Chapter One


It had been three hundred and fifty-seven years, three months, and four days since the emancipation of humanity. And for most, it did them little good. 

Nashara walked down the dusty road of Pitt’s Cross reservation, her scaly leather boots biting into her ankle. Log houses and refugee tents dripped acid water from a recent rain, and the ground steamed. It was a desperate assemblage of buildings that dared call itself a city, and all that did was remind Nashara of what a city should really look like. People could be more than this. She flagged down a van bouncing through the wet street. 

The mud-coated van, yellow paint flaking off its sides, stopped by the bench outside a community center where a long line of ragged and desperate faces lined up for the soup kitchen. Nashara could smell whiffs of fresh bread and body odor. 

A few eyes darted her way, seeing the functional but new clothing and no doubt wondering what she was doing here. And whether she was carrying money. It was just as likely surprise at her skin, as dark as the shadows these people seemed to try to sink into. Her hair, tight and curly, but shorn military short. Old habit. Pitt’s Cross consisted mainly of the light-skinned. Or maybe, just maybe, someone was already tracking her, ready to shoot her and drag her body to the edge of the reservation for a bounty. 

She turned her back to it all and got in the van. What was done was done, and now it was time to keep moving. 

“Could rain again,” the old man driving the van commented as Nashara threw a stamped metal coin into the small bucket by his seat. “I get more passengers if I wait around for the rain, charge more when they’re desperate not to get stung by it.” 

Nashara sat down on the cushioned bench behind him and threw several more coins in. “Let’s go.” 

“Where to?” 

“Security gate.” 

The old man cleared his throat, leaned closer to the window, and looked up at the sky. Nashara tapped his back. He turned around annoyed, then flinched when she stared directly into his slightly clouded eyes. “I shit you not,” Nashara said, “I’ll break your neck if you don’t start driving.” 

He swallowed. “Right.” The van quietly lurched forward down the street, then turned an easy left. They edged past a large cart pulled by fifteen men, all yoked to it by wooden harnesses. 

How far humanity could still fall. Nashara folded her arms. 

Two years mucking about in Pitt’s Cross, building contacts, until she’d found a job that would make her enough to leave. She watched a landscape of ruined housing and people slide by the dingy windows of the van. The buildings petered out until nothing but bare, scorched ground surrounded her. 

The reservation’s wall crept into view over the horizon. The black and smooth, two-hundred-foot edifice spread for as far as she could see in either direction. Spotlights stabbed at the ground and sky. It was scalable, she’d done that to get over last night, and back over in the morning. 

Though not without trouble. Her left shoulder had a cauterized hole through it as a result of getting back over. 

“You have a pass?” the old man asked, incredulous. “Or will I be waiting at the wall for you?” 

“Are we not emancipated? Can’t we travel anywhere we want?” 

“Don’t spout that crap at me.” They both knew they needed a “human safety pass” to be allowed out there, and passes were rare around the reservation. “Even if you get through, how far can you get on two feet when all you have is reservation coin?” 

“You’d be surprised.” Nashara looked out the window. One last look at the barren landscape. 

“Waste of my time, all the way out here for one passenger.” They slowed and then jerked to a stop. The driver leaned over and pointed a small gun at her. “Hand over your coin and get out.” 

Nashara looked down at it. And snapped it out of his hands before his next blink. She casually snapped his trigger finger, and to his credit he bit his lip and bore the pain as he looked around for the gun. Reservation-born and accustomed to the pain of it all. 

“You should have shot before speaking,” she said. He might have had a chance. He stared at her, realizing his underestimation would probably cost him his life. 

“Come on, get out,” Nashara said as she opened the door. She didn’t blame him for trying. What did he have to lose? A lifetime behind the wall? 

A faint mist sprinkled down. It blew inside the cab and tasted acidic. It burned the tip of her tongue as she tasted the air. It would stain and then dissolve her outfit if she walked out there, so she’d take the vehicle. “I have a pass, and therefore a schedule to keep.” 

“How the hell did you get that?” the old man asked as he stepped out into the rain and turned to face in. 

“Same way I got this,” Nashara muttered. Someone had underestimated her. 

She shut the door to the van and drove on without looking back. Several minutes later she threw the gun out of the window into the mud. No sense in approaching a massive security perimeter like the wall around Pitt’s Cross with a gun. 


#


The gate groaned slowly open, responding to the presence of the pass hung around her neck. Several snub-nosed pipes tracked her progress through the tunnel. If she so much as twitched wrong, they’d smear her against the wall. 

The floor lit up just forward of each step, leading her onward to a set of doors that rolled aside for her. Several guards in khaki protective armor and reflective-visored helmets surrounded her. 

“Pass?” 

Nashara pulled the necklace off and handed it over. The nearest guard scanned her with a wand. Even if she were naked, it wouldn’t detect anything under her skin. Her skin bounced back the wrong signals to his crude scanner. And neither guard would find the crude slivers of gold and silver stolen from the Gahe breeder’s house. She’d cut slits in the skin of her thighs. The skin had congealed over the small bounty. 

The other guard verified the data inside the small pendant at the end of the necklace. He looked back at her. “Nashara Aji. You have twenty hours outside the reservation. After that the pass will broadcast your violation and you will forfeit any rights to travel. You will be jailed and fined. You may give up your right to emancipation.” 

He handed the necklace back to her and leaned in close. “Visiting a breeding program, eh?” 

That was what the pass indicated her business outside the wall was. 

Nashara ignored the guard. 

An alien stood safe inside a bombproof glass enclosure behind the guards. 

A Gahe, one of the rulers of everything currently around Nashara. It stood five feet high on four legs. Its bullet-shaped head, so hard to reach around to snap, Nashara knew, swiveled like an owl’s to track her. The rounded, silver eyes didn’t blink. 

The alien’s massive mouth yawned open. From inside, gray, tentacle-like tongues wormed out and flicked at a clear panel in front of it. 

“Human, stop,” the translated voice in the air around her snapped. 

Nashara froze. 

“Pause for decontamination that your stink may not infect our honorable citizens.” 

Nashara knew the routine. She stripped with her back to the human guards behind her. A biting spray and explosion of UV light later she walked 

out of the checkpoint. 

She was out. Out of the reservation and its starving, population-exploding sovereignty and freedom. And just ahead of the mess that would soon be after her. 

#


The guards were the last humans she saw for the next hour as she walked down the paved road. No vehicles passed her. What reason did the aliens have to go to the reservation? They avoided it if at all possible. 

The road led into a larger highway three hours later. Nashara’s clothes dripped sweat from the heat. She had no water; no one was allowed to bring anything out of the reservation but the clothes on his or her back. 

Still, she pressed on as the occasional vehicle trundled past. Each one looked completely different, from number of wheels to color to design. The 

Gahe prized individuality to a bizarre level. 

Seven hours later she stopped in a small town and looked around. The Gahe built their houses like their cars, every one different to their own taste. It looked like something out of a nightmare, random curves and angles jutting out every which way, dripping walls. 

Three Gahe loped toward her, tentacle tongues lolling. One of them held a gun aimed at her. Nashara held her necklace up, showed it to them, and inserted the pendant in her ear. 

“I am legal,” she said. 

The large Gahe dropped the gun into the pocket of a biblike shirt over its chest. It thumped the ground with a hind leg and spat at the ground. 

“What are you doing here?” The pendant translated the gestures into tinny words in her ear. 

“I am waiting for the bus.” Nashara remained still. They didn’t seem like any kind of Gahe that were here to arrest or detain her. The Gahe sat down in front of her. Nashara waited for a translation of that, but none came. She relaxed and pretended not to see them. She stared off into the distance and waited. 

She could disappear here and no one would care, or notice. The Gahe around her knew it too. But they weren’t aware of what she’d done last night. They were just trying to intimidate the free human. Nothing to worry about, and she’d kill them too if they tried anything funny. 


#


Another human was on the pumpkin-shaped bus that showed up, a dark-haired, old lady in a glittering dress and complex, braided hairdo fixed around the top of her head like a crown. The Gahe clustered along the left side of the bus. They lounged in their round chairs and stared out the windows, ignoring her. Nashara thought she smelled mushrooms as she walked down the aisle 

and sat down. 

The lady growled at her and drummed a syncopated rhythm on the ground. She smiled at Nashara. 

“Nice clothes,” the pendant in her ear translated the thumping and growling. The lady cleared her throat. “I am Growf.” She slapped her hand on her wrist. “You live behind the wall?” 

“Recently, for a while, yes,” Nashara said. 

“You hate me.” 

“No.” Nashara shook her head. “I’m sorry for you.” 

“I may be pet,” the lady growled in Gahe. “But I eat. My great-grandfather pet. Good pet. Eat well. Not starve. Do tricks.” 

A Gahe stood up and barked at them both, too quickly for the pendant to translate. It walked over and its tongues reached out and grabbed the lady’s crown. They were strong, strong enough to yank Growf up to her feet. Growf whined and bowed, kissed the floor, and shuffled over to the back 

of the bus. 

Nashara turned away from the scene and looked out of the window at yellow grass and squiggly trees. 

It all depressed her. The whole damn planet depressed her. The Gahe ruled Astragalai firmly, and there were too few humans here to do much about it. A few hundred thousand lived behind the wall in Pitt’s Cross, most of the rest as professional bonded pets to Gahe. 

She’d killed a high-ranking Gahe breeder late last night for some shadowy, idiot organization formed by offworld humans that wanted to free the human pets. The League of Human Affairs. They’d repaid her with a ticket that would take her off Astragalai and aboard a ship heading toward the planet New Anegada. 

Five years, planet by planet, trying to get there, the last two a particular hell stuck here in Pitt’s Cross. 

Nashara couldn’t wait to get the fuck off the planet. It had been a mistake to head into a nonhuman place. A two-year mistake. 

She checked the pendant cover, squinting. Just a few hours left. Any Gahe would have the right to take her as property or kill her when that ran out. Gahe authorities would be moving to deport her right back into Pitt’s Cross. Gahe breeders paid prime for wild pets. 


#


The pickup zone was a clearing, bordered by well-maintained gardens, and a ticket booth. A round pod with windows sat in the middle of the grass. Nashara walked over the cut yellow grass, squishing her way to the ticket booth. 

“You travel alone?” The Gahe behind the glass shook its squat head. 

Round eyes looked her up and down. 

“My ticket is confirmed. I am here. I am a freedman.” No damn pet. “Here is my pass.” She waved the necklace at the window. She had no time for delays. The body of the Gahe breeder she’d killed would have been found by now. It wouldn’t take long for its friends to figure out it wasn’t one of its pets or human breeding pairs that had killed it. Enough checking and Nashara’s DNA would be found somewhere on the pen she’d stabbed it in the large eyes with. 

“I guess this is okay,” the Gahe informed her. “Go to the pickup pod.” 

The pod stood twice her height with a massive reinforced hook at its tip. Fifteen Gahe seats ringed the inside. Reclining Gahe sat strapped in half of them. Alarms sounded throughout the clearing as Nashara stepped in the pod. A Gahe attendant outside licked the pod with a tongue and the pod sealed shut. Gahe stared at her, panting. One of them growled. 

Nashara strapped herself in as best she could. It was clear they never ex- 

pected human use of these seats. 

Another timbre of alarm started. Nashara turned around and looked down the length of the clearing just in time to see a shadow and then the long line of the orbital skyhook coming straight toward them. The strong rope of carbon fiber led all the way back to orbit. It spun slowly, each end touching 

down to snag cargo several times per day. 

The massive, rusted, industrial-looking hook on the end whipped toward them and struck the top of the pod. 

Nashara’s neck snapped back. She swore. Gahe pounded the floor with their front feet. “Laughter,” the pendant noted as she pushed it back in her ear. The joke was on them. Right now word would be spreading that a human had killed a Gahe. If the League person who’d paid her to do it had told the truth, then the last time that had happened had been a hundred years ago. And that same small insurrection that had left a Gahe dead by human hands in Pitt’s Cross had led the Gahe to isolate the free humans on the planet there. 

The pod accelerated, hooked onto the almost indestructible cable. It swung up into the sky past the clouds in a long arc toward space.


Chapter Two


The space habitat Villach orbited Astragalai. It hung in position to receive 

pod traffic and redirect it onward if necessary. 

The two cupolas of Villach looked like perfect spheres split in half. They 

were connected by threadlike wires of the same material as the rotating tether 

that snagged Nashara’s pod and whipped it into orbit. A material that the 

Gahe sold to humans but humanity was prohibited from making. 

Villach’s two separate half spheres spun around each other, connective 

wires singing a constant low hum in the background as Nashara took the ele- 

vator from the center of the configuration down through the clouds hovering 

at the open top of the space habitat. 

Pets wandered around on leashes, their Gahe drumming or slapping their 

tongues at them. Beautiful hairpieces and costumes glittered everywhere 

Nashara looked. 

Nashara pulled the pendant out of her ear, not interested in hearing alien 

tongues anymore. The pass beeped, indicating her time was up. But Villach 

wasn’t a reservation. It wouldn’t have dedicated hunt packs waiting to swoop 

in on her. By the time something came to investigate the violation, Nashara 

would be long gone. Besides, a human shouldn’t have been able to afford the 

price of getting off planet. That would leave them confused for a while. 

She broke the necklace off, crushed it to dust between her hands, and let it 

drift to the floor. 

The human section of Villach, a long, pie-shaped area of the five-mile- 

wide cupola, reminded her of the reservation. But not as desperate. Tight 

streets, waterproof paper houses and greenhouses. She found a market packed 

with several hundred people. It was the first time in two years she’d seen that 

many people gathered together that weren’t lined up for the food kitchens. As 

on the reservation, they spoke Anglic here, not human imitations of Gahe’s 

thumps, growls, and whistles. 

She pulled out the last of her coins and stopped at the nearest toy shop. 

Several kids behind the table of used equipment smiled at her. The tallest 

bowed and stepped forward with a flourish of his waxy red robe. 

“Help you?” 

“I need a lamina viewer,” she said. “Got anything?” 

They handed her an oversize, bright green wrist screen. Designed for 

clumsy kid fingers, it strapped on easily enough, and she tapped it on. A 

simple point-and-shoot viewer. She pointed a finger at the boy and informa- 

tion popped up for her. 

His name was Peter the One Hundredth, fifteen years old, owner of the 

stall. Previous customers rated him “competent” on average, with some com- 

plaints about equipment breaking down. 

“You like it?” 

Some speculated that the goods were stolen. 

Of course they were. 

Nashara stopped pointing and tapped some more, accessing Villach’s vari- 

ous streams of public information, and checked the habitat’s outbound trans- 

portation schedule. She found what she was looking for. The Stenapolaris, 

due to leave in two hours. 

Cutting it close. But she had a berth reserved, and Stenapolaris would be 

headed close to New Anegada. Once she was aboard it, the Gahe would 

behard-pressed to ever find her. 

“Lady?” 

Nashara looked up. “Yes, I’ll take it.” She threw him the reservation coins 

from her pocket. 

“We don’t take this,” Peter the One Hundredth protested. “It’s devalued 

crap.” 

Nashara sighed. She propped her boot up on his table and dug her thumb 

into her thigh until she broke skin and peeled it back with a grunt. She slid a 

piece of silver out and wiped the blood off it. “Assay this.” 

She needed the lamina viewer. All around her in the habitat’s information- 

rich data streams lay important information. Such as directions to get to the 

docks, or what elevators to take. Whom you were talking to. Layers of it 

tagged everything, a myriad of ways to view the entire world lay around them. 

Kids ran around the stall seeing virtual monsters they chased and shot with 

their friends. Merchants quietly passed information among themselves. The 

station’s public lamina carpeted the sky with up-to-date general information, 

or provided tags about everything one saw. 

To be unable to view lamina meant being illiterate among those who read 

to survive. 

Nashara had to use lamina indirectly or the technology built into her head 

would get out of control. She bit her lip and focused on the transaction in 

front of her. 

Peter passed the piece of metal to the kid behind him, who walked back 

into the tent for a moment. Peter’s head snapped up as he heard something in- 

side his own head. “Silver?” 

“Good enough?” 

All three nodded. Nashara turned and walked into a bulky man dressed in 

trousers and a yellow utility jacket. 

“Nashara Cascabel?” She liked her first name, but always kept the second 

one changing. 

She looked him over. “Who’s asking?” 

“Steven.” He looked around, dropped his voice. “We’ve been trying to 

contact you.” 

Nashara held up her wrist and looked at the tag that popped up when she 

pointed at him. It identified him as Gruther. “I just got access.” 

“Shitsticks,” the man swore. “That explains that.” 

People up here in orbit had the technology implanted behind their eyeballs 

from late childhood on. Only four-year-olds or the impaired couldn’t wrap 

their minds around constantly seeing things that weren’t really there. 

“I have my reasons for not plugging directly in,” Nashara said softly. “Your 

organization and me, we’re done. I’m getting ready to leave. What the hell are 

you doing bothering me?” She didn’t like this. She glanced around, looking 

for eyes staring back. This screamed wrong to her. 

“The package you delivered has been discovered,” Steven said, meaning that 

the Gahe had found the breeder she’d killed. “The recipients are not happy, and 

they’re looking for the postmaster. They’d like to make an example of you.” 

Too many people around, Nashara thought, to really deal with Steven. 

“They thinking to look up here yet to express their gratitude?” Nashara 

stepped back from him and jostled an old man in a ragged suit who swore 

ather. 

“I’m told they’ll finish their sweep of house’s garden”—that would be 

Pitt’s Cross—“within the hour.” 

“Steven, or whatever the hell your name is, why is this your problem 

again? You paid me, I did it. I’m leaving. You’re making yourself traceable. 

You’re holding me up.” 

Steven swallowed. Nervous, Nashara thought, but about what? “We’re im- 

pressed with what you did. They want to help you more. Do you want to see 

full freedom, do you think humans should be able to exercise all the same 

rights as the Gahe? Or any other damn alien?” 

“All bullshit aside”—Nashara folded her arms—“what are you trying to 

offer here? I have a berth to go to. I need to leave.” 

Steven took a deep breath. “You don’t actually have a berth.” 

Nashara stared at him. His neck would break a lot easier that some Gahe’s. 

“What do you mean by that?” 

“Do you really think that...that package delivery was worth the price of 

a ticket to another world?” 

Nashara shook her head. This wasn’t about the assassination. They’d un- 

derestimated her again. “You didn’t think I would make it back out of there.” 

It wasn’t a question. Just a statement. 

“No one down there has the ability to deliver packages. But we’re working 

on it, and we’d hoped that what you did would encourage others to try. And 

if that happened, we would assist them. We’ve been secretly building a net- 

work of couriers, and not just here, Nashara,” Steven brimmed with excite- 

ment, “all throughout the worlds. We’ve been preparing for decades. We have 

ships, secret couriers, and lots and lots of packages we want delivered soon.” 

They’d expected a martyr. The League needed someone to strike against 

the Gahe and die, and then they would help Pitt’s Cross rise against the 

Gahe. But she had no desire to join. She had a mission of her own. 

Nashara unfolded her arms and tapped his chest. “I’m going to kill you. 

It’s going to be very slow, very painful, and you’re not going to care about 

packages,” or any other simple code words. 

“We’re willing to help,” Steven belted out quickly. “Truly. We really need 

someone with your talent.” 

“That was a onetime thing, Steven. I was a desperate girl in a bad situa- 

tion.” The toy she’d purchased from the stall couldn’t even be purchased 

with Pitt’s Cross coin, let alone a trip into orbit. She’d had to do something. 

There. She spotted a simple table knife on a stall table. 

She was so close to getting away from it all. So close. 

“For a onetime thing, you were very good at it.” Steven sensed her weari- 

ness. “We’d like to hire you.” 

The eagle-eyed vendor didn’t spot the snatch, and now Nashara had a 

weapon. “I have a pressing mission of my own that doesn’t fit in with being a 

League ‘package deliverer.’ I’m sorry. I need to get to it, Steven, and you’re 

telling me I’m not going. That’s a problem. And of all people you should un- 

derstand that when I say I am not for sale, I really mean it.” 

She whipped around him. He jumped, but before he could do anything 

more, she’d draped one hand around his shoulder and pressed the knife 

against the small of his back with the other. Bystanders didn’t notice the 

move, and by keeping herself pressed close to Steven, no one would notice 

the knife. They just looked overly chummy. 

The kid behind the stall twitched. He reached under the table, and 

Nashara raised an eyebrow at him. With a smile the kid stepped back and 

watched. 

“What are you doing?” Steven asked. 

He tried to pull away, but she yanked him right back and whispered into 

his ear, “Steven, this is just a table knife, but I’m strong enough that I will be- 

gin by puncturing a lung of yours with it. Do you know how much that 

hurts? After letting you writhe about for a while, I’ll slam this knife into your 

heart. Of course, you can stop this by giving me what I was promised for do- 

ing a very dangerous and dirty job.” 

“We have someone sympathetic to the League,” he said quickly. “The 

owner of the Daystar. It’s docked here at Villach. We’ll spirit you aboard.” 

Nashara watched as three men in long, green robes picked some items over 

at a nearby stall while watching the two of them. 

“Headed for?” A pair of grubby women with baskets waited to look at the 

toys on the table. She was in their way. They looked somewhat impatient. 

“A Freeman colony in orbit around the world Yomi,” he hissed out of the 

side of his mouth. 

One of the ladies snapped her fingers. “You gonna stand there all day, you 

two?” 

Yomi lay over fifty wormhole transits downstream and in the right fork, 

the Thule branch. But it was still fifteen upstream from the dead end of New 

Anegada. Nashara shook her head. “That’s not as close to the planet I was 

promised.” 

One of the green-robed men glanced over at the increasingly irate ladies, 

then at Steven and Nashara. 

“No, but it’s not here, where you’re certain to be taken down by a Gahe 

hunting pack. We need to leave now. We’ll help you find your way to where 

you need to be once you’re at the Freeman colony. There’s something we 

need to tell you about New Anegada anyway.” 

He was being too nice. She was half tempted to snap his arm. And Steven 

specifically avoided looking in the direction of the men in green. 

“Any Ragamuffin ships at dock?” she asked. 

“They don’t make it this far upstream. You might find one at Yomi 

though.” 

Nashara leaned closer. “Tell those three men to back way off.” 

“What three men?” Steven looked around. 

She dug the point of her improvised knife into his skin, enough to make 

her point. “Steven, back them off before things go bad.” 

He looked over at them. They moved back. 

Nashara dug out several bloody pieces of silver and tossed them at Peter. 

They bounced in a trough of chips and wires. A teenage girl with blond hair 

and sunburn joined Peter, and the two women in front of Nashara stared at 

the silver. 

“I have a favor to ask you all,” Nashara said to them. 

“What are you doing?” Steven twisted, shoving his shoulders against her. 

“I’m going to pay a handful of these nice people to walk to the Daystar 

with us with any friends they can round up, board with me, and then leave 

once I’m nicely ensconced aboard the ship.” 

He tensed. She’d figured that out as well. With a crowd around them the 

Villach security programs would keep a close eye on a mob. And for all the 

rhetoric the League of Human Affairs deployed, she’d bet her life it still pre- 

ferred to skulk about in the shadows. 

“Now let’s go before Gahe start showing up,” Nashara hissed. Time was 

running out and things were getting complicated. 

Peter pocketed the silver and tapped the air, and as Nashara stepped for- 

ward, kids flowed in toward them, jostling closer as the word spread through- 

out the lamina that some crazy lady was paying Peter in silver to help walk 

her over to a ship. 


#


The Daystar’s cramped quarters made her feel cornered. The grimy passen- 

gers bored her. Three indentured workers escaping to the free-zone still 

dressed in grimy coveralls and casting relieved and yet still suspicious looks 

around. A human pet with his hair styled in a tall ringed cone and shaved 

eyebrows, glitter on his cheeks and lips. He didn’t have a name, but he 

showed her the bar code on his inner thigh. A handful of rich tourists in blue 

leather. All human. Aliens wouldn’t deign to ride dirty human transports. 

The tourists relaxed, eyes closed, immersed in environments that only they 

could see. The walls were gray and bare, there was nothing else to do but im- 

merse deep into some personal entertainment lamina. The better part of a 

day accelerating out from the habitat Villach had already passed. Nashara 

camped out in the cockpit of the Daystar, a gimballed sphere deep inside the 

very center of the long, cylindrical ship. 

The portly captain, Danielle, danced from one edge of the cockpit to the 

other. Her crisp, new emergency gear made Nashara wonder if she was safe 

aboard the leaky, old tramp ship. 

Danielle admired Nashara, she said. Ever since the moment Nashara had 

marched aboard her ship surrounded by thirty scruffy stall kids and Steven at 

knifepoint, waiting with all of them in the cockpit until she could verify that 

every last League agent had walked off the Daystar. And now Nashara re- 

mained in the cockpit with her. 

No doubt the moment Nashara left, the captain could track where Nashara 

walked, vent a corridor, and leave her exposed to the vacuum. She could sur- 

vive some of that, but eventually, the captain would win. And if Nashara 

killed the captain, she could take control of the ship, yes, Nashara had those 

skills. But once she inserted herself into the ship’s lamina, she would die. 

So Nashara remained in the cockpit, watching the captain, the captain 

watching her. 

The captain smiled, her belly wobbling in the lack of gravity as they fell 

away from Villach. “This story I will tell to all my passengers from now on.” 

“That exciting? I thought you were a League sympathizer.” 

Danielle spread her arms. “Whoever my masters will be, I want them all to 

know that I am loyal to them.” 

Nashara grinned. “Cynical.” 

“Honest.” Danielle tapped the air to give commands. “You are a glorious 

human being, Nashara. You will die in the most amazing way, someday, and 

people like me will talk about it for years. Do you believe in the great-person 

theory?” 

“The what?” 

“There are some people who always sit in the middle of big things. They 

live large lives. Like you. It is not enough for you to settle into a life in Astra- 

galai and give up, no, you have panache. And I get to sit here in my ship and 

sail from star to star and watch people like you pass through lives. You’ll 

make my best dinner anecdote, I think.” 

“It’s hardly great.” Wires snaked all around the cockpit. That couldn’t be 

safe, could it? “All I want to do is get to my destination in one piece. I’m 

tired. This is all temporary.” 

At the front of the cockpit Danielle waved her hands, and the cockpit walls 

faded into screens that showed perspectives of space. Lots of inky darkness. 

Nothing that really stirred Nashara’s soul. She preferred worlds, not the 

empty vacuum. 

“The League wanted me to stop and turn you over, you know. I told them 

you’d kill me. I like my life too much, and they know it. You’re okay aboard 

my ship.” Danielle chuckled, a bit too high-pitched, as if nervous. “Where 

are you going?” 

“As close to New Anegada as I can get.” 

“New Anegada?” Danielle shook her head. “Honey, you aren’t going all 

the way to New Anegada, you know. It’s not only way downstream of here, 

but it doesn’t exist anymore.” 

“Yes, I know.” Nashara sat on the curved floor. 

“The wormhole leading there got cut off. Hundreds of years ago.” 

Nashara turned on Danielle, the sinking, tired feeling in her stomach hav- 

ing nothing to do with the thump and shudder of the ship’s engines. “I’m 

well aware of it. I just need to get close.” 

Danielle looked at her as if seeing her for the first time. “Why?” 

“It’s none of your damn business.” 

“You’re out of your mind.” Danielle shook her head. “Clean out. Near 

New Anegada is where the Ragamuffin ships prowl. They’re liable to board 

and shoot up any ship you take out there. Only good thing I see the Hong- 

guo do is patrol against them.” 

Nashara rubbed the side of her temple. “The Ragamuffins, you sure 

they’re pirates, or do you just hear that they’re pirates?” 

“Seen video of their attacks.” Danielle folded her arms. 

“Sure you have. Ever seen an attack in person, Danielle?” 

“No,” the Daystarcaptain conceded. 

“Probably because they’re silently docked next to you at habitats, keeping 

as low a profile as possible. Just a bunch of merchant ships left on the wrong 

side of the wormhole when Chimson, and then New Anegada, got cut off.” 

The Black Starliner Corporation had settled both Chimson and New Ane- 

gada with islanders and other refugees from Earth, and the Ragamuffins had 

formed out of necessity. When alien aggression started up, they needed a 

more militant arm for protection. Humans cheered the Ragamuffins on, un- 

til they lost. Then suddenly they were “pirates.” 

“You know a lot about them?” 

Nashara shifted. “Known a few. They used to route between Chimson, 

Earth, and New Anegada until the Satrapy declared that human ships weren’t 

allowed to use the wormhole routes or fuel up without licenses. Licenses they 

refused to grant to New Anegada or Chimson.” 

“You sound annoyed.” 

The Gahe and Nesaru had found humanity through the wormholes and 

used them. The Satraps dragged the Gahe and Nesaru off their homeworlds 

into space hundreds of years ago. Humanity was only the latest addition to 

the benevolent Satrapy. “The aliens don’t know how to make wormholes. But 

they get to say who uses the wormholes and who doesn’t?” 

“You think the Satrapy doesn’t know how the wormholes work?” Danielle 

looked sharp and interested, with a half smile. 

“If the Satrapy were that powerful, would they be that scared of human 

beings running around without supervision?” They could shut down the 

wormholes to human-occupied worlds that scared them, such as Earth, in 

agreement for Emancipation. They could do it to stop the nuclear suicide 

bombers, or to Chimson for trying to gain independence. And Nashara bet 

that they had also shut down New Anegada for some reason. But Nashara, 

and many back on Chimson, believed that all the Satrapy could do was shut 

the wormholes down. 

Danielle shrugged. “Who knows? Look, Nashara, how long are you going 

to remain in my cockpit? We’re approaching the first wormhole on our little 

journey downstream towards Yomi. We have a lot of wormholes and miles to 

cross before we get there. You going to camp out in here for three weeks?” 

“If need be.” 

Danielle laughed. “Nashara, if I’m going to kill you, or dump you out the 

air lock, or whatever you think I’m going to do, there isn’t much you can do 

about it unless you plan on having all your meals in here.” 

Nashara did not laugh. She had found a spare set of acceleration webbing 

and pulled the retractable ribbons from their recessed spots. She wove the 

fabric around herself. “That offer sounds good. You have a jump seat here. 

I’m happy to ride with you. Where’s the catheter?” 

“My best dinner story...,” Danielle muttered. She turned and got into 

the soft chair hanging dead center in the cockpit and strapped herself in. 

“The League will be waiting for you on Yomi. They’ll kill you there.” 

“Of course.” 

Danielle raised a finger and closed her eyes. She settled into her chair, and 

the thump of the engines changed. By now the Daystarhad climbed high out 

of Astragalai’s gravity well, almost enough to break free of the planet. The 

Gahe choose to keep their wormholes far out from the clustered near-planet 

orbits. 

On the screens Danielle provided, Nashara saw a cloud of communica- 

tions buoys as large as their own ship. They pulsed a riot of laser light at the 

blank piece of inky dark in front of them. Buoys on the other side would 

snag the light, parse it, then pass it on. Forty-eight worlds ruled by the se- 

cretive alien Satraps, connected through thousands of wormholes strung 

throughout almost random parts of the galaxy, held together by threads of 

light. It sounded tenuous, but the Satrapy ruled strongly enough through its 

surrogates. 

It took attention to thread this needle. Anything less than true center and 

the ship risked tearing itself into debris against the sides of the wormhole. 

Meanwhile, Nashara was sure Danielle had to listen to the chatter of traffic 

control, contending with other ships in line to transit. 

Nashara stared into the round plate of nothingness on the screens until it 

swallowed them and the lines of flickering laser light all along their sides. 

Atunnel of light illuminated by stellar dust. Her stomach flip-flopped, her 

brain trying to process something that it couldn’t understand. 

Now the screens showed more buoys and the remains of a half-processed 

chunk of rock. Girders and docking tubes thrust out from the side. 

“Transit number one,” Danielle said, and reopened her eyes. “Of many 

more to go.” 

The Daystar coasted toward the debris. No planets existed out here. A 

light-year away from Astragalai, the planet’s sun just a pinprick from here. 

The next wormhole lay on the other side of the rock, a few thousand miles 

away. A smart captain such as Danielle wouldn’t waste much fuel speeding 

up to it but coast toward it with a few adjustments. 

Nashara’s wrist screen chirped. She looked down. A simple text message 

from Steven: “You are now a wanted criminal in all forty-eight worlds of the 

Satrapy for the detonation of a nuclear bomb in the Gahe section of Villach. 

Happy travels.” 

Nashara deleted it. 

“Congratulations,” Danielle said, revealing that she’d gotten a copy of the 

message. “My best story yet. And a wonderful move on their part, pointing 

the finger your way.” 

“They’re insane,” Nashara said, and Danielle frowned. “A nuke?” They 

probably killed more humans at Villach than aliens. 

