This is a prequel to “Sinew and Steel and What They Told”, published in 2020 and available to read here.
Graff’s official role is muscle for the Visigoth – but his personal mission is internally cataloguing all of his experiences to relay to the other beings from his home planet when they cross paths. His professional life rarely clashes with his identity, but when he realizes his newest job is to take down one of his kind, everything becomes a bit less simple.
“This is an easy job,” Captain Ransom insists.
I raise a brow. “Easy? Or simple.” I like to think that nothing is ever easy. Things can be simple, but not easy. Anything worth doing takes effort. Focus. Thought. Not easy.
“Don’t start with me. It’s a simple job. Simple.”
Yeah, because if it were easy, it wouldn’t be us needing to do it.
Ransom is a hand width shorter than I am, but he seems taller, in his crisp blue jumpsuit that looks like a uniform despite having no insignia on it, just because of how well he wears it. His dark hair would be curly if he let it grow out. I’m the muscle, big and a little bit sloppy, next to him. We stand face to face outside Visigoth’s docking berth on Tre Ateyna, a commercial station well within Trade Guild territory. A safe harbor, almost home base, except we don’t really have a home base. From here, I can get anonymous transport to Balliard, another commercial station. Balliard is not within Trade Guild territory, and it will not be safe.
“Just locate the shipping agent. Identify. Bring back the intel. No heroics.”
“Who, me?” Ransom glares, and I smirk. You’d think after this long he’d know when I’m joking. “Yes, I know. ID the agent, rendezvous for pickup. Leave the network in place.” The agent is probably some bureaucrat, an accountant or inspector, generally harmless except for who they’re working with. I can spot them without letting on that I’m even looking. With the network still in place, we can follow the line back to the big fish and bring the whole smuggling ring down at once. This needs on-site recon; the data shows someone is rerouting the cargo. But the electronic blips don’t tell us who that is.
“Good hunting, Graff.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
He puts his hand on my shoulder, which has become something of a ritual. Every time I leave the Visigoth, whether piloting my runner or working some station or ground-side mission like this, he takes hold of my shoulder and pushes me off. Like connecting some invisible, spiritual tether before sending me into the void. I remember every single time he’s done that, the pressure of it, his fingers across my scapula. The flush of emotion that goes with it. I can do this because Ransom knows I can.
One of these times, he’ll do this and it will be the last time. I will either remember that one, too, or I will be dead.
I sling my bag over my shoulder and walk away to take the lift to the next level, and lose myself in the crowd of commercial passengers preparing to scatter across this arm of the galaxy.
I’m lying to Captain Ransom all the time.
Well, not lying, exactly. Just not telling him everything about me. He doesn’t need to know everything, it’s not relevant…Though I know he’d want to know. He thinks he knows almost everything about me. We’ve certainly known each other a long time, since our Academy days. So I may not be lying but I’m also not entirely telling the truth, and there ought to be a word for that in the middle somewhere. I’m eliding. Engaging in a specific caesura.
It doesn’t matter. He’ll never find out, and it’s not my secret to tell. My people have a philosophy; we’re a collective that values individual experience. Cultures are made up of experiences and accomplishments, so my people send out…experiencers. We go out and live lives and record everything. Not just the what and where. We have the endocrine systems to make it all mean something. What it feels like. That’s the important bit.
We record. We pass on our recordings to each other when we meet, like relay runners. We don’t meet others very often—there aren’t that many of us—which makes the sharing all the more important. And if you cut us open, as much circuitry as blood will spill out, enough to cross a line into something other than human. Ransom wouldn’t understand. Most people wouldn’t. So we don’t tell what we are. We just want to be.
Maybe that’s why I’m so determined not to disappoint Ransom, why I am so grateful for his friendship, for that hand on my shoulder pushing me off. Because I’m lying to him all the time.
I exit the IS Daisychain’s docking ramp along with the rest of the passengers, a mix of mechanics and fixers and merchants and colonists and everyone else who has a reason to be on Balliard, most of them just trying to get from point A to point B. And not a Trade Guild uniform in sight, which shows just how far out of the main routes this place is. I’m in nondescript gray coveralls with no badges or insignia, lots of pockets, a belt with the usual assortment of tethers and tools a freelance mechanic looking for work might carry. A few other gadgets only someone from a pirate hunter like the Visigoth would have. A bag over my shoulder. Hair a little scruffier than I usually like it. Blending right in, which means heading to a public terminal near a lift and looking for job listings, or pretending to. I don a studied boredom. Can’t look like I’m on the hunt for anything but work. I’m always lying.
