Authors: Steve Stanton
Tags: #Science Fiction / Space Opera, #Science Fiction / Hard Science Fiction
He smiled with good-natured charm. “It’s almost dusk. We can go outside safely now with breathers. I have a full charge on my buggy, enough to get us back before morning. We’ll salvage your crash site.”
“Will there be anything intact?”
“I made a quick inspection and camouflaged the wreckage after I got you safely home. The control capsule is mangled beyond repair, but there may be some working components. The angle of entry was oblique, and the sand dunes pillowed the impact. You can always find treasure at the end of a long furrow.”
“Really? So that’s how you make your living?”
“Oh, I do okay.” His face was weathered and rugged, an outdoorsman with purpose in his eyes. “The scrap metal in the circuitry will be valuable, platinum and refined silver, maybe gold or rhodium. We’re going to be rich, Simara. You’re a skyfall princess from the stars!” He reached for a morsel of meat and placed it on his tongue as he relished the moment.
Simara tilted her shoulders back at Zen’s strange notion. A princess? No way. Her skin might be pure from her years in space, but her soul had been bruised and blackened by sin. She carried a scar of betrayal deep inside, a wound raw with anger.
Simara shook her head and glanced away, pretending to study the cave walls as she considered her situation. She had narrowly escaped death and been dragged underground by a scantily clad aboriginal in the desert. Now they were a team, about to be partners in business, and she had nowhere else to go. She slipped back into the hot spring and drifted with languor for a few more minutes. She could do worse.
“Time to get moving,” Zen said. “Our window of opportunity beckons. You sure you’re okay?”
“Much better. A little exercise might get the stiffness out of my bones. I’m not used to this heavy gravity.”
Zen studied her for a moment, nodding. “Okay, let’s go.”
The breather turned out to be a full facemask with bug-eye goggles, a monstrosity that made her feel claustrophobic at the very sight. “You’ve got to be kidding,” she said when Zen showed her.
“It’s as light as foam,” he said. “Here, try it on. Just breathe normally.” He pulled the cowl over her head and tugged strands of her short black hair from beneath the flexible seal. The breather covered her eyes, ears, and nose, tight under her chin with a filter mesh over her mouth. She felt like she was tank-diving on a tether in space again, gambling with death on a maintenance detail outside the hull. Her pulse quickened with panic. She pressed a palm to her chest.
“That’s good,” Zen said. “Take your time. Settle yourself.” He pulled on his own breather and looked like a stormtrooper in a bikini thong. Simara giggled.
He tipped his head to one side. “What’s so funny?” His voice sounded machinelike, a strange, filtered sound vaguely derivative of humanity.
“Nothing.” She stretched her neck from side to side, trying in vain for balance.
“Safety first,” he said as he reached for a bucket of oily guck at his feet. “We need to lather up to go outside.”
She shrank back. “What is that crap? It looks disgusting.”
“It’s sunscreen and pest control. All natural ingredients, safe for the environment. Turn around and I’ll do your back. Hold your arms up.”
She turned and felt his hands spreading hot oil on her body, kneading her flesh with gentle strength. He was very thorough. “Careful there, Johnny.”
“You have to get every inch,” he said.
“Even under my clothes?”
“Especially under your clothes. That’s where the scorpions like best.”
“Here,” he said as he offered the bucket. “Do the rest yourself.” He took a handful and smeared it on his muscular chest. “Get my back for me, will you?” He rotated to offer his bronzed body to her ministrations. His beefy neck felt like a stone pillar, his burly shoulders like sculpted metal.
She finished him and turned attention to herself, thinking about crawly things on her thighs, between her toes, freaking right out as she spread stinky guck on her skin. She felt hot and sweaty in her bra and boxers with grounder gravity dragging her implacably down, her worst landfall ever. The breather smelled foul, and her dry lips tasted salty.
Zen handed her a small package on a leather string. “There’s a pouch of water in here with nutrients and electrolytes, in case we get separated in an emergency. And a stick of dried protein.”
“More snake meat?”
“Not exactly, but snake is good if you can get it.”
“I was kidding,” she said. Kill a snake and eat it? No, that was too weird. “Are you sure this is safe?”
“No, Simara, it’s not safe. That’s the whole point.” A sigh of exasperation sounded through his breather mesh, and she resolved to curb her tongue from then on.
