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Dark Lords: Book One, Shadows, Chapter 30

 

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Chapter Thirty

Changes

Farrago Lagrange Station,

Located between the Realm, HFSS, Tuford and the Calhabah Collective

 

 

Alex sat down at the mezzanine table. He’d spent the last twenty-four hours, minus eight for sleep, eating and personal hygiene, getting re-certified. In exactly seventy-seven minutes he had to be at the HFSS Administration offices to find out how he scored.

When George and Claudette had told him they had good news, he’d been hoping it was about Dani. Charlie Girard had somehow arranged for Alex to get re-certified in time for the departure of the Jules Verne, but he had to leave almost immediately. Four hours later, having hugged and said good-bye to everyone from serving staff, to cooks, Alex had found himself back at the Taw River International Port of Entry.

It seemed like a lifetime ago and not barely three weeks since he’d stepped off the shuttle onto Albion. Abby’s words came back to him, her passionate promise that no matter what, if he needed her, she would come and rescue him. George and Claudette, Elaine and Brendan Ector and Kelvin had made it clear he had friends on Albion. Johanna promised to let him know as soon as they had any news on Daniella.

The offer to stay, to become a citizen of the Realm had been more tempting than Alex wanted to admit. He could work for Knight Industries and live on his subsidies. George had made it clear that the offer would remain on the table, indefinitely. It was strange to have that available. What would Theresa think?

Alex sighed. The mezzanine was crowded with sentients. The noise was a low hum of mostly alien voices. There was no laughter, or loud conversation. Most of the hominids had the unfocused look of neural uplink. He often had trouble recognising who were the alien species and who were other homs. The fact that a third of the descendants from old Earth were no longer considered part of the same species, could no longer reproduce together outside of a lab, made him wonder what they still had in common.

A group walked by. Two barely a metre tall Poks along with four, possibly female, hominids of about two metres. He could have ringed their waists with his fingers. Their wasp bodies were covered in brightly coloured stripped skin, feathers instead of hair and very large, all black eyes. He assumed they were females, with breasts the size of his head and spider limbs. They could have been born that way, or synths. They could also be ELFs or clones of ELFs. Or they could have paid for the mods. Genetic modification, it gave the Hominids such variety, but also millions died annually from it. Alex shrugged, if someone wanted it, he wouldn’t stand in their way.

There was still a lot of what, from the Realm’s point of view, he could call normal people walking around. Most of them were silent, communicating through the cyber world. Barely existing in the physical one. Alex was tempted to put on his BuenaVu glasses, to see their reality.

“Excuse me, Customer,” the split pupil, orange-eyed, waitress smiled at him as she spoke. She was muscularly built, thick and heavy, with moving tattoos across her shoulders. Her skin had faint spots, rosettes? She was holding her tray out. More than a few Cat genes. “A gentlewoman would like to know if she could buy you a drink?”

Alex looked to where she motioned over her left shoulder. The woman had black skin, too black to be natural. Her skin was smooth, no scales, or ridges, and none of the embossed logos that many wore, including the server. The woman’s hair was white, piled high on her head, with an orange stripe. Her eyes were large, with white or silver pupils. Sitting next to her was a man, he looked like he was wrapped too tightly in his skin. His hair was orange, the same shade as her hair stripe. Before Albion, Alex, would have considered them normal. “No thank you.”

“Very good, Customer.”

That had been his second offer since he’d arrived on Farrago. It was the only one he’d had since sitting down for a late lunch. Alex had placed his order before arriving, but had been unable to finish the food cubes, now he put down the dessert serving. The square cube did not taste like apple pie, not even close. The food was definitely something he was missing from Albion. He tapped the smart paper and checked the local time.

Maybe there was a way he could get emancipation removed from his public record. Then again, there had been a time when he would have had five offers by now. A shiny server rolled past and Alex winced. Right. He was looking a little rough for wear. With his two black eyes and bruised cheek. Thanks to the De La Roches he looked a lot better then he had a couple hours after crashing the Sedan and felt better too, but some things only time should mend.

