Read A Thousand Words For Stranger (10th Anniversary Edition) Online

Authors: Julie E. Czerneda

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General

A Thousand Words For Stranger (10th Anniversary Edition) (4 page)

BOOK: A Thousand Words For Stranger (10th Anniversary Edition)
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So much for being a spacer. I pulled my head back down between my shoulders and kept to the rain-swept shadows.
I walked for what seemed hours, my new footgear less than a bargain. Although my feet were blissfully warm and dry, they slipped constantly from side to side within the too-large shoes, forcing me to plant each step with care. I should have kept the nest and used it to stuff the toes.
Each time I came to an intersection, I would hesitate, then take whichever alley or street looked less traveled or more shadowed. It was one way to deal with the fact that I had no idea where I wanted to go. If I’d been in any shape to wonder, I’d have seriously doubted my sanity. Shadowy streets were also preferred by predators; I carried no weapon. Another wisp floated to my mind as I plodded along in my oversized spacer gear—I hadn’t always been helpless.
At some point, I found I could make my feet stop moving. I rested in shadows deeper than most, grateful for a wall that prevented me from sagging to the pavement.The rain had also stopped, although drips continued to slide from the rooftops, usually on my head. The chimes sang softly to themselves. Over those same rooftops, the rising sun was melting away the storm clouds, gilding the spires beyond them with gold. Those spires. I puzzled over their irregular, narrow shapes for a moment; they couldn’t belong to buildings. It took several heartbeats before I allowed myself to believe I was looking at the tips of starships. Now, I knew the direction of the shipcity. The question was, which set of twisting alleyways would take me there?
Considering that my mind was almost empty, I was almost grateful for the compulsions trying to pass themselves as my thoughts.
Find my ship.
Leave Auord.
Stay hidden.
Perhaps I’d made those decisions but couldn’t remember my reasoning. They gave me a purpose I accepted without questioning—yet. But more and more I wondered what was missing from my mind. The universe, and my place in it, could not have begun last night. The piles of old litter in the streets proved that much.
But as I tried to concentrate, to think about myself, my mind grew fuzzy, unfocused. I quickly tired of the effort; it was like trying to pull a hair out of syrup. I’d work on survival, and think about regaining my place in the universe later. My stomach growled its agreement and I knew it was time to move again. But where?
As if yanked by a thread, my head turned without my deciding it, scraping my cheek against cool, wet stone. I blinked, unsure of what had attracted my attention.
I was looking along another of the All Sapients’ District’s narrow, winding walkways. I was alone. Doors, some sporting colored and, to me, incomprehensible signs in the local language, others firmly barred and forbidding, lined the walls on one side. Where I stood was an unbroken depth of shadows, with the still-shuttered windows of living quarters beginning on the upper floors. As I watched, rooted in place by some anticipationI didn’t understand, a door burst open across from me.
“Sleep it off on your ship, Outsystem Dregs!” This bellow in accented Comspeak was warning enough—I wasn’t surprised when a figure was propelled out of the doorway. I winced at the smack as it hit the pavement and slid into a pile of waste. The door slammed shut. I moved, thinking to help the unfortunate creature, then froze—the impulse checked by the clattering of a shutter above.
Stay hidden,
I reminded myself.
Two pairs of arms, one pair glittering with golden paint and the other striped in green, waved from the open window. They were female arms, slender and adorned with bracelets. The man, for once he pushed himself up to a stand I could see him plainly, glared at the now-closed door before bowing gallantly to the occupants of the window above.
He then began to stagger away. As he did so, he set his foot down carelessly and twisted about in a full circle. This brought titters of laughter from the window, but I drew back, startled. As he spun around, the seeming drunkard had raked his surroundings with eyes of vivid blue—eyes which found me unerringly and which were anything but clouded by drug or drink. Then, to all other observers a fool ending a binge, the fascinating man wandered off, his path weaving toward the shipcity.
Another tug on the thread—this time stronger. Shrugging my shoulders, which hurt my arm, I began following him, unable to refuse that urging and wishing I knew how. True, the man was dressed as a spacer, with coveralls not much better than my own. Significantly cleaner, I added to myself honestly.
He has a ship,
something inside of me gloated.
Fine. But how did I know his ship was the one I had to find? His exit from the inn could almost have been planned, as if he needed to deceive any watchers. Maybe he was a smuggler—or worse, one of the pirates who made their living preying upon the space traffic of fringe systems like Auord’s. A normal, sane person would avoid this man.
