Space Opera Gets Weird (Giant Centipede Weird) in an Exclusive Excerpt from Starfire: A Red Peace

The beautiful thing about space opera is just how weird it can get, and from the first three chapters of Spencer Ellsworth’s Starfire: A Separate Peace, first in a new novella trilogy from Tor.com Publishing, things are going to get weird indeed. Sentient space centipede weird.

Check out the exclusive excerpt below the official summary, and preorder the book, which will be available this summer.

A Red Peace, first in Spencer Ellsworth’s Starfire trilogy, is an action-packed space opera in a universe where the oppressed half-Jorian crosses have risen up to supplant humanity and dominate the galaxy.

Half-breed human star navigator Jaqi, working the edges of human-settled space on contract to whoever will hire her, stumbles into possession of an artifact that the leader of the Rebellion wants desperately enough to send his personal guard after. An interstellar empire and the fate of the remnant of humanity hang in the balance.

Spencer Ellsworth has written a classic space opera, with space battles between giant bugs, sun-sized spiders, planets of cyborgs, and a heroine with enough grit to bring down the galaxy’s newest warlord.

-1-

Jaqi

Okay, so I am in a fighting pit. With a very big, very tattooed, and three-horned Zarra who is actually licking blood off his hands. Oh, it’s alien blood, but still the stuff of life. Close enough to the stuff in my half-breed veins.

All because of tomatoes.

___

Let me back up. My name’s Jaqi, and I’m some human, some Jorian. In space, among the wild worlds, that means good food is hard to find.

See, I’ve been on a cricket ship, flying dark nodes for the last year. The crickets’ ship smells and is cramped and built for exoskeletons, not arms and legs, but they pay top dollar for my talents. No, the problem with being in the wild for months at a time is the food. It’s not long before the fresh supplies are gone and you’re rehydrating squares of protein. Peanut-butter-flavored protein, chocolate-flavored protein, thurkuk-secretion-flavored protein (that one actually tastes more like peanut butter than the peanut-butter-flavored one).

After a month, you want to puke every time you see a little brown cube. I even tried the captain’s meal-loam. It’s just not fair that a cricket’s food stores better than a humanoid’s. I threw it up, which is standard in space, but they laughed at me too, that weird cricket noise where the bristles on their backs scrape together, and then I had to put up with that for the rest of the year.

Screech, screech, scratch. Protein cube, protein cube.

So the minute we touched down in Real Live People Space, as opposed to the wild where we’d been doing shady deals for the last year, I went looking for Real Live People Food. Specifically tomatoes.

The best, of course, are the kind my mother used to give me in our tenant worker days. My parents brought home the ones that split along the top. The growers couldn’t sell them so marred.

My mother would cut one and sprinkle salt on it, while she sang the field songs, tapping her hips against the kitchen counter. She’d give me the slice, and each time, it tasted like sunlight.

Today, I would settle for half-ripe orbital hothouse tomatoes with yeast flakes. And maybe a nice boy, who doesn’t mind a one-day romance. Or a girl. Or someone don’t fit either, long as they’re looking for a time. I’m not picky.

Orbital Ecosphere 912 is a nice place, for a bug-crawling pen of the galaxy’s swine. I’m not being high-headed—the locals call it Swiney Niney. All the environmental controls are stuck, so the place sits at a swampy 110 percent humidity. It smells like rotting food—actually, the air is so thick that it really tastes like rotting food. Swiney, slimy, grimy Niney.

I just finished my contract with the crickets, and I got about four hours to play before I need to track down real work. I’m going to make the most of it.

The signs flash at me when we debark, probably important. Yeah, I can’t read. Who cares? My mother was teaching me, but she didn’t know much either. She vanished when I was eight, and after that there was nothing to do but work, on any ship that would take me. I can read nav charts, them with the numbers and lines, but all those letters go fuzzy when they sit in a row. It would be nice to read, with all those hours in the wild, but I somehow manage not to go crazy.

One day I’ll learn. When it’s safe for me to come into mid-galaxy.

In Swiney Niney’s main square, there’s usually a bustling market. Full of food. Now . . . just a few stalls, selling cloth that looks like it needs ironing, and maybe some stain-work. A food stall, but they’re just selling high-grade protein. And not much else. Most of the market is missing.

