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) (9 page)

BOOK: A Thousand Words For Stranger (10th Anniversary Edition)
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Find my starship.
The problem of which one was mine of the hundreds here was, however, not my most pressing concern.
A tight knot of red-and-black aircars flew past overhead, speeding toward a group surrounding the first groundcar in the rapidly elongating line. I withdrew into Roraqk’s shadow, for an instant more interested in avoiding their notice than in my current plight. A shout, followed by the menacing crackle of weaponry, brought an approving chuckle from my captors, their attention riveted on the struggle taking place ahead.
I had no thought, no plan in mind. I simply gathered the slack thread in my hands and flipped it up around Roraqk’s neck, pulling back on the lock bar with all my weight and the strength of desperation. The bar cut into my wrists, but the thread sank even more deeply into the soft flesh under his chin. The pirate made a most satisfying gurgling sound, his thin tongue whipping frantically from side to side.
I watched the driver and the guardsman turn. The guardsman reached for his weapon, only to be stopped by the driver’s hand and warning nod to the passing aircars. “I will kill him,” I threatened through gritted teeth.
The option was taken from me. Roraqk’s clawed hands swung back at an impossible, totally inhuman angle, flashing right through the cloak’s hood, one claw drawing a burning score down my cheek. I flung myself away, falling half out of the groundcar. The thread grew taut, choking the alien more effectively than before. Roraqk’s hands tore at his throat. Just as trapped, I struggled to break free. Someone grabbed me, started pulling me back inside. It was the guardsman. He’d jumped into the back seat.
Suddenly the man let out a curse. The handle of a knife had appeared as if by magic, the blade embedded in the side of his neck. He sank away from me, his eyes going dazed, all motion seeming to slow to a dream’s crawl. Only Roraqk’s flailing about continued at normal speed.
Somehow I twisted my way forward, just able to reach the handle of the knife with one hand. Pulling it free produced no alarming rush of blood; the wound was sealed by heat. The deadly little thing vibrated in my hand as though still hungry. Without hesitation I passed its searing blade through the thread binding me to Roraqk.
And without wasting a second seeking the source of my salvation, I stepped on the writhing body of the pirate, and launched myself out of the car.
Run, keep moving, listen with ears deafened by the pounding of blood.
Muscles tight with the expectation of death—or at least a shout or two—I dodged between the groundcars. The growing darkness helped. So did the nasty skirmish centered around the unlucky smuggler. I wasn’t the only one diving behind servo-transports as the weapons’ fire spread.
The uproar was spreading. The red and black of Pact Enforcers and the green of Port Authority were everywhere. I began to have some hope—surely the pirates would prefer to withdraw offworld inconspicuously. Roraqk. Well, he’d consider me worth chasing after what I’d done. Then again, maybe I’d inflicted some truly permanent damage with that last choking. I grinned.
I took a chance and ran across open space to where a lumbering freight-servo had obligingly stopped to allow a pair of officials to check its cargo. Cleared, the servo moved on, each of its cars powering up as their connections tightened. The second to last car was loosely packed with crates. My bound hands made climbing aboard awkward, but I succeeded, pushing myself as far in as possible. With a lurch oscillating from front to rear, the machine turned off the main shipway into the shipcity itself.
I could easily get lost here, I thought with satisfaction, as the servo passed in and out of the thick shadows cast by each ship—shadows made jagged and mobile by portlights hovering over the temporary loading ramps. Night had arrived, and I welcomed its cover, if not the cool dampness of the breeze drifting in from the sea.
Ship after ship. Gradually, their average size diminished, and fewer servos were in use. I passed a ramp with odd-sized humanoids.
Children,
my memory answered, resonating a host of meanings. This was the docking area for independent traders, then, those without permanent bases or contracts to secure them. Generations were born, lived, and died on such ships.
Far enough,
something deep within ordered. I obeyed without thinking and rolled off the servo, not stopping the movement until I reached the deepest part of the shadows. Sitting up on the pavement, I watched the machine carry on into the distance. I shook my head. Why had I left it here?
