Enjoy this free short story which takes place in the world of Kismet, the upcoming novel by Watts Martin.
Even the thickest cisform human knows a totemic with pinned-back ears is unhappy and right now Gail’s refuse to come forward. She runs a hand through her hair and gives silent thanks she’s not running a video connection with the call.
“You don’t already have towing equipment?” She doesn’t need to see the skeptical expression on Armand’s face; she can hear it just fine.
“We talked about this already. I just don’t have equipment with me. I can be back out here tomorrow.” With all the bridge projectors on, her pilot chair looks like it’s floating in space, save for the opening to the cabin directly behind. The ruined cargo ship floats about a kilometer off Kismet’s bow, thirty degrees to port and ten up. It looks closer, though, since she’s zoomed the holographic image in four-x. You have to look close to see the damage: a strip of metal, barely three centimeters wide, from the edge of the starboard side nacelle all the way back is gone. Get right up to the strip and you can tell the cut’s from ejected plasma. A few hours ago she got right up to it, got inside the ship to look around. The cargo wasn’t damaged by vacuum exposure, but the crew didn’t make it. And that ship’s not moving again under its own power.
The speakers subtly distort Armand’s melodramatic sigh. Gail briefly fancies that Kismet is doing that on purpose to mock him. The ship isn’t capable of that (“it’s an expert system, not a true AI,” her algorithmist friend would tell her), but she can dream. “This isn’t the level of service I expect, Simmons.”
“I understand. I’m sorry for the delay, but I know my quote’s way under what Galaxy Salvage would charge you.”
“Yes, Simmons, it is. But you know what Galaxy always has with them? Towing equipment. Give me a status update in twenty-four hours, and it’d better be that the operation’s underway.” A beedle boop signals the call’s abrupt disconnect.
“Prick.” Unlatching the harness holding her in the pilot’s seat, she pushes off, floating back into the main cabin. “Kis, see if there’s anybody with a used towing engine we can get to in three hours.” Perfect, right by the fridge. She grabs a teardrop-shaped beer bottle, breaking the plastic tip off with a claw flick. Then she just hangs onto a ceiling handlebar, whip tail thumping against the side of the sofa, and sips.
Even after two years, Gail’s still in love with the ship’s pleasantly studied voice, shaped subtly from the stock sound by interaction with her owner. “Blue Star Aerospace, off of Kingston, and the Emerson Salvage Station, off of Solera.”
“Emerson?” Her ears perk. “That’s Leon’s shop, isn’t it?”
Then the rest sinks in, and her ears drop. “Off of Solera.” She sighs, rubbing her temples. Spacecraft dealers are never physically on any arcology platforms—they take up way too much space—but they’re going to be run by people from the platform they’re in orbit near. Solera has a nasty reputation with totemics and other transform humans. She knows they’re trying to shake that history—their tourist slogan right now might as well be “we promise we won’t spit on you anymore”—but that history touches her a little too personally. As much as Gail considers herself a citizen of The River as a whole, a lot of Solerans would only see her as a woman remade to look like a rat.
Blue Star’s reputable, but they have a strict no-haggle policy. Emerson won’t, especially since she’s dated the manager. Granted, it was only two dates, and it’s been nearly three months. She doesn’t think she scared him off, but she wonders if he scared himself off. He had a tailchaser air—more thrilled by the idea of dating a totemic than the reality of dating one.
Well, Kis has her banking information. “Can I afford Blue Star’s list price?”
Naturally. She takes a long drink of the beer. Come on, now. You don’t have to go anywhere but that salvage yard. No plaza. No hospital.
After another drink she holds the bottle in both hands, closes her eyes, takes a deep breath. “Okay. Let’s go to Emerson.”
When they reach the yard Gail’s back in the pilot seat, even though she’s not doing any piloting. She can—she’s passed Panorica’s permit requirements, so she knows how to dock with autopilot disabled—but in practice nobody does, even around Panorica. So she just rides along as Kismet does a stately glide through the biggest assortment of space junk she’s ever seen.
There’s got to be a hundred ships—if only a few dozen complete ones—around her, locked into place with a network of buckycables strung between them. Most of the ships (or pieces) are roughly Kismet’s size, but a few are much bigger: passenger ships, cargo liners, and damn her tail if that one far off to starboard isn’t an intersolar liner. A narrow avenue of empty space lets her ship navigate carefully toward the central platform.
Beedle boop Music abruptly starts playing. Gail jumps in her seat.
The music lowers its volume after a couple seconds pass and a sonorous male voice begins speaking. “Welcome to Emerson Salvage Station, The River’s largest aerospace recycling operation, in business for over forty-five years.” Mara’s Wounds, the salvage yard has a jingle? A different voice—less musical than monotone—recites a handful of weekly specials.
She tunes out until a third voice comes on: another guy, younger sounding than either of the first two. “Ahoy, Kismet. I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Leon!” Gail grins. “Hey, you know I started up a salvage operation.”
He laughs. “I know you were talking about it, but you were talking about giving up your apartment on Panorica and living on your tug, too.”
“Still thinking about that one, but the job’s real. I need to get an income stream going, you know?”