I’ve had nightmares like this.

Folks hurry by, but they have their heads down, staring at their rapidly moving feet. There is a new stain—blood?—in the middle of the square. Everyone seems to be headed for high ground. A long time ago, this ecosphere was 10 percent trading post, 90 percent park, and now the park has turned into a trackless wilderness, good for hiding. And it seems like everyone’s gone hiding.

The only guy at peace is the skull-faced, tattooed Necro priest, shaking his staff in the air and creaking, “Death!” Those guys only know one word. As long as they’re shouting it, they’re happy.

“Hey,” I say to one of the scabs running by. “Hey, what’s going on? Where’s the food?”

He darts away, even faster.

“Skrit,” I yell at some kind of sentient bug I don’t recognize. I hope the crickets’ language—at least the human pidgin version of it, minus the screeching hairs on the back—will work. “Skrit secca nee?”

It squeaks along on its way. Nothing.

“Looking for answers?”

The guy has come up behind me silently. He’s a sight. I am in a tank top and shorts and wish I could go naked in the Swiney Niney heat, but he wears a black trench coat and a wide-brimmed hat over a beard. He manages to look at me from under that hat without letting me see his eyes.

Con man. Screaming con man.

“Salutes,” I say. “Answers without a price tag.”

He laughs. “I like you. Why en’t you reading the screens?”

That’s embarrassing. “Bad eyes,” I say. Common enough excuse.

“The Resistance won. Irithessa has fallen.”

“Oh.”

That takes a minute.

“Oh!”

There’s a good reason why we were tenant farmers, see. My folks were both vat-grown, the most common cross—70 percent human DNA, 30 percent Jorian—and both pronounced defective. They were supposed to go back in the vats, be boiled down for spares, but they escaped.

They didn’t join the Resistance, like other crosses did; they kept their heads down, and I did too. But we sure hoped for the Resistance. Everyone loves the Resistance, human, cricket, cross, gasbag—everyone. I saw pictures of the leader, John Starfire. He’s the greatest soulsword-swinger in the galaxy, and handsome. Gets my girl blood going. Everyone except the bluebloods wants an end to the war, to shortage of rations and restrictions on travel, not to mention all the Imperial crosses getting vat-cooked up just to die in the Dark Zone.

Not want to. They have.

The galaxy is free.

I can learn to read.

I can go to school. I can get married and have kids. I can buy alcohol!

The con man seems to be reading my stupefied face fairly well. “You’re a cross?”

“No,” I say, instantly on guard. “Pure human.”

“That’s too bad,” he says. “Real evil shame, that. I could use a cross right now who wanted to make some money. You know, ever since Irithessa fell, the Imperial nodes en’t worth a damn. Supplies backed up or gone, but I might know where some real matter is stowed away.”

It must be the euphoria. Or the hunger. My instincts are telling me that this guy is as tricky as a bad node. I don’t listen to them, fool me. “I might have some Jorian in me. For real matter.”

“Hot meal,” he says. “You just have to earn it.” He turns and starts walking off, that trench coat swaying. Even that looks like a con. Or so I would think. Any other time.

“I’ll do it,” I say.

___

And that’s how I get to the fighting pit.

Oh, first he has a couple big Rorgs take my knives and toss me into a cage. Not just any cage—they’ve decorated the place with a carpet of centipedes. Big centipedes. There’s a billion varieties of centipede in the galaxy, and they all give me the shivers.

“What is this?” I ask, as I climb the sides of the cage.

“This is what you do to earn that hot meal,” he sneers. “My name’s Cade. You do right for me and I’ll reward you.”

“What are you—” I squirm, trying to keep both my legs hooked around the top of the cage. The nearest Rorg whacks my leg with a stick. “I’m going to kill you!”

“Let ’em bite you,” Cade says. “Those centipedes are specially made for the pits. The venom will make you faster. Stronger.”

“I’ll rip off your—” I use every curse in human or cricket or trader’s slang I know. He smiles a big, nasty smile from under that stupid hat, and closes the hatch, leaving me there in the dark with the centipedes, a squirming glistening mass below me.

