I don’t know if I fully believe Fletcher, but I’m putting us in motion as if his conclusions are correct. We have a wounded VIP of some sort on our hands.
His theory changes some of my calculus. We are a multi-role interdiction unit, equipped for a little of everything. It would be safer and easier for us to just toss this out to an air ambulance and take the loss of time, fuel, and pay. The complicating factor is that I have no idea who we’re dealing with, and Fletcher seems practically certain. It would take any medevac dispatch ninety minutes to get out here, the same time it would take us to return to Windsong. I’d never endanger someone’s life for a better payout. But in milder circumstances, I have to balance this man’s needs with the needs of my team. Our wayward subject is wounded, but he has improved significantly since we pulled him out of his shuttle. He does not require emergency trauma care of the highest level. We’re equipped to deal with him.
In fact, his wounds, despite their initial severity, have tightened and crusted over at an unthinkable rate. This self-healing apparatus of his—or whatever the proper terminology is for the grotesque cyborg accouterments he has inside of him—has only accelerated its triage since Tea administered fluids and oxygen. But he’s still down and unconscious, and I feel forcing him awake would not just be inhumane; it might be bad for the tourniquet of nanites writhing inside of him.
I can’t speed things up by high-tailing alone back to my pilot’s seat. I would be comfortable performing an airborne hoist to evacuate our charge, but Windsong’s VTOL isn’t made for that. She’s heavy, and her arcjets need to work hard to keep her aloft. She would incinerate any kind of evac basket we could throw over. So it’s settled that Fletcher and Tea will be hauling our VIP all the way back to the ship. It’s suboptimal, but we can’t aid him any further in the middle of nowhere, and he’ll have to be coming with us at any rate. Accidentally or otherwise, you can’t just crash your vessel into one of the last pristine forests of this world.
We trudge back through the viridian and amber timberlands and up along the riverbanks faster than before, taking the same route back. We left things at the site, and I’ll probably get chewed out by the Guild and/or the Forest Service for that, regardless of the circumstances. Now on our return, we’re only encumbered by the man strapped to the stretcher. Tea brings up the rear, and Fletcher tows from the front. The supine evacuee strapped to the bed is short and light, and we left everything behind at the scene. Instead of the one hundred kilograms we brought out to the crash site, we’re towing back maybe sixty.
I take point twenty to thirty meters ahead, guiding us back with Tea’s dataslate and looking out for trouble. It’s not like I expect any problems in this calm, largely faunaless forest. It’s just that after Fletcher’s revelation, I’ve entered this state of forboding hyperawareness. A deep cerebral tension has grabbed hold of me, as if my subconsciousness is far more aware of our exigencies than my conscious self will allow for; the part of me still vexed with questions and sorting through all the conflicting information I’ve just absorbed. There’s a preconscious acknowledgment of danger that I can’t articulate.
Or perhaps I’m overthinking because I’ve been slapped in the face with surprises too many times in the last several hours.
Beyond the trees to our side, the River Torn crashes about in a cascade of pure, lifeless glacial melt. As we meet it at the one particularly sharp bend previously plotted as a waypoint, the deluge becomes a clashing symphony of whitewater noise. Typically the sights and sounds of the Folklands would put my racing mind at ease, but I curse our rocky, uphill path back to Windsong. I don’t know that she’ll have any more answers for us, but I want to get this guy off my hands and submit our reports as soon as possible. This has already been the strangest watch I’ve ever participated in, and I need a breather. We all do. The stress of this job is why I allow myself and my compatriots so much time off between flights. More than is mandated, at any rate.
“Watch your step,” Fletcher warns Tea behind me.
“How’s our man?” I ask with an elevated voice. I get one last satellite reading from Tea’s slate. We should be able to see the ship by the time we’re done following the rapids.
“He’s having a nice nap,” Tea replies with some of her trademark snark.
“Whoa, what happened to you? Not thirty minutes ago you were taking good care of this guy. Suddenly we’re hearing from Nurse Bitter,” Fletcher says.
Tea grunts as she puts extra effort into lifting her end of the medevac bed over difficult terrain. She speaks with a slight huff of exertion between each break in her anecdote.
