Authors: Sara Creasy
For my dad,
who always takes the time to answer every question
Turquoise and black. She watches the beetle stalking over stonesâ¦
She had the sense of having been unconscious or semi-consciousâ¦
She can make the lights sing.
With Haller gone, Edie could breathe again. She was usedâ¦
“First morning on board and in trouble already.”
Haller's office doubled as the briefing room, a triangular bayâ¦
She counts the bruises while she waits. Four little onesâ¦
Kristos fired up a tracker so Edie could calibrate herâ¦
What happened? Edie's mind churned over that question. Crouched inâ¦
Edie rammed the bolt home. There was something horribly barbaricâ¦
Tilda sensed the danger immediately. “Who the hellâ?”
Edie turned her head and looked at Finn, lying unconsciousâ¦
Edie ignored the pain in her knees and the acheâ¦
Tilt, one of the most popular low-g sports in theâ¦
Haller swiveled his console around to face Edie. “I've givenâ¦
Edie was too stunned to call after him. Through theâ¦
“Damn labor-gang activists, that's who it was.” Zeke dropped aâ¦
Edie's knees gave way and she sat down on theâ¦
Sirens. Lukas pitches forward through the hatch, clutching his chest.
Six hours later, Edie had learned frustratingly little more. Sheâ¦
The moment they docked, the Hoi jumped back into nodespace.
Once they reached orbit, Haller allowed Edie a one-hour breakâ¦
In the drizzling rain, she sees neat rows of fenceâ¦
Consciousness returned in increments, one sense at a time. Pressureâ¦
By the time Cat called back a few minutes later,â¦
There's always a way in.
Edie climbed down into the heart of the BRAT, leavingâ¦
Everything looks the same as the mission briefing begins. Everythingâ¦
“Finn!” Edie ran after him, tripping on the debris litteringâ¦
“They've gone! The Hoi's not in orbit.”
Edie felt a cold sweat gathering on her skin. “Natesaâ¦”
Instinctively, Edie dropped. Gia walked forward, firing relentlessly, stopping onlyâ¦
Light came from outside the room as a cursing militâ¦
Edie rested for a few minutes in the captain's diningâ¦
Turquoise and black. She watches the beetle stalking over stones and dirt. Its long, feathery legs sink into a patch of woven moss and it flounders. But the harder it struggles, the more tangled it becomes. With one finger she could rescue it.
Rolling onto her back, she closes her eyes. It's been years since she felt the gentle heat of the sun on her face, and then it was a different star. It's been years since she cried. The sun dries each tear on her cheek.
She turns her head, opens her eyes to focus beyond the beetle to a seed falling in the distance, clean metal lines gleaming. Six meters long, bullet-shaped and deadly. Another falls, even farther away. And another. One thousand silent intruders drop from the sky to burrow into the planet's skin.
The beetle chirps incessantly. A distress call. But she hasn't come here to save it.
She has come to destroy.
Edie's boot slammed into the bulkhead with a satisfying squish.
She scraped the remains of the hapless roach off her heel,
wrinkling her nose and making a mental note to inform pest controlâyet again. She was so used to doing their job for them, her interface didn't skip a beat.
Below the maintenance platform, the sharp, repeating
of something hitting hollow metal was more distracting.
He didn't answer. Edie withdrew her mind completely from the clutches of the biocyph connection, feeling the remaining trickle of the datastream disperse within her mind. She leaned over the handrail and squinted into the dimly lit freight car. Torres was propped against the bottom of the ladder, directly below, throwing a kid's ball against the opposite wall.
“Can you cut that out? You're driving me and the roaches crazy.”
Torres scowled, caught the ball, and stuffed it into his jacket pocket. Poor guyâthe latest milit sent by CCU to stand guard while Edie went about her work on Talas Prime Station. A post so dull, he must view it as punishment.
Settling in front of the access panel, Edie pondered her next move. The call to check out a malfunctioning freight car had come through twenty minutes ago, dragging them both away from lunch, and she still hadn't figured out what was wrong. According to the log, the car's automated rails had jammed. The departures of three ships, including a schooner at the VIP dock, were delayed as they waited for cargo.
She jacked into the car's loading systems again. The stream of data flowed through her wet-teck interface. She had de-merged the program layers twice already and analyzed each tier in turn, searching for the glitch. It had to be simple. The freight loading system, though it looked like an impressively choreographed mechanical ballet from the cargo docks, was controlled by a straightforward set of routines. But this particular car ignored its instructions and refused to join the dance.
Edie switched the loading routine back into diagnostic
mode. It blinked a random command and promptly stalled.
“Damn.” She sat back on her heels and called out again. “Torres, you sure you checked those servos like I told you?”
