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Above the airlock, in at least twenty different human and non-human languages, a faded sign read, Management Not Responsible For Losses Due to Depressurization or Alien Interference. Fergus Ferguson considered, not for the first time, whether the life choices that had brought him to this place had been entirely sound. Here he was in yet another unreliable tin can, far from anyone and anything familiar, in a half-devoured solar system on the edge of the galactic spiral arm. He always could have stayed home and raised sheep with his cousins.
Closing his eyes, he tried to imagine living his entire life on a single hillside when he could barely stand to stay on one planet more than a few months at a time. Even his dream-apprenticing himself to a Tea Master on Coralla, spending the rest of his life in peaceful contemplation on those perfect white sand beaches-was almost impossible to imagine actually doing. I have, he thought, made a decent career out of chasing things and running away.
And Cernekan was somewhere he'd never been before, somewhere new. There was always that.
The car's ventilation system choked out wheezing gasps of stale air in between death rattles. Fergus's feet were sweaty inside his magboots, and the seat's safety harness, built for smaller bodies, pressed relentlessly down on his shoulders through his exosuit. What starlight graced the interior of the cable car was little more than thin, angry half circles in the distance where the glare managed to steal around and through the narrow gaps in the sunshields.
The cable car lazily spun its way along the cable as Fergus clutched his worn travel pack to his chest. The dark rock ahead of them wobbled erratically in space, a convincing illusion when the car felt mostly stationary. Only the faint downward pull toward his seat confirmed his opinion of who exactly was the body in motion.
Craning his head around as best he could in the iron grip of his seat's safety harness, he glanced out the pitted window, wondering how far the cable car still had to go. He sighed; the car was barely halfway down the line.
Turning back, his eyes met the sharp gaze of the old woman sitting on the bench opposite him, his lone fellow passenger. Her exosuit hood and face shield had been folded back, much like his own. She was tiny, with bone-white hair and sharp, almost violet eyes that were unusual in a typically wan spacer face. The bulky arms of the seat harness engulfed her, as if she were slowly being consumed by the car itself. A grandmother-eating bench, he thought, smiling at the ludicrous thought. The bane of little old ladies in space.
Space aged people quickly, especially out here where radiation shielding, vitamins, and decent medical care were phantoms at best, and the woman was not so much shrunken as gnarled, like her body had been distilled down to the bare but formidable essentials for survival. Fergus had to believe she'd already far exceeded the typical life expectancy of the junk merchants, rockcrappers, and fugitives that made up the human population near the Gap, where stars thinned out to nothing between the galaxy's arms.
Her side of the small car was filled with crates, tucked behind portable webbing to keep them from drifting. With the jostling of the car along the uneven cable, he could only imagine the damage they'd do to anyone trapped helplessly in their seats if they weren't secured. He wondered what was inside-a thousand knit children's hats, teddy bears, or awkwardly sized blankets crocheted from spun recycled plastics? He caught her eyes again, and by the slow deepening of her expression, he knew she had not missed his idle stare.
"I'm sorry," he said, trying to cover his rudeness. "You reminded me for a moment of my mam-my grandmother."
"Are you implying that I'm old?" she said.
He blinked, nonplussed. "Um . . . I . . ."
The old woman cracked a smile. "I'm guessing you're not from Cernee. Where you heading?"
Surnee? Fergus wondered for a half second until it clicked: Cernekan. "I'm heading to Central," he answered. "Is it always this bumpy?"
"Gets better from Mezzanine Rock," she said just as a huge jolt threw them both upward against their harnesses and was slow to return them. "Lines are smoother farther in."
Central was the aptly named ring station at the center of the settlement, surrounded by a halo many hundreds of times its diameter of hollowed-out rocks, scavenged dead ships, and a haphazard collection of building-sized tin cans. All that space trash was tied together with hundreds of crisscrossing cables known collectively as the lines and kept stable by a small army of autorockets that nudged and pulled as needed. First chance he got, Fergus was going to rent himself a one-man personal flyer that could get around freely between the lines.