“On my world, long ago, chieftains would be carried between towns and villages in ornate palanquins by peasants through dense rainforest and rough tropical brush. In the earliest days of our recorded history, there were no roads between the tribes. The Celad flora was too thick to clear at speed, and they needed all the limited machinery they had to expand the towns and farms themselves. So to transport the chieftains for gatherings and summits, they locked them in cozy, well-protected litters. They armored up the poor sods who would carry the yokes so that they wouldn’t get cut up by thorns, thistles, and—gods forbid, slayflowers—and carried the leaders and their deputies without rest from point A to B and back. Tens of kilometers per day in sweltering heat and humidity, just so some heads of state could do very little while feasting on pork belly and pineapple wine.”
“Sounds like you harbor some class grievance with our charge,” Fletcher says.
“Only if he is who you say he is,” she responds.
“Look, I don’t know any more than what I said. I don’t know how… well-endowed this man is. Besides, you’re always mushroom hunting.”
“You’re always after the elusive albino rorqual, the palladium nugget, or the risky gamble that might land you a jackpot if it doesn’t get you killed first,” Fletcher continues. “Look, I don’t know what metaphor to use because I don’t know your people’s lore. The point is, you’re literally the one in charge of finding us opportunities, Tea. You have the intuition, and you go out of your way to use it. So why all the sudden resentment for success?”
“Because I chase down positive-sum opportunities, Leandros,” she responds with a lecturing tone. “We risk our lives to patrol the sky so that it stays safe and accessible for everyone to benefit. Maybe we save some other lives once in a while, and in addition to knowing we did something good, Ashlee’s government pays us handsomely. Same with your husband. He operates a business repairing and maintaining ships that make orbital transport affordable for the average person. Everyone wins when everyone can be mobile.
The Commonwealth is deceitfully named. They are the singular linchpin of all the cross-system trade in The Bary. They’re the only ones who know how to build the deep space freighters powerful enough to haul megatons, and they’ve never shown an inkling of interest in sharing or trading for that knowledge. Any monopoly buttressed by obscurity is next of kin to cheating and just keeps us all down. If he’s an ambassador or envoy or whatever, this guy’s got to be loaded, and I don’t appreciate the way he and his people have made their fortune.”
I add to the conversation as we trudge ahead, speaking over my shoulder.
“If they’re so wealthy, why do they all live in the middle of nowhere?” I ask. “Spin gravity aside, the void is a hazardous and difficult life. Why not spend all that prosperity from taxing and monopolizing trade to do something productive, like, I don’t know, terraform a planet?” I realize that I don’t have the slightest clue what I’m talking about.
“They wouldn’t be at the center of everything then, would they?” Tea says.
“You mean that literally? Like at Port Angelice?” I ask.
“A bona fide crossroad of empires,” she says. “Half way between all of our countries. The fabled rest stop of settled space.”
And a great place to keep an ear out, I reckon.
Everyone gives up on the discussion from there. I can tell Fletcher is perturbed, and maybe a little annoyed. Tea’s words stung him a bit.
I can’t convince him to leave our outfit. I’ve tried. I realized soon after that doing so was a mistake. I shouldn’t want to make him leave, because he’s a great engineer and a steady hand. His bank account undoubtedly displays higher numbers than mine. But that’s all they are: numbers. Tallies of luck and fortune over time, not indicators of worth or superiority. He doesn’t ever let it get to his head. If he did, I wouldn’t let him be here, and he probably wouldn't want to be. But still, I wonder why he stays. I've never gotten a satisfying answer.
I wonder if the Geminese and Sibylean people, for all their differences, share at least one thing in common: a penchant for using wealth as a means to build rather than to oppress. I hardly know whether Fletcher and his husband Ejtan are typical Geminese. They are expats, after all. But on the occasions I’ve met him, Ejtan was generous and humble about his success. They live in a quaint abode out in the forest not half the size of my ship. Their land is expensive, but their lifestyle is not. I never got the sense Ejtan was anything less than an honest philanthropist who pays his taxes in full and plays by the rules.