“Yeah. Yeah. I just didn’t expect to see you, uh, here. I mean…”
“I get it. But I need tow engines, I need them fast, and honestly I need a good deal on them. You’re my best bet.”
“I am, huh?” She tells herself that tone is affectionate amusement. “Dock and we can talk about whatever job you got, see if something’s workable.”
While she usually represses animal noises around non-totemics, this is Leon, so she allows herself a pleased chitter. “Will do.”
“I’m sending docking permissions. Bay three, starboard arm.”
The actual capital-S Station of Emerson Salvage might blend right into its own wares if it wasn’t absurdly brightly lit, so many lamps that everything else in the holo display dims as the sensors compensate. The whole of the one hundred meter cylinder, taller than it is wide, shines with searing yellow-orange reflective paint. It’s like some kind of ridiculous robotic amber donut.
Alarming bangs and clicks and thumps reverberate through the cabin as the docking arm hooks up with Kismet. “Jesus, is that thing broken?” she says aloud, then immediately hopes the comm line isn’t still open.
Fortunately only her ship hears, and it surprises her by responding. “It is functional, but the main latching system has borderline gearing.”
“Terrific. Try not to drift off while I’m on board.”
AIs—right, expert systems—have no sense of humor, but she holds out a vain hope Kis will one day say something sarcastic back. After double-checking to make sure the seals have hit full pressure, she pulls herself through the hatch into the rickety gangway tube. The gearing isn’t all that’s borderline; she moves fast, just in case today’s the day the seams give.
Unlike arcology platforms, once you get from the docking arm to the main body there’s no railway or elevator, just slow-moving cables running to the station floor and back. She grabs one—if you put your arm through the strap right it’s just about impossible to fall out even if you relax your grip—and slips a foot in one stirrup. Signs warn to resist any temptation to float down. Gravity starts sooner than you think and the station rotates faster than it looks. When she drops off onto the floor, it takes a few seconds of standing stock still to stop feeling queasy, despite how experienced she is with moving between g levels. Maybe it’s something about hanging on tightly in mortal fear the last fifteen meters.
Parts wrap around the entire cylinder: look straight up and there’s more floor with all sorts of heavy industry crap on it. While she knows all platforms rotating for gravity work this way, the residential ones do a much better job of hiding it. But other than automated facilities she’s never seen one that doesn’t have—ah, there it is. If she looks straight up and a hair to the right, halfway to the other side, that building has to be the employee living quarters. It’s an incongruous assembly of artificial wood modeled, she thinks, on some rustic Earth architectural style. The cold, bright light is the wrong color temperature to be running a day/night cycle; she bets after hours the “sun” just shuts off.
The salvage yard’s office, a three story high metal dome the same delightfully awful color as the station exterior, balloons up at the midpoint between the aft and fore walls. A lanky cisform guy saunters toward her: Leon. Black hair, dressed in jeans and a casual red pullover shirt with EMERSON SALVAGE stitched on it. He’s still cute. He waves.
She waves back, breaking into a jog to close the distance. It’s crazy tempting to kick in her biomods—she only got them two months ago, along with a HUD implant she’s still not used to calling up—and after weeks of treating them like they make her more fragile rather than less, she should be good to go full-bore, finally. But she doesn’t. It’s only ten seconds to him at a normal pace.
He holds out his hand. When she takes it he pulls her into a hug, kissing the edge of her left ear. “It’s good to see you.”
“It’s good to see you, too.” Her ear flicks reflexively against his lips, which makes him chuckle. Having her ears kissed feels nice. “I kind of figured you’d call again by now.”
Leon lets her go. “Yeah, things got…” He trails off in a way that makes it clear the next word is complicated, but he finally finishes, “…busy. Dad’s stepping back and I’m handling almost all the business.” He gives her a grin, wagging an index finger. “But you could have been the one to call, you know.”
“Yeah, I know.” She sighs. “All my business stuff’s been taking up a lot of time, too.” Huh. He never talked about his father beyond saying it was a family-owned shop. Well, she steers conversation away from her family whenever it comes up, so she can’t hold it against him.
“You shouldn’t have based it on Panorica.” He motions her to follow him toward the office. “There’s way too much regulation there compared to, well, anywhere else out here.” He laughs. “Other than where you grew up, I guess.”
She shakes her head, grinning. “It’d be real easy to set it up there, it’s just not a good location for that kind of business. I don’t know where people get their ideas about New Coyoacán.”
“From meeting beautiful rat girls who couldn’t wait to leave, maybe. What size tow engines do you need?”
They come in sizes? Oh, crap. “The job I have right now is with a cargo ship. Uh, a Drake-Herron L5000.”
“Okay.” He scratches his chin. “I’d go with a four-newton core. You could get by with a three but you’ll have more headroom for future jobs if you go higher, and these engines’ll last a long time if you take care of them. I have a few around fifteen, twenty years old and they should have a good twenty years left in ‘em.”
She nods, following him into the building. Considering they’ve stuffed a couple sofas and a service counter in the lobby, the room’s downright tiny, maybe five meters by three, doors on all four sides. “So how much’ll that run?”