Their thin sliver of sunlight vanished as the car crept into the shadow of a smaller rock. Half a heartbeat later, the already-dim lights in the car flickered, and there was a thud as if something had collided with the car.
The old woman twisted in her seat to look out the window. Pulling a handheld out of a pouch in her exosuit, she tapped at it, then held it up to her face. "It's me," she said. "May be trouble on the line to Mezzanine Rock. No idea, maybe nothing. Stay sharp, and keep everyone in. I'll check back in when I get to the end of the line."
She slipped the handheld back into her exosuit, her bony hand emerging again with a small tool. By his count, it took her fewer than seven seconds to pop the in-transit safety lock on her harness and float free.
"Um . . ." Fergus asked. "What's going on?"
Before she could answer, the air handlers gave one last coughing wheeze and went silent as the lights in the car quit for good, leaving them both in pitch darkness.
He heard a few snaps, then jumped as something lightly touched his arm. "You wearing gloves?" the old woman asked from somewhere directly in front of him.
"Yes?" he said.
"Then hold out your hand."
She really did remind him enough of his maime— that it was automatic to comply. A squiggle of glowing green goo appeared in the palm of his glove.
"Rub your hands together, but try not to get it anywhere other than the palms," the old woman said. "Don't lick it or touch your eyes. Either one will make you wish you were dead."
"I'll try to remember," he said. He held his hands up, turning them from side to side. It was a limited but surprisingly adequate light source. He could just make out the outlines of her face by the light. "That's useful. Thank you."
"Don't thank me yet," she said. "It also makes you an easier target in the dark. If you have to hide, close your hands into fists."
"Are we in danger?" But I just got here, he thought. Even my luck doesn't work that fast.
She floated over to the instrument panel at the front of the car, one hand gripping the panel as the other worked at the controls. "Dead, I'm afraid," she said after a few moments, then launched herself back toward the center of the car.
"A mechanical fault?" he asked.
"Backup instrumentation is down. It's a self-contained, separately powered system," she said. "Proximity detectors and external sensors are offline, as are all the security cameras. Best guess is an EMP mine, probably slapped on the car as it left Blackcans. We're dead midline and blind. Unless I'm mistaken, you're in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"I often am," Fergus said. He cupped one hand, used the light to look at his own seat harness lock.
The old woman was back in the center of the car and was going over her crates one by one, unhooking the webbing and pushing it aside. "It's also possible that hub control has deliberately shut down the system because the Asiig are doing a flyby," she said. She opened a panel on each crate, did something within that he couldn't see, then closed it again. "You know about the Asiig?"
"Not much, and more than enough," Fergus said, remembering amorphous childhood nightmares. It hadn't occurred to him until just now who Cernee's nearest neighbors across the Gap were. "They do 'flybys'?"
"Once or twice a standard," she said.
Out here, a single solar orbit took nearly fourteen Earth years. It was his good luck that most-though not all-human settlements stuck to old home time references.
"If it's the Asiig, you want to keep your head down and stay hidden," the old woman continued. "If you're out in the open, you might get taken."
"Still, I don't think that's the problem," she said, tapping at the display panel on the left forearm of her exosuit. "No alert has gone out."
He watched as she finished with the last of her crates. She snapped a pair of goggles down over her face, and clouds of shock-white hair puffed out around them. She grabbed hold of the window frame and peered out. "Ah," she said. "Something's coming down the line towards us. Minimal heat signature."
"Another cable car?"
"No. Hand spiders. Around a dozen." People free-riding the cable. "If they see you're not one of my people, there's a chance they might let you go," she added, "but I wouldn't count on it from that pestilential den of half-wits."
Obviously there was a lot more going on here than he understood. "You know who's out there?"
She gave a short laugh. "Yes. They've been coming after me for standards now. Haven't caught me yet."
"They're after you?" He pointed at her crates. "These aren't all full of teddy bears, I gather?"
She floated back toward him, pale green phantom hands in the dark. "Lichen," she said. "I'm a lichen farmer. These cases are a quarter-standard's worth of produce."