Centipedes, aiya. All of them are straight from the Dark Zone, I swear. Even the sentient ones.

Of course, I get distracted from centipedes when the door to the side of me opens, and reveals a big pit dug into the roots of a half-dozen giant trees. A seven-foot Zarra, all tattoos and big horns, is fighting a smaller, scaly little Sska. It slinks around the edges of the pit and hisses at the Zarra, but he en’t five suns within intimidated. He goes crazing and charges right into the burning saliva, getting welts on his skin, and catches the Sska by its shoulder and rips it in half. Just rips it in half, like he’s cutting his meat.

That’s when they shunt my cage into the pit, and tip it over. What was the top flies open, which means I crawl out just ahead of the centipedes.

The ground here’s been mixed to mud. Blood mud, I reckon. The pit started as a pleasant natural hollow, sunk in the center of a ring of big old trees. The thick roots have grown into natural ringside seats for the scabs looking down on us. A cheap plasticized barrier runs around the rim of the pit, and all the swine of Swiney Niney are sitting above or on the top of the barrier.

The Zarra licks the Sska’s blood off his hands and looks at me.

Cade yells old-fashioned style from his spot on one of the bigger tree branches.

“The talk of the hour! She is a real Jorian crossbreed, a killer, one of those who has conquered the galaxy, as of today, my friends! But can she conquer Zaragathora, Eater of Flesh?”

“Zaragathora?” I ask, looking at the Zarra. “Really?”

He snarls. A good snarl. Deep in the throat, rattling the lungs. This scab has practiced.

“I believe she can,” he goes on.

Oh, by all Dark stars. He’s got fighting Jorians on the brain. I don’t have a soulsword, I en’t never fought no dragons or thrown planets into the sun. What Jorian DNA lives in my cross body does exactly this: I can fly a ship. Specifically, I can enter faster-than-light, pure space, all on my lonesome, without a node-code. I’m a navigator.

Cade says, “She is a killer of the mind, and that is why we will make things a little more interesting. Creatures of worlds both wild and civilized, the NecroWasp!”

“The what?”

Opposite the Zarra, and just off my right side, a door opens in the side of the pit.

The thing coming out is just about the strangest cross I’ve ever seen. Insect head, working those mandibles. Big, pale, burly body, humanoid, with exoskeleton peeping through the skin. A mammoth stinger protruding from its belly. It smells like every dead thing in the universe got together and had a party.

You hear these things about fighting pits, but you don’t think you’ll go there. (Because you’re sane, and you stay out of fighting pits! Unless you’re too stupid to sense trouble.)

“Death!” I look up and see the Necro priest cheering on this thing. That explains it. Bits of dead things, crossed and brought back by Necros for joy. No doubt a favorite pet.

“Death!” the crowd roars with him.

Tomatoes.

The NecroWasp goes for the bigger target, Zaraga—let’s just call him Z—and I run away from the whole business. I reach the plastic barrier and leap up, grab the top, and start to scramble over, but Cade draws a half shotgun and points it right at my head. “End it,” he says.

Back into the pit.

The NecroWasp charges for Z, and Z looks a bit confused. Must be hard, realizing that he can’t fight this thing with his usual head on, rip-its-arm-off method. He ducks away, darts toward me, and I dart away from both of them, duck and weave and duck and weave until I duck and weave myself right into the plastic barrier around the pit.

There are a lot of boos at our running, which makes old Z mad. He decides to charge the NecroWasp. It jabs that stinger out for him to skewer himself on. He changes his mind and dodges it, ducks again. The Wasp catches a claw in his skin, tears a gash along his head, and this time it’s his own blood running into his face.

“Our cross is hanging back, folks. Should we try to persuade her?”

Cade actually fires! Shard-fire, from his shotgun. It plows up the ground at my feet, splatters mud on my face, sends red flames across the dirt. Trying to make me dance. I hold my ground. No promoter’s going to shoot his prize.

Cade looks like he is trying to say something. It must be nasty, because it is stuck in his throat. And then it appears stuck in his brain, because his whole forehead is pulsing.

No, scratch that—someone has stuck him! A black blade jabs out of the front of his shirt, but that shirt stays dry as dust, and then the blade’s gone. A flash of gray runs from him.