“They said the Hongguo will be hunting you,” Danielle said. “Your name 

and DNA profile will be on every ship of theirs. Now you’ve made enemies 

of both the League and the Hongguo. Dangerous.” 

Nashara sighed. “Every move I dig myself in deeper.” 

“You hungry?” Danielle asked. “I can have one of my guys bring some- 

thing over before the next transit here. It’s squeezy stuff, right, but I’m hungry, 

for one.” 

Nashara stared at her. “And then when I use the bathroom in a couple 

hours, you have the ship lock me in, suck the air out, turn me into a mummy?” 

“You’re paranoid.” Danielle shook her head. 

“Everyone has been out to get me of late,” Nashara snorted. “I feel it’s jus- 

tified.” 

Danielle laughed. “If you have to use the shitter, I’ll come with you, I 

swear.” 

Nashara wanted to like her. Wondered if she’d have to kill her eventually. 

It would be a waste to get cornered into a losing situation like that. 

Besides, the Daystarwould stand no chance of outrunning any Hongguo 

ship if they decided she was worth the trouble of looking for. And now that 

the League assholes had sicced them on her, she only had to worry about 

them. The League would stand clear and just watch. 

Just as long as the League hadn’t told the Hongguo to find her aboard the 

Daystar, she’d be okay. Hopefully they needed their sympathetic captain 

Danielle’s goodwill more than they wanted Nashara dead. 

Hopefully.


Chapter Three


Six days and eleven wormhole transits later Nashara lowered her guard and 

took the luxury of a quick sponge bath as the Daystarpassed between a 

trio of wormholes spaced a thousand miles apart. They trailed each other in 

geostationary orbit around a massive gas giant. Several massive storms near 

the equator stared down on the speck of a ship as it slowly drifted from one 

wormhole to the next over several hours. 

They were downstream of Astragalai and getting close to Harpin now. 

Certainly moving in the right direction, Nashara thought, although Harpin 

was a habitable world with a Satrap living in a habitat in orbit over it. And 

maybe a Hongguo ship or two. Not somewhere to loiter. 

Danielle hung just outside, keeping a hand on the top of the opaque cur- 

tain so that Nashara knew where she was. 

“What would you do if I just kicked off for the cockpit right now?” she 

asked. 

“I’d kill you.” Nashara pulled her leathers back on. She’d added an assort- 

ment of blades fashioned from parts found loose in the cockpit. She’d had a 

lot of time floating around to make shivs. 

The rest of the Daystar didn’t really exist for her. Only the nearby bath- 

room and the cockpit’s sphere. And Danielle. Two more weeks to Yomi. So 

far no Hongguo ships had caught up with them and demanded a boarding. 

She played for time now. But then she’d been doing that for five years now. 

Keeping her head low, trying to meander her way toward New Anegada. 

Danielle looked Nashara over. “So what’s your whole story?” 

“You really want that dinner-story prize, don’t you?” Nashara stared back. 

“Or maybe you just want to sell the information to your League friends. Your 

new masters.” 

“Would the League of Human Affairs be any worse than having the 

Satraps, and the Hongguo doing their dirty work? Who cares who’s in 

charge?” 

Nashara shrugged. A point. But anyone crazy enough to set off a nuclear 

bomb in a habitat wasn’t fit to be in charge of anything. 

“Seriously, where the hell did you come from?” 

Tired of evasions, Nashara looked at Danielle. “If I tell you, will you level 

with me on something?” 

Danielle shrugged. “If I can.” 

“You got a copy of that message from Steven. You’re a lot more than just a 

League sympathizer, aren’t you?” She was probably Steven’s superior. 

“Somewhat, yes.” Danielle smiled. “It’s a very loose organization, and I 

have things that the League needs. They pay close attention. But trust me 

when I say I’m no threat to you. If anything, I can be an ally. I’m already di- 

verting my ship somewhat to help you out, because I would like to help re- 

build your relationship with the League. Besides, you’re interesting.” 

An ally. Nashara hadn’t had an ally in a long time. “I’m from Chimson,” 

she said. 

“That’s old history,” Danielle said. Chimson had been cut out of the 

wormhole network hundreds of years ago. Just after Earth and before New 

Anegada. 

“I’m very old,” Nashara said. “You have some closely regulated antiaging 

technologies around. Chimson excelled at them and I’m a product of that. 

One of the reasons the Satrapy had the Chimson wormhole shut down was 

that fear that we would make it cheap and spread it.” 

“Hundreds of years old?” Danielle fidgeted in the middle of the bathroom 

doorway. 

“Hundreds, yes. I was there, for the final battle at the wormhole, trying to 

keep the Hongguo back.” The Ragamuffins were not just New Anegada’s 

mercenary protection, Chimson had its own as well. Nashara smiled. “I was 

with the Ragamuffins when we killed the Satrap in orbit around our planet.” 

“I’ve heard that rumor,” Danielle said. 

“We took Chimson from them with our bare hands,” Nashara said. “And 

even though they shut us away from the rest of humanity, it was still a glori- 

ous thing.” Here in the Satrapy communication was monitored, and there 

were only millions of humans scattered around among the aliens. Monitored. 

Tagged. Herded. They put up with delayed messages being passed through 

the buoys for no reason. But on Chimson...“You should see what ideas and 

people flourished as we all jammed together. It must have been like Earth be- 

fore the pacification, with all those billions of minds so close together.” She 

stopped. 

Danielle just hung there, listening. “And?” 

“It didn’t stop, after we were cut off. We grew. And we decided to give 

something back to everyone out here. I volunteered to come back. I was 

packed away with nine others in a vehicle flung out to the nearest working 

wormhole, almost a light-year away. Took many decades to get back into the 

wormhole system, get back into the forty-eight worlds.” 

“But why in hell’s name would you do that?” 

“You’ve seen me in action. There were ten cloned and rebuilt like me, my 

sisters. We were sent back here.” But not as mere soldiers. Their bodies were 

just containers, a delivery mechanism. But she wasn’t going to be talking to 

Danielle about that. She crossed her arms. “A Hongguo ship captured us and 

we woke up in interrogation cells. My nine sisters wreaked a particular hell on 

them before they died, and only I got out. Five years ago. We were supposed 

to offer our services to New Anegada, but it didn’t take long to find out they 

didn’t exist.” And hearing that a free human society lived in Pitt’s Cross had 

led to a two-year mistake. Pitt’s Cross didn’t have the tools to even begin to 

wrap their minds around her particular talent. 

“And now?” 

“Now I’m just looking for a quiet place, run by humans. That’s all. I need 

a home, Danielle. I just want to stop and be home.” 

Another wormhole approached. The conversation ended as Danielle 

moved them into the cockpit. 

Three more transits. Danielle smiled and turned to look at Nashara. 

“What?” Nashara heard something skitter through a tray of hoses and 

wires wrapped around the equator of the cockpit. 

“They’re waiting for you on Yomi.” 

“Hongguo? Or your buddies?” 

“Hongguo. The last buoy forwarded a warning.” 

Nashara took a deep breath. She would have to roam around the Daystar 

and see if she could cobble together what she needed for a showdown. Any- 

thing explosive, anything sharp. And of course, at Yomi she’d be near a pow- 

erful and massive lamina. 

She’d probably die at Yomi. But the havoc she would wreak would never 

be forgotten by the Hongguo. 

Nashara’s mind was the real weapon. The moment she made a direct 

nueral connection, it would rip free through lamina, spawning copies of it- 

self and infiltrating every corner of the environment. 

Chimson scientists had told her she needed monitors and machines to help 

her infiltrate and infect the lamina properly. At Yomi she would have none of 

that help. Just as her sisters had had none of that help when they’d awoken in 

the Hongguo interrogation cells. Like them, she’d burn her own mind out in 

the process. 

“Do you think others could do the same?” Danielle asked. She slipped out 

a sharp knife from the belt of tools around her waist and looked over at the 

mess of conduit. 

“What do you mean?” 

“Govern themselves like you described. Without Hongguo, or Satraps, or 

League freedom fighters? Could we spread out?” Lightning-quick Danielle 

stabbed at a pile of wires that sparked. She pulled out a six-inch-long cock- 

roach. Its feelers twitched as it squirmed to get free of the needlelike knife 

spearing its thorax. 

“I’ve been in it,” Nashara said. “It’s messy, but it’s all ours.” 

“I’d like to see that someday.” Danielle looked away from the dying insect 

and reached in the pocket of her flight suit. She tossed a piece of plastic at 

Nashara. 

“What’s this?” 

“We’re making a quick stop to drop off some cargo. An original painting 

from Earth, the Moaning Lisa I think. Another priceless trinket that only the 

aliens get to own. The habitat orbits a rock called Bujantjor, two habitable 

worlds upstream of Yomi. I have a cousin there. I assume you have some 

more precious metals on you?” 

Nashara nodded. “Yes.” 

“That’s your pass in.” 

“Why are you doing this?” Nashara frowned. 

“You tell a good tale. Besides, this won’t be free. I want all those pieces of 

silver or gold you stole off that alien you killed on Astragalai. You can find a 

job on Bujantjor, we’ll give you a fake identity.” 

Nashara didn’t budge. Danielle had tipped her hand. “How did you know 

where the silver and gold came from?” 

Danielle smiled. “It was my idea to kill that Gahe breeder. The League 

needs a spark for their revolution; we have so much ready and waiting to 

strike against the Satrapy. They wanted to use the nuke, but I suggested the 

martyr approach. It seems to work for us humans so well. But you lived, the 

nuke got used, and here we are.” 

“And yet you claim you’re not really League. You could be handing me off 

to anything or anyone out there.” 

“Look, have I done anything to endanger you? No. I’ll walk with you into 

Bujantjor.” 

“Right by my side?” Nashara laughed. 

“Just like you and that League page boy you dragged aboard. If I’m lying, 

you get to slit my throat. And we’ll call it even.” 

Nashara thought about it. She brushed her hand over the tiny healed scars 

all over her thighs. “Give me a sharp knife, a proper knife.” 

Danielle tossed Nashara the knife with the dead insect on the end. She 

pointed at it. “Do you believe we’re just roaches swarming around in the edi- 

fices of greater beings than ourselves? Hitchhiking our way around?” 

Nashara looked down at the massive cockroach. “Obviously not. I’ve seen 

different.” 

“Then consider that I want to see that for all of us, which is why I help the 

League, and why I’ll help you.” 

Nashara reached down and tapped the gold leaf taped to her inner thighs. 

“You make yourself out to be an altruist, but you’re going to gain a lot here.” 

Danielle laughed. “Of course. I know that.” 

Nashara would miss her. She slid the dead roach off the knife. “Without 

that gold and silver I’m dead in the water.” 

“You still don’t trust me?” Danielle asked. 

Nashara decided to see how far she could push. “I think you’re an oppor- 

tunist. You talk about wanting self-determination, but like all others, you’ll 

keep doing what you do in comfort, siding with the winners as you see fit.” 

“Oh.” Danielle raised her eyebrows. “Come with me.” 

“Where?” 

“Cargo hold.” Danielle spun. Nashara paused a moment, then followed 

her through the ship past the passengers and their sections and out to the 

edges of the ship via corridors and air locks where the cold made their breath 

hang in the air. 

Nashara could feel the vacuum leaking through shoddy joints and bad 

seals. One failure and they could be blown out into space with failed equip- 

ment. She could live through that. Danielle couldn’t. 

Danielle opened a door leading into one of the containers along the hull 

of her ship. Frost rimmed the metal. Too much longer in here and Danielle 

would damage herself. Nashara could see that the captain’s fingers shook. She 

hadn’t dressed warmly enough to be out here. 

“This is a sealed storage unit.” Danielle grinned, her teeth chattering. “If 

anyone official checks, I can’t access it. I have no idea what I’m carrying.” 

“But you can open it nonetheless.” 

Danielle nodded. She walked over and tapped one of the boxes. It heaved 

open and lit up. “Small-yield nuclear warheads, and other such arms for ships 

like mine.” She closed it. Then waved her hand at another part of the hold. 

“Cloaked comms buoys. We’ve been setting up our own alternative commu- 

nications array to link the League together when the time is right. We laid 

some of the first ones nine years ago. The League has the will, Nashara. 

When the time comes, it’ll wipe out every last one of them.” 

Nashara actually felt the tug of a smile starting. She stopped it. “And you 

contribute to this, or just ferry it?” 

“I contribute damnit. I’m rich, extraordinarily rich, Nashara. I worked for 

the Satrapy. Spent years exploring the wormhole network. From upstream 

Nova Terra all the way downstream to Farhaven, and a lot of the forks along 

the main routes. And now I’m atoning for my sin, for working for them. 

Their rewards to me will fund their own destruction.” 

“You’re bitter,” Nashara said. 

“Why shouldn’t I be?” Danielle snapped. 

Nashara floated closer, reading the heat in Danielle’s face and looking at 

her body language. “Who did they kill that you loved so much to turn on 

them?” 

“It’s none of your fucking business. We’ll kill them for what they’ve done 

to all of us. That was the problem with the Emancipation, the Earth fighters, 

they wouldn’t go all the way. Backed off for the promise of a closed worm- 

hole and being left alone. They left the rest of us to twist out here. We won’t 

make the same mistakes.” 

“Was it someone you loved? Or a family member?” 

Danielle looked at Nashara. “Someone I loved. Dearly. In one of their an- 

titechnology shutdowns. And they didn’t kill them. Just wiped their mind 

clean, put them to work for the Hongguo.” 

And that’s why she wouldn’t hand Nashara over to the Hongguo. 

“Fair enough,” Nashara said. “I’ll take your help.” 

Danielle looked at her. “You’re still paying. Consider it a donation to the 

upcoming fight. I’m buried in deep with the League, but I’m no idiot. Hand- 

ing you off to the Hongguo is how they work often enough, and that irks me, 

but who else is there but the League? We’ll need everyone to stand up after 

the Satrapy is hit, and the League will lead them. I’ll give you my help now, 

because I know we’ll need your help later. We’ll need people like you who’ve 

actually fought back.” 

Danielle shut the storage container. Now they understood each other. 

Good enough. And Nashara knew where to find the nukes if the ship was 

boarded. That made her feel a little bit better.


Chapter Four


Four weeks later Nashara stood in the corner of a clear plastic observation 

bubble and stared at the panorama of glints from free-floating dockyards 

and shipping lanes. The industrious hive-ishness of civilization in orbit. 

The pearl orb of the planet Bujantjor hid behind girders, half-assembled 

ships, docking ports, and whatever else floated in between those structures. 

The distant star it orbited glittered blue from behind a series of oval mirrors 

floating in orbits nearby. 

Nashara jerked out of the trance, looked at the time. Had she spent two 

hours staring out at that? With her Nefertiti-like face reflected back at her 

from behind the plastic’s scratches, she lit a cigarette and allowed her eyes to 

film over. Her heart sped up to clear out toxins. 

A few people passing by scrunched their faces up in disgust. 

“What’s she doing?” 

She ignored them. Looked down at a hologram ghosting over the inside of 

her forearm on the screen. 

Three hundred cubic feet of oxygen debt and accumulating. Danielle had 

cost her everything, and now Nashara was broke. At five hundred cubic feet 

of debt they would toss her into an ecocell and boost her toward the location 

of her choice. In perfect equilibrium she’d eat single-cell proteins and recycle 

her own wastes for years, floating out in space as her own unique ecosphere. 

It beat being simply pushed out an air lock. Small habitats were brutal. 

You pulled your own weight. No one had time for dilettantes. Still, this all 

beat the hell out of Pitt’s Cross. And League people playing games with her. 

“Be careful,” Danielle had told her, before shutting the lock door to leave. 

“The Hongguo will come across you if you slow down and sit still.” 

“I’ll be looking for work aboard a ship. I need to get to New Anegada.” 

“Right.” Danielle grabbed her shoulder. “Listen, if you really want a place 

in the League, contact me. It may take a week more, you know how throttled 

buoy traffic is, but I’ll help you. They need your skills, your experience. Just 

contact me when you simmer down, okay?” 

“I thought you weren’t League?” Nashara raised an eyebrow. 

“I’m not.” Danielle smiled. “Not at all.” And then she’d shut the air lock. 

Nashara took another drag from the cigarette, watching the tiny numbers 

at the far right of the display tick up. It flicked over. New dockings. 

Takara Bune. On its way into dock. What was that? Some freighter, run by 

Buddhists out of Avak Samarah. They had docked a long way from home, 

but were headed downstream toward Ys. That could put her closer to New 

Anegada. 

Heart of India, a Nova Terra–bound ship. There was a long journey up- 

stream for you. All the way up to the spot where a wormhole used to lead to 

Earth. Nashara took a final long drag from the cigarette and rubbed it out be- 

tween her fingers. 

Shengfen Hao. Hongguo. Her heart skipped a beat. The Hongguo were 

here. But hopefully not for her. They would have shut down the station and 

issued warrants already. It would have been loud by now. So far they’d only 

shut down the outgoing buoys so that no message traffic came in or out, stan- 

dard Hongguo protocol before docking at a station, though it made everyone 

here nervous and on edge. Rumors had been percolating about a full commu- 

nications lockdown throughout dozens of worlds. Just jittery rumors. 

And the Queen Mohmbasa. Just docked within the last several hours. That 

old name that triggered a flicker of memory. Ragamuffin ship? Maybe. If her 

memory wasn’t tricking her. It was worth a shot. She would have to talk to 

them and see if they were what she suspected before they left port tomorrow. 

But for now she already an appointment with the Takara Buneshe meant 

to keep. Even if Takara Bune worked out and she didn’t check with the 

Queen, she could flit from system to system and take her time on the other, 

figure out what to do next without pressure. It sounded appealing. 

Nashara flicked the images away and looked over to see a teenager in greasy 

paper overalls. Pale face. She could almost see the veins under his skin. 

“Hey, station boy.” He quit staring, eyes flicking aside, embarrassed at be- 

ing caught. “What you looking at?” 

“That a cigarette?” he asked. 

Nashara held up the brown cylinder, end stumped off. “If it isn’t, someone 

ripped me off.” 

He cracked a smile and his posture eased. “A sinful decadence in these 

closed quarters.” 

Nashara looked up at the metal bulkheads slowly curving away overhead. 

Corroded metal merged into stroid dirt and then turned over to large, distant 

patches of sustainable greenery. 

Mankind came into space to become farmers, she thought. 

“I think the ecosphere can handle me,” she said. 

“Maybe the ecosphere can,” he said. “But I don’t know about the citizenry. 

They may be freedmen, but they’re awful uptight.” 

Nashara laughed and threw him the cigarette. 

He caught it. Looked at her in surprise. 

“Not many indulgences in a place like this,” she said. 

He pocketed it, and Nashara smiled and walked past him, reached out and 

ran a finger down his cheek. He pivoted with it, his eyes fixed down her hand 

to her neck. 

“What’s your name?” he asked. 

“Out of your league, deckboy.” 

She took an access tunnel out of the Commons and down toward the 

docks. But the quick flirt had put a nice spin on the day cycle. The corners of 

her lips lifted. 

Now all she had to do was get moving again. 


#


On the Takara Bune the ship’s captain introduced himself as Etsudo. He 

treated Nashara to pot noodles and some tiny sugar cookies with decorations 

of smiling animals traced out in the glaze. It was evening on ship, lights 

dimmed and slowly fading as she made her way through. 

They met in his cabin, looked down on by pictures of his family in formal 

mounted frames. 

He chattered with her about their ship, his face flickeringly lit by a pair of 

candles in ceramic bowls. A nuclear engine ran down the center of the ship, 

and a small pebble bed reactor gave it power. Cargo bays ran along the inte- 

rior of the ship’s short but cyclindrical body, and the Takara Buneusually 

spun up to one-third a standard gravity. More if the cargo demanded it. They 

ran on a standard twenty-four-hour cycle with the usual four-hour crew 

shifts, alpha, gamma, and zeta, though Nashara saw no crew out anywhere. 

Just Etsudo in a plain, gray jumper. 

Nashara settled in for interview, but once she put down her pair of chop- 

sticks, he clasped his wiry hands together and leaned forward. 

“While I always enjoy the pleasure of an interesting guest, I will be honest 

and tell you we have no positions for a person of the, um, skills that you for- 

warded to me.” He held out his hands, showing her rough calluses. “We work 

hard and are just a small crew. A ship’s bodyguard, or security force, as you 

call yourself, is unnecessary to us.” He smiled. “You must realize the Takara 

Buneis not in the habit of making enemies. That is not our way.” 

Nashara also leaned forward, placing her hands on her folded legs. 

“Etsudo, we do not always choose to make enemies. Sometimes they come 

whether we create them or not.” 

Etsudo rocked back slightly. “I won’t argue that. However, it is simply not 

the desire of me, or the crew, to do this. We are comfortable in our practices 

and will take the chance of ill will against the desire to follow certain peace- 

ful precepts.” 

Nashara folded her arms. “Then why am I here, Etsudo?” Her voice 

dropped an octave. 

Etsudo spread his arms. “Reading the information you forwarded, and 

looking at you, I’m sure you have a skill we need. Our secondary pilot left. 

We are short someone with the ability to pilot a ship, access our lamina.” 

“No.” Nashara said. “I don’t do that.” 

“But you arebuilt for this? My ship’s scanners show an amazing buildup 

of machinery in your cortex and spine for interfacing with advanced lamina.” 

Nashara breathed deeply. He shouldn’t have been able to see past her skin 

so easily. Something wasn’t quite right with this. 

“I don’t access lamina via straight neural interfaces anymore.” 

“If you have had past experiences that trouble you, we can teach coping 

mechanisms. I am a teacher. I am good with people’s minds.” 

“Etsudo, I have my reasons.” Nashara unfolded her legs and stood up. “I 

would say, if you are truly a wise man, you would find ways to also lessen 

your dependence on such things like that.” 

Etsudo stood up with her. He groaned and held the side of his chest as he 

did so. “I could hardly call myself a teacher if I did not offer such cautions my- 

self,” he said. “Can you really live here while you wait for another ship out?” 

Nashara shrugged. “I’ve managed.” 

He smiled. “So far. Yes.” He helped her back through the ship to the air 

lock, guiding her by an elbow, and paused at the entry back out onto the 

docks. 

Nashara blinked as the door opened into full light. A blazing station high 

noon with full-spectrum lights glowed all up and down the curved corridor. 

“Well, good luck,” Etsudo said. “If you change your mind in the next 

eight hours, please contact me.” 

“You leave that quick?” 

“There is nothing in the warrens of this small habitat for us. In the quiet 

of space we have the time to meditate, studies to attend to. Goods to deliver.” 

Nashara smiled. She liked Etsudo. He was straightforward enough. “Thank 

you for your time, Etsudo. I wish you the best.” 

“I’m truly very sorry this didn’t work. The best to you as well.” Etsudo 

smiled sadly and the air lock hissed shut. 

Damn. 

Double damn, she thought, walking past an empty air lock between the 

Takara Buneand the Hongguo ship not too far down from it. 

She paused outside the ship, shaking an odd feeling of dislocation. Some- 

thing that kept evading her, like a blind spot, the more she thought about it. 

Several feng walked out into the dock bays. Smooth-moving, like oiled ma- 

chines, human warriors bred back for far too many generations, then trained 

in the martial algorithmic arts of the Hongguo. Nashara watched them melt 

out into the crowd dressed in khaki overcoats. Overcoats: an oddity on a 

weather- and temperature-regulated station. 

What weaponry were they packing? It made her nervous. She needed off 

this habitat. Soon. She must have spotted them out of the corner of her eye 

and gotten the jitters. 

She turned back the other way, putting distance between the Hongguo’s 

trained killers and herself. Next she needed to talk to the Queen Mohmbasa. 


#


“You what?” 

Her roommate, Len, sputtered the words. Danielle’s cousin had balked at 

splitting a room, but Nashara had come with a message from Danielle and 

some fresh Villach produce from the Daystarto guarantee a place and some 

time to get things in order. 

He raised his hands in frustration. 

“Turned them down,” Nashara said. She tossed him a plastic pack of body 

sponges. He reeked of the shitfarm. The whole room did. He hardly noticed 

it. And sponging off didn’t cut it for him, he needed disinfected and run 

through a sterilizing chamber. 

He’d come in the door several hours earlier than she’d expected. First 

thing, he’d asked her about her visit aboard Takara Bune, and she’d just 

laughed and asked him if he paid the dock gossips for their chatter. 

No smile. He asked her if she’d gotten anything. 

And Nashara told him. 

Len looked down at the packet, kneaded it, then looked back up at her. 

His baby-face looks, earnest brown eyes, curly hair, strong arms, all of that 

melted away. Just anger now. 

“I can’t fucking believe you.” He threw the body sponges down. “You’re 

ruining me. I put you up for three weeks since you ran out of money, and 

you’ve been lurking around the docks, smoking up your debt, and you finally 

get an offer and you turn it down. I agreed to help Danielle out, but that’s 

bullshit.” 

“Look,” Nashara said. 

“No. I have no debt to you. I have been nice. Now I know you’re just tak- 

ing advantage of me.” He quivered as he shouted at her. 

Nashara bit her lip. She owed him, but this was getting annoying. He’d 

been nice enough before, thinking he had an attractive roommate. No doubt 

some sliver of hope about that had let her get three weeks of rooming off 

him. “They wanted me to interface with their ship, pilot it.” 

Len squatted and picked up the packet. “You know, there are some who 

could only dream of being given an offer like that.” 

Nashara looked down at him. Stained boots, dirty fingernails, waterproof 

waders. 

“I can’t do that...” Her existence in this room rubbed his face in his sta- 

tus. Len worked deep in the almost literal bowels of the station in recycling, 

monitoring the bacteria levels in giant pools of sludge percolating around the 

waste-disposal points. 

In his view, she had some psychological hang-up not to make more in a 

few months than he would ever see in his life. She could go anywhere, do al- 

most anything. 

He would spend his life here. 

Nashara was doing anything she could to get out of this as-yet-unnamed, 

still-under-construction orbiting pit of a tin can. 

She just couldn’t allow a direct neural access with the lamina. She couldn’t 

afford to unleash herself on it. Chimson had created her as a weapon. She’d 

watched her nine sisters let loose on lamina, out there in the cold space. 

Watched them rip apart an entire ship as they took it over. 

It was her secret. Her burden. 

“Len. You know I owe you. Big.” 

That was all that kept her here. He knew that she had more opportunities 

than he did, that she could repay him. Big. And damnit, she would. 

“Yeah.” He didn’t look too excited about it. 

The door chimed. 

Len looked even less excited about that. 

Nashara nodded at it. “Who’s that?” 

“No one.” 

He walked around her to it, pulled it open, and revealed four Honggua. 

Their black-and-white leather uniforms identified them as zhen cha: station 

scouts for the Hongguo. Had it been Hongguo feng, she wouldn’t have had 

time to worry about uniform design. 

All across the habitat alarms sounded, doors locked. The Hongguo had 

shut the place down. They’d just been waiting, cautious, biding their time. 

“They paid you,” Nashara said. 

Len looked down at his dirty boots. Avoiding her eyes. 

Three zhen cha remained guarding the door, one of them covering the 

corridor with his eyes, hand near his belt. The first one, a pair of gold pips on 

his tight collar indicating he led the group, stepped in front of Nashara. 

He pulled out a Geiger counter with a flourish, ran it over Nashara’s chest, 

arms, then stomach. It blipped, gave a reading, and satisfied, the man 

snapped it back onto his belt. 

“You are under arrest for technological progress violations under the 

Benevolent Satrapy. Do you have anything to say?” 

Nashara shook her head. 

They cuffed her while she stood there glaring at Len. Moron. He had no 

idea what he was turning her over to. And for all his hatred of antihuman 

Hongguo, Len had rolled over quick for a large reward. 

Stupid, she chided herself. But then she knew almost nothing about lying 

low or settling down. 

She did know, however, that she did not want to end up as a brainwashed 

foot soldier for the Hongguo. 

“Len.” He looked up at her, face uncertain. No doubt hovering somewhere 

between happiness at finally seeing a drain to his financial security gone, and 

guilt at turning over a family member’s friend. “You know what the Hongguo 

do, right?” 

“You’ll be given a fair chance to explain yourself,” the zhen cha cuffing her 

said. 

Nashara shook her head. “Did you and Danielle set this up when she 

dropped me off? A little extra profit off the whole experience?” 

Len shook his head. “No. It’s just me.” 

“You lousy shitfarmer—” One of the zhen cha put a patch over her mouth 

to shut her up. 

“If you’ve done nothing wrong,” Len said, “then it should not be a prob- 

lem. They’ll get your DNA sample, give you your documentation back. 

They’ll prove you didn’t set off a nuclear bomb on Villach. I gave them the 

records from Danielle’s ship proving you were aboard and couldn’t have done 

it. You can open a formal line of credit. It’ll be okay. Everything will be fine.” 

He still stared at the ground miserably. 

Nashara’s eyes narrowed. 

He was hunting for ways to sleep at night now. 

Full of shit. 

She walked past him, looking straight ahead. 

Best of luck to you, Len, she thought. He’d need it if she ever ran into him 

again. She should have roomed with one of the human pets that got off the 

Daystar, she could have kept him intimidated and quiet. 

Enough remorse. She focused on figuring out how to get out of this, won- 

dered how she’d make him pay for this. 

Of course, the way things really worked, there was a good chance she’d be 

brain-wiped before he saw her again and all hell would have broken loose. 

She hoped he’d at least lose some sleep over it all.


Chapter Five


Random passersby stared, then cleared out of the way, as the zhen cha 

marched Nashara down the corridor. Fear fluttered through the air. The 

Hungguo bagged someone, check it out. 

Glad it isn’t me. 

Nashara didn’t see a chance to break free of the zhen cha just yet. And 

then she spotted several feng dressed in dockside paper overalls, mixing with 

the crowd, eyeing her. 

Run now and they wouldn’t give her the courtesy of living. 

Head down, shoulders slumped in defeat, Nashara shuffled along, watch- 

ing, waiting. It took fifteen minutes to get to the docking locks. They passed 

the berth to Takara Bune, and Nashara looked over at the locked air lock with 

a wistful gaze. She continued to shuffle on. 

The berth for Shengfen Haocame into view around the curve of docksides. 

Black-and-white leather uniforms mingled outside the open maw leading 

into the ship. 

One lock to go before they had her in their vise. 

One empty lock. 

Forget lying low. Forget being nice. Time to move. Time to be herself 

again. 

Nashara tried to smile underneath the patch, but couldn’t. She snorted 

with annoyance. Using the slightest of movements, brushing too close to the 

zhen cha on her right, she started subtly herding the whole group closer to 

the empty lock. 

Closer. 

Maybe fifteen feet. 

The zhen cha pushing her along frowned and started to move them back 

away, adjusting the direction of his gait. 

Nashara stepped forward and head-butted the zhen cha next to her, spun 

around him, kicked the next one in the chin while she dislocated her shoul- 

ders with a popping shrug. 

The zhen cha holding her turned. Good. Nashara stepped backward over 

her bound hands, holding them up in front of her, and shook her shoulders 

back into place. She kicked the stun prod out of the man’s hands and into 

her own. 

She grabbed him by the hair, holding the prod at his skull and raising her 

eyebrows at the remaining zhen cha. 

He stayed frozen, not sure what to do next. 

Three feng moved out of the crowd, disguises dropped and their guns 

raised. They ran at her, cutting off escape vectors. 

Goddamn, they moved fast: half the docking bay in three easy loping 

strides. 

But they weren’t thinking quite like her yet. 

Nashara kept dragging the struggling zhen cha with her until she backed 

up against the massive docking lock. She cracked the prod against the control 

panel, listened to it short out. 

She grabbed the emergency handle and yanked as the zhen cha pounded 

uselessly against her. He made a good temporary human shield in case any- 

one started shooting. 

The internal motors whined loudly as the inner air-lock door, five inches 

thick, ten feet tall, began to split open with a puff of stale, grease-smelling 

air. One, two, three seconds, the feng stopped and frowned. 

Yeah, watch this. Nashara hit the zhen cha over the head with her cuffed 

hands and slid sideways through the opening as he slumped. She stood inside 

a massive chamber facing the outer set of air-lock doors. There was no at- 

tached ship beyond them. 

The inner doors continued their slow crawl open. The feng would wait un- 

til they’d opened farther before exploding in after her. 

She waited behind the door to jump them anyway, standing right next to the 

emergency ship-release lever. First though, she flexed her arms using clasped 

hands as a lever point. She watched as the cuffs bit into her skin until they hit 

the stratum basale and stopped against something infinitely harder than skin. 

Then she pushed harder, watching the metal warp until it snapped. She 

threw the cuffs aside and took another step backward to compensate for the 

still-opening lock doors. 

Okay. 

She looked down at her inner forearm, tapped a few menus, made a call. 

