Authors: Steve Stanton
Tags: #Science Fiction / Space Opera, #Science Fiction / Hard Science Fiction
“Keep quiet,” she said. “Don’t move.”
Panic rose in Simara’s throat as the helicopter drew close. The noise seemed amplified by the hours of quiet, a horror of charging armies. Simara felt like a trapped animal cowering under a tarp with a devil at her side, the viewscreen in front of her a mad chimera of reds and greens, the oxygen in her mask sucked dry. Overcome with fear and the certainty of destruction, she scrabbled at the clasps behind her head to get a fresh breath of air, some respite from torment, but Sufi cuffed her hand.
“Don’t touch your breather, fool,” she hissed as the helicopter roared above them.
Simara gasped with anguish and sucked for life. The gargoyle woman smelled rank with sweat and pesticide, a bug-eyed demon. A click of data transmission sounded in the back of Simara’s brain, a whisper of home from a nearby wi-fi node. She heard a sputter of disconnected voices emerge from static as her system began to boot up—
life of the party
across quadrant seventy-seven
She clenched her brain against the incoming signal, hoping to prevent a ping bounce back to the transmitter.
No data in, no data out, please, mothership, don’t let me betray my new friends.
The helicopter charged by and disappeared in the distance as she and Sufi lay panting in their oven, cooking under their cowls. They waited a few minutes for the return of sure doom, but the desert stayed silent until Keg snapped his torch alight with a flint.
“Let’s tidy up and get out of here, kids,” Katzi said, and Simara groaned against gravity as she crawled out and clambered to her feet.
Keg carved up the last few fragments of the shuttle and lashed his fuel cylinder in the passenger seat of his buggy, his sunken chest blackened with smoke and charred hair, as the crew piled on the last remnants of salvage and tied down the treasure. They packed up their gear and raked the sand, then climbed into their loaded trucks and sped off in different directions with barely a word of goodbye, a hard day fought and rich with bounty.
“Buckle up,” Zen said as she vibrated with exhaustion in the seat beside him. They ran without lights in the darkness, and Simara wondered about nocturnal carnivores. Did they have dinosaurs on this forbidden planet? Giant snakes? She squinted her eyes into the night-vision viewscreen in search of hungry raptors or an angry cartoon T-rex. She brushed a scorpion off her knee as a helicopter sounded in the distance behind them.
“They’re widening the search,” Zen said, his voice serene with fatigue. “Who are you, Simara?”
“I’m nobody, Zen. Just an orphan trader girl with no family and no home.”
“You can stay with me.”
Simara studied him as he drove through this garish landscape. He looked like a masked villain in his breather, a grim and angry robot at the wheel with lightning sparking and cracking in the background in a web of green evil. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine the hot geyser where they had shared a tranquil breakfast, his statuesque body, pretty face, and refreshingly courteous manner. She struggled against exhaustion to find some hope in her hellish new world.
Simara’s stepfather came to her again in her bed, smelling of jar gin and hallucinogens, his pupils crazed pinpoints, his leering face contorted with lust. He fondled her nubile breasts and pulled at her panties, speaking to his dead wife, murmuring obscenities. He stuffed a rag of blanket in her mouth to stifle her screams and pressed her hips with his torso. Simara struggled for breath, choking on dirty cotton as consciousness began to slip away into a dark haze. No! Never! A surrender to coma would leave him free to violate her. She knew what her stepmother had endured—no spaceship had ever been built for privacy!
She forced her eyes open to her stepfather’s lecherous face—such an ugly man, grizzled and unshaven, his touch like greasy sandpaper. He grinned at her as his hand pried between her thighs.
My little slut. You like that, don’t you?
No! Never! Simara curled a fist and reached back, summoning a last remnant of energy out of encroaching darkness. She braced her neck for purchase and let fly a murderous blow to his face, felt a sure connection with pulp, a perfect pain on her knuckles. A wave of euphoria engulfed her, an ecstasy of retribution, as he cried out and released her. She felt purified by catharsis as blood streamed from his eyes and broken nose, as his face melted away like wax and disappeared to hell and sure damnation. She drifted content in her bunk, finally at peace and alone . . .
