by Kurt Heinrich Hyatt
The storm was a thousand years old, an endless wind that tore fragments of rock from the lunar landscape and pulverized it down from sand to a dust that remained forever airborne. The dust was an ocean about the three men and the small jetwing in the canyon, clutching at their facefilters, screaming about their suits and equipment. Two hunched behind a slab of basalt, cradling charged particle rifles, anxiously scanning the murk, bracing themselves against winds coming from all points of the compass. The third man moved along the canyon running a geoprobe over shards of volcanic debris. A light began to wink on his handset.
"Got something, gents." The searcher knelt, brushing sand from an oval stone streaked with a dull metal. He grinned behind his faceshield. "This one looks like a geode for sure. Who has the thermal lance?"
One of the watchers approached to look at the other's find, prodding it with a boot. "You real sure, Curio? We only got another few cycles before the ferals get a fix on us."
"Sure as I'm ever gonna be. Gimme a little space and I'll crack it open." He tucked the stock of the lance under his chin and drew a bead. A purple beam sliced the gloom and the rock erupted into fragments.
"Zog's ass, look at that!"
In the pile of broken stone three red crystals glittered. Curio slipped off his glove and picked them up, reverently cupping them in his palm.
His partner bent over, wiping the dust from his faceplate. "Think they're the real trade? This here bigger one looks a bit like -- -"
The three crystals began to glow as if softly lit from within, pulsing to the beat of Curio's heart. The red effulgence reflected from the lenses of their faceshields.
"Hot damn, all three!" Curio exulted. "Let's scoot these babies back to homebase and it's bonus time for us all. Hot Damn!"
"Got some movement out there at eight o'clock!" crackled in Curio's headset. The third man gestured down the canyon.
"What'd you see?"
"Dunno. Saw a couple shapes over there by those boulders."
A high pitched keening rose above the storm. The three men froze as they realized without a shred of delusion that one or more of them was a dead man.
"The jetwing! Make for the jetwing!"
The first windspear struck the man beside the slab, eviscerating him at a speed approaching ninety kilometers per hour. A second took Curio's partner before he had run fifteen paces, slamming to the ground in a flurry of sand.
Curio threw himself behind a basalt spire and wedged himself beneath it, embracing the rough stone like a lover. "My god, my god," he gibbered, fumbling for the charged particle rifle strapped to his pack with terror-clumsy fingers. He twisted around for a hopeless glance at the jetwing a million kilometers off in the storm.
A rising scream sang a duet with the wind. The last windspear came from nowhere, passing through Curio to embed itself in the rock behind.
Curio gazed at the weapon jutting from his chest with a detached stupor. He studied the crude wings set in the bone shaft bound by lashings of gut. How in zerid did they get them sticks to hit those speeds, he mused as the storm grew darker around him. His hand slipped to the ground and opened, revealing the three jewels. In the gloom was the red pulse, slowing as Curio's heart ceased to beat. Then the inner fire faded.
The storm continued, howling along the canyon, worrying the basalt spires. Sand packed against the three bodies, forming a drift around the abandoned jetwing while the night came to swallow everything in darkness.
Rain. A steady drizzle that painted the factory domes a glistening newness reflecting from puddles of scum collecting in deserted walkways. Ernspiker shuffled along in the night, head bowed to the rain. The rags of his uniform slapped wetly against his skin and he was soaked through and cold to the marrow of his bones.
A shuttle whined from nowhere to ease itself onto the walkway. A slidedoor opened to the lobby of the dome just ahead and an immaculate exec stepped from the square of light and slanting rain. The shuttle's hatch slid open, a blue-lit oasis of plush cushions and warmth.
Ernspiker hurried up as the man was about to step inside. "Hold it a cycle, spacer," he said, Any chance you might have an extra cred on you?"
The exec turned and appraised him loftily. He was an aristocratic fifty and wore his tailored jumpsuit with arrogance. "A little late to be panhandling," he observed. "Don't you know it's only twenty cycles until curfew?"
"I'm working a little overtime tonight." Ernspiker stood with the rain collecting a puddle in his outstretched palm.
"That looks like a starpilots's jacket you're wearing. Or rather, what's left of one." A smirk curled his lip. "You must be one of those discharged losers from the war on Gann."