“I am Nashara Cascabel.” She was pretty sure she’d used that last name be- 

fore with New Anegadans before both Chimson and New Anegada were cut 

off from the Satrapic worlds. “I think, I think I remember your ship. You are 

Raga. I am Raga also, from Chimson. I will be at your air lock in five minutes 

and I need shelter and protection.” 

The only kind of gambles left were the big ones. Time to suck it up. She 

was going to have to hurt someone, fight to make it out. 

She hyperventilated, supercharging and oxygenating her blood until spots 

danced in front of her eyes. Orifices clamped closed with triggered muscle, 

clear dark membranes shuttered her eyes. 

She yanked the emergency ship-release lever. 

The docking clamps on either side of the bay rolled open into release 

mode and the outer air-lock doors blew open. Klaxons blared, so loud they 

buzzed through her despite the closed ears. 

With another series of shudders the inner lock doors reversed their direc- 

tion to stop the massive gale of air rushing out of the station. Another few 

seconds and it would just be Nashara in an airless air lock. 

The first feng somersaulted in high, paper overalls crinkling and giving her 

a split-second warning. Nashara plucked him out of the air and grabbed his 

chin to snap his neck. Like a cat falling out of a tree he twisted around and 

grabbed her forearm. 

It didn’t snap. 

His eyes only registered a moment’s dismay. He punched her neck as he 

landed on his two feet. 

His fingertips splintered. 

Nashara kicked him in the stomach. Threw him against the lock doors. 

Grabbed his head and slammed it against the five-inch-thick metal and felt it 

give in. Instant lobotomy; crushed frontal lobe. 

One feng down. 

She unlocked her nostrils and started hyperventilating again. The doors 

had five inches to go. 

Another feng slipped through. He took her rib-shattering kick, sprang up, 

and ran to the other side of the lock. He looked back at the lock doors as they 

sealed. 

The outer doors, what felt like the gravity-determined “floor” of the lock, 

opened in an explosion of escaping air. 

Nashara ran toward the crack and jumped through. 

The feng, insanely quick for his packed muscular frame, jumped with her. 

He exhaled all his breath in fog of crystals. Smart, his lungs wouldn’t ex- 

plode. He had a slight chance. Nashara ignored his grip. She caught the lip of 

the lock and jerked to a jarring stop. 

He wrapped his legs around her waist and squeezed. Nashara twisted, try- 

ing to hold on to the door and dislodge him. If she let go, they would both be 

spun clear of the station. 

They wriggled around each other like a pair of greased eels, trying to gain 

a hold on one another, until the feng began to bloat. Ice formed around his 

eyes. 

An inhumanly skilled fighter, true, but just a human in a vacuum. 

He began to forget his training, his centered warrior calm. He scratched at 

her skin, ripping lengths of it off in his fingernails. 

Nashara turned and faced him. He froze. A midnight-black face with whole 

midnight-black eyes was what Nashara knew he would see. A demoness. 

Convulsions began. 

She kicked him free. Watched him drop down away from her, pitched out 

into space. 

The wrestling left her heart rate up. Nashara forced it down in the sixties, 

a third of what it had been. The adjustment dizzied her. 

Then she moved along the outer docks. Hanging from ladders where she 

could, using crevices, cracks, and anything else she could hang on in other 

places. The station’s rotation made this feel as if she were hanging above a 

very, very long fall into an abyss. 

She kept in the camouflage of the constantly moving shadows of spinning 

station’s curved outer wall, eyes searching for a particular dock number. Outer 

skin flaked off in the vacuum. Her hair broke off and fell away from her. 

Fifteen minutes later. She almost doubted she could make it. But here it 

was. The Queen Mohmbasa. Ragamuffin. Maybe. She prayed for it. 

Nashara struggled along the hull of the long, cylindrical ship to find a 

small service air lock. She hit open, banged on it, and kept banging and bang- 

ing until it opened and she swung in. 

By the time the air cycled in and pressurized, she was on her hands and 

knees, barely able to see from oxygen deprivation. 

The first breath, when she ripped the patch off her mouth and sucked it 

in, was insanely sweet and cloyingly fresh. 

“I’m Raga,” she croaked when two fuzzy, but seemingly armed, forms ap- 

peared at the door. The membrane over her eyes refused to open, frozen shut. 

She couldn’t focus. 

A pair of hands grabbed her, pulled her out of the lock, and laid her on a 

cold metal grating. “Grab some tissue for a look at her DNA. Run it, get that 

back to me as soon as possible.” 

The nearest shape reached down, pricked her arm. 

“Broke the syringe.” The shape rustled around, then Nashara felt a swab 

scraping the inside of her cheek. “She modified to survive vacuum.” 

“You think?” 

“Get ready to burn out the dock if the Hongguo twitch. Throw her in one 

of the empty rooms.” 

Nashara remained limp, regathering strength as she was picked up onto 

someone’s shoulder. They walked her down through a corridor, hitting her 

head against a bulkhead, and then into a room. 

Nashara leaned against the wall, shivering from heat loss and burned-off 

energy reserves. She stood there, unable to pass out thanks to her combat- 

enabled body, experiencing every wave of pain, every severed, screaming 

nerve. 

“Don’t know the hell you is,” one of the two blobs said. “But you gone and 

pick the wrong ship to get aboard. The moment we try to blow out this sta- 

tion, the Hongguo go come hard for we tail. Blow us out the sky, you too. We 

dead, and now you is too.” 

The door shut. Locks clicked. Nashara slumped to the floor facedown. 

Triple damn it, she was alive. Fuck if the pain wasn’t somewhat sweet be- 

cause of that.


Chapter Six


Four days before his ship had arrived at Bujantjor and before meeting 

Nashara, Etsudo Hajiwara had watched the destruction of an entire habi- 

tat once home to tens of thousands inside its protective shell. His stomach 

churned slightly as fifteen low-yield nuclear charges detonated three hundred 

kilometers away, each a tiny blinding flash of light. The windows before him 

darkened as the flash grew. The habitat Dragin-Above ceased to exist. 

“Magnify that,” Etsudo ordered. A bald acolyte near the periphery of the 

semicircular room, his crimson robes hanging in the air around him, spun di- 

als until the window in front of Etsudo visibly flexed. Its width and curvature 

changed, and the great globes of the destroyed habitat jumped into focus. Et- 

sudo watched as they split apart in a fiery mass of debris. 

The men beside him watched from the curved windows and safety of the 

five-mile-long Hongguo flagship Gulong. They shook their heads. 

“A waste,” one whispered. “They were warned.” 

A thousand had refused to hand themselves over to the Hongguo for re- 

conditioning. Just a handful, really, of the millions scattered throughout 

habitats and some of the forty-eight worlds of the Benevolent Satrapy. But 

still ...Etsudo swallowed. He’d come to this habitat once three years ago. 

They talked freely to him about building artificial intelligences, and Etsudo 

had done his best to buy their patents to do nothing with. He’d even used 

shell companies to hire their best neuroprogrammers away. It hadn’t been 

enough to stop this. 

A losing battle. So often, despite his best efforts. 

One of the Jiang shifted closer to him. Deng. Always following behind Et- 

sudo to suppress that which Etsudo failed to keep in check. Like today. 

“They knew their options.” Jiang Deng folded his arms. 

“Memory wipes and servitude to us, or death.” Etsudo shook his head. 

“Artificial intelligence is an illegal technological path. You sympathize with 

them?” Deng’s eyes narrowed in on Etsudo. The other Jiang, the generals of 

the Hongguo, looked over. 

“It’s my job,” Etsudo said, looking at the debris. He used nondestructive 

means to control illegal technologies. Deng used destructive ones. 

“You are passing some sort of judgment on me?” 

“No.” Etsudo looked back at the eleven Jiang who hung in the air around him. They wore tightly fitted ceramic body armor, many of them with the 

long-tailed-dragon sigil originally used by the Hongguo founders. “The 

Satrapy doesn’t stand certain technology. We keep emancipation alive. We’re 

all free as long as Hongguo are around to keep research carefully directed.” 

The words were rote and etched in his memory. And too true. 

“Indeed,” Jiang Deng said. Etsudo, looking to avoid conflict, stared back 

out toward the destroyed habitat. Behind the debris the orange orb of the 

planet Dragin stared back at Etsudo, reproaching him, he imagined. The 

windows closed. Five-inch-thick blast doors slid down as the debris field from 

what had once been the habitat Dragin-Above, home to five thousand fami- 

lies, pattered against the thick hull of the Gulong. 

Maybe humans would orbit the planet Dragin again in a few decades, Et- 

sudo thought as he turned away from the control center and followed the 

Jiang out toward the docking bays to return to their respective ships. 

“We have someone new for your crew,” Jiang Deng told him as everyone 

coasted along one of the corridors of the Gulong. “We’re beginning some- 

thing new. The Satrapy needs us, Etsudo. Do you understand?” 

Etsudo did. They didn’t trust him any longer. Now they would be ap- 

pointing a second captain to ride along with Etsudo. He’d been expecting 

this for several years now. “This new crew, he’ll split the captainship with me, 

won’t he?” 

“Yes,” Deng said. “The Satrapy is sending us out with new tasks, new mis- 

sions. Brandon will be there to help you during this transition. We’ll be step- 

ping up our enforcement activity.” 

They would say handling a whole ship on his own for so long was too 

much. It would be for Etsudo’s own benefit to share the burden. It would be 

a polite farce. 

Etsudo knew there used to be more Hongguo ships with the same charter 

as his. Trading ships. All disguised suppressors of advanced technology. All 

endowed with massive budgets, seeking to keep things in check. 

Now he was one of a handful. Transition indeed. He was being phased 

out. 

He didn’t dare question it. Some tradition, a momentum, that kept him in 

his place as the captain and ruler of the Takara Bune. Etsudo did not want to 

lose that. 

“This is Brandon Saxwere.” Jiang Deng introduced him to a tall man with 

a shaved scalp, green eyes, and pinched face. Brandon waited politely by a 

crux in one of the corridors, obviously expecting them. He wore a simple 

gray robe, the fringe clipped to his ankles for zero gravity. 

“Good to meet you.” Brandon smiled a warm, honest smile and Etsudo 

hated him. 

Etsudo snagged the railing to come to a stop and bowed his head. “And 

you.” 

This was the beginning of the end of his life. He should have felt more 

anger about it. Etsudo turned to one of the windows along the corridor and 

looked into a vast cavern. The walls teemed with an orderly nest of people. 

All with shaved heads, blank eyes, and wearing crimson paper robes carefully 

clipped to their ankles as well. They sat at rows of plastic desks, strapped in 

with acceleration webbing. 

Each one worked on a small calculation using an abacus on the desk in 

front of them. The result was passed on to a station in the next concentric 

ring, or if the instructions on the card passed to them dictated, to one of 

their sides. Waves of human-computed math rolled up and down the sides of 

the massive ball of humanity. And Etsudo could see through spokes into 

smaller and smaller spheres of humanity, all the way to the center of the 

sphere where the central controllers sat, staring outward at their machine. 

No computer virus would ever take this ship. Only slide rules and abacus 

could compute orbits, or calculate the speed of the Gulong, or position the 

slender needle of the ship’s nose into the heart of a wormhole to destroy it. A 

gift from the Satrapy after it was used to cut Earth away from the wormhole 

network, to keep the rest of the race in check. 

When Etsudo looked back from the human computers, Jiang Deng ex- 

cused himself. “I must head to the Stage Two briefing.” 

“Stage Two?” Etsudo had heard nothing of a briefing, or of a second com- 

ponent to the shutdown of Dragin-Above. 

“It’s a military operation.” Deng smiled. “Destruction-oriented, not of in- 

terest to you.” 

He left. Brandon hovered in the air and looked in at the chamber of hu- 

man calculators. 

“It’s a test chamber for the Dragin-Above refugees.” Brandon said. “The 

main processing chamber for the Gulongis closer to the heart of the ship. 

They’re just checking here to make sure the reconditioning is holding and 

that the new training is working.” 

“We’re not tools,” Etsudo muttered. “We’re not just things to be used. 

We’re unique creatures, thinkers, inventors, believers. When we stop remem- 

bering that, we are no longer human, are we?” 

“Better than death.” Brandon bowed his head as he said this. 

“Are you sure about that? What is yourlast memory?” 

“I’m as mentally pure as you.” Brandon folded his arms. “And what is your 

critique? The crew of the Takara Buneare reconditioned, aren’t they? Don’t 

they serve you well enough?” 

They served Etsudo well. But not because he allowed Hongguo to recondi- 

tion their minds. Etsudo changed the topic. “Why are you really coming 

aboard my ship?” 

“You’ve held your own ship together long enough. I’m your second-shift 

captain, your night captain.” Brandon raised his hands. “I don’t know how 

you’ve managed alone with just a reconditioned crew for so long.” 

Maybe Brandon was really coming to help, and not to take over Etsudo’s 

ship. But Etsudo doubted it. 

On the shuttle ride back to the Takara BuneEtsudo leaned over to Bran- 

don. “You question my ability to run my ship, which I have done smoothly 

for years. There are nine crew aboard my ship and one captain. How exactly 

do you fit into this?” 

Brandon did not reply. He stared straight ahead. 

Etsudo knew about men who didn’t need to prove themselves. They were 

dangerous. As the long seconds dragged on he watched the foot straps, lost in 

thought, until the shuttle jerked to a stop. 

Once it shuddered rudely into place by docking collar, Etsudo pulled his 

feet free. Brandon floated first through the air lock and Etsudo closed his 

eyes. Through the Takara Bune’s lamina he accessed the scanning equipment 

built into the walls of the air lock. 

As the air pressure equalized, they both hung in place. And Etsudo 

scanned Brandon inch by inch. He found the man laced with machinery, no 

doubt to broadcast back to Jiang Deng everything they said. Brandon was 

feng, ready to be unleashed on Etsudo the moment Jiang Deng had an ex- 

cuse. 

Etsudo looked up as the door into the Takara Bunerolled open. No one 

waited for them. The alpha crew remained on shift in the cockpit, magnetic 

and physical locks in place to slow down any forced entry as Etsudo had or- 

dered before leaving the ship. Gamma and zeta crew remained locked in their 

quarters, waiting for the all clear. 

“I apologize. You know I’m related to the founders of the Hongguo.” Et- 

sudo rolled his sleeve up and showed Brandon the dragon tattooed on his bi- 

cep. Much like the sigil the Jiang wore on their ceramic armor. “When you 

get settled in, come find me in the captain’s room. I want to show you some- 

thing. A piece of their legacy. Maybe then you’ll understand my reluctance to 

give up all the years of history my family has within ships like the Takara 

Bune, and why I’m so testy right now.” 

Brandon nodded. Etsudo left him by the dull metal doors of the air lock. 

He needed to prepare for what came next. Burning through people’s minds, 

re-creating them into a new image, it took time, calibration, and special 

equipment. 

All of which Etsudo had in his cabin. All of which was completely illegal 

by decree of the Satrapy. 

But first, a hard burn out away from the ruins of this habitat and upstream 

toward more heavily populated systems. Up away from Deng and his heavily 

armed ship, the Shengfen Hao. Back to his own devices. Etsudo relaxed and 

accessed the ship’s lamina, sliding into the world of data sitting all around 

him. “Sabir?” 

“Listening,” the alpha crew’s pilot responded. 

“Upstream to Thule via Tsushima. Get updated traffic maps for Paw- 

tucket, Gateshead, and Trinity.” At Thule he’d have the option to go to one 

of three forks. All three had enough human population density for him to 

justify a search for illegal technology. 

“Crew change is coming up in fifteen minutes,” Sabir’s voice whispered in 

Etsudo’s ear. “Should we remain in the cockpit?” 

“Yes. Stay put until Brandon enters my room. Then change shift. But re- 

main locked down after shift change. This man could be dangerous. Now, 

get the ship moving.” The longer he remained near the elite of the Hongguo, 

the more nervous he got. 

“Of course.” 

Warning lights flipped on, turning the interior of the ship dark red. The 

Takara Buneaccelerated as Etsudo fled his fellow Hongguo. 


#


The door to Etsudo’s cabin rolled aside. Etsudo brushed past a pair of tor- 

tured bamboo plants running along the room’s midrail, his fingers brushing 

green shoots as he pulled himself over to Brandon. The Takara Bunecoasted 

now, not too far from Tsushima with the better part of a day already gone. 

“Come.” Etsudo waved the man in. 

Brandon took in the red-cushioned room, looking briefly at the comfort- 

able half sphere of Etsudo’s couch, the tatami stapled to the walls, and sev- 

eral sparse paintings of Earth landscapes. Waterfalls, ponds. 

“You really want to talk about your family, or something else?” 

“My will won’t stand long against all the Jiang of the Hongguo. I have no 

choice but to let you into the ship, and to give your reports back, and to do 

what is asked of me. But, look, come closer and you’ll understand my own 

pridefulness.” Etsudo pointed out a small printed picture, framed by a brassy- 

looking wood. “Read the plaque.” 

Brandon floated two feet away from the picture. The fathers of the Hong- 

guo: Hajiwara, Nakamoto, and Singh. 

“That was my great-grandfather.” Etsudo hung by Brandon’s elbow. As he 

continued, he closed his eyes, accessed his ship’s lamina, and gave a simple 

command to the machinery behind the picture’s façade. “The only reason 

Jiang like Deng haven’t made me disappear yet. There are those who would 

notice one of the sole family members of the founding fathers gone missing.” 

Brandon didn’t reply; he hung motionless in the air. A short pulse of en- 

ergy had scrambled his synapses and knocked him out. 

“They’re such proud, fine men,” Etsudo said. “It’s a shame I was adopted 

and couldn’t really care less about blood.” He spun Brandon around. The 

man’s face hung slack. 

The Jiang would disapprove of this piece of illegal technology housed be- 

hind that frame. As well as all the other equipment Etsudo kept throughout 

the walls of his cabin. He was a good candidate for reconditioning, or execu- 

tion. 

But this was his ship. The Jiang could go to hell. Etsudo moved Brandon 

to the couch and strapped him in. Then he folded his legs and hung before 

Brandon as he waited for the man to wake up. 

When he did, he struggled to free himself. Etsudo shook his head. “Don’t 

do that, I’d hate to see physical harm come into this equation.” 

Brandon’s green eyes pinned Etsudo in the air. “What do you think you’re 

doing? Deng will flay you for insubordination.” 

“That’s interesting. Because he’s technically not my superior, is he? The 

trade arm of the Hongguo is charged to eradicate illegal technologies through 

nonlethal methods. We’re a separate and equal arm.” 

“If your means are nonlethal, what is this about?” 

“Have I hurt you yet?” Etsudo asked. “Are you in pain?” 

“You threatened me with physical harm.” Brandon twisted, but there had 

been stronger, faster, more dangerous men in that chair before. 

“The silky cords wrapped around your arms have a monofilament wire in 

their center. Break the silk and you’ll slice your hands off. If you continue to 

struggle or get more agitated, you will be responsible for your own self- 

amputation.” 

Brandon stopped straining. He stared at Etsudo, who experienced a brief 

rush. The power of direct force. A heady drug, and addictive. “What do you 

want?” 

Etsudo leaned forward. “What are you doing aboard my ship, Brandon?” 

“Nothing. You’re entirely misguided. This is beyond inappropriate.” 

“Okay.” Etsudo held up his arm and clenched his fist. Brandon blinked 

and looked around, frowning. “Every time I do that, the machine around 

you, which I’ve disguised as a simple acceleration couch, will rip something 

of your mind free. A memory, a skill, a part of your personality. I will not 

harm you, Brandon, but you will cease to be a functioning person when I’m 

done if you aren’t forthcoming.” 

Brandon stared at him. “You can’t recondition my mind. Your ship doesn’t 

have the permission to keep that equipment. Only the Gulonghas it.” 

“A special Satrapic allowance, that. Everyone aboard the Takara Bunehas 

had a trip to this room, Brandon. Trust me, this is all very much real. I do 

really have these machines in this room.” Etsudo made a fist, sending the 

command through lamina to strip another memory out from the surface of 

Brandon’s mind. 

“What did you just do?” 

“Do you remember how you got aboard this ship?” 

Brandon blinked several times. He didn’t. It would be a hole in his mind, 

an odd interruption that eluded him as he tried to reach for it. “Oh, shit. Oh, 

shit.” 

“Yes, this is very real, Brandon. It’s happening. Again, why are you on my 

ship?” 

“Deng’s going to kill you, not just retire you.” 

“Stop worrying about things outside of your control, Brandon, and tell me 

what I want to know or I’ll turn you into a drooling idiot. Why are you on my 

ship?” 

“Giving them an excuse to get rid of you.” Brandon looked directly at 

him. “You’re the last of the pacifist arm. Your ‘balance’ and ‘yin/yang’ con- 

cepts aren’t policy anymore.” 

“They never were.” Etsudo shook his head. “The Hongguo began life as a 

company. Profit was king, Brandon, the trading arm wasn’t pacifist, just mer- 

cantile and nonlethal. And good at what it did.” 

“It’s not needed anymore, it’s been recalled.” 

Etsudo nodded. “Yes, but why?” 

Brandon looked up toward one of the paintings. The waterfall. Tears 

leaked out of his eyes and hung in front of him. “Deng told you, you’ll be 

supporting antipirate activity in the area.” 

“That’s such a shame you won’t tell me the real reason.” Etsudo didn’t 

want to rip Brandon’s mind down to almost nothing. Etsudo was an artist. 

He wanted a functioning human being. Destruction was for amateurs. And 

after watching thousands die earlier, he had no desire to see more death. But 

threats did not seem to work with Brandon, so Etsudo would try another use 

for his machine. “But I can help. In just a few hours, Brandon, you and I are 

going to be best friends, and you won’t even think twice about telling me 

everything I need to know.” 

Brandon groaned as Etsudo clenched his fist. Etsudo guided the machine 

as it probed the man’s mind with magnetic feelers, sifting through Brandon’s 

synapses and recording them, building up a ghostly image of Brandon’s mind 

that Etsudo could access, then model. And using that model as a guide, he 

could begin altering Brandon’s mind. 

It took the better of ten hours, even with all the heavy computing power at 

Etsudo’s disposal in the Takara Bune. 

When Etsudo was done, the reconditioning over, Brandon looked up. 

“I’m so sorry, Etsudo, I’m so sorry.” 

Etsudo nodded, grabbed Brandon’s shoulder, and stared the man eye to 

eye. Brandon’s mind had already been tampered with by Deng, he’d found 

traces of that. But had he gotten deep enough into Brandon’s head to undo 

that? Or would Brandon turn on him suddenly, subject to triggers buried 

deeper in the back of his cortex. “The things Deng has done to your mind are 

horrible. But I helped you. Everything is back the way it was, Brandon. 

You’re back to normal. And I’m glad you were able to get a transfer to my 

ship, where I can protect you.” 

“Thank you,” Brandon whispered. “Thank you.” 

“It’s been a few years, friend. But you’re okay now. You’re okay.” 

Brandon shook with tears as Etsudo unstrapped and pulled him free. 

“Come on. I’ll take you to your cabin. You’ll rest. We’ll have tea next shift. 

And then you’ll tell me everything.” 

And as conditioned to do, Brandon nodded. “Etsudo, we have to be care- 

ful. Very careful. Things are changing, we’re all in a lot of danger.” 

“You’ll tell me all about it.” Etsudo guided the dangerous man through 

the air. 

It was always dangerous to tackle gods in their own territories, Etsudo 

thought. And here aboard the Takara Bunethat’s exactly what he was. 

What else could he be? If he ran away with his ship, the Satrapy would re- 

voke his docking and fueling rights. If he left his ship and ran into hiding, his 

fellow Hongguo would hunt him down and wipe his mind down to blank, 

leaving him as another calculating machine for the Gulong. 

He had been doomed to this ever since being born among the Hongguo.


Chapter Seven


The machine had been a gift. An inheritance from Kenji Hajiwara, the man 

Etsudo thought of as father, a father whose bloodline included the origi- 

nal Hajiwara of the Hongguo. 

Etsudo grew up aboard the Takara Bune. It never bothered him that there 

weren’t any other children. Not even into his teens as Kenji taught him how 

to thread the Takara Bunethrough a wormhole. Not even into adulthood, 

when the Hongguo began to assist the Satrapy and its alien subjects control 

human technologies. 

“Do you remember your mother?” Kenji had asked him once. 

Etsudo remembered standing in the observation gallery by her casket, cry- 

ing, watching it slide out from the habitat until it dwindled away on its long, 

decaying orbit toward the blue-tinged sun in the distance. 

“Of course I do. Always,” Etsudo replied. 

“Do you remember your mother?” Kenji had asked him again, just before 

Kenji died, riddled with an artificial form of infectious cancer. 

“Of course,” Etsudo had told him. 

But then an hour later a message came, a recording Kenji had left with a 

date stamp on it that was over ten years old. Kenji, younger but more tired, 

faced Etsudo one last time. 

“Do you remember your mother?” the recording asked. Kenji looked more 

incredibly sad than Etsudo had ever seen him. “Because I have a confession to 

make, my son. A hard one to make, which is why I’m recording this, and 

locking it to be released when I die. Though I guess that is easier than telling 

you this myself.” 

Kenji had always wanted a child, so he’d taken one from a small orbital re- 

search habitat. A five-year-old, whose parents where about to be recondi- 

tioned. Kenji created a new mother in his mind, and a new father. 

Did Etsudo remember his mother? He didn’t know. That face that had kissed 

him in the mornings, sung to him, that might have been the same face. Or one 

that Kenji stole from a database somewhere. Etsudo never bothered to find out. 

He destroyed the message and walked back to Kenji’s room in the hospital. 

Looking in at the body of the man, Etsudo crumpled to the floor to cry for 

the last time in his life. His father had died and his mother had never existed, 

and neither did he. 

And here was this loyalty to the Hongguo built into him by his father, and 

yet the knowledge that he was one of their victims. The love of his mother, 

who didn’t exist. The love of a father who did, and had betrayed him. 

A ship to run that was his. Kenji had worked hard to make sure Etsudo 

had full captainship of the Takara Bune. 

Etsudo heated a bulb of tea over the hot pad at the center of the round 

table in the cramped galley. Brandon gripped the edges of the table as if he 

would fall away from it if he let go. Vertigo was a small side effect from re- 

conditioning. Etsudo had a sick bag in his back pocket. He handed the bulb 

to Brandon, who cradled the handcrafted glass in his two callused hands. The 

etched silver swans on the sides caught the glint of the cabin lighting as he 

rolled the bulb between his fingers. 

Brandon looked up from the tea, a brown drop of liquid hovering above 

the tiny lip. “Etsudo, I’ve been wired to send everything I see and hear back 

to Deng.” 

“You’re okay.” Etsudo shook his head. “Nothing leaks out of this ship un- 

less I want it to. But Deng will be contacting us soon when you don’t report 

back to him.” 

Brandon shuddered. 

“I know.” Etsudo nodded. “But we will be okay.” 

“I’ll fall apart facing him right now.” 

A message pinged for Etsudo’s attention. He relaxed and settled into the 

lamina. The image of Jiang Deng appeared before him, standing on the table. 

“Etsudo,” Deng snapped. “Check in.” Then the Jiang folded his arms and 

disappeared. 

Etsudo subvocalized his response while looking at a tired Brandon sip tea. 

The man did not look up or even realize Etsudo was multitasking. “Brandon 

has yet to finish his tour of the Takara Bune. If you’ve been worried about 

him not checking in, it’s because the ship is shielded. His personal communi- 

cations have to route through the Takara Bune’s lamina first. We keep a low 

profile.” 

The message would get bounced out to the nearest buoy, shot through the 

wormhole back downstream. Even with Hongguo priority codes on it, Et- 

sudo had maybe ten minutes before Deng received it, though he wasn’t sure 

where Deng was. Then the message had a ten-minute return. Could be a long 

twenty minutes. 

Brandon looked up. “Our Jiang’s strategies have changed.” 

“How?” 

“Four days ago the three Consuls were asked to make a trip to a habitat 

with a Satrap in it. When they came out, everything was different. New or- 

ders, new thoughts. Like the new initiative against the pirates.” 

“The pirates? That was for real?” Etsudo asked. And Jiang Deng appeared 

again. Etsudo frowned and held up his hand, and Brandon waited. That had 

been, what, a minute? Two at the most. That mean only a handful of worm- 

holes lay between him and the Shengfen Hao. Deng’s ship was a lot faster than 

Etsudo’s unless the Takara Buneditched all its cargo. So much for running 

away. Deng was catching up to him. 

Deng waved a hand. “I don’t care about Brandon. I need your direct assis- 

tance. “We have a problem.” 

Again, Etsudo wondered if he’d overreacted with Brandon. Maybe they’d 

genuinely thought he needed assistance running his ship. Maybe they were 

actually trying to eliminate the Ragamuffins. 

Maybe. 

Deng continued, “Jiang Wu and Jiang Li suffered damage to their ships 

while attacking pirates. They managed to destroy four ships, but a fifth es- 

caped. I’m in pursuit, but I need your help.” 

Etsudo stared at the tiny figure of Deng. Attacks in space? In a hundred 

years maybe a few Hongguo ships had actually attacked others. Brandon was 

right, the Jiang’s strategies had changed. 

“What’s wrong?” Brandon had realized Etsudo was staring off into space. 

“Is it Jiang Deng?” 

“Don’t worry,” Etsudo whispered. “Just give me a second.” 

Jiang Deng’s message went on, “We didn’t get the identity of the fifth 

ship, but it leaves a recognizable gamma radiation trail our drones are follow- 

ing. Your message ping time indicates you are just upstream of us and close 

by. We’re jamming the ship to stop it from calling for help, but they may get 

ahead of us. We’re shutting communication buoys down. It begins at Thule 

and goes downstream from there. This whole downstream branch is being 

put under a blackout as we work to squeeze any pirate ships down towards 

their home base. We did not brief you because your ship isn’t involved.” And 

because Deng didn’t trust him. “But now I need you to run support for our 

mission. When the pirate ship overtakes you, blow your cargo and keep up 

with them, you have a faster ship than I do. Send confirmation you received 

this and are acting.” 

Etsudo gripped the table as hard as Brandon. Why attack them now? 

Spaceships cost immense sums, and the Hongguo had a lot invested in 

their fleet strung across the Satrapy. Some of the ships creaked along at al- 

most a hundred years old, like the Takara Bune. Risking them in direct con- 

frontation with other ships didn’t fly well with the captains. Better to hunt 

the pirates once they docked at a station somewhere. 

“Has it begun?” Brandon asked. 

Etsudo regarded the man. “What?” 

“Removing the Ragmuffins.” Brandon swallowed. “The Satraps ordered 

the destruction of the pirates. We’ve been keeping records and collating ac- 

tivity of all the ships coming out from where New Anegada used to be. We 

start upstream, begin working our way downstream. If they don’t allow 

boarding, we destroy them.” 

“That’s a whole-scale war,” Etsudo said. “Since when have we been the 

Satrapy’s direct enforcers?” The Maatan could do this. They’d dropped aster- 

oids on Earth during the pacification and destroyed Earth attempts to strike 

back. Why the Hongguo? 

“But look at what it means.” Brandon had an eager smile. “For all these 

years we tried to prove to the Satraps that humans were trustworthy. We kept 

technology in check, surgically killed off the worst elements. We’re proved 

our worth, we’re standing at their right hand now, and since we have access to 

all those technologies anyway, we’ll be like monks after a dark age. We’ll be 

able to slowly introduce things again. The Hongguo will stand at the front of 

humanity.” 

“I don’t know,” Etsudo muttered. “We were doing well at our job before.” 

“Let me tell you something personal though, old friend.” Brandon leaned 

over. “You want to know why we should really help Deng any way we can? 

There are damaged ships out there, big ships whose captains have screwed up, 

Etsudo. Do well now, you and I could get a bigger ship, more crew. You could 

get off this small trading ship and into bigger things.” 

Etsudo stared down at the smooth table. He missed the days Kenji had 

told him about. The days when the Hongguo was just a company paid to ex- 

plore the wormholes and map out all the forks and streams connecting the 

various worlds, just a trading company. 

And what of his ship when this was all done? Etsudo looked around. What 

would become of him, and all his memories as the Hongguo changed into 

something else at the Satrapy’s bidding? 

Etsudo folded his arms around himself, feeling alone in the heart of his 

ship. He stared at Brandon as he sipped his tea. He wasn’t sure what was go- 

ing to come next. For all his loyalty, and the loyalty his father had instilled in 

him to the Hongguo, Etsudo would hardly give up his ship and his own 

mind without a fight. 

To Thule then. Alarms sounded as his ship prepared to transit another 

wormhole on its path upstream. 

And now it was also time to introduce Brandon to the rest of the crew. 

The murderers, rapists, and criminals that Etsudo’s life depended on. Bran- 

don now the latest in his set of odd acquisitions.