No answer. He wasn't the most talkative guy, but a little cooperation would've been nice.
From down below came a muted thud. The sound of blows, and then the murmur of low voices.
“â¦no, I'll do it.”
The ladder rattled as someone climbed up in a hurry, and instinctively Edie backed against the paneling. Over the lip of the platform a woman appeared, wearing a remarkable gold flight suit. Striking dark skin, tightly braided hair, a navpilot badge on her sleeve. Her weapon lay extended along her forearm. She was entirely out of place. Beauty and elegance armed with a spur.
“How did you like my brainteaser?” She nodded toward the open panel. Her clipped accent was Cribâthis, at least, was nothing unusual on a station where hundreds of outworlders passed through every day. “Don't be upset you couldn't figure it out. It's a sensor glitch feeding back from the railings. The car is fine.”
Edie hissed a soft breath between gritted teeth. The first thing she'd done after responding to the call was send Torres under the car to check the railings. Not that he could be expected to do the job properly. He wasn't supposed to help fix things. He was supposed to protect her.
Speaking of which, he wasn't doing a bang-up job of that, either.
The navpilot beckoned with her spur and stepped one rung down the ladder. “I have a job for you. Come on.”
“You need toâ” Edie choked on a false start as her heartbeat thumped in her throat. “You need to file a request with Station Maintenance.”
“Maintenance doesn't provide the kind of service I'm after. Come, Edie.” Her tone was pleasant, but there was no mistaking the underlying menace.
Edie eyed the spur on the woman's arm and hesitated, fighting the rush of adrenaline that screamed at her to run. Trapped on a platform wedged into the top corner of the freight car, she had nowhere to go.
“I don't want to start making threats,” the woman added.
Edie grabbed the console with both hands and pulled herself to her feet, locking her knees to stop them shaking. The navpilot allowed her to squeeze past and climb down the ladder, following close behind. Torres was nowhere in sight.
A man moved out from the shadows of the crates. A serf. The gray uniform, the close-cropped hair, the powerful muscles gave it away. Lithe muscles, the result of hard physical work rather than grav weights or sterospikes. He was a roughly handsome brute, years of labor etched into his face, and he stared at her with unwavering intensity. Edie forced herself to stare back, felt the heat of defiance rise. She'd heard it was never wise to back down to a serf.
Behind him, the freight car's main hatch slid open a fraction and a second serf slipped inside the car. He shrugged his shoulders into Torres's jacket. The simmering panic in Edie's gut started to boil.
“Where's Torres? Is he dead?”
The woman ignored her. “What's it look like out there, Ademo?”
“All clear for now,” the second serf grunted. He snapped the hatch closed and ambled over.
The woman turned to Edie. “Listen carefully. My friends here have boundary chips in their headsâyou know what that means?” Edie nodded mutely. “I need you to deactivate the chips so we can leave.”
“Deactivate them? I don't even know if that's possible.”
“Make it possible.”
A surge of anger overrode Edie's fear. “And what the hell makes you think I'll do anything to helpâ”
Ademo moved quicklyâa blur at the corner of her visionâand his hand closed around the back of her neck. She
yelped as he shoved her forcefully to her knees. The sheer brutality of the act sent a wave of terror through her. Catching her breath, she kept perfectly still.
“You changed your mind yet, teckie?” He squeezed her neck so hard the blood vessels compressed and stars danced across her vision. She concentrated on staying conscious. Focused on a pair of bootsâthe other serf's bootsâon the scuffs and scratches that crisscrossed the leather. The metal deck was ice cold against the palms of her hands.
“Steady on. Let's play nice,” the navpilot said lightly, but it was an order.
“You're the boss, Lancer.” Ademo released his grip, leaving Edie to grab the deck to stop from keeling sideways. A dizzying wave of blood rushed to her head.
The navpilotâLancerâaddressed the other serf. “Finn, you're up first. Ademo, get back out there and reboot those railing sensors. I'm going to prep the car.”
Ademo muttered a reply and left, his boots clunking dully. Lancer headed to the ladder leading to the maintenance platform, where Edie had been working only moments before. Halfway up the ladder and still climbing, she looked down.
“You've got about ten minutes before these two are reported missing. I intend for us to be on the far end of this track by then.” She moved to the back of the platform, where the consoles were, out of sight.
Edie forced her breathing to slow as the nausea passed and her mind clicked back into order, overwhelmed with relief that Ademo had gone. But he'd be back within minutes and furious if she wasn't ready. The serf Finn had not yet spoken a word. What would he do if she simply ran? The hatch was open a crack, three meters to her right, and she might get past Ademo if he was occupied under the railings. Neither serf was armed, although that hadn't stopped them taking out Torres.