But a ship was a ship. And I understood enough of my fragmented thoughts to know I was hardly normal, though I hoped I was at least sane. If the mysterious figure ahead, whose clumsy steps miraculously avoided the more odorous litter underfoot, could lead me to a starship, to transport off Auord, maybe I could silence the compulsions drumming in my head long enough to think for myself. With the utmost care, I kept my spacer just in sight.
Abruptly, he was gone! I gasped, instantly and unreasonably desperate. I hurried forward, turned a corner too sharply, and was roughly grabbed from the side. Frantically, though silently, I kicked and twisted.
“Stop,” a voice breathed in my ear as my body was given a quelling shake. “What were you planning, thief, a knife in my back?” Then, as if considering a new, more unpleasant possibility: “Or were you sent to follow me?”
“I’m no thief. Let go of me,” I said, thoroughly disgusted. His grip pulled me into the shadow of a nearby doorway, then released me.
I rubbed my bruised arms and eyed the spacer warily. There was equal suspicion in the tanned, plain-featured face glaring down at mine. His clear, shockingly blue eyes were cold and hard. “If you’re no thief, then perhaps you’re worse—a runner for ~~**~~.” My surprise at the chirping whistle emitted by his pursed lips must have been plain enough. He frowned, a trace of puzzlement raising one dark brow. “Stop looking so desperate, chit. I won’t hurt you. But you’ll tell me who set you on my back.”
He made it sound as though he had some unknown means to force such information from me. I stifled an urge to laugh. “I followed you because I need transport,” I said truthfully, though I doubted he’d believe it. “Back there, I heard him say you had a ship.”
For the first time, the man seemed to notice the spacer clothing I wore, so like his own despite its present unwashed state and odd size. His nose wrinkled. “Who are your kin?” he demanded. I realized with a rush of hope that he was becoming troubled.
Kin? A word possibly with meaning for another me; an empty space here and now. “Do you have a ship or not? I need to leave Auord.”
“I don’t need crew,” he said, his expression making it plain that he’d rather be somewhere else too. But he hesitated.
“We’re both spacers,” I pleaded. “You can’t leave me stranded.”
He was silent for a moment, blue eyes hooded. I could hear a distant murmur—voices. We were close to the market. Louder was the pounding of my heart, counting each second in double time.
Then: “I’m sorry, chit,” and there seemed an honest regret in his voice. “I’m booked for lift already. Your kin must really be down on their luck. Spacers should stick by their own. Especially on this dirtball of a planet.” He paused and then shrugged as though he was doing something against his better judgment. “Here.” One hand dug into a pocket and pulled out a crumpled handful of what appeared to be local currency. He pressed it into my unresisting fingers. “Next street over you can flag yourself a groundcar. Go to the north gate and ask at traffic control for Thel Masim. Got that?”
“Thel Masim, north gate,” I repeated without understanding.
“Tell her Morgan of the
Fox
sent you. Thel’s got a soft spot for youngsters. That’s the best I can do.”
I raised my chin. “I don’t need her help. I need to get off this planet. I must leave. Please . . .” then, although I didn’t plan it, my voice failed me. Waves of exhaustion and pain roared in my ears. I leaned back against the doorway.
The spacer, Morgan, had already assumed an absentminded air that I knew meant he was done with me. “I’ve been grounded myself a few times, chit; happens to everyone,” he said briskly. “Start taking care of yourself, though, or no ship will take you. Get a wash and a good meal . . . you’ll feel better.”
Suddenly, I was looking at his back. He was leaving.
And I would have to follow, whether I wanted to or not, even if I had to crawl.
I tried to call after him, but my voice lost itself somewhere in my throat. He turned a corner and was out of sight. I shivered, dropping the currency heedlessly to the ground. One thing I couldn’t do was lose him.
The compulsion to follow was strong enough to push me away from the doorway’s support, when I couldn’t have done it alone. I had to get to my ship. I had to follow Morgan.
I had only taken a couple of unsteady steps when a familiar sound whined out of the rain, exploding against my skull to drag me like an anchor into total blackness.
INTERLUDE
“He’s coming around.”