Chapter Eight


Do you believe in redemption?” Etsudo asked Brandon as he entered the 

cockpit. 

“Redemption?” 

“Yes, redemption.” The cockpit sat nestled deep in the heart of the ship. 

Acceleration chairs dotted the tight confines of the smooth blue cocoon. The 

cockpit door sealed itself behind them. In emergencies the cockpit would re- 

filter its own air and use its own tiny nuclear reactor to run everything on the 

Takara Buneexcept its antimatter engines. 

“I’m not religious,” Brandon said. 

“You don’t have to believe in religion to believe in redemption.” Etsudo 

looked around at the gamma crew. “Bahul, the pilot for this shift, he fired a 

nuclear bomb into the heart of a habitat from a shuttle. He did that for the 

League of Human Affairs.” 

Brandon looked over at Bahul, who nodded back at him from the pilot’s 

couch. Strapped in, brown eyes glazed, he stared back at Brandon. 

Etsudo turned and pointed at the sallow-skinned man with green eyes and 

emaciated face. “And this is Fabiyan, our mechanic. He cut three men’s heads 

off. Kept them as trophies.” 

Fabiyan nodded and smiled. 

One more for the gamma crew. “Michiko.” Etsudo nodded his head. 

“Gamma’s deckhand.” 

“What did she do?” 

“A very bad bar fight.” All three of gamma crew’s shaved heads gleamed in 

the cockpit light. 

“Welcome aboard, Brandon.” Michiko smiled. 

“Redemption.” Etsudo grabbed Brandon’s shoulder. “They all remember 

their crimes. Michiko remembers stabbing her best friend in the heart, Fabiyan 

remembers cutting the heads of three innocent victims off, and Bahul lives with 

knowledge that he killed thousands. The alpha and zeta crew are the same. This 

is my crew, I cull them. These are my friends.” 

Nine crew, three on each shift, and him the captain. Ten made for a nice 

number. Brandon upset that nice symmetry. 

Brandon wiped his face with a sleeve. “Usually we recondition all memo- 

ries, don’t we? This is unorthodox.” 

Etsudo chuckled. “Welcome to my world, Brandon. Are you ready to be in 

charge of them all?” 

Brandon looked at Michiko, Fabiyan, and then Bahul. “Did I...do 

something? Is that why I’m here?” 

“Jiang Deng and you conspired against me. But only because he altered 

your mind. I’ve liberated you from those changes Deng made.” 

“We’re friends?” 

“Oh, yes,” Etsudo lied. He squeezed Brandon’s shoulder and let go. “We’re 

longtime friends.” And for now Brandon had no ability to access anything 

outside the ship’s lamina. For Brandon, anything Etsudo said became reality. 

Brandon wouldn’t be leaving the ship either, not until he’d earned his re- 

demption. Not until Etsudo knew exactly what was going on out there with 

the Hongguo. 

“Fabiyan, Jiang Deng just sent orders. We’re speeding up and getting 

ready to keep pace with the pirate coming upstream towards us. They’re 

thinking it’s going to dock at Bujantjor. That’s where they’ll try and stage a 

raid to get into it. They want the ship in one piece, and the pirates as well.” 

“Pirates?” Fabiyan raised an eyebrow. “Ragamuffins?” 

“Yes, them.” Etsudo showed Brandon a spare acceleration chair. “We may 

have to drop our cargo.” 

“Do you think we’ll need acceleration chairs?” Brandon asked. 

Michiko twisted in her restraints. “It’s never hurt. But if you’re not willing 

to strap in, please leave the cockpit. I’d rather not get my neck snapped by 

your flying body if we have to accelerate in a hurry. Captain.” 

Brandon sat and let the chair’s fingers reach up around him. 

“Pinging buoys up the stream,” Bahul reported. “They’ve been shutting 

down. People will be flying blind through wormholes, they’ll be jumpy.” 

Etsudo let his chair wrap itself around him. “But we still have access to the 

buoys. We know what’s on the other side, we can dodge.” The price of drones 

would be going up from Thule on downstream. Trade wouldn’t stop because 

of a buoy outage. They might serve as both repeaters and traffic advisers, but 

commerce went on. Ships would just be more cautious, using drones to poke 

ahead and make sure they wouldn’t hit anything on the other side after transit. 

Speaking of which. His stomach flipped as they passed through the next 

wormhole. The ship shook as Bahul let the ship drift several feet clear of ex- 

act center. Waves of gravity tore at the sides of the Takara Bune, unbalancing 

the ship. 

Etsudo opened a window in the lamina before him, using the ship’s cam- 

eras to create a vision of where they coasted now. They moved between a pair 

of wormholes that hung in the black emptiness, far from life-nourishing suns. 

“I imagine our Ragamuffin friends will be here soon.” Etsudo looked over 

at the gamma-shift pilot. “Get us out of the way.” Etsudo used the lamina to 

drop three of Takara Bune’s drones behind. From their viewpoints he could 

see the lines of light beamed into the wormholes all flicker out. 

Bahul accelerated the creaking Takara Bune farther away from the flight 

path between the two wormholes. There were no planets to worry about, no 

orbital wells. These wormholes just drifted in the dark of a heavy cloud of 

dust. 

“There,” Michiko said, piggybacking on one of the drones. “Drones.” 

A trio of yellow-and-green drones flew through the downstream worm- 

hole. Chemical rockets flared as they adjusted their course. The downstream 

wormhole dumped ships out a few degrees off course. An arrangement the 

Satrapy liked as it kept any one ship from being able to move through the 

forty-eight worlds in short notice. Coming out of each wormhole usually re- 

quired wasting fuel to adjust course. 

The drones hit the upstream wormhole and disappeared. 

“Incoming,” Bahul said, breaking the quiet in the cockpit as everyone 

watched along. “No identifying marks on it.” 

The cylindrical ship adjusted its course, following the drones at fifteen 

thousand kilometers an hour. The entire ship rotated sideways and fired its 

engines. A long, fiery plume of chemical boosters jerked the Ragamuffin ship 

for a fast course-correction change. Then it twisted back around to plunge 

through the upstream wormhole headfirst. 

Bahul shook his head. “Don’t know if I’d have the steel to take a ship in at 

a wormhole at that speed.” 

Etsudo silently agreed. Bahul wobbled too much. That was why Etsudo 

remained the best on the ship. And alpha’s pilot, Sabir, got nervous with 

every transit, while zeta’s Anjelica never transited above five thousand kilo- 

meters an hour. 

But they were a good crew. They were his crew. He had made them that way. 

“Power up!” Etsudo snapped. “But don’t ditch the cargo just yet, let’s see 

ifwe can keep up.” 

“There’s a five-thousand-kilometer-per-hour deficit,” Brandon noted. “We’ll 

never catch them.” 

“We don’t have to,” Etsudo said. “They’re not getting past Thule. Deng 

will catch up and block their rear escape, we’re just making sure they don’t 

escape the net.” 

But since the Emancipation the Satrapy only worried about technological 

violations. Why all this? The pirates mainly purchased antimatter fuel off the 

black market. 

Change bugged Etsudo. 

“Where do you think they’ll end up?” Brandon asked. 

“Bujantjor,” Etsudo said. “There are Freeman colonies in orbit there, 

they’ll be sympathetic, they’ll let them dock and try and fuel them.” 

“If we catch them, the Jiang will reward us well. Your name is well-known, 

your father was a good man among the Hongguo. We’ll rise far.” 

Etsudo didn’t say anything. The Satrapy would win this battle against the 

Ragamuffins. A handful of armed trade ships against the money sunk into 

Hongguo ships and weapons by the Satrapy. No contest. 

He was going to have to adapt. The Satrapy had entered a new stage of its 

existence with humans. If Etsudo could gain a ship like Deng’s, then he 

could hardly be at the mercy of one like the Jiang. He leaned forward. “Catch 

up to that ship, Bahul. Drop cargo as you need.” 

Would it be worth trying to please his masters for a bigger ship? He wasn’t 

sure. Brandon had been imprinted with it before he boarded the Takara 

Bune, no doubt to pass that on to Etsudo. The Jiang thought this was what 

Etsudo wanted, they were trying to co-opt him. But what did Etsudo want? 

Etsudo bit his lip. Another message from Deng arrived, only five minutes 

ping time behind them. What was that? Five wormholes? 

“I’ve got another task for you, Etsudo. This ship is likely to dock at Bujan- 

tjor.” Deng waved his left hand and a grainy image appeared of a woman 

standing in a busy market area. 

“Who’s that?” Etsudo wondered out loud, even as Deng continued on 

with his recording. 

“This is a very dangerous woman, Etsudo. She uses the first name Nashara, 

but the last one changes. We know for sure that she killed a Gahe breeder on 

Astragalai. She may have also set off a nuclear bomb inside Villach. There 

may be some League of Human Affairs connection, we’re not sure. She was 

last seen heading downstream towards us. Keep close to that pirate for now, 

but if they head past Bujantjor to Thule, let them go, we’ll continue the 

chase. You stay in Bujantjor. Someone turned her in for reward money, a Len 

Smith. See if you can get her aboard your ship. You claim to be good at this. 

We want her for questioning and reconditioning if you can. If not, we’ll assist.” 

Etsudo looked at the picture. 

“A nuclear bomb?” he whispered, impressed. Right in the heart of Gahe 

territory. She made Bahul look like a kitten. 

He wanted her for his crew. Oh, yes. She’d make a pilot. Maybe even an- 

other captain, to balance Brandon. That would bring symmetry back. Three 

captains, three pilots, and so on. Twelve crew. 

Etsudo rubbed the back of his hand. A bit of order could be dragged back 

into his chaotic world. That appealed to him.


CHAPTER NINE


The pirates bled speed coming out of the wormhole into Bujantjor, Etsudo

shadowing them and reporting back on their movements. They did not

move on to Thule, they docked at the new Freeman habitat. A mess of girder

and metal, primitive by Satrapic standards, and one of the handfuls of

human-only habitats starting to spring up throughout the forty-eight worlds.

   “Lock down?” Anjelica asked, once they had docked. She hadn’t shaved

her head in a few days; the stubble covered her head roughly. She hadn’t been

sleeping.

   “You know the routine. We can’t risk the ship being compromised.” Only

Etsudo walked off or on. Redemption. One day they’d be allowed off, when

they’d worked off their debt to humanity. Etsudo would see to that. But for

now, they remained in their rooms.

   They didn’t complain.

   They already had a request from Nashara to interview before even getting

connected to the habitat. She offered her security services. Etsudo granted the

interview.

   “She’ll be aboard soon,” Etsudo said. “Is my cabin ready?”

   “It is set for tea,” Lee said. He bobbed his head down. “I laid out mats and

a proper kettle.”

   Etsudo nodded back at him. “Thank you.”

   Excitement strummed through Etsudo. He almost hopped his way up

through the ship to the docking air lock to wait. Deng might know him too

well, giving this to him.

   Was it a trap?

   That made him pause. Maybe Brandon hadn’t accomplished what Deng

had hoped for, and this woman was here to finish the job.

   Too far-fetched, he thought. But when she arrived and he opened the outer

door, he still held his breath as she crossed through the air lock. He almost

didn’t let her in.

   Underneath the epidermis the woman was more machine than man. Far

from legal, and into theoretical-research territory. Did he detect a whiff of

radiation? She had a tiny reactor buried somewhere deep in her body.

   Etsudo couldn’t help himself, he opened the air lock and stood there.

   “Etsudo Hajiwara?”

   He nodded. “Nashara.” He didn’t use the fake last name she’d supplied.

He shook her hand. She had a dry, firm grip.

   Those hands could break him in half, he realized with a smile.

   “Would you care to have tea with me?” he asked. “And we will talk about

your offer.”

   She nodded, dark eyes studying him. “Tea. Sure.”

   “Come.” Etsudo led her toward the cabin. “It’s just this way.” His hands

shook when he entered the room.

   She followed him in. “Are you okay Etsudo? You don’t seem together.”

   Of course, she was trained to spot lies. Trained to spot odd responses. “I

don’t let many people into my cabin, and I’m just a peaceful trader. You of-

fer us your skills as a mercenary, but you make me nervous.”

   She cocked her head and frowned. No doubt something seemed off to her.

So many dangerous people had walked into this room. Some of them were

knocked out in the air lock, but Etsudo preferred the unmonitored cabin.

The sooner the criminal was in the chair and bound, the safer he felt.

   Etsudo waved her over. “I want to show you a picture of my father. The

man who basically gave me this ship.”

   Nashara walked over. “Hajiwara? That’s a Hongguo family name.”

   Etsudo gave the command via lamina to scramble her mind, and Nashara

slumped forward. He tried to catch her, but pitched forward. She weighed

two or three times as much as he expected. All the machinery laced through-

out her.

   Gods. Etsudo dragged her to the chair and wrapped her wrists and legs to

the chair using the monofilament scarves.

   She started to wake up as he did it. She head-butted his chest, knocking

the air out of his lungs as he fell back. He gave the mental command to dis-

rupt her neural activity before he even hit the mat behind him and she

slumped back into the chair.

   Etsudo sat back with a groan of triumph, holding his bruised chest and feel-

ing a broken rib, and looked at the greatest mass murderer he’d trapped yet.

   She was beautiful.

“Nashara, wake up.” Etsudo kept his distance, pacing in front of her. Sweat

beaded his forehead, and he’d ignored Deng’s requests to talk about how he

was going to capture her. He didn’t want to share this. Deng might want her

handed over. But if he did that, Etsudo would lose her when the Satraps used

whatever tools they used to wipe minds to mold Nashara into another simple

foot soldier. That would be a waste.

   This was an interesting dilemma. He could talk Deng into letting him

take her to a reconditioning facility. He could forge her reconditioning cer-

tificates. This was a risk, but a good one.

   First he had to find out if she was another weapon Deng had sent against

him like Brandon.

   “Wake up,” Etsudo repeated.

   The dark eyes snapped open. “What did you do to me, Etsudo?”

   “Do you trust me, Nashara?” Etsudo asked, his face honest, open. “Im-

plicitly, fully? You’ll answer just about anything I ask?” Of course she would.

She was like any of his crew now.

   “Yes.” She looked annoyed and thoughtful. “But why?”

   “Do you believe in redemption, Nashara?”

   “I don’t have much use for theology.” She looked around the room, then

down at the silk bonds. “Filament?”

   “Yes. Don’t move about.” Etsudo crossed his legs on the floor before her.

“Did Deng send you?”

   “I don’t know who the fuck Deng is.”

   “Are you sure?”

   She looked at him with contempt. “Yes, I’m quite sure. What is going on?”

   “I have a machine in this room that reprograms you. It’s like what we do

to get the zhen cha, I know that is no secret. But me and my machine are

more subtle. I want you to stay you, with all your memories. I just change . . .

some things. Make a better you. One that wants you to pay for your crimes,

Nashara. Like the deaths of all those people on Villach.”

   Nashara nodded, pulling slightly at the scarves. “Only one problem,

buddy. I have no crimes to confess.”

   “We know for sure you killed the Gahe breeder.”

   “Yes. I did that.”

   Etsudo cradled his chest. “You don’t think that was a crime?”

   “I’m under orders. It wasn’t a crime, it was a mission.” Nashara rested

back into the chair. “I’m not a criminal, I’m a damn POW.”

   A mission? “Who are you on a mission for?” Etsudo asked.

   “Chimson mongoose-men. Nashara Capsicum is the name I used there.

Do you knock out all the girls you bring back here? Will I end up being

your willing sex slave?” Her eyes glittered, and Etsudo wondered at what

point even his artistic tweaks would fall apart. There was a coiled, snakelike

danger here.

   “I would never do that. What’s a mongoose-man?”

   “Think feng, but more deadly. We work for the Ragamuffins. They used

to protect Chimson and New Anegada, before you took them off-line.”

Nashara twisted. Scoping out the room.

   “What is your mission?”

   “Deliver myself to the New Anegada Ragamuffins, if they are still working

for the benefit of humanity. If they’re not still worthy, then I’m to cause as

much trouble as I can by myself. I’m a virus, for the Satrapic lamina.” She

smiled.

   Etsudo’s mouth dried up. “A virus.”

   “What were you going to do with me, Etsudo?”

   He crumpled a bit. “I was going to try and keep you. You’d be my prize on

this ship. The most dangerous yet. Now I think I’ll leave you to Deng.”

   Unleash her to Deng.

   “You want to destroy the Hongguo then? Is that it?” Nashara raised an

eyebrow.

   “Destroy?” Everything fell apart again, but instead of the instigator being

Deng, it was this woman.

   “Chimson knows about Honggou mindwipes. After a mindwipe I will

reboot and slip into the lamina, just bereft of all my recent memories since

I left Chimson. I eat lamina processing resources up and reproduce my

mind over and over again until there is nothing left. Then the real fun

starts.”

   Gods. What had he gotten into? Etsudo looked down at his feet. “My

whole crew is like this.”

   “Like what?”

   “I believe what my father put in my mind, what he believed, which is that

the Hongguo help humanity keep its balance with the Satrapy. That we will

lead our race to stand shoulder to shoulder with the other client races.”

   “You really believe it?”

   Etsudo looked up and sighed. “I would have loved to have known you as a

crewmember.”

   “Are you going to kill me?” Nashara looked at him, a steady gaze. “Look at

me, Etsudo, don’t even try to lie.”

   “No.” And he wasn’t. If he lied now or entertained the thought, she would

see it. It would break that loyalty. She’d find a way right now to rip clear and

kill him. He knew that with a certainty that shook him.

    “Okay.” Nashara relaxed. “I trust you. You’re going to patch me up so I

don’t remember this and send me back out. Détente?”

    Etsudo nodded, still staring directly at her. He snapped his fingers, and

Nashara slumped.

    When he woke her up, several hours later, he did it by walking through

the door to the cabin with a full tea set.

    “Sorry I forget the pot noodles in the galley,” he said. Nashara nodded,

looking around the cabin. He’d pulled her to the floor and left her cross-

legged, sitting with her back against the wall. She’d gotten up and moved to

the center of the room.

    He let her eat, and when she put the chopsticks down, leaned across.

“While I always enjoy the pleasure of an interesting guest, I will be honest

and tell you we have no positions for a person of the, um, skills that you for-

warded to me.” He held out his hands, showing her rough calluses. “We work

hard and are just a small crew. A ship’s bodyguard, or security force, as you

call yourself, is unnecessary to us.” He smiled. “You must realize the Takara

Bune is not in the habit of making enemies. That is not our way.”

    It was a peace offering, one that if she was ever somehow able to reaccess

these memories he’d buried, she’d maybe understand.

    She leaned forward. “Etsudo, we do not always choose to make enemies.

Sometimes they come whether we create them or not.”

    He couldn’t argue with that. He barely remembered what else they discussed.

He grabbed his chest as they stood with a tiny gasp, then escorted her out.

    Let Deng take her. Let her escape. He just wanted the danger she repre-

sented off his ship. She wasn’t the order he wanted. She was chaos.

    Etsudo all but limped back to his cabin. Once a place of refuge, it seemed

a little more bare, a little more empty. He took several painkillers and checked

with the cockpit.

    “Sabir here,” the pilot said.

    “I’m taking a nap,” Etsudo said. “Stall Deng, tell him the woman was too

dangerous to try and knock out. We’ll try later, under better conditions. Tell

him to stay well clear of her.” The last thing they needed was Deng setting

her off.

    If Deng tracked her, found when she was next taking a shuttle off the

habitat, it would be worth lives to take her out.

    Maybe. But how would Etsudo explain that?

    If he gave her time, maybe she would escape Deng. Or maybe he wanted

the Hongguo to deal with her unawares and fail. Had he let her go because

of that?

    Etsudo washed his face and hung his head under the flowing tap while he

tried to wrap his mind around what had just happened. Running water, al-

ways an intermittent luxury for spacers.

    He curled up by the vacuum sink. The painkillers kicked in. Etsudo

pressed the back of his head against the wall and started to drift toward

sleep as he turned things over in his mind. Where did his loyalty lie? The

Hongguo, or humanity, or himself? What trumped what? How could he

tell what to do? His father had buried the Hongguo oath into him: service to

mankind. But then he’d buried loyalty to the Hongguo into him as well. It

felt as if he could rip himself in two. And always, always was the knowledge

that he needed fuel. The Satraps controlled the fuel, and without that, he

was nothing.

    It was Sabir who woke him up, an insistent whisper in his right ear from

the cockpit.

    “Captain! Deng wants to talk to you, right now! Etsudo!”

    Waking up felt like climbing out of a pit. “What? What does he want?”

    “The woman, Deng tried to capture her.”

    Etsudo pulled himself up. “What happened?”

    “They tried to capture her and she escaped. There are dead zhen cha and

feng all over the place.”

    Etsudo rubbed his face, clearing the artificial sleep away. “I’m on my way.

Unconnect us from the habitat. Get ready to leave.” If Deng was going to

take it out on him, they’d have to run. He wasn’t sure, but the more time

went by, the more the idea of running appealed. If there were people like

Nashara out there, then maybe there could be room for him.

    Maybe.

    So many maybes.

    Etsudo let Deng’s request for a live session trickle through. He braced

himself.

    “She escaped,” Deng said. A simple statement. “Did your sensors detect

that she was equipped to handle exposure to vacuum.”

    Yes, they had. “My sensors picked up nothing like that. She seemed well

trained and dangerous, too dangerous for me to pick up.”

   Deng nodded. “A wise move. I’m sorry to have doubted your analysis. I

had thought it would be an easy pickup while we covered the area to get ready

for the pirates.”

   “And?”

   “She fled to them. There seems to be a connection of some sort. The

Ragamuffin ship just blew its dock seals and is clear of the habitat, they have

the drop on us.”

   “Why didn’t you destroy it?”

   “Near a habitat? Etsudo, I’m not putting lives at risk. These people haven’t

disobeyed any Satrapic edicts we know of. If the ship flees in open space,

we’ll fight it. At dock, we’ll use feng. We won’t fire on it at dock.”

   “Okay, but where can they go?” Etsudo heard the hissing and clanging of

his ship disconnecting from the lifelines of the habitat. They were on their

own power and air again.

   “Not upstream,” Deng said. “Fifty ships are coming down from Thule to-

wards us. Nowhere to run upstream. With the buoys out they’ll probably

guess this. I think they will try and turn back downstream, avoiding the

handful of ships around, and get warnings to the others at their home base,

but they didn’t get a chance to fuel up here.”

   “So?” The Takara Bune shivered as the habitat’s clamps released her. Sev-

eral sirens squawked, letting him know that the antimatter heart of the ship

had come online.

   “You’re going to have to keep up with them again, Etsudo. Help us close

this net, help us end the pirates and gain the good grace of the Satrapy. Do

that and we promote you to Jiang. Do that and we know where your loyal-

ties lie.”

   “So they are in doubt?” Etsudo asked.

   “You ply upstream, downstream, wherever you feel. You are part of an

older generation that is obsolete within the current Hongguo. But you are

good, Etsudo. Very good. And we need you. You are right, I can’t order you

to do anything. But your actions will mean a lot.”

   Jiang Etsudo. Etsudo rolled the idea around in his head. “Sabir, where do

we stand?”

   “Free and clear.”

   Etsudo looked back at Deng. “We’ll pursue. You follow.” Nashara would

be less a threat dead out in the cold vacuum. Whether he chose to run or not,

that would be the truth. If she really was a virus, she could destroy the com-

munications systems between the forty-eight worlds. Even if the Hongguo

and Satrapy controlled them, they were a lifeline to civilization.

   Jiang Etsudo . . .

   Deng flickered away. Etsudo reached the cockpit, floating now. Inside it,

Sabir, Todd, and Raul looked at him as he entered. “Where’s Brandon?”

   “He’s in his cabin, he wasn’t sure how to break shifts with you,” Sabir said.

   “Get him in here,” Etsudo said. “We’ll both be in the cockpit for this.

Sound acceleration alarms, everyone needs to be strapped in and secure.”

   “The ship is the same one we saw earlier,” Sabir said. “The pirate ship. It

used the name Queen Mohmbasa when it docked.”

   “We’ll use that to identify her.” Etsudo added the tag. The cockpit dripped

with lamina, screens, trajectories, notes from the Port Authority demanding

to know why they were leaving dock without formal permission.

   Etsudo swept it all away.

   Time to focus on one thing for now, keeping up with the Queen Mohm-

basa. Because the Hongguo would not mindwipe a helpful ally in its new war,

nor deny him fuel for his ship.

   They might even promote him.


Chapter 10


Kara and her brother watched the slow sunset. The inside of Agathonosis

curved up on either side of them. The patchy green farmlands rose until

they met far up above them. Agathonosis was shaped like a can, with the bril-

liant fusion-powered thread of the sunline running right through the weight-

less center to provide the light the crops so desperately needed.

   Night began slowly at the far end of the cylinder, a dark bead that ap-

peared on the line as it came out of the haze and then began to grow. The line

slowly turned off, a half-mile section at a time slowly dimming, until flicker-

ing out. It had started at the far end cap of Agathonosis, almost ten miles

away from them. It would continue until it reached the other end, ten more

miles farther behind them.

   On the walls of Agathonosis you could walk and feel heavy, but near the

sunline at the center of Agathonosis, you could fly. As long as you didn’t get

close enough to the sunline to burn. The sunline mainly provided light and

the right kind of it, not heat. Heat came from the ground in vents or warm

pools of water.

   Then came the sound, carrying in the approaching twilight. Mortar fire?

   Kara stopped and turned, trying to locate where the sound had come

from. A puff of smoke drifted over a muddy hill. She grabbed her brother,

Jared, and pulled him down to the ground, then used the zoom function in

her eyes to peek out from behind a false decorative rock that shifted as she

pushed against it.

   Several hundred yards down the drying trickle of the Parvati River, fifteen

self-styled “hopolites” broke cover. Green strips of ripped cloth hung from

their skeletal bodies.

   Kara thought she recognized a few faces in the group. Maybe one of them

had sold her an ice cream cone once or bumped into her on a public trail

somewhere. Maybe it was a cousin of hers, or an uncle, running down to the

edge of the muddy water.

   They carried their weapon with them, slipping and sliding in the mud as

they crossed over to the opposite bank. The mortar looked homemade: sev-

eral pieces of scrap welded to the bottom of a tube to create a makeshift tri-

pod. Maybe it had been someone’s potato gun at one time, or a teenager’s

launch tube for a model gyroplane. Now it was a weapon of desperation.

   The hopolites settled behind the ruins of what had once been a boat dock

near the bank of the Parvati. Jared sat up slightly and Kara put her arm on his

shoulder. “No,” she whispered.

   She remained focused and zoomed on the muddy river.

   A series of footprints appeared near the far edge, as if by magic, slowly

tracking toward the hopolites as they loaded their homemade mortar. A long-

haired man in nothing but trousers sighted and gave the thumbs-up.

   The mortar thunked. The projectile arced upward leaving a slight trail of

smoke. Up, up, Kara and her brother craned their necks looking straight above

them to watch until it dwindled into a small dot against the great brown

patches that curved far over their heads. The other side of their world right

above their heads. It made Kara shiver, thinking of explosions and weaponry

being fired all throughout the habitat. Already the air seemed hard to breathe.

She wondered if that was due to the great machinery in the depths of Agath-

onosis failing, or if war had broken the world’s skin. She’d never seen the Out-

side of Agathonosis nor been inside the world’s skin, but she could imagine

the cruel midnight of vacuum shoving its airless emptiness through the cracks

of the world, curling into the sky to snatch the air away from them all.

   One of the hopolites carried a telescope, she saw. He looked through it in-

tently, then shouted. Kara thought she saw a small flash, a tiny orange ball of

flame, on the land far over her head.

   A hushed cheer erupted. Yet there was nothing happy in the sound. It was

a vindictive-sounding group whoop, cut short by several small spitting

sounds. A second pair of invisible feet splashed through the mud.

   Kara dug her fingers into Jared’s bony shoulders and stared past him at the

chaos behind him. “Oww . . .”

   “Quiet, it’s the stratatoi,” she hissed.

   The hopolites scattered and ran. Four of them fell to the ground, one of

them writhing and screaming. Bright red splotches of blood dripped from his

forehead.

   Oh, no. One of them zigzagged, running straight toward her. She un-

zoomed her lenses, looked around.

   “Come on.” She pulled Jared along, slowly, very slowly, backing into the

dried-up remains of an oak tree that had toppled over. This had once been

a gravity-defying copse of oaks. It was now a tortured, surreal nightmare of

dead trunks and burned stumps gathered around a failing river. Stomach acid

burned at Kara as fear and hunger ate its way up out of her.

    “In here again?” Jared complained. They sat underneath the bleached,

twisted branches and looked out. Jared hugged their knapsack to his chest,

though his bony arms offered it little protection.

    The hopolite staggered on, coated in mud. He panted, arms flailing to

keep balance. Jared squirmed, but Kara pushed him down and kept him from

looking out.

    Branches slapped them in the face as something jumped and ran down the

length of the trunk. Jared whimpered, and Kara covered his mouth as a mud-

covered ghost grabbed the hopolite, threw him to the ground.

    Kara strained the lenses over her eyes at the ghost. Despite the Catastro-

phe, despite the famine, the world of Agathonosis itself still responded to

her. The air sang information. Kara could still choose to augment anything

she saw with her actual, organic eyes with information overlaid onto them

with her implants. The standard public lamina appeared to her: a small trian-

gular tag popped into her vision every time she looked at the tree. Informa-

tion scrolled at her.

    Oak tree 23. Planted the third year of the Evthria’s [the “eastern” side of

Agathonosis, click for more] founding by the first human president under the

benevolent Satrapy. Commemoration . . . It would have scrolled more informa-

tion, but Kara killed the blather with a mental wave of the hand.

    Any moron youngster in Agathonosis with a pair of data contacts or a

wrist screen could see that particular lamina.

    She had something else in mind: her own augmented reality. It would let

her tap into a private lamina. It was something darker, more useful, en-

crypted and never spoken about because it was forbidden, as was any human

addition or tinkering with the Satrapic Information Systems.

    “Remember,” her mother had said before the stratatoi came for her and

Dad. She’d crouched by Kara and run her fingers through Kara’s hair.

“Things might get better. This might be temporary. So you only use this if it

is an emergency!”

    Kara had nodded. “I understand.”

    “Take Jared with you if that happens, and don’t talk to anyone. You know

the drill, we’ve gone over it enough. We’ll be back. We’ll see what the Satrap

says about this. We have to try to petition it. We can’t let this go on.”

    Her parents had been archaeologists. They’d studied the lamina, some-

times illegally, digging back down into the tiniest bits that talked and made it

work. They were the most known lamina explorers in Agathonosis, well re-

spected. They’d hoped their position would help influence the Satrap to fix

the world and stop the stratatoi.

    But they’d never come back.

    And things had gotten worse. And worse.

    So now Kara triggered the filter her mom and dad had created. When that

filter came down over the world, the artificial rods and cones in her eyes

painted very different things.

    The ghost, the invisible man, appeared to her outlined in reds and oranges.

She watched the man raise a large weapon, point the barrel at the hopolite’s

forehead, and pull the trigger. The hopolite’s head exploded, fragments drip-

ping to the ground. Kara looked down at the mud.

    Jared squirmed. She grabbed his hand and squeezed as hard as she could.

He understood and froze. Kara’s fingers waved a quick mantra to execute the

code the whole family had worked on in secret when the troubles had begun.

The invisible man turned, looked right at them. His face twisted, a rictus of

heat lines.

    Now you know, thought Kara. Now you know if it works. There’s always

info around. Like air, but more pervasive even. Info gathered by nearby sen-

sors under the ground, in the remains of the tree, built into the very fabric of

Agathonosis on a molecular scale. Infodust hanging in the air, testing the

ecology of the habitat. Information gathered, reformatted, and presented to

her when she asked for it.

    She’d accessed lamina all around her since she was a kid, seeing things that

weren’t really there with her contacts on, playing games with other children

that other people weren’t a part of. The world was always more mysterious,

more layered, deeper, than it would have been without the various lamina

they all used.

    And the invisible killer staring right at her would see nothing of her because

he used the lamina too. Like all stratatoi he got orders, maps, plans of attack,

and info from his fellow murderers through his augmented reality. Kara’s pri-

vate lamina had been developed slowly over three hundred years, exploiting

small bugs in the meshes of realities the Satrapy had created inside Agathono-

sis. Kara’s parents were descended from a long line of tweakers who had carved

out some small freedoms for themselves from the ever present and powerful eye

of the Satrapy. Such as invisibility to allow them to gather and hold meetings.

    They’d thought that one special, but it looked as if the stratatoi had it as

well.

   She let out a deep breath as the invisible man turned around and ran back

toward the homemade mortar.

   “Go,” she ordered Jared.

   He obeyed her, slowly crawling out and skirting the oak tree with her.