Another nod, but she has to put in effort not to wince. Four years ago she still had her inheritance money, but nearly all of it went to buying Kismet in spite of her conservator-slash-big-sister. A few months ago she could still have bought the engines outright, before she got the biomods, but Jesus, she’d been saving for two years expressly for them. Right now she has just under fifty thousand. She should have a lot more, but three—three!—jobs have fallen through since she got those biomods and she’s running real thin.
“Can I take a look?”
“Sure.” He pulls a display out from his pocket and taps on it, then motions her toward the left-hand door.
It turns out the lobby takes up a tiny shed pressed against the inner wall of the huge amber dome. The rest of the dome forms a single enormous room, and most of it’s taken up by an abacus play set for giants, mesh cages and sheet metal cargo containers suspended on a latticework of floor-to-ceiling racks. She can see another yard employee, a cisform woman, in the distance at floor level checking something. The air’s thick with the scent of a dozen kinds of machine oil. She supposes Leon’s nose only tells him “machine oil” or maybe just “oil”; humans evolved with a lot of handicaps she’s glad she doesn’t share.
The woman looks up and over at them, and Gail waves to her. She waves back. Leon frowns. What, she shouldn’t be fraternizing with the other employees?
“Okay. Container 59C.” He points at a cargo box about thirty meters away and fifteen meters in the air, then leads her to a four-seater cart with thick, wide running boards. “We’ll, uh, make this fast. Hop on.” She does. After an electric lurch, the cart scoots forward; a chip in one tire makes it clack loudly as it rolls. The vehicle brakes as abruptly as it started, and the seating platform ratchets into the air, borne by hydraulics Gail’s sure are older than she is.
She lets him step into the container first.
While they call it a “tow engine,” it’s a tow engine set. Magnetic clamps stick to the ship you’re towing—you need at least two, but three or four are more stable—and let you attach buckycables. Good quality clamps have attitude thrusters in them, so you can steer a wreck instead of just dragging it. The biggest piece is the deceleration engine—it accelerates too, of course, but its main purpose is to slow the ship you’re towing down in time with your ship, so it doesn’t just merrily smash into yours.
“Two fifty, huh?” Gail walks around the deceleration engine, pulling out her own pocket display, discreetly tapping a command to Kismet on it. She could just speak a command aloud and the ship’ll pick it up thanks to transducers on her vocal cords, but she hasn’t mastered subvocalizing yet, and talking to the ship around people just makes her look crazy.
“It’s a good deal.”
Kismet speaks in her ear. “Please transmit the serial number to me. It is on the engine’s nose.”
Nothing but pride compels her to be circumspect about the check, but that’s enough. She focuses on the serial number when she finds it, touching her finger just below it, and sends it from her optic feed to the ship.
“This engine was manufactured eighteen years seven months ago and has had two previous owners. There are no damage incidents on record. With all four original attitude-adjusting clamps its market value is two hundred forty-six thousand dollars. It was sold to Emerson Salvage six months ago at the market dealer rate of two hundred three thousand dollars.”
Gail nods fractionally, as if the ship could see it. “How much are you expecting down?”
“Standard is fifty percent on pickup and the balance within thirty days on purchases under a half million. We can do an installment plan of up to four payments, although there’s a surcharge.”
Christ. If she’d had any plan more developed than “be independent” she’d have thought to buy these with Kismet, but it’s easy to know just what you should have done looking back. “How about two hundred forty total, and twenty-four down?”
Leon stares at her, then laughs, folding his arms over his chest. “You want a lower total and only ten percent down?”
“And how many installments?”
“None. You get all the rest after this job.”
That makes him lift his brows, but he still shakes his head. “I can’t lower both, and I can’t go less than twenty-five percent on any one payment.”
“I can’t go that high. Yet.”
He uncrosses his arms and puts a hand on his hip, giving her a doleful look, then motions her back toward the cart. “How high can you go?”
Ten percent’s already pushing it. “What if I go higher on the back end?”
The cart winches itself back together and clacks off toward the office once more. “I dunno, Gail.”
“Oh, come on. You’re the manager.”
“Yeah, but I usually stick with Dad’s policies. He’s got a good head on his shoulders.”
Right. She clenches her fists by her sides, tail twitching enough to attract a glance from Leon. It’s not that she needs these engines, but she needs some engines, and she needs them fast. It’s not just about the job for Armand. It’s about every job after that. It’s about how she’s been promoting herself as a salvage operator for a year without the equipment she needs to work, and how she can’t keep half-assing it. Her only real asset is Kismet and either she makes this job work or she goes back to a quiet sensible stationary life surrounded by quiet sensible stationary people.
As they walk back into the office she makes her best you’ve-got-to-say-yes offer. “The downpayment, plus half the fee I’d get from this job.”
“What’s the fee?”
“Half a million.”
Leon whistles. “Towing jobs don’t go for nearly that much.”
“It’s not just towing. It’s pulling the ship back together enough that it can be towed, recovering the cargo. And the crew.”
“Oh.” He expels a sharp breath. “I’ll…run it by Dad, okay?”
She nods. Maybe this is a cheap negotiating tactic, but Leon looks—and smells—nervous in a way that’s hard to fake. That makes her nervous. Just how much of a jerk is Dear Old Dad?