Slipping on his glasses, the world around him changed. The mezzanine railing now had a row of trees in boxes; a blue sky replaced the underside of the next level, including the balcony directly above. A garden and fancy stalls with floating signs, now filled the large common area of the main market floor.

Alex stood, his photonic bill was flashing on the table. He reached out and pulled money from his cyber wallet. Of course, if he had basic tweaks he could just think of paying his bill and it would be done.

Turning, even the server had changed. Alex lifted the glasses. Sure enough, the delicate young man with daily specials and promos floating about him, turned back into the much larger, female server. The flashing question mark floated above the couple who wanted to proposition him. He dismissed it.

He strolled through the market. Around him were beautiful people of every description and gender. Everywhere he looked there were beautiful things for sale. Though neither the people nor the items were as attractive once he took off his glasses.

The smells were definitely not all pleasant. Alex had never noticed, or he guessed, he become so used to the varied odours. The crush of scents ranged from a metallic floral to sour and everything in between.

Everywhere he looked ads jumped out at him. He lifted his glasses as he passed a particularly beautiful woman selling herself and her two sisters. The floating sign indicated they were members of the R & R guild. Their bright smiles and purple eyes vanished as he raised the glasses to see blank synthetic faces with dull white eyes. They sent a shiver down his spine.

Turning he nearly bumped into a cyborg just standing in the walkway. His glasses revealed the man, perhaps as he saw himself, was selling virtual instrument programs and the tweaks to play musical instruments like a pro or your favourite vid star.

Alex took the glasses off. All the visual noise was giving him a headache. Around him the market became a dirty, dull place. People walked by, alone or in groups, their heads moving, but not their mouths. The background hummed. A few voices rose and fell. In the distance was the seeming constant staccato shrill of alarms. The thrumpa-thrumpa-thrumpa of auto trams echoed overhead. This was, like hundreds of others, Farrago LaGrange Station and a part of him had missed it.

He noticed them then. Alex had seen them when he had first arrived. Two men, now he was sure they were following him. Alex hurried to the HFSS Administration offices. Why was he afraid?

Alex stopped, turned sharply to his left and stepped right in front of one of the two men. “Can I help you?”

The man just looked at him, startled. He blinked his Cat eyes. Alex waited. Then the man smiled.

“Sir! Potential Service provider! I represent Joyous Travel Companions. Our compensation packages are some of the best. Please let me offer you a com—”

“No thank you!” Alex started laughing. He was getting paranoid! No doubt the man had sent one of the many job offers he’d received since arriving. Most were just a cover to gauge your interest in selling you a service. A lot of them were from the R & R Guild, rest and relaxation was their thing after all and more than a few were from the cruise lines. Shaking his head, Alex continued on his way.

Miss Divya was sitting at her desk, silent and still. Alex waited. She blinked at him. Her mouth opened and closed, he was reminded of the synth, the way it had opened and closed its mouth. Alex felt the hair rise on his body, the office looked beautiful until he took off his glasses, then it was a small almost empty room. The door opened and a petite woman entered.

“Mr. Alexis Hunter?”

“Yes, that’s me. Is there a problem?” Alex stood and motioned toward Miss Divya. The woman who had entered was shorter than him by a good twenty-five centimetres, she had striped brown hair and bright turquoise coloured eyes, her skin was the colour of butter-toffee.

“No, Mr. Hunter, I’m Gauri Jalil.” She held out her hand. Alex blinked, no one had offered him a handshake since he’d stepped off the Albion transport. Her hand was warm and feminine, but it didn’t have Dani’s strength.

“Miss Divya is having an issue, the med-techs are on their way. Don’t worry, she is not, I repeat, not infectious.”

“What’s wrong with her?” Alex followed Gauri Jalil from Divya’s office.

“I’m embarrassed to say, she can’t get her vocals working. It’s been years since she used them. She knew when she got this job, it was a promotion, she would be required to vocalise.”

“You’re serious? She can’t talk?”

