By CJ Paget
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Fyodor (let's call him that, it's the name he's travelling under) does not like the look of their supposed savior. Her eyes might be chipped from the inhabited iceball she commands, and her marble-white face is patterned with luminous, genmoded woad, garlanded down one side by cascades of henna-red hair. Her grin reveals replica shark's-teeth implants made of harder-than-diamond carbyne. At her back stand two huge crewmen, clad in EVA armor and armed with ice-casters which they wave back and forth across the crowd. She's not someone you'd want as your only hope, but the people standing in the pseudo-G of this docking-bay, all citizens of Ganymede except Fyodor himself, are desperate.
Fyodor is desperate too, but his fear stems from a different source. The paranoid sees patterns in life and concludes that someone's out to get them. Fyodor's position is the opposite, he knows someone's out to get him, and he sees them behind every unexpected event. Accidents never happen, particularly not drive flare-outs that leave vessels dead and drifting off-trajectory. Except you don't drift in the uncaring black, you sail, you rocket, you careen. There's always something relative to which you're moving at an impossible velocity, and out Jovian way a lot of those somethings are fallout from the Warring Moons.
"So," says their sharkmouthed savior, "you've 'eard the rumours. The pilot of this flyin' junkheap 'as accepted an offer of 'elp, from a Callistan 'eavy cruiser."
The crowd gasps, parents pull their children closer and young couples lean into each other like they can't stand alone.
Captain Sharkmouth, let's call her that, shows even more of her jagged grin. She likes negotiating from a position of absolute power. "E's got to consider that most of 'is passengers is Marsies, who ain't at war with no one, on account of them bein' a bunch of grass-eatin' religious weirdos. But you lot been playin' tit-for-tat with the Callies for a decade now, an' you know that one stanweek ago a Ganymedian attack popped a Callistan hospital station. Accident of war, I'm sure, but the Callies aren't like to see it that way. Pictures of sick kids and oldsters eating vacuum 'av been playing on endless loop in the Callistan media, including straight-to-neural. I ain't big on metaphor so I can only describe the mood of the Callistan public as 'fucking rabid'. Y'all scan exactly what's gonna happen if they find you here."
Her audience whimpers: they do, scan.
"So, yer man puts out a call for anyone who can take you off his hands before the cavalry arrives, an' my little comet is the only thing in range. I got twenty empty hibernation pods and Ganny is my destination. Price per berth is..."
The crowd holds its collective breath, all of them leaning forwards a little in the low G.
"...five-kilo jay in 'ard currency or goods. Nothin' virtual."
Her audience gasp and mutter, some start to sob. "What's hard currency?" asks a child. No one carries physical currency any more, except, of course, those fugitives who can't trust anything traceable. Fyodor is one such. Within his jacket pocket his hand scoops six vials of 'drine: the stuff the fly-girls, the coffin-dodgers, take to give them the edge over the enemy in the deadly dark between the Warring Moons. He's been using it to give himself an edge over his pursuers. A quick mental calculation tells him that it should be enough to meet the captain's price, if he hands the whole lot over.
The first hopefuls have charged to the front, rich women tearing off their jewels, a few men waving various denominations of ancient notes, or various types of contraband.
"People! People!" shouts Captain Sharkmouth, "let's be civilized about this. Form a queue."
"I can do a transfer right now for ten times what you're asking," insists a man in a suit sharp enough to draw blood.
One of the armored enforcers stomps forwards and tells him, "Captain said nothin' virtual.
The crewman snarls, displaying modified teeth fit for a baboon, and the suited man retreats.
"Look, I'm famous," objects a nu-vid starlet in a chic wrap ship-dress.
"I know," says Sharkmouth, "but I can't fence fame."
"When we get to Ganny I can-"
"When we get to Ganny, we'll dump the sleep-berths in lost property and be gone afore you wake, 'cos when you do you'll rat us to the -authorities there. So, you got anything now?"
