Chapter 3: You’ve Got Yourself a Deal

The next moments were a whirl of limbs and hard surfaces as the pair of them rolled away from the ramp, and oddly enough the first coherent observation that emerged in Saffron’s mind was that the old man was wearing some kind of armor beneath his ragged duster.

Then she was on her back with him kneeling over her. Saffron clawed for her gun, an awkward effort since she was half-lying on it; the few seconds it took her to get it out and pointed at her assailant would have been fatal, had he actually meant her any harm.

On the contrary, Elliot wasn’t even looking at her, crouched on one knee at her side with both his own heavy pistols in hand and warily surveying the depot.

“You okay?” he asked. “Didn’t sting ya, did it?”

“What?” she blurted, her revolver wavering where she had it aimed at his chest barely three decimeters away.

He didn’t seem perturbed by that, either. Elliot paused in his perusal of their surroundings to jerk his head toward the Triple Bee, then resumed scanning. “Stun net. Ain’t usually good for a real takedown ‘less it snares ya good an’ proper, but even if y’just get grazed, them prongs sting like a bastard.”

Saffron twisted to look where he indicated, finding a confusing tangle of spikes and wires strewn across the plascrete near the Triple Bee’s ramp, spitting intermittent sparks. No, she realized, it was indeed a metal net. An aggressively electrified net, by the look of it.

“What the hell?” She wiggled away from him and scrambled awkwardly to her feet.

“Down!” Elliot ordered. “You don’t wanna be the tallest piece a’ scenery when some damn fool is shootin’.”

“That thing has to be illegal!” Saffron spluttered even as she dropped to a crouch. Down or no, they were both awfully exposed in this wide open space.

“Yeah, I’m mighty curious what possessed somebody to even bring ordnance like that onto Union turf, much less fire it off. You got outstanding debts or somethin’?”

“Surely you don’t think that was aimed at me.”

“Lady, I saw it aimed at you. An’ I notably do not see where it came from, so I recommend headin’ to some kind of cover.”

She was already inching back toward the ramp. The Triple Bee had set down on the commercial landing pads, deliberately separate from the other vessels nearby, leaving them inconveniently isolated. Beyond that there was, indeed, cover; a resource barge had set down in the middle of the government landing zone and was midway through the process of being unloaded. Syre Liara got most of its raw materials from expeditions of miners, loggers, fishers, and whatever else dispatched to wherever on Terminus such resources could be found. Which was all fine and dandy most of the time, but the for-rent private docks where she had parked her own ship were on the other side of the government strip, so now she was isolated with a net-throwing lunatic in the commercial sector with a maze of cranes, tugs, and giant crates of who-knew-what between her and the relative safety of the Overdue.

Elliot shifted and she turned in response, again following his sightline to, this time, a shape emerging from behind the heavy landing gear of a cruiser berthed some fifty meters away.

“Easy now,” the old man murmured. “Could be—”

And then the obscure blob of a figure fired some kind of rocket at them.

A rather slow-moving projectile, relatively speaking; it took almost two seconds to cross the distance to them, seconds Saffron spent gaping in panic. Elliot, meanwhile, dropped both his pistols, whipped the rifle off his back, and shot the missile right out of the air scarcely five meters from them. The resulting destruction was a spray of sparks and a few pieces of twisted metal that indicated the lack of an explosive payload.

It also, since no human could have made such a shot, indicated that plasma rifle had a highly illegal auto-targeting mod.

“How’s about you scamper off behind somethin’ an’ call the cops while I have me a little chat with this here character?” Elliot suggested, smoothly returning the long gun to its position on his back and kneeling to pick up his pistols without taking his eyes off the last place their assailant had been visible.

Saffron whirled and dashed toward the maze of shipping crates without another word, while he strode purposefully toward the source of danger. Better him than her.

She raised her wristpad to her face while running, tapping the screen to open the civil emergency channel. “Shots fired at Pileon Depot! We need police out here quickly!”

“Understood,” replied a woman’s voice from the screen, her tone firm but calm. “Are you in any danger?”

“Yes—no—I don’t know. Someone fired some kind of electrified net at me, and then a rocket!”

“Do you require medical attention?”

“No, I—not yet. They missed.”

“All right, can you get behind cover?”

“That’s what I’m—bugger!” Saffron just reached the edge of one of the hulking crates when a volley of plasma shots ripped past, two burning welts into the crate’s surface. She skittered around the corner, placing the thing’s bulk between herself and the direction from which they’d come—where she’d last seen Elliot—and pressed her back against it. “I’m under fire! Plasma shells now!”

“I see you on a drone cam, Dr. Dystram,” the operator replied, still brisk and soothing all at once. They were well-trained at keeping people calm through disastrous circumstances. “This is Dr. Saffron Dystram, correct?”

“Yes, it’s me, this is my pad,” she babbled. “Saints, where are those lancers?”

“Officers are en route, Dr. Dystram. You’re in a good position, you have the crate between you and both armed parties. I’ll direct you toward safety. Try to head—”

“Wait, both?”

“I see two individuals carrying weapons and exchanging small arms fire, doctor. A male human and a male warex.”

“A warex? No, wait, the human. An old man in a long coat? With a rifle and two pistols?”

“Yes, do you know him?”

“No, but he’s not the criminal here, he saved me from the net and the missile.”

“Duly noted, doctor. I have ID’d both individuals; they’re known bounty hunters.”

“Bloody brilliant,” Saffron muttered. Then she winced, instinctively ducking lower as more plasma bursts flashed past the side of her container. Their shells were rated for deep space hauling, and unless this barge had been harvesting petrochemicals for some reason nothing in them should be volatile. In theory, the crates ought to stand up to small arms fire.

Rockets, though…

“If you’re unhurt, doctor, I need you to move away from the firefight. Head to your left toward the other end of that crate.”

“Right. I’m moving.” In truth, this wasn’t the first time she’d been shot at and she didn’t need her hand held. It was reassuring, though, to be dealing with this in Union territory and knowing there were lancers on the way and an emergency operator online to talk her through it. Saffron crept rapidly to the other end of the crate and carefully peeked around the edge. She could hear plasma shells being discharged in the near distance, but from this angle couldn’t see anything.

“You’re a reasonable distance from the combatants now and have the bulk of that crate between you and them,” the comforting voice of the operator said. “I see that your ship, the Overdue, is on the private docks on the other side of the government strip. We’re going to get you back to her so you can evacuate the area, Dr. Dystram. Ahead and to your right is a stack of two shipping containers with blue markings, do you see them?”

“I do.” They were a good fifteen meters away across open pavement, she noted uneasily. But if Elliot and the warex were way back behind her, there might not be a better chance…

“Okay, you’re all clear,” said the operator, clearly agreeing with her unvoiced thought. “Please get across the open area and get behind them, doctor. You should be able to see the mnemindae craftship Triple Bee; the combatants are in that area, so that’s your landmark. Try to get and keep as many obstructions between yourself and that ship as possible. Understand?”

“Got it,” she said tersely. “I’m going.”

She set out at a run, and as if to punish her temerity there came a volley of plasma shots from something clearly much heavier than a pistol, several grazing the crates behind which she had just taken temporary shelter and more flashing past into the sky. Saffron hunched down as she ran but did not slow, skittering around behind the double stack of crates, where she found to her alarm that this was the last easy cover to be seen. Ahead was a wide clear area with a couple of hovering tugs heading lazily back toward the barge, their bot pilots clearly unperturbed by the nearby firefight.

“Good, you’re making good progress.” Under any other circumstances Saffron would have resented being spoken to like a nervous toddler but right now she was just grateful not to be alone in the middle of this, which made the next development even worse. “I n… you…keep …ing, Dr. Dys… -ain calm, but…”

“Hello?” Saffron shouted, raising the wristpad right to her face. “You’re breaking up! Hello? Can you read me? Remain calm but what?!”

Nothing answered her. No static, just nothing. She pressed herself back against the shipping crate, concentrating for a moment on her breathing. Breath guided the body and nourished the brain. Calm breathing, calm mind, as the Exercises taught. So long as she kept panic away, she could think. Observation and deduction would get her through this, not animal instinct.

