“Don’t bet on it,” Terk grunted. “They always look Human, but looks aren’t everything.”
“If he’s Clan, why didn’t he use his Talent to stop the attack or to escape?” ’Whix argued.
“Maybe he’d spotted you. They don’t like to be caught at work.” Terk grinned. “Anyway, we can’t take the chance. Just think what interesting changes of mind our Clansman might have given those Port Jellies when he woke up. Want to lay odds they wouldn’t even remember seeing him?”
’Whix tried to lower his crest in disapproval, but it was already flattened by the rain. “As always, you show a distressing lack of respect for other law keepers, partner Terk. You should not refer to them as Jellies.”
Terk grinned, rubbing a piece of plas between his thick fingers. “When I can chase them off with a road map, they deserve whatever name I call them.”
’Whix clicked his beak, far from amused. One day, Terk’s blatant actions were going to land them both in trouble—trouble he, for one, did not deserve. But he knew the futility of arguing with someone with a crest lifted in triumph (if Terk had one instead of a mass of pale-colored and always limp hair). “I was not observed by the Clansman,” ’Whix said instead. “Therefore, I see no reason for him not to use his Talent to save himself and his companion. Or hers, for that matter. Given this,” ’Whix continued with patience, despite the fact that Terk’s attention was obviously wandering, “I must conclude—”
Terk put a finger to his lips. ’Whix was uncertain whether this was because he wished to cut short their discussion—which happened regularly—or something else. Ah, something else, ’Whix heard the throb of more than one aircar heading their way.
Time to talk of less secret things.
“Do you know if there’s a dryer in the commander’s office?” he asked with a mournful chirp.
I STARED at the hand pressed near my cheek. It had five fingers, tipped with small, blunt nails, one broken. There were smudges of dirt on the palm and back; the clean skin was paler, except where a spiderweb of red marked the edges of a cut. It was mine, I decided, confused by the delay in recognition.
I shuddered, stumbling away from the damp wall. A flicker of movement caught my eye. A nearby window had lost part of its covering shutter, exposing a dirty slice of glass and curtain to the street. Something looked out at me. Cautiously, I tilted my head to see, then lurched back as the pale something did the same.
My feet landed in the small river that currently passed for a gutter at the same instant I realized I’d been startled by my own reflection. Sheepishly, I stepped closer to the window again. Was I that wet or was it the water running down the glass itself that made me look like a swimmer underwater, blurring my hair and clothes into the same dark mass? My face appeared as little more than two eyes stuck on a disk of white. Old and puzzled eyes. Maybe it was another trick of the rain-smeared glass. I wasn’t old.
Then was I a child? I didn’t think so. But what? Lost and wet. Humanoid. Those were easy. Male or female? The reflection kept mute on that interesting detail. I was definitely unwilling to strip in the rain to satisfy my curiosity. I patted my hands over my body, discovering water, but little else in the pockets and creases of my clothing. I continued my self-exploration. Nothing of me felt male, but nothing felt particularly female either.
A shout. Only an echo of a voice, probably the next street away, but enough to startle me back into myself, to force my feet to move. The rain struck harder as I left the partial shelter of the overhanging eaves; I hesitated, distracted by the taste of it in my mouth.
My mind suddenly turned inside out, filling with thoughts I knew weren’t mine, compulsions rippling like muscle, gripping me with needs and purposes I didn’t understand.
Find the starships. One ship,
a trailing wisp of thought corrected,
Numb under the impact of imposed ideas, all I could do was look along the narrow street, empty of all but two parked groundcars on the other side. What ship?
More thoughts pushed their way to the surface, each dragging fear like something hooked to a line.
Danger. Leave this world. Stay hidden, stay safe.
I whimpered to myself, then glanced about to be sure no one had heard.
The compulsions gradually faded, leaving echoes that burned into my mind:
Find the ship, leave this world, stay hidden.
As I came back to myself, I realized my feet were walking, already carrying me somewhere. I stopped, my mouth dry despite the rain.