And then—well, then, I have to dodge the sun-sized mass of NecroWasp and Zarra dancing toward me. I run along the barrier, but one of those NecroWasp mandibles grabs me by the leg and slings me into the air, until I land in the mud. Something smacks me on the head—a rock or perhaps a Zarra foot.

I’m going to die, right as I got my freedom.

But no, my vision clears. I try to breathe and get a lungful of muddy water. I make my arms move, scrabble over the ground, force myself up, and I see Cade, lying dead in front of me where he’s fallen into the pit.

I scramble to my feet and grab Cade’s shotgun from his dead hand, coughing all the while. I turn around and shoot at the first one I see, which turns out to be the NecroWasp. The shard-fire blows off half its bug face. Doesn’t stop it from coming for me. I shoot it ten more times in the face, until the charge goes. It takes a long time to fall over, and when it does, it hits the ground like a fifty-ton fighter wreck. The soupy mud shakes like it’s going to suck me under.

The audience is running. Z takes a long, tattooed, and angry look at me, then Cade’s body, and bellows the only words he’s said so far. “Where is my money?”

I en’t got any thoughts to answer him. I’m busy looking at Cade. Eyes red, skin gone gray, and for all that big old stab wound, not a drop of blood. I’d bet lost Earth that his memories just outlived his body.

This man has enemies, but on this day of all days, why is a dumb human con being stabbed, secret-like, by a Jorian soulsword?

 

-2-

Araskar

Winning a war isn’t the best feeling of my life, but it’s up there.

My ears haven’t stopped ringing, so I don’t hear much of the speech. After planetfall, and after having a pyramid explode next to me, I doubt they’ll ever stop ringing. The important thing is I see him—John Starfire, the Chosen One of the whole damn universe, standing in the doorway of the Imperial Senate, and he’s shouting something, and I can even feel it, a wave through the universe itself.

It’s over.

I’m sweating and bleeding and every one of my muscles is as wrung and worn as old rope. The sweet planetside air of Irithessa tastes beautiful. Even the smoke tastes beautiful.

I raise my soulsword and cheer, too, as much as I can. The synth-fibers stretch in my reconstructed tongue, the wires in my reconstructed muscle strain, the wounds beneath the surface always evident.

Cheer for freedom and all that crazing shit. Cheer most of all for my friends, the unlucky bastards who didn’t live to see today. I’m here, now, cheering in your place.

A thousand exhausted arms raise a thousand bloody soulswords into the smoky air of the City Imperial.

John Starfire takes his soulsword to his own arm, cutting a fine line across the skin. His blood runs down the channels of the sword and catches fire, a bright, white corona that gleams over the crowd, sends ripples of light up the black-and-white banner behind him. He lowers the sword and the crowd starts buzzing.

“Did you get that, sir?” Rashiya asks me, when I turn around. Her face is streaked with carbon, and the strip of circuit in her temple is flickering. The synthskin around it is half melted. Her synthskin is a remnant from the same battle that took my original tongue, a chunk of my leg, and a couple of my original fingers. We are damn lucky these are our only souvenirs.

“No,” I slur. “Let me guess. Glorious victory. Go back to the lines.”

“Not quite.” She smiles, and she can’t help herself—she touches my arm, her green eyes alive and shining. Her red hair is slick with sweat, and it makes her look damn good.

Yes, she’s my subordinate and we shouldn’t have become involved, but even vat-cooked crosses have got to keep warm. Hell, I don’t need to explain myself. I’m a goddamn war hero. “Find a place to bunk. Looters will be shot. Food’s fair game.”

“Shot. Right.”

“I need to make sure that Helthizor’s all right,” she says. “That kid took quite a hit in the leg.” She touches my hair. “You need to get some rest. I didn’t know you had this in you.”

“Had what?” I say.

“You took out two gun posts in less than an hour. Don’t you remember?”

“It blurs.”

She, in defiance of all sense and regulation, moves close and hugs me, and whispers in my ear, “The dead can finally rest easy.”

I can’t help it. I put a hand in her hair and hold her close.

“You rest too,” she says.

“Not a chance. Stamp your boots and open your sheath,” I say.

“Aye, sir.”