I looked up, tracing the swell of the bulbous, pitted old ship above me, perhaps a servo ore-carrier. Cables drooped from it like vines on an old house. Was this the ship I’d been meant to find? There was no answer from my mind, no push or pull in my thoughts.
It was blissfully dark and quiet under here. I rested my head against a support leg, gathering the warmth of the cloak as tightly as I could. The Tulis’ robe wasn’t designed to protect its wearer from the elements. I toggled the force blade back on, careful of its deadly edge, and tried to use it on the lock bar, then gave up. My fingers couldn’t stretch far enough to safely touch the blade to the mechanism. It didn’t even mar the finish on the bar itself. I shut off the blade and looked at it. Such a tiny thing to have killed, for I had no doubt Smegard’s guardsman was dead. No identification marks, not even a manufacturer’s icon or planet-code. No clue as to its owner or its owner’s reasons for interfering, though I could easily believe that Roraqk had collected a variety of enemies along the way.
Oh, well. I was still better off than this morning. My most urgent need now was for a bit of rest. I closed my eyes and leaned back, trying to relax—and slipped into sleep.
 
There was no doubt about it—the world was coming to an end. I startled back to myself at the roar, deep and rhythmic, beating through my bones and rattling my teeth. A beam of light swept past, like a predator seeking prey, scorching away shadows.
I settled back, annoyed. I had enough things to fear without worrying about a docking tug. I watched as the huge and ungainly machine lumbered by on its way to the landing field. It wouldn’t be long before the tug, tenderly cradling a starship, would crawl its noisy way back to a preassigned docking pad among the hundreds of Auord’s shipcity. I wondered what it would be like to live in a city whose buildings came and went in the night.
I had to get moving, too. There was a direction I should take. Not knowing why, but accepting it, I stood, eyes closed in concentration.
That way.
I opened my eyes only to stare straight into another pair at very close range—glossy compound eyes, reflecting me a thousand times over. I couldn’t see much else past the beam of the thing’s hand lamp.
“Do you require assistance, young Human?” a voice, higher pitched than I could remember voices being, penetrated my ear. A shiver danced across my skin—this reaction intensified by the flash of a Port Authority insignia held out in a delicate claw. Something stupid in my thoughts whispered at me to run. I held still with an effort.
The light played over my face, and I squinted. “No, thank you, I’m fine.”
“Fine?” The reflections in its eyes shifted in unison as it canted its head to consider me from another perspective. “It is not fine to lurk under ship fins—this activity will not be tolerated in Auord Port. Not by this person with legal ways to protect. You must return to your proper place.”
I restrained myself from saying I’d love to do that. I made sure my bound hands stayed inside the cloak, and somehow produced a smile. “I’m afraid I did too much celebrating. I came out to get some air. Must have fallen asleep.” I tried to look guilty. “I’d rather not wake my friends up at this hour just to let me in—I’ll wait—”
“You came out for air?”
I refused to speculate on whether the alien was truly confused or being sarcastic. I pointed my chin at the ship over our heads, keeping my wounded cheek away from its light as best I could without being obvious. “Contracted passenger,” I insisted, ready to be stubborn. “I’m on my way home from school.”
How odd. That last bit sounded like the truth.
It turned its head and light completely upward, then both were aimed at me again. “This ship does not take passengers—only items in little packages. Not alive items.” A decision had been made within that unfathomable skull; I doubted it was in my favor.
“I happen to know you’re wrong. Let me wait here for the captain.”
“It is you who are mistaken, Human. All captains in my sector are known to me. This captain does not take passengers. For the final time, I warn you your behavior is totally unacceptable where I am the protector of the legal ways. Astsh! Daylight is coming. You will be seen by everyone soon!” A dry rustling as its fingers drummed the top of its force stick. “Come. Your passage contract will be checked.”
“I’d hardly be carrying it,” I heard myself say politely but firmly. “It’s on the ship, of course.” Where I’d like to be, on this or any ship for that matter—so long as it was leaving this world; such a desire was about the only coherent thought I had left. How was I to be rid of this too-attentive creature, already sucking air through several breathing orifices to continue its argument?
