The Taking of IOSA-2083
By CJ Paget
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
"Ah, here he is. In this corner," says Xilou. Boris floats in the center of a poorly made web; the basic instincts assert themselves even out here where there's nothing for Boris to catch.
Em stomps up the wall in her gecko shoes and scoops him up in her hands. Boris is one of the few non-human creatures to have made it this far from Big Blue, having gotten himself flash-frozen into a shipment of medicines. A big old spider, slow-moving, possibly blind, probably female, and missing two legs, but Emily loves him. Xilou, who's always despised Earth's creepy creatures herself, takes this as a good sign that Em is developing down her own path.
"You're a bad boy, Boris," says Em, "always running away." She jumps to the makeshift vivarium, confident in the only gravity she knows, and drops Boris back in his home. He falls dream-slowly in the near nonexistent g, scrabbling madly at the air as he goes.
"He is naughty, isn't he?" says Xilou, crouching next to the child. "He should scan that sometimes you have to do as you're told by people who know best, hmm?" Hard to believe it, here she is pushing the same bilge that command fed them during the wars. But, that's motherhood.
Em looks up and smiles, making Xilou's chest ache. Em's face is that of the child Xilou might have been, but never was: Xil being born full-grown from a jar. Em came from a jar too, Xilou not having the natural equipment to produce her. Xil brushes back Em's hair, remembers being asked what color she wanted it to be. She said 'purple', one of those embarrassing mistakes you make when you're a neut who never grew real hair of your own. Filling all the gaps in Xil's DNA cost her a small fortune: cloning's not cheap, especially not for an old neut who's a deserter from the Warring Moons and runs on the wrong side of the law.
"Now," says Xilou. "you stay in here with Boris, honey. Mommy's got some business to attend to."
Em runs to her only other real possession, the old cookie-cooking toy, a present from one of Xil's surviving wing-sistas gave it to her that day, back on Ganymede, when Em came screaming out of the jar. You feed it scraps and it breaks them down to chemistry, and reassembles them to approved, customizable templates in its internal database: mostly cookies. It takes time to cook though, and Xilou can tell Em uses the device as a means to prolong their time together, to delay the inevitable abandonment. She wonders what Em will do as scraps become harder to get; it's likely that Boris' escape artistry has a lot to do with Em's need for attention that Xilou struggles to provide.
"I progged a new flava, innit?" says Em, concentrating furiously as she selects options on the device's touch-sensitive skin.
"Where did you learn to speak like that?" asks Xilou, making her voice sharp like she's heard teachers and other mother's do, getting a startled look from Em that tells her she's doing it right. "I've programmed a new flavour," she corrects, "and never say 'innit', I won't have you talking like a dodger." She puts an arm round Em to take the edge off the reprimand, and together they wait for the 'cooking' lights to stop flashing on the device. The cookie launches from the slot in the top, sailing upwards in the low-g, varicolored with clashing greens and reds: one of Em's experimental concoctions. Fortunately one of the things they didn't give neuts, because you don't need it to fly a warboat, is a sense of taste.
"Thank you all for coming," says Xilou. "Sorry to keep you waiting."
The people anchored around the table keep their faces blank and expectant. She's "Madam Xil" here, and gets the most respect she's had since leaving her wing-sistas and being a coffin-dodger for the Ganymedian Republic, a lifetime and millions of kilometers ago. Like all neuts she's bought the hair implants, boobs, learned to speak 'proper', tried to act 'normal', tried to conceal her birdlike, low-mass form. Wasted money. Now she knows: power, that's what brings respect and acceptance.
She sits between Mr Black and Mr White, the only members of her tiny organization that she'll be taking with her. Deserters like her, but normals trained for boarding actions and those stillborn ground assaults on Europa; they've been her most loyal footsoldiers since she got them off the Warring Moons. Black is White and White is Black, though the skin-color's surely cosmetic in both cases. They spend so much time in each others pockets that Xilou suspects they're an item, not that she really understands what that means. The others are carefully chosen as useful and sane people who, like her, do what they must, having found their choices limited wherever they've run.