The exchange got my mind off the hike, but one of the steepest inclines is ahead. There’s a precipitous cliff face of bedrock that Windsong sits upon, and the roots of ancient trees and compacted soil create a rugged but barely traversable approach around the outcropping, ascending like a broken staircase circling the escarpment of an abandoned castle. Over its horizon somewhere is my ship. In fact, I can just barely make out her tail.
At the footsteps of nature’s staircase, I offer to leverage my muscles from the side of the medevac litter and keep it steady and relatively flat on ascent. All three of us step carefully up the path, avoiding loose rock, ancient volcanic regolith, and dead plant debris that might trip us up. Bringing an unconscious man up the bluff is much more difficult than running ourselves up and down it. Once the terrain flattens out a bit, I move on ahead.
“If you two are good, I’ll open her up and get her started,” I say.
But that plan doesn’t last long. Because as my feet thank me for planting them once again on easy ground, I look up.
There she is, her good, gently angled gunmetal frame striped in amber gold, happy to receive me. Just in time, too, because she doesn’t have a clue who the two boxy patrol sloops to either side of her are.
“Hail!” a bassy voice sounds in front of me.
I step forward and search for the voice behind the bellowing salutation. It’s a balding man with a ducktail beard. He wears a particularly loud longcoat sashed in red and beige, and leather boots he uses the soles of to snuff out the dying embers of a cigarette against the bedrock. He approaches when I do, but keeps his distance, holding an enormous hand out in a conservative gesture to ward me off from coming too close to my own ship. For the moment, I acquiesce.
“What’s going on here?” I ask frustratedly.
I flit my eyes to the smaller aircraft landed to either side of my cutter, which I recognize as a common, subsonic civilian transport design used by long-distance business commuters and the Royal Forest Service. They are much lighter, venerable and no-frills two-engine VTOLs, with elongated tails that make them look a bit like a Maridean dragonfly. But they’re not marked by the emerald and gold of the RFS, and I can’t imagine a forest ranger would be smoking on the job.
Now I’m starting to trust my penchant for bad premonitions once again, the boiling anxieties I shunned earlier. Such dissonant chords of fear and apprehension became ubiquitous after I dared to become a woman in spite of, well, everyone. But they’ve been amplified by trauma both past and more recent, and my anxiety has become oppressive and out-of-touch, surfacing at the worst times when I experience stress. It’s why I float. I’ve spent years trying to calm my nerves and make progress, slowly opening up to other people—the ones that will treat me as a human being—and attempting to hold my troubled past at ever greater lengths. I try not to assume the worst. But that has become so difficult in a job that has only gotten more perilous year after year.
“This is a government-sanctioned operation,” I blurt.
“Yes, sir. I know,” he says with a deep tone poorly suited to allay. “Let me appraise you of my business here. I won’t be getting in your way for but a moment.”
Already I hate this guy. He flashes some identification, but I have a hard time making it out at this distance.
“Marshal Vach Derynson on behalf of House Fjalner. The subject you are bringing back to your vessel was our prisoner not eight hours ago. He escaped interrogation aboard one of our orbital facilities and we would very much like for you to hand him over to us. As you have done all of the hard work in tracking and apprehending him already, we would be honored to reward you handsomely for your trouble. Many times what Her Majesty’s Government would provide for your interdiction, in fact.”
I hear Tea and Fletcher trudge up behind me with the evac bed, and their boots sliding to a stop over the gravel.
“The fuck is this, Ash?” Tea exclaims.
I put my hand up to silence her. I need a second to think without anyone in my ear.
“If you want custody of this man, you should speak to the Royal Constabulary in Diya, which is where we’ll be taking him,” I say. “I have reports to write and Guild regulations to meet, and I cannot simply lie my way through them. They will cross-check such information. It is unfeasible.”
“This is not a bribe, ‘Dictor Rinn,” the man replies with an aborted laugh. “Your logistical and legal considerations will be taken care of. We are in regular contact with Diyan law enforcement. You may contact them yourself, right here. I’ll wait for you.”
I consider his entreaty for the moment. It would be nice to get this man off my hands. I huff and place my hands on my hips.
“Just from where did this man escape?” I ask.