"So . . . these 'half-wits' want to steal your lichen?"
"Not really, no," she said. "Hard to believe, respectable elderly woman like me, but they seem to find my existence a matter of personal offense."
"Really? That doesn't sound reasonable of them."
"It doesn't, does it?" she said. "If you're of a mind to take some advice, I suggest you let me get you out of that harness, and you get your suit sealed up. It's up to you, but after coming all this way to Cernee from"-she sized him up in the green light-"Earth, is it? It seems a waste for you to get yourself dead before you've seen the place."
Not Earth; not in a very long time, he thought, but it didn't matter. "I got it," he said. Sliding a small pick out of a pocket on the front of his suit, he popped the lock on his own harness. Five seconds.
The old woman raised one eyebrow in appraisal. "Now your suit," she said.
Fergus wrangled his travel pack over his shoulders. He could see the old woman fastening up the last few seals on her suit. He turned his own cupped palm towards his chest and used the green light to work on his own. "So," he said, "since I seem to be in danger here too, can you tell me more about who's coming?"
"Men who work for a junk warlord named Gilger," she said.
There was a pause before she answered. "Indeed. Surprised you'd know that." She must have closed her hand, because she vanished into the dark like a ghost, and he was suddenly keenly aware of the advantage she had over him. That she was also very, very old was no reassurance at all.
Fergus resisted the temptation to close his own hands. "I don't know him," he said. "He and I have some business. That's why I came here."
"What sort of business, if you pardon me asking?"
He answered carefully. "Not a kind he'll be happy about."
If she knew about Gilger, she could be a source of useful information. And out here, who was she going to tell? "I've been contracted to locate an item not legally belonging to Mr. Gilger," he said, "and secure its return to its-"
"A repo man!" she interrupted.
"More a professional finder," he said. "But essentially, yes."
She appeared at the edge of his light, grinning, holding out a bright gloved hand. "I'm Mattie Vahn. Mother Vahn to most folk."
"Fergus Ferguson," he said, shaking it. "Pleased to meet you."
"Mr. Ferguson," she said, and he liked the old-fashioned tone she said it with. "I suggest you finish sealing up. I'm going to short the airlock."
"I'm getting out of this trap," she said. "You coming?"
He pulled his goggles up into place from around his neck, swept the lower scruff of his beard aside, and snapped his face shield down. When he looked back at Mother Vahn, she tapped the side of her head, then held up fingers in sequence: three, one, five. He nodded, then set his suit to that comm channel.
The old woman was peering out the window again. "Something's moving parallel to the lines, behind the spiders," she said. "I only spotted it because it just crossed in front of the lights on Beggar's Boulder. It's either junk, or . . ."
"Or something meant to hurt us," she said. "You set?"
He checked his seals one last time; the status light on his suit display was green, all good. He took a moment to consider how far off his expectation of boredom the cable car ride had become. Still, Mother Vahn could be a lucky find-the information he had on Arum Gilger was thirdhand and months old, so if she could improve upon that, it was worth a little side adventure. And what else was his job if not half luck and half improvisation?
"Set," he said.
She'd already wedged open the inner door of the airlock at the far end of the car and popped the lock on the manual override. She saw him coming and pushed herself back, gesturing at what appeared to be an old-style crank. "Pneumatic," she said. "Purely mechanical system. The crank primes the emergency door release. Do you mind? I'm getting a bit old for this."
He swung himself forward. "No problem," he said.
"I'm going to herd my crates closer. Let me know when it's primed; it's best if the crates get pulled out first when the lock opens so we're not in their way when they go."
He looped an arm around one of the car's poles and did his best to anchor himself, then began winding the crank, sending himself into a corkscrew spin he had to stop and recover from every few turns. Mother Vahn hovered between her crates, edging them forward one by one. The spin of the car around the cable made them dip gradually toward the floor, bumping and drifting toward him and the lock. He wasn't sure how he felt about getting sucked out into space, but he was certain he agreed with letting the crates go first.