"I have bad news," she announces. "Titania isn't working out. This colony is failing, dying. Most of the people will die with it." She sees reactions flicker across faces like gas-giant lightning, microexpressions too complex for a blank-faced neut to parse. "The seedstock we bought with us was telomore-locked to only reproduce for a fixed number of generations. I don't know by who, or how far back in its ancestry. I know that we haven't been able to source alternatives, and that now the hydroponics yields are falling. The administration's keeping it quiet, but soon it'll be obvious and then things'll get ugly. They're already bartering our own fuel supplies for food. I plan on getting out. You're all here because you have useful skills and no real family. You can't bring anyone with you, this is a very limited escape plan. That rule doesn't apply to me, I will be bringing someone. If you have a problem with that, then I suggest you leave now and make other arrangements."
None of them go.
She pushes, "Go now, or you're in this to the death."
None of them go.
"If you talk, to anyone, then Mr Black and Mr White will have a talk with you," she warns. "Now, Mr Latimer has an escape plan for us. If you would, Mr Latimer?"
Latimer stands carefully, he's an Earthwor... an Earther, with an Earther's physique, and prone to accidentally springing himself into the ceiling. He smiles his "let's make lots of money" smile. He's not, in Xilou's opinion, a good thief, but he's always the man with the plan. He taps the table and it bursts into pixellated life, displaying a lumpen, pockmarked thing with a shining tail.
"IOSA-Twenty-Eighty-Three," he says. "Arriving here in about two hundred hours."
"A comet?" says Sang-Anne. "What do we do with that?"
"Someone's already done it." Latimer operates menus displayed in the table's surface. The comet becomes a cutaway schematic, showing internal chambers. "While we've been bleeding into this worthless moon the smart money's been on comets. The ice shields you from cosmic radiation and provides minerals, hydrocarbons, drinking water, oxygen, hydrogen, and reaction-mass. A couple of radio-isotope heaters jammed into the surface will give you an effective steam rocket. You want faster: install a fission reactor. The big ones are hollow worlds, cities in flight, homes to tens or hundreds of thousands of people. But they stay out in the deep black, don't risk themselves. This is a pebble, two hundred meters long, part of a fleet operating out of one of the cities. It's coming here to trade."
"Crew?" asks Mr White, who knows what's coming.
"Ten, maybe. But most of them will be in deep hiber, saving resources. They'll hibernate in shifts, only all coming awake when they visit somewhere significant, and we're not significant. Titania has two automated surface-to-orbit lighters, one's being loaded now with anything we can strip and sell. Thirteen people is the most extra payload we think we can get away with. The lighter should compensate for the extra mass automatically. Plan is: we ride up and take the ship."
"We take the ship, and it takes us where we want to go, then we give it back and say we're sorry," says Xilou. "And no-one gets hurt. We have no quarrel with these people, and this isn't something I want to do. It's survival. If anyone does get hurt without good reason, the person responsible with answer directly to me." She sweeps her gaze slowly round the table over each of them. Disconcerting stares are easy when you're a neut, it's the natural state of your face.
The lighters look more like buildings than flying machines. In Titania's airless night they've no need of wings or streamlining, or elegance, they're just black boxes with a hypergolic firecracker buttressed to each corner, the brute application of Newton's second law. Xilou's suit HUD displays infrared, ultraviolet and photomultiplied optical in false colors, overlaying the dim scene with a garish color-scheme like corrupted video. Without the suit's electronic senses the darkness would be nearly total. Suit-vision always reminds her of her dodging days, when data fed straight into her wired brain. She still has the skull-jack, of course, but ironically there's nothing out here advanced enough to interface with it.