And woke to the pain of gravity in her bones, every joint and sinew in her body shrieking with complaint as she reached for her hammock straps and flailed at emptiness. She cried out in confusion. Where was she?
A single eye stared down at her from twilight. A string of pin lights on a grotesque ceiling cast meagre shadows in the cave. A brown face framed with auburn ringlets came into focus. “You okay?” Zen asked.
Simara groaned as recent memory constructed a shaky edifice of reality around her. Zen’s left eye was swollen shut below an ugly purple bruise. “What happened to your face?”
“Oh.” He reached up to touch his cheek gingerly below the wound. “I must have bumped something in the night. Or maybe a spider bite. I’ll be fine.”
“I had a bad dream.” She must have punched him in the face. She was almost sure of it.
“That’s okay. You’re safe now.”
Simara patted her hips to find a pair of turquoise boxers caked with blood and dirt. Her skin felt grimy with oil and pest repellent. She tested her brain for clues, but could not seem to remember things clearly without the digital support of the V-net. Her inner space was black and quiet. Where the hell was mothership? “Did you carry me up here?”
“Yeah, pretty much. You were dizzy with exhaustion.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“That’s okay. We got the job done just in time. The choppers have been screaming overhead all day.”
Simara turned away to spit grit. She wiped at her tongue with the back of her hand. “Sorry,” she said again. “I must look like an evil witch. I feel ugly and broken.”
Zen studied her with a single squinting eye. “Please don’t say that. You’re a beautiful girl and a good worker. Do you want to freshen up in the geyser while I cook breakfast?”
Simara blinked at him in surprise—a beautiful girl? Why was he being so nice to her? “Yes, thank you.” A moan escaped her lips as she pushed herself to her knees in this unbearable gravity—Bali was a huge planet, a monster of mass! Every muscle in her body was cramped and sore from all the hard work in the desert. She felt like a rusty toy pulled from a garbage heap, stiff with corrosion. “How can you live with this oppressive gravity?”
Zen stood back to give her plenty of room. “I never really think about it.”
Of course not! She was being an idiot again as usual, trader trash at landfall, scum of the station. Simara vowed to keep her damn mouth shut. She stood and bumped her neck on a bony stalactite. “Oww, shit.”
Zen took a few more steps back for safety. He pointed to a crevice in the rock. “Down here to the grotto. Mind your head.”
The hot spring felt glorious when she finally managed to crawl down the tunnel to reach it, and she groaned with near-orgasmic pleasure as she settled her rebellious body underwater. Finally, she was weightless again, home to her natural state. Gravity
She floated blissful and wiped away grime and bad karma with salty bubbles. She let it all go, her failures, her suffering, her stain of betrayal. From here she would build herself up again from scratch, create a new persona that she could live with. She was not a cheap whore, no matter what her stepfather had said. She was a worthy being.
Zen had called her a princess.
She unhooked her bra and wafted it underwater to get grit out of the seams. She had welts under her breasts where the skin had rubbed raw, and another ugly red patch circling her waist. The saltwater was a balm to her damaged body, inside and out, and in time she felt cleansed and renewed, ready to face this difficult new world.
Her pool-boy arrived to serve her a floating bowl of scrambled eggs minced with green and red vegetable cubes, and she didn’t have the heart to query him for the source. Dino eggs and chopped cactus? Lizard embryos? She didn’t want to know. It tasted fabulous.
“We’re going into town tonight,” Zen said, “to the main community cave. It’s the Vishan festival, a celebration of the last day of winter.”
Simara gaped. “You mean Bali gets even hotter than this?”
“A little bit,” Zen said—an understatement, judging by his frown.
Oops, she was supposed to be watching her tongue. “Sounds great.”
