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) (6 page)

BOOK: A Thousand Words For Stranger (10th Anniversary Edition)
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And where was the spacer, Morgan? Had he watched me being collected like so much trash from the street, while he stood by, protected by his weapons and wealth? I tried to work up some anger, but fear didn’t leave much room for it. At least being afraid seemed to diminish the power of those commanding whispers in my head:
Find your ship, leave Auord, stay safe.
They faded to a frustrated chattering.
It was quiet, except for the monotonous throbbing of my pulse and the machine beneath me. Minutes crawled past. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I had to risk lifting a corner of my cover. As I did, just a bit, a wave of cooler air slid underneath, taking some of the heat from my face.
A sudden series of bone-jarring bumps bounced me back against a yielding, warm object. I reached, touched bare skin, and shrank away in horror. After a long moment, I gathered enough courage to gently, then more desperately, shake what felt like an arm, hoping for a response. None. I squeezed the arm once, then slowly pulled my fingers away, knowing there was nothing more I could do.
All was quiet. I bit my lip, tucking my legs up bit by bit until I thought I could spring. Then, before I could hesitate, I threw myself off the moving platform and rolled as fast as I could, dragging the cover off with me.
It was not quite the graceful, swift maneuver I had planned. Thoroughly tangled in the blanket, I landed heavily—and painfully—on a hard floor. Immediately, I struggled to get free, only to bite off a shocked scream as something struck my backside with the force of a kick. I decided not to move anymore, though my head and body were completely covered.
“Forget to dope your s-sscrapss again, Enex-ss?” a new voice said in an amused hiss that sent shivers down my spine. “Didn’t sSsmegard warn you you’d get your own berth outssysstem next time?”
Enex’s voice was shrill. “The dose was right, Hom Captain. I don’t underst—” A sodden thud ended Enex’s desperate pleading. Feeling considerably safer huddled beneath my blanket, I waited through a thick, ominous silence.
My turn,
I thought numbly. Seconds stretched to an eternity. Dust tickled my nose and I sneezed.
Abruptly light blinded me as my shelter was torn away. I had time to focus on a reptilian snout, see two yellow slit-pupiled eyes peer close before what felt like servo-claws fastened on my arm. The creature’s painful grip pulled me to my feet.
I stared at it. Our bodies were similar in size and plan, but I knew I wasn’t the least bit terrifying. It was. A pair of thin, tall crests rose from its snout to forehead, curling like a frame behind each forward-pointing eye. The crests were a mottled purple and yellow, the colors more like stains than natural pigmentation. The scaled snout bore irregular knuckle-sized knobs along its length. Each eye was bigger than my fist, with jet-black pupils slicing their gleaming yellow in half. I looked away quickly.
We were standing inside a gigantic warehouse, probably one that served the shipcity itself. Canyons of piled plas crates stretched to distant points of darkness, while the sounds of unseen machines echoed from a ceiling high enough to allow air travel.
The portion of wide aisle where the recruiters’ train had stopped was overhung by hovering portlights obediently waiting for the halted procession of machines to move forward again. Seven of the waist-high transport platforms were shrouded by a wrapping; the last, mine, was open to the air—on it a naked body lay unconscious, flaccid upon its gray surface, breathing peacefully.
Another body, this one incapable of breathing, was crumpled next to my foot. The face was a smear of red topped by blue-beaded braids. Enex’s luck. I pressed my lips together, taking several quick shallow breaths through my nose to subdue the urgings of my stomach.
Three other natives, including the one I recognized from the alley as Enex’s partner, stood clustered to one side of the transports.
“Gsst.” The irritated sound drew my attention back to the reptile holding me in its claws. “Awake and alert both. You are fortunate this-ss occurred before you were placssed into a trip box-ss, s-ssoft flesssh.”
I shuddered, my imagination readily painting for me a death comprised of unanswered screams and suffocation. A wave of a clawed hand sent the remaining Auordians scurrying back to the servos, the cover I had pulled off thrown over the body of my former companion. Enex’s partner warily crouched by the corpse to cut the luck beads from Enex’s hair and tuck them into a pocket. I couldn’t guess why.
The little passenger train with its Auordian guides resumed its journey. All but one of the lights went as well, turning the aisle into a cave walled by darkness. I tried not to wince at the grip still holding me in place.
The creature, ignoring me for the present, turned to the Human male at its side. “I want the
Torquad
ready to lift by moonrissse.”