They ride, hidden among crates and canisters, on a flatbed made of ice with independently powered smart-wheels bolted to it. A child-sized suit slumps in the circle of Xilou's arm. Xenon is one of their few exports, it's good fuel for ion thrusters, but also works as a general anesthetic. Xilou monitors Em's breathing mix and bio-signs, not trusting that task to anyone else. The lies she's told Em about how she makes a living are brittle things that must be protected, and the Xenon is one way of doing that.
"Can't see no-one," says Mr White over suit-link. "Don't like this, Latimer will have talked, he never stops talking. They'll be waiting."
Just two days ago Latimer got caught trying to convert local currency into something more widely tradable and illegal. Typical of him to overreach and crash out of his own plan.
"No, he'll stay sealed," says Xilou, "he'll know he's got a sleeper contract on his ass." Automated systems will handle the announcement, bidding and payment for the hit, unless Xilou sends a 'cancel' transmission in time. Still, she lays Em gently down and picks up her gun. Homebrewed by Black and White from scavenged materials it has bullets powered by electrically triggered aluminium/ice nanopropellant and one of those multipurpose automation processors for targetting and data. When the thumb of her suit touches the processor's data-contacts her HUD says she's got twenty shots and overlays a targetting grid.
The flatbed shudders to a halt and they drop from it, pushing themselves downwards, falling from the load bed like snowflakes and landing with the grace of fairies. Automated sleds are loading the lighter with bundles of uranium fuel rods, their major export. The rods, slightly warmer than the ambient 80 Kelvin, shine a little in Xilou's infra-red vision.
They're not getting in the main hold with that.
Black and White make a big show of 'sweeping the area for hostiles', but find nothing and no-one. Xilou feels a little sorry for them, it's a reminder of the war, where only neuts and starved-thin girls lying in goo-filled g-coffins see any action, and ground-grunts march about or sit in tin-can troopships, and if they action finds them, they never even know it.
The lighter's side is curtained with kevlar webbing, simple pockets to hold low-mass loads when the main hold is full. Jumping up the sides of the craft is easy in Titania's weak gravity, then you just undo the zips in the webbing, climb in, and hold on. Xilou makes sure Em is firmly secured, then sends the message to cancel the sleeper hit. Latimer will live to lie another day.
When it comes, it's not so much. The engines don't roar, they burp. There's a brief flicker of brightness, shocking Xilou's dark-adapted eyes, and then the ground falls away. The launch-field shrinks to a dot; the chasm the colony hides in spools out below her; then it's like looking down on a map, she can pick out the famous features, like the giant, ridiculously named crater, 'Gertrude'.
Titania becomes a thrown ball, a discarded thing speeding away into the endless night. The universe crowds in. Out here on the perimeter there are more stars than you ever believed, out here there's an endless wrap-around vista of sparkles, of possible worlds held forever out of reach. The memories come back, the one's she's buried down deep. Memories of what she was made for, of the warboat that was her true body, of tactical lighting up her brain with its pretty patterns, of the power and terrible glory of being a thing that hunts through this endless darkness, savage and unthinking and alive. Oh, she aches for it, oh the night calls to her, telling her to throw herself into its endless embrace.
Xilou turns her back on the universe, presses her visor against Em's, stares at the sleeping face within, and tells herself That's all behind me now.
Overhead something swells from a dot, to a fingernail, to a fist. A fist of ice and darkness.
In their suit's photomultiplied vision the comet is a vast rainbow-filled black diamond, rather than an ugly, flying mountain of ice and crap. Titania's scarred face looms below, showing no sign of human presence. The colony could be airless ruins already for all you can see. They clamber up the lighter's side, holding onto the kevlar webbing or using their grip-gloves to make sure they stay fixed to something, don't bounce themselves away into the endless night. Xilou carries Em securely strapped to her back. The sound of sleeping breathing fades in and out over their suit-to-suit link. Em's possessions, the vivarium and cookie-cooker float in a webbing-bag clipped to her suit. Xilou doubts Boris will survive the coming journey, how long do spiders live anyway? She slaps one hand, then the other onto the great wall of ice, triggering her grip-gloves. Thousands of tiny electroactive polymer tendrils shoot into the cracks and crevices of the ice. In the next instant a current flows and the tendrils expand to many times their original diameter, filling those cracks. Her hands are stuck as though frozen to the ice.