For example, the deduction that the mysterious warex had a signal jammer.

It was undoubtedly pointless, but just to cover the options, Saffron switched channels on her pad. “Ace, do you read me?”

“Loud and clear, doctor! What can I do for you?”

She froze for a second, baffled. How was he jamming official channels but letting short-range transmissions through? But that was a detail to be worried about later.

“I’m under fire here! Prep the ship for launch, I want to get out of here at full burn the second I’m aboard! And make sure the shields are charged up!”

“Can do will do, boss! Powering on and initiating pre-flight. Be safe, and I’ll see you in two shakes!”

There were some moments, like this one, when she regretted having set Ace’s speech to be relentlessly cheerful at all times.

Another fusillade of plasma shells shrieked past far to her right, scoring burns against several shipping crates and causing one of the tugs to veer as its horizontal thruster was clipped. The gunfire wasn’t close enough to present an immediate threat to Saffron, but the angle revealed that whoever was shooting was now both closer to her and circling around to the right. Evidently, the Triple Bee was no longer her landmark.

Where the hell were those lancers?

The straightest path toward the Overdue was across a mostly wide space in front of the barge’s open cargo hold, with not much in the way of cover save the odd tug passing through. Saffron opted to go the long way, ducking her head and dashing to the left toward another stack of crates. The unloaded cargo was being sorted into several stacks which made a roughly U-shaped maze at one end of the landing strip; it looked like it would provide both ample cover and small paths through that would take her to the docks beyond.

At least, so she hoped, being now committed to this path. A single streak of blue ripped past, the plasma shot not coming near Saffron but striking a crate not far from the point she was headed for. She cringed, but did not slow, and in just seconds was skittering through a gap between two shipping containers, pausing to recover her breath with one between her and the general area from which the shots were coming.

There came a roar from behind her and she instinctively ducked. That wasn’t a weapon, though. In fact, after an embarrassing second she recognized the extremely familiar sound of engines.

And indeed, just seconds later the silvery teardrop shape of the Triple Bee passed overhead, already accelerating as she soared away to the east, deliberately not gaining altitude but getting away from the depot and Syre Liara with all haste. Evidently Azyrvaide didn’t think the business opportunities offered by her chosen spot were worth being parked in the middle of a firefight. Saffron didn’t blame her a bit.

The sounds of plasma fire were still intermittent, but still far too close. And getting closer, to judge by the volume. Despite what Elliot had thought, she couldn’t think of a single reason a warex bounty hunter might be after her, but it still seemed that the firefight was trending in this direction. As she considered this, something explosive hit the very crate she was crouched behind with enough force to push it a few centimeters toward her.

Saffron took this as a hint that break time was over.

She set off through the maze of shipping containers, instinctively keeping herself crouched low even though they were at least a meter taller than she and mostly stacked two or three high. Progress was irregular as she had to duck into cramped little alleys between them, and frequently divert herself to find a gap where a whole row had been stacked too close to slip through. It made it a little difficult to keep her bearings; she tried to remain more or less in the middle of wherever the crates were concentrated. At one point she emerged from a narrow gap and almost plowed face-first into the side of a tug proceeding about its business in auto-task mode. Whatever personnel were supposed to be supervising the unloading appeared not to have shut down the tugs before taking cover from the shoot-out.

The sounds of weapons fire remained steady but intermittent, and worse, the metal canyons between shipping containers created such a mess of echoes that she could no longer gauge with any accuracy how close or in what direction the shooting was. She could also no longer see plasma shots, which hopefully meant she was in less danger of being hit by one. There were heavier weapons now, though, apparently more of the same kind of ordnance that had rocked the crate she was crouched behind moments ago. Whatever it was made the occasional percussive thump, and at one point a crate at the end of a row down which Saffron was scurrying was rocked by an explosion which clipped its far end, the burst of fire and smoke visible to her. She put on another burst of speed, skittering to her right and ducking between two more shipping containers to emerge into a slightly wider lane than most.

“This you?”

Saffron yelled and brought up her pistol.

“Shh,” Elliot urged, once again apparently calm despite having a gun trained on him point-blank. “He’s just pepperin’ the whole place, now, tryin’ to smoke us out. Try not to give away our position.” Another volley of plasma shells and then an explosion punctuated his point.

Elliot was holding out his left arm, the sleeve of his duster pulled back to expose his own wristpad, a heavy industrial model that appeared to be made from starship armor and was still scarred as if it had been through worse firefights than this. Above it was projected a holo of her own head, accompanied by her name and a number.

“What—” Remembering his warning, she lowered her voice to a hiss. “What is that about?”

He glanced at her, then at the holo, then grunted and switched it off. “Yep, that’s you all right. Congrats, doc, you got a price on your head. Three hundred, standard gold.”

Saffron gaped at him, forgetting to lower her voice. “Why?”

“Little quieter, please,” he said, wincing. “An’ hell if I know. Anybody keyed into this here network knows better’n to ask, an’ most won’t care. Easy, now,” he added when she raised her pistol to point at his face, her whole arm shaking. “If I was lookin’ to collect, I’d get the drop on ya ‘stead of talkin’. Let’s keep our cool, now, an’ think about—”

A roar swelled rapidly and terminated in a huge thump which shook the very plascrete they were standing on. There followed a rhythmic series of grinding and clanking noises, accompanying more heavy thuds that sounded for all the world like titanic stomping feet.

“Aww, hell,” Elliot spat, pushing unceremoniously past Saffron to crouch against the side of the shipping container between her and the general direction of the noises. “He brought Gertrude.”

“Who?” she demanded. “Brought who?”

And then Gertrude stomped into view.

It was a mechanical walker, bipedal and at least seven meters tall, squat in shape with thick limbs, and positively bristling with obvious weapons. Rather than a “head” it had some kind of cannon assembly, with the obvious cockpit positioned in the front of its torso. The thing was clearly designed for war, and would have looked a lot more menacing were it not so tacky. Painted vivid orange all over with highly-polished golden chrome accents, its arms and legs were decorated with neon green flames. A cartoon smiley face with bloody fangs was scrawled over the cockpit window in translucent paint.

Saffron almost forgot to be terrified. “Are you having me on?”

Gertrude’s upper body swiveled atop her hips, and she raised one flame-painted gold-trimmed orange arm to point down the lane at them. A panel in the mech’s forearm retracted and a large and unnecessarily complicated-looking gun emerged.

“Move!” Elliot barked, redundantly as Saffron was already moving. The two of them piled back into the gap between crates through which she had emerged moments before. Behind them came a roar, a flash of light, and a surge of static electricity that made their hair try to stand upright.

Saffron, naturally, kept running, but Elliot grabbed the collar of her coat, hauling her backward right as she tried to emerge into the next lane. Gertrude was already stomping to re-position herself, and Saffron barely managed to avoid being hit by the next shot which roared down that lane. Of course; there was only one place they could have emerged.

The mech fired a spray of metal projectiles which bounced off crate walls to litter the ground, and irregular lines of light snapped into place between them, putting off sparks and the sharp smell of ozone. The entire floor was covered by a makeshift electric net. Both stretches of ground outside their narrow hiding place were, leaving them nowhere to run.

“Bollocks,” Saffron said feelingly. “Now what?”

“Hang tight,” Elliot grunted. “I got an idea. Put your gun away, that peashooter ain’t gonna do jack to that mech, an’ the drone cams are watchin’. You’ll look better to the lancers if y’don’t contribute t’the violence, even in self-defence. Come on,” he added in a lower tone.

Saffron did not sheathe her pistol, but she did turn to squeeze in next to him and peer over his head at whatever he was watching. The other lane was likewise covered with a maze of electric arcs; it was also toward this one that Gertrude was now stomping. From the other direction was coming another of those hovering tugs.