"This dress, it's worth-"
"Fashion is a fickle investment, honey, probably be worth nothin' by the time we make port. Got anythin' else? No? Well-"
Then, an improbable thing, faint music invades the docking bay. It seems to come from everywhere and nowhere, tinny and distant, as though it were coming through the ventilation. It's the horrible Lune-pop earworm, "Who the fuck is John Gumesh Wong?", which has spread like a lightspeed virus from city to city, station to station, world to world. He feels his facial muscles twitch into a betraying expression and wills them slack again. That music exists just to provoke such a reaction, and though the whole system might know the song, only he and his pursuers know the intention of its nonsense verse. Some of the people look about, bemused, wondering where it's coming from, and it occurs to him that no-response might be the response they're looking for, so frowns and looks over his shoulder like everyone else. When he turns back, Captain Sharkmouth is crouching down to address her next supplicant: a kid. He can't tell the child's sex, and that likely means it's a she pretending to be a he. Everyone's heard stories of what Callistan troops do with female captives. It's all lies of course: wartime propaganda. Every Callistan unit has a female contingent that fiercely polices any signs of abuse. If she's a girl, she'll be taken under their wing, and shoved out an airlock in a decent, sisterly fashion.
"Yes?" says Sharkmouth, raising an eyebrow.
The kid holds something to their body like a shield, and now they raise it up for inspection. It's a book, a real book: brown with age and the touch of many hands. "It's worth a lot," says the kid, "it's really old, come all the way from Big Blue. It's made out of trees and has pictures and everythin'."
"Not much call for readin' in wartime, dearie," says Sharkmouth.
The captain takes the kid by the shoulders, spins her about, and gives her a slap on the backside, that sets her marching away like a clockwork automaton, the book clutched to her chest. Fyodor watches, and suddenly the kid looks up, forlorn and hopeless, straight into his eyes. He should look away, but he's too slow, and something passes between them, like communications-lock between long-hauler's passing in the black, and it's too late to turn the other cheek. "Hi," he says.
The response is barely more than an exhalation. He crouches to put them on a level. "What's your name, kid?"
"Ah," he says, "I knew a Manda once."
The polis agent is a woman, perhaps because statistics show people take catastrophe better from a female messenger, or perhaps because many of the men in the local force are too cowardly to look people in the eyes and deliver bad news.
"This is going to be bad, Sir" she says, "so brace yourself."
He responds with a nod. She announces them to the door, which tells them 'come right in' in an warm, autumnal male voice. They step through and onto a patio, surrounded by beach, and an azure sea that rolls up nearly to the patio's edge. The sea never gets any closer and in reality the edges of the patio are the limits of the room hidden behind the illusion.
The sight of that impossible horizon, the experience of suddenly being transported to a world none of them have ever set foot on for real, gives John a moment of heart-fluttering panic. He wonders who chose this view, and what the choice might mean.
The patient rises from the chaise, where she's been lying, watching a child's teach-holo bought to you by the letter 'A'. Sensing her departure the holo freezes; John tries not to look at it, doesn't want to let-on he's even seen it. The patient smiles like a well-practiced hostess, but her movements are tense, like she's playacting it all or holding back her true emotions. He looks into her eyes and smiles back, looking for recognition in them, wondering if she sees it in his.
It's Manda, of course, Manda who used to be strongly agoraphobic and could do n-dimensional tensor algebra in her head. The two of them have done well here: this asteroid republic badly needs people with technical skills, and money is no object. They'd thought they'd stay here, settle here, they'd thought nothing could go wrong.
"How are you today, Ms Wilson-Wu?" says the agent.
"Fine, thank you." Manda turns back to her other visitor, him, and says, "And you are?"
"John," he says. "It's John."
"Pleased to meet you, John," Manda says, extending her hand. She doesn't even say should I know you?
Twenty minutes later, most of which he spent hiding in the loos, the polis-woman avoids looking into his reddened eyes. "If it's any comfort she does know you," she says. "She's lying. She still has that much memory intact."
"Because she's ashamed of being reduced to 'A is for apple'. Wouldn't you be? It will change how everyone treats her, and I know you're thinking 'not me', but... it may be best that you play along and let her build a new life. Were you close?"
"We're going to be married."
The agent bites her lips and re-arranges some of the documents projected on the display-table between them. "You must do what you think best," she says. "Did she have any enemies, anyone who would do something like this?
All he can say is, "What?" The suggestion's ridiculous, the woman's clearly spent too long on the force, and sees wickedness behind everything. "Surely this is natural? A stroke, something like that?"
The agent swipes and slides her fingers over display menus, and a schematic image of a human brain appears on the table-top, displayed in luminous blue with regions of brain-function marked out like territories on a map. "Does that look natural?" she asks. The shining blue of the brain is striped and patterned with slashes and circles of charcoal black.
"No," he admits.
"Some bastard went to town on her with some kind of multi-beam maser. They mostly took skills, her ability to read and do mathematics."