And then I go, away, away from the crowd full of milling soldiers, away from where the main conflict spilled over from the aerial campaign, past the ancient crystal pyramids and shattered grav-tracks, into the darkened canyons of the city.

That is to say, I go places that any soldier should know better than to go a few hours after battle.

So half an hour after I’ve won the glorious victory for the Resistance, I find myself kneeling in a dirty alley between two Kurguls, who are holding guns to my head because I tried to steal their drugs.

“You know I’m a war hero, right?” I say.

They don’t say a word. Their little tentacled mouths curl up and they rattle their vestigial wings under their ugly carapaces. Just waiting on a command from their local nest queen to wipe me. One mutters a string of grunts. The other says something I actually understand, which means he must want me to hear it. “No one will miss another Jorian cross.”

“No one will,” I agree. “I don’t know why you’re waiting on approval. Your nest is most likely dead.”

The one on the left pushes his gun into the back of my skull. “Toss the soulsword,” the Kurgul says, “and we’ll give you a clean death.”

Kurguls. Superstitious bastards, the lot of them. They’ll shoot a Jorian, but they want us to be far from our weapon. Soulswords have quite a reputation among the religious. “Despite the name, these things only take your memories, fellas. They’re neuron-keyed. If I could take souls, I might have something worth keeping.”

I draw the sword. The Kurguls grip their weapons, ready to riddle me with shards if I make a move.

I toss the soulsword down the alley and sink to my knees.

“Do it. Give me some drugs or kill me.” Their shard-rifles heat up. I close my eyes, and feel the relief I’ve been waiting for, for ages. I can see my friends’ faces. Not like the last time I saw their faces, when they were just bits of meat torn from the bone and scattered across the hallway. No, my friends are smiling now, still breathing.

The Kurguls scream and shards whistle past my ear with a rush of heat. I open my eyes.

Rashiya is standing there, holding a shard-rifle of her own. The Kurguls are both missing their heads. She is not watching their corpses. She is looking at me, and her eyes are narrowed, reddened.

I stand up. Still not dead. “Stamp your boots and open your sheath,” I say, with my best half-cocked smile.

Someone else walks out from behind her. I drop to one knee.

“Get up, Araskar,” says John Starfire himself. “My daughter here told me about you. The war’s not over.”

___

“You have an Imperial minute to explain yourself,” Rashiya says.

“You can’t pull rank on me, Lieutenant.” I’ve been waiting for the day my luck would run out, but I figured it would be a hot shard tearing out my brain, not my one friend and bedmate turning out to be the daughter—the daughter!—of the Chosen One himself. Do you know what I’ve done with this woman? Does her father know?

“You’re going to be sleeping outside an airlock tonight unless you explain yourself.”

I sit there for a minute, trying to read into her words as much as I can. I don’t think she heard me talk about the drugs. Good. “We won,” I say. “There wasn’t anything left for me.”

“I’m not anything,” she says.

“Damn it, you know what I mean,” I say. And then, because I’m winning the war of idiocy too, I say, “Actually, you don’t.”

It’s the funny thing about being a cross. You never get a real family, unless you’re one of those odd cases, like Rashiya, whose parents managed to reproduce. If you’re like me, your vat batch is your family. And my batch mates, my battalion, all my best friends, died the moment they boarded our first Imperial vessel, turned to blood and meat by shard-fire. Only I, last out of the burrowing pod, survived.

Then I killed half that ship with my own vat-grown hands. Got the Resistance’s highest medal for it. Irony’s a cold bitch, ai?

“The war’s over, Rashiya. Now I’ve got no reason for them all to be dead and me to be here.”

She turns to the door. “That’s your answer. That.”

Well, that and the fact that I’ve been doing so many drugs that I ought to get another medal for surviving. “You didn’t come from a batch, Rash. You don’t know what it’s like.”

She turns back to me, her face cold as stone. “My father wants a word with you, so I won’t kill you now. I saved your burning life today, sir, so I expect that next time I see you you’ll be more grateful.” She opens the door and leaves me in the cell. I lie back and stare up at the ceiling.

Her pater comes in.