“Oh, I see,” Saffron said, trying to breathe evenly to steady herself. “If we get onto that—”

“We’d be sittin’ ducks,” Elliot interrupted, pulling a small metal object from inside his coat and again baring his wristpad. “Hold on, now…”

As soon as the tug had come close enough he gently tossed the thing he was holding underhand. It hit the tug and immediately affixed itself without bouncing. A red light appeared upon its surface, flashed twice, and turned green, and Elliot began tapping icons on his wristpad.

The tug came to a stop, hovering over the electric net, then veered sideways.

“W—are you hacking that?” Saffron demanded. “That is government property! Do you know how illegal that is?”

Elliot spared her a sardonic look, and she flushed.

Then he returned his focus to his wristpad, and suddenly the tug shot straight down the lane at Gertrude. For a moment Saffron thought he meant to ram the mech, which would have been totally ineffectual. He sent it zipping around, though, leaning precariously around the corner to see as he flanked the great stomping vehicle. It had nearly reached the nearest crates; it didn’t look narrow enough to squeeze into that aisle, but on the other hand, it didn’t look like pushing the shipping containers out of the way would be difficult.

“Tell me that thing’s not bot-piloted,” Saffron said, fascinated in spite of herself.

“Nope. Bebop’s in there at the controls.”


“Goldurn warex,” he grunted, and brought the tug forward abruptly. It slipped in right under Gertrude’s upraised left foot as the mech took another step. The huge machine’s weight nearly pounded the tug right into the ground, but Elliot ramped up its repulsors even as he activated the magnetic clamp, leaving Gertrude half-standing on an erratic floating platform.

A few more jabs of his fingertip set the tug to pulling randomly in all directions, its repulsors at full blast and guidance system changing its mind every half-second. The little thing’s engines were not powerful enough to yank the towering mech off its feet entirely, but they sufficed to keep it off-balance and halt its advance.

“There,” he said in satisfaction, “that buys us a couple seconds. C’mon.” The old man pushed past her again through the narrow gap, back to the other lane which did not have a struggling neon-painted mech at one end of it, again reaching into an inner pocket of his coat. “May wanna cover your eyes for a sec, doc.”

Before she could reply he had tossed what he was holding to the ground. Saffron opted not to cover her eyes, but did have to squint against the flash of light when ensued, accompanied by a shrill whine followed by a series of sharp little explosions. Blinking, she leaned past his shoulder to observe that most of the little net hubs had gone dead, several emitting smoke. A few survived beyond the radius of the EMP grenade he had thrown, but the ground right outside their little gap was now safe to step in.

Elliot immediately did so, drawing one of his pistols and deftly shooting each of the four remaining net hubs that barred their escape up the aisle in the opposite direction from Gertrude.

“How many weapons are you carrying, exactly?” Saffron demanded.

“Many as it takes t’get the job done,” he said, turning back to her with a wink. “C’mon, that tug won’t hold Bebop for long. We gotta get some distance. You got a ship nearby?”

Saffron hesitated, again raising her gun, though this time not high enough to threaten him directly. “I don’t… You’re a bounty hunter. Why would I ever trust you?”

“Five gold,” he said evenly. “My standard rate.”

“Standard— What?”

“For five standard gold plus essential expenses,” Elliot said patiently, “you can hire me to get you outta this mess. I got connections in the bounty hunting field, and I been doin’ this longer’n it looks like you’ve been alive, doc. I know how hunters work, an’ I know how to track through the network to whoever put the price on your head. For five standard gold plus whatever it costs me in tools an’ ammo an’ such, I will get that price removed, an’ keep you alive an’ free fer as long as that takes in the meantime.”

“…why?” she demanded, more quietly. “Why under the stars would you settle for a five gold payout when you could get three hundred?”

“You’re wanted alive, possessions intact,” he explained. “Means whoever put out that bounty wants somethin’ you have, an’ to have you explain how you got it. That makes this my two least favorite ways o’ doin’ business: piracy, and outsourcing.” He grinned, reaching up to run a hand over his luxuriant gray mustache. “To maintain a set o’ whiskers this mighty, a fella’s gotta be able t’face himself in the mirror.”

Saffron stared pure suspicion at him. It went without saying that this could be a ploy to get her to drop her guard. On the other hand, he had now managed to ambush her twice, and both times used the opportunity to protect her when he could have just as easily knocked her out. On the first hand again…

At that point in her ruminations, Bebop and Gertrude helpfully reminded Saffron of her lack of options by blasting the offending tug to shrapnel with the beam cannon on top of the mech’s cockpit and then punching the nearest shipping container in an outburst of sheer temper. Whatever was in that crate, the mech’s strength was enough to send it flying across the aisle into the next row, where it began a domino collapse.

“You’re hired,” Saffron decided. “Let’s go!”

“You said it,” he agreed. “You at the private docks?”

“Yes, this way!”

She took off up the aisle now that it was cleared of traps. At some point they were going to have to cut back across the other open lane between crates, simply because getting to the docks demanded going in that direction, but Saffron opted to put some distance between them and their pursuer first. The next gap between containers she dashed right past, but the one after she ducked inside, emerging quickly into the other aisle—still with the snapping electric net all over the ground in the near distance and the warex bounty hunter’s mech swiveling about farther away, still looking for them.

Saffron and Elliot dashed across the open lane into another gap beyond, and back into the maze of containers, not pausing to check whether their pursuer had spotted them again.

“Can he not track us in that thing?” she panted, ducking around a corner.

“You know warex,” Elliot replied, not sounding out of breath despite his apparent age. “Gertrude’s overloaded with weapons and that paint job, no budget or room left for utilities. That’d be why he pounced on foot at first. Bebop don’t call her in ‘less he’s good an’ pissed off.”

“Doesn’t seem like that takes much!”

“Yeah, she gets called in every time,” he chuckled, the pair of them pausing against the short end of a shipping container so Saffron could peek around the corner to check if the mech was visible; they could hear it stomping around in the near distance. “I’m still surprised, though. This here’s Union territory an’ he’s askin’ fer a whole world o’ trouble with that thing. Where the hell are them lancers, anyway?”

“That’s what I’d love to know,” Saffron muttered, and darted across the next gap.

The entire row of shipping containers trembled as the mech petulantly smacked one at the end, sending it flying. Saffron started to freeze, but Elliot seized her by the collar again and dragged her across another gap to the next row; in the one they’d just passed through, another stack of crates alarmingly close rocked as if it might topple.

An explosion sounded from behind them as Gertrude fired a missile of some kind into the maze, followed by another bang that sounded like a shipping container being punched again, slightly more distant.

“He’s lookin’ for us back the other way,” Elliot said. “Make tracks, doc!”

She didn’t need to be told twice, dashing forward once more. They’d already circled most of the way; up ahead was the other end of this cargo platform from where they’d started. Already she could see the upper fins of parked spacecraft in the commercial docks beyond.

“MACE!” The voice, though distant, was projected powerfully from external speakers on the mech. Cheap speakers, in fact, giving a tinny quality to the already squeaky voice of a warex which would have been downright comical in other circumstances. “You stay out of this, old man, I saw her first! No one steals a bounty from Bebop Bonaparte Khan!”

“Aw, cram it under yer fluffy tail,” Elliot grunted.

“Ugh,” Saffron added in the same tone. “Warex and their bloody names.”

“Heh. Yeah, I can see how that’d irritate a historian.”

“Archaeologist,” she corrected.

“Historian-adjacent, then. I reckon some o’ the same rules apply. Hold up.” They had come to the last row in the arc of shipping crates laid out in front of the unloading barge; stopping against one final container they could plainly see docked vessels in the commercial berths beyond, including the Overdue. There was another area closer to the docks piled with more crates with a currently silent magnetic crane looming over them, which could provide them some cover. Heading either toward that or the docks themselves would leave them dashing across open space, however.

“Who’s Mace?” Saffron asked.

He turned back to her and tipped his hat. “Elliot Mace. Glad t’know ya, doc. Aright, you see our dilemma, here?”

She pointed. “That’s my ship, the VMX-920 with the gray hull paint and the beam cannon on top.”

“Added a weapon, good,” he grunted in approval. “Looks like her running lights are on, too.”