Balliard is a medium-sized station, big enough to get lost in, or to make sure a cargo-hold of smuggled goods gets lost. Small enough for one person to case, especially if the person is me, with my processor, artificial memory, wiring, and all the things Ransom doesn’t know about me. The station is a rotating drum, with docking berths and commercial interests at one end, living areas, food production and supporting industries at the other end. The docking berths are aggressively industrial, with cranes and tractors and pallets full of crates and canisters. The smell of fuel and lubricant. Noise. It all feels like being busy.
At the terminal, I pretend to access data by the usual touchpad interface—which I don’t actually need. I’ve got the ability to access the station’s entire data system via my own processor, and I make that connection. I could shut down all of Balliard like this if I wanted to. But I don’t want to. Instead, I just study what ships are in, what ships are due in, and what cargo is flowing—none of the pirate ships we’ve been tracking, which I expected. I move on. The next level down will be hostels, shops, and offices. It will be quieter, and my target will likely be somewhere in that realm. That’s where I’ll start.
First, the smell of roasting vegetables hits me, and I decide to look for something to eat, sit in the little food court tucked away, tables and chairs bolted to the floor and some tinny music piped in, in contrast to the noise I’d left uplevel. I can watch people come and go, listen to my instincts, whether this is a normal unregulated station or if I can feel the weirdness.
Before I can decide on food, it hits, a charge in my nerves that has nothing to do with the mission or whether the station feels off. Proximity alert, another system like mine close enough to touch. Way out here, the buzz of home.
I’m not expecting that. Scanning the crowd, I immediately find him, the one like me, because he’s looking right back at me across the wide space of the market. Male-appearing, younger than me. Long impractical hair pulled back; shirt, jacket, and trousers looking nice and polished. Station issue; he works for Balliard in some capacity. I don’t have anyone else’s memory of him tucked away, so I don’t know who he is, which makes this all the more thrilling.
Smiling, he approaches. He probably isn’t expecting to meet one of us way out here any more than I am.
“Nice to see someone from home,” I say and offer my hand. I’m itching to touch to him, to trade data. It’s a compulsion. We’re steps on each other’s relay, to get our memories home.
“Hey, how are you?” From the outside we look like two old friends greeting each other after a long separation.
He takes my hand, there’s a sting as our circuits connect, and we see each other, all of us, our names, our histories, our memories…He is Perce and he’s been away from home for three years, working his way out to the frontier doing clerical jobs and—
He’s the shipping agent who’s been moving smuggled goods through the station. My target.
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An Easy Job
I squeeze his hand a little harder, like I’m going to yank him around and twist his arm. But I don’t, because he knows I’m with the Visigoth and I’m hunting him. He looks like he wants to run but he doesn’t. And I can’t let him because he’s now got all the Visigoth’s operational procedures in his memory. And I’ve got the smugglers’ entire outfit on Balliard pegged down, just like that.
“Well, shit,” I say flatly.
The meeting is no longer happy. An outside observer will wonder if one of us killed the other’s pet.
“What do we do?” Perce hisses, because he hasn’t been out in the world for all that long, and he’s got no guideline for what to do in a situation like this. I’m not sure a situation like this has ever happened before.
He doesn’t seem to believe he’s working for pirates. He’s seen everything I know and still doesn’t seem to understand why I’m hunting him. This isn’t even simple anymore.
Grabbing the back of his neck, I pull him to me and plant my lips on his. Take a moment to enjoy the pure physical sensation, the warmth and weight of him pressing up to me. I do like kissing. He knows this.
He tries to wrench away. “What’re you—”
I whisper across his cheek, “We’re just a couple of guys who hit it off by the docks, and now you’re going to hold my hand and take me back to whatever closet passes as your quarters, where we’re going to have a very uncomfortable conversation.”
He grabs my hand and goes. This gives me some time to think. Not a half an hour in and I already blew the mission. Ransom is going to love this. It’s not my fault, but I’ll never be able to explain that.
One step at a time. I reach into a belt pouch and switch on one of my gadgets from the Visigoth, a jammer, so nothing around me can transmit comms. Both our internal comms go dark. He looks sharply at me—he can’t access the station system anymore. Neither can I, but first thing’s first.