The slender, bejeweled Human turned dead eyes to me for a moment before replying coolly: “A wish shared by Port Authority, Captain Roraqk, but repairs take time—”
I felt two of three claws penetrate my skin and flinched. “Do not annoy me, Kort,” Roraqk said. “s-Ssee what can be left. sSSurely there are better facilities-ss and attitudes-ss than on this-ss backworld.”
A short bow. “Shall I dispose of this, Captain?” I was uncomfortably certain of what he meant.
“s-Sseeing me was-ss a misstake,” Roraqk explained to me, as if instructing a wayward child. “It is-ss expenssive and difficult to remove memory from a s-ssapient—sso often the whole is-ss losst.”
Was that what had happened to me? I wondered. Cold comfort that I had nothing worth remembering left to lose. “Why would I give your face to Port Authority, Captain?” I tried to be polite, my voice level and calm, despite the feel of my own blood dripping warmly over wrist and hand. “You just saved my life.”
I swallowed, but before I could figure out what to say next, a compulsion pushed through my thoughts, bullying aside my fear for an instant along with my will. “Perhaps we can help each other,” I heard myself say boldly. “I need to find a spacer called Morgan. His ship is the
Fox.

Roraqk made a hissing sound. “Morgan, is-ss it? You remember our good friend Morgan, don’t you, Kort?”
The strange darkness in Kort’s pale eyes made me shiver slightly. Or was I mistaken? He smiled slowly. “Morgan of Karolus. The
Silver Fox.
The wheel makes an interesting turn today, Captain.”
I knew they were playing with me, amused, but for how long? My eyes avoided the corpse. “Help me find Morgan,” I insisted. “He owes me. I could pay for transport offworld once I get back what’s mine.” I only hoped the reptile’s greed would make my bluff work.
Roraqk lowered his snout, slit-pupiled eyes impossible to read and unsettling to meet. “What makes-ss you believe you could retrieve your property?”
“Tell me where to find Morgan,” I repeated, voice trembling. Maybe they’d think it was righteous rage.
“But Morgan and his-ss s-sspeedy s-sship are valuable to me, s-ssoft flesssh. I wouldn’t want you to hurt him.” Roraqk’s jaws began clattering, moving so rapidly that tiny froths of spittle appeared and trickled under his jutting chin. Kort’s laugh was even less human: a dry, silent shaking that didn’t touch his lifeless eyes.
I drooped, at last admitting defeat. A black sliver of a tongue darted out from the random gaps between Roraqk’s teeth, collecting the froth as though it were precious. “You go offworld, primate,” he hissed at me. “And s-sspeedily. With me.”
“Captain?” There was a frown on Kort’s thin face, drawing the skin into fine white lines.
“What is-ss it?” Roraqk glared at his counterpart with a sideways twist of his heavily-jawed head.
“Enex wasn’t a total fool. He would have added her to the transport’s records. If we remove her from the shipment, Smegard will notice—”
The alien’s jaw hung half-open, a predator’s anticipation rather than a smile. “This-ss partnersship of s-Ssmegard’s-ss is-ss beginning to bore me, as-ss is-ss his-ss trafficking in live mammals-ss. Be careful I do not tire of a fangless-ss firsst mate.”
Not one of the recruiters,
I thought, and reclassified Roraqkas a pirate, then wondered how the difference could possibly matter at the moment.
The pirate captain examined his claw tips. “Ah, Kort. You musst realiz-sse your value, or you would not always be s-sso difficult. Certainly in this-ss casse, you are better equipped to keep her alive than I.” He spared a moment to send me a malignant flash of yellow eyes. “There is-ss s-ssomething familiar about this-ss one. And of coursse, we mussst take proper care of all shipments-ss that involve our old acquaintancsse, Captain Morgan.”
Kort nodded curtly, accepting this explanation, licking his lips in unconscious mimicry of his leader. With a practiced twist, Roraqk freed his claws from the fabric of my coveralls, as well as my skin, and shoved me toward his subordinate.
“Take her to the Tulis-ss,” Roraqk said as he strode away, the last portlight following behind one shoulder.
A lamp flashed to life in Kort’s hand, creating a false intimacy. “As you may have noticed, commodity,” Kort, a faceless shadow behind the lamp, informed me coldly, “the captain is not very fond of us warm-bloods—unless served on a tray. You’d best prove of value.” The man came to a decision, shrugging in a gesture which set his necklaces of light-touched silver jingling softly. “Put this under the greedy fool.” Kort held out a green-marbled sphere, indicating the corpse with a casual flicker from his light.