“I had my bot get her ready for launch,” Saffron said, raising her wristpad. “Ace, how’s it looking?”

“Ship is prepped and ready to go, Dr. Dystram!” Ace reported. “Good to hear your voice, I’ve been seeing all kinds of weapons fire in the depot. And is that a battlemech?”

“We’re close,” Saffron stated. “Lower the plank, but watch for a warex approaching. Don’t let him aboard.”

“Understood, boss!”

“Dystram out.”

“I’m gonna recommend headin’ straight across,” Elliot murmured, studying the situation. “We could make for the other loadin’ zone, but best case, that’d spit us out still needin’ to make a long run. If we swing wide the other way, Bebop might not see us ’round these here containers. But that’s a gamble. It’s bettin’ on him still thinkin’ we’re hidin’ in the thicket back there an’ not steppin’ in this direction. I give that even odds.” He turned to look expectantly at her. “Either way, we spend an uncomfortably long few seconds wide open an’ exposed.”

Breathe in, breathe out. All steps along the Path were serene. “Right. Well, you’re the expert. I guess if we get killed I don’t have to pay you.”

“That’s the spirit!” he grinned.

“I can have Ace bring the ship…”

“Better try to avoid his attention if we can. That ship’s a much bigger target’n we are, an’ Gertrude’s packin’ more’n enough ordnance to ground ‘er permanently. Then we’re good an’ stuck. Try not to let ‘im see which one we’re headin’ for till the last second.”

“Right,” she winced at the thought. “Good point.”

“Let’s move ’em out, doc. Time’s a-wastin’!”

They set off at a run, swinging wide to the left, both periodically glancing back over their shoulders to double-check that they were keeping the bulk of of the stacked shipping crates between them and Gertrude. With each step, that became more of a gamble; long before they actually crossed into the private docks they would be in plain view of the area in front of the barge, and therefore of the warex bounty hunter. And even from that point, it was another twenty meters easily to the Overdue’s boarding plank.

Both of them had a pistol in hand. Not that handguns were going to do anything against Gertrude, but it was something. They would clearly have to deal with that disaster when they came to it, any moment now.

“Oh, saints be honored,” Saffron panted in gratitude at the first sign of luck since Elliot had rescued her. The crane parked at the edge of the next unloading zone had hummed to life, turned, and begun lumbering toward them on massive treads. It wasn’t a speedy vehicle, but at its sheer size even its modest pace was bringing it closer at a respectable rate, especially when the both of them diverted to head toward it. That thing would provide very good cover indeed. Saffron was too relieved to wonder overmuch at what the driver was trying to do exactly; if they wanted to get away from the aggressive mech, it was a little late to be starting, not to mention that they could probably go faster on foot.

“Hang in there,” Elliot rasped, finally beginning to sound a little winded. “If we can get around before he sees…”

“There you are!” Bebop’s shrill voice rang out behind them, immediately followed by the rapidly approaching stomp of Gertrude’s huge feet.

“Figures,” Saffron snarled, turning and taking aim with her little pistol.

“Keep movin’!” Elliot barked. “Git ’round behind the crane!”

He was right, she realized; they were still out of luck as far as getting to the Overdue, but at least they could manage a bit longer in the short term by putting the towering crane between them and Gertrude. The main body of the thing was even taller than the mech, its cockpit positioned almost three stories off the ground, and its three huge grasping arms and single enormous boom rising like a miniature skyscraper. It wasn’t a long-term solution, but it would buy them a few more seconds.

To her surprise, the crane stopped its advance as they approached it, the upper platform swiveling about on its giant wheeled base even as the two of them ducked behind the great treads. From that angle they couldn’t see what happened next, but a moment later there came an enormous, slightly muffled clang, followed by the sound of rapid plasma fire and Bebop screeching incoherently over the mech’s external speakers.

The upper body of the crane continued to swivel, and to Saffron’s amazement, its rotation brought Gertrude into view—affixed to the crane’s primary magnetic clamp and being swung through the air, the grip mashing its upper cannon down where it was unable to assuming a firing position. Two of the secondary gripping arms had seized both of the mech’s, keeping them—and all their attached weapons—pointed harmlessly at the sky.

That didn’t stop Bebop from fruitlessly spraying plasma bolts into the air, keeping up a tirade of curses over his loudspeaker and sending spent shells showering in all directions.

“As I live an’ breathe,” Elliot marveled.

The crane cockpit’s door burst open and a slender shape skittered out, clambering head-first down the side of the crane itself with only occasional attention to the attached ladder.

“I don’t believe it,” said Elliot. “Is that…?”

The diminutive qrith reached the base of the movable section just as its ongoing rotation started to carry him back out of view. Being out of position to reach the ladder which arched over the side of the treads, he was forced to either wait on another full revolution or jump.

Saffron, impelled by pure instinct, was already moving as the young qrith gathered himself to spring. Jamming her revolver back into its holster as she ran, she barely managed to get underneath him as he came down, squealing and flailing all six limbs, and then she was driven to the plascrete by the impact of a body for the second time in the last few minutes.

“Hey, you’re okay!” the qrith said brightly, his reptilian eyes blinking at her from centimeters away. She had ended up flat on her back this time, with the youth planted atop her torso. It was him—the same one who’d tried to pick her pocket in the Triple Bee and been thrown out.

“Ain’t every day y’see a qrith runnin’ into danger, ‘stead of away,” Elliot remarked.

Immediately, the qrith raised his head, flatting his frills back and hissing at the old man. “Hey, don’t act like you know me just cos—”

“Thanks for the help,” Saffron grunted. “Now could you get off, please?”

“Oh! Right, sorry.”

“That was quick thinkin’, son,” Elliot added, “but that ain’t gonna hold ‘im fer long. You okay, there, doc?”

“I’ll do,” she grunted, rolling to her feet. “C’mon, we’re almost to the ship.”

They set off again, leaving behind the momentarily incapacitated mech, Saffron limping slightly. This time, the qrith boy came skittering across the ground on all sixes right beside her.

“I’m Pfezz!” he said brightly. “Thanks for sticking up for me back there, lady! Nobody’s ever done that before.”

She didn’t even know where to start with that, and so stuck to the immediate practicalities. “I’m Saffron, and you’d better get aboard. Something tells me that warex isn’t going to be happy with you, either. He tends to shoot when he’s unhappy.”

“There’s a warex in that thing? I didn’t know there were any on Terminus!”

“Ace!” she shouted into her wristpad as they pounded the last few meters toward the Overdue’s plank. “Three boarding! Bring the engines up and lift off the second the hatch is closed. I want to be on the way to orbit by the time I reach the cockpit!”

“Consider it done, doctor,” her bot replied, cheery as ever. As the Overdue loomed large before them, her thrusters roared to life, fins flaring outward and a haze of heat wreathing the ship’s exhaust ports.

Another explosion burst out behind them; this time Saffron didn’t stop to check, even as more followed. They made it the last few meters, all three panting for breath, and Pfezz zipped up the ladder before the other two even reached the plank. Elliot arrived next, clambering up as rapidly as he could, and she paused with her feet on the gangplank and one hand gripping the ladder, finally turning to look back at their pursuer.

Bebop had managed to land a hit on the crane’s boom with one of his missile launchers, causing it to collapse and freeing Gertrude from the magnetic clamp. That also freed his beam cannon, which she was just in time to see him use to punch a hole straight through the body of the crane and into the plascrete beyond. Then Ace was retracting the ladder she clung to, the plank rising into place beneath her, while the Overdue herself rose from the dock. Her last glimpse was of the mech tearing into the crane with a fusillade of plasma fire.

This, Saffron reflected as she clambered up to the main deck, was the second time in as many days she had boarded her ship in exactly this ridiculous fashion. It boded ill for the immediate future.

By the time she reached the cockpit, Elliot had helped himself to the copilot’s seat, with Pfezz clinging to the back of it and gazing avidly over his shoulder at the rapidly sky. The Overdue shot straight upward, the muddy teal arc of Terminus’s rings growing larger and crisper as they rose through the atmosphere at such a furious burn that streaks of flame were visible around the cockpit from atmospheric friction even with the ablative shields fully raised.