“She wasn’t expecting any trouble. You know,” Gauri blinked, “I guess you don’t know. When you get a lot of tweaks and upgrades you can run into problems. As they say, there’s just so much room in the trunk.” Gauri motioned Alex into her office. “She’s more upset with losing the bonus.”

“Bonus?”

“Part of your fee for jumping the queue is a bonus for the bod that enters the digits.” Gauri took her seat behind a moulded glass desk. Two dolphins were entwined and rising through a wave of water. Alex lifted his glasses and the room became as sparse as Divya’s. The desk, standard composite.

“First, before we continue, please put on your glasses. You need to be informed that I’m a licensed agent of, drum role.” The lights dimmed. A spinning flower appeared floating above the desk, then exploded into fireworks. ‘BonTravel! The best experiences for your credit, time and energy! We bring your dreams to life!”

Next a coin appeared. Alex recognised the Midas Securities Logo. Their jingle always made him blush as the heavily endowed female and male singers were naked. The next was for Skippy foods, Nutrient dense consumables to put a SKIP into your day! Alex smiled. There were bad marketing campaigns and there were bad product names. It didn’t matter how good the campaign was, the word ‘skip’ also referred to a data loss on a tweak upgrade or net download. No amount of flash and shiny was going to change that.

The lighting returned to its previous level. Alex took off his glasses, he was still seeing flashes from the Skippy Foods photonic ad finale.

“I take it your last job was a bit rough? Or is that a preference of yours?”

Alex gave his head a shake. “I was in an accident.”

“Ah, was it expensive, what got broken?”

“An Avalon Touring Sedan, number eighty-eight off the line. Electric Blue with leather interior. They’re going to restore it.” I hope.

Gauri winced. “No wonder you’re rocketing.”

“No, that’s not it.” Alex shook his head. “Never mind, too long a story.”

Gauri smiled. “Well, if you weren’t in such a hurry Mr. Hunter, I’d love to hear it.”

A little voice in Alex’s head kept saying, emancipation. “How did I do?”

“You were,” Gauri smiled, tapping the air in front of her with her fingers, Alex put his glasses back on, “a level five Power Engineer with a secondary degree in Mechatronics, level four, and you’ve been working on your Applied, in which you looked like you would have hit a level two. You were a Lieutenant, so translating that to civi, you were a level five geer, before your accident. It says here, still no tweaks or mods, is that correct?”

Alex nodded. “Yes.”

“Well, Mr. Hunter you are now a certified Power Engineering Specialist level three, that’s a hyper jump for no upgrades.”

“What?” Alex ran a hand through his hair. “You mean I—How many pay grade jumps is that?”

Gauri laughed. “Six at least, though with your new rating in Applied, Mechatronics and Aerospace—there is quite a bit of overlap in the fields—I would recommend eight. Let me guess, you want to be a Ship’s Engineer?”

Alex stared at her. A Ship’s Engineer? There was no way, by old Earth, that could happen to someone like him. Alex could hear Mr. Bower, his level six home room teacher, explaining that there was a place in the verse for special needs like him, but he would never be a pilot, a Command Officer, nor could he hope to be a Control Officer of any kind. That if he got into the military, and he could do it if he studied hard, he could be a good Support Officer.

Mr. Bower had been given a lecture for creating unrealistic expectations in students. When Alex got accepted into the military, he had Mr. Bower’s address added to Family and Friends Notification. His mother informed him that when he got his Lieutenant’s bars that Mr. Bower had put the notice up in the school, the school that he was now Principal of.

“Get some tweaks, Mr. Hunter, and if you want a Command Officers’ Position, there are at least sixty ships that would give you the job. But honestly, you have other skills. You shouldn’t,” Gauri motioned to Alex’s face, her smile turning to a frown, “judge all companion positions as ending badly as your last one. You don’t need to get a HD job. There are plenty of companies looking for Entertainment and Relaxation personnel.”

Alex opened his mouth, but Gauri held up her hand.

“Yes, I know, it’s a long story.”

What was the point in correcting her? 