Zen’s dune buggy was a stripped-down desert truck with a battery behind the passenger cage and extendable rear wheels. He unplugged a sturdy cable from an overhanging solar collector and keyed a silent motor to life. “Buckle up,” he said as she climbed into the co-pilot seat beside him, and they set off toward the setting sun with barely a whisper.
Wind and sand flayed her exposed skin as they accelerated, and the air baked her sweaty body like an oven. Within minutes she was drenched with an unholy mix of sticky grime and oily guck, an abomination. No wonder the pests would not come near; she could barely stand it herself. Zen looked like a mythical sandman with the head of a gargoyle, a creature made of dust.
A menacing sun was veiled with red fog, and lightning flashed like craquelure from low clouds as thunder rumbled in waves over the dunes. The air was thick and oppressive, a tangible presence. The smell of sweat encircled her like a stifling aura, and the seal of her filter mask stuck against her face like a wet suction cup. Her bra chafed against her skin with every movement, and the elastic strap of her boxers felt like emery paper. She closed her eyes and stifled a groan, then opened them again in surprise, as they were suddenly airborne over the top of a ridge, her stomach floating freely.
“Whoa,” Zen said as they landed and bounced on balloon tires, but he didn’t slow down. The sun was setting fast toward a mountainous horizon, the setting eerily wondrous, electric pink and purplish. She could see why a primitive man might summon the notion of deity on this planet, the continuous flashes of lightning like fireworks from the desert god Kiva. The closer she looked, the more she could see: the forks of lightning had fingers like tree roots, multi-brachiate into weblike filaments—a curious artistry of fractal mathematics. In the distance she noticed two vehicles beside a mound of dirt, lights off and quietly waiting in the twilight. Zen raced up and parked close by. He jumped out to greet the eldest of three figures, and they touched their forearms together in a cross.
“Katzi,” Zen said in greeting.
“Good job, kid,” the man said. “Well hidden. You got the black box out?”
Zen nodded. “Old Joe’s hole.”
“I knew it. Choppers are swarming the trench already.”
“Really?” They both turned to stare at Simara, their faces obscured by masks, their postures wary. Zen waved her closer. “Simara, this is Katzi, an old friend and partner. This is Simara, the pilot.”
The elder man approached with his left elbow up and forearm at an angle, a tangle of black hair curling out from his breather. He had a mat of grey fur on his barrel chest and a heavy paunch hanging over his thong.
Simara matched his gesture to cross his arm in this strange battle greeting.
“Do you claim salvage?” he asked.
“Uh . . .” Simara glanced at her rescuer and decided to go with the flow. “This is Zen’s quadrant.”
Katzi turned to Zen and bowed to seal the verbal contract, then swept an arm at the other two figures. “This is my crew, Keg and Sufi. Let’s get to work.” Keg, preparing a cutting torch with a portable tank on wheels, was a gaunt young man with bony limbs, his rugged skin crisscrossed with white scars. Sufi was a muscle-bound woman with a braid of hair down her back and a thick strap of leather squeezing her breasts. She wore brown gloves over big hands and a leather skirt over ample buttocks. They seemed like automatons in their breather masks, gargoyle worker drones.
The mound of dirt Simara had seen in the distance turned out to be camouflage netting over the twisted ruin of her escape shuttle, and Sufi tossed her a pair of gloves and began to peel back the covering. Simara jumped to her aid as Keg lit his cutting torch and tuned the flame. Katzi and Zen began to work on the buggy trucks, extending the back tires and folding down flatbed panels to hold the salvage. Everyone moved with determination and furtive haste, and Katzi repeatedly checked the horizon all round where the lightning flashed and rumbled. An angry sun turned orange like an enemy ember as it slid toward mountain peaks.
The cowl of the shuttle was fractured and crumpled, the control panel a wreck. Simara was lucky to have ejected before the impact. She was thankful to be alive, dripping with sweat in her shabby, borrowed boxers. She wanted to spit out a terrible taste in her mouth, but didn’t dare waste the bodily fluid. She swallowed and gagged, and blinked out tears to keep her eyes in focus.
Miniature scorpions skittered like ants from under every component as they dismembered the vessel piece by piece and threw the wreckage in the buggies. Keg worked his torch with fluid expertise, cutting deftly with precision at key structural points, slicing and dicing in a shower of sparks like a manic demon. Katzi and Zen did the heavy lifting, and Sufi pulled full weight beside them, making Simara feel weak as she struggled just to keep upright against cruel grounder gravity.