For the first time, I really looked at my surroundings. Both sides of the street were lined with a chaotic assortment of buildings, most at least three stories high, their upper floors leaning together as if in conversation. Away from the streetlamps, the strident colors of the walls sank into a dull assortment of grays. Rain collecting on the roofs channeled down in noisy waterfalls to feed the gutters. As if this weren’t enough, metal chimes hung everywhere, transmuting the tinkling of raindrops into a full orchestra.
Great, I said to myself, glaring at the buildings, all peacefully asleep and probably dry inside. If I was supposedto find a ship, I was certainly in the wrong place. This had to be somewhere in the All Sapients’ District, the maze of haphazard streets and alleyways between the native portion of Auord’s Port City and the shipcity itself. At least keeping hidden wasn’t a problem. Finding my way out would be.
More vital information spun away from my thoughts, quicksilver and slippery as I tried to hold it. My wet clothes slapped heavily against my legs as I began to walk again. Walking was progress, even if I didn’t know which way to go.
The alleyway I turned into next twisted so I couldn’t see the end. The pavement was stained and littered with lumps the rain had tried to wash away but had only pounded flat around the edges. I wrinkled my nose at the smell of spoiled food. Maybe the servos had been kept away by the rainstorm; more likely someone hadn’t paid their taxes. This last thought surprised me. It was as if a resonance had briefly rippled through my mind, colliding to reveal a tidy node of knowledge.
Glimpsing the consequences of tax evasion wasn’t exactly helpful in my present situation. I picked my way through the debris until I reached an area where the bundles of trash were heaped shoulder-high on both sides, with gaps only at each barred and locked rear door. Waste disposal by the heave-ho method, I decided, imagining the nightly routine of opened doors, tossed bags, and slammed locks.
The foul smell began to settle at the back of my throat, as if the dampness of the air helped it stick. Cans tumbled loose in an odd counterpoint to the rain. I stopped and peered into the shadows. One of the piles moved again.
Another sound—this time a word. An impossibly filthy face glared up at me as its owner shoved away a covering of shredded plas and rotting fruit. More words, followed by a spit in my direction. The language was strange. No. It was tantalizingly familiar. Another resonance; the sentence re-formed. I understood.
“—this here’s my spot, scum. Get lost—”
“I am lost,” I said politely, pleasantly surprised by the fluency of my own Comspeak. I moved closer to better examine the being, feeling no threat despite its words.
Stay hidden, be safe,
whispered that something beneath my thoughts, but I found I could push it away. Ah. The blue wattle under its chin was crusted with unshed skin, but still distinctive. A Neblokan. How wonderful to have a name for something. I felt under my own chin. It was smooth. “I am not one of you,” I admitted, disappointed.
“Brain-dead Human pest. Go away and leave me in peace.” The creature rolled up his eyes, a very rude gesture for one of his kind, then turned his back on me and settled his bulk more comfortably amid the bags of garbage.
I blinked raindrops out of my eyes. The Neblokan had almost disappeared again under his trash cover. I couldn’t understand what he now muttered, but then, he seemed to be talking to himself, and in no pleasant tone either. I wrinkled up my nose again, trying to decide if the fishy being smelled worse than the garbage. Could I convince him to talk to me again? Might he know even more about me?
A new sound began, this time from the way I had just come, quickly growing to a shrill whine. I winced at the sudden pain in my ears. The Neblokan lunged up and past me, scattering soggy bits and pieces as he moved with unexpected speed. I turned toward the sound, judging it harmless enough. But the Neblokan was already scurrying in the opposite direction as fast as his stubby legs could take him, uttering more of those incomprehensible sounds as his feet slipped in the puddles.
Should I do the same?
The noise stopped as suddenly as it had started, then began again, only this time ahead of where the creature was running. I crouched away from a light that appeared from nowhere to transfix the Neblokan. He stopped in mid-stride, shoulders folding back in a defeated shrug. The sound closed in, then stopped.
“Credit check,” said one of two figures who came striding up the alley. One carried the source of the light, the edge of its beam catching a small cone the other held in his hands, likely the source of the sound. I put my hands on the slick pavement and carefully wiggled my way into the shadow of the Neblokan’s hole in the trash. I peered out.