"I just put in some time there and nobody asked me for any pointers on how the war should have been fought. And I sure as hell never saw and generals or politicians drop any blood there."
"There's a shortage of jetwing pilots on Dustball these days. That's an Interworld Mining Corporation office just across the street. They might be interested if you cleaned yourself up."
"Right, Dustball. Sandstorms and crawling with ferals."
"Maybe you like going through life imitating a sponge."
"Look, mister, I don't need a sermon, just a cred. How about it?"
The exec pulled a disc from his vest and flipped it into the gutter. Without farther comment he entered the shuttle and it whined upwards into the rain.
"Angled rumpslapper," Ernspiker muttered, fishing the disc from a pool of wastewater. He shuffled across the street and stopped by a blast of hot air rising from a vent. The heat washed his face, sending shivers of pleasure through his body. He stood over the updraft, letting the heat eddy about him, closing his eyes to the luxury of it.
Without warning the grating of the vent collapsed, dropping him down a shaft. He slid through a maze of drops and turns and at last crashed through a second grate which broke his fall and dropped him onto a workbench littered with tools that promptly overturned, dumping him on a concrete floor.
The room was long and dim, stacks of machinery and racks of boxed parts stretching off into dusty gloom.
Ernspiker got shakily to his feet, wincing at a varied and well distributed array of bruises.
"Looks like some kind of parts storeroom," he mused aloud. "This is really great. Wonder how many years I'll get for unauthorized entry? I can't climb back up that vent and that slidegate over there looks like it came off a Worldbank vault -- "
"Attention! This is an Interworld Mining Corporation secure area," a metallic voice blared from somewhere overhead. "Please scan your identicard at the facility entrance. You have five seconds to comply."
"Oh shit!" Ernspiker froze and looked wildly around.
"Security measures initiated." A pencil of radiant energy came from a hidden console, impacting between Ernspiker's shoulder blades. He swayed drunkenly and collapsed.
A moment later the entry gate slid open and two uniformed guards dashed in to the room, pulse guns at the ready. They came to the sprawled figure and turned him over.
"Hey, this guy's a pilot," said one, noting the ragged uniform. "What's he doing here? Nothing worth stealing but jetwing repair parts."
The second guard walked over to the overturned workbench. He picked up a fragment of rusted grate.
"Well, he's no thief, I'll bet. Looks to me like he fell down the shaft." He shoved his pulse gun back into its holster. "Let's honk up New Seattle's finest to haul his ass off."
"Wait a cycle." The other guard rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
"Ain't Lei Chang on Dustball always pissing and moaning she can't get enough pilots for her prospecting runs?"
"Yeah. So what?"
"Well, I think we just got her a volunteer."
"I hear you beat up one of my miners today, Lei Chang." Mr. Gross exuded disapproval from a face with several chins and narrow porcine eyes. His pudgy fingers drummed irritably on his desktop. "Two cracked ribs, broken arm and thigh. Far too many broken bones here."
"How many broken bones I allowed, Mr. Gross?" Lei Chang was a study in black: black weapons belt over a slim, curvy bodysuit, black pageboy haircut above black implacable eyes.
"Please don't make cute with me, Security Chief," he admonished her. "I'm having enough problems with corporate over shortfalls in our monthly quotas. In fact, one of their senior representatives will be dropping in later for an audit."
"I caught pukepants miner not turning in heartstone after shift, keep for himself." She pulled the jewel from her belt and tossed it on Gross's desk where it briefly flashed red. "Also supply starfreighter from New Seattle brought in intruder they find in supply storeroom. They say he starpilot."
"That's what I've been told. I've also done a little research on his military database." Gross's little eyes rested on the jewel then lifted to meet those of his subordinate. "I understand he's a former Terran Ranger, discharged after the war on Gann, unemployed and destitute. You don't like Terran Rangers much, do you?"
Lei Chang's eyes smoldered. "If you read his database, you also read mine. What you think?"