The pirate was tall but bone-thin, a fragile-looking thug. I considered my chances against him: none. About all I could accomplish at the moment was to maybe keep what was in my stomach in its proper place. I took the small sphere and pushed it beneath Enex’s still-warm body. When I stood, I found myself rubbing at the hand that had touched the dead being.
“Back,” Kort ordered. An instant later, there was a blinding flash and I flung my arm up to protect my eyes from the brightness. When I dropped my arm again and looked, Enex’s body was sagging into itself, a clear liquid starting to ooze from underneath. A sweet, corrupt smell filled the air. “Come.” I obeyed that order readily enough, having no wish to linger and see what would be left.
Kort led the way down a maze of echoing corridors. There was an endless sameness to the place. I didn’t know how Kort chose our path, unless he used the cargo codes stamped on the crates. I lost my sense of direction almost immediately. My guiding compulsions were silent for once; I wondered sourly if that meant my current predicament satisfied the noises in my head.
I almost collided with Kort when he stopped. We were at the end of one of the narrow intersecting aisles that subdivided the immense warehouse, standing in the gap between the building’s wall and the ranks of waiting cargo crates. I glanced from Kort to the blank wall in front of us. A small portlight floated from its resting shelf to shed a courteous spot of brightness. Kort turned off his lamp.
As if that had been a signal, a portion of the otherwise unremarkable wall split open soundlessly, revealing two stocky humanoids waiting in what was now a wide, low doorway. The beings were furred: a soft gray pelt that was short and lay flat to the skin. Long, white tufts of hair made striking flashes above each of three large pale eyes. Broader than tall, they wore only wide belts from which hung various small instruments and tools. These had to be Roraqk’s Tulis. Odd-looking things.
“Captain Roraqk wants the usual tests on this one,” Kort ordered, without any preamble. I scowled at him, then at the Tulis. The Tuli on the right made an intricate gesture with stubby fingers. If it was a protest, I heartily agreed. Kort snorted, pushing me forward with a rough hand. “It’s the captain that orders it,” he said firmly. “And we’re booked for lift, so none of your delays.”
“Tests?” I said, balking.
“Tests,” Kort confirmed, one side of his mouth sliding upward in an unpleasant smile. “And their results better be interesting, or we won’t see each other again. Now go with the Tulis. They won’t harm you,” a raised brow, “unless you provoke them.”
I reluctantly began walking through the doorway. One Tuli waited until I passed then took my elbow. I felt a sharp prick in my upper arm and twisted around, struggling against its hold. “What was that?” I shouted. “What did it do to me?” I couldn’t take my eyes from the now-empty syringe in the Tuli’s hand, my erratic memory supplying me with an appalling list of exotic drugs.
Kort’s head came forward, a clinical interest giving a false sparkle to his lackluster eyes. “Captain’s standing orders,” he said with distinct relish. “Roraqk hates mindcrawlers. He has all our
guests
given a little something that numbs that particular gift. Ask me, waste of good money, especially for port trash. But I don’t argue the point, you understand.” A Tuli put its dry furred hand into mine, urging me farther into the room with an impatient, though gentle, tug. “Don’t worry,” Kort added as the door began to slide closed. “Hasn’t killed any being—yet.”
The door shut between us with a whisper, becoming a wall again in a room barely large enough to accommodate the Tulis and myself. Fortunately, we didn’t have to share it with any furniture. As I looked around, the floor beneath my feet began to sink, and I yelped with surprise.
My silent escorts paid no attention to me, standing motionless, one on either side. Well, not quite motionless; their broad noses twitched furiously. I’d forgotten the smell of my clothing long ago.
The lift opened into a long hall, its walls pierced by openings aglow with the bronze transparency of force fields. I could hear sobbing, quickly muffled. My mouth went dry and the steadying breath I drew caught in my throat. A hand pressed my back. I stepped out.
I walked ahead of the Tulis, leading our small procession the length of that dreadful corridor, trying not to wince as we passed each cell. Each held its captive; few were young, and more than half nonhumanoid. I didn’t see the Neblokan and wasn’t sure what that meant about his fate. Some of the prisoners looked up with dulled incuriousstares as we passed; none spoke beyond the occasional hushed complaint.
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