His quarters are one level down in an innocuous section of the station, clean but not fancy. This requires us taking the lift down and acting like everything is just fine, thanks. I keep my hand on his neck and can’t afford to worry about how it looks. But nobody stops us.
In front of the door to his place, he reaches for the keypad, but I shoulder him out of the way and type in the door code myself because I know it and I can’t let him get near anything with a keypad and access to comms. He’ll warn his smuggling friends if he can.
The door opens, I pull him in. Close the door, lock it, change the code. The place is one room, a typical low-rent station setup with a bunk on one end, a padded bench and table next to a kitchenette, a closet for a bathroom.
When I turn back around, he has raised a food tray over my head. Okay, so that’s how this is going to go. He swings, intending to bat me upside the head, knock me over, and then who knows what. He’s not a fighter—he really is an accountant, just like I predicted. He’s never been in a fight in his life.
He swings, I duck, sweep his legs at the same time I grab the tray from him. He cries out; I put my hand on his chest and shove him to the bench, where he shrinks back and stares at me with a kind of shaky resolve. He’s thinking, too. I have to figure this out before he does.
I know what he knew the moment we clasped hands. I don’t know what he’s thinking now. He’s got weapons—illegal weapons, even outside the Guild—stashed in a couple of different cupboards. I find them, remove and pocket the power cells.
“Why didn’t you grab one of these?” I toss the guns on the table.
“They’re for emergencies.”
I give him a look. Oh really? “Then you do realize that the people you’re working for are dangerous.”
“They’re not pirates, there’s been some misunderstanding—”
He charges me. There’s no finesse to it—he’s going straight for the pocket with the jammer in it. He knows where it is like I know where his guns are. I duck away, but he hooks his hand in my belt and pulls. When I fall, I make sure to take him with me. My head hits the floor, and I wince, but the breath goes out of him. I keep going and roll to my feet.
I gasp, “We need to talk—”
“You have to let me go; you don’t understand what’s really happening here—”
Except I do and he knows it. “Oh yeah? Then sit down and explain it to me.”
“You already know what I’m going to say.” He scrambles for the door, clumsily. I grab the back of his collar, haul him back. He kicks out at my legs. In dodging I have to drop him. There’s not enough room in here for me to lay him out cleanly. And I don’t want to.
“Dammit, sit down and talk.”
He’s already on the floor. Rolling himself up to sitting, he leans against the wall, panting. I loom, cornering him. I already know the answers to all the usual questions: What are you doing here, how did you get roped into working with homicidal maniacs? What I don’t know is how we’re going to get out of this with our previous situations intact. It isn’t going to be possible. One of us is going to have to give up everything.
His glance moves around the space, looking for something else he can use as a weapon. A box he can hit me over the head with. A knife he can put to my throat. His complexion has gone ashy. These memories we’re generating right now are awful.
Adrenaline is tapering, and that goes into the file too, along with the feeling of staving off exhaustion. I say, “You can kill me, or try to kill me, and you’ll have that memory forever. So will anyone who gets your download. You can never go home again. Except we can’t never go home again. And then you’ll have to explain.”
“You can’t kill me for the same reason.”
“I don’t want to kill you.”
“Then what are you going to do?”
My breath settles. Think, think…“My preferences: First, call someone from home and have them drag you off and explain what you’ve gotten wrong.”
“What have I gotten wrong? You’re insane—”
I hold up a hand and he goes silent. “Second choice, I get you drunk, seduce you, call the Visigoth to come and take you into custody and blow your outfit wide open.”
He stares. “You can’t seduce me.”
“Well yes, I know that. It’s a joke.”
Obviously, he doesn’t think it’s very funny. I grin anyway.
“Third,” he says. “We both go home for arbitration. Neither of us gets out of this.”
“Not happening. No. Not an option.”
“Because I’m right.” And I won’t abandon Ransom.
“I won’t cooperate. I’ll communicate with my people.”
“Your people are murderers.”
“It’s not like that—”
“You know it is. Look at the data.”
His expression screws up, almost like he’s in pain. He’s resisting. He’s got all my data in his circuits and he won’t look at it. “All I have is your point of view of it. Those supplies they’re bringing in, they’re going to war refugees on Cancri Delta—”
“That’s what they told you. Look at the data.”