He picks up an earpiece from somewhere behind the counter and puts it on. “Hey. There’s a customer here wanting to buy a tow engine. Can we go lower than the normal down payment price if she pays more on the balance?” Pause. “Only ten percent down, but ten percent over the whole total. She’s waiting on a big client payout.” He glances at Gail, then turns to the side so he’s not looking at her. “Yeah, guaranteed.” Pause, eyes closing. “Yeah.” Pause again. Hold. It stretches out until she feels like tying knots in her tail to relieve the tension.
Abruptly Leon turns back to her. “Can you send your contract with your client to us?”
“Sure.” She pulls out her own display, taps on it a few times.
Leon studies his display a few seconds, then gets an uncomfortable look. “This is redacted. We need it all.”
She doesn’t know what Armand’s still very sealed cargo is, but she knows how prickly he’s been about this whole affair, and the contract’s been privacy-locked. If she shares any identifying information, just losing the job will be the best case outcome. “C’mon, you know my client’s stuff is confidential. It’s signed by both judiciaries and banks.”
Leon sighs, and makes a show of paging back and forth on his display. “Everything looks like it’s in good order. All the signatures verify.” She can’t tell if he’s talking to her, his father, or both. Then he flinches visibly at something.
“Will it help if I talk to your dad in person?”
He shakes his head quickly, definitively, as if that would be the worst possible thing she could do. Then he repeats, firmly, “It looks like it’s in good order. And we have no reason not to make the deal.” He takes the earpiece off, and looks directly at Gail. “Send the downpayment.” There’s an unspoken right now, please that’s hard to miss: if they take her money, they’ve accepted her terms.
“Okay.” She taps on her display, steels herself, then completes the bank order. “Sent.”
He watches the display again, then nods. “Great.”
“Should I ask what that was about?”
He shrugs. “Just an argument about diverging from the way he always does business. Dad’s very…traditional about a lot of things.”
Leon isn’t meeting her eyes as he speaks. Why doesn’t his father like a deal that gives him more money?
Then suddenly she knows. It’s because of where the money’s coming from—and where the Emersons are coming from. “He doesn’t like totemics.”
“Well, I mean—it’s not like we don’t have totemic customers. Regulars. But you know Purity types.”
He says it offhandedly in an oh those silly old people with their silly old ways fashion, but it doesn’t help. She’s already shaking. She has a deep, visceral understanding of those particular silly old ways. “Purity type? A member, or just a believer?”
Leon’s tone gets sharper, defensive. “Good lord, it doesn’t matter anymore, not these days. Solera’s not like it was forty years ago. You might get criticism for your choices, but you’re not going to get—” He waves his hand without finishing.
“Get what? Beaten? Killed?” Her voice is rising. “Solera was like that ten years ago, Leon. Your dad’s not the reason you stopped calling me, is it?”
“No, Gail, he’s not.” His voice rises, too. “But when he found out who you were—who your mom was—he shit a pulsar. So excuse me if I didn’t want to bring you around.”
Gail’s ears pin back.
After another uncomfortable pause he turns to a larger control panel behind the counter, a simple flat screen model like most non-automated retail outlets stick with. “Okay, got your downpayment. Let’s finish this up for you so we can get you on your way.” He starts tapping, using a virtual keyboard. He’s a lousy typist. “The loader should be picking up the engines, so we’ll just need to go to your ship, wait for the cargo and let you sign off on receipt.”
“Fine.” Gail quells her anger. It’s not worth it, and it’s not Leon’s fault. She pulls out her own display again. “I’m setting up an auto transfer to send fifty percent of my payment to you as soon as it clears. Should make your dad happier.” You always hate people a little less when they give you money, right?
Leon watches his display until the acknowledgement appears, then nods.
As they head back out of the office, he says, “So are you really going to live on your ship?”
That’s an abrupt topic switch, but she’s okay with that right now. “I think so, yeah.”
He nods. “That fits the rat totem.”
She grins. “This isn’t heading toward an elaborate joke about rats on ships, right?”
“No, I promise.” He holds up his hands, laughing. “But after our last date I was thinking, you know, I don’t see many full transform rats. I mean, even around Panorica, where there’s totemics everywhere.”
“That’s true. We’re kind of rare.”
“I figured you had a reason for being a rat, so I was learning about rat symbology. Adaptability, resourcefulness, like that.”
“I think you’re on target about mom’s reasons, but I didn’t choose it.”
“Oh. Your family’s one of the ones that, uh, uh, believed in doing transformations on infants?”
“Yeah.” She can tell he’s stumbling around saying forced transformations on infants, one of the biggest criticisms the Purity movement has of totemics. It’s a criticism a lot of totemics have, too, but that’s not any of Purity’s business.
“Would you have chosen it for yourself?”
“I don’t know.”
Leon clears his throat. “Oh.” He makes a kind of awkward laugh.
She should say something reassuring, maybe. Before she can think of anything a voice calls out from their left. “Leon!”
Her head whips around before Leon’s does. She’d been distracted enough not to notice the group—two men, one woman, all cisform—approaching. Both of the guys look solemn-serious. The younger one, about Leon’s age, wears the same red company shirt, and he’s downright scowling. The third has a more formal business suit: tan jacket and pants, white shirt. He looks like Leon projected thirty years into the future. The woman’s the one she saw earlier, the one she exchanged waves with. She looks like she’s about Gail’s age. They’re a lot alike, if you get past the fur: both blonde and blue-eyed, short cropped hair, similar build, about one-point-six-five meters to Gail’s one-point-six. She’s wearing a pretty purple blouse and a pained expression. None of the three look happy, but she looks like she wants to be anywhere else right now.