Until a little while ago, I had only seen the guy in our newsreels. In person, he looks older, his hair and beard more white than black. Tall. Strong. Every bit the hero, except he’s got his hand on his soulsword hilt, clutching it, releasing and clutching again. I guess when you’ve spent that much time fighting, that’s what happens.

He sits on the bed next to me. Right next to me. He puts his hand, the one not twitching on his hilt, on my leg.

“That took a beating,” he says. He rolls up his sleeve—simple black shirt for John Starfire, no Vanguard uniform. His arm is a map of scars, over slashes of steel mesh. “I lost the entire arm at Daruthal,” he says. “And most of this leg. My face was still okay. That was a relief to Aranella, my wife.”

“I know,” I say. Aiya, do I sound stupid. You’d think I could get rid of that slurring voice for the Hero of the Galaxy himself. “I read about it.” Come on, Araskar, speak like a man before this guy takes his soulsword to your man-parts.

“What else have you read about?” His eyes twinkle, like a proper old man. “I’m interested.”

I try to think. It’s tough to think through this relief, given that he hasn’t yet told me to fall on my short soulsword. “The news says you took down old Emperor Turka in a proper sword fight.”

“I wish. I had the Vanguard put us in a room together, just like he wanted. That blueblood bastard ran, and I couldn’t get him to turn and face me, so I gave up and opened him from spine to shitter.”

He laughs. I laugh too, because I figure he’s trying to put me at ease. That’s more frightening than the alternative.

“Araskar, I’m not sure whether to treat you as a disobedient subordinate, or my daughter’s suitor.”

What’s a man supposed to say to that? “Ass is chapped either way, sir.”

And then his face turns serious. “Have you read the Third Book?”

That would be the scripture that foretold the coming of John Starfire himself. As I said, my ass is chapped, so I tell the truth. “Didn’t have much time for reading in the last few years.” I used to like reading. Had the full collection of the Scurv Silvershot comic books, in real paper. They burned up somewhere outside the orbit of Brathaag, where all our supplies for the Larthe’ea campaign vanished. Lost my guitar, too.

“Do you believe the prophecy?”

Another one of those hard questions. “We’re here, sir.”

He sighs. “We are here. We are here, and I’m still not sure if I believe it. You’d think I would know whether or not I really was the man in the scriptures, but there’s a lot of it that didn’t happen the way it was prophesied. Am I the son of stars? Are the bluebloods the children of giants?” He draws his soulsword—about time, way he’s been clutching it. “Like these. The legends say that a Jorian soulsword was a thing of miracles. Could cut through anything in the universe. Could draw the essence of the Starfire into it, the fuel that burns in pure space. But these are metal with psychic resonators built in, made in a factory and matched to the psychic signature of crosses that come from the vats downstairs. Still, these swords, and those vat-cooked crosses, have won the galaxy back.”

I curse myself for saying it, but I have to ask. “What about your sword?”

“Mine?”

“It do what they say?” I nod toward his soulsword. “Like in the legends? It can bring a soul back?”

“No,” John Starfire says. “No, I’m afraid that if there are any soulswords like that, they’re lost to the ages.”

Well, I got my chance to ask that.

He looks at me with those crystal blue eyes. “My people believe I am the Chosen One, and so I have to act that way, and destroy the threats to my people. You”—here he taps my rebuilt leg—“are a hero, and whether you believe so or not, you have to act that way.”

“Yes, sir.”

He stands up. “The war isn’t over, Araskar. It won’t be over for a long time. The blueblood stain—that human stain—is everywhere.” His hand is back on the soulsword hilt, clutching and pawing it unconsciously. Human stain? “There’s at least ten thousand crosses still coming out of functioning vats, and the remnants of the Empire control most of them. We have new conscripts, kids who need brave commanders. They have new conscripts, too. Consolidation is going to be long, hard work.”

Like I suspected. Glorious victory. Go back to the lines.

“I want you for the Vanguard,” he says. That one wakes me up. “My closest circle. You’ll be one of five Secondblades under Firstblade Terracor, leading a specially trained division.”

“Sir . . . thank you?” I didn’t mean it to come out as a question, but . . . “Me? Why the hell me?”

“Rank means many things, Lieutenant. In this case, it means survival.”

There it is. He’s going to put me in charge of some little half-trained slugs, so that I don’t go offing myself.

