By Tobias S. Buckell
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2007 Tobias S. Buckell
All rights reserved.
It had been three hundred and fifty-seven years, three months, and four days since the emancipation of humanity. And for most, it did them little good.
Nashara walked down the dusty road of Pitt's Cross reservation, her scaly leather boots biting into her ankle. Log houses and refugee tents dripped acid water from a recent rain, and the ground steamed. It was a desperate assemblage of buildings that dared call itself a city, and all that did was remind Nashara of what a city should really look like.
People could be more than this. She flagged down a van bouncing through the wet street.
The mud-coated van, yellow paint flaking off its sides, stopped by the bench outside a community center where a long line of ragged and desperate faces lined up for the soup kitchen. Nashara could smell whiffs of fresh bread and body odor.
A few eyes darted her way, seeing the functional but new clothing and no doubt wondering what she was doing here. And whether she was carrying money. It was just as likely surprise at her skin, as dark as the shadows these people seemed to try to sink into. Her hair, tight and curly, but shorn military short. Old habit. Pitt's Cross consisted mainly of the light-skinned. Or maybe, just maybe, someone was already tracking her, ready to shoot her and drag her body to the edge of the reservation for a bounty.
She turned her back to it all and got in the van. What was done was done, and now it was time to keep moving.
"Could rain again," the old man driving the van commented as Nashara threw a stamped metal coin into the small bucket by his seat. "I get more passengers if I wait around for the rain, charge more when they're desperate not to get stung by it."
Nashara sat down on the cushioned bench behind him and threw several more coins in. "Let's go."
The old man cleared his throat, leaned closer to the window, and looked up at the sky. Nashara tapped his back. He turned around annoyed, then flinched when she stared directly into his slightly clouded eyes. "I shit you not," Nashara said, "I'll break your neck if you don't start driving."
He swallowed. "Right." The van quietly lurched forward down the street, then turned an easy left. They edged past a large cart pulled by fifteen men, all yoked to it by wooden harnesses.
How far humanity could still fall. Nashara folded her arms.
Two years mucking about in Pitt's Cross, building contacts, until she'd found a job that would make her enough to leave. She watched a landscape of ruined housing and people slide by the dingy windows of the van. The buildings petered out until nothing but bare, scorched ground surrounded her.
The reservation's wall crept into view over the horizon. The black and smooth, two-hundred-foot edifice spread for as far as she could see in either direction. Spotlights stabbed at the ground and sky. It was scalable, she'd done that to get over last night, and back over in the morning.
Though not without trouble. Her left shoulder had a cauterized hole through it as a result of getting back over.
"You have a pass?" the old man asked, incredulous. "Or will I be waiting at the wall for you?"
"Are we not emancipated? Can't we travel anywhere we want?"
"Don't spout that crap at me." They both knew they needed a "human safety pass" to be allowed out there, and passes were rare around the reservation. "Even if you get through, how far can you get on two feet when all you have is reservation coin?"
"You'd be surprised." Nashara looked out the window. One last look at the barren landscape.
"Waste of my time, all the way out here for one passenger." They slowed and then jerked to a stop. The driver leaned over and pointed a small gun at her. "Hand over your coin and get out."
Nashara looked down at it. And snapped it out of his hands before his next blink. She casually snapped his trigger finger, and to his credit he bit his lip and bore the pain as he looked around for the gun. Reservation-born and accustomed to the pain of it all.
"You should have shot before speaking," she said. He might have had a chance. He stared at her, realizing his underestimation would probably cost him his life.
"Come on, get out," Nashara said as she opened the door. She didn't blame him for trying. What did he have to lose? A lifetime behind the wall? A faint mist sprinkled down. It blew inside the cab and tasted acidic. It burned the tip of her tongue as she tasted the air. It would stain and then dissolve her outfit if she walked out there, so she'd take the vehicle. "I have a pass, and therefore a schedule to keep."
"How the hell did you get that?" the old man asked as he stepped out into the rain and turned to face in.
"Same way I got this," Nashara muttered. Someone had underestimated her.
She shut the door to the van and drove on without looking back. Several minutes later she threw the gun out of the window into the mud.
No sense in approaching a massive security perimeter like the wall around Pitt's Cross with a gun.
The gate groaned slowly open, responding to the presence of the pass hung around her neck.
Several snub-nosed pipes tracked her progress through the tunnel. If she so much as twitched wrong, they'd smear her against the wall.
The floor lit up just forward of each step, leading her onward to a set of doors that rolled aside for her. Several guards in khaki protective armor and reflective-visored helmets surrounded her.
Nashara pulled the necklace off and handed it over. The nearest guard scanned her with a wand. Even if she were naked, it wouldn't detect anything under her skin. Her skin bounced back the wrong signals to his crude scanner. And neither guard would find the crude slivers of gold and silver stolen from the Gahe breeder's house. She'd cut slits in the skin of her thighs. The skin had congealed over the small bounty.