“We’ve updated your ratings and forwarded the information including your test scores to both the Military and Foreign Embassies Services. The FES will take about two standard weeks to upgrade local and up to three standard months to upgrade non-local, but there is no guarantee for nine months that all information will be upgraded. I’ve never heard of data transfers taking that long, they’re just covering their liabilities. All your information will be sent with the batch at eighteen hundred hours, today’s cycle.”

Alex nodded. “Thank you.”

Gauri pulled a smart card from her pocket. “Think about it. There may be a day when you don’t want a HD job and even with mods, well, youth is golden.”

“I like hands dirty,” Alex said, taking the card. “I’d lay money that Companions wash their hands as much as us HDs.”

Again Gauri smiled, and Alex found himself appreciating the hand shake. He had six hours to kill before he took the Burru to Olympia. There, at the Unity Ship Yards waited the Jules Verne. Of course the flight to Olympia was seventy-two standard hours, hopefully time for Johanna or Abby to send him word on Dani’s safe return.

* * *

Excalibur Shipyards, Albion System, Realm

 

Jason stared at the Ivy. The once grand ship was latched to the recycling platforms. Her hull was breached where the cutters were still installing the new door, not doors. There wasn’t enough time for two. His inspection showed that the second door was magnetically locked to the far side of the hull, so it could be installed later.  Meanwhile both doors had put two dead spots in the Ivy’s sensors.

He leaned over the smart table, studying the plans of the original Ivy that were now overlaid by the decommissioned version of the ship. The changes were dramatic. The molecular recasting had been necessary to stop the ship from disintegrating. The Ivy had been part of a group of ships the Navy had tested a new nanite composite mix on. It constantly self corrected, basically maintaining its form at the molecular level. Her original guns and engines had vibrated, sometimes in harmony. Material fatigue was still a problem in ships.

A flash caused Jason to look up. One of the workers had lost a sensor cover, it floated toward observation like a meter wide bowl spinning in slow motion. The magnets and netting would eventually collect it.

Jason shook his head. The Mechatronics Engineer had reported repeated shorts from the aft sensor assembly, they had not been fixed. The list of issues was four pages long, three hundred and seventy-two entries, and had eighty-seven red flags. Why fix a ship that was being decommissioned? 

Most of what should have been eight hundred dull bronze sensor bulges were instead shiny black openings with the edges of wires floating free in space. As he glanced up, four figures, bulky in their EVA suits, hurried to the port side and started the process of replacing the very sensors that four days ago they had been removing. They were skipping every other hole, there wasn’t time to replace them all.

“Sir!”

Jason sighed. “Yes, Cromby.”

“The Ivy is getting an up-graded sensor package, Sir.”

“What do you mean, Cromby.” Jason looked incredulously at the Major.

“They have replaced the old units with new sensors and long range scanners. That should be an improvement, Sir.”

Jason took the report from Cromby. He didn’t try to hold back the profanity. He nearly threw the tablet across the room, instead he threw it on the table. He ran both hands through his hair. “Okay, get Willow and Three Feathers. Tell them we have a priority problem.”

Cromby didn’t move.

“Cromby?”

“I can not do that, Sir.”

“Because?”

“Because they have been transferred, Sir.”

Jason walked over to the food services cabinet. The lingering scent of tea, coffee and something sweet was making him thirsty. He poured himself a mug of kava-kava and coffee. The place was better stocked than some restaurants he’d been in. Cleaner too, but it should be, everything had been overhauled or replaced less than five years ago. The new smell still lingered like something painted in another room. “Okay. O’Rourke and Woodbine are next on the roster.”

“Sorry, Sir. Transferred.”

“Of the original Engineering Department Officers, who is left, Cromby?”

Cromby looked down at his tablet. “Only, Wheeler, Sexton and Beiderman, Sir.”

Jason took a long sip of the hot liquid. The kava-kava dulled his anxiety and emotions while sharpening his thinking. The caffeine got his energy up. “I thought Beiderman was a Yeoman, first class.”

“He was promoted, Sir.”

“So I do not have a single actual Engineer familiar with this ship?”