“I believe I made my position clear.” The older man’s gaze is fixed directly on Leon. “Those sale terms are not acceptable.”
Leon swallows. If he had expressive ears they’d have just gone back. “Dad, I’m the manager now, and I’ve made the sale. It’s a terrific deal for us. You saw the numbers.”
“That she provided. The only guarantee is her word.”
It’s less effort than she expected to keep her voice controlled. It’s firm, though. Very firm. “It’s not just my word, it’s everyone else in the contract’s signature chain.”
She might as well just be making wordless squeaky noises. He doesn’t even flick his gaze toward her. “Linda, it doesn’t look like Leon remembers how to cancel an invalid contract. Could you do it?”
The woman looks between Gail and the older Emerson. “Yes, sir,” she says hesitantly.
Gail raises her voice. “I’ve bought those for more money than you’d get from anyone else. I haggled Leon up.”
He finally turns to her. “Judith Simmons’s daughter.” Scowling Young Man scowls more deeply.
Oh, Mara’s Wounds, here we go. Gail manages to keep her ears up this time, but she’s pretty sure she’s not keeping a poker face. Muzzle. Whatever. “My name’s Gail.”
“Charles Emerson.” He shoves his hands in his pockets, and looks off to the side, up a few degrees. “Understand that I’d be recalcitrant with anyone offering this kind of deal. This is not about who or what you are.”
“So if I looked like Linda there, you’d say the same thing.” She crosses her arms.
He looks directly at her again now. “I know what your kind thinks of pure humans, Ms. Simmons, and I don’t believe you’d have any compunction cheating me. Your mother, as I recall, didn’t even believe in basic principles like private property and free association. I know all about what they teach on the Ceres Ring, in New Coyoacán.”
Gail sighs thinly. “No, I’m pretty sure you only know stereotypes about what they teach there. But I left the Ring. And you’re not making a contract with my mother. Your son is making one with me.”
He remains silent for a few seconds. “That’s true. Do you believe in free association, Ms. Simmons?”
She spreads her hands. “It’s fantastic.”
“Good. Then we’re agreed no one has the right to tell me who I can and can’t do business with.” He turns to Linda, who hasn’t moved yet. “Send a loader back to this mongrel’s ship to pick up our tow engine.”
Gail’s ears get hot. Before she can say anything, though, Leon cuts in. “Dad, it’s a contract. You can’t break a contract.”
Charles glowers at his son, his voice rising. “There’s the letter of a contract and there’s the spirit, and I won’t have you violating the spirit because of your inclination toward bestiality.”
Gail’s mouth drops open. “I’m as human as you are, you—”
“You’re a rat. You’ve turned your back on just being human.” He sneers. “A rat, but you think you’re better than us ‘prims’ now. That’s what your mother called us, wasn’t it?”
Scowling Young Man nods approvingly at what Charles says. Linda hasn’t moved yet, as far as she can tell. She’s been studying Gail so raptly it’s disquieting. Leon’s expression is unreadable. He’s been listening to this all his life, hasn’t he? God, he knows better than this, he’s been to Panorica, he’s been around totemics.
Gail shakes her head. “If you think that’s what she was saying, you weren’t listening at all.”
“I saw her speech on Solera that day. I was in the crowd. I remember what she said as plain as the sky.” Charles gestures at both Leon and Gail, and she can’t tell whether he’s more contemptuous of her or his own son. He looks at Leon as he continues. “How totemics fused animals and humans together, how they were the best of both, uniting technology and nature to be something more. ‘Something better.’ She used that exact phrase. She used it a lot.”
“It’s symbolic. Don’t you get that? Totemics have been saying that since Mara’s time. And people like you killed her for it, too.” It comes out before she catches herself. Dammit.
Emerson flashes the triumphant expression she’d expected. “People. Like. Me.” He turns back to Leon. “Normal people, she means. People like you, too.”
She’s getting flush with anger. “That’s not—”
“It’s not?” His voice drips sarcastic sincerity. “Tell us, then, oh wise rodent, what people you mean.”
As her cheeks and ears sizzle and her sight darkens and tints Gail realizes that seeing red is a literal thing. “I mean people who scream that ‘fair treatment’ is code for ‘totalitarian oppression.’ I mean people who shame and terrify anyone who criticizes them into silence. And I mean”—her voice catches, then edges toward a hoarse hiss—“I mean the people who turned my mother away from the Solera hospital and let her die. The people who said that was their right to free association.”
Charles gets in her face, angry, contemptuous. “It was her bomb! You know that, rat. She was killed by her own—”
Gail slaps him.
There’s a moment of absolute stillness. Then he slugs her. Her jaw explodes into pain and she staggers back two steps.