“I need men like you. And if I catch you chasing trouble with Kurguls, the only Secondblade you’ll see will be the one that takes your head off.”

I can’t help asking. “Rashiya?”

“I’ve got another mission for her.” He pauses. “I didn’t help her, Araskar. She joined on her own, and it wasn’t until a few days ago that I knew she had survived. Respect that.”

“Right.”

“Get some sleep,” he says. He takes that twitchy hand off his hilt and puts it on my arm. “Stamp your boots and open your sheath.” And then his hand goes right back to the hilt.

I stand up and salute as he turns to go. Vanguard. Little slugs like me don’t become Vanguard. All I’ve ever done was kill a bunch of other crosses. Once I got command, I tried to keep my kids together, but we lost plenty of them. I could have been shot down in Irithessa’s orbit, in planetfall, in the assault on the capital. I’m only here by luck. And as for respecting Rashiya, I was. She deserves someone a lot better.

I sink back down, and dig around in my pocket. I pull out a handful of the little pink pills that were so much trouble to get from those Kurguls.

They sit in the hollow of my hand, five dots.

The Kurguls call these brain bullets. Most folk just call them pinks. They’re simple tranquilizers as far as the galaxy is concerned. Unless you’re a Jorian cross.

For one like me, these tranquilizers put you in touch with the beating heart of the universe. It’s like music. You have no idea what music can sound like, until you’ve heard the background music of the stars. Only a few crosses can hear it. I am one of the lucky few, when I take these.

A soft, low whistle like wind through tall trees. Over it, the dropping notes, like cool pinpricks of rain. And when I have these, I don’t care about my soldiers. I don’t care about Rashiya and all my friends dying on that ship, the Vanguard, the bloody mission.

Winning a war isn’t the best feeling of my life. It’s up there, but it can’t compare to forgetting the war completely.

-3-

Jaqi

You’d be amazed how quick a batch of scabs can clear out a fighting pit. There’s not a lot of places to go on an ecosphere only a few miles around, and there are a lot of people crowded in port at Swiney Niney. But everyone from that fighting pit scatters, leaving me alone.

And it just so happens that this fighting pit is deep in what was originally the parkland of Swiney. Probably a nice place, once upon a time, but since the environmental controls broke, this green is now a thick, stinking jungle.

There’s pathways here, through mud and roots and all sorts of weird-looking plants. Might lead to another fighting pit, and maybe another sleaze who tosses me in a cage with centipedes—aiya!—and there’s plenty of footprints on the paths, but I don’t see anyone as I wander over roots and rocks, through mud, and try to ignore the pain in my face and shoulder where the Necro-Thing threw me to the ground.

I wade through mud, keeping one eyeball on the sticky flowers all around me. Probably some carnivorous crossbreed, illegal as living forever, dropped here. They cluster and sprout and get big and toothy on the remnants of those fighting pits. Yep, that’s what an ecosphere is like on the edge of wild space. Fun, ai?

The path winds around a small hill, or a giant pile of moss, depending on your point of view. From around the side of the hill, I can see down, back to the port. Concrete buildings huddle against the honeycomb of black tunnels in the air that will take you out of the ecosphere. I was being dragged by the big Rorgs before, so I can’t say I paid much attention to the details.

That’s when I see a familiar face, frozen on the path ahead of me. Big head, like a melon, all covered with boils, and an eye patch. “Ai! Palthaz? Palthaz Perron!”

He stares in my direction for a minute—Zu-Path, as a race, aren’t famous for their wits—and then steps off the path, running up that small hill.

“Wait, Palthaz! It’s Jaqi! From Bill’s!” I saw this sleaze come in and out of port a thousand times. He’s even fatter than he used to be, which means I catch up with him.

“Palthaz!”

He hustles onward. “Not now, Jaqi.”

“You remember me! Listen, Palthaz, I’m in an evil way. Between jobs, and I just want something to eat—”

“Run off!” he snarls at me. But of course, I’m still able to keep up with him. He sinks farther into the mud than I do. That’s my benefit of never eating.

“Trade you this,” I say, and hold up Cade’s gun. “Nice piece. Vintage Zarronen A-5. Better than that Keil piece of crap you’re carrying.”