“As I said, an orbital facility above Sibyl. I can’t provide many details, as it is apparently a classified matter, with the contours of the interrogation above my pay grade. I am only responsible for seeing him returned safely.”
I smirk inside. Maybe a little on the outside, too.
“Come on, guys. We’re leaving,” I gesture to my crew.
The man in the longcoat tries to get in front of me. He’s quite a bit taller, maybe as much as two meters. But I’m quite a bit smarter.
“Hold on, Interdictor. I can’t allow you to leave without consideration of—”
“I did consider it, Marshal,” I interrupt. I look up at his broad shoulders and neck to his grizzled face. He looks surprised. He didn’t expect this much smaller and weaker authority figure to shove his superseding jurisdiction bullshit back in his face. Any subject in my custody held from an atmospheric interdiction is solely mine until I sign off, time expires without charges being brought, or the subject makes their own request to be transferred to the Constabulary. Those are the rules, and they have been for decades.
“If you were telling the whole truth, sir,” I start again, “you would have mentioned the gravity assist our charge performed around Minerva before he crash landed out here.” I lean on one hip and modulate into a tone equal parts lecturing and bemused. “Now why would anyone slingshot around another moon if their aim was to land back on the planet right under their feet?”
He seems to recover from his shock and meets my eyes with an antagonistic flare that no one should ever see from a cop.
“It’s none of my business. Now, I’ll make the offer once again, Interdictor. I’ve been polite and have made a generous offer. Take the handsome reward House Fjalner is offering, and go.”
I flash a glare and dismiss him, brushing past and moving toward Windsong’s gangway so that I can start the ship.
“You’re in no position to ignore me, Interdictor!”
And that’s when I hear Fletcher cry out in pain.
It happens so fast that all the sounds register as one agonizing cacophony of violence. Fletcher’s blood-curdling howl, the sound of the single shot ringing out in multiple echoes across the mountain range, the clatter of the litter against the solid ground, and the thump of the body that was laying on it.
I spin on my heel and draw my weapon.
“These cunts are armed!” Tea yells at the same time, stating the obvious.
“Stand down, Marshal!” I command, pointing my favored slugthrower square at his chest. Fuck this guy, whoever he is. I don’t care if I’m threatening a real law enforcement officer. I have the legal authority here, and everyone knows it. Absolutely no one messes with my operations, much less threatens or harms my crew.
He hasn’t extended any concealed weapons, so I take a peek around him toward Fletcher and Tea. Just as the clamor indicated, they’ve dropped the evacuee like a ragdoll onto the ground, an inevitable result of Fletcher being shot in the leg. He grimaces and suppresses his pain while cradling his bloodied ankle. Tea kneels over to try and help him with one arm half-way to her own weapon, but she looks fearfully my way, frozen in place.
And that’s when I catch a glimmer across the corner of my eye. A bright green laser light obscuring my peripheral vision in a scintillating flash. It lowers to my chest, and is joined by a second.
I sigh and lower my weapon. “Fuck,” I mumble.
“I’m quite surprised, Interdictor Rinn, that you wouldn’t even think to take my offer. It’s not like a mercenary such as yourself to pass up so fortuitous an opportunity,” says the bastard in the longcoat. “Drop the gun.”
Reluctantly, I do so, but also not too far in front of me. I raise my hands in surrender.
“The hell makes you think I’m a mercenary?” I dejectedly ask. “Do you believe that I chase down people for blood money, or for the fun of it?”
He sounds amused. “For blood or thrill? No,” he says. “Money, yes. You do a dangerous, unpredictable job up there. And I respect that. I would have thought the idea of a temporary reprieve from some of the most arduous law enforcement work in the world would have been appealing.”
“If you respected me at all you wouldn’t have fired at my crew!” I growl.
“Oh please,” he shuffles his feet and sways away, then back toward me. “A warning shot is all it was. You can have your man patched up in time for your next sortie. And, as a show of good faith, all the money I’ve offered is still on the table: five times what you might make on watch in as many gyres. Just as long as you attest to my version of events; simply that you released this man into our custody. No one above you will give it a second thought. But whatever you decide, we’ll be taking our man, now.”