"I was thinking we could justify that quota shortfall to the company representative if it can be suggested that our pilots are, how shall I say... helping themselves to the till? Former Terran Ranger Ernspiker somehow weighs heavy on my mind." He smiled and picked up the heartstone from the blotter, cupping it in his hand. The stone began a ruby pulse, keeping to the beat of his heart.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" he mused. "Nobody has figured out how it draws a person's energy to do that. The most valuable commodity in the galaxy, well worth the severe penalties for its theft."
For a short time Lei Chang regarded her superior; then, lifting the gem, she tucked it back into her belt.
Something was not quite right. Ernspiker opened his eyes to a ceiling of pale green and a feeling that he had lost fifty kilos in weight. Even the air smelled strange, like sun-baked desert. A round, cheerful face came into focus, holding up two fingers.
"Okay, sonny, how many fingers do you see?"
Ernspiker blinked. He swung himself sideways to a seating position on the bed and took in the equipment lined hospital room.
"I count twenty-seven," he replied to the chubby nurse now running a scanner across his chest.
"Hey, you got it right! I guess you're going to live after all."
"Where exactly in New Seattle am I? I didn't know their slammer had such a Gucci medical dispensary."
"Well, at this point in your life, you're in the Interworld Mining Medical Center on Dustball."
Ernspiker had a feeling his hearing might be going out. "Excuse me, did you say Dustball?"
"They brought you in on the shuttle this morning. Very nasty case of neural beam shock." She patted his arm reassuringly. "But I'm glad to say you're going to be just peachy from now on."
"Lady, we need to redefine the word 'peachy' -- "
"Nurse Mooney, if you please."
"Whatever. I need to have a talk to the honcho running this dump -- "
The door glided open and Lei Chang stalked into the room. They took each other in, two strange dogs meeting on a strange street. "I Lei Chang, Chief of Security for this facility," she declared, not bothering to hide her dislike.
"Well, whoopee for you, sugarbowls," he retorted. "I don't know who had the bright idea of shanghaiing me from New Seattle but my cousin's former roommate has one hell of a good lawyer -- "
"You will close mouth please, colon face." She placed hands on hips and glared at him. "I make this short. If you go back New Seattle you get ten years on Radnor Penal Asteroid for unlawful breaking and entry of Interworld property. You like idea, nerfnuts?"
Obviously, bluffing it out had failed. Ernspiker studied the icy but beautiful eyes and pursed his lips. "Why do I feel you have an alternative offer to make me?"
"We need pilots. You sign year contract, later go home. We pay twenty-five hundred creds per month."
"Let me think... ten years on Radnor Penal Asteroid or twenty-five hundred creds per month on Dustball. That's a tough one." He glanced at Nurse Mooney who smiled encouragingly. "Sure, why not?'
"Press thumb here to validate contract." She held out a plastic square.
"Do I get deluxe accommodations?"
"Get smelly ass off bed. I take you to quarters."
He followed her from the room and down several corridors to a line of slidedoors.
"Here your room" She handed him a colored passcard. "Take shower, shave. You stink like gorthwaste. New uniform also there."
"So after I get cleaned up does this mean we have a date later?"
Her eyes seemed to glow. "Maybe you like wearing lips on other side of head, squork snot?"
"Hey, this place has to have a nice, romantic restaurant someplace." He gave her a slow wink. "You know, candlelight, mandolins, chilled Emperion."
For a moment it looked as if she was about to unload, but settled for a caustic stare. "Mess hall on corridor C. You get rest. Tomorrow morning you need it." She spun on her heel and stormed off.
Ernspiker watched her out of sight and still smiling, swiped his card and entered his quarters.
The twilight that was night on Dustball gathered about the Interworld Mining compound. Through the swirling dust the flitting shapes of ferals played hide and seek among the searchbeams beyond the slicewire, probing the perimeter defenses and as always, waiting.
The executive office suite was also in twilight, held in a fragile stillness nurtured by the muted rattle of grit on the curtained viewports. A slidedoor sighed open and a figure moved into the dimness. It paused by the big desk, running a searching hand over the wall paneling. A muted click revealed a hidden compartment. The intruder stuffed a small pouch inside and carefully closing the lid silently departed the room.
High in a dim corner of the ceiling a tinny eye hummed. It swept the room once, paused, and went silent.
