Story Excerpts

How Sere Looked for a Pair of Boots

by Alexander Jablokov

“Why does Aunt Tirsunah want this closet empty all of a sudden?” I’m afraid I pushed my hand against the door, as if Nurri was about to tear it open and start tossing the contents onto the hallway floor.

“Oh, come on, Sere.” My cousin flopped herself onto the couch. “Organization. Order. ‘Holding back chaos.’ You know moms.”

The “chaos” being held back was Tirsunah’s houseguest/tenant/rehab project/niece: me, Sere Glagolit. She’d saved my ass, and torturing me was her way of making sure I didn’t feel obliged to feel grateful for it.

“Besides,” Nurri said. “Isn’t that just crap from your old Bik discard business? I’d think you’d want to get rid of it. You seem to like this private inquiries business better.”

The new business paid better, too, though I was nowhere near up on my rent, something else this closet thing was telling me. And Nurri was right. Why was I holding onto this last memory of defeat?

I opened the closet to reveal obsolete business inventory: molted Bik eyeballs, each the size of a large fist, dangling from integration cables, neat and ready to be sold for low-end surveillance setups.

No one would buy them. I’d pretty much thought up this business of finding and repurposing centuries-old molts from long-forgotten Bik morphs, but my former business partner, my former boyfriend, Lemuel, had now frozen me out of those markets. Besides, he’d always been better at maintaining the nerve-activating rust fungus, and from the looks of things, what had been left of it had flaked off. I’d need to sweep it out before I turned it over.

If Aunt Tirsunah wanted to pack the closet with party decorations, I couldn’t say that made less sense. I was reaching in to gather up the hard-shelled eyeballs, shed by long-ago Biks as they grew and developed, wondering if they could maybe be a kind of peace offering to Greng, our old Bik opponent in finding body parts caches, when I heard Nurri sniff behind me.

I turned. My little cousin was curled up on the couch in the alcove, dark and velvety. You’d want to pet her. Oh, you might want to pet me, too. You’d just be careful not to make any sudden movements. She wasn’t crying, but her big eyes gleamed.

I was happy enough to leave the eyeballs and their pain for later. I closed the closet and slid onto the couch next to her. My hips are wider than hers, and I almost checked her onto the floor. I rescued her, let her lay her head on my shoulder, and waited.

It took her a minute. Panetto grumbled around us. There was a slideway just beyond the back wall, carrying people of every nation from one part of Tempest to another. Dozens of nations bumped against each other in the City of Storms, from dozens of planets, and us Oms—humans, if we’re at home—are only one of them, and far from the most important. We’re pretty much everywhere in the City of Storms, but Panetto has more of us than most districts.

“You’re going to think it’s stupid,” she said.

“Let me decide what’s stupid.”

She took a breath. “It’s about Dothanial.”

Okay, stupid. Her boyfriend was cocky, came up with elaborate schemes that never panned out, and often neglected her . . . most recently when he ended up in a Mimnurrn excavation prison for taking a stupid chance. That his being out of the way for a while was good for Nurri was one thing Tirsunah and I agreed on.

“What about Dothanial?” I’m pretty sure I kept any weariness out of my tone.

I’ve been informed that I have a problem with tone.

“Oh, Sere! I was so mad at him. Climbing up that Lorani incubator in the middle of the night, for whatever reason, even if it was to get me some of that fluff . . . it messed up all our plans, all of what we wanted to do. So . . .” She crossed her arms. “I haven’t been to visit him, not once. He’s down there digging for months, and he hasn’t seen me.”

“Almost anyone can get in to talk,” I said. “Mimnurrns will strip you bare and cover you with spit, but they don’t see words as contraband.”

“That’s not the point! I don’t want to see him. Not in there. I want to get him out. And I just heard something that might be a lead to doing that.”

I hate working for family. The only coin they have to pay with is gratitude, and, being family, they’re always bankrupt. And Tirsunah wouldn’t thank me for helping Dothanial and Nurri work on their “plans.” Still, this was Nurri, and I couldn’t say no.

“Don’t sigh like that, Sere.”

“I was just relaxing myself so I could focus on what you have to say. It’s a discipline. What did you hear? And who from?”

“I was at the market over in upper Seghast, right by the farms, picking stuff up for Moms. A vendor was telling me a story about how Dothanial climbed the Architon tower at the edge of Seghast to get some glider some kid had lost up there. People are always telling me stories like that about Doth, him showing off, like I haven’t heard enough of them. . . .”