“It’s not data it’s memories, your memories—”
His gaze turns inward, how we do when accessing our processors, a new memory for him. An old one for me. An angry one. He’ll know I don’t get angry often, but he’ll feel it, that rush of adrenaline, the clenching in my hands, that energy that has to go somewhere, and so I’m here trying to make things right. Trying not to punch something. Namely him.
Captain Ransom of the Visigoth hunts pirates. I’m his right hand, the one he sends out to scout the territory, to serve as bait. To strike first and clean up after. He doesn’t know why I’m good at the job and he doesn’t need to. But I’m the one who led the team of marines onto the TGS Speranza, after we’d recaptured it. We suspected there were hostages. We were being careful. But the pirates had already fled, the ship was adrift, we couldn’t find anyone. Until we got to the bridge.
The bodies were lined up, the ten crew members all in a row. Brain-destroying energy blasts to the backs of their heads. They’d surrendered, they hadn’t fought, they’d been willing to give up their cargo. They’d been executed anyway. Dead before we got close. The pirates had killed them because it was convenient. Easier. I had a lot of detail. Blood pooling on the deck, the rictus of fear on some of their faces. Two of them had been holding hands, clinging to each other hard enough to crack joints, as if it would help. They’d known what was coming. I couldn’t smell the scorched flesh because I’d had my helmet on and faceplate down. But I knew that smell, and now so did Perce.
Then Perce experiences the memory when I played back the bridge security footage that showed exactly what happened. I know he recognizes the face of the one pulling the trigger. Perce’s contact here on Balliard.
This cargo Perce is so sure is going to feed refugees has blood all over it.
He covers his face with his hands. That gives me a little more time to think about what to do. I’ll have time to feel sorry for him later.
“You have the advantage here,” he says softly. “I’m not a soldier. I can’t fight you.”
“Technically I’m not a soldier either. But being around Ransom, it’s useful knowing how to fight.”
He looks up, more confused than resigned. “Captain Ransom isn’t what I expected.”
I chuckle. Ransom is never what anyone expects. “Don’t trust my memories of him. I’m biased. He’s my best friend.”
“That’s just it, I didn’t expect him to be anybody’s best friend.”
That gives me a moment’s pause. I’ve known Ransom since we were twenty years old. He just is. And now Perce has two different versions of him to contend with: the man’s reputation and my memories of him. It takes time to reconcile that kind of doubling up.
I cross my arms. “I don’t suppose I can convince you to just…stop. Close up shop here, take the first transport to fifty light years away.”
“Will you look at Cancri Delta? I was there. I saw. Look at it and tell me I wasn’t supposed to do something.”
I show him mine, now he shows me his? I’m in charge here, that isn’t how this works.
This sharing is the whole point of what we are. I can’t not look.
Perce hadn’t meant to land on Cancri Delta at all. The war there—a dispute over which government entity controlled the mining rights to which moon, a nothing argument but then I wasn’t in charge and didn’t get an opinion—started while he was en route. He wanted to see some of the frontier, that was all. His transport was conscripted for the war effort. The passengers had been treated well—nobody wanted to give the Trade Guild a reason to intervene. But Perce had been curious, disturbed, and so he talked a guard into letting him see the bombardment zone. A whole coastline of cities had been bombed from orbit. Hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced, cold, hungry, sick.
Perce hadn’t known what blood spilled over steel deck plates looked like. Well, I hadn’t known what a thousand people living with no sewer system smelled like. Now I do.
“There are better ways to help them,” I say softly.
He chuckles darkly. “What, go to Trade Guild? This is outside their jurisdiction. The governments on Cancri aren’t letting in aid organizations. The only way to get food in is to smuggle it.”
“Those smuggled goods aren’t getting to those refugees.”
“You don’t believe they are.”
I give him a look. Those goods might be getting to Cancri Delta but they’re being sold at prices that no one in a refugee camp can pay. It’s a mess. Trade Guild ought to come in, occupy the system, and clean up the whole mess. Any more ships get treated like the Speranza, it just might.
“It’s not math. You can’t weigh a bunch of bad against a bunch of slightly less bad and expect it to come out right.”
Perce says, “Maybe you could just pretend you never found me.”
We can’t both do our jobs and also protect the other from our jobs. “When your pirates figure out you’ve been talking to me, they won’t let you run. You know too much about their operation.” And he knows too much about mine. I have to get him out of circulation. Without killing him.