The main hanger was a vast cavern weakly lit by dusty lightglobes high overhead. Spirals of dust floated down on the rows of parked jetwings and groups of dejected miners lounging about them.
Ernspiker belched, rubbing his stomach. The synthetic bacon he had eaten for breakfast was giving him heartburn and the uniform he had found hanging in his quarters was too tight across the chest and a tad loose around the waist. One size fits all, he reasoned.
"Hey! You Ernspiker?" A short, cheerful looking pilot came up, shoving out a hand. "Name's Crastnor. The miners all call me Crashmore. You the new jetwing driver?"
"Yeah, that's me," he replied, shaking his hand. "See any sign of Lei Chang? She said I was to meet her out here this morning."
"Probably still in the gym. Normal people start the day with coffee; she starts it with pumping iron."
Ernspiker returned the grin. "I did happen to notice she has a bit of an attitude problem."
"Take some advice, don't mess with her. That's one tough lady." Crashmore looked carefully about him. "You know what she did before she went to work at Interworld?"
"Can't even guess."
"She was a navigator on a troop shuttle delivering a squad of Terran Rangers during the war on Gann. Ship got shot down on approach, crashed behind the lines, everyone killed but Lei Chang and the Rangers." Crashmore leaned closer, lowering his voice. "The Rangers grabbed their weapons and ran outside the ship and all got vaporized by a passing autodrone. Lei Chang, she's got a busted leg and thinks the Rangers ran off and left her to die. She crawled two kilos back to base with five minutes of air left in her suit."
Ernspiker whistled noiselessly. "I see what you mean by tough lady. You think she knows I used to be with the Terran Rangers?"
Crashmore made a wry face. "Holy bugsquat. Hope your life insurance is paid up... watch it, here she comes."
Lei Chang walked across the hanger deck toward them. The miners by the ships moved warily aside, a herd of grazers in the presence of a passing carnivore. The black outfit had been replaced by a snugly fitting flight suit.
"Good, you ready," she observed. "Now we find out what kind of pilot you are. Take short flight to West canyon and back." She had obviously found time to do her hair and put on what seemed like an exotic and expensive perfume.
"Hey, you smell good," he declared, giving her an approving once-over. "Are you wearing that just for little old me?"
She eyed him coldly. "How you like wearing gonads for necklace, sphincter lips? Get prongless ass on second jetwing."
"Damn, I love it when you talk dirty," he said, climbing into the craft.
She strapped herself into the seat beside him and began hitting switches and adjusting levers. There was a low hum and the craft rose from the deck, hovered. High overhead a hatch began to open, letting in a blast of sand and a square of grey, tormented sky.
"Take controls, rise to forty meters. Set course five point six korals," she ordered. "Not rise over one hundred meters, crosswinds too dangerous."
"Walk in the park," Ernspiker muttered, feeling the familiar vibrations under his hand. The jetwing rose through the exit hatch and was immediately slammed sideways by the storm. He fought it back on course, alternately scanning his instruments and the boil of wind and sand beyond the plexglass, banking around spires of rock that would suddenly loom from nowhere.
"You drifting two points off course. Correct, please," Lei Chang noted with irritating calm.
"I'm on it, I'm on it!" He skidded past a line of basalt spires shaped like a clawed hand. "How far do we have until we make -- "
The deckplate behind them shook as a windspear exploded upwards, lodging in a ceiling console. A second struck somewhere in the forward control module, sending up a geyser of sparks.
"The stabilizers are gone!" Ernspiker yelled while smoke filled the cockpit. "Where's the backup system?"
"This older model, have no backup system!"
The ship plowed into the side of a dune, slid through an eternity of flying sand before coming to a drunken stop. Dust surged into the cabin as the lower half of the fuselage broke away. Emergency lights blinked on.
Ernspiker exhaled a chestful of air. His shoulders hurt like hell where the seat harness had bit into his muscles but other than that he seemed intact. He looked over a Lei Chang. She was slumped sideways with a trickle of blood running from a gash in her forehead.
"Hey, sweetcheeks, you okay?" He shook her and checked her pulse. Steady but weak. From a bin under the dash he pulled out an emergency kit, disinfected and started wrapping her head with a pressure bandage.