"Will she ever-"
"She'll learn to read again, other bits of the brain will come in to compensate, and she's got a lot of motivation: there's nothing else for her to do."
"But she won't be the same?"
"No. They tell me she might become a fabulous artist now that her right-brain functions have been silenced, but she'll never be who she was."
"Why would anyone do this?"
"They say she was brilliant. Maybe that's why: envy, or the urge to destroy something beautiful. But we think this was something more, something with a history behind it, something very personal, revenge maybe."
The hairs stand up on the back of his neck. "What makes you think that?"
"Once upon a time circuit manufacturers would burn microscopic images and graffiti into chip-dies; a maker's mark. Well, our artist has a signature too. She sweeps her fingers over the table-top. The image moves and zooms. They're looking at a patch of brain no more than a than a hair's-breadth wide. Scribed there in burned out cells are the words, "Death to traitors."
"Mean anything to you?" she asks.
"No," lies John. "Not at all."
The next day he put most of his wealth into trust for Manda, and fled the Hygian Republic. He's been running ever since.
"Mister?" asks Manda, the kid Manda, the now Manda.
"You kinda went away there?"
"I was just remembering someone. So, what's the book?"
"Oh, it's really old, and it's made from the skins of real trees, it's the only thing my great, great grandmother bought with her when they left Big Blue. It's full of stories of magic, and real animals, and sailors on seas of liquid water and princesses and demons and robbers and pirates."
"Is that something someone your age should really be reading?"
"Oh, it's okay if it's old, then it's classical, innit?"
"But do your parents-" and then he realizes. "Where are your parents, Manda?"
"War got 'em."
He knew it, but it's still a slap in the face. "Oh, I'm sorry."
Manda shrugs, as though it were ancient history, as though she were over it, as though anyone ever gets over such things. "War gets everyone. It'll get me."
"It won't get me," says Fyodor. "I think I'm already spoken for."
Perhaps, if he had just run, he'd have shaken the pursuit. There were enough places to run to: so many new lights shining in the Trojan asteroid swarms that Jupiter drags along before and behind it. No one knows quite how many lights there are, for some of them keep themselves dark and quiet, jealous of their privacy, getting up to who-knows-what in the endless, concealing void. Some have failed, lights that guttered out for want of resources or know-how, leaving ruins and heart-breaking journals of slowly collapsing dreams. But the rest shine bright and glorious and full of people: you could be lost in there forever. If he had just run...
But after seeing Manda's burned-out, graffittied brain, he had to warn the others. When they had made their break as stowaways on a freight shuttle, it had been one-for-all-and-all-for-one. And so instead of fleeing into the concealing void, he went to the very places the enemy would go.
At Telamonville, a polis in a roofed-over chasm in a Trojan asteroid, one of the brightest, richest lights in heaven, he caught up with his pursuers.
He steps through the half-open door of a luxury apartment, and into that preternatural certainty that something is wrong; that feeling familiar to prey animals who scent something on the breeze. He nearly calls out Tarik's name, but some ancient imperative in his hind-brain belays that order before it reaches his mouth. The only sound as he stalks through the rooms, is that of his gecko-heels grip-releasing the floor, and that's too much noise. Mirrors reflect white-faced image, dressed in the local garb, with a flying cloak and backpack jets. Looking down a hallway, through another open door, he sees a young woman lying, twitching on the carpet, and she sees him. Time turns becomes one treacly, hallucinogenic moment. The woman tries to speak, but achieves only the barest movement of her painted lips, like the last gaspings of a dying fish. Her spasms keep her slightly off the floor in the low G, so that she's falling forever, like in dreams where you never quite land. Her eyes are wildly dilated: she's shot full of some paralyzing, agonizing drug. His gaze slips beyond her, to a male figure lies, twitching the same way: Tarik. Tarik, who ten years ago designed the roof that keeps out the deadly sky, and made this world bloom. Three cowled, black-clad forms crouch over him like feeding vampires. One holds his head between their taloned hands, and murmurs as though performing some ritual blessing, a strange light glowing at their fingertips. Hanging before them at their eye level is a smart-dust projection: a schematic of a human brain. Tarik's brain; what's left of it.
One of the night-clad intruders looks up. Sees him. Knows him.
He runs, praying that his gecko heels don't lose their grip, and send him bouncing and sprawling in the near non-existent G. His foot-strikes echo off the walls and furniture like applause. Thud! Thud! Thud! Echo, echo, echo, but-
Those aren't echoes.