Barac sud Sarc, First Scout, Third Level Adept of the Clan, and current owner of a body that was one giant ache, allowed himself a small groan before making the effort to open his puffed-shut eyes. The strange voice had been a warning. Barac peered up at the two uniformed figures bending over him and carefully hid his dismay. “Ah, Enforcers. It’s to you I owe my rescue,” he said hoarsely. He could think of a lot of better places to be at the moment. Almost anywhere, in fact.
There was a quick shuffle of feet as the curious officers backed away and a short, heavyset woman took their place. She wore her uniform casually, its sleeves, with their insignia of a full commander, pushed up to reveal thick, tanned forearms. There was, however, nothing casual about the look in her sharp eyes. “I’ve seen the others, Hom Barac sud Sarc,” she responded briskly. “Or what’s left of them. Force blades are illegal on Auord.”
Feeling acutely at a disadvantage, Barac tried his most charming smile, but his face hurt too much to hold it. What had happened since his assailants resorted to the unfair tactic of a blast globe? What was he doing here, flat on his back, held by blanketing that could more bluntly be called a restraint? He gathered himself. “Hopefully,” he said, “attacking an innocent tourist is also illegal on Auord, Commander . . . ?”
“Bowman. Commander Lydis Bowman,” she supplied readily. Her voice was deceptively friendly. “Chief Investigator for the Board of Interspecies Commerce—the Trade Pact—in this quadrant, Hom sud Sarc. These are members of my staff, Constables Terk and ’Whix.” Barac probed delicately for her thoughts, then for those of the others, only to recoil from the blank nothingness where they should be. Shielded. How quaint. Useful no doubt as a barrier against their own feeble Human telepaths.
Barac opened his mind, allowing the merest edge of his thoughts to enter the M’hir. Some Clan scholars argued that the M’hir was a construct formed by Clan thoughts over generations of use. Others, with equal passion, described the M’hir as another dimension, in which disciplined Clan thoughts slipped like needles through thread, bypassing normal space.
Most Clan, like Barac, ignored both arguments. What truly mattered was that the ability to enter the M’hir belonged only to the Clan. The M’hir gave Clan thoughts the ability to transcend distance, to transport matter, to touch layers of thought in other minds—such as those of Humans—believed unreachable.
Barac remembered how his link with the M’hir had grown each time he entered it, starting with childhood dreams of that darkness filled with the passage of power. His adult ability in the M’hir might not be as great as some of the Clan, but it was respectable for a sud. Barac was sure he could bypass Bowman’s shielding as he focused his strength in the M’hir.
What was this? A taint of metal, of nonlife, opposed his inner sense, obstructed the flow of power through the M’hir around each of the Humans and the Tolian. Impossible. No other species even suspected the existence of the M’hir; how could these have a device to affect it?
Bowman’s mind-deadening device must be something totally new. The Clan routinely planted false reports, sabotaged research. Yet here was the proof of the Humans’ stubborn persistence. There were too many of them to control.
And so the Humans had at last achieved more than they should, Barac realized, vastly uneasy as he pulled his thoughts back to normal space. He could only hope they didn’t know.
“We’ve managed to keep life in one of your assailants, Hom sud Sarc,” Bowman had continued, unaware of Barac’s probing—or its failure. “She’s yet to speak to us.” Unspoken, but understood, was the inevitability of that conversation.
Barac blinked slowly, marshalling his thoughts with feverish haste. “What can the criminal tell you? Nothing you don’t already know,” he predicted. “They were taking advantage of a fool out in the storm.” Recognizing this sounded less than gracious, Barac tried his smile again. It usually worked with Humans. “I’m truly grateful for your rescue. I’m certain they meant to kill me.”
“I’m sure they did,” Bowman agreed too cheerfully, waving a hand. One of the uniformed officers, Constable Terk, brought her a stool. Barac had to twist his neck to keep her in sight. “But you proved very stubborn,” Bowman continued. “Let’s see: five dead, one just about. And how many got away, ’Whix?”
“I heard at least two running after the explosion, Commander, likely the ones responsible,” the Tolian replied quickly, russet-and-gold feathers fluttering delicately as each word of Comspeak left the tiny speaker on his throat. Barac disapproved of Tolians in general, especially at the moment. They had a depressingly thorough approach to things. “I also saw Hom sud Sarc’s companion run in another direction,” the Enforcer continued. “It was my duty to stay with the wounded.” There was a faint note of regret in the dry voice, audible even through the speaking device.
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