I can take him home. Both of us go home for arbitration. I hate to think that he’s right and that’s our best option.
“You love your ship,” he says. “The Visigoth. But we both can’t stay where we are, not after this.”
I do love the Visigoth, and that love is part of why we travel, to collect and send that love home. There has to be a way. I shake my head. “It’s a good compromise if we’re both unhappy, right?”
“What’re the odds,” he mutters, turning to scowl at the wall. “That two of us would end up on opposite sides of a fight like this? It shouldn’t happen.”
“The odds are non-zero. Obviously,” I say.
“You’ve downloaded dozens of times,” he says. “Why aren’t you worried about anyone else walking around with all of Visigoth’s operational secrets?”
“Because they’re not here, and I’ve always been able to trust them.”
“But not me.”
“Oh hell no.”
“Maybe we could just…erase the last hour—”
“No.” Erasing anything goes against everything we believe in. The whole point is to remember. “Hey, you have anything to drink around here?”
“On to option two?” he grumbles. “You’re not my type.”
“Yeah, I know. Too bad.”
His gaze goes inward, his expression turns quizzical. “Do you even have a type?”
I had to think about that a moment. “Hedonist,” I say, and wink. He looks disgusted.
“How did home ever decide to let you loose?”
“I tell good stories.”
There’s a knock at the door, three quiet, unassuming taps. Someone trying to see Perce. Likely, they tried comms first, didn’t get through, and grew suspicious. This wasn’t good. Perce’s eyes go wide and panicky and he looks at me.
“You hear that?” When it’s quiet, when I’m focused, I can hear heartbeats. Breathing. Perce should be able to as well—we have the same wiring. He might not have as much practice at it as I do. But once I’ve pointed it out, he can hear the two figures standing outside his door. “Don’t answer,” I whisper.
His hands close into fists. “If I don’t respond they’ll know something’s wrong. They’ll know I’m compromised. You have to let me say something, just through the door comm.”
They already know he’s compromised. Adrenaline spikes again. I don’t have time to think about this. “Yeah, it’s probably too late for that.”
He goes pale. “So that’s it. Your whole mission is skunked. They know something’s wrong, they’ll abandon the operation, you’re back to square one.”
I can almost forgive him for sounding happy about this. Like we can just walk away from each other now. “And they’ll need to clean up loose ends.”
“No…we’ll all just go our separate ways—”
“They’ll kill you.” I shrug.
We wait, and wait. We’ve been whispering, and we both hold our breaths, listening. Two sets of footsteps move down the corridor. Heavy steps, belonging to big people. Enforcers. Here for one of us. Or both of us. We linked processors no more than an hour ago. I don’t know anything Perce has been thinking since then. I don’t know what this looks like from his perspective. But I can guess. He thinks this isn’t fair. He thought he was doing the right thing.
He knows I can get him out of this if he just says the word.
“I can’t just go with you, it’s not like Ransom won’t kill me too—”
“You know he won’t.”
“But…I have a life here. I’m not ready to leave.”
The steps continue—and then stop. They’re still here, watching. I make the call for both of us and switch off the jammer in my belt pouch. Immediately I hack into the station’s comms and send a message to Visigoth’s emergency channel, a couple days ahead of schedule. Cover’s blown, need extraction now. Ship’s been waiting in the shadow of the next moon over. They’ll need an hour to get here. So that’s how much time we have, and that narrows my options to a manageable few. Figuring out how to explain this all to Ransom can wait.
Perce flinches; he’s felt the comms come back on. It’s all wide open now. “What’d you do that for?”
“You want to call your friends, try to explain all this, now’s your chance.”
I’m monitoring for his signal. I’m assuming he’ll send one, try to explain this to his erstwhile friends, to the man who pulled the trigger on the crew of Speranza. He doesn’t, and I’m surprised. So he heard the steps outside and made his call, too.
“Grab what you can carry.”
“I’m not going to call anyone,” he counters. “And I’m not going to leave.”
“Then you can let them shoot you.” Except I can’t let them shoot him. He’s got part of me with him, and I want him to get home someday. This makes no logical sense and should never have happened and I’m in awe of the whole mess.
He’s standing in the middle of his space, looking lost. I have a plan, and I don’t know if he’s thinking sharp enough to be able to guess what that plan is. If he’s paying attention he will. He knows everything about me. But he may still be focused on that reputation.
