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By Jo Clayton
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Jo Clayton
All rights reserved.
RUN, SKEEN, AND BLESS DJABO FOR LONG LEGS or THE WOMAN BETRAYED.
Toward sundown Skeen heard the howls of a saayungka pack and knew the P'jaa were after her.
Atsabani, you miserable snitch.
She had walked out of Chukunsa with a gaggle of low-level workers heading to their hovels for supper and a snuggle, she had left them behind, moving briskly along accessways until she reached the edge of the cultivated land; there she curled up for a few hours' sleep.
The Saayungka howls were getting closer.
Must have gone this way: Atsabani, promising silence, waited until she left, then went worming around to the Mye P'jit. Selling me. Selling me. Selling me.
She settled the pack more comfortably, heavy pack loaded with survival gear she'd bought blackmarket from that miserable worm; she stretched long legs into an easy lope, running through a sort of generic scraggle over ground that was sand-soft and slippery, with sprays of gravel put there to roll underfoot and wreck an ankle. Lousy nature — miseries leaping at you from every lousy bush. Give me city streets any day, any city.
The hills were getting steeper, the land rising around her, funneling her into a crack that turned swiftly from ravine to canyon. The trouble with country you don't know is all the things you can put your foot in, like a dead-ending canyon which this might well be. She shivered as the howls of the saayungkas pounded at her. Too easy to let that ugly sound prick her into panic. Easy and stupid. 'Twas said in Chukunsa that when saayungkas howl, someone is dead or caught. Not me, she told herself. Never. Not me. Fuckin' canyon, what now? Instinct and logic said keep to flat ground, easy ground, so she wouldn't run herself out; forget instinct and logic. She went scrambling up the side of the canyon, a steep slant of crumbling stone, cursing Tibo for running out on her, cursing Atsabani for selling her, cursing herself for being a blazing fool, jamming her fists into cracks in the stone and levering herself high.
TURN BACK TWELVE DAYS. WHAT MAKES A ROONER RUN?
"I don't believe it...." She chopped off the words before she said something irretrievable. Had to be careful, her papers wouldn't stand a search. "Captain Fler you're talking about? We had an appointment tonight. What do you mean he's left?"
"Exactly what I said, vinde. There is nothing difficult about the words." Six of the little Honjiuk's tentacles played an irritable tattoo on the counter top. His three front eyes drooped shut and he exhaled a gust of sour spicy air, enough to make her gag. She waited. He cracked his eyes and was visibly annoyed to see her there. With exaggerated patience he said, "Three hours ago Captain Fler removed the ship called AngelBaby registered to the Jaggine Combine from the slot he was assigned in the orbitpark and departed. Filing destination papers is not required. Is there a question of a Complaint?" He stopped squeaking at her (he was using his most formal mode of speech, an unsubtle insult in itself) and waited with a dozen tentacles poised to see if she'd have the gall to bother him further.
"No. I was only surprised." Mouth clamped shut and a hard hand on her temper, she left the shuttle registry and started back across the Gap to the city. No use throwing a snit. Honjiukum were like that. She couldn't afford to draw attention to herself. Bad papers and little money, a face and name tucked into too many files. She'd be lucky to make a work camp if the Honjiukum discovered who and what she was. Not that a work camp was anything to aspire to. You didn't live long there, you didn't live well, and who gave a damn? Not Honjiukum, that's sure. Tibo, Tibo, why'd you do it? How'd you do it? How'd you get my Picarefy to let you?
SHORT TREATISE ON KILDUN AALDA or WHY SKEEN HAS FALSE PAPERS.
Kildun Aalda is the only habitable planet in a star system sitting alone in a gap between two star arms, a strategic position that a number of starfaring species have found irresistible. There is vegetation and a wide variety of insects, but intelligent life has never developed, probably because Aalda's sun has a habit of flaring, the flares reducing to ash all life on the surface of the world.
Eight species have held control of Kildun Aalda (not counting the Honjiukum who are its present masters) and have left behind layer upon layer of ruins. Evidence (scanty) suggests lots of small smoldering wars among neighboring star systems with first one then another of the eight species gaining ascendancy until the smolders finally exploded into a conflagration that wiped away nearly all signs of who and what the eight were, except on Kildun Aalda. The planet is a treasure house of rare and priceless artifacts. When this was discovered, the Honjiukum were quick to lay claim to the system and brought a dozen family fleets to make that claim stick. Honjiukum are massive beings with horny skins, short stubby legs (six) and dozens of specialized tentacles. Presumably they find themselves cuddly and lovable, but few others do. Annoying them is impolitic; they squeeze a grudge tighter than a profit. Nothing annoys them more than a Rooner poking about.
Rooner: a specialized smuggler/thief/plunderer. A Rooner deals in artifacts from (mostly) dead civilizations, a thriving and lucrative quasi-legal professison. There are innumerable juicy ruins about and even more collectors avid for new acquisitions.