“Engineering still has four Lieutenants ranging from level one to three and four Helper Class Yeomen, Sir.”

Jason finished his drink and poured another. He walked to the window. Beyond the framework of the yards he could see some of the ships of the fleet. They were floating in formation. A group had left only an hour before. Every four hours the next group left, departing for one of three points in the outer system where they were forming up. Madness. Utter, reckless, madness. He had sent word to the Independents via Diego. They needed the heads up more than anyone.

The Ivy shifted. Jason felt a tingle as two mooring cables snapped. The rest held as the ship went back to floating. Did the old girl know what was happening? Could the once proud warship feel the pack was leaving without her? Stop it, Jason, you know they were just testing the engines, or trying to.

“Sir?”

“Yes, Cromby.”

“There appears to be a problem with the engines.”

“Of course there is, Cromby.” Because the old conduits were one of the first things they pulled. Jason knew, from experience, that the most valuable items were what you stripped first from any ship, regardless what was said in letters or what was the official order of deconstruction.

 “No conduits, no engines. No engines, no ship.”

“Sir?”

Jason looked down at the table. No twelve jumps in her future. The Ivy was effectively dead. Jason looked at the Ivy’s schematics, she had been one tough, fast, old bird. A smuggler’s dream. Resting his hand on the table he took a sip of the still hot liquid. No point in putting off the inevitable.

“Cromby, I need you to …” Over Cromby’s shoulder was another large window. Sitting, white and shiny was a fantastic sight. Jason knew he must be smiling like an idiot because of the pain coursing through his body.

“Sir?”

Jason nodded his head, Ramsey and he had thought about it years ago. Of course, they hadn’t done it, but they had proven that it could be done! “Have my pain meds gotten really good, Cromby, or is that a brand new Mule?”

Cromby turned and looked out of the window. “Sir?”

“Mule. Right there, a long range mass mover, ore pusher, whatever you want to call it.”

“Yes, sir. I see it too, but …”

Jason’s mouth was really throbbing but he didn’t care. “Do you know, Cromby, that the biggest issue with reusing conduits is they attune themselves to the engines they are attached too?”

“No, sir.”

“That’s right, Cromby. That’s why they are recycled instead of being spliced in.” Jason called up the schematics of the Mule, he compared it to Ivy’s plans. He looked up at Cromby. “We have some work to do.”

Four hours later, the Mule was sitting just off of the hole cut into Ivy’s aft storage bay. The thing was three times longer than the Ivy and had taken more than a bit of wiggling and cutting to get it in place. He just hoped they wouldn’t take the accidental and not so accidental damage to the support structure out of his salary.

That stopped Jason. What the hell did a Captain earn in the Royal Navy? He had eleven bank accounts in the Realm, but not one under Malwas. How were they paying him?

Jason focused on the faces staring at him and gave his head a shake. The grunts and greasers looked intrigued, then again, they’d been doing double shifts for the last four days, so they could be just too tired to argue or high on stims. The five officers didn’t look certain at all. Jason had trouble thinking of the kids in front of him as Officers; two of them weren’t shaving yet and Theresa Sexton kept chewing her thumb, it looked suspiciously like she was trying not to suck it.

“Look, all a Mule really is, is a big chonka engine.” Seeing their eyes widen, Jason felt guilty for swearing. “With six shielded conduits, at one end you have push, at the other end you have pull. You switch to slow down.”

“It will rip the ship apart, a Heavy Cruiser, E Class, can not take that acceleration,” Biederman said.

Jason liked the kid. He was scared, but he was speaking up.

“A normal Heavy Cruiser, definitely, but our little Ivy was molecularly recasted, inside and out and not just with the usual, the engineers added interlaced carbon and silica. She was a test ship. She was in one of the first group of successful mnemonic structural integration. And they did not skimp. Full molecular bonding. That’s why our grand old lady was not pulled off the line. When they recasted her, they did her entire infrastructure. Look, we know she was already overbuilt. She’s double hulled and triple reinforced. According to the specs she’s the last generation of rammers.”