Saffron slumped against the bulkhead, reaching out to rest one hand on top of Ace’s shiny chassis where the bot rested in the pilot’s seat. “Thank the saints that’s over.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure, doctor!” Ace replied, his incessant good cheer more inappropriate than ever. “You may wanna have a look at this!”

He activated the holo, projecting an image to hover above the idol of Saint Irilai she had affixed to the dash. It was a rear view from the Overdue’s external camera, showing the surface receding behind them, and the garish bulk of Gertrude shooting straight upward on a dual column of rocket fire blasting from her huge legs, straight after them.

“Yep,” Elliot said fatalistically. “Job ain’t done yet, folks. Hold onto yer butts, I’m afraid this here is the fun part.”

* * *

Netherstar is a pet project; my primary focus is on my main webserial, The Gods are Bastards.  As I struggle with mental health issues that can make productive output difficult, TGAB is currently my only firm commitment.

As I have energy and time left over, I will update this serial, but for this reason it has no set schedule; chapters will be posted infrequently and at irregular times.  If you wish to follow Netherstar, you can do so with a WordPress account or its RSS feed to receive notifications of new chapter postings, or join my discord server to be pinged with relevant announcements.

Chapter 2: Can’t Help You


“Two standard weight of gold,” Pher Ilinor repeated with an infinitesimal smile that barely hinted at politeness. “Would you prefer to credit the balance to your tax account, or receive remuneration now? The Institute can issue coins, treasury notes, or credit chips.”

Saffron could only gape up at him, aghast. Naturally, his implacable serenity did not so much as flicker in the face of her reaction.

“B-but—look at this thing!” She grabbed one end of the glowing hourglass where it lay on the desk between them, tipping it up to balance on its other end with her support. Ilinor’s graceful hands made an abortive twitch forward as if he meant to snatch it from her, but he just as quickly returned them to his sides as if the tiny lapse had never occurred. Saffron barely noticed it, wrapped up in her own outrage. “Just the gold it’s made of is worth considerably more than that.”

“Oh?” The Enlightened’s expression did not alter. “You happen to know the exact value of this precise quantity of gold off the top of your head?”

Saffron’s eyes widened further in sheer incredulity. “Are… Pher, are you accusing me of something?”

“Doctor Dystram,” Pher Ilinor replied, somehow making her academic title sound condescending, “if I had evidence of any wrongdoing on your part, I obviously would not offer you compensation for your…find. As it is, my offer stands.”

“I don’t understand how you can so devalue the importance of this discovery! The site itself is priceless, a First Phase tomb in completely pristine condition. And this, an unknown artifact showing Second Phase design sensibilities preserved in a place of honor within it, to say nothing of it containing a previously unknown physically active mineral! This is a treasure!”

“An archaeologist should know better than to let passion run away with scholarly restraint,” Ilinor said with an aloof serenity which did not soften the rebuke, nor had been meant to. “By your own account, Doctor, the site in question is significantly less pristine after your visit. Now, will you prefer a tax credit or direct compensation for this…artifact?”

“I prefer a fair compensation. Two standard won’t even cover my fuel costs!” That was an exaggeration, which he had to know, and certainly wasn’t helping her case. Saffron felt too swept up in the unfairness of it all to restrain herself appropriately.

“Doctor Dystram,” the Pher replied, again in that amazingly patronizing tone, “the Irilai Institute is not a fish market. The Institute does not purchase artifacts, as by proclamation of the Dhinsu Lhamin archaeological discoveries on Terminus are automatically the property of the Harmonious Union. The Institute fairly pays duly qualified citizens for the effort involved in their retrieval. Such compensation is subject to after-the-fact increase, should the discovery in question prove to be particularly important or valuable. As you have provided the coordinates of your…find…and a visual record of your exploration, subsequent investigation by the Institute survey team may merit further compensation. In that event, you will of course be notified. I urge you to keep in mind, Doctor Dystram, that the Irilai Institute is an academic institution devoted to the pursuit of science, not a commercial venture. We do not haggle.”

Saffron had once been enraptured by the eyes of the Enlightened, by their faceted surfaces and inner glow. One could feel, gazing at them, that one was peering into the fractal structure of reality itself, as if enlightenment and ultimate truth might be revealed in their gaze. Now, staring up at Ilinor’s beautiful, glittering, reddish-mauve eyes, Saffron felt only a sacrilegious urge to jam both her thumbs into them.

Instead, she tightened her grip upon the golden crown of the hourglass until her fingers whitened. Pher Ilinor shifted his head infinitesimally downward; the eyes of the Enlightened didn’t betray where they were aimed the way human pupils did, but she had the impression he was looking down at her grasp on the artifact. Mostly because of the disapproving tightening of his sculpted lips.

As a little girl with a limited grasp of theology, she had been totally awed by the Enlightened, a sense of wonder that had not truly diminished as she was schooled in the Harmonious Path and taught to regard them as guides and teachers, not literally divine beings. Intellectual knowledge only went so far; it was personal familiarity that made the difference. At Celeos she had had Enlightened teachers and even, to her amazement, fellow students. Even so, it had taken her the full nine years of her formal education to truly start regarding them as people. It had taken all of three conversations with Asda Ilinor for her to internalize the awareness that they could also be deeply flawed people.

He was just a Pher, apparently not qualified to participate in most of the Institute’s active research initiatives, and so consigned to the public desk. The Terminus branch’s lack of funding was the cause of both their troubles, ultimately, but at least Saffron tried to bear her disappointment with serenity as the Path taught. Ilinor managed to make everyone feel his dissatisfaction with being relegated to what, on a more civilized world, would be a human’s job—for example, by lecturing an archaeologist with a prestigious degree from Celeos on the basics of the Institute’s functions which he knew she had well understood for years.

She’d had a bad feeling about him starting at first sight with the slightly sacrilegious thought that he wasn’t nearly as beautiful as most of the Enlightened, with golden skin, bluish-white hair and those mauve eyes; they weren’t all equally color-coordinated, but she’d never before seen one who clashed. It was a terribly shallow basis upon which to judge anyone, much less an Enlightened, but his subsequent behavior wasn’t much less shallow. Asda Ilinor might be a sacred messenger of the Harmonious Path, but he was a smarmy, unctuous, petty, power-tripping sacred messenger, and the sole reason Saffron was capable of considering any Enlightened just a Pher.

“I was chased by zombies for this,” she hissed, clutching the hourglass until the rim of its cap dug into her fingers.

“Doctor,” Ilinor said with such a weight of condescension that it felt as if it should bear her physically to the floor, “do you hear yourself?”

The reminder brought an involuntary flush to her cheeks, and Saffron guiltily looked over her shoulder. Blessedly, the atrium of the Irilai Institute was unoccupied save for the two of them and the towering statue of Saint Irilai gazing sagely down upon them from her position above the door. Saffron turned back to Ilinor, finding him smirking faintly at her discomfiture. Because of course he was.

“You saw the recording,” she insisted in a more controlled voice. “It’s not as if I’m unaware how bizarre those events were, Pher. I was there, and believe me, it was far more disturbing in person.”

“I saw an apparently realistic depiction of ancient mummies coming to life and chasing you,” Ilinor replied in an openly bored tone. “I believe there is a similar adventure drama being screened in the theaters. Or was, recently; I have not checked recently whether it is still playing. Such entertainments are…not to my taste.”

“You’re suggesting I faked this?” Despite herself, her voice began to rise again. “Who even has the resources to make a— Pher Ilinor, I have been working with the Institute on Terminus for years. What indication have I ever given that I am untrustworthy?”