A burst of noisy voices, out of sight but close enough to be clearly heard, swung its attention and light from me for an instant. Seizing the opportunity, I backed away, dodging down the nearest open shipway, hoping the Port official would consider the boisterous group a greater threat to public peace.
I stopped running when the cramp in my side grew to a blinding pain, taking shelter under a ramp. A breeze drifted past, carrying the aroma of someone’s breakfast with it. As I gasped for air, my mouth watered. Much more of this and I would welcome even Roraqk’s ugly face if he brought something to eat.
My head jerked up. I’d heard no sound, yet felt an incredibly strong awareness of someone, someone near. I pulled myself up, easing slowly to where I could see past the ramp to the dimly lit space between this ship and the one behind it. A figure moved there, walking quickly yet soundlessly away. I knew who it had to be—even as the person slowed, head turning as if alerted, but unsure why. It was Morgan. And, whatever else, he was Roraqk’s enemy.
Quickly, I tossed the knife, making sure it was off first, wincing at the loudness of the ringing sound as it fell close by his feet. Morgan stooped and picked it up. I pressed back into the shadows, waiting to see what he’d do. A thin ray of light touched me and was quickly doused. He began walking away again, this time leisurely, arms swinging. I could hear him humming to himself in a low voice.
Well enough. I stayed in the shadows, following at the limits of the sound of his hum. My perceptions narrowed to that sense, concentrating my almost exhausted energy on remaining out of sight of the occasional workers busy loading and unloading cargo. Morgan called to a few, waved a comradely arm, kept their attention.
Our precautions were well taken. Morgan stepped toward an unusually slender ship.
My ship,
I thought fuzzily, with a satisfaction too great to be mine alone. The ship’s surface was dark with age, but the designation
Silver Fox
was polished and bright. My blood froze at the sight of a red-and-black uniform waiting at the top of its ramp, and I squeezed behind a line of crates.
Morgan didn’t hesitate. He climbed the steep ramp, activating the ship’s external lights with a spoken code. They flooded the pavement before the ship, forcing me to crouch down where I couldn’t see. “What can I do for you, Officer?” I heard him say with commendable coolness. “My ladings are in order and I’ve certainly paid sufficient fees, even for Auord’s Port Authority—”
The official’s words and Morgan’s reply were lost to me as another ground tug rumbled by, hooks emptied of whichever ship it had just placed in dock. When I dared peek over the crates, the officer was gone and the
Fox
’s lights had been extinguished. A thin sliver of brightness remained to mark what must be an opening in her airlock.
Now I faced a choice. I knew what my compulsions wanted. Here was my ship. But I gripped the edge of the nearest crate, making myself think. Up that ramp and through that door might lie safety, or worse trouble than I’d already escaped. Morgan had led me here. Why? An act of conscience, or the quick thinking of a practiced scoundrel? I could lose all I’d gained.
Given a lack of alternatives, I thought wryly, it was a risk worth taking. Who or what Morgan was could wait. I rose to my feet, feeling an immediate and unexpected relief, like a pat on my head.
Forcing down my misgivings, I ran across the open space, hesitated, then drove myself up the ramp, stumbling once on its ridges. At the top, I swallowed, then stepped blindly over the sill of the air lock and entered the
Fox.
The light inside was painfully bright. As the door closed itself behind me, I simply slid down the wall to the floor. The inner portal hissed open a second later and Morgan stepped through. He secured the lock on the outer door with a slap on its control plate, then stood looking down at me. “I thought it might be you,” quietly, with no expression to be read on his face, unless it was a touch of irony.
I pulled my bound hands out of the folds of my cloak and held them up, waiting to see just what my choice had gained me.
During the moment he hesitated, I felt chilled. Then Morgan drew the tiny force blade from its concealment in his belt. Before I could do more than tense, he neatly sliced the control from the lock bar. It dropped from my wrists, and I lurched to my feet.
“You’ve been in bad company, chit. I’m sorry for that. I never meant you any harm—” Morgan said, tucking away the weapon and stepping back with hands wide apart and open. “Unfortunately, there’s no time for explanations from either of us.” More slowly, and with an underlying grimness: “I’ve called up a tug, and I’m due to lift. You’re welcome to come along.”
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