   They left the river. Kara didn’t think it was safe anymore. More stratatoi

had appeared. They were securing the water, she guessed. Turning off the

river’s pumps. That hadn’t been in short supply yet, and the Parvati was

muddy, but apparently they wanted control of that too.

   Like everything else inside Agathonosis.


#


Kara returned her vision to normal unaugmented reality as they walked out

of the brown wastes of the public park and into a series of alleyways. The

park reeked of urine, and it was worse here. Perfectly recyclable sewage oozed

out of the gutters, piss stains splattered the paper walls of houses. Many

maiche walls drooped, ripped off in the first rounds of riots. The houses re-

vealed the insides of rooms and apartments. Frames poked through like skele-

tons.

    A dead neighborhood. Flayed.

    They passed houses with roofs that sagged from recent rain. Rain. In what

had been a perfectly controlled ecosphere. It had all gone so wrong so quickly.

Agathonosis had been a paradise. Lakes near great forests that had trees

reaching up, unhindered, and less and less constrained by gravity as they grew

taller. Sure they were somewhat crooked from Coriolis forces, but at those

heights, you couldn’t tell if it they were bent or just tall.

    Now Agathonosis was a festering disaster.

    An occasional face peeked out from a hole in the walls, then disappeared.

    “Can we stop and eat?” Jared asked. Too loud. Idiot ten-year-old kid. And

all she had left. She hadn’t talked to any of her peers or seen her parents in

weeks.

    “Shhh. We’re not far from where we need to be,” she whispered. Don’t

mention food, Brother. Damnit.

    The air-lock door lay just around the next small alley, down underneath a

manhole cover. Air locks would lead them into the skin of Agathonosis, into

the heart of the Satrap’s traditional domain, but also to freedom.

    She hoped.

    Kara double-checked a heads-up map display in her personal lamina, look-

ing around at markers and tags. She looked back down the street, at the good

soil running down the gutters washing off into the storm grates, and heard

something rustle.

   “Open the manhole cover,” she ordered Jared.

   He looked piteously at her. “You make me do everything. Carry the

   “Do it,” she hissed at him. “The sooner we get there, the sooner you can eat.”

   Her temple hurt as she concentrated. I am a shadow, she thought. Just a

shadow. She backed up against the plastic frame of an alley wall, tiptoed, and

waited as Jared grunted and yanked at the manhole cover.

   She slit the paper with a pocketknife and stepped through. She sealed it

back up with several tiny pins fished out from her pocket and looked around.

A few weeks ago this was someone’s apartment. A dead woman lay on the bed,

the back of her head staved in. Spoiled cans of fish lay underneath the bed.

   The manhole cover rustled outside. Jared grunted, then paused. “Kara? Are

you sure we’re allowed to do this? This goes in.”

   Someone had tried to eat the cans of fish, then thrown up.

   “Kara? Where are you? Please don’t leave me. I’m sorry. I won’t complain

again.”

   Kara cut two small eyehole slits and watched the street as Jared turned

around in a slow circle, looking for her. She could hear muffled sobs. Kara

swallowed the lump in her throat, squeezed her wet eyes.

   Sorry, Brother, she thought.

   After another moment of crying Jared stopped, looked with a few sniffles,

then unslung the knapsack and unzipped it. Kara looked down the street and

saw what she’d been fearing: a wiry man with a bat walked down along the

torn paper wall toward Jared.

   She waited, waited until the man’s shadow crossed the paper in front of her,

then burst out with the penknife. She stabbed him in the back with the four-

inch-long blade as hard as she could, thrusting at his shadow through long,

ragged strips of paper wall. The blade sunk in with a sickening puncturing

sound and her victim screamed. He backhanded her, reaching up for the knife.

   Jared sat and stared as Kara sprang off the ground. The man got hold of

the knife and screamed again as he pulled it out.

   “Get in the manhole, quickly.” Kara grabbed the backpack and zipped it.

Jared looked up at her in something approaching awe. And fear.

   They clambered down the ladder into the skin of their world, aiming for

the hull.

   “Faster,” she ordered her little brother. Neither of them had the strength

to replace the manhole cover from inside. Soon someone would come after

them. Either the man she’d stabbed, or someone else noticing the racket.


#


It was quiet down here. And sterile, like the inside of a house, but on and on

and on. No natural sounds, just a steady thrum. Biolights ran along a track on

the floor and a strip over their heads. The smoothly bored rock walls with

metallic vacuumseal sprayed on were physically painted blue with red or

green numerals indicating where they were, just as Kara had hoped.

   Stratatoi would soon realize they had intruders in the heart of their do-

main, inside the warrens and corridors honeycombing the great hull of the

world. She had mumbled the words to shut down the telltales inside her that

would report where she was, but she wasn’t sure she had done such a good job

on Jared. Thankfully they couldn’t see through his eyes; she’d taken his con-

tacts out the day the Catastrophe had fully realized itself.

   Kara kept Jared moving with expert shoves and a kick or two. He stumbled

a lot. Eventually he sat down, refusing to go farther.

   “We’re lost,” he cried.

   “No, we’re not,” Kara snapped. Then, softer: “I know where we are. Trust

me.”

   “We’re lost and they’re going to find us.” Jared clutched the sack.

   If they stayed here, giving up, then, yes. Kara grabbed his arm and

squeezed it. “You get back up or that man will come after us and kill us for

sure. I can leave you here for him.” Jared got back up. “Keep going straight,”

Kara said, her voice cracking.

   Somehow he’d forgive her. For know, she just wanted to make sure he

lived. Her little brother was all she had left.

   They went deeper in, following mental maps. Twice she used her invisibil-

ity trick to avoid stratatoi walking the corridors. She would hold a hand over

Jared’s mouth, lean against the cold wall, and freeze. The stratatoi were look-

ing for something. She hoped it wasn’t them.

   Jared’s stomach growled loudly enough for her to hear several times. She

wondered if that would give them away at some crucial point.


#


They finally got to it: a small access door leading to what looked like a utility

room. Kara stood and stared at it for a second, looking at a tag that told her

the door was more than it seemed. She walked forward and kissed the cold

metal.

   Did the stratatoi know about this place? Her parents had found the loca-

tion when digging around ancient hand-drawn pictures from the original

colonists, the pireties. History was frowned on but protected by the general

Emancipation. People like her mom and dad pieced together what they could

from records hidden deep in human-made lamina. And they’d found this al-

ternate control room. The primary control room had been destroyed in a sui-

cidal fight between the hopolites and the stratatoi two weeks ago when the

hopolite insurrection against the habitat’s Satrap began. The hopolites had

slowly been exterminated ever since. The Satrap was rumored to have moved

into the secondary control center and reinforced it with hordes of stratatoi.

   But the great engineers who had designed Agathonosis did so in triplicate.

   When Kara convinced the first door to open, her breath caught. The doors

were several feet thick, not the standard utility inch that they seemed to be.

They groaned loudly, echoing through the corridors as they opened, one af-

ter the other.

   “In, in, now!”

   They ran in, sideways, squeezing themselves into a twenty-by-twenty-foot

room. Dusty control panels ringed the entire room, and several chairs with il-

legal neural jacks sat in a corner.

   “Jackpot,” Kara whispered, even as she spoke the riddles and poems to

close the two sets of doors behind them. She started crying. “Jackpot.”

   She’d been a zombie until now, just focused on getting here, hoping to

make it, doing anything to make it.

   The doors sealed behind them. She walked over and started waving panels

into life. Jared looked at a display that showed the outside corridor.

   “When they come for us, we won’t be able to get back out,” he said, fur-

rowing his brow. “There’s only one way out.”

   “I know.”

   “How long can we stay in here?”

   Kara unsealed the knapsack and helped Jared lay out the contents. “A few

days,” she said. “That’s long enough. Long enough for someone to reach us.”

   The can of beans made her salivate just looking at the picture. She also

took out several dried, salted small fish, and some crackers in packets.

   And a dirty cloth doll, with red, clumpy hair. Jared snatched it away.

   “Can I eat?” Jared stared at the can of beans and licked his lips. His hands

trembled.

   “The fish.”

   Kara handed them to him and packed the crackers and beans away. Jared

needed protein right now. But more than anything they were both going to

need fruit soon enough. She was pretty sure he was getting scurvy. Or maybe

a half dozen other types of malnutrition problems.

   Jared took the fish off to a corner and began eating, smacking his lips nois-

ily in a way that, several months ago, she would have hit him for. And the

doll, that Raggedy Andy doll, she would have snatched it from him.

   But that was all he had now, and he clutched the doll protectively under an

arm.

   She turned to the panel by the door, put her thumb to it, and the corners

of her mouth tugged up. When the stratatoi came to the doors, trying to

shoot or hack their way in, they’d find she’d locked them shut with some old

security codes. Ones that would only allow the doors to open from an inside

command.

   Then the smile disappeared under a huge mental load of weariness. Oral

human history maintained that Agathonosis was a cylindrical, man-made

world that flew in circles around several giant holes in the Outside, holes that

led to other worlds like Agathonosis, and some vastly larger. So large that

they were inside out, with the air lying on the outside of the world. Kara

started trying to figure out how to send a message out at the “wormhole” and

to someone who could maybe save them.


#


Several hours later a series of relays around Kara’s small world caught her au-

dio message. The message used hundred-year-old protocols, but the relays

still recognized them. They’d been stolen from someone who’d once worked

communications for the Satrapy, and the thief had made sure to bury them

into the lamina as deeply as he could, in case they were ever needed again.

    The relays dutifully started spreading the message forward, until it hit a

communications buoy near the wormhole. The message started out spoken in

Greek, the language of Agathonosis, and ended in stumbling Anglic:

    This is Kara, from Agathonosis.

    We’re starving. They’re killing each other inside.

    Please send help, whoever hears this. We only have days left.

    Oh, shit. Stratatoi have found us. Can they really stop me from . . .

    The beacon followed its instructions and kept repeating the message to

anything that would listen.


CHAPTER ELEVEN


Kara pressed her fingers against the knapsack’s seal and it puckered open.

A single can of beans and half a pack of protein-fortified crackers. She

stared at them for a minute, then chose the crackers.

    She resealed the sack before Jared could turn around and see how little

food was left and slung the knapsack over her back so he couldn’t try to open

it. They’d filled several bottles with water from the tap in the small bath-

room, but the water had been turned off now, and the stench of the un-

flushed toilet was getting worse.

    Jared still had his back to her. He sat facing the inner door, shivering at the

constant high-pitched whine coming through. He jumped slightly every time

something clanged against the outer door.

    “I hate you,” he said.

    He knew they were trapped. He probably suspected they were almost out

of food and that the water wouldn’t last that much longer.

    Kara sighed, but not loud enough to let him hear. She walked over to a

flat console and waved it on. It glowed alive and became a window to the

area just outside the door. Fifteen stratatoi in black uniforms struggled to

control the massive bulk of a diamond-tipped drillcar. Dusty, corroded, and

old, the insectlike machine hailed from the earliest days of Agathonosis’s

creation when the habitat was still just a rock in the Outside. The hundreds

of counterrotating bits chewed at the door, spitting and sparking metal shav-

ings aside.

    Dark gouges ran back along the corridor behind them where they had

shoved the drill through, spinning and spitting all the way.

    “See,” Jared said. “You were wrong. They’ll get in here soon. We should

give up now.”

    Kara reached out a hand, then put it back down at her side. “I don’t think

they would let us give up.”

    Jared bit his lip. “It smells really bad in here. I want to get out.”

    There is no out, she wanted to scream at him. Even if we leave, the whole

world is like this, another room, just bigger, and everything is broken there

too. But she nodded. “I know. Just trust me and be patient, please.”

    “I want my eyepieces back. I’m bored just waiting. At least let me play

some games.”

    Kara shook her head. Jared clenched his fists, opened his mouth, then

stopped. The room had fallen silent.

    They both looked at the console. The drillcar had been rolled back off to

the side and a new entourage of black-uniformed stratatoi walked toward

Kara’s screen. Kara could hear the tiny fans and pumps deep inside the vents

now that the drilling stopped. The comfortable universal hum of Agathono-

sis hung around her once more.

    A single stratatoi walked all the way forward until he stood just beneath

the camera. He filled the entire view, standing up on some platform Kara

hadn’t noticed. His eyes gleamed in the reflected light around him.

    The man held up a blank white pad. Kara had turned off all outside feeds

but this one visual to the outside. When his lips moved no sound came

through. But the pad he held up blurred and words formed. The man held

the pad up to the camera so Kara could read the words.

    Whatever I speak will be written on this pad. I am both this man Nikos and I

am the Satrap himself at this moment, as I have taken personal interest in this sit-

uation.

    Kara shivered. She’d only heard about such a thing happening in the days

of Thrall, when the Satraps used the power of the world to break men’s

minds to their will. Men had worked ceaselessly for the Satrapy for genera-

tions before they were emancipated, though the Satrap of Agathonosis still

carefully ruled its world. Had the days of Thrall returned?

    The puppet man’s mouth moved again and the pad shifted to display new

words:

    Your time is limited. I can cut the air supply to an entire section of this world,

the section that includes the line this room taps. But if you open the lock and sur-

render, you will be treated with mercy. If you wish to negotiate, speak to me

within the next thirty seconds.

    The Satrap could use audio to send commands to the inside of the room.

Kara knew it could; after all, it was said that the Satraps had created the lam-

ina all around them. They’d created everything that was Agathonosis, even if

the physical things had been made by the stratatoi in the days of Thrall.

Talking to it would be dangerous.

    Jared read the note and shouted at her, “They can’t turn off the air, can

they? Can they?”

    “I don’t know.” Kara listened to the mechanical hum of air being deliv-

ered. It had never been held from the people before. Even in the days of

Thrall. But then maybe what she knew of the past was wrong. She leaned

against the panel and stared down at the ruler of her entire world and trem-

bled. “It’s the Satrap, and the Satrap can do almost anything, can’t he?”

   “Then we need to give up now, we really need to give up.”

   Kara sniffed, just as frightened as he was. But she couldn’t show it. “Be

quiet, Jared. Let me think.” She bit her lip so hard she tasted salty blood.

Then she stabbed at the console. “If you are the Satrap, then why did it all go

bad?” she demanded, her voice cracking and wavering. “Why are so many

dead, and the world not working? The world is under your command, why

isn’t it working?”

   The man’s mouth worked some more in silence. Kara tapped the console.

“The sound only works one way, from me to you. You’ll still need to use the

pad.”

   It looked down, then raised the pad toward them again.

   The world does not work because I wish it not to. Humans have been warned

to keep their population in check, but have failed. Humans have been warned to

not meddle with the systems of the Satrapy, but cannot refrain from tinkering.

Humans want more freedom to self-organize, travel, and consume, and the re-

sources of all the Satrapic worlds cannot sustain these abuses. The Satrapy has

come to the decision that there is to be a population reduction. Humans are inca-

pable of managing this themselves. Only thralls will be left to do our work. The

Emancipation of humanity has been revoked.

   Words did not come. Kara’s mouth was dry, her heart sped. They were no

longer free?

   “We may no longer be free in the Satrapy, but we can still flee,” she said.

There were others out there. Kara’s people had little contact with outsiders,

trapped in the other Satrapic worlds. But she knew there were other Satraps in

other worlds, and that the Satraps ruled all worlds. Humans had been taken

from somewhere, and there had to be more . . . there had to be somewhere safe.

   But now Kara understood why people had been rounded up by the strata-

toi, and why the starving few adults left fought to the death. Those who

didn’t fight were no longer human, but now extensions to the Satrap’s mind.

Including her parents.

   She imagined other Satrapic worlds, far away outside in a vacuum of their

own, where this same battle was being fought.

   The pad’s words shifted again. Fleeing is pointless. Humanity’s status as a

protected race has been revoked throughout the Benevolent Satrapy. But I have

a deal for you if you surrender the control room now. You are obviously intelligent

and quick to have done this. I would offer you a prime position among the strata-

toi, a position of leadership, free cognition, and very little Thrall. Very few will

get this status.

   Why was the Satrap bothering to confront her? Kara leaned in closer to the

image, trying to see if the body of the man was blocking something, and

looked deeper into the Satrap’s eyes. They were blinking. The reflected light

in them wavered somehow.

   No. They transmitted light.

   Kara slapped the console off. She spun around the room, threw open links

to check everything around her, desperately hoping she hadn’t given it

enough time. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

   “What’s going on?” Jared asked.

   Most of the status glyphs hanging in the air came back green. Even after

probing several levels deep, she couldn’t discern anything.

   “Kara? Why’d you shut him off?”

   “He tried to hack in. Some kind of light code, using his eyes.” The Satrap

wanted them dead quicker than he could starve them of oxygen. Why?

   The only thing Kara could think of was communications. She’d sent a

general message out into the Void. Was that what had spooked the Satrap

about her?

   It felt right.

   She created another link to the system she’d used before. But instead of

making a link that would skip outward beyond them, it bounced back from a

point several hundred miles outside the world.

   Repeater buoy closed to all outgoing traffic, the denial read.

   But she could still call out to anything near the world. Maybe that worried

the Satrap, that someone would check out her previous message, and that she

could still talk to them.

   Kara was still mulling it over when she noticed a lack of noise. Jared

walked with her over to a vent.

   “How long can we last without fresh air?” he asked.

   “Two days.” A wild guess at best.

   “Are we going to give up now?”

   “Do you want become thrall to the Satrap, just one of his many mental

hands? A thing?” The Satrap’s offer didn’t give her hope. It had to be a lie.

And if it wasn’t . . . she couldn’t imagine living to see the next age of Thrall.

   Jared looked down at the floor, eyes watering. “No, but I don’t want to die

either.”

   “I know, Jared. I know.” Neither did she.

   When she next checked the outside, the screen showed only an empty cor-

ridor.

   Empty of air as well, no doubt.


CHAPTER TWELVE


The bulkhead doors throughout Queen Mohmbasa all thudded shut simul-

taneously.

   “Commence departure prep,” a toneless warning protocol advised the en-

tire ship.

   Nashara stirred. The orientation of the walls shifted, the floor ceased be-

ing, and all sense of up and down floated away. She twisted around and put a

foot to the blue wall on her left.

   The ship’s engine groaned. The walls vibrated, the air around her

hummed, and the inside of Nashara’s head pounded. Gently the blue wall be-

came the new floor as the ship accelerated.

   She stood and looked around, still a bit wobbly.

   The door hissed open.

   “You up?” the man at the door said. He stood five feet eight, with lithe

musculature under well-fitting industrial-templated paper coveralls. Graying

dreads hung around his head and the tangle of his beard. Two polished sticks

hung from either side of a brown belt.

   “Barely.” Nashara blinked as the shivering stopped. The man adjusted

himself so that he hung in the air before her.

   Another automatic warning filled the cabin: “Lane approach. Acceleration in

five minutes.” The world shifted, orientation and gravity falling away from her.

   “The captain want see you.” The sound of the New Anegadan dialect re-

laxed her. At least one thing about Ragamuffins hadn’t changed.

   Nashara pushed off toward him. “Okay.”

   The dreadlocked man slapped the doorframe and floated clear. He held a

palm-sized gun aimed at her. And he kept at least ten feet clear of her.

   Tension. Even in friendly territory.

   He directed her downshaft. Or at least Nashara assumed so. Even, vertical

shafts; odd, horizontal. Assuming the cylindrical body of the ship accelerated

along a lengthwise axis.

   Nashara held up her wrist screen, but nothing appeared. She’d been shut

of the ship’s lamina. Odd.

   “What’s your name?” Nashara kept the comfortable double body-length

between them for his comfort. She looked back at her toes. “I can’t access any

ship information.”

   He flipped a lone dreadlock out of the way and kept the pistol aimed dead

at her. His hazel-brown eyes waited for any sudden movement. “Ijjy.”

   “Ijjy?”

   “Ian Johnson if you looking up official records. Ijjy to me friend them.”

   “Okay, Ijjy.”

   “Lady, you ain’t no friend.” Nothing in those eyes for her. Not annoyance,

hatred, friendliness.

   Nashara turned back around to face the direction they coasted in. “Okay,

Ian.”

   They passed on in silence. The Mohmbasa’s corridors here screamed age.

Warped bulkheads with airtight doors that didn’t even shut properly. Bits of

corroded metal flaked off and floated in the air near faded lettering. Access

panels with hastily patched fiber optics and conductives remained open, ex-

posing the ship’s guts.

   But the next section’s damage wasn’t age. Fresh emergency sealant. Corri-

dor after corridor saw great gobs of the gooey, gray stuff that had hardened

just after being pulled this way and that by gloved hands of some emergency

crew. They had attempted to get the ship airtight again as the expanding goop

solidified. The ship had suffered a major disaster to have sealant patching al-

most every hullside wall for the past several hundred feet.

   She realized why the silence bothered her.

   “Where is everyone?” A ship like the Mohmbasa had several hundred living

aboard it. If it was Raga, whole families lived aboard.

   Ijjy looked over at the hasty repairs. “That the least of what all happen.

The other side the ship even worse. Only ten percent of the Queen airtight.

The rest . . .” He shrugged.

   “Survivors?”

   The tired brown eyes again. Not patient, or waiting for her to move. Some-

thing far more hollow. “Gone. Just three now.”

   Nashara looked back at the tortured goop. “What in the hell have I got

myself into?”

   “A whole lot more shit than what you running from.”


#


The Queen Mohmbasa’s captain was cyborged out and looked as if he hadn’t

slept in days. Or maybe longer. Extra head-casing gleamed in the dull light of

the cockpit, high-bandwidth optical jacks ran up the side of his left arm. No

doubt he was as much a mechanical human as an organic human. The type

of captain that only a ship could slowly create over the decades, influencing

him to keep adding more and more features to himself to become more a part

of what he controlled.

   He looked her over with one dilated eye; the other remained half-closed

and reflecting tiny images bounced off the back of the retina. Nashara would

bet that this man never left the confines of the ship’s immediate lamina. Get-

ting cut off from the cloud of data that filled and brimmed out of the ship

would be like losing half his mind.

   But the rest of him was mahogany, and if not for the head casing, he would

have had beautiful curled hair.

   “Hello, Nashara,” he said. Just in those words she could hear a strong

upper-Anglic accent, smooth, but still with traces of the standard Raga dialect.

“You say you are Raga?”

   “You took a DNA sample off me, you tell me.” They faced each other in

the spherical cockpit of the Mohmbasa, deep within the center of the ship.

The captain’s chair hung from the top of the cockpit. “So you know who I am.

Who are you?”

   Nashara hung off one of the rails crisscrossing through the cockpit cham-

ber. Wood trim decorated several of the four stations arranged equidistantly

from the captain. An incredible luxury if real, and Nashara suspected that it

was. The Ragamuffins remembered the islands on Earth that they came from.

   The captain smiled. He palmed a small vial from the pocket of his black

overalls and nudged it through the air at her. “I am the Captain Jamar Sinjin

Smith of Queen Mohmbasa.”

   “Pleased.” Nashara snagged the vial out of the air and pocketed it. “Thanks

for giving me my DNA back.”

   Jamar held out his hand and twisted it to let the light catch the optical

jacks. Green flesh rotted between implant and skin. “Aboard ship one doesn’t

get much exposure to infectious environments, particularly if you’re born

into it. The ship’s pharma was destroyed, and we’re out of vitamin supple-

ments, plasma, super antibiotics, and antifungals. Half an hour more and we

would have had those aboard thanks to sympathizers in that habitat. But

more importantly,” and each of his words became a calm whipcrack, “and I

hope you understand this, your intrusion represents an even more fundamen-

tal problem for us in that we were never able to refuel.” He crossed his arms

and regarded her.

   Nashara returned the gaze just as calmly. “I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”

   “Why are they after you? What have you done?” Jamar twisted and leaned

in closer to her. “And what do you want out of us?”

   Nashara nodded. “No dancing around with you. Yes, I am Blood. I could

order you around. I could take your ship. But I don’t want your ship. I’d rather

not cause any trouble with you, but I had to make some kind of choice. I’m

dodging the Hongguo. If we outrun them, drop me at the next station. I’ll

melt right back into the crowd. If we can’t outrun them, you can toss me out

the air lock and make a getaway.”

   He sat and thought about the latter, she could tell. She sped her heart up

and felt the fizzing rush of oxygen burst through her again. She sucked in a

deep breath of air and calmed herself down. “If we dock again, I can even get

you some of the medicines you need again.”

   “It isn’t that simple.” Jamar shook his head. “They’re after us too. More

than likely if we shove you out the air lock, they’ll still come after the ship

first, then go back for you. Or they’d split up.”

   “Split up?” Nashara looked back at him with newfound respect. “More

than one Hongguo ship’s chasing you?”

   Jamar nodded. “Four or five midsized ships downstream. I’d feel accurate

in guessing that more are coming down our way from Thule. It’s a logical

choke point, but we can’t be sure since the blackout. We gave the others a

black eye. They didn’t expect our maneuverability. The Shengfen Hao, the fel-

lows you got to deal with, is more savvy. That ship’s still with us.”

   “What have you done?” Petty smuggling got Port Authority or individual

habitat security forces after you. Maybe even bounty hunters. Hongguo only

got involved in development issues. “Passing on very illegal technology out-

side the Satrap’s control?”

   “Your DNA indicates that you are not just Raga, but Blood, Nashara.”

Upper-class Raga, descended from the great founder of the Black Starliner

Corporation, yes, Nashara thought. And a bit more than just descendant. Di-

rect clone of the founder as well, with all the baggage that came with that.

More baggage she didn’t want from the men who had single-handedly cre-

ated Chimson and New Anegada. But it got their attention, which was just

what Nashara’s creators wanted.

   Jamar waved his hand, and her wrist screen lit up. She’d been let into the

ship’s world. “This is just a higgler ship. Traders and sellers. We have no

weapons. Since Chimson and New Anegada’s wormholes got cut off, we’ve

just been scraping by out in space. No base of operations, really. Ragamuffins?

All we are is a habitat and some ships. Mostly we are left alone if we stay

quiet. So understand the importance of this: the Hongguo hunt my ship be-

cause they’re hunting all Ragamuffins now. I’m pretty sure the Satrapy wants

us wiped out.”

    Ragamuffin ships smuggled anything black market, as well as a shitload of

illegal tech. Nothing new there.

    The Hongguo had kept tabs on the creaky old merchanters of the Black

Starliner Corporation ever since it had been founded, back when it helped

ship islanders out from Earth by the hundreds of thousands. Enough that the

company disbanded, each ship claiming now to be an independent owner and

operator.

    Even closer attention had been paid when the corporation started to de-

fend its newly settled worlds. The mercenary arm called itself Ragamuffins. A

ragtag group of ships armed to fight against outside threats to New Anegada

and Chimson.

    So now the Black Starliner Corporation didn’t exist. The Ragamuffins and

the Hongguo now played tag, and finder’s keepers. But since Chimson and

New Anegada had collapsed, only three ships had been destroyed in the deep

dark between habitats.

    Usually the Hongguo put up a stink just outside legal lane areas, boarded

a ship, and combed it thoroughly. Punishment involved heavy fines, loss of

visa privileges to a given system, or even occasional “recruitment” of crew to

the zhen cha.

    Ragamuffin ships conceded the boarding if maneuvered into an awkward

holeor ran like hell.

    No one got hurt. A spaceship was an investment in the billions. Neither

Hongguo nor Ragamuffin wanted ship damage.

    But Jamar Sinjin Smith’s story played out different. A convoy of five Raga

ships set out for Dragin, just plain higglers looking to trade for bottled anti-

matter at a friendly habitat.

    “They were waiting,” Jamar said. His voice repeated what he had just said

from the speakers in the cockpit around Nashara. “The Windseeker kept

thinking they detected something out in the dust three wormholes down-

stream of Dragin. We got pretty jittery, decided to keep close.

    “They hit us the moment we transited. Two ships, destroyed, in four min-

utes.”

    “Two whole ships?”

   “They boosted right in after us and we scattered. We were terrified, not

thinking straight. No one ever saw anything like this. Not since New Ane-

gada. And that was the wrong move. They blocked the downstream worm-

hole we’d just come through, and they had the upstream one blocked as well.

And for Dragin, that’s it. No more choices. They’d trapped us.

   “They hunted the Windseeker down first. Aliyah X kept calling out over

every single frequency, pleading. She said she would let them board. She said

she hadn’t done anything illegal. And then, just static.” Jamar’s reflective eyes

drilled into Nashara’s as he continued, his sentences clipped short, his tone

breathless. “Instead of running and being rounded up, I headed like hell right

at the upstream wormhole, taking missile hits and energy beams the whole

way, damage crew working constantly to keep us up and running. Everyone

suited up against vacuum.”

   “That’s insane.” Nashara leaned forward. “You had families aboard.”

   “They would have hunted us down.” Jamar folded his legs into a lotus posi-

tion and rotated forward toward her. “That was their plan. We threw drones,

wastewater, garbage, spare parts, anything we could think of, ahead of the

ship. Rotated on our tail to fire the engines right at them before transit. And

that’s when the cockpit crew noticed Dragin’s habitat was gone.”

   “Gone?”

   “Dragin-Above, when we swept the area, all we got pings back on was de-

bris.”

   “They destroyed a habitat.” And all the thousands aboard it. Nashara swal-

lowed. Something was going horribly wrong out there. “It’s like living back in

the days when Chimson declared independence and the Satrapy ordered it

put down.”

   “In more ways than you think,” Jamar said. “We saw the Gulong there, be-

fore we transited upstream.”

   “I’ve seen the Gulong before,” Nashara whispered. A five-mile-long, slen-

der, mirrored needle of a machine. It was not just the Hongguo flagship. The

mile-long needled spike at the front had a function. “When it shut the worm-

hole down to Chimson.”

   Jamar looked through her and sighed. “I’ve seen it once now. I hope to

never see it again. Nashara, why are you here?”

   “Hospitality. Help. Place to run to.” Until the Hongguo caught up with

them.

   “Nashara, we actually need your help,” Jamar said. “Scanning you when

you came aboard, we can tell you can meld with the ship. You have the neu-

ral prosthetics. I need you to captain the Queen with me. I haven’t slept in

two weeks.” He was close to collapse. Probably been cycling different sides of

his brain’s hemispheres eight hours each.

    Damn. They’d been seeing their captain dog-tired, nerves frayed. Then

they’d see him left-brained and creative, totally disorganized and touchy-

feely, and then anal and orderly and constrained. Cycling over and over every

day as he struggled to remain one with his ship and bring them all through in

one piece. With no sleep as he tried to remain alert at every second.

    He was a hero, and she was turning him down. “I can’t.”

    Jamar folded in on himself and cradled his head. “I only have two crew

left,” he murmured through his fingers. “Hanging by a thread. All I want to

do is sleep. Sleep forever and just stop this all, goddamnit.”

    “I can’t do that, Jamar.”

    “I order you.”

    She stared him back. Predatory, muscles tensed, every minute cell calcu-

lating the distance and time involved. “No.” A calm, single word.

    He was dead already, he just didn’t know it. He wouldn’t push her that

far, and if she had to take the ship, he’d never get it back. She’d never get her-

self back. She wasn’t sure if that was worse than dying, but they weren’t in

enough danger for her to risk plugging directly into the ship.

    Maybe as the Hongguo got closer. In a day or two. If it really remained

her only chance of survival. Yes. But until then: “I swear to you. If there’s

anything else I can do, I’ll do it.”

    He must have seen something in her eyes. She willed him to understand it,

and he shivered as she stared at him. He backed off the subject.

    “Fuel.” Jamar’s shoulders shook. “We can run if we have fuel. Every off-

angled wormhole transit we have to adjust for costs, every maneuver when

the Hongguo ships get close costs. We can keep running. We’re that much

faster than them. But we don’t have the fuel.”

    He was crying. Nashara stared at a spot of wood trim behind the captain’s

shoulder, trying to pretend it wasn’t happening. For both of them. “Swear,

they were all so beautiful. Each tiny life, gone. Fireflies in the night, snuffed

out by a foul wind of those sick creatures that dare call themselves human be-

ings. Hongguo.” He spit the name out.

    Then the tears stopped. Jamar straightened up. Ramrod. His eyes glittered

again. He was cycling hemispheres, right there. Not on eight-hour runs, but

randomly, as his brain gave out in sheer exhaustion.

   “Captain Sinjin Smith?”

   “Fuel,” he grated the word out. “Find me fuel. Antimatter. You have access

to the whole ship; we use the Ragalamina aboard here, not the Satrapy stan-

dard. So adjust your little wrist trinket accordingly if you won’t access di-

rectly. At one standard g we have exactly one hundred minutes and forty

seconds of acceleration left. Without the fuel we were to get we are unable to

escape the Hongguo, and they’ve been jamming our attempts to forward

messages. We have to get away, head downstream, and pass the message on to

the other Ragamuffin ships before the Hongguo attack them as well. You un-

derstand?”