"I guess this means I failed my flight test, Huh?" he asked the storm beyond the cracked viewport. He studied the tangle of glass and plastoid that used to be the comm set.
Abruptly, some sense told him that another presence was with them in the ship, something malign, measuring them with lethal intent.
Two ferals moved into the cabin emergency lights. He noted the milky eyes deep-sunk in reptilian faces, thick scales covering their bodies in triangular plates. Slowly they raised their windspears, eyes locked on their prey.
A pipe from the ship's coolant system ruptured, sending a stream of purified water down the hull. With a surprised duet of snorts the ferals dropped their spears and ran over to the leak, noisily sucking it up.
Something of a revelation was forming in Ernspikers mind while he watched them greedily lapping up the liquid, shoving each other aside for a larger share. Carefully, he reached into the emergency bin and lugged out two carboys of water.
The spilled coolant was soon gone and the ferals turned back to Ernspiker, picking up their windspears.
"Hey, lizard lips, you guys still thirsty?" He rolled the carboys of water toward them.
They stared at the containers at their feet then snatched them up. With a simultaneous hiss and display of teeth which could have been either thanks or a warning they turned and scampered from sight.
"Now that's what I call interesting," Ernspiker pondered. He ransacked the bin for filled canteens and face filters. A homing tracker he slipped inside his shirt. "Time for a nice hike. Ready, sugarbowls?" He lifted Lei Chang across his shoulder.
The storm outside seemed to have ratcheted up in intensity. Sand tore at his clothes and face filter as he staggered endlessly on, the burden over his shoulders seeming to grow heavier at each footstep. A herd of rockpups skittered by, almost tripping him up. From time to time he stopped to rest, check on Lei Chang and the homing tracker. Slowly the light faded with the coming of night.
A search beam suddenly lanced through the gloom. The curtain of racing dust briefly parted revealing a high wall draped in coils of slicewire.
He was there.
"Ernspiker, you look like gorph waste." Crashmore slipped a bottle of Aghaid beer from his jacket and passed it to him. "Don't tell anyone where you got this."
"Thanks, pal." Ernspiker took a long swig and leaned against one of the jetwings lined up in the big hanger. He forced himself upright and went over to where Lei Chang lay on a gurney, a group of medtechs checking her readouts, hooking her up to various hanging containers.
"So what's the prognosis?" he asked.
"Looks like a mild concussion so far. Lots of scrapes and bruises," Nurse Mooney replied. "Actually, you look worse... wait, look who's back with us."
Lei Chang's eyes were open, staring and confused at the crowd around her. "How I get here?" she whispered.
"This young man pulled you from the wreck, carried you back here," Mooney explained.
"He do what?"
Lei Chang launched into a long series of muttered remarks in her native dialect, which sounded like a mixture of Cantonese and about six other common spacer's languages.
Mooney listened, or pretended to listen, for a few minutes, then raised her hand. "Time to chat later," she declared, "We need to get you to the dispensary for a checkup."
Lei Chang tried to push the nurse away, but her movements were clumsy and lacked her usual strength. Mooney and an orderly soon had the Security Chief strapped down and ready to go.
"Why, oh why did you have to drag her back, you dumb bughumper?" Crashmore groused, watching the gurney being wheeled away. "It's not like anyone here is gonna miss her, you know."
"To tell the truth, she's kind of growing on me," he smiled.
"Yeah. Like a terminal case of alkonian facerot."
Ernspiker studied the groups of miners from the afternoon shift unloading their gear from the ships. "So tell me about the feral attacks on prospecting runs."
"You mean how many miners we lose each shift? Sometimes one or two." He shook his head. "Pay is great but hell of a way to make a living."
"So what do they do after they knock off a miner? Eat them?"
"Nah, I guess they figure it's kind of a fun game for them. Usually make off with any water they find, though."
Ernspiker grinned from ear to ear. "Now that's what I call really interesting."
"Twenty cases of champagne, a pallet of frozen gorph steaks imported from Saturnalia, thirty pounds of cloned sturgeon caviar?" Mr. Calomini was seated at Mr. Gross' desk, somberly digesting the figures passing on the viscreen. He seemed as old as time with skin like parchment, watery but observant eyes behind a pair of antique trifocals.