And just like that it’s a free-for-all. Scowling Young Man tries to grab her. She kicks him. He latches onto her leg. She snaps her jaws at Charles as he tries to get his arm around her neck. Leon screams uselessly. Dammit, she doesn’t want to fight, she doesn’t want to be here, she doesn’t even want the tow engines anymore—
Another punch to her gut, except it isn’t a punch. It’s a piercing pain. Did somebody just knife her? She looks down, but before she can focus the stabs spread over her whole body and her vision grays out.
All she can see is static. Is that real pounding, or just in her head? Then she sees moire patterns, digital noise. She must have blacked out: her augmented sight’s coming back online. So are all her entirely natural nerves, and they are pissed. What the hell did she get hit with? A shock stick? She tastes blood in her mouth, too. For an old guy Charles has a good right hook.
As her vision clears the scene around her converges into clear focus. She’s sitting down, hands tied behind her. It’s a chair with a solid back and her tail’s bent at a painful angle. She wonders if they did that on purpose. The bindings feel like rope, maybe three wrappings. She might be able to break them with her biomods, but she might just snap her own wrists. The room looks like it’s a workshop: wood walls, metal tools, the smell of sawdust. It makes her think of her father’s much smaller toolshed back in New Coyoacán; Emerson wouldn’t appreciate the irony.
The pounding in her head is gone, but now there’s yelling. The woman—Linda—is there, a few meters away, arguing with Charles and the other guy. “—to a judiciary, Mr. Emerson!”
“To do what? Ask them for guidance on how to deal with a thief? To ask them for permission? We’re sovereign citizens, Ms. Lamport, beholden to no one.”
That does not sound good. Technically, he’s right; all the little fiefdoms across the River are built on consensus instead of force, but it all breaks down if you just opt out of that consensus when it’s inconvenient. This is one of the big arguments on the Ceres Ring—whether being proactive is the same as being coercive—something something—
God, she’s avoided politics all her life, she’s fought against being pushed into the spotlight because of who she is—because of who her mother is. So much for that being enough.
Linda isn’t mollified. “You can’t respond to a crime with a crime. This is kidnapping!”
“This is a trial, and she’ll be given a chance to speak. Do you object?”
Linda looks at him open-mouthed, then looks at Gail. It’s obvious she’s about to object and if she does she’s going to end up one chair over. Gail catches her eyes and shakes her head fractionally.
After a too-long second passes, Linda sighs. “No.”
“Where’s Leon?” Gail’s voice sounds raspy. She tries to work up some spit.
“My son is not part of this tribunal. He’s fraternized too closely with the accused. How I deal with him isn’t your concern, Ms. Simmons.” Charles folds his hands behind his back. “You stand accused of assault and attempted theft, and we have three eye witnesses.” He gives Linda a meaningful look when he says three, then looks back at Gail. “What do you offer in your defense?”
She closes her eyes. Okay, she already knew she was on the express to Planet Crazy. Old stories about Purity cutting off totemic ears and tails have never been verified, but they’re feeling very real all of a sudden. “We both know I’m not stealing your damn engines, Chuck. I’m not here because I hit you. I’m here because of my name.”
“Your name?” His voice becomes stentorian. Posturing is clearly his element. “Let’s talk about what’s being done in that name, about what’s happening to The River. The Ceres Ring and its capital New Coyoacán always were a step away from a communist collective, and their ideas spread like a cancer. Panorica’s become a state in all but title. Our rights shrivel away, our freedom constricts moment by moment, all in the name of totemics.”
“And tying me to a chair changes that how, exactly?”
His brow creases.
Before he answers, she presses forward. “Look. If someone wants to make themselves look like a fox or a wolf—or a rat—that doesn’t affect you. But if you treat them badly because of their choice, that does affect them. You keep claiming you’re all about freedom, but their freedom depends on them being able to make that choice. Your freedom doesn’t depend on stopping them.”
Scowling Young Man finally speaks. “So you believe that normal humans who haven’t polluted themselves with animal genes should be forced to mingle with mongrels who have?”
Charles looks relieved to stop processing Gail’s challenge. “I think Mr. Williams has an excellent question.”
She groans. No, Mr. Williams has an insane question, and she’s run out of sane responses. She tenses her arm muscles and switches on the biomods. She may snap her wrists, but she’s out of non-fighting options. Hell, she was out of them when she came to—she can’t talk Charles out of a lifetime of hatred.
The door to the workshop bangs open. Leon’s striding in, brandishing a pistol, looking righteously angry. Gail’s the only person in the room who can smell how scared he really is, but she’ll take a scared hero at this point.
“I told you to let her alone.” He motions at Gail with the gun. “Untie her.” Linda hurries toward Gail.
“Stay!” Charles bellows. “Leon, put that down.”
“Dad. Listen. You’re wrong about her.” He gestures at Gail with the gun again, which makes her flinch; she’s no firearms expert, but do not point gun at friend seems pretty basic. “She doesn’t believe in some kind of—of—totemic superiority.”
“She and her kind stand against everything that brought us out here from Earth and Mars. They’re against man’s place in creation! They’re playing God, son.” Charles looks genuinely anguished.
Linda’s moved right behind Gail, and the rat feels her hands on her arms. What’s she doing? Holy hell, she’s loosening the ropes. Somehow she has two allies here. She powers her biomods down again for the moment.