He hits the foyer at a screaming sprint, the holographic concierge telling him, "have a nice day, sir" as he careens past. Scant moments later, he hears it say "have a nice day, y'all," using the accepted term here for a mixed-gender group, probably because it can't see under their cowls. At the apartment building's grandiose entrance the grip-floor stops, and there's a plain slab of ceramel for take-off and
landings, an expensive young couple alighting there like gaudy butterflies. He yells wordlessly at them, and they plunge from his path, their illusion of superhuman grace shattered. He lands both feet on the ceramel step, grabs the edges of his wing-cloak, and pushes off into empty space.
Above him, a distant carbon-glass roof keeps hungry vacuum at bay, and all the life for hundreds of thousands of miles is crammed under it. The chasm holds a river of color and chaos. Giant clouds of smart-dust float on updrafts, forming and reforming into adverts and lies: smoke this, eat that, wear the other, a new life awaits you in the Trans-Saturnian colonies. Flying plazas and floating pavilions, full of restaurants and cafes, hover with the ease of frigate-birds, needing only weak air-jets or lazily turning rotors to hold their station. Swarming through all this, guiding their flight with brightly-colored wing-cloaks, circling in the designated updraft zones, sitting at cafe tables in the floating pavilions, zipping between the canyon walls like bats or bees, are people. Thousands of people, tens of thousands.
Look down: It's eight miles deep, and they say the people at the bottom are starting to develop their own language.
John toggles 'burn' on his backjet, and accelerates into the swarm. Looking over his shoulder, he sees three black shapes in pursuit. This crowded slice of air is not his element, he's poorly skilled with a wing-cloak, he won't shake them here. He needs something, somewhere to hide. On the other side of the canyon, he sees a sign. "Closed for renovation." The Old City, barely a village compared to this thriving polis. A warren of tunnels and chambers dug out by the first wave of settlers, whose light failed and guttered out, leaving only bones and recordings behind. Only partially open while undergoing repairs for moisture damage, it's a prefect place to hide. He toggles 'burn' on his backjet, and holds it down. He flies, he flies, he flies, looking over his shoulder to see the pursuit is still there. The canyon seems five times wider than when he crossed it minutes ago. Then, the far wall charges towards him. He yanks his wing-cloak desperately, trying to maneuver for a portal covered by a tarpaulin, and not be smashed against the cliff-face. He hits. The tarpaulin snaps away, and he's flying into darkness, holding out his wing-cloak in a braking maneuver. Something hits him, a pipe or pole, smashes his shoulder and rendering it both numb and simultaneously on fire. He's spinning in the echoes of his own scream of pain. Behind him, some structure, damaged by the impact, collapses. He hits a wall, knocking the air out of him, then another, which he manages to grab a scrabbling hold onto.
Bells are ringing, and not in his head. His intrusion has triggered alarms that will attract the local fuzz. Good. Holding his screaming shoulder, he gasps 'light' into his wrist-phone, and in its weak glow, sees he's in the main fora of the dead city. He scrambles across it, seeking some hiding-place, his gecko-heels try to grip, but come away holding only dust, and he falls up and to the side, into a wall. Gasping there, his gaze chances on a niche high on the chamber roof, partially concealed from the viewpoint of someone standing below. He pushes off the wall, and toggles 'burn' on his back-jet. It coughs, thrusts for less than a second, then sputters out. He's sailing up to the niche, but slower than he wanted. There's sounds from the tarpaulin covered entrance. He hisses 'light off' into his wrist phone, and scrabbles at the air, trying to swim to his destination. In the dark, he misjudges his arrival, and bangs his head on the roof of the opening, but he's in, and pushes himself flat on the floor, fiercely willing his breath to stop.