"Oh, that was for the dataclip convention on New Seattle," Gross replied breezily, standing behind him. "We always try to stay on the right side of our office supply vendors." Against a far wall Lei Chang in her black bodysuit silently watched them.
"Indeed? I had no concept we had a need for so many dataclips." He pushed his glasses farther up his nose and regarded Gross bleakly. "At any rate, Corporate is more concerned about the drop in heartstone shipments from your operation."
"Ah, I think I have solved the problem there." He glanced over his shoulder. "Lei Chang, would you have Mr. Ernspiker brought in, please."
The office door slid open and two burly security officers escorted Ernspiker inside. He was rumpled and unshaven, obviously up late and newly dragged from bed. It was also obvious he had located the company watering hole.
"Lei Chang, would you be so good as to search this gentleman for us?" Gross ordered.
"Is this going to take long?" Ernspiker whined, gazing owlishly around him. "I really gotta take a squirt."
For a long minute she looked at him, then walked over to the big desk. "He or other pilots not take stones. Mr. Gross take stones." She tossed a heartstone onto the blotter. "This one he told me to plant on Ernspiker."
Gross's set of chins went white, then flushed a deep red. He looked as if he was getting ready to faint. "This is an outrage!" he sputtered. "I demand an explanation of where you really obtained that -- "
There was the crack of splintering wood as Lei Chang's fist broke through the hidden wall panel. She pulled out the pouch of heartstones and tossed them scattering onto the desktop. Utter silence fell in the room.
"I have surveillance recording in security center of Mr. Gross hiding those in secret panel. He one who cause shortfall in shipments, he thief."
Mr. Calomini looked up from the spilled heartstones.
"Mr. Gross, you're fired."
Without ceremony the two burly security guards seized Gross and hustled him from the room, still wheezing out protests.
"Sorry to drag you in here, Mr. Ernspiker," he continued. "You may return to your duties. With my apologies."
"Wait!" Lei Chang motioned him to stay. "Mr. Calomini, you know that morning shift turned in record find of heartstones? And no miners attacked by ferals."
"Well now." Calomini's eyebrows lifted. He leaned back in his chair. "Do you have an explanation for this extraordinary sequence of good luck?"
"Not luck. You ask him."
"Please enlighten us, Mr. Ernspiker."
"No casualties, huh?" Ernspiker absently scratched his chin stubble. "Well, when I was dragging sweetcheeks here across the desert yesterday -- she needs to lose a little weight, by the way -- it finally hit me. The reason the ferals were attacking the prospecting teams was for their water."
Mr. Calomini gazed at him with new interest. "And might I ask how you applied this inspiration of yours?"
"I told Crashmore...er, Mr. Crastnor, to have the morning shift load extra carboys of water on their ships and start tossing it out when they figured ferals were near. I guess it worked."
"Just that simple. On a desert planet of extreme aridity they only wanted water." Calomini nodded thoughtfully. He favored Ernspiker with a faint smile. "Mr. Ernspiker, I think your days of piloting miners on prospecting runs are over."
He wasn't quite sure if the tie matched his new executive jumpsuit but he adjusted it carefully, looking back smugly at the reflection in the viewport glass.
"Mr. Ernspiker, Lei Chang is here for you to endorse this week's shift reports," came from a wall speaker.
"Yeah, send her in." He settled comfortably behind the ornate desk as she entered carrying an armload of discs.
"Hey, it's the lady with the muscles," he grinned. "Are you here to beat me up?"
She dropped the stack in front of him. "No tempt me, wormdong. Endorse status discs and shut up."
"Okay, okay. Anything to keep the hired help happy -- "
Before he could say more she leaned over and pulling his face to hers, kissed him.
"So tell me, skunkstool," she asked, smiling. "How much weight you say I need lose?"
© 2011 Kurt Heinrich Hyatt
Bio: Kurt Heinrich Hyatt resides in sunny Phoenix, Arizona. His science fiction stories have appeared in Orion's Child, Residential Aliens, Allegory Magazine, and Aphelion (most recently Nightscreams, June / July 2011).
E-mail: Kurt Heinrich Hyatt
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