“That is the difficulty exactly, Dr. Dystram,” he retorted. At least he spoke her title normally, without the snide emphasis, but the pretense of civility was rapidly draining from his expression. “You’ve brought me an entirely unidentified ‘artifact’ of unknown origin and materials, reflecting vaguely Second Phase design sensibilities, which you claim to have unearthed in a First Phase tomb. You provided coordinates practically on top of a site the Institute has already thoroughly investigated, and found no such tomb. You included a video recording of wildly implausible events, as if this added to the credibility of your claim instead of undercutting it entirely. What you have, Dr. Dystram, is a basket full of fairy tales and nonsense, and I would dearly love to end this conversation by shooing you, your little adventure film, and your miscellaneous knickknack out of my Institute and filing a recommendation that your credentials be revoked. Were this your first or even your tenth visit, I would already be doing exactly that. But you have an established relationship with the Institute and have contributed materially useful scholarship on numerous occasions over the course of years, and so protocol compels me to treat what I suspect is either a prank or a con with a seriousness I don’t believe it deserves. Your recording will have to be painstakingly examined by specialists for any sign of fakery. It is entirely likely, given your record, that Lhamin Vidinsa will authorize an expedition to this putative tomb of yours to verify your claims—compelling the Institute’s sole survey team to waste time turning over rocks in a site they have already covered. Worse, as you have identified serious physical dangers, a military escort will have to be provided, at the cost of the Institute’s already strained resources and influence with the colonial government. Your academic credibility, Dr. Dystram, does not endear you to me at this time. It makes you a nuisance, as opposed to merely a kook.”

He leaned subtly forward, placing his hands upon the desk on either side of the artifact, which she still clutched. Ilinor’s glittering eyes bored into her own, all hint of politeness long gone from his expression.

“Now, Doctor Dystram. Please specify the manner in which you would like to receive my generous offered compensation, and then go be a pest elsewhere.”

Saffron stared up at him, momentarily poleaxed by the tirade. At least for a few seconds, shock reduced her anger to a faint background buzz. She had never been chewed out by an Enlightened, never even imagined that such a thing might happen. Serenity in the face of all conflict was one of the core teachings of the Harmonious Path. That he could act this way over something so…

Abruptly, she took a step back, picking up the hourglass and cradling it protectively against her chest. “As you wish, Pher. Walk with the Saints.”

She turned and strode away toward the front door.

“Dystram!” Ilinor snapped, bringing her to a startled halt. “All Terminus artifacts belong to the Harmonious Union. That is not a souvenir for you to keep!”

Slowly, Saffron turned to face him, tucking the hourglass under her arm. “Oh… So it is an artifact, now. I thought you believed I made the whole thing up?”

His eyebrows lowered in a frown. She couldn’t recall ever having seen an Enlightened scowl that way. “If you are thinking of selling it elsewhere, be warned that the Institute will prosecute the theft.”

“I wouldn’t dream of depriving the Irilai Institute of such an important prize, Pher,” Saffron replied, putting on a wide smile and making her tone downright syrupy. “Since we disagree as to its nature, and you are clearly busy with many important tasks, I will return later. Perhaps when an accredited scholar is manning the desk.”

She turned and swept out in long strides, moving so fast the doors barely had time to slide out of her way. He did not call her back. Probably out of sheer shock that she would dare talk to him that way.

Saffron bounded down the Institute’s front steps three at a time before coming to a halt and drawing in a deep, slightly ragged breath to calm herself.

That had not been wise.

She wasn’t at all worried about being prosecuted; invoking the Colonial Artifact Proclamation had been an empty threat and they both knew it, to the point it was actually surprising he would bother. Insulting an Enlightened could have real consequences, though, especially one she would have to deal with again.

Saffron breathed in and out, trying to let the anger and embarrassment of that debacle seep from her with each exhalation, as every child of the Union was taught. There was a lot of ill feeling in there, though; the meditative practice wasn’t making much headway against her agitation.

Raising her eyes, she drank in the sight of the city, rising all around her. Standing in the middle of Syre Liara, one could almost forget that Terminus was a nearly-uninhabited backwater with only the one city that deserved the title. In fact, even the city itself was sparsely populated; many of those gleaming ivory towers stood empty, built according to the standard colonial plan with ample room for future settlers to move in. But if you didn’t know that, to look at it was just like any Union city anywhere, especially in the core district where the Institute’s headquarters was located. Syre Liara was as clean, orderly, and safe as any metropolis on Celeos, Tarinis, or Dhin Limnasa itself.

That, finally, was calming. Saffron was committed to living on Terminus or she wouldn’t have come—it wasn’t as if packing up and going back to the core worlds was feasible. She loved exploring its ruins and unraveling all their nearly untouched mysteries. But still, the urban grace of Union civilization was what felt like home to her, what she sometimes longed for in her loneliest moments. Saffron’s work kept her out of Syre Liara enough that coming back here was always a soothing experience, never commonplace enough in her life to be taken for granted.

An Enlightened was walking up the sidewalk toward her, accompanied by an escort of four rzikeen lancers. Saffron didn’t know why such a person would be traveling through the city on foot—she was wearing a lhamin’s sashes—but obviously wasn’t going to stick her nose into an Enlightened’s business. She moved off the stairs and to the side, out of the way, bowing as the small procession passed.

Feline faces turned to glare at her as the rzikeen gripped weapons, which she took as neither threat nor insult; that was just how they were. The Enlightened, however, turned a warm smile upon Saffron, inclining her head deeply in polite thanks, the morning sunlight casting bewitching patterns across her gleaming onyx skin—which actually went very well with her matched crimson hair and eyes, something Ilinor could stand to learn from.

Saffron stood there for a minute after they had passed, watching the group move away and feeling calmer. The brief, apparently insignificant encounter had been a welcome reminder that this was how most Enlightened were. In fact, every Enlightened she had ever known, save the one. Respectful and kind, even to those far beneath their station. The universe had sent her just the right message just when she needed it. Saffron made a mental note to add a prayer of thanks to her evening meditations.

And, she amended grudgingly, one of penitence for speaking so rudely to Pher Ilinor. An Enlightened was an Enlightened, and if an Enlightened could be a petty, tyrannical creep, there must be a place for it along the Harmonious Path which it was not necessary for her to know. Saffron’s spiritual duty was not to govern Ilinor’s behavior, but to maintain her own serenity in the face of it.

But prayer later; whiskey now. Rarely had she so badly needed a damn drink.


Unfortunately, drunken indulgence was not only a sin, it was a generally bad idea, and Saffron sourly decided she had too much self-respect to get sloshed at this hour—it was barely noon in Syre Liara.

Fortunately, she was able to soothe her unhappiness with a different sort of indulgence. Upon returning to the outlying depot where she had parked the Overdue to secure the golden hourglass in the cargo hold, she discovered that her favorite diner was in port and had just opened for business. In just minutes she was blessedly stuffing her face with what the menu called a bacon cheeseburger, which was similar enough to the real thing that she wasn’t inclined to quibble.

“Now that’s a hunger of more than the body, by the look of it,” said Azyrvaide, looming behind the counter and watching Saffron eat with an amused little smile. The diner’s cook and proprietor had taken Saffron some time to get used to; she had rarely had reason to encounter mnemindae before coming to Terminus. Azyrvaide was never anything but friendly, though, even a little maternal at times. “Rough day, honey?”

“Mnbf,” Saffron grunted, then swallowed. “Serves me right for letting my expectations run away from me. Have you ever had something that you hoped…that you were sure was going to be the answer to all your dreams, and then suddenly it turned out to be practically nothing?”

“Oh, honey, business is full of disappointments like that,” Azyrvaide said with a kind smile that somehow didn’t look out of place on her hawkish, red-skinned face. Standing over two meters tall even without counting her towering horns, she couldn’t help being more physically imposing than most of her clientele and had refined the art of projecting a non-threatening presence through long practice. In the well-lit diner, even the eerie glow of her slitted eyes wasn’t evident. “It’s all about picking yourself up and getting back to work—that’s what we do. Course, there’s no harm in pausing to fill the soul with a cheeseburger,” she added with a wink.