There's light below, revealing three black-clad figures, all tall, not Earthworms or Marsies: asteroid-born, but he knew that already. One is the tallest man he's ever seen. One is powerfully built, almost certainly gen-adapted, such physical bulk being hard to maintain in low G. One, the holo-concierge was right, is definitely female. They all have their faces covered, only the eyes showing. The big man pulls some device from the folds of his suit, and holds it up, sweeping it slowly around him. John curses inwardly, there's so much that could betray him to the right technology, his body heat, his smell, even the electrical activity in his brain. The woman twists her body and leaps, the beautifully executed maneuver making him feel his many bruises and clumsy nature more acutely. She sails, turning up into the chamber, letting her eyes slide along the view as she goes. She'd be a spectacular low-G dancer in a happier universe than his. Her gaze slides round, and he feels ice sweep over him. For a moment she's looking straight at him and his heart stops. Her searchlight gaze passes on. She reaches up an arm with a curling florish of her wrist, and fires a jet strapped to her fore-arm, and descends with the same easy grace. She lands. He waits for her to point, to shout, to reveal him. But she only looks over to the big man, who has been staring at his scanning device. He hits it now and curses it. John starts breathing again, she didn't see him, and the big man's device isn't working. These moments of blind luck sometimes make him feel the universe is playing with him.
The tall man tilts his head as though he hears something. He says 'cops'.
The big man curses again. He stomps to the center of the chamber, and he bellows, "John Gumesh-Wong, I know you can hear me!" It echoes impressively in the dead forum. "Ironic, that you would run to ground like a rat in this tomb. These people died for want of resources, or a missing component, or some miscalculation in their plans. Life out here is tight, particularly for new settlements, we all know that. We spent our thin resources on you, you and the others. We clothed you, fed you, most of all gave you an education denied to others who were put to more immediate work. And you took what we gave, and ran off with it, all of you. Did you ever think what that would do to us, when the people to whom the torch was supposed to be passed, weren't there? Well, explore this mausoleum, in many places the bodies are kept untouched and preserved in vacuum, and you can hear the final journals that those dead lips spoke. It was very like that when you were the missing component. But we are still here, John Gumesh-Wong, and what you've done has only made us stronger, and we will take back all the things we gave you. Keep looking over your shoulder, because one day, we will be there."
"I think I would like to run away to sea, and rescue princes and battle monsters," says Manda.
"The last one is not so advisable," says Fyodor.
"I think the sea is like space, but friendlier, innit? Things can live in it. It's not as eager to kill you as space is. Space must really hate us, don't you think?"
"Seeing how we've conducted ourselves out here, you can't really blame it."
"Did you run away to space, Mister? Are you a deserter?"
It's a moment before he can answer that. "I'm not from the Warring Moons, but to some people, yes, I guess I am."
"Me too, kinda. My gramps sold everything they had to send me to Mars, so I wouldn't wind up flying a war-boat, like my sister. They make it look glam in the recruitment ads, but it's not glam, being a dodger, is it?"
"No," he says, "no, it's not, and no-ones got any right to make you do it." Back on Earth they might use the brains of dolphins or dogs, but out here the most available weapons-control-system with the best processing to weight ratio is a human female, not yet twenty stanyears old. Some families fatten their daughters as best they can, hoping to take them over the useful mass limit, but the state, any of the states in the Warring Moons, just takes them and staples their stomachs, and starves them down to a suitable size. Maybe that lies in Manda's future, assuming she has any future beyond this stricken ship.
Captain Sharkmouth laughs as she unburdens a defeated looking woman of her jewels, dangling a necklace round her own throat and joking with her henchmen. The strains of "Who the fuck is John Gumesh Wong?" ring out across the bay once more.
"You hear that song?" he tells the girl. "It's about me. I've changed my face, I've changed my name, I've changed the way I walk. So the people who are after me invent these tricks, and they watch, and they see who startles in a crowd when they hear those words. Or they do it just to hound me, just to let me know they're near. I see them everywhere now, in slogans painted across walls, in hidden messages in theater and news and music, and I don't know how much of that is really them, and how much is my imagination. Maybe they hope to drive me mad. I knew a man once who'd have payed good money for your book. He loved real, old, books: owned probably the biggest library of them that there is out here. Lived alone in a private orbitat, just him and his books. I got to him too late, they'd already burned the reading out of him, I found him weeping in his useless library. I should have left him, but I couldn't. He told me to, he understood how much danger I was risking being with him, but I had a mad idea that I'd teach him to read again, and I wouldn't go. So he went, he just vanished. I searched the whole orbitat, it wasn't that big. He'd stepped outside, into the black. And they got Manda, and they got Tarik, and they got all of us, all but me. And now I'm out of money, I'm out of ideas, and I'm running to the Warring Moons, because you'd think they'd be crazy to follow me there, but they will, they'd follow me into hell itself. So, I'll buy your book, kid. I've got something our pirate queen will accept, and it's been a long time since I read a good story."
"You sure?" asks Manda.