   Nashara nodded carefully.

   “Welcome aboard the Queen Mohmbasa, then.”

   “Thank you.”

   She had jumped out of the pan and into the fire.


CHAPTER THIRTEEN


Free to float through the ship, Nashara shot her way back to the room she’d

come from. Ijjy still kept his distance from her, but he showed her back

through the corridors.

   As they coasted, Nashara tapped the wrist screen. She got it synced in with

the ship’s network. The Ragalamina probably creaked through a neural inter-

face, but it worked well on a wrist screen. Very two-dimensional, used to taps

and menus. It had been developed out of a several-hundred-year-old set of

cobbled-together human software systems. Legacy of a time when humans

tried to make everything themselves. It was nice to be back in familiar envi-

rons.

   The Queen Mohmbasa’s lights flickered off and everything fell into pitch

black. Emergency luminescent strips ran along parts of the corridor, but emer-

gency sealant over the damaged sections left huge swathes of the area a dark

pit. Nashara slammed into a hard lump of the stuff and grabbed hold.

   “Should I be worried?” Nashara asked the dark as she tried to access her

wrist display. Nothing. Must have been an electromagnetic-pulse weapon

that hit them.

   “Only if the backup system don’t come on.” Ijjy’s voice came from farther

down the corridor. “Feel the engine still running?”

   Nashara closed her eyes and focused on her fingertips. “Yes.” It thrummed

through the sealant, the vibration reaching everywhere.

   “Got no need to panic just yet, then.”

   A set of emergency lights flickered back on. The wrist screen lit up and

error-checked itself.

   “Come. The room you in for visitors,” Ijjy said. “Whole lot of the other

room free closer by the cockpit. Captain say you could take one of them.”

   “Thanks, but no.” She knew if she took a former crewmember’s room Ijjy

would be annoyed. And she was probably not welcome in the cockpit until

she had helped find a solution for the fuel problem.

   Nashara paused outside the door. “I’ve met you, and the captain of the

ship. You said three survivors. Who’s left?”

   “Sean. Out working on fixing things.”

   “The captain wants me to help find a way to get fuel. Are there any other

Raga-friendly habitats downstream of here?”

   “Dragin-Above,” Ijjy said.

   “But they don’t exist anymore.”

   “Seen.” Ijjy brushed a dreadlock aside.

   “You given up?”

   He straightened in the air. “You ain’t seen half the shit we seen, I tired, not

whipped, hear?”

   Good. Nashara turned back into the room without further comment.

   The guest room’s walls turned to screens. Nashara used them to display

information coming from the Queen’s tactical updates. Sensor maps of the

area, trajectory projections, colored the walls with long, curving lines with

dots moving along them.

   The Queen Mohmbasa pushed the legal lane speed from the habitat and

climbed into a higher and higher orbit, racking up fines and complaints from

a distant Port Authority. Camera shots of the hull drove home the tattered

condition of the ship. It was blind dumb luck that Nashara had pulled her-

self aboard in an untouched area of the ship. These areas she roamed through

now featured gaping rips and tears in the hull that hardened, shapeless foam

pushed out of. Black streaks and craters everywhere. She shook her head.

   Jamar edged them just a little bit higher and ahead every second. The

Hongguo were holding back on attacking them in such a public space.

   The two wormholes here orbited high above Bujantjor and followed each

other closely. The leading one led upstream to Thule via several more worm-

holes. The trailing wormhole led downstream to a nexus, giving one the

choice of Tsushima or forking over to Yomi. Either way eventually lead to Ys,

and from there downstream was the dead wormhole to New Anegada.

   Though most of the parties around Bujantjor chose to keep their distance

from the wormholes, a few small structures cluttered nearby to offer ship re-

pair or depot services.

   A few security drones fired thrusters to lower their orbits and move to in-

tercept. Satellites and other ships cluttered the map.

   Nashara strapped herself into the acceleration chair as warnings kicked on.

Jamar broke all lane-speed limits, three gravities of acceleration pushing

Nashara hard against her restraints as alarms still blared.

   “We’ll never be welcome here again,” Ijjy muttered over the ship’s open

channel.

   A third voice, Sean’s, chuckled back. “If we get home, I ain’t coming

here.”

  

   Oscillations shook the ship. Jamar added another half g to the acceleration

and dumped what looked like a cloud of chaff in a carefully plotted arc right by

the mouthes of the wormholes. Wastewater and garbage, Jamar had told her.

   Radar stabbed out from the Hongguo behind them.

   The Queen rose too quickly as they caught up to the wormholes, they were

going to overshoot. Garbage filled the display, washing out everything. Then

the Queen Mohmbasa spun itself around and the drives fired. Three, four,

then five g’s of acceleration.

   The ship dived for the wormhole, covered by a jettisoned cloud of confu-

sion. Any mistake now while accelerating, adjusting, not putting them dead

center through the wormhole would see them coming out the other side of

the wormhole in pieces.

   Jamar would be one with his ship, a hivemind of shipwide calculations

ripping through his head as they hit the wormhole at the blink of an eye.

   Nashara smiled just before she felt her stomach flip, the world turn inside

out and then back, and a chime sounded.

   “Wormhole transition complete.”

   Bull’s-eye. Jamar appeared on her wrist screen. “We beat them here, so

they’ll come through slow and cautious, drones first, looking for surprises.”

They had the jump, just not the fuel to continue. Jamar drew the new figure

into the air. They’d eaten up a fifth of their stored fuel in that little activity.

“We need to find fuel. Ijjy’s hunting down leads as well.”

   “I’ll find your fuel.” Ys lay downstream, the last of the tightly controlled

Satrapic worlds. If she got them fuel, she might also find a way to get off this

hunted ship. Get into one of the shipping depots and find a way to get out of

this mess.

   Nashara started querying the Queen Mohmbasa’s databases for what re-

sources lay out there.

   Possibilities. The buoys around the wormholes held the latest info about

fuel prices, maps, and passed on information of interest to ships like this.

The blackout froze them, but Nashara had all the previous pieces of informa-

tion to sift through from before it fell.

   Several minutes of searching turned up only dispiriting findings. Fuel ran

expensive right now. Several waves of price shocks and inflationary pressures

putting the quantities they’d need for running and fighting out of the ship’s

reach. The Queen Mohmbasa had no formal credit accounts. What gold or sil-

ver they had aboard was not going to be enough.

   They could, Nashara thought, just take it. Everyone labeled the Raga-

muffins pirates anyway.

   She perked up and reset her filters and found something odd enough to

catch her attention. A distress call from the carefully controlled confines of

Ys. From the habitat the Satrap there inhabited.

   This far downstream, Ys was a distant frontier for a Satrap. Most Satraps

dwelled past Thule, except this notoriously silent and withdrawn one.

   The Hongguo wouldn’t expect the Queen to run straight into the arms of

a Satrap, now would they?

   Nashara leaned back and let her breath out. Her duty was to hand herself

over to the Ragamuffins. But to this doomed ship? Would it make it all the

way back so she could hand herself over to the Ragamuffin council leaders?

And what were the Raga now but a sorry group of tattered merchant ships

huddling on the other end of a burnt-out wormhole, harried and harassed by

the rest of the worlds. How would she help them?

   There was no Earth, no Chimson, no New Anegada for her to go to. Just

humanity scuttling around underfoot of their alien superiors. She had no

home. Any future would involve running.

   Nashara leaned forward, tired. If Jamar was right that the Hongguo were

out to destroy the Ragamuffins, then hiding out wouldn’t help them any. She

needed to help any way she could right now.

   And it was better to run while well fueled, she thought.


#


Three hours later Nashara met Sean outside the cockpit. Covered in grease,

cut up, and his eyes wary, he sized her up. She returned the critical gaze: a

built man, but not natural muscle, she could tell just by the way he held him-

self. She spotted one pistol holstered by the ankle, another under his left

shoulder, and a two-foot-long, varnished stick hung from his belt. Well armed.

She liked that in a man.

   “Nashara.” He shook her hand.

   “You’re Sean?”

   A nod. Nashara squeezed past him into the cockpit and looked back.

“Nice wood.”

   He blinked and looked down at his hip. “Thanks. It’s from Earth.” He

pulled the stick free and handed it to her. Confident.

   “Kalinda?” It was a stick-fighting martial art common among the Raga-

muffins.

    "Yeah. You fight?”

    “Capoeira,” Nashara said. “Usually with machetes. You?” She rolled up the

sleeve of her shirt.

    “You a mongoose?” That broke the ice. Sean rolled up his sleeve to reveal the

same tattoo Nashara had. Among the Ragamuffins the mongoose-men were an

elite set of fighting specialists, the wickedest tools in the Ragamuffin arsenal.

    Ijjy appeared and Nashara noticed the two sticks in his belt again. Kalinda

as well? Ijjy wobbled through the air at them and tossed her a covered cup

and a pouch. “Real food.” He grinned.

    Nashara caught them and looked at them. Ginger beer, and some stew in

the pouch. Homemade. “What is it?”

    “Peas and dumplings,” Sean said. “Need to use it up before it go bad.

Made it back when we could still cook.”

    Nashara twisted the top and squirted. The ginger beer triggered memories

of sitting around with friends before armoring up and heading out to fly

wormhole patrols.

    The back of her head prickled. Didn’t need those memories. She pocketed

the ginger beer and stew. “Thanks, I’ll eat these later.” She floated into the

cockpit, over to a screen, and tapped her wrist to bring up what she needed.

    “You have something for us?” Jamar opened a single eye.

    “Yes.” Nashara faced them and tapped the screen.

    “This is Kara, from Agathonosis,” the screen vibrated. “We’re starving.

They’re killing each other inside.

    “Please send help, whoever hears this. We only have days left. Oh, shit. Strata-

toi have found us.”

    “What the hell a stratatoi?” Ijjy asked.

    Nashara shrugged. “Maybe station security? Don’t know, not important.

What is important is that this was passed on by a ship called Toucan Too that

was going to swing by the habitat to see what was going on. The habitat this

little girl is caling from seems to be in crisis, and it’s just hanging in empty

space near the upstream wormhole at Ys. The habitat Agathonosis will be the

last place anyone expects us, and I will bet has fuel.”

    Ijjy was already shaking his head. “No way, man.”

    “This is a Satrap’s habitat,” Jamar said softly. The Satraps hunkered in

their forty-eight habitats ruling from deep inside the massive structures they

had built around them. The Satrapy may have emancipated humans, but in a

Satrap’s own habitat no one had much in the way of freedom.

   “True.” Nashara tugged at her collar. “But the Satraps rely on the Hongguo

to police humans, and similar organizations for the other aliens. They don’t do

their own dirty work, making Agathonosis a safe place for us because the Hong-

guo wouldn’t think to look for us there. It’s close to the downstream wormhole

out of Ys.”

   Jamar looked at his two remaining crewmembers. “What do you think?”

   “Idiocy,” Sean growled. “I say we need keep running.”

   “We simply don’t have the fuel.” Jamar closed his eye.

   Ijjy looked at Nashara. “No one else closer?”

   “Not with fuel you can afford.”

   “People in them habitats with the Satraps,” Ijjy snapped, “they hardly

more than slaves. We never get involve with that.”

   “I know.” Nashara felt tired. “But as it is, if the Hongguo start catching

up, we’ll barely make to Ys ahead of them, right, Jamar?”

   “Yes.”

   Nashara pushed off into the center of the cockpit. “Agathonosis is our

only hope to warn the rest of the Ragamuffins that the Hongguo are after

you,” and herself. “It’s risky, but so is getting destroyed in the dead of space.

I say we see if we can buy or steal the fuel.”

   They still looked dubious.

   “Hey.” Nashara looked at them all. “I’m good at that sort of thing. If

there’s fuel to get, one way or another, I’m your gal.”

   Jamar sighed. “Prepare for acceleration. Fifteen-minute count. Secure the

ship.”

   “Damnit, Jamar, this go be a huge mistake.” Ijjy spun around and leapt

out of the cockpit, bouncing off toward the rooms.

   Sean turned to follow, but Jamar raised a hand. “I haven’t committed to

anything yet, understand? Just giving us the option to stop at Agathonosis.”

   “Don’t spend too much time listening to what all she say,” Sean said.

“Don’t forget, she ain’t seen half what we already gone through.”

   He left with a single angry push.

   “Looks like I’m not so popular,” Nashara observed.

   Jamar opened his bloodshot eyes. “You go easy on them,” he warned.

   “We’re all edgy. It’s almost a suicide mission, right?”

   He unstrapped himself. Nashara bumped over to his chair as the gentle

rumble of engines started up. She sank slowly toward one of the curved walls.

He grabbed her hands. “Come, I want to show you something.”

   She hesitated. There was a lot of prep to be done. But she could see he

needed something, badly, and she couldn’t turn him down.

   He hobbled slowly with her for a long time, past the galley, past crew

rooms and niches. And finally he stopped, much farther forward.

   “See that?” He pointed out a small brass plaque mounted behind glass into

the side of the corridor. “My great-grandfather put that on the Queen him-

self, the day the Black Starliner Corporation first met. All four broken-down

ships were there, leaking air, barely able to make a few wormholes before

breaking down.”

   The plaque, green with age, declared the Queen Mohmbasa a BSC found-

ing ship.

   “You should be Blood,” Nashara said. She hadn’t realized the ship was

hundreds of years old; no doubt hardly an original part existed on it any-

more. “Your family was there when it all started.” The exodus from Earth,

trying to find worlds to call their own and finding them all occupied. The ter-

raforming, the attacks by aliens opposed to seeing free humans docking at

their habitats.

   Jamar shrugged. “Grandpa Jamal was never a leading type. Just wanted to

deliver people to a promised land. He lived on Earth, before they cut them-

selves off. He told me how things were like back then, our nations still strug-

gling, still ceding to the other larger nations. He believed just one planet of

our own and we could break all that to start anew.”

   “Sad, if you think about it,” Nashara said.

   Jamar turned. “Sad?”

   “Sad. Sad that they agreed to do the old superpowers a favor and keep

working on illegal technologies while hunkering down in their little planetary

reservations,” Nashara spat. “We were fall guys.”

   Jamar looked startled. “That’s harsh.”

   Nashara snorted. “Sure they’d give us a planet, while they kept orbitals

overhead and control of the wormholes. We were their goddamned little ex-

periments, Jamar, and they all should have guessed that from the beginning.

And if it all went wrong, well, no need for the Hongguo to come, they’d start

the job from up on high so that they didn’t get discovered.”

   Jamar pulled himself closer to her. “You come from New Anegada or

Chimson?”

   “Chimson.” She missed it. Missed beaches and swimming and the skies

and the dark red forests.

   “My grandparents were in Chimson,” Jamar said.

   Nashara looked at the aged plaque. Jamar deserved to know her little se-

cret. “After the Hongguo destroyed the wormhole, Chimson built a starship.

A true starship, not one of these little things that pops around using the

wormholes. They loaded it with ten of us who could live long enough to reach

the nearest wormhole, and each of us had a weapon we were to bring to New

Anegada, to help them.”

   “Does this have something to do with why you won’t help me pilot my

ship?” His breath brushed her cheek. It smelled of protein bars and juice.

   “Yes,” she whispered.

   Jamar sighed and let go of her. Nashara stepped back. “All ten of us were

women, Jamar. We gave up our wombs and in return were fitted with quan-

tum computers running intrusion devices that can overpower lamina and

make it extensions of our minds. It would be like being one with your ship,

but anywhere. Your mind replicates, copying itself endlessly until you have

control of all it is in contact with.”

   He looked at her, face pained. “Your wombs?”

   “I saw what happened to the other nine when they attacked the Hongguo

who intercepted our ship. They destroyed the Hongguo ship, but their bod-

ies died as they took over the Hongguo ship’s lamina. It’s a bomb. You can’t

unexplode it, and when it happens, you are that lamina. You’re no longer hu-

man.”

   “Ragalamina isn’t Satrapic lamina.”

   “Which could make it worse.”

   “Or better.”

   “There’s only one way to find out, Jamar, and I’m not willing to do that

right now. I want to deliver this thing inside me to someone who can study it.

I don’t want to pull a trigger on something that’s wired right into my head. So

I’m going to have to stick with you and help you survive so I can do that.”

   “You know, even with your weapon, you couldn’t help New Anegada. I

was there in the closing moments.” Jamar tapped the plaque.

   “And?”

   “The battles were all but lost, the planet being bombarded. The aliens had

cloned human assassins and soldiers as ground troops. We kept a lot of this

stuff quiet; many wouldn’t know that the Hongguo didn’t shut the worm-

hole leading to New Anegada down. We did. And the wave of electromag-

netic energy that hit everything left the Queen, even on the other side of the

wormhole, dead until we got towed. Whoever is left on New Anegada is prob-

ably living in the Stone Age. The Teotl no doubt suffered the same fate.”

    “Teotl? Is that what they called themselves?” Nashara asked.

    “No, that was us. The first time we saw a Teotl warrior with a flayed hu-

man skin as a cape . . . it’s the Azteca name for god, and it was a comment

that stuck.”

    “You think we’re destined to drift between the wormholes, dodging about

underfoot everything else?”

    Jamar looked at her. “We seem to have a better success rate when doing

that, yes. Come with me.”

    He found a downshaft, turned them around several times, and led her to

a series of air locks.

    Nashara looked in through the windows. “Shuttles?”

    “Shuttles.” Jamar looked up at her, thoughtful. “When it really gets bad, I

want you to promise me you’ll save the crew.”

    “Promise? I can’t make that promise.”

    He grabbed her hand. “Promise. Nashara, they’re not going to stop com-

ing, and if what you told me is true, you will be their only help if the Hong-

guo catch us.”

    “Jamar, I’ll die if I unleash this, just like my colleagues did.”

    “You’ll die anyway if the Hongguo catch you,” he hissed. “But at least

you’ll die saving someone. You understand? You weren’t sent out here by your

superiors to squander this, but to use it to help people. So do so.”

    “And what, get shot out of the sky in a shuttle?” Nashara turned away from

the bay windows.

    “If I cover you in enough cast-off garbage to hide your run past a worm-

hole out in the system and lead them on a chase, you can hide out until this

all finishes.”

    “No offense, Captain, that’s just as crazy as my idea. We have Agathono-

sis, and some time to hunt for fuel. Let me go in there. I’m good at this sort

of thing.”

    “Maybe. I think someone is following,” Jamar said. “I’m getting backscat-

ter and echoes every time I sweep the area behind us. Besides, we have no

credit here, no sympathizers, not enough to barter for fuel with.”

    “When I said I was good at this sort of thing, I didn’t mean bargaining

over price.” Nashara scratched her itchy scalp. Her hair had started growing

back in since her vacuum-jumping stunt. The ability to quickly heal applied

to that as well. “I’m not just a pretty face here. If there is some sort of insur-

rection happening in Agathonosis, it makes for a nice cover. Drop me off via

shuttle, give me ten hours. If I can’t make it happen, leave me.”

   “You going to skip out on us?”

   “That’s bullshit,” Nashara said. “Don’t try and jerk me around. I owe you

nothing, but I’m going to stick my neck out for you.”

   “Did it really need to take you years to get to us? And almost too late now?

If you really have a superweapon buried in you, it could have been useful be-

fore all this.”

   Nashara grabbed him. “I got delayed in Pitt’s Cross. I couldn’t get the fuck

off that shithole without killing people and almost getting caught. I wouldn’t

have done much good as a Hongguo test subject, or captured by a Gahe

hunting pack, would I?”

   “I’m just saying.” Jamar grabbed her wrists. “You’re still a bit fuzzy around

the edges, you’re still complicating our lives, not making them simpler.”

   Nashara let him go. “I’m sorry to have disturbed your routine, but you

were deep in it when I arrived, I only hastened the conclusion. Don’t blame

me for your problems, I’m trying to help.”

   “By talking us into storming a Satrap’s habitat?”

   “I’m the one offering to do the storming. And if you can pull a better idea

out of your ass, I’m happy to go along. You have, however, a limited amount

of time to come to a decision because Agathonosis is just a day away.”

   Jamar nodded. “I’m only angry because I can’t come up with a better solu-

tion.”

   “You’re in?”

   “Until something better comes up. What will you need?”

   “I know your ship is armed only with an engine and garbage for chaff, but

please tell me you have some small arms aboard.”

   “I’ll have Sean and Ijjy bring everything to you.”

   “It’ll be okay, Jamar.”

   He ignored her and drifted off.

   But she wasn’t so sure, though. Messing around with aliens never ended well.

   Never had.

   Sean and Ijjy came to the guest room several hours later towing a large

duffel bag behind them.

   Ijjy unzipped it and let the contents float out. Pistols, machetes, a few ma-

chine guns, dynamiteall hung in the air in front of her.

  

    Nashara snagged a machete out of the air and tested the edge with a finger.

“Thanks.”

    “You going in alone?” Ijjy asked.

    “An antimatter cell weighs, what, a few hundred pounds in habitat grav-

ity?”

    “Yeah.” Ijjy looked her over. “You got that. But we still think we coming

with you.”

    Nashara looked at Sean. “You’re a mongoose-man, I can use your help.

Ijjy, I don’t want you to risk your life.”

    Ijjy looked at the nearest pistol. “Oh, see, a whole lot history don’t exist

between you and me, I can handle myself, thank you. I coming anyway, you

need all the help you can get, and I want make sure we get that damn fuel,

seen?”

    They didn’t trust her to get the fuel alone, didn’t trust her not to disappear

into the habitat. “Seen. But I run the show.”

    Sean raised an eyebrow. “I know you come from a group of Ragamuffin

with all the stuff of legend. Like vacuum protection, bulletproof skin

    “Dearie,” Nashara interrupted. She handed the machete. “Don’t. Tell you,

if you want to be in charge, draw blood.”

    He stared at her. “Blood?”

    “Just a drop. I do have bulletproof skin.”

    He struck, and Nashara rippled out of the way with a shrug. He slashed

again, but she grabbed the back end of the blade and flung behind her hard

enough to propel her into Sean.

    She casually bent both his arms back behind him. “If I’m going to risk my

life for you, the moment I step off this ship I’m your captain, understand?”

    Ijjy started laughing at them both. Nashara let Sean go, and he pushed out

of the room.

    “Do I need to prove something to you too?” Nashara asked Ijjy.

    “Lady Nashara I knew you was a sackful of danger the moment I drag you

in through the air lock.” He saluted her. “You just bust he ego down a bit,

Captain, nothing wrong with it, he go survive.”

    “Good.” Nashara looked at the duffel bag. “Help me repack all this?”

    Ijjy nodded. “Yeah, we go need it all.”


CHAPTER FOURTEEN


Nashara’s stomach flip-flopped. Prefight jitters.

   “Approaching Agathonosis,” Jamar announced. His eyes remained

closed, his skeletal frame strapped and webbed into the captain’s command

chair. “No navigation buoys, no Port Authority. Oddly quiet around here.”

   It was odd for a habitat to be so silent at the arrival of a ship. They usually

had particular preferences about how to be approached, who docked where,

and who was allowed to approach. Particularly ones with Satraps living in

them.

   The habitat floated high in orbit around Ys, an uninhabitable terrestrial

world due to a series of nuclear wars on its surface hundreds of years before

humanity ever took its first step into space. A large mirror hung between the

habitat and any view of the planet, though, to help light up the interior in ad-

dition to the usual sunline.

   “What you thinking?” Ijjy asked.

   “Jamar, any ships docked? Anything floating nearby? It would be easier if

we could raid them for fuel.”

   Agathonosis was starting to feel like a graveyard.

   “I’m not seeing anything. This is interesting.” Jamar opened his eyes. The

front of the cockpit lit up to display a section of the habitat: a great expanse

of gleaming glass down the central curve. Air steamed out of cracks, becom-

ing crystalline as it froze and spewed out into space.

   “The glass is covered in sediment,” Nashara observed.

   “Sludge,” Sean said. “Like the entire ecosphere in there fell apart.”

   “Some kind of attack had to have caused this. The Satrapy would never al-

low anything like that. They’re control freaks,” Nashara said.

   “Even more reason to be alert,” Jamar said. “This is very strange. We al-

ready saw Dragin-Above destroyed by the Hongguo. Could they have done

this as well?”

   “Turn on the Satraps? Nah.” Ijjy shook his head. “They loyal to them.”

   “I agree,” said Nashara. “Could be the humans in this habitat revolted,

like at Chimson.”

   “But they would at least hail us,” Jamar said.

   “Are you getting anyone?” Nashara asked. “Even the girl?”

   Jamar shook his head. “Nothing. Static and more static. I want to dock us,

not a shuttle. We’ll be harder to spot, someone would have to visually check

the habitat with drones, and since this habitat is all silent, it won’t pass out a

docking list to the Hongguo when they come.”

   “I’m game,” Nashara said.

   Jamar cocked his head. “Yes, a docking would be good after tossing out

some garbage to confuse things.”

   “Still think we’re being followed?”

   “Maybe. It isn’t a large Hongguo ship if it is, not a warship, something

smaller. Just odd reflective scatter.” Jamar sounded annoyed.

   “Forty minutes,” Sean muttered.

   “Let’s saddle up,” Nashara said.


#


Fifteen minutes to dock.

   Nashara, Sean, and Ijjy stood outside the main air lock, with Nashara leaning

comfortably against the round seal. Jamar had been angling them around the

entire cylindrical mass of Agathonosis toward the far end-cap docks. Occasion-

ally the ship vibrated and shook them around slightly as Jamar changed course.

   “You hear from that child?” Ijjy asked.

   “Not happening,” Jamar said.

   This close to a habitat, space should have been singing with information

and communication.

   “You bringing everything?” Sean asked, pointing at the duffel bag.

   “No sense in wasting options.” Nashara tapped the duffel with her foot.

   “The Satrap got you running scared.”

   “You know what a Satrap looks like?” Nashara asked.

   He shook his head. “No.”

   “When we hit the habitat in Chimson to hunt down the Satrap, I helped

out. They look like giant trilobites.” Nashara held out her hand, palm out to-

ward Sean. She wiggled her fingers. “Creepy crawlies. They found it deep at

the center of its habitat in a giant pool, big fucker, several hundred feet long.”

   “And they control minds,” Ijjy added.

   “Rumors,” Nashara snorted. “Chimson’s Satrap didn’t control shit. It’s

mounted and shellacked in a museum. Kids visit it on school trips.”

   “Still . . .” Ijjy shrugged. “How you think the Hongguo get the ability to

wipe minds?”

   The Queen shook again, then something outside clanged. Pumps thrummed

and air hissed, motors whined as locks engaged.

   “Contact,” Jamar said throughout the ship.

   The air lock opened with a hiss. Nashara patted the small machine gun

slung by a strap on her hip and the extra ammo clips in her vest pockets. She

could feel the two knives with ankle holsters. Good.

   She looked over at Sean. “What’s with the rope?”

   Sean looked down at his waist and the coiled rope hanging from it. “In

case we need to tie anything up.”

   “Fair enough.”

   “Always useful,” he muttered. “You coming or what?”

   Ijjy and Sean stepped in and Nashara followed. They stood and waited as

the air lock sealed behind them. All three faced the metal door leading out.

   Sean adjusted his belt, moving a pair of cutlasses with polished wooden

hilts to a more comfortable place on either side, and rested his left hand on

the hilt of a barker gun strapped above his crotch. His baggy pants and shirt

covered the armor that could seal up in case of vacuum or handle small-arms

fire. Protective plastic gave his face, neck, and hair a reflective sheen. It would

give him half an hour’s protection from vacuum, but gave him dark circles

under his eyes. Nashara laughed.

   “What now?” He turned, annoyed. He tapped the plastic coating. “It save

my life the first time the Queen got hit.”

   Ijjy had applied the same stuff.

   “You look like fucking pirates,” Nashara said as the air-lock door groaned

open.


#


From the claustrophobic corridors of the ship into the claustrophic corridors

of a habitat’s outer skin.

   The habitat had been a twenty-mile-long, potato-shaped asteroid once.

Then the Satrap had it baked by solar mirrors, or high-powered lasers, while

spinning slowly to create a cylindrical shape. Miners would have bored into it

with drills while the center was baked out. And that gave them an immense,

livable cylinder that could remain spinning to provide gravity. In several

places massive clear diamond patches had been installed so that the habitat’s

denizens could look out into space and see the stars when the habitat shut

down the sunline to create night.

   How many human lives building the habitat had cost, Nashara didn’t

want to think about.

   Inside, the docking area looked like more of the same. Gun-gray metal.

   She tapped the small earpiece as Jamar whispered to her, trying to seat it

properly. “I got the girl,” Jamar told them all.

   “Good for you.” Nashara dashed across the mouth of an open corridor to

cover and waited for her vision to catch up so she could analyze what she’d seen.

   A brief flash of black. A uniform? “Ask her where we might find some fuel

and she could be useful,” Nashara said.

   “You’re cold,” Ijjy jumped in behind her.

   “Don’t mind her.” Sean looked around at the signs on the wall. “Habitat

customs is down this corridor. Let’s see what we can find.”

   “I saw something at the end.” Nashara looked at the two of them. “Black

uniform.”

   “Could be security,” Sean said. If standard Satrapic design held true, this

tunnel out from the air lock led down to another set of reinforced doors that

usually housed a booth with a customs agent.

   “Mmmm.” Nashara ducked her head and looked down the tunnel. Noth-

ing now. Clear, she nodded to Sean.

   “From what I remember passing through a few times, Agathonosis is a real

insular place.” Sean checked the corridor also, then walked out into it. “The

Satrap keep the habitat locked down something serious.”

   “Not a fan of Emancipation?”

   Sean shrugged. “Different places interpret it differently, right?”

   They turned toward the customs booth. A short man in black, utilitarian

pants and a similarly colored shirt stood near the wall watching them. He

held no weapon. He stood rigid, shaved head beading sweat, staring at them.

   Nashara almost hailed the man, then realized neither Sean nor Ijjy saw

him.

   Jamar’s voice crackled in her earpiece. “The girl says she can guide us to

fuel. Says she knows a lot about Agathonosis. But she says she’s in a lot of

danger, barricaded up in a room that’s running out of air in this end cap. It’s

depressurized around her as well. She’s not all that far away. She’s got a loca-

tion and maps for us. I can send them.”

   “Okay, hook me up with that,” Ijjy replied, tapping his temple. “We can

get by she place, see if we can help. Sean and I both got vacuum-protection

plastic sprayed on, should be good for a quick exposure.”

   Nashara couldn’t care less. “You guys, uh, see anything strange?” Her hand

lay on the machine gun, ready to pull it free. The man in black stared even

more intently at the three of them.

   “Nothing,” Sean said, looking around the corridor. “Where the hell is

everyone? Inside the habitat itself, not in the skin?” He walked up and looked

into the empty customs booth. He tapped the glass a few times.

   Ijjy tapped the control pad of the door leading out of the corridor. The

door shuddered open, rolling aside, and the two men stepped forward.

   Nashara swallowed. They’d stepped out into a larger hallway. Black-

uniformed men lined the walls for several hundred feet.

   They weren’t all unarmed. The first had been a test.

   Ijjy and Sean walked forward out of her reach before she could say any-

thing. Nashara caught up and whispered, “Jamar, this discussion encrypted?”

   “Yeah,” Jamar replied, even as she heard feet behind her. Cutting them off.

   She didn’t dare turn and look. She did her damn best to ignore the slack

faces alongside the walls. All of them not even ten feet away from her on ei-

ther side.

   Shit. Shit.

   “You all have artificial retinas, don’t you, to access lamina?” she whispered.

   Jamar’s answer disappeared under a wash of static.

   The door behind them shuddered back shut on its own. Ijjy turned

around. “It should stay open.”

   “Fail-safes,” Sean said. “Dangerously close to an air lock just to remain

constantly open.”

   He could have been right, except that Nashara could see the man in black

standing by the door controls, and the handful of other men with him block-

ing their way back to the ship.

   “Sean, send that map to my wrist screen,” Nashara said. She held it up as

the lines faded in and looked at it, then back up at the men around them.

   As long as these eerie people believed them blind, they might let Nashara’s

group walk just a little bit farther. And whatever was in control was clearly in-

terested in determining who they were, what they were, maybe even inter-

ested in capturing them alive.

   “Okay,” Nashara said to Ijjy as she looked down at the map. “You were right.”

   Fuel was the least of their worries now.

   He turned back to look at her, confused. “Right about what?”

   “We need to see this girl right away.” She walked past the two of them and

glanced at the sides of the corridor. Fifty people on each side before the cor-

ridor jagged, all with out-of-control beards, long, raggedy hair, and dirty

faces.

   Goddamn creepy.

   “Why the change of heart?”

   “I’ve seen the light,” she lied through clenched teeth. “That poor girl, all

alone in a room, scared, hoping we’ll help.”

