by Robert Reed
The charon ships never stop coming, and without exception, their cargo is owed and deserves an important service. Twenty and sometimes thirty ships every hour. Ten thousand customers at a time. That’s the routine. That’s what has become normal now. But this morning’s ship is something else entirely. A million almost-corpses ready to shoot past us, and that’s why every available crew leader gets the call.
I happen to be one of the Availables.
And I know this little necro beetle who’s always eager to work.
Until now, at least.
“Work?” she says. “What’s that ugly word mean?”
“So you don’t want the job,” I say.
“Not when you still owe me for the last big and busy.”
“I don’t pay anybody,” I say.
She says nothing.
I match her silence.
A system is in place, and we’re supposed to respect the system. For instance, I’m one of the natural bosses, high on the food chain and free to hire my own crew, while every necro is free to join whoever she or he wants, taking a fair slice of the profits. But our ancient organization was never efficient, and these days, what with charons falling from every part of the sky, nothing is easy. That includes how the compensations are often delayed. For centuries, sometimes. And since the Gods of Expiration can’t give hard promises for bonuses anymore, rounding up useful help is a lot tougher than it should ever be.
So yeah, I agree with her. “Work” is an exceptionally ugly word.
Trying to start over, I say, “Listen.”
“To what?” she says. “Thin promises about future bonuses?”
Necro beetles have a wit about them. Particularly this one. Too bad I’m not in a witty frame of mind.
“You’re still standing in front of me, so you must be interested,” I guess.
“Salvage,” she says.
“That’s what you want?”
A thoroughly illegal, marginally immoral suggestion. Which we deal with every day, and in our dreams too.
“Specifics,” I say.
A bin number and name arrive inside my head. Not only proving that she already knows about this ship, but guessing that somebody like me would hunt her out, the lady has combed through the ship’s cargo, doing considerable work searching for the ossuary worth an ocean of risk.
One glance, and I say, “I don’t want this.”
“So walk away,” she says.
“Yeah, I’m renting a crew of carrion worms,” I tell her.
She says nothing.
I turn around.
“Hyena,” she says.
My last name. Like hers is “Beetle.”
My very big body does a convincing job of leaving her.
“You hate working with the worms, Hyena.”
“Keep walking,” I warn myself.
“Okay,” she says. “We split any treasure, and I’ll help you with your job.”
I’m still walking, but slower now.
“A two-pile system,” she says.
There’s a lot of reasons why I stop and face her again. Somewhere in the deep past, this creature’s ancestors were genuine necrophila beetles, while my parents were spotted hyenas crunching down antelope bones. Time and the demands of this life have diluted many of those old traits, while other qualities have been invented or amplified. But I remain strong and furry, with a murderous bite strength, while she will always be an ornate, bug-shaped piece of jewelry riding on swift jointed limbs.
She’s a very beautiful necro beetle, but I would never tell her so.
“Two piles,” I agree.
“Oh, and there’s something else that I want,” she says. “Otherwise, you get nothing from me.”
Life and death. When do those two chores ever become easy?
* * *
Today’s ship began as a pristine comet wandering the outskirts of the New Mesopotamia system. New Mesopotamia is one of the oldest and nearest colonies inside the mighty Terran Empire. Blessed with stable binary suns and a multitude of worlds, that realm has been fully settled for eons. Machine entities. Alien species. Contrived lineages and sentient pets. And of course, they’re human citizens, too. Probably ten trillion people scattered across terraformed bodies and prefabricated habitats. Most of those souls are well fed and happy enough, but poor. Like almost everyone everywhere is poor. They can’t afford to wander far, and what with filling the belly and feeding the soul, these humans will never have to suffer from boredom. READ MORE
by Y. M. Pang
The mangy white dog wandered through the intersection of Sanming and Tinglu. I saw him three times a week: on First Day, Third Day, and Sun Day, the days when Taihe and I performed there.
Taihe laid down the mat. I’d hop off his shoulders and do a few leaps as warm-ups. When he threw me the embroidered ball, I’d flick it with my tail, then balance it on my head. Sometimes Taihe held hoops for me to jump through or threw rings for me to catch. Those who frequented the intersection knew me and called me Magic Cat.