“She didn’t make herself a rat!” Leon waves the gun emphatically. “She didn’t choose that! She’s a victim!”
She’s a what? Leon thinks she’s a what?
Gail sags in her restraints as if she’d been punched again. Linda backs away; that’s as loose as the bonds are going to get. Charles looks between his son and Gail, eyes narrowed in uncertain skepticism. “Is that true?”
Leon looks at Gail, eyes pleading. But it’s not a ruse. She can tell. To him, this is what she is. Maybe he thinks she’s safe to date again, now that she’s a victim.
“I didn’t choose it.” She can’t get her voice to get above a whisper.
Charles walks forward, leans down close to her face. “Would you choose to give it up, if you could? To go back to a pure human?” He grabs her chin and forces her to look into his eyes. She sees the anger she expects, but now it’s been joined by concern. Pity.
Leon chimes in, voice hopeful. “There are reversals. If that’s what you want.”
She keeps looking into Charles Emerson’s eyes and for that moment she understands him. “You’re not angry because totemics think we’re better than you are.” Her voice is soft, but clear. “You’re afraid. Because you think we’re better than you are.”
He goes from angry to deadly furious. He grabs her left ear and pulls up on it, and oh God, there’s a laser cutter in his other hand. “It’s time to be more human, mongrel.” He draws his arm back—
“No!” Leon yells. He fires the gun.
Charles jerks to the side, but it doesn’t look like he’s been hit. Williams tackles Leon. Linda runs out of the workshop screaming. Leon goes down and as Charles whirls back on Gail, she switches her biomods on. All of them. The world goes into slow motion.
She snaps the loose binding off, brings her hands up, catches the arm coming toward her. He staggers, and she doesn’t give him a chance to recover. She snatches the cutter, then kicks his legs out from under him. Then she knocks Scowling Young Man down. Then, after disarming him, Leon. It’s like a dance. She doesn’t have any real training but it doesn’t matter—she’s moving ten times faster than they can. Unless one of them has biomods, but she knows they won’t. That wouldn’t be pure.
Gail finishes the dance holding the gun with both hands, rock steady and straight in front of her. “I can shoot all three of you in the time it’ll take the fastest one of you to try and stand up and I will not miss. So don’t try.”
She slowly backs toward the exit, training the gun on each of them in turn. They don’t say anything. Williams—of course—scowls. She’s not sure he has any other expressions. If Charles could set her on fire with his eyes, though, she’d be a torch.
Leon sits up, hands in the air. “Gail. Don’t shoot me.” He stands up slowly. “I’m sorry. Look. I’m on your side—”
“Why? Because I’m a ‘victim?’ What if I had chosen what I am? What choices did any of you make? Did you pick your hair color? Your sex? Your height?”
He gestures angrily at his father. “I had to say something.”
“Are you lying to me, or to her?” Charles’s voice gets deadly cold.
“Jesus, Dad.” Leon runs a hand through his hair.
The elder Emerson fixes his gaze on Gail again. “You have chosen what you are.”
“Yeah.” She levels the gun at Charles. “I guess I have. I’m transform. A totemic. And a rat. I don’t want to be ‘turned back.’ I’m what I’m supposed to be.” She’s at the door. Leon takes a step toward her, hands in the air.
Charles’s voice gets shrill. Desperate. “If you let her pull you with her, you’re no longer my son.”
Gail glances at Leon and takes another step backward, out of the shed. While she can’t imagine just what’s going through his mind, she can’t wait—with the biomods all on high, every nerve in her body’s a live wire and she’s running on overload. She can’t keep it up much longer. “Leon?” she hisses.
He makes a choking noise, then slowly sits back down on the floor.
“Right.” She takes a deep breath. “Start counting. All three of you. From one. If I see any of you before you get to two hundred, I’ll shoot you. Will I miss?”
Nobody says anything.
She levels the gun at Charles’s head again. “Will I miss?” she repeats.
His voice is flat, reluctant. “No.”
Leon’s the first to mumble. “One. Two.” By “four,” all three of them are counting. Gail turns and bolts for the lift cable.
She’d guessed right: they’d taken her to the other side of the station and the lift cable looks like it’s almost straight overhead. She runs along the floor, though, resisting the temptation to make a leap for it—
A ricochet off to her left lets her know they’re no longer counting. Dammit. And somebody’s standing by the cable—Linda, watching Gail run with wide, frightened eyes. That Gail’s approaching running at close to forty kilometers an hour can’t help. The rat has to catch herself on a support pole to come to a fast enough stop, and she feels it in that arm and both legs.
Gail swallows, still breathing hard. “You may have saved my life.”
“I just wanted to say—”
Another shot, just as wide as the last. Linda shrieks. Gail looks overhead, zooming her vision in on who’s shooting. Williams? No—Leon, holding an antique-looking rifle. Leon. Jesus. He looks miserable. His dad stands right by him, pointing in Gail’s direction and screaming. Even with the biomods running she can’t quite make out Charles’s voice, but her guess is he’s accusing his son of missing deliberately. She thinks he’s right.
She checks the electric pistol she stole; the display says it has eleven rounds left. She fires off a half-dozen shots in a rough semicircle around them. They scatter. Then she looks at Linda. “They’re gonna know you helped me, aren’t they?”