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Taking Icarus Home

by Suzanne Palmer

There are, you think, two main problems with the Barrens. The first, and most obvious, is that it is vast and unnaturally sparse of star systems, which means it comes up stingy and begrudging with the specific, complex, and mostly not-understood gravitational circumstances necessary to spawn up active jump points. That leaves one to slog along in passive jump, or worse: actual sub-C speeds, which is especially tedious when you miscalculated your swing around one of the few actual bodies out here and got shit for a speed boost.

Not that you ever miscalculate, per se. That is problem number two: for being a place called the Barrens, there is way too much stuff out here floating around where it shouldn’t be, like an old, holed-out rustfreighter that’s abandoned itself right in your approach vector, meaning you had to swing wide to avoid a collision, and rather than make another day-long loop around to try again, you guessed, and you guessed really close, but not quite close enough. So here the fuck you are only going about a third as fast as you want, not quite in the optimum direction, and debating if you should just burn the fuel to take yourself up to passive jump and get the hell out. It feels like cheating, though. You’ve been playing the run around these stars for a long time, and damned if you’re not going to at least think through if you can still use ’em.

“Axie,” you say. “Vivaldi, please.”

The ship chooses a violin concerto. You’re not sure which one, but already you can tell it’s a Martian Symphony Orchestra recording, as are most of the ones you’ve kept; even if you didn’t really like the handful of Marsies you’ve met, the MSO is arguably one of the very best. The sound of strings swells throughout the small cargo ship that is the Axolotl Daydream, that is your shell, your home, an extension of you, no less vital a part than your own arms, your own eyes. The music is your collective heartbeat, and it warms you as you slide together through real space, among the dust and dead relics and ditched salvage in the vast emptiness.

The star you skirted awkwardly is named Birib, and it’s a big, bright, fast-burning A-star with a few scorched rocks orbiting closer in, a gas giant past that, and then some distant chunks of ice that barely qualify as planets. Signal comes in from somewhere between the giant and the first of the ice planets, and you know that’s Hades Enclave warning anyone with bad intentions to stay out of their space. You’ve traded there, and it’s not nearly as bad as they want people to think, but nowhere you’d want to stay.

You like being on the move, and you never did like other people much. It works out.

“Captain,” your ship says. “I am detecting a substantial object along our projected path. I estimate we will overtake it in approximately four minutes.”

“Animal, vegetable, or mineral?” you ask.

Axie knows by now how to interpret the question. “Artificial. It is consistent in approximate size and shape with a standard human-craft lifepod, but it is not broadcasting any signals, identity, distress, or otherwise.”

“Propulsion?”

“Not that I can detect.”

Dodging it is easy enough. The question is, should you? “Do you think it came from that freighter?” you ask, even though you’d bet it didn’t.

“If I extrapolate backward from its current trajectory, it would appear to have also attempted a gravity assist loop around Birib, but in much closer to the star.”

You blink at the console in front of you, knowing how you skirted the edge of tolerances, and you’re in an actual starship designed for such things. “Closer? It would have been fried to a crisp.”

“Scans indicate a high degree of crispiness,” Axie answers. “That may explain the lack of signal and propulsion. It is possible it briefly grazed the heliosphere itself.”

“So it’s dead,” you say, and that’s a door closed that means you don’t need to hassle with it, but also you can’t fix it. You don’t like not getting to decide that yourself.

“It is maintaining a temperature above ambient, so some systems are, at a minimum, partially functional.”

“Slow us down so we overtake in fifteen,” you say, “and give me scans.”

Once you’ve got the visuals you’re sure it’s a lifepod, but it looks bad. Really bad. One whole side of the alloy hull plating—designed to tolerate temperature extremes—is blistered and some of the panels are warping out of place, which you’ve never seen happen, and you’ve cruised through fields of battle-shattered warships back when you ran with a salvage team. Axie is right, though, that it’s not completely DOA. It’s holding steady at about 8C, and there is electrical signature, even if it’s nothing coherent.

“What do you think?” you ask.

“The chances of anyone inside it being alive are negligible but not zero,” Axie said. “If someone is still alive, their chances of remaining that way until another ship accidentally crosses paths with it in the Barrens is effectively zero.” READ MORE