   Although, how the hell had the girl survived alone in here? Nashara and

her new friends were already trapped, just a few minutes into this.

   “Right . . .” Ijjy frowned and looked at her, and Nashara stared back.

   Sean grinned. “Maybe she’s human after all.”

   “Shut up and lead us to her, Ijjy.”

   Nashara held up her wrist, blanked the flexible screen embedded in it, and

used it as a mirror to see the crowd forming behind them.

   They had handguns, although three carried a massive minigun on a bipod

between them.

   Ijjy dogged them out into a new direction, and suddenly they were just in

empty corridors again, out of the gauntlet.

   Nashara realized she hadn’t been breathing, her pores had shut down, and

that she’d quadrupled her heart rate. She reset her internal fight responses and

took a deep breath.

   “Will you trust me on something, Ijjy?” she whispered. He turned back to

look at her.

   “What?”

   “Don’t fucking look back at me,” she hissed. He turned away.

   “What?” he called over his shoulder.

   “When I say run, both of you run like hell.”

   “Why?” Sean asked. Too loud.

   “Because I think we’re going to die if you don’t. Trust me. I see some-

thing.”

   Nashara used her wrist screen as a mirror again. The crowd behind them

edging after them at a safe distance, but looking somewhat tense. They moved

as one in a creepy, duplicated fashion, every step mirrored by the others.

   Ijjy turned a corner.

   “Run!” Nashara sprinted. They broke into a run with her.

   The next corridor in front of them stretched four hundred feet long. The

door at the end rolled shut.

   Nashara spun back to the edge of the corner behind her and whipped a

knife free from its ankle strap. She held it in her left hand and allowed the

machine gun to drop to her side.

   “What going on?” Ijjy turned to look at her.

   Choices. Kill first, or see whether they were really friendly, though she

doubted that. No one carried a damn minigun to a meeting unless they ex-

pected to use it.

   But they hadn’t attacked. Nashara’s hand quivered slightly. All instincts

screamed to start picking them off sooner, but something else held her back.

   She took a deep breath, remembering cramped corridors in ships and fire-

fights she’d scraped through. Thought of blood-slicked floors and shook her

head. Now was not the time for doubts.

   The first man around the corner didn’t spot her at first. He just skidded

across the floor and fired at Sean.

   That answered the dilemna, it was kill or be killed. Nashara shot him be-

tween the eyes and dove around the corner. The group didn’t expect to see

her come screaming straight at them.

   Arms grabbed her, several shots were fired, but the screams as bullets thud-

ded and burst into flesh weren’t hers.

   The three men around the minigun she aimed for didn’t have time to re-

act. Nashara killed the first with the knife, the second with a kick to the head,

and the third she flung clear.

   She yanked the massive fifty-pound gun up, flicked the safety, and pulled

the trigger down to within a hair of firing. “Drop your damn weapons.” She

dragged the large ammunition box with her. A chain of bullets led back into

it with more carefully coiled inside. A good thirty seconds of high-rate firing,

she estimated.

   As if one organism, they pulled back from her, boots all thudding to the

ground at once. Guns hit the floor and Nashara backed away from them.

   The entire group spoke to her, every single mouth opening at once. “If you

pull the trigger, the recoil will knock you over,” they chorused.

   Chills ran down Nashara’s back. “Maybe. Or maybe you’re really underes-

timating me.”

   She kept stepping back, and the crowd melted away from around her. She

faced them all and kept thinking about Ijjy and mind-controlling Satraps. If

she was smart, she’d pull the trigger and obliterate this faceless mass of mind-

less people.

   Her arm shook as Ijjy and Sean ran around the corner to her.

   “I think I owe you an apology,” Nashara hissed at Sean. But he wasn’t

looking at the crowd in front of them, just at all the blood on her hands.

   "Nashara, what the hell is going on?”

   “What do you see?” she demanded.

   “A lot of blood.”

   She felt faint now, dizzy. An afteraffect of the animal fight-or-flight re-

sponse and some neurological changes happening as her body came out of

combat readiness and into postaction relief. She rode a wave of endorphins.

   “You’re going to have to turn off your eyes and your lamina. They’ve been

hacked into so you can’t see things. Now come on, I’ll cover us, but we need

to get to that girl, and quickly.”

   “But then I can’t navigate without lamina.”

   “I’ve got the map on my wrist screen. Kill your damn eyes. Do it!”

Nashara said. “Do it now!”

   Ijjy gasped. “Where the hell did you get that gun?” He’d shut down lam-

ina, then. Then he looked down the corridor for the first time and jerked.

   Sean looked over as well.

   “They’re more back there,” Nashara said.

   “They could be herding us.” Sean pulled out a pistol.

   “True that,” Ijjy agreed.

   Ijjy looked nervous. “We should get back to the Queen.”

   “Then we still have no fuel,” Nashara snapped. “We go to the kid. You two

want to try and turn back, be my guest. I’m going on.”

   “She got a good point,” Sean said.

   Nashara looked behind her. “Can you force the manual locks on that

door, Ijjy?”

   “Yeah.”

   “Then do it.”

   She kept the minigun trained on the black-uniformed crowd. But just

barely. Even for her, amped up and designed for combat, the fifty pounds re-

fused to be held steadily unless she let it rest against her hip.


CHAPTER FIFTEEN


Kara jumped up as the face of the man who’d talked to her earlier ap-

peared. His eyes glowed as he looked at her, but behind that, he looked

like a tired, old man.

    “I am sorry about that, our earlier connection got cut.” He spoke in An-

glic, just as some of Kara’s oldest family had. Even Kara’s parents had once

insisted she learn it; it was, they’d said, a fairly common tongue among the

rest of humanity.

    She’d practiced it enough that her grammar was proper, but she was sure

she had a horrible accent just listening to the way the man pronounced his

words.

    “Will you still help us though? And what is your name?” She looked over

at Jared, sleeping by the door, his arm curled around the cloth doll. She felt

slightly dizzy.

    “I’m Jamar Sinjin Smith, captain of the Queen Mohmbasa.” He sighed.

“I’m sorry about the signal quality, there is a lot of jamming going on.”

    “The Satrap does not want anyone hearing anything,” Kara said. “It said

Emancipation was revoked.”

    Jamar frowned. “Humans are still mostly Emancipated out there.”

    He didn’t understand. “The Satrap says all humans are no longer free, all

Satraps will be doing this.”

    “That can’t be true,” Jamar said calmly.

    The universe suddenly seemed better. An outside human, talking calmly

to her. Things weren’t like that elsewhere. Kara dried her watering eyes. “I

think we only have hours of air left.”

    Jamar grimaced. “Three people went in looking for fuel, and to get to

you, but I’ve lost contact with them. I think they’re still trying to get to you,

though.”

    Kara hugged herself and crumpled down to the floor. “The three men, do

you think they can fight well?” She looked up at the face.

    “At least one of them can.” The distant man faded for a second, then so-

lidified. “I wouldn’t give up yet, Kara. Let’s give them some time and see

what they come up with.”

    Jared shifted, opened his eyes. “Are we being rescued?” He sat up and

rubbed his eyes.

   "Okay,” Kara told Jamar, then turned to Jared. “This is Jamar. He’s on a

ship outside of the world. He says someone might be able to come to us.”

   A big smile broke out, and it was slightly infectious, despite the complete

flips in hope and despair she’d just been run through. Kara stood up. “I’ll

monitor the outside for them,” she said. “Jared, try going back to sleep. Sleep-

ing conserves air.”

   Jared nodded, wide-eyed, and shut his eyes and hugged the doll tight to

himself. He took a deep breath and coughed. The stench was unbearable now

that they’d been forced to use the bathroom’s floor. Her lungs hurt.

   But she remained standing, waving a virtual window into existence that

looked down at the outside of their prison.

   Please, please make it, Kara silently appealed to the empty window. Jared

shouldn’t have to choke to death because she’d made a mistake. It wasn’t his

fault. He was just a kid brother.

   “Listen,” Jamar said. “Make sure to tell the people who show up that I’m

pretty sure a fully fuelled ship called the Toucan Too is on the other end cap’s

docking bay. It’s a small transport, I didn’t see it when I swept the habitat

coming in, but I think I have a read on it. I’m getting more jamming, I’ll try

to deploy” Jamar Sinjin Smith winked out of existence in a haze of fuzz.

   Kara touched the space where he’d just hung, then turned away to wait.


#


She’d almost fallen asleep standing and watching video of the outside when

she noticed the movement. Two helmeted figures standing by the outer door.

   Then a third, a woman walking backward, carrying the largest gun Kara

had ever seen.

   Jamar Sinjin Smith hadn’t returned to talk to her yet. But who else could

these people be? Kara triggered the outer door to open.

   The nearest man looked around, then ducked in. He waved the rest of

them on. The woman with the gun backed in.

   Kara sealed them in. Jared stirred.

   Then she opened a window into the area between the two doors. There

would still be no air in there, but she saw the woman slump against the wall

and leave smears of blood on it.

   Kara looked back at the space where Jamar’s head had appeared. He had

said three. This couldn’t be a coincidence. Still, she remained cautious and

cracked the inner door just slightly. Her ears popped and she could feel the air

shift as it filled in the empty area. Jared jerked awake.

   “If you are from the ship on the outside,” Kara yelled at the half-inch

crack she’d allowed, “then what is your captain’s name?” The man with the

long, bunchy hair turned and walked to the crack.

   “Jamar Sinjin Smith, you talk to him?”

   “Yes.” Kara released the door. It rolled halfway open. “But then we lost

each other.”

   There were now five of them sucking up the air, the three adults using

more than Jared or her. Where they stuck in here too now?

   The very black woman stepped forward. “We’ll want to wait here as long

as we can to see if we can reconnect with him before making a try to get back

out.” She turned to look down at Kara. “You understand it’s bad out there?

Dangerous?”

   Kara nodded again. She’d known that for a long time. “Your captain, he

said I had to tell you there was a fueled ship at the other end cap. What’s your

name?”

   “Nashara. Ijjy has the long hair. The other is Sean.” She sat down with her

back against a wall. “I could really use a nap.”

   “We don’t have much air,” Kara protested. “We should leave as quickly as

possible.”

   The woman, Nashara, waved at Sean. “See if she can help you talk to Ja-

mar. If not, we’ll move out to that ship.”

   Jared darted between the two men to Kara’s side and stared back at them,

not sure what to make of them. “She’s scary,” he whispered too loudly, and

pointed at Nashara.

   “Not now, Jared.” Kara turned to the one with the short hair and tight

curls. “Let me help you with it, I know a lot about them.”

   “Thanks, you never find me turning down extra help.” Sean walked over

to her side.

   Kara watched out of the corner of her eye as Nashara pulled Ijjy aside and

whispered to him. She couldn’t hear it all, just the word kids and a nod to-

ward Jared, then her.

   “We’ll make do,” Ijjy told her, breaking out of the whispering, catching

Kara’s glances at them.

   “I just don’t think it’s a good idea to bring them into a firefight.”

   “We’ve been caught in enough of them already,” Kara said, turning her

back to Nashara. “He won’t cause you any problems.”

   Sean tapped her shoulder. “It’s okay, don’t worry about her.”

   Nashara snorted from behind them both as Kara focused on trying to find

a signal from the outside.


#


Jamar reappeared, though the video kept dropping until Sean froze the image

of his captain’s head over the panel, and Jamar’s voice filtered out from un-

moving lips.

   “I’m glad to hear you all,” Jamar said. Everyone crowded near. Both the

men were sweaty from running, and Kara found herself edged out behind

them. “I was worried about you all.”

   “We okay. How you doing?”

   “I’m undocked. I have a small surprise for you,” Jamar said. “I found the

Toucan Too. It’s fueled. They aren’t responding to me, but the ship responds

to me, and diagnostics report to me that she’s got fuel. All we need to do is get

there.”

   “The girl told us.”

   “We go meet you there?” Ijjy asked.

   “That’s completely on the other side of the habitat,” Nashara said. “Twenty

miles of hostiles?”

   “It’s what you’re going to have to do. I’m sorry. I’ll try to meet you there,”

Jamar said.

   “Try?”

   “I think there is a Hongguo ship in the area for sure, I’m going to try and

draw it off.”

   “Be careful, Jamar.” Ijjy walked closer to the frozen image of the Queen’s

captain. He looked a bit shaken.

   “I’ll be canny like Anansi,” Jamar said. “We’ll take that ship, but if we

don’t, Nashara, remember” The link died.

   “Heavier jamming,” Kara said. She looked at them and shrugged. The three

adults didn’t say anything, but looked at each other. Nashara stared at the floor.

   “How we going get there from this side the habitat,” Ijjy finally asked.

   Both men looked at the big gun by Nashara and she frowned. “Not like

that. I won’t have that much blood on my hands. I’m not psychotic.”

   “You the soldier.”

   Nashara looked down at a screen on her wrist. “I will fight if I have to, but

I’m not going to slaughter those people just because the Satrap has their

minds.” But Kara saw her continue to stare at the gun. The woman was

thinking about something.

   “So what we doing?” Ijjy asked.

   “Get the vacuum bags out.” Nashara looked angry, her eyes blank. “I’m

sick of breathing this shit anyway.” She looked very, very angry.

   “But what are we doing?” Sean asked.

   “How’s that plastic coating?” Nashara walked over and poked Sean’s neck.

“You safe to go back out?”

   “We both good,” Ijjy said. “Couple minutes exposure.”

   Nashara looked around. “They’ll be waiting for us just past the decom-

pressed area.” She was obviously talking about the stratatoi.

   “You got a big gun,” Ijjy said. “We armed.”

   “To face tens, maybe.” Nashara looked down at the massive gun and

rubbed her temple, then glanced over at Sean’s waist. She stopped rubbing

her temple, stared at the loops of rope he carried. “Hundreds? No. You

really want to walk over twenty miles of hostile terrain to get to the other

end cap?”

   “The Satrap will be watching,” Kara agreed.

   Kara flinched as Nashara spun and walked over to her. “The center. The

sunline. Is there a shaft that will take us up to the sunline? We’re deep on the

cap on this end, we should be able to get to it, right?”

   “Yes. There’s an elevator.” Kara closed her eyes, mapped out a location,

and tried to pass it to Nashara, but nothing happened. “Um, you have access

to lamina?”

   Nashara shook her head and held out her wrist. “On here.”

   How quaint. Kara sent it, and Nashara looked it over. “We’re going to seal

you up for a few minutes in bags to protect you from the lack of air. We’ll

carry you out. Once we’re in a safe area, we’ll open it. Okay?”

   Kara nodded.

   “Good.” Nashara caught a small, folded-up pack the size of her hand that

Sean tossed at her. She unpuckered the top and shook it out into a four-foot-

wide bag, then looked over at Jared. “Crawl on in, then.”

   Jared looked at Kara. “Go ahead,” Kara said. “It’s our only way out.”

   He stepped forward, still carrying the doll, and sat in the bag. Nashara

pulled the edges back together, except for a last little bit for him to keep

breathing.

   Sean tossed another package at Nashara and she opened the vacuum bag.

“You’re next.”

   Kara looked at the filmy plastic and took a deep breath to steady herself. It

was out of her control now. She had to relax and let these adults help the both

of them.

   She stepped forward into the bag, sat down, and drew the top over her

head.

   “Can you give the command to open the outer door from in there?”

Nashara asked. Kara nodded. “Good.” Nashara looked around. “Then let’s

roll. Open the door. Ijjy, Sean, keep back, don’t shoot unless shot at. Let me

pick the fights, all right?”

   They nodded.

   Nashara sealed both bags, then stepped forward to pick up the massive

gun. Ijjy awkwardly picked Kara up and slung her over his shoulder, holding

onto the back of her legs with one arm while he held a pistol in his other

hand.

   The outer door rumbled open at Kara’s command, and she heard a brief

rustle against the plastic as all the air escaped. Ijjy’s shoulder slammed against

her stomach and the world lurched as they began to move, and quickly.



 CHAPTER SIXTEEN


The Takara Bune timidly approached Agathonosis, dropping drones and

scattering them along its path. Only a few hundred thousand miles lay be-

tween the two wormholes here, both at the same orbital altitude above the

planet Ys.

   “They’re here,” Bahul said. “I can see the Queen Mohmbasa.”

   “Good.” Etsudo closed his eyes as they approached. “Brandon?”

   “Yes.” The other man’s voice sounded as hushed as Etsudo’s. The habitat

looked wrecked. Old and wrecked.

   “Are those holes in the skylights?” Etsudo asked.

   “I think so.”

   A ping alerted him to the presence of the Shengfen Hao, now just transit-

ing the wormhole. Etsudo continued looking at visual updates of the habi-

tat’s exterior, hardly able to believe what he was seeing. Neglect.

   “Have you ever seen anything like this?” Brandon asked.

   “No,” Etsudo said. “Not ever.”

   The Shengfen Hao hailed. Jiang Deng popped up. “Moving for the attack,

good job tracking them, Etsudo.”

   Deng would certainly not try to capture them alive.

   Disappointing. But safe. Nashara was probably aboard that ship; picking

her up was too dangerous. He’d instilled some of the same loyalty into her

when patching her mind back together that his crew had. Enough so that if

he ever ran into her again, he had some sort of fighting chance. But he hoped

not to meet her face-to-face again; the last encounter had shaken him.

   The Queen Mohmbasa accelerated hard out, curving away from the habi-

tat. Etsudo watched the Shengfen Hao match it, then fire a dozen missiles.

   Even the nimble Queen couldn’t outrun the sharp sparks racing toward a

point ahead of her. The Ragamuffin ship jinked hard, several missiles miscal-

culated and passed above her, but debris rained off the ship.

   “No one is on that ship,” Brandon said. He glanced over.

   “Why do you say that?”

   “That maneuver. Too many g’s for a human to suffer, particularly at a

right angle like that.”

   Etsudo snapped himself in. “Scan for any broadcasting. We’re looking for

a pod, or a shuttle, something that they’re hiding in to control the ship.”

   The Queen spiraled, elaborate dodges, avoiding more missiles, and Etsudo

smiled. He would love to meet the man piloting that ship.

   Was it worth risking a meeting with Nashara? Sadly, no.

   One missile finally struck the Queen. A geyser of hot metal, air, and water

spewed from the side of the ship. No more shaking the missiles, something

had been damaged, the Queen accelerated along a straight line.

   A long line of laser fire faintly visible in the interstellar dust stabbed out

from the Shengfen Hao. It razed the side of the ship, and the Queen began to

spin slowly. The ship vented air and more debris.

   “Deng has her,” Bahul noted. “Quick dancing, but she’s done.”

   Etsudo waved aside the virtual window showing the destruction of the

Queen and looked at Brandon. “Anything?”

   “Yes.” Brandon displayed a small spot of dark moving slowly toward the

hull of the habitat.

   “Well done, Brandon.” Etsudo strained against the straps. “He’s headed to

the other side of the habitat. I wonder why?”

   Brandon shrugged. Etsudo changed course to follow the small craft.

“Bahul, forward this all to Deng.”

   Then he sat back and waited.

   “Incoming,” Brandon muttered.

   Missiles. From the Shengfen Hao. If Deng doubted Etsudo’s commitment,

he’d have to change his mind now. Or maybe Etsudo needed to invite Jiang

Deng aboard his ship for some tea.

   The missiles shot past the Takara Bune and on toward the pod.

   They found their target and lit up the space outside the habitat in a bril-

liant explosion. Etsudo flinched and zoomed in on the mess to see debris slap

against the side of the habitat.

   A ship and its crew, all dead. Did that make him no better than his crew

had been?

   Everything fell back into the dark again.

   Etsudo shook his head and turned the ship’s external cameras away from

the wreckage. Such a waste. They would have made good Hongguo, he

would have made sure of it.


CHAPTER SEVENTEEN


The elevator shot toward the center of the habitat, and Nashara could feel

that the minigun now weighed a fraction of what it had when she’d

picked it up. She bled from her arm, a chance shot when she’d turned a

corner.

   Several of Kara’s stratatoi had done their best to slow them down, but it

had been easy enough to disable them. The Satrap had not been expecting

them to head this way but either back toward the docks or toward the inside

of the habitat.

   It had been expecting an all-out firefight as they tried to force their way

through the habitat.

   “You sure the Satrap can’t shut this down?” Nashara asked. She stood face-

to-face with Sean in the corner.

   “Pretty sure,” Kara said.

   “Pretty?” Nashara twisted to look at her. How old was this girl? Late teens?

Their lives rode on her ability to manipulate the lamina the way the Satrap

had and she was pretty sure?

   “It can cut the power, but then how does it send the stratatoi after us?”

Kara said.

   She was right. The elevator shuddered after several more minutes, slowing

down, then gently slid to a stop. Nashara pushed everyone aside and braced

her now weightless self in front of the doors. She aimed the minigun ahead,

just in case, and flicked the box of ammunition free so that the long belt

floated free in the air.

   Nothing waited for them out there.

   She coiled the ammunition feed into a large spiral and let it float off the

forearm holding the gun.

   They floated out onto a large half circle of a floor that hung out over this

side’s end cap. Ten-foot-tall windows curved around the edge, and a large set

of oak doors with hand-carved images of triangular gliders flitting about in

the air led out into the air above the sunline. The world of Agathonosis lay in

dark night all around them. Shadows curving up on all sides and stretching

off into the distance. A dark, menacing blackness broken only by random

patches of lights and orange fires raging throughout the habitat’s interior.

   “People used to use the balconies to launch their flyers from, until a month

ago they were banned.” Kara twisted in the air, unused to weightlessness.

Clumsy.

    “Time till the sunline comes on?” Nashara asked.

    “Not for another hour,” Kara said. “The windows will turn dark and the

doors will shut ten minutes before. You’re not allowed to try and fly when the

sun’s on. You have to be out there and away from it already.”

    The elevator chimed. Another car coming their way. Filled with stratatoi,

no doubt.

    “Sean, your rope.”

    He tossed it to her, and Nashara began to create loops. They stared at her,

still not catching on.

    “We’re going to cross to the other side.” She threw the end at Sean. “Start

strapping in.”

    They looked at her as if she were insane. “Nashara,” Ijjy said, but she cut

him off.

    “We have a minigun and enough ammunition to fire it for maybe thirty

seconds. It’s not much use in an actual battle. We’re outnumbered. This is no

different than flying a ship. It’s basic physics.”

    “Basic physics?” Sean yelled.

    Nashara tapped the ammunition box. “Each bullet has mass. Every time

you fire one off, there is recoil. How many bullets do you think are in this

box, Sean?”

    “Couple thousand,” he whispered. Nine or ten grams each exiting the gun

at a thousand meters per second. Nashara eyed the group and guessed they

massed four hundred kilograms total.

    “A thousand-shot burst from this gun would leave us going ninety kilome-

ters per hour,” Nashara said. “We get to the other side of this habitat in just

under thirty minutes. Unless the gun jams. In which case . . .” She shrugged.

    They were spacers who flew from world to world, but Sean looked out to-

ward the darkness. “I am no ship. No gun my rocket.”

    “The only difference is the method of propulsion and the surroundings.

We’re in zero gravity just the same. Just don’t look . . . anywhere.”

    Kara walked over to her brother. “Jared.”

    His face had gone white. “I can’t.”

    Nashara continued roping herself up, then tightened the knot so that it

zipped Sean right up to her hip. “Move yourself so you’re sitting on my

back,” she told him. She wobbled as he did so, then spun in the air until Ijjy,

his dreadlocks floating up around him like some wild Medusa, grabbed them

and pulled them to a filigreed pillar.

    “Ijjy, strap yourself to my back, but facing Sean,” Nashara said, and then

waved Kara and Jared over.

    Sean and Ijjy lashed the rope over Nashara’s midsection in a crosswise pat-

tern, lashing their folded legs to her. “This go hurt,” Ijjy said.

    “Kara, Jared, sit with your legs wrapped around each other on their legs,

but like you’re in a circle. Hold Ijjy and Sean’s shoulders while they lash you

all in and each other around your waists and shoulders.”

    “Barely got enough rope,” Sean reported from over her shoulder.

    “Make it work.”

    Nashara held on to the pillar with one hand, the other holding the mini-

gun, as the acrobatic structure of the five of them wobbled.

    It was madness. She was faking her cool. The sunline still glowed with

enough ambient heat from its fusion-powered light to scorch their skin if

they bumped it, and controlling their flight would be a bitch.

    “Elevator’s almost here,” Kara called out.

    “Everyone strapped in?”

    “Best we can,” Ijjy said.

    Nashara kicked off from the pillar toward the nearest window. They all

wobbled and started to spin.

    “This is not going to work.” Sean shook the group as he shifted.

    “Don’t move,” Nashara snapped as they gently struck the window. The

minigun smacked the window hard enough to cause a crack. The ropes

pulled at her stomach and, even more uncomfortably, rode right up under

breasts and pulled at them.

    She swore and kicked them toward the doors.

    They struck those with more tumbling, and Nashara grabbed the handles

of the doors and threw them open.

    The motion pushed them back away from the opening doors, slowly.

Nashara reached for the small machine gun with her free hand and fired three

single shots to rotate herself to face the interior of the balcony.

    Three shots to stop the rotation. The shots buried themselves in the floor

nearby, kicking up plastic shavings.

    Then she aimed the machine gun at the wall and fired for a full three sec-

onds. The oak doors slowly slid past them on either side, and Sean swore.

    “Don’t look around,” Kara said. “She told you that.”

   "Damn, that chafes,” Ijjy said as the ropes shifted with another burst of

machine-gun fire. Twenty feet lay between them and the lip of the balcony.

Nashara glanced “up” to the slightly glowing sunline, then back at the bal-

cony.

    An excruciatingly slow departure. But controlled.

    She let the machine gun drift on its strap and held the minigun against her

stomach.

    The elevator opened and ten stratatoi flew out in a star pattern. They spot-

ted Nashara, and the star pattern shifted as they spread out for windows.

    “Oh, fuck.” Nashara tensed and pulled the trigger on the minigun. The

barrel spun up, then the howling scream of the minigun deafened them.

    Glass exploded from the stratatoi firing at them, but Nashara wiggled the

minigun and the stratatoi bounced off each other to duck for cover. The en-

tire space of the balcony became a flensing cloud of glass flechettes from ex-

ploding windows, and Nashara’s stomach strained against the damaging

recoil. Tracers lit the end cap up, exposing balconies and windows.

    Bullets winged by, cracking the air. But none hit.

    The balcony dropped away and a spin began. Nashara let go of the trigger,

and the group tumbled on, ropes chafing and cutting skin. The sunline and

the dark curves of the habitat spun around them in a dizzying whirl. For a

second it felt as if they were falling away from the underside of a giant moun-

tain. But then as Nashara was spun around, they hung at the bottom of a gi-

ant vortex of darkness. Tiny specks next to a spire reaching up through the

eyewall of darkness into a foggy night, where it disappeared.

    She’d felt like this in night parachute jumps, the look of the land as she

broke out of the clouds and looked down at the patchwork of land and civi-

lization. People as tiny specks on the landscape she looked down upon them

like a god.

    A raging forest fire lit up one side of the habitat in odd orange hues.

Dried-up lakes looked like gouged-out craters. Empty rivers could be glimpsed

at the center of the conflagration. And then hints of towns and cities lurking

in the reflection of the fire cast from the undersides of dirty black smoke

clouds that drifted up and out over the land, starting to spiral down the length

of the habitat due to Coriolis forces.

    “Just close your eyes, Jared, keep them closed,” Kara whispered. “Just keep

them closed.”

    Nashara closed her own as well for a second after sizing up the rate of ro-

tation. She could see a cloud of spent casings slowly dispersing on her left,

falling away from them.

   Then she opened her eyes again and pulled out the small machine gun and

began firing. Shots to her left, then down, then down again, right slightly, all

timed to the sunline’s flashing by her field of vision.

   It all slowed down, each flip coming gently, until finally she righted them,

then used another few shots to orient herself back down the sunline.

   She estimated that she’d gotten them up to seventy kilometers an hour,

but from their perspective it felt as if the group fell slowly down the giant

spire toward an inky bottom.

   Stratatoi followed them, a perfect circle of figures in the air, their backs to

her, firing their machine guns to chase them.

   “Think they go catch up?” Ijjy asked. They had pulled well away from the

balcony in the last couple minutes; it dwindled into a morass of other smaller

windows that clustered around the sunline. Farther out, as the apparent grav-

ity increased, ruined gardens on careful slopes dotted the outer rims, along

with walkways. Four minutes down, twenty or so to go, Nashara thought.

   “I don’t see any other miniguns, they’re using light machine guns.”

Nashara slitted her eyes. “Carrying clips, so maybe five hundred rounds max.

Lighter caliber, lighter bullet speed. I’d say they could get going just a little

bit faster than fifty or sixty kilometers an hour if they save ammo to stop.”

   “The Satrap doesn’t care about their lives,” Kara said.

   “If they use up all their ammo they could catch up, yes,” Nashara said.

   “So how you go solve that?”

   “The kids facing forward?”

   “Yeah,” Sean said.

   Nashara settled the minigun against her midsection again, wincing. The

skin there had bruised. The stratatoi scrabbled in the air as the roar started.

All five of them jerked around as Nashara swept the minigun around in a pre-

cise cone of fire. Red clouds of blood burst out from the stratatoi. Nashara

made a face.

   Again they spiraled out of control. The dim glow of the sunline got closer

as they veered toward it.

   “The sunline!”

   “I see it, I see it,” Nashara muttered. She pulled out the small machine gun

and fired off in its direction.

   It wasn’t enough. She used the minigun again, and it howled. They

changed course, and then Nashara pointed it back at the stratatoi and fired it

again. The sunline blurred above them.

   “Moving quick,” Sean said. A bit faster than ninety kilometers an hour,

yes. But the nearest stratatoi had been killed. Limp in a spreading cloud of

their own blood, they fell behind.

   Nashara relaxed in the crude harness and watched the end cap fade into

the inky dark. She listened to the distant burst of gunfire from stratatoi

working on catching up. It sounded like popcorn for several minutes, and she

used the firefly sparks of the muzzle flashes to track how many and how fast.

Several bursts from the light machine gun emptied her clip for another few

kilometers per hour added, and she swapped it out.

   Fifteen minutes to go.

   At the balcony, now just a tiny, toy like piece of the end cap, a section of

the sunline vented steam and fire, then lit up. The whole end cap reappeared

five miles behind them.

   “Kara, is it morning yet?” Nashara shouted. “Because the sunline is turn-

ing on.”

   “No, it shouldn’t be doing that yet.”

   Crap. Nashara handed the minigun to Ijjy as another section of the sun-

line lit up. It silhouetted a new cloud of stratatoi with its brilliance.

   “The Satrap is going to try and burn us out of the sky,” Nashara said. If

they moved far enough away from the sunline, the pressure of the moving air

inside the habitat would act just like gravity, speeding them up to match the

spin and dashing them to the ground.

   And six of the stratatoi were catching up, the dots of black growing in size

compared to the general cloud. They had a machine gun in each hand and

clips of ammo hanging like necklaces around them.

   Nashara waited for a minute as another section of the sunline vented

steam and lit up, then fired a burst with the machine gun. One down, an-

other limp body tumbling through the air. Nashara fired to correct the mo-

tion started from that.

   A second burst as they grew in size.

   The four now still alive spun around to face her.

   “How we doing?” Sean asked.

   “They’re getting close.”

   Gunfire cracked past them. Nashara fired again. Three. Again. Two and

one. The lone man whipped past them as he replaced the clip in his gun.

   “Ijjy, Sean!”

   Both men fired pistols at the same time as the man fired the machine gun.

Kara screamed. “Jared!”

   “Get him?” Nashara asked.

   “Yes,” Sean said. “But he got the little boy.” Kara kept screaming.

   “Easy, easy,” Ijjy whispered. A stream of blood trickled by Nashara’s left.

She heard him rip fabric, and the blood stopped trickling by.

   Kara sobbed and both Ijjy and Sean shifted.

   “How bad?” Nashara whispered.

   “Bad enough,” Sean whispered back. “Got it stopped, wrapping it up, but

we got to get to that ship quick now.”

   Nashara still looked back at the sunline, lighting up section by section, an-

other cloud of stratatoi popping their way toward them. “Ten minutes.”

   Another section of the sunline vented and lit up. It was going to catch

them at the same time as the stratatoi. Tinny, distant screams from stragglers

reached them. A third of the habitat was lit up, shadows cast from tall build-

ings.

   Nashara fired the minigun and felt one of her ribs crack. She ignored the

pain and let the gun continue, just another few seconds, then stopped.

“That’s as fast as we dare go.” In fact, slightly more.

   “Half the ammo gone?”

   “Yes.” She opened the ammo box floating in the air by her. It had been re-

duced by half. Smoke from the minigun streamed back as they flew on. The

air around the barrels rippled from heat.