"This thing's huge," says Mr Black, his voice raspy over their suit-link. "Crew of ten? It could hold thousands." Their suits form a line-of-sight optical comms network, they can speak without fearing detection.
"This one's a baby," says Xilou. "Not even that." She mutters the 'left release' command and the tendrils flow back into her left glove. She reaches as far forwards as she can, palms the ice and triggers the glove once more. "Right release," she says.
They crawl swift and easy over the ancient, space-worn surface. Only once does Mr White hiss, "Down!", and they freeze, watching something run along the small horizon, something that looks like Boris but mechanical and big as Em herself. Black and White track its motion very precisely with their guns. Xilou copies, unable to resist her neut programming if you don't know what to do, mimic someone who does. But if they shoot at it the comet's crew will be alerted and that's game over.
The thing scuttles on its way, leaving them to scuttle away on theirs.
Eventually the disposal lock, slightly warmer than the ice it pokes out of, shines in their suit-HUDs. This is Sang-Anne's show. Sang-Anne is very definitely a good thief. She works with mysterious tools and swift precision around the outer edge of the circular lid. There's a flicker of electrical sparking and the lid opens, slowly. Mr Black and Mr White do a strange dance, taking it in turns to point their weapons down the shaft. Move, stop, wait. Move, stop, wait. Xilou is never sure what she's seeing with Black and White, but she knows it's very good, that they're highly trained, you can see it in the choreography.
White pushes himself up, launching himself over the opening, and Black grabs his shoulders and thrusts him down into it, there being no real gravity to do that job. Black sits back from the edge, furtively peering over it at irregular intervals. Eventually they hear White say, "Clear".
"Sang-Anne, you're next," says Black. "Come here."
Sang-Anne does as she's told. As soon as she's close enough Black picks her up and throws her down the shaft. Her shriek is cut short when the suit-link loses line-of-sight connection.
"What did she think was going to happen?" says Black, bemusedly. "Amateurs. Okay, Leif, you're next."
One by one by one they are thrown down the shaft, into a darkness so absolute that the only thing visible are the heat-traces of each other. They collect at the bottom of the shaft like beans in a can. Xilou imagines one of those spider-robots charging down this shaft, would they even know before it slammed into them, pulping them against the ice-floor? But no, that's not the way it'll happen. This is a disposal shaft: a chamber under the floor can be explosively filled with ice-steam, launching the floor and everything stacked on it up the shaft and into the black. That's how it will happen, if the crew detect their presence.
Sang-Anne is already hacking the entry-system that's embedded in the ice, just holding her suited hand against it, unmoving, like she's trying to break it by magic or force of will. Most of what she's carrying is software, and that mostly just secret lists of backdoor passwords for various systems. Not big, not clever, but she can name her price while no-one else has the password list.
A white light pulses within the ice beneath Sang-Anne's palm. The outer door of the airlock slides open. Xilou checks Em's bio-status. Black, White, and a couple of the other tough-guys crowd into the lock. It closes behind them. Everyone else waits for the other door to open, disgorge the advance party, close, the lock to cycle, and White to announce "Clear" to the rest of the team. Sang-Anne does her magic again, and the next group go through.
Surely they must know we're here now thinks Xilou. But maybe not. Latimer says the parts of these makeshift ships aren't always joined up. Stand-alone systems are distributed throughout the vast bulk of the ice, sometimes smart and swimming in a sea of mutual radio-chatter, but sometimes dark and unmonitored. Perhaps this airlock is unsupervised, unmonitored, unwatched. It must be, or they'd surely have been thrown into space by now.