He gestures to some previously unseen people to my side. A couple of them in light tactical gear approach my downed crew, and the tipped litter, with their submachine guns readied. I can barely make her out behind the marshal, but I’ve never seen Tea so absolutely livid.
“Is this what Sibyl has become, Fjalner?” I inquire with prejudice. “Is law enforcement a tool for the houses to get their way now?”
“We’re living in unprecedented times, Interdictor,” he starts. “The growth of trade from afar has exploded, imperiling our world to all kinds of dangers, and now there’s an equal or greater growth of threats from within. A consummate professional such as yourself knows that. How many of your recent busts have been drug or smuggling related? And how many of your stops have been poor, innocent civilians in distress? How has that changed over time as our skies become replete with freighters and containers from beyond, filled with who knows what moral hazards?”
I shake my head, because whatever answer I give him doesn’t matter.
“I won’t pretend might makes right, Interdictor,” he goes on, “but might does fright. And the houses must all be well-balanced in order to keep our world vigilant against modern threats."
There’s a pause, and he gives me a sly look of debauchery. The kind you would only expect from someone with a chip on their shoulder, or maybe an ancient vendetta.
“I thought you would understand as such, as a Rinn,” he finishes.
“So you’re just pissed off that House Fjalner is a commoner house without a path to the throne,” I spit.
“A little,” he concedes with a darkness.
One of the men who approached Fletcher, Tea, and the evacuated pilot sounds out with stammering uncertainty.
The marshal turns around and I peek around his silhouette. Tea and Fletcher have clamored away from the being on the ground, the one who was dropped unceremoniously off his evac bed, with wide eyes. The two men who pointed their guns at them have allowed them to move away, because the man has started glowing an unnatural electric blue.
“What—” I start.
A feeling of mild euphoria, a pleasantness I rarely feel except while floating in zero-g, engulfs me. It begins in the periphery of my limbs and trickles up my brainstem to my head. I feel light-headed, and in another moment I begin to have trouble standing straight. My arms fall to my side as I try to balance myself.
In my increasing confusion, I look around. Everyone else still standing stumbles, and one by one begins falling over. Tea and Fletcher, as well as the two armed men threatening them, have already collapsed.
I attempt to take a step forward. My legs suddenly feel like they have become trapped in a pyroclastic flow. Extremities burn and numb and I no longer can feel the ground beneath my feet. The longcoat also seems affected, stumbling a couple of meters to his side, and nearly trips over himself. He holds his huge hands over his ears.
A buzzing sound, akin to a particularly shrill mains hum, reaches a crescendo. From the glowing body of our evacuee lying on the ground, there’s an alien pulse that ripples through the air in the next second, exploding in an iridescent shimmer and a bang of thunder that nearly blows out my eardrums. That’s when I collapse. And everything is black.
I wake, staring at a turbulent sky, mixed cloudy white and dark blue with violent grays. Dowager’s faint crescent face peeks around rapidly moving nimbostratus. The wind rustles over the canopy of the forest. I’m alive.
I jolt upright with a heave, feeling like I’ve surfaced from a violent glacial run gasping for air. I part the hair that’s fallen into my eyes and hold myself by the shoulder, bringing my knees up. I take stock of my body. Still me, still corporeal, still a toned down and atrophied manifestation of my former self.
With that sudden lunge upright, I have immediately acquired a splitting headache, one that comes with the acute realization of the throbbing inside my temples. I groan, as if that would help, and try to stand up. I feel weak, but my limbs respond.
I take stock of what’s around me. Everything is as I remembered it, but everyone about the LZ has collapsed and our charge—literally, our charged man—has disappeared. I clamor for my gun and holster it. Then I slowly and agonizingly make my way to Fletcher and Tea. I’m walking, but it feels like I’m crawling.
I refasten the tourniquet Tea had begun to put around Fletcher’s ankle before the pulse knocked us out. A bullet went clear through his shin and broke bone. He’s lost some blood, but I’m not sure how much. I check his vitals and assess he’ll be okay, but I only have basic first aid training. I need Tea awake.
I kick the guns away from the two unconscious men by us and crouch down next to Tea.