   Nashara watched another section of the sunline come on and licked her

lips.

   “You gonna slow down soon?”

   “Sunline’s coming for us. Have to wait until the last possible second.”

Nashara watched the sunline snort again. Dawn had come to them.

   The next batch of stratatoi would hit them as they came in to the end cap.

There might even be stratatoi waiting there.

   “The boy, how is he?”

   Tense, she waited and watched the stratatoi and sunline race each other to-

ward them. Kara twisted and cried, and Jared remained quiet. Sean kept

shifting around, no doubt checking the boy. “He got a pulse, still. He got a

pulse.”

   The sunline made it hard to see now.

   "We’re coming in fast, Nashara,” Sean said.

   Bullets cracked by them. This time going the opposite way. “I can see the

other balcony, a bunch of them men up in there.”

   The Satrap had gotten stratatoi there in time.

   “Give Kara a gun,” Nashara said. “Everyone get ready. This’ll hurt. When

the minigun runs out of ammo, Ijjy, cut us loose. If we spread out we’re

harder to shoot. Use your guns to slow down the rest of the way. Sean, take

Jared with you. Ijjy, show the girl how to fire.”

   Nashara fired a shot to slowly spin them around. The balcony on the other

end cap of Agathonosis grew, until she began to make out the windows. More

rounds slapped through the air as the stratatoi bettered their aim.

   It didn’t feel as if they were moving through the sky, but that they were

falling through a vortex of land and clouds toward the ground of the balcony,

Nashara first, with the mass of strapped-on people behind her.

   She shook her head roughly and bit her lip as she aimed the minigun

down, psyching herself into pulling the trigger.

   The minigun howled, the pain shot through her whole body. Blood leaked

out from around the bruises, then stopped as the gun chewed its way through

the skin and hit the armored underlayer of her body.

   Still it howled. Then Nashara let go of the trigger.

   The barrel whirred loudly.

   They still flew toward balcony, only it was a disastrous mess of glass shards

and the doors were barely hanging on. They rushed toward it all.

   “Cutting,” Ijjy yelled.

   Nashara burst free of the rope and kicked clear. She had two hundred

rounds left. They yanked free of the ammunition box with her.

   Bullets cracked past. Ijjy and Sean returned fire.

   A figure whipped past them, badly burned, but still trying to aim and fire

at them. It disappeared ahead of them into the balcony.

   Nashara aimed the minigun at the now rapidly moving cloud of men chas-

ing them and fired the last two hundred rounds in a last three-second scream.

   Without the mass of the others it kicked her back up to fifty kilometers an

hour toward the balcony. But judging by the puffs of red, she’d done a lot of

damage.

   Nashara tossed the minigun free as she flew toward the balcony, switching

to the machine gun to fire at any movement. She struck the entry door and

shattered it. Wood splinters pierced Nashara and a bolt struck her in the head.

   Dazed by the impact, she flailed and spun wildly, striking pillars, and the

inside wall of the balcony. For a second she hung in the air, assessing damage,

then the rest of her group burst in.

   Ijjy was swearing, but sounded alive. She heard crying.

   One of the stratatoi waiting for them survived, somewhat. A moaning

echoed around the room.

   “Everyone, get behind a pillar!” Nashara yelled.

   A patter of spent casings began to ping against the inside walls, and then it

turned to hail. A loud, wet smack of a body moving over a hundred kilome-

ters an hour hitting something solid made Nashara wince. And then came an-

other.

   Then burned, shot, or screaming stratatoi rained down for the next two

minutes as Nashara huddled in safety with the others. Glass flew, viscera

floated by, and Nashara kept counting the impacts as she flashed back to esti-

mates on how many had jumped out after them. The blaze of the sunline

filled the room now that the autotinting windows had been destroyed.

   The sound of bodies slowed, the occasional pinging of spent cartridges

died off.

   “Okay, let’s get moving.”

   She pushed over to Ijjy, who held Sean by the legs. Ijjy looked up, tears

pooling around his eyes and breaking off into the air. Nashara shook her

head, but Ijjy nodded. A giant slab of glass protruded from Sean’s chest.

   “He’s bleeding again,” Kara screamed.

   Jared lay still in the air, a bullet hole in his chest still pumping a faint foun-

tain of blood into the air above him.



CHAPTER EIGHTEEN


Kara had her face buried in Jared’s chest, her hand pressed against the hole

in him, begging the blood to stop spurting. But it kept coming and she

kept screaming as it trickled out between her fingers.

   He looked at her. He kept mumbling something to her, but she couldn’t

hear him, couldn’t stop screaming, until suddenly strong hands ripped her

clear and flung her aside.

   Kara grabbed at empty air and Ijjy caught her.

   Nashara hung over Jared, ripping up a piece of her shirt to use as a ban-

dage. Kara saw Sean and gasped, horrified at the jagged slab of glass that had

impaled him.

   A hundred feet away one of the stratatoi kept screaming.

   “Is he going to live?” Kara sobbed.

   “Maybe.” Nashara packed the shirt on. “Ijjy, hold that on him tight.”

   Kara trembled and raised the gun they’d given her to slow herself down. It

was still armed, and large in her hands.

   Kara kicked off the pillar hard toward the sound of the moaning man. She

bounced against the wall and slid until she found a handhold near him.

   “Kara!” Nashara shouted.

   Kara sighted down the notch above the handle, and the burned face of the

man on the wall turned to her.

   She screamed, pulled the trigger, and moved back from the man. She’d

missed.

   Nashara slapped into her. “What the hell?”

   “They deserve to die,” Kara yelled. “All of them. They killed Jared.”

   She got spun around by Nashara, who was covered in blood. “That’s a

dangerous path you’re aiming for. You sure you want to go down it?”

   Kara grimaced. “The Satrap took their minds. They’re not human.”

   Nashara turned away. “Once you start this, you never really get to go back

to the way you were. No matter how hard you try. There’s a lot you can do.

You can still help your brother. Understand. Help your brother. Talk to him,

keep something on the bleeding, and help Ijjy with him. You don’t have to do

this. Let me.”

   She shoved Kara back toward them, taking the gun from her as she did

so. Kara watched, then, as Nashara moved over to the mewling stratatoi

and fired. She jerked back from a sudden cloud of red and gray matter. The

body jerked off the wall and floated away, slowly spinning as it trailed

blood.

   Kara threw up.



 CHAPTER NINETEEN


The Toucan Too had been moved out to the rim of the end cap, ready to get

flung clear of the habitat. After hanging in the air so long, it felt good to

be able to walk around. But Nashara could hardly appreciate that. She almost

tore the Toucan Too apart, looking for a medpod, near frustration, tired,

bleeding from another damn shot that had winged her on the way down the

claustrophobic corridors to the outer-rim docks.

    “Damnit don’t just stand there!”

    Ijjy held the limp boy in one arm, held his chest in another, and the kid

would probably die from all the running. Internal bleeding. Clots.

    The Toucan Too was a bullet-shaped capsule mounted on a slender anti-

matter drive, a long tube with a nozzle. A central shaft with rungs and rails

led from the cockpit to the end, rooms radiating out from the core shaft. And

Nashara broke into every one of them.

    “They’d be fucking insane if they didn’t have one,” Nashara snapped.

Crossing the long distances between wormholes and planets without a med-

pod was . . . well, she’d already voiced her opinion.

    Kara’s sniffling echoed off the gray metal all around them.

    She forced a door open. There they were, five medical pods, crudely bolted

onto the room’s walls.

    Nashara snatched Jared away, pulled the bloody cloth off, and placed him

underneath the nearest bright yellow hood. She slapped the thing in place

and put her palm to the contact pad.

    They all watched as wires and hoses wriggled into place, seeking out veins,

slithering up Jared’s nose with a trickle of blood.

    Three arms snapped into place, dropping an egglike mechanical heart

dripping with placement fibers onto his chest. Kara jumped when it latched

onto the boy’s chest and his back arced up as the machine whined.

    Defib. Once, twice, three times, four times, and then the beat. A heart-

beat.

    “He’s stable,” Nashara said.

    “What does that mean?” Kara looked through her, so sharp.

    “Get him to a Ragamuffin doctor within a week,” Ijjy said. “He go be

okay.”

    “Right.” Nashara let go of the panel.

   “So we have to go, we have to find him a doctor.” Kara leaned over the

panel. “Please.”

   Nashara looked back down the central shaft. “Ijjy, raise the captain.”

   Ijjy looked up. “I been hailing since we got aboard.”

   They looked at each other.

   “We need to find a doctor,” Kara said again. “We need to get moving.”

   “We’ll get going soon, but we’re waiting for someone right now.” Nashara

backed out of the room with Ijjy and shut the door.

   “We could cast off,” Ijjy said. “Jamar said you could fly these things.”

   “We aren’t going anywhere anytime soon,” Nashara said.

   “Why not?”

   “Because Jamar lied to you, I can’t fly this thing.”

   She walked into the cockpit and left Ijjy standing in the shaft. Alone, she

sat on the floor facing the captain’s chair, hanging from the current top of the

cockpit. She folded her arms in front of herself and closed her eyes.

   “Captain Sinjin Smith, where the hell are you?” she asked the empty cock-

pit, then she closed her eyes and rocked slightly.

   He couldn’t die. It wouldn’t be fair. These people’s lives were not her re-

sponsibility. Sean had died. The kid was almost dead. It was all a total

fuckup. Jamar was off leading the Hongguo on a chase, but he was probably

dead.

   The sound of something smacking against the air lock finally penetrated.

   “I think they trying to get in,” Ijjy said. He held the sides of the round

doorway and looked at her.

   “Think he’s coming?” Nashara asked, staring at the floor.

   “Don’t know,” Ijjy said, folding his arms now. “We could end up a sitting

duck.”

   Nashara tapped the wrist screen and the Toucan Too shuddered. The air

lock groaned and seals hissed.

   “Ditched the umbilicial, should be harder for them to try anything in vac-

uum,” Nashara said. “Gives us ten minutes before they break out the suits to

come for us.”

   “Okay. But you think ten minutes enough?”

   Nashara rested her head in the palms of her hands. “I got us fuel,” she

said.

   “You did good.”

   “Not good enough, Ijjy. Not near good enough.”

   "We went up direct against a Satrap,” Ijjy said. “What more you want?”

   Nashara folded her arms. “He’s dead, isn’t he?”

   Ijjy didn’t reply.

   “You have a smoke?” Nashara asked. “I just need a few minutes.”

   Ijjy shook his head.

   “Talk to me about the Raga. If we are able to get this ship to them, talk to

them, what can they do against the Hongguo?” She didn’t want to waste her

own life for nothing.

   “You head downstream. This the last of the forty-eight worlds, so we got

another fifteen wormholes to go. Got a hot-clouded world you pass through

call Chilo, and then three down from there you got the end of the line. We

got Morant, a small habitat, maybe ten thousand people in it. Twenty ships

left with us.” Ijjy frowned, then corrected himself. “Sixteen since Dragin-

Above. Six for defense, ten higgler ships if the Queen alive. Don’t know know

how many of the higgler ships go be around, they out trading.”

   “You have family there, don’t you?”

   Ijjy nodded, but didn’t go into details. She silently thanked him for that.

   That was the might of the Raga now, a bunch of refugees huddled around

a failed wormhole.

   But with the Satrapy and Hongguo bearing down on them, who else

would step forward? It was going to be the closest thing to a home she would

find out here. It was worth defending.

   Nashara started strapping herself into the captain’s chair and looked

around the ship. It had been a long time since sitting in the center chair.

   “Things could get weird, Ijjy. I’m going to die, but not really.”

   He raised an eyebrow. “How?”

   “I’m not just built to be quick, or to survive vacuum. I have a device in me

that will scan my brain, slowly, and as it does that, it will upload into this

ship’s lamina. But in order to scan my mind it will destroy the synapses.”

   Ijjy stared at her. “Uploads go insane. Ground-up-built artificial intelli-

gence don’t make no sense, too alien. We been playing in the labs in Morant.”

   “Uploads go insane because your physical body is as much a part of your

being as your mind. You can’t divorce the mind from the organism and the

environment. But lamina is computer power and a layer matching the envi-

ronment. If you accept physical tags, your mind will cope.”

   “You seen it done.”

   “Seen it done by my sisters, before they destroyed the ship they were

aboard to save my skin.” Nashara pulled out an optical jack and slid it under

her skin, felt it connect. Much higher bandwidth connection.

   “Nashara.” Ijjy grabbed her shoulder. “We should wait.”

   She looked back at him. “If Jamar hasn’t responded yet, you know he’s

dead or unable to help us. Prepare for acceleration.”

   Nashara initiated a link to the ship’s lamina. The backs of her eyes filled

with information as she accessed everything directly. The machines inside her

sensed the connection and leapt into action.

   She felt dizzy, then tired. Sedatives flooded her system. She closed her

eyes.

   Nashara felt swept out on a brief tide of information, then opened her

eyes again. She could see herself slumped in the cockpit chair through a

handful of sensors. Classic out-of-body. Disorienting, not safe.

   She reached in and restarted her heart, checked her vitals. Everything still

worked. She wasn’t in her body, but she could use it the way she’d use a

drone.

   Nashara opened her eyes again.

   “You alive,” Ijjy said. A single second had passed.

   “In a manner of speaking.” Nashara struggled to maintain the old point of

view. This was her body, this was where her mind resided.

   That hadn’t been too hard, she thought.

   “Hey, little lady.”

   Nashara jerked up and faced a mirror. “What?”

   A perfect copy of her stood in front of the captain’s chair. “There’s enough

processing power in the ship’s lamina for the both of us,” the second Nashara

said. “Been trying to wrap my head around it, took a microsecond longer

than you, so I missed getting my body back.”

   Nashara stared at herself. “Oh, shit.”

   “What did you expect? We’re supposed to spread out.” The mirror image

held out her hands. “Freaky, huh?”

   “You have no idea . . .” Nashara paused. “Well, you know.”

   She smiled at herself. “We have immediate problems.”

   “Which are?”

   “Who’s in charge and who’s called what? Do we time-share our body? And

what do we do next with our new ship, here?”

   Both of them pondered that for a few microseconds. Nashara twisted her

fingers and reached out through her new twin, just to make sure. “I know you

feel like the real copy, just like I do. But since I snagged the body first, I’m go-

ing to take dibs on Nashara and the body.”

   A brief stare-down as the other Nashara thought about it. “Ah, fuck it, I’m

not going to fight myself over it. But I don’t like the idea of changing my

damn name.”

   “Is a rose by any other name as sweet?” Nashara asked herself.

   “Oh, that’s so cute of you, yes, funny.” Her other self snorted. “I should

just take on the name of the ship for convenience, but some people just have

bad taste. What the fuck is a Toucan Too?”

   “Just take one of the last names we use,” Nashara suggested.

   “Cascabel.”

   “Done.”

   “Everyone, gear prepare for acceleration,” Cascabel announced through-

out the entire ship.

   “You’re flying?” Nashara asked.

   “Hell, yeah.” Cascabel grinned. “You’re staying with the body, we might

need that, the Hongguo are still out there sniffing around. You know the sci-

entists say the more you pretend to be a body and interact with the physical,

the more human you’ll remain in this little experiment.”

   “Yeah, but that’s what the eggheads think.”

   “Nash, please. I get the flying.” Cascabel looked insistent. It was some-

thing to hang on to that was familiar. Nashara understood.

   “Fair enough.”

   The Toucan Too let go of the habitat. Thrown toward the downstream

wormhole, Cascabel adjusted their course with a few slight bumps of acceler-

ation. Debris chattered against the hull.

   “Escape-pod debris,” Nashara said.

   The two stared at each other. “We’ll be all right,” Cascabel said.

   Nashara didn’t need reassurance from herself. She could use the same in-

struments. A ship had died here, and another ship hovered near the down-

stream wormhole.

   Poor Jamar.

   “Something’s covering the downstream wormhole.”

   “And more somethings are covering the upstream,” Cascabel said.

   Nashara looked. A cloud of reflections signifying seven or eight ships. And

something very long.

   “We’ve seen something like that before,” Cascabel muttered.

   “The Gulong,” Nashara said.

   “They’re planning to cut the Ragamuffins off. Kill the wormhole leading

there.”

   “Or it’s being used as a flagship for the Hongguo. Either way, it’s down-

stream for us.”

   Nashara nodded. “Can we dodge it?”

   “You and I can survive some high acceleration. The rest can’t.”

   Nashara folded her arms. “We’ll do what we can. Get them into the med-

ical pods. Even if they black out hard, we can revive them.”

   “Be hard on the boy.”

   “Could be hard on the Raga to face an unexpected visit by the horde com-

ing from upstream.”

   “True. If we’re lucky, maybe they’ll try and contact us.” Cascabel smiled.

“Give us some bandwidth and you know we’ll spread.”

   Nashara smiled back. “Do it.”

   The Toucan Too dove for the downstream wormhole.


   CHAPTER TWENTY


Kara stood up as Nashara walked into the room. “We’re moving? Have we

left the station?” Kara had never been aboard a ship before, the noises

and sounds were alien, scary. No one had told her what was going on, she’d

remained near Jared’s pod, hoping all would turn out okay.

   But even these adults seemed nervous.

   “We need you to get in the medical pod next to your brother,” Nashara

said.

   “Why? What’s going on? Am I sick?”

   “No, but you’ll be safer in there. We need to do some dangerous things.”

   Ijjy walked in. He looked nervous. “Why can’t I just join you in the cock-

pit for the acceleration?”

   “It’s going to be crushing.” Nashara walked over to the pod, then right

through it. “Fuck.”

   Kara and Ijjy stared at her.

   “How’d you do that?” Kara asked. “Are you projecting yourself through

lamina?” Kara tested the air around her, searching for lamina, searching for

any information she could find. The air felt closed off by something large,

dark, and slightly angry.

   “Don’t do that,” Nashara said. “You’re pushing at my mind.”

   “Oh.”

   “Please, now, get into your pods.”

   Ijjy closed himself in, shaking his head. “I don’t like this,” he said as the

pod sealed.

   Kara crawled in, the fabric closing softly in on her and holding her secure

as she lay down in the pod. It smelled like oranges.

   “Nashara?”

   The woman leaned over. “I’m Cascabel, not Nashara.”

   “I don’t understand.”

   “I’m in the lamina, it’s where my mind is now.” Cascabel waved her hand

over the pod, and it sealed itself shut. “And I’m a second copy, there is an-

other in the lamina. She’s keeping the name Nashara.”

   Kara looked through the filmy cover at Cascabel. She knew she couldn’t

be heard, but said, “I’m scared.”

   Cascabel leaned over. “It’ll be okay, don’t be scared.”

    “You can hear me?”

    “I’m in the lamina.” Cascabel disappeared and her voice continued, “I’m

all around you, in the ship. I just projected myself to your eyes. If you

couldn’t see lamina overlays, you wouldn’t be able to see me.”

    “Wow.” Kara had never heard of anything like it. What amazing things

these outsiders could do.

    “Yeah, that’s been my take on it too,” Cascabel snorted. “Don’t worry, I’ll

stick with you here while we boost out, okay?”

    “Okay.” Kara closed her eyes as she felt weight slowly press against her.

“What’s it like out there, out past Agathonosis?”

    “It’s ugly out there,” Cascabel said. “Not a whole lot of love for humans.”

    “But why?” Kara fought to breathe. “What did we ever do to them to

make them hate us?”

    “Not hate. Hate implies emotional attachment.” There was a sigh. “It’s

about control.”

    “The Satrap said we couldn’t control ourselves. That we had too much

population.” A massive groaning sound shivered through everything. Some-

thing snapped. “What was that?”

    “Just another boost in speed. What the Satrapy fears is what we create. Be-

fore the Satrapy came to us, we flew our own craft, built our own computer

programs.”

    “Lamina?”

    “An ancient form of it,” Cascabel said. “The Satraps believe that if tech-

nology accelerates and becomes uncontrollable, it will destroy everything.

They seek to leash development, to leash our minds.”

    “So no humans are free?” Kara asked.

    “Freedmen mainly skulk around the edges of the Satrapy.” Cascabel

cleared her throat. “There are habitats run by us, I think fifteen scattered all

throughout. New Anegada and Chimson used to be human worlds. We ter-

raformed them.”

    “So few?” Kara felt crushed.

    “About thirty million free humans.” The ship jumped left, slamming Kara

against the pod and leaving bruises. “The other fifteen billion are ‘free’ but

aboard habitats run by aliens, or Satraps, or on surface in reservations.”

    Kara closed her eyes. “Nowhere to run to.” Another brutal slam, to the

right. “We’re being chased, aren’t we?”

    “The Raga can help. At the least they can help your brother.”

   It could be adult noise to reassure her. Kara looked at the scuffed, clear

pod to her left. Would her brother make it through all of this? Would she?

   “Take a deep breath,” Cascabel said, breaking her thoughts.

   “Why is that?”

   “It’s time to sleep, things are about to get a bit ugly.”

   Something hissed behind her, the smell of roses filled the pod, and Kara

drifted off as she began to feel so heavy it hurt to even try to move.


  CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE


Just before Deng took the Shengfen Hao through the downstream wormhole

after the Ragamuffins, Etsudo hailed him.

   “Thank you for your assistance,” Deng said, curt and to the point. “We

don’t need your speedier vehicle. Your assistance was helpful, appreciated,

and noted. We have other ships giving chase that should be able to catch up

shortly.”

   Etsudo nodded. The Toucan Too had initiated a killing acceleration burn

ahead of Deng’s very nose and missiles, but they would still eventually catch

up. There was nowhere for them to go.

   Only Nashara could live through that. If anyone else was aboard that

ship, they would be suffering cardiac arrest. He wanted to warn Deng about

Nashara’s ability. But to do that would uncover his dark little secrets.

   No, let Deng find that out himself, if ever. Chances were more likely that

the new, fast attack ships crossing toward the downstream wormhole right

now would fire missiles into the Toucan Too and take care of that.

   “Be careful,” Etsudo said. “We don’t know the full extent of the Raga-

muffin defenses. Keep your ship moving slow and your communications low-

bandwidth.”

   That would have to do.

   Deng plunged through the wormhole, and the new might of the Hongguo

continued to close in.

   “Bahul.” Etsudo looked over at the gamma-shift captain. “Keep us near

the habitat. Just in case anything else comes out.”

   “Will do.” Bahul looked bored as he kept them floating nearby.

   Brandon floated through the cockpit door. “Afternoon.”

   Etsudo glanced up. “Afternoon. Change of shift?”

   “Yes.”

   “I’ll stay on,” Etsudo waved. “Grab an extra chair.”

   Brandon hung for a second, something flitting through his face. Anger?

   “Some of our ships are slowing down,” Bahul said. “Moving in towards

the habitat.”

   “Really?” Etsudo verified that and frowned.

   “Oh,” Bahul said. “Etsudo?”

   And Etsudo saw what Bahul was looking at. Explosions ripped down the

sides of the habitat. Pinprick after pinprick of light, but with a zoom of the

cameras Etsudo could see water and air jetting out from the breached areas.

   “What is going on?” Etsudo breathed.

   Larger explosions almost blinded him. The center of the habitat slowly

cracked open, vomiting dirt, trees, air, water, chunks of the layered hull.

   “Are there people aboard that?” Etsudo asked. “Or was it evacuated yet?

What the hell is happening?”

   With only a few thousand miles between the habitat and his ship, Etsudo

considered trying to move closer. If someone survived, maybe he could save

them.

   More explosions rippled down the end of the habitat, splitting off one of

the end caps from the rest of the dying structure. It looked like a giant metal

cup losing its top, disgorging debris.

   “How many people lived in there?” Etsudo asked, horrified.

   “The last registry says a couple hundred thousand,” Brandon said.

   Hongguo ships moved closer, five tiny chips of reflected light. But instead

of moving to search for survivors, the five ships passed around the debris for

the separated end cap.

   “What are they doing?” Bahul asked.

   Etsudo knew. He zoomed in on the end cap to where the ships cast out

nets. Three of them were smaller merchant ships, like the Takara Bune. The

other two Etsudo recognized. Large, heavily weaponed sister ships to the

Shengfen Hao: Datang Hao and Wuxing Hao. Even closer. He froze the image

for his crew to see. “They’re recovering the Satrap.”

   “Is it dead?”

   “No, they’re perfectly fine in the vacuum,” Etsudo said. His father had

talked about once helping build a new upstream habitat for a Satrap.

   “So that is a Satrap,” Brandon breathed. A lump of chitinous flesh almost

a hundred feet long being pulled into the belly of the Datang Hao.

   “Behold our masters,” Etsudo whispered to himself.

   “Does it disturb you we aren’t included in any of this? We didn’t even

know it was about to happen.” Brandon looked wounded.

   “We proved our worth,” Etsudo said.

   But Brandon didn’t look quite convinced. It’d be time to take him back to

the room soon, Etsudo thought. Too much restlessness bubbled up from in-

side the man, restlessness that threatened Etsudo.

   Etsudo looked over at Bahul. “Get us moving, head downstream.”

   “We have business upstream,” Brandon said.

   “I want to observe what comes next,” Etsudo said. Something important

was happening. Something big. And Etsudo wanted the pieces to the puzzle,

because he had a feeling it would be important to his future.

   If the Satrapy had big changes in mind for humanity, Etsudo at least

wanted enough warning to figure out what he wanted to do next.

   And with a small chance that Nashara still lived, he needed to be sure his

deceit didn’t get uncovered.

   In the off chance she was captured alive or without unleashing her talent,

Etsudo had been spending all his spare moments in his captain’s room, work-

ing hard to prepare his equipment in case it ever happened again.

   CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO


The Toucan Too whipped around Chilo, a choking-hot and heavily clouded

planet offering no traffic except a series of science satellites jostling be-

tween the two orbiting wormholes. Moving from the upstream wormhole to

the downstream took a morning, and at noon Nashara faced herself. “You

holding on?”

   “Somewhat overwhelmed.” Cascabel rubbed her eyes and leaned back

through a chair. “We have the lead. We’re almost there.”

   “At a cost.” The pods had dragged everyone back to life after the last set

of transits. Fast in, bump down the momentum, correct course, slam down-

stream. But the pods estimated they would fail the next time Cascabel pushed

the Toucan Too that hard, and Cascabel bet the ship would shake itself apart

at those speeds as well. Ijjy, Kara, and Jared slept under sedation, blissfully

unaware of it all.

   “They’re alive, right? We’re just a few wormholes upstream. We’ll try to

take it easy now,” Cascabel said. “But better we save the thousands than the

three.”

   Nashara closed her eyes and agreed. “We should see a ship soon, though.”

They were ever so close to old Ragamuffin haunts.

   Though what the handful of aging ships Ijjy described out in the end of

this run could do for her she wasn’t sure.

   They continued on, each withdrawing into her own private space. Hours

bled into each other as the Toucan Too drifted from wormhole to wormhole,

each transit dangerously close to ripping the ship apart.

   But under Cascabel’s quick guidance, they always pulled through. The

hours bled into a day, then a second day, and on the third Cascabel appeared

with a smile.

   “Contact.” They had just two more transits to go; it made sense that they

encountered a Ragamuffin ship.

   “I’ll get Ijjy up.”

   The Toucan Too shuddered as it slowed and the other ship paced them.

   Nashara kicked her way down the central shaft to the medical room, giv-

ing the command for Ijjy’s pod to open as she opened the door.

   He coughed, spitting up a tiny bit of blood. “My chest hurt something

evil,” he complained.

    “You’ve had three cardiac failures,” Nashara said, helping him wobble out

of the pod. “But a Raga ship’s pacing us. We’re two transits upstream.”

    “That go be the Starfunk Ayatollah, I bet you anything,” Ijjy said. “I know

the captain.”

    “Let’s get you strapped into the cockpit.”

    They coasted back, and Nashara helped Ijjy secure himself. “Cascabel, let’s

talk to the ship.”

    Her other self appeared. “Is that a good idea?”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Do we want to be taking over Ragamuffin ships?” Cascabel asked.

    “There are controls built in regarding Ragalamina,” Nashara muttered.

    “But if they’re using Satrapic technology . . .”

    Ijjy shook his head. “Nah, all homegrown, all the time. Just open the chan-

nel and make sure I visible.”

    Cascabel shrugged. “Okay. And in one, two, three: the Starfunk Ayatol-

lah’s on.”

    A leathery-faced man with grayed dreadlocks appeared before them all. “I

Don Samuel Andery, captain of Starfunk Ayatollah. Who you is?”

    “Mr. Andery, my name is Nashara. This is Ian Johnson, of the Queen

Mohmbasa. We need to talk, and quick.”

    “Ijjy?” Andery frowned. “Where the Queen?”

    Ijjy swallowed. “Gone. The Hongguo attacked.”

    “The Hongguo? For real?”

    “They also had attack the other higglers we was with,” Ijjy said. And then

he launched into a recap, answering Andery’s questions as the conversation

grew heated.

    “I find all that hard to believe. Hongguo enforce the rule of the Satrap,

but this?”

    “Believe it,” Nashara said. “Why else do you have armed ships? Why else

do you cluster around a dead wormhole instead of trying to integrate with

the rest of the worlds? The Satrapy doesn’t have our best interests at heart.”

    Andery looked at her. “That true, sister, true, but we can’t just take you

word for it. You go have to come in, call a grounation with the Dread Coun-

cil to talk. Then they can send out some ship to check all this.”

    “You think you have the time for that?” Nashara waved in the air to dis-

play an image of the upstream wormhole. A Hongguo ship breached the

wormhole, cautious, tasting the air ahead of itself with a score of drones that

swarmed out tossing chaff and bleeping random static across frequencies.

Nashara shook her head. No way back through, Hongguo would be piling up

on the other side of the hole any moment now.

    Another ship followed it. Then a second. Then a third.

    “Taking us a bit more seriously now?” Nashara asked. It surprised her the

Ragamuffins only had one ship out patrolling.

    Andery looked serious. “Get you self moving, we right behind.” He

looked away from them, then nodded. “The Magadog coming in.”

    A new face appeared, scarred with short-cropped hair. “Toucan Too, this

Magadog, Ras Christopher Malik here. Been listening to what all you saying.

Don Andery got the right of it, head downstream, we sending back explana-

tion, mobilizing.”

    “You have preparations for such an event?” Cascabel asked. A Ras ranked

higher than a Don; this captain would know more about Ragamuffin emer-

gency plans.

    Ras Malik nodded. “Morant being towed out system, deep space. Worse

come to worse we keep going, head out into them Oort cloud, hide out deep,

forget the wormhole them, hunker down. We already an hour into it, you’ll

find out what happen when you get in system. Just be careful, we all jumpy,

seen?”

    Nashara saw a blip moving out from beside the downstream wormhole

now. The Magadog. The two ships played chicken for a few brief minutes,

until Magadog curved out of the way.

    “Good luck,” Nashara said.

    “You too,” Ras Malik said. “Thanks for the heads-up. Make sure to drop

all you speed coming out the wormhole, it mined.”

    Magadog whipped past them, mere thousands of miles apart. Cascabel

upped acceleration, and the Toucan Too hit the downstream wormhole to-

ward the Ragamuffin home territory.

    Sweeps of the area around lit up their displays. Ships, shuttles, drones,

chaff.

    “Shit, Malik wasn’t kidding.” Cascabel dumped velocity, spinning them

on end to fire the main engines and bleed tens of thousands of kilometers per

hour.

    The two wormholes orbited a rocky world, and that in turn hung out near

a brown dwarf. Nothing of interest to the Satrapy here.

    “Toucan Too, this the Xamayca Pride.” An audio-only connection of a

woman’s voice. A cautious choice. Nashara respected that. “Ras Monifa Kaalid

here, we sending you a path through the mines hanging all around you.”

   Cascabel nodded. “It’s here.” The Toucan Too puffed, adjusting orbit to

sink down into the cloud of mines.

   The round face of Ras Kaalid appeared, her dreadlocks floating loose

around her face. “Sorry about that,” she said. “Things really getting hectic

here and everything on a full stand-up. We already getting Morant towed

out.”

   “You knew about the Hongguo?” Nashara asked.

   Ras Kaalid shook her head. “The downstream wormhole to New Anegada

reopened. Everything upside down.”

   Nashara and Cascabel stared at each other, and Ijjy leaned forward. “That

even possible?” Ijjy asked.

   “Apparently,” Ras Kaalid said. “Now we have to find out what coming up

through from there, and what coming down on all of we with the Hongguo.”

   Nashara looked at Cascabel. “We have to get there. We have to find out

what has happened.”

   “Maybe, but it ain’t big enough. We waiting to see what coming through.”

   “Make sure we’re there too,” Nashara told Cascabel. She had to see what

lay on the other side of the wormhole, what had happened to New Anegada.

   Her long quest might almost be over.

   And they might have a new ally in the coming fight against the Hongguo.