She goes through with the last group, into a maze of dark corridors. Their suits provide directions, following Latimer's schematics. Xilou wonders if all these comets are dug out into a standard topography, or if Latimer got details of this one in particular.
Eventually, ahead, there's light. Dim light, too weak to see by if not for their suits. Audio too: voices. Laughter. A girl's voice. Xilou feels that new, creepy feeling that she never felt in the war: guilt. White's voice whispers over the suit-link, "We all go in together, a show of force. There's no point doing it any other way, we've no-where to retreat to and they control the systems, once they know we're here, it's over. I'm downloading a tactical programme to everyone's suit, you just follow the arrows and prompts, like a game. If anyone starts firing, you start firing, but if you start firing and you can't justify it after, then you'll be chewing vacuum. Most important, walk don't run, trying to run will spring you off the floor."
A countdown appears in Xilou's suit-HUD, just like launch sequence in her dodging days. "Get Ready. Go in 3... 2... 1"
"WALK!" it commands, an arrow pointing the way. But Mr Black doesn't walk, he launches himself into the chamber, flying, looking down the barrel of his weapon. Xilou marches after her arrow, following the directions go here, aim there. Mr White stays standing in the corridor, monitoring them like robots through the data-links of their suits, switching between them, deploying them like pawns in a chess game.
The chamber's cathedral-big, filled with blue lozenges that look like her warboat's g-coffin. So many of them, hundreds at least. One of the tough-guys tries to run, despite the warning, and is off across the room, spinning end over end like a discarded booster. The three people, two girls and a boy alike as triplets, lock dark eyes onto him and watch bemusedly as he pinwheels before them. Xilou names them in her head, One-girl, Two-girl, and Boy. They're clones: pretty and genadapted, eyes with large pupils and eyeshine that says they have a reflective tapetum, like cats.
Xilou's suit walks her to them, and the HUD says "TALK!" By the time she arrives Mr White has himself anchored, his gun leveled at their faces, and they have their hands on their heads. Two-girl is clearly the baby of the group, she looks instantly close to blubbing. Boy looks proudly defiant. One-girl looks strangely amused.
Shouldn't they look surprised?
"All we want is a ride," says Xilou. "In-system to Jovian space. After that, we'll leave you. How many people can you carry awake for that long?"
"What?" says One-girl. "Are you crazy? None!"
"Don't lie to me," says Xilou, "or I'll hurt your sister." She swings her gun to point at Two-girl, and hopes One-girl doesn't call her bluff.
"It's true," says Boy, his words coming out so fast that they trip over each other. "That's an eight-month journey. Do you know how many calories a person needs when they're out of hiber?"
"How. Many. People?" says Xil.
"One," says One-girl. "Two at a pinch, but by the end you'd be eating-"
"I'll manage," says Xilou. Neuts are low-maintenance: designed that way. "Now, put your sister into hiber. No funny stuff, I want to watch the procedure."
One-girl takes her sister's arm, and leads her to one of the hiber-coffins. Xilou is struck by how calm they are. Normals usually get agitated, imagining all manner of improbable things, but the girls act more like neuts: comfortable as long as they have orders to follow. Shock, Xilou assumes. Two-girl lies in the casket, and snake-like tubes grow from it, sliding through vents in her clothes, biting into her flesh, finding arteries, pumping in drugs. The lid closes as Two-girl's face slackens and her breathing slows.
"It's mostly automated," says One-girl, seemingly annoyed at Xil watching over her shoulder. "You just put them in."
Xilou watches the casket's status display, watches One-girl's hands. Contrary to popular belief, neuts are perfect mimics, that's why they're so bad at emulating normal behavior, because they can only repeat, perfectly, what they've been shown. But show a neut something once-
"That's it?" says Xilou.
"That's it," says One-girl. "She's under."