Saffron glanced at one of the mnemindae totems hung in on the bulkheads between the movie posters, defining the diner area as a commercial space, which was very important in their religion. Just as quickly she dropped her eyes back to her plate. As much as Saffron was fascinated by pagan religions—she’d done her master’s thesis on them—she preferred to encounter them centuries dead. The mnemindae were the only non-Union race permitted to practice their faith openly in Union territory, ostensibly because it was a strictly racial creed. They not only didn’t proselytize but refused even to discuss the details of their dogma with outsiders. Of course, everyone knew the real reason.

The Triple Bee was a smaller mnemindae craftship, actually not much larger than Saffron’s own Overdue; the diner section took up most of it, leaving little personal space for Azyrvaide. Her people didn’t put down roots, conducting their various businesses from personal ships which never stayed long in one place. Even on Terminus, the closest they had to a permanent base was the mnemindae highliner in orbit. Azyrvaide’s diner traveled between Syre Liara, its various outlying stations like this one, and the less legitimate settlements which dotted the planet’s surface, doing a steady business in the best approximation of traditional human food Saffron had found on Terminus. She wasn’t actually sure what animals had contributed the “beef” and “bacon” in her burger; it wasn’t quite right. But it was close enough to be reminiscent, and good enough to stand on its own merits. A little comfort food was just what this morning’s letdown called for.

“I’m surprised how quiet it is,” Saffron said after another bite. “Your place is usually mobbed, Az.” She glanced over her shoulder; there were only two other customers present, despite this being the lunch hour. An older human man sat a few seats down the counter from her, working through a plate of fish and chips, and a young qrith was tucked in the far corner booth facing the door and grasping a large milkshake with all four hands as if he expected someone to take it away.

“Oh, everybody’s over at the starport,” Azyrvaide said cheerily, her hooves clopping on the deck as she turned around to face the cooktop. The spaded tip of her tail poked up right in front of Saffron, prompting her to move her plate away. “A new Union highliner’s just arrived and the shuttles will be unloading all week. You know how it is, everybody’s got to go gawk for themselves.”

“Oh. Huh. I’m surprised you aren’t there, then. Don’t you usually go where the business is?”

“Only when I can’t be where the business is going to be ahead of time,” Azyrvaide replied, turning to wink at Saffron over her shoulder. “The highliner is from Izarak, and you know what that means. The Union is not going to be welcoming rubberneckers. I give it another hour before the lancers get fed up and order everyone to vacate the port, and then most of them will come to the nearest depot where they can park.”

“Which is here.” Saffron picked up her burger again. “You never miss a trick, Az.”

“Thank you!”

“So, Izarak,” she murmured, staring at her food without taking another bite. “I wonder what they need more soldiers for.”

“Question is,” said the old man, “what did they think they were gonna need soldiers for fifteen years ago when the governor requisitioned another shipload of ’em.”

“Not all rzikeen are military,” said Azyrvaide. “Stereotypes only go so far, you know! This one’s a scheduled colony ship. Once it’s unloaded Terminus will have a proper rzikeen population, not just the lancers stationed here already. A full civilian colony complete with a queen, the way I heard it.”

“Well, good for them,” Saffron said vaguely. “Guess I can see why they wouldn’t want onlookers getting underfoot with that. Even more sensitive than an actual military transport…”

She busied herself with eating. When Azyrvaide turned back around, it was with masterful timing; Saffron was just swallowing a bite in time for the proprietor to brandish a fragrant pot of steaming black brew in front of her. “How about a cup of coffee to wash that down, Saff?”

Saffron eyed it warily. “Is that the artificial kind that tastes like tar? Or the authentic kind that costs more than starship fuel?”

“Hey, I do have to turn a profit, you know,” Azyrvaide protested. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but Terminus is just not important enough to get cargo shipments from Earth. What little real coffee still exists out here is only gonna get pricier, honey. And anyway, no, this is the other kind.”

“Ain’t that bad,” said the old man. “If there’s a pot brewed, I’ll have a cup, thanks.”

“Coming right up, Elliot,” said Azyrvaide, already sliding a mug in front of him and pouring. “Saffron?”

“Eh… Thank you, but I think I’m already about as tense as I need to be today.”

“Whatever you want, honey. I just figured you might like a little extra reminder from home, considering the mood you were in when you came in.”

Saffron sighed and didn’t bother pointing out that Earth wasn’t her home; she’d never found time to visit it. Well, too late now. It wasn’t strictly impossible she might one day board another highliner to leave Terminus, but for her as for most colonists the prospect was remote. She took another large bite of almost-cheeseburger.

“Wanna talk about it, honey?” Azyrvaide asked solicitously, clip-clopping back over to lean on the counter and give Saffron another gentle smile. She had always suspected mnemindae were so famously kind and hospitable as much to offset their frightening appearance as because it was good for business. There was a surprising prevalence of descriptions of demons and other evil entities from the primitive mythologies of a lot of worlds, dating back to before their discovery of interstellar flight, which looked unaccountably similar to mnemindae. Archaeologists did not agree on an explanation for this, but Saffron was in the camp which suspected Azyrvaide’s people had once been up to something very different from their modern emphasis on trade. Now, she knew the motherly routine wasn’t an act; they really were like that with their customers.

“Oh, it was the find of the decade,” she heard herself say wistfully, despite having already decided it might be wiser not to chatter about this in public. “The century, maybe. The most perfectly preserved kurrn tomb I have ever seen. That anyone’s ever seen! And the things in it…” She broke off, grimacing. “Well. I brought back a full recording of my exploration, the central artifact I retrieved, and full coordinates to the Irilai Institute.”

“Sounds like a precious find indeed,” Azyrvaide said, nodding sympathetically. “I take it they weren’t as grateful as you hoped?”

“Two coins!” Saffron growled, holding up her first two fingers. “Two! For all that! That’s what they offered me! I could maybe refuel and resupply my ship for that. Certainly the most important discovery I will ever make… Not to mention the wealth in that place could damn well fund the Institute itself for the next three decades!” She thumped a fist on the counter, growling wordlessly. “Two standard gold. Feh. I should’ve just ripped all the luminite out of the walls and sold it to VersaMax.”

“Now, you don’t mean that,” Azyrvaide said gently.

“…no, I don’t,” Saffron agreed grudgingly. The worst part was that she wasn’t entirely sure it was true. Defiling a historic site that way was among the gravest sins in archaeology. And yet, that stuff was worth so much money. Life had been so much simpler on Celeos, where she could afford to be in it for the sake of science, and not have to care about her own material needs…

“Two standard gold?” the old human grunted, looking from his coffee. “That’d buy you a hell of a lotta cheeseburgers. I didn’t realize archaeology was so lucrative you can afford to be disappointed by an offer like that.”

Saffron shot him a suspicious look. He was a ragged-looking character, with a shabby broad-brimmed hat and the high collar of a travel-stained duster protecting his well-lined face. Heavy sideburns and a bushy mustache decorated his visage where stubble didn’t, all of it steel gray. She also did not fail to notice that he was packing a rifle slung over his back on an ammo-laden bandoleer, and two pistols of a much heavier caliber than her own. Even if this wasn’t in the city proper, she couldn’t quite get used to the sight of people walking around Union territory armed to the teeth.

“It isn’t, when done properly,” she answered after a tense pause. Saffron didn’t care for the implied rebuke; she was right, dammit. As she’d complained to Pher Ilinor, the pure gold the hourglass was made from had to be at least fifty standard coins worth. “This is a frontier colony, after all. The Institute on Terminus has only a single survey team dedicated to archaeology and they won’t employ anyone but Enlightened directly. So they will purchase artifacts from those with proper academic credentials, so long as they come with sufficiently diligent documentation of every excavation conducted. If you have that, they pay well…usually. It helps cut down on treasure-hunters destroying fragile sites to pry out valuables, and at least gets some proper science done.”

Elliot, as Azyrvaide had called him, wiped his mustache with a napkin, frowning pensively. “So…it’s a question of resources? Cos it sounds like it’d be a lot more cost-effective t’just give jobs t’those archaeologists they’re buyin’ stuff off of.”

“If you’d like to explain that to the Institite, be my guest,” Saffron groused. “I’ve not had much luck. I’m…sure there is some good reason they do it this way. Lhamin Vidinsa knows what he’s about.”