“My credit’s good—” the Neblokan offered, but weakly. His wattle shook and his wide-mouthed face was wrinkled in distress. Raindrops collected on the ridges of his eyebrows, running off the ends like tears.
“Mind if we don’t take your word for it?” said one of the figures, I couldn’t tell which. His tone was bored. “You off-worlders think everything insystem is as free as the air.”
“You want to live here, you’ve got to pay. What’s it to be?” the second one demanded. I shivered and crouched lower. His voice had a pleased anticipation to it.
The Neblokan spread his empty hands. “I’ll get a ship today—”
“You certainly will.” The cone-sound keened again, this time in a brief burst, muffled because the tip had been pressed against the Neblokan’s head. The creature dropped to the ground in a heap, looking like little more than another of the piles of waste that a moment ago had been his refuge.
“Even with this fratling rain, it’s been a good night, Enex.” This from the light carrier as he set his lamp on a crate. I could see them both now, Auordian males, one with blue luck beads braided in his hair and the other, yellow. Otherwise, they were alike enough to be twins, with a well-fed smugness to their pudgy faces. They busied themselves for a moment around the fallen figure. When they stood, the Neblokan’s body rose with them, supported by a grav belt.
“It’s always good here,” replied Enex, the one with the blue beads. “Best place in the sector to get skilled labor. Downed spacers go broke—”
“And nobody cares but us.” This brought a laugh from both of them, laughter that faded away with their steps.
Recruiters. I watched them go, for the first time wishingnot to understand. It could have been me they took away, to be sent offworld, my life to be spent as bonded labor to some colony world or station that lacked the technical resources to support servos. Sold and forgotten.
It was happening to the poor Neblokan. I pushed myself out of the pile, forcing away self-pity. At least I had a purpose. Find my ship, stay hidden. Staying hidden would have helped the Neblokan. I wondered why he hadn’t listened to his own inner voice.
Didn’t he have one?
Choosing the direction opposite to the one the recruiters had taken, I ended up facing a barrier of boxes and plas crates. It was climbable, barely. I found I could squeeze up one side as long as I was careful where I put my feet and clung to anything that stayed put. I didn’t look down, or dare to think how easily I might be spotted as I climbed. At the top, I paused to catch my breath and look for the best way down the other side.
Spotting a glimpse of rain-gray fabric, I grabbed for it, scrabbling for purchase among the slippery plas and broken metal. The object came free reluctantly. Hugging my prize, I slid down the other side of the rubble barrier into the safety of deeper shadows.
I straightened the fabric, letting the rain soften the encrusting dirt so I could pull out the legs. The cloth smelled like something called home by several generations of small rodents, but at least there were no holes. Quickly I stripped, waddling up the wet mass of my own clothing and shoving it beneath the nearest pile. My shoes followed.
I shivered as the rain raised gooseflesh on my bare skin. Something dark washed down my arm with the drips. I followed its trail with a finger to the top of my shoulder. The dark liquid was welling up in irregular drops over a patch of blackened skin. I touched this, felt pain, and withdrew my fingers quickly. At least now I knew why my arm ached.
There should be fasteners. As my mind faltered, my fingers worked, opening the front so I could push in my feet. The thing was delightfully dry inside, though my toes encountered a large prickly mass of fibers in one leg that I quickly removed without looking at it. I hoped no one was home. I struggled for a moment to get the garment over my wounded shoulder, then scowled down at myself. I could rent out space in here.
A moment later, clothed in what had once been a blue coverall, with a ridiculous amount of excess fabric bunched through the side straps, I strode out of the shadows holding my head high. Of course, this served to keep my nose a bit farther from my clothing, but that was hardly the point. I looked and felt like a real spacer, one of the elite who arrogantly defended their right to come and go from such backwater worlds as Auord. I would go to my ship. I would not tolerate any more interference.
What odd thoughts I was having. I shook my head and waited for the eddies in my brain to subside. Wasn’t I the one supposed to be hiding? And the recruiters could still be prowling around.