From the corner of my eye, I’d glimpse the mangy white dog shuffling down the opposite side of the street, a sodden newspaper in his mouth. A patch of fur had been chewed off from the side of his face, and he dragged his left hind limb as he walked.
Coins clinked in Taihe’s collection cup as I batted, tossed, flicked my way through my collection of tricks. An old woman stopped before the mat. Everything about her clothing was dirt-colored and dull, except her bright yellow scarf. The tiny slip at the corner said, “100 percent silk,” though I guessed it was fake. Nylon, probably. She stared at me for several long minutes, then glanced at Taihe and asked, “How’d you train it?”
Taihe laughed. “With difficulty,” he said.
I sniffed. Taihe training me? Preposterous. We’d made a deal. I would earn money with my tricks, and Taihe would cook for me, shelter me, and buy me the human things I wanted. Because people like that old woman would shoo me out of their shops rather than passing me a fish, even if I showed up with ten-yuan bills in my mouth.
As the old woman turned away, the mangy white dog slinked across her path. He raised his pleading gaze to her, but she barely looked down as she skirted around him. As if she’d give him anything. She didn’t even give me anything, and I was twice the animal he was.
The dog’s ears flattened against his head. He wandered toward the baozi restaurant, probably to nose through their garbage bins. Sometimes I spotted him brushing past the legs of roadside meal vendors, feeding on bits of fried dough and licking at discarded eggshells. Then the vendors would notice and whack him on the head.
When the day’s work was done, Taihe bent down and I climbed onto his shoulders. He’d walk off with the mat folded under his arm and the day’s earnings tucked into his belted bag.
For years the mangy dog was simply there. Like the baozi restaurant, the phlegm-covered pavement, the old lady and her stupid scarf. A white shadow wandering through the intersection long after Taihe and I had packed up. Except one day the old lady stopped coming, and maybe that shifted the bones of the universe, for that was when the mangy white dog became more than another piece of the cityscape.
Seven o’clock arrived that evening. Taihe packed up, barely able to conceal his grin. We’d made good money. I hoped he would buy me ribbon fish. I’d debuted a new trick: I would flick the ball into the air, perform a roll, then catch the ball on my head on its way down. It required me to flick the ball high, but with perfect control.
“All right, freestyler,” Taihe said. “Ready to go?”
I meowed agreement. Taihe always joked about entering me into a freestyling competition. I fancied my chances against the China National Football Team, though that said more about them than it did about me.
I leapt onto Taihe’s shoulders and we started the familiar journey down Tinglu. But after a few steps, Taihe stopped.
The mangy old dog stood before us. His fur had acquired new missing patches, and his left hind leg could no longer extend to the ground. He stared at us with those pleading, moon-grey eyes.
Taihe’s mouth tightened.
“You’re in the way,” I told the dog. His eyes remained fixed on Taihe.
Taihe stomped forward, wearing an intimidating scowl. The dog backed off, but remained in the middle of the walkway. Taihe made to walk around the dog, but the dog mirrored his every step.
“Just run past him,” I said. “I want to go home. I want ribbon fish.”
But as usual, Taihe did not understand me. He turned back to the dog. “Go away,” he said.
The mangy dog barked. His teeth were as yellow as that old woman’s scarf. Taihe made a shooing motion with his hand. “Go away!”
By now, passing pedestrians and a vendor were staring at us. Taihe finally managed to maneuver around the dog and dash away. I glanced back. The dog didn’t chase us, just whimpered and hung his head.
“That was weird,” I said. “He’s never acted like that before.”
Taihe stroked my head. “Hey, old Chen should still be open. You want ribbon fish? Simmered sound good to you?”
I yowled agreement. Taihe might not understand my words, but he could read agreement in my tone. Instead of entering the hutong that served as a shortcut to our apartment, Taihe headed for Bailong Market. We performed here every Fourth Day, so several of the vendors recognized us and shouted greetings. READ MORE