“I—I don’t—” She starts crying. “Oh, God.”
“Put your arms around me and hang on tight.”
“Now.” Gail grabs the nearest lift handle. Linda grabs Gail.
Another ricochet, and her ear buzzes. Did it graze—she’s bleeding. Dammit. She turns and zooms in her vision again. Charles. She takes just one shot and, as promised, she doesn’t miss. He falls down—up, from her vantage point—and the rifle drops. She doesn’t think it was a fatal hit, but it might keep them busy.
Sprinting up a stopped lift cable turns out to be a lot harder than she thought it would be. She throws herself between the stirrups and wrist straps, praying each landing won’t be hard enough to jolt Linda off her. It becomes easier after about twenty meters; finally they’re all but floating, and then at last they hit zero-g.
She pushes through the airlock and pulls herself and Linda into Kismet. “Use the harness,” she commands, pointing to the sofa. The woman fumbles with it, but manages to get it latched on. “Kis, run the pre-flight check, fast.” She grabs a bandage from the first aid box as she tumbles past it, slapping it on her ear and wincing at the sting as it seals into the wound.
“We are ready for flight.”
The engines hum and then roar, but the ship doesn’t move. After about five seconds, Kismet speaks again. “The docking arm is not decoupling. The station is overriding the request.”
Oh, for—they’re trying to lock her here? They can’t get into the ship now. Why in Mara’s name would—
She twists around to look back in the cabin. “Does this station have armed security drones?”
All the blood leaves Linda’s face.
“Fantastic.” She switches the holographic display on and puts her hands on the manual piloting controls. “Kis, is everything we can uncouple detached already?”
She opens the port side attitude thrusters full bore. Kismet rolls sharply. Grinding and splintering noises fill the cabin as the docking tube wrenches apart. As soon as she’s rolled a hundred eighty degrees she cuts off the thrusters, yaws to the right and down, and throttles up, staying dangerously close to the station itself.
Three drones zoom into view. She pivots the ship hard, zig-zagging faster than she should, threading between larger pieces of junk. A mostly intact passenger liner she’s zipping past explodes, fragmenting in perfect silence.
She curves to the right, slotting her flight path into the clear, junk-free avenue, then opens the throttle full as she yaws down and to the left. She gets pressed back hard into her seat; Linda makes a pained noise. The cabin fills with a flash of blinding white for a split-second as a missile narrowly misses.
As Kismet continues to accelerate, she wheels the holo display around for a rear view. The drones are nowhere to be seen. The radio remains silent.
“Kis, take over. Set course for Panorica. And send Armand a message that we’re declining his job because, uh, the tow engines weren’t available.”
“The tow engines are in the cargo hold.”
Gail blinks slowly, twice. “What?”
“The tow engines are in the cargo hold.”
How could they—she gets out of the chair and stares at Linda.
The woman’s still shaking violently, trying to catch her breath, but she manages a small smile. “I might not have finished sending the removal order. It was pretty tense back there.”
Gail laughs, feeling like hugging her tightly. “Kis, send that message to Armand anyway. Uh. ‘Armand, I’m sorry, but the tow engines weren’t available for the job. In consideration of that, I’m relinquishing any and all remaining salvage rights and giving you a twenty percent discount on the work already completed, so the total bill to be settled is fourteen thousand, four hundred. Cordially, Gail Simmons.’”
Gail moves back into the cabin. Linda’s looking a little less terrified for her life now. “Why’d you do that? You can do the job you wanted the engines for.”
She sits down next to the woman. “I owe Emerson Salvage fifty percent of whatever Armand pays me. Once that gets remitted to them, I legally own that engine. As Charles helpfully reminded me, there’s the spirit of the contract, and there’s the letter of it.”
Linda’s eyes widen, and then she starts laughing. “He’ll file a complaint.”
“Yeah, well, he can scream all he wants, but even if my judiciary can’t get him into court, releasing the recordings of him tying me to a chair and then trying to blow my damn ship out of the sky aren’t going to be real good for business, even around Solera. He’s pretty much the epitome of the image they’re trying to shake.” She’s proud of how nonchalant she’s managing to sound, but the adrenaline’s wearing off and she’s starting to shake violently.
“Yeah.” Linda’s smile fades and she looks down at the ship’s floor, twisting a hand in her hair. “I—I knew about Purity and about the Emersons, especially Charles. I just didn’t—I mean—” She takes a ragged breath. “I’m so sorry. Thank you.”
Gail tries to steady herself. “Yeah. Thank you, too.”
Linda hesitantly reaches out to put an arm around Gail’s shoulders. It’s—nice. She nestles in and slides her arm around the taller woman’s waist. As her breathing slows and her eyes close partway, she realizes Linda’s not just calming down, she’s looking downright blissful, like having a rat woman hugging her is the most amazing thing she’s ever experienced.
“What’s it like?” Linda asks after a moment. “Being…being a totemic.” She looks extremely self-conscious.
She laughs. “Like being cisform, but fuzzier? I don’t know how to answer.”
“Sorry. It’s just…” She trails off.
“Something you’ve thought about before?”
She nods almost imperceptibly. “Yeah.”
Gail smiles. They remain sitting against one another as Kismet flies on.