"Okay. Everyone, pick a casket, strip to your underwear, get in," says Xilou. "Quickly now, once the lighter finishes unloading we'll be on our way." She gun-waves One-girl back to her brother, "Mr Black, keep an eye on these two, if you would. Any funny stuff, shoot them, we can always wake one of their brothers or sisters; I'm sure there's more than a few of those in these caskets, right?"
One-girl and Boy nod their clone heads, disturbingly calm. Xilou wishes they'd act more, well, 'normal', less neut. One-girl gives her a sideways look that Xilou can't parse, and that at least is normal.
Xilou moves quickly from casket to casket, operating the controls as she saw One-girl do. The casket-lids close. Soon everyone is sleeping, except her and Black and One-girl and Boy. "Now you," Xilou tells Boy. She walks to one of the remaining caskets.
Boy walks to a different one.
Xilou feels the hairs stand up on the back of her neck. She doesn't have hairs, she's a neut, but phantom follicles prickle across her skin all the same. "Where are you going?" she asks.
Boy looks at her like she's being stupid. "Not that one," he whispers, like he only wants her to hear it.
But Mr Black hears anyway. "What does that mean?" he asks, swinging his gun to point at Boy. "Some caskets are special?"
One-girl emits a piercing, inhuman scream. Black swings his attention, and gun, to her.
There's a bang of a hiber-coffin lid being kicked open, Two-girl rises from the cryptobiotic dead like something from a corny dreamadrama. There's a loud, mechanical rattle. The bullets lift Black from the deck, globs of blood exploding from the ruined face-mask of his suit. Xilou points her own weapon at Two-girl, who freezes, watching her sideways.
"What the fuck did you let them bring guns up for?" asks One-girl.
The silence rings around them. Xilou wonders why they're still talking to her. Who do they think she is? "They wouldn't come otherwise," she says.
Two-girl's looking at her funny, like she's a diagnostic that doesn't scan. "You're Sawyer, right?"
Xilou thinks fast, fast as she would in her warboat when it screamed 'Incoming!' and pumped her full of nutterdrine. 'drine changes you: you never really slow down again, and fear, fear's nature's own 'drine. If she says she's 'Sawyer', she'll have to prove it, some code-word, some piece of shared knowledge that she ought to know. When she doesn't... "No," she says, "Sawyer won't come up here, Sawyer don't trust no-one. Sent me instead."
"Tell him to come up with a less fucking elaborate plan next time," says One-girl. She goes over to where Black floats in a nebula of red jelly, grabs him and starts dragging him to a hiber-coffin, unclipping suit-clasps as she goes.
"What are you doing with him?" asks Xilou.
"Most of him's still good," says the One-girl, stuffing Black's body into the coffin.
"Why would you ask that, if you knew Sawyer?" says Two-girl.
"What is this?" asks Xilou, voice calm despite the thudding in her chest. She keeps her gun and attention on Two-girl, and hopes no-one else is aiming for her from the darkness.
"What do you think?" asks Two-girl.
Xilou takes an optimistic guess, "You're slavers." It makes some sense, new societies need cheap labour, it's all there in the history blits. It wouldn't be so bad, she figures, so long as she and Em were sold to the same keeper. It'd be life, better than staying here to starve.
"We've got machines," says Two-girl. "No-one needs slaves."
Xilou backs up, needing space to think, and collides with a casket. So many caskets. Something bumps against her side and she puts her free hand on it, keeping her eyes on Two-girl. She recognizes the shape, Em's cookie-cooker. "You've been sold locked seed-stock too," she guesses.
"Everyone has. Long-term investment strategy by some group called Biocorp. They sowed their seeds to the sky when the first dreamers went up, and those seeds have bred and spread, generation after generation, until now a thousand new nations find their harvests failing. Oh, eventually someone will engineer a solution, something edible that breeds true, but till then Biocorp can name their price, and the single most precious commodity after anti-matter," she glances to hiber-coffins arranged in ranks around them, "is going to be protein."