Skeen: a Rooner of considerable note, having been successful at the profession for more than forty years (antiaging shots keeping her fit and sassy.) Her ship and her name are widely known, which is why she has forged papers and her ship Picarefy has a new name (Picarefy was dryly sarcastic about the choice of AngelBaby) and why Tibo was registered as shipmaster Captain.
Skeen stumped scowling across the Gap and back into Chukunsa, winding from the more decorous streets near the Great Gate to the Warehouse District where life was more to her taste and her purse. Immersed in unhappy thoughts, she stalked along, ignoring the noise and buffeting, slapping away a pickpocket's hand, swerving automatically from a cutpurse's slicer, glaring down at a stubby drunken spacer who seemed to think that anything female was selling. He had to be very drunk to come on to her, she wasn't the sort to attract this kind of thing most days and especially not now. Thin and dark, a nothing much face, about as much shape as a fence rail, showing mad as a skinned tikal. What Tibo used to say when she lost her temper at something: crazy as a skinned tikal and half as sweet. Tibo you baster, I'm going to run you down, she promised the air. You miserable lump of duplicity, I'm going to carve your hide from your worthless carcass a strip at a time and feed it to you raw.
BACK TO THE CANYON.
Skeen scrambled up the rotted stone, laying showers of shards on the ground beneath, lunging up with nothing but anger and desperation and the need to know WHY driving her on. She grabbed roots poking through the stone and pulled herself over the lip. Looking out over her backtrail, she saw the pack coming up over the crest of a distant hillock, a low dark swarm of lanky lurching bodies.
She fumbled in a pocket, stuck a stimtab in her mouth and let it melt on her tongue. I'll grant you this, old Atsabani, you may be a sniveling treacherous worm, but you give good value for the money. On your feet, woman, long way to go before you quit.
As darkness settled thick over the hill country, she slowed to a swinging walk, annoyed by the mischance that chased her here, the Mala Fortuna in her slipstream — Mala, Mala, go haunt some other fool a while. Ruins, every inch of this maggotty world. The smell of them too rich, the challenge too ripe. Even Tibo that baster knew better — told me I was out of my mind to try fiddling the Junks. Galls me worse than tight pants to admit he was right.
Honjiukum didn't like competition.
Honjiukum kept all fifty tentacles squeezed tight about Kildun Aalda, Djabo send them itch-green in all fifty armpits.
P'jaa hunters with their saayungka packs. Scanning satellites like lice in the sky. Bare countryside except for prey beasts and their food herds that the Junks imported to provide the P'jaa with amusement and keep their hunting skills sharp.
Tibo, Tibo, why? They catch me, start thumbing through their files, you know what's going to happen. He knew, rats gnaw his tight little gut, and still he ran out on her. Stole her ship. How'd you get round Picarefy, Tibo? Sweettalk her like ... it was wrong somehow. Felt wrong. Unless she was denser than she thought. He wasn't that sort, not all surface and charm and steal your backteeth when you weren't looking. But she'd been wrong about men so often, how could she trust her instincts? Not wrong about things this serious. The other times it was fooling around with other women, or sneaky machismo slipping out, or selling little secrets that didn't seem worth more pains than kicking the baster tail over tap. This time it was her ship, her darling Picarefy, almost flesh of her flesh. Did Picarefy dump — no, Picarefy wouldn't betray her, but Picarefy was just a ship and a clever man with clever hands (she shivered at the memory of his small clever hands) could drop slave circuits on her before she knew what was happening. Tibo, Tibo, when I catch you, I'll roast those clever hands and feed them to you bone by bone.
TURN BACK ELEVEN DAYS. FIDGETING IN CHUKUNSA.
Skeen moved out of the rooming house where she spent the night. Who slept in the streets of Chukunsa seldom woke again, but she had to hoard the little cash clinking in her purse; she'd left all but a taste of her working capital safe aboard Picarefy. Safe! If she had to, she could get some change by a little discreet burglary. She had her kit with her — never left that behind — cutters and lockpicks, pinlights and readers, other useful bits. Trouble was, what she picked up wouldn't be enough to get her off-world, that was sure. Merchants kept their places tighter than the royal vaults of Kinshaheer and there was no point taking anything but cash once she got inside. Who could she sell to anyhow if she went for other goods? They all knew each other's stock; they wouldn't bother the Mye P'jit, just erase the idiot and pass the stuff back to the original holder. She had nosed out a couple of licensed traders who had backrooms where they bought smuggled artifacts they euphemistically called sourceless. That was the answer, about the only answer: raise the passage fee by selling sourceless items. Easy enough to decide, tricky to accomplish. She strolled around the city, following the walls, inspecting the smallgates. Have to work out some way of getting transport past the guards; the ruins close enough to reach on foot were scraped clean to bedrock.