The other guard verified the data inside the small pendant at the end of the necklace. He looked back at her. "Nashara Aji. You have twenty hours outside the reservation. After that the pass will broadcast your violation and you will forfeit any rights to travel. You will be jailed and fined. You may give up your right to emancipation."
He handed the necklace back to her and leaned in close. "Visiting a breeding program, eh?"
That was what the pass indicated her business outside the wall was. Nashara ignored the guard.
An alien stood safe inside a bombproof glass enclosure behind the guards. A Gahe, one of the rulers of everything currently around Nashara. It stood five feet high on four legs. Its bullet-shaped head, so hard to reach around to snap, Nashara knew, swiveled like an owl's to track her. The rounded, silver eyes didn't blink.
The alien's massive mouth yawned open. From inside, gray, tentacle-like tongues wormed out and flicked at a clear panel in front of it.
"Human, stop," the translated voice in the air around her snapped. Nashara froze. "Pause for decontamination that your stink may not infect our honorable citizens."
Nashara knew the routine. She stripped with her back to the human guards behind her. A biting spray and explosion of UV light later she walked out of the checkpoint.
She was out. Out of the reservation and its starving, population-exploding sovereignty and freedom. And just ahead of the mess that would soon be after her.
The guards were the last humans she saw for the next hour as she walked down the paved road. No vehicles passed her. What reason did the aliens have to go to the reservation? They avoided it if at all possible.
The road led into a larger highway three hours later. Nashara's clothes dripped sweat from the heat. She had no water; no one was allowed to bring anything out of the reservation but the clothes on his or her back.
Still, she pressed on as the occasional vehicle trundled past. Each one looked completely different, from number of wheels to color to design. The Gahe prized individuality to a bizarre level.
Seven hours later she stopped in a small town and looked around. The Gahe built their houses like their cars, every one different to their own taste. It looked like something out of a nightmare, random curves and angles jutting out every which way, dripping walls.
Three Gahe loped toward her, tentacle tongues lolling. One of them held a gun aimed at her. Nashara held her necklace up, showed it to them, and inserted the pendant in her ear.
"I am legal," she said.
The large Gahe dropped the gun into the pocket of a biblike shirt over its chest. It thumped the ground with a hind leg and spat at the ground.
"What are you doing here?" The pendant translated the gestures into tinny words in her ear.
"I am waiting for the bus." Nashara remained still. They didn't seem like any kind of Gahe that were here to arrest or detain her.
The Gahe sat down in front of her. Nashara waited for a translation of that, but none came. She relaxed and pretended not to see them. She stared off into the distance and waited.
She could disappear here and no one would care, or notice. The Gahe around her knew it too. But they weren't aware of what she'd done last night. They were just trying to intimidate the free human. Nothing to worry about, and she'd kill them too if they tried anything funny.
Another human was on the pumpkin-shaped bus that showed up, a dark-haired, old lady in a glittering dress and complex, braided hairdo fixed around the top of her head like a crown. The Gahe clustered along the left side of the bus. They lounged in their round chairs and stared out the windows, ignoring her. Nashara thought she smelled mushrooms as she walked down the aisle and sat down.
The lady growled at her and drummed a syncopated rhythm on the ground. She smiled at Nashara.
"Nice clothes," the pendant in her ear translated the thumping and growling. The lady cleared her throat. "I am Growf." She slapped her hand on her wrist and growled. "You live behind the wall?"
"Recently, for a while, yes," Nashara said.
"You hate me."
"No." Nashara shook her head. "I'm sorry for you."
"I may be pet," the lady growled in Gahe. "But I eat. My great-grandfather pet. Good pet. Eat well. Not starve. Do tricks."
A Gahe stood up and barked at them both, too quickly for the pendant to translate. It walked over and its tongues reached out and grabbed the lady's crown. They were strong, strong enough to yank Growf up to her feet.
Growf whined and bowed, kissed the floor, and shuffled over to the back of the bus.
Nashara turned away from the scene and looked out of the window at yellow grass and squiggly trees.
It all depressed her. The whole damn planet depressed her. The Gahe ruled Astragalai firmly, and there were too few humans here to do much about it.
A few hundred thousand lived behind the wall in Pitt's Cross, most of the rest as professional bonded pets to Gahe.
She'd killed a high-ranking Gahe breeder late last night for some shadowy, idiot organization formed by off world humans that wanted to free the human pets. The League of Human Affairs. They'd repaid her with a ticket that would take her off Astragalai and aboard a ship heading toward the planet New Anegada.
Five years, planet by planet, trying to get there, the last two a particular hell stuck here in Pitt's Cross.
Nashara couldn't wait to get the fuck off the planet. It had been a mistake to head into a nonhuman place. A two-year mistake.
