?” Morine’s voice was quiet, but her artificial eyes drilled into Val’s face with a dark blue intensity.
            Val glared up into her face. The holdchair’s restraints were still open, as if to show that Morine, or the Venzoid security chief in the room, didn’t consider her a serious threat. Your mistake. The air in the small compartment had a sharp antiseptic smell. She imagined the staff scrubbing blood from its walls and deck on a regular basis.            
            “Told him twice already.” Val nodded at the Venzoid, Azid had no head—a Venzoid’s brain was deep in the chest—just a tangle of eyestalks sprouting between the bony shoulders of his three arms. Weapons dangled from his belt—a neuron pistol, a nerveblade, other instruments of pain. “Maybe three times, or can’t he count?”
             “There’s no reason for you to be in Management,” Azid said through the mouth in his belly. “That’s not the Development section.”
            “In two days I’m supposed to know every cubic on the ship? Station, whatever? Ben said he was taking me to the zygotes.”
            “Ben told me you asked to see the material.” Morine’s fingers tapped her hip.  “One specific piece of material.”
            “Ben wanted to show me ‘one specific piece of material’ between his legs! This shirt cost me 150 credits and he ripped it trying to get his filthy hands on me.” She breathed faster, letting her face turn dark. “Why don’t you ask him about—”
            “Ben’s interrogation was finished a few minutes ago. What I want—”
            “W-what happened?” She made her voice tremble. “Is h-he—he tried to rape me, b-but—”
“He’s dead.”
Good. “But he—”
“D-Verasite has some side effects. Shock. Brain damage. That’s why we’re not injecting it into you, not just yet.”
            They stood close—Morine about a meter away from the chair, with Azid just behind her. Val could take Morine down, probably get to Azid, but once they saw what kind of violence she was capable of they’d know she was more than a woman married to an idiot, seeking a freak child. They’d clamp her down and start drilling into her brain for answers.
            As long as she seemed helpless and terrified, she had a chance.
            “I thought he just . . .” She looked down at the deck, away from their eyes. “I flirted with him. Maybe he thought—but he still attacked me! I had to fight him—”
            “And you did a good job,” Azid said. “His bruises and wounds tell us that.”
            “Didn’t meant to hurt him—not too bad. I was scared!” She let a tear fall down her cheek.
            “You should be.” Morine frowned and tapped one of the implants in her arm, then closed her eyes, listening to a message internally. She responded too quietly for Val to hear, and her face turned dark.
            “I need to go,” she told Azid. “Get everything you can out of her.”
            “Wait—you said—”
            “Too late,” Azid told her.
            Val watched Morine leave the compartment. Azid stood in front of her, every eyestalk pointed in her direction. “This won’t hurt. I don’t like hurting anyone.” His arm stretched from its socket, extending toward her like an eel emerging from a reef. She could grab it, but he was too far away for her to snatch a weapon from his belt. Just a little closer . . .
            Three long fingers wrapped themselves around her wrist like flexcuffs. A pinprick from the center of Azid’s palm stung her skin, and she clenched her jaw, preparing for the pain—
            Val gasped at the sensation flooding through her body. Not pain. She’d expected—not this feeling, not pleasure so intense it made her blind, so deep inside she thought she’d burst, so electric her skin felt on fire. Ohh . . .. She gasped, squirming in the chair, and tried to remember where she was, who she was, why she was here. After a moment she gave up and surrendered, letting the pleasure flood through her body, hoping it would end soon, hoping it would never—
            And then it was gone. She felt as if she’d hit the bottom of a dark shaft with a hard empty thud. “Kitt,” she murmured.
            “Do you want it?” The voice came from light years away. “More?”
            “Yesss . . .” she hissed. Her body was speaking, ordering her to throw herself into the source of that pleasure again, agree to anything that would get her there. Desperate desire clawed at her chest.
            “Then tell me what I want to know.”
            Anything. She opened her mouth to answer him, and remembered the crèche. Ben. Rumav. Foxe.
            Kitt. “Eat slime,” she whispered, hating herself for denying the pleasure. Hating Azid for withholding it.
            The sound from the orifice in his belly was like a burp. “You want it. Don’t you?”
            “Please . . .”
            “One more short taste. You’ll want it even more when I stop. Then you’ll need to talk. You’ll want to tell me. Whatever, for just one more taste.”
            No . . . She bit her lip as hard as she could, hoping it would give her something to fight back the pleasure. But then the sting pricked her arm again and she leaned back, breathing hard, tears running down her face. Yeaaahhh . . .

           
“I have direct contact with the facility,” Declannes said. “It’s called Leda. The director is a humanoid female—Morine Andala.”
            “Good.” Shrinn took a position in front of the CommBoard. “Get her on.”
            “Yes, sir.” Declannes was eager for action.
            The screen blinked, and Morine appeared. Black hair in a braid, implants in her arms, and anger in her cold synthetic eyes. “What is this?” she demanded.