“Look, I understand this is tough,” I say. “We’re both facing this massive, ridiculous conflict of interest. We both want to do what’s right, and we ought to be able to come up with a solution—”
I grab both his hands and yank him forward, off balance. He yelps, and I grab another of the Visigoth’s helpful gadgets out of a pouch and slap it over his wrists, which are now bound. So, he wasn’t totally paying attention. Kid needs another ten years of his own experience; my memories aren’t helping him here. He doesn’t quite believe them.
I take a minute to shove a handful of items in a knapsack, the stuff he thinks he needs, that I think are reasonable. A change of clothes, a handheld terminal, a plastic cat he’s had since he was a kid. I claim one of the guns and replace the power cell, check the readings.
“Anything else?” I ask.
“This is all a misunderstanding,” he repeats.
“Sure. We’ll work it out later. Right now, be very quiet.” Weapon in hand, I open the door, hold Perce back from it, and wait.
“If you let me talk to them—”
I can still hear the heartbeats of the two muscle staking out Perce’s room. Their breathing is stressed.
“Maybe they just want to talk.” He so wants to believe it.
I put a finger over my lips. He’s not going to listen to me; his gaze darts out to the corridor, like he thinks he can make a break for it. The tendons in his hands tighten. I ought to let him run out there and get shot. Except I can’t. This frustrates me. Maybe I can put him in a box and ship him home, where he can’t do any more damage.
Just as he launches into a run, I bar my arm across the doorway and he crashes into it with a whoosh of breath. The footsteps down the corridor charge toward us. I lean out and fire, two electric blasts, and catch the two heavies in the chest. They’re enforcer types in unmarked armor. They go down, writhing with the sudden shock. The armor keeps them from dying. They’ll be back up in a few seconds, so I grab Perce by the back of his shirt and move.
Around the next corner, a maintenance access door lets us disappear, briefly. Once the bad guys figure out we’re not in public thoroughfares anymore they’ll look at the maintenance security footage, so this will only last for a little while. The door slides shut, and we’re locked in a closet with dim utility lighting that gives everything this blue cast. A hundred meters, four more doors, and a ladder ought to get us back to the market level.
“So this is what you do, is it? Go around, busting up stations and ships—”
“No, I’m usually in a scout runner so I don’t have to talk to people like you.”
We have to squeeze past ducts and piping to move. I keep him in front of me, hand around his biceps. He’s holding his bound arms like he’s injured them.
He keeps talking. “No one knows. You love your ship. You love Ransom. But none of them know what you are. You basically lie all the time.”
Mostly, I don’t think about it. I mean, if nobody asks…
“And then you come here on some kind of moral high ground…You’re as much a mercenary as the people I work for.”
I chuckle. He’s just saying this to get a rise out of me.
“If you try to take me aboard the Visigoth, I’ll tell Ransom. I’ll tell him everything.”
“No you won’t.” Because then he’ll have to explain how he knows. And we don’t tell anyone. Even more important than going home, or sending ourselves home, we keep the secret.
“It bothers you. Not keeping the secret, but what would happen if they ever found out. It’s the one thing you’re afraid of.”
In fact, I’m worrying over that one possibility: What if he tells Ransom? He might. The state he’s in now, that he’s worked himself into over the last half hour—he might just tell Ransom. And what if Ransom believes him?
I can either hesitate on that, or let it make me angry. Kid doesn’t get to scare me like that.
I shove Perce down the passage. I wish we could just go for coffee to wait for Visigoth’s signal. But these pirates will shoot us in public if they have to. Won’t even blink. We have to go up another level to get to the docks, where Visigoth will berth. We can’t use the public lifts, and we’ll eventually have to leave the maintenance passages.
Up ahead, there is movement. Might be someone who belongs there, a worker just doing a job, or an inspector. If I think fast I can explain what we’re doing here, even with Perce’s hands in binders. But the approaching steps are too fast, too purposeful. Not a bystander, then.
I grab his collar and pull. When the shot comes, I’m expecting it and haul Perce down. Sparks ricochet off the steel piping over my head.
“They’re shooting!” he exclaims.
“Told you.” I unclamp the binders on his wrists because it’s only fair. “This way—”
“You…you put yourself between me and them.”
“I did?” I guess I did. Didn’t even think of it. Perce swears and seems to suddenly lose his breath.
We take a branch in the corridor, but still have a ways to go before we can get to a ladder to the next level.