Night. Have to find a hole. She drifted through the darkening streets, searching for the right sort of Soak. Slipping through the shadows, pushing against the curfew, watching, watching, prying into cul-de-sacs, using skills she'd learned a lot too young. She'd stopped being a child somewhere around her sixth birthday. Her nose twitched. A gust of sour stink. A stooped squarish gnome in the shadows ahead. She followed him, staying well back, having learned respect for the instincts of these braindead Soaks; they smelled trouble before it happened and reacted without having to think.
The Soak led her deep into the Warehouse District, in among the smaller older structures, mostly abandoned, beginning to rot into the meager soil.
One minute he was walking along a wall belonging to one of these, hand slipping over the wooden clapboard, the next he'd vanished. She squatted in a doorway across the street and waited.
A horn wailed. Curfew.
She didn't move. Let him get settled in. There was time, a little, before the saayungkas were turned loose in the streets, more time after that before they reached this part of the city. She waited until she heard the howls a few streets over, then unfolded slowly from the squat, tightened and loosened her muscles a few times to work the kinks out, slipped across the street and moved along the wall until she reached the area where the Soak had disappeared.
The wall looked solid enough. She ran her fingertips along the boards, applying an intermittent pressure until she came on a section that gave a little. Wedged it during the day, most likely, latched it at night. She continued testing the wall until she located the spot where the latch was.
The saayungkas were getting closer, she could hear the rattle of their harness, but she ignored them as she worked. A hairfine cutting beam, a quick waggle, the stink of hot metal, then a bit of the wall swung inward enough to let her scramble through on hands and knees.
She crawled into a cubby made of piles of broken crates, the dusty hole dimly visible in the pale gray light coming through cobwebby glass in windowslits high up under the eaves, clerestory effect. She listened, keeping her mind shut down, her eyes closed. A heavy silence broken only by a few insect sounds and maybe something like a snore, too soft and distant to pin down, a sound just at the edge of her hearing.
Satisfied, she swung round and inspected the latch. It was a hook and eye, some cheap alloy she could bend with her thumbs. The cutter had sliced through the shank. One part hung down, rattling as the wind blew the door; the hook was still caught in the eye. She pushed the two parts back in place and used the little laser to weld them together. Impossible to hide all traces of her interference, there was a sway in the shank, an uneven knot about the weld that wasn't obvious to the eye but clear enough to the touch; she could only hope he was too far gone to notice. Well, the patch was good enough to hold the thing shut — that's all that mattered. Tomorrow, she'd arrange her own way in, once the Soak left for another day's drifting and caging. Right now, she'd better get busy fixing herself some place where she could sleep safe from interference.
COUNTING TO PRESENT, TENTH TO FOURTH NIGHT. A WILDLY IMPROBABLE WAY OUT.
For several nights the Soak was aroused and suspicious, prowling about the warehouse at odd hours and swinging an ancient torch that put out a yellow light dimmer than the gray glimmers the waning moon sneaked through the cobwebs of the clerestory windows. He never looked up, so he never discovered her. She'd made herself a sleeping platform among the rafters close to one of the windows. It was drafty up there and could be cold, but she gathered piles of shaving and flocking from the junk scattered about the floor (fire hazard of the finest kind) and made herself a cozy nest.
In spite of free lodging for the nights and care in spending, her money was dwindling rapidly; she fed herself on bread and sausage, adding to this meager diet apples plums oranges carrots celery, whatever she could filch without getting caught. Water was a problem. Getting enough to drink took considerable ingenuity; washing herself and her clothing was far down her list of priorities, though she had to keep herself neat enough to avoid the attentions of stray P'jaa looking for able-bodied vagrants to feed into the work camps. Djabo be blessed for eddersil, at least her tunic and trousers didn't need washing, she could shake them out, getting rid of accumulated grime and body oils with a few sharp snaps of the wrists, but she was beginning to acquire the odor of poverty, an effluvium that cried pauper pauper pauper to a discerning nose. Her undershirt and underpants were grimy and stiff with the exudates of her body, but eddersil was irritating against the tenderer parts of that body so she couldn't discard them. And she couldn't wash them so she never took them off; she knew she couldn't make herself put that filth back against her skin.
The Soak finally relaxed. No more snap searches of the littered warehouse looking for he didn't know what. That didn't mean he was any quieter. When he wasn't moving his bedding about, something he did two or three times a night, he was mumbling to himself, now and then yelping like a tortured pup, now and then belting out snatches of song. After the first few nights she found she could ignore this; sometimes she thought if this limbo-existence went on much longer his noises would be like lullabies singing her to sleep.
Toward dawn on her sixth night in the warehouse, she woke confused and a trifle disoriented. At first she didn't know what had jarred her out of her sleep, then she heard a scrabbling and a muttering beneath her and nearly gagged as a mixture of chigger fumes and human stink came gusting up at her. The Soak. He'd settled himself right beneath her. She cursed under her breath, then lay still, listening to mutters punctuated with the splash and gurgle of liquid.
Excerpted from Skeen's Leap by Jo Clayton. Copyright © 1986 Jo Clayton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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