All eyes were on him. A rough looking greaser, chewing a chunk of jerky, pulled the piece from her mouth, her suit badge said, Simon. “Means backing out her engines. All of them. We can slide the aft conduits in through the engine cores. Still way over powered for what you got, you are going to need a crew to cut braces or you’ll be dripping her back end.”

A geer was nodding. “We have plenty of conduit, you thinking cutting? Sliding it in sections? That will be a lot of bonding, twelve days worth at least.”

Jason had thought of that. He shook his head. He looked at the woman with the jerky. “Simon, you got braces, you are on that. As for the conduit, once the engines are out, we physically pull the conduit through the tubes.”

“How? I mean, the tubes are hot, the conduits are hot, and there isn’t a droid that can fit in the tubes of that old bird.”

“I can fit but I’m not strong enough. That is over a hundred feet of conduit,” Sexton said.

“None of you are going in. That is my job.” He could see the immediate respect of the greasers and geers. His crew was looking even less happy.

“I need a third of you pulling the engines on both ends of the Ivy. The rest of you get the easier job of taking apart the Mule.” There were snorts. “Talking ugly people, no shiny, just cut and push to the magnets.”

“Only the secondaries, right, Captain?” Theresa Sexton asked. Her thumb was out of her mouth.

Jason pursed his lips to fight the smile that kept starting each time one of the kids called him captain. “Ideas, Sexton?”

“We can remove the secondary modules, put the primaries into maintenance mode and flip them up. That cuts removal time by a bit.”

“Smart,” said one of the geers, “that’ll cut four hours an engine. That’s smart. Might as well toss the modules into one of her holds. Give you spare parts at the very least.”

“All right people, you all know what you are doing. And time is running out.” Jason nodded. Then he clipped on a belt and joined the greasers on the rear engines, they were going to be real bitches, being partially fused to the hull plating. Dripping, he hadn’t thought of that, he definitely didn’t need the back of the ship melting off.

“You thinking you can haul that conduit one-hundred and twenty feet, Vamp? I’ll lay money you can’t.” A tall thin greaser, his badge said Reeko, smiled. “That tube is only a metre diameter, max.”

“We will run a squirrel through each pipe, put a line on each conduit, pull it while I’m guiding it. You got any heavy worlders on crew?”

“None that will fit.”

Jason nodded. “My luck.”

“Guess it’s true what they say.”

“What’s that?”

“If some people didn’t have bad luck, they would have no luck at all.” The tall man shook his head. “We will give you two shots of decon, full spectrum and toss your suit on each tube. You planning on having kids?”

“We make our own luck,” Jason said. He put on his helmet. Kids? Him? 

He put on the extra pair of radiation protection underwear …

* * *

Abandoned Mining Asteroid BT 11987, Lost Souls Asteroid Belt, System 873,

Edge of Uncharted (Wilds) Zone

Dani opened her eyes. The synthetic had broken her left arm, but it had been worth it. She was on a mined out asteroid. A big one, bigger than the Thalus moon or even old Luna. She had thought it was a moon until she’d found the old miner’s helmet with the tag and then the machinery. She had pulled her left arm straight before it could knit but now it ached as much as her stomach.

More importantly, she had found the embossed maps on the walls. Most of them were nearly gone, corroded away, but not all of them. Older ones were covered in a black slime, whatever the coating was it had managed to inhibit lichen growth for more than three hundred years. The new pieces had not been so well designed, but scorch marks showed how the illegals had dealt with the problem.

From outside the cells, she could hear the beasts. The Vampyre crosses or perhaps hybrids, were twisted inside and out. Some of them might actually be full Vampyres. That was what she was calling them, the Twisted. Someone had tried to remove their higher functions, someone who did not understand how the bacteria-virus and biological nanites worked. Perhaps they had started off damaged and passive, but they had not stayed that way for long.

Dani shifted. How long had it been before those experimenting, because it could be nothing else, discovered their mistake? Were the synthetics coupled with AIs? Was the whole place on some sort of automatic program? Who was running this lab? Dani’s stomach twisted, she curled around the pain.