“Does he?” The old man’s mustache twitched, pushed up by a lopsided smile. “How’re you so sure of that?”

Saffron stared at him. “Because he is a lhamin.”

“Oh, ‘course. Makes sense, my mistake.” Elliot went back to his fish and chips, still smiling to himself. Saffron gave him a lingering frown before returning her attention fully to her burger.

“Well, at least you got two standard gold out of it,” Azyrvaide offered, wiping a glass with a fluffy towel. There was no possible way she ran a place like this without an autowasher; Saffron suspected it as a cultivated mannerism meant to emphasize her homey image. “It may be less than you’d hoped, Saff, but that’s not nothing!”

“I didn’t take the money,” Saffron grumbled. “I know, I know, probably should have. I just… That was an insult. I can live with being cheated, but if someone’s going to look down their nose at me in the process, that’s where I draw the line.”

“Oh, honey,” Azyrvaide sighed. “A little pride is a good thing. Too much, and you end up alone and hungry.”

“Thanks, mum.”

The mnemindae grinned, which she probably refrained from doing often because the sight of her enormous fangs was unsettling to most of her clientele. Saffron, for her part, was inclined to regard such little lapses positively. It would be too creepy to eat here if everything Azyrvaide did was part of an affected manner. By all indications, she really was just a nice person.

“So you’ve got ancient treasure weighing down your hold, then? I know you, Saff, that’s got to wear on your calm. What’re you going to do, try to sell it to VersaMax?”

“Never,” Saffron said immediately. “That’s a crime, and VersaMax are soulless buzzards.”

“Soulless buzzards who pay well,” Elliot observed.

“Look, I don’t know,” she groused. “I just wanted to have a good meal and not think about all this for a few minutes.” Well, her burger was close to finished, anyway.

“You got it, honey,” Azyrvaide said sympathetically. “Subject closed.”

“May wanna think about what’s in your pockets, at least,” Elliot suggested.

Saffron shot him an annoyed look. “What’re you on about?”

He looked over at her, then tilted his head down, dropping his eyes significantly to her waist. Saffron frowned, then twisted, following his gaze.

She was just in time to spot the young qrith from the corner booth, now plastered to the floor beside her stool, reaching up with one deft hand, his fingers almost in her coat pocket.

“Oi!” she shouted, leaping to her feet and drawing her revolver. The qrith yelped and scuttled away on all six limbs to hide under the nearest table.

“No shooting in my diner,” Azyrvaide snarled, lunging straight over the counter. For such a huge tower of wiry muscle she could move like flowing water at need; she vaulted straight across without her hooves so much as grazing the countertop, landing on the deck in a crouch. Her tail whipped across right in front of Saffron, its barbed tip missing her by centimeters; Saffron had the distinct feeling Azyrvaide knew exactly where all her extremities were and was fully in control. She reached under the table, seizing the qrith by the tail and dragging him bodily out. He squirmed, struggled, and tried to grab the booth for purchase, but the deceptive lankiness of Azyrvaide’s build was offset by her sheer size; there was more muscle in her arm than in his entire body. She straightened up, holding him off the ground by the tail and baring her fangs in a furious snarl. “Also not allowed in my diner? Thieving little lizards!”

The young qrith emitted a squeal of pure panic, trying to roll himself up in a ball with his legs tucked under and all four arms wrapped around his head.

Azyrvaide shook him violently by the tail, which she held up over her head, making him swing about like a dangling prayer bauble. “You come into my craftship, do business with me, and then try to steal from other customers?! I should bolt you to the Triple Bee’s nose and climb to high orbit!”

“If you’re gonna steal, son,” Elliot advised, a wedge of fried potato held almost to his mouth, “don’t steal from a mnemindae ship. You’d be in less trouble steppin’ on a rzikeen’s tail.”

Saffron slowly holstered her pistol, staring at this spectacle with a worried frown. Sure, he’d been trying to pick her pocket, but he was at least a few years short of fully grown, and now that she looked, thin enough that she could see his vertebrae. He was also dressed in ragged and mismatched clothes a few sizes too small. In theory, no one should ever grow up in poverty within the Harmonious Union. In practice, the Union on Terminus might claim the entire planet, but it controlled only Syre Liara and the surrounding agricultural land; border depots like this were the outer extent of Union sovereignty. And even within the city itself, the Irilai Institute wasn’t the only government office operating on scant resources compared to its counterparts in the core worlds. There were cracks, and people slipped through them.

“Hang on,” she protested. Azyrvaide turned her furious stare on Saffron and she almost flinched. Mnemindae were imposing enough when being nice; the sight of those eyes and teeth aimed at her aggressively set off all sorts of primal warnings in the primitive part of her brain. She met the cook’s gaze, however. “Look at him, Az. The kid’s just hungry.”

“He just bought—”

“The cheapest thing on the menu that actually has calories?” Saffron interrupted, glancing at the empty milkshake glass still sitting on the table in the corner booth. It appeared to have been licked clean. “Come on, I know you’re not actually going to hurt him. What happens if you hand him over to the police? He’ll spend an afternoon getting terrorized by rzikeen, then a few days in a cell for petty theft, and then tossed back onto the street. No lessons learned and nothing gained by anybody.”

“So what, I should just let him go?” Affronted, Azyrvaide drew herself up to her full height, causing her horns to graze the ceiling, and shook the qrith again. He was beginning to dangle more loosely, clearly having trouble keeping himself coiled up in that position. “Nobody steals from my ship!”

“I’m not arguing with you, Az,” Saffron said soothingly. “Just pointing out, I’m the one he tried to steal from, not you. If you call Union peacekeepers, they won’t do anything unless I file a grievance, and…I’m sorry, I just can’t bring myself to do it. I’ve shot people who tried to break into my ship before, but I don’t have it in me to make trouble for a desperate urchin just because he almost got into my pocket lint. Look at him, really. I was sitting here complaining about my bad luck, but let’s be honest, my bad day is his whole life.”

Trembling violently, the qrith peeked out from between his forearms, the inner lids still shielding his eyes. His head frills remained plastered down flat.

Azyrvaide scowled down at Saffron for a long few moments, then returned her attention to the qrith boy. Her scowl deepened, but then she heaved a disgruntled sigh and crossed to the airlock, still holding him up by the tail.

“You are banned from this establishment,” she informed him. “I ever see you in here again, so help me I will take off before tossing you out. Now get lost.”

She slapped the side panel to make the outer lock hiss open, then bodily hurled him through the hanging bead curtain that covered the inner door.

“Sorry for all the trouble, Az,” Saffron said, gingerly sitting back down.

“Oh, honey, you haven’t done anything wrong.” Azyrvaide patted her on the shoulder as she passed, heading back around behind the counter the proper way this time rather than bounding over it. “For as much of a hard case as you like to pretend to be, Saff, sometimes you’re too soft-hearted for your own good. But that’s not such a bad flaw to have,” she added with a kind smile.

“Hear, hear,” Elliot grunted around his last bite of fish. “In the long run, I always back the nice folk. They’re usually up to their eyeballs in trouble and constantly needin’ t’be bailed outta some mess or other, but in the end? It’s the nice folk who end up bein’ well worth knowin’.”

“Thanks for the validation,” Saffron said sardonically, picking up her cheeseburger again. It was cooler, but still good. There were only a few bites left, anyway.

Minutes later, she had settled up, said her goodbyes to Azyrvaide, and brushed through the hanging beads herself, feeling pleasantly full but once more lost in thought. Not happy thoughts, exactly, but less burdensome than dwelling on her unfair treatment at Ilinor’s golden hands, as she had been on the way in. The incident with the qrith boy had been a reminder: even on her worst day, she was blessed in many ways. Perhaps she had set herself up for all this disappointment simply by being too self-absorbed…

Saffron was distracted from her ruminations as she stepped off the gangplank by the sound of pounding feet behind her. She turned just in time to get an impression of the old man from the diner charging out of the airlock at her, his long coat flaring out with the wind, before he tackled her bodily to the ground.

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