            He was aware of his team’s attention. Aje was here in the control room, his arms and face tense. Every station was staffed for combat, and the rest of the team was in full armor, their weapons charged, listening to the exchange. Waiting for the word.
            He spoke with a slow, even tone. “My name is Shrinn. We’ve placed over thirty SP-2 antimatter micro-mines on your hull and within the structure of your station. I will detonate one of them to prove I’m willing to destroy Leda unless you give me what I want.”
            She smirked. “And what do you—”
            “Do it,” Shrinn told Mateon.
            “Yes, sir.” Mateon hit two keys on her board. “Five seconds.”
            He stared at Morine as the seconds counted down. He knew her type: a petty tyrant, jealous of her small power, hiding her fear by menacing the beings around her. She survived on threats and intimidation, not any real respect. A coward at the core. She’d rush to give into him when she realized who and what she was facing.
            Shrinn shifted his eyes to the survey screen as the final second came. Then the mine detonated: No flash of light, no rippling explosion, but a core of darkness, silent and deadly as a cancer. In a moment pieces of the hull broke away. They whirled in the vacuum, and the team saw a brief, faint glow around the gash as the air in that section hissed into the darkness.
            Mateon took a deep breath and nodded in satisfaction. “Damage to Leda’s hull,” she reported. “Radius 17.5 meters. Loss of structural integrity minimal. Area is now sealed. Three bodies. Station weapons are active and seeking target.” She smirked. They were out of range for Leda’s Thunder missiles to reach them accurately, even if they could locate the ship under stealth mode.
            Morine was shouting to someone off screen. Her face was taut, worried, struggling to maintain her self-control and her authority over her crew, which would right now be panicking, thinking of their own survival instead of following her orders. “Just do it!” she snapped, and turned back to Shrinn. “What do you want?”
            “That was a demonstration. I can destroy your entire station just as easily.” He paused, letting her worry. Just as she was about to throw a curse at his face, he said: “I want two things: First, the specimen delivered by Quili’s Fire.” The Tadori ship was still clamped to Leda’s hull.
            “QF brought . . . more than one specimen . . .” He saw her fingers move on a keyboard, looking for data on the cargo he wanted.
            “This one had seven fingers. Dark skin. Long braided hair. I don’t care about his condition. Dead, damaged, or unconscious, I want him in an escape pod within thirty minutes. No other ships are to leave your station within that time, or I’ll destroy you. Twenty minutes.” He glanced at Declannes. “Start counting.”
            Declannes hit a countdown display. 30:00 . . . 30:59 . . .
            She blinked. Shrinn could sense her confusion. A specimen? Morine opened her mouth, then seemed to think better of whatever she wanted to say. She shrugged. “What else?” Suspicious but hopeful.
            “You’ve got one human named Foxe on Leda. I want him. Put him in the same pod. Thirty minutes. Twenty-nine now.”
            She said nothing. For a moment he thought she might argue, just to show him she didn’t take orders from anyone. She didn’t have any loyalty to her clients, but she’d need to maintain her own authority, to show her crew that no one could push her around. Then she relaxed. He saw the relief in her shoulders, her eyebrows. Not worth it, she was thinking. Good.
            “We have Foxe.” The name sounded like a curse. “Do you want the other one? The female traveling with him?”
            Valeria Lynd. Shrinn had considered the option over the past few hours. Did she care about Foxe as much as he’d cared for Lanesh, or was she just a business partner?
            “No.” She hadn’t killed Lanesh. “Just Foxe. Thirty minutes.”
            Declannes cut the screen. Morine vanished.
            He’d discussed tactics with his team. They could have simply triggered the mines and destroyed Leda without warning, sending their bodies spinning into space. They could board the plaguedamned station—they were prepared for that option with their weapons and battle armor—and kill everyone they saw: crew, customers, victims. They weren’t afraid of the risks. But the biggest risk was that somehow Rumav—and Foxe—would slip away from them again. Shrinn needed confirmation. Bodies, dead or alive. He wanted to see them with his own eyes before he could report success with confidence.
            These perverts running Leda weren’t soldiers. They pretended to be in business, weighing profit and loss. They wouldn’t fight back.
            And if they did he’d destroy them.
            “There’s activity in the docking sector,” Declannes said. “Emergency preparations for departure by several ships.”
            “Sir?” It came Aje, stationed at the SystemsBoard. “Foxe could escape with the target on any ship there. Shouldn’t we—”
            “They have him. You heard—”
            “She could be lying.”
            Had he miscalculated? Morine could try to stop them from detaching, but frightened beings would risk ripping free from their docks and tethers no matter what she demanded. “Tag all the ships,” he ordered Declannes. “Right now. Mateon, help him.” It could be done in a matter of minutes. He was still confident that Foxe would be in the pod, but Aje as right—they couldn’t afford to take any chances.
            Foxe couldn’t escape this time.