“Tea! Tea!” I slap her face gently.
She groggily responds and opens her eyes. They flit every which way in a dazed state of bewilderment.
“Wake up, mooncakes,” I say with a gentle smile, relieved to see her alive and alert.
“The fuck happe— oww!” she exclaims and grimaces, holding her head in a hand. She must be feeling the same way I am.
“Easy,” I warn. “Think you can get mobile?”
She needs a moment, but she nods in the affirmative, and starts bringing herself upright.
“Ah, most excellent. You are awake,” says a strange, wilting voice.
I turn around. In front of us stands our evacuee, the glowing electric man, no longer glowing. Looking radiant and healthy, in fact, and far from fluorescent and otherworldly.
I jump. “Matron’s tits, you scared the hell out of me.”
The man frowns, his glossy black hair blowing in the wind.
“I apologize. That was not my intent. Nor was it my design to incapacitate you or your compatriots, but I sensed we were all in grave danger.”
“Uh, yeah. Something like that.” I dust myself off. “You speak Astrilish. That’s good. Mind telling me what the hell is going on? And who you are? And how you survived crashing through the forest canopy? And what you just did?”
His chest is bare and woundless, covered scantily by the tatters of his tunic. He notices my gaze and realizes his mild immodesty.
“Ah, yes. And perhaps I should find whole and untarnished attire. But first I will require transportation. Will you be needing assistance bringing your wounded to your vessel?”
“Yes…” I trail with a stare. “That would be helpful.”
I take one of Fletcher’s arms and our alien friend takes his other—he’s much stronger than his lanky build would suggest—and we bring my engineer, still unconscious, to Windsong’s gangway. Tea brings up the rear with her submachine gun, and asks me if she can put some rounds in the backs of our dozing aggressors. I demand she not, not because I would personally mind, but because the rounds could possibly be traced back to her restricted-issue firearm. It’s best for us to let these assholes lie here.
I open Windsong up and we enter the airlock. I make sure it secures and locks behind me. It does its dumb thing of pretending it has to cycle the atmosphere for a moment before realizing there’s nothing to pressurize and opening the other door. I really need to fix that.
We bring Fletcher directly to the quaint but perfectly well-provisioned medbay we have. In the dim reflected light of heavily sanitized metal, we lie him down on a soft, pillowy gurney. Tea drops her gun and gets to work tearing off his jumpsuit with a knife and removing his boots so that she can assess the ankle wound. I swallow some bile in the back of my throat.
“Think you can keep him comfortable until Tencair, Tea?”
“Tencair?” she asks as she works. “Not Diya?”
“I’m not sure I can trust the Constabulary in this matter.”
“You have someone else in mind?”
She pauses, and gives me a look of acknowledgement and knowing agreement. “Faster is better, but an extra hour or two will be fine.”
“Good. I’ll get us moving. You… glowy guy. You’re with me.”
The man gives me a befuddled look but follows willingly.
I lead him across the ship, through the central corridor, and up to the bridge. Not something I’d normally do with a stranger, but we need to go, for all of our sakes. Plus, I get the sense that none of the technology around him would impress.
Back at the helm, I demand he strap in to a spare seat, and he takes Tea’s usual spot. I take mine and harness. The flip of my fingers against switches and the flashing boot screens from my many flight consoles signal the start of the pre-flight sequence.
“I drained a couple of your vessel’s capacitor banks to preserve the peace and prevent further injury. Don’t be alarmed. Your cusp-fusion reactor will still start, but the ignition cycle may take more time than you are accustomed to,” the man mentions with a glib, professional assuredness.
I halt what I’m doing and turn my seat around, giving him a mystified stare. He looks at me from over Tea’s console with an unnerving thin smile of conviction, those slanted onyx eyes particularly affable as he holds the wide, sympathetic grin. Creepiness aside, he’s actually very cute. But I’m absolutely frightened of him.
If you can identify what frightens you, I reason, it loses some of its hold over you. I return my seat forward and continue the startup sequence.
“Do you have a name I can address you by, sir?”
“Emissary Kiran Jyoti, ready to be of service. Oh, and I would appreciate the honor of non-binary pronouns, if you please.”