A particularly fierce scream caught her attention. The experiments did not seem to be going well, but Dani, you do not know their goals. She shivered. There were hundreds of them in pens. The ‘them’ looking like demented caricatures of the Armorium Bowie. All of them female and she thought … no, it could not be, she had to be wrong. They could not all be pregnant. Dani shivered.

The others, the ones who had once been humans, had to be some sort of Thrall. They hunted in groups to protect themselves from the Twisted, or did they work with the Twisted? Thralls that worked in groups, former miners? Scratchers? Dani felt her chest tighten.

Alex had said the word at the Geological Studies and Materials Development Department Dinner. Scratchers. Closing her eyes, Dani was there. Her memories were vivid, alive, the smell of the Paperwhite flowers from the gardens had mixed with the scent of the roses on the tables.

The tux had been beautiful on an oblivious Alex. He had been looking at the chubby geologist, Franks, as the man droned on about extraction procedures. They had been standing in front of a picture that showed a much thinner and younger version of the geologist. She pulled Alex’s scent to the centre of herself. The tilt of his head, the way he had raised a puzzled eyebrow.

“That sounds all flash and shiny, Dr. Franks, but what about Scratchers?”

Franks mouth had thinned. He had pulled himself up to his full height and looked down at Alex. “Once closed, we do not allow unauthorised mining in the Realm, Mr. Hunter. We have safety regulations against that.”

“I saw the sign this Uni has on the lawn outside, Dr. Franks. About no walking on the grass? The only ones on the grass are the geese and they don’t read and even if they did, they don’t care. A Scratcher crew, that includes spouses and children, can pull a thousand kilos a week from supposedly dead roids, moons, whatever.” Alex shrugged. “It’s not just Hominids, either. Poks, Bendu, Pendocks, I’ve even heard of Orry taking over a roid or moon.”

Alex turned then, his dark blue eyes looking at her. His smile filling her with warmth.

Dani started. Something had darted across the floor outside her cell. You need to be here, Dani! You need to survive! Even if it’s just long enough to warn them.

There were other things here. She had the bites to prove it. Pack hunting skrim rats, arachnids, some sort of centipede and some nightmare squirrel-bat like creatures. Everywhere lichens grew. She assumed they were providing the base of the food chain. Dani wondered what the mineral or minerals had been that had brought people to this damp, horrible place. Most of the lichens, as her burns could attest, were highly acidic and passed that on to the creatures up the food chain.

Dani pulled the split all too human looking thigh bone from under the rotting blanket her captors had given her. She closed her eyes and carefully called out to the Twisted, to the Thralls, to any of the minds that could receive her. Almost immediately the sounds increased. Across from her, in the opposite cage, the feral Vampyre girl rocked from foot to foot. She was starving for nutrients. Practically a skeleton. Where had she come from? Why wasn’t anyone looking for her? Why couldn’t she talk? How long had she been here? Why couldn’t she communicate?

Using the human thigh bone to scrape lichen free from the corner of her cell, Dani laid it at the base of the bars. The silica composite bars would take a billion years to dissolve, but the rock was already rotten. A week, maybe? She hoped, less.

Across the corridor the girl watched her with hungry blue eyes. The synth’s area was smaller now than it had been. The Thralls were not stupid and the Twisted were not just animals. Through them she had gotten a sense of the size of the area. She wiped blood from her nose, she needed to stay sane. Her first connection had nearly driven her mad.

Who was controlling the synthetics? What did they want with her? The others? How could this place even exist? Why?

Dani sat on the blanket. She dare not lay down. The skrim rats had taken part of her right ear, skin from her thigh and right elbow. At least it had all grown back … this time. A sudden fear of ending up hideous overwhelmed her. Across from her the Vampyre girl paced slowly. Dani had never seen her lie down. Dani wrapped her arms around her legs.

Alex was far away, maybe already on the Jules Verne. Maybe, already heading out of known space … she felt a sharp pain as her dry lips split from her smile. She would escape again, that was all there was to it. She would do it because she had to.

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