She checked the pendant cover, squinting. Just a few hours left. Any Gahe would have the right to take her as property or kill her when that ran out. Gahe authorities would be moving to deport her right back into Pitt's Cross. Gahe breeders paid prime for wild pets.
The pickup zone was a clearing, bordered by well-maintained gardens, and a ticket booth. A round pod with windows sat in the middle of the grass. Nashara walked over the cut yellow grass, squishing her way to the ticket booth.
"You travel alone?" The Gahe behind the glass shook its squat head. Round eyes looked her up and down.
"My ticket is confirmed. I am here. I am a freedman." No damn pet. "Here is my pass." She waved the necklace at the window. She had no time for delays. The body of the Gahe breeder she'd killed would have been found by now. It wouldn't take long for its friends to figure out it wasn't one of its pets or human breeding pairs that had killed it. Enough checking and Nashara's DNA would be found somewhere on the pen she'd stabbed it in the large eyes with.
"I guess this is okay," the Gahe informed her. "Go to the pickup pod."
The pod stood twice her height with a massive reinforced hook at its tip. Fifteen Gahe seats ringed the inside. Reclining Gahe sat strapped in half of them.
Alarms sounded throughout the clearing as Nashara stepped in the pod. A Gahe attendant outside licked the pod with a tongue and the pod sealed shut.
Gahe stared at her, panting. One of them growled.
Nashara strapped herself in as best she could. It was clear they never expected human use of these seats.
Another timbre of alarm started. Nashara turned around and looked down the length of the clearing just in time to see a shadow and then the long line of the orbital skyhook coming straight toward them. The strong rope of carbon fiber led all the way back to orbit. It spun slowly, each end touching down to snag cargo several times per day.
The massive, rusted, industrial-looking hook on the end whipped toward them and struck the top of the pod.
Nashara's neck snapped back. She swore. Gahe pounded the floor with their front feet. "Laughter," the pendant noted as she pushed it back in her ear. The joke was on them. Right now word would be spreading that a human had killed a Gahe. If the League person who'd paid her to do it had told the truth, then the last time that had happened had been a hundred years ago. And that same small insurrection that had left a Gahe dead by human hands in Pitt's Cross had led the Gahe to isolate the free humans on the planet there.
The pod accelerated, hooked onto the almost indestructible cable. It swung up into the sky past the clouds in a long arc toward space.
The space habitat Villach orbited Astragalai. It hung in position to receive pod traffic and redirect it onward if necessary.
The two cupolas of Villach looked like perfect spheres split in half. They were connected by threadlike wires of the same material as the rotating tether that snagged Nashara's pod and whipped it into orbit. A material that the Gahe sold to humans but humanity was prohibited from making.
Villach's two separate half spheres spun around each other, connective wires singing a constant low hum in the background as Nashara took the elevator from the center of the configuration down through the clouds hovering at the open top of the space habitat.
Pets wandered around on leashes, their Gahe drumming or slapping their tongues at them. Beautiful hairpieces and costumes glittered everywhere Nashara looked.
Nashara pulled the pendant out of her ear, not interested in hearing alien tongues anymore. The pass beeped, indicating her time was up. But Villach wasn't a reservation. It wouldn't have dedicated hunt packs waiting to swoop in on her. By the time something came to investigate the violation, Nashara would be long gone. Besides, a human shouldn't have been able to afford the price of getting off planet. That would leave them confused for a while.
She broke the necklace off, crushed it to dust between her hands, and let it drift to the floor.
The human section of Villach, a long, pie-shaped area of the five-mile-wide cupola, reminded her of the reservation. But not as desperate. Tight streets, waterproof paper houses and greenhouses. She found a market packed with several hundred people. It was the first time in two years she'd seen that many people gathered together that weren't lined up for the food kitchens. As on the reservation, they spoke Anglic here, not human imitations of Gahe's thumps, growls, and whistles.
She pulled out the last of her coins and stopped at the nearest toy shop. Several kids behind the table of used equipment smiled at her. The tallest bowed and stepped forward with a flourish of his waxy red robe.
"I need a lamina viewer," she said. "Got anything?"
They handed her an oversize, bright green wrist screen. Designed for clumsy kid fingers, it strapped on easily enough, and she tapped it on. A simple point-and-shoot viewer. She pointed a finger at the boy and information popped up for her.
His name was Peter the One Hundredth, fifteen years old, owner of the stall. Previous customers rated him "competent" on average, with some complaints about equipment breaking down.
"You like it?"
Some speculated that the goods were stolen.
Of course they were.
Nashara stopped pointing and tapped some more, accessing Villach's various streams of public information, and checked the habitat's outbound transportation schedule. She found what she was looking for. The Stenapolaris, due to leave in two hours.
Cutting it close. But she had a berth reserved, and Stenapolaris would be headed close to New Anegada. Once she was aboard it, the Gahe would be hard-pressed to ever find her. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Ragamuffin by Tobias S. Buckell. Copyright © 2007 Tobias S. Buckell. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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