“Break,” Katzi finally shouted, and they all collapsed together in the shade of a loaded buggy. He offered bottles of water with snakelike straws, and they tucked them under their breathers and sucked for sustenance. “Are you somebody special, Simara?” he asked after they had rested a moment.
She turned to study him. “What do you mean?”
He shrugged. “Choppers are tracking your black box already. Freelance hirelings, no markings. We don’t usually get much attention out here in the desert. Even the insurance companies don’t bother with scrap metal down the gravity well. Why are you so valuable?”
“I’m nobody,” she said. “Just trader trash.” Her stepfather would be glad to be rid of a daughter he had never loved, though the missing shuttle would set him back a fistful of creds and serve him right.
“You’re wearing a skullrider,” Katzi said.
He tapped the side of his breather. “You hear voices from the air.”
“It’s just wi-fi,” she said, “but the grid is out because of the magnetic storm.”
Katzi nodded. “Bali is a dead zone. There’s no chance of radar or surveillance. But you’ve got brain implants. That must be worth something.”
Simara reached to rub scars at her hairline. Zen must have done a thorough investigation while she was out cold. Barely peeked, huh? She shrugged. “Everyone carries a trinket on the trader circuit these days—it’s just good business, nothing special. Advertisers pay for the surgery to secure market share.” She touched her earlobe amplifier. “I’ve had this one as long as I can remember.” A rare octahedral array was buried in her brain, but even so, no one was going to hunt her down for a few bucks’ worth of scrap metal in her head.
Katzi turned to examine the wreckage, tapping a finger on his knee. “Any payload in the shuttle? Drugs? Contraband? Weapons of insurrection?”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so. Nothing that I know about.” Could her stepfather have stashed something in the escape pod, that bastard? Something easily jettisoned in an emergency, biohazards or meta-mindscapes? Could he be involved in something illegal?
Katzi bobbed his breather. “Then what we have here is a mystery, Simara.” He rose to his feet and turned to address the crew. “We won’t leave anything behind this trip, kids, not a scrap of evidence. Don’t even pee in the sand. Let’s go.”
They all jumped back to full activity, though Simara was dragging behind in the heat, her skin coarse with oily grit, bleeding at her waistband. A blazing orange crescent burned on the horizon behind a veil of red smog, and a webwork of lightning flashed brighter under low purple clouds in the distance. An evening breeze stirred the dust like small spouts of steam rising from the roasting sand. Surely hell could be no worse, but Simara was glad to be alive.
They checked behind every bulwark for packages of powder, combed the wreckage for secret compartments or hidden weapons. Simara wondered what devious activity her stepfather might be embroiled in, the pervert. No evidence was exposed to the waning light as the sun mercifully hid its face below craggy hills—no mysterious vials of biological menace, no laser cannons or restricted armaments. Darkness fell suddenly as Simara stumbled back and forth loading wreckage on Sufi’s truck. She lost her orientation momentarily as she lurched forward through deep purple haze and bumped into the burly girl with an exclamation of pain. Simara fell back and landed flat on her spine.
“Watch yourself, wench,” Sufi growled.
Gravity claimed Simara like a magnet as she lay prostrate in the searing sand. She pushed a glove to find purchase and rolled onto her side, barely able to move.
Sufi kicked sand at her. “Get up before you burn that parchment skin.”
“I can’t see,” Simara said.
“Turn on your night vision.” Sufi crouched down and switched on a battery pack at the bridge of her nose. “That better?”
A viewscreen came to life inside Simara’s goggles, a caricature of the desert landscape in red and green. Areas of light became brilliant with eerie luminescence, and the sand glowed red with retained heat like an electrical element. She turned her head to view the strange virtual horizon where dark mountains disappeared into burning clouds. A demonic ghoul stood before her with the head of a gargoyle and a fiendish, phosphorescent body. A helicopter sounded in the distance with a beating whine of turbines.
“Kiva!” Sufi exclaimed, and kicked another sting of sand at Simara on the ground. “Help me cover the truck. Quickly!”
The urgency in her tone propelled Simara to her feet. She staggered to the dune buggy with her arms outstretched into a cartoon world. They unrolled a tarp behind the seats to cover the pile of mangled components in back, as the men scrambled to do the same at the other trucks, shouting instructions and cursing the gods. Sufi pulled Simara under cover as a brilliant spotlight beam approached like a mythical cyclops.