He eyeballs it. There’s no greed like a smuggler’s greed. “I— No! Off, Jaqi.”

“I will not!” I say. I raise the gun, and he freezes, without a blink. “Give me some damn food!” I’m in pain and hungrier than ever and in no mood for this.

He just sighs, looking down the barrel. “You a cross,” he says. “You’re good for food anywhere. Haven’t you heard? You rule the galaxy now.”

“That don’t help me on Swiney Niney,” I say.

“I can get some meat for you, but you swear to get away. I can’t afford trouble with a cross.”

“What kind of meat?”

“Matters, does it?”

“Not really,” I say, and lower the gun. “As long as it was breathing once and it’s salted now.”

He scuttles off.

This is the business of being a smuggler—you’re always going to pretend to be a cold bastard. And something has Palthaz spooked evil, enough that he isn’t acting like a smuggler should act at all.

So I follow him.

What? This scab is obviously protecting one evil catch. The crickets give good work, but if I can go into mid-galaxy without fear of being conscripted, then Palthaz is a better bet.

Palthaz has done a few legitimate jobs carrying Imperial matter. And apparently being a cross is now a ticket to respectable. I still can’t get that through my head. I could go mid-galaxy, if I wanted to.

All the way to Irithessa? Why not? See the capital of the Empire. Will we even call it the Empire anymore? I could wander around them museums, with the remnants of the old galaxy. I could see me a couple of plays, like a lady. I could drink as much as I want and have some real nice times with fancy boys and girls.

Palthaz scuttles into a little tunnel that runs under the hill of green moss. On second look, it en’t really a hill. More like a clump of roots, from some tree that’s long been cut down. I en’t dumb enough to go into the tunnel after him, but if I eyeball the thing right, there’s a gap between roots.

I crawl in, scraping my back, squeezing through a thick layer of soil and between two monstrous roots. I squirm on past a big root, and then another, until I see light coming from below. The roots interlock here; a set of rafters for some kind of hidey-hole. Seems like it would be a great spot for a smuggler, but a few things are off—the place is wet, brown water dripping from above (and soaking me, as if I didn’t have enough sweat doing so already), and it stinks like that Necro-Thing’s armpit. Any smuggler who cared about his goods would have dehumidified the place and cleared it out a bit. This is more of an animal’s burrow. This far underground, Palthaz shouldn’t have to worry about lighting the place up bright, either. But he doesn’t have good light, just a few glowing lamps.

“I need some of the food,” Palthaz says. “Bargaining.”

Another voice—young man, by the sound of it—says, polite as you please, “I’m sorry, but we need as much food as we can take.”

“You’ll do fine on protein packs. Learn your place, boy—you en’t a damn blueblood no more.” That near-panicked note in Palthaz’s voice is now blending into anger.

Another voice. Young girl. I squirm around for a look, get lower in the roots until I can see. There are three humans down there with Palthaz. Tall guy, probably about sixteen, on Imperial reckoning. Girl, younger, maybe ten, and little boy, maybe five. They are dirtier than even I am, and haggard, but the clothes they wear are easily real cotton. Before they crawled into this hole, those clothes were evil expensive. Bluebloods on the run.

“I’ve got a cross on my tail, Quinn!” Palthaz spits the words out.

The teenage boy draws back. “What?”

“If I didn’t owe your papa my freedom . . . this en’t worth those damn crosses!”

Did Palthaz wrong the Resistance or something? He’s muttering now, and I can’t hear it. The Resistance couldn’t afford to make enemies of smugglers, last I checked.

“We’re safe, though,” the young girl says. “Right? The machine is still masking us?”

“Long as it works.”

So, this is the moment my luck for the day decides to keep on going the way it’s been going. I shift around in those roots to get a good look, but the problem with those kind of roots, in swampy ground, is that they shift with you. Like now, when they shift me right out into Palthaz’s secret chamber.

Palthaz does fire this time. Good thing he’s spooked; he missed even at point-blank. I jump up and shove Cade’s gun in his face. “Not a move or you get two eye patches!”

Another barrel rams my back, between my ribs. The teenage boy says, “Don’t move, cross, or I’ll kill you like you deserve.”

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