“I’ll buy you some clothes,” he said.
“Lovely, thanks.” So she wouldn’t have to parade around in public in her underwear anymore. That was a step in the right direction. Simara finished her breakfast and clasped on her bra, careful not to expose herself above the water surface—not that Zen hadn’t got both eyes full already. She had little worth hiding when compared to Sufi’s bulging body, but Simara still felt an innate sense of modesty. She was thin, like most space-wasted traders, but she could fill a cocktail dress when the rare occasion arose at landfall.
Funny how easily she had grown accustomed to seeing Zen nearly naked all the time, handsome and muscular, with his V-shaped back and little-boy butt. She never would have dreamed . . . well, okay, maybe just a few times, but she didn’t find him provocative or sexually enticing. His bronzed physique was just part of the exotic alien landscape. Everything was so weird already.
She groaned at the sight of her breather and the bucket of guck by the exit corridor. “Not that crap again!”
“Safety first,” Zen said as he smeared oil across his chest. “Scorpions never sleep.”
“Oh, mothership,” she complained. Her breather stank of sweat and halitosis.
“Turn around and I’ll get your back.”
She sighed and slumped her shoulders as he began to work guava gunk into her skin with deft consideration. He took time to rub the back of her neck and massage her stiff and swollen muscles. What a blessing. She relaxed with sensuality for a few moments, content with his diligent ministrations, and when he stopped she felt an ache of loneliness, a disconnection. She turned to test his eyes and saw a fleeting glimpse of embarrassment, a boy with his hands in the cookie jar. He smiled, but she felt certain that he had betrayed some basic innocence, an unsullied nature. She wondered if he might be a virgin. A man of his age?
They finished gearing up and made their way to the dune buggy parked under camouflage. The heat was stifling, and the geomagnetic storm continued to crackle and boom with dry lightning and thunder. They unloaded piles of junk and selected the most valuable components to take to market. The solar batteries had a full charge.
They sped off toward the setting sun and were quickly coated with desert grit again, another evening in Gehenna. The wind scoured Simara’s fragile skin like sandpaper, and wounds opened anew at her waist. The elastic band of her boxers felt like a wood rasp. She eased them down to her hips and longed to bundle them in her fist and toss them to the dunes forever. Everything was so unbearably hot, the air dry and searing. She closed her eyes and forced her thoughts back to the gentle saltwater of her geyser bath, floating in a blissful womb of weightlessness—mind over mayhem in a dreamy attempt to find respite.
In time they bumped to a halt, and Simara woke from delirium. “Are we there?”
“No, just a quick stop.” Zen jumped out and made his way to the back of the buggy.
Simara scanned the horizon for signs of life. They were in an area of rolling foothills at the base of a mountain ridge. The sand was dotted with cactus spires and scraggly brush, hardly a comfortable rest area, the only shade provided by a small pyramid of loose stones. She climbed out to join Zen as he pulled a boulder from the buggy. “What are we doing?”
“There’s a pilot buried under that marker.” He pointed with his chin to the pile of rocks. “He made me promise not to forget him, to bury him deep so the lizards would not have their fill.” Zen grunted as he hefted the boulder and strode toward the funeral pyre. He placed it carefully near the bottom and took a few steps back.
Simara walked up beside him as he stood in vigil. “You rescued someone else before me?”
“His name was Cary, the only Earthman I’ve ever met. He came across the universe through the Macpherson Doorway to ply the trade routes of Signa, only to end up crashing here on Bali in my quadrant. He had two broken legs and blood in his urine, but he might have made it to town with a breather. That’s why I keep a spare now.”
Simara’s hand flung up to her chin to touch the base of her breather. “The cactus got him?”
Zen nodded. “It doesn’t take long. The spores germinate almost immediately in any moist spot.” He turned his gargoyle face toward her with an unspoken implication: So keep your mask on and quit complaining!
She felt like an ingrate. From here on, she would be thankful for every stinky sniff of filtered air.