“Not that way,” he says.
“This way.” He scuffs his foot. There’s a hatch in the floor. It’s not on the floorplan I skimmed off the station’s feed. I should have the most detailed plan, even the classified security plans.
“Who’s been moving smuggled goods through the station?”
I have my weapon leveled, waiting for our pursuers. They’re close; only a turn in the corridor shelters us. Kneeling, he twists a purely mechanical, analog bolt and the hatch slides open. He climbs down the ladder, watching where he’s going past his feet. My heart is racing in that throat-clenching artery-clearing way that means things have gotten just a little too exciting.
I follow, slip the hatch closed over my head. Perce is waiting for me at the bottom. I mostly expected him to flee. Instead, he’s got a handlight out, shining it down a clean metal passage. Looks like an annex to a cargo hold.
“It’s just fifty yards to short-term docking from here,” he says, which lines up with my floorplans once I get oriented. We jog in that direction.
Visigoth crew thinks I have an implanted comm that sends and receives messages. They don’t need to know it’s a much more complicated system than that. They just need to talk to me. The message goes straight to my brain.
Graff. Bay 3-16. Five minutes.
The station traffic channel is alight with news that Visigoth is coming in fast and not taking no for an answer. Security wants to know why and Visigoth isn’t telling them. This is all my doing, and that’s a power I really didn’t want.
We’ve traversed several cargo bays, and now we’re at another hatch. This should open straight to the docking level, a few berths down from where Visigoth is moving in. Perce uses his code to open the maintenance door, which will flag our location to the bad guys, but in a few minutes that won’t matter. It’s a race now.
“Do you trust me?” I ask.
“Absolutely not,” he says.
“Seriously, I need you to trust me.”
“Do I have a choice?”
“You could get us both killed instead.” His silence could mean he’s actually considering it. But I don’t think so. He didn’t have to show me that hatch. “Wait for just a minute. We need to open that door at the last possible moment. I’ve got it all timed out. We go too early, they’ll get us.”
He keeps his hand on the hatch. Bites his lips. Says, “Tell me when.”
Five minutes. Four. Four and a half. Three…“Go.”
The hatch pops and we step out into the world. The normality of the docking level, the signal lights and loader carts and station announcements, is almost too much.
Graff, you have pursuers.
Yeah, sorry about that, I send back. I take hold of Perce’s arm and don’t give him a choice about running. Just another minute. The walls are closing in. I like a little more breathing room with my excitement.
We go, pounding down the docking ring.
Shots fire and an energy nimbus reflects blindingly off a girder. A blaring, constant alarm has started up. I make sure Perce is ahead of me. Try to keep crates and columns and tractors between us and them. Might be station security, might be pirates. Doesn’t really matter so I don’t look back to check. We’re on a schedule.
I don’t have to see dock numbers to find the right berth. Three Visigoth marines, all armored up and anonymous behind faceplates, are outside the docking tube, guns leveled. Once the marines are in view, the shots from behind us stop. I’m counting down in my head. Two seconds to show myself, arm raised. Xun salutes. I recognize her by the markings on her armor.
Five seconds to cross the space. I keep my grip locked on Perce’s collar the whole time. He leans into me to keep his balance. The shouting from station security starts up at four seconds. We just need to get behind that wall of marines. And we do.
Three seconds down the docking tube, and Xun and her soldiers are right behind me, and Visigoth’s deck crew is already undocking the tube before we’re even in the airlock. The critical bit happens in less than a second, all of it at once: five of us in the airlock, the tube detaching, the hatch slamming shut. A fraction of a second when I don’t know which way the air is gusting—out into space because we mis-timed it, or in through the vents as we equalize atmosphere with the Visigoth. My ears pop. I breathe. We’re all breathing. Perce is in fetal position, gasping. He may never uncurl.
I lay on my back and laugh. This is nuts. “Thank you, kids. Holy shit I owe you one.”
Xun pops her faceplate, scowls. “Captain has questions, sir.”
I look up, and there’s Ransom, already glaring through the airlock window. “Yeah. Fuck.”
Ransom and I are in the ops office, watching Perce on the holding cell monitor. He’s on the bench, hugging his knees, expression locked in a grimace. It’s now been six hours since we downloaded, and I have no idea what he’s feeling.
I’ve had time to figure out what I’m going to tell Ransom. I have a plan.