The thing strapped to Xilou's back stirs, and she hears a sleepy whimper through suit-link.
"Alas, there's only one source of protein that ships itself, wide-eyed and hopeful out to the far edge and us," says Two-girl. "Most of the far colonies have started selling their surplus."
"People who are no use, who are just a burden on the colony. New arrivals, mostly, incomers looking to make their fortune on this dark frontier."
Xilou thinks of Ganymede. Home, that was. She remembers how, every time the warring stopped, people started talking about the 'neut problem': What do we do with these things that we made to fight our war for us? She knows who'll be 'surplus' if things start getting tight back Jovian way.
"It's survival," says Two-girl. She drops her gun, pushing it so it floats down into the casket, and steps out, her gecko-shoes connecting to the floor with a sound like kisses. "Shoot, or don't. You know you're not getting off this ship."
Somehow, while her attention has been focused on Two-girl, One-girl and Boy have vanished, like fish that can flick their tails and disappear into the night.
"Maybe not," says Xilou, "but I can take you fuckers with me," she pulls out Em's cookie-cooker, depresses the activation stud. Its big red lights strobing in the sepulchral gloom.
"And what's that?" asks Two-girl.
"Souvenir of where I'm from," says Xilou, she holds the flashing thing up to her faceplate so Two-girl can clearly see her neut face. "Cubane bomb. Once I release this stud, we've got thirty seconds to enter the deactivation code."
Two-girl looks hard into Xilou's visor, eyes narrowing. She's looking for those secret signals that normal people have, the ones a neut can't really see; the ones neuts try to spot, so they can practice them and pretend. That's right, bitch thinks Xilou. Look into my neut face for answers, and good luck with that. She smiles, one muscle at a time, like she used to, back when she was learning to do it, back when her wing sistas would laugh and say Not like that Xil, that's just creepsy, innit? Like this and she'd try again and still get it wrong.
"You're bluffing," says Two-girl.
"You scan what I am, innit?" says Xil. Her dodger's diction is coming back to her, that verbal shield that you hid behind when you were a neut among normals, a dodger among c-darts, a statistic waiting to happen. "You scan why I's here, on Titania, 'stead of back among the Warring Moons? Time's when the warrin' stops and everyone's gotta be besties for a bit, they need someone to blame for the things they done. Always they blame a neut, 'cos we got no Mas and Pas to stand up for us. I was just followin' orders, but they said I done a crime, so I ran. Took this," she shakes the 'cubane bomb', "in case they ever come lookin', 'case I was ever cornered. This much cubane will bust this ice-ball like an egg and blow us all to dodger's dock, 'ceptin you ain't one of us, so you'll be goin' someplace else. Someplace cold, I imagine." She takes a step forwards.
Two-girl takes a step back, and Xil knows she has her.
"Well?" asks Xilou. "What's it gonna be, bitch? Stay, or go?"
Two-girl looks up and to one side, Xilou suspects she's somehow conversing with the others, like Xil used to hear her sistas' thoughts when they flew as a wing, like she'd hear her boat telling trajectories and threat evaluations. Come on, she wishes. Believe, believe, believe.
The decision comes. "Go," says Two-girl, pointing the direction with her chin.
"Not without the rest of my wing," says Xil.
"It's too late for that. These hiber-caskets... they're not fully operational. They're just killing jars."
So Xilou goes, walking backwards through the maze of coffins, two-girl following, giving curt directions. The darkness behind her crawling with heat-sources now: they're not alone. Em's breathing seems louder and less rhythmic, Xilou prays she's not about to wake up, that would be one too many variables on tactical. The cookie-cooker begins to steam, the vapor building in a bubble around it, unsure where to go in the zero-gee.
"We could use someone like you," says Two-girl. "In the coming war."