"I'm old, you're young, it's the smart investment strategy." He pulls the drine capsules from his pocket, sees her eyes go wide: of course she knows what it is. Dead or alive her sister would be hooked on the stuff before her first tour of duty was done. "Yeah," he says, "give it to that bitch and never touch this stuff again."
Manda nods, and holds out the book. He takes it and drops the drine capsules into her palm. They turn to where Queen Sharkmouth holds court.
"Wait, wait! What're you doing? She's had her turn!" It's the man in the sharp suit, the one who could do a transfer right now for ten times what you're asking.
"She's taking my turn," says John.
"Who the fuck are you?" says the suit. "You ain't even one of us! Hey, everyone, this Marsie's tryin' to take our places!"
"I'm not from Mars, I'm not taking anyone's place," says John, keeping his voice flat and reasonable.
"You're the guy who sabotaged the drive! You're tryin' to escape!"
This gets the crowds attention, and John realizes that this isn't going to end reasonably. He puts his hand on the other man's chest, says "Hey, enough," and gives him a warning shove. For all his running, John's never been in a proper fight in his life, but he's seen people deploy this move on, you know, the street. Oh, unless he saw it in a nu-vid?
The suit swings a punch at him, not the intended result. John instinctively shields himself behind the big book. The man's fist impacts the book, and he looks confused, unsure what just happened. John is also unsure what happens next, so he improvises, swinging the book. It's good, big, book, with a hard jacket, and some nice mass. It's easy to swing in the weak pseudo-G of this becalmed vessel, and once moving, like any mass, it wants to keep going. It slams into the suit's face, bursting blood-vessels in his nose and adding some much needed color to the cover. But other voices are shouting now, and he hears someone say "Marsie scumbag." The suited man staggers on his gecko heels, droplets of blood wobbling from his nose, and cries "He's got money in his jacket, enough to buy us all a passage!"
And then it's a scrum and John's the ball. Hands grab him, he twists and turns, trying to break their hold. A woman with a blonde afro screams "Get the Marsie!" and claws at his face. He swings the book, swats her head aside, and she overbalances in the weak g. Manda is shrieking, and John realizes that the man in the sharp suit has her, is holding her off the floor while she kicks and screams, and is trying to pull the drine capsules from her fist. That's been his plan all along. Manda maintains a furious grip, but if those capsules all burst in her hand and that much drine goes into her bloodstream, she's dead. John swings the book down onto the back of the man's head, and then kicks him hard in the shins, making him curse and drop Manda.
Then John's punched across the face by someone who knows how to fight. The shock of impact confuses him, and he drops the book. A fist buries itself in his gut. Hands plunge into his jacket. Manda is screaming once more. One of the hugely armored crewmen steps forwards, as though to intervene, but Sharkmouth lays a delicate hand on his armored chest and says, with he eyes shining, "No, nature must be allowed to take her course." Multiple hands have a grip on his arms, his legs, he can barely move. A vicious-faced man with military-cut hair grabs his jacket lapels and asks, "Where's the money?"
John's brain whirls through the available options. "There is no money," will not be an acceptable answer, so instead he gathers his breath, and shouts, "I am John Gumesh-Wong! I am John Gumesh-Wong! I am John Gumesh-Wong!"
In the next instant something slashes across his face: searing heat, and the air fills with the smell of cooking flesh, and everyone starts screaming as invisible fingers of microwave energy strobe through the crowd. Someone yells, "It's the Callies!" and the crowd breaks, people running, screaming, clambering over each other. In a moment the docking bay is empty, except for him, an amazed-looking Sharkmouth and her lieutenants, and Manda curled up on the floor.
He goes over to her and asks, "Hey, you still have it?"
Manda holds up her hand, opens it for them both to see what lies within. Miraculously all the capsules are there, unbroken. He helps her to her feet.
A black-clad figure glides down from some roost overhead, alighting with the grace and poise of a low-G dancer. She walks towards them with her hands held up in a peculiar guard posture, and something on the edge of human vision sparkles at her fingertips. She spares a glance to Sharkmouth and her crew, and says, "Don't try anything. What I've got moves far faster than ice." The eyes are as blue as ever, but there are crinkles at the corners now: crow's feet. John guesses her life been nothing but chasing, as his has been nothing but running, and she must really hate him for that.
"One condition," he says. He puts hands on Manda's shoulders in a paternal gesture, "If she doesn't make it to Ganymede, if she gets sold into slavery or falls out an airlock on the way there, will you hunt these people as you have hunted me?"