“Tell me again: How long were you there before you blew your cover?” he asks.
“I think it took thirty minutes. Maybe not even that much.”
“How?” He’s not angry—not much, anyway. Shit happens, right? But he’s baffled.
I shrug. “He recognized me from home. He put two and two together. One in a billion chance, but there it is.” This is not exactly the truth, and not exactly a lie. Something in the middle.
“Only one in a billion? I suppose you’re lucky he didn’t just shank you outright.”
“Oh, he wouldn’t have managed that.” Captain huffs like he knows I’m right but also knows I might not have been.
I’ve done exactly to Perce what I didn’t want him to do to me. That’s how he’ll see it. But, well, the pirates are going to vanish. Change their routes, procedures, everything. We’ve lost them.
Ransom looks at the monitor, at the miserable man curled up there. “How did you manage such a thorough interrogation in the field? Guy doesn’t look like he’s been wrung out.”
“I seduced him.” I raise a brow. Just a small leer.
Ransom knows it’s a joke. “My friend, you are a genuine freak.”
“Yes sir, thank you.”
He doesn’t know that while I learned everything about Perce, he also knows everything about me. He knows everything I know about Ransom, like that time at the Academy he rigged the entire lighting system to go out in the middle of exams across three buildings. Exams were cancelled that year. It was his first great triumph.
Ransom thinks Perce is just another stooge. But I know differently.
“At least we’re not entirely back to square one,” Ransom says. “We have enough loose threads to follow to…something.”
“What do you think about my proposal? For what to do with him?”
He shakes his head. “It’s as good as anything else, I guess. Keeps him out of the wrong hands.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
“All right, then.”
I sigh. “I’m not happy about any of this. Don’t think that I am.”
“Graff, if it had been anyone else, this would have gone so much worse. This is fine. It’s going to be fine.”
I nod, unconvinced. Like I should have been able to just talk Perce into agreeing with me. “One more thing—can we revise comms encryption and system security ahead of schedule? I’m feeling a little twitchy.”
“Probably a good idea.”
“Thank you. For trusting me.”
It’s so much more than I deserve. If he ever finds out…
Ransom starts to go, looks back, his thoughtful brow furrowed. “By the way, where is home for you? I forget.”
I have a pat answer. “Way out of the way.” You’ve never heard of it, oh no.
“You never talk about home, you know that?”
“Yeah, I know.”
We’ve had this conversation or ones like it before. We always get about this close—he starts to say something more, eyes narrowed, mouth about to open. He always changes his mind. Nods and walks away. I ought to feel terrible, but I don’t. This is better. He doesn’t really want to know what I’m hiding. It’s not even relevant.
Well, usually it isn’t.
Perce and I are on an entirely different station, several dozen light years away, well within Trade Guild territory this time. We’re standing outside the offices of an interstellar aid organization in need of an operations manager with accounting experience.
“A job?” Perce stares at the organization’s nameplate, baffled.
“Or I can take you home and suggest you be charged with abetting piracy. But I thought you’d like this better. It might not be helping Cancri Delta directly. But it’ll get you closer.”
“I hate bureaucracies,” he muttered.
“Yeah, I gathered.”
“But they probably won’t shoot at me.”
He bows his head, nods like he’s made a decision. “Thank you. This…is better.”
“And I’m trusting you.”
“Yes.” He looks at me square on. “How do you stand it? Being so close to Ransom and your crew, being their friend, and they have no idea what you are?”
“No choice, really. The alternative is not having it at all.” It’s easier for everyone this way. No one ever needs to know. Even Ransom wouldn’t understand if he knew. So I don’t tell.
“I understand, I think.”
I hold out my hand, so that he’ll really understand. And he takes it. The pinch, the spark follow, and we know each other, everything that has happened and our memories of it. I see myself through his eyes and…he is still confused. He’s holding both versions of me: my memories and his perception of me, at the same time. It isn’t easy.
For my part, I see that he has a lot to learn. I’m looking forward to downloading someone’s memories about him in a few years, when he’s had a chance to settle down.
Our contact breaks, and he gets this daring look in his eyes. He takes hold of my face and plants a kiss on my lips, dry and aggressive. Then he lets go, nods, and walks himself through the office door.
Just like that. Simplest thing in the world.
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An Easy Job
“An Easy Job” copyright © 2021 by Carrie Vaughn
Art copyright © 2021 by Eli Minaya