"War?" says Xilou, hoping that talking will keep Two-girl's attention away from what's happening with the 'cubane bomb'. Unless, of course, she's already noticed and is leading Xil to some place where the trap can be sprung.
"You think we're happy about what we're forced to become, about what's going to happen to everyone out here? No. Biocorp have sown, now they're going to reap. There's a thousand, thousand ice-balls bouncing around out here for us to harvest into a fleet. A fleet unlike any that's ever been seen. We just need people to fly them. People like you. We're going to go back to Earth, and bomb it till they give us Biocorp, every man, every woman, even the janitors."
"No," says Xilou. "My dodgin' days are done. I just want-"
The cooker emits a loud, electronic 'ping!' that Xil doesn't remember it ever doing before. Bite sized cookies in the shape of eight-legged beasties with smiley marzipan faces explode from the top of it.
Two-girl gives a small scream and jumps back hard enough for her gecko-soles to disconnect and leave her drifting. Xilou presses her back to the nearest wall, briefly forgetting that she's got Em strapped there. She points the gun into the darkeness, and wonders, if she started firing now, whould she get them all? Does it matter either way?
Two-girl starts laughing so hard that it folds her up where she floats. Other voices, most like echoes of Two-girl's own, join in from the darkness.
"Go," groans Two-girl, barely able to speak for laughter. She waves Xilou to a door in the ice. It hums open. Beyond it is a familiar docking-corridor: The lighter.
Xilou backs swiftly towards it. Figures leap from the darkness, snatching at the floating cookies, startling Xilou and making her jerk the gun back and forth, tracking them.
"Wait!" says Two-girl, just as Xilou has one foot within the docking corridor. She points to the cookie-cooker. "Leave that," she says.
The journey down feels a lot longer than the journey up. In the dark hold there's no way for Xilou to see the ice-ship as it sprouts a shining tail and moves out of orbit. She unstraps Em and holds her tightly as the old lighter rocks and rattles around them. What now? She doesn't know. Something will present itself. She knows she ought to feel some grief, but a neut is built to get over losses quickly. She should find a way to send a message, at least warn neut sistren of what might be coming. Their wing-sistas will stand by them, the only normals who definately will. Dodgers are one people.
The lighter's hold doors open, admitting a dim shaft of starlight that creeps and crawls over the shapes stacked within. Xil didn't even realise they'd landed. In the twilight she can see that the fuel-bundles they sent up have been swapped for mysterious containers made from ice. Xilou keeps herself hidden behind one, wondering what might be inside.
A figure slips into the hold, dimly visible in her photomultiplied suit vision.
"Are we there yet?" asks a sleepy voice over her suit-com.
"No, honey, change of plan," says Xilou.
Em unclips Boris' home from Xilou's suit. She peers in through the viewing window. The inhabitant waves black legs at her, struggling to assemble a fresh web after all the recent shaking and banging. "Boris wants to go home," whines Em, as though the creature's motions are semaphore that only she can read.
The new arrival moves around the hold with an over-cautious, bulky care that's unmistakeable. It's Latimer.
He's clearly looking for something and Xilou knows what: the payment for the 'surplus protien' he sent up to the ice-ship. The whole thing's been a set-up from the start, and with her and Black and White out of the way, the remains of her organization are his to take over, if he can. Latimer finds something, brick sized packs that he gathers excitedly up into his arms. Xilou puts her thumb to the data contacts on her gun, and it tells her 'Full load: Twenty shots.'
"You stay here and look after Boris, honey," she tells Em. "Mommy's got some business to attend to."
Note from Kasma's Editors: This wonderful story was first published in Ian Sale's "Rocket Science".
WANT TO SUPPORT FREE SCIENCE FICTION?
Three Ways You Can Show Your Support
Monthly Support Via Patreon
Kasma's fuel is coffee.
Buy Our 400+ Page Anthology
Buy our anthology "10 Years of SF!".
Use PayPal to make a donation.