All she had to do was raise the alarm. She weighed the options. The navpilot wanted her to help a couple of Crib serfs escape. That was all. She knew nothing about these
men except that they were convicts. Perhaps they deserved freedom, perhaps not, but when she thought about itâwhich wasn't oftenâshe'd always found it distasteful that they could be bought and sold as property for the duration of their sentences.
She resolved to go along with it and make sure she got out alive. Talas Prime had half a dozen serf gangs onsite, maintaining the gate around Talas's jump node. What did she care if two laborers jumped ship?
She hauled herself to her feet. Finn took a step forward and caught her arm to steady her, but she shook him off sharply. He was a head taller than she, with a solidly imposing build. She'd feel more in control of the situation with him sitting down, so she indicated a nearby crate. He took the hint.
Edie reeled out a line from her tool belt and pressed one end to his left temple, over an old scar. The other end she pressed to the matching position on her temple. A direct connection through the embedded lines in her fingertips seemed too intimate, considering the situation.
She let her eyes glaze as her wet-teck interface sought out the connection. A crude flash of data caught her by surprise. She gasped and pulled back.
“That's some piece of work,” she spluttered.
Finn's lips twitched in what was perhaps a bemused apology. He regarded her steadily, uncommunicative, very still. Perhaps he recognized herâher job took her all over Talas Prime in the course of a normal day, following fault logs from TrafCon to the warehouses to the docks. With his head tilted up, Edie could see the narrow metal strip across his throatâa voice snag. That explained his silence. Someone must have taken offense at what he had to say.
Swallowing hard, she sent out feelers again. This time his chip spat out a few curt phrases of pidgin but let her in.
She probed deeper. This was definitely not a Crib chip, and that made her wonder what the serf's background was.
Most likely he'd had a black market chip implanted in the past, and the Crib had hijacked the device for its purposes. She'd never explored a boundary chip before, but knew in theory how it worked. It wasn't supposed to fight her like this. The chips were primed to receive regular signals from a marker, placed within the area to which the serf was confinedâin this case, somewhere on Talas Prime Station. If the serf moved beyond the marker's perimeter, the signal was lost and the chip reacted by detonating. It was an effective incentive to stay put.
Several layers of encryption protected the chip's receiver, but ultimately it was meant to be accessible. The boundaries would have to be changed every time the serf was moved to another job, and most serfs were freed eventually. There must be a way to deactivate it. Edie closed her eyes to concentrate on mapping the layers. The obvious course of action was to start at the first layer and work through each in turn. As soon as she tried that, a security blip courteously threatened to detonate if she didn't back off.
Well, killing the serf would be one way to facilitate her own escape, but she wasn't ready to do that yet. Ademo had better behave himself when it was his turn.
She withdrew and set about de-merging the layers instead. This wasn't something a regular op-teck might try, because it could go horribly wrong if the tiers started recombining at random. But she had tools at her disposal that a regular teck didn'tâthe wet-teck in her cerebral cortex created a smooth interface and she could keep the tiers separated but aligned, like melodies playing in counterpoint. She teased them apart one by one and imprinted a decoder glyph at each encryption point so the layers would be easy to find later.
At the fringes of awareness she heard Lancer call out for Ademo, then the sound of the outer hatch sliding open and closing again. Heavy footfalls jogged past. She allowed their voices to filter through to her consciousness.
“Just checked the bulletins,” Lancer told Ademo. “Your
escape's been reported. They're on the alert. First thing they'll do is lock down the docks.”
Edie's heart skipped a beat. Station security would be here soon.
Ademo swore as he climbed up to the maintenance platform. She heard the two of them arguing. Lancer tried to mollify him, assuring him they would make it out in time. As if to confirm this, the car suddenly powered up, servos whining, hatch clicking shut.
“What the hell are you doing?” Ademo screamed. “We can't leave yet!”
“Calm down,” Lancer said. “I didn't do anything. It's queuing up on auto.”
It sounded like the woman's patience with the anxious serf was wearing thin. They exchanged more angry words. Edie tried to block out the sound but it was no use. She opened her eyes, keeping the link on standby.
The striplights had powered on. A milky glow illuminated Finn's face, a handspan from hers. Strongly masculine features, olive-brown skin weathered around the eyes. He might have been five years her senior, or fifteenâimpossible to tell.
He was staring at her throat, at the pearlescent inlay between her collarbones. She wrenched together the lapels of her coveralls to hide it. Now he looked straight into her eyes. His penetrating gaze both frightened and compelled her, his eyes reflecting two pinpoints of light that hid a depth of experience beyond her understanding and destroyed her determination to not back down.