“He seemed like a nice guy,” Zen said. “Gave me salvage rights without a care. I thought I could save him.”
“I’m sure you did your best for him.”
“Every time I drive past, I add another stone to the tomb. It’s the least I can do for a good man.”
“It’s a wonderful gesture,” she said, wishing she could offer some solace in the face of death. She might be desert dust herself if Cary from old Earth had not paved the way for her, provided a spare breather and a chance for life.
A whisker of movement caught Zen’s attention, and he stabbed out a protective arm in front of her. “Get in the buggy.”
She followed his gaze and saw a giant lizard creeping closer, an armoured creature with a ridge of spines down its back and a long tongue slipping past jagged teeth, tasting them.
“Never turn your eyes from a sand lizard,” Zen told her. “Step slowly backward.” He patted his hand toward the vehicle. “No sudden movements to trigger the attack reflex.”
Simara moved cautiously as Zen began to circle the lizard in the opposite direction. He kept the goggle gaze of his breather fixed on the lizard and began a lilting chant. “Kiokilala, kiokilala.”
The sand lizard swivelled its head to follow Zen as Simara reached the buggy and jumped aboard. She scrabbled under the console for tools or an emergency kit. “Do you have any weapons in here?”
“Kiokilala, kiokilala.” Zen widened his circle with each revolution around the desert creature. The lizard licked the air and turned to follow his movements, crouched and ready to pounce, ready to attack at any provocation, hungry for dinner. The monster smelled fetid, and dragged a huge bag of testicles at the base of its tail—a male dinosaur, an evolutionary pinnacle of aggression.
Zen moved with stealthy precision. “Kiokilala, kiokilala.”
The sand lizard stiffened and glanced around in apparent confusion. He held his armoured nose up and sniffed the air, breaking eye contact with his prey, and Zen took the opportunity to quickly bound for the buggy. He leaped into the driver’s seat, and they sped away with wheels churning a cloud of dust.
Simara held her hand to her palpitating chest as they made their escape. “What did you do back there?”
“They have an acute directional sense. If they get confused, they have to stop and reorient to landmarks. The trick is to get them dizzy, in a sense.”
“Where did you learn that?”
Zen shrugged at the wheel as they raced onward. “I dunno. It’s common lore.”
Simara studied her companion anew: self-deprecating charm, a man of hidden talents. She struggled to stifle the rushing adrenalin in her blood, the urge to bolt and run. The grit on her skin and welts at her waist had lost all priority, her bodily discomfort of little consequence with a buried corpse and a hungry dinosaur in her wake.
A helicopter carved the evening sky above them with the beat of a thousand wings, and they looked up in unison. Simara tensed. “Are they following us?”
Zen peered forward to navigate the rough hills ahead, banking and twisting past craggy boulders. “I doubt it. There’ll be lots of traffic for the festival. We’re just another bug on the map. For safety’s sake, we’ll keep the crash confidential at the party. You’re just a trader making a social stop, a visiting tourist for Vishan. I’ll handle our finances discreetly. Is that okay with you?”
“Are we in serious danger?”
“I was hoping you might tell me that,” he said, “when you’re ready.”
“Holy mothership, do you think I’m keeping secrets from you?”
“Everything about you is a mystery to me.”
“Ask me anything.”
“Who’s mothership? Is that who’s chasing us?”
“No. I told you. I ran away from my stepfather when he tried to rape me. He hasn’t got the resources to stage a manhunt like this. Mothership is just a construct of convenience, the ghost in the data. She’s an omniscient hive-mind.”
“A voice from your skullrider? Like a conscience?”
“Okay, I guess so. Look, normally I work in a sea of data on the V-net, like swimming in a river of numbers. I’m cut off here, and I can’t live like this. I need your help to get back.”
Zen nodded. “It’s a sure deal, partner. We’ve got all the treasure we need in the back of the buggy. Stick with me.”