The blue gaze slides towards Sharkmouth, down to Manda, back to him. "It'll be my pleasure," she says.
"Okay. Go and pay the lady then, Manda," he says, giving her a push on the shoulders.
"Will everyone stop shoving me!" says Manda, but she walks up to Sharkmouth and deposits the capsules of drine into her hand. The Captain holds them up to the light as though they were diamonds. "Oh," she says, "that'll do nicely," and she waves Manda through the lock to her ship. Manda grabs something that's been thrown to the edge of the docking bay, in the and shouts, "Hey Mister, you forgot your book!" She spins it to him in the low-G, it's pages turning as it flies, as though some spirit were reading it as it travels. He catches it out of the air as the Captain's armored lieutenants fall into step behind her, blocking his view of the Captain and the final addition to her passenger roster. And then the lock slides shut, and they're gone.
He turns to the only other occupant of the docking bay, holding the big book to his chest, like Manda did before him. The azure eyes do not waver from his gaze.
"You bastard," she says, "I've hunted you all these years, and now you turn the good man?"
"Why?" he asks, "what do you want of me, of all of us?"
"Only to take back all the things we gave you, all the things you stole."
"We took nothing when we left, only our wits."
She twitches her hands, something spits from the ends of her fingers, John feels a constellation of stings burn his face. He touches his cheek, and finds something like stubble there: dozens of tiny darts.
"You took our air," she says, "You took our water. How much of our thin resources did you consume while we grew you, John Gumesh-Wong?"
A horrible numbness sweeps through him, as though his body had died with him still in it, and his spirit trapped in the corpse. His legs can no longer support him even against the weak pseudo-G. The searing agony arrives before he's even finished falling down, every nerve in his body screeching that something is wrong.
"You were identified early on as having potential, you and the others. Resources were allocated. You were fed well, dressed well, taught well. You were part of the plan. There were others who might, in the end, have done as well or better than you, but they were allocated to other tasks, some of them working outside, in the deadly dark, among micrometeorites and cosmic rays. They did their duty, and some died for it. But those we chose to educate, instead of put to work, they thought they could get a better deal elsewhere. We were left to make do without you, and we didn't do well. When people grew sick, we had the equipment, but no-one trained to use it. When equipment failed, there was no-one who knew it's workings deeply enough to fix it. We had to cut back. We couldn't support the whole colony. We had to chose who we would keep, and who we would let go. The colony chose me, but my younger brother was sickly and we couldn't cure him, so he wasn't so lucky. We recycled everything, of course. It was survival. At some point I must have eaten something made from him."
She lays her glowing fingertips against his scalp. "Don't worry," she says, "I'll only take the things we gave you. I'll start with what we gave you forty standard years ago," she says. "When we taught you to read."
There's a familiar bang, and a rustle of pages as the book bounces off the wall of this crowded cabin in their ramshackle little freighter. 1-ita looks up, to see him sitting with his head in his hands. She collects the book- good job it has a cover strong enough to take frequent abuse - and brings it back to him. She's decided that's her job for now; There are worse things you could do with your life. He's improving faster than he thinks, but he's pushing himself too hard. He enjoys the cut-and-thrust of this merchantile life, shuttling between the lights shining among the trojan asteroids, but he hates needing someone to do his reading for him. Confined in this cabin on the long voyages between the lights, grief for the things he's lost eats at his soul.
"I just feel so useless," he complains.
She massages his shoulders with her fingertips, "You're not useless," she says. "We'd never have smuggled those people people past the Callies if you hadn't thought of disguising them all as members of the First Martian Trappist Church. That was inspired, no-one else could have done that."
"It was crazy," he says, "I wasn't firing on all jets."
"Maybe that's what made you inventive. Still no memories of who did this to you?"
"No. This isn't normal amnesia 1-ita, I'll never remember what happened, it's been burned out."
"Well, at least you survived; and you met me. You probably wouldn't have, you know, that's the way the universe works."
He looks into her azure eyes, and smiles begrudgingly.
"I'll make the tea," she says, and leaves him to parse new lamps for old. Tracing the words with his fingers and forming their shapes with his mouth.
The pressure-kettle in the galley is on the blink again, leaving the tea lukewarm, she'll get it replaced when they make port. For now she waggles her fingers over their cups, and heats it using the maser-diodes embedded in her fingertips.